California Dreaming: Barbara Ann

Late 1965 was a time when everyone was jumping on the folk bandwagon, no matter how inappropriately.

Brian Wilson had started writing songs for a new album, inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, that would be the Beach Boys’ big album as artistic statement. This would be complex, intricate — and time-consuming, and the Beach Boys needed to get some product out for the Christmas market.

The decision was made to knock out a quick album, one that wouldn’t require much in the way of songwriting or production, like the live album the band had released the previous year. But this time it would have more of a hootenanny feel — it would be the band with acoustic guitars and bongos, recording fairly unrehearsed covers of their favourite songs, and with party noises and chatter overdubbed, and session conversations left in, to make it sound, as the cover put it, “recorded “Live” at a Beach Boys Party!”

The result was a mixed bag, a mixture of covers of Beatles, Spector, and Dylan, versions of old Everly Brothers and Rivingtons songs, and parodies of their own material. Some of it was excellent — Brian Wilson and Mike Love duetting on Devoted to You is beautiful, while Dennis Wilson’s frail take on the Beatles’ You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away is one of the first signs that he would soon become a talented singer in his own right. But other tracks, like Al Jardine earnestly singing The Times They Are A’Changing while being mocked by the partygoers, are less than great.

Meanwhile, Jan and Dean were also recording their own contribution to the folk-rock craze, their new album Folk ‘n Roll. With their usual studio partners P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, they recorded a mixture of Sloan/Barri pop (like the rather good single I Found A Girl), songs by Jan’s girlfriend Jill Gibson, new originals, and covers of recent folk-rock hits, like a note-for-note remake of the Turtles’ version of It Ain’t Me Babe, a version of Yesterday, and Jan and Dean’s own take on Eve of Destruction.

It was the originals that caused tensions. Jan Berry was convinced he had no need of Dean Torrence in the studio, since P.F. Sloan could sing his parts better anyway, while Torrence thought Berry’s new material was completely wrong for the duo. With the new material including such “classics” as The Universal Coward — a pro-war protest song, parodying Buffy Saint-Marie’s Universal Soldier and attacking draft-dodgers as cowards and Communists with “thick skulls” (unlike those such as Berry who merely managed to not be called up to fight because he was in medical school even though he was simultaneously pursuing a career as a pop star, but of course he was no coward) — or Folk City, a slight rewrite of Surf City, with the melody changed just enough to remove everyone else’s songwriting credit, one can perhaps see Torrence’s point.

A compromise was reached, and Torrence sang on the cover versions, but not the new original material, with one exception — a truly dire “message” song by Berry, Roger Christian, and arranger George Tipton, about a woman dying in childbirth. While Torrence sang on this song, A Beginning From an End, the song disgusted him, and at one point he stormed out and went to visit the Beach Boys in their session.

As part of the spontaneous, jam session, nature of the sessions, the band were inviting various friends to sing along, and so they asked Torrence what they should sing. He suggested Barbara Ann, a doo-wop song that had been a minor hit four years earlier, and which Jan and Dean had recorded as an album track. The band agreed, and after a couple of false starts (with Torrence being semi-jokingly admonished for singing off-key) and a quick rendition of Baa Baa Black Sheep, knocked out a quick version of the song with Mike Love taking the low bass “Ba-ba-ba, ba-ba-bra Ann” part while Torrence and Brian Wilson doubled each other on the falsetto lead. Half the band forgot what lyrics they were supposed to sing in the second verse, either Hal Blaine or Al Jardine banged an ashtray as percussion (the line “(H)Al, and his famous ashtray!” can be heard), and the result sounded exactly like it was meant to — like a sloppy performance on a couple of acoustic guitars at a party. Carl said “thanks Dean!” at the end, as a way of crediting him since he couldn’t officially be on the record, and no-one thought anything more of it; it was just one more album track on a quickie filler album.

The problem came when, a couple of weeks after the album was released, the Beach Boys’ new experimental single, The Little Girl I Once Knew, came out. The single was one of the best things they’d done, but it had moments of absolute silence, making it anathema to radio, where “dead air” had to be avoided at all costs. It still charted in the top twenty, but was a disappointment by the band’s usual standards.

The Beach Boys’ label, Capitol, quickly rushed out a new single, one that might actually get some radio play — the song they chose was Barbara Ann. And it became a massive hit, reaching number two in the US charts, and hitting number three, their highest position to that date, in the UK.

The song quickly became what Carl Wilson would describe thirty years later as “the bane of my existence”, with the band having to play it at every show they would perform . For the last forty-nine years, through line-up changes, deaths, splits and reunions, Barbara Ann has been played at every Beach Boys show. A sloppy cover version, full of mistakes and party noises, on which the lead singer wasn’t even a member of the band, has become one of the two or three songs most associated with them in the public mind.

1965 was ending with acoustic guitars, bongos, and protest songs. But 1966 would bring something altogether harsher…

Barbara Ann

Composer: Fred Fassert

Line-up: Dean Torrence (vocals), Brian Wilson (vocals, bass(?)), Mike Love (vocals), Carl Wilson (vocals, guitar), Al Jardine (vocals, guitar, ashtray(?)), Dennis Wilson (vocals, percussion(?)), Bruce Johnston (vocals, bass(?)), Hal Blaine (percussion), Ron Swallow (tambourine)

Original release: Beach Boys Party! Beach Boys album, Capitol DMAS 2398

Currently available on: Beach Boys Party! Universal CD, along with many, many budget compilations.

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2 Responses to California Dreaming: Barbara Ann

  1. TAD says:

    I assume it’s the same Jill Gibson who was briefly in the Mamas and the Papas.

  2. Andrew Hickey says:

    SPOILERS! ;)
    Yes, the same one.

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