spent much of 1965 and 1966 in maximalist mode. Inspired by the innovations of his friendly competition with The Beatles, the songwriter/producer—still amazingly only in his twenties—burst forth in this period with the masterpiece that was Pet Sounds and then drove himself near-crazy trying to top it with planned follow-up Smile. (The copious amounts of drugs he was ingesting at the time certainly didn’t help.) Is it any wonder that Wilson’s creative pendulum swung hard in the opposite direction?
After Smile was dismantled and the most useable pieces reconfigured to make Smiley Smile, the band decamped to Brian’s Malibu home to record what would become Wild Honey—a short, weird, minimalist affair that attempted to draw from their collective interest in the soul and R&B of the era.
Urged forth by a wrinkle in U.K. copyright laws, the album has been remastered with fresh stereo mixes and surrounded by a wealth of bonus material for 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow. The objective, it seems, is to inspire a collective reappraisal of a period in the band’s career when they were still respected critically and beloved commercially, but struggling creatively. To complete the picture, this two-CD collection tacks on material that came from the same year, including a smattering of tunes from the Smiley Smile sessions and the oft-bootlegged Lei’d In Hawaii, a “live” album featuring Brian Wilson on organ and vocals.
1967 succeeds in that humble goal but just barely. Even without the symphonic grandness or complexity, there are still glimmers of magic here. The second single “Darlin’,” their austere attempt to match Motown’s heights, has a great bounce and swing, capped off by one of Carl Wilson’s best vocal performances. “I’d Love Just Once To See You” is featherlight and lovely, even with its naughtier, free love underpinnings (‘I’d love just once to see you… in the nude,” Brian sings before the fade out). The group also boils the swirl of Smile down to its (cabin)essence on the bubbly “Aren’t You Glad.” The original Wild Honey session is aided by a sparkling new stereo mix put together by producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd.
For as spare as many of the finished tracks were, Brian Wilson was clearly still being haunted by some of his grander visions. The extra material here from those same home sessions finds the group working through early versions of tunes that would find full flower on later releases. “Cool, Cool Water” has the same structure as the take that would land on 1970’s Sunflower but feels breezier without the stereo after-effects that added some mystery to that final version. The waltz-y “Time To Get Alone” is still lovely as can be, even without the more piercing strings and delicate overdubs that were applied to the version on 1969’s 20/20.
Those tracks do, like the other “session highlights” and studio tapes, flesh out the story of the Beach Boys’ year, but they were rightfully left off Wild Honey. They were too far-reaching. And the purpose of these sessions was really to assuage the concerns of both the band’s label Capitol Records and the other loud voice in the room, Mike Love. The irascible vocalist was the one who bemoaned the artsy intentions of Pet Sounds and Smile, and wanted to get the band back to the basics. Eager to please as ever, Brian assented and the two men co-wrote nearly every song on Wild Honey, looking for hooks and hits every step of the way.
Brian obviously still had some control in matters, as he insisted that Carl take a more active role in the group, particularly with his vocal turns throughout. And that’s how the youngest Wilson child found his more forward-facing rock voice. Like a lot of this record, it was an admirable effort, with shaky execution. The poor guy rides a dangerous line pushing his voice like he does on the title track, and a well-intentioned cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her.” That he doesn’t completely embarrass himself is miraculous. Listening to the tone of restraint he leans into on the live tracks that close out the first disc is relieving.
The true curiosity of 1967 is the “Lei’d In Hawaii” material. The story goes that the band, sans bassist Bruce Johnston, attempted to record a new live album at an auditorium in Honolulu. They coaxed the stage-shy Brian Wilson to be part of it, a role he only agreed to if he could play organ, forcing his brother and guitarist Al Jardine to play the bass, an instrument they had little facility for. Unhappy with the results, Brian had the band do it again in their buddy Wally Heider’s Hollywood studio with the plan to dub crowd noise in later.
The recordings make for a worthy companion to as the group sticks to the spare style of Wild Honey. But it doesn’t take long to suss out why it was shelved. The drive of so many of their best-known singles is reduced to a soupy crawl, and instrumentation that is rudimentary at best.
In a rare few cases, it is sensational and almost post-punk-like. Droning keyboard notes and rim shots give “Surfer Girl” a proto-shoegaze feel, keeping focus on the band’s formidable vocal harmonies. And “God Only Knows” loses none of its grace when left with only the slightest of instrumentation and a tender vocal turn by Carl. There are also some nice nods to the Beach Boys’ contemporaries, with a lilting take on “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and an especially grinding version of Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders’ “Game of Love.” Otherwise, the “live” tracks sound waterlogged, with peerless gems like “Help Me Rhonda” and “California Girls” in a trudging, turgid state.
Amazingly, that nod to the Fab Four on the master tapes appears to be the only nod to Sgt. Pepper, which was released six months before Wild Honey, and which Brian Wilson got a taste of when Paul McCartney stopped by to lend his masticatory talents to “Vegetables” (on Smiley Smile). The Beach Boys’ album comes across like a white flag of surrender. Great as Brian was, and continued to be for some time, he must have known he couldn’t reach the heights that the Beatles did that year. Unlike so many of their peers, the California boys didn’t dare try to capture the same psychedelic fervor that their friendly U.K. rivals did. They remained true to their own vision—to the bitter and legally precarious end.