THE BEACH BOYS: CARL AND THE PASSIONS: SO TOUGH (1972)
1) You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone; 2) Here She Comes; 3) He Come Down; 4) Marcella; 5) Hold On Dear Brother; 6) Make It Good; 7) All This Is That; 8) Cuddle Up.
Here we have a bizarre, but intriguing page in Beach Boy history. At Jack Rieley's instigation, the band fired Bruce Johnston (allegedly for being rude and condescending to Brian, but in reality, as part of a wicked plan to purge itself from excessively «commercial» elements, in order to... sell more albums). At the same time, the official lineup was expanded by the addition of two guys from South Africa: Blondie Chaplin on bass, guitar, and vocals, and Ricky Fataar on drums and vocals. At the same time, Brian once again moved back in the shadows, barely contributing anything to the album. Result: the least «Beach Boy»-sounding album so far.
Basically, So Tough is an eclectic roots-rock experience. With Carl now sporting a full beard whose length openly challenged Mike's, and Al getting close up there, the whole image was now closer to The Band than ever before. So Tough has it all: barroom boogie, swampy blues rock, blue-eyed soul, even gospel. The only thing it does not have is even a faintest trace of the good old sunshine pop band that used to do 'California Girls'.
Even Brian, on those few contributions of his that actually made the grade, is moving here towards an earthier, rhythm-and-bluesier sound. 'Marcella' (an ode to Brian's masseuse, no less!) at least features the band's trademark harmonies; musically, however, it not only recycles a few moves from 'Wild Honey', but is also completely built around a chugging blues-boogie line of the «pub rock» variety (Brian himself admitted that he was taking the Stones as an inspiration, even if it is sort of tough to picture the song stuck in the middle of, say, Exile On Main St.).
But if 'Marcella' is sort of a blues-rock/lush-pop hybrid, then 'You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone', opening the album with a rough, bristly combination of tack piano, hard-rocking electric guitar, and relatively «street-tough» vocals from Carl, is almost pure pub-rock (again, with the exception of some intricately mixed harmonies in the bridge section). In the hands of the Beach Boys, it almost produces a kitsch effect — if not for the song's catchiness and Carl's sudden miraculous ability to make his «gruff» manner of singing quite convincing, it could have been a gross failure; as it is, it is more of a gross surprise.
The real weak links on the album are those songs on which the new band members dominate. 'Here She Comes' has nothing to do with the Beach Boys proper; it's a Chaplin/Fataar collaboration, a semi-decent blues-soul number, very generically early Seventies, could just as well have been written by the likes of America (although I kinda like the swampy slide solo). The soul anthem 'Hold On Dear Brother' depends on how much credibility we issue to Blondie Chaplin's impersonation of Van Morrison (never mind that it is the former guy who is black, and not the latter). Personally, I wouldn't contribute any. It's all kinda boring.
In the meantime, the «original» Beach Boys, under the influence of all this back-to-basics stuff, retort with contributing their first and, fortunately, last straightahead gospel number. Formally, 'He Come Down' is successful, but «celebratory» gospel is such a miserable art form in general that not even Beach Boy harmonies can save the tune from looking... «cooky». To make matters worse, Mike Love contributes some ridiculously «eclectic» lyrics à la George Harrison that throw in references to Krishna, Zarathustra, and the Maharishi, violating the sanctity of the genre and probably making the Rev. Jesse Jackson quite displeased.
Overall, this whole roots-oriented approach ended up something like 20% failure, 30% success, 50% stupefaction. The band itself was fully aware of how much change they were introducing, hence the album's convoluted title — the Beach Boys turning into «Carl And The Passions» (an actual name for Carl's earliest schoolday band) and complaining how it is «So Tough» to make this kind of record. To add to the stupefaction, the album was originally released as part of a 2-LP set with Pet Sounds, syndicated from Capitol, as the second LP — a tremendously silly marketing move that, naturally, did not work. Not to mention the side effect of this decision — everybody would be inclined to compare the two albums on their own merits. It was like, «That's the way we were then, this is how we are now» — make your choice?
But, in the end, So Tough is saved by the bell. Wobbling between the strange and the ridiculous on its first five tracks, it is finally directed to God's territory on the last three. Carl's 'All This Is That' is basically a twin brother to 'Feel Flows'; more annoying Krishna references in the lyrics aside, it is an elegant piece of «lush pop». The major hero, however, is brother Dennis, who returns triumphantly with two more compositions in his by-now trademark «rough beauty» style. Of these, the sprawling, aching, expressionist 'Cuddle Up' is the magnum opus, although it may require some time to work its subtle charm on the listener. Daryl Dragon (of the «Captain and Tennille» fame) is responsible for the orchestration, which, on its own, would be sappy-Hollywoodish, but, in conjunction with Dennis' grizzly-soul delivery, which it echoes directly, produces an astonishingly cathartic effect.
So Tough was a commercial flop next to the relative success of Surf's Up, and it's easy to see why: the market was already oversaturated with roots-rock product, and the last thing anyone needed was to see a band least associated with roots-rock go roots-rock as well. In the end, Rieley simply pushed the Beach Boys too far: his failure to procure any serious respect for this new direction was the first step that eventually led to his parting ways with the band, and, to extrapolate this even further, a major reason for the band's eventual capitulation to the nostalgic Mike Love vibe. It is one thing to demand «seriousness» and «keeping up with the times» — but an entirely different thing to set up alien role models, competition with whom does not come out naturally. Maybe they should have looked up to the Moody Blues instead?..
On the other hand, time has certainly been kinder to So Tough than to any of the Love-reign-era records. At the very least, this album is a serious attempt to break the ice, and if we manage to forget that this is the same band that gave us Pet Sounds — as much as the stupid executives at Warners tried to prevent us from doing that — it is all at least fairly competent by the standards of 1972. And then Dennis and Carl come along and push it firmly into thumbs up territory.
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