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TBC Selects

The Best of Post-Smile Beach Boys

January 9, 2023

The California icons at their peak, representing one the most expansive visions in all of American pop and rock.

This post was originally published on August 1, 2017, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

1967 - Sunshine Tomorrow documents one of the all-time paradoxes of rock history: the sound of a band taking a major creative turn at the exact moment pop culture dooms them to obsolescence.” It’s a key point made in Pitchfork writer Jesse Jarnow’s review of The Beach Boys’ compilation, a grab bag of stereo mixes, outtakes, and live recordings that shed further light on the months immediately following the Smile project’s dissolution and Brian Wilson’s subsequent abdication of his role as de facto creative leader.

I’ll go one step further and say this major creative turn resulted in a run of albums—Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, 20/20, Sunflower, Surf’s Up, et al.—that represent the band’s zenith as a recording unit. And while just about every one of these records was greeted with a mixture of indifference (from the music-buying public) and ridicule (from the pop press), the sheer number of brilliant tunes littered across them represent, in total, one of the most expansive visions in the history of American pop and rock.

The earliest gems from this run, the throbbing, Theremin-lined “Wild Honey” and the waltzing meditation “Let the Wind Blow” among them, find The Beach Boys (now operating as what Jarnow calls a “fully democratic band”) articulating a homespun, R&B-kissed brand of pop that stands right alongside Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes (recorded mere months earlier) as the first expressions of rock’s post-psychedelic turn towards earthy simplicity.

In this newfound democracy (one as easily contentious as our own), it frequently falls on the shoulders of Carl and Dennis Wilson to pick up Brian’s slack by developing their own unique voices. The first to blossom is Carl, who produces and sings the otherworldly lead on 1969’s “I Can Hear Music,” a slice of Phil Spector-inspired gloriousness.

When the band make the leap to Reprise Records in 1970, it’s Dennis’ turn, and boy does he ever deliver. Among the handful of his stellar contributions to Sunflower is “Forever,” a ballad Brian once declared the “most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard."

Arguably The Beach Boys’ most confident-sounding album after Pet Sounds, Sunflower also contains the dreamily hypnotic “Cool, Cool Water,” a piece of Smile detritus transformed into bubbling ambient pop that sets the stage for both Kosmische Musik explorers like Cluster, as well as Brian Eno’s mid-’70s avant-pop.

With the addition of guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar in 1972 they pivot once again, cranking out raw, punchy rockers like “Sail on Sailor” and “Funky Pretty,” all the while maintaining a link to their roots in harmony-rich, AM pop (see the gorgeous “Marcella”). The era finally grinds to a halt when the 1974 greatest hits package, Endless Summer, goes triple platinum and forces the group, concerned with commercial survival, to become an oldies act. Though they would release one more great album in 1977’s extremely eccentric Love You, The Beach Boys as creatively potent, contemporary entity basically ceased to exist sometime during the Carter administration. (And, no, “Kokomo” doesn’t count.)

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