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'Carl and the Passions – So Tough:' The Beach Boys' misunderstood 1972 rock opus

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The Beach Boys: Carl and the Passions – So Tough (1972 album)

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“I need a breeze blowing softly, to keep my wind vane from standing, I need a whole lot of sunshine, to keep my sundial advancing.” And so goes the opening stanza of The Beach Boys’ “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone,” the rocking lead track on the vastly underrated Carl and the Passions – So Tough. No two ways about it, this was not your parents’ square fun in the sun band anymore.

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The Beach Boys were at a crossroads in the early ‘70s. Brian Wilson, the resident genius, leader, composer, producer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist for the group, was falling victim to his long battle with mental illness and inexplicably losing interest in the band’s future. A penchant for over-eating, drug use, non-exercise, and constant sleeping only exacerbated the situation. However, contrary to many oft-told "official" accounts, Brian wasn't entirely out of the game yet, as he wrote, arranged, and performed multiple instruments on three of the best songs destined for So Tough.

Younger brother Carl, who would have celebrated his 67th birthday today, had propitiously been demonstrating his burgeoning production skills since the soulful Wild Honey arrived with minimal fanfare five years earlier. Gradually taking over the leadership reins from Brian, the production credit on each album still democratically stated, “Produced by the Beach Boys.” Fittingly, Carl is the only Beach Boy present on every song featured on So Tough.

Since the Smile debacle and their no-show at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival during the Summer of Love, the Beach Boys’ commercial success was dwindling. “I Can Hear Music,” a jubilant Phil Spector homage released as an A-side in February 1969, had been their last single to reach the Top 30. Their album sales were not much better in America, although the previous album, the critically acclaimed Surf’s Up, demonstrated promise with a surprise placement in the Top 30.

The controversial Jack Rieley, who slyly altered his résumé and convinced Carl to appoint him as the group’s latest manager after the failure of Sunflower in late 1970, had a game plan to revert his client’s decline.

He advocated composing more socially conscious songs, longer concert set lists, and the addition of two talented South African musicians, Blondie Chaplin (guitar) and Ricky Fataar (drums), to beef up the official band line-up.

Carl had actually discovered Chaplin and Fataar performing as members of the Flames late one night in a seedy London nightclub. Wanting to experiment sonically and confound audiences’ expectations, Carl, and especially middle brother Dennis, met Rieley’s suggestion with much enthusiasm. Low and behold, the manager’s plan eventually proved successful, and the counterculture embraced the significant overhaul, especially at sold-out live shows across America.

Named for a formulative rock ‘n’ roll band featuring a teenage Carl, recording sessions for So Tough commenced in December 1971 and continued intermittently into April (a heavy touring schedule was the primary culprit). Bruce Johnston, who replaced Brian on the road in 1965 and gradually proved his vocal dexterity in the studio, apparently got into a heated disagreement with Rieley. While the issue remains murky 40 years later, Johnston resigned from the band suddenly. Incidentally, his only appearance on the album consists of bass and backing vocals on “Marcella.”

Minus Johnston, the presence of Chaplin and Fataar permeated the sessions mightily, since both played multiple instruments, wrote songs, and sang lead vocals. Fataar’s drumming expertise actually saved the day.

Mere days before the premiere of his sole acting role as “The Mechanic” in the esteemed road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, Dennis drunkenly put his right hand through a pane of glass at his Los Angeles home, severing crucial nerves in his hand and wrist. Unable to play drums for several years, the musician cultivated his songwriting and keyboard skills.

In listening to the album 40-plus years later, “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone,” written by Rieley and Brian, is one of the best opening cuts on a Beach Boys album, period. Completely out of left field, a lot of folks back in the day probably didn't think the boys were capable of such a rocking, powerful song. And it has Carl's high octane vocal delivery, Brian on harmony, banjo courtesy of Dillards axeman Doug Dillard, and pedal steel breaks, too. Released as the album’s first single, the song died quickly. It certainly is worthy of more attention.

“Here She Comes,” the first of two Chaplin/Fataar co-writes, is more groove-based and sounds nothing like the rest of the Beach Boys’ canon. Not necessarily a bad thing, depending on one’s expectations. It alienates fans to this day, particularly longtime ones. Oddly, the drums are mixed way up front [perhaps Carl let Fataar adjust the mixing console], sometimes overpowering the lyrics. But a fine guitar solo courtesy of Chaplin is icing on the cake.

Original fans probably took the needle off the record in exasperation by the time “He Come Down” arrived. The closest to a gospel number ever laid down by the group, it serves as Mike Love’s Hare Krishna showcase, although he trades verses with Carl, Al Jardine, and Chaplin. For various reasons, Love’s role remained unusually minimal during the sessions. Jardine also curtailed his musical duties, playing no guitar or bass anywhere. The finger-snapping, wordless breakdown by Carl and Jardine’s “down down down” interlude are memorable, although the clunky lyrics leave much to be desired. Brian co-wrote, arranged the vocals, and kicks the tune into high gear on piano and organ, aided by Billy Hinsche on additional organ.

“Marcella” should have been a comeback single for the band, but once again, received no chart action. Another Brian/Rieley co-write with early participation from reclusive lyricist Tandyn Almer, the chugging pop rock ode to Brian’s former masseuse has a wonderful guitar solo by Carl and a mid-section breakdown sung by Love: “One arm over my shoulder, sandals dance at my feet, eyes that'll knock you right over, ooh Marcella's so sweet”, recalling his similar, crucial contribution to the iconic “Good Vibrations.” It was revived after decades of inactivity during the band’s lucrative 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour in 2012. An up and coming band would be well served by covering it.

“Hold On, Dear Brother” serves as the final Chaplin/Fataar composition, possibly a plea for Brian’s well-being. Featuring Chaplin’s soul-influenced vocal, it is yet another experimental sojourn, albeit this time with country rock overtones. Ace session cat and Michael Nesmith band mate Red Rhodes supplies the gorgeous pedal steel guitar. So far, prominent rock guitar solos have actually dominated the album, a rarity for much of the band’s discography.

The cosmically conscious, Hindu-inspired “All This Is That” has a mesmerizing quality anchored by massive keyboard layers, bass, and the group’s ethereal vocal chants. Carl never sounded as angelic as when his voice reaches near soprano range on the fade… “Jai guru dev, jai…” Jardine brought the song out of the proverbial mothballs at many shows for the band’s 50th anniversary, and it never failed to bring the house down.

Continuing a trend of placing all slow songs towards the end, the remainder of side two gives way to grandiose ballads spearheaded by Dennis, co-written with Daryl Dragon of future ‘70s pop hit makers Captain & Tenille. In modern times, the constantly on the move syndrome affecting many listeners may hamper their ability to digest “Make It Good” and “Cuddle Up” sufficiently. A string section accentuates the devastatingly aching mood, particularly on the latter.

“Cuddle Up” is perfect for a wedding ceremony [e.g. “I know a man who’s so in love…the night has come, cuddle up to me, keep warm, close to me…”]. The drummer sings his heart out, frustratingly only a scant few years before cigarettes, alcohol and hard living took their toll on his once fragile voice. Perhaps one day Dennis’ piano demo, if it still exists in the Brother vaults, can be heard. Toni Tenille can be heard on backing vocals.

Noted Beach Boys historian and archivist Andrew G. Doe concurred in a recent interview: “When I heard Dennis’ two contributions on So Tough, I suddenly realized his immense talent. His Sunflower material was excellent, but so was so much else on that album whereas on So Tough, his two songs just stood out in stark relief. Definite precursors to Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis’ debut solo masterpiece. In turn, they made me go back to re-evaluate his contributions from Friends [1968] on up.”

Once their eighteenth studio long player was mixed and mastered in April, an album cover and title were chosen. Jon Stebbins, author of The Beach Boys in Concert: The Complete History of America's Band… and definitive biographies on both Dennis and early Beach Boy David Marks, offers insight: “I've always thought So Tough is just a riff on a typical 1950s doo-wop or R&B group name and title. It's a pre-cursor to the 50's nostalgia wave that was already brewing and would be mainstream in a couple of years – especially in tandem with the cover art which is very retro. The sounds on the LP had nothing to do with nostalgia, but the name and artwork did.”

Containing only eight songs and no mention of the band’s name on the cover, Carl, Dennis and Rieley hoped their ploy would reinvent the band and gain some radio play. While reinvention did occur, albeit briefly, commercial aspirations were scuttled when the solid, forward thinking album was unbelievably paired with Pet Sounds upon its belated arrival in stores in May 1972, a marketing scheme dreamed up by a Warner Bros. / Reprise executive in order to boost sales. The gesture was a head-scratching moment for most buyers and critics, as the seminal Pet Sounds had absolutely nothing in common with the new record except for the band’s name.

So Tough was doomed from the start, stalling at No. 50 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. In the UK, the public still appreciated the band’s musical output, and it reached No. 25 there. Re-released at the dawn of the new millenium as a combined two-fer with their better-selling, excellent follow-up, Holland, and containing liner notes penned by none other than unabashed fan Elton John, over time the album has grown in stature. It easily ranks among the Beach Boys’ Top 12 best records, along with most any gleaned from their glorious 1965–1973 period.

If you wanna hear tunes about surfing, hot rods, school spirit and fun in the sun, you will be sorely disappointed with So Tough. The songs are enjoyable because the boys were stretching their musical boundaries and revamping their signature sound. This unfortunately didn't happen very often after Holland, not coincidentally the last studio project with Chaplin and Fataar in the line-up. Sure, there is an admitted lack of sonic cohesion, but the album’s ramshackle nature works in its favor. Carl and the Passions – So Tough is especially perfect for rock connoisseurs or first-time listeners of the Beach Boys’ catalogue. Give it a spin, why don’t you?

DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! Dennis Wilson honed his drumming skills during the swinging '60s. Wilson was a late bloomer compared to his mega talented brothers –Brian and Carl – but he ultimately emerged as the Beach Boys' most underrated songwriter, producer, and vocalist. A Dennis-led performance was an emotionally wrenching experience, combining deeply personal lyrics, a majestic yet delicate instrumental track, and a vocal so weathered as to be almost ravaged. On the anniversary of what would have been Dennis' 68th birthday, a slew of Beach Boys experts documented the drummer's tragic trajectory and legacy among modern musicians in "Like Heat from a Blast Furnace: The Sheer Raw Force of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson." It is required reading into the window of a tortured yet extremely gifted soul.

Twitter: To interact directly with Jeremy, follow @jeremylr

Exclusive Interview: Dennis Wilson was the essence of cool. His primal rock drumming influenced waves of future musicians long after the musician's tragic premature demise. In a recent profile, Jon Stebbins granted a wide-ranging interview that examines his favorite Beach Boys album, discounts the myth that the band didn't play on their classic records, recalls seeing the group in concert on multiple occasions [Stebbins partied too hard the first time but has strong memories of their 1976 Day on the Green show], remembers a late summer afternoon spent one on one with Dennis, and argues for the masterpiece that is "Pacific Ocean Blue".

Exclusive Interview No. 2: Founding Beach Boy Al Jardine recently granted an exclusive conversation with this column. Entitled "Persistence Pays Off: In Step With Al Jardine..." ], the two-part installment delves into the musician's first solo album (A Postcard From California), why he originally left the band, and the difficult and demanding Murry Wilson (father of the three Wilsons). In addition, Jardine surprised fans across the world and Capitol executives by using the interview to announce the impending release of Smile, one of pop music's legendary milestones left in the vaults for nearly half a century.

Exclusive Interview No. 3: James Burton, the Master of Telecaster, has enhanced a veritable who's who of icons, including Elvis Presley, John Denver, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Glen Campbell, The Monkees and yes, The Beach Boys. Perhaps his closest musical compadre was Rick Nelson, as the "Poor Little Fool" singer slyly lured an 18-year-old Burton away from rockabilly artist Bob Luman in 1957, ultimately creating an 11-year partnership in the recording studio. To read a comprehensive conversation with the guitarist marking the anniversary of Nelson's untimely death ["Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson"], simply click on the highlighted link.

Exclusive Interview No. 4: The Monkees began their incredible chart run at the zenith of Beach Boys popularity in 1966. In a brand-new feature entitled "A Piercing 'Mommy and Daddy' Conversation...", singer-drummer Micky Dolenz waxes poetic on such intriguing subjects as the origin of his sense of humor, how his mother guided his career, a surprising fondness for country music demonstrated on his new album, his first musical instrument, why he is unable to write prolifically, his most underrated composition, and whether he is an Elvis Presley fan.

*****CLICK HERE to get your free email subscription to Jeremy Roberts’ regular column. Authentic interviews, original commentary, news, and reviews from the wide world of pop culture will be delivered directly to your inbox. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don't hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thanks!

© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2014. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Headlines with links are fine. In addition, posting any links to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.

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