With the popularity of the recent Beatles' "1" CD, one could almost forgive the thought that the Beatles were the only legendary act that the American label Capitol Records oversaw.
However, there was another Capitol Records act that represented perhaps the Beatles' only artistic competitor, that Paul McCartney says influenced "Sgt. Pepper's" and whose bandleader the Beatles' producer Sir George Martin called "a living genius of pop music": the Beach Boys.
Seizing upon the Zeitgeist of band-founder Brian Wilson's successful "Pet Sounds Symphony Tour" of the past year and celebrating the 40th anniversary of the band's formation, Capitol will re-issue 16 Beach Boys albums in digitally remastered form Tuesday and April 10.
The albums are being released as "twofers," with the 16 titles on eight CDs. Four twofers will be released on each date.
The first six titles might appear familiar terrain, thanks to existing greatest-hits packages. "Surfin' Safari," "Surfin' USA," "Surfer Girl," "Shut Down Vol. 2," "Little Deuce Coupe" and "All Summer Long" represent the creative output from the five Hawthorne, Calif., natives during a critical time.
From 1962 to 1964, a youth culture was reinventing itself after the complacency of the post-Army-Elvis slump. Brian Wilson, brothers Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love and chum Al Jardine spent those years fusing classic harmonic structure with adolescent rebellion expressed in terms of cars, girls and surfing. But between the end of the Kennedy era and the ascent of the Beatles, the Beach Boys were forced to mature like the rest of their generation, and they offered up deeply contemplative songs like "In My Room" and "Don't Worry Baby."
The next two albums, "The Beach Boys Today!" and "Summer Days (And Summer Nights!)" are portraits of an artist turning inward. By the end of 1964, Brian Wilson had ceased touring with the band - much to his mates' chagrin - and these efforts remind us that Brian was indeed a young genius. Wilson was a one-man force who produced, arranged the music for the session musicians, and also taught the harmonies to the Boys when they rejoined him in the studio.
Here, songs like "When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)" and "Please Let Me Wonder" reveal the complexity of his vision. Still, there remained the boy-meets-girl fare like "Help Me, Rhonda" to keep the band commercially sound.
A twofer that pairs a contractual obligation and a sonic experiment is "Party"/"Stack-O-Tracks." Released in November 1965, the "Party" album spawned the monster single "Barbara Ann" and predated the whole "MTV Unplugged" concept by 20 years.
Under pressure from the label to rush out a new product, Brian assembled the band in the studio with friends, acoustic guitars, bongos, potato chips and beer, and proceeded to simulate the sound of a "party." The result is surprisingly fresh, even today, if a tad disingenuous with the band singing Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'." "Stack-O-Tracks" (1968) was a mostly instrumental offering, maybe the earliest example of the "karaoke" phenomenon's American spinoff: It let fans sing along to favorite tunes without the vocals.
The next four albums (1967-69), "Smiley Smile"/"Wild Honey" and "Friends"/"20/20," represent a band in deep transition, or steep decline, depending upon whom in the music business is asked.
In 1966, Brian Wilson released "Pet Sounds," to a less-than-enthusiastic public that seemed confused that he had abandoned the surf-car-girls trifecta. And in the wake of that apparent commercial failure, Wilson set to work on "Smile," an album that never reached completion - owing at least in part to the increased mental instability and frustration of its pioneer and to the resentment of certain band members. Part political statement, part American history lesson and part "teen-age symphony to God" (as Brian Wilson put it), "Smile" was reportedly not embraced by the band, particularly Mike Love, who took exception with song lyrics.
"Smiley Smile" (1967) takes the remnants of "Smile" and utilizes the same minimalist concept as the "Party" album, except this time the Boys sound as if the partying happened before they entered the studio. To be sure, however, there are standout songs like "Heroes and Villains" and, of course, "Good Vibrations."
The same year, the band also released "Wild Honey," which Carl Wilson famously called "music for Brian to cool out by."
It's a soulful album that wears its heart on its sleeve, with the band eschewing harmony at times for guttural screaming. Its cover version of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her" is testimony to the group's intentions then.