By David ‘Ghosty’ Wills
It’s 1970 and after several years of dwindling fortunes and being consigned to the scrap heap of pop culture irrelevance (despite making some of the most forward thinking and timeless music of the late ’60s), The Beach Boys now have reason to be optimistic. Their new label, Warner Brothers, is thrilled to have them. The band members themselves are brimming over with enthusiasm and creativity. All of The Beach Boys are writing songs. Great songs. They’re coming in fast and with no signs of stopping. Brian Wilson, the architect of their sound who lately has only been contributing sporadically, is fully on board to support his brothers, cousin, and friends.
And just like that … it’s over. Warner Brothers doesn’t seem happy with anything The Beach Boys are turning in. The album is retooled several times, but early signs point to the record buying public’s indifference. The new Beach Boys single “Add Some Music To Your Day” flops. Promotions man Fred Vail’s efforts to get radio airplay literally end in tears (anyone reading this will know what I’m talking about). The album that will eventually be known as Sunflower is dumped into record stores where it promptly fades into obscurity. For The Beach Boys it’s time to regroup and rethink. Rip it up and start again.
Fast forward eighteen years and I’m in my first full flush of hardcore Beach Boys fandom. Bewitched by Brian’s stunningly good self-titled debut solo album and basking in the refracted glow of my guys having just nabbed the top spot on the singles chart with “Kokomo,” I’ve fallen down that rabbit hole of rumor and hearsay, unrealized projects, and lost albums. I’ve read enough stuff about The Beach Boys to know that the Sunflower LP is considered something of a hidden gem. I know that it must be out there … somewhere … but how do I get my hands on it? Most record stores are only stocking the recent Made In U.S.A. greatest hits package. Any thoughts of remastered or rereleased deluxe editions with bonus tracks are the epitome of science fiction.
Salvation comes at the Spring Valley, New York, flea market. To my astonishment I find a funky looking import cassette of Sunflower for $3. I later learn that the track list is out of order, but it hardly matters. I’m bowled over by what I’m hearing. Bruce Johnston’s romantic and melodramatic-but-in-a-good-way “Tears In The Morning” starts the set off (at least on my cassette version) and this track, along with the bouncy “Deirdre,” shows that Bruce is tuned in to what’s happening in ’70s AM pop and is right in the pocket. “Tears …” conjures up images of a Paris bistro at dusk and sports a ghostly piano coda that reinforces the idea that the song’s protagonist has been left alone. Brian’s “This Whole World” manages to be both cosmic and juvenile. At 2 minutes long, it’s like a holdover from an earlier era but sounds positively progressive in a way that’s breezy and light. Mike Love and Brian collaborate on “All I Wanna Do,” which is equal to anything on Pet Sounds both lyrically and sonically. Brian then cooks up a son of “God Only Knows” in “Our Sweet Love.” However, it retains a charm all its own with Carl again handling lead vocals. I think we can all agree that if you’re going to profess your love for someone, you’d want to sound like Carl Wilson did in 1970. Brian next works with Al Jardine on “At My Window,” an art-pop piece that evokes “Little Bird” from the Friends album but with a touch of the Parisian pop sound heard earlier in Bruce’s “Tears In The Morning.”
If there’s an MVP of this record, though, it’s Dennis Wilson who contributes four strong songs, all of them completely different and all ridiculously good. “Slip On Through” has an R&B vibe that evokes Sly & The Family Stone while “It’s About Time” trades in the brand of heavy Latin-flavored rock Santana made famous. Even though Dennis and Al wrote it, Bob Burchman was the lyricist, and Carl sang it, I can’t help wondering if the song was written about brother Brian (“I used to blow my mind sky high, searching for the lost elation”). That The Beach Boys could pull off these two disparate styles of music is nothing short of miraculous, but to then have Dennis up the ante with the playful and horny throwback of “Got to Know the Woman” and the majestic hymn of “Forever” makes Sunflower a coming out party for someone who should’ve been a major songwriter during the 1970s (and why isn’t “Forever” everybody’s wedding song?).
By the way, it all sounds fantastic coming out of your speakers or (today) your earbuds. Not dated in the slightest. (Due in large part to Steve Desper’s engineering prowess.) Like Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” before it, the Sunflower album exists in that Beach Boys universe of pop goodness that knows no calendar. It entered my Top 5 Beach Boys albums list that day in 1988 when I first listened to it, and it never left. At times Sunflower is my favorite of their albums. Although it was considered a masterpiece when it was issued in Britain, it failed to find an audience here at home. Like I alluded to earlier, new management and an image makeover were in the cards for The Beach Boys, but these adjustments had more to do with lyrics and presentation rather than anything musical. The Beach Boys didn’t need help in that department. Sunflower makes the competition seem square in retrospect.
Orson Welles once said of his 1958 film Touch of Evil, a box office disappointment that is considered a classic of cinema today, that while he was filming it the studio thought he could do no wrong, but when the film reached the editing stage, they suddenly got cold feet. They believed it was too weird and wanted to rid themselves of it. They dumped Touch of Evil on to the drive-in circuit and left it to wither away. Meanwhile, the film opened in just one theater in Europe where it played to packed houses for ten years. It developed such a fervent fan following among cinephiles that to consider it anything less than a masterwork today is to court ridicule. The same can be said for Sunflower which is unquestionably in the pantheon of great and/or important albums from the 1970s that failed to find its audience when it was released. The Beach Boys are in the unique position of having several albums in their catalog destined for the same happy ending (Pet Sounds, Sunflower, Love You). Oh, to see what the future might bring.
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