Beach Boys – Made in California (box set review)

Beach Boys – Made in California (box set review) (Capitol / UME)

A lovingly-assembled, 6-disc anthology of “America’s band” – made for the iPod, with 60 previously-unreleased tracks

No other band has better captured the American spirit quite like the Beach Boys.  How a teenage group of brothers & friends from working-class families, who could scarcely play their instruments, managed to place a song on the national charts, starting a musical career that’s been going strong for five decades now, is truly the stuff of legends.  Made in California tells that story better than any other Beach Boys’ compilation, because it digs deeper, unearthing lost gems alongside bona fide hits, key album tracks and live cuts.  It tells the complete story – the dizzying highs, the frustrating lows.  And with the recent success of their reunion tour and fantastic new album, it puts a storybook ending on their tremendous career.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – the Beach Boys already released a career-spanning box set twenty years ago called Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys.  Do they really need another box set? The answer is – yes.  So much has happened to the band in the last two decades, it just makes sense to compile it all.

The Beach Boys’ compilers have certainly been busy since the release of their last box.  First of all, the Pet Sounds Sessions came out in 1997, which showed, once and for all, just how majestic an album it is.  Then, even more unbelievable, the SMiLE Sessions box was completed in 2011, finally issuing tracks that had sat in the archives for over 40 years.  In addition, the band reunited for their 50th anniversary last year, releasing their finest album in a long, long time – That’s Why God Made the Radio.  All of these projects are well-represented in this new collection.

Another major difference between the two box sets is that the early tracks on Good Vibrations were mostly in mono.  There’s been a push over the last few years to mix all the possible early Beach Boys’ material into stereo.  Made in California benefits from having these new, improved-fidelity versions included, making them sound fantastic on a set of earbuds.  Especially impressive is the new mix of “Do You Want to Dance.”

Disc one opens with a montage of the band, very early in their career, rehearsing “Surfin’” in their living room.  Listening to it, you realize they were just kids reaching for a dream. The only difference is, their dream actually came true.  Very quickly, the hits start comin’ – “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Surfer Girl,” and “Little Deuce Coupe.”  There’s a previously unreleased track, “Surfer’s Rule,” featuring Dennis Wilson on vocals, which really showcases the fantastic guitar interplay between Carl Wilson and early member David Marks.

It’s really great to see Marks get his due.  His guitar work is all over these early recordings.  Yet, because he exited the band so soon, he’s often overlooked.  This box set finally shines light on his early contributions, quoting him several times in the liner notes.  Even better are some fantastic photos from the Marks’ family archives.

All the big hits are here, along with a healthy done of album cuts, and near-misses.  There really isn’t too much to quibble about track listing-wise.  “Let Him Run Wild,” which Brian Wilson refused to allow on the first box 20 years ago, is now included here.  Pet Sounds is perhaps under-represented with only five tracks, while SMiLE gets ten.  “She Knows Me Too Well” is a personal favorite that’s missing, but it wasn’t really a hit.

The other member that really benefits from this new collection is Dennis Wilson.  His legend and music have certainly grown over the last few years, especially with the long-overdue release of his solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue.  As a result, several key Dennis tracks are included.  Both sides of a UK-only single credited to Dennis Wilson & Rumbo are here, as well as a previously unreleased song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice to Love Again” from 1971.

There’s also a few tracks included that have gained in notoriety over the years:  Carl Wilson’s ethereal, but little-known “Feel Flows” was used in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, while the gritty “Soulful Old Man Sunshine” is an outtake of the 1969 Sunflower sessions that finally saw recent release on the Endless Harmony Soundtrack.  In addition, there’s  a few impressive tracks from an aborted Brian/Beach Boys reunion album from 1995 produced by Don Was – “Soul Searchin’” features some fine vocals from Carl, while “You’re Still a Mystery” has a Pet Sounds feel to it.  It’s unfortunate that an album was never completed during these sessions.

The Beach Boys’ studio highlights end by the first half of disc five.  That’s followed by 15 previously unreleased live recordings spanning the group’s entire career.  Instead of simply grabbing concert versions of the hits, the emphasis here was to dig a little deeper.  For instance, Al sings lead on a juiced-up version of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” from 1965, while Brian turns in a rendition of the Box Tops’ “The Letter” from a rehearsal in Hawaii in 1967.  The band reached their peak as a live outfit during the Blondie Chaplin / Ricky Fataar years – the inclusion of the duo gave the Beach Boys a muscle that hadn’t been heard previously or since.  For proof, check out fine The Beach Boys in Concert album.  From this time period is a surprise version of “Help Me Rhonda” featuring Dennis on lead vocals, and a ferocious take on “Wild Honey” with Chaplin screaming the lead.

Disc six is devoted to “vault” material – although some of it has already seen release – like the “SMiLE Background Vocal Montage” and the “Good Vibrations Stereo Track Sections.”  Still, the alternate Brian vocal of “Don’t Worry Baby” alone is worth the price of the box –  if there was any doubt that Brian could be gritty, this puts it to rest.

There are instrumental-only mixes of songs that help shed new light on things – “Guess I’m Dumb,” the future Glen Campbell song, is just gorgeous, while “Had to Phone Ya” stripped of its vocals shows that Brian was still making intricate music, even after SMiLE.  Of particular note are the three songs recorded for the BBC, which were thought to be lost, and show an interesting side of the band.  Yes, they are studio recordings.  But, back home, Wilson was using studio musicians to play on their hits.  Here, the actual Beach Boys had to emulate these songs, and they do it surprisingly well – although Carl Wilson seems  to have trouble handling the solo to “Wendy,” which was done by an organ on the released version.

The entire set comes housed in a mock high school yearbook, complete with “signatures” from all surviving members of the band, high school photos, and other archival items that really add to the family aspect.  After all, the Beach Boys music is part of our American culture.  Made in California would make an excellent gift for any avid Beach Boys fan.  –Tony Peters