1977 Album In Context: Love You by The Beach Boys

Loaded with the sounds of analog synthesizers and brutally honest lyrics, Love You captures the innermost thoughts of Beach Boys visionary, Brian Wilson, as he faces the hardships of mental illness, fading relationships, and addiction.  It is the group’s twenty-first studio album, which was released on April 11, 1977.  The album was written and produced almost entirely by Wilson and was initially intended to be released as his first solo album, but became a Beach Boys release after some minimal collaboration from Wilson’s brothers, Dennis and Carl, as well as the other two founding members of the group, Al Jardine and Mike Love.  Wilson started production on Love You just three months after the release of the group’s previous album, 15 Big Ones, in July of 1976.  Love You was released just before the rise of punk and disco, and as a result of poor promotion, the album did not gain the success Brian had hoped for, but did gain a cult following and went on to be considered a classic in the Beach Boys discography years later.

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Love You is one of the earliest works in the genre of synth-pop due to its use of analog synthesizer as well as other instrumental techniques and new wave experiments.  It was said by Wilson that his biggest inspiration for the arrangement of the album was Wendy Carlos’ 1968 release “Switched-On Bach,” which consisted of arrangements by Johann Sebastian Bach entirely played by Carlos on a moog synthesizer.  Moving on from the previous 15 Big Ones, Wilson hoped to make Love You “more creative, more original,” and “much more lyrically interesting,” even stating that he was “going to do another ‘Good Vibrations’ [this] time. Another masterpiece.’” Though he may not have created another tune that would compare to “Good Vibrations,” it was through Love You that Wilson was able to rediscover his love for writing music, express the feelings he had kept to himself during his reclusive period and allow himself to finally take on a project that he had complete creative control of. Due to years of chain-smoking and drug abuse, Wilson’s voice changed noticeably before the creation of this album, coming with a thicker, raspier tone than the smooth falsetto voice Wilson showcased in his most famous work from the decade before. With a variety of mismatched tunes and newly evolved vocals, Wilson somehow manages to tie together silly, childlike songs with tracks that were musically complex and emotional in a way that effectively blends together into a bizarre mixture of sounds that you would only find inside of the mind of a musical genius on the verge of insanity. In a review by singer-songwriter Patti Smith, she promotes the album and states that through it, Wilson is “[seemingly] frozen forever within the light bubbly aura of a birthday party.”

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Love You is one of the first albums of its time to be recorded using the latest multi-track recording of the late 1970s (exceeding the typical 16-track tape machines of the time), and being recorded almost entirely by one person.  This method of recording is similar to how musicians and producers use Garageband on their computers today.  Because of this new type of recording, Wilson played nearly every instrument on each track and additionally handled the production, mixing, and engineering involved in making an album afterwards.  The mixing and instrumental arrangement for the album was based on the “Wall of Sound” method, learned by Wilson from producer Phil Spector years earlier, whom Wilson admired for his work in songwriting and music production. The “Wall of Sound” approach is achieved by using large ensembles that often included instruments atypical to ensemble playing and layering them two to three times over in order to create a rich and full sound. Wilson was famous through his career for layering triple, sometimes even quadruple, vocal and instrument tracks on his recordings to get a rich sound; he even pioneered the “double-track” effect on lead vocals, where an artist records two identical vocal tracks and layers them to get a thicker sound, when he was only 20.

Wilson himself did play the majority of the instruments and sang most of the lead vocals on the album, but the other members including Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love also contributed with vocals and some very minimal writing on a few of the tracks.  Jardine and Love did not appreciate the album’s sound and concept (reminiscent of Pet Sounds, ten years earlier), but still worked with Wilson on it anyway, as he was extremely insistent on the album being a great success.  This was the last album that was written and produced by Wilson for the next eleven years until the release of his debut solo album, Brian Wilson in 1988.

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The tracks of the album consist of a variety of lyrical tones and themes throughout.  In a review of the album by Rolling Stone, it was said that “[the album’s] strengths are musical, [while] its weaknesses are lyrical,” as at a first glance it can appear that Wilson’s attempts at completing lyrics were awkwardly rhymed, silly and childlike, but have also been thought of as artistic and oddly affecting.  While some tracks on the album appear to have simple subject matter, such as “I Wanna Pick You Up,” where he sings about taking care of his daughter and rocking her to sleep, some tracks offer a clear view into Wilson’s true thoughts and emotions as he faces the many struggles within his life during this time.  “Johnny Carson,” the fourth track on the album, combines complex arrangements with extremely simplified lyrics that reflect Brian’s feelings about being the leader of The Beach Boys.  Over a bluesy organ, synthesizer, and Dennis’ snare, Brian sings ridiculous, yet simple lyrics about the very well known late night talk show host, using the image of Carson to capture his inner thoughts of pressure he faced while constantly attempting to live up to the expectations set by his band members and fans.  When listened to from this perspective, it’s easy to see through into Wilson’s confusion and pain: “Don’t you think he’s such a natural guy? / The way he’s kept it up could make you cry.” While with other tracks, it is more difficult to decipher the true meaning and inspiration behind Wilson’s lyrics, Johnny Carson is a perfect example of how Wilson used this album as an outlet to express the feelings behind his struggles.

The album’s reception came with many mixed reviews: It was low on the charts, some reviews stating that it was “disappointing,” while others claimed that the album was also a big improvement from 15 Big Ones, which was released the year before.  It peaked at 28 in the UK and 53 in the US, which is considerably successful, but this was low compared to the chart-topping success of their past releases.  It has been theorized that the album was a byproduct of “a falling out between artist and label,” due to the fact that The Beach Boys had just announced their parting from Reprise Records (who poorly promoted the album), as well as their new record deal with CBS. It has also been said that because of the very successful release of the group’s greatest hits album in 1974, “Endless Summer,” fans had refamiliarized themselves with The Beach Boys’ once-famous surf tunes, and as a result, were anticipating an album with songs that were reminiscent to tunes like “I Get Around,” “Fun Fun Fun,” and “Surfer Girl,” but instead were disappointed by how different Love You was in comparison to the group’s past work.

Despite its initially poor reception, Love You eventually developed a cult following for decades after its release, and according to Musician, Played and Listener in 1981, it went on to rank with Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Steely Dan’s Katy Lied, and Neil Young’s Zuma as one of the best California rock albums of the decade.  After reevaluating the album, many reviewers and fans now claim the album to be Wilson’s most ambitious work of the decade, and the final glimpse into his brilliance and sense of self.  Love You went on to influence dozens of bands and arists, including punk bands such as R.E.M., Sonic Youth and Ramones. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, an admitted Beach Boys fanatic, has been quoted as saying that Love You is his favourite Beach Boys release, and had a homemade cassette of it in his car for most of the 80’s.  When composing the piano arrangement for the group’s 1998 release “At My Most Beautiful,” bassist Mike Mills admitted that he felt “it [sounded] like music Brian Wilson would have written two decades prior.”  Though Love You may have been overlooked in the past, it is easy to see after listening to the album that Wilson managed to influence some of the greatest musicians to come after him with his fearlessness and ambition to create another masterpiece.

When thinking of The Beach Boys, Love You may not necessarily be the first album of their vast discography that comes to mind, but in no way does that mean that the album can’t be considered some of Wilson’s greatest work.  Love You is playful, joyous, unsettling, and bizarre.  It is a work that defies every expectation set by surf music lovers in the best way possible:  It is an encapsulation of unapologetic expression, experimentation, fearlessness and newfound happiness.  Through Love You, Brian Wilson celebrates the honesty that comes with his recovery from reclusion and his return to a world he finds comfort and joy in, and fills with phenomenal music for years to come.

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Have a listen to this classic album below:

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