Thursday, 21 November 2013

The 20 Best Doctor Who Stories - An AAA Guide (Happy 50th Birthday Dr!)



Dear all, we're going to take a temporary pause from our newsing, viewsing and perusing the world of music-ing to celebrate a very special 50th birthday. No, not mine - I'm not that old (though this site has indeed added at least 20 years to my life - by rights I should be on my seventh generation by now!), no it's time to talk about my other life passion Dr Who. Now I seriously considered writing a Dr Who site as an alternative to a music one when I first started Alan's Album Archives - before I discovered so many brilliant sites had beaten me to it (take a bow 'Science Justice Eek!' 'Den Of Geek' 'Adventures with the Wife in Space' 'Reviews in TIme and Space' 'From The Archive: A British Television Blog' and 'Time and the ---!', classy sites all) and an amazing series of Dr Who books ('About Time' by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles) so wonderfully detailed, witty and erudite that it became my goal with this website to write something that detailed and that readable all at the same time (no rude comments please - at least I've tried).

Between them, those sites and books cover so much ground I haven't felt there was much more really to add. However, there's always been a lot of cross-pollination between the two subjects (the 'About Time' series has a six-year comparison between Dr Who and The Beatles that's spot on) and longterm fans of Alan's Album Archives will know that not having much to say hasn't stopped me drip-feeding you bits and pieces of Dr Who lore down the years and posts (especially in our time-travelling April Fool's Day issues!) So for one week only it's not Alan's Album Archives but Alan's Adventure Almanac, with this 'top 20' my handy top twenty guide to my favourite ever Dr Who stories from all eras (some are controversial choices, so feel free to moan at me in the comments section and list your own favourites - that's what sites like this are for and debating is a national past-time with Dr Who fans, right up there with knitting long scarves, buying eleven different versions of the same Radio Times publication because of a 'special edition' front coverand dreaming about owning our own robotic dog).

Seeing as there are so many great Dr Who stories to choose from (this was so nearly a 'top 50' but I thought I'd spare yours and mine's eyesight), I've reluctantly cut out the black and white era stories where less than half of the episodes exist in the BBC archives - rumour has it they won't be missing for much longer heh-heh-heh (what a year to be a Dr Who fan!) - I can always go back and add them in a future post (this writing lark is just like time travel, though npot quite as much fun!) (A quick plug for 'Marco Polo' 'Dalek's Masterplan' 'The Massacre' 'The Myth Makers' 'Power Of The Daleks' and 'Fury From The Deep', though, classics all if the soundtracks, telesnaps and reconstructions are anything to go by). As ever for Alan's Album Archives, we're listing our stories in chronological order for that full timey-wimey evolutionary effect. Oh and if Dr Who isn't your thing then don't worry - we'll be back to more music discussion next week but, hey, I had to do something; a birthday like this only comes around every 50 years (unless you have a time machine of course...)

1) "The Edge Of Destruction"

(Season 1 Story 3, February 8-15th 1964)


The first two Dr Who stories set out so many of the benchmarks and landmarks to come, climaxing with the Dr overthrowing the Daleks for the first time (another story that only just missed out on appearing on this list), a victory that's as great as any in the timelord's future. Where can the Tardis crew possibly go next? Through the Twilight Zone is the answer, with one of the weirdest, strangest stories the production team ever made (and there'll be a lot of those on my list!) Legend has it this two-parter was made on the hop 'in case' the series had to be axed after 13 episodes (series were broken up into 'quarters' and 'halves' of the year back then and the two preceding stories had taken the total to 11), had to feature no one except the regular crew and had to be set inside the one long-term set available to the crew, the Tardis set (for budgetary reasons). It should have been the recipe for disaster, especially following such a big 'hit' (some fans argue it is - but if you too have a lot of emotion invested in the original Tardis crew then this is as good as television gets). Writer David Whittaker knew the series better than anyone and really makes the most of his opportunity to re-set what we know about the characters and their spaceship before our very eyes. The Tardis is the single greatest vehicle in fiction, with mysterious origins (especially in this era) and it's also effectively 'alive', enjoying a link to the Dr that no fictional hero has ever had and which is stil isn't fully explained after 50 years of adventuring. The Tardis has never been drawn more vividly than here, where it tries to communicate with the characters to save itself being blown to bits (even if scaring them out of their wits probably isn't the best thing to do!) William Hartnell is at his very best here, making the Dr as alien and strange as he's ever been, convinced that his human passengers are trying to sabotage his precious ship which even the last eleven episodes of mutual danger hasn't overcome. It doesn't help that Ian, our hero for the past 11 episodes much more so than the Dr himself, spends most of the episode acting 'strangely' after the Tardis tries to knock him out for touching the 'wrong' controls. The Dr's grand-daughter Susan is torn between the two sides and finally gets some long-delayed emotion to play off due to the conflict. And Barbara, one of the greatest of all Who companions and the teacher all of us wish we'd had, works out the clues, her sheer outrage at the Dr's actions leading her to refuse to take no for an answer. The plot is kept finely in balance across the first episode (Have the companions really sabotaged the ship? Is the mysterious Dr responsible? Is the Tardis acting out of his control? Has something alien got inside the ship and the crew?) and the resolution (spoiler alert sweeties!) that The Tardis is heading into the distant past via a 'fast return switch' (sweetly marked onto the control panel in pen) is a great pay-off in my eyes, turning the Tardis in one moment from the greatest invention ever made to something that's fragile and liable to break down at any moment, which as close to summing up British spirit as you can get. How can the four regilars possibly get out of this one, eh? Best of all this story has a huge impact on the stories to come, making all the regulars get to know and trust each other in a way that the past two adventures (which so often splits them up from each other) never does and they really do 'learn' from this story, becoming a much closer team from next story 'Marco Polo' onwards. Spooky, mysterious and Sapphire and Steel-ish long before that series was ever aired (It didn't help that the first time I saw this story was on the much-missed BSB's Dr Who weekend, when they showed the episodes the wrong way round by accident!), 'Edge Of Destruction' may have been a last minute rush job but it features the series' greatest writer at his most eloquent and the original and in many ways best cast at their most charismatic. You can pick holes in it if you want to (and many have), but without this story establishing the characters I doubt the series would have lasted five years, never mind fifty.

2) "The Aztecs"

(Season 1, Story 6, May 23rd - June 14th 1964)


It won't surprise anyone whose read this site regularly that my two prized lessons at school were English and Music, this site being a neat mixture of the two. I've not really had much of a chance to dabble in my other loved lesson of history, however, except in oiur April Fool's Day time-travelling editions, a subject I'm equally passionate about and the Aztecs cropped up on the curriculum, so many times down the years I feel as if I know the characters in the period better than my own family (one of my teachers was so passionate about the subject he even wrote a very good musical on the theme, which more than deserves a revival). The history strands in the first three-and-a-bit series of Dr Who are of even more interest to me than the future space ones, full of human monsters that are often far more evil than the Daleks or Cybermen. Some of the later historicals simply use the setting as an excuse to do what Dr Who always does somewhere old and odd looking, but in this first season Dr Who was made to educate as well as entertain and 'The Aztecs' is a huge success on both levels. Most pulp science-fiction shows would make all of the Aztecs bloodthirsty sacrificers, savages to the 'modern' humans, but this story is really about the contrast between the blood spilt in the name of superstition and the race's more intellectual pursuits, thousands of years ahead of anything in the West, revealing that no one civilisation is all 'good' or 'bad'. After all, it was only five stories ago Ian and Barbar 9and the audience) were reduced to treating the Tardis and the Doctor as 'superstition' and 'magic', because it was something beyond their comprehension. Barbara, worthy history teacher that she is, thinks she can change the Aztec's world for the better when the Tardis crew are greeted as 'Gods', but this is a nastier world than the Tardis crew are used to (even after visiting Skaro) and they are soon well out of their depth, pawns in a game that started centuries before their arrival. Seeing William Hartnell's Doctor (my personal favourite) clash horns with Jacqueline Hill as Barbara (one of the greatest ever companions) over what can and cannot be changed in history results in tight, taut television that made the subject come alive far more than any textbook I ever read and is impressively accurate too (history doesn't record the sudden arrival of a big blue police telephone box, but everything else is as it happened here or as near as!) 'The Aztecs' is Dr Who at its most grown-up, superbly acted and with the best costumes and settings in monochrome Dr Who. It should be on every school syllabus.

3) "The Space Museum"

(Season 2, Story 7, April 24th-May 15th 1965)


This story doesn't have a very good reputation among fans and admittedly goes badly downhill after the first episode but...oh, what a first episode, perhaps the single greatest 25 minutes in the programme's history! The Tardis - which is still mysterious enough this early on in the Dr's adventures to do anything - jumps a time-track and the crew arrive on the planet Xeros effectively an episode early. After playing around with a Dalek (Hartnell is never funnier than in this story - his clash with the city rulers during which he tries to 'dupe' them with pictures of the Tardis crew bicyling on to the planet is probably the series' funniest moment not to feature Tom Baker) the crew find an exhibit featuring...themselves! Stuffed! In glass jars! Clearly seeing a vision of their future, the question is how do they escape it? The Dr tries to argue with the rulers (and gets stuck in a freezer for his troubles). Ian and Barbara try to do nothing and accidentally get lost. New companion Vicki (the series' best ever companion in my opinion, as feisty and likeable as Rose 40 years later but with a much more interesting 'back story' that's never fully explored and as childlike and adult as the writers need when situations arise) tries to overthrow the planet with a bunch of local hippies, 'viva le revolution!' One of these decisions works and the crew are saved - and frustratingly it's never revealed which one of the Tardis crew saved everyone. But that's all in the future: that first cliff-hanger has the Tardis crew gradually realising the Tardis effect is wearing off and they're suddenly becoming visible again with a crowd of guards around the corner, which is one of those golden 'get-out-of-that' moments this show does so well... Sadly Glyn Johns only wrote this one script for the series (despite appearing in 'The Sontaron Experiment' as an actor) and the idea gets badly mangled in production, but oh the brilliance of that central idea. We, err, 'borrowed' the idea of a 'Space Museum' for our April Fool's Day edition this year because it was so good (where the AAA Museum is a run-down collection of music from across the galaxy in need of repair), although surprisingly all the 'readers' seemed to arrive there on time without jumping any time tracks (as far as we know...perhaps you'll be the first?!)

4) "The Tenth Planet"

(Season 4, Story 2, October 8-29th 1966)


The sheer audacity of it: replacing the central character at the heart of the series. And he dies, not from some heroic deed but from the impact of the stresses and strains of the adventure, with the story a thematic study of thre cycle of life versus death and the futility in trying to extend life past it's natural pattern. The last part of this story is missing and Hartnell spends most of what does exist unconscious on the floor, so it's hardly the dignified ending one of the series' greatest actors deserves, but oh how he shines on those last classic arguments he has in episode two (I love them all, but Hartnell will always be my favourite Dr, outwitting, outshining, outarguing and outcharming any other being he comes across). And what a menace to depose: the first appearance of the cybermen, back when they were truly scary (the rather drab 21st century remake of them is the single biggest mistake of the entire Russell T Davies years, turning them into wannabe transformers) and weren't featured every week (Troughton spends so much of his time fighting the cybermen it's a wonder he doesn't start looking for them on every planet he lands on). The costumes are simpler here, with human body parts sticking out past the silver casings and the voices are a basic mix of robot and human, which in any other monster would be a crass example of budget-cutting. But here the fact that you can still 'see' the actor in the suit is so in keeping with the race of monsters who have the single best back story in all of Dr Who. The cybermen may be 'monsters' now, but it's out of necessity not choice, as 'Earth's twin' Mondas - home to the cybermen, at least for now - gets none of the benefits the humans do. In fact the human's actions in this story (example - base commander General Cutler) going to great lengths to save themselves from the Cybermen, are doing so for exactly the same reasons of survival (giving the commander an off-screen son to mourn is a touch of genius). No wonder the cybermen try to adapt in order to survive, no wonder they have lost their 'humanity' along the way, no wonder they seem to have it in for humans, no wonder this story takes place with a logic even the best of Dr Who doesn't always have (although sadly the story's idea of the more advanced future we were all going to enjoy in 1986 is more than a little out). The first cliff-hanger, when the still-un-named cybermen walk towards a base at the South Pole through snow, is one of the show's greatest moments, right up there with the first shot of a dalek eyestalk in 1963, a later variation of the cybermen down London's sewers, the Yeti in the underground and Pete Davison's Dr trying to stave off his inevitable regeneration long enough to save companion Peri in 'Caves of Androzani' part three. So many great moments are strung together in this story, with the under-rated companions Ben and Polly at their finest (of all the companions wrenched away from everything familiar across time and space, it's Polly's mixture of fright, awe, curiosity and feistiness that's the most blievable amongst all of them in my opinion - or is that just because I know I'd end up being the companion making the tea while everyone else solves the mystery?), this is Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis throwing everything at the series, half-expecting it not to work, but instead watching the world's hardest working TV crew pull it all off with style. Later attempts to simply repeat and 'improve' this story are missing the point: it was already perfect to begin with and later 'bases under seige' stories all pale against this one in some way. With the possible exception of...

5) "The Ice Warriors"

(Season 5, Story 3, November 11th-December 16th 1967)


The best of the many Patrick Troughton stories featuring Earth bases under 'siege' (the Tenth Planet was so successful the basic idea is re-used a good 15 times over for the rest of the decade), The Ice Warriors are my all-time favourite Dr Who monster. If an alien race came down from the sky tomorrow I'd expect them to act and think just like The Ice Warriors, who out of all the races seen in Dr Who are the ones that are made up of the same mixture of fright, confusion, courage, jealousy and hurt as most humans, just many times more intelligent. The Ice Warriors are rather like Star Trek's Klingons, with a martial code of honour that doesn't stop them being reasonable and intelligent in the right circumstances and Bernard Bresslaw, wasted for so long in the Carry On films, shows just what a great actor he could be dressed up in a suit and made to act mainly with his hissing 'voice' (the production team hired him merely for his towering height to fit the costume they'd had built - it was a lucky break that they got such a great performance from him, one of the best in the history of Dr Who). Like the almost-as-good Silurians invented three years later, the brilliance of the story is that the Ice Warriors aren't really 'monsters' at all and arguably have more right to life than the scheming humans. Writer Brian Hayles also manages to make these same humans interesting and belivable, far more than the 'ciphers' they can be in some other stories and the arguments between Clent and Penley of science versus individuality is the perfect backdrop for a big green alien from mars who might or might not represent the rest of his kind. Varga, the only ice warrior we see here, is another well drawn character whose background and motives make perfect sense and Patrick Troughton's Doctor seems suitably reluctant to stop him, taking his life only when so many others are in danger. Some fans argue that this story is too 'talky' - and for once the 'missing episodes' (2 and 3) don't seem to be the important ones, as the story has barely moved on by the time we rejoin the action in episode four. But 'The Ice Warriors' is Dr Who at it's most intelligent and thought provoking, ironically making the deepest story in some time the backdrop for a story about a (not so) little green man from Mars that most non-fans assume happens in every Dr Who story.

6) "The Mind Robber"

(Season 6, Story 2, September 14th-October 12th 1968)


Put any other fictional hero in this story, where fiction is fact and characters speak in lines from books, and they simply wouldn't fit: Captain Kirk would have a fun time throwing around the Karkus and Darth Vada would have had an interesting subplot revealing he's really the father of Gulliver, but all these cardboard characters would soon get out of their depth in a land where you survive by your words and wits more than your actions. The Doctor is a character who hasn't just seen the world, he's read up on it too and as the world's single greatest bookish fictional character he really belongs in this world full of strangeness and shadows, where nothing is as it seems. For those who haven't been lucky enough to visit, the land of fiction is a world made out of characters who don't really exist and who only speak in fairytale-like prose or lines written for them by their 'creator' (although watch out for the moment Gulliver is genuinely needed for the plot in episode four and - briefly - starts talking like any normal character). The unseen-till-the-end power behind this story wants to trap the Doctor not to kill him or rule the galaxy but because his imagination is so much greater than the clapped-out human being used to 'imagine' the planet. Behind the scenes so many things problems hit this story it's amazing it was ever made: previous story 'The Dominators' is bad for you') ended up an episode short so the first episode of 'Mind Robber' was again written quickly, could only use the regulars and had to be set in a 'white void' (which is actually the studio without set dressing). In fact this first episode is a superb bit of plotting, making this world stranger and the stakes bigger than ever before, as well as adding much needed depth to companions Jamie and Zoe, Troughton's greatest set of companions ironically it's probably my favourite single episode of Dr Who post-'Space Museum') . Even after this first episode was recorded, Frazer Hines caught chicken pox during the making of this story, leading to a 'substitute Jamie' being cast at the last minute - the crew get around this via the triumphant invention of a 'guess Jamie's face' puzzle which the Dr gets wrong! (great as Frazer Hines is, Hamish Wilson is even better in the role!) Again the 'monster' of the story isn't really a monster but a human lost in time who wants to get back home at any cost, even if it means replacing himself with the Dr (the fact that he's called 'The Master' four years before that character was invented - although there's nothing to prevent them being one and the same person - makes for a fascinating little 'extra' to the story too. Troughton is never better than when conjuring up fictional characters to 'fight' the Master and is at his most articulate here when he speaks up for individuality and human emotion, everything the Dr has always stood for encapsulated in one breathless scene in episode five. Previous story 'The Dominators' (easily the weakest of the black-and-white stories, with the suspect moral that pacifism is cowardly and fighting shows strength) suddenly seems like a lot longer than simply five weeks before...Sadly writer Peter Ling never had another story accepted by the production team again, which is a tragedy given how wonderful a lot of his future ideas sound (one of them features time running backwards, with the Dr arriving at the 'end' of the adventure and having to work out how he solved the problem in the first place!)

7) "The War Games"

(Season 6, Story 7, April 19th-June 21st 1969)


Last time around replacing the lead actor was a gamble, but this time around the production team know both that it can be done and that even more than just the lead actor will be changing in the new year: In 1970 Dr Who will be broadcast in colour, exiled to Earth because of the twin evils of Time Lord exile and budget cuts with all-new companions, apart from the Brigadier and UNIT who have only appeared in two stories to date (nowadays we moan at one change - fans in 1970 had to cope with all four). With lots of stories commissioned for the sixth series coming back 'unusable' for one reason or another (my most recent Dr Who purchase is the audio 'lost story' 'Prison In Space' from this period, a world full of corporal punishment-loving female rulers, which has to be heard to be believed!) Troughton's grand finale suddenly became a ten parter, written by another two of the series' greatest writers Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke taking on alternating episodes (and writing 'wild' cliffhangers that the other would have to get themselves out of in a form of competition...) Yes it's overlong and often repetitive, but the central idea at the heart of 'The War Games'- which starts off like a world war one setting and then gradually pulls back to reveal a 'timelord' mastermind taking soldiers out of all periods of Earth's history to make the best crack team of fighters for his own evil ends - is one of the single greatest conceits in the show's history. The pay off, though, is the final episode where the Dr unwillingly calls in his 'own people' in to help sort out the mess, after six years of speculation (the planet 'Gallifrey' was still un-named in the series until 1973, remember, amazing as that seems now) and we learn more about the Dr's background in a single episode than we have in the past six years, learning why he ran, who he ran from and why he has kept on running ever since. Usually in Dr Who most companions leave because they fall in love, are needed on other planets or on rare occasions die (Rest In Pieces, Adric! - why couldn't the same happen to Bonnie Langford's Mel?!) but here the Dr is forced to part from Jamie and Zoe, returned to their own terms with their memories of the Tardis wiped, in one of the very saddest scenes scenes in the series, a doomed rescue attempt showing how they'd risk anything to be with their friend again. A superb epic that might not get everything right but one that builds to an amazing climax by episode nine and with a pay-off that's exactly what the series needed to keep itself fresh and interesting, 'The War Games' is a worthy finale to the monochrome era and the series has never made better use of shadow or light.

8) "Inferno"

(Season 7, Story 4, May 9th-June 20th 1970)


The Dr, now Jon Pertwee, is exiled to Earth just in time for all manner of alien invasions, which is very lucky for us earthlings really (thanks time lords!) One of the biggest threats during this first 'colour' series, though, is caused not by aliens but by narrow-minded humans drilling to the Earth's core for goodness knows what reason and with no regard for the consequences (what with the debate over the UNIT timeline and all, I reckon 'Inferno' is set in the present day and concerns 'fracking', so let's all hope David Cameron turns into a hairy Primord sometime soon). The Dr can't do much to help, though, as for much of the story he's trapped in Dr Who's first proper parallel world, a world where even the people we've grown to trust and care for over the course of the series turn nasty. Nicholas Courtney may have been wonderful as the brigadier (not to mention Bret Vyon in the 'Dalek's Masterplan') but he's simply superb as the evil scar-faced Brigade Leader, while scientist Liz Shaw, a little too sophisticated for the series as a scientist who knows as much as the Dr and so needs none of the 'why doctor?' explanations the series needs to run smoothly, finally gets a role to get her teeth into, torn between obeying her boss and the Doctor's warnings she fears might be true. Don Houghton rarely wrote for the series after this, which is a terrible shame as he understood the workings of UNIT better than any one else (later stories treat the soldiers as either comedy relief, buddies having a laugh or a bunch of unthinking one-minded soldiers we don't mind getting shot) and Pertwee's Dr, alternating between alien aloofness and human indignation, was never better than here either, the viewer's only link between worlds for much of the story. The fact that we actually see the destruction of Earth (albeit the parallel world version) also ups the ante much more than other stories around this one, making Inferno a gripping epic where things are getting more and more out of control until the bitter end (under the biggest single threat of cancellation until the troubled 1980s, this was half-planned as the series' grand finale and would have been a very fitting one, with even the Dr unable to put everything right by the end).

9) "Terror Of The Autons"

(Season 8, Story 1, January 2nd-23rd 1971)


The first entrance of the original incarnation as The Master (well, as far as we know officially - see above) as played by Roger Delgado is superb. Very much written as the Dr's evil twin rather than the bumbling comic villain he became later on, this Master is a very real threat, every bit as clever and relentless in his pursuit of success as the Doctor but twice as deadly and ten times as ruthless. This was the story that gave Mary Whitehouse kittens, what with its toys coming to life and suffocating plastic chairs, although these would simply be yet more window-dressing were it not for the Master's casual dismissiveness of human life (Mrs Whitehouse' s complaint, that it would put children off taking their teddy bears to bed, rather misses the point that this doll is an ugly troll that's already frightening the adults in the story before it starts moving; no, it's The Master's icy aloofness that makes this story the single most frightening Dr Who story of all time). The return of the Autons is another masterstroke, the plastic shop dummies being much better used in this second appearance and the idea of aliens infecting plastic just plausible enough (well, do you know all the ins and outs of how it's made?!) for to make the plotline seem like a real threat (an easily recognisable menace, that doesn't take long to explain but with high visual impact, the Autons were a masterstroke choice of villain for the first episode of the 'new' series in 2005 too). Of course the Dr wins, companion Jo Grant isn't really converted to the dark side via hypnosis by The Master past the end of this story and it all comes right in the end - but there's a feeling, right up to the very end of 'Terror Of The Autons', that the Dr really has met his match this time around and might not be so lucky next time. In all, 'Autons' is a tale full of memorable moments that are still among the most remembered features of Dr Who in the 70s even now...

10) "The Invasion Of Time"

(Season 15, Story 6, February 4th-March 11th 1978)


Another story that seems to get a bad press from Dr Who fans, but it might well be my single favourite (broadcast) story from the 1970s. For once, Tom Baker's doctor isn't reluctantly called or trapped into coming back to Gallifrey, he's gone there by choice to solve the menace and take up his rightful role as 'president' after events in a story from the previous season. But somehow he's not himself for this adventure, petulantly demanding all sorts of unusual trinkets and treating his old teachers and colleagues worse than most Dr Who Villains treat narrow-minded politicians and brainless soldiers. It's a measure of how good Tom Baker's acting is in this story that, for three-and-a-half episodes at least, he manages to wipe off the first fifteen years of Dr Who history by making us think the Dr really has turned evil and he relishes the part, playing it with just the right level of eye-rolling and understated sneering. Of course it's all a ruse to fool new tin-foil race The Vardans into thinking he's on their side (and yes, I do mean tin-foil, look I know the effects are pretty poor, but if effects are how you measure the worth of a series rather than plot, acting or imagination then Dr Who really isn't the show for you in the first place). But, for once, The Dr guesses wrong and yet another of the series' all-time greatest cliffhangers comes at the end of part four when the Vardans are revealed to be patsies for another, much bigger force (I won't give away which one in case I get into trouble with their leader because he's bigger than me. Sontar-ha your majesty! Oops...forget I said that...) All this and the first proper investigation of the Tardis' many corridors since 1964 (featuring swimming pools and art galleries) makes 'The Invasion Of Time' a classic Who story, with only the rather unexpected departure of one of the timelord' s more believable and better acted alien companions (Leela) seeming out of place. Oh and hub-caps have never been so integral to a plot-line! Excellent all round.

11) "Shada"

(Intended for Season 17, Story 6, January 19th-February 24th 1980)


Alas the great 'Shada' was never finished, thanks to a technician's strike two-thirds of the way through recording and the change of the main cast not long after which meant the production team never had time to 'finish' it. That's nothing short of a tragedy, because for years Douglas Adams' third and easily his best go at combining his unique take on the world with the world of Dr Who is so often dismissed as a so-so story so ambitious that it could never possibly be made to work. You see 'Shada' probably features more ideas per minute than any other Dr Who story, taking in Douglas' Cambridge past (where he felt most of his old professors were strange and doddery enough to be timelords in disguise; after three years in Carlisle I concur), curious flying spheres that drain memories, heat-pulsating Krargs, timelord prison planets and - gloriously - the disguise of absent-minded timelord Professor Chronotis' Tardis as his Cambridge rooms. However, rather than just throwing ideas at the story as that shoping list rather makes it sound, all of these ideas are needed in terms of the complex but understandable 'plot' of Shada, all neatlyheld together by Douglas' wittiest dialogue (Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy or otherwise) that makes you both care for and root for the characters. What's more the footage that does exist (and the cast were only about 10 days away from finishing everything they needed for the story - boohoo!) more than pulls this complex plot off, with each special effect as good as anything in Dr Who in 1980 (even the under-written Krargs, added under protest at the last minute so as to include a 'monster' in the story, look amazing). This is one of those stories so well written and genuinely exciting to cast and crew that everyone seems to have poured their hearts into this one, performing with more conviction than usual for 1980s Dr Who, and in the second Romana (superbly played by Lalla Ward) Tom Baker finally has the companion he's been crying out for since his first appearance, someone on equal terms who sees life differently to him and isn't afraid to argue with what he says but clearly secretly admires him too. The fact that only parts of 'Shada' now exist (linked by Tom Baker on the video/DVD or filed in by the excellent Gareth Roberts in his equally excellent novelisation of the story) as opposed to - say - predecessor 'The Horns Of Nimon' (which is simply an empty Dr Who plot performed as a very bad pantomime) is one of the great crimes of our age. Even great timelord criminal Salyavin, with all the horrors he committed, wasn't responsible for anything as devastating to life, the universe and everything as the BBC production crew going on strike just as the series was getting good again!

12) "Warrior's Gate"

(Season 18, Story 5, January 3rd-24th 1981)


The usual comment on this story is that 'I haven't got a clue what's going on - but it looks really good'. As Fantasy (as opposed to sci-fi) as Dr Who ever got, this is a wonderful story that's based on symbolism rather than plot and still makes its own sort-of sense (much more than it's close cousin 'Ghostlight' does anyway). For starters, the plot was long rumoured to have been worked out by the author flipping coins and consulting the I- Ching, although the whole story genuinely hangs together with it's own internal logic (as opposed to, say, 'Time and Rani', which might have helped with a bit of coin-flicking and random bits of plot). The last in a trilogy set in 'E-Space', 'Warrior's Gate' is the only one of those three stories brave enough to build a universe so wholly different to our own it couldn't have been done in our own 'N-Space', a world where lost voyagers are forced to use 'time-slaves' The Tharils to get anywhere at all, where most sets are made up of black-and-white photographs dipped in colour, where much of the studio itself is 'used' as the set and in which mirrors are portholes to alternate time-streams. I love Dr Who when it's brave and clever and attempts ambitious things no other series would even dream of doing and, after 'The Mind Robber', this is the series' best example of that ambitious nature, television so different to what came before it that it seems to have genuinely wandered in from another universe. After all other series, like soap operas or crime dramas, have to follow a particular pattern week after week but Dr Who is wonderfully, gloriously loose-structured and adventures like this one relish the fact that there are hardly any rules for making it and those that do exist are made to be broken. Steve Gallagher's intelligent script wasn't that well received at the time or even nowadays particularly, being so completely out of step with everything else made in the rather cliche-ridden season 18, but if you're a Dr Who fan with the patience to cope with the mistakes in getting this off-kilter script to the screen, the imagination not to need a linear plot and the belief that this script works to its own inner rules then you too might well long for another script as ground-breakingly out-the-box as 'Warrior's Gate'. The tharils are also a clever and totally believable alien race, sweet enough for the viewers to root for but creepy enough to be a natural cause of so much of the human edginess around them. Even K9, in his last appearance, actually has something to do other than shooting or arguing with the doctor while Adric will sadly never be this likeable or reasonable again. This is how 1980s Dr Who should have worked all the time...

13) "Logopolis"

(Season 18, Story 7, February 28th-March 21st 1981)


Tom Baker had been the Doctor for seven whole years by the time he hung up his scarf, so surely his last story would be another epic, right up there with his predecessors' farewell stories, the ten-part 'War Games' and 'Planet Of The Spiders'? (another under-rated gem that nearly made this list, 20 minute hovercraft chases and all). But no: Baker's doctor has already defeated so many larger-than-life characters that giving him another huge villain to defeat would have been wrong somehow. Instead Christopher Bidmead - the series' most intelligent writer since David Whittaker - seeks to give Baker a humble way out, one in which he's 'haunted' by 'the watcher', a 'ghost' from his future that even we never get to meet properly or understand and in which, for the first time in the series' history, to all intents and purposes, he loses, badly. The Master (great shock return in the last story 'The Keeper Of Traken' by the way, another story that only just missed the list!) actually destroys great sheathes of the universe after luring the Dr to the planet Logopolis and the Dr can do nothing about it, lying dying at the foot of a radio control antenna, the very backdrop where the Dr and Master first clashed in 'Terror of the Autons'. Before that the idea of a planet of mathematicians holding the world together (surely the twin planet of Hitch-Hikers' Magrathea), visions of the Dr and crew trapped inside a series of Tardises inside each other like a set of Russian Dolls, Tegan's Aunt Vanessa callously being shrunken and murdered by the Master (strangely her death is never mentioned by Tegan again) and the fact that the planet the Dr saved in the very last story is wiped out forever by the Dr's mistakes means the stakes have never been higher than this, even if there's a calm, rather sombre atmosphere to 'Logopolis' no one at the time was expecting. Tom Baker seems like an extra in his own programme, his witticisms and extrovertness causing more trouble than help in this story as he, like the third doctor before him, learns that being an all-conquering timelord means you don't necessarily get things all your own way...A very bold and daring story, with the single most moving regeneration outside the first guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye, as each of the Dr's companions come mentally forth to bid him farewell, the camera suddenly moving closer to see his dying breath as we suddenly realise that we, too, are one of the companions at his feet willing him to recover..Sterling stuff! This is indeed the end of an era, but thankfully the moment has been prepared for...

14) "Enlightenment"

(Season 20, Story 5, March 1st-9th 1983)


By and large Peter Davison's stories are my least favourite. Making the Dr more humble and generally the quietest, stillest figure in the room could have worked nicely, but then the production team decide to fill the Tardis with three squabbling teenagers and way too many writers and directors try to fill the 'space' of Tom Baker's Dr with larger-than-life costumes, aliens and ideas that are in danger of turning the series into a pantomime. However, where the much-maligned (sometimes unfairly - ie 1980 to 1981 and 188 to 1989, sometimes not - the middle years) John Nathan-Turner's period excels is the few times this template doesn't occur, making the more 'ordinary' and humble story shine out like a beacon in the middle of all this formulaic pattern, with a world that suddenly seem all the more believable for not being filled with giant alien frogs, bright pink snakes and Anthony Ainley's Master. This is the one Davison story that truly works in every department (although 'Kinda' and 'Frontios' in particular come close), with the oh-so Dr Who idea of Edwardian sailing ships in space leading to the discovery of a race of 'eternals', who are the single best Dr Who creation since the Silurians for me (their motive for disrupting people's lives - the sheer boredom of living so long and knowing that all other creatures die before long anyway so life doesn't matter - is a brilliant constraint and one I 'borrowed' for my first Dr Who story for this site 'Lost and Found'; The Eternals are a race you desperately want to hear more of even though they only appear in this one story). Barbara Clegg, the first female writer to pen a story for the series, clearly knows the Tardis crew better than most of the others, filling in many of the gaps in companion Tegan and Turlough's characters, especially the former whose hot-headed nature is revealed to be a front in this story like never before (the 5th Dr era's most interesting character, it's interesting how many of the best episodes in this period are about Tegan). The 5th Dr himself is still a shadowy, not-quite-there figure, none of this year's writers quite sure how to write him (and Davison, wasted in the role, not quite sure how to play him) but even that makes sense here, with even the Dr relegated to 'ephemeral' status in this story, a meddling incompetent when seen through the eternal's eyes who'll die before too long anyway without knowing the pain of living a really really long time (especially if he keeps using those regenerations up this quickly...) One of Dr Who's more under-rated stories and, interestingly, yet another on this list hit by production problems (the date for recording had to be changed at the last minute, with many of the intended cast changed very close to recording - Linda Baron, better known for her role in 'Open All Hours', is particularly good as a sort of proto-Rani, although she's more likeable and fun than Kate O'Mara ever was - no, honest, I didn't mean, it, don't turn me into a floating head!...) 'Enlightenment' is another intelligent script performed by a srong cast where everyone really seems to know what they're doing.

15) "The Happiness Patrol"

(Season 25, Story 2, November 2nd-16th 1988)


When John Nathan-Turner interviewed new script editor Andrew Cartmel for the role he ended the session by asking him what he would most like to achieve during his years with the programme. Seeing as we're deep in the middle of the Thatcher years in 1988, with the last recession biting badly and Poll Tax riots about to come into play, it seems only natural for Cartmel to snap back 'I want to bring down the Government!' This is the closest he came to his goal, sadly, encouraging new Who writer Chris Clough to go all-out in his send-up of Thatcher (aka 'Helen A') and a world of class division where the haves and have nots of the Dr Who Universe have never been further apart (We'll ignore the Krotons keeping Gonds as slaves for now - that's another of my favourite stories that only just missed the list, incidentally!) This Government is so paranoid that people will overthrow it that being unhappy is outlawed, on pain of excruciating death, forcing people to pretend that life' s just groovy baby and that blues music, in particular, is against the law. I could have done without the Bassetts Allsorts creation The Kandyman (Rowntrees were not amused at the similarity and sued, understandably I think) but even this creation - often pulled out of context to show how 'bad' Dr Who had become by the late 1980s - makes sense inside the story, as even the sweetest things in life turn out to be bad for you if you have too much of them. Many fans never really 'got' Sylvester McCoy's Dr, but after a shaky first season and now with an edgier, darker past (that sadly was never explored as the series was taken off the air just when 'revelations' were due to have been made) he's as good as any of the other Dr's here, easily believable as a 1000-year-old alien carrying the weight of the universe on his shoulders. Sophie Aldred is also the best Who companion since Romana as the much-loved Ace, clearly a 'real' person in a way that others like Bonnie Langford's 'Mel' and Nicola Bryant's 'Peri', no matter how well played (well, Nicola anyway) could never be. If the greatest crime in the galaxy is having so many lost classic stories wiped and the second biggest crime is the fact that Shada never got finished, then the fact that Dr Who was cancelled after its best two seasons in a decade is the third. Regular readers will know our low opinion of the Coalition Government, so viewing this story is sadly as close as we can get to revenge for their part in our current downfall and I for one long for a re-match with 'David C' and is lover 'Nick C' (it's hard to imagine David Cameron weeping for a pet like Helen A does here for Fifi in the last scene though - he'd be more likely to leave her 'accidentally' down the pub and then illegally sanction her instead).

16) "Dalek"

(season 1A, Story 6, April 30th 2005)


Like many fans, I was deeply worried about the return of Dr Who, after years of trying to convince my long-suffering friends that, yes, honestly it could work in the modern day and no, really, there were children out there who'd love it like I did, honest. 'Rose' was a better first episode than we'd dared hoped for, with the next two stories alternating 'futuristic' and 'historical' stories setting out the programme's exceptionally wide boundaries just like the days of old, a neat touch. But it was 'Dalek' that made me cry and proved that this new series of Dr Who wasn't just worthy of the name but was already stepping in directions even the old one hadn't matched for quite a while. Juggling an enemy that half the audience knew inside out and half the audience had never met before must have been a huge obstacle for writer Robert Shearman, not least because yet more production problems meant that the use of the daleks was only 'okayed' by Terry Nation's estate at the last minute (an early version of the Toclofane would have been the replacement). Giving us just one lone dalek, dealing with its back story as an alien who only knows how to destroy despite having no reason to once its race is (apparently) destroyed and seeing the Dr's apparently over-the-top hysterics as the dalek casually sits there staring at him, captive, is classic Dr Who, exciting and exhilarating but also poignant and balancing several ideas at once. If you didn't know the daleks then the Dr is the 'nasty' alien here, ranting and raving away (and bringing out the best in Christopher Eccleston's short-lived time as the timelord). If you do know their background then you feel the Dr's frustration as no one around him, even new companion Rose, considers the alien enough of a threat and you can see the bloodbath about to come by the end of the story. Back in the 1970s and especially the 1980s the Daleks had been devalued from their beginnings as a race of mutants fuelled by revenge and anger into yet another robot creature who don't feel pain yet love inflicting it on others until they get shot enough times. 'Dalek' is such a clever episode because makes us remember the origins of the species without having to keep referring back to Davros and everything that came 'after' 1975 and making us feel for the dalek every bit as much as the doctor. It was almost a shame when the daleks came back in the final two-parter en masse after this superb bit of writing and acting, which added more to dalek legend in one go than a whole army of dalek annuals, spin-off series and special editions of Dr Who Magazine... Let's hope Shearman writes some more for the series soon!

17) "Human Nature/The Family Of Blood"

(Season 3A, Stories 8 and 9, May 26th-June 2nd 2007)


After a slightly shaky second 'modern' series (written quickly as Russell T Davies was convinced he'd only get one series in which to cram as many ideas possible) things are really back on track by the third. For me Martha was a lot more likeable than Rose, quieter but more self-sufficient than most past companions and much of this story relies on her support of the doctor. 'Human Nature' started off as arguably the best of the many 'New Adventures' books written to fill in time between the 7th and 8th Drs while the series was off the air. Paul Cornell's clever script (with some clever additions by Russell T added to make it more visual) has the Dr hiding his timelord origins from 'The Family Of Blood', creatures trying to track him down. Hiding as a history teacher (in homage to Barbara) at an English school in 1913, David Tennant gets his first real opportunity to show off his acting range within the series and the viewer doesn't half feel for Martha as the Doctor ignores her or is rude to her throughout most of the story, acting more like Hartnell's grumpy Dr than his own bouncy 'Tigger' interpretation of the role and hinting at his inner darker side. One of the sad features of modern Dr Who is that by making so many of the stories stand-alone 50-minute parts we don't get the same amount of classic cliffhangers we used to, but the one we get between these two 'parts' is a classic, the viewer all but pleading for the Dr to follow Martha and return to his 'old' self while the monsters are ready to pounce and the First World War gets ever nearer, ready to wipe out even the few characters who survive life at this school in this story. Clever, emotional and with more character added to the Dr than we'd seen since the Tom Baker years, this is modern Who at its absolute best.

18) "Blink"

(Season 3A, Story 10, June 9th 2007)


As if that wasn't enough, current showrunner Stephen Moffat (a quick cheer for his 'Press Gang'series, the single greatest TV show ever made after Dr Who) then topped 'Human Nature' a week later with a story that barely features the Dr and Martha at all. Based on a superb short story written for the 2005 Dr Who Annual (in which main character Sally Sparrow is much younger), this story introduces the new series' best new creations (closely followed by the 'Ood', although I have a soft spot for the Hath too) the 'Weeping Angels', statues that feed off a person's timeline but as a consequence end up sending them back in time. For a series about time-travel, it's surprising how few times Dr Who plays with time within a series (1965's 'The Ark' is the closest example before this, jumping ahead 200 years between episodes two and three, which is a great idea, but the dialogue is a bit too clunky to make this best-of list even if the alien Monoids do have some spiffing Beatles wigs that naturally we at the past-preserving Alan's Album Archives think are less funny than the skinhead look everyone seems to be wearing now.. ) 'Blink', though, makes fine use of 'hints' given to Sally Sparrow by her friends sent back into the past and the Dr's own warnings, both those written in true horror movie mould physically on the wall and the very clever and modern idea of a DVD 'Easter Egg' (and, yes, the Dr's warning is indeed an 'Easter Egg' on the DVD for this episode!) Considering this is yet another story with a production problem (well - sort of; the production team was commissioned for 14 episodes a year including Christmas specials but only had the resources and time to make 13 so made two at the same time, with the Dr and Martha spending most of their time watching Derek Jacobi return as the Master in 'Utopia') 'Blink' is a very clever, very inventive, very emotional piece of television and Carey Mulligan (as Sally Sparrow) deserves her own spin-off series every bit as much as Torchwood and the much-missed Sarah Jane.

19) "Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead"

(Season 4A, Stories 8 and 9, May 31st-June 7th 2008)


Another Moffat script, from the days when his stories always made sense, didn't have some cheap get-out clause inserted near the end and the weight of the whole production wasn't on his shoulders, this is a script whose pay-off still hasn't arrived yet five years on. Clearly a huge influence on 'The Time Traveller's Wife' this story has the first appearance of River Song, later the Dr's Wife and most important person in his life, but meeting the Dr out-of-order so that he doesn't know her yet (we still don't properly know who she is yet, other than Amy's daughter created in some way by The Tardis, but my money's on her being a future version of Clara or perhaps a regeneration of Romana - you heard it here first, folks). Her death, before we've properly met her yet (and which will haunt the Dr for some time, knowing what fate has in store for her) is a superb bit of acting and writing even before the twist that, shucks, she hasn't actually died. Before that, though, we have the wonderful and very Dr Who-ey idea of a planet library filled with nothing but books, the Vashta-Nerada that live in shadows and feed off human flesh (and are the creepiest monsters since the Phillip Hinchcliffe days circa 1975), a little girl whose really the back-up computer in charge of the planet and a fascinating alternate timestream for companion Donna in which she has a whole life away from the Dr complete with the husband and children she's always wanted and never has in the series proper (Catherine Tate, an unusual bit of casting in many ways and not always comfortable with her character in 'ordinary' circumstances, excels herself with emotionally charged scenes like this one). There are so many ideas whizzing past your head it's often a strain to keep up, but despite its complexity this is a very easy to follow two-parter with another clasic cliffhanger and a storyline that hits just the right notes of warmth and horror.

20) "The Eleventh Hour"

(Season 5A, Story 1, April 3rd 2010)


Following David Tennant was going to be a hard task for any actor and to be honest Matt Smith wasn't quite up to the job (although he's the best of all the actors so far whenever the script calls for the Doctor to seem absolutely hopelessly alien and out of his depth when trapped on Earth - Pertwee's Dr wouldn't have lasted five minutes with UNIT if he'd acted like the 11th Dr does in 'The Power Of Three'). However my hopes were raised with his debut story, again written by Steven Moffat, with the best entry for any companion ever when the Dr lands in Amy Pond's garden and - thanks to a few accidents with time - turns up eight years late when he's due. Dr Who has had many re-launches across the years and this one - which starts off by making the Dr charmingly eccentric and alien (the fish fingers dipped in custard is a nice, quotable touch) and ends up with him powerful and scary, the only solution for Earth's latest crisis even though nobody seems to be listening to him, like the days of old - is the best since Troughton's debut (now sadly lost. Or is it?) Frankly it's all a bit of a shame when Amy turns up as an adult halfway through this story - no disrespect to Karen Gillan, who does what she can in a part that basically calls for her to be a Scottish version of Tegan but with less reason to be that annoying, but Amelia Pond is a much more interesting character when she's aged ten. Lots of 'first stories' feature the Drs not quite settled into their roles yet, but the cleverly titled 'The 11th Hour' (it introduces the 11th Dr, in case you hand't twigged that - although then again now we have John Hurt's 'Dr' that title makes absolutely no sense at all) sees Matt Smith understanding 'his' doctor perfectly from the off so it's a shame that he never again has quite this much scope for his character to play with again (the 11th Dr has spent most of his time on the Tardis surrounded by characters much more interesting than himself, from Amy herself and fiance Rory to current companion Clara and even Rory's dad). Forget what's due to come, though, 'The Eleventh Hour' is classic storytelling that weaves the new Dr and new companion into the plot so cleverly you've half forgotten about Tennant's Dr when it ends - and given how impressive his four years were in the role that's high praise indeed.

So what will the future have in store? Personally I'm deeply disappointed by the casting of Peter Capaldi from what I've seen him in (surely anyone from the cast of 'Being Human', the only series that's come anywhere close to Dr Who since it's return, would have been ten times better?) and the last season of Matt Smith's was generally speaking the worst in many a year (apart from the last thrilling 'Name Of The Doctor' episode anyway and Paul McGann's recent shock return which did more in six minutes of screen-time than his TV Movie' from 1996 did with 90 - that bodes well for this week's anniversary special, so I guess I should just let zygons be zygons). But then I've been proved wrong before - every time Dr Who seems to be getting stale, smug, losing direction or ideas it always surprises me. No other programme has ever made it to the age of 50 before and stayed so true to its original identity (even with a terrible 16 year gap between 1989 and 2005, separated by just one terrible American TV Movie, that typically started just after I'd discovered this wonderful new world) and few make it to the second year with anything like as much passion, intrigue, ideas and power that this series has even on it's off-days. Let's hope that, in 50 years time, when 'Alan's Album Archives' has been revealed as the true source of Gallifrey's 'Matrix' (which existed long before the films of the same name made it a cop out clause for bad dialogue and kung-fu moves), we'll be able to update this section with at least another 20 episodes of pure television magic (frankly I'm itching to go back and make this list a top 50, but I'm aware I've bored all my non-Who followers long enough). Stranger things have happened after all - such getting a series this complex, breathtaking and open-ended on television back in 1963 for a start, never mind making it that good for so many years and making it ever-so-nearly-as-good the second time round too. Happy birthday Doctor from all of us at Alan's Album Archives! But remember - it's far from being all over...



There are also two original Dr Who scripts written for this site for your perusal:

‘Lost and Found’ http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/dr-who-lost-and-found-script.html

‘The Vikings’ http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/dr-who-vikings.html

Not to mention a feast of time-travelling 'April Fool's Day' spoof newsletters, most of which feature an appearance by one or other Doctors (heck, Alan's Album Archives is sponsoring the programme by the time of it's 100th anniversary, apparently, so we'd better get a move on in terms of followers...)

(#1, published 2009, set in 2034): http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009_03_29_archive.html

(#2, published 2010, set in 2110): http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010_03_28_archive.html

(#3, published 2011, set in 2026): http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011_03_27_archive.html

(#4, 'Swedish Elizabethan' edition, published 2012, set in a timeless universe): http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012_04_01_archive.html

(#5, 'Max's Space Museum' edition, published 2013, set in 7114): http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/news-views-and-music-issue-7114-maxs.html


Monday, 18 November 2013

The Beach Boys "Surfin' USA" (1963)



1) Beach Boys - Advertising Horde by Alan Pattinson








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.

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'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' USA' (1963) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-beach-boys-surfin-usa-1963.html

'Surfer Girl' (1963) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/the-beach-boys-surfer-girl-1963.html

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.nl/2016/09/the-beach-boys-little-deuce-coupe-1963.html

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/the-beach-boys-shut-down-volume-two-1964.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/2014/12/xmas-bumper-issue-revised-beach-boys.html

'Today' (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-beach-boys-today-1965.html

'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965)
http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/news-views-and-music-issue-65-beach.html

'Party!' (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/the-beach-boys-party-1965.html

'Pet Sounds' (1966) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/12/the-beach-boys-pet-sounds-1966.html


'Surf's Up' (1971) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/the-beach-boys-surfs-up-1971-album.html


’15 Big Ones’ (1976) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/the-beach-boys-15-big-ones-1976.html

'Love You' (1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/07/the-beach-boys-love-you-1977.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

'M.I.U Album' (1978) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/the-beach-boys-miu-album-1978.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

'The Beach Boys' (1985) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/the-beach-boys-1985.html

'Still Cruisin' (1989) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/10/the-beach-boys-still-cruisin-1989.html

'Summer In Paradise' (1992) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/the-beach-boys-summer-in-paradise-1992.html

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008_06_29_archive.html

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

'That's Why God Made The Radio' (2012) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/the-beach-boys-thats-why-god-made-radio.html

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings  http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/the-beach-boys-unreleased-songs-top.html

A Complete (ish) Guide To The Beach Boys' Surviving TV Clips http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/the-beach-boys-complete-ish-guide-to.html

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One 1962-86 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/beach-boys-sololivecompilationunrelease.html

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two 1988-2014 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/beach-boys-sololivecompilationunrelease_25.html

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/beach-boys-non-album-songs-part-one.html

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012 http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/beach-boys-non-album-songs-part-two.html

Essay: The Beach Boys and The American Dream https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/the-beach-boys-essay-american.html
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/01/the-beach-boys-five-landmark-concerts.html