The end of a decade brings with it all sorts of end-of-an-era implications that popular culture only seems to reinforce, and with each new decade, symbols of the previous period self-destruct or disappear, almost by design. Could the career of, say, Led Zeppelin have stretched beyond the decade it came to symbolize? Probably, but the odds were against it, just as they're against any symbolically '90s act now.
On the other hand, bands sometimes labor on through the decades against the unspoken mandate of the public. In the popular mindset, the career of The Beach Boys begins and ends with the '60s, but the group's recording career—and, more significantly, its moment of artistic relevance—stretches past Watergate, as illustrated by a series of under-appreciated albums only now receiving CD release.
The Beach Boys ended the '60s still floundering from the simultaneous collapse of Smile and chief songwriter Brian Wilson, who grew increasingly reclusive and unreliable as he battled mental illness. That decade's final, underrated albums Friends and 20/20 set the pattern for what would follow: The sound went in unexpected directions, each member assumed greater producing and songwriting duties, and Mike Love's "Transcendental Meditation" provided the most obvious indication of a continued exploration of the spiritual territory staked out by Pet Sounds. Though a nearly impossible standard by which to measure any music, it's that masterpiece and fragments of Smile that provided the greatest influence on the initial albums released under the group's own Brother Records imprint, beginning with 1970's Sunflower. If Brian Wilson's bandmates initially resisted the radical advances of Pet Sounds, they eventually, if temporarily, came to be the album's greatest disciples.
The original album artwork of Sunflower, which depicts a bearded Mike Love wearing a flowing white robe and gazing beatifically at a pair of toddlers, suggests unspeakable depths of weirdness that the album doesn't quite plumb. Whatever was going on in the members' personal lives in the period following the arrest of Dennis Wilson's former houseguest Charles Manson, the album features one of The Beach Boys' most coherent and lovely selections of music. Though Brian contributes the best tracks ("This Whole World," "Add Some Music To Your Day," "Cool, Cool Water"), everyone turns in strong work, making the first new-phase Beach Boys album one of the best. Cohesiveness isn't a virtue of the following year's Surf's Up, but it hardly matters. Two wrenching Brian Wilson tracks (the Smile-era title song and "'Til I Die") conclude the darkest album of the group's career, a record that also spotlighted a growing social conscience and featured the unforgettable "Long Promised Road" (from Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley), Bruce Johnston's "Disney Girls (1957)," and the Al Jardine and Mike Love composition "Don't Go Near The Water."
By the time of the especially disjointed Carl And The Passions: "So Tough" (the 1972 album that takes the first half of its name from The Beach Boys' original moniker), the group had added two South African musicians, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, to its lineup. Their tenure would be brief but memorable, contributing outstanding vocals and songs to the next two albums. Their "Hold On Dear Brother" stands out, even if Dennis Wilson steals the highlights with "Make It Good" and "Cuddle Up." That's Chaplin front and center kicking off Holland (1973) with the knockout "Sail On Sailor." Recorded, without Brian, in Holland at great expense and with great discomfort, it's another fascinating, periodically transcendent album, highlighted by Jardine's "California Saga/California" (a piece in a homesickness suite) and "The Trader," a contribution from Carl, who by this point had also assumed much of the production chores. (This CD reissue also includes Brian Wilson's "Mt. Vernon And Fairway"; originally packaged as a bonus EP, it's a "fairy tale" of interest only as a historical and psychological document.)
Though The Beach Boys had created four rich, rewarding, beautifully eccentric if uneven albums in as many years, it also had a problem: They didn't sell. Though now cultishly adored by fans, they went largely unheard at the time. The group was still a popular live draw, however, and a good one, as the 1973 In Concert makes clear. Its fortunes changed even more drastically with the 1974 release of Endless Summer, a collection of the band's sun-and-surf '60s singles that revived The Beach Boys' popularity for the post-Nixon era. It also eventually did it in, making its music almost exclusively the object of nostalgia.
For three more years, however, The Beach Boys tried to find a balance between old and new, in the process attempting—for personal, artistic, and commercial reasons—to bring Brian Wilson back into the fold. Though it featured the group's most horrific cover and title (at that point, at least), 1976's 15 Big Ones did just that. A slight, loose album dominated by oldies, covers, throwaways, and odes to transcendental meditation, it hasn't aged particularly well. But it did pave the way for the fascinating Love You. Produced and written (with a few collaborations) by Brian, Love You was the object of an insistent "Brian Is Back!" marketing campaign in 1977. One listen to the lyrics makes it clear that "back" is used subjectively, but it's a singular album that beautifully updated The Beach Boys' classic sound for the '70s, complementing the trademark harmonies with fuzzy keyboards. The songwriting may have been shaky, the lyrics (addressing such topics as roller-skating and Johnny Carson) may have vacillated between naive and open and embarrassingly dumb, the playing may have been sloppy, and Brian's voice may have seemed uncomfortably hoarse, but there's an unmistakable, thrilling integrity to it.
By 1978, the ride was over. "Last night I went out disco dancing!" serves both as the opening line of "She's Got Rhythm" and a tacit admission of the passing of time and fashion. Like that song, M.I.U. (recorded at the Maharishi International University, a TM center of higher learning in Iowa) is competent enough, but it's also the sound of a group buying into its own mythology, a retrograde salute to the pinstripes and sunshine image it had abandoned years before. By this point, "Good Vibrations" had already been co-opted as a soda jingle, but the band trudged on, largely without Brian, going disco one moment on "Here Comes The Night" (from 1979's L.A. Light Album) and dropping a lost Brian track ("When Girls Get Together," from 1980's Keepin' The Summer Alive) the next.
Dennis, the only surfer in the bunch, dropped out of The Beach Boys before drowning in 1980. A dispiriting self-titled album followed in 1985, with two tracks credited to Brian Wilson and live-in Svengali Eugene Landy. The insipid, Brian-less "Kokomo" hit big in 1988, and Brian released a solid but over-praised solo album and autobiography the same year. Meanwhile, as a summer touring act, The Beach Boys looked back on its own past with too much love, peddling a brand of '60s nostalgia that in no way conflicted with the rosy, fictionalized past peddled by the Reagan Administration, all the while conspicuously neglecting songs from the '70s. For decades, those albums have fallen into similar neglect, but as these reissues demonstrate, the period in which The Beach Boys forgot how confining it was to be The Beach Boys was and is a thing of ragged beauty.