The Forgotten Song That Made The Beach Boys Cool Again

The Beach Boys at May Day demonstrations, May 1971 (Jeff Albertson, University of Massachusetts Special Collections)

The Beach Boys were no longer a hit band when Bob Burchman sat in his car in early July 1970, listening to a tape that Dennis Wilson had given him. Bob wasn’t a Beach Boys fan — he preferred Sly Stone or Marvin Gaye or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or The Beatles — but Dennis, an acquaintance more than a friend, liked Bob’s poetry. He had given him the tape earlier that day, and asked him to write lyrics for an instrumental the band had just recorded. The song — congas, guitar, hypnotic bass and looping drums — was more like what Bob normally enjoyed. Parked high in Benedict Canyon, he listened over and over, pressing play and rewind on his portable cassette player. His lyrics came quickly, more quickly than the few songs he had written before. “I used to be a famous artist,” he began.

The song, which Dennis would call “It’s About Time”, would never be well-known — a b-side to a flop single, hidden at the end of side one of the Sunflower album — but it would begin The Beach Boy’s critical and commercial recovery, from this, the lowest point in their career. Their most recent single, issued three days before Bob wrote his lyrics, failed to chart. Despite some sporadic appreciation in the Smile years, they had yet to be discovered by most of the hip, “rock” crowd. Their earlier albums on Capitol were being deleted; Pet Sounds was out of print. Warner Reprise, their new label, had recently rejected a new album, sending them away to work on new material. They were dismissed as “stiffs” in the issue of Rolling Stone then on the city’s newsstands.

Charles Manson, Dennis’ former friend, was on the cover of that issue, staring out maniacally and haloed. His trial had begun two weeks earlier. In a long, rambling interview, he spoke about Dennis at length, and about the importance of lyrics and music, and the “free-love society.” He discussed an uncredited song of his that The Beach Boys had included on 20/20, their previous album. Dennis had changed the words a little, and the title, which had angered Manson. “Kids respond to music,” he told Rolling Stone, “words kill, they’ve filled every living thing with death.” Gregg Jakobson, Dennis’s friend and sometime songwriting partner, was quoted anonymously, talking about what Manson had heard in Beatles lyrics, and how he had threatened Dennis and his family. Five of Manson’s seven victims had been killed in Benedict Canyon, not far from where Dennis’ wife and family lived, not far from where Bob parked and listened to the tape, in the shade.

It was brave for The Beach Boys to turn to Bob then — an unknown, obtuse, “hippie” poet, brought to Dennis by a shared female friend — when Manson and his lyrics were so prevalent in the press. The band had always asked others to give their songs an on-trend sheen: cars, girls, surfing, then Motown clarity, then pop art. Bob, it seems, was also expected to help them move with the times, to make them more well-attuned to the summer of 1970, more “countercultural,” perhaps even to adapt to what little attention The Beach Boys were then receiving via Manson.

The band were aware of how they were seen; Bruce Johnston had joked to NME that their new album would be called A Fading Rock Band Revival. When they presented the album to Warner Reprise, it was rejected, the label complaining that it wasn’t “contemporary” enough. They wanted Dennis to contribute more. “It’s About Time” was the first song the band recorded after the rejection, and Bob was the first lyricist they used.

Much as he had been the band’s token surfer, Dennis was The Beach Boys’ closest link to the fashionable Los Angeles counterculture that Bob, or at least his lyrics, represented. Rolling Stone had praised the songs Dennis had written for the two previous albums, often with the poet Stephen Kalinich: “tight, emotional and beautifully done, with fine lyrics,” they said, unlike the rest of the band’s work, which was “dated, more sociologically than musically,” a “foolish denial of reality.” “Hawthorne is not the world that Watts is,” one reviewer said. The few hip writers who argued for The Beach Boys’ relevance, like Crawdaddy’s Paul Williams, felt Dennis was the band’s next big talent, in these uncertain times.

Even in the years since Pet Sounds, the expectations of a fashionable pop group had shifted. Warner Reprise was now home to Captain Beefheart, and The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and The Fugs. They had given Frank Zappa his own label, much as they did for The Beach Boys. Musicians were often displaced from Rolling Stone’s cover: Altamont in January 1970; Ken Kesey in March; Abbie Hoffman in April; the protests and killings at Kent State in June, followed by Manson. The Beach Boys’ California myth-making, the “America’s band” rhetoric, had always been overstated, but now it seemed empty.

Against this backdrop, “It’s About Time” was a deliberate attempt to update the band’s music. The congas and driving rhythm owed something to Sly Stone or Santana, both of whom had found greater fame with the release of the Woodstock documentary, a couple of months earlier. Stephen Desper, who engineered the session, had worked for Zappa and Hendrix, as well as recording Manson in Brian’s home studio. He was allowed to experiment; Mike Love remembered him as a “mad genius,” using his “spatializer” for the first time on the song, working on “center channel quadrophonic sound.” Earl Palmer played the drums, reminiscent of both his work for Phil Spector and his recent sessions for David Axelrod, or Head, The Monkees’s own psychedelic project. Dennis’ biographer, John Stebbins, called the song an “epic jam”, with “Dennis pushing The Beach Boys into progressive territory.”

Bob’s lyrics gave the music the necessary hip, “countercultural” context. Lyrically, much Los Angeles pop music was creeping out of the city, into the canyons: Joni Mitchell had released Ladies of the Canyon on Warner Reprise in April; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had just released “Ohio”, about the killings at Kent State, and their Déjà Vu album, reflecting on “letting my freak flag fly.” After the Manson issue, the next cover of Rolling Stone suggested it was “the summer of the Acid Cowboys.”

Everywhere, stars from the previous decade were trying to change. Paul McCartney had recently announced he was leaving The Beatles, to release his first solo album. Mike Nesmith of The Monkees did the same, issuing Magnetic South, his first “cosmic country” record. The Mama’s and Papa’s John Phillips had recently released Wolf King of L.A., with hazy images of drugs and women, on the beaches and in the canyons. The day before Bob wrote his lyrics, Marvin Gaye began recording “What’s Goin’ On”. Sly Stone, struggling with addiction, was recording There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Even Frank Sinatra, also on Warner Reprise, had just released Watertown, a collaboration with Jake Holmes, uncredited composer of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”.

Sitting in his car, following the tape’s insistent rhythm, Bob was affected by this same spirit: “I used to be a famous artist, proud as I could be,” he wrote, “struggling to express myself, for the whole world to see. I used to blow my mind sky high, searching for the lost elation… the Creation, oh yeah, through which I play the part of the open hearted laugh of realization…” Rolling Stone had quoted Manson’s own lyrical riddles at length — “I am you… I am my father…” — and Bob echoed a similar paradox: “everyone I meet, who is really me,” he wrote, “I am my only relation.” This was, according to Bob, a “message that Dennis identified with.” However, despite the references to drugs and lost fame, “actually the lyric itself had nothing to do with the personal lives of Brian or Dennis, or any of The Beach Boys for that matter,” he said. Instead, the inspiration came from “the vanity of name and fame in the world of Contemporary Art and Rock Music, as well as the ancient eternal wisdom of the East.”

Bob had first met Dennis earlier that summer. He had expected to dislike him, based on what he had seen on television, thinking he was “a bit too cocky, and not the world’s greatest drummer.” Nevertheless, Bob had been friends with Barbara, Dennis’s then girlfriend, since junior school, and he invited the couple over for dinner, with his wife, shortly after moving back to Los Angeles from Hawaii. On cushions around a low Japanese table, eating “some sort of Asian vegetarian cuisine,” Dennis charmed him. He “mentioned to me that Barbara had told him what a good poet and lyricist I was, and asked me if I would recite something for him to hear. I recited two or three lyrics that were fresh in my mind, and Dennis was blown away. ‘Wow! I wasn’t expecting that’, he said.”

As much as his countercultural poetry, Bob’s domesticity —a wife , a new baby, a dinner party — must have seemed appealing to Dennis, after the previous couple of years with Manson. Dennis’s first divorce had recently come through, prompting him to sell his house in Benedict Canyon, close to where Sharon Tate was killed. He would marry Barbara that August. (He recorded an aching song for her around this time, which was issued posthumously: “Barbara,” he sang, “tender and warm, God, I love her. I love to sing songs for her.”) Around the dinner table, Dennis told Bob about the instrumental track he was working on. He was clearly proud of it, asking Bob to come to Brian’s house to hear it, soon. Despite his inexperience, Dennis asked Bob if he would write the lyrics.

Dennis may have been attracted to this inexperience. Although he had helped with group compositions, he had only contributed one song to The Beach Boys’ first thirteen albums, a drum solo called “Denny’s Drums.” In February 1968, shortly before he met Manson, he wrote his first song, “Little Bird” , with Stephen Kalinich, for Friends. Kalinich, or Brian’s relative withdrawal from the band, seemed to spur him on. He had another song on Friends, and collaborated on three more.

It was around this time that he began to work with Manson. Back before the murders, when he talked more often to the press, Dennis spoke about writing with “Charlie.” He told Record Mirror about meeting Manson’s “space ladies,” when they were hitchhiking, as he was driving “up into the mountains with my houseboy to take an LSD trip.” “I am now more in tune with my mind,” he suggested, “I feel easier and more confident of myself.” “The public is evolving too,” he said. He had two of his own songs on the next album, 20/20, plus “Never Learn Not To Love”, his version of Manson’s “Cease To Exist”. “Celebrate The News” — “beautiful and strange, my life’s gone through a change” — was issued as a b-side. Manson’s influence seemed to linger; as late as 1976, Dennis told Circus magazine that “the greatest feeling in the world” was “submission,” echoing Manson’s lyrics from “Never Learn Not To Love”: “cease to exist, submission is a gift, give it to your brother.”

As odd and beguiling as Dennis’s songs could be, this was the writer that Warner Reprise wanted more from: just a handful of songs released, only two of which he had written on his own, no hits, largely dependent on others for his words. It seems likely the label were as keen to invest in his image as his music: charming and good-looking, he was newly topical, since Manson, and newly countercultural, with the personal and public “evolution” that he had spoken about. That summer, he was cast in his first film, Two Lane Blacktop, playing a character often mistaken for a “hippie,” mostly silent, and more in love with his car than the hitchhiker he picks up. Press reports described him reading Rolling Stone on set, frustrated by an article about Brian, hanging out with his co-star, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell. He tried to avoid the reporters, and spoke to them only briefly, about the music he liked, “something with a Moog in it, something you can get into.”

Shortly before filming started, Bob gave Dennis the completed lyrics. The band soon recorded the vocals at Brian’s studio, although Bob wasn’t invited to the session. (“Cool, Cool Water”, the first Beach Boys song to include a Moog, was finished soon after.) Dennis called Bob from the studio, to tell him they had altered his words. “Al Jardine added another whole other section to the lyric right there in the studio, without anyone advising me or getting my input,” Bob remembered. Dennis had given the song its title, for the chanted chorus that Carl sang. “I didn’t quite understand at the time where he was going with that,” Bob said.

Although the additions borrowed heavily from The Youngbloods’ “Get Together”, which had reached number 5 the previous summer, they also suggested something about the band’s ambitions on this most collaborative of their albums: “it’s about time we get together, to be out front and love one another, brothers, sisters, everybody, we better start to help each other now.” Dennis, with Al and Carl, made more subtle changes; Bob’s “I am my only relation” line became “I am only me,” less pointed for a family band, perhaps a rejection of Manson’s “I am you” from the Rolling Stone interview. “I felt a bit discounted and disrespected with how that went down,” Bob said, “but it was The Beach Boys after all, and I was not about to make waves.”

A few days later, Bob was invited over to Brian’s house again. For twenty minutes, he waited in a front room, as Al ignored him, practising “Sloop John B” on guitar. Eventually, he was shown into another room, furnished with a barber’s chair. “All the guys were there,” he said. “Now all of a sudden I was the center of their attention. Brian said that he loved my lyric and that he wanted to put the song on their upcoming album.” Brian congratulated him, patting him on the back, and said he had to sign some papers. Bob was cautious — “shouldn’t I have a lawyer look this thing over before signing it?” — but Dennis tried to reassure him. Feeling pressured, he signed it, handing over the publishing rights, and splitting the writer’s royalties four ways.

Not long after, the band presented Warner Reprise with a new version of their album, now called Sunflower. They had replaced six songs from the previous version, adding four they had recorded before the rejection, plus “Cool, Cool Water,”, which had only been half-finished. “It’s About Time” was the only new composition. Dennis now had four songs included, the most on any Beach Boys album.

Like “It’s About Time”, the lyrics of Dennis’ other songs reflected his public persona. “Slip On Through” asked a “girl” to “relax, let your mind go free,” assuring her that “my song will take you for a ride”; in “Got To Know The Woman”, he “just met a woman on the way home”. (Another song from the time about picking up a hitchhiker, “I’m Going Your Way” — “I was a stranger, no, no, no, there ain’t no danger” — remains unreleased, though bootlegged.) On “Forever”, he played the love-lorn balladeer: “if the song I sing to you could fill your heart with joy, I’d sing forever.” Gregg Jakobson, soon to be a witness at Manson’s trial, co-wrote the song.

When Sunflower was released in August 1970, it peaked at number 151, the lowest ever placing for a Beach Boys album. “It’s About Time” became the b-side to “Tears In The Morning,” which failed to chart. Nevertheless, Carl thought the album was “the truest group effort we ever had.” Bruce praised Dennis’s “total 1969–1970 groove.” Brian remembered how Dennis “rocked and rolled,” “dynamic” and “energetic,” calling “Forever” a “rock and roll prayer.” Mike thought the album was “damn good” — it “made even The Beatles’ Abbey Road sound primitive,” he said — but he felt they got their image wrong, with a photograph of the band and their children on the cover, beneath an illustration of a rainbow. (Tellingly, Dennis, staring out of shot, was the only one without his family pictured.) “The world was aflame; we were projecting innocence and harmony,” Love said. “Our fortunes, however, as well as our image, would soon begin to change.”

Rolling Stone recognised this mood in its review of Sunflower. Wondering whether “anyone still listens to their music, or could give a shit about it,” the review described the album as a successor to Pet Sounds. “Most of the lyric impotence of the group remains,” it said, “though not so prominently displayed.” Although it was “decadent fluff,” “at a time when we could use more Liberation Music Orchestras,” it was “a superb rock muzak album”, part pop, part something hipper, made by “plastic madmen.” Dennis’s songs seemed to tip the balance in its favour; “It’s About Time” was singled out for particular praise. Robert Christgau, in Village Voice, wrote that “if you can feature the great candy-stripes grown up, then this is far more satisfying, I suspect, than Smile ever would have been. Maybe they weren’t really surfers or hot rodders, but they were really Southern Californians, and that’s what their music was about.”

Warner Reprise tried to capitalise on this tentative appreciation. A full page advert was taken in Billboard, suggesting that people were now “buying the group’s albums late at night, just before the stores close. (They’d sandwich this group’s albums between something by Joe Cocker and one by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, so no one could see what they were buying.)” Sunflower was apparently “the best kept secret in the world… after all, who, in 1970, wanted surfing hot rodders?” The advert quoted a review in Rock magazine, which noted that “‘It’s About Time’ is a classic.”

By then, the band had worked hard to change their image. Immediately after the rejection from Warner Reprise, they had toured Australia and New Zealand. Halfway through the tour, they abandoned their striped shirt uniform, and wore their own clothes on stage for the first time. They toured again after the release of Sunflower: Mike wore a wide-brimmed hat, and faded, ripped jeans; Carl wore a cowboy shirt and a long beard. Each night, they ended their show with “It’s About Time.” It became freer, with added horns; Dennis played the organ, which became more prominent, with an extended intro, or fade.

Despite Sunflower’s poor sales, the band became a live draw, playing to college kids and rock fans too young to have bought the early hits. At the Big Sur Folk Festival, they played to “the sceptical audience’s thrilled reaction,” according to the Billboard advert. At Fillmore East, they played with The Grateful Dead, as hip looking kids danced and smiled incredulously. They played at protests in Washington, and soon supported Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. In October 1970, consecutive Rolling Stone covers commemorated the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. For a while, “It’s About Time” — “I used to be a famous artist… I used to blow my mind sky high…” — became a statement about what The Beach Boys could be, or could have been, both personally and artistically.

Almost as soon as they finished “It’s About Time,” the band began recording their next album, Surf’s Up, following the same lead. Mike wrote “Student Demonstration Time,” about Kent State, and Carl wrote “Feel Flows,” meditating on the “message divine.” According to Richard Williams in Melody Maker, “suddenly, The Beach Boys are back in fashionable favour.” For the first time, the band were featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, with a lengthy feature spread over two issues. The next album, 1972’s Carl & The Passions — “So Tough”, came with Pet Sounds as a bonus disc, its first reissue. The Beach Boys became rock staples.

Despite this change in the band’s fortune, Bob never made it as a songwriter. Dennis didn’t contribute to Surf’s Up, focused instead on a stalled solo career, and Bob was cut off from the group. Ike and Tina Turner recorded his “Soul to Soul,” and The Voices of East Harlem did “Right On Be Free” but, within a year or so, his tentative pop career had faded. He watched from afar as The Beach Boys became accepted by the hip crowd, and began to sell records again, a countercultural commercial success, as cool as they had ever been.

Today, Bob lives in Santa Monica, not far from where Dennis drowned in 1983. He now works as a conservator, a painter of murals and trompe l’oeil in historic houses and celebrity mansions, and continues to write poetry. His hair is receding, and he keeps his circular spectacles on a black cord round his neck. Occasionally, he exhibits his paintings, large Hopperish, American Gothic oils, a little ominous and nostalgic, to little fanfare. He rarely speaks about “It’s About Time”.

You can read more stories by J.P. Robinson here.

Fanatics and Collectors, a collection of true stories about music by J.P. Robinson, is available now via Few Press.

Twitter: @MrJPRobinson

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