THE BEACH BOYS: 20/20 (1969)
1) Do It Again; 2) I Can Hear Music; 3) Bluebirds Over The Mountain; 4) Be With Me; 5) All I Want To Do; 6) The Nearest Faraway Place; 7) Cotton Fields; 8) I Went To Sleep; 9) Time To Get Alone; 10) Never Learn Not To Love; 11) Our Prayer; 12) Cabinessence; 13*) Break Away; 14*) Celebrate The News; 15*) We're Together Again; 16*) Walk On By; 17*) Old Folks At Home/Ol' Man River.
It took the Beach Boys almost ten years, almost twenty albums (granted, some of them were actually compilations), one musical revolution, one nervous breakdown, one full-grown beard, and Charles Manson — all that and more, but on February 10, 1969, they finally released their first true album recorded as a band, in which every single member had the right to think of himself as an active musical contributor. Ironically, it was also their first album of original material to have been recorded mostly as a contractual obligation, to get them out of the ridiculously outdated deal with Capitol. We all understand, of course — any label that rewards its trustiest artist of the decade with Stack-o-Tracks deserves to be fed to the sharks.
Anyway, it could have been much worse. Democracies in rock music can be a complete disaster, especially if they are installed artificially (talking to you, John Fogerty). But by the end of 1968, it was a case of do or die: Brian Wilson had almost completely lost functionality, and his pals either had to prove that the man did teach them something vital over the past few years, or to mutate into an irrelevant «oldies act», singing 'California Girls' to fat old ladies for the rest of their lives. Eventually, they would do just that, but in 1969, they flat-out refused. For a brief five year period, the flame kept burning.
Despite being quasi-mysteriously absent on the front sleeve (he is hiding inside the gatefold, the gist of which is, alas, all but lost on the CD generation, not to mention the Children of Napster), Brian's presence is still felt quite strongly on the album — even if the only original work he did for it consists of a brief, genuinely lethargic waltz suitably called 'I Went To Sleep' (sounds seriously like a Friends-style leftover to me) and one «complete» song, 'Time To Get Alone' — also a waltz, with chimes, accordeons, strings, electric pianos, you name it; even on its own, it feels deeper, denser, and tastier than most of the other stuff on here.
The rest of the album is a bizarre, but phenomenally enticing melting pot. Dennis continues his strange odyssey with 'Be With Me', further developing and deepening the 'Little Bird' vibe — these tired, world-weary, ominous-brass-filled bluesy grooves that skedaddle along like a pack of ugly hobos, only to burst into huge magic flames midway through; but this time, he also justifies his status of the band's professional hooligan with 'All I Want To Do', a number that rocks meaner and harder than anything the band ever did before (or after, for that matter) and culminates in a bunch of sex noises. (How he got Mike Love to sing it is beyond me — considering how grizzled up the man actually sounds here, must have been a tough night out).
Creepiest of the bunch is 'Never Learn Not To Love', formerly called 'Cease To Exist'. Co-written by Dennis with his one-time accidental acquaintance and protégé Charles Milles Manson, it is easily the least interesting of his three tunes on here — just a bunch of flowery harmonies with very little personal involvement — but what is actually creepy is how it begins with twenty-five seconds of ominous-sounding grumbling industrial noise: a fade-in that is decidedly out of sync with the tune, yet so neatly presages the Manson disaster, even if it would only take place in the summer of 1969. I wonder if poor Dennis ever had it in him to relisten to the track afterwards.
Brother Carl was still not quite up to the task of competing with the other two; but his contribution to the album has forever been one of my favourite late-period Beach Boys tracks — a take on Phil Spector's 'I Can Hear Music' that, production-wise and vocal-wise, is every bit the equal and, in some ways, surpasses the proverbial Brian Wilson gorgeousness. Even though he was the best singer of the bunch, Carl only very rarely put his voice to proper use, and even 'God Only Knows', at least technically, does not begin to compare with the things he does on this track — loud, intense, and at the same time, so subtle and caressing. The vocals are so immaculate here that never ever in concert would they be able to do the track perfect justice.
Then there's the delightfully hickey-hockey part. First, Al Jardine rises as the band's major folkster-in-residence. Naturally, in between the two grand renditions of 'Cotton Fields' released that year, I will always go with Creedence, but as little as the Beach Boys might ever be associated with Texarkana, this version is really no slouch either. It would probably take a synth-pop arrangement or something to kill off the power of 'Cotton Fields' anyway.
Second, Bruce Johnston tries to finally justify his presence in the band by simulating Brian's instrumental genius with 'The Nearest Faraway Place'. Instead, he ends up with something that could be mistaken as an excerpt from an Ali McGraw-starring movie soundtrack — but there's a certain embarrassing charm in seeing him fall so flat on his face. Much better is the cover of Ed Hicksel's 'Bluebirds Over The Mountains', a catchy pop single recorded at Johnston's initiative. Better, that is, until midway through guest star Ed Carter starts contributing a flashy, «furious», and utterly tasteless — not to mention completely out-of-place and irrelevant on a Beach Boys record — hard rock guitar solo, clearly proving that «stupid guitar pyrotechnics» was invented long before the hair metal movement. Still, in this context it's hilarious rather than disgusting.
Third, the record opens with 'Do It Again'. The idea of Mike Love harrassing Brian in mid-1968, urging him to go surf-popping once more, may look fairly corny on paper, and the song is, technically, the very first time that the Beach Boys have so openly embraced nostalgia, but, amazingly, they did it so well that «corny» is the last word to be associated with the song. The spiralling vocal melody is sunny-cool, the da-doo-ron-rons are reprised in a novel manner (so much so that, even twelve years later, they still inspired ABBA to come up with 'On And On And On'), and the transition between the band's near-desperate "...been so long!" and the ensuing shrill guitar solo is fabulously climactic. As silly as it is, and as obvious as it is that not a single Beach Boy really truly «did it again», the old magic is still there, for 2:26, at least.
Finally, the Beach Boys also learn how to make a living peddling little bits and pieces of Smile on the corner — current lesson involving dragging out the a cappella 'Our Prayer' and the naturalistic 'Cabinessence', a song that must have inspired the entire career of Animal Collective, with its unpredictable alternations of homey on-the-porch folk chanting (to the soft strum of an innocent bouzouki), kaleidoscopic psycho patterns, and merry-go-round vocal chants. Putting it at the end of the album was a smart move, because, clearly, as good or as «unusual» everything else here might be, nothing compares with a slice of peak-era Brian. A certified resident fan might even be motivated to forgive the band Ed Carter and Charles Manson.
As rag-taggy as 20/20 is, the rag-tagginess is authentic, and the high points shine with an even more peculiar glow when pressed against the low points. It may have been their goodbye to Capitol and the sunny Sixties, but, due to so much active participation from so many band members, it actually opened a whole window of opportunities — most of which ended up wasted, but no one could say they weren't there for at least a little while. Thumbs up, of course.
And do not forget to have this on its proper twofer CD with Friends: that way, you also get access to the magnificent bonus single 'Break Away' (co-written by Brian with his father, no less) — which might just be the last classic hit single in the classic Beach Boys style written by classic Beach Boy Brian Wilson. ('Add Some Music To Your Day' opens a new, and rather ambiguous, page in that legacy, but... later).
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