Back in April 1967, way before songwriters were the subject of university courses and awarded Nobels and Pulitzers, the celebrated conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein presented Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, an hour-long US TV special that pondered whether pop music was something for culture vultures to start taking seriously. The verdict was emphatically positive; Bernstein suggested that Brian Wilson, the then 24-year-old Beach Boy, was one of the 20th Century’s most important composers, illustrating his point with footage of Wilson performing one of his masterpieces, ‘Surf’s Up’. Though the song hasn’t been given the orchestral treatment on the group’s new album, for which classic original vocals have been married to new arrangements recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, it’s just one of many Beach Boys songs that could have been, thanks to the group’s ambitious arrangements and rapid artistic development throughout the 60s and into the 70s.
Having started out at the midpoint between the preppy vocal jazz stylings of The Four Freshman and the rambunctious rock’n’roll of Chuck Berry, Brian Wilson’s productions became ever more ambitious in their arrangements and symphonic scope. He left The Beach Boys’ touring line-up in December 1964, after which he spent his time in the studio creating ever more ambitious work. The Beatles may have had the sophistication and experience of George Martin to help make their ideas a reality, but The Beach Boys relied on Brian alone. Unusually, for a pop musician, Wilson wrote his arrangements, directed the recording sessions and produced the records himself. By 1966’s Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys had taken pop music to all kinds of previously unmapped places, especially with their unconventional use of instrumentation usually associated with orchestras. But then they went even further out; the landmark single ‘Good Vibrations’ was that rarest of things – an impossible-to-ignore, million-selling hit single with a chorus driven by sawing cellos playing triplets, and a part for Electro-Theremin.
Infamously, Brian retreated after Pet Sounds’ planned follow-up, SMiLE, was shelved, but in his absence the rest of the group proved themselves to be skilled arrangers, with some of their most ambitious work coming in the 70s, particularly when Brian’s brothers, Carl and Dennis, filled his shoes.
So, bearing in mind their credentials, what’s most surprising about The Beach Boys With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is that it’s taken so long for such a project to come together. Using original multitrack tapes, producers Nick Patrick and Don Reedman (the team behind similar mega-selling releases featuring Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison) have taken some of The Beach Boys’ biggest hits, as well as a couple of underappreciated marvels, and augmented them with new arrangements played by the world-famous orchestra at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.
The album begins with ‘California Suite’, an overture of sorts that leads perfectly into a bravura reproduction of Brian’s Bach-inspired intro to ‘California Girls’. This version of Wilson and co-writer Mike Love’s ode to the women of their home state is typical of many of the treatments here in that it’s largely pretty faithful to the version fans know and love (see also ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘Darlin’’, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, ‘God Only Knows’). Wisely, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra have been given arrangements that don’t swamp the material, using strings in a dynamic fashion to really beef the songs up, with the occasional unexpected melody line to prick the ears of the faithful. And throughout, the vocals are given priority, as if the job of recasting these songs is to support The Beach Boys’ extraordinary harmonies.
Some of the lesser-known songs provide highlights, the arrangers and players sounding as if they are enjoying cutting a little loose. They really throw the bells and whistles (literally, in the case of the latter) at ‘Heroes And Villains’, which is given an enjoyably dramatic, at times madcap arrangement, even adding an original ending of appropriately skewed Americana. It makes you wonder what might happen if the orchestra got their hands on other songs from SMiLE, such as ‘Cabinessence’ or ‘Surf’s Up’. Elsewhere, the wide-eyed nostalgia of Bruce Johnston’s ‘Disney Girls’ floats in on spacey, lush strings and harps, which lends it the same sort of grand, incandescent yet bittersweet air that Mercury Rev minted around the time of 2001’s All Is Dream. And special mention, too, for the arrangement of Pet Sounds gem ‘Here Today’, the instrumental passage of which is tremendously exciting, with dervish-like violins and brass set to galloping percussion.
There’s no suggestion that these are attempts to improve upon the delicate perfection of the original arrangements, rather they offer fresh ways of hearing material that plenty will know inside out – just check out the pop-night-at-the-Proms take on ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’, or the newly bombastic and sweeping ‘Help Me, Rhonda’. It all makes you wonder what the teenaged band would have made of it all, back before recording the songs that would help change the way people thought about pop music.
Buy The Beach Boys With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra here.