Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I spent several days at the beach last week, still humming many of the Beach Boys songs that I covered in my previous post, and I was ready for more as soon as I returned. The next album for me to listen to was their first live album, Beach Boys Concert (1964). Of the 13 tracks included, less than half were songs from earlier Beach Boys releases. This was an interesting decision, since they could have featured all of their hits but instead included cover songs that their audiences loved. It’s also been acknowledged that some studio overdubs were added, but for the most part you hear the excitement of an early Beach Boys concert. The set opens with “Fun, Fun, Fun,” which sounds faster than the original, almost like the tape was sped up. Their version of the Jan & Dean hit “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” is simple and fun, with a driving rhythm and typically great vocals (especially Brian Wilson’s falsetto). Mike Love was obviously having a blast singing the Bobby “Boris” Pickett song, “Monster Mash,” which is simple, goofy Halloween fun. They pay tribute to Dion (of Dion & The Belmonts fame) on “The Wanderer.” It’s a nice performance, but not one of Dennis Wilson’s strongest lead vocals. There’s not much to the novelty song “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” originally by The Rivingtons, other than their youthful energy and one of Brian’s most rockin’ vocal performances (as well as Mike Love’s almost guttural, growled vocals), but it’s still enjoyable. When I was at summer camp in my early teens, one of my counselors had this LP and I played it whenever he would let me. The highlight of the album was always Mike’s introduction before “Little Deuce Coupe,” when he demonstrates how they record their songs, beginning with “Denny” on drums, then Al Jardine on rhythm guitar, Carl Wilson on lead guitar and Brian on bass, before the song kicks in and the crowd roars. I also enjoyed the solid version of “In My Room,” which proved that they could deliver the soft ballads on stage, and their version of The Four Freshmen song “Graduation Day.” It’s certainly no Live At Leeds, or possibly even Frampton Comes Alive, but as early-‘60s live albums go, this one is thoroughly enjoyable.
Of all their albums, I’ve probably listened to The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (1964) more than any other, simply because I play it at least once a year during the holiday season, and often numerous times. The first five songs are original compositions, while the remaining seven are holiday standards. “Little Saint Nick” was released as a single the previous year, and a slightly different version starts off the album. If this doesn’t get you in the Christmas spirit, your heart (and ears) might be two sizes too small. It’s great how they basically wrote one of their hot rod songs about Santa’s sleigh, and with different lyrics this could have appeared on any of their early albums. I love the “oooh” harmony vocals, which sounds like their voices are gliding on ice skates. “The Man With All The Toys” is another great original, with that wonderful a capella intro and the cool juxtaposition of Mike’s and Brian’s vocals throughout the song.
“Santa’s Beard” has a great shuffle beat and cute lyrics that are geared toward kids. “Merry Christmas, Baby” (not the blues tune made popular by Charles Brown, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen and many others) owes a debt to the productions of Phil Spector (Brian’s idol), but of course they put their own unique stamp on that sound. “Christmas Day” features Al on lead vocals, and it’s moodier and more melancholy than the other original songs. It has a simple ‘50s arrangement (except for the organ solo), and I really enjoy it in spite of some stilted lyrics (“It’s worth the wait the whole year through, just to make happy someone like you”). Most of the other songs have orchestral arrangements that work really well with their voices, from upbeat (“Frosty The Snowman” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”) to somber (“We Three Kings Of Orient Are” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”), and they close things out with an a capella rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” (featuring a spoken word greeting from Dennis). At first it was a little strange listening to this album in August, even though most Christmas standards were written and recorded during the summer, but I never got tired of it no matter how many times I heard it this past week, and it will certainly be at the top of my Holiday playlist in a few months.
Released just four months later, The Beach Boys Today! (1965) is a transitional album that also happens to be one of their best. It’s often been overlooked in favor of Pet Sounds (released a year later, and which I’ll discuss in my next post), but that legendary album couldn’t have been created without the building blocks introduced here. My only complaint about this album is the muted, dense-sounding production, especially on the more upbeat Side A. However, that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of these songs and performances. “Do You Wanna Dance,” with Dennis on lead vocals, is a cover of the Bobby Freeman hit from 1958. It’s certainly a peppy opener, but only the chorus really pops (volume-wise) due to the claustrophobic production. “Good To My Baby” and “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” are two songs that hadn’t previously made an impression on me, but after playing them countless times, I really love them now. The former is instantly catchy with a brief a capella intro and some soaring vocals from Brian. The latter is a Phil Spector-esque rocker with a classic Mike Love lead vocal in the verses. “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” was something new for them, and should be considered a pivotal song in their development. The addition of a harpsichord is a nice touch, as are the quirky drumbeat and yet another amazing vocal arrangement that almost sounds dissonant at times. Lyrically it was also a departure. Instead of celebrating youth, they’re questioning the future (“Will my kids be proud or think their old man’s really a square? When they’re out having fun, yeah, will I still wanna have my share?”), without being cloying or sappy.
The album version of “Help Me, Ronda” (with no “h” in the name) is nearly as catchy as the more popular single version that would show up on the next album, but the harmonica seems out of place and the fading in and out at the end doesn’t do the song any favors. “Dance, Dance, Dance” closes out the upbeat side of the album on a fun note; a driving rocker with tight harmonies and nice percussion highlights. Then the real fun begins on Side B, with song structures and vocal arrangements that had never been done before, and which pointed to their future. “Please Let Me Wonder” is stunning: melodically, lyrically and vocally. There’s some pretty organ/guitar interplay with tambourine accents, and Brian sounds tender with his non-falsetto vocals. It’s simply a song that should be included on any Beach Boys compilation, and it gets better with each listen. “I’m So Young” is a cover of a ‘50s doo-wop song, but they make it sound like an original. I hadn’t really paid much attention to this one in the past, but now I love it. “Kiss Me Baby” is lovely, with a sophisticated arrangement and a more hushed vocal harmony. The backing track really points to Pet Sounds, and there are so many layers to the vocals. I love Dennis’ aching vocals on “In The Back Of My Mind.” This one has a jazzy feel that hadn’t been explored much at that point, but it’s a great way to close the album (if you ignore the actual closing track, “Bull Session With Big Daddy,” which is just 2 minutes of conversation between the guys and a journalist). For me, the most important song on this album, and one of my all-time favorites, is “She Knows Me Too Well.” The arrangement might have been slightly ahead of its time, which explains why it’s been so overlooked, but had this been included on Pet Sounds it would be universally hailed as a masterpiece. I can’t say much more about it, except that it brings me so much joy every time I hear it. I can now say the same thing about The Beach Boys Today!.
[The Beach Boys – “She Knows Me Too Well”]
Released just four months later, which was standard back then, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965) is a slight letdown, but it also includes five classics that I grew up listening to on the Endless Summer compilation, so there’s still a lot going for it. First I’ll discuss those classics, starting with “California Girls.” I’m guessing there are few people out there who are not aware of this song, and most probably love it (even if some won’t admit it). This record is pretty close to perfection, from the symphonic sounding intro (like an overture) to that midtempo shuffle and the perfectly tight rhythm section (especially drummer Hal Blaine). I was surprised to see that it only reached #3 on the charts. How was this not a #1 record for an entire summer? The single version of “Help Me, Rhonda” is another great one, introducing their “bow-bow-bow” backing vocals and the repetitive but insanely catchy chorus. Talk about a perfect sing-along in concert. “Girl Don’t Tell Me” is, surprisingly, Carl’s first lead vocal. It’s hard to believe it took this long to feature such an astonishing voice. It has a different feel from what we’ve heard before, highlighted mostly by acoustic guitar. Until I read the liner notes, I hadn’t noticed the similarity with The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride,” but now that’s very obvious. “Let Him Run Wild” is another stunner with a unique arrangement, an amazing Brian falsetto, and the backing vocals responding like a Greek chorus. I also love the stomping kick drum and 4/4 rhythm throughout “You’re So Good To Me.” Brian’s full-voiced performance and those great backing vocals (“And I love it, LOVE it…La la la la la la…”) make this one of their best.
[The Beach Boys – “You’re So Good To Me”]
There are a couple of clunkers at the start that initially soured me on this album. “The Girl From New York City” is an upbeat rock ‘n roll tune with backing vocals that are looser than usual, but it’s simply not a very good song. “Amusement Park U.S.A” is just plain silly, with the kitschy carnival barker section and that annoying laugh after each chorus. Their version of The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” (re-titled “Then I Kissed Her”) is solid but unremarkable. It’s just another tribute to the Phil Spector sound. “Salt Lake City” is pleasant but not unlike other songs they’ve done better in the past, although I really like the alternating vocals between “Salt Lake City” and “We’ll be coming soon.” The pretty, romantic sounding instrumental, “Summer Means New Love,” has a similar melody to their earlier song, “Keep An Eye On Summer.” It’s one of my favorite Beach Boys instrumental tracks so far. The album ends with the minute-long a capella “And Your Dreams Come True,” a super lush lullaby that’s a fitting end to the album. The less said about the truly awful “I’m Bugged At My Old Man” the better. It’s one of the reasons the “skip” button on CD players was invented. This album was as hit-and-miss as some of their early records, but those hits are too big to ignore. I can’t say I love it from beginning to end, but it’s still a good one. I also want to mention one particular bonus track on the 2-fer CD of Beach Boys Today! / Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!): The studio version of “Graduation Day.” Last week I played my Four Freshmen compilation CD for the first time in years, which includes the original version of this song. Much as I enjoyed hearing the original vocals that inspired them, The Beach Boys took them to another level, and this performance should have found its way onto one of their albums.
The Beach Boys basically invented the “Unplugged” concept more than 15 years before MTV even existed with Beach Boys Party! (1965). I have to admit that, until this past week, I had always considered this a minor release, with the only notable song being their cover of The Regents’ 1961 hit, “Barbara Ann,” with Dean Torrence (of Jan & Dean) sharing falsetto vocals with Brian. After playing it several times, my opinion has changed and now I really like it. The concept was to have the guys performing acoustic versions of songs they like in an intimate setting with friends and family, creating the “party” atmosphere referenced in the album title. The truth is that these songs were recorded in a studio, with the party sounds added in post-production, but the final product ends up being a very enjoyable half hour of music. Their admiration for The Beatles is evident on “I Should Have Known Better,” “Tell Me Why” and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.” The first two feature exquisite harmonies between Carl & Al, and the last one features Dennis on lead vocals. All three are solid cover versions. “Hully Gully,” a cover of The Olympics’ original, is simple & fun. They reprise “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” from the Beach Boys Concert LP, and I think I prefer this version. “Mountain Of Love” was a hit for two artists, in 1960 and 1964, and this version is one of the album’s highlights. It has a gospel/country feel, and I especially love the bridge (“The mountain of love, the mountain of love, you should be ashamed…”). Brian & Mike pay homage to The Everly Brothers on their beautiful ballad, “Devoted To You.” That might be my favorite performance on this album.
They have a blast on the goofy “Alley Oop,” previously a #1 hit by The Argyles. They also return to Phil Spector territory with The Crystals’ first hit, “There’s No Other (Like My Baby).” Brian’s lead vocals on this are incredibly strong, and the harmonies are typically amazing. When they finally get around to their own songs, they joke their way through a medley of “I Get Around/Little Deuce Coupe”, which is fun the first time but the novelty quickly wears off. Al Jardine, who was always the folk music lover in the group, performs the Bob Dylan classic, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It’s the most serious performance here, other than the occasional interjection from the “crowd.” Closing out things with the aforementioned “Barbara Ann,” this album left me with a smile on my face, and it’s a wonderful way to wrap up this portion of their catalog.
The next time you hear from me, I’ll be discussing their two most highly regarded releases: Pet Sounds and SMiLE (via the SMiLE Sessions CD from last year, since the original album was never officially released), along with a couple of others that followed. This should be an interesting era to revisit, as their commercial fortunes began to change after Pet Sounds, resulting in some uneven albums that I’m hoping will reveal a number of forgotten gems.