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