Are you being surfed?

These are happy days for devotees of Americana: The Beach Boys, Nilsson and The Band are back. And this time they're remastered
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The Independent Culture

It's been a good year for old-school Americana. Among the seasonal flurry of reissues, a clutch of 30-year-old albums from the Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson and the Band, all dusted down and polished up for 21st-century consumption, reminds us of a time when rock music across the pond was coming to terms with its heritage.

It's been a good year for old-school Americana. Among the seasonal flurry of reissues, a clutch of 30-year-old albums from the Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson and the Band, all dusted down and polished up for 21st-century consumption, reminds us of a time when rock music across the pond was coming to terms with its heritage.

Like Charles Ives in the classical arena, the Band were the self-appointed curators of the American popular musical experience (leaving aside the technicality that most of them were Canadian). Their first four releases - Music From Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright and Cahoots, all now remastered with extra tracks - are the keystone of the genre. An amazing variety of American vernacular traditions collide in a sepia-wash of R&B, country, ragtime and gospel. They're extraordinarily compelling, but, for all their grandiloquence, I can't help the feeling that I'm dipping my bread in the gravy here. For my money, the real Sloppy Joes in this batch are the Beach Boys and Nilsson revamps.

The Beach Boys' Seventies albums have been unavailable for the best part of a decade, some never before available on CD. I find this astonishing, when one considers what has undergone reissue treatment, but it's largely due, I suspect, to brotherly discord and legal wrangles over composer credits and ownership of the name. Brian Wilson's genius dominated the Boys' Sixties output. After the ill-fated Smile project of 1967, triggering Brian's bouts of paranoia and escalating drug intake, the family went through a necessary process of democratisation. By 1970, production and writing duties were shared. It was a winning formula.

The first two, Sunflower and Surf's Up, now paired as part of Capitol Record's two-for-one series, are masterpieces. Although Brian was AWOL for much of the time in the early Seventies, this is still the sound of a real band at work. Dennis Wilson's tear-stained "Forever" and the enigmatic title track from Surf's Up, written by Brian and Van Dyke Parks (who also produced Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman), stand alongside the best of their Sixties' hits. Conversely, when Carl and the Passions: So Tough was first issued in 1972, the distributor had such little confidence that purchasers were bribed with a reissue of Pet Sounds as a bonus disc. Now, bolstered by endorsements from Elton John and Tom Petty, it's coupled with the exquisite Holland and sounds rather good, although the Dutch-recorded album is by far the stronger of the two.

If naming an album after a flat European country can be considered unimaginative, naming one after a university is just daft. Still, M.I.U. (recorded in 1977 at Iowa's Maharishi International University) and L.A. (Light Album) each contain a handful of gems twinkling in the dying light. "My Diane", "Winds of Change" and "Full Sail" are among the most poignant of anything they recorded.The final double pack in the series, taking us into the Eighties, Keepin' the Summer Alive/ The Beach Boys, has little to recommend it, heralding years of compilations and nostalgia.

Nostalgia was no stranger to Harry Nilsson. He once wrote a song with Phil Spector, "This Could Be the Night", which Brian Wilson loved and attempted to record several times. But, like so many Nilsson projects, it never quite came off. Nilsson was a cult figure in the late Sixties, mostly through his association with the Beatles. The hits "Everybody's Talking" (from the film Midnight Cowboy) and the 1972 chart-topper "Without You" kept him on radio and jukebox for a while. But these were both cover versions and in any case few people bothered to get past Nilsson Schmilsson, the bestselling, but flawed, album which spawned the latter hit. Those that did discovered a songwriter of prodigious talent.

Luckily, among the reissues of his 1967-73 work, two of his strongest albums, Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman are now together on one disc. This is a different America to that of the Beach Boys: more Broadway than boardwalk. The songs on Harry are as uncluttered and candid as the album's title. "The Puppy Song" is about, well, a puppy. "Mother Nature's Son" is a note-perfect rendition of Paul McCartney's quaint White Album ditty. And with tongue pressed to cheek, Nilsson includes a snippet of a mariachi tune written by his mother, "Marchin' Down Broadway".

I've always had a fondness for Randy Newman's cheese-wire wit, and the companion album here, Nilsson Sings Newman, does exactly what it says on the box. In many ways Nilsson and Newman were two of a perfect pair. Harry found the other's leftfield songs intriguing and was an early champion of the man once dubbed the Mark Twain of rock. Newman's songs have a cynicism lacking in Nilsson's, but he was the bigger star.

Nilsson's career, on the other hand, was caught in a tailspin. At times he seemed dogged by tragedy - in 1974 Mama Cass Eliot died in his London flat. Four years later, his close pal Keith Moon also died there, in the same bed. Harry passed on in 1994, a frustrated celebrity. Listening to him today, it's easy to see why he confounded his wider audience. A new album from Harry Nilsson could just as easily be rock'n'roll pastiche, cover versions of Thirties standards, or a children's story (his surreal kid's tale The Point! is also re-released). Everything he did was with his heart on his sleeve and his hand over the self-destruct button. As with Randy Newman, these days most people will have heard Nilsson's songs unwittingly, on movie soundtracks such as High Fidelity and You've Got Mail. In an age when music is increasingly sold as an adjunct to video or film, it's 21st-century America's way of keeping in touch with its musical heritage.

The Band's and the Beach Boys' reissues are available from Capitol Records. Harry Nilsson's albums are released on BMG

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