When Bad Songs Happen To Good Bands #5
The Beach Boys are one of those rare musical acts where they’ve been around long enough, prolific enough, and most importantly good enough to say that everyone probably likes something they’ve done. Even if you’re not a diehard fan, you have to at least tip your cap to the sheer songwriting genius of Brian Wilson. His intricate song structures, diverse instrumentation, and carefully arranged vocal harmonies were so far ahead of their time that people are still having trouble keeping up with him – and Pet Sounds came out 45 years ago. If any pop or rock musician had earned the right to call his music “teenage symphonies to God,” Brian Wilson was that man.
But we’re not here to talk about Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys. That band was one of the greatest of all time. No, we’re here to talk about what that band eventually became after Brian’s drug problems and mental illness sadly phased him out of the picture. By the late 1980s and early ‘90s they’d completely abandoned nearly all traces of their classic sound, creating some depressingly lousy music in the process.
Seriously, I was shocked to discover just how far this band had fallen. But I guess that’s what happens sometimes… When Bad Songs Happen To Good Bands.
Remember a little tune called “Kokomo”? Believe it or not, I’m not as hard on that song as most other people seem to be. I actually kind of like it… but I liked it more before I found out it was a Beach Boys song. And yes, there was a time in my life when I had no idea that “Kokomo” was a Beach Boys song.
See, when I think of the Beach Boys, I think of “Surfin’ Safari.” I think of “Catch A Wave.” I think of “I Get Around” or “Help Me Rhonda” or “In My Room” or “Girl Don’t Tell Me.” “Kokomo” doesn’t really sound anything like that at all. It reminds me more of something like Jimmy Buffett. And I don’t mean to sound like I’m ripping Jimmy Buffett; all I’m trying to say is that “Kokomo” doesn’t really feel like a Beach Boys song. Maybe that’s because the only Beach Boy whose name appears in the writing credits is Mike Love.
After the surprise #1 success of “Kokomo,” which also garnered the band some Grammy nominations, they decided to move forward in the direction that song established. It’s not all that surprising; it’s human nature to stick with what’s working, right? Plus, it was co-written by the namesake of what I call Mike Love’s Law, which is basically not to mess with what works. Of course they’d stick with the sound that brought them their first #1 hit since the ‘60s. But considering the results of this change in direction, maybe that’s why so many people don’t like “Kokomo.”
See, four years after the Beach Boys released “Kokomo” they finally hit rock bottom. They released an album called Summer In Paradise that would turn out to be their last album with new original material… and it was a spectacular failure. The album tanked so hard that the distributor actually filed for bankruptcy. Reportedly Summer In Paradise sold less than 10,000 copies in total, and that is not a typo. If you really want to hear this thing for yourself, I hope you’ve got forty bucks to spare for a new copy from Amazon. It’s one of the only Beach Boys albums that haven’t been reissued by Capitol Records and remains out of print. You can’t even find this thing on iTunes.
And there’s a reason for that. This isn’t exactly what you’d call a lost classic. This is a bad album, one that was universally ravaged by critics upon release and to which time has not been any kinder. It’s a collector’s item only in the sense that something like E.T. for the Atari 2600 is – the fact that it’s hard to find is the only reason it has value. Summer In Paradise is not merely the Beach Boys’ worst album. No, no, no, no, no. Summer In Paradise is a justly forgotten cornucopia of utterly terrible ideas.
What kind of terrible ideas, you ask? Well, I’m glad you did – although soon you won’t be. How about opening the album with a cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun In The Summertime” with little sense of actual fun and even less live instrumentation? Or maybe a lifeless cover of the Drifters’ doo-wop classic “Under The Boardwalk” that sounds less like a charming ode to sex on the beach and more like the boring easy listening crap you ignore while flicking through old magazines in the waiting room at the doctor’s office? And what’s really disappointing is that twenty years earlier a Beach Boys version of “Under The Boardwalk” could have been great.
“Hot Fun In The Summertime”
“Under The Boardwalk”
Oh, but those are not the worst ideas to be found on Summer In Paradise. Not even close. We’ve got a long way to dig before we even approach that particular nadir.
Elsewhere on this album the title track pulls a pretty slick trick on the listener. It begins by name-checking not one, not two, but three classic Beach Boys songs in the first three lines. It’s supposed to convey a sense of nostalgia for the band’s youth and the peak of their musical achievements, but all it does is remind you that you could be listening to “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Help Me Rhonda,” or “Barbara Ann,” but instead you’re listening to this. And then once they’ve got you thinking “Summer In Paradise” is going to be a career retrospective in song, BAM! Mike Love hits you with the real point of the song: We gotta save the trees and stop polluting, man! Surfers recycle now, don’t you know. And that last sentence is not a joke, that’s an actual lyric.
Look, I totally agree with the “save the Earth” sentiment. It’s the only planet we’ve got and the only one in our astronomical neighborhood that can possibly sustain life and we can’t just go around acting like the Captain Planet rogues gallery. But when your environmentalist rhetoric makes Ferngully: The Last Rainforest look subtle by comparison, the “hey, remember how great we used to be?” angle starts sounding a lot better. The references to “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Kokomo” (yeah, that one gets name-checked too) are blatantly obvious, but at least it sounds like an attempt to be clever rather than beating you over the head with why you should go green.
Not to worry, though. That still wasn’t the worst idea they had for this album.
As if all the references to previous material in “Summer In Paradise” aren’t enough to try and push your nostalgia buttons, they decided to bring everything full circle by remaking their debut single “Surfin’.” The 1961 original is pretty much the foundation of classic Beach Boys surf rock that they would later perfect on songs like “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Catch A Wave.” The new-but-not-necessarily-improved 1992 update inexplicably tries to give the song a harder-rocking edge with generic plodding power-chord riffing. The fast-paced fun of the original is gone, as is most of the backing vocal harmony aside from the distinctive “bom bom dit-didit-dip.” The result is an incredibly boring and unnecessary remake that nearly doubles the length of the original while being not even half as enjoyable.
Guess what? That still wasn’t the worst idea they had for this album.
As if the Beach Boys hadn’t ruined enough old songs already, Summer In Paradise closes with a remake of the beloved Dennis Wilson ballad “Forever,” which had first been released in 1970 on Sunflower. The original is a song that Brian himself had called “the most harmonically beautiful thing [he’d] ever heard.” So why would they have wanted to remake it, especially after Dennis had died? Beats the hell out of me, but they did it anyway.
Oh, and they got John Stamos to sing the lead vocal.
You read that right. They took one of Dennis Wilson’s greatest songs and gave it to Uncle Jesse from Full House. You didn’t see Paul, George, and Ringo getting back together and letting David Hasselhoff sing “Julia.”
And that’s actually the least offensive thing they did to it, because they also turned it into a run-of-the-mill power ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place between “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)” on rock radio.
Which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever because IT’S A BEACH BOYS SONG. They are not a hard-rock band. They never were. What the hell were they thinking trying to appeal to the Monster Ballads crowd?
What the hell were these guys smoking when they decided that any of this was a good idea? And where can I get some?
And yet… somehow, some way, this still wasn’t the worst idea they had for this album.
Would you like to know what was? Because I’m about to tell you. Think of this as your last chance to get away without any significant mental scarring.
I’m just going to go ahead and show you this video because there is nothing, absolutely nothing, not a single damned thing that I could possibly say to adequately prepare you for what you are about to hear.
Brace yourselves, ladies and gentlemen. I give you the worst Beach Boys song of all time: “Summer Of Love.” Experience Bij.
MIKE. LOVE. RAPPING.
I feel like that’s all I really have to say. Just these three magic words and you would instantly know to avoid this song like a colony of lepers and plague victims built at the base of an erupting volcano.
If any song on Summer In Paradise truly illustrates how bad things got for the Beach Boys toward the end of their recording career, “Summer Of Love” is it. In 1964, this band was singing about how “the girls on the beach are all within reach” and that “one waits there for you.” Here we have Mike Love openly lusting after those same girls, only in 1992 he was a 51-year-old man rapping about how “doing it with you would be so very cool” in a voice that sounds less like a cool surfer dude and more like that creepy uncle you’d just as soon pretend isn’t actually part of your family. He gets older, but those girls stay the same age!
“Summer Of Love” is not just the worst Beach Boys song I’ve ever heard. It is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard by anyone in the entire history of recorded music. The fact that the band that made “Good Vibrations” has their name attached to this makes me want to cry. It makes me want to curl up in the fetal position in the corner of my bedroom with a blanket over my head like I’m Linus Van Pelt. Thank God Brian never did a song like this… oh wait.
For God’s sake, they even included a cheesy DJ record scratch, as if this song wasn’t excruciatingly lame enough already! And believe it or not, “Summer Of Love” could actually have been even more bizarre. The original idea for this song was for Mike to duet with Bart Simpson.
I really wish I was making that up. Can you imagine what this song would have been like if peppered with the occasional “Eat my shorts” or “Don’t have a cow, man”? I guess this is the side effect of hearing the Muppets’ rendition of “Kokomo” a few too many times.
And did he seriously just name-check “Surfin’ USA”? Enough with the references to old songs already! The fact that you’re making us think of them while listening to this only makes us want to listen to the old stuff! We know you guys are the same band who wrote all those classics!
Actually, that last sentence is kind of a lie. They weren’t the same band that wrote those classics. Dennis had died in 1983. Brian had left the band to embark on a solo career. Carl Wilson and Al Jardine are mostly reduced to cameo appearances on this album. Touring musician turned full-time member Bruce Johnston at least gets a writing credit on “Slow Summer Dancing (One Summer Night),” the one song where he gets to sing lead, and is the only member of the band that actually plays a note of music on this album.
Summer In Paradise is really more like a Mike Love solo record featuring the Beach Boys, because his name is all over this thing. He and producer Terry Melcher wrote nearly all of the new songs and he sings lead on all but three of the album’s 12 tracks. Obviously Mike wasn’t kidding when he sang “It’s a love thing” in “Summer Of Love.” Oh, look – incredibly lame puns! Another reason to hate that damn song.
So, like I said before, Summer In Paradise bombed. Big time. And deservedly so. The colossal failure of this album basically killed their recording career. I haven’t seen a musical act go out on that sour a note since the episode of South Park where the recorder ensemble makes everyone on Earth crap their pants.
The Beach Boys returned to the studio one last time in 1996, but that was to remake a bunch of their classic songs in a different style. The album was called Stars and Stripes, Vol. 1. Oh, and that different style of music? Country. Because if there was one thing the world desperately needed in 1996, it was a version of “Be True To Your School” with Toby Keith on lead vocals.
But that’s for another review.
So where are they now? Believe it or not, the Beach Boys are still around and still touring. Mike is the only original member left in the band. Bruce Johnston’s still in it and Al, who’d been out since 1999, rejoined for a tribute to Ronald Reagan earlier this year. Carl passed away in 1998 and Brian’s still got his solo career, even finishing his legendary lost Smile project in 2004 – which, by the way, ranks among the top-rated albums in Metacritic history.
And speaking of Brian, let’s close things out with another one of his classics to cleanse the palette from all this awfulness.
Ahhh… now that’s more like it.