Graded on a Curve:
The Beach Boys,
Wild Honey

Following the disastrous Smile sessions and amidst the continuing psychic disintegration of band auteur Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys took a daring step; they dispensed with Brian’s meticulously brilliant studio wizardry—not that they had any choice, given his poor mental condition—and their choir boy image at the same time, and put out an album, 1967’s Wild Honey, that shocked the world by demonstrating that the Beach Boys, those sexless avatars of surf rock in matching striped shirts—had actual huevos.

Instead of paeans to hanging ten, little deuce coupes, or teenage symphonies to God, the band settled into Brian Wilson’s living room and recorded a swear-to-God soul and R&B LP, one that downplayed the band’s group vocals and actually rocked. It’s to their credit that the Beach Boys, faced with the drug-induced abdication of Brian Wilson as the band’s sole creative force, didn’t retreat back to their roots as a harmony-oriented surf band. Instead they recorded an album that was, for them, every bit as groundbreaking as Pet Sounds. It’s been described as “California soul,” and the title fits; they even cover a Stevie Wonder song, and make it work. The pity is Brian Wilson had already basically given up; he told one interviewer, “I think rock n’ roll–the pop scene–is happening. It’s great. But I think basically, the Beach Boys are squares. We’re not happening.”

There was no denying that the Beach Boys were stuck with an un-hip image, but Wild Honey proves they were still “happening.” It sounds downright lo-fi in comparison to the Beach Boys’ previous LPs, and that’s one of its chief charms. Another is the vocals of Carl Wilson, which are loud and soulful and pure rock’n’roll. He’s especially great on the title cut, on which he practically screams. Throw in some great backing vocals, a rollicking melody, and one strange organ solo, and what you’ve got is a killer tune. Carl even shouts, “Sock it to me!” likes he’s a cast member of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. “Aren’t You Glad” is pure pop, and a happy-go-lucky tune featuring horns, hand claps, and the vocals of Mike Love and Carl and Brian Wilson. It sounds as fresh today as the day it was recorded, as does the band’s take on Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her,” on which Carl Wilson shows off his chops as a soul shouter to the accompaniment of some great backing vocals.

I don’t know what to call “Country Air.” A proto-country rock tune? No, too weird, and there’s nary a nod to country music in it. There’s some nice piano by Brian, a rooster crows, and then the band comes in with their trademark group vocals. It’s a lovely song, from the whistling to the organ, and it’s nice to see the Beach Boys take a vacation from the beach for once. As for the rooster, I hope he got royalties. I didn’t much care for “A Thing or Two” at first, but the vocal swapping finally won me over, as did the rough-sounding guitar riff and the shouts of, “Do it right baby!” and “Out of sight baby!” punctuated by the falsetto cries of one of the Beach Boys, identity unknown to me.

“Darlin’” could be a great Motown tune, up-tempo with lots of cool percussion, some happening horns, and more soulful vocals by Carl Wilson, who basically makes this album the masterpiece it is. As for “I’d Love Just Once to See You,” it’s a an ode to domestic simplicity sung by Brian Wilson, who is washing the dishes and making up songs while missing his baby. It includes some backing vocals that are a haunting variation of those on The Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun?” and features one of the great last lines of all time, to wit, “I’d love just once to see you/In the nude.” We’re a long way from the teenage innocence of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” people.

On the spritely “Here Comes the Night” Brian Wilson demonstrates that he can cut loose on the vocals too. Meanwhile he pounds on the piano, the boys sing fantastic back-up, and the chorus is a snappy wonder. “Let the Wind Blow” is a throwback of sorts to the Beach Boys of yore, what with its group vocals and slower tempo, ala Pet Sounds. It’s a beautiful tune, and a sort of companion piece to “Country Air.” “How She Boogalooed It” is a wild ride with Carl Wilson on vocals, a funky guitar, some freaky organ, and a tempo guaranteed to have you doing the frug. Its only problem is it’s too short. As for closer “Mama Says” it’s a minute-long lark, with the group singing stately acapella and repeating motherly advice, e.g., “Eat a lot/Sleep a lot/Brush ‘em like crazy.” I’m not crazy about it, but I give it kudos as rock’s only known paean to dental hygiene, as well as the way the band ends the song with a group cry of “Poof!”

It’s easy to deride Wild Honey as the final nail in the coffin of Brian Wilson as rock history’s greatest studio genius, but it’s a great album nonetheless. Poor Brian, bedeviled by the voices in his head, simply was too psychically debilitated to produce another “Good Vibrations,” which is why Wild Honey was only the second Beach Boys album not to list him as sole producer. But if the mad multi-tracking and huge recording budget that characterized the band’s previous two albums were in absentia, Wild Honey proved Brian Wilson still possessed a melodic genius that not even debilitating and drug-induced mental illness could suppress. And its relative simplicity provides a wonderful counterpoint to Brian’s painstakingly recorded—you can listen to him work out every backing track, string overdub, aborted intro, and stereo track without guitar overdub in The Pet Sounds Sessions: A 30th Anniversary Collection—pocket symphonies. What’s more, it gave the other Beach Boys, chiefly Carl Wilson, the opportunity to demonstrate their far-from-negligible gifts.

Carl Wilson later described Wild Honey as “music for Brian to cool out by,” but I object. To me it sounds like music to get down with your bad self by, and who thought the Beach Boys had it in them? Even Brian, demoralized by the relative commercial failures of Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile, thought they were a spent force. Panned at the time, and hardly a favorite of record buyers, Wild Honey has since come to be regarded as a work of art almost on a par with Pet Sounds. And that’s quite an accomplishment. Because if Pet Sounds proved one thing, it was no one could top Pet Sounds, not even Brian Wilson.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text