Thursday, May 10, 2007

Surf's Up

[I'm in the process of reviewing a new solo album by one of the guys in Brian Wilson's touring band, which I plan to have up later today. But by way of a lead in, I thought I'd rejigger a passionate defense of the Beach Boys I originally wrote for the comments section back on 1/31/06. The essay was occasioned by NYMary's surprise that I rated the Beach Boys as high as I did in the American 60s pantheon; she didn't agree, obviously, and I don't know if the following screed caused her to alter her opinion. In any case, I stand by the assessment.



I must confess I find it a little odd to be writing this -- the Beach Boys music is pretty much my lingua franca, and the idea that they need defending feels weird to me given how much I love them (although I understand your skepticism, at least in the abstract. After all, Mike Love sucks).

In any event, here's why I think they deserve respect from
mere mortals like you and me.



1. They invented an instantly recognizable sound of their own,
one that practically defines a genre. Very few rock artists can make that claim. (Chuck Berry with "Johnny B Goode", The Byrds with "Tambourine Man," the Ramones, and maybe U2). That alone should guarantee the Beach Boys immortality.

2. What Raymond Chandler did for California in prose the Beach Boys did in music. They reflected a place and a time and made a kind of poetry out of it. They were not fake.

3. Five part harmonies, astoundingly gorgeous. And Brian's conception -- mating progressive jazz voicings a la the Four Freshman with classic doo-wop -- was totally unique. Here's a 1965 live clip that proves the point -- and if this a capella version of the Freshman's "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring"doesn't put a lump in your throat, you need to check your meds.

4. From their inception in the early 60s, they were pretty much the only self-contained rock band in America. Wrote all their own songs, produced their own records. Who else was doing that?

5. Kick-ass live act. If you doubt it, listen to "Beach Boys Concert," get a video of their closed-circuit show from '64, or find "The TAMI Show" video, in which -- performing on the same bill with the Stones, James Brown and most of the Motown acts, they tear the audience to shreds. Carl Wilson was a killer surf guitarist, and the rhythm section was as good as anybody in rock at the time.

Here's their British TV debut on Top of the Pops -- from 1964, totally live versions of "I Get Around" and "When I Grow Up."

6. Contrary to myth, they were not white bread at all. Carl and Dennis Wilson were as soulful singers in the r&b sense as anybody else working in the mid-Sixties. And that includes Stevie Winwood or Felix Cavliere.

7. The car and surf songs are actually quite brilliant. Who else ever conceived of writing love songs to a carburetor? And has any rock song ever conveyed as much sheer teenage elan as "Fun Fun Fun" or "I Get Around"?

8. Brian's best songs from the early period anticipate the confessional singer/songwriter LA genre. "Don't Worry Baby" may be as nakedly emotional and self-revealing as anything Joni Mitchell ever wrote. Ditto "Warmth of the Sun" or "In My Room" or "When I Grow Up."

9. The albums that preceed the sainted "Pet Sounds" and "Smile" are masterpeices. "The Beach Boys Today," Brian's first real studio concept album, is masterly; "When I Grow Up" isn't even the best song on it (try "Don't Hurt My Little Sister" or the astounding Sinatra goes r&b of "The Back of My Mind" sung by Dennis). It's every bit as good as "Rubber Soul." in terms of consistency and melodic invention. The follow-up --"Summer Days and Summer Nights," of which "California Girls" is simply the icing on the cake, is even better -- it's every bit Brian's "Revolver." He never used the studio more impressively than "Let Him Run Wild" or emulated the Beatles with the riffy brilliance of "Girl Don't Tell Me."

10. The album that follows the sainted "Pet Sounds" and
"Smile" is another masterpiece. "Wild Honey" is one of the handful of great white r&b albums of the period, and if you doubt it check out the title song or Carl's gorgeous reading of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her." And in it's back to basics way, it's very much of a piece with the Beatles "White Album."

I could go on about the Beach Boys early 70s output -- you could make a fabulous comp album with songs like "Marcella" (one of their best ever rockers), "This Whole World" (Brian's canniest pocket symphony), "All I Wanna Do"(the most glorious use of reverb in history), "Bluebirds Over the Mountain" (progressive rockabilly, if you can believe it), "Do It Again" and any number of others up through "Trader" on HOLLAND.

The decline after that was appalling, to be sure, but you get my point....the Beach Boys have a huge body of really transcendent work, and Brian wasn't the only big talent in the

Have I mentioned that Mike Love sucks?

NYM replies: I have actually reconsidered my position in light of steve's arguments. I expect my attitude was based on limited knowledge and access, plus coming up in the later, crazy Brian days. But I've listened more carefully now, and I see what steve sees. Also, the fact that he did the Barenaked Ladies' "Brian Wilson" in concert tickles me no end and speaks to a healthy self-image nad sense of humor.


Anonymous said...

The importance of the Beach Boys: word.

Mike Love sucks: word.

Not to mention the fact that the Beatles and Beach Boys, in 65-66, kept each other on their respective toes.

dave™© said...

I remember that post, but forgot the mention of "All I Wanna Do" - one of their most overlooked classics!

Saw Brian on his "Smile" tour a couple of years back, and he broke out "Marcella" - along with "Sail On Sailor" (though not with the "original" lyrics)... a couple of songs I never thought he'd do!

Anonymous said...

About Mike Love sucking, I assume you mean more than his politics.

With my spotty memory I forget which Rolling Stone critic reviewed whichever album had Kokomo on it. But he said "Mike Love has now sung more flat notes than any singer in rock & roll history, no mean feat given the competition."

Even buried in 5 part harmony and mixed down by stern engineers, he stands out with that unshakable non-stop nasality.

You know how Sarah Vaughan used to vocally imitate various horn players she admired? Mikey seems to be a big fan of Dylan's harmonica


four legs good said...

Ah, I love the Beach Boys and always will.

I did hate Kokomo though. Ick.

Kid Charlemagne said...

Great post Steve and the contribution of the Beach Boys' music in creating the whole California mythos in American pop culture cannot be underestimated.