The Class of 1970: ‘Sunflower’ by The Beach Boys
By the end of the ’60s, The Beach Boys, who had been “ridin’ high in April,” were “shot down in May.” They had pumped out 11 surfing albums that topped the charts from 1962 to 1965 before taking a huge right turn into Pet Sounds in 1966. That true masterpiece signaled a true direction change for the California group and provided real inspiration that helped The Beatles invent Sgt. Pepper’s.
The Beach Boys’ fortunes began to tumble after the non-release of Smile, an album Brian Wilson have created that the group and Capitol would eventually not publish (Wilson released it himself in 2004). They did issue two albums in 1967 — Smiley Smile and Wild Honey — neither of which made much of a splash. Friends in 1968 fared no better, and the 1969 release 20/20 was one even the group didn’t like (seems fitting now, given the title).
The group had begun working on new material in 1969 but were also searching for a new record label. They were signed by Reprise, and their albums would be pressed on the Brothers label they had used for several albums on Capitol. The new album, Sunflower, was finished by July and released August 31, 1970.
And it bombed. Worst chart performance from an album by The Beach Boys to date. Also, it has been acclaimed as the best album by the group since Pet Sounds. Which is why we wanted to tell you how this one sparkles. The cover contains complete credits and technical notes on the recording. And The Beach Boys added this:
The songs on this record were recorded in true stereophonic sound; they are not 16 monophonic signals placed somewhere between right and left speakers blended together with echo, but rather total stereo capturing the ambiance of the room and the sound in perspective as heard naturally by the ear. Although more difficult to perfect, this type of recording is far more satisfying to hear, as will be demonstrated upon playing this album.
You might use “Caroline No” as a reference. And plug in those headphones.
One other note. In many ways, this is still The Beach Boys, seemingly simple, feel-good songs. Deeper dives reveal astonishing vocals, lush arrangements, and brilliant orchestrations. And — again — the vocals. WOW! Their is a psychedelic LSD tinge to this project and its superb follow-up Surf’s Up 1971. Again, the headphones will help make this abundantly clear.
The Beach Boys at this time (all on vocals and percussion): Al Jardine, guitar; Bruce Johnston, bass, piano, Rocksichord; Mike Love, vocals, percussion; Brian Wilson, piano, Rocksichord, organ, Moog; Carl Wilson, guitars, bass, Rocksichord, electric sitar, clavinet; and Dennis Wilson, piano, guitar, drums. For convenience sake below, we will refer to the brothers below by their first names. Songwriter credits in (parentheses).
From their touring band: Ed Carter, guitar; Daryl Dragon (The Captain), organ, vibraphone, tack piano, harpsichord, bass, tubular bells, chimes; and Dennis Dragon, drums, percussion.
At this point, much of the music on Beach Boys albums had been performed by The Wrecking Crew and other great studio musicians. There are far too many to list here, 63 in all. Some will be mentioned in song analysis.
One final note: ten of the dozen songs clock in between two and three and a half minutes. The entire album is 37 minutes long.
“Slip On Through” (Dennis) assaults your ears immediately, an aural bombardment. The horns, percussion, and layered backing vocals are so lush, more Bacharach than Spector, it has been noted. Dennis sings, and Jack Conrad is lead guitar.
The Beach Boys sound emerges on “This Whole World” (Brian). Carl’s magical voice takes the lead with Brian backing, both double-tracked. The female backing vocals are from Brian’s wife Marilyn and her sister Diane Rovell. Gene Estes plays chimes and glockenspiel. This is so rich. Neil Sedaka on steroids.
“Add Some Music to Your Day” (Brian, Love, Joe Knott) is again typical Beach Boys fare, celebrating the glorious music that surrounds us. This is wholesome Americana in a very positive sense.
Dennis then kicks out the R&B jams on “Got to Know the Woman” (Dennis), a rollicking song with Daryl Dragon’s tack piano prominent. The Honeys provide the female backing vocals. And that ending!
I just met a woman on my way home
She just blew my mind
My heart was a-pumpin’
I mean all the way home
Got to know the woman
Whoa I got to know the woman
“Deirdre” (Johnston, Brian) is a pure pop ballad, mostly Johnston’s tune. Johnston handles lead vocals with Brian backing. Larry Knechtel plays piano, and Jimmy Bond adds both double bass and electric bass.
Dennis is back singing another kickass song, the most powerful on the album. “It’s About Time” (Dennis, Johnston, Jardine, Bob Burchman) features heavy Latin percussion and more of those superb trademark vocals. It builds to an incredible climax; no guitarist is credited with that final sonic blast.
“Tears in the Morning” (Johnston) is a Johnston feature, his sweet voice backed by a chorus of violins and voices, Daryl Dragon on vibes, and Johnston playing Rocksichord and grand piano, a lovely sad song.
“All I Wanna Do” (Brian, Love) has been variously described as “proto-shoegaze” and “chillwave,” and for certain it is the precursor of those movements. Love takes the lead with Johnston. Carl plays electric sitar, Bond plays both basses, and Hal Blaine is the drummer (also on “Tears in the Morning”). This is an outtake from Friends.
Dennis offers a fine ballad in “Forever” (Dennis, Gregg Jakobson), showcasing the tenderest side of his voice. The strings certainly help the mood, as did Moog programming from Paul Beaver.
“Our Sweet Love” (Brian, Carl, Jardine), another song that didn’t make it on Friends, features Carl on vocals and clavinet and Brian on piano. This harkens back to the older Beach Boys sound, with a full string section swirling in the background.
Magical sweet harmonies help “At My Window” (Jardine, Brian), perhaps the weakest song on the album. Carl Fortina adds the French concertina here and on “Tears in the Morning.”
“Cool, Cool Water” (Brian, Love) came out of a track from Smile, finally surfacing after support from Lenny Waronker, a Warners A&R man, to include it. In addition to the brilliant vocals from everyone (and finger snaps), with Brian and Love in the lead, Brian plays piano, organ, and Moog, Carl on bass, and Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause on Moog programming.
That accounts for a dozen songs. There were three dozen more NOT used for this project!
[A debt of thanks to Wikipedia for their in-depth cover of music in general and certainly on this album.]