This review originally appeared in Phonograph Record Magazine, June 1976. It's interesting how this album has been slammed over the years, but this guy liked it!
15 Big Ones The Beach Boys Brother/Reprise by Ken Barnes Last minute track-by-track first impressions of 15 Big Ones:
"Rock And Roll Music" (popularized by Chuck Berry, The Beatles): This one's familiar as a single already, but it makes a great lead off track, too. Clever idea to cut it - renewing the Beach Boys' old Chuck Berry ties ("Surfin' USA" and half their early guitar intros) linking with the Beatles' inspiring 1965 version. A timeless song anyway, unbeatable in 1957, 1965 or 1976. Full harmonies, Brian noticeably present and wailing, and Mike Love singing in his most Californian-nasal style, just like the old days. The natural sequel to "Surfin' USA" 13 years on, contemporized by drinking "beer from a wooden cup" instead of Berry's "home brew." Smash.
"It's OK" (Wilson-Love): Amazing. Haven't heard the Beach Boys sound this summery since "Do It Again" in 1968. Short (2:18), lively, full production, it literally vaults out of the speakers. Definitely a premeditated (no TM puns intended) attempt to do it again (again), but it works better than I would have believed possible. New mature note of pessimism: "It's OK to go out and have some fun.../It's OK, let's play and enjoy while it lasts..."
"Had To Phone Ya" (Wilson-Love): Originally cut in 1973, but never released, by American Spring (Brian's wife Marilyn and her sister Diane). An ethereal Sunflower feel on a basically slight-but-pleasant song. Takes a few strange changes of direction, and ends with a Dennis Wilson vocal cameo.
"Chapel Of Love" (Dixie Cups, Ronettes): This was always one of my least favorite Spector (and Greenwich/Barry) songs, but the Beach Boys translate it into a new dimension via a majestic all-stops-out production. About this point, most doubts about the course Beach Boys' oldies bent would chart are disappearing. I'm still not sold on their CHOICE of material, but the execution seems impeccable.
"Everyone's In Love With You" (Mike Love): Mike's first solo composition (Words & Music) is a revelation. Swirling instrumental textures (Charles Lloyd on flute?) decorate an utterly irresistible melody. The Beach Boys haven't sounded this pretty since "Till I Die" (on Surf's Up), but this is not a fearful, brooding mood piece but a lighthearted love ballad. Probably will emerge as my favorite track.
"Talk To Me" (Little Willie John Sunny & The Sunliners): Sounds as could be as expected, taking into account my life long personal aversion to the song. The Pet Sounds-style bells and horn textures do wonders for the tune, but it still seems like a flatulent song warring with a delicate arrangement. A jarring interpolation of "Tallahassee Lassie" provides welcome, though fleeting, relief.
"That Same Song" (Wilson-Love): A bouncy little trip through musicological history, very simple in conception but hard to resist. Brian's singing MUCH lower now; could hardly recognize him.
"TM Song" (Brian Wilson): Starts boldly with a strident mock-argument recalling those "Cassius Love Vs. Sonny Wilson" studio goofs the Beach Boys used to mess around with to fill out their 1964 albums. Then a quiet voice announces, "It's time for me to meditate," and we begin. Essentially a cosmic giggle, short (1:34), lightweight, and not overbearing in its spiritual advocacy. It wouldn't have sounded out of place on Smiley Smile, but that was far from the Beach Boys best album.
"Palisades Park" (Freddy Cannon): Brian's reportedly been kicking this one around in his head for years, but it kicks off Side Two in fine fashion. A showpiece rearrangement turns frantic Freddy's roller coaster ride into a rhythmic rocker, with tasteful synthesizer fills and patented full-to-bursting harmonies. For the second time on this album ("Chapel" was the first), they've transmuted teenage trivia into a majestic monument - and without smothering the original impulse of fun. Shades of "Amusement Park USA."
"Susie Cincinnati" (Al Jardine): This was the B-side of both "Add Some Music To Your Day" (1970) and the too-late-for-Christmas 1974 single "Child of Winter," and although it's never been on an album, it's hard to understand what it's doing here six tears after its first appearance. Maybe they wanted to give Al his big chance. It sounds fine, in any case, a sprightly story of a Cincinnati groupie ("city's #1 sinner") on wheels.
"A Casual Look" ( The Six Teens Featuring Trudy Williams): A hoary (1956) L.A. girl-group oldie, perhaps a little overnasalized the lead vocals and played a bit too obviously for laughs, but once again it sounds great. The Beach Boys have a natural affinity for this sort of '50s doo-wop, as evidenced by the sharp a cappella intro.
"Blueberry Hill" (Fats Domino): As trite an oldie as you could dig up, it starts with an extended sax run and goes into a sparse string-bass-backed vocal. At this point it's the prime candidate for turkey of the set, but then it explodes into gear with that ever-electrifying neo-Spectorian Brian Wilson production in full riot. Just gets better and better, as they pull of another upset victory.
"Back Home" (Brian Wilson): The only new original on Side Two spotlights Brian's new low voice again in a bucolic ditty about going back to the farm which doesn't particularly ring true. Pretty slight stuff, although the chorus picks up the momentum.
"In The Still Of The Night" (Five Satins):If there were ever a stale oldie you never wanted the Beach Boys to tackle, this was probably the one. But once again the production and background vocals are enough to rejuvenate the most jaded - another doo-wop triumph. The lead singe (probably Brian) sounds extremely hoarse and uncharacteristically deep-voiced. A surprise stunner, here.
"Just Once In My Life" (Righteous Brothers): An unusual choice (surprising they didn't pick "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," in keeping with the more obvious choices on the LP), and one I was looking forward to. Strangely, it's the only oldie here which doesn't quite come off, doubtless because the Phil Spector original was produced so brilliantly, and because no solo-singing Beach Boy can match Bill Medley on this one. There are moments of greatness, and the spectacular production pays homage to Spector while displaying subtle differences, but it ends up a valiant second best. The off-key singing (in spots) is disconcerting.
The vocals, in fact, are the one slight problem on 15 Big Ones. The instrumental textures are appropriate, rich, and sumptuous, and the vocal harmonies are naturally unbeatable. But the lead vocals often sound excessively casual, as if the Beach Boys were trying too hard to prove they were having a good time in the studio.
That minor point aside, the album radiates an irresistible summer-shine kind of feeling, while ate the same time displaying all the stunning production values Brian Wilson and group are famous for. It's both awesome and relaxed, striking an inspired (and commercial) balance between the exuberance of their old records and the formulas of their recent efforts. It's got everything it needs, they're artists, and they do look back, but not in a spirit of blind fidelity to the original versions. Instead they turn the old songs into BEACH BOYS numbers, giving the album a unity rare in oldies-showcase projects. 15 Big Ones is the album you've been hoping the Beach Boys would make for years now. It's a triumph.