For those who don’t know, as well as the Beatles Live At The BBC Vol 2 set (already on my Xmas list), Universal are releasing two digital-only albums of previously unreleased music — one by the Beatles and one by the Beach Boys (plus various Brian Wilson productions and associates) — next week, to take advantage of the use-it-or-lose-it copyright extension rules that were added to EU copyright law last year.
Now, leaving aside the morality of the new laws (which I find disgusting — I am a strong supporter of copyright laws, but *only* when those laws allow things to revert to the public domain after a reasonable time. Copyright was created to allow artists to earn a living, not to create a perpetual aristocratic rentier class living off the creations of past generations) this poses a problem for me.
The Beach Boys release is fine — it’ll be available from Amazon as DRM-free MP3s (though with identifying metadata). But the Beatles release is, like all the Beatles’ digital releases, iTunes-only. And Apple not only do not have an iTunes client for GNU/Linux, they have repeatedly blocked any attempt by other developers to provide such a client. In other words, they actively refuse to sell me this album.
I’m still debating what to do about this. I could get a Windows-using friend to buy a copy of the album, dropbox it to me, and give them the money… but given that they are actually refusing to sell me the album *and* that I don’t approve of the copyright extension itself *and* that by giving money to iTunes I would be propping up a monopoly, should I?
There’s an extra moral problem, though, in that I may have much of this music already on bootlegs, and the only way I can morally justify owning bootlegs to myself is that I do, always, buy the music again should it become legally available.
The Beach Boys didn’t really capitalise on their initial success. Surfin’ was released in November, and they did two shows in December (one of them a two-song set in the intermission of a Dick Dale show which apparently went badly) before going into a studio in January to record a few more songs about surfing, in their newer electric style.
But then Alan Jardine left the band, deciding he’d rather concentrate on his studies and his folk group than on a pop group. His departure was perfectly amicable — he would record a single under the name Kenny & The Cadets that March with Brian and Audree Wilson (Brian’s mother) — but it left a gap in the band’s line-up.
The gap was quickly filled by David Marks, a thirteen-year-old neighbour of the Wilson family who had been learning guitar along with Carl. Marks was not the singer Jardine was, but he was an accomplished guitarist for his age, and knew the family well.
But one further big change had taken place — one which would have big results for the band over the next few years. Brian Wilson had found his first outside collaborator.
Gary Usher was three years older than Brian Wilson, and had released a single himself a couple of years earlier, an unsuccessful track called Driven Insane, a startlingly odd combination of reverbed Fender guitar, a sobbing Gene Pitney-esque vocal, and a high, almost theremin-sounding, female backing vocal. He and Wilson quickly hit it off and began collaborating on songs, both for the Beach Boys and for other side projects.
One song they came up with was a variant on the formula Brian and Mike had hit upon with Surfin’. Brian and Mike had already written another song, Surfin’ Safari, that was a virtual clone of their original hit, but which had tightened the formula. That song opened with almost unadorned vocal harmonies singing the hook, before going into a repeated twelve-bar blues pattern, over which Love sang the verse in his tenor range, and using the same pattern for a chorus, but with Love singing a bass melody while the rest of the band chanted the title before they all came together for the last line.
It’s the same basic structure as Surfin’, but tighter, and with twin electric Fender guitars providing much more drive than the single acoustic guitar of the earlier song, and with a prominent Chuck Berry influence on the guitar style.
Usher and Wilson took that same structure, and instead of writing about surfing, decided to write about the cars Usher loved so much, and in particular the Chevrolet Impala SS car Usher was desperate to buy, which had Chevrolet’s latest top-of-the-range engine, one with a 409 cubic inch capacity.
Mike Love, who has since gained a co-writing credit for this song following a lawsuit in the early 1990s, apparently added the opening “She’s real fine, my 409” hook and the “giddy-up” backing vocal idea. Love has often claimed that the reason for writing car songs along with the surf songs the band had been doing was a commercial one — that while the people on the coasts enjoyed surfing, the landlocked middle states all had cars as well — but it’s notable that while Love was Wilson’s principal collaborator, he worked on relatively few of the car songs. Usher (and Roger Christian, who later collaborated with both Wilson and Usher) clearly knew and loved cars.
This led to a rather odd situation — the song itself manages to clearly communicate its lyricist’s passion for the subject, precisely because its relatively short lyric contains the almost incomprehensible phrase “my four-speed, dual-quad, positraction 409”. Only someone who really loved cars would talk about them in such detail, and the enthusiasm is infectious even for those of us who barely know one end of a car from another.
Usher was also encouraging Wilson to stretch himself as a producer. When the band went into Western Studios with engineer Chuck Britz to record this song as a demo, along with a new version of Surfin’ Safari, Wilson and Usher’s ballad The Lonely Sea and the old Four Freshmen song Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring, they took with them a tape recording, made on a reel-to-reel recorder, of the engine of Usher’s car revving up. The addition of this sound effect at crucial points in the track turned it from just a Surfin’ Safari rewrite into something more.
Brian Wilson’s father Murry was credited as the producer of the session, but Brian was calling the shots in the studio from the beginning, and the results are wildly more exciting than the rather tentative Surfin’.
Nik Venet agreed. Venet had recently moved from World Pacific Records to become Capitol Records’ head of A&R*. Venet had been in at the birth of surf music with Moon Dawg, and decided that the Beach Boys were going to be big. He bought the demos of Surfin’ Safari and 409 and released them as a single in June 1962, and Surfin’ Safari quickly rose to number 14 in the charts. 409 did less well, but still made the Hot 100 on its own merits, and by September the band were in the studio, recording five more Wilson/Usher songs and one more Wilson/Love one, along with a couple of covers of popular hits and a remake of Moon Dawg (credited to Venet rather than its composer Derry Weaver), for a quick album release to capitalise on the single’s success.
The Beach Boys were no longer one-hit wonders, and they’d already expanded from just singing about surf to cars as well. Where could they go from here?
Composers: Brian Wilson, Gary Usher, and Mike Love
Line-up: Brian Wilson (vocals, bass), Mike Love (vocals), Dennis Wilson (vocals, drums), Carl Wilson (vocals, guitar), David Marks (guitar), Gary Usher (sound effects, uncredited)
Original release: Capitol single 4777, as the B-side to Surfin’ Safari
Currently available on: Surfin’ Safari, plus many public domain compilations
*Artists and repertoire. An A&R man was at the time the main contact between the record company and the performer, and would sign artists, choose material for them, and produce their recordings.
Surfin’ is the only life, the only way for me, now surf, surf, with me
The Pendletones weren’t a real band. They’d never even played a gig together before their first recording session.
Hite and Dorinda Morgan knew the young men who auditioned for them in August 1961. Alan Jardine had seen them several times over the previous year or so with his folk group, The Islanders. They’d been impressed enough to call him back, but not enough to commit to recording anything with him.
This time, though, he’d turned up with another familiar face. Brian Wilson was the young son of Murry Wilson, an aspiring songwriter whose material the Morgans had published. He was a good singer and a decent pianist — Dorinda Morgan had actually got him an audition for Original Sound records a few years earlier, but he’d been unsuccessful.
This time the two aspiring singers were joined by some relatives of Brian’s — his younger brothers Dennis and Carl, and his cousin Mike Love.
Opinions differ about what they performed at that August audition — it was either a song written by the Morgans’ son, Bruce, called Rio Grande, or it was a folk song that had been performed previously by the Kingston Trio.
But the Morgans knew that that song, Sloop John B, was not the kind of material these young men needed to be recording. Did they have any material of their own?
Dennis Wilson spoke up. “Brian and Mike have been writing a song about surfing.”
They hadn’t, of course, and one imagines that Brian instantly regretted having let Dennis join the group — his mother had told him he had to let his younger brother join in. But they dissembled, saying it wasn’t quite ready yet, and made arrangements to come back the next month.
Brian and Mike quickly got to work and knocked out something based on the same formula as Jan and Dean’s hits — a “bom, bom, dit-ba-dit-ba-dit” bass vocal and nasal lead, both supplied by Mike, and a certain amount of swagger as their basic three-chord song extolled the virtues of the surfing fad. This was a subject neither knew much about — Brian was scared of the ocean, and while Love did occasionally go surfing later, he was more busy looking after his wife and baby. Luckily, Dennis, who spent as much time at the beach as he possibly could, was there to help them with the slang.
The Wilsons’ parents, Murry and Audree, went away for Labor Day weekend, and left their sons some money for food while they were gone. Borrowing some extra money from Al’s mother, they rented musical instruments, rehearsed, and had a party instead.
When Murry and Audree returned to find that their money had been spent on musical instruments, they were angry right up until the point where they heard the music, after which Murry, who had always wanted a career in the music business (he’d even once written a song that Lawrence Welk had performed), decided he was going to be the new band’s manager.
The new group, calling themselves the Pendletones, auditioned again on the fifteenth of September, and impressed the Morgans that they offered Brian and Mike a publishing contract, and arranged a professional session for the boys, for Candix Records.
And they were boys. Their ages ranged between fourteen (Carl, the baby of the group) and twenty, and for all their recording session was supposedly professional, it had none of the sophistication of the youthful veterans we’ve been discussing so far. The instrumentation consisted of Carl strumming an acoustic guitar, Al plucking an upright bass, and Brian hitting either a single snare drum or a dustbin lid (reports vary).
The sound of the record had nothing to do with the “surf music” that was then being made by people like Dick Dale And The Del-Tones, which was primarily instrumental music based on heavily reverbed electric guitars. Instead, this owed more to the Kingston Trio — simple, acoustic, folky music, with strong harmonies — but with the addition of that Jan & Dean style bass vocal.
That combination — block harmonies singing one part (“Surfin’, surfin’”), while a mobile bass vocal does something different underneath (“Bom, bom, dit-ba-dit-ba-dit”), owes something to doo-wop, but more to Brian Wilson’s unique style of piano playing. Wilson has been described as having “the best left hand in the business”, and unlike most people when he plays piano he carries the melody in the bass range, while just blocking out simple chords with his right for the most part. These parts were transferred, more or less directly, to the band’s vocals.
Once Wilson got the idea to add a second mobile voice on top — his own falsetto — the band’s vocal sound would be complete, but for now the Pendletones were unformed.
But this simple song, with its basic verse-chorus alternation, clearly had potential. The only thing wrong was the name. The band had called themselves the Pendletones because Murry Wilson thought that they might be able to get sponsorship from Pendleton, the manufacturers of the shirts they planned to wear onstage. But this was clearly not the right name for the band that recorded Surfin’.
So when the Pendletones’ new record came out, Candix records had made the unilateral decision to re-christen them. The only question was what to call them. “The Surfers” was considered for a while, before Russ Regan hit on the perfect name for the band, and had it stuck on the label of Candix single 331 when it was released in November. The first the band knew about their change of name was when they opened a box of their singles.
And since the song was a big local hit, and a minor one nationally, reaching number 75, the name stuck.
The Pendletones were now the Beach Boys.
The second volume of my Beach Boys essays is now available in paperback, hardback, and all non-Kindle ebook formats. It will be available within a few hours on Amazon for the Kindle (US link, UK link).
As always, with all my books, the ebooks are DRM-free. Also as always, the paper copies are priced so that when the paperbacks get sold through Amazon I’ll only make as much from them as I do from the ebooks (I make more if you buy them from Lulu).
If you do buy them — thank you. And please let your friends know and leave a review.
Nobody in the music business polarises opinion like Mike Love. To some he’s the essential element in the Beach Boys’ success — the nasal-voiced singer of their biggest hits, “Mr Positivity”, the hardest working man in showbiz. To others, he’s the evil monster who killed Smile, the reason for the Beach Boys’ descent into artistic irrelevance, and a talentless hack who had the good luck to be born into the same family as a musical genius and has exploited him for fifty years.
For myself, I fall into the middle ground. I have very little respect for Love as an artist — he’s been involved in the creation of many great songs and records, but in the vast majority of the cases the songs he’s co-written were great despite, rather than because of, his contributions. But the hatred toward him from certain quarters is so intense, and so personal, that I often find myself defending him from those who think he’s Hitler and Jack The Ripper combined.
After the Beach Boys’ reunion tour ended last year in circumstances which are still only slowly becoming clear, Love returned to touring with his backing band, which licenses the Beach Boys’ name but which only features one other member of the Beach Boys proper, Bruce Johnston.
This has been widely condemned, and I can see why — last year’s shows were some of the best I’ve ever seen. But what isn’t fair is that much of this condemnation has involved attacks on his band members, who are all excellent musicians in their own right. Two of them, lead guitarist Scott Totten and drummer John Cowsill, were in the reunion tour band, and added a huge amount to that tour — the main reason I’m upset that the tour ended, in fact, is not because I’ll never see Brian Wilson and Mike Love onstage together again, but because I’ll never see Scott Totten and John Cowsill playing with Probyn Gregory, Nelson Bragg, Darian Sahanaja and the rest of Wilson’s great band.
The problem is that when Love started touring as “the Beach Boys” in 1998 after Carl Wilson’s death, the band he was playing with was extraordinarily poor, and even though he’s changed the personnel almost completely since that time — only keyboardist Tim Bonhomme remains of that band other than Love and Johnston — that set people’s perceptions of the band. But — thanks largely to musical director Scott Totten — Love’s band have now reached the point that while they might not be as good as Wilson’s band (mostly because Love’s smaller band is confined to a guitar/bass/keyboard/drums lineup rather than having vibraphones, hand percussion, tannerins and horns to play with) they’re an astounding live act in their own right. They no longer cut the corners that the Beach Boys did when Carl Wilson was still alive — they play the staccato section of God Only Knows properly, rather than eliding it, and they do the a capella break on Sloop John B. They’re *GOOD*.
(Love’s band are the only one I’ve ever seen where I’ve heard non-musician audience members mention the drummer — in the case of Mike Kowalski, the drummer when Love started licensing the band name, people said “Is he drunk? That’s the worst drumming I’ve ever heard!”, while in the case of Cowsill people coming out of the shows say “wasn’t that drummer incredible?!”)
Sunday’s show in London proved that this band are worth seeing. Their set was part of a festival, with a line-up that wasn’t so much eclectic as just stupid. The bill included The Gruffalo, Horrible Histories, Paul Young and The Saturdays, and JLS were headliners. Other days of the Hyde Park festival have coherent bills — next week sees Elton John, Ray Davies and Elvis Costello playing on the same day, for example, which makes sense, but this was just ludicrous, and meant that the touring Beach Boys were definitely not playing to their own audience, but to a bunch of ten-year-old kids and their parents.
They also had to fit a festival time-slot, and were only given an hour — which is still more than any of the other acts, even the headliners, had. Love’s band have essentially three sets they perform, depending on venue. They’ll do three hours or so in a theatre, with fifty-plus song sets including all sorts of obscure album tracks, thirty-five or so songs at an outdoor show where they’re the primary attraction, and a twenty-song shortened set when they’re playing festivals, sporting events, and other venues where they’re not the main attraction. It was obvious going in that it was the latter we were going to get.
This is a shame, as my love for the Beach Boys has little to do with the big hits — I never need to hear Barbara Ann ever again — but at the same time, those songs were hits for a reason, and a show that consists of only them is an exhilarating event.
While waiting for them to come on, and getting into a good position in the crowd, I watched half of Paul Young’s set (pretty poor — his voice has gone). Young got in trouble for extending his set by thirty seconds, to tell the audience that Andy Murray had won the tennis. The Saturdays followed, and were greeted rapturously by the pre-teen kids in the audience, who knew every word of their songs. They still had to drop a song to fit their twelve-song set into the timeslot.
After the Saturdays, it was interesting to listen to the conversation in the audience, which was completely negative about the Beach Boys. “Why are they even here?” “I can’t believe they’re doing an hour when JLS only get forty-five minutes!” “This is going to be awful,” and much more. The audience just wanted JLS — though it was the adults that were moaning. The little kids in the audience were politely applauding anything that came onto the stage, because they were out for a special treat and were on their best behaviour.
But then the band came out. Cowsill, Bonhomme, and bass player Randell Kirsch (who sings most of the falsetto parts for the band — he has a voice very like that of his friend and collaborator Jeff Foskett, who sings the same parts for Brian Wilson’s band) started up the intro to Do It Again, and then Totten, rhythm guitarist Christian Love (Mike Love’s son, who has a singing voice much like that of Carl Wilson, though he doesn’t have the artistry to use it to the same effect), Johnston and Love came out, and ran through three surfing hits back-to-back, going straight into Catch A Wave and Surfin’ Safari.
Surfer Girl followed, with Johnston taking lead on the middle eight, and Love dancing with his daughter Ambha. Straight after came Don’t Worry Baby, with Kirsch on lead — that one sounded just gorgeous.
Normally after Don’t Worry Baby, Love’s band would do a medley of four car songs, all played in full, but in this abbreviated set, the “hotwire the hot rods!” section consisted of just Little Deuce Coupe and I Get Around — the latter was the first one to really win the audience around, with a huge proportion of the audience singing along. While they’d been polite from the first, this got the audience fully on-side, and from here on they were happy with everything.
Isn’t It Time was next, the first real surprise of the show. They played it in more-or-less the single arrangement, with Scott singing Al Jardine and Brian Wilson’s parts, while Love and Johnston sang their own. Unfortunately, they’ve replaced the ukulele part with an acoustic guitar (a shame as Totten played the ukulele on this song on last year’s tour, so clearly knows it), but it was still fun to hear, and a nice track for the fans in the audience.
Love’s shows usually follow a more-or-less chronological progression from 1962 to 1967, with only the occasional diversion, and so now we were up to 1965 and California Girls, with Johnston doing his usual cheesy “Wish they all could be UNITED KINGDOM girls!” bit. Then I Kissed Her followed, with Christian Love sounding as bored as he always does on this one. One imagines him saying backstage “Aw, daaaaad, do I *have* to?”
And then we were into the Pet Sounds section of the show. Sloop John B started this section off, with the lead split between Totten and Love, with Johnston harmonising with Totten on the first chorus. Cowsill had been having some problems early in the set with the kit — bits of it kept slipping, though that was fixed after the first few songs — but I thought the problem had recurred here at first. After listening more though, I realised that Love’s tambourine was far too high in the mix, and he was playing terribly. That marred this and the next two songs slightly, but was the only real musical problem of the performance. Wouldn’t It Be Nice followed, with Cowsill and Kirsch singing Brian Wilson’s part in unison. Wouldn’t It Be Nice is always the most successful song in any Beach Boys-related show in the UK — EVERYONE loves that one.
During the show the band had been using the videos originally created for last year’s reunion tour, and on the Pet Sounds songs this got very odd — lots of footage of band members who weren’t on stage, and especially of Brian Wilson, in 1966, clearly the leader and in charge…
God Only Knows followed, again with the video footage (but not the audio) used during the 2012 tour. Bruce Johnston sang this, and Christian Love did a lovely job on the counterpoint at the end. The video ended with “We love you, Carl”.
Good Vibrations was next, with Christian Love singing lead (with Totten covering the very highest notes). He did probably the best job of this I’ve heard from him, and it again went down very well, though it still seemed odd to see 1966 Brian on the video screens, directing the band…
Kokomo followed, sung by both Loves, and completely killed the momentum stone dead. I know this was a big hit in the US, but no-one except the obsessive fans knows it over here, and none of them like it very much. It works OK in a long set where it can be played as part of a run of more obscure songs, but it has no place in a hits show in the UK.
Luckily, Help Me Rhonda won the audience back round, with a wonderful lead vocal from Cowsill.
Halfway through Rhonda, someone came on stage and told Totten “One more song”. After some consultation between Totten and Love, they decided to do *two* more, Barbara Ann and their traditional closer Fun Fun Fun (with Johnston singing the falsetto tag).
And so they left the stage having overrun their allotted time, on a bill that had been timed to the second…
And the crowd — the crowd that had not wanted to see them at the beginning — roared “MORE! MORE!”
The Saturdays, who a huge chunk of that crowd had been squealing about from the beginning, hadn’t got called back for an encore. But Mike Love’s Beach Boys, astonishingly, were.
I have never in my life seen an audience so thoroughly won over, from mild apathy to roaring approval. Argue all you want about how Brian Wilson’s band is better (it is) or how with only two members the current band aren’t the real Beach Boys (they’re not), or how that setlist is too oriented towards the hits at the expense of the more interesting artistic music (it is). What this band can do is almost bludgeon an audience into submission with one great hit after another, performed impeccably. It’s an absolutely astonishing experience.
And then I was dumbfounded when they started the encore with, of all songs, Goin’ To The Beach — an unreleased, unfinished song from 1979, an outtake from Keepin’ The Summer Alive. Apparently it’s been finished recently, and it’s appearing on the box set next month, but this is a song that only the most utterly hardcore fans have even *heard of*, and which no-one had heard in a completed form before then.
It’s not actually very good, mind — a basic shuffle, with the lyrics “Goin’ to the beach/Goin’ to the beach with my baby” — but it fit the set well and it was ridiculously exciting to be at the live premiere of a lost song, even if it was lost for a reason; and it’s a mark of how well the band had gone down that they were able to take a risk like that and bring the audience with them.
They finished with Surfin’ USA, and I left before JLS came on, as did a thousand or so of the other older people in the audience. As I looked at them — many of them wearing Brian Wilson Pet Sounds tour T-shirts, and clearly, like me, fans of the band’s artistic side rather than the hits — they all looked like I did, with a fixed, stupid grin on their faces, exhausted and in shock.
There is no question in my mind that I would rather see Brian Wilson’s band than this band, and no question that I would rather see the full line-up from last year. But given that those aren’t options right now (Wilson’s only announced four dates this year, all in the US), the question isn’t “is this the best possible Beach Boys show?” — of course it isn’t. But if one asks “was this worth buying a ticket and travelling down to London?” the answer is absolutely YES.