By 1979, The Beach Boys were really on their uppers. After more than a decade of darning Brian Wilson's musical socks they had simply run out of any discernible reason to exist. Wilson's socks were pretty amazing, but they were always full of holes. Since Brian's breakdown during the recording of Smile in 1967, the rest of the band had collected and recycled whatever had fallen from his grand piano (into the sand pit in which it stood, dog turds and all).
When they released L.A. (Light Album) they were already the day before yesterday's band, fuelled mainly by booze, often cocaine and, I would guess, because they had been making and believing their own myths since 1961 and didn’t know how to do anything else. That and the tiresome spotlight-addiction of Mike Love, who by all accounts singlehandedly disproves the theory of nominative determinism.
There had been several occasionally brilliant albums between Pet Sounds and the forgettable L.A. (Light Album) – in particular Friends, 20/20 and Sunflower – but inconsistency was the band's only constant. But of course, relying on a physically and mentally frail Brian Wilson for material, often half-finished or partially realised, does not lend itself to a plateau of sustained excellence.
If Brian stops producing the goods, who are you going to turn to? Well, Bach obviously. Al Jardine gets a writer’s credit on Lady Lynda, but it’s Johann Sebastian who did all the heavy lifting. The intro and melody are from Bach's Cantata 147 (turned into the hymn Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring) and, despite its use at a billion weddings, is – if I can be very serious for a moment – I believe, the single most significant melody in all music; as close as the human mind has ever come to the expression of aural perfection.
Jardine certainly worked a fine, if slightly trite, song out of it any way. But then I usually have a sympathetic ear for such things. The song’s failings are saved by Bach, or rather Johann Schop, from whom Bach had ‘borrowed’ the tune in 1716. As TS Eliot said: ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’
Jardine’s voice retains the Beach Boy warmth, although he sounds as exhausted as he looked at the time. He was singing about his then wife (hence the unusual spelling) and the lyrics are not only wet, but confused, with one line talking about the romance being in ‘his plan’ (meaning God’s) and another talking about ‘evolution is drawing us near’. Even worse, as the band’s popularity waned in the early 80s, Jardine collaborated in the recasting of the song as a patriotic Reagan-era anthem, Lady Liberty, as a tribute to the reopening of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, a part of the nostalgic rebranding of The Beach Boys as ‘America’s Band’.
Much of the pretty arrangement was down to Dennis who, after Brian, was the most naturally gifted Beach Boy. He also shared Brian's psychological problems – many related to their tyrannical father – and had almost destroyed himself by 1979. He would be dead four years later. But Brian (quite incredibly) endures. As does his band’s music. And Bach’s. That’s the triumph of genius.
George Chesterton is chief subeditor and a contributor at GQ magazine and GQ.co.uk - Follow on Twitter at @geochesterton