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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Beach Boys: Wild Honey


1) Wild Honey; 2) Aren't You Glad; 3) I Was Made To Love Her; 4) Country Air; 5) A Thing Or Two; 6) Darlin'; 7) I'd Love Just Once To See You; 8) Here Comes The Night; 9) Let The Wind Blow; 10) How She Boogalooed It; 11) Mama Says.

Wild Honey inaugurates what was probably the most bizarre and, from a historical point of view at least, the most fascinating period in Beach Boys history. Over an impressive seven years, from 1967 to 1973, the band was engulfed in a near-constant state of chaos, scandals, drugs, rushing from one half-baked idea to another, lack of leadership, lack of purpose, clashes of ambitions and interests — the only thing that might explain their staying together is brotherly ties, or, more like­ly, the insecurity of each individual member as to whether a solo career in music would be reali­zable. (In the end, Dennis and Carl only went solo after the band solidified its commercial positi­ons in 1976).

The seven studio albums they put out over that period illustrate that lack of coherence perfectly. In stark contrast to every Beach Boys record up to Pet Sounds, they do not even provide the im­pression of well-rounded collections of songs «from A to Z». None of them beat the rag-tagginess of Smiley Smile, but it is one thing to forgive one hastily concocted, rushed-out contractual obli­gation consisting of briskly re-recorded demo versions, and quite another one to sit through al­bum after album after album, completely devoid of any sense of purpose or quality control.

Fortunately for all of us, Smiley Smile had used up most of the hyper-experimental ideas that Brian came up with for the SMiLe project, and all of the subsequent records would be generally more melodic and better produced. In fact, Wild Honey does sound, from time to time, like an honest-to-goodness attempt at returning to the standard practice of recording pop music LPs. Not bizarre avantgarde experimentation; not «teenage symphonies to God»; not intentional attempts at beating the Beatles — just a stab at another good old regular pop music record, the way Mike Love had always preferred it the best. It is somewhat symbolic that the album's biggest hit, 'Darlin', was partly written as early as 1963 (the verse melody is taken from an early tune called 'Thinkin' 'Bout You Baby', donated by Brian to Sharon Marie in 1964; the chorus, however, is brand new): Wild Honey was calling us back to basics, in feeble hopes that a Sgt. Pepper and Are You Experienced-fed public could heed the call. Naturally, it didn't.

But it didn't not simply because, by late 1967, there was no more demand for shiny, optimistic surf-pop. No; it didn't because, after the SMiLe fiasco, Brian's workmanship was irrepairably da­maged. He did not lose any of his genius — what he did lose was the ability to «flesh out» that genius, the will to take his brilliant ideas and polish them up to the same degree of perfection that characterized his work from 1964 to 1966. Imagine a fabulous painter, with each of his new works causing a shockwave of sensation, who suddenly abandons the canvas and starts dealing exclusively in half-finished sketches on paper — how would his fans react to that?

Of the eleven songs on Wild Honey, nine, in good old fashion, are credited to «Brian Wilson / Mike Love». But, as Robert Christgau, in his original review, correctly (surprise surprise) stated, «each of the 11 tunes ends before you wish it would». Indeed, most of the fade-outs arrive just as you start feeling that the song has finally picked up some steam — almost as if some deranged in­ner voice was telling Brian, Mike, and the others, «okay guys, time to wind it up, you know a pop song is not supposed to last more than 2:20», forgetting that the year was 1967, not 1963, and that even the conservative American standard had already been revolutionized.

The craziest thing about it, however, is that the songs themselves do not sound very nineteen-six­ty-three themselves. I mean, 'Darlin' might have been all that old, but its re-recording, with a very much «post-Beatles» rhythmic base, a steady brass accompaniment that shows serious influence on the part of mid-1960s Atlantic/Motown sound, and a raw, creaky, shaky (and, because of that, quite beautiful) vocal delivery from Carl, was quite modern for 1967, nothing specifically «retro» about it except for the melodic moves, which are, indeed, quite typical of early Phil Spector.

Then there is all the sexuality. Pre-Pet Sounds, Brian's songs were innocence exemplified (so much so that even certain salacious hints inside the lyrics could easily pass unnoticed), and on Pet Sounds itself, not much difference was made between boy-girl and man-God relations (in all fairness, it is Pet Sounds that the Christian fundamentalists should have been a-goin' after in 1966, not Beatles records because of John's silly throwaway remark). Wild Honey, first time ever in Beach Boys history, explicitly puts the body next to spirit.

Obviously, Mike Love can spend the rest of his life explaining how the title of the album was due to the «health food craze» going on around town at the time, but there's no way anyone in his right mind could interpret a line like "My love's coming down since I got a taste of wild honey" as an expression of the protagonist's sincere gratitude to his partner because of her dedication to wholesome eating practices. It's a classy white-boy R'n'B number, for sure, but Carl's ecstatic vo­cal delivery transparently spells out orgiastic, as do the siren-imitating theremin blasts. Clearly, from the moment that the first copy of Carl Wilson screaming out "gonna take my life eating up her wild honey!" descended on the open market, his fate was sealed. On that fateful day, the man had no choice left but to start growing himself... a beard.

And that is just the beginning. We also have 'A Thing Or Two', which starts out as a lightweight enough bop-de-pop music hall number... then, with a series of "do it right baby"-s and suggestive moans and wails, lets all of us know that the days of not talking, putting your hands on my shoul­der and listening to my heart beat are long gone — today it takes something more, uh, active than that to get life a-goin'. And, uh, 'I'd Love Just Once To See You'? It takes an endless one minute and fifty seconds for us to get to the real end of that statement, but we do get to see the boys overcome the «shyness» and make their true point. And 'Here Comes The Night'? Can you ima­gine that one next to, say, 'Surfer Girl'? The "Oooohh..." at the end of each chorus is about as close as the band ever came to creating a porn movie soundtrack.

Much of this heavy-breathing raunchiness seems «forced» — by now, we all know that the Beach Boys were no prudes when it came to relations with the opposite sex (with Dennis at the progres­sive forefront of the sexual revolution), but on Wild Honey, it is almost as if they were fulfilling some sort of contractual obligation, one that openly urged them to place «more flesh, less spirit» on their subsequent albums. Fortunately, it is more often funny than annoying, more frequently «silly» than «stupid», and as much as I'd like to dub this the band's «cock pop» album, the fact is that, after all, it took me several years of listening to it to get that idea, so it cannot be blatantly and obviously correct.

Besides, all this sexuality merely adds extra spice to the already bizarre, confused atmos­phere of the album. We have not yet mentioned the Stevie Wonder cover — why? no particular reason — or 'Mama Says', a one-minute accappella ode to the art of teethbrushing that was cut out of the ori­ginal 'Vega-Tables' to close the album — why? because, mama, we're still crazy after all these years. Each subsequent song on Wild Honey is utterly unpredictable: it can end up «normal», like the tender balladry of 'Aren't You Glad' or 'Let The Wind Blow', or it can fall apart into free form atmospherics, like 'A Thing Or Two' or 'Country Air'.

However, where the tunes that fell apart on Smiley Smile would just fall apart, because nobody gave a damn about how they would hold together, the free-form approach on Wild Honey is, on the whole, more motivated. This «sketch-style» approach to recording seems more thought out and intentional, and, from that point of view, far more similar to the «lo-fi» movement in indie pop/rock than the hazy daze of Smiley Smile. The songs share the same the craziness and artistic despe­ration, but the final result is more easily enjoyable — making Wild Honey, in fact, the real starting point of the last and most mysterious stage of the Beach Boys' greatness. So, clearly, a thumbs up — for God only knows what.

Check "Wild Honey" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Wild Honey" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. sexuality? the thing about this album is just the rest of the guys building songs around brian fooling around playing melodies on the piano. it's the only beach boys album fashioned that way.

  2. The album that made me a Beach Boys fan. It inaugurated that courageous period in their history—before they became an oldies act—in which the Boys had to be a real band if they were going to continue to have a career in the music business. Obviously, Brian is more engaged in this record than in subsequent releases, but I still don't think of it as a Brian record. That wouldn't happen again until 1977 (and wouldn't last long, obviously).

    I find the efforts during this entire period brave and touching, in a way, which biases me in favor of some of the weaker stuff later on.

    But I don't need to apologize for being crazy for Wild Honey one bit. Every song is a winner. The melodies are unstoppable. Carl sings his soulful heart out. Little flourishes like the theremin on the title track and the horn arrangement on "Darlin'" totally win me over.

    I assume the band play their own instruments here? Surely a production that sounds as low-budget as this one—"tape hiss" should get its own instrumental credit—couldn't have afforded Hal Blaine and Larry Knechtel. It's all very charming and lo-fi.

    My only complaint is that it's much too short. Poor guys didn't stand a chance in 1967.

  3. I find this and 20/20 weak, for me, they don't hint at the very fine run of albums that were to follow.

  4. Wow, 23 minutes? They could have fit this all on one side.

  5. Re Michael: Most Beach Boys albums were that short, heck in some cases they were so short that you could almost cram three Beach Boys albums on one CD! (though you'd have to majorly fudge the album order to do that)

    Anyway, this album starts my favourite period of The Beach Boy's career. I love pretty much every album from here until Holland. Oftentimes flawed yes, and the group was going through as many hard times as any band has ever had to deal with, but through those troubles came some incredible songs. I'm a total sucker for triumph in the midst of strife, and the Beach Boys catalog is loaded with that.

  6. For god only knows what? This record has some wonderful melodies!

  7. Dean the Beach Boys' Fan LaCapraraOctober 25, 2011 at 7:16 PM

    Not perfect and (most point out, so I don't need to comment on it) very short compared with Pet Sounds or work by fiercest rivals in '67. Obviously the Beatles' latest soundtrack cheats by adding previously-released anthems, while LPs like Satanic Majesties/Something Else have a hard time competing with the Beach Boys functioning like Pop-R&B powerhouse they are here. Since the late 1980s have salivated over all the originals here, while their Stevie Wonder cover is found in full-length glory on Rarities. Finally, their butchering of Here comes the Night twelve years later is beyond excuse; sounds much better here!