Favorite Beach Boys Deep Cuts

The Beach Boys’ discography is so massive, yet so often overlooked. By 1969, the band had released an album entitled 20/20 to commemorate the release of their 20th album (including greatest hits packages; it was only their 15th studio album). In the early 2000s, when I was blossoming ever-so-gently into a raging Beach Boys fanatic, I devoured those twofer CDs like candy on Christmas morning (my family’s traditional meal–you only live once, or so I’ve been promised). It can be a daunting task to undertake the band’s catalog as one migrates from the casual, greatest hits fan into the abyss of gimme all your tracking sessions, Brian. As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the band fell from the grace and favor of the record-buying (and listening) public at large, leaving so many gems buried.

With so many tunes to choose from, I developed a very basic criteria for what could be included on this list: you shouldn’t be able to find the song on  The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits, Vol. 1: 20 Good Vibrations or The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits, Vol. 2: 20 More Good Vibrations  or Pet Sounds. (There is one exception on this list…but this is my blog, I can break my own rules.) No “In My Room.” No “Warmth of the Sun.” No “I’m Waiting for the Day” (take six). While those songs may not be instantly recognizable to many, I consider that Beach Boys for babies, and I am the Nanny in the white-and-green striped tights with killer purple sneakers kicking you outta the nursery. Let’s go.

1. “The Lonely Sea,” Surfin’ USA, 1963

Watch Brian sing this track in a film you would only watch if you are an obsessive Beach Boys fan–Girls on the Beach. Not that I obsessively waited for this film to be on TV so I could record it or anything… 

Pet Sounds doesn’t exactly have the corner on soul-wrenching tunes in the Beach Boys’ catalog. Take this track from the Beach Boys’ second album as a case in point. Stunning. Haunting. Beautiful. Written and sung by a 20-year-old Brian Wilson. Yeah, he earned the right to stay in bed for three years.

2. “Cherry, Cherry Coupe,” Little Deuce Coupe, 1963 

Talk about a jam. Dennis is trying so hard on this song, and I love it. Most of my car knowledge comes from Beach Boys lyrics, but I have no idea what 80% of the lyrics of this song even mean. “The wildest short around is my cherry, cherry coupe.” What??? “Door handles are off, but you know I’ll never miss ’em/They open when I want with the cellunoid system.” (Yeah, Mike Love’s nasal tones call it a “cellunoid” system. I know.) Sounds awesome, but I really have no idea.

(Side note: Little Deuce Coupe, a collection of “hot rod” songs, is considered an early example of a concept album. But what is more amazing is that it was released a mere month after Surfer Girl. The band released three–!!!!!–albums in 1963 alone. Is it any wonder why Brian suffered a nervous breakdown?)

3. “Girls on the Beach,” All Summer Long, 1964 

I include this song as an example of how even early Beach Boys’ songs that dealt with “summer and fun and summer and summer and fun and cars” that weren’t particularly thought-provoking or inspiring were still harmonically breath-taking. Also, Dennis gets a little vocal solo, so there’s that.

4. “The Lord’s Prayer,” The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, 1964 

I first heard The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album by repeatedly checking out the cassette tape from the local library year-round. This track was tacked on the end of side two (I think), and I was so disappointed when I purchased the original album on vinyl and it wasn’t included. I was even more disappointed when it also was not to be found on Ultimate Christmas. It was originally found on the flip side of “Little Saint Nick.” What other band could so seamlessly pair a tune about Santa’s hot rod with such a heartfelt, gorgeous rendering of “The Lord’s Prayer”?

 5. “Good to My Baby,” Today!, 1965 

In a word: TUNE. On the surface, it’s just a good little rock ‘n’ roll song. Take away the vocals (as the above video does), and you can begin to appreciate the complexity of Brian’s music. So much of The Beach Boys’ music is like that: effortless on the surface, its sonic complexity easily overlooked. It’s how we separate the Mike Loves from the Brian Wilsons.

6. “Please Let Me Wonder,” Today!, 1965

Today! is such a great album. While the first side is full of upbeat, infectious rock ‘n’ roll numbers, “Please Let Me Wonder” opens the introspective second side. It’s one of my favorite Beach Boys songs, and it features one of Brian’s most beautiful, sweetest vocals.

7. “Kiss Me Baby,” Today!, 1965 

Kiss a little bit, fight a light, kiss a little bit, woah baby…

Oh my gosh, words can’t even do justice to the beauty of this song. Even Mike doesn’t mess it up. Enjoy the acapella version in the video posted above.

8. “Girl, Don’t Tell Me,” Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), 1965 

Dripping with the Beatles’ influence (most obviously “Ticket to Ride”), this is a great little tune, far superior to its A-Side (Ba-ba-ba-BARF-Barabra Ann…no, it’s a good song for what it is, really) and featuring a rare (at that time) lead vocal from Carl Wilson.

9. “Surf’s Up,” The SMiLE Sessions, 1967 

None of the versions of this song found on the five-disc SMiLE Sessions come close to the simple beauty of Brian’s television performance. The narrator of the program observed: “Here is a new song—too complex to get all of the first time around. It could come only out of the frontman that characterizes today’s pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own ‘Surf’s Up.'” He goes on to describe the song as “poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity…a symbol of change” in the world of pop music. Eyes closed, Brian’s heartfelt delivery is unparalleled. How different the world of pop music might have been had this song and the rest of SMiLE had seen the light of day.

10. “Let the Wind Blow,” Wild Honey, 1967 

“Let the Wind Blow” is a somber ballad comparing love to nature, with the singer urgently pleading that, as elements of nature, his love might be a part of his life forever.

11. “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” Friends, 1968 

A chill song in which Brian sings directions to his house and describes what keeps him busy while he waits for you to finally show up (and wow, is he busy). Once you do finally arrive, you’ll find him “in my house somewhere, keepin’ busy.” Has to be in my top ten Beach Boys songs, ever. I’ve been singin’ it at least three times in a row every night before going to bed for the past few days.

12. “All I Wanna Do,” Sunflower, 1970

This is another chill song, and I have to award credit to Mike Love for not pulling deep bass or nasal tones and inducing vomit like he usually does. He actually sings, and his vocal tone suits the ambiance of the song. I always see Mike practicing meditation when I hear this song, though. I think there may be a clip of that in Endless Harmony or some other Beach Boys documentary. Oh well, I just have to close my eyes harder, I guess. (“Tony and I think that if you close your eyes you can see a place or something that’s happening. It’s like being blind but because you’re blind you can see more. Don’t you think it’s a spiritual kind of thing?” “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I closed my eyes. Didn’t see a thing.” Can’t stop, won’t stop.) Still, a good song.

13. “Forever,” Sunflower, 1970

So I’m going away, mmmm, but not forever…

Quite simply one of the most beautiful and romantic songs ever written. Some might even call it a “rock ‘n’ roll prayer.” I hope you’ve never had to listen to John Stamos sing this song; it’s a gross offense to sugar and spice and all things nice–especially a genuinely soulful singer, Dennis Wilson. It’s equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking to see how Brian watches the video montage of his younger brother with pride and sadness. Give that man a hug–or a kiss on the head like his little brother once did. 

14. “Feel Flows,” Surf’s Up, 1971

When Brian retreated into a cocoon of drugs and isolation, Carl stepped in and became the de facto leader. He was the beating heart of that band and, sadly, with his death, the Beach Boys became the fractured band we have today. “Feel Flows” (along with so many others of this period, including “Long Promised Road” also from Surf’s Up) is a fine example of Carl’s blossoming songwriting and production skills. It’s a jam.

15. “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song),” Surf’s Up, 1971

Sounding more like The Beatles than The Beach Boys, Al (yep, little Al Jardine) woefully sings about job-hunting. But in a haunting, trippy way. But I’ll be coming home tonight/And everything will be alright/And we’ll be looking at tomorrow…You go, Al.

16. “‘Til I Die,” Surf’s Up, 1971

“I’m a cork on the ocean,” are the opening lines to “‘Til I Die,” which Mike Love once annoyingly described as “the last great Brian Wilson track.” (He probably also screamed that this song was NOT BEACH BOYS FUN! It’s a special brand of fun, you know.) That opening image perfectly encompasses Brian’s despair. It’s such a beautifully depressing song. “I’m a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I’ll be blown away,” Brian concedes. Yet, amazingly, he ultimately triumphed. What a guy.

Sometimes I just lay in bed and sing this song. That’s not a red flag or anything.

17. “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” The Beach Boys’ Love You, 1977

Oh, this song. (Oh, this album.) All three brothers share the vocal responsibilities, with Brian and Dennis splitting each verse and Carl singing the bridge (oh-oh-oh man). The Moog synthesizer abounds amidst this aural paradise, lending it a quirky edge. Brian loves this song and so do I.

Well, that’s a good start. What’d I miss?

See you tomorrow, Hal!

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P.S. In the spirit of Christmas, let me implore you to be a Brian Wilson in a world full of Mike Loves.

P.S.S. The appropriate response when Mike Love asks if you like his beret or just opens his mouth in general:

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Seeing Brian Wilson Live

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to a Brian Wilson concert. Not entirely by choice, mind you, as anyone who really knows me (and Brian Wilson) would know that this would never be my number one choice of how to spend an evening. Of course, I love Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, second probably only to The Beatles, but I am long over concert-going, and Brian Wilson has never been–and never will be–a performer.

Following our trend of going to events where we are the youngest people in attendance, we go to see Brian Wilson, seated amidst of white, gray, balding, and in denial. The orchestral versions of Beach Boys hits you could probably hear in an elevator provided the perfect backdrop for this scene. A white piano sat center-stage, ready for its maestro–and right on time, Brian stepped onto the stage, with considerable assistance from an aide.

Although our tickets read that the show was for Pet Sounds Live, the show opened with a mini-greatest hits set (“California Girls”, “Little Deuce Coupe,” etc.) with a handful of deep-enough cuts to keep die-hard fans appeased and generic fans befuddled. Then Brian abruptly announced that the band would be playing Pet Sounds in its entirety.

Pet Sounds is, of course, an incredible work of art. As the band said at the close of the show, they were incredibly honored to play such transcendently beautiful music and as an audience member, it was wonderful to hear, even if Brian’s own involvement was limited. He has a talented band that does justice to his musical genius, but he appears to sit at the piano just to have somewhere to sit, and when he does sing, it isn’t exactly singing. “Don’t talk,” he told us, talking more than singing. “Put that head on my shoulder.” Considering the emotional, physical, mental, and drug abuse this man has suffered for most of his adult life combined with his age, however, it is understandable that he would no longer resemble the beloved voice found on record.

At the conclusion of “God Only Knows,” the audience gave Brian a standing ovation. “Thank you. Thank you,” he repeated. “Ladies and gentlemen, please be seated.” So polite and eager to keep the setlist moving.

The final track is, of course, “Caroline, No.” “It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die,” Brian sang. (Or did he? Maybe it was his vocal counterpart–his son-in-law. I can’t remember.) And before we even hear the barks of Banana and Louie, Brian is again taken away.

Brian quit touring with the Beach Boys at the end of 1964 due to the strain and pressure it put on him and to devote his focus to writing, producing, and recording. Brian was never very comfortable on stage. “Something’s off. It’s being up there,” Brian confides to his brothers in Love and Mercy after speculating that maybe he’s just “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!”

(Need I remind you again that I am 1000% cuckoo for Love & Mercy? It is such a great movie, the best biopic, and all the awards to Paul Dano and John Cusack for such mesmerizing performances. So many good things in this film, including Paul Dano in white pants and Vans. Go ahead, drop another bobby pin. Oh yeah.)

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(If my husband is reading this, I have to defend myself. This is NOT the screen cap I said I needed to make a point in my post. This is what is referred to as aesthetically pleasing.)

“You don’t need me up there, looking like a jerk. I’ll be better back here at home, making music,” Brian pleads with Carl and Dennis. “I just wanna be home.” I get you, Brian. I get you.

And when we see Brian in the studio a few minutes later, starting work on Pet Sounds, we know he is right. Brian is an incredibly sensitive and vulnerable person, crushed by his father’s disapproval of the beginnings of “God Only Knows” in an earlier scene, yet he is so dynamic, articulate, and forceful (in a gentle way) about how he wants his music to sound.

“Brian, I think you might have screwed up here,” groovy Carol Kaye tells him at one point.

“Really? Let me see.”

“You’ve got Lyle playing in D and the rest of us are in A major.”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“How does that work? Two bass lines in two different keys?”

“Well, it works in my head…I think it’s gonna work. Let’s try it.”

And when it does indeed work, Carol Kaye can’t help but smile. And Brian smiles, and it’s such a beautiful moment in the film. It really struck me the first time (out of 800) that I saw the film in theaters because it’s just a perfect encapsulation of who Brian is. He is the music, and he belongs at home or in the studio, creating music.

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We came home from the concert and watched Love and Mercy the next day. And I was struck again by how much heart and soul Brian put into Pet Sounds, at how in his element he was in the studio, and I wondered again, what was it that broke Brian so? Was it the lukewarm reception to Pet Sounds (stateside, at least), the band’s reluctance to indulge SMiLE, the drugs, his father, mental illness, Satan in the form of Eugene Landy, or a combination of all of the above? I don’t know. But it is so sad to watch this once dynamic, creative individual be reduced to a position he always hated–being on stage, spending more time watching the crowd hopelessly and wiping his hand across his forehead than actually singing. Again, all of the abuse this man has endured has taken its toll; I’m not criticizing the quality of the performance, despite Brian’s limited involvement, I’m just wondering if this is the best place for Brian.

One of the things that comes out of Love and Mercy is the triumph of Brian’s spirit and his redemption in both his music and the escape from Dr. Landy. He falls in love again and returns to creating music. And while he has created some great music in the past twenty-odd years, I have to wonder if the time for Brian Wilson to be performing live has passed, not only for his discomfort but also his health. Can’t he just be home, creating music and spending time with his family?

When Brian re-appeared for the encore (my husband was skeptical that he would be physically able to), the final song the band performed was “Love and Mercy,” which is the signature Brian Wilson track. Created under the duress of Dr. Landy, Brian’s caring, sensitive spirit still shines through the music. “A lot of people out there hurtin’ and it really scares me,” he sings, and you know he means it. He is such a genuinely humble, supremely sensitive human being, and you can feel that in his music. I had to express gratitude for the kind, gentle soul of Brian Wilson that evening.

P.S.

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“Who cares what Mike says?”

So many great lines in this movie.

P.S.S.

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Yeah, I get you, Brian. 1000%.

P.S.S.S. Coming up next: Favorite Beach Boys deep cuts. Be thinking of your favorites! A happy side effect of seeing Brian Wilson live is the inability to listen to anything but Beach Boys music 24/7.