Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, September 01, 2006

Labor Day week-end is upon us, which heralds the traditional end of summer, which seems a good time to think about the Beach Boys. Their early career leading up to “Pet Sounds” is among the most astonishing runs I know of. The sheer number of albums they put out from 1962 through 1965, check it out:

1962: Surfin’ Safari
1963: Surfin’ USA
1963: Surfer Girl
1963: Little Deuce Coupe (8 new songs and 4 reissues)
1964: Shut Down Vol. 2
1964: All Summer Long
1964: Concert (no new songs, but a handful of new covers)
1964: Christmas Album (5 new songs and 7 covers)
1965: Today!
1965: Summer Days (and Summer Nights)
1965: Party! (no new songs but a bunch of new covers)

Even if you don’t count “Concert” and dock “Little Deuce Coupe” by half, that’s still nine and a half albums in a little over 3 years. The Beatles in the same period released 6 albums plus an album’s worth of singles -- but they had three songwriters and an arranger/producer versus the Beach Boys’ one -- Brian Wilson.

Quantity isn’t everything. (Even Mozart fanatics concede that there are some duds among the 180 CDs of his collected works.) But the Beach Boys’ quality in this period blankets me with sonic love.

I don’t remember those albums being available in the mid-’70s when I was first feeding the record addiction beast. Capitol was pushing their Beach Boys line through two two-record-set compilations culled from the period before “Pet Sounds,” Endless Summer and Spirit of America, one of the first records my brother and I ever bought. The two comps collected 43 songs (the CD releases add new tracks), a pretty good showing for what was basically a 3-year period, plus a few months (plus an odd but lovely 1969 single anomalously included).

But these 43 tracks don’t come close to exhausting the beauties of the Beach Boys’ first 11 albums. And so, here are my faves among the non-canonical Beach Boys songs in the period before “Pet Sounds.”

1962: Surfin’ Safari

Canonical songs: “Surfin’ Safari” and “409.”

Obscure classics:

“County Fair,” in which the 20-year-old Brian Wilson completely and charmingly mocks his own pretentions to machismo in this comic tale wherein the singer loses his girl at the eponymous fair to a muscle-man who can ring the bell with the hammer, all to a peppy beat & catchy tune.

“Chug-a-Lug,” in which the teen-age Beach Boys sing about their hobbies and chug-a-lugging root beer to another catchy number. Real teen music.

“Surfin’,” which I’m surprised wasn’t on either of the comps. Their first single, “baw baw bip ba dip ba dip.”

1963: Surfin’ U.S.A.

Canonical songs: “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Shut Down.”

Obscure classics:

“Stoked,” one of many surf-style instrumentals they recorded, their first original instrumental, and a good one.

“Lonely Sea,” Brian’s first falsetto ballad, and gorgeous. George Oppen complained about the poet H. D. telling the sea in one of her poems to “whirl up”; he wouldn’t have liked the Beach Boys.

1963: Surfer Girl, a classic album with no real filler.

Canonical songs: “Surefer Girl,” “Catch a Wave,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “In My Room,” and “Hawaii.”

Obscure classics:

“The Rocking Surfer” and “Boogie Woodie,” a pair of instrumentals driven by Brian’s hoppin’ keyboards.

“The Surfer Moon,” another lovely Brian ballad and the first Beach Boys song with strings.

“South Bay Surfer,” the first of three times (that I know of) that Brian recorded the melody of Stephen Foster’s “The Old Folks at Home” (a/k/a “Way Down Upon the Swanee River”), this time with surfing lyrics. Dopey but charming with its bluff unison vocals.

“Our Car Club,” a harmonically dense (for 1963 rock) and rhythmically quirky driving song, heralding the new fad of the next record.

Obscure out-take included in the CD reissue: “I Do,” an ecstatic marriage song with an explosive Spector-esque chorus and gorgeous interweaving Beach Boys vocals.

1963: Little Deuce Coupe, a rushed concept album -- all the songs but one about cars -- with four of the 12 songs reissued from previous albums.

Canonical songs: 3 of the 4 reissued songs, plus “Be True to Your School,” “Spirit of America,” “A Young Man is Gone,” and “Custom Machine.”

Obscure classics: None that hadn’t appeared earlier. The other songs don’t bug me, but I don’t hanker to hear them again and again either.

1964: Shut Down Volume 2

Canonical songs: “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “The Warmth of the Sun,” “This Car of Mine,” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”

Obscure classic:

“Keep an Eye on Summer,” a wistful mid-tempo breezy thing patented B. Wilson yearning harmonies and falsetto.

1964: All Summer Long

Canonical songs: “I Get Around,” “All Summer Long,” “Hushabye,” “Little Honda,” “Wendy,” “Do You Remember?,” “The Girls on the Beach,” “Drive-In,” and “Don’t Back Down” -- 9 of the album’s 12 songs.

Obscure classic: Maybe my favorite song on the record, the gorgeous ballad of elopement, “We’ll Run Away,” in which the young lovers sympathetically relate how their parents eloped too as they tenderly forgive their parents hypocritical judgmentalism.

1964: Concert

Canonical song: “Graduation Day,” a close cover of a Four Freshmen song.

Obscure classics:

“Let’s Go Trippin’,” an adrenaline-hopped cover of the Dick Dale surf guitar classic, with Denny exuberantly rushing the drums, Carl hitting the guitar licks fine, and thousands of young girls screaming.

“Johnny B. Goode,” a swinging hip-rocking cover of the Chuck Berry classic.

1964: The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album

Canonical song: “Little Saint Nick” has become a Christmas classic, but it isn’t on either of the Beach Boys’ ‘70s comps.

Obscure classics: I’ll follow Capitol’s lead and will omit seasonal songs from this imaginary compilation I’m outlining, but I will say that “Santa’s Beard” and “Merry Christmas, Baby,” are 2 fine B. Wilson originals that capture some of the tender melancholy of the Season, that most of the string-laden covers of Christmas classics are gorgeous, and that the a cappella arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne” is stunning.

1965: Today!

Canonical songs: “Do You Wanna Dance,” “Good to My Baby,” “When I grow Up (To Be a Man),” “Help Me, Ronda,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” and “Please Let Me Wonder.”

Obscure classics:

“Don’t Hurt My Little Sister,” a passionate and beautiful plea of brotherly love.

“Kiss Me Baby,” a 6/8 tune with those wonderful interweaving vocal lines.

“She Knows Me Too Well,” one of their more rhythmically alluring melodies, floating across and over barlines, simply and complexly beautiful.

“In the Back of My Mind,” a thickly recorded feature for Dennis who sings passionately, another beautiful melody.

1965: Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)

Canonical songs: “Salt Lake City,” “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” “Help Me, Rhonda” (in a new, more canonical arrangement), “California Girls,” “Let Him Run Wild,” and “You’re So Good to Me.”

Obscure classics:

“Summer Means New Love,” a dreamy instrumental that could almost have fit on “Pet Sounds.”

“I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man,” an intense doo-wop pastiche about parental abuse, intentionally sung out-of-key.

“And Your Dream Comes True,” a gorgeous a cappella tune based on “Bah Bah Black Sheep”; the “dream” of the title being marriage; one of Brian’s classic yearning-for-marriage songs, the third marriage song on our list here, and a perfect close to the album and our fictional alternative compilation . . .

Except . . .

. . . there’s one more album to go.

1965: Party!, their third album in a row with at least one exclamation mark in the title, and intended as place-holder filler until Brian completed “Pet Sounds,” but oddly one of my all-time favorite albums.

Canonical songs: the great surprising Top 10 hit “Barbara Ann” and “Tell Me Why,” a cover of a fairly obscure Beatles tune that I love way more than the original -- more swinging, more beautifully and passionately sung.

Obscure classics:

“Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” an obscure cover related to “Surfing Bird” that they recorded on their “Concert” album; this version is way better. Brian and Mike tear up the lead vocals, and I adore the core band of acoustic guitar, electric bass, and bongos.

“There’s No Other Like My Baby,” a glorious cover of a Phil Spector 6/8 ballad that falls into goofy joking by the end without obviating the gorgeousness. A fine close to any compilation.

That’s 24 songs, not counting the Christmas tunes -- enough for another two-record set as good as the other two.

Always with the Beach Boys, until the ‘70s anyway, there’s the unfathomable depth and mystery of their SOUND. The glorious golden tone.

I don’t mean to say they’re better than the Beatles. There are no comparatives in music you love. When you’re in the music, nothing else matters. There’s nowhere else you’d rather be. I realize that the Beach Boys are the height of rock nerd-boy sensibility, but I can’t help myself. I love those melodies and countermelodies and blends. And, you’ll note, the words are often poignant, almost always humane, often witty and playful. Sometimes I think that Brian and his team of lyricists were Chuck Berry’s truest heirs in the ‘60s -- so many songs detailing social life in little vignettes and narratives. From a more youthful, simpler, less critical perspective -- not saying the lyrics are as deep as Chuck’s, but they’re often surprisingly excellent.

So long, summer. See you next year.
Nothing to add really. Just to say a 1550 word Beach Boys post is a fine thing. Fine, indeed.

Blame it all on the surfer moon...

1550 words feels too short.

I barely spoke about their lustrous vocal blend, the rich dense meaty mid-rangy chords they could sing (rich by pop standards); how even when they copied phrases from the Four Freshmen note-for-note, they improved upon the originals by their sweeter tone and blend and lack of vibrato; how all 5 singers had personality and style and verve as lead singers, which they plowed into the whole for ensemble passages.

And that great pagan lyric you quoted -- thanks --
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