Tired of California examines the efforts of the Beach Boys to reinvent themselves in the early 1970s as they recorded their critically acclaimed Holland album.
Shelf Unbound: Your new book Tired of California: The Beach Boys’ Holland Revisited explores the album recorded in the Netherlands. What inspired you to tackle this particular work?
Marc Schuster: I was in high school the first time I listened to Holland, and it threw me for a bit of a loop because it didn’t sound at all like what I thought the Beach Boys should sound like. No catchy surf-guitars, no lyrics about surfing or hotrods. I couldn’t even begin to guess which member of the band was singing on the opening track, and the CD ended with a slightly bizarre fairy tale. So the album was always a fascinating mystery to me. Since then, I’ve always kept my eyes peeled for any information I could find on the topic. When it all came to a critical mass, I decided I needed to synthesize everything I’d discovered in book form, just in case anyone else out there had the same questions I did.
Shelf: Clearly you are an avid fan and you discuss this work in depth. Would you agree it should be better known? Can you shed light on why this isn’t the case?
Schuster: One reason Holland isn’t better known is that it doesn’t match most people’s preconceived notions of the Beach Boys, and it also doesn’t quite fit into the history of the band that most people are familiar with. Early on, it was easy for their record company and radio programmers to slot them into a particular category, but as they grew up and their music changed, people weren’t sure how to deal with them. But the album is certainly worth listening to. Tracks like “Sail on, Sailor” and “The Trader” would definitely fit nicely into classic rock playlists alongside music by bands like Fleetwood Mac and Chicago.
Shelf: Do you think the emergence of the Beatles factored into the decline of The Beach Boys as a popular group? In other words had their initial success with surf and hot car themes run its course?
Schuster: A lot of the early Beach Boys hits were contemporaneous with hits by the Beatles, but the Beatles managed to evolve from their teen idol image much more successfully than the Beach Boys did. Part of the problem for the Beach Boys, I think, is that while the Beatles all wanted to move forward as an artistic unit, the Beach Boys were split into factions. Some members of the band wanted to break new ground while others wanted to keep cranking out hits that adhered to a fairly strict formula. One of the things their publicist Jack Rieley tried to do in the early 1970s was to push the band in a more unified artistic direction.
Shelf: Ultimately is Jack Rieley a hero or villain in your estimation?
Schuster: He was definitely self-serving and deceitful in a lot of ways, but he was also responsible for pushing the Beach Boys to create some of their most interesting if under-appreciated work. Early on, for example, Rieley told the band that he’d won a Peabody Award for his work as NBC’s news bureau chief in Puerto Rico, but the story was completely fabricated. NBC didn’t even have a news bureau in Puerto Rico. But Rieley’s ability to spin what some people today might call “alternative facts” created a space in which the Beach Boys could attempt to reinvent themselves.
Shelf: Brian Wilson’s mental illness has been well documented. How do you think his mental health impacted the final product?
Schuster: Brian Wilson’s biggest contribution to Holland was a spoken-word fairytale titled “Mount Vernon and Fairway.” It’s an admittedly odd recording, and when the album was released, it was relegated to a separate seven-inch disk that came with the twelve-inch LP. If Brian had been in better shape and had gotten a little more support from the band, the fairytale might have been more central to the project. The final product may have sounded something like Harry Nilsson’s The Point, an album that uses a mix of songs and spoken-word passages to tell a story.
Shelf: Which, in your opinion, is the stronger, more lasting accomplishment Smile or Holland?
Schuster: I think Smile had the more lasting effect on the popular imagination by virtue of the fact that it went unfinished for so long. That album was supposed to come out after Pet Sounds, and there was a lot of hype surrounding its production. When Brian Wilson abandoned the project in 1967, it became the stuff of legend—a lost masterpiece. Its absence is what defined the album and made it so great. The only thing fans could do until the release of Brian Wilson Presents Smile in 2004 was imagine how good the album would have been if Brian had finished it. No matter how good Holland was, there was no way it could ever compete with the idealized versions of Smile that fans had been imagining for years.
Shelf: Why do you think neither album was a commercial success? How did their re-invention help or hurt this enterprise?
Schuster: The problem with Smile was that it never came out, and that was a stumble the Beach Boys never fully recovered from. By the time Jack Rieley came along, the band was playing catch-up, and the re-invention that he championed placed them in direct competition with bands that they had influenced—bands that had taken their sound and already begun to adapt it to the new decade. And look at the competition! Holland came out in 1973—the same year as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, the Who’s Quadrophenia, David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run, and Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. In the context of classics like these, it’s easy to see how even a reimagined, adult-contemporary version of the Beach Boys got lost in the shuffle.
But that’s the great thing about living in the digital age. It’s easier than ever to go back and check out some of the music we may have missed out on the first time around. If anything, that’s the point of my book—to argue that a quirky yet overlooked album from a legendary band deserves a second listen. And, of course, to tell the story of how that album came to be.