Review: The Beach Boys Remasters, Part One: “50 Big Ones: Greatest Hits”

By The Second Disc, on 10 Oct 09, 2012

We’re continuing our series of in-depth features dedicated to America’s band, The Beach Boys, and the various projects that have kept the group occupied throughout 2012!  Today, as the Boys launch a new series of album reissues and compilation titles, we explore Greatest Hits, 50 Big Ones and more!

It was the headline heard the world (wide web) over: Mike Love Fires Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys.  Of course, it wasn’t true.  No matter, though: suddenly, good, good, good vibrations were nowhere to be seen even as the reunited Beach Boys completed a triumphant 75-date, worldwide fiftieth anniversary tour.  It’s in this climate that Capitol Records and EMI have just this week launched a Beach Boys reissue campaign, the band’s first major catalogue overhaul in over a decade.

Truth be known, it always seemed the unlikeliest of possibilities that Brian Wilson and Al Jardine would resume touring with the slimmed-down, Mike Love-led iteration of The Beach Boys.  Love and Bruce Johnston (who joined the group in 1965) had been touring for thirteen years under the group name, the license having been granted to the frontman by the Beach Boys’ Brother Records organization.  Love had already made his reservations known in a Rolling Stone interview about the grand scale of the reunion tour, in which two of his touring bandmates, John Cowsill and Scott Totten, were joined by a phalanx of Brian Wilson’s own, versatile band members.  It seemed inevitable that Love would return to his smaller version of the group to continue his nearly non-stop touring, with the lingering possibility that the reunited, full line-up would tour or record in the future, perhaps as early as 2013.  In the meantime, nothing would preclude Brian Wilson from his own solo activities, either.  Alas, nothing is ever simple in the world of the Beach Boys.

Mike Love issued a press release in late September that apparently closed the door on future activities with Wilson, Jardine and David Marks.  This rather inelegantly-worded statement apparently blindsided both Wilson and Jardine, who issued comments either directly or through press representatives expressing disappointment at Love’s decision.  Wilson had, by most accounts, already been contemplating another Beach Boys album, and told CNN, “I’m disappointed and can’t understand why Love doesn’t want to tour with Al, David and me.  We are out here having so much fun. After all, we are the real Beach Boys.”

A simple “We look forward to the possibility of touring with Al, David and Cousin Brian in the future” from Love might have been sufficient to deflect the unwanted media attention, which was almost universally negative towards Love.   Instead, the singer was forced into spin control mode, which culminated in a rather more eloquent statement he gave the Los Angeles Times.  His October 5 editorial affirmed that “I did not fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys.  I cannot fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys.  I am not his employer.  I do not have such authority.  And even if I did, I would never fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys.”  He continued to stress his love for Wilson and his admiration for Jardine, but emphasized, “The plan was always to go back to our respective lives post the 50th anniversary run.”  This is true, no doubt – but has damage had already been done in the public eye?  Once again, the men with the angelic voices have been revealed as simply human.

Will Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks do it again?  Or will the Beach Boys return to their pre-fiftieth status quo, with the perception of heroes (Wilson) and villains (Love), however limiting those tags are?  Whether or not the creative visionary and the brash lead singer ever set foot on a stage or in a studio together again, one thing remains: the music.  That, of course, brings us to Capitol’s series of twelve remastered original albums recorded between 1963 and 1971, and two newly-assembled greatest hits packages.

We’ll explore them all, right after the jump!

The centerpieces of the reissue campaign, to date, are the two greatest hits compilations.  (A career-spanning box set is reportedly planned for a later, as yet unannounced date.)  The disc simply entitled Greatest Hits offers 20 tracks, which is ten fewer than 2003’s Sounds of Summer.  Though it kicks off with “That’s Why God Made the Radio” from the acclaimed 2012 album of the same name, Greatest Hits is otherwise lacking compared to Sounds of Summer.  That set contains 18 of Greatest Hits’ remaining 19 tracks (“All Summer Long” is missing from Sounds of Summer) plus 11 more selections.  Perversely, “Be True to Your School” has been included on Greatest Hits, but is missing from the 50-track, 2-CD set, 50 Big Ones: Greatest Hits.

Although “Be True to Your School” is absent, 50 Big Ones triumphs in distilling the band’s career onto two discs.  It contains virtually all of the group’s hits plus a selection of favorite deep cuts.  In the latter category falls the songs championed by the group on the 50th anniversary tour; the tour set lists have clearly influenced the track listing here.  So you’ll get smaller charting singles and lesser-known songs like Love and Terry Melcher’s “Getcha Back” (No. 26 Pop, 1985), Jardine, Love and Carl Wilson’s ode to Transcendental Meditation “All This is That” (1972), Brian Wilson’s rocking “This Whole World” (1970), Jardine’s arrangement of Huddie Ledbetter’s “Cotton Fields” (1970), Brian Wilson and Mike Love’s “Kiss Me Baby” (1965) and Jardine’s “California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a” (No. 84, 1973).  All paint a fuller portrait of the group than just the most frequently-heard tunes that the casual and serious fans alike already own.

The various strains of the Beach Boys all get a showcase on these two CDs.  There are the early car and surf songs (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “I Get Around,” “Surfin’ USA”) as well as the heartbreakingly mature material (“In My Room,” “The Warmth of the Sun”) that first signalled Brian Wilson as a musical force with which to be reckoned.  There’s the sophisticated pop of “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and “Please Let Me Wonder,” plus the Pet Sounds-era classics like “God Only Knows” and the devastating “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” that earned Wilson the well-deserved tag of musical genius.  That tag, of course, may have hindered his artistry, too.  Following the abandonment of Wilson’s post-Pet Sounds opus SMiLE under the weight of its own ambitions, the group’s music headed off in wildly varied directions.  Those are represented here, too, including country and folk (“Cotton Fields”), R&B (“Darlin’,” “Sail On, Sailor”), psychedelic soul (“Wild Honey”), art songs (“Surf’s Up,” written for SMiLE but heard in its 1971 album version), and gentle, folk-ish balladry (“Friends,” “Add Some Music to Your Day”).  Dennis Wilson’s deeply romantic masterwork, “Forever,” earns its place among his brother Brian’s best compositions.

The Beach Boys’ proclivity for reinventing “cover” songs is also apparent, as many of the classics they recorded became more closely identified with the Boys than with the original artists: Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance,” Fred Fassert’s “Barbara Ann,” Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music,” even the traditional folk song “Sloop John B.”  The beauty, complexity and sensitivity of Brian Wilson’s music was complemented by Mike Love’s bravado and Carl Wilson’s soulful voice, not to mention the singular contributions of Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Bruce Johnston, David Marks (who only recently returned to the fold), and briefly-serving members Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin.

Two songs have been selected from That’s Why God Made the Radio, the title track and a new single version of “Isn’t It Time” which makes its world premiere on CD here.  A five-way collaboration between Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Joe Thomas, Jim Peterik and Larry Millas, “Isn’t It Time” has been remixed and rewritten, with new vocal parts and harmonies differentiating it from the original album version.  Though “Isn’t It Time” is the newest track on this collection, it has much in common with the oldest, “Surfin’ Safari” (1962).  Both songs are filled with optimism, innocence (yes, even from 70-year old men), energy and true American spirit, and of course, those remarkable harmonies that became the Beach Boys’ calling card.

50 Big Ones is packaged in a sturdy lift-top box similar to that utilized for the 2-CD The SMiLE Sessions last year.  The bright, colorful booklet features a (far too short) essay from David Wild, numerous then-and-now pictures of the band, and basic information for each song including chart position, if any.  Seven black-and-white postcards capture individual images of Brian, Mike, Al, Bruce, David and Brian’s late brothers (and Mike’s cousins), Carl and Dennis.  The tracks have been remastered by Mark Linett, and feature mixes of various vintages, including newly-prepared stereo mixes.  (New true stereo versions of “Darlin’” and “Wild Honey” premiere here, as the Wild Honey album hasn’t been issued in a remastered mono/stereo edition yet.  “Darlin’” is particularly striking as it brings out the song’s brass parts like never before.)  50 Big Ones is a fitting summary of 50 years of some of the greatest pop songs ever written, arranged, and recorded.

Coming up in our next installment: we reflect on the hits, misses and everything in between on the remastered (and in some cases, remixed) editions of twelve key Beach Boys albums!