California Dreaming: Do It Again

The Beach Boys were rather desperate for a hit.

By May 1968 it had been almost two years since Good Vibrations had gone to number one, and their singles since then had been at best moderate successes. Friends, the title track from their most recent album, hadn’t even reached the top forty.

So for the first time, they decided to take a look back at their past.

In August 1967, the band (with Brian Wilson, and without Bruce Johnston, who had temporarily left the band) had travelled to Hawaii to perform two sets for a planned live album, Lei’d in Hawaii. Those shows consisted of performances of many of the band’s biggest hits, but rearranged in the stripped-down style of their recent Smiley Smile album, with plenty of vocal harmonies but minimal instrumentation apart from Brian Wilson’s Baldwin organ.

The album was deemed unreleasable, even after extensive studio work, but one thing jumped out. For the first time in several years, the band had performed a version of their very first single, Surfin’, and during the track Brian Wilson had started singing the melody to Underwater by the Frogmen, a surf instrumental that had been released on the same label (Candix) and in the same year (1961) as Surfin’. This melody, sung in wordless “ba ba ba” falsetto by Brian Wilson, stuck in the band’s minds as an idea to return to.

A few months later, Mike Love, who had been generally unimpressed with the band’s turn away from what he considered more relatable lyrical themes, went surfing with an old friend, Bill Jackson, and came back inspired — the band were going to write their first new song about surfing in four years.

Love’s lyrics centred around the themes that had done so well for the band a few years previously — suntanned bodies, surfing, beaches, and a quick namecheck of the earlier song California Girls — but with a sense of nostalgia. Those things were in the past now, and we need to “get together and do it again”.

Wilson added a rudimentary three-chord structure and the Frogmen’s melody to the verses, and a much more interesting, and quite beautiful, 22-bar middle section, which goes from an elegaic mention of the lonely sea (the title of another old Beach Boys song) in the relative fourth, into a triumphal guitar solo and chanted “hey now!” over the same changes as the verses, before leading back into a final verse.

The whole song was written around the piano by Love and Wilson in a matter of minutes, and a basic track recorded by the band at Wilson’s house — the band were once again playing their own backing tracks, rather than using outside musicians, and were recording in Wilson’s home studio due to a combination of laziness and a wish for spontaneity on Wilson’s part. Brian and Carl Wilson co-produced the track, but it only really came alive quite late in the day. After additional drum and saxophone overdubs by session players, engineer Steve Desper got to work on the intro. He came up with an effect for the snare drum sound, using two tape delay units (which had originally been bought to thicken the band’s live vocal sound by artificially double-tracking, live), but having the delay be in the region of ten milliseconds. The result was to effectively quadruple-track the snare on the intro, creating a buzzing, powerful, sound quite unlike anything else that had ever been heard.

While Do It Again was talked about as a return to the old sound at the time, in truth it sounds quite different, and it may be the Beach Boys’ first rock, as opposed to pop, track. It’s thicker, and heavier, sounding than anything they’d done before, and indeed than much of what they were to do subsequently. But while it definitely sounds more 1968 than 1963, the return to the old subject of surfing, and the references to older songs, were enough to gain the band some much-needed TV exposure, and what would turn out to be their last US top twenty hit for eight years, reaching number twenty.

In the rest of the world, Do It Again did even better, becoming their second (and last) UK number one, and their first in Australia.

By returning to their past, the Beach Boys had bought themselves a little bit of a future. But the band were running out of time — their contract with Capitol was nearly up, and looked unlikely to be renewed, and Brian Wilson was becoming less and less interested in making new music. The trick had worked once, but going back to old themes and namechecking old songs was no way to move forward. A few months earlier the band had been annoyed at Capitol promoting them as a surfing group, seeing it as condemning them to irrelevance in a time when there were more important things on people’s minds than fun in the sun, but now their one hope of getting people to listen to them was to sing about surfing once again.

The 60s were nearly over, and with them it seemed was the Beach Boys’ relevance. Could they reinvent themselves for the 1970s?

Do It Again

Composer: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

Line-up: Mike Love (vocals), Brian Wilson (vocals, keyboards), Carl Wilson (vocals, guitars), Al Jardine (vocals, bass), Dennis Wilson (vocals, drums), Bruce Johnston (vocals, keyboards), John Guerin (drums), Ernie Small (saxophone), John E Lowe (woodwind).

(NB this is somewhat speculative. We know the identities of the session players who provided overdubs, and that the Beach Boys performed on the basic track themselves, but it’s not clear whether Carl Wilson or Al Jardine provided the bass — I’ve assigned this to Jardine as he played bass in the studio more often than not — and whether Johnston provided any instrumental parts).

Original release: Do It Again/Wake The World, The Beach Boys, Capitol 2239

Currently available on: 50 Big Ones, Universal CD

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to California Dreaming: Do It Again

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    So the big question (and apologies if you already covered this and I missed it): why did the Beach Boys self-destruct commercially from such a high peak into almost nothing in such a short time?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Several reasons, some of which I’ve covered and some I haven’t (and some which will be covered in the book version):
      Brian Wilson was unable to complete Smile, and the album released in its place, Smiley Smile, was completely out of step with 1967 (and to many people still doesn’t sound like something that makes sense to them).
      They pulled out of Monterey, the biggest festival of 1967.
      Heroes & Villains, the big single they released in early 67, was undanceable.
      They were involved in a lawsuit with their record label over unpaid royalties, giving the label little incentive to promote them.
      Brian Wilson was going through what would later be recognised as one of his worst mental health crises, and the other band members were having to take up the slack, but didn’t yet have the ability to do so. Part of this meant recording in Brian’s home studio, with the band once again playing their own instruments, which meant stepping back from the big productions that had made their name.
      The average life of a pop band then (and to a large extent still) was five years — the people who’d grown up with them had stopped buying singles, and to the new audiences they were that stuff that their big brothers or sisters listened to, not their own music.
      Carl Wilson, the most competent of the other band members at the time, was more concerned with his draft status (he was a conscientious objector and at one point looked like he might go to prison) than with the band.
      Two tours had to be cancelled for different reasons in quick succession (one because of the assassination of Martin Luther King and public safety worries, another because it was a double-bill with the Maharishi, and no-one wanted to hear the Maharishi talk)
      They went from recording songs like Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, and Good Vibrations to recording songs about eating vegetables, washing the dishes, and the directions to Brian’s house. I *love* that latter set of songs, but they’re not number one hit material.
      And the centre of musical gravity in California had moved from LA to San Francisco, and magazines like Rolling Stone not only preferred jam bands to bands with tunes, but had a huge bias against any music from LA (not just the Beach Boys, but also Zappa, the Monkees, and the rest). LA was “plastic” and “fake” and “Hollywood”, while SF was “where it’s at”.

      Basically, there was so much against them that even if they’d done everything right they would have taken a serious hit, and they did a *lot* of things wrong at the same time. The surprising thing isn’t that they suffered a massive crash in popularity in the US, it’s that they carried on doing well enough in the rest of the world that the band could survive at all. That they didn’t really get noticed in the UK and Europe until Pet Sounds gave them a lifeline — a second five-year chart career that allowed them to rebuild themselves as a live act in the US while selling records abroad.

  2. TAD says:

    I always thought the original version of “Do It Again” was badly recorded. The track sounds like it’s awash in Quaaludes.

  3. LondonKdS says:

    Is this, as I’ve seen it claimed, the first rock song that is based on nostalgia for an earlier era of music?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It might be the first big hit to be, but it’s not even the first *Beach Boys* song to be based on nostalgia for older music — that would be Do You Remember from 1964 (“Do you remember all those guys who gave us rock & roll?”)
      Probably the first rock nostalgia record is one I covered earlier in this series of posts, Memories of El Monte by The Penguins (written by Frank Zappa).

Comments are closed.