Review of The Beach Boys 1985: A Lost Classic?
By the early 1980s, the Beach Boys had once again seemingly given up releasing new material. Their 1980 effort, Keepin' the Summer Alive, was the result of recording sessions that had begun with hype and promise but eventually led to former Beach Boy Bruce Johnston taking the producer's helm and shifting gears into mediocrity. Although the band attempted to promote and support the album by actually playing some of the new songs in concert and on television, by 1981 they had again reverted to a setlist based largely on the “classic,” mostly 1960s catalog. In 1984, Steve Levine was hired to change all that.
Levine was riding high at the time on the success of Culture Club, the Boy George-led light synth-pop group. His style was based heavily on computer-programmed instruments and vocals fed through a Fairlight synthesizer. Many Beach Boys fans were befuddled at the pairing of Levine and the group. But the goal was to translate their sound into a streamlined format that could be played on Top 40 radio along with any of the other hits of the mid-1980s. To this reviewer's ear, Levine succeeded in that task. It certainly wasn't “classic” Beach Boys, and it wasn't produced by Brian Wilson, but let's face it: Wilson hadn't truly produced any released Beach Boys material since Pet Sounds in 1966. True, under Levine's direction, the boys' classic harmony became computerized, but that was the style of the day. The 1985 self-titled album reflected a truly 1985 Beach Boys, poised to dominate the charts, or at least share them with Culture Club, Michael Jackson, et. al. Unfortunately, either the public wasn't ready or CBS Records failed in their marketing tasks.
Album opener “Getcha Back” made a few waves (pun intended), but did not become the massive success all involved had hoped, despite a music video in heavy MTV rotation. The follow-up single, the slow-rock “It's Get tin' Late,” failed to match even the success of “Getcha Back.” At this point, CBS seemed to have given up on the record, despite side two opener “California Calling” desperately crying to be a single. Yes, it was basically a 1985 re-write of “Surfin' USA,” but it was different enough to be called new and to be played back-to-back with the surfing hits of yesteryear. And yet it remains an unpromoted album track that surprises uneducated listeners on the first spin. Like the style or not, it is still confusing why it was never a single.
One thing is certainly true: The Beach Boys was the group's most altogether solid, listenable album in years. The only track that could be considered a throwaway is the CD-only bonus, “Male Ego,” which bears a co-writing credit from Brian Wilson's much-maligned (and now deceased) psychiatrist Eugene Landy. Indeed, much of it seems to be psychiatry-speak set to a very simple Wilson-conceived melody and very basic 1950s rock chord progression. But the rest of the album is startlingly cohesive, holding up to many repeated listens. Bruce Johnston's “She Believes in Love Again” has the schmaltzy charm one should expect from the actual writer of Barry Manilow's ironically-titled mega-hit “I Write the Songs.” Even the two tracks that the group had nothing to do with writing (“Passing Friend,” written by Boy George, is likely a Culture Club throwaway, and Stevie Wonder's “I Do Love You” sounds exactly like his 1980s style) are nonetheless improved exponentially by the inimitable vocal stylings of Carl Wilson, who thankfully is featured prominently throughout.
Although the heavily programmed, synthesized style of the 1980s has so far failed to gain serious attention from critics or music historians, one cannot deny that the era possesses unique characteristics that often make for enjoyable listens, depending on the listener's mindset. If a fan of 1960s or even 1970s-era Beach Boys takes a step back before spinning this album and takes all of the stylistic threads of the 1980s into account, he or she will be rewarded with an enjoyable and durable listening experience. If it is necessary to mentally detach the Beach Boys moniker from the record in order to evaluate it without bias, please attempt to do so, although along with the somewhat syrupy 1980s sound you will certainly hear the familiar voices of Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, and (possibly unfortunately) the deeper, more-likely-to-be-off-key modern Brian Wilson voice. In that regard, this is undeniably a Beach Boys record, yet it is also undeniably different from anything they had done before.
It would not be unlike anything they would ever do again, however. Perhaps 1985 was too early for the public to accept a modern, slickly produced Beach Boys, because in 1988, they reached the very top of the charts for the first time in 22 years with a song that sounds like it could have easily fit on the 1985 album. That song was “Kokomo”, and it led to a whole new (albeit short-lived) era for the Beach Boys that included the recording of new songs to which the public actually listened! But that is another chapter in the story.