Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Beach Boys

  • Smiley Smile [Capitol, 1967]
  • Wild Honey [Capitol, 1967] A+
  • Sunflower [Brother/Reprise, 1970] A-
  • Surf's Up [Brother/Reprise, 1971] B-
  • Carl and the Passions--So Tough/Pet Sounds [Brother/Reprise, 1972] C+
  • Holland [Brother/Reprise, 1972] C
  • 15 Big Ones [Brother/Reprise, 1976] B
  • The Beach Boys Love You [Brother/Reprise, 1977] A
  • M.I.U. Album [Brother/Reprise, 1978] C
  • L.A. (Light Album) [Caribou, 1979] C+
  • Rarities [Capitol, 1983] B+
  • The Beach Boys [Caribou, 1985] C
  • Sounds of Summer [Capitol, 2003] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Smiley Smile [Capitol, 1967]
In the year of Pepper-mania, the Beach Boys' Smile was expected to gallop out of the west and reclaim the honor of rock for its nation of origin. But Smile didn't materialize until 2004, stitched together from old bits and pieces and revived as repertory by a solo Brian Wilson and his enablers. Instead, Wilson retreated into his lonely room and oversaw this hastily recorded half-measure--"a bunt instead of a grand slam," groused Carl. Towering it's not; some kind of hit it is. Without this product-on-demand, we'd lack such impossible trifles as the wiggy "She's Goin' Bald," the potted "Little Pad," and "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter," a transitional bagatelle featuring squeezebox and imitation woodpecker. [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]

Wild Honey [Capitol, 1967]
It feels weird to call this a great record--it's so slight. But it's perfect and full of pleasure; it does what it sets out to do almost without a bad second (except for "Let the Wind Blow," each of the 11 tunes--total time: 23:54--ends before you wish it would). And what does it set out to do? To convey the troubled innocence of the Beach Boys through a time of attractive but perilous psychedelic sturm und drang. Its method is whimsy, candor, and carefully modulated amateurishness, all of which comes through as humor. Tell me, what other pop seer was inspired enough to cover a Stevie Wonder song in 1967? A+

Sunflower [Brother/Reprise, 1970]
If you can feature the great candy-stripes grown up, then this is far more satisfying, I suspect, than Smile ever would have been. The medium-honest sensibility is a little more personal now, soulful in its Waspy way. Maybe they weren't really surfers or hot rodders, but they were really Southern Californians, and that's what their music was about. It still is, too, only now they sing about water, broken marriages, and the love of life. Still a lot of fun, too. A-

Surf's Up [Brother/Reprise, 1971]
Their worst since Friends, which just goes to show that making like a great group is as bad for your music as making like a buncha mystics. Except for the sophomoric "Student Demonstration Time," the songs on the first side are all right--"Take a Load Off Your Feet" is worthy of Wild Honey and "Disney Girls (1957)" is worthy of Jack Jones's Greatest Hits--but the pop impressionism of side two drags hither and yon. The dying words of a tree are delivered in an apt, gentle croak, but the legendary title opus is an utter failure even on its own woozy terms and there are several disasters from the guest lyricists--Van Dyke Parks's wacked-out meandering is no better than Jack Rieley's. I'll trade you my copy for Surfin' Safari even up, and you'll be sorry. B-

Carl and the Passions--So Tough/Pet Sounds [Brother/Reprise, 1972]
They can't have much faith in the new one if they're loss-leading with an old one (the one that turned them into a cult band, now finally--how did we stand the wait?--available in its pristine mono form). And indeed, there's no reason they should. Despite the title, it's not some sort of primitive surf doowop--sounds a lot like Friends and Holland to me. Fairly pleasant, but even the highlights aren't all that hot: a nice Brian Wilson oeuvre called "Marcella" (sounds like Smiley Smile) and a silly gospel song for the Maharishi. C+

Holland [Brother/Reprise, 1972]
I admit that this sounds real good--it's engineered clear and bright as a redwood mountain stream--but to overlook what's doing the sounding is formalism as deliberate stupidity. That is, the actual music and words are murky and dim. I suppose that in time their tongue-tied travelogue of Big Sur may seem no more escapist than "Fun Fun Fun," but who'll ever believe it's equally simple, direct, or innocent? C

15 Big Ones [Brother/Reprise, 1976]
This is their best album since Sunflower, which is their best of this decade. Brian is aboard, if not in charge. But Sunflower or Wild Honey it's not. The oldies idea isn't itself the problem. But except for "Palisades Park" and "A Casual Look" the choices might have been more inspired, and the playful, goofy vocal intensity of the black music covers of their youth is often missing. I can deal with the Maharishi stuff by now--it simply underlines the group's public transformation from super-normals into harmless eccentrics--but never again should they commit an I-love-music song. In the current example, rock evolves from the Gregorian chant, an idea I do not consider a harmless eccentricity. B

The Beach Boys Love You [Brother/Reprise, 1977]
Painfully crackpot and painfully sung, but also inspired, not least because it calls forth forbidden emotions. For a surrogate teenager to bare his growing pains so guilelessly was exciting, or at least charming; for an avowed adult to expose an almost childish naivete is embarrassing, but also cathartic; and for a rock and roll hero to compose a verbally and musically irresistible paean to Johnny Carson is an act of shamanism pure and simple. As with Wild Honey, the music sounds wrong in contradictory ways at first--both arty and cute, spare and smarmy--but on almost every cut it comes together soon enough; I am especially partial to the organ textures, and I find the absurd little astrology ditty, "Solar System," impossible to shake. As for the words, well, they're often pretty silly, but even (especially) when they're designed to appeal to whatever Brian imagines to be the rock audience they reveal a lot more about the artist than most lyrics do. And this artist is a very interesting case. A

M.I.U. Album [Brother/Reprise, 1978]
On The Beach Boys Love You, lyrics like those of "Solar System" may have been a little embarrassing, but basically their silliness registered as charming. "Match Point of Our Love" ("Early in the game when you broke me/Just like a serve") and "Belles of Paris" ("There's a chapel `Sacre Coeur' in quaint Montmarte [sic]/In the open air the painters show their art") are just dumb, and despite a lot of fairly pleasant music and a few passable songs, so is this. C

L.A. (Light Album) [Caribou, 1979]
I quite like the electronic disco extension of "Here Comes the Night," but more as an oddity than a pleasure. The chief pleasure--Brian's "Good Timin'"--is not a new song. What is new is the pop orchestration on "Lady Lynda." C+

Rarities [Capitol, 1983]
Half alternate takes, half vault finds--notably two Wild Honey rejects, one of them Bruce Johnston's friendly "With a Little Help From My Friends"--this beats most of their '70s output, no doubt because it's from the '60s, and serves as a reminder of what an oddball entity they were when Brian was still functional. Next in the series: Glen Campbell. B+

The Beach Boys [Caribou, 1985]
Would you get excited if the Four Lads released a comeback album with Boy George and Stevie Wonder songs on it? Bet they still harmonize pretty good, too. C

Sounds of Summer [Capitol, 2003]
Summing up their entire career until Wild Honey, this is busted to noncom in honor of Endless Summer, only 13 of whose 20 tracks survive--"Wendy," "Catch a Wave," we salute you ("Fun, Fun, Fun," "Surfer Girl"). ***

Further Notes:

Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies [1990s]

See Also