The Beach Boys Vinyl Challenge


Can you still unearth great vinyl records without breaking the bank?

Finding cheap vinyl records has become harder since Covid turned the world into online shoppers. But maybe it isn’t impossible…

In this series we examine the vinyl legacy of that most Californian of bands, The Beach Boys.

We were having a beer. It had been a while, but it was good to reconnect. The sun was almost shining, and the beer was cold. Such simple pleasures as had been temporarily removed from us by the pandemic.

“You’re on mute” I said, as my friend Chris’s mouth waggled silently in my general direction from the laptop screen I was looking at in my garden. (It may have been sufficiently sunny, and the beer may have been sufficiently cold, but we still hadn’t quite made sufficient effort to actually leave our respective houses).

It was good to catch up with old friends though. The conversation inevitably turned towards familiar territory, namely music and records. We were talking about the gaps in our collections. I remarked that, aside from the inevitable Pet Sounds and the 1971 classic Surf’s Up (found in a charity shop for a pound, something which always makes me view an album favourably), my Beach Boys collection was non-existent.

It was odd in a way. I had Pet Sounds and Surf’s Up, but not once had I thought “Hmm, these are two of my favourite albums, I wonder if anything else they did was any good?” Not being a completist has served me well, both from a financial perspective and, I dare say, in preserving positive marital relations. And perhaps the secret to a good marriage is at no point having the need to buy the other twenty-odd albums in the Beach Boys’ back catalogue.

Chris was in a similar position. “The trouble is, it’s no longer relevant. I’m not sure how bothered I am about T-birds, little deuce coupes and surfing” he remarked.

He lives inland and drives a 4×4. I can see where he’s coming from.

“I do feel like I should give them a go” I remarked. “But did I tell you about when I went stand up paddleboarding the other week?”

“I fell off what was effectively a wobbly slab of polystyrene six times, lost my prescription sunglasses after ten minutes and exhaustingly battled an off-shore wind determined to blow me towards France for two hours.”

It was all true. When I remarked to the instructor at the end that it was “difficult”, he gave me the sort of look of scorn and loathing that people from Cornwall reserve for second home owners from London when they ask for directions to the nearest Fortnum and Masons. But then on reflection, he probably spends half his time teaching kite and wind surfers how to fly through the air at forty knots. My whining about not being able to stay upright on a slow-moving platform was never going to impress.

“Steve, the fact you are utterly inept on the ocean – despite living a ten minute walk from the beach – shouldn’t put you off” Chris assured me. “You do know that Brian Wilson didn’t properly go on a surf board until the mid-seventies?”

At the time, I had to confess I did not know this. The news that the man who wrote “Surfin’ USA” was perhaps just as inept as me was reassuring. “Although I dare say even Brian Wilson could stay upright on a paddle board for more than five minutes” added Chris, unnecessarily.

The story of Brian Wilson’s first surfing trip on Father’s Day, 1976, aged 34 is told in Steven Gaines’ excellent Beach Boys book “Heroes and Villains”. The trip was filmed for an NBC TV Special on The Beach Boys and originates from a skit where John Belisha and Dan Ackroyd, dressed as policemen, arrest Wilson with the charge of “Never Having Surfed”. Gaines described Wilson’s “terrified” eyes as he entered the ocean – a giveaway for “a deep abiding fear of the water”.

Fun fun fun indeed.

(As a side note, in his autobiography Brian Wilson does say he tried surfing once as a kid “and got conked on the head with the board”, which makes me feel a whole lot better about my own ineptitude).

“I read a book about them and the whole story is pretty grim” continued Chris. “The Beatles at least were a bunch of plucky Scouse lads conquering the world. The Beach Boys’ story is a very much less than heartwarming tale of an abusive father and squabbling band mates culminating in a drug-induced mental breakdown of the main songwriter who sits at a piano with his feet in a sandpit trying and failing to compose something as good as Sgt Pepper while the rest of them come across as the most unlikeable set of stripe-shirted drug-addled philanderers you could ever wish to meet.”

Chris was getting into his stride now. “They never recovered, or did anything quite as good ever again. Brian Wilson spent ages making the Smile album, which didn’t get released until ten years ago, by which time anyone who doesn’t read Mojo Magazine had lost interest”

While perhaps not entirely historically comprehensive or perhaps even wholly accurate, that was pretty much the sum of our understanding of The Beach Boys’ post-Pet Sounds output. We’d heard fragments of Brian Wilson’s story. We knew all the early hits. No-one raised on 1970s TV and Radio could entirely avoid hearing “Surfin’ USA”, “Help Me Rhonda” or the Club biscuit advert.

And second hand record shops are littered with cheap Greatest Hits Beach Boys collections like “Endless Summer” or “Golden Greats” or albums called “All Summer Long”, “Beach Boys Party!” and “Summer Days”. None of which really appeal when it’s cold and slashing down with rain outside.

But nagging at the back of my mind was the song I first heard watching the Almost Famous movie.

“Feel Flows” was a long distance removed from all that “Fun Fun Fun” stuff. It’s a slow paced, slightly psychedelic track. You can enjoy “Feel Flows” even if you aren’t the sort of jock who will “never miss yet with the girls (you) meet”, which is just as well as no-one has spoken like that for fifty years.

And the whole “Surf’s Up” album (from where “Feel Flows” comes) was terrific, if you ignore the slightly iffy cover that was “Student Demonstration Time”.

Was there another side to The Beach Boys we had overlooked? And was that Brian Wilson narrative entirely accurate?

“It doesn’t make sense that Brian Wilson could produce a deathless masterpiece in Pet Sounds and then completely disappear to the extent that everything he produced before and after that was either old fashioned or completely rubbish.” I found myself arguing. “Even if the drugs and his mental illness held him back”. Perhaps I was arguing in spite of myself.

The cognoscenti might now all agree Pet Sounds is a classic, (which wasn’t always the case) but was there much more to be discovered? Chris wasn’t so sure. “If there were any decent Beach Boys songs outside of their big hits, they would have appeared on soundtracks by now, covered by waif-like singer-songwriters. I reckon you’re going to be trawling through some pretty average albums…”

So there was the challenge. Could we fish out sparkling gems from Brian Wilson’s prodigious songwriting brain? Or would we just be trawling through barren, empty seas…?

The Beach Boys are, frankly, tremendously unfashionable. On those early LP covers they look like candy-striped-shirt-wearing squares. Their image is anachronistic, stuck in a pre-Beatles world of Happy Days (itself a pastiche) and Mary Tyler Moore. In the U.K. barely anyone outside a hardcore, devoted (and reputably prone to bickering) set of fans has talked about The Beach Boys in a serious way in twenty five years. They last charted in 1996, in a duet of “Fun Fun Fun” with an up and coming band called Status Quo.

Good grief, aren’t they also responsible for a song called “Be True To Your School”? What a bunch of absolute swots!

But from the perspective of a bargain-seeking vinyl hunter, if there were one or two Beach Boys LPs that scrubbed up well, wouldn’t we want to hear them?

At a time when used vinyl has leapt in price 20% since the pandemic began, the idea of finding under appreciated gems was appealing. With the nation’s record shops gradually opening, was there now a chance to dig around for some under-appreciated records?

So we agreed the challenge would be twofold: a) to unearth good value Beach Boys records and b) agree they were good / interesting enough to get regular plays on the turntable.

Chris was feeling cynical – “Give me some actual reasons why these albums are worth the house space…” was his final word on the matter – so it was my job to persuade him that perhaps the Beach Boys’ world wasn’t all surfing and cars and there was life both before and after Pet Sounds.

But would I succeed? Only one way to find out, and that was to play the songs and go to a few record shops…

Next time: Part 2 – and a trip to Holland



Categories: Music

Tags: , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. Fantastic first part, brings up universal themes like completism (I suffer it), finding albums for $1 (that’s my usual price, in thrift shoppes), getting past the hits by big bands (I know it well) and “is it worth the house space? (often yes, sometimes no). Throw in that this was a band from my childhood, and I’m interested! Can’t wait for part two!

    Also, thalassophobia is a real thing. I’m with Wilson.

    Liked by 1 person

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