Music

The Beach Boys: That's Why God Made the Radio

The surviving 1960s-era Beach Boys reunite for their 50th anniversary. When they compare this album to Sunflower, how far off are they?


The Beach Boys

That's Why God Made the Radio

Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 2012-06-05
UK Release Date: 2012-06-04
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The irony of the Beach Boys' tragedy has made that tragedy all the more painful. For several generations of people around the world, the band's vey name has been synonymous with good ol' fashioned fun in the sun, of fresh-faced, pre-Vietnam American innocence. Even their more crestfallen later work was defined by a sweet, nostalgic ache. But the band's tale of abuse, addiction, mental illness, dubious associations, premature deaths, and ugly lawsuits is by now almost as familiar as "California Girls".

At the center of it all, of course, has been Brian Wilson. In terms of public portrayal, he has gone from yet another 1960s acid casualty to helpless, exploited pawn in the games of would-be therapists and businessmen, to damaged but ultimately triumphant survivor. Everybody wished for a happy ending for Brian. And, in the last decade, from his 2004 resurrection of Smile to his well-received new material and tours, they seem to have gotten it.

The Beach Boys, however, are another story. It's surely not so simple, but if Brian Wilson was the hero, his former band, led by Wilson's cousin Mike Love, has been the villain. Marginalizing the mentally ill Wilson only to rope him back in to ensure record label and fan interest, arranging outlandish collaborations with the Fat Boys, suing Wilson for releasing Smile without them, turning into a casino-bound lounge act, and "Kokomo" are only the most heinous of the Love-led Beach Boys' crimes.

So this 50th Anniversary reunion of Wilson, Love, and the other surviving '60s-era Beach Boys is at once incredible and suspect. It seems like an improbable opportunity to right the ship for posterity, yet it could just as well send the ship sputtering to the bottom for good.

That's Why God Made the Radio, at least, swings the balance toward the former. This result is not least due to the band's approach. They didn't pour the contemporary producers and songwriting hacks into the studio. Wilson produced, and though the list of purported extra musicians is long, they are mostly orchestra players and members of Wilson's regular backing band. Joining Wilson and lifers Love and Bruce Johnston are Al Jardine, who has not performed with the band since 1998, and guitarist David Marks, an important but oft-forgotten member whose previous album with the band was Little Deuce Couple in 1963. Wilson co-wrote all but one of the 12 tracks, working primarily with familiar collaborator Joe Thomas.

That's Why God Made the Radio plays out not unlike the late '60s/'70s-era Beach Boys albums, such as Friends and Surf's Up that belatedly have become cult favorites. It starts off pretty strong, is nearly derailed by a couple untenable duds, and delivers a major Brian Wilson payoff at the end.

After the sweet, ponderous overture "Think About the Times", the title track and first single is a perfectly likable track whose strong harmonies save it from a plodding arrangement and trite lyrics. Weaker, though, are the songs that directly address the band's make-up and reunion. "Isn't It Time" is a perky, sincere doo-wop number, but "Spring Vacation" and especially "Beaches In Mind" are pure cruise-ship fare. "As for the past / It's all behind us," Love sings on "Spring Vacation", "Happier now / Look where love finds us". Despite those buoyant harmonies, though, it's tough to discern any real meaning in his voice.

When Wilson stops trying to bring back the good times and just does his own thing, he delivers some gems. The calypso-tinged "The Private Life of Bill and Sue" is a bemused and surprisingly cutting look reality television, and features a classic, soaring, harmony-laden chorus that is as blissful as anything the band have done. Questions about Auto-Tune and studio trickery have inevitably abounded. The Boys, though, most of whom are about 70, can still hit those harmonies like no one else. Only Jardine's voice retains the spunky, boyish tone of the band's heyday, but everyone is in tune most of the time, and it sounds natural. Wilson's croon, thicker and reedier now, is still a wonderful instrument.

That's Why God Made the Radio's real payoff comes in the form of the four-song suite that closes the album. "Strange World" is a beautiful piano ballad complete with Pet Sounds-like tympani and castanets. Jardine carries the ponderous, swooning "From There to Back Again" as the harmonies swirl around him like the sun itself. The final pair of songs is simply stunning. "Pacific Coast Highway" and "Summer's Gone" are introspective, genuinely sad meditations that reveal the counterpoint to the fun'n'sun banter that's come before. "My life / I'm better off alone," sings Wilson on "Pacific Coast Highway", as the band wish him "goodbye". It's a stunning moment, and it embodies the melancholy and ache that have always marked Wilson's greatness. "Summer's Gone" is a haunting, touching denouement. "Summer's Gone," Wilson sings, "It's finally sinkin' in…We laugh and cry / We live and die / And dream about our yesterdays," as the harmonies and piano and strings weep. For a man whose band is synonymous with the warmest season, the symbolism is striking.

As a whole, That's Why God Made the Radio is not a top-tier Beach Boys album. But it's neither a reach nor hyperbole to say this final suite is among the strongest, most affecting music Wilson has ever recorded. It seems right that his old bandmates are a part of it.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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