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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Beach Boys: Keepin' The Summer Alive


1) Keepin' The Summer Alive; 2) Oh Darlin'; 3) Some Of Your Love; 4) Livin' With A Heartache; 5) School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell); 6) Goin' On; 7) Sunshine; 8) When Girls Get Together; 9) Santa Ana Winds; 10) Endless Harmony.

This is where it ends, and salvation is no longer even a remote option. The late 1970s saw the band wobbling between the crass, the silly, the occasional flash of experimentation or creativity, and the very sporadic outburst of genius. In other words, the band was down on its luck, but still somewhat alive and struggling; it was, at the very least, curious to watch that struggle.

With the new decade on the horizon, Mike Love was all set to clench his teeth, tighten his grip, and achieve sanity and stability. A noble goal, but at what cost? The much-discussed image on the front sleeve gives us the answer. They may be «keepin' the summer alive», yes – but a com­pletely fake, artificial summer at that, kept on technological life support. As corny as their come­back was announced on 15 Big Ones, it is to Keepin' The Summer Alive that we ought to award the title of «First Ever Genuinely Awful Beach Boys Album». And by «genuinely awful», I mean exactly what I say — I'd rather have an album on which every second song was a variation on 'Bull Session With Big Daddy' than this one.

However, it is not the worst produced Beach Boys album, nor is it the least melodic. Its awfulness lies in its «aura». The motto is simple: «Whatever we are in real life, let us be infectiously happy and merry in the studio», a fairly strange attitude for a band in a state of complete moral wreck, twice as strange considering that «infectiously happy and merry» was certainly not even the pre­vailing mainstream musical vibe in 1980, not even in California, and thrice as strange considering that the market for surf pop was even smaller in 1980 than it had been in 1976.

As a result, Keepin' The Summer Alive sounds... well, imagine yourself having to do a stand-up comedy routine before a non-English speaking audience the next day after one of your parents' death, and you might get the general idea. Already the title track combines a grossly exaggerated «bar­room growl» delivery from Carl, electronically processed backing vocals that robotically chant the melody of 'Louie Louie' (??!!), and a dead-sounding keyboard backup, supposed to bring stuff «up to date» (visions of frizzed-hair leotard-clad girl dancers included). It hardly gets worse from there — but it very, very rarely gets better.

Most of the songs are catchy: that one aspect, at least, Mike is always committed to wrangling from Brian, Carl, or whoever else is involved in the writing. You will remember how to sing along with "some, some, some of your love" or "don't leave me alone, living with a heartache" (for a brief period of time, at least). But this catchiness does not match any of its surroundings — neither the arrangements, nor the age and mental state of the band members, nor the very times to which they try to stick it. Where some of these melodies may have qualified for passable pleasant filler, had they been written and transferred to vinyl circa 1962-63, they sound utterly dumb and kitschy in 1980. And this applies both to the worst offenders (title track; the hideously tropical 'Sunshine'; the clumsy vaudeville sentimentality of 'When Girls Get Together') and songs that were most likely quite innocent and positively oriented upon writing, but were still engulfed and destroyed by the same vibe (e. g. Carl's ballad 'Oh Darlin', not only muffled by pedestrian produc­tion and arrangement values, but also by being stuck in between 'Keepin' The Summer Alive' and 'Some Of Your Love').

Brian's own fetish for covering oldies, still ongoing from 1976, was generally suppressed by the rest of the band, but, as a compromise, they still include a cover of Chuck Berry's 'Schooldays', which only goes to show that compromises were never good for this band; the result seems just as sanitized as everything else on here.

In short, you know things are going really, really bad when the best track on the album is a long-time reject that dates all the way back to 1972, and was written by Bruce Johnston, of all people; now that he is in full technical control of the band as its producer, it is only natural that the track he never got around to donate to the band eight years earlier (having been fired by Jack Rieley) finally makes a triumphant return. (Subsequently, it is the only track on the album to feature ba­cking vocals from Dennis — who reportedly hated the sessions so much that he walked out after just a couple of them, and I fully empathize). 'Endless Harmony' is an attempt on Johnston's part to emulate the «deep» sonic landscapes of Brian, and, compared with the likes of 'Our Prayer' or 'Surf's Up', it is a very cheap facsimile; but compared with the average crap that constitutes the bulk of Summer, it is an obvious highlight — at least it gives us a tasty bit of collective band harmonies circa 1972, reminding the forgetful that it didn't always used to be like this.

At this particular point, it is reasonable for the non-historian to cut off access to everything that bears the «Beach Boys» tag on it (except for archive releases): 1980 sealed the band's doom, even if they still had a few decent years left as a respectable touring act (mainly due to Carl's active presence and Brian's spirit on the stage serving as a mascot, even if the man himself hardly con­tributed at all to the stage show). With the endless harmony warped into the state of an endless thumbs down, one might as well just assume the harmonies on 'Endless Harmony' to represent a swan song coda — and move on to Brian's solo career instead. But the reviewer's honest duty is to back up nasty generalizations with album-specific bawdry, so on we go.


  1. Hi George

    Are you seriously going to continue reviewing the rest of The Beach Boys output from this point onwards? Such an act is masochism of a high order.


  2. Their worst album to date no doubt about it. Mike is at his nasal worst on his vocal parts (and he would only get worse), the cover track is a complete waste of time, Dennis still had a few years left to live but he's almost completely absent, "When Girls Get Together" is actually a Sunflower outtake which you think would be a good thing but they were smart to shelve it in the first place (though thanks to the more vintage sound it's still my favourite track here).
    I also really really don't like Endless Harmony. It's just SO FAKE I can't stand it. It's basically an enormous tease saying "remember what used to be capable of? yeah well we can't anymore, up yours." And oh do I ever hate both that Rhodes piano sound and the lyrics ("And we sang God bless America/It's a land where we tour" BARF).
    The production is pretty solid which thankfully saves it from being as laughable as their next three albums (this is the last Beach Boys album that passes the "able to play while others are in the room" test). It may be a bad record, but I can't bring myself to totally hate this album, the songs are just too catchy for that.

  3. I think you really hit the nail on the head here. I listened to this album yesterday on my way back home after my holiday visit, and I found it depressingly...fake. That's the major problem this album has that no other Beach Boys album had up to this point: it sounds completely, utterly fake and sterile. They don't mean it. Even LA, which wasn't exactly a thrill a minute seemed heart felt. It seemed like the kind of music they wanted to play and the type of statement they wanted to make.

    This album, to paraphrase you George, is "just a big bunch of stupidity." You can tell a lot of work went into the arrangements: the vocal harmonies seemed labored. The "oh oh...OH OH" vocals on "Schooldays" are technically accomplished but stupid. The swirling "oooOOOOOOOh GOING HOME!" vocal tag sounds impressive but the song itself is worthless.

    "When Girls Get Together" is, to these ears, the worst song on the album. Its slow, stupid and repetitive. What is there, one melody here? I can't believe a master such as Brian released trash like this: as early as Sunflower even! Things weren't quite that bad then: they're that bad now.

    Actually, I think "Endless Harmony" ties it. It might be the best attempt at actually sounding like the Beach Boys but its sooooooo fucking coy and "cutesy" that I can't stand it. When Bruce goes "there just west coast BOOOOOOOYS" my skin crawls. Ugh.

    Carl's no better. Working with Randy Bachman did him no favors. "Keeping the Summer Alive" sounds okay and even has a catchy melody but the arrangement, centered around those stupid "bow bow bow" harmonies (kinda "Louie, Louie" but probably just a 1,4,5 chord arrangement, showing the laziness of the song) is so...dumb. You could accuse LA of many things but, except for "Here Comes the Night" you couldn't quite accuse it of complete dumbness.

    Even 15 Big Ones was more heart felt than this. At least Brian threw in some cool originals and the band seemed to care. This is pure commercial product, their first album to truly fall under that category (even MIU, which is VERY commercial, is at least quirky and has interesting arrangements and good melodies at times) and while it honestly beats out later atrocities its only because there are a higher amount of catchy melodies. Urk.