THE BEACH BOYS: 15 BIG ONES (1976)
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?