With The Beach Boys' recent release of Feel Flows, a major box-set compilation centred partly around their 1970 album Sunflower, Owen White took the time to reflect on the legendary album for The Mic's Classics Revisited.
Sunflower is widely agreed to be The Beach Boys’ strongest post-Pet Sounds effort, though few would argue it to have half the vitality or significance of that project. I think this is a shame however, as while Sunflower may be a very distinct beast from Pet Sounds, I still find it to be an essential document in its own right – a true hidden gem that stands up today as one of the finest pop albums of the 1970s. The record opens with Dennis Wilson’s righteous gospel-inspired barnburner Slip On Through. The thing that’ll probably strike you about it first is that it rocks far harder than a The Beach Boys song has any right to. From Dennis’s carnal howls on the chorus to the swooning horns of the verse and the group’s scorched earth harmonies throughout, it hints at the possibility of thrilling new musical dimensions for band to explore as they entered a new decade (dimensions that, tragically, would remain uncharted).
Dennis had a grasp of rhythmic dynamics and interplay missing in the work of the group’s other songwriters and here the turnaround from the restrained offbeat emphasis of the verse to the four-to-the-floor thrash of the chorus gives the song a pop like a soul-rocket. The record demonstrates the strength of its sequencing by grouping this track as a one-two punch with Brian Wilson’s similarly driving This Whole World. The songs balance each other out nicely with This Whole World providing a delicate ear-candy counterpoint to all of Slip On Through’s smoulder with its honeyed vocal arrangement and instantly addictive vibraphone line that shimmers under the chorus.
One-off blues oddity Got To Know the Woman is raucous, horny and shitloads of filthy fun, a set of adjectives I never knew I wanted be able to apply to a The Beach Boys song. Here, Dennis essentially conceives the concept of horny-posting a good 30+ years before Twitter would open its sleazy virtual doors with a simple, unrefined tale of lust that’s still enough to make you sweat. It’s About Time is another signature Dennis rollick co-written with terminally underestimated Carl Wilson. Lively Latin rhythms underpin the track giving it a shuffling groove adorned by a prominent bongo section that’s impossible to resist. Heap onto this a vocal performance in which Carl genuinely sounds like he’s in the throes of religious ecstasy, a jubilant guitar break and the surprisingly thrilling out-and-out jam on the outro and you have yet another certified Dennis Wilson classic.
"Dennis’ real crowning achievement comes in the surprising form of the elegant and restrained ballad Forever"
Dennis’ real crowning achievement, however, comes in the surprising form of the elegant and restrained ballad Forever. Just as delicate and achingly beautiful as anything his esteemed older brother composed, Forever is a love song at its purest distillation. It’s tender and sincere in a way few other pieces of music are, celebrating the selfless, golden joy of love with each ornate, angelic harmony and immaculately conceived note. When the big dog himself Brian Wilson describes your composition as “the most harmonically beautiful thing [he’s] ever heard” you know you’ve written something truly special.
None of this relentless Dennis worship is supposed to imply that Brian was by any means slacking with his contributions to Sunflower. The invitingly warm summer hue of Add Some Music To Your Day envelopes one of the bands most charmingly universal and in many ways surprisingly radical sentiments. It advocates sincerely and without pretence for the sublime, transformative power of music and succeeds at encapsulating that very power in its own stunning composition. Our Sweet Love is another trademark swooning Brian Wilson love song, well-trod ground for the band by this point and admittedly a little plain but still impressive in its own right, with an exquisite string arrangement and yet another stunning vocal performance from Carl.
All I Wanna Do is a true anomaly within not only the tracklist of the record but the canon of 20th century pop music itself. A breath-taking proto-dreampop/shoegaze track that seemed to fall straight out of time and into the mind of Brian Wilson. Its heavy slathering of reverb and delay effects shroud the already otherworldly song in layers of hazy miasma, like the most beautiful sunset ever witnessed in a dream. The simple, hypnotic guitar line and pillowy Moog accompaniment at its core prop-up some of the bands most lovely harmonies. Things take a turn heavenward for the final chorus as each stunning harmonic counterpoint collides at once with in a melodic supernova, each celestial, delayed harmony twinkling and glittering appropriately. Mike Love’s unusually thoughtful lyrics and wistful delivery here almost redeems his otherwise abominable legacy (not really).
The minimal contributions of the rest of the boys achieve varying degrees of success. Deirdre is a stunning slice of 70s soft rock augmented with a gorgeous vibraphone, horn and woodwind arrangement, and remains easily Bruce Johnston’s finest song-writing contribution to the band. It’s one of the rare moments his golden-oldies obsession truly pays off for a song that nostalgic, melancholic and contains just the right level of cheese. The other Johnston number here, Tears In The Morning doesn’t fare quite as well, benefiting from a passionate vocal performance and pretty vibraphone embellishments but still sounding undeniably like something Cliff Richards might sing. While I’m sure it has wet many a pair of geriatric panties over the years, it remains still a treat so sweet it might induce a massive coronary upon contact.
The album hits its sole pothole in Jardine’s sole contribution At My Window. Johnston’s overly affected vocals here have a cloying quality, somewhere between a children’s toy advert and a stoned garden gnome, that are likely to raise many an eyebrow. Fail that, the facile lyrics and stomach-turningly juvenile incorporation of birdsong recordings will ensure any remaining eyes are firmly rolled into the backs of all listener’s heads, and maybe off down their throats if they’re particularly unlucky. It’s not a fun listen.
"Sunflower is a real oddity in the cannon of The Beach Boys"
Sunflower is a real oddity in the cannon of The Beach Boys. The first record after the collapse of the Smile sessions that could be called a triumph in its own right. Suggesting a new, more democratic direction for a band that had been a vehicle for the talents of Brian Wilson for most of the 60s, it showcases the talents of the group’s other members stunningly, most especially Dennis. Sadly though, it was not to be. Just barely a decade later, Dennis Wilson would be dead. He drowned on December 28th 1983, three weeks after his 39th birthday, after a day of heavy drinking. One quiet winter evening in 1983, the world lost one of its unsung musical heroes; a bright shining beacon of creativity alongside his beloved brothers.
Dogged his whole life by the spectre of addiction stemming from unimaginable abuse suffered at the hands of the Wilson’s father Murray, he remains one of the most enigmatic and often misunderstood figures in the band’s history. By all accounts a troubled but sensitive, thoughtful and deeply talented man, his death was an unspeakable tragedy both musically and personally for those who knew and loved him. His rebellious, freewheeling spirit is sorely missed from the band’s subsequent work after his involvement waned, which after the largely excellent subsequent album Surf’s Up quickly devolved in drab pop cliché and unbearable Mike Love-centric dross. This leaves Sunflower in a peculiar position as one of the most underrated and rewarding but simultaneously intensely bittersweet experiences in the pop music canon. One that should absolutely be experienced by anyone with more than a passing interest in the group and their music.
For Dennis, who lives on in his timeless music and golden harmonies. Rest in peace and rock on.
Written by: Owen White
Edited by: Gemma Cockrell