Sifting through YouTube compilations of what the Beach Boys’ Sunflower could have been during those early 1970s, when the band at last picked up their slithery muse again, holding on as long as that period which brought them the exotic sunset and proto-Emo longings of the celestially stamped and approved Pet Sounds – was to all intents a hangover cure no one knew was sitting in their fridge. After the “debacle” of SMiLE and its “replacement” Smiley Smile, Sunflower revealed its golden morning ray-self as the Beach Boys’ first bona fide masterpiece, in contrast to the singular Brian Wilson masterpiece that Pet Sounds was.
Of those manifold early versions of what would eventually beam upon a relatively uninterested world in late-August 1970 (y’know – Nixon, ‘nam, all that jazz), there is a peculiar and hard to find cut entitled ‘Walkin’’ that sums up better than most of their other troubles combined as to why the Beach Boys might not have made it even past New Year’s Eve 1969. In fact, during the sessions for this forgotten-with-good-reason curio, Brian apparently flung his earphones on the ground in a fit of rage and abandoned the session entirely. There were numerous troubles latching to the group’s good-natured vibes around this period that makes Sunflower‘s artistic success all the more miraculous. Between Murray Wilson’s continued interference in their commercial and musical affairs and a growing record label apathy, is it any surprise the band were finding it so hard to muster up anything harmonious and homogeneous?
Somewhat surprisingly, it was Dennis Wilson whose focus and creativity kept the project’s head above murky waters. That surprise shouldn’t be related to anything artistic, considering his fresh and sparkly contributions to the previous two studio albums. It was rather his personal circumstances, where his encounters with a certain C. Manson Esq. had left his finances strained, his personal reputation five miles up shit creek, and his life still clinging to his body by the skin of his hash-yellowed teeth.
Dennis’ ballad ‘Forever’, co-written with buddy Gregg Jakobson, was among the first pieces written for the sessions, and one of the few to last the duration. Though noted for their often treacle-glazed meanderings into matters of the heart, ‘Forever’ is an aeon or three away from the power-ballad horrors of student-irony party nights, and those Eastenders drumming torture sessions of everything that would be an albatross around the throats of love songs fifteen years later. With light pedal steel guitar on intro, acoustic chords woven into deceptively-fey piano and Jakobson’s lyrics rasping from Denny’s already time-shackled howl, the band at least had a lot of incentive now to spark their withering fire in-between the mounting paperwork.
By mid-1970, several takes of Sunflower had been rejected by Reprise Records, who grew so impatient that the group were given a semi-official warning. Having already been given the boot by Capitol Records earlier in the year, and with their new Reprise deal looking more and more like a down-payment on broken bottles of snake-oil beside an overturned cart with its wheels still spinning, it was clear that circumstances molded the Beach Boys into more and more of a fully creative unit.. Hell, even Mike Love, of “wheeeeeeeeeennnnnnn…” fame, stepped-up a gear, contributing utterly divine vocals to the aether-drizzled ‘All I Wanna Do’ (yes, it hurts to say nice things about Mike Love, but this is Sunflower we’re talking about, not Summer in Paradise). Carl’s choirboy tones tuned to a nihilistic despair for ‘It’s About Time’, while ‘This Whole World’ was Brian’s best ever justification of venturing no further than the side of his bed to wee in an already three-quarters full milk bottle. It’s tricky to grasp how everything they touched had turned back from shit into gold again, something military psychologists might view as a siege mentality tightening up morale in the ranks. However, there’s nothing harsh or metallic about Sunflower, nothing to suggest an inkling of irony about its moniker. Sure, there are moments in-between that throw caution, like Dennis exchanging his “Wilson” for a Lee Lewis track “Got to Know the Woman” – or as mentioned the strung-out ‘It’s About Time’. These are examples of a band observing their own semi-descent into obscurity and clutching the controls right to their chests dragging themselves out again, no longer unknowing participants in their own horrors.
Concluding track ‘Cool Cool Water’ – based on Brian’s original SMiLE take, re-imagined that trip to the beach in early evening, when most people have gone home, minus a few stragglers and a couple walking their dog.. It is the theme of contemplation, regeneration, a philosophy more present in their music than perhaps even Pet Sounds had. One could see steam rise as the boys hit the water, surf boards highly unnecessary, not that they had carried any since at least early 1964. There is a peacefulness that Sunflower carries across its 12 tracks, all six group members as egalitarian vessels of productivity, ushering in a progressive-pop, sometimes art-rock sound that they tragically abandoned after 1973’s Holland, only briefly returning to for 1977’s beautifully weird Love You (only again to be an almost exclusive Brian thing, the group huddle of 1970 almost totally gone).
Commercially Sunflower was a disaster. 1970 already had its chosen juxtapositions of love vs hate, and the Beach Boys simply weren’t square enough to sit beside Andy Williams or greasy enough to ride beside Peter Fonda. Like so many of their nuanced curios, they were stuck somewhere in-between the two, and Sunflower was that shimmering blast of light on an ocean after a perfect storm – unseen, unheard – as everyone heads for a dingy quayside bar middle-aged couples stare into and frown at.