CURATOR’S OFFICE -Until I Die
The popular music that we hear when we are very young and throughout our formative years leaves an indelible mark on our sub-conscious. It is an essence of memory just like the smell of coal-tar soap, or the first taste of mint ice cream. The songs that accompanied us through our early lives sit on the outer rim of recollection and their orbit shifts and dips around and under our radar. Get distracted by life and it might be ten years before you hear one of your favourite tunes again.
Now that we have arrived at a musical place that is easily one hundred years distant from it’s point of departure (or Roots), we find that there is no journey to be completed. There is only a circular celebration of what it means to be human, to be alive and to know love and frailty.
The Beach Boys are fifty years young this year, but for many they remain eternally youthful, encased in the amber glow of an endless summer. The wraparound harmonies of songs like “Don’t Worry Baby” and “God Only Knows” mark out a time and a place where innocence is a plausible condition. The good time buzz of “I Get Around” alludes to an untroubled suburban idyll where the keys to personal freedom came with a Little Deuce Coupe. Much later,this fantasy world was re-visited and referenced in “Disney Girls”, theBruce Johnston song on the 1971 album Surf’s Up. It was a reminder that the pull of improbable perfection is strong. It’s difficult to leave your little home town to explore the hostile, dangerous and paranoid world beyond the county line.
Around about 1966/67, Brian Wilson’s Smile project signaled an intention to move on; not in one or two new directions but several, and all at once. Half the band couldn’t keep up and neither could large sections of their hitherto loyal audience.
The infamous feuds that followed arose from the tension between formulaic success and risky experimentation. It’s difficult to spend all day in the lab when your friends want you to come out and play in the sun all summer long – forever.
In the end stalemate prevailed and Smile was shelved until re-incarnated by Wilson in the 1990’s. For long time fans this was only mildly interesting because Smile had leached out in the recordings issued between 1968 and 1971. However, the sophistication, eccentricity and complexity of the Smile ideas sat uneasily alongside the twangy, easy-going familiarity of their doo-wop brand. This is most evident on the 1969 album 20/20 where “Cabinessence”, a refugee from the Smile sessions, leans awkwardly against the likes of pleasing chart hits like “I Can hear Music” and “Breakaway”.
By 1971, the spectre of Smile had become too firmly ensconced in the room and too pervasive to ignore, despite all of Mike Love’s arguments to the contrary. Wilson sought collaborators outside The Beach Boys family where strangers evidently weren’t all that welcome. Van Dyke Park’s name is synonymous with Surf’s Up, and he almost became the fall guy when it came to sharing out blame for the band’s internal dysfunction.
What emerged from the conflict though, is an album that almost a coda to the end of a shared experience and a vindication of Brian Wilson’s vision. It was time to be realistic. Innocence was a thing of the past, the present was complicated and the future was uncertain. Real life had broken into the daydream world of surfin’, cars and girls, and was further consternated by Wilson’s creative imperatives. It was time to grow up; for boys to become men.
Surf’s Up is the same crossroads we all reach at some point in our lives. In Brian Wilson’s case it is the place where he caught the bus while the others waved mournfully goodbye as it pulled out of view. Some of them kept in touch, but there was no going back now because that meant staying in one place in a creative cul-de-sac. The (Official) Beach Boys continued to tour and make records, but they were merely tour guides in a museum of nostalgia. Wilson took the future with him and made some wonderful music. Nevertheless, Surf’s Up suggests that it would have been better still if the rest of his band had joined him there.
The Beach Boy’s history suggests that a great band is more than the sum of its parts and that pop music can transcend its perceived limitations. Between 1968 and 1972 they released a series of disjointed albums; Smiley Smile, Friends, Wild Honey, 20/20, Sunflower and Surf’s Up. Some of them produced big hit songs but concealed within them is a truly great body of work. These recordings contain ideas and songs that retrospectively sealed their reputation as influential, iconic and profound contributors to the evolution of popular music.
That was Wilson’s ambition for Smile, the ghost in the studio that wouldn’t leave and the last traces of its disturbing presence can be heard on the Surf’s Up album. It’s an eerie, uneasy, yet uplifting sound that stirs the soul and beckons you to follow. It is also music of the mind that emerges mysteriously through strange changes and ethereal voices.
Ever since then, Brian Wilson’s work has been marked by the unexpected, the inventive and downright challenging. He has established himself as the curator of a collection of some startling musical ideas and he has used them to reconstitute the pop song in an altered state, with dazzling results. In recent years, they have been on display in his live shows where he also covers the Beach Boys legacy from the a capella doo-wop beginnings to the big psychedelic finish with Good Vibrations.
On The Beach Boys’ recent reunion tour, featuring Wilson on stage with his former band mates for the first time since 1966, all the exhibits were duly catalogued. However, to the best of my knowledge, the title track from Surf’s Up has never featured in anyone’s set list. It probably never will because it might invite that ghost back into the room again. Better to say Happy 50th Birthday Beach Boys and let it pass. If you’re going to celebrate you need party music and it’s a natural thing to want to polish up your most golden of oldies.
But what goes around comes around and Wilson’s more astonishing ideas remain out there in constant circulation. Our fond memories are other people’s amazing discoveries, and a musical memory is a living thing that can be acquired, loved and nurtured by others. More than that, it can be re-made into a new memory for someone else. That is Brian Wilson’s outstanding contribution to popular music; to absorb the best of the past and remake into something utterly, astoundingly new.
Personally, I cannot tell you how much I loved, and still love 20/20. I loved it so much that it seems like a faithless betrayal to love another, Surf’s Up, even more. One thing is certain. These songs have been with me all my life, and they will be Until I Die.
The Curator, May 2012. INSTRUMENTAL