THE BEACH BOYS: FRIENDS (1968)
1) Meant For You; 2) Friends; 3) Wake The World; 4) Be Here In The Morning; 5) When A Man Needs A Woman; 6) Passing By; 7) Anna Lee, The Healer; 8) Little Bird; 9) Be Still; 10) Busy Doin' Nothin'; 11) Diamond Head; 12) Transcendental Meditation.
I have now reached that point in life at which I am almost ready to accept Friends as the Beach Boys' finest hour — or, to be more precise, their finest 25 minutes, since even at the dawn of the era of sprawling conceptual double LPs, these buttheaded retrogrades still stubbornly stuck to Capitol's old idea of «who needs to spend resources on recording a 40-minute LP when you can sell a 20-minute LP for the same money?» These days, though, it almost smells cool. «A 25-minute long record? In 1968? CLASSY, man!»
It is not just 25 minutes long, though. It is also quiet, meditative, boring, and beautiful: the most low-key they ever got. Even Smiley Smile had its double dose of epics, and Wild Honey had the upbeat pop singles. When it came to releasing a single from this album, though, all they could come up with was the title track — a... waltz? Little surprise that they immediately plopped down on the charts from #19 ('Darlin') to #47; I am much more baffled by the fact that they managed to get even that high.
In a way, Friends destroyed the band's credibility among the «hip» crowds of the day with even more success than Smiley Smile did a year earlier. That album, at least, could interest people due to its (often unintentional) psychedelic and avantgarde qualities — Friends was just a low-key collection of unassuming, unsubstantial quasi-pastoral sketches. In a similar vein, on the other side of the ocean, at the very same time, another band, The Kinks, would be lambasted by popular indifference to their magnum opus of a pastoral idilly, The Village Green Preservation Society. But next to Friends, Village Green can pass off for a War And Peace of its category, a much longer, much more thought out recording, none of the songs on which sound like snippets, demos, and flash-in-the-pan ideas that Brian Wilson could come up with one nice evening singing made on the spot lullabies to his newborn daughter, then rush to the studio the very next day to turn them into commercial songs offered for millions of fans.
Still, it was a troubled time, but a good time. For starters, Mike Love was mostly absent from the sessions, delayed on a trip to India to study transcendental meditation. It took a Mike Love to actually profit from the teachings of the Maharishi — apparently, he returned so inspired and full of love that he not only acquiesced in having a low-profile presence on the album, but also contributed one of his most gorgeous vocal parts ever (on the opening fourty second-snippet 'Meant For You') and co-wrote one of the album's catchiest numbers, a teensy-weensy kiddie tune called 'Anna Lee, The Healer', presumably written, if you can only believe it, about a healer named Anna Lee. It is a bit unfortunate that the song, with its lyrics going "She cures people with her hands / I'm just one of her many fans" was released in the same year as The Who's 'Mary Ann With The Shaky Hand', raising unhealthy associations. Rest assured: freshly reformed from the Himalaya mountain side, Mike Love was not referring to any, er, «unhygienic» practices. It's all about the spirit — and about beard extension.
It was also a time during which Brian was progressively losing control of himself, which meant that the others either had to disband and die, or start developing musical egos of their own. On Friends, Brian is still in the lead, but, for the first time, brother Dennis comes out with two brief stabs at composing — and these two numbers already establish his creative persona, because their «aura» is more or less the same as that of his creative peak on Pacific Ocean Blue a decade later. Taking his brother's approach to instrumentation and harmonies, he mixed it with his own odd feeling of world-weariness and melancholia (what else could be expected of the band's biggest womanizer and alcoholic?). The two songs are stacked together — as in, «and now, a big round of applause for Little Dennis, here to entertain you with two songs, and then he'll be back to playing with his toy horses» — but, really, both are very good, although the rhythmic, R'n'B-ish, almost proto-J. J. Cale-style (if you discard the harmonies, that is) 'Little Bird' works on the senses much faster than the slow, prayer-like 'Be Still'. But be still and, eventually, its dark lightness and dreary gladness will creep up on you.
Not that Brian's own sensibility had in any way become diminished. 'Passing By' and 'Diamond Head', in particular, are fabulous instrumentals that hold their own against the wordless musical bits of Pet Sounds, even despite the comparably minimalistic arrangements. Actually, 'Passing By' began by having lyrics, which were eventually dropped in favor of chanted harmonies — a decision that, perhaps, the Beach Boys should have been taking more often. As to 'Diamond Head' — here is a tune that should qualify for the Hawaiian National Anthem (or, at least, one could consider adapting the lyrics of Hawai‘i Pono‘ī to this perky little melody).
'Busy Doin' Nothin' relates so well to Brian's state at the time, it almost is the perfect song to reflect that particular state — it also seems to reflect Brian's interest in bossa nova, which is fine, because most of bossa nova is targeted at people who are busy doin' nothin' most of the time. 'Wake The World' and 'Be Here In The Morning' are tremendously underdeveloped... and sound fabulous that way, exactly as if Brian just got up in the morning, wrote them on the spot, recorded them in the afternoon, and started collecting royalties in the evening (you wish).
And so on — like I said, these days, I cannot find a single flaw in these songs, with the possible exception of the silly anthem to 'Transcendental Meditation' that closes the record (well, some sort of fuckup should have stemmed from Mike Love, eventually), but even that one is mostly atrocious in terms of lyrics ("transcendental meditation can emancipate the man", we are told, "and get you feeling grand" — no shit, Mike!), and, anyway, is over faster than you can actually bind the sounds into meaningful (or meaningless) words.
Low-key, pastoral, homey, underdeveloped, minimalistic, and all that, but none of it should be interpreted as a criticism. This is what Smiley Smile could have been if the bits and snippets on there had been composed and arranged specially for the album, not hastily re-recorded in a throwaway manner. Completely unfit for the grand ambitions of 1968, Friends is a record that, to me, sounds far more relevant today, rather than at the time when it was supposed to really make a difference. Thumbs up ahoy.
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