The Beach Boys have been at least three bands: crafty chroniclers of pre-freakout mid-Sixties Southern California, audacious cult oddballs and shameless nostalgia merchants. The first incarnation created pop art of the highest order from 1962 to 1969; the third still rides on the original's coattails for empty entertainment and profit. But their complex middle era — plagued by commercial failure, interpersonal warfare and the psychological roller coaster of leader Brian Wilson — is always up for reinterpretation, particularly because it's the least known. The Beach Boys' Seventies output has gone in and out of print with more fluctuation than any other major catalog has had, and its only Top Twenty hits were sentimental remakes aimed at a summer-concert crowd more interested in fun fun fun classics than creative maturation.
Yet for a new generation of harmony-friendly alternative popsters, Seventies Beach Boys albums like Surf's Up and Love You are becoming sonic blueprints, akin to what early Velvet Underground LPs meant to the previous indie peer group. The High Llamas, Eric Matthews and Saint Etienne are but three alt heroes touched by those largely ignored platters' production eccentricities, wandering melodies and resigned sense of suffering. They and twenty-one other winsome acts bypass big hits in favor of unreleased, overlooked or underappreciated Wilson/Beach Boys obscurities on Caroline Now!, a well-researched tribute that serves as a good starting point for adventurous listeners to hang ten beyond the Beach Boys' familiar shallows into deeper waters. Tracks like the Pearlfishers' moody "Go Away Boy" (a 1962 composition first released twenty years later by Brian's girl group, the Honeys) and Kle's "Rainbow Eyes" (a sugary kiss from Sweet Insanity, the aborted follow-up to Brian's soon-to-be-reissued 1988 solo album) are both affectionately academic and mighty swell.
Another place to start is Sunflower/Surf's Up, the first of Capitol Record's reborn two-for-one series. Whereas Brian's songwriting and production skills dominated previous long-players, the other members democratized the band with on-par tunes and productions for 1970's strikingly unified Sunflower. Once dismissed as a mere pretty boy, drummer Dennis Wilson starts flashing unsuspected melodic gifts, particularly on "Forever," a fragile, tear-stained ballad that ranks among the band's most heartfelt achievements. Brother Carl continues to nurture his supernaturally soulful tenor on Brian's bouncy "This Whole World," while "All I Wanna Do" presages the bittersweet delights of Alex Chilton's Big Star. Spotlighting Bruce Johnston elegiac career highlight "Disney Girls (1957)," 1971's Surf's Up is nearly as consistent. And its peaks — Carl's dynamic solo debut, "Long Promised Road," Brian's wide-eyed " 'Til I Die" and a masterful title track rescued from the famously abandoned 1966-67 Smile sessions — are even loftier.
Now packaged together as a double-disc set, the next two albums — 1972's Carl and the Passions: So Tough and 1973's Holland — reflect the band's attempt to remain contemporary in light of Brian's declining involvement. Ironically, his backward-looking rocker "Marcella" is the highlight of So Tough's pseudo-Southern-fried boogie. Despite some overly ambitious poetics, Holland's homesick ruminations are far more convincing. Another Brian composition, "Sail On Sailor," buoys rollicking temp vocalist Blondie Chaplin, while Carl's "The Trader" shifts between chugging stoner groove and choirboy bliss. During the same year, In Concert captured the expanded, FM-friendly lineup while hinting at the methodical oldies factory lurking 'round the corner. Like Brian's recently recorded Live at the Roxy Theatre (available only via brianwilson.com), its simplified live arrangements can only hint at the original's studio splendors.
When Capitol's mid-decade best-ofs, Endless Summer and Spirit of America, scored runaway sales, pressure suddenly escalated to recapture that old surfer magic. Brian returned with 1976's 15 Big Ones, a slapdash combination of rock remakes, retro newies and a 1970 B side, Alan Jardine's playful "Susie Cincinnati." Except for Carl and Brian's appropriately painful rendition of the Righteous Brothers' "Just Once in My Life," the cover versions are oppressively cheesy, and the only original that clicks is Mike Love's "It's OK," a swinging collaboration with simpatico former ELO/Move leader Roy Wood. The next year, Love You merged goofy tunes with wacky synth science to achieve what Big Ones failed to create — a joyously weird mix of past and present that only Brian could mastermind. "Honkin' Down the Highway" encapsulates everything right about this mischievous milestone: Phil Spector-ian drums thump against gurgling keyboards as Carl yells, near the bottom of his register, an insanely catchy driving tune. He's still a Boy, yet he so clearly sings like a man — but when he reaches for the bridge's conclusion, "I guess I got a way with (gasp) girls!," his enthusiasm charms like crazy.
The band nearly split in the wake of Love You's commercial flop, and the cobbled-together return, 1978's M.I.U. Album, reflects a retreat into slick ballads and safe remakes. Half of 1979's L.A. (Light Album) mimics M.I.U.'s bland filler, yet Dennis' gentle "Baby Blue," Carl's harmony-drenched "Good Timin'," Love's Japan-kitschy "Sumahama" and a demented eleven-minute disco reconstruction of Wild Honey's "Here Comes the Night" can now be heard as the band's final risky strokes. 1980's Keepin' the Summer Alive and '85's post-Dennis effort The Beach Boys feature somnambulistic performances of substandard songs set to trite arrangements. Don't go there.
Despite what followed, much of the Beach Boys' Seventies output is a tender place to linger and reconsider. The Sixties belonged to Brian and Love, but the Seventies were when Carl, Dennis and friends created their sweetest sounds, refusing the slightest hint of adult aggression. Adrift in an era marked by social and personal turbulence, they instead offered light, introspection and generous gifts of tranquillity. Wouldn't it be nice if we had them today.