BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
In the beginning, there were the Beach Boys. Arguably the most influential American band of all time, they elevated pop music from the doldrums inflicted by the greased back, sanitised teen idols who preceded them, and then successfully held their own against the British invaders that sought to overrun the domestic front in the heady days of the early to mid ‘60s. And while their squeaky clean image and celebration of surfing, sports cars, California girls, high school, and all the other idyllic aspects of their teenage years seemed so one-dimensional early on, the genius of Brian Wilson expanded that conceit into realms that were, at the time, otherwise unimaginable.
Nevertheless, along with their triumphs, the past 50 years have seen their share of stumbles, scandals and tragedies, not the least of which have been the deaths of Dennis and Carl, Brian’s two essential siblings who helped transform the band into the legend it is. Domestic difficulties helped tarnish the group’s reputation, a sad scenario that still weighs heavily on the band’s legacy. Indeed, even as they were still revelling in the afterglow of a tour that reunited all their surviving members, Mike Love, always known to be a contentious character, reclaimed the Beach Boys name as legally his own, and brought the celebration to a close. Today, there are essentially two factions bearing rightful cause to the band’s legacy, the shabbier one helmed by Love and Bruce Johnston, and the other that’s soon to hit the road under the auspices of Brian Wilson with Al Jardine and David Marks in tow.
Yet for all their woes, Made In California comes across as pure celebration, a fanciful look back at mostly innocent times and an admirable effort to rekindle the lustre that accompanied their initial incarnation. Never mind that these one-time boys of summer are now ageing individuals of 70-something stature, the six-CD set is housed like a high school yearbook that even bears their individual inscriptions. While there’s been no shortage of greatest hits, box sets and archival collections, this may be the most fanciful of all, owing not only to its gorgeous hardbound booklet of photos and commentary, but the fact that it effectively documents every phase of the band’s career, from its earliest, unreleased demos to last year’s still brilliant comeback. Indeed, no collection has ever effectively managed that before.
Remarkably, the thing that still shines through is Brian’s dedication to a singular purpose, that is, to make music that still emits the effervescent glow of the California sun that radiates from that sacred Pacific shore. That brilliant sheen illuminates the music from start to finish, spanning these six discs and keeping these songs aglow. The image of eternal summers never fades, a theme maintained from the earliest recordings (a remarkably competent early go at “Surfin’) through the various samples from Smile (a stripped down piano version of “Surf’s Up” is especially illuminating) to the band’s last successful collective climb up the charts (the wrongly derided “Kokomo” ) and last year’s crowning comeback (the utterly magnificent “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” a stunning example of Wilson’s idealised “teenage symphonies to God” conceit remaining intact some 50 years on). It’s also a credit to their craft that disc one, with its vast assemblage of early hits — “Don’t Worry Baby,” “In My Room,” “Surfer Girl,” et. al. — remains the most consistently infectious set of all.
Still, those who already own the superb Good Vibrations box set, released to mark the band’s 30th anniversary, may balk at having to make such a hefty investment once again in order to gather many of the same songs. In terms of rarities and unreleased material, both sets are comparable, and like its predecessor, Made in California saves the bulk of its treasures for its final disc with the usual assortment of a cappella vocal versions, instrumental-only outtakes and radio sessions. Happily, it ups the ante by devoting a good portion of disc five to mostly unreleased live performances, including several songs rarely heard in concert (“Vegetables,” “Friends,” “Wild Honey” etc.)
Despite the duplications from previous collections and a heavy emphasis on dubious alternate mixes, true devotees will likely still find Made in California an essential acquisition. Basking in the afterglow of a short but stunning reunion, even repetition breeds affection, and the lure of eternal innocence still creates an irresistible impression.
DOWNLOAD: “Surf’s Up” (1967 version), “Wild Honey” (unreleased live version), “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” (demo)