Cover Story: Endlesss Summer Rarities

Is there a bottom to the well of Beach Boys outtakes, rehearsal tales and alternate tracks?

May 24, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Perhaps as much as any band in the history of Rock & Roll, The Beach Boys have made the scraps of their recording sessions readily available for the whole world to hear. In 1997, for example, an entire boxed set featuring 90 songs from sessions for one album was released.

Of course, that record was Pet Sounds, a mysterious and storied album considered one of the best Rock LPs ever made. The attention that album has received in the past several years — thanks, in some part, to a horde of new Pop artists claiming its genius — makes the "full disclosure" almost forgivable. Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson was at peak form and there are studio, arrangement and compositional tricks on that album that still make people scratch their head in disbelief.

But there are boat-loads of other "rarities" albums by the Boys of summer floating about that track the band from its earliest days up through the '70s. With the overabundance of official releases, imports and bootlegs, supply-and-demand would seem to dictate that there is some kind of market for these types of things. Common sense would dictate that "outtakes" and "alternate takes" aren't released originally, because they aren't up to snuff.

The Beatles got it right with their three-part Anthology series. The band was always stingy with their throwaways, which still surfaced as bootlegs, but always of sub-par quality.

The anthologies featured songs that were lovingly picked and slightly cleaned up, and, best of all, you could listen to the three volumes from start to finish and only occasionally reach for the skip button.

The notorious rivalry between The Beach Boys and The Beatles (capped off by the Pet Sounds vs. Sgt. Pepper's friendly feud) continues with yet another Beach Boys rarities collection. To celebrate the Beach Boys 40th anniversary, a new Capitol release, the two-disc Hawthorne, CA: Birthplace of a Musical Legacy, nearly gets it right.

The collection works because — like the Fab Four's Anthology sets — the net is spread over the majority of the band's relevant work and presented chronologically. It starts at the literal beginning of the band's existence — the 1961 rehearsal of "Surfin'," done before the Boys' first recording session. It's a fascinating, raw document, with the band playfully arguing as a finger-snapping Dennis Wilson keeps laughing during the run-through.

From there, like with the Pet Sounds Outtakes, you get stereo mixes, session chatter and, most interestingly, demos of early cuts like "Surfin' USA" and "Little Deuce Coupe." Not that Wilson's amazing vocal arrangements and the band's perfect execution of them are any revelation, but the tracks that single out the band's harmonies A Cappella ("Their Hearts Were Full of Spring," "Kiss Me Baby") are more soothing than a beach drink and more spine-tingling than a brisk breeze off the Pacific coast.

A downside is the sporadic narration from various band members, something better-suited for a biography or documentary. The session chatter doesn't really reveal anything you wouldn't already know if you had even a passing knowledge of the band (the Wilsons' dad was a prick; Brian could be a weird tyrant; they had fun, too). And, unless you're building your karaoke collection, it's hard to imagine who'd be interested in "backing tracks" sans vocals.

With '66's Pet Sounds so immaculately archived already, there's nothing from that album represented here, though a couple of versions of PS-era tracks do appear, and pre-PS tracks like "The Little Girl I Once Knew" show Brian Wilson headed into his more experimental, accomplished phase.

The Beach Boys post-Pet Sounds work is often maligned, always held up to an impossible standard, as Brian Wilson melted into drug and mental problems. But disc two from this collection shows that the band did continue to create some pretty solid music up through the late '70s, something that may surprise fans who haven't tried to get past Smiley Smile (represented here by an odd radio promo featuring the already odd "Vegetables" and the stereo single version of the amazing "Heroes and Villains").

"Let The Wind Blow" (here remixed into stereo), from the band's "R&B" album Wild Honey, shows the band capably stepping up and supporting a waning Brian, while the Gram Parsons-like "Cotton Fields" (presented here as the Al Jardine-arranged single version) shows that the band was still capable of sparks without their leader. Even "Sail On Sailor," with its cheesy early '70s mellow vibe, comes off particularly soaring and majestic (perhaps because only the backing vocal and musical backing are left in on this version).

Each of the departed brothers (Dennis and Carl) are saluted on the album, but perhaps the most touching is the inclusion of the unreleased Dennis Wilson ballad, "A Time To Live In Dreams," which shows a bittersweet counterpoise to the drummer's wild image.

It should be noted that the majority of these tracks are unreleased and, if they don't have them already on bootlegs, essential to the hardcore B-Boys fan. Even the more casual fan will appreciate digging around in the vault, but it's not exactly the kind of thing you'll pop in for a pool party.

As for Beach Boys newcomers, pick up the regular Pet Sounds disc or wait for the upcoming reissues later this year, when Capitol Records repackages two of the band's full-length albums on several single discs. Then slowly get addicted and proceed as warranted.

CityBeat grade: B.