By Dave Gebroe
There is this strange phenomenon that occurs, wherein bands who’ve fallen out of touch with current trends, whose salad days are now naught but a series of scrapbook clippings, attempt to get with the times and take up a more commercial direction…and wind up unintentionally creating the least commercial music of their career. If you’re a true music nut, a diehard to the core, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you’ve never heard of Carl & The Passions…So Tough, then I know I’ve got your attention.
By 1972, the Beach Boys were an antiquated notion at best. The world had no idea what to think of them, these hopelessly square signifiers of a dead age, the band with the most cloddishly silly name possible who were now trouncing about clad in meditation robes and long, filthy beards, their travails inspiring all manner of tales involving drug abuse and madness. The world just wanted to get it over with already, flush these guys down the toilet and forget the whole thing ever happened. Over time, the band had frittered away their credibility to the point where it didn’t at all seem conceivable that they could work their way back into the black. The long-promised Smile project had never materialized back in 1967, nor did it appear five years later following yet another “boy cries wolf” round of public statement pinky swears. And after several purposely under-produced and hit-free (yet totally brilliant) records closing out the decade, Brian Wilson opted to sit out the Seventies, handing over the reins to the rest of the band, mainly brother Carl. The band’s response was to move ahead, fashioning new artistic directions that felt, to them, more in step with what was going on in the world around them.
There had already been signs of this shift underway. The band started writing ecologically themed songs on 1971’s Surf’s Up. They’d bandied about the possibility of shortening their name to simply “Beach,” to optimize the chances that the world would take them seriously without the baggage of their past weighing them down. And manager Jack Rieley was pushing hard for the band to take a hard rock direction, a style they were about as adept at as The Stooges were at square dance-style country waltzes. This suggestion, coupled with the discombobulated weirdness in the band, inspired resident uber-nerd Bruce Johnston to pack up and split, and Carl…well, he did what anyone would’ve done at a turning point like that: he drafted in a couple of funky black dudes. Enter guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar (later of Beatles parodists The Rutles), the latter to pound skins for Dennis Wilson while his hand recuperated from an accident. Both of these random additions to the whitest group on planet Earth had been spotted by Carl in London back in ’69 while playing in a band called The Flame.
Strangely, with their push to pursue a more progressive, contemporary direction, the title they chose for the record is possibly the most old-timey sounding of their entire oeuvre. Carl & The Passions was supposedly an early band name possibility, and its usage in the title intimates a surfeit of songs that deal with hanging out at malt shops and cruising the strip. But there’s nothing of the kind anywhere on this record. And the phrase “so tough” couldn’t describe with any less accuracy the sounds found within. But that’s okay, because it’s all part of the album’s unintentionally crazed charm.
So Tough could actually be my vote for the most schizophrenically disjointed album of all time. This record has no clue whatsoever what it wants to be. But its rather insane collection of disparate styles actually allows it, in some kind of weird, ass-backwards way, to cohere into a singular statement of in-the-moment purpose. Where there was a cohesive direction in their artistic arc under Brian’s direction, once he dropped out everyone saw the band as something other than the next guy, and So Tough illustrates quite clearly that there were now four very, very separate and distinct visions of what the Beach Boys should be. Mike Love saw it as a mouthpiece for the Maharishi’s teachings, Dennis as a showcase for his newly burgeoning talents as a string-drenched balladeer, new members Blondie and Ricky as a smooth, hip R&B unit, and Brian…well, Brian did what he could, which at that time was by all accounts pretty limited.
There are eight tracks on the record, with two examples each of the record’s four totally unrelated styles. The weakest of the batch is “Here She Comes” and “Hold On Dear Brother”, the Blondie/Ricky cuts. But I happen to love their inclusion on the record for two reasons: they sound absolutely nothing like the Beach Boys in any of their various guises; and the latter track has the gall to seem to be striking a position of brotherly concern for Brian’s mental health, coming from what amounted to nothing more than two peripheral neophytes on the scene.
Then comes the duo of TM tunes. “He Come Down” is their stab at a Baptismal, testimonial-style gospel belter, an interesting addition to the Boys’ canon. “All This Is That” is something else entirely, one of the most gentle, ethereally beautiful, and underrated Beach Boys songs in their entire catalog. With its soft, billowing harmonies, beds of pulsating keyboards, and burbling, percolating bass supporting the band’s most eloquent description of the Transcendental Meditation experience (many others of which stands as awkward or just plain embarrassing), “All This Is That” is a contender for the best song on the album.
Dennis’s pair of ballads is a real surprise, both astoundingly vulnerable and so heavily orchestrated as to seem eager to edge over into Disney-style bombast, stopping just short of being ludicrously over the top. “Make It Good” is the superior of the two, a heartbreaking love song with Dennis’s croak of a vocal selling the honesty behind the sentiment without a speck of doubt. “Cuddle Up” isn’t too shabby, either. Both songs wind up swelling to such melodramatically intense emotional peaks that it almost inspires laughter. The guy was obviously in a lot of pain, and nowhere is this more apparent than on his contributions to So Tough.
And then there are Brian’s songs. Somehow, even in the depths of battle with his inner demons, Brian pulled a couple of classics out of his ass. An amazing feat, that. “You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” kicks off the record with a throaty, gut-bucket growl of a Carl vocal that renders him virtually unrecognizable. This track feels like the most apt application of what were then contemporary tics to the Beach Boys formula. There’s just enough classic harmony and structural touches to make it obvious which band was behind the thing, but then it’s also something of an R&B ass-kicker with unique dabs of banjo and violin thrown in for good measure. Brian’s other contribution, “Marcella”, is a stone-cold classic, and the most Beach Boys-sounding track of the bunch. No surprise there, seeing as the melody’s been reduxed and tossed a couple times over, originally as an outtake from 1964 called “All Dressed Up For School” and then again during the 1970 Sunflower sessions when it was known as “I Just Got My Pay.” Of course, Brian’s songs were the ones released as singles. Not that they made anything even remotely resembling a dent in the charts—“Mess Of Help” sank without a trace, and “Marcella” shot to #110 with a bullet.
It isn’t much of a surprise, considering the confused (yet glorious) mess of styles on display, that Carl And The Passions…So Tough only made it to #50 in the States. In fact, I’m shocked it was that successful. It didn’t really stand a chance. A large part of the reason for this was that, for some bizarre reason, the Beach Boys decided to pair the record as the second disc of a two-album set with their 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. That was a recording with a uniform style that supported it with delicate grace through a song cycle of unparalleled beauty. It was flat-out suicide to group it with Carl and the Passions…So Tough, a move akin to a forty-year-old using college photos to represent himself on matchmaking sites and then wondering why his dates all seem so disappointed when he shows up.
I suppose, in retrospect, that this move made sense. Nobody cared about this band anymore. Yet, although they were indisputably past their prime, they were still a relevant act making solid music worthy of consideration. And pairing one of their oddest and most overlooked records with what is roundly considered their magnum opus must have been their way of shouting out to anyone who’d listen that, “We still matter, damn it! We had something to say back in the day, and we still do, no matter how differently we choose to say it!”
There would be only one more record (1973’s equally fascinating Holland) from this odd, mid-period incarnation of progressive-minded Beach Boys before they abandoned the uphill battle of attempting to convince the world that they were a valid artistic concern, and instead conceded to acting like the sun-and-fun puppets the world had wrongfully assumed they were. And thus the lead curtain of nostalgia came crashing down, and that was that. After all, in the end the general public tends to get what it asks for, which in this case—as in many, many others—is a damn shame.
To read more of Dave Gebroe’s “On Second Thought” posts, click here.