Monday, 20 April 2009

The Beach Boys "Surfin' Safari" (1962) (News, Views and Music 28, Revised 2014)

You can now buy 'Add Some Music To Your Day - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Beach Boys' in e-book form by clicking here


(Review first published on April 20th 2009; revised review published on June 7th 2014)

“Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learnin’ how, come on a safari with me!” “The big strong guy knocked the bell in the sky, took my girl and the doggy away…” “We knew it was getting late, we had no time to waste, I went to light the fireplace, I’d planned it all this way and…I got close to her, her heart began to purr, I held my breath and then I put my arms around her…Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Go away silly bird!”

The Beach Boys “Surfin’ Safari” (1962)

Surfin' Safari/County Fair/Ten Little Indians/Chug-A-Lug/Little Girl (You're My Miss America)/409//Surfin'/Heads You Win-Tails I Lose/Summertime Blues/Cuckoo Clock/Moon Dawg/The Shift

Well, goodness, what a prestigious album to have to write about. This humble, understated debut album is one of the most important AAA albums of all, the one that successfully terraformed the sounds of the 1950s into what will become the default sound of the early ‘60s, the Merseybeat adrenalin rush that will provide the platform for all of the albums to come over the next fifty years. This isn’t just the debut album of the ‘fab fiver’ you understand, but the earliest release out of all the classic 60s’ bands and the earliest chronological release of any AAA band (it was released four days before first Beatles single ‘Love Me Do’ and pre-dates every other famous debut album by some margin  - with a six-month advance on April ‘63’s ‘Please Please Me’, a 15 month advance on January ‘64’s ‘Stay With The Hollies’, an 18-month advance on April 64’s ‘The Rolling Stones’ and a 2 year advance on October ‘64’s ‘The Kinks’). So why isn’t this album more famous in record collecting circles?

Well the easy answer is to say that it’s not very good – but ‘Surfin’ Safari’ isn’t the horror it’s often portrayed to be. It's just that the weight of all that history doesn't necessarily lie easily on this album's shoulders: this is an album that has plenty of good ideas and for the day was undoubtedly a step forward in rock, but at the same time it's an album too obviously meant to be 'disposable', a cash-in on a surfing craze that can't possibly last by a band who couldn't possibly do anything else - because that's how music worked back then, you were pigeon-holed into whatever you scored your first hit with. The Beach Boys aren't ahead of the pack just yet, they're just treated as part of it and one of many early 1960s crazes that are thought to be here today and gone tomorrow. (Oasis' 'Definitely Maybe' has rather spoilt us with the way we think of debut albums, with three goes to get it right and get used to the studio - back then bands had to record their stage set as quickly as possible).  As a result Capitol don't treat this album as anything special: even compared to The Beatles' debut five busy months later this is rushed, with a minimum of overdubbing and lots of mistakes left in. Given that The Beach Boys have been a band for all of 18 months by this time (and still hadn't got over the shock of hearing 'surfin' on the local radio) it's actually impressive how comparatively tight they do sound on this record even with the mistakes. Of course if you come to this album from any later album (even next record 'Surfin' USA) it all sounds hopelessly amateurish, with a few mistakes actually left in (the two multi-tracked Brians are even singing different words on part of 'Summertime Blues'!) But what reviewers miss is that, by the standard of the day, 'Surfin Safari' doesn't just sound like everything else around at the time - arguably it sounds a little better.

If nothing else, this album is far more revolutionary than its given credit for – Brian Wilson is already writing or co-writing 9 of the 12 songs here (a better average than on any Beatles album pre-A Hard Day’s Night mid 1964) and already these songs are arguably the class of the field, even if they are heavily dominated by surfing and car lyrics at this point with no hint of the 'depth' and 'emotion' to come. Even this early on in the band’s career the production duties are being dominated by Wilsons both young (Brian) and old (father Murry) – the ‘producer’ credit given to Capitol Records man Nick Venet is a ‘thankyou’ for his early faith in the band, nothing more; he'd got fed up of the slanging matches with Murry early on. The three covers are a typically ‘Beatles’ mix of the all too predictable (‘Summertime Blues’) and the deeply unusual (the traditional but not that well known standard ‘You’re My Miss America’ and the surf instrumental ‘Moon Dawg’) which show a pleasing respect in the need for the band to find their ‘own’ sound for band members so young (Mike, the oldest, was barely 21). The only way that ‘Surfin’ Safari’ truly loses out to its more famous competition is the poor delivery of the band’s performances, which almost all seem one-take recordings no matter the result – Mike Love’s lead vocals are often off-key and Dennis Wilson is plainly still learning how to play the drums (although Brian’s vocals and Carl’s guitar prowess are both already very much in evidence). This album is punk before it’s time – pure energy and adrenalin, no matter how scruffy or amateurish it sounds.   

Unaware of the roots of the British Invasion going on across the channel, this is the Beach Boys tentatively stepping into Americana mode, content still to give their audiences what they want to hear instead of challenging their audiences with new ideas or sounds. That’s all still to come and it won’t come for a while yet (Summer 64’s ‘All Summer Long’ is arguably the first Beach Boys record that marks a definite progression and is successful more or less the whole way through) – but the beginnings of that sound are already here. ‘Surfin’ and ‘Surfin’ Safari’ are perhaps the best evidence of this, the local hit singles advertising a ‘new’ sport so ‘hip’ that the Capitol record executives are still sticking ‘explanatory’ notes on the back of the band’s records to tell the ‘inlanders’ what exactly surfing is (‘a water sport in which the participant stands on a floating slab of wood resembling an ironing board’ – gee that description really makes me want to give it a go, honest!) As early 1960’s singles go they’re amazing – short little adverts for a whole new utopian teenage ideal in which the sun is always out, the beach is always full of girls and anything seems possible. Brian and Mike will go on to write far better variations on these themes in the years to come – but considering how new such ideas of ‘teenage fads’ were (and what other mainly terrible records were on sale for teenagers in 1961 and 1962) this sounds like nothing short of a revolution!

Another thing reviewers often forget about is how much The Beach Boys had gone through to get even this far. Ever since that fateful day when mum Audree and dad Murry had decided to go away for the weekend leaving their three sons an 'emergency fund' (duly spent on instruments, with Brian's pal Al Jardine coaxing his parents into funding the tape machine) music making has become central, if not to the whole, band then certainly Brian and Mike. They've both come to music for very different reasons: for Brian it's a way to make people happy, a way to express all that pent up emotion he was too shy to admit to in real life, a suit of armour to keep him safe through his days at high school and college and a chance of making something with his life (because 'real life' is already plainly not for him). It might also, one day, make his dad proud of him - certainly nothing else Brian did ever seemed to please him (the same went for Carl, who made it his life mission to please everybody, while Dennis - outwardly at least - just didn't care). Mike doesn't need music in quite the same way - but newly married, with a baby on the way and seemingly stuck as a petrol-pump attendant for the rest of his life, an upbeat soul like Mike desperately needed something to cling on to - and music was as much a part of his childhood as Brian, Dennis and Carl's (it was a big thing in his uncle Murry and his mum Emily known in the family as 'Glee's own childhoods, escapism for them too).  As a result the two cousins of contrasting personalities - who had never been all that close in their teenage years - came together with a plan to make music their future (the 'others' didn't count so much yet - they were still at school).

Both Mike and Brian's first idea was simply to copy The Four Freshman. Their first move had been to approach Hite Morgan, the man who ran the tiny record label Candix - chosen simply for practical reasons, as it was the nearest record label to their home state of Hawthorne. However lots of other groups had had the same idea and their initial demo recordings ('Sloop John B' and 'Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring') didn't impress (the band will return to both, while you can hear the latter on the '30 Years Of Good Vibrations' box set). Morgan asked the band if they hadn't anything a little more up to date; Dennis had been nagging Brian to write a song about his newly discovered hobby of surfing and Brian was partway through a song written simply to please his brother. The band looked shocked (this wasn't part of Mike and Brian's plan) but agreed to book a future appointment, finish off the song and see what Morgan thought. Apparently he wasn't keen even on this song but his wife and co-partner Belinda loved it and won him over. All the band had to do now was rehearse a full demo tape - which is how the band came to be stuck in the Wilson's living room with one eye on the clock in case they came home early (they did and they weren't happy - although Murry paused from beating his children long enough to actually listen to it and agreed that they had 'potential'.  

In fact, Murry seems to have secretly felt that the band had a lot of potential. He'd been a struggling songwriter for years (his proudest moment being when Lawrence Welk played a cover version of his song 'Two-step Sidestep' by singer Bonnie Lou on a live radio station - its notable that to this day many of the Beach Boys claim their proudest career achievement to date was hearing 'Surfin' played on a car journey home from school). However his career had stalled and - a little like Mike - the birth of his family had put paid to his dreams; he even worked in a dangerous tyre manufacturing plant to make enough money to pay for three sons and even lost an eye in a horrendous accident there. It was with a mix of envy, resentment and pride, then, that Murry got involved in his son's and nephew's dreams  and he pushed his family almost to breaking point to drill them in time for their 'big break' - to do him justice this tenacity meant he didn't give up with the record bosses either; the fate of rock music might have been very different had Murry (and Brian Epstein half a world away) been more content to take 'no' for an answer. Murry pushed for radio stations to play 'Surfin', getting the band to ring up in a variety of funny voices to request the song (Brian can still do some of the voices too, as you can see in the 2012 'Do It Again' documentary!) The single ended up reaching as high as #3 on the local Californian-only sales list: not bad for a group with no back history and no publicity except what they could manage themselves.  Wilson Senior  also pushed for the band to appear on as many local concert dates as possible: most notably as support act to a tribute night for Ritchie Valens (who'd died in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly in 1959) which took place on New Year's Eve 1961 (one of the key moments where the old guard make way for the new).

The two things together brought the band a lot of notoriety - enough for Murry to secure auditions with the Californian coast's biggest record labels: Dot and Liberty. Just like Decca with The Beatles in 1962 they passed on one of the decade's biggest phenomenons and spoent the next few years puzzling over how such a big financial shark had gotten away. Capitol were Murry's third choice, a small label founded in 1942 that had had a few success stories over the years in rock and folk circles (notably The Kingston Trio) but was best known for its classical records by 1962 and for a merger with EMI in Britain that put both The Beatles and Beach Boys as part of the same roster of bands. Capitol weren't that sure about the band and asked to have a listen to the 'Morgan' era demo tape (the one later released as 'Lost and Found'). Still unsure they asked for a one-off single deal and the band cut 'Surfin' Safari' with '409' on the flip - the backbone of the band's sound for years to come, with surfing on one side and cars on the other. (Ever cautious, Capitol actually turned down the chance to release The Beatles' singles in America - at least until the licence of 'Please Please Me' to the smaller Vee-Jay record turned into the biggest it that company had ever had...) The record was successful enough to spawn an album and...hang on a minute that's where we came. Anyway, what's worth pointing out is both how inexperienced The Beach Boys were (their first paying gig was only 10 months before this album's release) and how much hustling had already been done on their behalf in the past year.

The record contract had a big effect on everyone, of course, turning Mike into the rock star he dreamed of being already and offering him a lifeline that didn't involve petrol and giving the younger Wilsons and neighbour Dave Marks one hell of a ride for kids either just out or still in school (Dave is 14, Carl 15). But the effect on Brian Wilson seems to behave been mammoth: those present at the studio for this record say that he could - and should - have pushed for a producer's credit on the album (Capitol's Nick Venet, already regretting his decision to produce the group after the first single after Murry rubs him up the wrong way, simply leaves the band to it - although he keeps the producer's credit for now at least). Just a few months ago Brian was a geeky high school kid who everyone seemed to like given what his school-friends have written down the years but who nobody really got to know; Al Jardine aside his closest friends were his brothers and who was a little ashamed of his golden falsetto voice (for not being 'manly' enough - it's worth pointing out Frankie Valli, his counterpart in The Four Seasons, is one of the most macho people there is). Suddenly when he began to make money people are telling him that he's clever, that he can write as well as anyone, that he's found what he was born to do and it completely goes to his head. Not in an egotistical way you understand (Brian is one of rock music's least big-headed stars), but he suddenly starts believing in the sounds in his own head and is adamant about doing things his way (the fact that his dad backed him up, even with several insults along the way, will no doubt have helped). That will cause trouble in a few years' time when things have to be perfect and is already ruffling a few feathers (this debut record was made on six separate dates between 1961 and August 1962 with a maximum of three songs at each one; by comparison The Beatles' 'Please Please Me' features ten songs made in one day). The growth in Brian from a shy awkward soul into the dynamic producer everyone wants to work with starts here.

To go back to the record what's noticeable is how much the band stick to home on this album. Future Beach Boys albums find the band heading out to first California, then America, then the world, with songs full of escapism and imagined perfection that more than anything see them become known as 'America's band'; the American Dream in sound, full of youthful energy and utopian optimism. For this record, though, we get reality in all its shapes and forms: the 'county fair' trip that doesn't go according to plan ('Goodbye muscles, I don't need you anymore!'), the songs written about the Wilson's pet Mynah bird ('Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Go away silly bird!') and the neat single-sentence reductions of each of the band members on 'Chug-A-Lug'. Assuming for the moment that Dennis described the art of surfing in enough detail to make the two surfing songs on this album sound realistic, that means the one song here that looks to an 'outside' world is the less than successful 'Ten Little Indians', a move away from the formula too far for most fans.

So, to finish, is 'Surfin' Safari' a great debut album? No. It is an important album though and as stepping stones go it's actually a lot further on in the stage to greatness than it either has a right to be or that people tend to think today. It's actually a lot better than sequel 'Surfin' USA' (chiefly because there are more 'proper' songs on it rather than instrumental jams) with an impressive amount of Brian Wilson originals - some of them classics, some of them not. It's worth adding too that 'Surfin' Safari' is a whole lot of fun, more intimate and full of private jokes than any of the records to come, dating from a time when music was a hobby not the be all and end all of life. 'Surfin Safari' doesn't win many awards amongst Beach Boy fans, perhaps because it isn't as tight or as polished as later records. So here's one created especially for this website: 'Surfin Safari' is by far and away the funniest Beach Boys record: the cute 'Cuckoo Clock' the silly 'County Fair' and the band caricatures in 'Chug-A-Lug' are by far the band's most successful attempts at comedy, beating all the 'Take A Load Off Your Feet, Petes' 'At My Window' and 'Ding Dangs' to come. The fact that this album is also better and more thought out than it deserves to be is an added bonus too!

The Songs:

Second single ‘Surfin’ Safari’ is a second attempt to capture the same sound heard in 'Surfin' and is even more ‘Beach Boysy’ than its predecessor. Carl Wilson’s love of rock and roll is already shining through in the guitar solo and the energy level of the whole recording is up a notch as well. The whole sound is utterly more professional but somehow doesn’t sound that different either – the ultimate accolade for this earliest of ‘follow-up singles’. Interestingly, it’s Mike Love whose shown the most progress here and his vocal and bass harmonies are far more confident here. It’s as if he’s finally stopped placating his cousin Wilsons’ love for music and has really begun to dig the sound of the band in their own right, seeing it as a way out of his own peculiar circumstances (sentenced to a life working as a petrol pump attendant for his family, Mike had already had his first child by 1961 and was struggling to make ends meet, far more than Brian, Carl and Dennis at the time who still lived at home). More interestingly still, Brian has already given up working with his often temperamental cousin by the time most of this album’s songs were written. Although Mike showed himself to be a gifted lyricist at surf and girl songs, Brian is already looking to push forward the band’s sound by collaborating with his neighbour, Gary Usher, the true ‘sixth Beach Boy’ and a valuable older friend who offered Brian much needed support in these early days before falling foul of his father Murry (as nearly everybody in and outside the band did at some point!) As a result, its extraordinary just how far the ‘Surfin’ Safari’ album has already moved away from the band’s ‘hit’ sounds, touching on such eccentric subjects as County Fairs, Indians, cars (not yet a hit subject for the band), Root Beer (!), fashion, superstitions and the Wilson family’s pet Minah bird.

I’m probably the only Beach Boys to ever find ‘County Fair’ funny, but I’ll be honest and say its one of my favourite of these early Beach Boys recordings. The first Beach Boys track on a Beach Boys record barring one of their hit records is already undermining any opinions the Boys’ audience might have built up by late 1962. Whereas the singles are energetic, straightforward, delivered totally straight and focussing on how great it is to be a teenager in the early ‘60s, ‘County Fair’ is a comedy record, one that shows the narrator’s girlfriend as terribly fickle and love as an ever-changing unreliable need. The singers of ‘Surfin’ and ‘Safari’ sound convinced that true love will be theirs for ever – but ‘County Fair’ is already showing the truth of the matter and just how much pressures teenagers are under to prove their undying love for their partners. Mike Love sounds far more comfortable in the role of the nasty carnival barker than he does as the sympathetic teenage victim Brian and Gary have written for him to play, but you get the sense that this is Brian writing, if not from the heart then from a subject much closer to home than a sport he hated (ironically, Brian is terrified of water and only ever tried surfing once – against his will – for a documentary camera crew in the early 70s). Dennis’ pedestrian drumming does its best to ruin a cooking backing track and the unknown and un-credited female goes terribly OTT in her attempts to get her beloved to show his strength and win her a ‘stuffed ko-a-la bear’, but as early 60s ‘novelty’ records go Brian was already beating practically everyone.

Not everything works well though, The flop third single ‘Ten Little Indians’ is so bad as to have rather been airbrushed out of history, not appearing on any Beach Boys compilation to date (even the ones that like collecting the singles in chronological order). Unlike ‘Surfin’ and ‘Safari’ there is no great excitement to this record and I can’t ‘enter’ this world of an argumentative squaw and her beloved as easily as I can the world of surfing and cars (despite having absolutely zero interest in both subjects). The two ‘hooks’ on this record (the ‘woo-hoo’ Indian chanting’ and the references to the traditional rhyme about ‘ten little indians’) are far too obvious compared to the other songs on this record and although it’s pleasing to hear that the band weren’t only thinking about cars, surf and girls in those days, we’ve still heard this stuff done far better by many other bands in the 50s and early ‘60s. Perhaps not surprisingly, the band also sound bored, as if even they are aware just how much of a step backwards this song represents. Unlike some Beach Boys fans (a few are said to have really liked this song) I’m not at all surprised that this song all but fell out of the top 50 after the band had scored so far with ‘safari’ – the wonder is that it actually outsold ‘Surfin’.

‘Chug-A-Lug’ is more derivative stuff from a band that, even this early on in their career, should have known better. The song starts ‘here a mug, there a mug, everybody chug a lug’ and you have to wonder if the band really are so cynical as to believe that their audiences are ‘mugs’. Things get better for the choruses, with their often hilarious character assassinations of the band (‘Carl says hurry up and order it quick, Dave gets out to chase that chick, Brian has his ear glued to the radio…’), but the chorus that comes out of nowhere to offer the profound message ‘give me some root beer, give me some root beer, cold beer’ sums up everything that was so bad about music in the early ‘60s (and everything that’s so good about the above tracks on this LP). And that cheesy organ solo might well be the worst moment on this entire album – why the hell didn’t they give the solo to Carl, whose overlapping guitar licks are the best thing about this song, short as they are. One other thing – who the hell is Larry?!? (He gets more name-checks in the song than anyone except Gary Usher!) Legend has it Brian wanted to release this song as the important second single instead of 'Surfin' safari' - thank goodness someone talked him out of it or I have a feeling that the rest of this book wouldn't exist.

'Little Miss America' is more standard 1950s teenage fare, this time given to Dennis to sing, who even this early on seems to be being groomed as the band's teenage pin-up. The song was first published - as 'Little Girl' - by big band player and A&M record label boss Herb Alpert with his writing partner Vincent Catalano although a band named 'Dante and His Friends' had the first 'hit' version of it. You wonder why The Beach Boys chose it: it's very much not a part of their traditional sound, which tends either more proactive or reflective than this, (depending if Mike or Brian is coming up with the idea). The list of everything right about the Californian girl is quite a Beach Boys thing to do though and may have been squirreled away for future reference on 'California Girls'. The song is both a highlight and a lowlight for Dennis: his young voice is pure and heartfelt on the vocal (with all the fuss about Dave being 14 and Carl 15 its worth reminding you that Dennis is all of 17 here!); sadly all his effort has gone into singing not playing - his drumming on this song is truly awful. The Beach Boys' backing vocals sound less polished than normal too. Not the best thing on the album, but not the worst either.

‘409’ is the most assured of all of these early Beach Boys recordings – amazingly the ‘Surfin’ Safari’ contains not only the two templates for the band’s ‘surfing’ records but their ‘car’ records as well! Despite another slightly dodgy (or at least under-rehearsed) performance, this is quite possibly the best of the band’s early ‘car’ records – it swings more than ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, has more to say than ‘Shut Down’ and sounds more heartfelt than novelty records like ‘Our Car Club’ and ‘Cherry Cherry Coupe’. Written so that fans inland would have a Beach Boys record to buy that related to them, ‘409’ is another classic vignette of teenage life in 1962, back when having a car to take your girl out on a date was the most important thing in the world. Brian’s already got the knack of mixing Four Freshman vocal influences, Chuck Berry guitar licks and early 60s novelty lyrics and the use of sound effects (which don’t appear on Beatles records until 1965!) is well ahead of its time. Classic stuff.

‘Surfin’ - the first recording ever released by The Beach Boys (editor's note - see the 'Lost and Found' saga above!) - sounds quite cute now, given what we know is about to happen just around the corner  and that’s the way it sounded in 1992 when the band decided to resurrect it for their (at the time of writing) last album ‘Summer In Paradise’. But one generation’s ‘cute’ is the previous generation’s sign of ‘rebellion’ – and armed with nothing more than a piano, a double-track taping machine, a love of George Gershwin, Chuck Berry and the Four Freshman and brother Dennis’ enthusiasm for a sport Brian hated the 19-year-old elder Wilson has already one of the best templates of the 1960s. He’ll go on to hone in on this sound of course, replacing the 1950s hangovers with more up-to-date lyrics, productions and hooks, but even as early as December 1961 (when this song came out as a ‘local’ California-only single) this sound is obviously the Beach Boys. From the opening near-a capella vocals to the heartfelt but daft lyrics, Mike Love’s energetic but ever nasally lead and the glorious chorus harmonies of Brian, Carl and Dennis (the latter mixed unusually high for a ‘group’ recording) this is even more of  a stepping stone to greatness for the band than ‘Love Me Do’ will be for the fab four the following year.

‘Heads You Win, Tails I Lose’ is a true oddity and Brian won’t write anything remotely like it again. The narrator of the song decides arguments with his girlfriend by flipping a coin to decide who is right – what on earth inspired this lyric? Had Murry Wilson’s legendarily unpredictable parenting really left his elder son with such a confused idea about moral right and wrongs? Or did Brian and Gary really go out with such argumentative partners?  No one in the band seems convinced by this song either – from the corny opening prelude to the plodding first use of the mid-pace ‘little Deuce Coupe’ riff to Mike Love’s indecipherable lead vocals, this track is weird. And – just in case you’ve come to this review after my use of the word ‘weird’ as in ‘unusual but wonderful’ in my review of ‘Smile’, I shall just say now that I don't mean that as a compliment!
‘Summertime Blues’ is as pedestrian as early 1960s covers go (although admittedly it’s still not as poor as the Beatles’ angular re-make of ‘Chains’ on their first album, as muddy as some of the early Stones recordings or as screechy as some of the early Kinks stuff). Unusually, it sounds like Brian double-tracked doing the lead vocals (surely this song of teenage exasperation was more in Mike Love’s line of work?) and they must be the only lyrics in his recorded history that don’t suit his beautiful soaring falsetto voice (to quote the later recording vignette ‘Cassius Love Vs Sonny Wilson’ Brian sounds like Mickey Mouse on helium, not a sound that automatically makes you think ‘yeah, man, rock and roll’). That’s a shame because, instrumentally, the Beach Boys are as tight here as they are anywhere on the record and the backing vocals, though mixed low, are delightful. Plus, despite the band’s later image as ‘surfing squares’, this is quite a radical choice to cover for it’s day – Eddie Cochran’s original is one of the most menacing and anti-grown up songs written in the pre-AAA era, even if much of that menace and originality seems to have been watered down for this version.

 ‘Cuckoo Clock’ is the second and – until 1971’s ‘A Day In The Life Of A Tree’ the last – of the band’s ‘comedy’ records. That’s a shame, because this song too is great – Brian’s earliest lead vocal is surprisingly self-assured and the band sound right at home on the backing track (it’s the closest this album comes to outright rock and roll, especially Dennis’ ferocious drumming). The lyrics refer to the narrator’s attempts to get his girlfriend alone, spending hours planning how to entice her into his front room for some tender romantic moment, only for a cuckoo clock to break down and ruin the mood with his cuckooing. That’s not a subject matter any band will be able to get away with once the 60s revolution begins in earnest – but, again, its great to hear the Beach Boys poking fun at their image as the ultimate sporty all-American surfing teenage craze. The roots of Smile’s originally unreleased ‘comedy’ gems like ‘Vega-tables’ and ‘The Woodshop Song’ are in this song and by 1962 standards this song kicks along like anything.

The most surprising thing for anybody whose ever heard the band’s later ‘filler’ material (mainly surfing instrumental covers, which take up half of the follow-up album ‘Surfin’ USA’) is how fantastic the song ‘Moon Dawg’ is. The band will go on to do all the usual surfing instrumental suspects later on in their career (Dick dale’s ‘Let’s Go Trippin’ being the most obvious) but ‘Moon Dawg’ was so obscure that most fans of the time took it to be another ‘Brian Wilson’ original. Actually, it’s close, being written by band ‘friend’ Nick Venet under the pseudonym ‘Derry Weaver’. Carl’s surfing guitar licks are extraordinary, rivalling the very best of the ‘professional’ (ie older) surfing bands of the day (Carl was all of 15 at the time!) Dennis’ drum interplay with his brother is also spot-on, showing how good the middle Wilson could be when given something simple and beaty to get his teeth into (compare this to his limp drumming on, say, the mid-paced ‘Heads You Win’ and its hard to believe it’s the same man). Best of all, though, is the driving rhythm guitar which is presumably played by the little-known and little-mentioned Beach Boy David Marks (who was all of 14 when this album came out – unless of course it’s Brian or a double-tracked Carl subbing for him). If it is David playing then it’s a terrific shame he never got a chance to show off his guitar skills again in his short-lived career with the band (he gets fired by Murry in August 1963 after a ‘dare’ that went wrong). The best part of the song, though, is the drop-dead gorgeous vocal harmonies that just weave their way in and out of the backing track (plus some natty yelps at the moon that sound like an early warm-up for Smile’s unreleased track ‘Barnyard’). The mood is surprisingly sinister, both considering it’s the Beach Boys and considering that heavy metal hadn’t been invented in 1962. Even a shockingly obvious edit about 3/4s into the song can’t disguise the obvious delight of the band at finding yet another new aspect of their ‘sound’ and I’d go so far as to say that this is the best Beach Boy instrumental on record (yep, even considering ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Let’s Go Away…’).

‘The Shift’ is a surprising song to end the album on and sounds terribly out of place (possibly because it was recorded at the last minute in August 1962, a long time after the majority of the band’s sessions in may and June 1962). And that’s another thing that’s weird about this record – even with a #2 or #1 record (depending on what chart you use) with ‘Please Please Me’, the Beatles were still only allowed one 14-hour session to record all of their ‘new’ songs for their debut LP. The Beach Boys – who had to date reached #71, #20 and #47 in the charts by the time of this LP – were given six separate sessions to record these songs, not counting those for the two previous singles. How come? And why were the band only given two sessions to record the non-single songs for follow-up LP ‘Surfin’ USA’? Anyway, back to ‘The Shift’. An early fashion statement from the band – finally – celebrates the Beach Boys’ third favourite ‘60s theme, girls. The lines about ‘wearing a shift really turns me on’ sound quite risqué for the day (I doubt they were meant as drug references a la ‘A Day In the Life’ though somehow) and are, surprisingly, a cut above Brian’s music for once (this melody is the most pedestrian on the album, even if the arrangement of yet more classic harmonies covers this up well). The lyrics are, though, just about enough to elevate this song to being one of the ‘classics’ of this album. There’s something rather adult and desperate about the descriptions of girls in the lyrics (although not as much as in the album’s infamous unreleased song ‘The Baker man’ on which Brian Wilson sounds like a dirty old man with a throat problem) and the understanding that the narrator is being ‘turned on’ by costumes rather than pretty faces is surprisingly original by 1962 guidelines. The song isn’t a ‘long lost classic’ in itself, but its obvious that Brian and Gary Usher are testing the waters already, preparing to put their ideas to better use later in the decade.

Still, four poor tracks out of twelve isn’t bad maths really, not this early on in the history of the long player anyway. Most of these tracks show promise, most of them reveal that Brian and co were really ahead of their time and even if consistency isn’t yet a Beach Boys watchword (and let’s face it, it won’t be ever the first word associated with this band) perhaps the most enviable thing about ‘Surfin’ Safari’ is how enjoyable an album it is in its own right. Yes the records get better, deeper, more original and better performed from this point on, but this album is already fun and quite meaningful on it’s own terms. Counting live records, Christmas records, the unplugged-in-the-studio album ‘Party!’ and the karaoke album ‘Stack-O-Tracks’ (though not compilations or the unreleased ‘Smile’) this is amazingly the first of 18 LPs the band will release for Capitol in a little over six years! No wonder Brian and friends sounds so bored for most of the rest of the ‘60s (starting with next album ‘Surfin’ USA’, an album with even more extreme chasms between its highlights and lowlights) – but for now, this is the sound of five new kids on the block, aware that anything is possible and with at least the beginnings of the talent needed to make such things happen. Come on a safari back in time with me and celebrate the sound of a band who were already a full year ahead of the pack. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫♫ (6/10).

Other Beach Boys related posts from this website you might be interested in reading:

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965)

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo) (1977)

'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased) (1977)

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo) (2008)

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

'That's Why God Made The Radio' (2012)

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

A Complete (ish) Guide To The Beach Boys' Surviving TV Clips

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One 1962-86

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two 1988-2014

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

Essay: The Beach Boys and The American Dream
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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