Monday, 18 November 2013
The Beach Boys "Surfin' USA" (1963)
"If everybody had an ocean, across the USA, then everybody'd be surfin' like Californ-i-a" "We'll all be planning that route, we're gonna take real soon, we'll be waxing down our surfboards, we can't wait till June!, we'll all be gone for the summer, be on safari to stay, tell the teacher we're surfin', surfin' USA" "I've come from many miles away, ain't got no place to stay, glad to help you plough your fields, farmer's daughter" "Stoked!..........Stoked!.......Stoked!" "The lonely sea, it never stops for you or me, it moves along from day to day, that's why my love you'll never stay" "The pain in my heart, the tears in my eyes, please tell the truth, you're just like the lonely sea" "It happened on the strip where the road is wide, two cool sharks sitting side by side, my fuel injected Stingray and a 4:13, revvin' up our engines and it sounds real mean!" "Declining numbers at an even rate, at the count of one we both accelerate, my Stingray is light the slicks are starting to spin, but the 4:13's really diggin' in, gotta be cool now: power shift here we go!" "The surfers call him 'noble' and that's just what he is, he's dedicated to the mighty sea, surfin' night and day, never twice in one spot, he's something you and I would like to be" "A surfin' Casanova with his customized board, a woody and his dirty white jeans, he takes his choice of honeys up and down the coast, the finest surfer yet to make the scene" "Let's go tripping!" "He took off on a swell when he saw the flag, he's just a crazy Hodaddy pulling some sort of gag, he went over the falls, and now my board's coming back to me"
The Beach Boys "Surfin' USA" (1963)
Surfin' USA/Farmer's Daughter/Misirilou/Stoked/Lonely Sea/Shut Down//Noble Surfer/Honky Tonk/Lana/Surf Jam/Let's Go Trippin'!/Finders Keepers
Aloha! Wapin Buoy? Alright surfer dudes! Hey I'm really stoked to be talking about this coolaphonic album. This is the Beach Boys when they were Benneys and Hodads, before they got noodled, suffered infusions, took an 'acid drop', got axed and went scubetubular. But that of course was just future killabrenda. What's more, this is the album that made the beach a zoo! So don't be left a baller acting like he's got a case of the chode burns - bail out and spend some duckets on this album now. Some of its distinctly bammerwee and often falls bumtuckers and of course true nardudes would consider the band mere Chubby Checkers, maybe even zaboobs. But considering the band were only danksters, some of them mere figs, very much under a barrel, it's no wonder they got brainfreeze. And sometimes this is iced! After all - this band are the big kahunas, right? Those Wilson bruddas could really sing! So don't be a frube, pick up that clickety schnar schar and your woody parsnip, ignore those squished raccoons and go on a vaycay surfin' safari with me!
(Translation For The Un-Hip): Hello! What's happening? How are you doing my fine readers? I'm really excited to be talking about this cooler-than-cool album. This is the Beach Boys when they were outsiders or newcomers, before they got exhausted, before band members hit each other head on, crashing into a particularly nasty 'wave' before tipping upside down and suffering from serious pressure problems. But of course that was all just future misunderstandings. Because this is the album that made surfing really popular and made the beaches crowded with surfers, with all sorts of bands copying their style. Don't cry your eyes out as if your surfboard's just been broken and as if your body is suffering chafing from a particularly tight wetsuit - escape from your troubles and buy this album now. Some of it is certainly average and often falls flat on its posterior and the best surfers of the day would probably consider the band as simply big posers who know nothing about surfing or even stupid newcomers who don't know how to surf at all and think they can learn everything in one go. But considering the band were all still between the ages of 13 and 20, some of them mere children, and the problems the band had while making this album it's no wonder they made mistakes. And some of this album is perfect! After all, this band is the best, right? Those Wilson brothers could really sing! So don't be an idiot, pick up that crab and your decaying surf board, ignore those tiny almost non-existent waves and take a really enjoyable road vacation on a surf-related theme with me!
Err, yes, sorry about the lingo. It's just that that's what this album does to me and people like me - it encourages them to think that they really know the surfing lingo after a mere twenty minutes in the Beach Boys' company. So intense is the experience, with so many new phrases thrown at us, that it's sometimes hard to equate the 'late' (i.e. 1965 onwards Beach Boys) with the same band they were when they started, long before 'Pet Sounds' 'Smile' 'Brian Wilson's time in bed and the hopes and dreams of a generation of music lovers convinced that only this band have the answers they are dreaming of. Like predecessor 'Surfin' Safari', this second album will come as a shock to fans who only know the later material: there's no sophistication here, the band are still playing all their own instruments (so the performances are often ramshackle and shoddy) and there are more space-filling instrumentals here than on any other AAA album spanning across the whole of time (well, 1962-2013 anyway). If you don't think much of the band's early music, then I won't waste your time: all of the good stuff from this album and the others around it are available on compilations anyway. But if you're a curious fan who wants to know how it all started, an old-timer reliving memories of when The Beach Boys stood for 'fun' rather than 'clever' or you want an early 60s album that's full of effortless excitement then you could do worse than catch a wave with this album.
If ever an album was recorded in a hurry, before the participants were ready to make another record, it's this one. The Beach Boys didn't really have enough material to make their first long player 'Surfin' Safari' in October 1962 as complete and rounded as they wanted, so when they were asked to make a follow-up record a mere five months later they cut every corner going (this was especially hard on Brian Wilson and Mike Love who hadn't paid any attention to surfing until less than a year before this album and suddenly had to catch up on all the vernacular - they use it much better and more subtlety than I just have, I hasten to add). On the face of it this album looks like a particularly raw deal for fans. Half this record is made up of instrumentals, two songs are repeated from the recent 'hit single' and - as we'll be discussing in our top fifteen later - this album is exceptionally short, seemingly over before it's begun (thankfully the most common CD re-issue lengthens this album by making it a double-set with 'Surfin' Safari' and adding a handful of bonus tracks; however beware the current rip-off version in the shops has neither of these things and runs to a stingy 24:15 playing time - less than a third of the complete running time of a compact disc). Miss out this album at your peril, however, because at its best The Beach Boys are miles ahead of the pack and many fans will tell you the band's harmonies were never tighter or prettier than here (when they actually sing that is!)
Let's start with the good points. Considering this album was released on March 27th 1963 - a mere five days after The Beatles released 'Please Please Me' - and that the eldest member of the band (Mike Love) had turned 22 only seven days earlier, 'Surfin' USA' doesn't half break a lot of ground. While I have a soft spot for the sheer innocence and fun of the Beach Boys debut album 'Surfin' Safari', that record does often comes across as a bunch of talented amateurs seeing how long they can get away with singing about a hobby only drummer Dennis Wilson actually knows anything about. 'Surfin' USA' is clearly the band's shot at the big time, with better productions, better songs (well, when we actually get 'songs' as opposed to jamming sessions - more on that in a minute) and much more of a sense of direction. For a band so young to have delivered an album like this (offering what fans heard last time, but with a little bit extra) a mere five months after a debut album that took up all the material the band had available at the time and with only a rather wayward father-manager for support is incredible. Yes 'Surfin' USA' doesn't exactly sound sophisticated now - not compared to what the band will be delivering in just a year's time even - and at times it sorely tests your patience, but if you were a teenager in early 1963 you'd have been surprised at just how much time, effort and money seems to have been spent on a band that previously had been thought of as just another passing craze. Of course you were a real surfing mad teenager in 1963 you'd have scorned The Beach Boys and gone for 'real' warts-and-all surf music (like Dick Dale, though he was getting on a bit by teen standards in 1963), but if you were a casual music fan landlocked in a dirty, grimy America then The Beach Boys offered escape and excitement like no other band, cool dudes who did everything you wanted to, with just the right mixture of talent and nerdiness to make you feel you could do the same too.
The other, even more spectacular achievement of this record is that already, even as early as album number two, The Beach Boys are breaking the rules. Back when the likes of The Beatles are still recording their albums at set times of the day which had to be in Abbey Road, like it or lump it, The Beach Boys are already in such high demand that they've insisted on being able to record when they want where they want. As Capitol's biggest money spinners, they knew the label would let them do what they wanted, but remember: this is a term of a contract unprecedented by anyone before now and the band are still all less than 22 at this stage (can you imagine Elvis getting Tom Parker to agree to his terms and conditions? Admittedly Buddy Holly tried to do the same a decade earlier at almost exactly the same age Brian Wilson was then, but his real clout sadly only came after he died). The most obvious immediate result of this is the improved sound: Brian got lucky and managed to get time at short notice in Western Studios, his second home for much of the decade to come (the first album had been largely recorded actually in the Capitol Tower). Thankfully, they also managed to keep engineer Chuck Britz who - given that dad Murray liked to think of himself in charge and effectively 'produced' these albums (in his head at least - in years to come he was unknowingly given fake mixing controls that wouldn't spoil the mix while the rest of the band got on with recording things 'properly') - is responsible for a great deal of the album's crystal clear sound (especially in stereo, given that Brian's problems with his hearing means he only bothered with mono mixes at this stage; unusually for an album of this vintage the stereo mix is superior).
People have tried to retrospectively 'knock' the impact of the early Beach Boys many times down the years (ever since the 'no-show' of both the band at the Monterey Pop Festival and the album 'Smile' in record shops in 1967), usually with some scoffing at their poor taste in shirts and similar-sounding songs, but it has to be said they were quite daring for their times too. Even the act of surfing was vaguely distasteful to all properly brought-up mums and dads everywhere in 1963 and I would go so far as to claim that 'Surfin' Safari' may well be the earliest 'white' record designed specifically for teenagers rather than parents to buy (teens had only just started having an income of their own after all). To release a whole record of surfing songs (barring one song about fast cars, a fad just as bad in some households) with such an iconic surfing pose on the front is daring to say the least (you could argue that with 'Surfin' Safari', but the band are on that cover and - try as they might - they look 'cute' rather than 'cool'; the sleevenotes by manager Nik Venet are clearly having a laugh describing them as a 'brawny, sun-tanned fivesome'). One of the songs here - 'Noble Surfer' - even has a laugh trying to get a then-ruse word past the censors by way of a pun (in case you hadn't spotted it, it's 'Noble, No Bull' as in 'No Bullshit'); try and find that on a Dick Dale or Four Seasons record! OK so all of this begins to look like a whole lot of nothing when 'A Hard Day's Night' and Beatle wigs come along, but people forget today just how iconic and popular The Beach Boys were before The Beatles came along to steal their thunder and just how 'cool' they were. If you want musical proof just listen to 'Surfin' USA', as exciting a record as any released in 1963, with 'Shut Down' one of the years' best B-sides to boot.
However, there's no getting away from the great big elephant on the surfboard: an awful lot of this album is dispensable. Instrumentals are never a good sign for a record ('Dark Side Of The Moon' being one obvious exception) and this one has five. That would be a bit difficult to take from any other band, but remember this is possibly the world's greatest ever harmony band (give or take CSNY) and they don't get to sing on almost half of the record. That's like recording an album of Martin Luther King Jnr on the back of his 'I Have A Dream' speech (which took place mere months after this album's release) and then recording him tap-dancing. To be fair, some of these instrumentals aren't bad - it's hard to go wrong with surfing favourite 'Let's Go Trippin' and Brian's own 'Stoked!' gives it a good run for it's money. But none of these five songs have the measure of even 'Moon Dawg', the witty howler of an instrumental from the first album. Add in the fact that 'Lana' must be one of the most trying, shrilly falsetto empty songs that Brian Wilson ever wrote and that 'Finders Keepers' has one of the most annoying whiny choruses the Beach Boys ever recorded and you start to see why 'Surfin' USA', for all of it's good points, has a reputation as one of the band's lesser albums, without even the beginners charm of 'Surfin' Safari' to see it through.
As we've already said, most of this record was recorded in a hurry, which explains why so many mis-steps got through. What's odd is that two wholly unreleased songs were taped during these album sessions (both, thankfully, available on CD on the two-fer re-issues, which hopefully The Beach Boys will re-issue one day) and both of them are pretty good; certainly better than having five surfing instrumentals on an album. 'The Baker Man' is the grittiest Beach Boys song until 1966, with Brian dropping his usual falsetto for a gravelly growl on a song that - uniquely for the period - isn't about surfing or cars. Using Brian's favourite open piano-chords, it's based around the playground song of 'patacake' (the band will go on to record a cover of 'Shortnin' Bread', would you believe, in 1979, but at least Brian had the excuse of having kids by then) but oddly sounds more grown-up than any Beach Boys song on this record, which may well be why it was left on the cutting floor (Brian's infectious giggle at his own ad lib on the fade-out 'Slap her in the face...oh what a disgrace!' meant they'd have to re-record at least that anyway to make this song ready for release). Interestingly, I've only just noticed that this was the 'only' Beach Boys song from the first two records to be recorded at Conway Recorders in Hollywood - was the fact that it wasn't done at Capitol Towers or Western Studios enough of a reason to turn it down? 'Land Ahoy' is more normal but still superior, musically a repeat of 'County Fair' from the last record but with a compelling full band chorus that's tight and complex and a lyric about looking forward to the future that's about the earliest template for the emotional songs on 'Pet Sound' that we have (I actually greatly prefer this song to the similar, rather over-rated 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?') Replacing these two songs with 'Misirlou' and Honky Tonk' is, perhaps, this album's single biggest mistake given how fast albums were made in 1963 and how costly losing time to something that ultimately remained unreleased was back then.
Of course modern music fans will tell you that this album has been deeply overshadowed by 'Please Please Me' and they've got a point: yes there are less covers and more originals on 'Surfin' USA' but the Americans deliver a lot more filler than their English cousins even this early on - and it's hard to imagine the Beatles agreeing to release an instrumental on a mainstream Beatles album, never mind five on the same album (not till 'Flying' on 'Magical Mystery Tour' anyway; I'll leave it to you to debate whether the unreleased '12 Bar Original' ever had a realistic shot of making 'Rubber Soul'). But no one in America in 1963 had even heard of Liverpool in 1963, never mind The Beatles (unless their family came from there of course or they were unbelievably turned on to a music scene from a backward country most Americans regarded as a good ten years behind their own) and the comparisons don't really matter (despite me wasting a whole paragraph on it: yes I hear you, dear reader!) Before the fab four's appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 took the USA by storm 'Surfin' USA' really was the peak of teen cool and no band promised more than The Beach Boys, each record pored over for details of arrangement, chords and lyrics like no other American band of the day. Even as early as this second album Brian Wilson is being heralded as a great composer and is in charge of Capitol Record's biggest ever success story with all that pressure on his shoulders despite not quite turning 21 yet. In retrospect it's obvious that Brian would crack under the weight of it all, even without inter-band battles for leadership, rivalry from the fab four and a ridiculously strict record contract (demanding roughly twice as much from the band as EMI did from The Beatles - and they thought their contract was strict!) The amazing thing is that he not only lasted another four albums before collapsing but that each one of them grows and develops at an even more rapid pace than the gap that exists between the first and second albums.
Overall, then, 'Surfin' USA' is a stepping stone to bigger and greater things, full of some terrible mistakes but also some of the best music around in 1963, Beatles or no Beatles (we haven't had space to talk about 'Lonely Sea' yet, which is one of my favourite Beach Boys songs of all-time despite being one of their first, achingly beautiful and impressively deep , a clear twin of The Beatles 'There's A Place' but even more ahead of its time than that impressive song). If surf instrumentals are your thing (well, they have to be for somebody I suppose) then this album is as good as it gets, with three covers and two originals that if nothing else prove that the band could really play back in these early days before session musicians gradually replaced everyone (Carl Wilson - here a mere 16 - is the band's dark horse, already the most accomplished musician in the band as well as the glue keeping their harmonies together). 'Surfin' USA' has a lot of style, a lot of class, a lot of excitement and an awful lot of good points - just remember to judge it by the standards of 1963 rather than the even more stylish, classy, exciting and great albums to come.
'Surfin' USA' is easily the album's most famous song, peaking at #3 in the American charts (which, believe it or not, was pretty darn good in a chart still dominated by crooners and when records were primarily bought by 'parents'). It's also one of the greatest band performances that actually features the band playing (session musicians creep in gradually from the 'Beach Boys Today' album onwards) and Carl's exhilarating guitar solo performs a similar job to Dave Davies' sterling work on 'You Really Got Me'. The biggest surprise, though is Mike Love, who goes from being a rather nasal wannabe to a fully-formed rock and roll star, thanks partly to getting a song he can really bark and partly to the effective double-tracking which makes his voice sound both younger and fuller (I'm surprised Love's vocals weren't double-tracked more often after this to be honest). In essence, this is a band who've discovered that their favourite past-time of making music can become a full-time career and they're determined to take their chance with both hands here, creating an exciting energetic backing track. A rollicking stop-start piano boogie, the demo of this song on the '30 Years Of Good Vibrations' box set is if anything more exciting pared down to just the bare bones of a piano and a great idea. Of course whose idea it was remains a moot point: Brian often said he wanted to combine The Four Freshman with Chuck Berry and the piano chords are so infintessimally close to those on Berry's 'Sweet Little Sixteen' that Chuck (one of the few musicians not afraid of court cases) actually sued and now gets both a co-writing credit and royalties every time the song is played. Lyrically this is just a re-vamped 'Surfin' Safari', but instead of a bunch of cool teens having fun the tone gets edgier, urging everyone 'across the USA' to act like they do in the band's home town of 'Californ-i-a' and go surfing every day, chomping at the bit through dark winters until they can go surfing in summertime once more. Interestingly, Brian's friends Jan and Dean heard Brian's demo of this song and pleaded with Brian to let them record it, but he declined feeling he'd written a 'number one'. He wrote 'Surf City' for them instead as a consolation prize, not thinking much of the song, but in the event it became his first number one as a writer (dad Murray had a fit when he discovered Brian had given away The Beach Boys' first number one!)
'Farmer's Daughter' used to be one of the more obscure Brian Wilson originals, a drifty dreamy ballad that unusually for the times features no references to cars or surfboards. However a much-loved Fleetwood Mac cover version (on a concert album boringly entitled 'Live' in 1980) has made it more popular and better known. In truth, it's not much of a song. Brian's starting point is clearly that old folkie standard 'Farmer John' (see Neil Young's cover on 'Ragged Glory'), a stray wanderer finding work on a farm so he can get close to the pretty farmer's daughter who works on the land. This being a song of the 1963 variety, the narrator doesn't do anything except gaze into her eyes adoringly and there's no hint that he even speaks to her, never mind finds out if she loves him too. Indeed, the whole song is sung through an overtly respectable veneer, as if the polite young straif is hiding his true feelings of lust so that his new boss won't suspect a thing. Unrequited love is an unusual subject for The Beach Boys ('Pet Sounds' might be an album about a couple growing apart, but the album makes it clear they were very much in love to begin with), but Brian's soaring dream-like falsetto captures just the right tones of sigh and regret. Admittedly this song doesn't have a knock-out melody like some of the better known Beach Boys songs of the period and the lyrics aren't always inspired (the chorus is one long humming 'mm-mmmm--mmm-mmmmm-mm-mmmm'), but there's a graceful calm about this track and a feeling that the band are already trying to go somewhere near now that they have so much space to fill so quickly. You wouldn't expect Mike Love to have much to do with what's quite a soppy, gentile, romantic song which falls quite far outside his own strengths - in fact I can't actually hear him at all on this recording, which is odd for such an early BB song - but he seems mighty keen to get recognition for it, taking cousin Brian to court in the 1990s to get the writing credits changed on this and a handful of other period songs (to be fair on him, Mike always blamed Murray for changing the credits to give his 'boys' more money and that Brian was innocent though, having died in 1972, Murray wasn't around to sue anymore).
'Misirlou' is the first of the album's many, many surf instrumentals. The true surfers among you - if they haven't died laughing at my poor attempts at surfing lingo in the introduction - will already know that this was originally a 1950s surfing anthem by Dick Dale. If your response to that is 'Dick Dale' - weren't they the Rescue Rangers chipmunks created by Disney the answer is no (you're thinking of Chip 'n' Dale) - Dick Dale's figure casts a huge shadow over the album as the first 'real' surfing musical star. The Beach Boys owe almost as much to him as they do to the Four Freshman, although he rarely featured any vocals on his songs (Carl in particular seems to have learnt a lot from his guitar style). Annoyingly Dale's recording career is patchy, bordering non-existent, so even though true surfers consider Dale as their one true musical hero (with even Jan and Dean having more street cred than the Beach Boys), I can guarantee that a good 80% of music-lovers only know this famous surfing song from this rather anodyne cover. Frankly The Beach Boys sound like a band of teenage wannabes trying to copy a hero here (especially Dennis' drumming, which is much improved everywhere else on this album but is always fractionally behind the beat on this song). Carl does a great job of the tricky guitar part, though, using double-tracking really well to capture the almost Indian flavour of the original. The other star of the record is Dave Marks playing the answering choppy guitar parts, then all of aged 15 and already a great foil for Carl. What's interesting is that, on a second album with so much at stake, confirmed leaders Brian and Mike seem to have taken a back seat for this song to let the youngsters play (Mike isn't even here) and the complete lack of absence of anything directly Beach Boysy about the song. Clearly this isn't as accomplished as the original, like many an early 60s AAA cover rattled off in one or two takes without any real time spent on it. But considering this song was even then being treated as the holy relic of 'surf music' and that the three main members playing on this song were between the ages of 15 and 17, this is still pretty impressive stuff and proof that the band could really play.
'Stoked' is Brian Wilson's second stab at a surf instrumental and it's another brave stab at writing something completely alien (I still prefer the funky and hilarious 'Moon Dawg' from 'Surfin' Safari', but 'Stoked' is clearly a much more serious attempt at writing in the same style). The song is built on a tricky quick-paced two-guitars-and-bass riff which again shows how talented Dave Marks was (and how unfair it was that he was booted out of the band in 1964, not withstanding the songwriting and vocal talents his replacement Al Jardine brought to the band) and how well Carl Wilson could play, seemingly improvising his way round Brian's riff. Meanwhile the rest of the band take advantage of the song's natural full-stops to yell 'stoked!', an expression which - if you didn't see our translation of the word earlier - means 'excited'. Brian sounds like he's having a ball yelling his new favourite expression, but the best use of it is Mike Love's weary 'stoooooked' at the start of the song, sounding like it belongs in a Hammer Horror Film (and suggesting he's not taking the song al that seriously). All in all, another brave stab at offering something new (the band could have simply got away with rehashing their hits or setting surfing lyrics to Four Freshman songs for a living and gotten away with it). It's fascinating, too, to see the power shifting amongst the band: before this it's been Mike and Brian ahead all the way, but Carl and Dave and to an extent Dennis really come into their own on these instrumentals. Incidentally, if you happen to own both songs listen out the similarities between this song and the second Rolling Stones B-side 'Stoned' (which was on the back of Beatles cover 'I Wanna Be Your Man'), released some eight months after this LP, which as well as being only a letter out title-wise features a slower, moodier variation on the same riff.
'Lonely Sea', however, is so perfect you wonder why the band didn't simply re-write this song for their next run of LPs. A moody, poignant ballad that uses the metaphor of the ocean for something unfathomable and deep, it's the first 'real' evidence of the 'true' Brian Wilson and this song's melancholia will be the most recognisable thing on the album to fans of the band's later recordings (indeed, 'Til I Die's mournful chorus 'How deep is the ocean?' is almost a sequel to this sorrowful song). For the period Gary Usher's lyrics are really quite something, using a painful teenage breakup as not just another excuse for a ballad but a real soul-searching question of life, the universe and everything, each line painfully extended to make Brian sound as close as he can get to 'crying' without bursting into tears. While the rest of the band aren't quite as into this as Brian is (Mike almost chokes on his 'lonely sea' tag - a million miles from the bravado vocals he usually sang), the elder Wilson is evidently inspired and turns in his first really classy lead vocal. His opening bass riff, running over the same notes over and over in exactly the same way the narrator keeps running through the same thoughts in his head, is a masterpiece, every bit as good as the better known opening to 'California Girls' in setting mood and tone. The only downside is the throwaway spoken word passage, which does much to ruin an otherwise truly great song (as we've said a few times on this website when this occurs, why speak when you can sing?) Other than that, though, this is exceptional, a real breakthrough moment for the band and especially Brian, who for my money won't come up with a song this good again until 'Today', a full 18 months and six studio albums away). Shockingly, though, this is an older recording which dates back to the 13th June 1962 (presumably making it a 'Surfin' Safari' outtake). Why the hell wasn't this song - superior to any song on that album - released at the time? And why oh why did Murray Wilson have to take umbrage at how much time lyricist Gary Usher (a neighbour of Mike Love's, tough always closer to the Wilsons) was spending with his son and shut him out of the group after this? Had the pair been allowed to continue in this vein we might have had 'Pet Sounds' as early as 1964, with 'Smile as early as 1965. And then we wouldn't be speaking about the Beach Boys as being ever so slightly behind The Beatles throughout the 1960s - we'd have been asking who the hell were they again?
'Shut Down' seems to have been a surprisingly popular song considering it was only ever released as B-side (to 'Surfin' USA). The song is important for two reasons: firstly, it properly introduced 'car' songs into the band's repertoire (after a false-start with '409' on the back of the 'Safari' single) and gave the band something to sing about other than surfing; secondly it's the first song Brian wrote with his second collaborator Roger Christian (Brian knew almost as little about cars as he did about surfboards, with most of the technical points in the increasingly detailed Beach Boys songs of the next year down to Roger). The first sign of something a little aggressive about this album (a theme we'll return to in 'Finders Keepers'), 'Shut Down' is a song about a drag race between the narrator's 'fuel-injected Stingray' (which, I'm reliably informed, is a Chevrolet Corvette, a brand new car in 1963) and a rival's '4:13' (God knows what that is!) We never find out who wins (The narrator admits in the last verse the 4:13 is ahead but 'it's lead is starting to shrink') or why they're racing and trying to 'shut down' (i.e. beat) each other. Personally, this is one of the band's weaker car songs for me, a little too cliched and full of technical jargon without any emotion (unlike some reviewers I do think Christian will get better at this - 'The Ballad Of Ole' Betsy' is the closest you'll come to weeping for an imaginary car until Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and the song just sounds wrong somehow (few other Beach Boys songs are quite this harsh or competitive, even the Mike Love or Dennis Wilson ones - 'Surfer's Rule' from the next album being a single and unwanted exception, fake 'warnings' to the Four Seasons to stay off their patch and all). However, I can see why this song was so popular at the time: even music-lovers who thought surfing was silly were quite often kookoo about cars and the band turn in another powerhouse performance here, with full knock-out harmonies, another storming Brian-Carl bass-guitar interplay and a truly exciting arrangement that really builds up the tension and excitement. Even Mike Love's unexpected saxophone solo (played on two notes because those were the only ones he knew!) kind of fit somehow. The song was so popular Capitol even released an amazingly popular 'various artists' album about cars with 'Shut Down' as the title track - which The Beach Boys cleverly cash in-on by releasing an album titled 'Shut Down Volume Two' in March 1964, a full year after this song's release.
'Noble Surfer' is a return to the beach and this time the biggest character on the scene isn't a girl but an incredibly talented surfer who all the guys want to be and all the girls want to gout with. This character is The Who's 'Ace Face' crossed with The Kinks' 'David Watts', naturally possessing every great quality under the sun in the narrator's eye even though the only thing he's actually seen him do is stay vaguely upright on a wooden board. The interesting feature of this song is the call-and-answer vocals, the first real time the band have used what will become one of their trademarks. Listen out here for the Californian colloquialism 'ain't joshing' ('ain't joking' in other words), the slightly risque mention of the figure as a 'surfin' Casanova' sleeping with all the girls in the neighbourhood and the definitely risque 'no bull' wordplay that's so blatant only the band's still slightly cutesy image allowed them to get away with it. The most memorable moment, though, has to be the instrumental solo played not on a guitar or even saxophone but on what sounds like a glockenspiel - an early case of Brian looking in some most unusual places for new sounds and truly unique for the times. However, that's about all the song has - there's no real 'story' here, no call to arms as in the best Beach Boys surfing songs (like 'Surfin' USA') and nothing really changes throughout the song (it would have been fun if the surfer dude wasn't as good as he thought he was - or if he'd asked the narrator to join him). The song is surprisingly good for a load of gimmicks stuck together at the last minute, however, and the Beach Boys harmonies (which don't make all that many appearances on this album, it has to be said) still make this track worth a listen.
'Honky Tonk' is a slow surfing instrumental originally done by the otherwise forgotten Bill Doggett as long ago as 1956 (seven years before this album - a lifetime in rock and roll!) Amazingly this surfing song got to #2 at the time, one place higher than 'Surfin' USA', but it's a song best remembered - the few times it's remembered at all - for this Beach Boys cover. Sadly, it's not one of their best. If a surfer had really been going this slowly, though, he surely would have drowned, without even a cry of 'stoked!' to liven the song up. Still, the interplay of Carl and Dave is again ear-catching and pretty impressive all round for kids of 15 and even Dennis has mastered enough of the drums to keep up this time around. Again, though, Mike doesn't appear to be actually at the session at all, which brings his grand contribution on this record to three disputed lyrics (credited only since the 1990s, not on the original recordings), two lead vocals (both released earlier in the year as the A and B side of a single) and a few background vocals. Was manager Murray afraid of Love's power in the band? Was he being deliberately sidelined? Who Knows?! (He doesn't exactly get a lot to do on third LP 'Surfer Girl' either). As for the curiously named 'Honky Tonk' (as far as I know this isn't a piece of surfing slang and there are no bar-room style pianos on the track), it's arguably the weakest bit of filler here despite Carl's capable work in particular.
'Lana' isn't an awful lot better, truth be told, despite being a 'proper' song and featuring another passionate soaring Brian Wilson lead. Now, even as one of the Beach Boys' biggest fans (as I'm sure it's become clear to you all by now) I have to admit that sometimes Brian's vocals can tend towards shrill and that on these sort of mid-paced ballads the band's harmonies are about as un-rock and roll as they get. 'Lana' is another sorry example of the band trying to force The Four Freshman onto a rock and roll groove that never really catches fire (Carl's guitar sounds like it belongs in a completely different song!), like two very different eras impacting on one another. That's a shame because, lyrically, this is another fascinating chance to hear Brian writing his own lyrics and coming up with another teenage slice of pop that hints at the real heartbreak going on inside. The narrator keeps pleading with 'Lana' to run away with him and go 'far away' from our troubles, although what those troubles are is never really discussed. This song makes sense if you switch the name 'Lana' for Brian's new girlfriend (and future wife) Marilyn and realise that, for the first time, Brian was living away from home for much of the time at the house she shared with her sisters. Compared to the Murray's atmosphere of nervousness and sudden bursts of anger the happy and welcoming Rovell household (where food was left out for Brian at all hours, for when he came back home late from a gig and he could come and go as he pleased) must have been a very emotional moment. Escape is a theme of many a Brian Wilson song, from 'We'll Run Away' to 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' and even though the ideas are barely formed here, it's fascinating in retrospect to hear Brian starting to put his own real thoughts into song, as opposed to writing what he thought his audience wanted to hear. Unfortunately the band really muck this up in the recording studio, double-tracking Brian's lead (which in contrast to Mike's is too pure a voice to be spoiled by double-tracking, even when it's done as carefully as it is here) and sounding really really bored, as if Brian has just drilled them through 50 takes too many (perhaps he had?! Legend has it that this might have been the first song taped at 'Western Studios' after Brian firmly took control of the band's production).
'Surf Jam' is the second of Brian's original surf instrumentals and again it's pretty good stuff for a bunch of 15-22 year old's making it up as they go along without ever being something you'd want to listen to too often. At least this one is exciting, though, Dennis nailing the simple drumming groove and giving the song much more of s rock and roll kick than the others songs on this album, more of Love's honking saxophone for colour and Carl again excelling himself with a clever blend of Chuck Berry and Dick Dale on his guitar (Brian was so impressed he seems to have given his little brother full credit for the song even though the original song riff seems to have been by him). Mike seems to be there for this one too, egging the band on in great form and showing that he's at is best as a frontman for the others. Dave falls a bit behind at around 0:50 but, hey, Jimi Hendrix would have struggled to keep up with Carl on this one so it's no wonder he struggles. Less surfing than out and out rock and rolling, if anyone was really trying to surf at this pace they'd drown for sure. Beach Boys aficionados will tell you that this song almost certainly started life as a song called 'The Beach Boys Stomp', made available only on a rare and quickly pulled 'Biggest Beach Hits' album that's so obscure even Youtube doesn't have a copy (the one that is titled 'BB Stomp' is actually 'Karate', a cover song from the 1961 demo sessions.
'Let's Go Trippin' is the most famous of all the 'cover' instrumentals, the most famous song Dick Dale ever wrote and at the time it must have seemed almost sacrilegious to cover this song. Even if you don't know the title, you're sure to know it although surprisingly the song only ever made #60 in the charts when it was released in 1960. Nowadays, of course, The Beach Boys' version is probably better known, which is a shame: again Carl is the best thing here, a real ball of energy bringing rock and roll to the band, whilst the rest of the band aren't quite in gear (poor Dennis is really struggling to keep the beat by the end of the song; this isn't the easiest of instrumentals to play after all). Again, it's alarming to hear hardly any of the familiar Beach Boys styles at work here, without any vocals or any recognisable instrumentation other than Carl's guitar (the other dominant instrument is Love's saxophone, which even though it has more notes to play with this time around does is purely here for atmosphere). Incidentally, no one seemed to think its strange that either Dick Dale or The Beach Boys intoned the youth of the day to 'go tripping', as the use of the term 'trip' in a drugs sense hadn't really taken off yet (chances are it was coined at least partly by the surfing lexicon though, a 'trip' meaning literally going on a journey - usually to the beach).
'Finders, Keepers' is almost a relief if only because it's the first time in three songs the band have actually sung. However, this isn't some long-lost Brian Wilson classic (with Love again given a co-credit via a court-case in the 1990s; this song bears more of his trademark style than 'Farmer's Daughter') but a curious stop-start song that has a girl find the narrator's board and give it to her boyfriend. You half expect this corny story line to end with the narrator and the girl gazing into each other's eyes adoringly, but no - according to the last verse he all but drowns while trying to show off to his girl and the narrator calmly walks off with his board alone. That seems deeply uncharitable for The Beach Boys (although as we've said the forthcoming 'Surfer's Rule' from the next album is basically a slap in the face for The Four Seasons - the band's biggest rivals before The Beatles came along). Interestingly, the chorus of this song is itself nicked wholesale from The Four Seasons' contemporary hit 'Big Girls Don't Cry', suggesting that having got away with ripping off Chuck Berry for 'Surfin' USA' Brian was taunting his main rivals over nicking one of their most famous songs. Not surprisingly, unlike the more litigious Chuck Berry, the famously shy writer Bob Gaudio never sued. Finders, keepers indeed. None of this would matter so much if this song had done something with that phrase or told a decent story before the ending that made us care about the character or built the rival up into a serious threat - but instead it all seems like a wasted opportunity. Even the double-tracking on Mike Love's voice is far less convincing than it was last time around, making it sound as if he's singing in a tunnel.
Alright, then, there's no way of getting around it: side two of this album is a disaster. It doesn't say a lot for an album when the best thing in the 12 minutes of vinyl is a surfing instrumental featuring a 16 year old improvise some guitar licks. And yet the first side of 'Surfin' USA' is so often a thing of grace and beauty, the famous title track joined by an absolute masterpiece in 'The Lonely Sea', a particularly strong original surfing instrumental and the sweet (in all senses of the word) 'Farmer's Daughter'. Yes, that's not much of a return if you've just spent £15 for the privilege of owning an album that only lasts 24 minutes and we urge you again to dig out a secondhand copy of the 'two-fer' that gives you this album alongside 'Surfin' Safari'. But at a decent price this is still a neat time capsule from a band who weren't expected to deliver even that much on a long-playing album, back in the days when LPs were filler sold on the back of singles and only five months on from a debut album that, too, suffered from a lack of material. You can hear The Beach Boys chomping at the bit to add more and improve, but circumstances and a need for more material all the time simply seemed to get in the way. Personally I'd say 'Surfin' Safari' has more charm as a souvenir of the band before they were properly famous, but the improvement from that album to this is at times astonishing, even if the band don't have the time or resources to make a full record of knock-out pop singles like the title track. Fans who come to this record expecting it to match future greats are probably going to hate it. But 'Surfin' USA' is still an impressive document for a bunch of teenagers who've lucked into their favourite hobby, have a father-manager that is already becoming a hindrance rather than a help and are breaking new ground every time they use those harmonies together with that rock and roll beat. Not quite a noble surf, not quite a wipeout, 'Surfin' USA' is the necessary evil that had to take place as a stepping stone between the band's humble beginnings and better things, with two carat gold classics (one famous, one obscure) thrown in too. Overall rating - 5/10
Other Beach BOys album reviews from this site you might be interested in:
'Surfin' Safari' (1962) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/news-views-and-music-issue-28-beach.html
‘All Summer Long’ (1964) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/the-beach-boys-all-summer-long-1964.html
'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/12/news-views-and-music-issue-17-beach.html
'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/news-views-and-music-issue-65-beach.html
'Wild Honey' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/news-views-and-music-issue-115-beach.html
'Friends' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-21-beach-boys-friends-1968.html
'20/20' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/news-views-and-music-issue-84-beach.html
'Sunflower' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-36-beach-boys-sunflower-1970.html
‘Carl and the Passions – So Tough’ (1971) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-beach-boys-carl-and-passions-so.html
'Holland' (1973) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-55-beach-boys-holland-1973.html
'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo) (1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/news-views-and-music-issue-97-dennis.html
'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased) (1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/news-views-and-music-issue-126-merry.html
'L.A.Light Album' (1979) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-75-beach-boys-la-light-album.html
'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/the-beach-boys-keeping-summer-alive-1980.html
'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008_06_29_archive.html
'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo) (2003) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/news-views-and-music-issue-55-brian.html
'Smile Sessions (band outtakes)(2011) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/news-views-and-music-issue-142-beach.html