The last few days I’ve had a pretty constant stress headache (hence the lack of post yesterday), but when I’m feeling stressed, there’s always the Beach Boys, and thankfully the new copyright extension releases came out a few days ago, and I’ve been listening to them pretty much constantly.
These copyright extension releases, as the name suggests, come from a fairly morally dodgy place — two years ago, Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard, and EMI records, terrified of the prospect that one day they may stop getting tens of millions of pounds a year in free money for work done before my parents were at primary school, got the term on sound recordings made after January 1, 1963 extended from fifty years to seventy years, because otherwise the Beatles in 1963 would have no incentive to record anything new…
But there was a “use it or lose it” provision in the new rules — any recording that had not been published would become public domain at the end of the calendar year fifty years after it was recorded. This meant that both last year and this, the few recording artists of the early 60s who still sell in big numbers today rushed out download-only compilations of unreleased recordings, last year from 1963, and now this year from 1964. This year, the Beach Boys’ have been the first to drop.
While last year’s compilation, The Big Beat 1963, was fairly inessential (though completist that I am, of course I have it), this year’s releases are far more interesting, as 1964 was the year that the Beach Boys went from a band with a couple of decent singles to being arguably the best band in the world.
This year has seen two releases, so far only on iTunes (though other sites are likely to follow). The first, Live In Sacramento, will probably be of more interest to the casual listener. The Beach Boys’ first live album, Beach Boys Concert was made up of recordings from three shows, one in 1963 and two in 1964, along with doctored studio versions of Fun Fun Fun and I Get Around. The two 1964 shows have been available on bootlegs for years, as just raw dumps of the multitracks, but now they get a properly mixed and mastered release, and allow people to see just what a good live band the Beach Boys were.
Instrumentally, they’re relatively tight, but nothing special — they played on more of their records than many people believed even a couple of years ago, but they were still never going to win awards for their playing — but vocally, they’re astonishing. On these early shows, Brian is obviously the standout, and hearing him sing Don’t Worry Baby live, falsetto intact, is worth the price of the downloads itself. But Mike Love, who takes most of the leads, is also far more impressive than you would expect — his perfect Igor voice on The Monster Mash is absolutely hilarious (and comparing this version and the original by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, it sounds like the version on Beach Boys Concert is the version the Bonzo Dog Band learned from, as the Beach Boys’ backing vocal phrasing is far closer to what the Bonzos would later do).
But the whole band sound vocally gorgeous, in a way that is all the more impressive when you remember that they were harmonising in a time without foldback speakers or in-ear monitors, and with thousands of screaming girls making it almost impossible to hear themselves. The shows are good enough that the casual fan could listen and enjoy them — and certainly could put together an exceptional live album by playlisting just their favourite version of each song (the two shows had the same setlists), and all the early hits are here.
It’s raw, of course — there are mistakes, and asides, and reactions to the crowd — but it’s the only extended live document of the five original Beach Boys performing together, without anyone to augment them, and with Brian Wilson still in good voice.
Beach Boys fanatics, on the other hand, will be more interested in Keep An Eye On Summer, a collection of outtakes, vocal-only mixes, and BBC live recordings, covering the sessions for Shut Down vol 2, All Summer Long, The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album and the first sessions for The Beach Boys Today!.
Much of this has, of course, been bootlegged — but here Alan Boyd and Mark Linnet, the archivist and engineer responsible for the project, have culled the session tapes to what is listenable. While the bootlegs have things like All Summer Long (takes 20-42) or Girls On The Beach (vocal overdub takes 1b-8b), here there’s just enough studio chat to get a flavour for what it was like in the studio, and only the musically interesting stuff has been kept.
And some of it has never been bootlegged before, notably the Shut Down vol 2 material and the BBC recordings, the tapes for which were lost for many years.
The result contains some genuinely sublime moments. The a capella (more or less — the instrumental track is mixed down to *almost* inaudibility) mix of She Knows Me Too Well is spellbindingly beautiful, the instrumental Let’s Live Before We Die could have been a classic Beach Boys ballad if vocals had ever been recorded for it, and the a capella In The Parking Lot is revelatory — never a favourite of mine before, but the harmonies in the massed vocal sections jump out in this new mix.
There’s also stuff that’s of more academic interest. We’ve known for a while that the Beach Boys played on more of their tracks than they’re usually credited for, but I didn’t realise that Denny’s Drums was actually played by Dennis Wilson — like almost everyone, I’d assumed that Hal Blaine had played that track. And Pom Pom Play Girl, another song I’ve never had much time for, seems in its remix to reveal that either Mike Love is a far better vocal impersonator than I’d credit him for or Jan Berry of Jan & Dean is doubling him, uncredited.
I’m not at all persuaded that these releases are ethical, and I abhor the change in the law that has brought them about. But given that they exist, thanks to Boyd and Linnet they at least are worthy of existing, and are worth obtaining (whether you want to pay for them, given the circumstances of their release, is up to you, though I did). Together they’re a record of a band that was as good as any band in the world. The music the Beach Boys produced in 1964 — songs like Fun Fun Fun, I Get Around, Don’t Worry Baby, and All Summer Long — is still the basis of their commercial, if not their artistic, reputation. These sets show why.