Brian emerges from his cocoon in an attempt to rekindle the flame
With a title like 15 Big Ones, one would be forgiven for thinking that this was yet another best-of to get the pundits to fork out money at a time when there was already no shortage of compilations. And while the band had been filling stadiums, sans Brian Wilson, on a seemingly never-ending nostalgic tour, Brian himself, thanks to his psychiatrist, was finally ready to rejoin the group, after several years of absence.
Released in 1976, at a time when The Beach Boys were hardly storming the charts, 15 Big Ones would be their first record since Pet Sounds to be produced by Wilson, the almost reclusive genius behind some of the late 20th century’s most enduring pop songs. Even the press-release included the rather bold statement that “Brian is back,” which raised both fans and critics expectations even further.
Things get off to a good start with Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music,” including an enthusiastic lead vocal by Mike Love. “It’s OK,” with saxophones courtesy of Roy Wood, is also enjoyable, with its rich harmonies, but by the time “Had To Phone Ya” comes on, the formula is starting to wear a little thin.
The syrupy “Chapel Of Love” is just plain insipid, as is Mike Love’s “Everyone’s In Love With You,” another sugary ballad brought to you by Hallmark. Things don’t exactly improve on the next three songs. The whimsical “Talk To Me” and “That Same Song” are little more than cheesy, ‘50s throwaways, the sort of thing one would expect to hear from Sha Na Na, while “TM Song,” Wilson’s 90 second ode to transcendental meditation, is arguably the album’s low point, with lyrics straight out of Fraggle Rock:
“Transcendental meditation should be part of your time/It’s simple, it’s easy/As making this rhyme.”
Elsewhere The Beach Boys continue to unleash their arsenal of soaring vocals, most notably on the joyous “Palisades Park,” Al Jardine’s sunny, surf-friendly “Susie Cincinnati,” followed by “A Casual Look,” originally a mid-50’s hit for The Six Teens.
Their version of “Blueberry Hill” is hardly an improvement over the original, to the extent that one wonders why they even bothered. “Back Home” was written by Wilson and Bob Norberg in 1963, so the fact they chose to resurrect it for this album perhaps intimates how desperate the band must have been for self-penned material. Still, it remains one of the better songs of the LP.
Doo-wop fans will no doubt rejoice listening to “In The Still Of The Night,” before finishing with the King/Goffin/Spector ballad “Just Once In My Life,” where one can begin to hear the deterioration in Wilson’s voice, something which in this case actually works in his favour, imbuing the song with a frayed and ragged texture.
The album cover alone ought to give away the fact that 15 Big Ones was hardly The Beach Boys’ finest moment, even with the full involvement of Wilson. If Smiley Smile was something of a flawed masterpiece, then 15 Big Ones is simply flawed, period. But like Elvis, who often wished that every year was 1956, The Beach Boys were simply too old fashioned to ever truly let go of the past, no matter how long they grew their hair and how many drugs they took.