I’m going to review every available Beach Boys CD, including the solo albums, to try to provide a buyers’ guide to the band’s music. (I’m also restarting my Doctor Who reviews and trying to do at least one comics post per week.) If these are popular I may turn them into a book like my Beatles book.
The reason for doing this is that I want to have somewhere people can go to get some kind of consistent critical look at the band’s music. There are only two books I know of that attempt to analyse the band’s music in any detail, as opposed to concentrating on a single album or the more lurid aspects of their personal lives, and I would recommend both, but both have their problems. Doe & Tobler’s Complete Guide is a decent overview for beginners, and Andrew Doe is both probably the most knowledgeable person on the band and someone with a good ear for the band’s music at its various points, but it’s too short and (I believe) out of print. Meanwhile Philip Lambert’s Inside The Music Of Brian Wilson is one of the best books I’ve read in many years, and provides a far more in-depth musicological analysis than I would be capable of, but the author has a tendency to remake Brian Wilson in his own image, and the focus is specifically on Brian Wilson (rather than the Beach Boys) and solely on the pre-1967 work.
And this is unfortunate, because the general critical line on the Beach Boys is wrong in two important ways.
Firstly, it treats the Beach Boys as being Brian Wilson and a bunch of sidemen. While this was arguably true during the band’s commercial heyday (though it’s notable that with the exception of the already-famous Jan & Dean, none of Wilson’s outside productions troubled the charts at all), the fact is that Mike Love was a better lyricist and bass vocalist than he’s given credit for, Carl Wilson and Al Jardine had two of the best voices of the rock era, and Dennis Wilson was a songwriter almost the equal of his big brother.
The other problem is the way it treats Brian Wilson himself.
Wilson as a musician is almost an embodiment of the fable about the blind men and the elephant, something that was borne out to me by a terrible article in Uncut magazine in 1998, in which the author wanted to prove that Joe Thomas (the producer with whom Wilson was then working) didn’t understand Wilson’s music and was a bad collaborator. So he asked Wilson’s other collaborators, and other musicians.
Bruce Johnston, of the Beach Boys, said “Yes, Brian shouldn’t be working with Joe Thomas. That’s not Brian’s *real* music. He should be making Beach Boys music. Thomas doesn’t understand him”.
Andy Paley, Spector-influenced powerpop songwriter, said “Yes, Brian shouldn’t be working with Joe Thomas. That’s not Brian’s *real* music. He should be making music like Phil Spector and Chuck Berry. Thomas doesn’t understand him.”
and Sean O’Hagan, who makes exotica/lounge-influenced experimental pop, said “Yes, Brian shouldn’t be working with Joe Thomas. That’s not Brian’s *real* music. He should be making exotica/lounge-influenced experimental pop. Thomas doesn’t understand him”
The general critical consensus has another of these partial views of Wilson’s work. Everything before Pet Sounds was either dreck or ‘classic pop’ (either way unworthy of analysis). Pet Sounds was The Best Album Ever. Smile not being finished heralded Brian’s Collapse. Everything between Pet Sounds and 1974 was rubbish, unless you can apply the word ‘lush’, in which case it was A Return To Form. Everything after that was rubbish, unless you can apply the word ‘lush’, in which case it was An Unsuccessful Attempt To Trade On Past Glories.
Actually, WIlson’s art can’t fit into these neat categories. My own take is that the best way to think of Wilson is as an outsider musician, but one who actually happens to have a huge amount of talent. Much like, say, Wesley Willis, Wilson is focussed on having huge commercial success, but has little to no idea what actually counts as ‘commercial’. He’s very easily swayed by people around him, so if he’s told he should be doing three-minute pop songs, he does three-minute pop songs, and if he’s told he should do epic suites about the American Dream, he does those.
But at all times there are two things that remain true about him – he has an unerring ability as an arranger, and a directness that makes his music more communicative than any other music I’ve ever heard.
But I note that that is only one way of looking at Wilson’s music – my way.
I’m going to examine, over the next few months, every Beach Boys studio album, every solo album that’s in print (by the ‘classic’ Mike/Al/Carl/Brian/Dennis line-up – I’ve not got the time or inclination to provide thorough reviews of Dave Marks or Blondie Chaplin’s records), and the compilations Endless Harmony and Hawthorne, CA, and try to explain why the Beach Boys rival the Beatles for musical importance. I’ll be doing this by CD, not by album (at least for the early albums, which are full of filler) – most Beach Boys albums are currently available as ‘twofer’ CDs. But if you want the short version, buy the 5-CD box set Good Vibrations. It’s absolutely essential, cutting out all the rubbish and providing a near-perfect summary of the band’s career.
But now, on to the reviews.
The Beach Boys’ first albums were recorded during a time of line-up flux for them. While most bands start recording only after a few years’ touring, usually in their early twenties, the Beach Boys were in their teens – rhythm guitarist David Marks being only thirteen. And they had their first hit record, Surfin’, before ever having performed live. As a result, it took a while to settle on their ‘classic’ line-up – while their first single featured that line-up (Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, Mike Love and Alan Jardine), the rest of the album, and the next few albums, featured David Marks in place of Jardine. Marks had been part of rehearsals from the start and both Jardine (who returned a year later) and Marks regard each other as ‘original’ members.
But that it would take a year or so to sort out who was really in the band shows the problem – this is a garage band, quite literally. This is a bunch of teenagers who somehow, accidentally, managed to become huge rock stars at a point where the concept of the rock star was just being formed. What’s amazing is that some of this music is competent, or even good, not that most of it’s poor.
line-up – Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, David, Alan (Surfin’ only). All lead vocals by Mike unless otherwise stated.
The title track of the band’s first album is their second single, and first for Capitol Records. Essentially a rewrite by Mike and Brian of their earlier single Surfin’, it takes all that single’s elements and tightens them into a formula that would be repeated in several huge hits for the band (plus Surf City, Brian Wilson’s number one hit for Jan & Dean) – start with the hook, then have a short verse, mentioning as many different places and pieces of surf slang as possible, sung by Love in his nasal tenor range, followed by a twelve-bar chorus with Love singing a variant of a boogie bassline while the rest of the band chant. Add in a Chuck Berry guitar solo (the only new element in the mix, and a vital one) and fade.
Other than the brief move to V-of-V in the hook, the only thing of musical interest is the chorus, where the lead vocal takes the bass part, rather than staying on top. Even this early, we’re already seeing one of the things that makes Brian Wilson’s music different – he writes on the piano, and his left hand is vastly more mobile than his right, playing intricate, complex melodies while his right hand just blocks out chords.
Later on, when he has five or six voices in the mix, this is what leads to some of his most beautiful vocal parts, but at this point the band were vocally limited – Dave Marks wasn’t much of a singer, Dennis was behind the drum kit, and Carl’s voice had barely broken. So we have rudimentary harmonies here, and the lack of more complex vocal parts is what makes this now sound primitive compared to the singles the band would do even a year later. At this point though, six months before the Beatles even recorded Love Me Do, this was a genuinely fresh, interesting sound.
County Fair Written by Brian and his friend Gary Usher, this story of a date gone wrong features vocal cameos from Andrea Carlo (apparently Dave Mark’s aunt, though only 17 at the time) and ‘producer’ Nik Venet (the A&R man who signed the band to Capitol and took nominal production responsibility for their early recordings) as, respectively, a whining girlfriend and a carnival barker. A rewrite of the Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon song Palisades Park (which the band would much later cover themselves), this was itself later rewritten as I Do.
Ten Little Boys a rewrite by Brian and Gary Usher of the nursery rhyme, this is a two-chord song about little ‘indians’ trying to woo a ‘squaw’ who ‘loved the tenth Indian boy’. It features the band singing “kemo sabe” repeatedly and making “wah wah” noises with their hands. In 1962, this was considered acceptable material for a single.
Chug-A-Lug Another Wilson/Usher song (though Love is also credited, see below), based around the same structure as Surfin’ Safari, but this time featuring an organ/guitar solo trade-off. An ode to root beer, the verse lyrics are quick pen portraits of the band and their friends (“Carl says hurry up and order it quick, Dave gets out to chase that chick”). It doesn’t really work.
Little Girl (You’re My Miss America) is the band’s first cover – a song co-written by Herb Alpert, for Dante And His Friends. (The Dante in question was session singer Ron Dante, later better known as the lead vocalist on The Archies’ Sugar Sugar, and later still Barry Manilow’s record producer). A simple Dion-esque ballad, this marks Dennis Wilson’s debut as lead vocalist, and he actually does a much better job than anyone else on the record, making this a stand-out track.
409 The B-side of Surfin’ Safari and written to much the same formula (and, like that track, recorded by the band as a demo before they were signed to Capitol) this is really the start of the Beach Boys we know – far more assured-sounding than anything else on the album (partially thanks to the sound effects recorded in Gary Usher’s garage), this shows what the band were capable of when they weren’t having to quickly knock out filler.
This was also the start of a run of double-sided singles by the band, where one side would be about surfing (to appeal to the coasts) while the other side would be about cars (to appeal to landlocked middle America) – the car songs tending to be the most popular.
This is one of a number of Beach Boys songs whose authorship is disputed. Until the 1990s it was credited to Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, but in a lawsuit brought by Love this was one of thirty-nine songs for which Love gained co-writer credit. Some of those songs (for example California Girls) were undoubtedly co-written by Love. On others, such as Wouldn’t It Be Nice, one of the other co-writers (in that case lyricist Tony Asher) claimed that Love had no input. In the case of the Usher collaborations, it’s hard to know – at the time of the trial, Wilson was mentally unwell, and Gary Usher had died some years earlier. For the record, Love claims in this case to have come up with the ‘hooks’ “She’s real fine, my 409” and “giddy-up 409”, with Wilson and Usher writing the rest.
Surfin’ the band’s first recording, originally released on tiny indie label Candix, this sounds like the work of a different band, and in many ways it is. At the time this was recorded, the band were still forming, and at this point it sounds like Al Jardine – a folkie and fan of the Kingston Trio – was having a strong influence. The instrumentation is all acoustic – a single acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and one snare drum – and the harmonies are fuller thanks to Jardine’s presence. It’s little more than a demo, and is a mere sketch of the formula they’d refine on the later early singles.
This version is sped up compared to the original recording (the idea of Murry Wilson, the Wilson brothers’ father, who was also the band’s first manager and another ‘producer’, to make them sound younger). The original version can be heard on the Good Vibrations box set.
Heads You Win, Tails I Lose is a fairly nondescript Wilson/Usher track, notable mostly for managing to make the line “Why can’t we arbitrarily resolve a fight?” work in context.
Summertime Blues a cover of the Eddie Cochrane song, with lead vocals sung as a unison duet by Carl Wilson and David Marks, this sounds exactly like you’d expect a fourteen- and a fifteen-year-old singing this song in unison to sound. Mike Love injects some wit and panache when he takes the low “No dice, son” parts.
Cuckoo Clock is an utterly undistinguished Wilson/Usher track, notable only for being Brian Wilson’s first lead vocal to be released.
Moon Dawg is a cover of a track by The Gamblers. The original is interesting for several reasons, as it features both Bruce Johnston (later himself a member of the Beach Boys) and Elliot “Winged Eel Fingerling” Ingber (later of the Mothers Of Invention and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band) as well as having, on its B-side, the very first song ever to reference LSD (LSD-25 – in 1962, remember!). The original was also produced by Nik Venet, who is credited on early pressings of the Beach Boys’ record (but not the original Gamblers track) as the composer (later pressings credit Derry Weaver, the Gamblers’ guitarist).
Unfortunately, it’s a generic surf instrumental, and the Beach Boys’ version is a rather amateurishly-played generic surf instrumental.
The Shift The band’s first exercise in sexism finishes the album up. Apparently if you “get your girl a shift and she’ll look real fine” and “[a girl] wearing a shift really turns me on”. They repeat how much this particular one-piece bathing suit “turns [them] on” in case we didn’t realise. Mike Love wrote the lyrics, unsurprisingly.
line-up – Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, David.
Surfin’ USA Rather surprisingly, at least for non-fans, this was the last uptempo surf-themed hit single the band recorded (not counting 1968’s nostalgia track Do It Again) – while Brian Wilson would keep hammering away at his formula with Jan & Dean for a couple of years (Surf City, Ride The Wild Surf etc), this track is it, as far as the Beach Boys’ uptempo surf hits go. They’d have one more surf-themed song, the ballad Surfer Girl, and that would be it.
This is also the first Beach Boys track to feature Brian Wilson’s falsetto being given a quick solo spot, something that would become an increasingly prominent part of the band’s sound, though Love takes the lead apart from that one line.
While this was the work of many hands, including Wilson, probably Love, and Wilson’s girlfriend’s brother (who provided the place-names), Wilson was credited as sole songwriter originally. But then Chuck Berry sued, on the not-unreasonable grounds that the whole melody and arrangement (right down to the stop-start guitar) was stolen from Sweet Little Sixteen, so Berry is now credited as sole author.
Farmer’s Daughter is a Wilson/Love song with Brian Wilson taking a solo falsetto lead. A mildly smutty (for the time) song from the point of view of a traveller who stops off for a couple of days and ‘help[s] you plough your fields’. Hem hem. For some unknown reason, Fleetwood Mac (the Rumours version) used to cover this live.
Misirlou. The first of five (count ’em!) surf instrumentals on the album, this is a very careful, reverent cover of Dick Dale’s version of this old instrumental. One can practically hear Carl Wilson sticking his tongue out in concentration as he plays the difficult bits.
Stoked This instrumental is credited as written by Brian Wilson. That’s assuming anything quite so rudimentary ever needed ‘writing’.
The Lonely Sea is a Wilson/Usher ballad that anticipates much of Wilson’s later work, being a bridge between Surfer Girl (written but not released until the next album) and In My Room,with its slow guitar arpeggios and falsetto lead. The words are utterly rudimentary, and there’s a bathetic brief spoken section (“this pain in my heart/these tears in my eyes/please tell the truth”), but somehow it still manages to have an incredibly haunting effect.
One piece of advice though – don’t listen to the stereo mix with headphones. The lead vocal and all instruments are in one channel, and the backing vocals isolated in the other. Which would be fine, except the backing vocals only come in half-way through, but the mic was open the entire time, picking up coughs, salival noises and breaths. If Mike Love heavy-breathing in your ear for 90 seconds sounds like fun, go ahead, but otherwise stick to speakers…
Shut Down – the B-side to Surfin’ USA, this shows the Chuck Berry influence in a different way. Where the A-side had just stolen one of Berry’s melodies, this one has its own melody (a development on from that of 409) but the words are an attempt to write a Chuck Berry car-race song in the style of Maybelline or You Can’t Catch Me.
That they work that well is thanks to the lyricist, the DJ Roger Christian, who Brian Wilson had heard critiquing the lyrics to 409 on the radio and who became a frequent collaborator with Wilson, Jan Berry and Gary Usher (together and separately) for the next few years. Christian’s car-song lyrics (and Love’s car songs, when he’s imitating Christian) were more sophisticated than the surf lyrics had been, frequently having a plot with some kind of conflict and resolution.
While this is based on 409, we can see clear traces of this song in Little Deuce Coupe (similar melody), I Get Around (“round, round get around, I get around” and “tach it up, tach it up, buddy gonna shut you down” having similar functions in the songs) and Fun Fun Fun (the backing vocals acting as a Greek chorus in the second verse), among others – this was a big step forward for Wilson.
While it’s not perfect – Love’s lead vocal is horribly double-tracked in the last verse – it’s charming enough that things like Love’s two-note sax honking ‘solo’ sound endearing rather than amateurish, and it’s a great little single.
This is another song over whose credits Love sued and won in the 1990s.
Noble Surfer because, you see, “noble” sounds a tiny bit like “no bull”, which if you’re in 1962 is a tiny bit rude. This astounding realisation which changed the course of humour forever was hit on by Mike Love, and Brian Wilson set the mirth-tastic laugh-riot to music that fits it perfectly.
Honky Tonk. Bill Doggett’s original of this (with guitarist Billy Butler) is a rock & roll classic, one of the great R&B instrumentals of all time, slow, dark and grooving over two sides of a 45. This is two minutes and four seconds of teenagers playing with too much echo. By this point Carl Wilson was a *VERY COMPETENT* teenage guitarist, but this is still absolutely pointless.
Lana is a rewrite of Farmer’s Daughter with a little of The Shift thrown in, musically. Lyrically, though, it’s a bland love song. Brian Wilson takes both lead vocal and solo composition credit.
Surf Jam Is ostensibly written by Carl Wilson. Which is odd, because the only Wilson on the credits for Wipe Out by the Surfaris is Ron Wilson.
Let’s Go Trippin’ is a cover of a Dick Dale track that is distinguished from every other generic surf instrumental ever by the truly strange reverb effect on Dale’s guitar. Guess which feature of the track they didn’t copy? They did add the sax ‘talents’ of Mike Love though…
and Finders Keepers rounds out the biggest load of tossed-together nothing the band would release in the first twenty-five years of their career with a rewrite of Heads I Win, Tails You Lose from the previous album, but done slightly more interestingly. Not much more, though. A Brian and Mike track.
CD Bonus Tracks
Cindy, Oh Cindy is a cover of a nondescript fifties pop ballad about going to sea and missing one’s girl. Brian turns in a decent vocal performance, and while this is far from exciting it’s much better than half of what was on the Surfin’ USA album, and should probably have been released rather than left in the can.
The Baker Man is another unreleased song, which sounds like an attempt to rewrite Hully Gully as a girl-group dance song in the style of The Locomotion. Brian turns in a surprisingly good gruff vocal, but the song itself is fluff and overlong. That said, it’s still better than half of Surfin’ USA.
Land Ahoy is a Brian Wilson song in a similar style to Cindy, Oh Cindy, another song of sailors pining for their love. It was rerecorded a few months later as Cherry, Cherry Coupe but neither track is hugely successful. Mike Love sings lead.