Brent Johnson’s Lost Songs: ‘Johnny Carson’ by The Beach Boys

brent johnson digs up another lost treasure, this week from The Beach Boys …

Yesterday, on my way to work, I stopped and picked up an album I’ve always wanted to hear: a strange, baffling, difficult, yet utterly fascinating 1977 record called The Beach Boys Love You.

Most people have probably never heard of it. But to music fanatics, it’s a mythical oddity — an intriguing chapter in the cautionary tale of Brian Wilson.

In the mid-1960s, the Beach Boys’ leader was hailed as a genius — shattering the band’s surf image by releasing the lush, heartbreaking, magnificently complex Pet Sounds, an album considered maybe the greatest of all time. But by the mid-1970s, Wilson was a shell of his former self. He had shelved his most ambitious record, 1967’s Smile, before it was ever finished. His once angelic voice and and already fragile mental state became ravaged by drug use. His bloated frame topped more than 300 pounds. He barely recorded music anymore, let alone anything that broke barriers. And The Beach Boys were no longer storming the charts — shoved aside as an uncool relic of the ’60s.

Then came 1976. Out of nowhere, a nostalgic greatest-hits compilation called Endless Summer brought the band back to the top of the charts. More importantly, Wilson got psychological help, started to shed weight, and returned to the studio. Newspaper stories proclaimed: “Brian is back!” And together, he and the Boys recorded a quirky collection of covers and new tunes called 15 Big Ones. It sold well, even if its wash of synthesizers sounded nothing like The Beach Boys the world knew.

Its follow-up was even more confounding. The Beach Boys Love You was miles away from the sunny pop of their early days and the orchestral beauty of Pet Sounds. It was largely an album of Brian Wilson stabbing at electronic keyboards and using his now-cigarette-addled croak of a voice to sing silly lyrics about solar systems, roller-derby queens, and honkin’ down the highway.

But as I found out when I popped the album into my car stereo yesterday, all of it is wonderful. The music is incredibly melodic and subtly challenging. The production is endearingly kooky. And even the words have a charming air of innocence.

The epitome is ‘Johnny Carson,’ a dark — even creepy — ode to the Tonight Show host. It almost sounds like a Halloween tune — if it weren’t for the lyrics that quote Ed McMahon.

In the end, The Beach Love You wasn’t quite the comeback everyone expected. It wasn’t a major hit, and the Beach Boys followed it up with a string of lackluster releases. Wilson, meanwhile, continued to battle narcotics and mental demons for the next two decades.

Few people write about Love You anymore. They’d prefer to lather Pet Sounds with more love or wonder what Smile would have sounded like if Wilson didn’t fall off his psychedelic wagon.

But it’s a record that shouldn’t be forgotten — and checking it out would be a fine way to celebrate Brian Wilson’s 70th birthday today. It’s proof that even at at his shakiest, Wilson could produce endlessly interesting music.

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck even calls it his favorite Beach Boys album. And that’s okay by me.