Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The first album by The Beach Boys, Surfin’ Safari (1962), is typical of albums from that era in that it features a few hit recordings and a significant amount of filler. This album stands apart from many others, though, due to two things: those unique vocal harmonies (already fully developed) and the fact that 9 of the 12 songs were co-written by Brian Wilson (with either Mike Love or lyricist Gary Usher) instead of padding out the album with cover songs. I (along with millions of other fans) was already familiar with “Surfin’ Safari,” their first national hit. It’s instantly catchy; a perfect introduction to their sound, and I still love hearing it after all these years. I also knew the minor hit “409,” their first song about cars (a subject they would cover many times in the next couple of years) and the re-recording of their regional hit single that got them signed to Capitol Records, “Surfin’.” Both songs are typical of early Beach Boys, with insanely catchy melodies and great vocal performances. “Ten Little Indians” is their fun take on a children’s nursery rhyme, but it doesn’t stand up to repeated listening. The most pleasant surprise here was “Little Girl (You’re My Miss America),” with lead vocals by drummer Dennis Wilson in the style of teen idols like Ricky Nelson & Frankie Avalon. It’s got a doo-wop feel and I love the “Blue eyes, blond hair, lips like a movie star” section. “Cuckoo Clock” is silly but it’s nice to hear Brian singing in a lower register than the falsetto vocals he would soon become known for. The remainder of the album is certainly enjoyable, but the songs themselves are nothing special. Considering that they were all between the ages of 14 (David Marks) and 21 (Brian & Mike) when it was recorded, this album is a pretty significant achievement, yet they were just getting started.
Less than six months later they returned with Surfin’ USA (1963). It’s a slightly stronger album than the debut, with Mike singing lead on 4 songs and Brian on 3 (whereas Mike dominated the lead vocals on the previous album), but it also includes 5 instrumentals which makes me think that lyrical inspiration was a little hard to come by. “Surfin’ USA” remains one of their most famous songs, reaching #3 on the Pop chart. Even though it’s basically a re-write of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (with that early rock ‘n roll legend getting full songwriting credit), there’s no mistaking that this was a signature Beach Boys song. “Shut Down” was another successful single. I’ve never been a car buff so the lingo never made sense to me (I still don’t know what “the 413’s really diggin’ in” means), but it’s so upbeat and catchy that the lyrical content doesn’t really matter. My favorite song on the album, though, is “Farmer’s Daughter.” It has a simple structure but Brian’s falsetto shines and the harmonies are incredibly tight.
[The Beach Boys – “Farmer’s Daughter”]
“Lonely Sea” is Brian’s first melancholy ballad, something he would perfect on future albums. Even though he would do better than this one, it’s still haunting and gorgeous, and I really like the spoken word middle section (“this pain in my heart…”). Carl plays a fine guitar lead on their cover of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” (made famous in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction), which is a nice tribute but not as good as the original. “Lana” is a fun, bouncy tune featuring Brian’s falsetto. It’s not great but it’s still enjoyable, and has a good vocal arrangement. “Finders Keepers” closes the album with a chorus reminiscent of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. It’s a minor song but it has a cool arrangement with several rhythmic shifts. All in all it’s a pretty good album with a few all-time classics, but they were about to shift things into a higher gear.
Of their first six albums that I’ve revisited this past week, Surfer Girl (1963) is by far my favorite. The fact that they opened the album with the slow, mellow and gorgeous “Surfer Girl” shows that they weren’t afraid to break some rules (usually the first song on an album was an upbeat number), and it paid off with another Top 10 hit. “Catch A Wave” is amazingly catchy (no pun intended). This was always my favorite Beach Boys song growing up when I was listening to the Endless Summer compilation. To me, it’s the ultimate surf party song, and I still get excited when I hear it. I love the organ and guitar solos with accompanying handclaps. “The Surfer Moon” is one of the true undiscovered gems in their catalog. It features their first string arrangement (which reminds me of a slowed down version of the ‘50s standard, “Mister Sandman”), a lovely melody and a phenomenal vocal from Brian (especially his falsetto in the bridge).
[The Beach Boys – “The Surfer Moon”]
“Hawaii” is another song that should’ve been a hit, or at least better exposed. It instantly gets in your brain and you can’t help but smile. I especially like the juxtaposition of Mike’s low and Brian’s high vocals. “Your Summer Dream” is another one of my favorites here. It’s similar to “The Surfer Moon” but has a jazzier feel. The highlight of the album, and one of the greatest songs Brian ever wrote (with Gary Usher), is “In My Room.” It’s truly a work of genius, both melancholy and uplifting, and the arrangement was completely original. I don’t think Brian’s non-falsetto voice ever sounded so utterly beautiful. “Little Deuce Coupe” was another big hit. It’s a great bragging song (even though they sing “Well I’m not braggin’ babe, so don’t put me down”) with more car lingo that continues to stump me (“She’s got a competition clutch with the four on the floor…”). Of the remaining songs on Surfer Girl, “South Bay Surfer” is a minor tune but very catchy, set to the melody of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks At Home” (aka “Swanee River”). “Surfers Rule,” with Dennis on lead vocals, has a Four Seasons vibe, and lyrically they challenge (or possibly pay tribute to) their vocal group rivals (“Four Seasons, you better believe it”) in the outro. I love the percussive rhythm throughout “Our Car Club,” as well as the “us against them” gang attitude in the lyrics. This might be one of the most consistently satisfying albums in their catalog, although I won’t be able to confirm that until I work my way through the entire discography.
Little Deuce Coupe (1963) was the final album to feature David Marks, as Al Jardine had rejoined the group on tour earlier in the year. It’s a sort-of concept album, gathering together songs about cars (with one exception), including four that were previously released. Of the eight new songs, which were all recorded in one day, there are a few highlights. “Ballad Of Ole’ Betsy” is a pretty ballad, and I like how the lyrics could also be about a woman (except for the “she may be rusted iron” part). “Be True To Your School” is the one non-car song here. As I stated in my previous post, this is the version I prefer. The single version that includes actual cheerleaders just sounds too gimmicky to me. “Spirit Of America” is another song that should be more well-known. I like the slightly muted production and Brian’s falsetto, of course. It’s a nice tribute to Craig Breedlove, who set the land speed record with his vehicle of the same name earlier that year.
[The Beach Boys – “Spirit Of America”]
Another highlight is the a capella “A Young Man Is Gone,” where they use the melody of the Four Freshmen song “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring” and change the lyrics to pay tribute to the recently-departed actor James Dean. What a stunning vocal arrangement. “Cherry Cherry Coupe” is a nice tune with a driving beat, but the chorus is the strongest part of the song. The rest of the album features pleasant but minor songs, yet the combination of those strong new songs and a few older tunes (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409” and “Shut Down” among them) makes this a very enjoyable collection.
Shut Down Volume 2 (1964) is notable for being the first Beach Boys album to be released after The Beatles arrived in America, but the competition between them hadn’t started yet and Brian and the boys continued to deliver the hits as well as some of the most beautiful songs they would ever record. “Fun, Fun, Fun” is simply one of the great ‘60s rock ‘n roll singles, featuring killer lead guitar from Carl and a memorable organ solo. This is always a highlight of their concerts. “Don’t Worry Baby” is one of their best love songs, and Brian’s vocals are both breathtaking and heartbreaking. The musical structure is simple, with the harmonies carrying the song. Brian has claimed that this was written about his car (she’s telling him not to worry), but if that’s the case I don’t want to know about the “when she makes love to me” section. Then there’s “The Warmth Of The Sun,” without a doubt one of their all-time best songs. Brian wrote it the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and shortly after a relationship ended, yet the melancholy feel never becomes maudlin, and instead acts like an inspirational hymn. The arrangement points to soft rock acts of the ‘70s (you can decide if that’s a good thing…I think it is).
[The Beach Boys – “The Warmth Of The Sun”]
There are a few too many throwaway tracks, like “In The Parking Lot” (although the vocals in the intro and outro are fantastic), “Pom Pom Play Girl” (Brian sounds like Mike on this one) and the short drum solo, “Denny’s Drums.” However, they redeem themselves somewhat with the straight-ahead cover of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” and the lovely ballad, “Keep An Eye On Summer.” The album as a whole might be a bit spotty, but those highlights are so good that I’ll keep coming back to it. They also showcase Brian’s growing prowess with songwriting, production and vocal arrangement.
In the wake of Beatlemania, The Beach Boys released All Summer Long (1964), proving to everyone that America’s favorite band could still deliver the goods. In fact, the album starts off with their first #1 record, “I Get Around,” another classic with Mike & Brian doing what they do best, and a great start-stop rhythm. “All Summer Long” follows, and it’s another instant classic. This one always makes me a little sad, as it reminds me of the end of summer, right before school starts. George Lucas used it at the end of his film American Graffiti, and the compilers of The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer compilation did the same. It’s a perfect “last song.” “Wendy” begins with an offbeat, sparse intro before drums and guitar scratches lead into the song, which is one of their best. “Girls On The Beach” is another longtime favorite, with the lead vocals shared by the group in harmony (with Brian’s falsetto leading the way). There are some amazing key changes/modulations throughout, and the best part just might be Dennis singing, “The sun in her hair, the warmth of the air.” The album closes with a song I’ve loved for a long time, “Don’t Back Down.” It’s another of their tough guy bragging songs, this time about surfers not backing down from a killer wave. It has a wonderful melody and great falsetto vocals. My only complaint is that it’s a little too short, and I wish the fade-out lasted a bit longer.
[The Beach Boys – “Don’t Back Down”]
In between the songs I already mentioned, all of which I’ve loved for years, I found a few others that caught my ear this past week. “Hushabye” is a cover of an earlier hit by The Mystics. It’s a very simple song with a muted production that emphasizes the incredible vocals. “Little Honda” sounds like a throwback to their first couple of albums, and I was surprised that they never released it as a single. “Do You Remember?” finds them standing up for early rock n’ roll pioneers (who preceded them by less than a decade). The song itself is pretty derivative but their vocal performance won me over. As usual, the rest of the album consisted of minor songs, but that’s hardly a complaint. After Surfer Girl, this is probably my second favorite out of this batch of releases.
It’s hard to believe that all six of these albums were released within 21 months, between October 1962 and July 1964. That kind of recording schedule was par for the course back then, but very few artists were as consistent as The Beach Boys right out of the starting gate. It’s a pretty impressive feat made even more so when you consider that most of the records were written, produced and arranged by one man: Brian Wilson. Sure, he had some songwriting collaborators and early production assistance, but when you compare The Beach Boys to The Beatles, for example, the Fab Four had two main songwriters and an accomplished producer who helped shape their sound. Brian just had Brian, which explains his eventual nervous breakdown and retirement from touring, but that also led to some of the most innovative recordings in history. Another thing I love about these records is the innocence in the songs and the performances. They were like teenagers dreaming of magical, undiscovered worlds outside their bedrooms. Within a couple of years their sound would become more sophisticated and they would never sound quite the same again. It’s going to be a lot of fun listening to (and writing about) the next set of albums and hearing them evolve into the group that would soon record the legendary Pet Sounds.
[Note: I’ve included more song samples and YouTube clips in this post than I usually do, but I also covered more territory (six albums) here. I hope you enjoy the songs I’ve chosen. In most cases I opted for slightly more obscure songs since I imagine that most people already know the big hits by heart. Please let me know if you agree with this approach. I want to thank all the people who posted songs and videos to YouTube, since their work allows me to highlight the music I’m writing about.]