A revised version of this essay appears in my book The Beach Boys On CD. If you like this, please consider buying it. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats
The Beach Boys’ fourth album, Little Deuce Coupe, came out three weeks after their third, Surfer Girl. A concept album of sorts, based around cars, it included four songs from earlier albums. This means that the CD ‘twofer’ pairings have a slight chronological inaccuracy – the two September 1963 albums, rather than being paired with each other, are each paired with a 1964 record, thus avoiding repetition of tracks. As I’m dealing with these records on a per-CD basis, that’s how I’ll be looking at them too.
Little Deuce Coupe
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, David Marks, Al Jardine (uncredited)
The last album to feature David Marks, before his disagreements with the Wilsons’ father Murry led him to leave to form his own band, Dave And The Marksmen, this nonetheless has the stronger harmonies that show that Al Jardine was firmly in place. A collection of car songs, it’s clearly a rush job, but it still has its moments. It is, though, far from essential – it was recorded in a single session, and sounds it.
Little Deuce Coupe
The same recording included on the Surfer Girl album
Ballad Of Ole’ Betsy
Another rewrite of The Surfer Moon/Your Summer Dream from the previous album, this is the best of these three attempts at what amounts to the same musical material, thanks to being the only one to feature full band vocals. This brings out the Four Freshmen influence more obviously, and other than a double tracking error on ‘she may be rusted iron’ the vocals are gorgeous, especially on the a capella tag.
The lyrics, by Roger Christian, are less impressive, anthropomorphising a car – “she was born in ’32, and was she ever pretty/she rode a freight train west, all the way from Detroit city” and so on. This manages to make them both over-sentimental mush about what is, after all, an inanimate object, while simultaneously seeming to objectify women in a rather disturbing way (“Betsy took some beatings, but she never once complained”…)
But if you listen for the vocals, and ignore both text and subtext, it works as a piece of music.
Be True To Your School is a musically uninteresting piece of boosterism by Love and Brian Wilson, bearing some slight musical resemblance to Hawaii (whose tag is reused at the end). I’m not the target audience for this track as I never had the American High School experience, and I’ve always loathed both sports and expressions of in-group solidarity (especially when they’re expressed in an aggressive manner – “we’ll be ready to fight, we’re gonna smash ’em now”). If you’re the kind of person who likes that kind of thing, you might have a less jaded impression of this track.
Car Crazy Cutie is a reworking of a doo-wop track Brian had written for another band, The Survivors, a short while earlier, with new lyrics by Roger Christian about a beautiful girlfriend who is more interested in cars than the singer – “But when I talk of lovin’ man, some kisses and hugs/She says don’t you think we’d better clean and gap the plugs”. This is actually something of a theme on this album – the disconnect between appearance and actuality. Along with the fact that so much of the musical material is reused (either from rejected earlier songs, songs given to other people, or just sticking an old record on the album to fill up the gaps), there are some quite interesting collisions of form and content going on here. The album is about taking old junk and polishing it up to make it look good, but it still being less than perfect under the hood. The fact that they take the same attitude towards women as to cars and their songs is unfortunate, but probably to be expected given their ages (the band members ranged from fifteen to twenty-two) and the culture they were in.
The lack of success with this ‘cutie’ though is probably why Brian is the lead vocalist, as otherwise this Dion pastiche would have been a perfect vocal showcase for Dennis. But his swaggering persona would never have worked with the rejection in the last verse. This is still, however, by far the best new song on the album.
Cherry Cherry Coupe is a rewrite of the then-unreleased Land Ahoy by Brian and Roger Christian, and appears to be about a particularly good car. I say ‘appears to be’ because here we run into one of the problems in reviewing this album for a British person born in 1978 who doesn’t drive, in that a good chunk of the lyrics don’t seem to be in anything I’d recognise as English. I haven’t a clue what “My coupe’s tuck and roll underneath the hood” or “Chrome reversed rims with whitewall slicks” are. Are they a good thing? “Chopped nose and deck with louvers on the hood” ?
I take it these *are* good things, because “It’s the sharpest in the town and the envy of my group”, but for all I know this could be advocating the violent overthrow of the government and its replacement with a fascist dictatorship. That might be what a cellunoid system is…
That said, this is catchy enough, and one of the first times Mike Love is allowed to really impress with his bass range – his tenor lead here is merely passable, but on the choruses his bass rumbling of “My cherry coupe eats ’em up coming off the line/And she really gets lost when she starts to whine” makes the song.
The track from the Surfin’ Safari album
The track from the Surfin’ USA album
Spirit Of America
It shows how desperate the Beach Boys were getting for material that this and Ballad Of Ole Betsy were included on the same album, despite having near-identical melodies. This Wilson/Christian song, with Brian Wilson on lead vocal, is about Craig Breedlove’s first world land speed record, which he had acheived four weeks to the day before the recording session for this album. Given the circumstances one wouldn’t expect a masterpiece, and the fact that the track is even competent says a lot for how good Brian Wilson was at this point.
It seems at times like I’m slating this album – and it really isn’t very good by any normal standards – but to record something this adequate in the time they were given is frankly astounding.
Our Car Club
The same recording included on the Surfer Girl album
I think this is an attempt at a comedy song – I say I think, because again this is a Roger Christian lyric, which means the lyrics are full of things like “It really rates fine in the custom clan, with hand-formed panels, tuck-and-roll rear pan”. But I *think* it’s about a car which looks good but won’t go fast (“When it comes to speed, man, I’m just outa luck, I’m even shut down by the ice cream truck”).
A Young Man Is Gone
Bobby Troup’s maudlin Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring, a song recorded by the Four Freshmen, was one of the first things the Beach Boys ever recorded, and has remained in the band’s act to this day as an a capella showcase. It’s fascinating if you have access to enough live recordings to hear how the different voices entering and leaving the line-up over the years have affected the quality of the harmonies – to my mind the best version is the rehearsal recording from 1993 with only two original members of the band (Carl and Al) plus Bruce Johnston and Al’s son Matt.
This is their only official studio recording of the song, with new lyrics by Mike Love, here bemoaning the death of James Dean, and while the original lyrics were bad, these are, if anything, worse – “For this daring young star met his death while in his car/No one knows the reason why/Screaming tire, flashing fire, and gone was this young star/Oh how could they let him die”. However, the harmonies are exquisite, and the whole thing just about works because of that.
The last song on this album is also by far the most interesting, although it falls into the category of ‘interesting failure’ – Custom Machine has quite a lot of playing around with keys and tonality, with the chorus seeming to go off into some nowhere between-keys land (on the line “I’ll let you look but don’t touch my custom machine”). However, it sounds arbitrary, rather than clever – an experiment that didn’t quite come off. The track still almost works, mostly down to the band’s enthusiasm and tightness – a tightness that’s even more surprising when you realise how little time they (and the session musicians augmenting them) had to rehearse and learn the song – you can hear someone whispering the next line to Mike Love during the instrumental break.
Originally credited as a solo Brian Wilson composition, this is one of the songs for which Mike Love won a co-writing credit in his 1990s lawsuit. To my ears, though, it sounds if anything like a Roger Christian lyric – Love’s lyrics usually have the virtue of being singable and in something approaching English, while lines like “A stereophonic speaker set with vibrasonic sound” just sit uncomfortably, having far too many syllables for their melody.
All Summer Long
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine
While Shut Down Vol 2 had contained two of the best tracks the band would ever record, plus one of their biggest hits, All Summer Long is the point where the Beach Boys, spurred on by at last having some real competition, became important. This was the start of their four-album golden period (this, Today!, Summer Days… And Summer Nights! and Pet Sounds) where they were not only having huge hits but making huge artistic strides forward as well.
I once played a Beatles album for a relative who didn’t really know their work, and he said to me half-way through “No, I want to hear a proper album, not a collection of hits” – All Summer Long, more than any other Beach Boys album, feels like that. While only one track became an actual hit single, four of its eleven tracks were included on the Endless Summer compilation and pretty much every hits compilation and best-of since, while another, Little Honda, became a huge hit in a note-for-note cover version by the Hondells.
While it still has its share of filler (the Beach Boys never really became an ‘album band’ til they were almost commercially obsolete), this is the earliest Beach Boys album about which one can say it’s an essential album, rather than just having essential tracks.
I Get Around
You may have heard this one…
The Beach Boys’ first number one, this is the first of their singles to show signs of having been constructed as a record first and song second. If Mike Love (who won co-writing credit for this in 1993, before which it was credited as a Brian Wilson solo track) is telling the truth, in fact, when he claims to have come up with the “round, round, get around” hook, then he can probably lay claim to 90% of the record’s success.
But that other 10% is crucial, and is all down to the structure and production, which is stunningly sophisticated. First just listen to the way the instrumental track is carefully layered. We start with two low notes on the guitar – but then there is no instrumentation for the next four seconds. Going into the chorus, we can hear a guitar and bass (a fairly poor lead guitar part was recorded but is not audible in the final mix), both essentially doubling each other (a trick Brian had learned from Phil Spector), and a very interesting drum part courtesy of session player Hal Blaine. With almost no hi-hat or cymbal at all, the part on the record consists of just a kick drum every other beat and one fill two bars in, along with some *incredibly* fast brushwork.
Rather amazingly, this brushwork is the replacement for a harpsichord part – if one listens to the session recordings (not that I would ever advocate illegal downloading of course hem hem), the same part, in more or less the same range, is being played by the harpsichord (Blaine is playing semiquavers, while the harpsichord was playing quavers, but the audible pressing and release of the keys doubled it rhythmically),
In fact the drum part seems to be a construction after the fact rather than a live performance – the basic track for the song, before any overdubbing, features a far more conventional drum pattern, with fours on the kick drum, snare for emphasis every other beat (where the kick drum is on the record) and quavers on the hi-hat. It’s only *after* the basic track is done that the drums are re-recorded (although one can still *very* faintly hear leakage from the original hi-hat track used to keep time through the a capella sections).
We then have the verse, where while Mike Love’s singing we have two bars of just guitar and bass doubling each other in a stop-start rhythm (with a stray hi-hat beat to keep them in time) under the first line, before being joined by handclaps for the second line, before a two-bar instrumental break. This break *does* feature the harpsichord, but it’s overwhelmed by the hammond organ that’s added. This two-bar break (stretching the verse to an unusual ten bar length) contains musical material found nowhere else, but which Terry Melcher (of whom much more, sadly, later) would re-use as the main guitar riff for the Byrds’ version of Mister Tambourine Man (the backing track of which was based on this song’s B-side, Don’t Worry Baby).
We then go into a repeat of the chorus, instrumentally the same as the intro, which goes into a new, short section, the ‘get around round round ooh’ section, and again we can feel the tension building as through these rising oohs we add in the hammond organ, a lead guitar solo and, barely audible, three bass saxophone notes at crucial points. We’ve gone from a single voice and ptactically no instrumentation right up to a full wall of sound, and it’s been a natural progression, like a driver slowly pressing his foot down and taking you from 0 to 100 without ever really noticing the acceleration.
And the instrumental track isn’t even what we notice on this track, it’s those five part harmonies, and Brian Wilson’s falsetto soaring like it never had before. It’s the sense of restlessness coupled with braggadoccio – of someone who knows he’s absolutely mastered the pop single, and is itching to try something better (“I’m getting bugged driving up and down the same old strip, I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip”).
Were it not that that accolade truly belongs to a single the Beach Boys would release two years later, one could easily describe I Get Around as the perfect pop record.
All Summer Long
Anything was going to be a let-down after that opener, but truth be told I’ve never been a huge fan of this song even divorced from its context. While it’s interesting from a production standpoint (the xylophone part was an inspired move) and harmonically (it’s essentially a variant on the I-vi-ii-V progression, but replacing the minor sixth with a flattened third, a rather jazzy substitution, and then extending a lot of the chords with passing sixths and augmented fifths).
While this song’s use in American Graffitti kickstarted the band’s commercial revival in the mid-70s,I have to say I’ve always found it too saccharine.
And, though it’s hardly fair to judge it on this, the trade-off between the whistle and saxophone on the instrumental break can’t help but make any British people with a love of comedy think that someone’s playing a game of Swanee Kazoo.
This is another song for which Mike Love, who sings lead, sued and won co-writing credit.
The only actual cover on the album (though see Carl’s Big Chance) this is a fairly straight cover of a doo-wop song, originally recorded by the Mystics. Written by the great songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (responsible for roughly seventeen trillion quadrillion of the great pop songs of the late 50s and early 60s) they were having a comparative off-day when they came up with this – other than the melodic referencing of Brahms’ Lullaby in the middle eight, this is a fairly standard doo-wop song. The performance and production here is absolutely exemplary – the harmonies are heavenly, the broken drum part and driving piano bass are the missing link between what Phil Spector was doing at the time and what the Beatles would be doing by the end of the year – but this is ‘only’ a very, very pleasant trifle. Brian sings lead, with Mike on the middle eight.
A Wilson/Love song for which there’s never been any credit dispute, this is one of those songs where you can see what an influence the band had on the Velvet Underground. From the throbbing low-range three-chord guitar to the held organ notes (a common thing in Brian Wilson’s arrangements, often filling in what would be another harmony part in the middle of the stack), to the monotone lead vocal melody, this is musically extremely close to songs like Foggy Notion, White Light/White Heat or I’m Waiting For The Man. There’s even a drone, courtesy of the hummed backing vocals in the verse.
Of course, the Velvet Underground rarely had lyrics like “It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys, that two-wheel bike”, but frankly that’s the Velvets’ problem, not the Beach Boys’.
We’ll Run Away
A weak filler track, this is the last Brian Wilson/Gary Usher song to be recorded and released by the Beach Boys (though the two would collaborate again in the 80s on some material, most of which was unreleased, but some sneaked out as very obscure Brian Wilson solo tracks). A 12/8 ballad in the mould of Tears On My Pillow and similar 50s hits, this would have sounded dated even at the time – but Wilson and Usher were probably thinking of the string of Phil Spector songs about being too young to get married around this time (e.g. Not Too Young To Get Married by Bob. B. Soxx And The Blue Jeans, Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love by Veronica (Ronnie Spector) and especially So Young by Veronica, which the band would cover on their next studio album). However, all these songs had more energy and seemed more up-to-date.
There’s also an annoying bit of shoddy craftsmanship in that the second and third verses try to shove too many syllables into their first lines, forcing the band to come in slightly behind the beat after dropping out. This is especially noticeable at the start of the second verse (“They warned us that we can’t live on love forever”).
Brian’s voice is also in his weakest point here – right at the top of his head voice where it turns into falsetto. When his voice started to deteriorate a few years later it was this range that went first, and this is the only range he’s never really recovered. Here, it means he’s drifting between a slightly off-pitch high head voice and a slightly nasal low falsetto more or less at random, occasionally singing in different ‘voices’ in each of his double-tracked vocals.
Carl’s Big Chance
This is credited to Brian and Carl Wilson, but is in fact a filler instrumental whose backing track is clearly the vamp from Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get A Witness, over which Carl plays some fairly rudimentary lead guitar – strangely sounding closer to Chet Atkins (albeit Chet Atkins as played by a teenager) than to the surf sounds on previous albums. Pointless.
Wendy, another Wilson/Love lawsuit track, is a very strong opener for side two of the original album. Other than its stuttering opening, and the studio noise (most notably a cough) heard during the Hammond solo, there’s little to talk about here, but that’s not to say it’s not good – it’s an excellent song, performed well, with a great lead by Brian. It’s just that it’s not a song that’s improved by analysis – its good points are all obvious ones, and there’s little to dig into below the surface.
Do You Remember? is Brian Wilson’s tribute to the music he’d listened to growing up, and clearly based on At The Hop. Lasting barely a minute and a half (and that with an extended fade) there was clearly very little inspiration here.
What’s interesting about it (the only thing, really) is that this is rock nostalgia from before there was a ‘canon’ and official history of rock, as reported by someone who was a teenage music fan of the time. So in ‘the guys who gave us rock & roll’, along with Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry we have the terminally uncool TV DJ Dick Clark and “Danny and the Juniors hit a groove, stuck as sharp as a knife”.
Girls On The Beach is a rewrite by Brian of Surfer Girl, but a much less pleasant one – where Surfer Girl was a romantic song of love for one individual, this is attempting to give the same romantic feeling to a song which is lyrically not all that far removed in attitude from Peaches by the Stranglers – “The girls on the beach are all within reach if you know what to do” and “we love to lie around girls with tans of golden brown”.
It’s not the sexist lyric itself that’s the problem with this song – it’s no worse in that respect than, say, California Girls – but it just doesn’t go with the warm, romantic closely-harmonised melody. There’s a cognitive dissonance there that there just isn’t in California Girls‘ leering swagger. Lead vocals are by Brian, with Dennis on the middle eight.
Another lawsuit-credited Wilson/Love song, with Mike on lead vocals, this is a comedy song of sorts, about teenage life – the Drive-in is ‘a groovy place to talk and maybe watch the show’ when on a date, (“If you say you watch the movie you’re a couple o’ liars”), and how you shouldn’t “sneak your buddies in the trunk ’cause they might get caught…And they’d look kinda stupid gettin’ chased through the lot”. Love’s vocal carries this off with the appropriate humour (and a wonderfully goofy Smokey Bear impression on “remember only you can prevent forest fires”), and the track, while not wonderful, is a pleasant improvement after the last two songs.
Incidentally, the Spectoresque backing track, one of the fullest arrangements on the album, was originally recorded several months earlier at the same session as the Christmas single Little St Nick, and a version of the backing track with the Little St Nick lyrics was released on the Ultimate Christmas compilation in the nineties. There’s some debate about whether that version was intended as a joke, or whether two backing tracks were cut for the same lyric and the better one chosen. The presence of prominent sleigh bells on this leads me to suspect the latter.
Our Favourite Recording Sessions is filler. It’s the equivalent of a film ‘blooper reel’, containing various breakdown takes and studio arguments (though only the more family-friendly ones – nothing like the argument over who spat in whose mouth that broke out during vocal overdubs on Little Honda for example). While other tracks have been relatively weak, this is the only real evidence that the band were still under immense pressure to crank material out by the yard.
And after a relatively weak run of songs, the album finishes with one of the best tracks, Don’t Back Down. Written by Brian and (you guessed it) with a co-writing credit won by Mike in 1993, this is a reworking of Hawaii (with which the current touring ‘Beach Boys’ often perform this as a medley). It’s very easy to imagine that on the choruses Brian is singing about himself when he sings “You gotta be a little nuts/but show ’em how you’ve got guts/Don’t back down from that wave”. Right now, Brian was feeling challenged by his rivalry with the Beatles (a rivalry which they had not yet noticed themselves, though they would by the next year), but soon the fear would start to take over…
This was the last surf song the Beach Boys would record for four years.
CD Bonus tracks
Be True To Your School (single version)
A rerecording of this song, released as a single, it takes whatever simplistic charm the album version had, and bludgeons it to death, then runs over it with a steamroller to make sure. It takes the basic template of the album track, and adds a guitar solo, a marching band, an instrumental break to the tune of On Wisconsin, a cheerleading team (performed by The Honeys, a vocal group featuring Brian Wilson’s fiancee, her sister and her cousin), a kitchen sink and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.
All Dressed Up For School
This is absolutely astonishing. Between the opening Louie Louie riff with Mike Love’s wonderfully stupid doot-doot-doots and the closing Papa Oom Mow Mow bit, there are musical ideas here that would sustain many other bands for a lifetime – the verse melody was later recycled into two songs (I Just Got My Pay and Marcella), the chorus became a Honda commercial, the guitar solo seems to contain within it the seeds of the later hit Dance Dance Dance, part of the lyric was reused for The Little Girl I Once Knew, and a little bit of it at the end seems to point the way towards some of the Smile period Heroes & Villains vocal sessions. And it’s a rare lead vocal at this point for Carl Wilson.
So why wasn’t it released? With such a catchy chorus, you just can’t help singing along… “All dressed up for school/ooh what a turn on/she’s so fine/what a turn on/all dressed up for school”
Moving swiftly on…
Little Honda (Alternate Take) is almost indistinguishable from the released version, except for the backing vocal arrangement – instead of singing “Honda Honda going faster faster” they sing “Go little Honda, faster little Honda”, and Brian’s falsetto is more prominent. The change was an improvement. The only other change (changing the word ‘champ’ to ‘matchless’) was less so.
Don’t Back Down (alternate take) is in many ways the most interesting of these bonus tracks, although musically the least listenable. It also provides quite a bit of justification for Mike Love’s claim to have had input on at least this song. The backing track is identical to the finished version – obviously they kept the instrumental track – and the main theme of the lyrics is similar, but everything else is different. The melody here is actually the one Brian used for a song for The Honeys, Hide Go Seek, some time earlier (you can hear that song at this youtube link – it’s far and away the best thing The Honeys ever did), and the lyrics are totally different. Obviously the original idea was to reuse an unsuccessful but good song from a side project, before it was reworked in the studio. Given the speed with which Love has been known to work (writing lyrics in taxi-cabs to recording sessions on occasion) it wouldn’t surprise me at all had he reworked the lyrics (though the new melody still has Brian’s fingerprints all over it).
Next up, we skip (for now) the Christmas and Concert albums (I’ll get to them eventually, but they’re not part of ‘the story of the Beach Boys’ artistic evolution’, just appendices) and get to The Beach Boys Today!, often regarded as the band’s best album…