California Girls [Summer Days (and Summer Nights), 1965] – Brian Wilson cites this as his favorite Beach Boys song. Allegedly the music came to Brian Wilson after taking his first acid trip. The Wrecking Crew is all over this one. This is where Brian Wilson starts to rely more and more on the Wrecking Crew to make Beach Boys records while the rest of the band was on tour.
Do It Again [20/20, 1969] – After years of not singing about girls/cars/surfing/etc, here’s a back-to-basics blast of nostalgia. Check out the funky echo delay on the drums at the beginning. Brian Wilson said in the 20/20 liner notes that he wanted his falsetto to imitate the sound of a trumpet. The Beach Boys’ career as a nostalgia act begins here.
Don’t Worry Baby [Shut Down Volume 2, 1964] – Here Brian Wilson channels Phil Spector’s production Be My Baby.
Please Let Me Wonder [The Beach Boys Today! 1965] – Harmonies galore! This song just sounds great with the fat bass sound and the guitar-organ interplay.
The Warmth of the Sun [Shut Down Volume 2, 1964] – Several years ago Capitol Records released a Beach Boys compilation with the imaginative title of Beach Boys Classics, but these classics were selected by Brian Wilson himself. Most of the tracks he selected are well-known, others not so well-known. In the liner note for this album, he wrote that he came up with this song the night JFK was assassinated.
The Little Girl I Once Knew [Single, 1965] - I want to get Carol Kaye’s bass sound that I hear on this song. Production on this song is the link between what started on Summer Days (and Summer Nights) and the quantum leap in production of Pet Sounds. My only gripe about this song is Mike Love’s incessant bow-bow-bow-bow background vocals.
Wild Honey [Wild Honey, 1967] – After the über-productions of Heroes & Villains and Good Vibrations, Wild Honey sounds like a demo in comparison. Carl Wilson sounds like he’s having a blast singing this. I think they recorded this one in Brian Wilson’s pool.
Sail On, Sailor [Holland, 1973] – Blondie Chaplin has the lead vocal here. Dennis Wilson had the first go at it, then Carl. Carl wasn’t satisfied with either attempt and suggested Blondie give it a try. It worked rather well. Once the hook gets in your head, it’s hard to get rid of it.
Cabin Essence [SMiLE Sessions, 2011 and 20/20, 1969] – For the Beach Boys, this song written in Brian Wilson’s sandbox is as weird as it gets. Van Dyke Parks wrote the words, and he has no idea what they mean. No wonder Mike Love was so confused about their meaning. There are three distinct parts – “Home on the Range”, “Who Ran the Iron Horse”, and “The Grand Coulee Dam.” Apparently the Iron Horse bit was about the Chinese guys who worked to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Done as a waltz, the Beach Boys chant “who ran the Iron Horse” over and over with a six-string bass played with very fuzzy tones for accompaniment.
Surf’s Up [SMiLE Sessions, 2011, & Surf’s Up, 1971] – Van Dyke Parks wrote the words for the music that was supposed to become SMiLE. These particular lyrics are impenetrable. When Mike Love asked Parks what they meant, Parks couldn’t tell him because he claimed he was stoned when he wrote them. It’s all stream-of-consciousness stuff. But, in this song the phrase “Surf’s Up” is a double entendre. Not only did it mean what it usually means [the surf is up, time to go surfing!], it also meant the era of the Beach Boys singing about surfing are over. Brian Wilson is in full Vienna Boys Choir mode in some parts. Soon Mike Love and the rest of the Beach Boys not named Brian Wilson lost their patience, and Brian Wilson lost his mind.
‘Til I Die [Surf’s Up, 1971] – Brian Wilson is in a very downer mood here. Here he meditates on his insignificance on the planet. He’s “a cork on the ocean…a rock in a landslide…a leaf on a windy day.” One lyric caught me by surprise with its brutal honesty – “it kills my soul” and how “I lost my way.” For a guy with mental illness problems, these are very lucid, self-aware statements to make.
Heroes & Villains [Smiley Smile, 1967] – After all these years, I still have no idea what this one is about. Who are the villains – the government who wanted to draft baby brother Carl to go fight in Vietnam, the record company, or the voices in Brian Wilson’s head? All I know is the vocal bits [between the verses] over the harpsichord are very trippy. The vocal harmonies are stunning, despite Jimi Hendrix think the group was a “psychedelic barbershop quartet.”
God Only Knows [Pet Sounds, 1966] – Carl Wilson’s finest vocal. Brian called it a great love song, just not one sung to a person. The multiple voices at the end of the song singing “God only knows what I’d be without you” over and over again can’t help but make one smile.
Sloop John B [Pet Sounds, 1966] – As the Beach Boys’ resident folkie, Al Jardine suggested to Brian Wilson the idea of recording this folk song. He liked the Kingston Trio’s take on this 1927 West Indies tune and thought the Beach Boys should have a crack at it. This has another great bass part from Carol Kaye.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice [Pet Sounds, 1966] – The opening salvo from Pet Sounds [Hal Blaine’s drums sound like a cannon shot], this has always been in my Top 5 of favorite Beach Boys songs.
Good Vibrations [Single, 1966] – Their best – ‘nuff said.
Girl Don’t Tell Me [Summer Days (and Summer Nights), 1965] – Carl Wilson’s first lead vocal, and it’s a good one. Not only is it his vocal, he’s singing solo. The Beach Boys, and not The Wrecking Crew, play on this track. Listen closely and you’ll hear similarities to The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride.
Let Him Run Wild [Summer Days (and Summer Nights), 1965] - The Wrecking Crew is all over this one, too. Phenomenal harmonies abound here.
I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times [Pet Sounds, 1966] – Brian Wilson laments that he is a misfit. Sometimes I feel very sad…where can I turn when my fair-weather friends cop out…
I Know There’s An Answer [Pet Sounds, 1966] – But what is the question? It began life as Hang On To Your Ego, a song with the same verses, but a different chorus.
Caroline, No [Pet Sounds, 1966] – Brian Wilson sings solo about a sweet girl who turned bitchy. It’s so hard to watch a sweet thing die…
Strange World [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – The best material from the final Beach Boys album comes in the last four songs, of which this one is the first. Here, Brian marvels at the “uninvited people who’ve lost their way” while at the Santa Monica Pier, and sings to someone [presumably his wife] about how he can’t imagine life without her. Sunday morning/Skies so blue/Yo te amo/Means I love you… This would not be out of place if it was on Brian’s Lucky Old Sun album. LA is a strange world indeed.
From There To Back Again [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – Al Jardine and Brian Wilson split lead vocal duties. The closing suite about loneliness and aging begins here.
Pacific Coast Highway [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – As Brian Wilson drives down the PCH, he opines “Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say/ My life, I’m better off alone.”
Summer’s Gone [That’s Why God Made the Radio, 2012] – Carl and Dennis Wilson are still dead – “Old friends have gone, they’ve gone their separate ways. Summer’s gone – it’s finally sinking in.” A reminder of Pet Sounds…
Sail On, Sailor [Live] [Live – The 50th Anniversary Tour, 2013] – I saw a YouTube clip of this song with Brian Wilson taking the lead vocal. I liked it very much, hence its inclusion here. When it was first recorded in 1972 for Holland, Brian didn’t think he could do it. Maybe he couldn’t then, but he sounds fine here. Still hard to get rid of the hook…