Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Beach Boys: 15 Big Ones


1) Rock And Roll Music; 2) It's OK; 3) Had To Phone Ya; 4) Chapel Of Love; 5) Everyone's In Love With You; 6) Talk To Me; 7) That Same Song; 8) TM Song; 9) Palisades Park; 10) Susie Cincinnati; 11) Casual Look; 12) Blue­berry Hill; 13) Back Home; 14) In The Still Of The Night; 15) Just Once In My Life.

Strange, controversial times did not automatically end for the Beach Boys with their separation from Jack Rieley. The story that one usually hears goes like this: after Capitol, in 1974, released the double-LP compilation Endless Summer, lightly packed (five songs per one LP side — typi­cal miserliness on the part of said record label) with old Beach Boy hits, it suddenly took off, hit­ting #1 and spending lots of time on the charts. This prompted Mike Love and Al Jardine to take control in their hands and recast the band as an «oldies act», dumping most of the experimental material from the past six years and concentrating on the likes of 'Surfin' USA'.

Then, out of the blue, it was decided that the band would get a big boost by «officially» returning Brian Wilson to the forefront. Considering that, by 1975, Brian had turned into a complete moral and physical wreck — bed-ridden, depressed, drugged, overweight, with a beard to rival Mike Love's hairiest days — this might have been a semi-decent idea; at the very least, it put extra pressure on the man to return to a relatively normal life. Unfortunately, the pressure also hap­pened to be prema­ture and inadequate. Due to psychological «instability», Brian's songwriting in­stincts had mutated into something utterly weird, sort of an eerie mix of old-time baroque influ­ences, mental ward improvisation, and Sesame Street. Furthermore, his voice was totally shot, transformed into an old man's hoarse rasp, never again to even remind one of its former Pet Sounds beauty. And he hadn't done any serious production work — one that would be as techni­cally complex as what he did in 1966 — for almost a decade.

In fact, it was Brian's, not anybody else's, idea that a good thing for the band would be to release an album of «golden oldies»: which just goes to show how deranged he was at the time, because, according to common consensus and my own opinion as well, the «oldies» part of 15 Big Ones is easily its worst segment. The idea to open the proceedings with 'Rock And Roll Music' is one of the worst reputational moves in Beach Boy history, period. Even in the early surf age, the band probably could not have handled the Berry anthem properly; this typically mid-Seventies version, with its slowed-down tempo, falsetto harmonies, Bay City Roller-style guitar tones, jazz-pop brass backing, and, ultimately, a carnival-style rather than rock-rave-style atmosphere, is an abo­mination — an insult to rock'n'roll as a genre and the Beach Boys as a band.

The «poppier» oldies that the band chose to perform are not nearly as offensive as the opener, but generally match it in blandness and uselessness. Sappy-happy, trivially arranged (for the most part, relying on a very ugly keyboard sound), nobody needs to hear the Beach Boys sing 'Chapel Of Love', or 'A Casual Look', or 'Palisades Park', etc. Even as a light distraction — nobody needs to be serious all the time — they end up annoying rather than entertaining, and, if the originals were good in the first place, spoiling them rather than improving upon their hidden potential.

On the other hand, the mediocre-to-abysmal quality of the covers has obscured the quality of a small bunch of originals. A malfunctional Brian Wilson is still better than a dysfunctional Brian Wilson, and, with a whole five «big ones» co-credited to the man in person, he still managed to sow a few more good seeds — in fact, they quite transparently presage his style on Love You. He returns to the «snippet» style of old: ultra-short, concise chunks of melody, sliced out on the pia­no and disappearing into nothing almost as soon as they emerge. The paranoid plea of 'Had To Phone Ya' (he delivers the line "come on, come on, come on and answer the phone" almost as if he believed he really had a phone in his hand); the madman music hall of 'That Same Song'; the rough amateur stomp of 'Back Home' — all of this gives us the same Brian Wilson that would, next year, attract far more attention, because none of this attention would be dissipated by cheesy covers of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and, God help us, Joe Seneca (although I must admit that Carl's angel-voice on 'Talk To Me' is one of Side A's modest highlights).

Overall, the poor reputation of 15 Big Ones is unquestionably deserved — but it could have been much better, if not for Brian's sudden and odd penchant for cover material, or Mike and Al's pres­sure on him to put out a new album as soon as possible. It is very fortunate that the standard CD edition has paired the album with Love You: that way, all of the suspicious covers can simply be edited out, so that one simply gets a bigger Love You, expanded by a short bunch of same-style precursors. Also, all of the band members desperately need a shave, but do I really have to tell that to anyone?


  1. And now we get to perhaps the most bizarre period in Beach Boys history where their personal issues would generally overshadow the music. It's sometimes more interesting to read about this period in Beach Boy bios than to listen to the music. I think they did do some great stuff in this period but, with the exception of Love You, much of it was never finished or didn't make it to any album (since the focus was usually to be commercial, lots of good stuff got canned) And the albums themselves are maddeningly inconsistent.
    15 Big Ones is my least favorite album they would do probably till the self titled one. The originals are good but I'm just not interested in those cover songs in the slightest.

  2. The covers are, in general, atrocious. Why oh why oh why did they think that leading the album off with that dreadful "Rock and Roll Music" was a good idea? Truthfully, it taints the whole listening experience for me. What a spectacular failure of taste! It is everything that Beach Boys critics perceive is wrong with the band—just incredibly corny. Nothing else is nearly so bad, and "Palisades Park" is quite good. (I've never heard the original.)

    I just watched an old SNL from 1976 in which a solo Brian courageously performs, unsteadily but with passion, "Back Home," when the album came out. He seemed reasonably in charge of his faculties. I think he was trying his best on this album, and the other guys were gving him a lot of leeway.

    How does his voice sound so much better today than it did almost 35 years ago?

  3. Peter Ames Carlin's great book "Catch a Wave" goes into a lot of detail about this period of time. Brian was essentially forced into doing this album: they created the whole "Brian is Back!" promotion when their manager, Stephen Love, admitted it should have been more like "We hope Brian is on his way back!"

    As a result, they gave him complete leeway with what to do on the next album, which was of course this one. He wanted to do an album of covers and covers only. The band wanted to do a DOUBLE album of originals as well.

    Brian really...didn't want to do this but I think he felt guilty about letting the band down for years. So, apparently, he would come into the studio, they'd do one or two takes at most of the material, and if it was at all acceptable, Brian was like "sounds great guys!" and would run out of the studio as fast as his fat little legs would take him. The band acquiesced to his rule, even though they knew better. Carl, in particular, was adamant that it was a "shitty album."

    So, lots of weird imperfections, odd harmonies, rushed vocals, poor arrangements and weirdness haunt this album. Brian's "synth and horns" production style is unique and that's what kind of saves the album for me. I haven't heard a production style like this EVER. The covers are pretty banal in their arrangement and effect sometimes but are sometimes semi-effective. I love the "Blueberry Hill" cover, for example, as well as "Just Once in My Life."

    The originals all qualify, except for maybe "Everyone's in Love With You." The melody isn't awful but doesn't get developed at all. And the arrangement is trite and the lyrics sub par. However, "Suzie Cincinnati" qualifies as a piece of catchy, light weight pop from Al. One of his better songs. Al actually had a way with decent, catchy melodies and weird arrangements but his lyrics were worse than Brian's.

    Brian's originals are all pretty good, if weird and indicative of his weird new songwriting style. The album qualifies for me due to the strength of the originals, the uniqueness of the sound and the strong melodic qualities of the covers.

    However, it's easily their weakest album up to that point. It's a marked backward progression and sets them up for permanent irrelevance. Even albums that may have weaker material, such as "Surfin Safari" make the grade better due to being appropriate for the time period, their age and their experience.

  4. The covers on 15 Big Ones were pretty atrocious indeed… with the exception of the Righteous Brothers' "Just Once in My Life." That's among my favorite Beach Boys songs of all time, despite that bizarre keyboard bassline.

  5. I pulled this one out again, after many years, and the sense of disappointment upon first hearing it remains. And it's doubly disappointing now, with Brian's solo albums far surpassing this. The band is just about unrecognizable as the band who recorded "Holland", never mind "Pet Sounds". It's not so much the rather undercooked backing tracks, but it's the terrible vocals and attempt to ride the "Endless Summer" wave by doing all these oldies. Not the best artistic decision at this critical juncture, but maybe it could have been done properly - take Lennon's "Rock n' Roll", for example.

    When you hear the orignals of these oldies, there's an innocent, youthful energy. Case in point:

    But the Beach Boys sound like a bunch of old, decrepit homeless guys dragged off the street into the studio. (The cover doesn't help with that impression, either). All the joy is sucked out of most of these tracks by the slowed down
    tempos and strained, off-key voices.

    As for the originals, it is telling that five out of the seven are either outtakes or re-recordings of material orginally intended for other projects ("Back Home" was demoed at the time of "Little Deuce Coupe" [!!], possibly as a second single for Brian's side band, The Survivors).

    "Susie Cincinatti" has, at least, clever lyrics (about a real person!) and is fun and upbeat. "It's OK" and "Rock and Roll Music" do have classic Mike Love vocals (I was initally fooled by "R&R Music", thinking it was an old recording). And "Palisades Park" does have a reasonable level of energy going for it. Even so, as the cliche goes, sometimes you can't go home again. The Beach Boys were no longer happy post-teens (if they ever really were). They had been through too much to try and pull this kind of thing
    off, and they continued to be pathetic as they kept trying.