Tonight's Beach Boys appearance on the Mall is preceded by two telling new works, one vinyl, one video. Unfortunately, they tell two very different stories, one of creative stasis and one of liberating legend. It's a paradox central to the band's current stance.
Was it onlytwo years ago that the Fourth of July in Washington was a birthday party and not a Beach Boys promotion? Could that be the real reason James Watt tried to ban the Boys from the Mall?
Like most media-fed traditions, it seems as though it's been that way forever. Many of those who will crowd the Mall for tonight's extravaganza weren't even born when the Beach Boys were in fact still boys, when their music mattered, but that won't stop them from confusing history with contemporaneity.
That's the irony. Chances are the band will trot out some of the great songs it has produced over the last 20 years, and some will even have had the sanctity of hitdom. But the screams will come for those simplistic tunes that defined a California myth, one more accessible than that provided by Hollywood, and confirmed an ancient innocence. Cars, girls, sun, beach, good times -- they were the detritus of the Old Wave, and they gave one generation, and then another, something to hold on to as time encroached and responsibility loomed over the next dune.
But music is not what today's concert is all about -- it's about image and self-promotion. This is the band, after all, that tried to get itself declared "Official American Band" during the Bicentennial and became one of the first supergroups to sell its songs to Madison Avenue. Granted, it's a huge undertaking, and the good vibrations will be more genuine than not, but one suspects that the Beach Boys have become America's Band in much the same way that the Dallas Cowboys became America's Team -- through dogged promotion and PR veiled as patriotism and philanthropy. These concerts may be free to the public, but don't think the band or its sponsors are walking away with anything less than millions of dollars in publicity that far outweigh the costs.
The Beach Boys are very much the repertory company, condemned to perform the classics that first brought them attention and adulation, the little mise en scenes with Rhonda, Barbara Ann and other surfer girls. They have never really been allowed to grow up to be the Beach Men -- we wouldn't want it that way, and if they ever did, they put it out of their mind as soon as they realized the consequences. Twenty-three years down the line, the Beach Boys are a hard-working institution, but they're also a calculating corporation. No amount of good vibrations is about to obscure that reality.
"The Beach Boys" (Caribou BFZ 39946) is the band's first album in almost five years, which should have been time enough for them to come up with some strong material. They didn't. Produced by Steve Levine (Culture Club), the album sounds gorgeous on first hearing, the vocal harmonies in particular, but it doesn't take long to realize there is very little there there.
There are four Brian Wilson songs (two cowritten with his long-time therapist Eugene Landy). Unfortunately, they're all slight. The most memorable, "Crack At Your Love," is typical of Levine's production flair -- its surrounding edges are sonically taut, its central vocals lush and soft, aural candy. But stupid lyrics undercut its impact. "I'm So Lonely" and "It's Just a Matter of Time" are worse, inept throwbacks to high-school romanticism with awkward echoes of the Four Seasons.
"California Calling," which has all the markings of a Chamber of Commerce pitch, is another bit of revanchist work, something the Beach Boys have been pushing since 1968, when they sang "let's get together and do it again" and you suspected it was a plea, not an exhortation.
"If everybody in the U.S.A./Could come with us to Californ-i-a/We could take 'em to a place out west/Where the good sun shines every day."
Etc, etc., and fresher 20 years ago.
Bruce Johnston's "She Believes in Love Again" is typical MOR fare from the man who "Wrote the Songs" -- it aspires to sappy competence and achieves it. Look for a sensitive video on VH-1. And "It's Getting Late" struggles between Doobie Brother suppleness and Chicago calculation without ever finding its own center.
Mike Love, the biggest booster of Beach Boy Legend, addresses the issue indirectly in "Getcha Back," a love song cowritten with Terry Melcher. Outside of the fact that it too sounds more like the Four Seasons than the Beach Boys (though the lead vocals are more flat than nasal), the song posits a rekindling of old passions without providing any real inspiration. "I'll leave her and you leave him/Can we baby get back again?" No you baby can't.
There are two outside contributions here, and both reflect their creators more than their perpetrators. "Passing Friend" by Culture Club's Boy George and Roy Hay sounds (not surprisingly, given the producer) like an American band covering Culture Club, while Stevie Wonder's "I Do Love You" is a minor Wonder intriguingly delivered by Carl Wilson. Wilson has always been the Beach Boys' most underrated singer, and his lifelong infatuation with R&B stands him in good stead on both cuts, particularly on the supple vocal lines and odd resolutions of Wonder's song (he also performs the instrumentals on it).
If Levine's job was to give the Beach Boys a new sound, he's done his part. The production is razor sharp, modern without being vanguard. With Dennis Wilson gone the percussion is now mostly machine-generated, and Levine has certainly captured the rich nuances of the group's harmonies better than anyone but Brian Wilson himself. But outside of the vocals, no more than two Beach Boys at a time appear on any of these, creating another studio project rather than a familial experience.
Still, it's the songs that betray this album. Nothing leaps out to declare itself a future staple, and while the band is willing to entrust Levine with the sound, it seems unwilling to provide any substance. It's like uncovering a rich sonic tapestry and suddenly realizing that no story is revealed.
It's exactly the story that makes "The Beach Boys: An American Band" (Vestron Video VA5080, VHS and Beta, 103 minutes, $79.95) both intriguing and revealing. It really is a good story, which may be why it's been retold, revived and reshaped often enough to qualify as genuine myth. If there are few songs of interest on the new album, there are 43 points of reference on the video. Produced, written and directed by Malcolm Leo ("This Is Elvis"), it takes all those old, familiar songs and surrounds them with personal context.
That means you won't get any sense of early '60s California or the whole surf music explosion, but you will get some candid commentary from the band's appropriately legendary songwriter and resident musical genius, Brian Wilson. Most of this is delivered from a giant four-poster bed, with Wilson peering out from under a sheet pulled up to his neck, and the suggestion that his elevator doesn't stop at every floor is as honestly portrayed as it is disturbing.
In fact, one of the macabre fascinations of this video is anticipating Brian Wilson's mental breakdown, his various rehabilitations, his withdrawal from the group, his eventual reassimilation, and all the convoluted therapy in between. One long section deals with the 1966 "Smile" sessions -- while a long shot of Wilson at the piano mapping out "Surf's Up" confirms his sheer, tortured musicality, another Marat/Sade bit in the studio before he destroyed the tapes reveals a desperate psychosis in progress. It's chilling, but Wilson is as candid about this as he is about his place in rock history: "I've been called a genius because I had an ability to put harmonies together in rock 'n' roll," he says, later adding, "I was able to get a hold of all these drugs and they messed me up."
And, of course, there's the inevitability of Dennis Wilson's death in 1983, though his own physical and emotional dissolution doesn't become apparent until the very end. Years apart, he sings "You Are So Beautiful." The first time it's lovely, direct; the last time, a few months before his death, he can barely mumble the words, his face swollen, sweaty, his eyes lost. It's a crushing scene.
The Vestron video, the band's "authorized" video biography, has brought together a wealth of vintage television clips, promo films (some great Beatles-inspired bits from the "Pet Sounds" period), interview footage and assorted home movies. It's great fun to watch the stiffness of the band (Mike Love in particular) back in 1964, to chart the physical, sartorial, social and musical changes that run with an odd concurrence to the Beatles. There's even an homage to the Four Freshmen, whose harmonies so influenced the Beach Boys, in a telling segue from the Freshmen to a 1964 a cappella rendition of "In My Room" on the "Red Skelton Show."
Some of the tensions that affected the Wilson brothers -- their father's domineering management, Brian's instability and the group's dependence on his genius, the 12-year gap between his quitting the band and the Brian's Back tours -- are touched on only briefly. This is, after all, a celebration, not a "What Happened" convocation, although Carl Wilson is candid enough about when the Beach Boys' decline began -- in 1968 at Monterey, where they were supposed to headline. But Brian left, the gig fell through, and the Boys suddenly found themselves out of sync for the remainder of the '60s and the first half of the '70s.
They would come back, of course, with a vengeance, and if there were flashes of brilliance in their subsequent work, the Beach Boys were also condemned to their past, attracting new audiences with old material. Little wonder that "An American Band" becomes less interesting as it moves into the '70s, as the Endless Summer became an Endless Bummer. There are some nice moments -- a hard version of "Student Demonstration Time" at a 1970 Washington peace rally from a stage not too far from today's site; John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd rousing Brian Wilson out of bed, citing him for "Failure to Surf" and dragging him into the waves -- but the dominant image is of a pop band gone hopelessly corporate.
The Mall controversy is played once more, and there's a shot of the Boys rubbing shoulders with President Reagan. Compared to the real information that dominates the first two-thirds of the video (it's great to see who sang which parts, and hilarious to note how the clothes have not traveled as well as the songs), the last third seems like pandering puffery.
What a long, strange trip it's been. That so much of the band's new music is weak is a problem almost as old as their best material. But that won't stop them from putting on a good show today, even if it is with yesterday's music. "I just wasn't made for these times," Brian Wilson sings at one point, and maybe he's right. But the Beach Boys were made for good times, for better times, for innocent times.