Updated: Aug 31
By Bob Deakin
If you know the Sunflower album, you are either a member of the Beach Boys, one of my brothers or sisters, or an LA session musician from the 70s. It isn’t known or critiqued on a grand scale, so it’s one of those that rational Beach Boys fans speak of in general terms, hoping no one brings attention to it and lets the secret out.
Beach Boys freaks that dedicate their lives to Pet Sounds and appear crestfallen when someone mentions the lost Smile sessions can’t stand Sunflower. I have met and broken bread with these people. They hate everything that didn’t nearly cost Brian Wilson his life.
Sunflower was a breath of fresh air and sunshine. It was a signal that the Beach Boys were alive and well. What gives this album its sound is Dennis Wilson. Little brother Dennis (he was 26) grew up and sounded more Joe Cocker than Brian or Carl Wilson. He wrote four of the 12 songs and sang lead on three.
You never heard much of Dennis previously, other than a few lead vocals on lesser-known songs in the 60s. However, he added an edge and subtle touch only a blood relation can add to a vocal harmony. He was also the only Beach Boy that looked the part. Not a great drummer, but it didn't matter. Plenty of other guys could play sessions, which they did on this album. More about that later.
The Boys Are Growing Up
The four Dennis songs on Sunflower have a blues and Gospel sensibility. A couple of his songs and others on the album feature female backup vocalists, which was unusual for the Boys. Nonetheless, the female voices are a beautiful compliment to their sound as they were growing into their 30s.
It was the Dennis influence.
Their only competitors for critical musical milestones in 1970 were The Beatles, Miles Davis, Derek and the Dominoes, The Doors, George Harrison, The Jackson Five, Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Simon & Garfunkel, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, and all of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. Almost all of them were still alive and working.
Grand Funk and The Partridge Family were just as popular in our household but looking back, they were notch above Alvin and the Chipmonks, The Archies, and Josie and the Pussycats. To say the least, Sunflower went unnoticed, except in the Deakin household.
Can't say I remember it upon the album release, but a couple years later, I was walking barefoot in the heat of St. Petersburg, Florida, listening to it as a little kid. It seemed to be the soundtrack of my life. There are certain songs that resonate from your childhood, and this entire album fills the bill for me. I knew every note by the time I was seven.
Regardless of Dennis Wilson’s contributions - as well as Bruce Johnston, who added his influence - Brian Wilson still dominates the production and likely had more input than credited. What is also unusual is the volume of musicians and the quality of production.
Sunflower was released in 1970. In the late 60s, the Beach Boys' technical sound was a bit thin. You can debate the merits of the songwriting and performances, but I loved it. It was an odd era for Boys, but what wasn't odd about the late 60s?
As for the mainstream music business and chart success, Brian’s eccentricities, licensing issues, and record company squabbles put the guys in a tough spot. The Beach Boys were a hard sell in the psychedelic era. That’s another story.
Is That Dennis or Joe Cocker?
On Sunflower, we hear Dennis’s raspy voice on "Slip On Through," the opening track, and it sounds like all of California is singing backing vocals.
That's what makes this album so worth the listen. It was the proper alignment of the moon and stars in the Beach Boys world. Listen to the backing vocals, congas and the odd echo effect on the cowbell on this track.
Classic. The band didn't even realize how great this album was. Go ahead and quote me on that. Bob Deakin at 352-617-4451.
I feel like I played on Sunflower, even though I didn’t, except on my drum set years later. If you don’t know the Beach Boys, this is the best example of their collective talents on one album. Pet Sounds, from five years previous, is deeper and more introspective, a more significant work, but that was all Brian.
This is the band at their best, with Brian’s influence putting it all together.
It gets better and better with every listen, featuring acoustic guitar, rock, and an edge in Dennis's songs not familiar to the Beach Boys. Sunflower, as the title and cover photo suggests, has an open-air, summer sound. It's genuine and memorable like none of the band's works before or after.
The Beach Boys, as instrumentalists, had little to do with Sunflower. That involved a large team of talented and very expensive session players, and a nice job by all. I'll get to that later.
As resplendent of a production as this is on such a grand scale, The Beach Boys sound like a band.
End of Part I