20/20 was the record that started my Smile obsession. Had I not gotten this, and through the circuitous route it came my way – had I heard Smiley Smile first, for instance – I’m sure I wouldn’t now be counting down the days in anticipation of the forthcoming Smile Sessions box :
After Good Vibrations‘ worldwide success in 1966, and Heroes and Villains‘ relative flop, followup singles Wild Honey and Darlin’ reached the US top 40, but these mediocre efforts made the band few new friends. The same fate fell upon the inadvertantly-ironic title track of their 1968 album (‘we’ve been friends now for so many years…we drifted apart for a little bit of a spell‘…etc. I guess these are Mike Love lyrics…).
20/20 was The Beach Boys’ twentieth album (including compilations, and hence its title) – eleven of these were all pretty much written, arranged and produced by Brian Wilson – and all within an 8 year period. As the band’s third post-Brian, group-produced effort, 20/20‘s main function was to help fulfill a contractual obligation to Capitol Records; and, while attempting to renegotiate their Capitol contract, they also shopped around for a new label. Of course a hit album would have been useful, as well as accompanying hit singles…
The Beach Boys’ finances were in a pretty dire state, due to the complexities of their contract, a withholding of royalties (especially for production, which Brian had taken sole responsibility for until 1967), and including outdated deductions for ‘breakages’ that related to the shipping of shellac discs to shops (imagine a Beach Boys 78! Oh, hang on…). And there are, of course, also the costs and demands of a pop-group lifestyle…
In late 1969, as a partial solution, and with the band’s hit-making career seemingly over, Brian Wilson’s father, ex-manager, and sole owner of their Sea Of Tunes publishing catalogue,
witnessing the group’s poor sales record…thinks they have run their course and decides to cash in, selling the copyrights for all Brian and Mike’s classic songs to…the publishing division of A&M Records, for the grand sum of $700,000…Murry allegedly tells Brian that the songs will never amount to anything…Brian is inconsolable and spends several days in dark isolation…[these] songs are his babies. They represent years of blood, sweat and tears. And suddenly they are gone.
Had I known any of this in the mid-80s, I’m sure I couldn’t have cared less – I wasn’t aware of Smile, wasn’t interested in Pet Sounds, never mind all that ‘surfing shit’. I’d assumed that any appreciation of The Beach Boys beyond the sixties was surely pure kitsch – and secondhand copies of their early 70s albums (and especially Surf’s Up) looked like desperate, failed attempts to ‘get hip’ by a long-gone and essentially-dead franchise…
REM’s 1985 Reconstruction Of The Fables Of The album was produced by Joe Boyd, as a deliberate choice by Peter Buck, and because of the producer’s previous Witchseason work (Fotheringay, Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Nick Drake etc.). I knew of Joe Boyd mainly because of Bryter Layter – but REM’s alternate choice (according to an NME interview) was Van Dyke Parks, in part because of his work with The Beach Boys.
All of this pre-internet join-the-dots was through a combination of weekly close-readings of the UK music press (essentially the NME and Sounds – the latter for ‘balance’; we rarely bothered with Melody Maker, too many conversations about ‘this new guitar we like’, and band ads for ‘musicians wanted’) – plus a scrutiny of sleevenotes in secondhand record shops. The REM interview mentioned Smile in passing…
I was also going through a (fleeting) fascination with Charles Manson, via TG, the Re:Search books, and then Always Is Always on Psychic TV’s Dreams Less Sweet. It would seem that, bizarrely, The Beach Boys had also recorded a Manson cover, a version of Cease to Exist (from LIE) – and I found a cheap Beach Boys album with the latter (as Never Learn Not To Love), and a track with a ‘VD Parks’ co-credit – so two birds, and for two quid.
The Manson fascination passed not too long after Psychic TV themselves ceased to exist (being the moment Peter Christopherson left to form Coil, taking with him PTV’s imagination, ambition and Hipgnosis design-aesthetic). While Manson might have been the only convicted mass-murderer who had also recorded an album, this was a personal curiosity that wore out kinda quick. Steven Gaines’ Heroes and Villains book covers all of this in enough depth that I need not elaborate any further here, and most everyone knows about Manson anyway.
Having quickly exhausted the perverse appeal of Cease To Resist (as a Dennis Wilson track it’s not much cop; in light of Manson’s later notoriety, declaring its release an ‘error of judgement’ might be something of an understatement), one day I decided to let the album run on – and was distracted and enchanted by Our Prayer, which was very pretty indeed.
Next came 20/20‘s last track, the ‘B. Wilson/V.D. Parks’ collaboration, Cabinessence.
20/20 is a baffling compendium of hits, misses and outtakes – the ‘hits’ being: Brian and Mike’s Do It Again (wherein Mike is ‘looking back with love’ at an era where ‘suntanned bodies and waves of sunshine/the California girls and a beautiful coastline‘ made so much more sense than ‘columnated ruins domino‘); Al’s Cottonfields (a perfunctory cover of the Leadbelly tune – big hit in Europe, dead loss in the US); and Carl’s I Can Hear Music (a Spector cover with a lovely lead vocal, but then it kind of falls apart at 1:50 as its vocal arrangement audibly flounders – you can almost sense them wondering ‘but what would Brian do here?’).
The ‘misses’ are Bruce Johnston’s Bluebirds Over The Mountains cover (awful and pointless, and with bonus risibility in its Rarities version), and his Nearest Faraway Place instrumental (which so wishes it were Let’s Go Away For A While Part 2, but actually has more in common with the sad little theme that accompanies Dr. David Banner as he leaves yet another town the TV Hulk has smashed up).
Dennis’ Be With Me is nice, like a dry run for Pacific Ocean Blue…but then he follows it with All I Want to Do, a sexless chugging rock’n’roll tune about fucking (‘You ain’t got time for diamonds/And you pay no mind to gold/You gave up everything you had/But there’s one thing I want you to hold…I just wanna do it with you/All night long‘). No woman could have ever been charmed by this. Surely.
There is also Brian’s flop single Time To Get Alone, but I’ll save this (along with Gettin’ Hungry, the Smiley Smile single no one bought) for a later post. Brian’s other original contribution to the album is 1 minute and 36 seconds long, a song called I Went To Sleep. Here is Brian, hidden (and hiding) inside the album’s gatefold :
Without Brian, The Beach Boys kept working and gigging – even without hits, playing live still paid. It must, however, take a very special kind of humility to regard venues like Leeds General Infirmary Nurses Home, their gig on 8th June ’69, as in any way ‘prestigious’…but, had they all slit their own throats in despair and self-disgust afterwards, they could at least have gotten immediate medical attention (“is there a doctor in the house?“).
The 1968/9 Beach Boys, as a recording unit, could barely be considered a band, and 20/20 is a collection of so-so solo tracks that (like its Warner Brothers successors) doesn’t add up to an album. With all of the above as the best they could do, The Beach Boys’ realised just how deeply their barrel needed scraping. Nothing of the original Smile sessions were worthy of inclusion on Smiley Smile in 1967, and while a brief insert (Mama Says) from the Smile version of Vega-Tables was rerecorded to end (and to no end) 1967’s Wild Honey album, nothing of the actual Smile session recordings had yet been released.
The decision to overdub new vocals onto Smile’s Prayer and Cabin-Essence masters, and then stick them together sequentially as the last two tracks of their last Capitol studio album has all the pathos and irony of the poorest of any TV movie rock biopic. But unbelievably, this was what happened. That these two tracks were the last recorded for 20/20 could be seen as an acknowledgement of the dedication needed to do justice to the complexity of the music, and out of a belated respect for Brian’s achievements with the Smile sessions. But the truth was that neither Prayer nor Cabin-Essence had been released in any form, whereas most of the rest of the planned 12 track Smile had either been pissed away on Smiley Smile, involved work only Brian could complete, or was just too weird to fit.
20th November 1968 :
For the second time in a week, and again to provide urgently needed material for 20/20, The Beach Boys revisit the abandoned Smile tapes [additional vocals were added to Our Prayer on the 17th]. Today they record additional vocals onto existing takes of ‘Cabinessence’. This version for 20/20 is compiled from three 1968 Smile-era pieces, ‘Home On The Range’, ‘Who Ran The Iron Horse’ and ‘The Grand Coulee Dam’.
22nd November :
A further mix session…for ‘Cabinessence’ is held today, with work concentrating on the song’s tag section and second chorus. With that, work on the next album, 20/20, is complete
The ‘tag section’ features that other lyric Mike Love refused to entertain during the Smile recordings, and which indirectly contributed to the album’s abandonment. But he’s singing it on this version…curious.
All of this work was, alas, to no avail; released in January 1969, 20/20 went the same way as its predecessors, a #68 album chart smash in the US. UK audiences bought enough copies to get it to Number Three, but almost certainly due to the inclusion of Do It Again (which topped the UK Hit Parade) rather than, finally, the release of some genuine Smile music.
Smile‘s moment had passed, and 20/20 became the unknown and unloved ‘end of an era’ it remained when, fifteen or so years later, while following the trails of a psychopathic hippy and a polymath record producer, I found a copy in Manchester’s Paramount Book Exchange.
Album fucking changed my life.