Let´s be FRIENDS ( English )

On the joys and limits of escapism and a forgotten 1968 masterpiece by the Beach Boys


by Jobst Liebrecht

It´s the third year of the pandemic; the taxi-driving hippie father of the detective on the German television police procedural Tatort (Crime Scene), is being worked over on the massage bench by “Hanna with the healing hands.” Watching this scene, it`s impossible for me to see it as anything other than a nostalgic nod to “Anna Lee, the Healer” from the 1968 Beach Boys album Friends. The song, composed in the style of an FM radio jingle and underlaid with airy tablas and glorious choral harmonies, sings the praises of the band’s Indian masseuse. In another track on the album, a jazzy bossa nova with the title “Busy Doin’ Nothing,” Brian Wilson cheerfully sings in minute detail of writing himself notes in the morning, recalling lost telephone numbers, and giving directions to his house (“you’ll see a white fence”). Yet another song is about a “Little Bird,” seen through the window pane. And there is the instrumental track “Passing By,” which sounds like waiting-on-hold music from the best phone company in the world.  Finally, the last song on the record celebrates “Transcendental Meditation.”

So, what is going on? “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it,” as the bard writes; namely the diversions of escapism.

“Escapism, you call out to me, / reproachfully. / What else, I answer, / in this lousy weather!-, / open the umbrella / and take to the skies.” (Hans Magnus Enzensberger, The Flying Robert)

After the milestone Pet Sounds album and “Good Vibrations,” the biggest hit of their career, the Beach Boys were in a crisis. The music world had been waiting in vain since 1966 for the previously announced major project SMiLE. Instead, Brian Wilson and the band delivered two albums in quick succession, Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, both of which, to say the least, undermined the public’s euphoric expectations. After the opulence of Pet Sounds, Brain Wilson, worn down by depression, the pressure to perform, fear of failure, and drugs, but in a more positive sense in search of further artistically authentic avenues, had chosen not to set foot in a commercial recording studio. As a way to continue their work, the band accordingly set up a studio in his house (“bringing the mountain to Mahomet”). On Smiley Smile we hear artful “non-producing” in most of the songs—kitchen-table music, played with simple instruments, peppered with everyday themes of the utmost banality. A tribute to soul follows with the album Wild Honey, another sudden shift in temperament that left fans unnerved. Just so there is no misunderstanding:  These two albums were more than a bit avant-garde and certainly did have their fans and followers—Jim Morrison of the Doors, for example, loved Wild Honey dearly—but they no longer spoke to the masses, they were an end run into a niche.

So, how’s life in the rain?

Unlike the Beatles, who had unprecedented successes right up until their breakup in 1970, things at this point seemed to have taken a turn for the worse for the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson, the guarantor of all their big hits, had become mentally ill and unpredictable.  Carl Wilson spent months fighting his call-up to Vietnam. Dennis Wilson later became friends with the mass murderer Charles Manson.  Mike Love went to India. And smoldering in the background was the conflict with Murray Wilson, the brothers’ father, who had arbitrarily sold the rights to the big hits. In fan legend and pop history lore, this is commonly accepted as a period of decline for the Beach Boys.

And indeed, not everything from this period is immediately compelling—so utterly overwhelming as in the early days of their big hits. But I would like to entertain a positive take on this creative period, specifically, an appreciation of the pleasures and limits of escapism. I am basing this on an interview that Brian Wilson gave in 1976 during a reasonably healthy phase:


Here Wilson speaks convincingly of how, as an artist who has had success with his work, who is being heard, who has something to say, he feels ever anew the responsibility, the commitment, to bring good things to people, to please them. He also says in a very specific way that he is always looking for something in art that is “delicate,” subtle. In contrast to the hymn-like eulogies of Pet Sounds, what interested him most at the time was how the various instruments could be merged together into something new—the beautiful timbres that are created when the various tracks are overlaid on top of each other. With “Friends,” then, he subsequently wanted to do things differently. The vocal parts, he insisted, should be singularly and separately recorded, straight and unmixed.

“It´s a collection of folksongs and has a mellow vibe.”   (Brian Wilson)

If we forget for a moment what we know about Friends and listen to the album a few times or so without any preconceptions, it gradually begins in all its modesty and low-fi sound to reveal its gorgeous virtues. We hear voices at a distance, “from the margins as a safe place.”


“Listen once and you might think this album is nowhere. But it’s really just at a very special place, and after a half-dozen listenings, you can be there.” (Arthur Schmidt, Rolling Stone)

Pet Sounds is by far my very best album. Still, though, my favorite is Friends.” (Brian Wilson, 2001)

I’ll list some of its merits:

The musical form on Friends is more finely polished and compact than on the hit albums. Take the opening song, for example: “Meant For You”—one of the shortest pop songs in musical history, at just 41 seconds, yet everything is in it:


In contrast to the external crisis and decline, Brain Wilson is still continually perfecting his art. The rhythms in particular have acquired an ever clearer and better defined structure. Almost as if in a kind of classicism, Wilson composed a great many waltzes(!) during this period. (At Berkeley, the title song “Friends” has since been used to demonstrate the composition of pop music in 3/4 time.) The arrangement of the bar groupings in his songs is broken up by means of irregularities and reshaping in a carefully thought out, elegant and subtle way.  Wilson also remains true to his predilection for pure instrumentals; with “Passing By” and “Diamond Head,” he presents us with two numbers that are even more refined, even more experimental, even more sophisticated.


Wilson also continues his exploration of the latest innovations in recording technology. Here on Friends, for example, various distorted vocals are used. Later, the recently invented Moog synthesizer is added.

While the songs from the Beach Boys’ early heyday were tied to puberty and adolescence, we are now dealing with “more grown-up music.” Both in the choice of subject matter and musical implementation, decisions about what to present and how are being given more serious consideration. Difficult times call for a more political music.

This political aspect is also expressed in the emergence of a bit more democracy in the band. Unlike earlier, when all musical questions were resolved with by Brian alone, group efforts were now the basis for many songs. “Little Bird,” for example, is a song by Dennis Wilson, who sings it with his uniquely raspy and soulful voice, but the complex middle section, the bridge, which we immediately perceive as a contrast, is by Brian. Even the album’s final track, “Transcendental Meditation,” despised by many fans, and the aforementioned “Anna Lee, the Healer” are perfidiously catchy with their Indian-influenced vocal harmonies presented by the Beach Boys at the height of their choral singing—these, too, are a product of the entire group.

The instrumentation of Pet Sounds was already based on stunningly idiosyncratic sound effects and an unusual use of instruments; on Friends this comes across in an even more strongly distilled and refined form.

Here are just a few of these magical moments:

  • The sudden cutting loose of a swinging Hammond organ with a vibrato that you would otherwise only hear at the hockey rink in “When a Man Needs a Woman”
  • The cheerful bounce of the marching tuba marking the arrival of dawn in “Wake the World”
  • The tubular bells flickering nervously in the background in “Be Here in the Mornin’,” symbolizing both the doorbell and the passage of time
  • The happy chirping banjo at the end of “Little Bird”
  • And, of course, once more the bass harmonica with its indestructible fundamental tones—for example, in the title song “Friends”

The vocal sound is also carefully shaped and refined through the attention paid to the individual solo voices with their respective timbres, which are distributed throughout the songs like a mosaic, but also through distortions of the group choruses, offering us bizarre moments full of wit and sudden enlightenment.

  • In “Be Still,” the entire song is only vocal and organ. With the line “life begins,” the voice suddenly expands in a flash of reverberation creating a momentary aura.
  • In “Be Here in the Mornin’,“ at the line “making my life full,” there is the sudden onset of a massive chorus on the word full, which seems like the perfect analogy to a speech bubble in a Roy Lichtenstein poster. The sudden electronic distortion then a moment later with the line “no calls from Grothoff, Parks or Grillo” (agents and managers of the band) also gives the whole thing an almost comic book aspect.

In “Passing By” all of the original lines of text are gone and only the repeatedly relooped melismatic syllables remain.

These are the joys of escapism. With the metaphorical “Eject” button, Brian Wilson has beamed himself out of the grim reality into a musically veritable world of harmony. Individual moments of his daily life, irrelevant in themselves, ephemeral, are condensed into a song as lyrical moments, preserved forever. Wasn’t it always like that in poetry?

The limits of escapism lie in the dark underside just beneath the surface. The idyll is more than a bit self-imposed. One is turning away from violence and darkness, refusing to look. This can be heard most clearly at the beginning of “Diamond Head” on Friends: Though planned as a paradisiacal description of a chill-out idyll in Hawaii, eerie electronic sounds, vaguely reminiscent of the sounds of war, echoes of bombs in Vietnam, detonations in Prague, are heard at the beginning of the track. They cast a shadow over all the following sounds, yes they cast a shadow over the whole Friends album. And so it goes, when hunted by demons:  Brian Wilson became more and more caught up in the world of drugs and psychosis (in the 1970s he didn’t leave his bed for months). Dennis Wilson died in an alcohol-influenced diving accident at the age of 39. Mike Love, on the other hand, is now a supporter of Trump and sings at gun lobby events. This is exactly where the demons and the limits of escapism and the striving for harmony in art lie in wait.

And in the end, same ol’ lousy weather.

(Jobst Liebrecht, February 2022/May 2024)

Translated by Kevin Pfeiffer

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