The Beach Boys - Made In California
Nostalgia has always been an integral component of The Beach Boys experience. Long before they were reduced to a mere touring franchise, “playing the hits” under the jurisdiction of one of rock 'n roll’s favourite bogeymen Mike Love, their business was lyrically and sonically conjuring a sense of lost California summer days and wistful romances in the surf.
Made in California - the final salvo of the band’s 50th Anniversary celebrations - represents this foundational basis of ‘America’s Band’ in its purest representation yet. From the packaging reminiscent of a high school yearbook, to the dusty extracts of banter from studio sessions, everything here perpetuates The Beach Boys myth, a self-consciously poised and resolutely endorsed Americana artefact.
What differentiates this particular box-set from the plethora of alternatives though, is its sheer scope. This is an all-encompassing enterprise, a chronological narrative of fifty years in the business. Nearly eight hours of music are spread over six discs, ensuring that Made in California encapsulates nigh-on dizzying, Tolstoyan levels of enormity. In that vein, the best way to consume the record is to treat it almost as a grand tome which you can pick up and put down at your leisure, especially for those less accustomed to the group.
You’d begin by bopping along to the almost wearingly positive surf-pop they made their bread-and-butter, peaking with ‘Surfin’ USA, ‘Fun, Fun Fun’, ‘I Get Around’, and before you know it you’ll eventually reach disc 2, where the rationale for this band’s reputation is painstakingly depicted. There’s a near-preposterous run of tracks from the Today! to Smiley Smile era which feels almost like grand-standing. ‘Barbara Ann’. ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. ‘God Only Knows’. ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’. ‘Caroline No’. ‘Good Vibrations’. When 90% of bands don’t even have one song as good as those, it’s obvious that Brian Wilson & co struck a mine of near-unparalleled crystalline transcendence in their mid-1960s Pet Sounds period.
By the nature of this chronological approach though, this euphoric sections is also a cruelly double-edged sword. With the blow-by-blow depiction of the band’s peak, comes an unavoidable awareness of the onset of decay and then overt decline. There are still some gems in the folkier cuts from the Sunflower sessions and the Surf’s Up era in particular, such as the woozy psych-rock of the Carl Wilson-led ‘Feel Flows’. As the discs keep spinning though, there’s more than enough evidence to ensure there’s no surprise when the periods between tracks increasingly widen. By the time of the abysmal ‘Solar System’, or the utterly naff and inexplicably popular ‘Kokomo’, you’d be forgiven for wanting to pack it all in. And wishing The Beach Boys had for good measure.
Fortunately, the end of the ‘Best Of’ portion of Made in California dips its toes into last year’s That’s Why God Made The Radio, which whilst not even in the same ball-park as their best material, undoubtedly steps their material up a notch after decades of MOR, and neatly ties up biographical loose-ends.
From here on out though, the focus of the box-set becomes much more readily focused on rewarding the seasoned explorer. First up is a selection of live tracks from around the world, which capture a very clear sense of the buoyant atmosphere of their concerts, and portray The Beach Boys as a much beefier, forceful but typically polished proposition live: a worthy counterpoint to the preconception of the chubby-faced, boldly upper middle-class surfers they linger in the memory as.
Finally is the From the Vaults’ portion of Made in California. Heavily made up of unreleased songs, tracks and mixes, this might well be the main draw for those converted the remainder of the box-set has been gratuitously preaching to. The idiosyncrasies and relative merits of the alternative mixes are of less interest though than the prevalent selection of instrumentals on this final disc. Compositionally and production-wise, there’s few that can match up to Brian Wilson when he’s on form. By stripping the vocals from tracks such as ‘Guess I’m Dumb’ and ‘Mona Kana’, it allows the listener a chance to explore the lush instrumentation, intriguing production nuances, and rich brass and string-sections that lay beneath the harmonies, and it is these immersive sonic terrains which so elevated the band from their peers at their peak.
Yet - even more pertinently than unearthing the odd hidden treasure - what ultimately feels so appealing and worthwhile about Made in California is its declarative nature. Everything about it oozes the sense of this release being a testament to the longevity, survival, and heart of the band that lies in every grain of it.
Whilst not exactly Mötley Crüe or early 90s Mayhem, The Beach Boys undoubtedly have one of the most tempestuous histories in the pantheon. That the band never quite crashed and burned, and continued making music through it all - being divided into two camps alternately focused on cocaine and transcendental meditation by the late 60s, the scrapping of SMiLE, run-ins with the Manson family, severe mental illness, decades of commercial failures, and the sad losses of Dennis and Carl Wilson – is nigh on a miracle.
So there we are: Made in California is a celebration of the musically extraordinary. There are undoubtedly some for whom eight hours of Brian Wilson & co sounds like some kind of punishment, excised from one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno for being too grim even for his taste. For the rest though, there’s a treasure trove here; an earnest, nigh-on comprehensive perspective on one of half-a-century of music’s most crucial developmental influences.