No musical act has derived more long-term energy from the tension of invention vs. commercialism than the Beach Boys. Books and movies have focused on Brian Wilson's artistry as a paradoxical force of disturbance to the group's economics and a longtime source of internal Beach Boy strife. To this day the tension keeps nice and taut as various touring configurations of the group cater to different fan philosophies and Brian Wilson's latter-day creative renaissance continues to flower.
The introspective early '70s found the world's favorite summertime group redefining itself for a while, exploring and experimenting while adjusting to the times and coping with Wilson's troubled mental state, and their records from this era have become objects of increasing curiosity. The period ended when the decade's tidal wave of nostalgia finally prompted them to grab their boards and ride it, putting an end to a five-year dearth of Top 40 singles with the reissue of "Surfin' USA" from their 1974 Endless Summer compilation. Here's a quick rundown of that early '70s lull in U.S. singles chart activity.
The Beach Boys - "Cottonfields" (Billboard #103, entered 5/16/70). Written by Huddie Ledbetter. Produced by the Beach Boys. Arranged by Alan Jardine. 45: "Cottonfields"/"The Nearest Faraway Place" (Capitol 1970). Brian Wilson, Joe Knotts, and Mike Love.
Although the group released an earlier version of this Leadbelly-penned folk standard on their 1969 20/20 album, Beach Boy Al Jardine headed up a re-do, bringing in pedal steel guitarist Red Rhodes and giving it a more dirt-road feel. The 1970 single may have ushered in a half-decade of disappointing chart action in the U.S., but it otherwise became a worldwide smash, going top 5 in the U.K. and launching a new era in which the band's international success would outpace their fortunes at home.
The Beach Boys - "Add Some Music" (Billboard #64, entered 3/7/70). Written by Brian Wilson, Joe Knott, and Mike Love. 45: "Add Some Music to Your Day"/"Susie Cincinnati" (Brother 1970). LP: Sunflower (Brother 1970).
The only charting single from Sunflower - the Beach Boys' first album for Warner Bros. after leaving Capitol - "Add Some Music" stands out in their catalog for its uncharacteristic 12-string acoustic breeziness. With its soaring harmonies, the song became a crowd-pleasing staple of their 50-year reunion shows in the summer of 2012. But then there's that Mike Love-delivered line near the beginning: "There's blues, folk and kun-treee and rock like a rolling stoooone," and the one from Bruce Johnston: "Your doctor knows it keeps you calm." When Brian Wilson sings lines like these, they sound charming and innocent. In the mouths of Love and Johnston, though, they sound a bit misplaced.
The Flame - "See the Light" (Billboard #95, entered 11/7/70). Written by Steve Fataar, Blondie Chaplin, Ed Fataar and Ricky Fataar. Produced by Carl Wilson. 45: "See the Light"/"Get Your Mind Made Up" (Brother 1970). LP: The Flame (Brother 1970).
After Sunflower, Carl Wilson produced a cool rock 'n' roll album by the South African band the Flame, which became the only non-Beach Boys release on their Brother label. The group's Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin would join the official Beach Boys lineup in 1972. Wilson can be heard singing backup.
The Beach Boys - "Long Promised Road" (Billboard #89, entered 10/30/71). Written by Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley. Produced by the Beach Boys. 45: "Long Promised Road"/"'Til I Die" (Brother 1971). LP: Surf's Up (Brother 1971).
The Beach Boys hired Sunflower promoter Jack Rieley as their manager between 1971 and 1973, which became a distinct phase for the band in which they recorded more topical subject matter (especially on their 1971 Surf's Up album) with poetic phrasing (most of it by Rieley himself) and enjoyed kinder treatment from the rock press. "Long Promised Road" finds Carl Wilson chewing gracefully on one of the wordiest sets of lyrics in their catalog, thanks to its easy melodicism, pensive vibe, and smooth production. The song's low chart position, though, had "album rock" written all over it. An earlier pressing of "Long Promised Road," with Sunflower's "Dierdre" on side B, had stiffed; a post Surf's Up re-release, backed by that album's "Til I Die," is the one that charted. The popular 1972 surfing film Five Summer Stories showcased the Surf's Up title track, along with the album's "Long Promised Road" and "Feel Flows," as suitable hang-ten music for the seventies generation.
The Beach Boys - "Marcella" (Billboard #110, entered 7/15/72). Written by Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley. Produced by the Beach Boys. 45: "Marcella"/"Hold on Dear Brother" (Brother 1972). LP: Carl and the Passions: So Tough (Brother 1972).
Underneath the pot smoke is a classic girl-name song that might have charted higher elsewhere in time, but the haziness here is crucial. Put on the headphones and hear all the vocal and instrumental layers billow, curl, and evaporate. The Carl and the Passions: So Tough album's very oddness - its misleading title, its initial appearance as a two-fer with Pet Sounds, the appearance of two new band members (Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar from the Flame), and its stoned aura - tends to overshadow some of its pleasures.
The Beach Boys - "Sail On Sailor" (Billboard #79, entered 2/24/73). Written by Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Van Dyke Parks, Jack Rieley, and Ray Kennedy. Produced by the Beach Boys. 45: "Sail On Sailor"/"Only With You" (Brother 1973). LP: Holland (Brother 1973).
Recent chart success in the Netherlands prompted Beach Boys band manager Jack Rieley to talk them into moving to - and building an expensive studio in - Amsterdam, where plenty of successful pop music had been percolating during the early seventies. This resulted in another muted album-rock offering that included a bonus 45 with a fairy tale called "Mount Vernon and Fairway." The album's crowning glory, though, was "Sail On Sailor," a Brian Wilson track written primarily with his old Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks and added to the album as an afterthought. Blondie Chaplin sings lead on the single, which peaked at #79 in 1973. A 1975 re-release brought it up to #49, after which it settled comfortably into FM rock playlists ever since.
The Beach Boys - "California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a)" (Billboard #84, entered 5/12/73). Written by Alan Jardine. Produced by the Beach Boys. 45: "California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a)"/"Funky Pretty" (Brother 1973). LP: Holland (Brother 1973).
This sing-songy Al Jardine track, which - like "Cottonfields" before it - contained a jaw harp in the mix, appeared on the Holland album as the third part of its "California Saga" (where it's listed as "California Saga/California"). Americana aspects reminiscent of "Cottonfields," perhaps, propelled it to #37 in the UK.
The Beach Boys - "Surfin' USA" (Billboard #36, re-entered 8/17/74). Written by Chuck Berry (and Brian Wilson). Produced by Nick Venet. 45: "Surfin' USA"/"The Warmth of the Sun" (Capitol 1974). LP: Endless Summer (Capitol 1974).
Capitol wisely released a Beach Boys compilation the year after two Beach Boys songs ("Surfin' Safari" and "All Summer Long") played crucial roles in the soundtrack for American Graffiti, the film that revved up the already-rumbling engines of cultural nostalgia. After this, the band would never stray too far from its original themes. The compilation's leadoff single was credited to Chuck Berry as its sole writer - the result of publishing disputes that had arisen when it first appeared in 1963 with sole credit to Brian Wilson, who had given Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" new lyrics.