By David Beard
In Southern California — during the summer of 1968 — Brian Wilson created a song cycle out of love and inner peace with the Friends LP... it is perhaps the group’s most overlooked summer album.
In the early- to mid-1960s, The Beach Boys were America’s band. They embodied an entire state’s (and coastline’s) lifestyle and sex appeal. Their music (literally) meant sun-drenched summers, cool waves, fast cars, good vibrations, girls and fun, fun, fun.
Then, in 1967 — after Brian Wilson challenged the very limits of the recording industry with Pet Sounds (in 1966) — the group began to lose its dynamic stranglehold on the very genre they defined. When SMiLE was purportedly abandoned, musical peers, critics and fans stopped listening (almost) overnight... big mistake.
The recording industry and its AM radio counterpart were slowly leaning towards “music with meaning,” because times were changing and FM radio was embracing more and more album cuts as the new wave of cool and medium of choice. It wasn’t as though The Beach Boys lost their ability to make great recordings, though.
On the contrary, 1967’s Smiley Smile album featured “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains.” Possibly more damaging to the group’s image was Brian’s decision to pull out of the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in June of 1967.
Wild Honey (released in December 1967) included “Wild Honey,” “Aren’t You Glad” and “Darlin’” among its cuts. That was the same month that Rolling Stone ran an article by editor Jann Wenner unfairly describing The Beach Boys as “just one prominent example of a group that had gotten hung up trying to catch The Beatles.”
Regardless of the reason, the Brian Wilson “genius” hype had stopped, all (supposedly) because Brian abandoned SMiLE. This slowly overcame anything the group was actively doing — collectively destroying the groups’ reputation as a dynamic recording force. Public opinion swayed to the newer acts while other musical output continued to explore drug use and the recordings of the times reflected this. Striped shirts were out and incense and paisley were in.
The Beach Boys — almost overnight — became dissident imagery in a time of eruptive change. In June 1968 — a period that clearly illustrates (that) the U.S. was in a state of dramatic disarray — Friends was released. It was an album whose sum of parts collected almost perfectly produced tunes with the musical compass pointing not so subtly at simplicity. Even so, it, collectively, is the true “next counterpart” to the musical lineage that Brian established with All Summer Long, Today, Summer Days (and Summer Nights), Party and Pet Sounds.
Looking at these album titles we see the odd LP is the Party album. With the success of “Barbara Ann” — a song that points back to the essence of All Summer Long and the group’s earlier LPs — Brian bought himself time to work on (and complete) Pet Sounds.
Theoretically, if Brian had done the same thing and recorded a Smiley Smile/Wild Honey-style LP and then released SMiLE the way he intended, it may have worked more to his advantage, because he would have (again) bought himself more time and appeased Capitol with “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” … he could’ve even placed “The Little Girl I Once Knew” on the album. It still would have been a lot better than Capitol’s The Best of the Beach Boys Volume 2, and it would been fine for Brian to release “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” on two different LPs … He did it with “Help Me, Rhonda.” He had (at least) two dramatically different versions of “Heroes and Villains,” as well as various takes on “Good Vibrations” and “Vegetables.”
But, because the perception of SMiLE was that it was ditched (as opposed to preserved), Smiley Smile became a light-hearted swat at what SMiLE was “supposed to be.” If you were to gather together the material on Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, you’d have a 1967 version of the Today album with one side being the latest and greatest from The Beach Boys and the other side being more — in this case — lighthearted fare as opposed to music reflective of a strained relationship. Brian did not repeat himself with the Beach Boys albums and their music regarding the content. He kept growing, and that’s why we never got a second Pet Sounds. He moved on.
Since SMiLE was shelved, Brian continued forward and started working on his newest song cycle. The first step was Wild Honey, which hinted at the material on Friends with “Country Air,” “I’d Love Just Once to See You” and “Let the Wind Blow.” He had written about everything except family and friends until now.
The group’s 1968 LP would become just that — a true celebration of “the good things in life.” There’s no angst or loss in the material... Perhaps that’s what people were hoping for, because Brian did such an incredible job tapping into his emotional pool in 1966. But now, things were different. Now, things were calm... spiritual. You could say that’s why the album failed; it’s too personal — almost like an inside joke.
Finding the right feel
In his introduction for the Friends / 20/20 two-fer (1990), Brian explained, “The songwriting cycle for the Friends album project came quickly … I was, by then, an experienced songwriter, and I knew what each basic key meant to me. By this time I had a good thing rollin’ in my head. ... This album was our best production to date. It had perfect instrumental tracking with no mistakes. ...”
Spoken like a true perfectionist and composer. Brian remembers Friends as a perfect album and his best production to date. If you listen to the music, he’s right, and still, in spite of Brian’s fondness for the album, many Beach Boys followers have yet to embrace its eclectic semblance.
Maybe the problem is that critics and fans alike (by their own assumed virtue) compare it — and every other album the Beach Boys or Brian have recorded — to Pet Sounds; that’s another mistake, it always has been, and, with the notion that Brian failed with SMiLE, it’s no wonder few can accept anything after it as a success or (as) important.
The tumultuous abandonment of SMiLE had nothing to do with Brian’s musical, composing and recording abilities. In fact, he was getting better.
“I think that The Beach Boy’s sound was evolving right along. I had developed a sixth sense for everybody’s voices, and we could all harmonize this way. When we all sing together I feel a spiritual closeness,” recalled Brian.
The music emits differently with its sonic usage on Friends, and it holds up within that sound … and that’s where the real dynamism takes place; it’s really an album that shines in an innocent splendor of the human spirit. The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson were all about (from 1966 onward) “feel” in their compositions and their harmonic blend. In many respects, Friends is Brian Wilson’s last great (complete) album with The Beach Boys, and it would prove to take on several other dynamics before it was completed.
Also, in December 1967, Dennis Wilson happened to be the first of The Beach Boys to meet Maharishi while the group was in Paris for a UNICEF benefit concert. Dennis once remembered the fateful meeting: “All of a sudden I felt this weirdness, this presence this guy had. Like out of left field. First thing he [Maharishi] ever said to me (was), ‘Live your life to the fullest.’ So the next day I went over to his room, and he said, ‘Tell me some words of your songs.’ So we told him the lyrics to ‘God Only Knows’ and he goes, ‘That’s the sun rising and the stars and the planets and it connects with …’ So I said, ‘God, this is great!’ And he said, ‘We’d like to initiate you into the program.’”
Dennis made a newfound connection to spirit. He wouldn’t be the only one. Dennis introduced the rest of The Beach Boys to the holy man that same night.
The sessions for Friends commenced in February 1968 and wrapped in April in time for a June release. The sessions were held at Brian’s house and (for the most part) completed at I.D. Sound. Just before the sessions began, Mike Love (who was enthralled with Maharishi) left for Rishikesh, India, to study along with Donovan, Mia Farrow and The Beatles (among others). He would return to the sessions and record vocals in April.
One of the few tracks Mike sang lead on for the Friends album was the opening minuet “Meant For You” (initially titled “You’ll Find it Too”). When recalling the album’s opening track, Brian related, “Until now, Mike (Love) had only sung rock and roll songs. Here he had to sing in a peaceful tone of voice …” It’s this tone that sets the album’s peculiar and particular mood, and Love does an incredible job (Mike would return to this form on Sunflower’s “All I Wanna Do” in 1970). Brian’s fondness for the Baldwin Organ (something that began on Smiley Smile) shines through on this song.
The album’s title track was unusual in its waltz-like structure, something Brian was trying to achieve. “The cut ‘Friends’ was, in my opinion, a good way to keep waltzes alive,” recounted Brian. “Carl (Wilson) had sung ‘Darlin’’ and some others before and now he spearheaded this cut with a heavy vocal performance.” The waltz-like feel was one style Brian was particularly keen on achieving, and it captured the spiritual context of the overall album’s pulse.
The album’s third track, “Wake the World,” was one of true beauty with an accompanying message of peace. So true to the overall feeling of the album’s material, this might have been a better name for the LP. It’s also one of the best collaborative efforts between Al Jardine and Brian.
When recalling the Friends album and the track, Al said, “I had a lot of good experiences with Brian when we wrote together. I really valued that time that I had with him. I felt that he still had a lot to offer. I think I helped bring that out during the Friends sessions. That was one of our favorite albums. It’s one of mine, and (I think) it’s one of Brian’s, too. I seem to remember that I was sitting at the piano with Brian, and he had the music worked out when we did ‘Wake the World.’ That was great; I love that song. We wrote that at his house right under that beautiful stained glass Wild Honey cover window. That’s where we did most of the Friends music. It was a great little room.”
Brian relates, “‘Wake The World’ was my favorite cut. It was so descriptive to how I felt about the dramatic change over from day to night … ‘one by one, stars appear, the light of the day is no longer here’.”
Going deeper into the album we’re treated to the simplicities of life’s wonderment. “Be Here in the Mornin’” oozes into the generalization that conceptually runs through these songs. The glockenspiel is as unusual a “pop instrument” to use as the theremin, but that never stopped Brian — if he heard it in his head, he’d use it.
This song even includes Murry Wilson (the father) on background vocals with the group. The names mentioned in the song — (Steve) Korthof, (Jon) Parks and (Nick) Grillo — belong to the Wilson brothers’ cousin, the band’s road manager and business manager, respectively. Steve and Jon would share a writer’s credit with Brian, Dennis, Carl and Al on the album’s next track, “When A Man Needs A Woman.”
It’s important to note that with the Friends album, Brian returned to the musical template he had established in 1966 with Pet Sounds: the “two instrumental tracks” format. On Pet Sounds Brian used “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” and the title track.
Brian returned to this formulaic outline with “Passing By” and “Diamond Head.” “Passing By,” a quaint, melodic jaunt of fun that leans heavily on its wordless, summery feel, is the perfect transitional track connector to side 2. (Of note, Carl, Al, Bruce and Brian are all instrumentalists while Brian handles the oohs, along with Carl and/or Al).
Reportedly about a friend of Mike’s, the first song on Side 2 (“Anna Lee, The Healer”) — as with the first track on Side 1 — features Mike as the lead vocalist. As Brian remembers, “‘Anna Lee, The Healer’ was a delicate blend of our voices; my high voice takin’ the place of the girl’s voice. I never felt bad or self-conscious about my voice, because I can sing high and low both. Mike’s vocal on this one was strong.” The sparse instrumentation only gives more weight to the powerful vocalization and is the Beach Boys’ “light music” at its best.
For the true Beach Boys fans who still bought Beach Boys albums when they hit the stores (particularly overseas), the real musical unveiling came in the form of Dennis, because no one expected it. His compositions — “Little Bird” and “Be Still” (both co-written with poet/lyricist Stephen J. Kalinich) — made it evident that Dennis had discovered a contemporary awareness of self, friendship and life’s simplicities. The wild child, when sitting in front of a piano, became a serene soul.
As Brian remembered, “Dennis gave us ‘Little Bird’ which blew my mind because it was so full of spiritualness. He was a late bloomer as a music maker. He lived hard and rough, but his music was as sensitive as anyone’s. I helped Dennis on ‘Little Bird’ ... with the chord progressions and showed him stuff on piano. I thought his songs were remarkable. I thought he was a genius. Dennis was a really, really good person with a lot to say musically. I was shocked (when I heard his stuff). I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears.” This statement from Brian unequivocally puts Dennis’ musical contributions to The Beach Boys legacy in clear and proper perspective.
The next song, Brian’s “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” is a sweet and banal musical map to Brian’s home. Like everything on the album, it’s true dynamism lies in its subtlety and pure charm. The album’s last song, “Transcendental Meditation,” is perhaps the most unusual track to make the album, not because of its title, but it musically doesn’t fit.
In July of 1968, “Do It Again” (initially titled “Rendezvous”) — a new formulaic composition created by Mike with Brian — would find the Beach Boys in familiar territory with a Top 20 single in the U.S. As it turned out, their fans were just waiting for that “old style” type of Beach Boys bliss they were known for.
The B-side to the single was “Wake the World.” In fact, when Friends was released in Japan, “Do It Again” was added to the end of Side 1 (after “Passing By”). Had “Do It Again” been included on the Friends LP (and) released in July and compiled like its Japan counterpart, history might look back a little more fondly at the Friends album.
“Do It Again” would go to #1 in England. When asked about the single’s success, Mike said, “When it went to #1 in England it actually... it sort of blew my mind. It was a retro-surf song. Ya know, let’s go back and do it again. It was the California lifestyle, the surf scene, seeing our old friends and all that sort of thing. It was a song about how I used to go ditch class with some of my high school buddies. Bill Jackson, Craig Owens and I used to get in Bill’s old Ford convertible and drive down to the beach. On weekends we would go to San Onofre, Trestles and places like that. So, for something that’s so archetypal as ‘California beach life’ to go #1 in England was intense. I thought it was unbelievable. It showed how many fans we had there and how attractive the whole California lifestyle is. Even after we had gone into the other types of music for a while, we came back with ‘Do It Again.’ It wasn’t a parody of the times so much, as it was a retrospective of wishing to get back to the fun times that we had had.”
Should the group have waited one more month to release the Friends album? You could argue the point, but there’s no real end result knowing that the Beach Boys’ first true stereo album tanked at #126 on the album charts, and the “Friends” / “Little Bird” single stalled at #47. Still, in the summer of 1968, when the United States was coming undone, it was nice to have something as sophisticatedly simple and comforting as Friends.