Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Beach Boys Obscurities, a Playlist by Tom Smucker

Spotify Playlist: Beach Boys Obscurities

for Why the Beach Boys Matter by Tom Smucker

Fifty plus years on, it’s easy to catch the big hits and classic cuts associated with the Beach Boys. But some of the tracks and session outtakes that have received less attention can also add insight into the influences and influence of the greatest American white pop group of the last half of the twentieth century.

Surfin’ An early studio attempt at what became their first release on the independent Candix label, simple acoustic white doo-wop that stumbled upon a metaphoric gold mine—surfing. Postwar lower middle-class suburbia may have been racially segregated, but the airwaves were not, particularly in cities like Los Angeles and New York, where white teenagers could listen to black R & B. Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys were listening and soon collaborating with each other, and with Brian Wilson’s help, Jan and Dean produced the first surfing song to hit the top of the charts, “Surf City.” The origin of this explosion was doo-wop.

Surfers Rule It’s all in place here with the solos, the harmony chorus, the surf guitar breaks, and the over-the-top ecstatic falsetto borrowed from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, acknowledged in the last half minute. The Beach Boys would make this falsetto a part of their own musical signature, most famously at the end of “Fun, Fun, Fun.” But Frankie was first.

The Lord’s Prayer The flip side of the “Little Saint Nick” Christmas single, unavailable on an album for twenty years. This song marks the high point of Beach Boys acapella harmony singing and is the tip-off that their vocal inspiration came not only from doo-wop and pop jazz, like the Four Freshmen, but also from midcentury middle American Protestant congregational hymnody. Minus the lyrics, this essential musical reference would reappear throughout their career, most obviously on “Our Prayer” from Smile, first released on the 20/20 album.

In the Parkin’ Lot Here that wordless, post-Christian Christianity frames and thereby dignifies a song about making out in your car before school. Some lyrical interpretation for non-boomers: The couplet “here comes the news/ there’s no time to lose” refers to the format of Top 40 radio in the early 1960s. Obligated by regulation, stations would commonly break for five minutes of news before the hour. So when you heard the news come on, you had five minutes before the bell rang at the start of school.

There’s No Other Like My Baby Like the Beatles, the Beach Boys can be understood as a male girl group, appropriating traditionally feminine-at-the-time attitudes towards romantic idealization, vulnerability, and self-worth. This is a studio outtake from the Party sessions, as they work through the Crystals hit.

Don’t Talk String Overdub Pet Sounds was so dense it put off some listeners, but it pulled in others. Just one little layer here of string-section heaven. For those who got pulled in, dismantling the density on Pet Sounds Sessions turned out to be a moneymaker for Capitol Records in the long run.

Let’s Go Away for Awhile Brian Wilson and his accomplices could quote classical music on Pet Sounds (see preceding track), but the real heart of his genius was the ability to fuse the profound, shallow, vulgar, sentimental, and dramatic on this one instrumental. And oh, the chord changes!

Wind Chimes When I want some perfectly executed, stoner, hippie, late 1960s, Southern Californian pop, my first choice is always something from Smiley Smile, and this is only one example.

You’re Welcome A Smile snippet, the B side of the “Heroes and Villains” single, an oddball, upbeat, minimalist, nearly acapella, vocal harmony gem.

Think About the Days Brian relies on a wordless “Our Prayer”–style harmony vocal to open the 50th anniversary reunion CD That’s Why God Made the Radio.

Pacific Coast Highway Then he sets up the conclusion of the album with this short bit about driving alone in his car along the California coast, watching the sun set over the ocean.

Summer’s Gone The Beach Boys’ most sustainable, reusable metaphor—summer—is refashioned as an autumnal acceptance of the winding down of a career, and perhaps a life. Turn up the volume at the end to hear the waves lapping on the beach.

Guess You Had to Be There Brian teams up with talented young Country star Kacey Musgraves to sing about one wild weekend or Brian’s entire late 1960s biography or both. To my ears, this is the first time a Beach Boy has successfully incorporated Country instrumentation and sentiment into a Beach Boys song. Something new.

Dirty Computer Afropunk goddess Janelle Monae samples Brian and his wordless harmony backgrounds to set the tone on her opening track. Further proof that he is moving from being remembered as chronicler of a specific time and place to an innovator and contributor to pop music as a whole.

Summer in Paradise Meanwhile, the lackluster title track from the out-of-print CD by the Mike Love–led Beach Boys touring band got reworked in concert, and a UK release with an additional verse, probably by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, became a high point of the Mike Love Beach Boys set list. This live version churns along neatly tying together the Beach Boys idyllic portraits of summers past with a plea for environmental justice. Mike’s Chuck Berry–inspired feel for word play propels the verses leading up to Bruce Johnston’s energized contribution to McGuinn’s verse. Make America Great Again, fight climate change.

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