I told you I was doing top-secret Beach Boys research. The interesting thing about that — well, interesting to me anyway — is that though I’m a born and bred SoCal kid, I’ve never been a huge Beach Boys fan. Not a hater by any means, but I’ve always felt they’ve been slightly overrated. And by “they,” I really mean Brian Wilson. Frankly, I really think it’s 20+ years of fawning Pet Sounds– and Smile-driven hagiography which has left me intellectually fatigued, ironic because I actually love Pet Sounds. I get it. It’s a phenomenal album, no question. But, between the !OMG BRIAN WILSON! guys and the Springsteenistas, there needs to be a STFU penalty box for rock criticism.
So, imagine my surprise when a few months ago I stumbled upon “Wild Honey” and it was like hearing the Beach Boys for the first time. Where has this song been my whole life?!?! And if these annoying hipsters are so smart, why weren’t they trumpeting its greatness?
Beach Boys – Wild Honey
Wild Honey, 1967
Lead singer: Carl Wilson
This just in: Carl Wilson was a astonishingly soulful cat. I realize that no one became a Beach Boy without being a great singer, but Carl had sick pipes even by their admittedly high standards. Also, the bridge from 1:11-1:41 sounds like it came off the Motown assembly line. The way the bass syncs up with the piano’s left hand, the subtle interplay of bongos and tambourine, and the funky organ vamping with the keys is straight Funk Brothers. And if you think this is me hearing what I wanna hear, think again:
Mike Love: (Wild Honey) was a cool album to work on. It had an R&B flavor to it. They were doing the track (“Wild Honey”) at his house in Bel-Air and I went into the kitchen to raid the refrigerator and make some tea. Brian had a health food store back then called the Radiant Radish and I look up and see “wild honey,” and the track is pumping and I thought, “I’ll make up a song called ‘Wild Honey.'” So I made it about a girl and this guy. I was even thinking about Stevie Wonder at the time. What would Stevie Wonder say to his mother about a girl that maybe she didn’t want him to get involved with, but he says, “Screw it.” He really digs this chick. That was the premise of the song.
Brian Wilson: It came together [snaps his fingers] just like that.
—Billboard, May 25, 2012
The final production note worth mentioning is the first thing you probably noticed coming out of your speakers: the Electro-Theremin, or Tannerin, invented by Paul Tanner and Bob Whitsell in the late 1950s. It’s actually Tanner playing the E.T. on “Wild Honey,” just as he did on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and “Good Vibrations.” Aside from the inherent wackiness of theremin in rock music, what jumped out at me when I first heard “Wild Honey” was how much it sounded like a template for one of my favorite albums from the late ’90s.
Wilco – I’m Always In Love
Jeff Tweedy – vocals, baritone guitar
Jay Bennett – piano, keyboards, bass, drums, backing vocals
John Stirratt – piano, backing vocals
Ken Coomer – drums
With the benefit of hindsight, Summerteeth wasn’t so much a window into Wilco‘s future, so much as it was an evolutionary cul-de-sac. They didn’t sound like this before and they sure as shit didn’t sound like this after. Sui generis, if you will. And the guy who put the sui in that generis was the late Jay Bennett, guitar hero and pop music mad scientist.
Hearing this track again, especially in the context of the Beach Boys had me scrambling for the Googles because I distinctly remember him mentioning his love of the genre. Oh, where the hell, ahh yes here you are:
“I like good pop music, plain and simple,” Bennett said. He cites the early Bee Gees, Neil Young and John Lennon as primary influences. “I grew up in the ’70s, when bands cared about things like good song arrangements and good group harmonies. You hardly ever hear stuff like that anymore, at least in a rock context. Hopefully some of that comes across on our record.”
–Jay Bennett to Junkmedia, May 2002
When Bennett says “our record,” he’s referring not to Summerteeth, but rather to The Palace At 4 AM (Part 1), his collaboration with Edward Burch from 2002*. But, that quote is totally relevant to Summerteeth because it’s clear that it was Bennett’s love of pop music that allowed Wilco to build on its rock ‘n’ roll foundation and become another animal entirely. Of course, without Bennett that same animal continued to evolve into the musical equivalent of a Prius going 60 in the fast lane. Thanks a lot, Darwin.
* For more Bennett & Burch, check out RIP Jay Bennett (1963-2009)
However, if we examine “Wild Honey” and “I’m Always In Love” in context with one another, Jay’s comment is pure truth. Not that every rock band has to incorporate pop arrangements and group harmonies, but if you are going that route, songs like these should be your templates. They “rock” enough for rock music, but strip away the rock and you have glorious pop music.
Let me now double back and address my overrated comment from above. Before all the insane Beach Boys fans call me an idiot for suggesting such nonsense, I’m happy to acknowledge that they were NOT overrated. My problem is with the traditional rock press, who latch onto specific totems, and then those totems become stand-ins for actual discussion. Instead of going through the Beach Boys discography and addressing the high, low, and in-between with a clear critical eye, what we get is simple-minded shorthand. Brian Wilson is an eccentric, troubled genius. Pet Sounds is a magnum opus. Smile is a “lost classic.” All of which may be true. Unfortunately, anything that doesn’t fit into the pre-determined narrative gets ignored or diminished because it distracts from the narrative. Either that or people are fucking lazy. Probably some of both.
That’s why the Adios Lounge is here. I have no problem admitting the genius of Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds, but that monologue has been done to death. I’d rather extol the virtues of Carl Wilson, the inexplicably undervalued Wilson brother. And if I don’t take up for “Wild Honey,” who will? Can’t the Beach Boys exist on multiple planes? Of course they can. They can even exist on a plane without Brian.
Beach Boys – Wild Honey
Crystal Palace Concert Bowl, London
June 3, 1972
The Beach Boys performing without Brian, without Bruce Johnston (who quit in April), and featuring two new members, drummer Ricky Fataar and singer/guitarist, Blondie Chaplin. In place of LA sun and sand we have London rain and even more London rain. If you were to envision “classic Beach Boys” this would be the opposite of that. But, good Lord it rocks, which is all that matters, right?
Chaplin sings lead on “Wild Honey,” which doesn’t necessarily surpass the original — I’m not sure you can improve upon a Carl lead vocal — but certainly equals it, with an earthy quality reminiscent of Stevie Winwood or Richard Manuel from The Band, a group he’d actually join in the 1980s. And if you don’t appreciate his stinging Les Paul leads, I recommend seeking immediate medical attention because you’ve obviously sustained significant head trauma. Please also note Mike Love on the famous Tannerin.
Beach Boys – Help Me, Rhonda (with Elton John)
Crystal Palace Concert Bowl, London
June 3, 1972
Like “Wild Honey,” “Help Me, Rhonda” features a different lead vocalist than on the recording. Where Al Jardine sings lead on the single, Carl sings lead here, dropping the tune an octave to fit his vocal range. The result is that “Rhonda” basically turns into a blues tune, highlighted by Elton John‘s boogie woogie piano and Chaplin’s killer guitar leads. Not bad for a SoCal pop band.
And therein lies the beauty of real genius. Where Jay Bennett and Wilco can invoke the Beach Boys in service of a pop masterpiece, the Beach Boys can invoke the blues and Motown in service of their pop masterpiece. If that blurs the distinctions between what’s pop and what’s rock – let alone what’s R&B and what’s blues — it’s because those distinctions are SUPPOSED to be blurred. Blurry is good. Blurry means rules created by people lacking imagination are being ignored. I look at it like two bands having a discussion and their job is to reach separate conclusions. Our job as listeners, writers, and musicians is to do the same.
“I don’t get the connection
If this is only a test
I hope I do my best
You know I wont forget.”