[10 June 2008]
If you’ve been along the coast of Southern California, especially within that sprawling mass of rarified geography in Los Angeles County where the edge of the world hits the pavement, then you know that the early music of Hawthorne’s Beach Boys isn’t exactly a faithful representation. Sure, their depiction of the region’s car culture, middle-to-upper-class beach communities, and restless youth is sound (if a wee bit dated), but it also conveniently ignores the seedy intersections of Hollywood and the sun-beaten blah of Valley towns like Van Nuys. The utopian promise at the core of their essence is something of a fallacy—the fallacy of California’s own promise, I suppose, of a blessed part of the U.S. where the endless sunshine shines down on an equally endless party.
Those early singles have been infantilized and over-romanticized by various commercial and sentimental interests throughout the decades. The perpetual deluge of summer-themed, boomer-skewed compilations serve up songs like “Surfin’ USA” and “409” as reheated oldies standards, tunes that grow increasingly stale with each replay at your uncle’s Fourth of July BBQ. Likewise, the tours that feature a fraction of the band’s original lineup (Mike Love and Bruce Johnston currently perform under the Beach Boys name with a bunch of guys whose last names aren’t Wilson) and appear at state fairs and casinos around the country disseminate a revisionist take on the band’s legacy with setlists that favor pre-Pet Sounds material (and “Kokomo”!).
And while Pet Sounds will always stand as the band’s greatest achievement (or Brian Wilson’s greatest achievement, depending on how you choose to define it), its looming presence in the pantheon of modern pop has a tendency to render those early singles as now-irrelevant warm-up exercises. It’s also a defensive tool of the Beach Boys apologists, those who endorse its canonical status at the expense of “less serious” fare such as, say, “Little Honda”—as if any trace of juvenilia is a tainting flavor to refined palates. Pet Sounds may have traded in the boyish fascinations for a more world-weary melancholy and increasingly ornate chamber-pop arrangements, but it’s not the only place to glimpse the genius of the band’s melodic and harmonic sensibilities.
This is plainly obvious on the new U.S. Singles Collection: The Capitol Years 1962-1965, an aesthetically ambitious new box set that reissues the Beach Boys’ first singles as 16 CD replicas of the original 45s. U.S. Singles Collection collects both the mono and stereo versions of most of the songs, along with a handful of previously unreleased mixes and outtakes and one live track (“409”, from 1965). The box set is a beautiful thing, no doubt—the discs come in cardboard sleeves with original artwork and are accompanied by a hardcover book of great photos, all housed in a “surfboard-inspired” carton with wood veneer inlay—but it is, admittedly, a fetish object for the collector. (It’s worth noting that all of the music spread out over these 16 discs could, in fact, fit onto two discs—but then, the music is not the sole reason for one to own this set.) So it’s a fetish object, yes, but one that has a lot to say about just how innovative the band was prepared to be as it came out of the gate protected in its surf and hot-rod metaphors.
There is true invention in the early singles that transcends the narratives of cars, girls, and beaches: the lilting ache of the melodies in “In My Room” and “The Warmth of the Sun”, the offsetting of vocal timbres in “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”, the use of a cheering section that segues into the background vocals in “Be True to Your School”. Often, Brian Wilson cribbed melodies from others to form his own (“Surfin’ USA” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” borrow liberally from Chuck Berry, while “Surfer Girl” is a rehash of “When You Wish Upon a Star”), but even when their origins were transparent, the songs were often marvels of arrangement. “I Get Around”, the Beach Boys’ first #1 hit from May 1964 and arguably their greatest pre-Pet Sounds single, is a peerless example of tension and resolution, of a snaking and tumbling melody that attracts newly layered harmonies at every turn. (The U.S. Singles Collection includes the instrumental stereo backing track of the song, illustrating just how crucial those multiple voices are to the success of the song.)
“I Get Around” is the group’s great declaration of autonomy, and the moment where perspectives beyond a self-contained universe are acknowledged: “I’m gettin’ bugged driving up and down the same old strip / I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip.” (Fittingly, the recording of “I Get Around” also coincided with the band’s firing of Murray Wilson, the abusive father of Brian, Carl, and Dennis who served as their first manager.) As mythmakers, the Beach Boys turned a very distinct fraction of mid-‘60s California life into the stuff of fantasy. And yet, it was also a manifestation of a certain fantasy for the Beach Boys as well, for the only member of the band who actually surfed was Dennis. (Perhaps Dennis was the true genius of the group—after all, it was his idea to have the band write songs around his hobby.) In “Surfin’ Safari” (1962), surfing is a gateway to worldwide adventure (“From Hawaii to the shores of Peru”), while “Surfer Girl” (1963) imagines the ultimate object of affection as one with a boogie board in her hands.
Still, a number of Brian’s early songs hinted at the self-doubt and seclusion that he would continue to explore from Pet Sounds forward. “In My Room” (1963), his first great song, disposes of the Southern California fantasies and embraces a personal sanctuary far away from revving engines and crashing waves. The song, a beautiful waltz-time number that slowly takes its time despite its brief length, describes a place where the narrator can “lock out all my worries and my fears”. Even the harmonies in the refrain, how they draw out the one syllable in “room” over a shifting bed of modulating chords, are painstakingly ruminative. “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” (1964) looks beyond the fleeting obsessions of youth to the anxieties of adulthood, asking “Will I look back and say that I wish I hadn’t done what I did?” and “Will my kids be proud or think their old man is a square?” The insecurity of the track demonstrates that, even at this early point in their career, the Beach Boys were conscious of the fact that their current interests, even their image as a surfing, hot-rodding pop group, held a very quantitative shelf life.
Brian wrote one of his most beautiful melodies, “The Warmth of the Sun”, on the evening of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the melancholy of the tune is ripe even if the lyric is somewhat ambiguous. The lyric does manage to invert the currency of Southern California imagery and approach a rather defeatist outlook in the process: “What good is the dawn that grows into day? The sunset at night or living this way?” That supremely lonesome melody that opens and closes the song isn’t even repeated in the verse or chorus, and yet it’s one of the most haunting moments in any Beach Boys recording.
Besides these well-known tracks, the U.S. Singles Collection includes a number of the bizarre novelty and holiday one-offs that the Beach Boys occasionally released—evidence that the eccentricities of the aborted Smile project and the band’s ‘70s discography weren’t a late-period anomaly. Their third single, released in 1962, may be their strangest; it includes an adaptation of the children’s rhyme/minstrelsy song “Ten Little Indians” on its a-side (which, with its nonchalant use of words like “Injun” and “squaw”, is a cringingly offensive listen) and “County Fair”, a spirited if pointless evocation of a carnival complete with barker, on its b-side. “Punchline”, a crazed surf instrumental originally released on the 1993 box set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys, is notable only for the over-the-top maniacal laughing that punctuates the otherwise stock surf riff. There are a bunch of great Christmas tunes as well (the Beach Boys do boast one of the best Christmas albums of all time, after all), such as “Little Saint Nick” (a rewrite of their own “Little Deuce Coupe”), “The Man With All the Toys”, and “Blue Christmas”. The most interesting of the collection’s non-secular songs, however, would have to be their adaptation of “The Lord’s Prayer”, released as the b-side to “Little Saint Nick”. The hymn is performed a cappella in a complex series of harmonies that confusingly topple into each other like dominoes, and effectively predicts Smile‘s “Our Prayer”, a much more successful attempt at a barbershop hymnal.
If the Beach Boys’ early singles were in many ways constructing their own mythology, then much of their latter work became myth itself. Brian’s intended Pet Sounds follow-up, Smile (a.k.a. Dumb Angel), a psych-pop extravaganza that he described as a “teenage symphony to God”, collapsed under the weight of ambition, drugs, and rampant paranoia. Until its re-recording and release in 2004, Smile ranked as the most sought-after and talked-about unreleased pop record of the 20th century. Similarly, Dennis Wilson’s 1977 debut solo LP, Pacific Ocean Blue, has attained its own mythic status as a great lost album throughout the years. Though it sold well upon its initial release, Pacific Ocean Blue went out of print in the early ‘80s when Caribou and Epic Records parted ways. It was issued on CD briefly in 1991 (it was deleted within a year’s time), and those scarce copies were still selling for upwards of a few hundred dollars on eBay and Amazon just last year.
Pacific Ocean Blue was the first solo album to be released by a Beach Boy, and surely it came as a surprise to many who didn’t think that Dennis had it in him. Although he was perceived largely as the band’s drummer and representative of the Beach Boys lifestyle immortalized in song, Dennis had in fact been quite prolific as a songwriter and creative force in the early ‘70s when Brian’s role in the group diminished. He contributed the quick-pulsed rocker “Slip on Through” and the ballad “Forever” (which Brian called “the most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard”) to 1970’s excellent Sunflower, and a couple of other great ballads, “Make It Good” and “Cuddle Up”, to 1972’s Carl and the Passions – “So Tough”. His voice, a gruff, Dionysian contradiction of his brothers’ controlled sweetness, was just the sort of thing to complement the band’s post-psychedelic foray into the wilds of loose ‘70s rock.
And yet, Pacific Ocean Blue is very different than a Beach Boys record: it’s a twilit cousin to the Beach Boys’ high noon, a meditative release of dense synthesizers and pianos, occasionally punctuated by New Orleans-style brass sections and rock ‘n’ roll guitars, and anchored by the sandpapery ache of Dennis’ voice. Dennis’ California is epic, redemptive, and very real, as evidenced by the imagery in his lyrics: “The earth opens up its arms for me”; “Let the wind carry your blues away”; “The sunshine blinded me this morning.” (That last one is a pretty witty play on the ol’ “tear in my beer” line.) “River Song”, the album’s opening track, comes on like Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” before exploding into full-on rock gospel that celebrates the ebb and flow of the natural world. The rest of Pacific Ocean Blue never rises above the pace of this mid-tempo sway; a few songs, like the slow-mo boogie woogie “What’s Wrong”, the blues shuffle “Pacific Ocean Blues”, and the bass harmonica-fueled “Dreamer” make some yawn-and-stretch strides, but the majority of the record consists of ballads—written simply yet given a once-over of posh L.A. popisms.
Legacy’s new reissue of Pacific Ocean Blue (long overdue to most, likely a source of frustration to those who plunked down $125 on one of those 1991 CDs last year) underscores just how fantastic the album sounds. The drums are warm and their interplay with the bass rock-solid, and the brass shines bright lights against the darker currents of Dennis’ voice. The synthesizers, perhaps surprisingly, don’t sound all that dated, instead blending in with the murk and fog of the album’s languid pace—a testament to how particular, if not forward-looking, Dennis’ vision was.
The major bonus to Legacy’s new edition is its second disc, which contains the sessions Dennis cut in the late ‘70s for what was intended to be Pacific Ocean Blue‘s follow-up, Bambu. (Like Smile, the Bambu sessions have been widely bootlegged in the past, but this is the first time they’ve been made commercially available.) Bambu was worked on for a few years and then shelved well in advance of Dennis’ drowning death in 1983, though “Love Surrounds Me” did find its way onto the Beach Boys’ 1979 album L.A. (Light Album). For the most part, Bambu mines similar musical and thematic territory as its predecessor, but its rockers rock a little harder. “Under the Moonlight”, for example, is a more forceful “What’s Wrong”, and the choir in “School Girl” escalates the “River Song” gospel to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” proportions. Some of the best songs are those that loosen up Dennis’ rock ‘n’ roll persona. “Wild Situation” drops a grumpy Stonesian guitar riff in the middle of the churning mix, not to mention an eye-raising lyric to boot: “She took off her clothes and moved in my direction.” (Hence the, ahem, “wild situation”.) More New Orleans horns and slide guitar add a Southern flavor to “Time for Bed”, which boasts a freewheeling narrative of weed, booze, and the desire to “steal and car and cruise around”. Now that’s some Smile-inspired decadence.
It would have been interesting to see where Dennis would have gone had he pursued music like “Constant Companion”, a Stevie Wonder-inspired soul groove of burping electric keyboards and exclamatory horns. He sounds just as inspired and rejuvenated here as he ever did, so inspired that he’s confident enough to proclaim, “I will stay with you forever.” It’s a common currency in the music of Dennis and of the Beach Boys, this idea of “forever”—that beach fantasies, pop myths, and personal affirmations will continue to resonate, endlessly.