Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The almost completely inexplicable artwork choices of The Beach Boys

I love The Beach Boys. I always think more of people who say the same thing. But we seem to be an increasingly skulking, cowed band of largely silent disciples. We all consider that of all the groups in the history of popular music, The Beach Boys are the one who deserve more credit and critical recognition than they generally receive. But on the whole we keep it to ourselves.

There are a few reasons why they have generally been last in the queue when retrospective accolades of greatness are being distributed. Perhaps a lot of them have been identical to the reasons why their fans generally don't try and push their music onto anybody else.

First is that there was a fundamental break in their creative output at the height of their powers in the mid-1960s. Creative differences within the group and Brian Wilson's increasingly parlous mental health - exacerbated, no doubt, by the truckloads of drugs he was taking on a daily basis - caused the Smile album project to dissolve into a series of half-worked tracks and afterthoughts which gradually peppered all of the band's future releases. Shorn of their proper context, they were never as potent as they might have been.

Then there are people who consider them to be an itsy-ditsy band of one-trick ponies. Simple pedlars of surf music or lovey-dovey hippy peaceniks. These people could probably be shown that this isn't the case with a little education, but you'll probably find that they are spectacularly resistant to submitting themselves to such.

And I think that this might be because of a third reason, one which has increasingly been vexing me lately. Specifically, it is the fact that The Beach Boys had a troubling tendency to give some of their most important record releases peculiarly awful, strange and unsuitable cover artwork.

Pet Sounds (1966) - pioneering, epoch-making, pop masterpiece. So, you know, obviously goaty.

Why did they do this? It's hard to say, especially considering that early in their contractual negotiations with Capitol Records the group managed to gain a more autonomous approach to recording at their own expense in exchange for a greater share of the sales royalties. In other words, they needed their records to sell more than most of their contemporaries did. And this was all OK when they were being acclaimed as superstars and Brian Wilson as the Mozart of popular music. People would have bought those records even if the cover had been a splayed anus. However, an album of the half-baked songs spat out by a failed concept album, performed by drug casualties and the worst kind of late 1960s hippy, is a rather harder sell. Putting the record in a paper bag with a $1 bill stapled to the front was probably the wisest course of action, and one which of course the band did not take.

Friends (1968) - low key,  understated and quietly beautiful post-Pet Sounds hidden gem. Best depicted
by a dazzlingly terrifying glimpse into the shattered, disembodied astral plane of an alternate dimension.

Maybe they were making a broader philosophical point about the nature of perception? Of appearances and realities? The records were, for the most part, still great after all. As I clearly implied in the opening sentence. It's possible, albeit a slim possibility. But The Beach Boys were never a band who dealt in slim possibilities. They were all about telling you that you should meditate, growing big beards and imagining that they were a tree.

Surf's Up (1971) - perhaps the last great collection of original material released by the group in
their classic era. So a dismal, unsettling image of a man and horse being impaled in a storm, then.

No, the likely scenario is also the conclusion that I'd hoped I'd not have to draw. But here it is: they were fannies. The sort of fannies whose fannydom did nothing to impair their ear for music, but in any sphere outside of that, all bets were off. Oh well.

Endless Summer (1974) - huge-selling mid-1970s compilation of all of the group's biggest hits,
by extension virtually perfect. Coupled with a picture which could be distributed to every school
in a successful campaign to warn children about the dangers of almost anything. Especially
approaching strange middle-aged men who skulk in bushes. During a tsunami.

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