Your Sister’s (Record) Rack: The Beach Boys
Today we’re going to pull out a record from my own collection – Holland, the 1973 album from the Beach Boys and one of my all-time favorites from the band. By the early 1970s, the days of hit singles (and even hit albums) were behind the Beach Boys, mainly because Brian Wilson’s control of the band had dissipated as he faded into a haze of drugs and mental illness.
The band’s manager (Jack Rieley, who also wrote lyrics for some of the Beach Boys’ music) suggested the group cut an album in Holland in hopes that a change of scenery might help snap Brian back to reality. So in 1972 the Beach Boys, their families and handlers and recording people all flew to Baambrugge, Netherlands, along with truckloads of California recording equipment. After a few false starts and panic attacks, even Brian Wilson got on the plane.
With younger brother Carl Wilson as the ringleader, the rest of the band stepped up to fill in for brother Brian – Dennis Wilson wrote two songs, “Steamboat” and “Only With You” (with lyrics supplied by Rieley and Mike Love, respectively) and Carl wrote “The Trader” (with anti-imperialist lyrics from Rieley). New members Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, who joined the previous year, chipped in with “Leaving This Town” and “We Got Love.”
All of the songs above are a mixed bag, if you’ve never heard any of them before it might be hard to recognize the Beach Boys’ trademark sound as you know it. They’re pleasant and professional, they’re a little edgy and experimental but honestly whenever Holland comes up those are rarely the songs people talk about.
One song that attracted attention was the three-part suite “California Saga,” written by Mike Love and Al Jardine when they were homesick for the Golden State. The first part, “Big Sur,” was actually a leftover from Love and it kicks off the song cycle on a country-rock (sort of) note. Then it all gets heavy with part two, “The Beaks of Eagles,” a poem pretentiously narrated by Mike Love and Jardine and mixed in with a slight tune penned by Jardine and his wife Lynda.
But as the whole shebang kicks into part 3, with Brian singing the couplet “On my way to sunny Cali-for-ni-a/On my way to spend another sunny day” the song brilliantly updates the Beach Boys, taking their sound from the Southern California beaches to the forests and rocky cliffs of Big Sur. I remember an AM radio station used to play the whole suite late at night, and when the laid-back DJ came on with crickets gently chirping in the background, it was an awesome moment.
Brian Wilson, in the meantime, was busy with his own epic – a fairy tale titled “Mt. Vernon & Fairway,” for which he wrote fragments of music and a long spoken-word narrative. He had also written “Funky Pretty” but Brian wanted both to be on another album. The rest of the band refused to do that, and Brian pretty much quit after that.
But when the group returned to the United States and delivered the album, the label rejected it because there was nothing commercial enough to issue as a single. Rieley dug up an unfinished Brian Wilson song, and with a handful of collaborators including Van Dyke Parks, came up with “Sail On Sailor.” And that turned out to be the single – sung by Blondie Chaplin, the song rocked harder than the Beach Boys had in years. The label tacked on “Funky Pretty” and dropped “We Got Love,” and in a concession to his older brother Carl decided to add the 10-minute “Mt. Vernon & Fairway” as a bonus EP.
“Sail On Sailor” only climbed to No. 79 when it was first issued as a single in early 1973, but the truncated “California” (part 3 of “California Saga”) actually cracked the Top 40. “Sailor” would be re-released two years later and still would fall short as a hit.
Many people at the time considered Holland a return to form for the Beach Boys, and in retrospect it is one of the band’s last gasps of brilliance. The ecologically conscious lyrics may have dated the music a bit, but as a big black cloud of oil slowly poisons the Gulf of Mexico today the message has suddenly – and sadly – become timely once again.
(I’ve included the entire three-part “California Saga” as I used to hear it on AM radio … plus some other rarities from the Holland sessions.)