The challenge: After a chat with a friend revealed neither of us had any Beach Boys albums outside of Pet Sounds and Surf’s Up, could I convince myself and my friend there were other gems in The Beach Boys’ back catalogue?
A good local record shop is the gift that keeps on giving. That is, if your idea of a “gift” is to see your wages trickle through your fingers in exchange for musical treasure.
But the best shops don’t charge the Earth, and also merit a weekly visit. The weekly visit is important with used record stores, because they buy collections all the time.
Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. Some weeks, there’s thin pickings. The next, someone has just carelessly offloaded some priceless (or hopefully relatively inexpensive) artefacts just waiting to be “rescued” and given a second life.
I was debating this very point with my friend Chris the other day after he found an article saying that vinyl production was polluting rivers in Thailand and was basically not a very environmentally friendly thing to do.
I naturally argued the point. “Surely if it’s used records, record collecting is a very “green” hobby? We collectors are recyclers.”
Chris laughed. “So are you saying going to second hand record shops basically makes you Greta Thunberg?”
Ignoring the sarcasm I doubled down.
“I’m stopping things going into landfill! I’m recycling – giving things a second life. Record collectors are basically Wombles. With better headphones.”
Well, it sounded good at the time.
On one of my weekly visits, my local shop proprietor, Bob, was feeling pleased. As luck would have it, he had taken delivery of a good run of Beach Boys LPs. Sadly, they weren’t the post Pet Sounds LPs, but as I said, that’s the thing about record shopping – Forrest Gump and all that – and they looked fantastic. For the purposes of my Beach Boys challenge his timing was impeccable.
Surfin’ Safari, Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl. Then the surfing thing peters out and cars come in.
Little Deuce Coupe and Shut Down Vol. 2 (a follow up to a compilation album filled with “car songs” by various artists). Beach Boys Concert, Beach Boys Party! Summer Days (and Summer Nights). Bob had them all. Gorgeous flip back sleeves, and like The Beach Boys themselves all very good looking.
There are, of course, some lovely things on these albums. Aside from the hits, no-one writes melancholic yet uplifting songs like The Beach Boys. It was these songs I was hoping to find.
Shut Down Vol. 2 has “Don’t Worry Baby” on it, surely the most gorgeous song Roy Orbison never recorded, and “The Warmth of the Sun”, is a waltz that you could put in a dictionary to define “lazy, hot afternoon” and was written by Mike Love and Brian Wilson in half an hour on the afternoon of JFK’s assassination to try to sum up their feelings about what had just happened.
However, I was reminded of what Chris told me about early Beach Boys LPs.
“They’re like supermarket avocados, Steve” he said, betraying his posh roots. “They look okay on the outside, but you rarely find one that’s good all the way through.”
Back home, I did some research. Shut Down Vol. 2 may have “Fun Fun Fun” and “Don’t Worry Baby” but it is also contains filler like “In The Parking Lot”, and a terrible talking skit called ““Cassius” Love V “Sonny” Wilson”, the 60’s equivalent of a bad podcast. The less said about “Pom Pom Play Girl” the better. Think “if a 1962 version of Motley Crue had written the lyrics” and you’ll have the right idea. The version of “Louie Louie” here is not, sadly, a patch on, say, versions by Toots and The Maytals, The Kinks or even Motörhead. I knew if I presented these albums to Chris, he’d be extremely sceptical.
To understand the reason for this inconsistent quality, let’s remind ourselves of Brian Wilson’s “Eureka!” moment in 1966. Brian Wilson wrote Pet Sounds after hearing The Beatles’ Rubber Soul.
“The album blew my mind because it was a whole album with all good stuff! I’m gonna try that…” he said.
The Beach Boys had already released ten albums by this point. So we are now on a warning when it comes to those pre-1966 Beach Boys albums.
Perhaps we should pause to take another brief history lesson:
- 1961: The Beach Boys are originally conceived as an ultimately unsuccessful way for the Wilson brothers to get free clothes. No, really.
- They form a folk group called The Pendletones, named after a style of plaid woollen shirt that surfers wear (a “Pendleton”), thinking maybe they’d get free stuff.
- They go to a local storefront recording and publishing studio run by Dorinda Morgan (who tactfully doesn’t let on Wilson and co aren’t the first band to call themselves The Pendletones with the same idea) and are told they need an angle – their own songs.
- Dennis Wilson tells everyone about the new surfing trend at the beach. They write down all the surfing phrases they know and put them in the song, a method Cardi B later used to write a song about her love life.
- That weekend, the Wilson’s parents take a trip to Mexico and leave the boys money to buy take-away food. Like any decent teenagers, the boys abuse that trust and spend the money on renting instruments to work on their surfing song.
- Mom and pop Wilson get home and go ballistic. Although it sounds rather like something that would happen in a corny Elvis movie, the boys diffuse their dad’s anger by playing the song they’d worked on. You can imagine a biopic where Murray smokes his pipe and says at this point “Hey, this new teen beat thing might just work…”
- Their first hit is called “Surfin’”. It talks of a new dance craze, and is a minor hit on the Billboard Top 100 charts. A man at the record label, Russ Regan, according to Brian, changes the band name to “The Beach Boys” – the first they know of it is when they unpack a crate of the new single.
- The follow up is “409” – a song about a car – backed by “Surfin’ Safari”, which hits the Billboard Top Twenty. The surfing sound is born.
History lesson over.
I called Chris and shared my thoughts on these early albums. He doubted whether I would be able to change his mind about The Beach Boys, and find a decent album.
Chris stated his case. “Here’s the thing. Unless you live in a mansion with unlimited storage, piling into Beach Boys records – particularly those early ones – isn’t a great idea. They might have nice covers but you’ll never play them..”.
He continued, “These songs may have sounded hugely exciting sixty years ago but for anyone who wasn’t there at the time, it sounds like it’s from another age. It’s nostalgia.”
He had a point. The debut has an original sound. It blended vocal harmonies with a soft quasi-Dick Dale style guitar. But the Surfin’ Safari LP is not a classic. It has songs about county fairs called “County Fair”, one called “Chug-a-Lug”, about – of all things – root beer, and a vaguely problematic (and not very good) song called “Ten Little Indians” about various attempts to woo a squaw, apparently based on a popular nursery rhyme of the time.
“The thing is” added Chris “in Top Secret, there’s a Beach Boys pastiche called “Skeet Surfing” which takes all their good songs, changes the lyrics, and is better than anything The Beach Boys ever recorded.”
We both have a love of that particular film, but that was perhaps a bit of a reach, so I’ll let you decide whether he’s right about that…
“Look, I know what you mean” I countered. “They aren’t as good as, say, early Beatles songs like “I Saw Her Standing There” or “Please Please Me”. But it was still an original sound”.
But I had trawled through Spotify, listening to the albums, and I had to admit Chris had a point. Aside from the surfing angle, which appeared to tick the novelty box as “The Twist” did a few years earlier, in 1962 no keen gambler would have backed Brian Wilson to write anything as good as “God Only Knows” or “Good Vibrations”
In their defence, they had been rushed into Capitol Records’ studios and asked to record an album in twelve hours. But there was little getting away from the suspicion that the best thing about the album is the cover.
The Little Deuce Coupe album isn’t much better. “Shut Down” describes a car race. “Custom Machine” talks of a car that is “metal flake blue with a corvette mill” with “naugahyde bucket seats in front and back”, not to mention “magnesium spokes”. “Cherry Cherry Coupe” also describes the literal features of a car, rather than being some clever metaphor about women and safety belts as Chuck Berry did with such wit and poetry on “No Particular Place To Go”.
“Chrome reversed rims with whitewall slicks / And it turns a quarter mile in one oh six”
Read that in your head in the voice of Jeremy Clarkson and you’ll see the problem. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that a good number of early Beach Boys lyrics are basically episodes of Top Gear set to music. Add the song about “Ten Little Indians” and you are ticking quite a few Top Gear boxes.
So in my mind, I had discounted a large number of these early records. But Bob had the answer: among all the other albums was a pristine copy of “Beach Boys Today!”
And this was the one that looked a little more promising than the others, despite the somewhat desperate knitwear The Beach Boys are sporting on the cover…
Beach Boys Today! came at an important point in Brian Wilson’s life.
He had started making the album towards the end of 1964. Sixteenth single “Dance Dance Dance” was in the top ten. Brian was still touring as well as writing the songs. He had just married his sixteen year-old sweetheart, Marilyn. But on a pre-Christmas flight to a gig, Brian broke down in tears. He played the gig, in Houston, but returned to LA the next day, still in tears. Back then, they called it copping out. Nowadays we recognise it as a mental health issue.
Brian’s father thought he was dodging responsibilities but his brother Carl was supportive, and The Beach Boys came to an agreement, that Brian would be replaced on tour by Bruce Johnston, and Brian would focus on writing and recording music while the band played concerts.
So here’s reason number one to buy this album: This gave Brian time to write and produce, and so 1965’s Beach Boys Today! has the beginnings of the sound Wilson subsequently perfected on Pet Sounds – it was his first LP where, in his words “I could do songs…that had all this space in them. I was also smoking a little bit of pot then, and that changed the way I heard arrangements.”
Reason number two is that is contains a couple of decent hits: Beach Boys Today! begins with Dennis Wilson on vocals, singing a cover of the Bobby Freeman classic “Do You Wanna Dance” subsequently covered by The Ramones, John Lennon, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Bette Midler and er, Peter Andre.
Brian gave “Don’t Hurt My Little Sister” to Phil Spector, who changed it to “Things Are Changing” for The Blossoms.
Another side 1 highlight is the original version of “Help Me Ronda”. It is curious because the last part fades in and out strangely – just as you think it is about to finish, the volume levels go up again. The song was re-recorded when picked as a single, without the volume changes at the end.
It is side two where we feel the first proto-Pet Sounds vibe. Melancholic tunes reflecting on the possibility of broken relationships (“In the Back of my Mind”), on treating a girlfriend badly (“She Knows Me Too Well”), about arguing with a loved one (“Kiss Me Baby”), and the worry that a woman won’t love you back (“Please Let Me Wonder”).
It’s lovely stuff. In what will prove to be a repeating pattern, the record company weren’t pleased, and so in the US, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) followed, ditching the melancholia and adding California Girls (great), the re-vamped “Help Me Rhonda” (with an extra “h” which made all the difference).
And this is the third reason to buy Beach Boys Today!. Because those gentler tunes make it (in my mind at least) vastly superior to Summer Days, which takes a step backwards to the old “cars and girls” version of The Beach Boys. What separates the Beach Boys from novelty acts like Chubby Checker, or surf acts like Jan and Dean or Dick Dale, or the production of Phil Spector, or other candy-striped-loving novelty acts like The White Stripes (joke) is where the songwriting develops its sensitive side. I mean sure, Beach Boys hits are a joy, but the LPs aren’t the full avocado.
For example, Summer Days… contains the unlistenable “I’m Bugged At My Old Man”, a cod-blues song as bad as it sounds which was clearly a very direct pop at Murry Wilson. Let’s just say I have never been so bugged at my old man that I would write such a terrible song.
Amusingly, on the back of the cover the songwriter is credited as “Too Embarrassed”.
Naturally (because I clearly have awful taste) Summer Days remains The Beach Boys’ best selling album, and the one most beloved of fans who love that surfing rock n roll sound, and who can live with lyrics like “you’re kinda small / and you’re such a doll / I’m glad you’re mine” without feeling slightly short-changed.
Just to prove how fallible my taste is, the Beach Boys Today! LP climaxes with an entirely forgettable section of band chatter which may have sounded exciting to pre-adolescent fans in 1965 but to anyone else is just dull.
In the final post, we’ll again explore what happened after Pet Sounds