In the history of popular music, there are many albums that could be ranked amongst the greatest of all time. This article is not about those albums. This article is about the albums that have filled the cutout bins of record stores across America for the past 50 years. Culture Crossfire’s Connor McGrath discusses the albums that others brought back to the store… in Deep Discount Discussions.
The Beach Boys – M.I.U. Album
Released: October 2nd, 1978
Billboard Album Chart Peak: #151
Singles: “Peggy Sue” (peaked at #59 on Billboard Hot 100), “Come Go With Me” (peaked at #18 on Billboard Hot 100)
Background: At the end of the 1970s, The Beach Boys were in a state of turmoil. “America’s Band” was on the verge of breaking up and many of its members had raging drug and alcohol problems. Worse yet, the band’s chief songwriter and genius in residence, Brian Wilson, was having one of his many famous struggles with his own mental stability. His mental health issues had derailed the band in the latter half of the ’60s and were looking to to do the same at the end of the ’70s. It seemed hard to believe that just four years earlier, The Beach Boys had launched a massively successful comeback.
After a long commercial slump, The Beach Boys roared back onto the charts in the Summer of 1974 with a compilation album titled Endless Summer, The album couldn’t have come out at a more perfect time. Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War dominated the headlines and after a decade of ugliness, Americans wanted to wax nostalgic. And there was no better soundtrack for waxing nostalgic than the early hits of the Beach Boys. Endless Summer became the sleeper hit of the year and hit #1 on the Billboard Album Charts for two weeks in October ’74. The Beach Boys had also once again become the biggest live band in the U.S.
However, in the studio, there was little to do to capitalize on the success initially. Brian Wilson had become severely overweight in addition to his previously mentioned mental health issues and a raging cocaine addiction. His family sought the services of controversial, radical psychotherapist Eugene Landy to shake Brian out of his stupor. Using Landy’s unorthodox method of “24 hour therapy,” Wilson’s drug abuse was curbed and his physical and mental health improved significantly.
At the beginning of 1976, The Beach Boys returned to the studio. Brian Wilson wanted to record an album of covers of the great oldies of the ’50s and ’60s; his brothers Dennis and Carl thought it would be better to do an album of originals. Meanwhile, their cousin Mike Love and buddy Al Jardine just wanted to get an album out as quickly as possible to capitalize on renewed interest in the band. The result, the half covers/half originals 15 Big Ones was a muddled mess that was met with apathy by rock critics. However, it was the band’s most commercially successful album in 10 years and produced a Top 5 hit in their cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock N Roll Music.”
The Beach Boys’ next album Love You was originally conceived as a Brian Wilson solo album. However, The Beach Boys’ contractual obligations to Reprise Records, led them to reworking it as a band album. Released in April 1977, Love You was marked by Wilson’s bizarrely simplistic lyrics about topics like late night talk shows, roller skating, and uh, whatever a “ding dang” is. Brian Wilson was also really, really into then state of the art, analog synthesizers (which have been amusingly but not inaccurately dubbed “farting synthesizers”) and they dominate every track. It’s one of the most strangely compelling albums of all time and critics embraced it as strongly as they ignored 15 Big Ones. The album could not have been more noncommercial and the general public greeted it with the same sound most people compared Brian Wilson’s synthesizers to. The album sputtered to #52 on the Billboard Album Charts and produced no hit singles.
Desperate to capitalize on what remained of the buzz from Endless Summer, the band tried to rush an album out by Christmas 1977. This would prove to be impossible. Brian Wilson’s psyche was deteriorating once again and was in no condition to master mind a new album. In addition to that, Drummer Dennis Wilson was hard at work on his first solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue and wanted little to do with the band. Youngest brother Carl was also vehemently opposed to the new album. Undeterred by this Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Brian headed to Maharishi International University in the rock n roll capital of Fairfield, Iowa in the Autumn of 1977 to record the band’s twenty second studio album. The album would be titled M.I.U Album, in honor of the location of its recording.
The Album: The album gets off to in an auspicious start with “She’s Got Rhythm” with its very 1978 opening line, “Last night I met a disco dancer!” This track is marked by the return of Brian Wilson’s falsetto. He hadn’t used it in a decade and inexplicably decided to bring it back for this album. I guess they were trying to conjure up memories of their early-mid ’60s hits but it was pretty apparent how all of the years of hard living had ravaged Brian’s voice. As for the rest of the track, it just kind of sounds like something the Sanford-Townsend Band would have rejected as a follow up single to “Smoke of a Distant Fire.”
Next up is the only hit that this album produced, a cover of the Del Vikings’ “Come Go With Me.” And this album only produced the hit in a technical sense. This song became a Top 20 hit three years later in 1981, after it was featured on the compilation album Ten Years of Harmony. Like 15 Big Ones, this album has several covers of golden oldies. The ones featured on the M.I.U Album are a lot stronger. I wouldn’t say they’re the definitive version of these songs or that they’re even amongst the best Beach Boys versions of great songs of the ’50s but they’re enjoyable enough. Although the production on them is very 1978 (Hello, Mr. Saxophone…)
The third track on the album, “Hey Little Tomboy,” is one of my top choices for worst Beach Boys tracks of all time. Brian Wilson takes his naive, innocent songwriting approach from Love You to an uncomfortable extreme. Worse yet, Mike Love’s vocal performance makes him sound like a creepy uncle. The story imploring that it’s time for a little tomboy to turn into a woman is extremely off putting. These types of songs were a lot more acceptable back in the ’60s and ’70s (see also Ringo Starr’s “You’re Sixteen,” KISS’ “Christine Sixteen,” any song by Gary Puckett and The Union Gap) and quite frankly, it creeps me out. It might have been okay for the Beach Boys to sing about little tomboys in 1962 but they were in their mid to late thirties at this point!
Another mildly interesting aspect of this album is that at one point, it was a Christmas album but the record label pooh poohed the idea and the Boys hastily rewrote and rerecorded the songs to accommodate them. It’s weird to hear sleigh bells just pop up intermittently on the album. “Kona Coast” is one that sounds like they didn’t rewrite it at all. It’s just a Christmas song that pops up in the middle of the album.
M.I.U. Album was an attempt to recapture the innocence of the early ’60s Beach Boys records but update it to the late ’70s. Which is not an altogether terrible concept and arguably, that was the concept that worked with Love You. However, the album seems incredibly contrived and nobody really seems like they want to be there except Al Jardine (who co-produced the album with his songwriting partner at the time, Keith Albach). And with all due respect to Al Jardine, who’s a great singer and consummate professional (he held the band together during this era), him doing the heavy lifting for the Beach Boys is like Ringo leading the Beatles for an album. Jardine does his best but it doesn’t make up for the fact that Brian Wilson’s mental health was faltering again and his brothers Carl and Dennis had their own demons while Mike Love was already more focused on the Beach Boys Brand than the Beach Boys band.
There are some semi inspired moments on the record; the dopey but fun rocker, “Pitter Patter” stands out and I even enjoy the Boys attempt at yacht rock (“Match Point of Our Love”) but even they pale in comparison to the classics that the band produced. It’s clear at this point that the band was resting on their laurels as “America’s Band.” Many of the songs on the album just remind you of earlier, better songs from them. This record isn’t nearly as bad as the ones they produced in the ’80s and ’90s but it’s a foreshadow of those albums filled with lame retreads of past glories. Brian’s strained falsetto aside, the performances on this album aren’t bad. Their famous harmonies sound about as great as they did in 1966 but they’re sorely, sorely uninspired. M.I.U. Album is the sound of a band punching the clock.
The one genuinely inspired on the album came from the member who had the least involvement on the record, Dennis Wilson. “My Diane” was a song written by Brian Wilson, about the end of his affair with his wife’s sister Diane. Dennis sings lead and delivers a good performance with his distinctly gruff and un-Beach Boys like vocals. And the fact that he’s singing about his big brother’s mistress (who was his sister in law’s sister) just is a jarring reminder that things were always a bit dark underneath the surface for The Beach Boys. That’s not even going into Dennis Wilson’s friendship with the Manson Family, which will be saved for Deep Discount Discussions article on The Beach Boys’ 20/20!
Dennis Wilson’s solo debut, Pacific Ocean Blue, released a year earlier ended up outselling M.I.U Album (and sold about as much as Love You) and served as sort of a counterpoint to the record. Wilson’s solo album was as impassioned as MIU Album was uninspired. It had as much depth as The Beach Boys album did not. Pacific Ocean Blue did a far better job of updating the Beach Boys spirit to the late ’70s and will be long remembered as something of a hidden gem while M.I.U Album will languish in cutout bins.
Postscript: Despite the failure of M.I.U. Album, The Beach Boys would sign a lucrative contract with CBS Records. Though the contract required Brian Wilson write and produce 75% of the songs on each new album, that clause wasn’t exactly enforced. He barely appeared on their next album (released just six months later), L.A. (Light Album), outside of co-writing the leadoff track for the album “Good Timin” and some backing vocals and arranging a few of the tracks. The 1979 album was a very slight improvement on M.I.U. , “Good Timin” became the band’s first Top 40 single in three years and Dennis Wilson contributed a few hidden gems in what turned out to be his last album with the band before passing away on December 28th, 1983.
The Beach Boys would finally return to the heights of their ’60s glory in 1988, with the monstrous hit single/crime against pop music, “Kokomo.” It became their first #1 Hit in twenty two years and helped them become one of the biggest touring acts in the US again. Gradually the band would disintegrate. Lots of books/articles are out there that would explain why better. In short, Brian Wilson’s mental health fluctuated wildly until the late ’90s, Carl Wilson sadly passed away in February 1998 after a battle with lung cancer, and Al Jardine left or was fired from the band a few months later. For a decade and a half, Mike Love was the only original member of the band (although Bruce Johnston, who played off and on with the group since 1965 and has been with the band permanently since L.A. (Light Album) was a member as well) and toured state fairs and casinos across the country while filing lawsuits against the other original members.
That was until the surviving members of the band: Mike, Brian, and Al along with David Marks (an original member who played on the band’s first four albums before being fired in 1963) and Bruce Johnston joined forces for the 50th Anniversary Tour in 2012. The band also recorded their first album in twenty years, That’s Why God Made The Radio, which became their highest charting album since Endless Summer. Just as it seemed like The Beach Boys had returned, the band dissolved once again. Mike Love and Bruce Johnston went back to touring as “The Beach Boys” while Al Jardine (and David Marks) joined Brian Wilson for his next solo album and tour.
It’s ironic that The Beach Boys, known for their “Endless Harmony,” have consistently been disharmonious for the vast majority of their fifty year history. Even though the band’s history has been riddled with in-fighting, drug and alcohol abuse, and full fledged mental breakdowns, they’re permanently in the discussion for Greatest American Band. Their resiliency and unmatched vocal harmonies shine through even on their lesser material like M.I.U. Album.
Next on Deep Discount Discussions: Legendary axman Tony Iommi breaks away from Black Sabbath and goes solo. Or does he? I take a look back at the 1986 album Seventh Star by Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi.