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Howie Edelson Breaks Down The Beach Boys’ ‘Feel Flows — The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971’ Box Set
Acclaimed writer/radio producer Howie Edelson is part of the three-man creative nexus that made the expansive new Beach Boys Feel Flows – The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971 a reality, shining a light on an otherwise underrated era from the legendary band. We spoke with Howie, who also penned the insightful and informative liner notes for Feel Flows, and he took us on a journey behind the making of this historic set.
Rock Cellar: Detail your role working on this project and the challenges and obstacles you had to overcome to bring it to the finish line.
Howie Edelson: My role on the project really was twofold. There was the creative side, helping Alan Boyd and Mark Linett — but there was a whole other side working with (BRI President) Jerry Schilling. As you know, there were a lot of starts and stops with the project — Boyd and Linett always carried on, but there were about three times where the word was bad — this thing wasn’t going to go. We were done. And I just couldn’t allow that to happen and just kept blowing on the embers, so to speak, to keep the fire burning. Jerry Schilling wouldn’t give up on this thing, either. It’s weird trying to articulate how it all went down — it was a thousand little moments — but here we are at last.
Rock Cellar: Given your role as official Brother Records/Beach Boys consultant, define your creative mindset when overseeing such an important career survey.
Howie Edelson: I mean, you and me, aside from The Beach Boys — we’re Beatles guys. We’re Who guys. For the most part, our heroes got their due time and again. Well, the way that the Beach Boys’ history transpired — they didn’t. After ’66, the group had to sink very low in public opinion before they were rewarded for “coming back” or “returning to form” — which was bullshit. There was never a dip in quality or creative intent. I spend a lot of time thinking about why their career played out the way it did in light of such incredible music being created – both released and left in the can. And all I can offer is that now is their time.
Finally, after everyone has been exhausted by every other band’s official bootlegs, and box sets, and docs — now is the Beach Boys’ time. I mean in terms of hipness — look at this band in 1971 and walk around the Lower East Side (in Manhattan) or Silver Lake (in L.A.) — you see a lot of dudes that look like the Beach Boys. You also hear a lot of indie bands that sound like them, too. Now is their time. Fate is a funky thing.
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Rock Cellar: What are the things you want to get right and what are the things you want to steer away from?
Howie Edelson: I’ve always wanted the music to be the story. When you’ve got Mark Linett working with these tapes, I knew that by the time I heard anything it was essentially in a releasable state. But he doesn’t stop — there’s tweak after tweak — I might wake up in the morning with a folder full of newer versions of yesterday’s tracks. So, on that level, we’re always covered. He can take a demo and turn it into a master. We all wanted the music to be the focal point. It’s so weird, and maybe it’s an American thing, but the group’s “maladies” — their health, their issues, their politics — always seems to rise to the top, to the detriment of their work.
I feel that having the box come out underscoring an era where everybody was leading the band, and everyone was producing absurdly great material, that maybe we could finally even the playing field. Perhaps the Beach Boys could finally be judged in the same manner as their peers – instead of all the meat on the bone, which although fascinating, has detracted from the music. Boyd and I talk a lot about this. Apart from being lucky enough to get to hear all this forgotten music, talking about it with Boyd has been the highpoint of this whole thing. He’s the heart and soul of the entire operation. I wish every band I loved had an Alan Boyd.
Rock Cellar: Set the stage for where the Beach Boys were both creatively and professionally during the Sunflower/Surf’s Up era.
Howie Edelson: It was a paradox. Professionally, they were in a horrible place. Capitol Records dropped them, there was some real strife in getting another label interested in them, and they were simply not a part of the vernacular in 1969. Where do you fit in if you’re not tough enough for FM or insipid enough for bubblegum? They were becoming invisible. Although they would still score an annual respectable, but minor, hit like (1968’s) “Do It Again” and (1969’s) “I Can Hear Music,” those were firmly the exceptions rather than the rule.
On the road, the power of their pre-’66 material could still draw crowds and keep them earning — but there’s no way these guys were feeling positive or hopeful about their options at decade’s end. Yet … They get into the studio and their creativity is popping. It’s amazing when you hear the tapes of them, how confident this band is. You would never know that it had been three years since their last Top 10 hit or that their most recent album “peaked” at No. 68. One thing seemingly had nothing to do with the other. Although I know they were concerned about their commercial fate, they equally had complete faith in what they were doing regardless of how it sold.
Rock Cellar: From your perspective with your deep involvement putting together this collection and penning the insightful liner notes, who’s The Beach Boys MVP on this collection?
Howie Edelson: They all are. All six of these guys were fully realized — and completely different. Plus, you had Stephen Desper, who, arguably, was the most innovative engineer of the era — and it’s an embarrassment of riches. I mean, you record Sunflower in a converted living room and it sounds better than Abbey Road — let’s throw a “genius” tag on that guy, too. By experiencing this material in its entirety, you understand that this wasn’t so much a band as it was a “collective.” It was a really progressive and altruistic way of working. The collective is the MVP.
Rock Cellar: Are there Beach Boys Holy Grail tracks you know exist and have yet to find?
Howie Edelson: Well, it needs to be said, that people pop up frequently and contact BRI with audio and footage that was thought to have been destroyed or we never knew existed, so anyone who’s got anything: bring it forth, let’s get it out there. Feel Flows has a couple of things that were brought to BRI by fans — the demo of “Won’t You Tell Me” and “It’s Natural,” for example.
As far as stuff that does exist — I gotta say, Brian Wilson’s 1971 demo of “Sail On Sailor” is one that took my breath away. He’s really skittish — but the changes, the chords, the melody — it’s all there. But the thing that caught my attention was it starts with a lyric mentioning Brooklyn, of all places. Now, all of a sudden, I remembered that [Beach Boys photographer] Ed Roach — who’s literally as Brooklyn as it comes — was actually at Bellagio that very day and overheard this whole performance. Ed was eavesdropping, sitting smoking a joint outside the studio door by the garden path entrance. So, I asked him if he had seen Brian that day. He told me he hadn’t. But … Ed had been in the studio over the past few days co-producing tracks with Stephen Desper for his buddies from Brooklyn named Thunder. You put one-and-one together, and Ed Roach now figures into the inspiration for one of Brian Wilson’s masterpieces.
Another one that’s been absolutely blowing my mind is a Carl track from 1975 titled, “Carl’s Song,” aka “It Could Be Anything.” This thing is brilliant — this could’ve been an actual hit. The track itself, arrangement-wise, is like a pop version of “Holy Man” — Ricky [Fataar] on drums, the MOOG, the ARP — it’s literally the sound of Eden.
The vocal version is just Carl singing his ass off on a scat vocal that is so rich and memorable that you can’t help but sing along. Pure positivity and goodness. My heart exploded hearing it. The amount of incredible unreleased music left unfinished by this band is jaw-dropping.
Rock Cellar: If you had to choose a few key songs from Feel Flows box set that most evocatively tell the story of this Beach Boys’ era, which would you choose and why?
Howie Edelson: There’s so much. Hearing Mike Love’s bass line in “San Miguel” was an early moment that brought forth the importance of this set. So much music from this era by other bands, you can rate in terms of production and songcraft, but this is superhero stuff here. This is taking chorale and doo-wop and creating a whole sub-genre. Just Mike’s vocal alone; the precision — he’s becoming this really intelligent left hand on a piano — and it’s a physical thing. It’s percussive and mood changing. And I just remember thinking how hard you need to concentrate to do this right and mean it.
Hearing a pristine version of Brian singing “Awake” is something special. I also really get off on the tracks with backing vocals — that’s always a go-to for me.
Rock Cellar: There’s a rich array of unreleased material on the Feel Flows box set. What were the most surprising and revelatory discoveries?
Howie Edelson: My favorite moment on the entire box is Al leading, I think, Dennis Dragon on drums and Bruce Johnston on bass, through the basic track of “Susie Cincinnati.” Just the coolest thing. Al’s got these [Pete] Townshend-esque riffs going — and the whole thing sounds like the Velvet Underground jamming on the sunniest Saturday in the middle of Manhattan Beach. It’s shit-hot.
Also, the studio session for “Sound Of Free” which, to me, sounds like if John Lennon recorded Plastic Ono Band in the middle of [Paul] McCartney’s Ram sessions. It’s incredible. We’re so lucky all of this still exists. Feels Flows is also marks the last time Brian still has that voice. So it’s something that needs to be cherished, really. This is the last of that.
Rock Cellar: You’ve touched on the “collective” nature of the band’s working partnership on both Sunflower and Surf’s Up, is it safe to say this era was the peak of their creative unity?
Howie Edelson: In a way. Over the course of the Beach Boys’ career, they were, like, seven different bands featuring the same members. You mix and match and you get a different a Beach Boys album. It’s such an ironic thing, the first resurgence didn’t come until after Surf’s Up hit the streets. So, the entire time that they’re creating the incredible music on this box, they’re living the creative communal ideal — probably far more genuinely that any number of hipper-than-though artists who in actuality, are recording with a dorky staff producer, in an uptight major studio, with set, scheduled morning sessions — the Beach Boys are doing it in the coolest, most hip way imaginable: at home, with the best engineer, completely on their own terms and schedule with zero fanfare.
They’re just doing it the same way they did it in ’67, ’68, ’69 when nobody cared. In helping put this box together and doing the liners, Brian, Mike, Al, and Bruce spoke to me for hours and 50 years on, after all that’s gone down, they realize — and genuinely appreciate — how they banded together to create something that’s proven to be ageless. I was left feeling that they all realized how much they once meant to each other.
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