Why would anyone think a good-time rocker like “Fun, Fun, Fun” needed strings?
By Jason M. Rubin
A cynical music critic would probably note, most likely with venom, that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has just released yet another album in which light-classical flourishes are added to perfectly good pop music that never required them. A rabid Beach Boys fan like myself would pile on, proclaiming that the RPO has all but committed heresy by spraying orchestral graffiti on Brian Wilson’s meticulous arrangements and productions. And yet, after multiple listenings — the first, admittedly, a reluctant one — I must admit that, in this case, this inevitable money-grabbing summer Beach Boys reissue of the same songs anyone with interest in the group owns five times over is sufficiently different to be successful. It is a worthwhile experiment. At least much of it is.
At first, I was going to ignore the album. I was of similar mind to local music writer Brett Milano who, in a Facebook post, observed, “I’m fully of the ‘If those songs needed strings, Brian would’ve put ’em there’ camp.” But then I heard a few reputable people say some positive things about the CD. Then it hit #1 on the classical chart, and my curiosity got the better of me.
Of the 17 tracks on the CD, only one isn’t a Beach Boys classic. The opening track is a short introductory piece, “California Suite,” composed by the orchestra arranger and conductor Sally Herbert. All the other tunes are Beach Boys standards, several of them certifiable hits, with a generous 10 selections taken from Pet Sounds (1966) or later.
For each track, the original recording serves as the foundation. The vocals, the standout on any Beach Boys record, are bright and firmly in the forefront. They do not appear to be tampered with. The original instrumental tracks are generally maintained but, in a few cases, the orchestra and a hired rhythm section (including drummer Ralph Salmins, currently on tour with the Waterboys), perform some of the parts.
Tampering with Pop Perfection
The question, then, is this: does the orchestral backing enhance the original tracks? Keep in mind we’re talking Brian Wilson productions/arrangements, which are considered the gold standard of pop music. (Only two songs have no connection with Brian: Bruce Johnston’s 1971 “Disney Girls” and the wretched, Mike Love-ego-driven “Kokomo” from 1988.) At times, the extra parts are unwelcome and unnecessary, especially the frequent though short orchestral introductions to most of the tracks, which often contribute an abrupt transition into the ‘real’ song.
Why would anyone think a good-time rocker like “Fun, Fun, Fun” needed strings? Additionally, keep in mind that the brilliant Pet Sounds was exquisitely orchestrated by its composer. Clearly, then, a light touch would seem to be the best approach, and to the producers’ credit, that is largely the case. For example, 1967’s “Heroes and Villains”, the follow-up single to “Good Vibrations,” needs nothing added to it and, thankfully, not much is.
An example of where an early Beach Boys song is enhanced by the RPO is “Don’t Worry Baby,” a song that is inherently dramatic and proffers one of pop’s most minimal guitar solos. Here, the strings do not introduce the song; basically, they lay low except for the bridge to the choruses and the choruses themselves, where they support the background vocal harmonies well. They also add heft to the solo section. Still, when the strings mirror (over and over) the melody during the words “don’t worry baby” it comes off as a little much. Also, on the tender ballad “In My Room,” the strings turn out to be a bit intrusive, detracting from the singer’s declaration of solitude. Overall, though, the strings are effective, even affecting.
Picking Up Good Vibrations
There are five songs on the album from Pet Sounds. The producers and Herbert are respectful of the material, though not afraid to get their hands dirty. The exuberant “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is robust enough to handle the added orchestral harmonies; in the delicate “God Only Knows” the orchestra inserts itself as part of the tune’s core instrumentation: it’s more a case of replacement rattan than enhancement. The spiritual nature of the song welcomes this intrusion. The famous vocal tag at the end is touchingly rendered, nearly a capella at first (only cello accompaniment), before the orchestra re-enters to bring the song to a lovely resolution. “Here Today” and “You Still Believe In Me” are considered deep cuts on Pet Sounds; their inclusion here may be a nod to the nerds. Both are done well, but how can you bring strings to bear on Pet Sounds and not include “Caroline No”?
There are two standout tracks. One is the aforementioned “Disney Girls,” written and sung by Johnston, who was the second person to replace Brian on tour when he quit the road in 1965 (the first was Glen Campbell). Johnston has a tendency to embrace schmaltz (he penned one of Barry Manilow’s biggest hits, “I Write the Songs”), which would suggest that adding an orchestra is a dangerous move. However, the fact is that the tune centers on nostalgia, a paean to “Patti Page and summer days/On old Cape Cod” with “Open cars and clearer stars,” and the strings fit this mood perfectly. As adapted here, the tune sounds as if would be a standout on the soundtrack of a 1950s movie; it is the only song I would say is actually an improvement on the original. And that is an accomplishment.
The other standout is “Good Vibrations.” This kitchen sink of a song apparently can take anything you put into it. In this instance, the transition from orchestral intro to the opening words – sung beautifully by the late Carl Wilson – is seamless. As the song moves from section to section, the orchestra builds and recedes in lockstep, exploding in rapturous celebration by the end. Given an extended outro, the album closer clocks in at nearly a minute longer than the original.
The remaining cuts, including such crowd-pleasers as “California Girls,” “Sloop John B,” and “Help Me Rhonda” are fine, no doubt part of the package because a ‘greatest hits’ album will be more popular. I could damn this project with faint praise, proclaiming that it’s not as bad as I feared it would be, or that the orchestra does a fine job by not ruining any of the songs. But, after repeated listens, I will include this CD happily in my Beach Boys collection — and I will keep playing it. It will never replace Wilson’s originals or even the platinum 1974 collection Endless Summer, but it freshens up familiar songs without doing them any harm. So if you’re feeling apprehensive about this collection, take my advice: don’t worry, baby.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 33 years, the last 18 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012.