On September 31st, Mike Love announced that, after a string of dates with the reunited Beach Boys, the band would embark on its next tour sans original members Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and David Marks. Wilson and Jardine were never informed of the decision by Love and both expressed disappointment. Love eventually responded with a rambling, self-serving letter letter in the L.A. Times where he confusingly explained that he “cannot fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I am not his employer. I do not have such authority. And even if I did, I would never fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys” before then explaining he was functionally firing Brian Wilson. It was a puzzling but fitting end to a half-century celebration of a band whose current incarnation is more about escapism and moneymaking than responsible curation of their own stellar musical legacy.
A well-constructd greatest hits album can serve many purposes – tell the story of the band, introduce them to new listeners, provide a sumative statement of their work and make an argument for their lasting legacy. Capitol’s latest Beach Boys collection, 50 Big Ones, does none of these things. What it does do is try to wring more cash out of fans via a combination of Boomer nostalgia and a round numbered anniversary. For confirmation see the sepia-hued liner notes, commemorative postcards and press clippings with quotes about songs that “harken back to a simpler time when people wore Huarache sandals, polished their surfboards, and raced their hot rods.”
Across their five decades of existence the Beach Boys might have been more anthologized, repackaged and resold than any other band. Since their first and most famous ’70s best of collection Endless Summer, we’ve seen a few different species of Beach Boys compilations. There’s the cheap-but-effective comp, represented by Greatest Hits, Vols I, II & III, the exhaustive summaries such as 40 Greatest Hits or the Good Vibrations box set and the revisionist celebration of the band’s lesser-known work such as Sunshine Dream or Capitol’s most recent collection, the sublime Warmth of the Sun.
50 Big Ones is a frustrating one because it doesn’t fall into any of these categories. Although it is exhaustive, it’s not chronological, which makes for a disjointed listen. Though it’s true that the first disc features mostly pre-Pet Sounds fun and sun songs and the second is mostly later material, there are notable exceptions on both discs. Even within the discs the songs are grouped half-hazardly with tracks skipping wildly back and forth across time. Not only does this make for some jarring juxtapositions, but it serves the material poorly. Instead of showing the band’s progression from the makers of carefree party anthems to psychedelic studio masters to mid-’70s West Coast songwriting innovators, 50 Big Ones mashes all these eras together. This effectively destroys any sense of narrative and masks the respective brilliance of each of the different musical phases.
I would wager that the reason for the odd sequencing lies at the heart of the collection’s real purpose — the desire to cash in on boomer nostalgia and argue for the inclusion of more latter-day material in the Beach Boys cannon. Capitol knows that a chronological sequencing of these songs would leave the back end of disc two full of skippable flab. So instead we have middling clunkers including “Getcha Back”, “California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-I-A)”, “All This Is That” and a tired ’80s version of “Rock ‘N Roll Music” sprinkled randomly through a hodgepodge of classic Beach Boys material. Add to this the solid-yet-unremarkable new singles “Isn’t It Time” and “That’s Why God Made the Radio” and you’ve got an annoyingly uneven album that tries to mask its zirconia in a field of diamonds and ends up tarnishing both.
The Beach Boys are one of the great American rock bands. Their clean cut, Four Freshman-like appearance and love of ’50s bubblegum pop allowed them them to bring doo-wop harmonies and Chuck Berry-like guitar work into white living rooms across the country. Starting with that winning formula, the group would only grow from there in terms of talent and ambition. Soon they’d back their upbeat singles with gorgeous ballads about the loneliness and insecurity of being a teenager before moving on to make a psychedelic pocket symphony and eventually become seasoned west coast pop pros. It’s hard to overstate the craft and import of songs like “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “I Get Around”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Good Vibrations” or “Surf’s Up”, to name just a scant few.
The 50th anniversary celebrations have also coincided with a release of remastered versions the band’s first twelve albums as well as a svelter (if redundant) 20-track greatest hits CD, this is a good thing. Along with the collections noted above, any of these options would be a better way to experience the Beach Boys than this collection. There’s a lot of incredible songs on 50 Big Ones, songs that every music fan owes it to themself to hear, just not via this album.