20 September, 2013 in Music Reviews
Six-disc retrospective on the geniuses of vocal-harmony, charting their rollercoaster ride from California surfin’ to studio psychedelia and back again
orn and raised in Hawthorne in LA county, the original Beach Boys line-up – brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardin – truly were made in California. Clean-cut both in presentation and production, they quickly became synonymous with the classic surf-rock scene that emerged in the Golden State during the early 60’s. After years of relentless touring, ground-breaking albums, Brian Wilson’s well-documented mental health problems and tragic cliched rock-star deaths along the way, The Beach Boys’ legacy has been cemented in rock’n’roll history books.
This new retrospective six-disc box-set charts the band’s long, fruitful and fraught career spanning more than four decades, from fresh-faced boys to embattled institution, via psychedelic breakdowns and multiple break-ups. Running loosely in chronological order, each disc represents a different era of the band. Disc one manages to distill around eight albums’ worth of material from 1962’s Surfin Safari to The Beach Boys Today! released three years later, whereas the second CD is crammed with more from Today!, alternative mixes and unreleased highlights from Pet Sounds, the Smile sessions and also Wild Honey – a period seen by many as the peak of The Beach Boys’ creative output.
Disc one reminds us how much the Beach Boys sang about surfing, cars and girls. Although the old favourites stand out as undoubted classics (In My Room, Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl, Don’t Worry Baby) and are re-presented here with some recent mixes and original mono versions, there’s not much here that hasn’t been heard many times before. The most revealing track is the roughest of rough home recordings that opens the disc – just a couple of minutes in we hear Brian Wilson losing his patience with his brothers messing around. Other similar moments on the sixth disc of out-takes and previously unreleased tracks show how Brian was the driving force of the band from the word go. That is until the drugs and relentless touring sapped his energy, leaving the other Beach Boys to push on without him.
The second disc covers the creative maelstrom that was Pet Sounds and the Smile sessions. The former being the widely-regarded Wilson orchestrated masterpiece, doesn’t offer up any surprises, mainly consisting of re-mixes made in the late 90s and remastered in the last few years. The versions found here however are fascinating, especially in the context of Brian Wilson’s recent solo efforts to resurrect and recreate the album. Hearing the early versions of the ambitious surreal soundscapes that became Heroes And Villains and Vege-Tables are like studying the blueprints of a Da Vinci invention. And there’s more of the same on the sixth and final CD, which is packed with intriguing a cappella mixes, outtakes, alternative instrumental versions and vocal montages.
But it’s the forgotten gems that are discovered and re-discovered across discs three and four from 1968’s Friends and through subsequent albums during the 70s that highlight how prolific and consistent the band really were. As if to prove the point, the fifth CD is a compilation of sublime live recordings from shows across the US, as well as Paris and London, between 1965 and 1993, that demonstrate what a captivating force The Beach Boys were on stage. This is preceded by a fast-track snapshot of releases spanning the later years from 1980 to 2012, including the recent reunion singles That’s Why God Made the Radio and Isn’t It Time. These songs marked their 50th anniversary and it’s a testament to their longevity that these six CDs make a solid collection in their own right.
Ultimately, Made In California is the perfect imperfect collection highlighting the best of The Beach Boys’ discography. It may be sketchy and rough around the edges, but this enhances the feeling that you’re travelling back in time to a golden era of innocence and musical innovation. In this context, listening through the whole gamut of a catalogue totalling seven hours might seem a bit of a chore, but it’s a treasure trove for fans both casual and hardcore.
Verdict: A must-have for completists, and a treat for fans who want get to know The Beach Boys even better