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Author Topic: The evolution of the Beach Boys as backing vocalists (As heard on Feel Flows)  (Read 1164 times)
Joshilyn Hoisington
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« on: September 03, 2021, 09:44:32 AM »

With the recent boxed set's especial concentration on backing vocals, from its tantalizing a capella snippets, to the lead-vocal muted mixes, I think that it's clear that the Boys had matured into really consummate pros at creating arrangements of themselves singing to support the overall arrangement of the song as well as the lead vocalist.

To me, what I hear in these great arrangements is freedom.  Freedom to try things without the fear of getting something wrong.  But freedom without skill is a disaster, and the Boys had enough skill at this time to back it all up.

First, let's define the evolution to some extent.  The Beach Boys started their vocal life as a sort of Four Freshmen cover band, which then ported over to their surf-rock roots.  But by the 1964 and especially 1965, the group had really grown beyond this.  Pet Sounds, like it did for every aspect of the band's music, represented the most complete flowering of their initial idiom.  In Wouldn't it be Nice, we have massive stacks of vocals, with counter vocals, bomp-bomps, run run we ohhs, and the like.  It's the full inventory on display.

Then, a left turn for Smile.  While the band still does its thing vocally, backing vocals are starting tp become effects, or parodies.  Over the next few years, the band experiments with a more intimate sound, with edgier, more all encompassing leads, and lots of other things.  But by the time the 70s roll around, we find them ready to do extraordinary things.

In Steve Desper's book, he talks about the philosophical agreement that they all came to that vocals can be treated "as instruments" and it's clear that that's what they were doing.  The vocal arrangements we hear on Sunflower and Surf's Up, plus the sundries associated therewith, are busier than ever.

I believe that this works out for a specific reason.  Brian trained the boys personally to sing well, and to think about vocals in a specific way, and he gave them all this hands-on time in the studio.  On the other hand, he did not do the same when it came to arranging tracks.  While the boys did record a lot of their own music, the reality is that they simply were not there for a lot of Brian's best instrumental track creations.  I think Dennis and Carl figured out how to arrange tracks in their own way, oddly enough, completely in opposition to Brian's way, ie, layering everything track by track vs Brian's get everybody in a room.

The end result is nobody besides Brian really could put together a track like Brian.  Which is fine--they did their own things!  But where Brian could bejewel his tracks with hidden complexity, the rest maybe lacked that impulse.  That's not to say that the tracks produced by others lack appeal--on the contrary.  My point is that where Brian might have a trio of guitars playing arpeggios, the others circa 1970 throw voices at that spot.

This is of course an over simplification, because of course Brian has his hand on a lot of the arrangements all over those records.  But the point still stands, I think, in general -- that the band really went for it vocally as the tracks became simpler.


Here is a list of things that the band did vocally that I think marks this period as unique:

1.  Mike really goes for it on bass vocals.

I think when you let Mike let it rip, you're always in for a treat.  Whether it's doubling the track's bassline like on Cottonfields, adding rhythmic interest like on San Miguel, or just being Mike at his most unhinged on Got to know the Woman (with those descending mmmmmmms into his hoo-mao-maos), he's at the top of his game.  Letting him add his awesome doo-wop bass vocalist influences through his unique lens almost always ends well.


2.  Extra tracks allow freedom.

Having the luxury of several more tracks to devote to vocals allows them to do more.  Now they could do a track of a vocal pad, say a long "ahhh", but then also add countermelodies or other accents and additions, where before they might have had to have chosen one or the other.  It's sort of an extension of the WIBN fadeout.  You hear it on Til I Die, where there's a nice thick pad, plus the interlocking counterpieces.

3.  They weren't afraid to sound weird or even ugly.

Again, we can see early examples of this cropping up where they will put on some kind of silly inflection.  Singing as Smoky the Bear, or whatever.  Or even something like the cupped mouth trick on the WIBN bass verse, all the way to the weirdo Smile experiments.  But here it's taken all the way out to the end of the pier, while staying very musical.  Nasal dit-dits, exaggerated bass sounds, whispers -- whatever effect they wanted, executed with no fear.

Anyway, I just wanted to express my admiration for what they were doing vocally at this time.
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Emdeeh
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« Reply #1 on: September 03, 2021, 10:59:21 AM »

^ Yes!!! Nice insights, Joshilyn.
« Last Edit: September 03, 2021, 11:00:27 AM by Emdeeh » Logged
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« Reply #2 on: September 03, 2021, 11:21:18 AM »

The "no fear" aspect of this is quite interesting. It certainly seem to be the case, and I wonder how this figures into what Howie discusses in the liner notes; namely, that despite contemporaneously touring a much less current/progressive setlist (and being constrained to some degree by number of vocalists and musicians on stage), they would then go into the studio with full confidence and work on such a wide array of material, a truly progressive attitude in the literal sense.

What I'm curious about is, does it seem like it was easier to have no fear because they knew they weren't getting hits anymore? I'm not positing this, I'm truly pitching it out as a question. They certainly wanted any and all measures of success, from sales to chart position to critical notices, etc. But was the crazy and amazing variety of styles on this stuff, was it an attempt to hope *something* stuck as commercial, or was it easier to follow their muse because they didn't expect to have hits?

I know that part of it was simply that this was "what they do"; up through 1979 or 1980 they were pretty tied into the tour-album-tour-album cycle. So I'm sure part of doing what they did in 69-71 wasn't informed by a specific motive, but was just them continuing to do what they did.

Back specifically to vocal arrangements, this stuff is just unparalleled it is inventiveness and ingenuity, and pure technical ability. And yes, Mike is a key star on these vocals. "San Miguel" becomes infinitely more interesting to me in the various forms on this set; remixed, backing track + backing vocals, and the vocals-only bit.

You know, there are on occasion songs in a band's catalog that maybe start to get milked, especially on big deep-dive boxed sets. But truly, they can never pick apart the vocals (and also the instruments!) on "This Whole World" (and a ton of other songs) too much. Like really, I'm ready for like five other "under-dub" mixes singling out various portions of both. 
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Joshilyn Hoisington
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« Reply #3 on: September 03, 2021, 12:05:25 PM »

Why they had no fear is a really good question.  Maybe it was a sense that it didn't matter what they did, or maybe it just felt good to let it all go, artistically.
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Joshilyn Hoisington
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« Reply #4 on: September 03, 2021, 12:09:27 PM »

You know, there are on occasion songs in a band's catalog that maybe start to get milked, especially on big deep-dive boxed sets. But truly, they can never pick apart the vocals (and also the instruments!) on "This Whole World" (and a ton of other songs) too much. Like really, I'm ready for like five other "under-dub" mixes singling out various portions of both. 

Absolutely, and I think that making individual multi tracks or stems available for classic recordings (not just the Beach Boys) is actually a sort of imperative that the music industry should have.  Not only can they charge people again for the same song, over and over, but the public largely has no idea how records were made, and such deconstruction serves as a great education to really show the actual WORK that goes into it.

But in lieu of such things being made available, that's where I hope to come in with some faithful recreations of some of what they were doing.  It definitely isn't as good as the real thing, but I try to show what's going on, and again, to highlight the actual cognizable skill, art, and craft of what musicians do in the studio.  It's not magic.  Well, not all of it.
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« Reply #5 on: September 03, 2021, 12:48:04 PM »

Fascinating thread. For me the big highlight of this set are the vocal excerpts. I always love to hear those busy vocal rounds, so the opportunity to listen the isolated vocal tracks is insanely cool. Marcella, This whole world, Add some music etc, whoa, just incredible!
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Don Malcolm
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« Reply #6 on: September 03, 2021, 02:32:31 PM »

I think it's now abundantly clear that, starting in 1969, Carl (and, in his own way, Bruce) looked for ways to take the backing vocal arrangements to "places where new things might be found." They were riffing off what they'd been involved with previously, but when they did it on their own they took things further, adding more layers than even Brian would create, possibly because they didn't quite know how to reproduce a similar sense of fullness without using more background voices.

As Carl got more confident in what he was doing, the parts became more intricate, filled with tiny details that become increasingly difficult to pick out of a finished mix, and Carl's love of "tags" gave him license to take it to the limit and create more expressive, harder-edged, "soulful" backing vocal figures. Bruce has a similar impetus for fullness, but it's more ethereal and choir-like, linked to ascending figures rise up in the background ("Tears," "Disney Girls"). Certain of Dennis' songs partake of this as well ("San Miguel," "Got to Know the Woman," the "tag" in "Celebrate the News," and "Slip On Through," but it's unclear who was doing the vocal arranging for those tracks. (I suspect several of the mega-experts can fill all that in.)

The level of commitment to their vocal sound that had developed and escalated in tandem with Brian's evolution as a songwriter was almost certainly the reason why the band had no qualms about trying anything vocally--they'd been through an incredible intense "boot camp" under Brian and had developed their self-identity around their abilities to deliver a uniquely complex vocal sound. Pride of previous accomplishment inspired them to be fearless, I'd figure...

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« Reply #7 on: September 03, 2021, 07:10:59 PM »

Seriously, how many people asked Carl to sing on their records over the years? I think it was a kajillion, give or take a few!

There's a reason for that.

One or two of them had perfect pitch, or at least really strong relative pitch, but it's the arrangements that are just incredible.
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« Reply #8 on: September 03, 2021, 08:25:03 PM »

It should be worth noting that while the rest of the band were certainly coming into their own around this time, the most complex and layered vocal arrangements still came from Brian. All I Wanna Do, Cool Cool Water, Add Some Music, This Whole World, and At My Window have so many different melodies going on at once. Not to mention Til I Die, Tree, and Break Away having some of the best straight harmony stacks they ever recorded.

And this is getting into another topic here, but I feel like it needs clarifying, as even Carl has been wrong on this one before - Brian does not have perfect pitch.
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« Reply #9 on: September 03, 2021, 09:10:22 PM »

Wonderful insights. Thanks for delving into this, Joshilyn!

I don't know who originated "stack o' vocals" releases but in the Beach Boys' world they're been a true blessing over the years. Life-changing! One thing I've remarked is that you've got all these layers where each part is gut-wrenchingly beautiful. Like, how much depth and musical richness could you ask for in any one track? It's something easily taken for granted. My only complaint is wanting more! (Sunshine Tomorrow 2 is a perfect example to follow)

I've not listened to the Feel Flows set enough to fully appreciate it all but I was particularly impressed with some of the dense, dramatic harmony stacks in certain Dennis tracks.
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Joshilyn Hoisington
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« Reply #10 on: September 04, 2021, 07:25:31 AM »

It should be worth noting that while the rest of the band were certainly coming into their own around this time, the most complex and layered vocal arrangements still came from Brian. All I Wanna Do, Cool Cool Water, Add Some Music, This Whole World, and At My Window have so many different melodies going on at once. Not to mention Til I Die, Tree, and Break Away having some of the best straight harmony stacks they ever recorded.

And this is getting into another topic here, but I feel like it needs clarifying, as even Carl has been wrong on this one before - Brian does not have perfect pitch.

Brian kept getting better, too, yes.  I think this era was an apotheosis for him, for sure, just as it was for the rest of them.
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« Reply #11 on: September 04, 2021, 07:50:24 AM »

Speaking of Mike's great bass singing in this era...SOULFUL OLD MAN SUNSHINE just rules - jeesh, what great vocal performances from all of them, and Mike's lower-than-low bass singing on this one just slays me every time!
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« Reply #12 on: September 04, 2021, 08:35:14 AM »

Speaking of Mike's great bass singing in this era...SOULFUL OLD MAN SUNSHINE just rules - jeesh, what great vocal performances from all of them, and Mike's lower-than-low bass singing on this one just slays me every time!


There's a lot of arguing in Beach Boys and music fans world about Mike's abilities as a lyricist. Many want to think of Brian and Mike as an eye-to-eye composer-team. Although Mike wrote some really, really good lyrics, I don't think of him as being one of the great lyricist of Rock and Roll. It looks like this is the role that Mike sees himself in, though. Others argue about his role as frontman in the band and want to brand him one of Rock's best. That's stuff you can debate on and have different opinions. But when it comes to singing like Mike Love, there's just no one who could do stuff like him. Not only leads but also, as mentioned in this thread, as a backing vocalist. Just the pure sound of his voice is gold. The man did some incredible vocal work. I may even think that if everyone would concentrate about his vocal work instead of his lyrics, stage antics or whatever, there may be a lot less disagreement about his persona.



Quote
1.  Mike really goes for it on bass vocals.
 adding rhythmic interest like on San Miguel, or just being Mike at his most unhinged on Got to know the Woman (with those descending mmmmmmms into his hoo-mao-maos), he's at the top of his game.  Letting him add his awesome doo-wop bass vocalist influences through his unique lens almost always ends well.




Those are the two songs that I had to think about as well. Let's not forget "Celebrate the News".
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« Reply #13 on: September 04, 2021, 05:11:01 PM »

The a Cappella "All I Wanna Do" and "Marcella" are just wonderful! "Marcella" in particular was very revealing in how prominent Dennis was in the blend on that track. "Her eyes...those eyes will knock you right over".
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« Reply #14 on: September 15, 2021, 12:36:27 PM »

The acapella Marcella on the box set has SO much more edge and excitement than what they released on "So Tough." A big missed opportunity imo.

In interviews, they've mentioned it's supposed to have a Stones vibe - and while I hear that in the main riff — the performance and sounds are bland and watered-down. Apologies to those involved but they missed the mark on making this a rocker.
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