Monday, 26 September 2016

The Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe" (1963)

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The Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe" (1963)

Little Deuce Coupe/Ballad Of Ol' Betsy/Be True To Your School/Car Crazy Cutie/Cherry Cherry Coupe/409//Shut Down/Spirit Of America/Our Car Club/No-Go Showboat/A Young Man Is Gone/Custom Machine

'I'm getting bugged writing the same reviews, I gotta get back to when concept albums were new, it's not just for looks man it also drags...'

This record, dear readers, is the first ever concept album in rock and roll: not 'Sgt Peppers', not 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake', not 'A Village Green Preservation Society', not even 'Pet Sounds'. Of course it's not quite the first ever concept album - some of those 1940s and 50s Sinatra albums were equally miserable or loved-up from track to track and there are a few jazz albums all based around one theme that could probably have a go there too. No, this is the first concept in rock, which is a slightly different prospect. Rock and pop, after all, was for teenagers. You weren't meant to think about it, you were meant to dance to it for two and a half minutes until the next entirely different song came along. Though a lot of pop songs from the 1950s do sound the same, it has to be said, no one else had ever quite strung songs based on the same theme together before. Imagine: owning a long-playing record that sounded like its own entity, rather than a collection of singles, for the first time in your life (hey Sinatra albums are expensive!); this is what The Beach Boys do, moving on from their songs about being a teenager and surfing into a full-blown collection of songs about the joys of the motorcar! Yes, alright, I hear what you're saying - this isn't a great opportunity for deep intellectual thoughts about love and life and loss, just an excuse for yet more songs about pink slips and motors revving under the hood (bar 'Be True To Your School' anyway), but even so this is a colossal step forward for 1963 and a band on only their fourth record. For this reason and this reason alone 'Little Deuce Coupe' never gets the credit it deserves and this overlooked Beach Boys record might actually be one of the most important they ever made. Or in fact anybody ever made. The Beach Boys are inventing the rules here, even if they're doing it in a language they were still making damn well sure teenagers everywhere still understood (and wanted to buy).

That is, though, the only real reason to own this album which even by early-1960s-era-Capitol standards is something of a cash-in. Teenagers had three weeks since the last album 'Surfer Girl' to save up their pennies and buy the next Beach Boys long-player. No that wasn't a mis-print, I really do mean three weeks: that's a lot of working at the gasoline pumping station and McDonalds for a generation of teenagers who only got given expensive records at Christmas (this is, by the way, by far the shortest gap between records by the same AAA band; curiously enough Brian Wilson is equal second with just four months between .'Gettin' In Over My Head' and the re-built 'Smile' in 2004). Nobody quite knows why Capitol were quite so eager or so greedy and keen Beach Boys collectors everywhere must have been horrified to learn on buying this record that they already owned four of the songs on it, with the exact same mixes of '409' (from 'Surfin' Safari'), 'Shut Down' (from Surfin' USA'), 'Our Car Club' and the title track (both from 'Surfer Girl') repeated again to fill up space. People really weren't thinking about Beach Boys albums as works of art at the time and the speed and carelessness with which this album was made screams at you throughout - not just the songs that had already been released but on the new tracks where vocal tracks disappear mid-note, backing tracks swamp the band's harmonies and the traditional accident of a Beach Boys cough somewhere in the middle eight starts getting ridiculous. Even two of the 'new' songs are re-writes, Brian recycling a recent single ('Be True To Your School'), 'Cherry Cherry Coupe' came from standalone single 'Pamela Jean' (on which The Beach Boys performed as The Survivors) and 'A Young Man Is Gone' borrowed the entire melody from The Four Freshman's 'Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring', a fact that wouldn't have been lost to the fans eager enough to hear the band sing it in concert that way. That leaves just five songs that are entirely new and they're all based round the same subject: I've got a brand new motor and I like it more than girls. This flies in the face of every past Beach Boys track (even the surfing songs never treated the sport higher than a teenage romance) and yet no one seems to consider that odd. Curiously conceived, curiously made and very curiously written, this overlooked Beach Boys record cash-in might also be the stupidest they ever made. Or in fact anybody ever made.

And yet even at their earliest and silliest there's something irresistible about this period of The Beach Boys. No other band was in such fine voice back then (not in 1963 anyway) and even if Brian knows he has to make another record to sell first and foremost, he's still having fun learning his trade and trying to get as good as he can. The productions have really gone up a gear, with Brian taking full control for the first time ever in his young life (he was, after all, still just 21 at this point). There are some moments on here - 'Our Car Club' and 'No Go Showboat' especially - where there's so much going on and in such an elaborate production-heavy way that it sounds as if you're listening to the future, even if the words seem firmly rooted in 1950s traditions. The band also mean every single word they sing, even when it's nonsense: back then Mike Love was one of the best frontmen in the business and the layers and layers of vocals make even the daftest lyric sound slightly poignant, such as 'The Ballad Of Ol' Betsy' (in which the narrator loses his first ever car)  or 'Car Crazy Cutie' (in which, shock horror, a girl likes engines as much as her boy). You can forgive this record a few rushed edges given the circumstances behind making it mere weeks after the sessions for the last album ended (with all eight new songs recorded in a single session on September 2nd 1963, which is hard work even by Beach Boys standards)  and, no, this record was never going to hold up to the British Invasion ready to arrive in a few precious months (it falls apart compared to the British equivalent 'With The Beatles', even if this album contains far more originals and less cover songs). But it's as good as anyone could get under the musical rules still present in America in 1963 before the world changes and at times you can already hear The Beach Boys a-revving up their engines and eagerly waiting for the changes they can hear coming on the horizon. It's not their fault they aren't the ones bringing that changing world in - they've already invented the mixture of Chuck Berry and Four Freshman that everyone in their day was attempting, plus inventing the concept album and establishing the fact that bands should write their own material, at least most of the time. That's enough for one era. Don't be greedy - leave the rest to The Beatles and co.

This record's other saving grace is new lyricist Roger Christian. Much older than the band and already an established success with his own radio programme, Roger was better suited to help in his role of moving forward musically without leaving anyone behind than most. As a star in his own right he was also better placed to stand up to Murray 'Dad' Wilson during the inevitable run-ins over the new material that had killed off the promising career of Gary Usher before him. Roger had no interest in surfing though and made his condition of working with The Beach Boys clear from the first; his first love had always been cars and he had been particularly impressed with Gary's lyrics for '409' and Mike Love's for 'Shut Down' and wondered why Brian hadn't written more in the same sort of formula. Roger tried to write to the same sort of principle as these songs, but he has a very different feel and flow to his predecessors, being more interested in detail and, well, mechanics in all senses of the word than the emotional teenage abandon of earlier Beach Boys car songs. His lyrics are much longer and stretch The Beach Boys' vocal abilities to their limits, with them usually ending each line with a big gulp of both air and relief. He's not afraid to go into detail, updating 'Little Deuce Coupe's list of little observations with a whole list of pistons, rods and axels. Few fans probably noticed or cared, but it does give these songs a sort of authenticity amongst the car enthusiasts of the world that they never enjoyed with the surfer movement (because only Dennis knew the details to put into song and sadly nobody was listening to Dennis in 1963). The fact that this album was the band's 'autumn' release at the beginning of their second year probably wasn't lost on anyone either: nobody was going to buy a Beach Boys surfing album when the beach was freezing and they had maths homework to do, but they might just buy an album that celebrated the car they were saving up to buy or take out at the weekend. Brian, too, knew one hell of a lot more about cars than he did about surfboards and approved the change as being similar enough to have the same appeal, but different enough to allow him to go somewhere new. It also probably wasn't lost on either Roger or Brian that with The Beach Boys selling well but not ridiculously they might not be able to afford a house out of making this album, but they could probably afford a car each!

The biggest reason this album turned out the way it did, though, was another sneaky trick Capitol pulled on the nations' teenagers in 1963. Noticing that 'Shut Down', the humble B-side of 'Surfin' USA', had sold very well in its own right (ie enough teenagers had walked into a shop to ask for the song by that name not the A side, even though it got far less radio airplay), they flung together their own car compilation named after the song. Though 'The Beach Boys' were only mentioned in small print, many fans saw the name (and the sheer amount of Brian Wilson songwriting credits as the set included Jan and Dean songs he'd written) and assumed it was one of their albums. Capitol seem to have encouraged the misleading of fans in this way, knowing that people thinking a catch-all set was by their biggest act probably wouldn't hurt. No one told The Beach Boys and there was nothing they could do, but the success did inspire Brian into thinking along similar lines and the packaging of the two albums is very similar: a crisp white background filled with close-ups of a motor. Of course if you bought that album by accident you'd have been even more annoyed at this one, with both records containing 'Shut Down' and '409'.

Whatever the cause, cars seemed like a good idea to follow, even if 'Little Deuce Coupe' actually gets rid of most of the things people had come to associate with The Beach Boys by then, again making this little unloved album a far more daring record than people realise. The only females on the whole album are the very macho 'Car Crazy Cutie' and the pom-pom wavers of 'Be True To Your School' - there are no Judys, no Surfer Girls, no California Girls. In fact this is easily the most masculine Beach Boys record - it celebrates womaniser and racer James Dean, involved the narrator 'shutting down' another driver and features several narrators who seem to have eyes only for their motors. Back in 1963 most Beach Boys fans were girls (mainly because of Dennis, a little bit for Mike) - all the live footage of the period shows a sea of screaming teenage girls with only one or two bored and deaf looking brothers/boyfriends. You'd have thought that would have made the sales go down a gear or so but no, this album continued the strong sales of the albums just before it incredibly, despite the presence of four older songs. Oddly there's no mention of sport either across the whole record and not one surfboard.

This despite the fact that in this period of Beach Boys history Brian Wilson has just done the unthinkable: have a number one American hit record with one of his own songs about surfing! Unfortunately The Beach Boys didn't sing on it - Jan and Dean did - with 'Sidewalk Surfin' so close to The Beach Boys sound it could have been one of theirs with very little work whatsoever. This is, sadly, the start of a slight loss of faith in the band's superstar that begins to creep in little bit by little bit in this period. Why was Brian writing number one hits for his friends - why wasn't he writing them for his own band? Murray Wilson, particularly, flipped his wig and demanded that his son work harder for 'the team', perhaps missing the bigger picture which was that The Beach Boys sound was so in demand by the summer of 1963 that even sound-alike acts were scoring hits with it. Jan and Dean happened to get their first, but The Beach Boys weren't far behind with 'I Get Around' right around the corner (this album's 'Be True To Your School' wasn't far behind either). Brian, though, had a much happier time making music with Jan and Dean than he did his own family and if anything it's that lightness of touch that shines through on 'Sidewalkin' Surf'. Brian could simply have released a Beach Boys version of the single, but impressively given the circumstances (he was terrified of his dad - and his cousin) he stood up to everyone, shooed Murray out of the production control-room and recorded some care songs that didn't sound anything like his most recent hit. This is the making of Brian in the short-term - and sadly the breaking of him in the long-term as, one weary year of British Invasion competition and parental pressure later, he'll crack for the first time. Not yet, though. For now 'Little Deuce Coupe' has the same lightness of touch that all of those other period Beach Boys albums seem to have.

In truth it's a bit of a step backwards from 'Surfer Girl', which was a bit of a patchy album but featured a real move forward in some areas and some breakthrough songs. Most of the breakthrough work on 'Little Deuce Coupe' comes from the older songs (especially the title track and 'Shut Down', with the exception of '409' sounding so much older in context than just a year and a bit), while the new ones have the brake on as much as the accelerator. 'A Young Man Is Gone' celebrates the hero of yesteryear with the soundtrack of yesteryear a capella folk with it too for goodness sake and doesn't sound like a record from the end of 1963 'should'. Tracks like 'No Go Showboat' and 'Cherry Cherry Coupe' have some great singalong parts but are, by contrast with other songs from this period in Beach Boys evolution, downright daft. 'Custom Machine' is a real step backwards, with its primitive drumming and 'wahhh! waaaaah!' siren chorus. 'The Ballad Of Ol' Betsy' is too wordy and way too grownup for this album, an adult song about loss and moving on from a broken heart welded onto the broken bonnet of a beloved first car. This album is a mess and despite the thematic links in the lyrics often sounds on both a musical and production level as we're in a car sale surrounded by so many different models it makes out head spin. The 12 songs on 'Little Deuce Coupe' have nothing in common except The Beach Boys license plates. It's a car-crash, with few survivors.

And yet, when this album works, it works, old or new, it doesn't matter. Few teenagers in the 1960s were collectors, well not till the end of the 1960s anyway - they didn't buy up every LP for the pure and simple fact they couldn't afford it (that's why compilations sound particularly well in this era, with teenagers swapping singles and LPs around so everybody got to hear them, but few people got to buy them). Having four old songs on here seems like career sabotage today but it wasn't quite as heartless as that in 1963, even if you doubt Capitol cared much behind the few extra bucks they were making from having these songs here. They work anyway, by and large: 'Little Deuce Coupe' is a fun Chuck Berry-style character number, 'Shut Down' is a surprisingly aggressive rocker, '409' is cute but old and 'Our Car Club' is one of those exotic, complicated models with a high production price tag. Of the new songs 'Be True To Your School' really doesn't fit here (does the car take the cheerleaders to school or something?!) but it's one of the better period Beach Boys tracks on single which grabs you by the ear and plays the 'good boy doing well at school' card, which was actually probably braver than the 'wild kid in the school holidays' card they played so often (a shame the album cut isn't anywhere near as good, though). 'Car Crazy Cutie' is good fun and is the first ever Beach Boys song to feature all the band singing parts one by one with an opening 'round' giving way to a cheery song that sounds like the best parts of lots of earlier songs stuck together. 'Spirit Of America' too is an excellent song, actually about a car rather than a country but it kind works for both, with a lovely slowly unwinding melody and one of Brian's most gorgeous falsetto vocals. Who cares if he's singing about a car, he sounds as if he's in love in a way that only Brian Wilson can. Is that enough to buy this album? Ah, it's probably best to leave this one in the garage unless you're a collector really and especially if you already own the famous songs, but if you've ignored this album for decades because of all those bad reviews this poor album always gets then you might find a surprise. This is 'Little Deuce Coupe' - unless you're a big enough Beach Boys fan to actually own the thing, you don't know what it got!

(Note: first published in our review for 'Surfer Girl', News, Views and Music Issue #244  on May 12th 2014)
'Little Deuce Coupe' is along with 'Fun Fun Fun' to come arguably the best car song the band ever came up with and will even become the title track of the next Beach Boys album (released just a month later than 'Surfer Girl'!) dedicated to the band's growing inland fanbase who didn't know one end of a surfboard from another. 'Little Deuce Coupe' is simply great fun writing, a clearly proud teenager showing off about his car despite his opening line promising 'I'm not bragging so don't put me down'. Technically speaking the band mean the 'Ford Model B' although practically everyone called the cars 'little deuce coupes' once the song came out. One other line in the song that confuses many: the narrator's assertion that he's got the 'pink slip daddy' - this was the piece of paper in California that was effectively a teen's driving licence (is the narrator promising his girlfriend's parents that he can actually drive the car and she'll be safe?) A fun song with a typically technical lyric from Brian's DJ friend Roger Christian that doesn't get in the way, 'Little Deuce Coupe' is perhaps best known for its distinctive shuffle beat, a kind of brisk walking pace that manages to join boogie woogie with rock and roll. The band are clearly having fun with the vocals too - especially Mike, who absolutely shines in his role of the teen who has everything and can't stop showing off about it. Every teen with a love for a good motor wanted a little deuce coupe after hearing this song - which was a shame because, being Beach Boy fans, they must have all rushed out to buy a '409' the year before and would have to safe up for a 'Cherry Coupe' and a 'Little Honda' before too long as well...'Little Deuce Coupe' has deservedly become almost as famous as any Beach Boys song and despite not being a single the first time round per se made a highly respectable #15 on the charts simply from people requesting that 'side' of the 45 whenever they bought the record from a shop.

'The Ballad Of Ol' Betsy' is all too clearly modelled on 'Surfer Girl' (which itself borrowed rather too heavily from the Disney song 'When You Wish Upon A Star'), but somehow this tale of love for a second-hand car that's falling apart doesn't quite have the same emotional impact somehow. The Beach Boys are very much in 'Four Freshman' mode here, which really isn't their best sound - their vocals tend to drag a little when doing all those slow 'aaahs' and 'oohs' and the rush to make this song means that Brian's usual perfectionism goes astray over his double tracking. There aren't many Beach Boys songs that are boring, but this one comes close. However there are some good points too: Roger Christian absolutely nails the sense of proud many teenagers felt on owning their first cars/wrecks and portrays the loss of a loyal jalopy as a real rite of passage in the lyrics. The key change into the second half (when you think that Brian's already reached as high as anyone could possibly go) is sublime and one of those typical Beach Boys treats that proves how much extra attention to detail was going on, even in the days before the band started using session musicians and combining funny sounds. And the finale is staggering, a run of long held a capella notes that aren't so much sung as hummed. Old school this might be, but there's nothing wrong with being proud of the school you come from.

Talking of which, here's the one song on the album where the car link is tenuous: the #6 American hit single 'Be True To Your School'. Many Beach Boys aficionados rate it amongst the best of their early singles and for good reason: the tension and urgency of their faster songs like 'Dance Dance Dance' and 'Fun Fun Fun' are there, but so is the 'story' of their slower hit songs like 'Surfer Girl'. An ear-catching opening is born for Mike Love, rotten pupil as he was by his own admission, as he attacks a friend for saying his school is 'best' - I mean, seriously? His school was unarguably the best - it had sweaters with your name on if you were in the track and field team, they won every football game in the league and everyone is proud to come from there, complete with added pom-poms and school chant (wherever 'there' is, Hawthorne High presumably, but cleverly the band never name the school so we can all pretend it's our school that's the best. Well you can. My school was terrible. They couldn't even teach the hidden depth and meaning in 'Eleanor Rigby' properly. I'm not going to be true to mine whatever Mike Love says). Oddly enough, though, it's not a Mike Love lyric but a rare Brian Wilson one dating back to the brief era in between his work with Gary Usher and Roger Christian. It's one of his very best and though Brian pretty much hated school as well (note how most of the narrator's pride comes from the sports team - Brian was a great runner and American football player; Al Jardine was too and they met on the school team when Brian accidentally made a wrong 'call' and everyone sat on Al and broke his arm) the lyric rings true, perhaps truer than most for early period Beach Boys surfing schools written by a man who hated being in water.  The band's loyalty is almost as impressive as the song's structure as the song goes from anger to joyous celebration in quick succession and like the best early Beach Boys songs this track really sums up the exuberance of youth. Unfortunately, though, Brian hasn't had time to really nail this song yet with perhaps an hour at best to get it down on tape, so what we have here on 'Little Deuce Coupe' is the earlier, inferior album cut. Not for the last time, the single is better and had a lot more love and care thrown at it, complete with Brian's in-laws The Honeys playing the part of cheerleaders ('Get back, get back, waaaaay back!'), a horn section,a much more prominent guitar part and much more of a carnival atmosphere. Thankfully most CD re-issues of this album include both so you can compare. Even the album version has its moments, though and is one of the two strongest amongst the eight new songs. The chorus 'Rah Rah Rah Rah Sis Boom Bah' has never sounded so good either.

'Car Crazy Cutie' is the other 'new' highlight, a classy bit of Beach Boys writing and arranging even if the performance is showing up signs of being put together at speed again. The opening is sublime - yeah The Beach Boys might not have sung the line 'Da Doo Ron Ron' first, but they absolutely make it their own here with an impressive opening that for the first time uses the Beach Boys as individuals rather than just as a massed choir (in order - Mike, Dennis, Carl and Al, then Brian). The backing might sound a little too much like 'Little Deuce Coupe' for comfort, but in terms of melody this is actually the better song, with a lovely 'woa-a-a-ah' hook and a lovely Brian Wilson double-tracked lead that flows so naturally it burns rubber on all four wheels. You can tell, though, that the lyrics (again mainly by Brian) aren't quite as inspired and he doesn't have either his cousin's wit or his new friend Roger's encyclopaedic knowledge about cars. That's because Brian spent a long time crafting the melody, determined to deliver a 'hit' for old friend, first flatmate and writing partner Bob Norberg and his group 'The Survivors', with a first draft celebrating the typical teenagery tale of a holiday romance with a cute girl named 'Pamela Jean' (The Beach Boys ended up providing the backing vocals and instruments, making it quite the collector's item until a surprise re-issue on vinyl in the mid-1980s). The song flopped badly in the charts for some reason (it's both superior and more Beach Boysy than 'Sidewalk Surfin'), so Brian reclaimed it and wrote the lyric at the eleventh hour, with Roger apparently re-writing the lyrics later. This is clearly far from the deepest song The Beach Boys ever sang (basic plot: the girl likes cars as much as her boy and was born 'with axel grease under her finger-nails'; it starts off as a surprise proto-feminist anthem until things get back to normal in the last verse when every other boy gets jealous over her 'big blue eyes and candy-apple lips'). However it's one of the funniest, jolliest songs The Beach Boys ever sang. A shame, then, that they don't sound so much jolly as jetlagged (even with such a short time to make this song, Brian still drilled the band's vocals over and over according to the bootlegs and it's probably the most complicated part they sang that day, so no wonder they're all slightly fed up), but that's a small price for a small nugget of Beach Boys goodness.

Alas 'Cherry Cherry Coupe' is just a drag. Not a dragster, that would be fun, but a drag. This wannabe 'Little Deuce Coupe' (both in terms of car and song) never quite sparks somehow and sounds like it comes with a flat battery. Mike is so bored he really messes up the double-tracking while Carl, the loudest on the backing vocals for once, sounds like he's just been badly scolded by either his brother or dad or cousin or all three. Legend has it that this song was a re-write too, of 'Surfin' USA' outtake 'Land Ahoy', but the similarities are slight - and frankly 'Land Ahoy' is the better song, embarrassing sailor cries and all.  It's just that nothing happens on this song which remains firmly in cruise mode without sparking to life and showing what it can do. Lyrically this song just repeats 'Little Deuce Coupe' with a tale of envy and speed, without the added wit and rebellion that made 'Fun Fun Fun' so exciting an album later. Lines like 'chrome reversed rims with whitehall sticks' and 'it turns a quarter mile in 1:06' also reveal why the Roger Christian years, good as they were, never resulted in a song as memorable or with such universal appeal as 'California Girls' or 'In My Room'. Oh and what is a 'solenoid system', this song's equivalent of the 'pink slip' which fans didn't understand even at the time? (Don't bother I've had a look - apparently it's a coil wrapped round a tight helix to better convey petrol fumes; catchy, man).

(Note: first published in our review for 'Surfin' Safari', News, Views and Music Issue #28 on April 20th 2009)
[13] ‘409’ is the most assured of all of the very earliest Beach Boys recordings – amazingly the ‘Surfin’ Safari’ album (the first ever AAA album in chronological terms) contains not only the two templates for the band’s ‘surfing’ records but their ‘car’ records as well! Despite another slightly dodgy (or at least under-rehearsed) performance, this is quite possibly the best of the band’s early ‘car’ records – it swings more than ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, has more to say than ‘Shut Down’ and sounds more heartfelt than novelty records like ‘Our Car Club’ and ‘Cherry Cherry Coupe’, though it dated faster than any of them purely in performance terms. Written so that fans inland would have a Beach Boys record to buy that related to them, ‘409’ is another classic vignette of teenage life in 1962, back when having a car to take your girl out on a date was the most important thing in the world. Brian’s already got the knack of mixing Four Freshman vocal influences, Chuck Berry guitar licks and early 60s novelty lyrics and the use of sound effects (which don’t appear on Beatles records until 1965!) is well ahead of its time. Classic stuff.

(first published as part of our review for 'Surfin' USA', News, Views and Music Issue #220  on November 18th 2013)
[28] '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.

'Spirit Of America' looks like it's going to be a tale of American folklore and heroes - especially on an album that includes a tribute to James Dean. But no: 'Spirit Of America' is another sodding car and the result of a conversation between Brian and Roger that ran 'when we get bucket-loads of money from this albums, what's the car you've always really wanted to buy?!' Well, even 'Little Deuce Coupe' didn't sell enough to buy this baby: 'Spirit Of America' was the rather jingoistic name Craig Breedlove (no relation to Mike) gave to the car that broke the landspeed record at the Utah Flats  on September 5th 1963, just four days before this recording took place (that's the one good thing about The Beach Boys being made to release albums at such a pace - they managed to remain very topical, with this album in the shops even before the fuss about the record had died down). The rather-literal journalistic lyric describes the progress of the 'jet without wings' as the 'King of all cars' plays a 'dangerous game' yet comes through it all to 'average 407 per hour'. Ironic, then, that a song about a landspeed record should be so darned slow, with this another ballad in the 'Surfer Girl' mould without quite the legs or the beauty. There is, though, still much to admire, from the backing track mainly with Brian learning how to use horns with subtlety for the first time and there are many lessons here (such as the boogie woogie piano licks multi-tracked) that will find their way into 'Pet Sounds'. Brian copes admirably with the rather complicated lyric, while The Beach Boys sound a bit happier on backing vocals on this one (was it taped earlier in the day?) The melody, too, is rather lovely and the gear-shift from verse into chorus is so nicely judged that you don't even notice the join.

(Note: first published as part of our review for 'Surfer Girl', News, Views and Music Issue #244  on May 12th 2014)

 [44] 'Our Car Club' is another album highlight. I got to know this song first from the backing track on 'Stack O-Tracks' and wondered for years what the finished product might sound like: it's a very jazzy, very un-Beach Boys song that sounds more like Booker T and the MGs than their usual early style. I'm happy to admit I guessed completely wrong: the vocals sit across the backing, almost in competition with it, instead of following their melody and the result is one of the most complex and unusual Beach Boys creations of them all. Yes the lyrics are silly (a bunch of teenagers setting up their own 'car club' even though they don't have a car between them and seemingly far more interested in setting up rough initiation ceremonies for new members), but musically by 1963 standards this is like expecting The Spice Girls to do a prog rock album: it should be way way out of their league. This is clearly another 'Wrecking Crew' session and Hal Blaine's drumming is particularly inventive. It's also nice to hear a 'proper' saxophone part after hearing Mike Love honking two or three notes as in the past and there's an early sign of Brian's love of sudden, unexpected pauses (after 'this club's the very best) that will be a key part of his writing over the next few years (see 'The Little Girl I Once Knew' especially, whose long pause in the middle was daring for the day). Legend has it that this song started life as a quite different song named 'Rabbit's Foot' - although whether that was the 'real' subject of the song or simply a working title to be filled in later we'll sadly probably never know.

Brian's a touch shrill on 'No Go Showboat', though, which sounds like a step backwards to the 'comedy' lyrics of the first two Beach Boys albums. Having celebrated a surprising amount of 'winning' characters on this album, all of them with cars that other people idolise, it's good to hear The Beach Boys going back to a situation more of their fans would recognise. Brian's hapless narrator has spent all his money lovingly sprucing up a car and it looks fabulous! However he's spent more time thinking about looks than speed and when he drives away for the first time, it's a disaster. 'She's just for looks, not for drags' quips the band, while they also tip a nod of the head to the fact that not everyone can re-enact the lyrics to 'Shut Down' with the line 'When it comes to speed I'm outta luck, I'm even shut down by the ice cream truck!' backing wise there's an even stronger use of horns on this one behind the usual 'Boogie Woodie' beat and the backing vocals are impressively complex, even if Dennis' pat-a-cake drumming is showing signs of struggling. This time the melody and general groove of the song will get recycled for the later track 'Drive-In' from the 'All Summer Long' album in about nine months' time but is all-new for this album for once. The later song is much more fun and dynamic and Brian sings in a much more 'normal' voice on that one too, but 'No Go Showboat' has a certain charm too and is perhaps the most 'Chuck Berry'ish lyric on a Beach Boys album, telling a tale of miniature Americana every teenager of the day could recognise (probably quite a few even now). Roger still shoe-horns in an awful lot of technical references into this lyric though, including the memorable rhyme 'chrome goodies' with 'Ford woodies' (the vehicle used to transport surfboards to the beach, thus combining two Beach Boys topics in one).

Why is that when people love something they have to steal it? Brian Wilson especially it seems, who can't let go of his beloved Four Freshman and so turns to re-writing one of their standard songs by their main writer Bobby Troup. The band had been singing 'Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring' for years (the best version is a soundcheck taped in 1967 and included on the 'Smiley Smile/Wild Honey' CD) and a good thing too: sweet, poignant and heartfelt, it's a lovely chance to hear the four different Beach Boys vocal parts at their most separate and clear. Less essential to their canon, though, is the re-write 'A Young Man Is Gone' which Brian urged Mike to write, celebrating the life and especially the death of actor James Dean. Despite the fact that he lived his life fast with flashy motorbikes (hence the song's inclusion on this album), Dean just doesn't seem like a natural icon for The Beach Boys to follow somehow. He's way too 50s, flashy and 'cool' for a band who spent their time on stage in striped shirts and were already defining the 1960s sound before The Beatles and co came along and built on it. The Beach Boys were also never cool - well hardly ever cool, at least to the same degree; their respect and adulation was based more on Dennis' looks, Mike and Brian's voices and the band's ability to tap into things that teenagers could relate to; not the sort of flashy other-wordly icon that James Dean at least wanted to become. The celeration here of his death, which in truth caused by his recklessness though you wouldn't find many teenagers thinking that at the time and even the Beach Boys calima 'no one knows the reason why' though everyone really did by 1963, seems out of place in The Beach Boys catalogue somehow, despite similar songs written about JFK ('Warmth Of The Sun'), Carl ('Lay Dopwn Burden') and Brian himself ('Til' I Die'). We're used to mournful tributes from The Beach Boys, not celebrations - and yet, for all the a capella understatedness and the sad slow tempo, this is a celebration. It's an odd tribute, though, delivered by Mike Love with all the love of a tabloid or the subtlety of a picture postcard. 'Screaming tyre, flashing fire and gone was this new star...' while the desperate attempt to shoe-horn 'The Rebel Without A Cause' into the end of the song is tacky by Beach Boys standards. That said, the band sing from the heart and in the days before 'Spring' became available or bootlegs were around this was the first chance to hear just how prettily The Beach Boys could actually sing without all the rock instruments getting in the way. Actually they're stronger even than The Four Freshman, singing at a faster lick and with an even closer blend, plus there's far more going on in the way they hold their notes and pass each other in one great long jigsaw puzzle of counterpoint greatness. Just don't listen to what they're singing too closely or you'll be sick!

The album ends on more normal territory with perhaps the most Beach Boysy song on the whole album 'Custom Machine'. Built on a mega surf guitar riff and a 'Flight Of The Bumblebee' piano solo, even though there's not a surfboard in sight, the backing is exciting and fun, with even Dennis' unsturdy drumming nailing the song's sense of joyful abandon. Roger Christian's last lyric for the band is as impenetrable as the rest unless you really know your motors and not many other songs you'll ever hear starts with the line 'She's metal flake blue with a corvette grill' and know what it's actually talking about. However there's far more Beach Boys signatures in this too: after a verse setting up the mechanics about why this car is so good and why the mechanic narrator has improved it, we get a chorus in which Mike steps on the gas and the car goes 'waaaa-aaaah-aaaah!' in an irresistible moment of pure Beach Boys. The backing vocals are also amongst the tightest even this band ever did and you can drive a wheel nut between the gaps in the voices throughout. Unfortunately, though, this song rather peters out after a great beginning: after the first magical trip through from verse to chorus, we get another one straight away, a piano solo and then nothing - the song just fades well short of the two minute mark (which is short even by this album's compact standards). You'd have thought after spending all that time building the perfect hot-rod the band would have enjoyed showing it off a little more and placing this song at the end of the album is a little underwhelming as a finale too. Never mind though - the parts that are here in this 'Custom machine' work very well.

Which is kinda true of the whole album really: what's here and what's new is generally strong - up to standards with 'Surfer Girl' anyway and with none of those embarrassing instrumentals or spoken word 'comedy' pieces to pad stuff out. Given the quick turnaround since the last album, it's a wonder we didn't just get eight songs that listed the makes of cars over a Chuck Berry riff for hours. However, there's no escaping the fact that pretty much half this album is recycling and that even in 1963 fans would have expected a little bit more from a Beach Boys album which they'd already bought a third of by now. Collectors in the modern age are most put out that they have to buy the same songs again so soon, so spare a thought for both the collectors in 1963 (who didn't have as much choice of Beach Boys records to buy) and another for  whoever put the CD re-issues together for Capitol at two albums per one CD disc (and realised that two songs from this album were on this record's natural twin 'Surfer Girl'; switching the order round so album number three 'Surfer Girl' ended up with album number five 'Shut Down' and album number four 'Little Deuce Coupe' ended up with album number six 'All Summer Long' isn't ideal, but is better than hearing the exact same track twice). The end result? 'Little Deuce Coupe is not a Ferrari perhaps, or a Rolls or a Porsche. Actually it's not even a 'Little Deuce Coupe' in motor terms. But it's a Ford - it does the job, it doesn't break down (well, not that often for the price) and it sold by the bucketloads because it appealed to just the right amount of teenagers at just about the right time. 

There's a whole beach worth of other BB articles available at this site so get your motor running and read the whole lot right now!

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

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

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

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

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

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

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

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

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

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

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

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

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

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

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

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