The man who remade the Beach Boys
One day in 1971 a man called Jack Rieley called me up at the Melody Maker. He’d read a piece in which I’d attempted to persuade readers to listen again to the Beach Boys, who had fallen into disfavour as the evolution of rock gathered momentum in the late ’60s. Rieley told me that he’d recently taken over as the group’s manager. He was, he said, a former journalist and disc jockey. He liked what I’d written and started to tell me about his plans, which majored on the idea of restoring Brian Wilson to his role as the centre of the group’s creativity. Amen to that, I said. And when he added that his initial step was to get “Surf’s Up” — the legendary lost track from the lost album, Smile — into shape for release, I was completely on his side.
We met in London and talked several times, and before long he proved to be as good as his word. The song “Surf’s Up” became the title track of the first Rieley-era Beach Boys album, released that August, and was, in its completed form, the masterpiece one had always dreamed it would be. The album also contained new songs that signalled a change of emphasis, in which the band pivoted away from their old cars-and-surfboards image towards an engagement with a new generation.
Mike Love’s “Student Demonstration Time”, a riff on Leiber and Stoller’s “Riot on Cell Block No 9”, was the most blatant and clumsiest of those signs, but other songs demonstrated a more profound change of consciousness — particularly Carl Wilson’s introspective “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road”, to which Rieley contributed lyrics, Al Jardine’s “Lookin’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)” and “A Day in the Life of a Tree”, a collaboration between Brian and Rieley on which the latter actually sang the lead in an artless, heartfelt tone which proved perfectly appropriate to the material. Brian’s “‘Til I Die” was the album’s second masterpiece, a meditation on mortality of a sort that might not have thrilled fans looking for a new “Fun Fun Fun”.
Although most of these thoughts were in the heads of the Beach Boys themselves, there’s no doubt that Rieley nerved them up to accept the risk of abandoning the established following that would have been happy to see them turn into an oldies act. Released in August 1971, the album Surf’s Up brought them a different kind of attention, for which he had paved the way four months earlier when they successfully appeared as guests on a bill with the Grateful Dead at Fillmore East in front of an audience that had probably bracketed them with Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Rieley’s next trick was to release the follow-up album, titled Carl and the Passions: So Tough, in a double-album set with Pet Sounds. This invited the world to listen to their new music — including two intense Dennis Wilson ballads, “Cuddle Up” and “Make It Good”, and a couple of songs (“You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone” and “Marcella”) to which Rieley again contributed lyrics — while appreciating anew the richness of their history. They also added two new members, bassist-singer Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar, from the Flame, a South African band who had been taken under Carl Wilson’s wing.
Although neither of these albums succeeded in giving the Beach Boys a new hit single, their credibility had been largely restored. They were no longer the group in matching shirts and smiles. And, best of all, Brian seemed to be functioning again.
Their manager’s next gambit was his most audacious, and the one that would contribute to his downfall. Wanting to take them out of their comfort zone and put them in an unfamiliar environment where they could make music without distractions, he conceived a plan to move the whole band and their families to Holland, along with state of the art recording equipment — a complete quadraphonic studio, in effect — and a crew to assemble and operate it. In a village called Baambrugge, on the Angstel river between Amsterdam and Utrecht, they made the album titled Holland, full of superb music: Brian’s “Sail on, Sailor”, Dennis’s “Steamboat” and Carl’s “The Trader”, all with Rieley’s contributions to the lyrics, Dennis’s classic “Only with You”, beautifully sung by Carl, and Jardine’s “California Saga”, which contained verses from the Robinson Jeffers poem “The Beaks of Eagles”.
It also came with a bonus EP containing a “fairy tale” by Brian called “Mount Vernon and Fairway”, a piece for children which contains a few moments of Wilson magic and passages of Rieley’s narration. Before its release Jack got Brian to call me up at home and play it to me over the phone, which was a fairly surreal experience.
But for all its quality, Holland also failed to provide the group with hits, and the project had been so expensive that the man responsible was relieved of his duties. Eventually he was exposed as a bit of a charlatan — he was not, for example, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, as he had apparently claimed — and some members of the group had always been suspicious of his methods and motives.
I found him to be pleasant, highly intelligent and quite intense, with an interest in the world beyond rock music. He stayed on in Holland, and in 1975 he gave me an album called Western Justice, a song cycle that he’d just written and recorded in Amsterdam in partnership with a Dutch singer-writer named Machiel Botman. It was an elaborate production, with many Beach Boyish touches, musically not outstanding but interesting for its subject matter: the consequences for humanity of the First World’s heedless appetite for its natural resources, framed in a story set at some undetermined date in the future. An accompanying text, in the form of the fictional diary of an unnamed narrator, contained these introductory words:
Hundreds gathered in the park this morning, and the atmosphere was sort of carnival. Fiddle players serenaded, people danced, craftsmen displayed their work and others just sat on the scorched dry remains of the grass, talking and singing and playing chess and doing nothing. The crowds grow daily as more factories and offices are forced to close. The afternoon’s Emergency Line was long and tiresome. Three hours of waiting yielded a box of dried milk, a large sack full of cereal and dozen transistor radio batteries (marked ‘Gift of the People of Surinam’). The last newspaper has stopped publishing, leaving radio as the sole remaining source of official information. Today’s reports were that new ‘Citizens’ Courts’ were springing up from Geneva to Chicago, putting businessmen and government functionaries on trial for hoarding and black market activities. The Emergency Pact foreign ministers met again in Brussels, but representatives of Canada, the Soviet Union and Spain didn’t even bother to turn up. I adjusted easily when the electricity was turned off, but the current lack of safe drinking water is beginning to annoy me…
And so the narrative continues, depicting the West in a state of chaos and panic, culminating in a conference of the African, Latin American and Asian nations at which the United States begs for help. This was written in 1975, remember.
After that I lost touch with Rieley. I know he stayed in Europe, working in music for a while, then starting some kind of telecommunications business, before dying in Berlin in 2015, aged 72. The ending of his three years with the Beach Boys had pretty well trashed his reputation. But he left his mark on some important recordings, some of which can be heard again on a set titled Feel Flows, a reissue of Sunflower and Surf’s Up, plus associated outtakes, different mixes, vocal-only tracks and so on, released earlier this year.
Whatever his ambitions cost the group in financial terms, by bringing them into the modern world he significantly improved their standing during his time as their manager. Maybe he did make stuff up, but if what he told me in 1971 was accurate, you could also say that we have him to thank for inspiring the reconstruction and release of “Surf’s Up” — still, in my view, as elevated as just about any piece of popular music made in my lifetime.
* Feel Flows is available in various formats, from a 2-CD set to a multi-album vinyl box. The photograph of Jack Rieley was taken in Holland in 1974 by Harm Botman.