We're still singing that same song," the Beach Boys chime on 15 Big Ones, their long awaited new album, and a check proves that the personnel hasn't changed since 1962. But the same song as "Surfin'"? Hardly. Today, the reference point is Gregorian chant, and the rock is for the ages. Even the familiar faces are misleading. Brian Wilson, the group's absentee genius, hasn't toured with them since 1964; the last Top Ten hit he wrote and produced for them came in 1966.
But that chronology only tells half a story. In 1974, Capitol Records released Endless Summer, an anthology of Beach Boys material from the "Surfin' U.S.A."/"Help Me Rhonda" era, circa 1962-65. It went on to sell over a million copies, spawning Spirit of America, a successful followup. Meanwhile, the Beach Boys once again became one of the biggest concert draws in the United States, largely on the strength of a tight set that increasingly emphasized the surf and car oldies. Unfortunately, the once and future real-life Beach Boys haven't been able to cut a commercial new record. In fact, for the past three years, they haven't been able to cut much of anything.
The real enigma has been Brian. By 1976, the man who had authored and produced all those early hits and much of their best later work, from Friends to Holland, was less a vital creative voice than a mute object of speculation and gossip. What few tidbits surfaced seemed equivocal: Brian's Christmas record for the Beach Boys in 1974, "Child of Winter," was extremely odd, and his production and singing on California Music's 1975 remake of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" also sounded, well, off.
This context is crucial, for a lot is riding on 15 Big Ones. It is the Beach Boys' first studio album since Holland in 1972. It is Brian's first solo Beach Boys production since Wild Honey in 1967. Most of all, it is the album that the group and Reprise hope will put the contemporary band back on top of the charts, in the same league with their former selves.
Imagine Brian's situation. Trapped by the potent popular chimera of eternal summertime fun he himself created, obsessed by fears of failing melodic gifts and forced to compete with his own best work, unwilling or unable any longer to trust his instincts, uncertain whether his reflective understanding of the music may not cripple the carefree rock & roll he has had success with in the past, Brian (reluctantly?) comes out of semiretirement to take control of the first Beach Boys project in over three years, submits to interviews and waits, anxiously, one assumes, for the popular verdict.
The result, 15 Big Ones, includes eight rock classics, six new ones and one Beach Boys "oldie," "Susie Cincinnati," that dates from 1970 (it first appeared as the flip to the BBs' Reprise debut, "Add Some Music to Your Day"). In explaining the paucity of new material — the sine qua non of a genuine comeback, one would have thought — Brian has been blunt: "It's hard to come up with original material... ."
The album's opener, Chuck Berry's "Rock 'n' Roll Music," sets the mood. A methodical rendition, garnished by lugubrious organ fills and lumbering fuzz guitar, the cut at first sounds lazy, although its brittle surface cuts through on AM radio. Rather than evoking "Fun, Fun, Fun," the record recalls the jaded posturing of the latter-day Rolling Stones — as if to echo, "It's only rock 'n' roll, but I like it, like it, yes I do." The bands protest too much.
The ultimate emptiness of this compulsion to rock around the clock — picture a man condemned to life imprisonment on a Ferris wheel — is only underlined by the album's last track, a positively chilling rendition of "Just Once in My Life," the Righteous Brothers/Phil Spector hit. Brian's arrangement lovingly sketches in the song's original setting, but the vocals are something else again. Sounding rather like a suicide before the plunge, Carl Wilson wobbles around the opening lines: "There's a lot of things I want, a lot of things that I'd like to be." When Brian enters, he sings believably, pathetically, "I've given up on schemes, 'cause every one fell through/I've given up so many things, don't ask me to give up on you." Wavering off-pitch delivery and all, this is one of the most affecting vocals Brian has ever done, right up there with "In My Room" and "Caroline, No." But is this the key to mass success? Maybe if cadavers threw pajama parties.
The other oldies are equally spooky. "Talk to Me" might pass as psychotherapy for ether addicts. With its mysterious interpolation of "Tallahassee Lassie," this cut sounds like it belongs on "Mount Vernon and Fairway," Brian's fairy tale "bonus" on Holland.
In the past, the Beach Boys have made some great versions of rock classics, crowned by "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" (on Shut Down-Vol. 2) and "I Can Hear Music" (on 20/20) with their stunning a cappella breaks. But it would be a mistake to compare these records with the oldies on 15 Big Ones. The earlier remakes involved songs Brian or Carl simply felt like covering. The new remakes, by contrast, involve songs Brian has grasped at to help break his writer's block. He treats each of them as a valuable clue to the secret of rock & roll, as if by taking these cherished songs and memories apart and piecing them back together again he might recover a mastery of their magic for himself.
The sloppy vocals and hallucinatory instrumental are all part of Brian's strategy to "get back." (Brian: "I love the old stuff that we did better than the new stuff. It was simple in its crude form, and I liked that.") Very few of the versions even pretend fidelity to the originals. They are all marked by Brian's marvelous looniness and his ear for melody, which has never failed him, whatever he may fear: just listen to the saxophone chorale opening "Blueberry Hill," and then Brian's own demented, soulful vocal counterpoint on "Chapel of Love," or any of his new songs, for that matter.
Brian's originals, five in all, are of a piece with the oldies. Again, none of them attempt a straightforward update of the "Beach Boys sound." "It's O.K.," inevitably the next single from the album, comes closest to summoning the obligatory sunshine ("Gotta go to it/Gotta go through it/Gotta get with it") and it crackles with concise authority. But the bleating organ behind that chorus, the ambiguity of "gotta," both give the game away: "It's O.K. to get out there and have some fun." Who are they trying to convince, anyway? (Brian confessed recently that water has always scared him.)
Perhaps in a fit of congenital eccentricity, Brian has turned his other songs on 15 Big Ones into three-minute autobiographical schnapps reminiscent of his work on 1968's Friends: "Had to Phone Ya" sounds like "Busy Doin' Nothin'" revisited, and "Back Home" echoes, in the same ungainly way, all the wholesome virtues extoled in "When a Man Needs a Woman." But where Friends reflected a kind of oblivious domesticity, 15 Big Ones expresses a troubled sensibility fighting to regain its equilibrium. And when Brian sings that he's going "back home to that farm I remember," where he'll milk cows, feed chickens and eat breakfast alone, it's hard not to grant the man his absurd vision of bliss.
It all adds up to a compulsive, tentative album that almost sounds unfinished — and this from a band that could win a guaranteed ride to the top with recycled formulas. Now we'll have to wait and see, although "Rock 'n' Roll Music" looks like the band's first Top Ten single since "Good Vibrations."
This much, I think, is clear: in a period when even our best bands traffic in bland proficiency (think only of the Rolling Stones' Black and Blue or Steely Dan's The Royal Scam), 15 Big Ones relentlessly exhibits, in poignant, almost embarrassing detail, the foibles, fantasies and frustrated ambitions of Brian Wilson, the man behind America's greatest white rock band. It is the most idiosyncratic — and flaky — record I have heard in some time, and it fascinates me. Like Friends, its clearest predecessor in their oeuvre, 15 Big Ones will be treasured by longstanding Beach Boys addicts, even if it confounds a new audience hungry for summer reruns.
But Brian deserves the last word. "There's a lotta different ways to go. One way is very mental, trusting in your mind; the second is kinda going with your instincts and the third would be force. If the first two fail, the last sets in — but that works too." All right, but what about next time?