Becoming the Beach Boys offers a comprehensive glimpse into the embryonic stages of one of America’s finest pop groups.
The Beach Boys seem to, somewhat implausibly, be one of the only American groups to have warranted such fanatical devotion as to spawn an entire industry of releasing nearly every second committed to tape. And while these aural documents tend to prove fascinating to those obsessed with the minutiae and mythology behind a band as revered and ultimately misunderstood as the Beach Boys, the continued appearance of countless alternate takes, studio chatter and demo rehearsals has created such a glut of material that it’s almost easier to appreciate these releases solely for their existence rather than their content.
Beginning with 1997’s The Pet Sounds Sessions, Brian Wilson and company set a precedent for unmitigated access to the creative process behind some of the most transcendent pop music ever conceived. These glimpses behind the curtain helped better frame the album’s creation and the sheer amount of time, effort and energy the elder Wilson put into what he conceived as his teenage symphony to God. Nearly 15 years later and seven years after its first appearance as a fully realized album, The SMiLE Sessions offered much of the same unfettered access to one of, if not the most legendary “lost” albums of all time. For those who find themselves obsessing over the most mundane detail, this pair of releases acted as something of a musical holy grail in their ability to unlock the secrets to some of the greatest pop music ever recorded.
This last point remains the main selling point for these sprawling collections: they represent the pinnacle of American popular music, if not popular music in general. Following a similar path, Omnivore has collected the very first studio sessions conducted by the group that would become the Beach Boys. With none yet out of their teens, these recordings possess an earnestness and gee-whiz attitude indicative of the time period in which they were recorded. Unlike their later surf-centric material – not to mention what would soon follow as Brian Wilson become more and more lost within his own genius – these initial sessions owe more to vocal groups of the 1940s and ‘50s than the teen pop that would come to dominate the airwaves.
Having long been credited as a major influence on the Beach Boys’ early sound, the Four Freshmen comparisons here become wholly unavoidable. While the voices are recognizable as that of the Wilson brothers, Al Jardine and cousin Mike Love, they’ve yet to find the individualistic assurance that would make them one of the most popular American bands of all time. Instead, they sound like a quintet of competent, if not entirely original or even, to contemporary ears, interesting act attempting to settle on a sound to call their own. And while the same could be said of the Beatles around this same time (1961-62), the Fab Four were decidedly rooted in the sound of the burgeoning teenage market.
Yet there are hints of a sound that would shape a generation of youths obsessed with all things California, the true surf sound is still a little way off. Instead, it’s more the idea of surfing applied to the songs’ titles that would help set the tone for what was to come.
Of the 63 tracks collected here, only nine songs are represented. Running in roughly chronological order, opening track “Surfin’” is afforded not only a demo and the final master take, but takes 1-8 as well (1 and 2 are paired due to a false start on the very first take). From there, Becoming the Beach Boys offers a seemingly endless series of takes positioned back-to-back that, by the time the master take is finally played, it’s essentially lost any and all meaning it might possess within the context of a more traditional collection of “hits” or simply early recordings. And yet this seems to be the point. Like a joke repeated so many times it’s no longer funny told still more times to the point of being funny again, these myriad takes and rehearsal tracks tend to feel somewhat insufferable until the finished product is reached and the “a-ha!” moment is reached as all the pieces magically align to create something far greater than the sum of its collective parts.
Because of this, the collection, like its predecessors, acts as a window into the creative process of a nascent genius. Not having fully reached his true potential nor begun exploring the means by which he would ultimately attain it, Brian Wilson here acts as the group’s creative voice, the force behind the group that would see it rise above the pedestrian into a previously unheard of realm of pop music success and, ultimately, excess.
Ultimately, Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hite & Dorinda Morgan Sessions functions more as a fascinating historical document than a recording designed to be listened to time and again. It serves as the genesis of what would become an era-defining band whose appeal has scarcely diminished in the intervening half a century from when these original recordings were made. That they’ve maintained such staying power and fanatical interest well after the fact warranting these types of archival releases is a testament to their significance within the history of pop music and in shaping popular of the second half of the 20th century.