“Insanity!” Al Jardine snorts; nearly 30 years have done little to dull his indignation. “I knew from the beginning it was going to be crazy. Yes, we were all a bit burned out on L.A. and frankly we needed a change, in fact we had entertained the idea of recording in the south of France where the Rolling Stones had just finished an album. But then our manager organised this little overseas expedition…”
In June 1972, the band that epitomised California, who had never recorded out of the state, were packed on planes – along with wives, kids, girlfriends, maids, pets and the entire office of their own label, Brother Records – and sent to a country with bicycles instead of cars, canals instead of surf, to make an album. Their studio – yes, they brought that too, hastily custom-built in the back of an old beachside porn cinema by the man who engineered Carl & The Passions So Tough – was set up in a small, empty farmhouse in Baambrugge, in a cow field near a railway track.
Holland was a masterful record made under arduous circumstances/ a work of mellow beauty that reflected its idyllic conditions/ a sophisticated album on a cutting edge console in a small shack/ with Brian sharing writing and production but in full command of his musical faculties/ with Brian at his dribbling nadir. The Beach Boys’ 1973 album arouses a variety of opinions, not least among its participants. One thing all agree on is who was responsible for moving the band to Holland, and thus ultimately for the album that took its name: Jack Rieley, the former DJ and journalist who took over as the Beach Boys’ manager in January 1971.
During his brief tenure with the band, there had already been many changes. Not least their image. Formerly shunned by the counter-culture, that year The Beach Boys had jammed with The Grateful Dead in San Francisco and played at an anti war demo; Dennis had co-starred in a movie (Two Lane Blacktop) aimed at the hip Easy Rider crowd. Rieley had fired Bruce Johnston and hired two young South African R&B musicians, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar of The Flame, who Al had discovered in a London club. Says Brian, “They brought a diversity.”
The new line-up’s first assignment Carl & The Passions….., was released the month they left for the Netherlands – a “very piecemeal, in between-touring kind of album,” says Ricky, cut in several studios at the same time. Including the one in Brian’s house.” Though most of the time Brian was in his bedroom – “I was going through some bad mind-trips, head-trips,” says Brian, “and I got tired of recording with the guys. They would call me down once in a while and I would listen to what they sang and say, I like it, I don’t like it, but I wasn’t like the leader. Other than that I stayed in my room.”
The studio was a whole other problem. Rieley had decided they should bring their own – at a time before portable studios. Given a “killer” schedule, Steve Moffitt, Gordon Rudd and a team of workers laboured night and day designing and building it. Moffitt: “There were a lot of things about it that were leading edge – it was the first console I knew of that had light meters instead of pointers and faders in four-position EQ.” It was flown over on several planes and Moffitt and Rudd assembled it in the farmhouse. A floor was built, weighted by Malibu sand; the walls were packed with fibreglass flown from L.A. “It was shocking trying to get all this equipment into such a small space.” Ricky: “Half the time we were recording, there would be some engineer lying under the console with his legs sticking out fixing something, or moving a channel around because we’d run out of channels to record.2 Blondie: “It was like tip-toeing through a wire war-zone. And there was a railroad track close by, a couple of hundred yards, and every time a train went by or the cows came too close you had to stop for a minute because you could pick the sound up.”
“We just made the best of it,” says Al, “and showed up every day, like you’d go to the office – except for Brian. I don’t think he showed up until the last day.”
Actually Brian came in quite often – almost always at night. “ I used to prefer to work on my own,2 he says. “Now I get off on collaborating with people, but then I didn’t. I was on a very, very big bummer. I had a rough, rough time in Holland. I was happy during the fairy tale and that was it.”
Blondie: “When Brian wasn’t around so much, it was up to baby brother Carl to hold everything together – and he did. It wasn’t chaotic at all.” Some songs or parts were written before leaving L.A., others in Holland. Ricky: “I wrote Leaving This Town at the piano in the house I was in by the canal. Some songs – Carl’s Trader I think – were made up in the studio as we went along. Dennis had quite a few things written – some ballads, lovely stuff.” Holland features two Dennis co-writes, Only With You [Mike's lyrics] and Steamboat [Carl's], “but he was pretty much happy with that. I didn’t feel any bad vibes with him at all – in fact I didn’t feel any band conflict. Things were pretty smooth at that point.”
Moffitt: “We’d all go eat together at this happy little pub across the street. At night if we were working late, Carl and I would take a break in this big open field. We’d hang out on the fence and look into the stars or relax among the animals.” There were regular breaks for Transcendental Meditation. Ricky: “It was quite idyllic. The studio was there and if you had some music and you wanted to work it out, you’d just go down and do it.”
Trilogy California saga was a good example of inter-band collaboration. Jardine had been working on the middle part, Beaks Of eagles (a Robinson Jeffers poem) in L.A. In Holland, “feeling so homesick and desperate to get home, I had a vision of the central California coast”, and wrote part three, California. Mike added the opening segment, Big Sur, and everyone played the whole thing through in one go. Al: “When Brian heard it, it was like a light went on. He said, ‘I’m going out there and setting up a microphone.’ And he sang the opening line – and walked off.
Just did that one thing and left.” As Al saw it Brian’s diminishing presence drove the others to new levels of creativity. “We were always trying to get him involved, to get him into the studio – that was partly why we went to the extreme of leaving the country. We thought if we could get him away from his environment, he would perk up and maybe start anew, not understanding the complex psychological components of Brian’s medical problems. What you have to understand is that his enormous [musical] contributions just drained him.”
Fairy tale aside, Brian’s one full Netherlands contribution was closing track Funky Pretty. His opening song, Sail On Sailor was added back in L.A. When the record company rejected the album as having no hits. Blondie sang lead vocal – “Dennis tried it and I don’t think the timbre was right. He wanted to go surfing, so he gave it one shot and literally went off with his board. Then Carl tried it and said ‘It sounds pretty good but why don’t you give it a bash?’ I did it in two takes, reading and singing at the same time.” It replaced Ricky and Blondies’s song, We Got Love, “about something that had happened in South Africa – a strike or something. I don’t think it fit the programme”. Holland’s first single, Sail On Sailor hobbled to number 79 in the US charts; slightly better than Jardine’s California, which made 85. The album (US 36; UK 20) did better than Carl & The Passions though nowhere near as well as The Beach Boys In Concert, a live nostalgia-fest released later that year.
Looking back, Al gives Holland “an A for effort and F for planning. Had we been smarter and found a real studio instead of a garage in a cow field into which we poured $500,000, the production values might have been higher. Having said that, I think the quality of the song writing is extraordinary.”
After the album’s release, Rieley stayed on in Amsterdam; Carl was later dispatched there to fire him. Blondie quit the band in ’74 after a fight with replacement manager Steve Love; he went on to play with, among others, The Rolling Stones, with whom he still works, and is currently shopping his second solo album, Fragile Thread. Ricky left at the same time and joined Joe Walsh’s band; he later became Stig of The Rutles. These days he plays with Bonnie Raitt and is working in his own studio with Ghanian singer Rocky Dawuni. Steve Moffitt continued to engineer for the Beach Boys “for quite a few years, until the bickering got too weird”. Mike Love, who did not respond to interview requests, still tours with The Beach Boys. He also owns the band’s name. Al, whom Love sued for touring with a group called Beach Boys’ Family & Friends that included Al’s sons and Brian’s daughters, renamed it The Good Vibrations Beach Band; an LP Live At The MGM Grand, is available through his website. Brian Wilson returned from Holland to find his wife, Marilyn, had his home studio dismantled. He currently lives in the Hollywood Hills with his second wife Melinda and two children, and awaits the release of Brian Wilson Live In London, recorded on his recent Pet Sounds tour. He’ll return in the summer to play at the Queen’s jubilee.
Bas Mollenkramer and Brad Elliot ([email protected]).