Temporary balms for darker times

Brian Wilson and The Zombies make America '68 again

In 1968, the world seemed to be coming apart. A bloody, increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, political assassinations, urban riots, generation gap, conservative backlash against civil rights and other progressive movements…. Even pop music grew darker than the sunny Summer of Love psychedelia of a year earlier, from the Beatles’ so-called White Album to grittier turns by stars like the Rolling Stones and various Motowners, to the rise of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and other heavier sounds supplanting the gentler flower-powered folk and classical music influenced pop of the preceding two years.

In that fraught year, several pop bands released new music overlooked at the time. Then regarded as flops, they later came to be recognized as masterpieces. Two are came to Portland Tuesday, Sept. 17, under the misleading banner “Something Great from ‘68.” For while the music that Brian Wilson and The Zombies released that year has outlasted much of its dated-sounding contemporaries, it was utterly out of step with the spirit of the new, dark age.

In 1968, the Zombies and the Beach Boys were also falling apart. Both had been hitmakers earlier, with the Zombies British Invasion pop and the BBs multiple hits mostly (at least superficially) about surf, cars, and ‘girls.’ Musically, Wilson’s family band was making music as radiant as anything after WWII, but by 1968, their tours featuring surfin’ sounds with striped shirts and white pants seemed increasingly tone deaf in a world coming apart. While psychedelia soared and violence raged, songs about surfing and cruising seemed passe, and the Beach Boys plummeted from pop hitmakers to culturally irrelevant.

Ironically, the band members’ non-musical lives actually represented what was going down in America as much as any other: Carl Wilson was a draft dodger (his status kept them from what would have been a culturally significant appearance at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival), Mike Love had accompanied the Beatles to study with TM guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and became a lifelong devotee of the mind-expanding practice, Dennis Wilson indulged in abundant free love and drugs. And songwriter Brian Wilson‘s own mind expansion with psychedelics had fueled transcendent visions in their long gestating album Smile — as well as his own pre-existing emotional instability.

But in 1968, most of those musical experiments hadn’t escaped the reels of tape, except for scattered exceptions like the ‘Good Vibrations’ single. Damaged by what was eventually diagnosed as mental illness exacerbated by excessive drug use and the family band’s squabbles over artistic direction — back to the hits, or forward into unknown territories? — Brian had descended from pop genius to washed up, or at least burned out.

His personal pastoral 1966 album Pet Sounds, now universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made, was so ahead of its time that it sold poorly compared to its fun in the sun predecessors. And its astonishingly ambitious intended 1967 follow up, Smile,” with lyricist Van Dyke Parks — so anticipated after early glimpses of two of its masterpieces, “Good Vibrations” and the dreamily apocalyptic “Surf’s Up” —was never completed as intended, falling victim to Wilson and the band’s dysfunction.

Smile snippets dribbled out on various albums over the years, often in watered down or incomplete form, until a mostly recovered Wilson remade it under his own name in 2004, to ecstatic acclaim. Even though it mostly just wrapped up what he’d already completed before his breakdown, rather than carrying his initial audacious, complex modular concept of avant-garde Americana all the way through, the visionary Smile still won wide and deserved accolades four decades after he conceived it. (A boxed set of the Beach Boys’ Smile sessions recordings released a few years later hinted at what glories might have transpired had Wilson been able to finish it then.)

But in 1968, Wilson, who hadn’t toured with his band in years, wasn’t even able to work with the Beach Boys in the studio. Setting aside the troubled Smile tracks, the Beach Boys released only a single short album of new music that year. Wilson could contribute only a few brief, inward looking songs, and couldn’t be coaxed from his room to record them. His bandmates stepped up to contribute their own songs, covers, and shepherd the home-made recordings to release — to popular indifference. Though it remains Brian’s own favorite (not, he admits, best) Beach Boys album, that 1968 release Friends was their worst seller to date, not even reaching the top 100 list. (A disastrous 1968 tour with the Maharishi fared no better.)

Brian Wilson in the studio, 1976.

Yet today, some of Wilson’s little gems sound lovely, reminiscent of the Kinks’ pastoral 1968 album Village Green Preservation Society, a commercial flop also regarded on release as a retro flop that ignored both contemporary psychedelia and hard rock, now widely considered that band’s immortal masterwork. The opposite of Smile’s baroque complexity, and intentionally avoiding the heavier sounds that ruled ‘68, Friends boasts short, simple tunes and gentle waltzes (all Wilson could handle at the time) like the title track, “I Went to Sleep” (which during a high tension era made evocative art out of literally dozing on a park bench), and a neglected masterwork, “Time to Get Alone” (completed in ‘68 but not released till the band’s next album the following year) that stands as one of a great songwriter’s finest tunes. A couple others (“Wake the World” and “Aren’t You Glad”) even made it , much later, into boomer-bait TV commercials. Last year, they released a set of outtakes from the Friends sessions.

Abandoned Odessey

The Zombies’ 1968 album Odessey & Oracle also initially failed to sell — and that failure took the band down with it. Like the Beach Boys, they’d scored early success (especially the top-selling single “She’s Not There”) fueled by Rod Argent and Chris White’s sharp songwriting and Colin Blunstone’s smoky vocals. But none of the English pop band’s subsequent releases and tours made them enough money to sustain a proper recording career. Mostly recorded at Abbey Road studio just after sessions for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper (and simultaneous with the Beach Boys’ last Smile sessions half a world away) the Zombies’ equally colorful Odessey seemed to at last bode a breakthrough. Teeming with thoughtful, tuneful, forward-looking songs suffused with the spirit of ‘67, when it was written and recorded, it sank when belatedly released in Britain the following year, when the times were changing, and didn’t make it to a US release until late ‘68, and even then thanks only to a single advocate.

Musician Al Kooper (who co-founded Blood Sweat & Tears; that’s him playing organ on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”) was working for a major American record label, heard the album while scouting new sounds in England, and insisted they release it. Against all odds and the trends of the time, the single “Time of the Season” caught fire, and even though 1968 no longer seemed to be the time of the season for loving, Odessey became a major hit in 1969 — almost two years after the band recorded it. Suddenly, offers poured in for American tours and more albums.

But it was too late. Dispirited by the apparent lack of popular response to their music, and unable to pay their bills, the band had splintered at the end of 1967, shortly before Odessey’s initial misfire release. Two members took jobs in insurance and civil service, while Argent and White formed a new band—Argent–that made heavier, trendier prog rock than Odessey’s Baroque-influenced art pop. (Like Brian Wilson, White became a stay-at-home songwriter.) They also wrote songs for now-solo artist Blunstone, and both scored much greater commercial success than the Zombies ever had. Even though they could likely have made a fortune had they re-formed in the wake of Odessey’s belated triumph, and perhaps built a successful career for an audience that had finally caught up with them, the members had by then all moved on. Like the Beach Boys’ failure to release Smile before the lessambitious Sgt. Pepper occupied the artistic high ground, the Zombies’ failure to seize their late-arriving moment remains one of the great “what ifs” in rock history.

The battling Beach Boys wouldn’t return to anywhere near their earlier popularity till the mid-1970s, and then as a retro band, not artistic innovators. It would take another quarter century for troubled artistic leader Brian Wilson to recover enough of his balance to resume a recording career, and by then his brief moment at the forward edge of the zeitgeist had long passed, never quite fulfilling its earlier promise. Estranged from Love (who now fronts what’s essentially a BB cover band) and missing his two deceased brothers, Wilson now tours with a crack band that includes couple of ex-Beach Boys and some of the musicians who helped him finally put a Smile on.

The Zombies finally lived up to their name and came back from the dead in the early 2000s, after the release of a boxed set revealed the gems that most Americans had never gotten to hear when they were made. Aging baby boomer buying power produced enough ticket and recording sales to sustain a surprising late-career revival, with new releases and successful midsized venue tours of the old, formerly obscure material. Argent and Blunstone have fronted both the surviving original members and their replacements; the current tour blends both, including co-songwriter and bassist White. Odessey’s 40th anniversary tour sold out. This year, the band once regarded as two-hit wonders was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, where Wilson and the Beach Boys had long resided. Both Smile and Odessey became hugely influential on later generations of musicians and won cult followings, then broader acclaim. (Friends retains at best niche appeal.)

Had events gone just a little differently, both groups might have artistically enriched the 1970s instead of turning in different, less progressive directions. We’ll never get to hear the music they might have made had they received encouragement for their ambitious visions of the time. Still, decades after the beautiful sounds they made failed to capture the attention of its own generation, they — and the rest of us — are finally getting to enjoy the fruits of their own wayward spirits of ‘68. The current tour features all of Odessey plus other Zombies hits, while Wilson’s band will play cuts from Friends and other BB music of that era, including some from 1971’s Surf’s Up album and other Wilson and BB hits.

Maybe the timing is apt. Odessey and Friends didn’t so much reflect their dark times as offer sunnier, retro-flavored antidotes to them. “Let’s be friends,” the Beach Boys sing on the title track, which could read as a plea for harmony in a fractious family band — or a prayer for a fraying world. Those searching, soothing sounds might be just the temporary balm we need to get us through what’s shaping up to be an even darker moment, a world that seems again to be tearing itself apart.

The Zombies and Brian Wilson perform Tuesday at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Tickets online.

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2 Responses. Have your say.

  1. bob priest says:

    Ah, The Beach Boys! I have two fun, fun, fun memories to share:

    1- my first ever musical public performance was getting up in front of my Roosevelt Elementary 5th grade class in Burbank (1962) with Jim Stimpson & singing Surfin’ USA completely on the spur of the moment.

    2 – driving down Van Nuys Blvd in late 1966 with band mates from Time Further Out (ripped the name from Dave Brubeck’s LP) when Good Vibrations came over the radio (probably KRLA). It was so immediately stunning that we pulled the car over to the side of the road in order to properly take it in.

    While I still LOVE The Beach Boys, I never saw them live back in the day & can’t bring myself to go see Brian Wilson now. Maybe that’s my loss, maybe not. I’ll never know.

  2. Mark says:

    Mr. Campbell, you need to listen to Sunflower, Surfs Up, Holland, and Carl & The Passions. The Beach Boys did enrich the ’70’s with these progressive albums. You’re right, we can’t know what they might have done had things gone right in the late ’60’s. But the BB’s were able to reinvent themselves for awhile, until they turned themselves into a corporate nostalgia act. Their last album was pretty solid though. And good for the Zombies to still have that fire to make new music today!

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