Upon first hearing that the newly re-formed Beach Boys were recording a new album all I could do was smirk. Not in the playful, nice way but in the jaded slightly/evil manner. I didn’t want them to fail in their latest creative endeavor, I was just highly skeptical. The notion of 60+ year-old men still calling themselves The Beach Boys is pretty stupid if you think about it. These aren’t boys, not by a long shot. They’re not even just The Beach Men at this juncture–they’re The Old Beach Men. There’s been a lot of classic-rock bands reuniting (Black Sabbath, Van Hale, et. al) and thus far the results have been predictably mixed. Making matter’s worse is the fact that The Beach Boys have always had a checkered discography, and that’s being kind.
But before I get to The Beach Boys latest record, THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO (and my reaction to it), I’d like to take a moment to analyze why a band as historic and venerable as The Beach Boys would feel the need to lay it all on the line and record new material. I mean, at this point they can only lose, right? At a certain point our heros are only capable of failure, aren’t they? Brian Wilson could have ate/snorted himself to death after PET SOUNDS came out in the late 1960’s and I’d still think he was a genius. He didn’t need to come out of reunite to prove anything*. And if the album is bad, if THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO turned out to be a festering pile of shit his stock would plummet. PET SOUNDS would still remain but now I’d have this nasty (much fresher) taste in my mouth. As a true fan, I can forgive and ignore my heroes latter-day misses…but the greater music-listening public is much more fickle. And far less forgiving. Stumbling at this point in the career of The Beach Boys might not take away all the shine, but it could seriously tarnish their legacy. I guess the reason why these so-called dinosaurs of rock try to knock one last homerun out of the park is simple: it’s because they can. Sure, money and ballooning mortgage payments are probably a factor. And I suppose a bunch of snot-nosed, spoiled to-the-core-grandkids probably play a part, too. But in the end, Brian Wilson and Mike Love are writing and recording new material because they can. Think about how awesome that must feel–all you have to do is pick up the phone and tell an agent/record executive, “We want to do a new album” and the keys to kingdom are instantly yours, no questions asked. I would say that 99.999% of the artists living in the world today do not have that kind of clout, but would KILL to have that kind of capability. On a certain level I think it’s disrespectful when artists in this position chose to not use this freedom.
So while I’m sure ego and finances have some part in why I now get to write a review of brand-new Beach Boys record, I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think The Beach Boys like being The Beach Boys. And somehow they were able to put aside the bullshit and do what they should have been doing for years; what they were born to do which is write and record pop music. Now that said, before we envy them too terribly much, I think it’s worth pointing out that being The Beach Boys is probably the only thing these old men are really good at doing. From what I’ve read of Brian Wilson’s personal life, being a Beach Boy is pretty much the only truly great thing he ever did. His life, at least until recently (give or take a decade) has been a great shambling train-wreck (I’m looking at you Wilson-Phillips). His music, even as a solo artist has been pretty spotty; being a Beach Boy is his saving grace and ultimately his legacy. I don’t feel that any of us should worship or feel sorry for him (or any of them). Just like I am right-handed and bad at math, Brian Wilson can write fucking amazing melodies and compose beautiful arrangements. It’s not something he chose it’s just how he was made/what he is.
Okay, so I don’t think The Beach Boys set out to merely cash-in on their name (and it’s glorious bag of nostalgia). And I recognize they had more to lose than gain with releasing THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO…that’s all well and good but what do I think about the album? Well for starters, after I got over my bemusement over the fact that they’re still called “The Beach Boys,” the next thing that happened when I heard about this album was that I cringed. I cringed at that awful title. “That’s Why God Made The Radio”? What the hell does that mean? Are The Beach Boys saying that they’re the reason God, THE LORD ALMIGHTY made the RADIO!? I was really nervous as it seemed I they band might have finally gone off their rockers. The hubris I read into the title was thankfully misinterpreted. The title referes to the song by the same name that extolls the bliss of driving around and listening to the radio. “That’s Why God Made The Radio” is a song about a joy that few people of my generation can even comprehend. I won’t say that I forgot about how nice it is to drive around and enjoy the radio, but I hadn’t done it for awhile. Listening to this song made me put the FM back on in my car (that’s a good thing). The song is a basic ode to rock ‘n roll as well. It actually reminded me (a bit) of Argent’s “God Gave Rock ‘n Roll To You” which is another song about thanking the cosmic creator for musical bliss. “That’ s Why God Made The Radio” is a good song and when I heard it my hopes instantly rose for the rest of the album.
In fact, to my surprise, this album turned out pretty damn well. It doesn’t really add or subtract to the legacy of The Beach Boys, but we do get a couple of really good songs (and two fantastic ones). The first fantastic song on THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO is the third song on the album, “Isn’t It Time.” Mercifully credited to the ENTIRE band (The Beach Boys have a nasty history of not giving credit where credit is due) this song is worth the price of the album. On one level it’s a typical (stereotypical?) old-man rock song about how great things used to be and how they can still be great again. I guess on that level it’s an okay song, but as I listen to it, I can’t help but hear The Beach Boys responding to my initial question of “Why did The Beach Boys record a new album?” The answer comes in the lyrics of the third verse:
“The good times never have to end
And now’s the time to let them happen again
And we can have ourselves a blast
The good times they aren’t only in the past”
The sentiment is pure and even though it might be bullshit, I believe it: today can be just as good as yesterday (or whatever day was the best time of your life). To hear older people proclaim this is terribly comforting, especially to this eternal pessimist. This is what great art does, it acts as a buoy for our spirits.
The next track “Spring Vacation” also attempts to explain more concretely how the band reconciled and got back together (all those decades apart were just a super-long winter, I suppose). Maybe I’d dig this song more if it didn’t immediately follow “Isn’t It Time.” “Spring Vacation” doesn’t make my eyes well-up with emotion like “Isn’t It time,” but it’s a decent song I suppose.
The second fantastic song on THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO? This difficult for me to write, as I feel so damn conflicted about it. You see, I’m the sort of Beach Boy fan that likes PET SOUNDS and hates “Kokomo.” If you’re reading this and you like “Kokomo” you’re a terrible person. “Kokomo” is a horribly shitty song. It comes from a dark, dark period in Beach Boys history. The period where Brian was cast off and that bastard Mike Love was running the show, trying to cash-in with a quick-hit. Somehow he lucked out (scum always does float to the top, doesn’t it?) and “Kokomo” got slapped into a movie and it took the world by storm (a shit storm). Anyway I want you to understand that I don’t like Mike Love on a personal level. Everything I’ve read about him paints a picture of a spineless, manipulative, little Napoleon who took advantage of a fragile/abused person (B. Wilson) in order to profit.** So what has Mike Love done on THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO? He’s essentially reworked “Kokomo” as a new track, “Daybreak Over The Ocean.” I knew it from the very first second I heard it. I thought “Holy shit, he’s trying to recapture that hit…he’s trying to do another Kokomo.”
And then I listened to it again. And again. And again. Shit, it’s a damn good song. I want to hate this song, but “Daybreak Over The Ocean” makes me love it despite myself. The production isn’t as crappy as the 80’s “Kokomo” and the emotion seems (a bit) more genuine…but it’s essentially “Kokomo.” The way-less-shitty version of “Kokomo.” And even though I don’t like Mike Love, and I detest “Kokomo” I think “Daybreak Over The Ocean” is THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO’s other truly amazing song.
The rest of the album is fair, with only two borderline embarrassing songs (which is actually really good for a Beach Boys record). The first dismal track is “The Private Life of Bill and Sue” which is comically-late attack on reality TV. The song smacks of trying to way too hard at be relevant/. The only way it could have been worse would be if they had rapped the song. Maybe they’re saving that for the next album. The other cringe-inducing moment is “Beaches In Mind” which is not only super-vanilla but littered with the word “fun.” I don’t know about you, but hearing the word “fun” is not the same as having fun. It doesn’t really tell me anything, it’s like “nice.” What the hell is nice? “Beaches In Mind” feels like filler which makes it the more noxious of the two songs–but make no mistake about it, both these songs are pretty bad and I cant’ see myself listening to them again, except maybe by mistake.
I had pretty high expectations for the last track “Summer’s Gone,” mostly because of Wilson’s haunting final track “Caroline No.” I was hoping for something equally memorable, and while it’s not terrible, “Summer’s Gone”*** is no “Caroline No.” It’s got pleasant chimes and a twinkling piano, and at the end we hear the sound of a rain storm come and washes away the album. All in all, it’s a fine song and fitting end to the album, I just was hoping for something a bit…more. And I guess overall that’s the worst thing I can say about THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO: it’s good but I was hoping for a bit more. It’s like I said earlier, our heros at a certain point can only fail. I guess that’s a pretty good problem to have. The Beach Boys might not have hit a homerun with this album, but they certainly didn’t strike out.
* And yes, I have a few of his solo-records but it’s not the same thing. Not even his remaining of SMILE is the same as a new “Beach Boys” record.
**Love famously “didn’t get” (i.e. hated) PET SOUNDS and if he’d had his way it probably wouldn’t have been recorded.
*** I would be remiss not to point out that this song is (inexplicably) co-written by Jon Bon Jovi. How or why he was involved with this record is anybody’s guess.