California Dreaming: Little Honda

By late 1963 Gary Usher’s writing partnership with Brian Wilson was more or less at an end. He had been manoeuvred aside by Murry Wilson, who always wanted to keep as much of the Beach Boys’ success in the family as possible. Brian Wilson had briefly collaborated with Roger Christian, but that writing partnership, too, had largely come to an end within a few months, and Wilson was writing either on his own or with Mike Love, at least for the Beach Boys.

Wilson, Usher, and Christian all remained friends and collaborators outside the Beach Boys, though, although the increasing pressure on Wilson meant that those extra-curricular activities also tapered off. But in the early part of 1964 the three of them worked together on songs for the film Muscle Beach Party, and Wilson co-wrote a country single, Sacramento, released as a Gary Usher solo track.

So it’s unsurprising that Usher would pay attention to the Beach Boys’ ongoing career, especially since their hit album All Summer Long, which included the number one single I Get Around, contained one last Wilson/Usher collaboration left over from the year before, We’ll Run Away.

One song stood out to Usher, who had developed a lucrative sideline in creating one-off records by studio bands, often car songs, under band names such as The Super Stocks and Mr. Gasser & The Weirdos. Little Honda was clearly, obviously, a hit, even though it was only an album track. It made no sense for the Beach Boys not to have released it as a single themselves, except that they seeemed to be moving away from the surf and car sound of their early hits — I Get Around was their last car single, and All Summer Long contained one final song about surfing, a subject they’d otherwise dropped two albums earlier. Little Honda‘s four-chord rock, while undeniably catchy, was nowhere near as sophisticated as some of the other work Brian Wilson was producing, and would have been seen by the band as little more than filler.

Usher, though, saw the potential in it, and quickly booked sessions to record an album entitled Go Little Honda, made up almost entirely of new songs by Christian and himself, with titles such as Hon-Da Beach Party, Hot Rod High, and Two-Wheel Show Stopper, and with as its lead-off track a soundalike recording of the Beach Boys’ song. The album was ‘produced’ by Nik Venet, but as with so many of Venet’s production credits, this meant that Venet was the liaison between the people making the records and the record company — Usher was de facto producer, as well as arranger and backing vocalist.

For the backing, Usher of course used the standard Wrecking Crew session musicians who had become the go-to musicians for everyone in the LA pop business (even the Beach Boys, who were a self-contained band, were starting to incorporate the Crew to fill out their sound). And for the lead vocals, he turned to Chuck Girard.

Girard was a member of the Castells, a close-harmony group who had had a couple of minor hits in 1961 with Sacred and So This Is Love. The Castells had fallen out of popularity, and in January Usher had produced for them (with Wilson’s assistance) a Wilson/Christian collaboration, I Do, which had been unsuccessful but which showed that Girard could handle Beach Boys style material.

Girard sang under many names in Usher’s “bands”, performing at one time or another as a vocalist for about half a dozen studio concoctions, but for this album the band name that was settled on was The Hondells, to tie in with the subject matter of the single. The single peaked at number 9 in the Billboard charts, and prompted Capitol Records to release the Beach Boys’ own version as the lead track of an EP, Four By The Beach Boys, the only EP the band ever released in the US, in order to cash in on the song’s success.

The Hondells name went on to be used for several more records, usually produced by Usher and with Girard on vocals, but none replicated the success of Little Honda. Summer 1964 was the last gasp of surf and hot-rod music as a pop genre in the US, and while many of the people who had made that music would go on to even greater success, it would be with records that had little of the guitar-driven harmony innocence that had characterised the LA pop scene thus far. A more emotionally complex, intense, style of music, influenced by folk music and R&B, was starting to become popular, and Little Honda was the last big hit of the old style.

Little Honda

Composers: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

Line-up: Chuck Girard (vocals), Glenn Campbell (guitar), Richard Podolor (guitar), Hal Blaine (drums), Joe Kelly (vocals) and others.

Original release: Little Honda/Hot Rod High The Hondells, Mercury 72324

Currently available on: Go Little Honda/The Hondells T-Bird CD, plus innumerable budget surf and car compilations.

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