Monday, 12 May 2014

The Beach Boys "Surfer Girl" (1963)

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The Beach Boys "Surfer Girl" (1963)

Surfer Girl/Catch A Wave/The Surfer Moon/South Bay Surfer/The Rocking Surfer/Little Deuce Coupe//In My Room/Hawaii/Surfers Rule/Our Car Club/Your Summer Dream/Boogie Woodie

Here's the deal on offer: you've been granted the keys to a magical musical workshop, a land where everything you touch turns to gold records and where finally everything you've been searching for your whole life is available to you. Your own money for the first time in your life, screaming girls, the feeling that you're part of a 'team' and people looking at you in awe instead of dismissing you as a slightly awkward geeky kid often away in his own world. Even your bordering-on-abusive parents suddenly have a newfound respect for you - well by their standards anyway. There's always a price for everything, however, and the deal on offer is that you'll be pushed to the absolute limit: expected to write and produce three albums a year, almost twice as many singles, a ridiculous amount of concerts and travelling now across the globe as well as America and woe betide you if they begin to slip even slightly in the charts. The 'team' you once felt such a part of is beginning to show the strain of over a year living out of suitcases and it's not as if you can 'escape' the strain at home - home comes with you, with your two younger brothers, your argumentative cousin and your dad out on the road with you. The keys to the magical kingdom of un-imaginable music are still in your pocket, but it's becoming less and less fun entering that room now - there's less time to wallow in the pure joy of the music you see before you and there's less and less time to spend there. The money's still coming and the girls are still screaming at you, but the money is all tied up and was getting boring anyway past the point where you could still count it and - nice as it is to have girls screaming for you - there's only one girl in your eyes who counts and you barely get a few snatched 'hello's with her before you're off on tour again. What's worse, you've just found an extra door hidden away at the back of the magical cupboard of your imagination, full of even more wonders and delights but no else wants to know about it: instead you fear you'll be trapped forevermore writing about a one-dimensional gimmicky subject that never interested you in the first place and which you've already feel you've covered from more angles than is human. Would you take that deal? And if you'd already taken that deal - and regretted it - how could you get out of it?

Brian Wilson was at an interesting point in his life in September 1963. He's suddenly got respect from every angle, more money than he can spend and enough adoration to last a life time. Unfortunately he's under more pressure to deliver than he's ever been in his life. 'Surfer Girl' - Beach Boys album number three - finds him, to quote the surfing lingo that's sprinkled liberally across this album, at the peak of his first wave right before the waves crash over him: before his nervous breakdowns, before the tensions within the band (and with manager-dad Murray Wilson) reach breaking point and before The Beatles take America by storm, giving the Beach Boys their first real competition. About half of the record is a huge improvement on the last two: instant classics like 'In My Room'  and 'Little Deuce Coupe' rubbing shoulders with superior album fare like 'Our Car Club' 'Your Summer Dream' and 'Catch A Wave'. More than on any other Beach Boys album, Brian is secure in the knowledge that he could release anything with a 'surfing' related title and a steady backbeat and it will be a hit: why even the dreamy ballad title track - so out of step with anything else around in late 1963 and written before Brian had become aware of most of rock's unwritten rules - was a monster hit. At the same time, however, the constraints of time (this is the band's third album in eleven months) shows and shows badly, with Brian so convinced by others of his own brilliance that he tries to get away with more than he should. If anything the filler on this album is worse than before: 'South Bay Surfer' is a rewrite of 'Swanee River' with surfing lyrics that has to be heard to be believed, instrumentals 'The Rocking Surfer' and 'Boogie Woodie' aren't even as exciting as the worst instrumentals on second album 'Surfin' USA' and 'Surfer's Rile' is as obnoxiously full of themselves as the Beach Boys ever got. Something clearly has to change - and yet everyone else is too afraid to go into the back of that magical cupboard glimpsed here in such beautiful form on 'In My Room'. This is a band who've already seen the future but are too afraid to go over the top just yet which makes for a sometimes brilliant, sometimes frustrating, sometimes simply odd third album.

The big leap forward on this album comes not from the music anyway but from the production, which makes 'Surfer Girl' more of a 'Brian Wilson' work than ever. Whilst the Beach Boys themselves are still playing the instruments on the majority of songs, Brian is already getting used to working with sessions musicians for the first time. Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Larry Knechtel: practically all of the big names Brian goes on to work with through to 'Pet Sounds' and 'Smile' are in place here and for this album they're joined by two named who'll go on to be big in their own right by the end of the decade: Leon Russell (here working as a session pianist) and (briefly) the future 'sixth Beach Boy' Glenn Campbell (ditto on guitar). It speaks volumes to me that, forced to look around for experienced musicians who could churn out more complex recordings at the same rate the Beach Boys always had on simpler fare, Brian looks towards his main inspiration Phil Spector's 'wrecking crew' - whilst dismissive at first of having to work with a bunch of 'surfers', in time most of the musicians will come to respect Brian (who turned 21 three months before this album was released) even more than Spector. The ridiculously complex backing track to 'Our Car Club' is the first real sign of things to come, the first of Brian's famous 'mini pocket symphonies' even if the lyrics are still firmly in the 'teenage fun with cars' bracket. Brian even sings solo on two songs on the album ('Your Summer Dream' and 'The Surfer Moon') - a monumentous development in Brian's writing and performing, the elder Wilson brother finally shedding all the trappings of the traditional 'Beach Boys sound' for what he wants to make - it's only a tiny jump from here to the sublime second side of 'Beach Boys Today'. Brian's work with strings is especially notable - he'll go on to work with the instruments better than anyone for my money, understanding how two completely different parts can be overdubbed to create one magnificent whole; he isn't quite there yet with 'Surfer Moon', which for now sounds more like what you'd expect a 1950s song-with-strings to sound like. But the fact Brian - now firmly in charge, whatever illusions his dad still had about running the show - is even thinking about working with strings is an achievement by itself in 1963: the first orchestral overdubs won't appear on a Beatles album until nearly two years after this and if anything The Beach Boys had more of a 'carefree teens' image than the fab four at this stage. 

For fans at the time, however, the big change for this album was in the Beach Boys personnel. David Marks is still on the album cover (actually an outtake from the 'Surfin' Safari' photo sessions a year earlier - the band were too busy to schedule even a day for a photoshoot by this time), but he's long gone by the time all but the album's single ('Surfer Girl' backed with 'Little Deuce Coupe') were made. Poor Dave got a rough deal from the Beach Boys story as his compelling autobiography 'The Lost Beach Boy' will tell you and even though a lot of it was his own making (mainly being cheeky to Murray Wilson and egging Dennis on to his worst excesses) it should remembered: he didn't have the family ties of the rest of the band and was a 14 year old schoolboy doing his neighbours a favour when he joined the band - being wrapped up in a whirlwind turns the heads of 20 and 30 year olds, never mind a guitarist who was all of 16 when he left the band. The band bring in instead Al Jardine, a school friend of Brian's who only quite the band in 1961 because he feared losing out on a career as a dentist he'd studied hard for and who'll be with the band right up to the 1990s. This is good news for Brian - the pair are close in this period even if most fans think of Jardine as one of a pair with cousin Mike Love these days and he offers Brian a new perspective that doesn't come from his dad, his brothers, his cousin or a 16-year-old schoolboy. What's more Jardine's folky roots will help develop Brian's writing into a whole new avenue occasionally, although for now he's trying to slip into the background un-noticed. It's Carl Wilson I feel sorry for: Dave Marks had been his big friend (they'd learnt the guitar together thanks to another neighbour John Maus, later the guitarist with the Walker Brothers) and the only one of the band close to his own age and rhythm and lead guitar generally have a closer relationship in bands than most musicians. However the replacement with someone nearer Brian's terribly mature age of 21 is clearly a sign of how seriously The Beach Boys are taking their role in 1963 - they want to be here for a long time making the best records of the day rather than milk the surfing scene for years to come. 

Ah yes - the surfing. There's no escaping the fact that most of this album is again a concept work based around a disposable teenage fad and despite the fact that out of all the line-ups of the band only Dennis Wilson could actually surf. You'd be hard pressed to know that reading this album's lyrics however because Brian and his alternating writing partners for this album (Mike Love, car enthusiast Roger Christian, Brian's new room-mate for much of this record Bob Norberg and dependable old friend Gary Usher - who gets dropped after this album for daring to argue back to Murray, which is quickly becoming as theme for the Beach Boys in 1963) have really picked up the lingo. The band had already covered every obvious slant about surfing on the previous two records so here they go for the less obvious ones: the surfer moon (because the moon makes the tides for surfing), the different types of surfer you get on America's South Bay (who sound much the same to the band's Californian surfers actually), and the surfers down in Hawaii. Most notable is the ultra-competitive 'Surfers Rule' - till now the only direction within Beach Boys songs have been old and distinctly un-hip parents who don't dig cars or surfboards. This song, though, is a challenge: get out the way greasy rockers because surfers are hipper than you. The fact that Brian ends up singing such lines as 'it's a genuine fact that the surfers rule!' when he'd only been on a surfboard once and hated it (I'm with you Brian - if man was meant to spend so much time in the water our fins would never have dropped off during evolution) shows how skewed the Beach Boys experience has become: an acting job, if you will, with a bunch of wise-beyond-their-years 20-somethings pretending to be hip teenage dudes. Out of all the songs on this theme the Beach Boys will record over the years, this is the one that sounds the most 'wrong' - more telling is the ending where Brian instead stakes out his musical challenge, taunting the 'East Coast Beach Boys' with the phrase 'Four Seasons, you'd better believe it!' The closest sound to the Beach Boys then in action, it's odd that the pair didn't have a bigger rivalry actually, although that band never seemed to reply in kind or indeed take much notice that the Beach Boys existed (Brian Wilson is effectively observant writer Bob Gaudio transplanted into falsetto singer Frankie Valli's vocal chords). As anyone whose ever been in a magical cupboard will know, however, you should be careful what you wish for: in two album's time Brain will have competitors for real in The Beatles and even he will baulk at meeting such a challenge after even more weary years on the road.  

Overall, then, 'Surfer Girl' is another one of those early Beach Boys albums that's a great training ground for the sound The Beach Boys will develop in the years to come. It's not quite there yet and as ever with pre-1966 Beach Boys the relentless references to surfing mean these songs will never have the same universal appeal as their later appeal. For escapist fun., however, 'Surfer Girl' carries on the good work of the last two albums and is the greatest sign yet of the sheer brilliance to come thanks to the more complex arrangements scattered across this album and record highlight 'In My Room'. You'd never stake a claim that 'Surfer Girl' is the greatest record that the band ever made but by comparison with other albums out in that period (its midway between the first two Beatles albums, for instance, and before most other 60s bands like The Roling Stones, The Kinks and The Who have even got going) it's mightily impressive, still distinctly teenage in subject natter but becoming increasingly adult in the way the songs are being arranged and produced. Hearing this record back to back with 'Surfin' Safari' - an album which wasn't even a year old when 'Surfer Girl' came out - and it's noticeable just how far the band have come already, from a giggling group of teens out for a good time and having a lot of fun to a band who are (for the moment at least) relishing being some of the most famous faces in rock and roll music. 

Most impressive of all is a fact that often gets 'lost' amongst other, better known albums from the era: there isn't a single 'cover' song on this album. Admittedly one of the instrumentals name-checks 'Rimsky-Korsakov' in the writing credits (although 'Boogie Woodie' is only very very distantly related to 'Flight of the Bumblebee'),  'South Bay Surfer' should really have had a credit to Stephen Foster (basically it's surfboards down the Swannee River) and 'Surfer Girl' owes a little something to Leigh Harline, composer of the second Disney film 'Pinnochio'. But in the context of the day, when rock and roll covers were king (even the Beatles were only writing half an album's worth of material at the time) and the Beach Boys were under more pressure than anybody with almost twice the amount of expected releases even ten songs out of twelve is impressive enough. Sadly it will be all downhill from here for the next couple of records, as competition from Britain and deadlines take a lot of the tide away from the Beach Boys, but for the moment 'Surfer Girl' is superior fun from the band that knew how to make their records sound like a musical party even before recording their 'party' record and only the future 'All Summer Long' and at a push debut 'Surfin' Safari' beats it for sheer carefree summer joy. The Beach Boys have caught a wave and are indeed sitting on top of the world - but how long will that wave last? Time is already ticking...

Title song 'Surfer Girl' starts the record - typical in that it was the band's current hit single (both previous albums had started with their respective hit records) but untypical in that 'Surfer Girl' is a slow ballad with a strong backbeat, the sort of thing Beach Boys albums tended to end with rather than begin. Legend has it that this was the earliest song Brian Wilson ever wrote when he was just 19 - which seems odd if the lyrics were written back then (Brian had no interest in surfing until brother Dennis nagged him into writing 'Surfin' safari', very much written as a 'hit song' - unlike this one). It may be that Brian only wrote the music, coming up with the tune one day when he was in his car (and - interestingly - a long way from any instrument, a method that Brian hardly if ever used again). But if so then he didn't really 'write' any of it except the rather breathtaking middle eight and the sudden switch back to the verses. In case you hadn't guessed (or read in any earlier Beach Boys book) 'Surfer Girl' is simply the Disney song 'When You Wish Upon A Star' with surfing lyrics put to it (it's the one the Blue Fairy sings to Jiminy Cricket to wake him up in 'Pinocchio' - which itself makes for quite an interesting comparison with the water-fearing angst teen Brian's conversion into the kind of hip young teenage dude everyone wanted to be in 1963 a parallel for the wooden puppet becoming a 'real young boy'; Brian covers this very song in his, erm, unusual 2012 covers album 'In The Key Of Disney'). What with 'Surfin' USA' ripping off 'Sweet Little Sixteen' (to the point where Chuck Berry now gets a co-credit every time the song is re-issued) it's surprising the band weren't getting a reputation! No wonder Brian kept it in his back pocket for a couple of albums - and yet 'Surfer Girl' clearly meant a lot to its creator, who turns it into the band's fourth single in addition to making it the title track. Both moves seem brave in hindsight: ballads simply didn't sell for the teenage market except the sort of songs that drippy teen idols sang; it's certainly too slow to 'surf' to, which had been the whole point of the Beach Boys up till now. Given the great songs Brian will come up with later on 'Surfer Girl' isn't one of his very best either, a tad too slow and a bit too 'Four Freshman' in the static-ness of the harmonies compared to the usual Beach Boys excitement. That said, though, the band's harmonies are superb as ever and Brian's fragile love-struck lead is a part of real beauty (while other Beach Boys sound 'right' singing Brian's parts usually when the elder Wilson is too ill to tour, to my ears they never quite nailed his innocent part, which even the now-gruffer and far less innocent Brian of the 21st century can still get spot-on on a good night).  Lyrically as simple as any song Brian ever wrote, it may have been revived as an early love song to Brian's future wife Marilyn (the pair met about a year before) although given the 1961 dating it was probably written first as a love song to Brian's girlfriend Judy Bowles (whatever Wikipedia says). Heartfelt and innocent, combined with Brian's crystal voice 'Surfer Girl' could do no wrong, although the tempo could have done with being sped up just a teeny bit.

'Catch A Wave' is template early Beach Boys: so much so that I'm surprised that it wasn't chosen as the single ahead of 'Surfer Girl' (In fact Jan and Dean asked Brian to re-write the song for them and scored his first #1 as a writer with 'Sidewalk Surfin' in 1964 - Murray was less than happy that he'd given such a 'hit' song to one of the band's biggest competitors). The opening drum beat and flurry of five-part harmonies (the first time anyone would have heard Al Jardine's voice, although he's rather hidden in the pack here) is instantly ear-catching and has a great driving beat, as anyone who owns the rare 'Stack O-Tracks' 1968 collection of backing tracks will testify. Few Beach Boys songs sound as effortlessly joyous as this one does. Whilst still played by the band themselves (it's one of the few recordings to feature both Dave and Al as part of a 'six piece' Beach Boys) it's clearly more ambitious than anything the band have done up till now and features Brain's soon-to-be-trademark ability to staple lots of sections together into one seamless song (something that only leaves him after putting 'Smile' back together causes such a headache in late 1966). Brian's already having fun using exotic sounds too, although in his pre-Wrecking Crew days the closest he can come is getting his cousin Maureen Love (Mike's sister) to play a simple glissando harp part. Lyrically it's typical pre-'Today' Beach Boys full of surfing lingo, but listen out for how much bragging Brian and Mike put into the song despite the fact neither of them could actually surf ('Don't be afraid to try the greatest sport around..those who don't just have to put it down' is the opening couplet - despite the fact that Brian was scared of water). Still, the band seemed to be onto something when they sang about how suddenly everyone was 'surfing' - the band sound more than a little proud that they've turned a cult hobby into such a mainstream topic of conversation in 1963.  A gorgeously produced song with top-notch harmonies and a great organ solo (probably played by Brian and making a change from Carl's guitar) and a harder-than-normal melody line make 'Catch A Wave' one of the real crests of the early Beach Boy's musical tide. 

'The Surfer Moon' is different again, presenting Brian Wilson as a lone double-tracked teen idol, sounding not unlike Ricky Nelson. Thankfully the material is superior to most of those twee 1950s teeny-bopper ballads and it's interesting to note the co-writing credit to Brian's college friend Bob Norberg, suggesting Brian wrote this song during a rare day off back at the flat the pair shared. The song was in fact first recorded by Norberg and his girlfriend under the moniker 'Bob and Sheri' (like many a Brian Wilson outside production it's more ambitious than the Beach Boys' version, starting with the sound of crickets but otherwise not being all that different in sound - Bob even sounds a little like Brian, which might be why he wasn't asked to join the band when Dave Marks was asked to leave despite his singing credentials). In an interesting twist on the usual 'gazing at the moon' type clichéd lyrics, this moon isn't even visible - the narrator knows that it's there because he can feel it's effects instead, the sudden rushes of romantic impulses he wouldn't normally have (the surfer moon, then, is being blamed for lust). There's a hint, too, that while 'other' moons (like Neil Young's 'Harvest Moon') comes and goes the 'Surfer Moon' is forever (the tides happen every day you see), but sadly this interesting idea is never fully explored. Instead what we get is Brian sounding bright and chirpy and at his most Four Freshman-like against a chirpy orchestra. The only time Brian will come close to this style again is on the 'orchestral' side of the 'Beach Boys Christmas' album' - thankfully this song is rather better and sounds less rushed than that heavy-going  yuletide selection, nicely chirpy and contemporary despite Brian's clear tributes to the past. 

So far the 'Surfer Girl' album has been excellent, but sadly here come two songs that are some of the least developed of all the Beach Boys' early material. 'The South Bay Surfer' is what any idiot with a tape recorder could have come up with: lots of noisy, unpolished drumming from Dennis, a tune that rips 'Swannee River' off wholesale and messy double-tracking that's clearly under-rehearsed. The Beach Boys haven't been this sloppy since their debut album and compared to their effortless vocals elsewhere this song sounds like a chore they're already sick of (even Mike's 'OK rock out!' call in the middle sounds sarcastic rather than meant). Lyrically this is Brian Mike and (on his first writing credit, although you still can't hear him) Al sounding surprisingly generous in their take on 'outsiders' coming up to the band's precious Californian beaches to surf. The song is full of early 60s lingo that's unusual for the Beach Boys barring surfing terms and is unusually graphic for the times ('Hear that shore pound slam! You're gonna eat it! Smash!') In fact the whole song is kind of onomatopoeic, Brian purring his way through the word 'rrrrrrough!' like a demented dog and the whole band having fun with the words 'slam' and 'smash' hidden in the mix. The whole is a song that should be better than it is - everyone tries hard to get the energy and excitement going but it never really arrives. Unusually for the generally meticulous Capitol, the recording dates for this album are debateable at best (the CD sleevenotes say that all of the non-single songs were recorded on a single session on July 16th 1963, but this has been disputed - not least because the cold Mike Love suffers from on 'Hawaii' and 'Catch A Wave' isn't there for the other songs). I'm willing to bet, though, that 'South Bay Surfer' was recorded late on at the end of a tiring session when everyone wanted to go home instead of pretending they weren't simply re-recording 'Swannee River' with even more clichéd surfing lyrics than normal. All in all, a surprisingly joyless Beach Boys recording. 

'The Rocking Surfer' isn't much better, the first of thankfully only two instrumentals on this album. Sadly it's not up to even the worst of the five (!) instrumentals that made up 'Surfin' USA'. Interestingly the song is credited to 'Trad' (ie it's an old song without a credited author) and only the arrangement is accredited to Brian - and yet the song doesn't sound like any I've ever heard of (the band were quite stingy in crediting others, as we've seen, perhaps fearing plagiarism suits). We do know, however, that this instrumental started off life as 'Good Humour Man', perhaps because the organ solo makes the song sound like either a arrival float or an ice cream seller's truck, although it may just have meant that the riff is kinda catchy and upbeat. The song is virtually a Wilson brothers tour de force (with no rhythm guitar by either Dave or Al as far as I can tell), Brian's organ part overlapping with Carl's ever-reliable surfing guitar licks and better than usual drumming from Dennis who finds a nice groove here. It has to be said, though, that this song isn't one of the band's more inspired attempts at filling up running time and even at a short 2:00 running time the song outstays it's welcome long before the end. 

'Little Deuce Coupe' ends the album's first side with the now traditional 'B Side' slot which as ever in the Beach Boys canon in this era is a 'car' song. 'Little Deuce Coupe' is along with 'Fun Fun Fun' 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 the best known song on the album, beating even the title track and despite not being a single 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. 

'In My Room' is the album's other well known song and the clear album highlight. Building on the intimacy of the earlier 'Lonely Sea' Brian and his earliest songwriting partner Gary Usher come up with a clear precursor to 'Pet Sounds' 'Smile' and a lot of what lies beyond. A hymn to peace and tranquillity, it was written in the room that surely inspired it: Brian's basement room at his parent's house where he lived next to his piano. Living in a house with a fractious brother and even more fractious father must have made Brian feel like he was walking on egg-shells for most of his life and his moving autobiography 'Wouldn't It be Nice?' makes clear how much pressure he felt to be what other people 'wanted' him to be (even if he's since disowned the book, these early parts ring very true). His room was his escape where he could be what he wanted to be and even though the lyric is Gary's, like much of 'Pet Sounds' to come it was clearly inspired by talks the pair had together. For teens used to hearing more shallow songs than this ('Little Deuce Coupe' for instance) 'In My Room' must have been a revelation, with Brian admitting to having 'worries and fears' teens of the day (and most days come to that) pretended they never had. The melody, too, is equally inspired, full of melancholic longing but also a quite strength. Interestingly the song bears more than a little resemblance to The Beatles' 'There's A Place' 'where I can go when I feel low, when I feel blue' (released on the 'Please Please Me' album' six months before this), although the band are unlikely to have heard it (like the rest of America they hadn't heard of The Beatles until the Ed Sullivan show in February the following year). Even Murray loved the song (well, he told Gary it 'wasn't bad' which was a much praise as the pair ever got) despite hovering over Gary as they were writing it, telling the boy it was past midnight and he was about to throw him out! Thank goodness he never made good on his threat: 'In My Room' is one of Brian's most inspired works and one of his most inspired recordings too. The idea to have the group come in line by line is magical (order: Brian, Carl, Dennis, band) and everyone plays their part superbly, even Mike Love who treats this song with far more sensitivity than future Brian Wilson songs of introspection to come (his lead on the middle eight 'do my dreaming...' is one of his best pe4rformances in fact). Hauntingly beautiful, clearly heartfelt and brilliantly arranged so that each harmony part is perfectly placed against each other, 'In My Room' is a real delight from beginning to end and easily the best song Brian had written to date. The sad postscript to this song is that when the Wilson's family home was finally knocked down in the early 1970s (after Murray had died and mum Audrey had moved out) Brian was at his worst and never got to wish his precious room a proper goodbye; ironically by then he was trapped in his next 'bedroom' hiding from the rest of the world, a fact that gives this song a depth and pathos he could have never have imagined when he wrote it.

'Hawaii' is clearly less inspired, from the opening unusually wonky harmonies to the slightly off-key chant of 'Hawaii' during the choruses. That's a shame because a song about the tropical paradise of Hawaii - the only place, surely, that can compete with California in terms of coastlines and beaches - should be a natural for The Beach Boys. 'Blue Hawaii' would indeed have been a song on 'Smile' (although it's one of only a handful the band never finished) and would have been the soothing balm that arrives after the troubled 'Fire', with all the metaphors for life' journey that entails. 'This' 'Hawaii' is a hack song, however, and the narrator never even gets there by the end of the song - he's simply dreaming about where to go on his holidays (because his friends 'come back with nothing but raves'). Even a 'Little Deuce Coupe' backbeat can't make up for this one and the band sound tired again, Brian's shrill double-tracked falsetto clearly not coming with the ease of other tracks on the album and Mike sounded either bored or ill (that cold seems to be getting to him). That's a shame because, while no classic, 'Hawaii' could have been a fair second-division number with a better recording. While the credits are unlisted this is also surely an early 'Wrecking Crew' production' - there's no way Dennis could have kept up with that drum part, even if his playing had come along leaps and bounds throughout 1963. 

'Surfers Rule' however is worse, a deeply unsympathetic lyric from Mike about surfers being better than anyone else handed to Dennis to sing (so at least the band's one true surfer got to sing it). Bizarrely, the song seems to laugh at the 'Hodaddies' greasers who ran around in cars - which is, err, exactly what the band have just been celebrating three tracks earlier on 'Little Deuce Coupe' (goodness only knows what car fan and collaborator Roger Christian made of these lyrics!) At least the narrator of that song had the grace to tell us 'don't think I'm bragging' (even when he was!) - this one has no excuse, kicking the song off with the debateable line 'It's a genuine fact that the surfers rule!' and picturing the decidedly wrong image of a 'woodie' (ie vehicle transporting surf boards) zooming past the greaser's car. When the band sing 'the surfers are winning and say as they're grinning - surfers rule!' you are so rooting for an ending where the egotistical surfers all drown - but sadly not. Instead we get a very different type of competition, Brain ending the song with a chant of 'Four Seasons - you better believe it!' and laying down the gauntlet to their East Coast rivals the same way the surfers rivalled the greasers (the 'take it or leave it but you better believe it - surfers rule!' is very Four Seasons, straight out of 'Big Girls Don't Cry' via 'Walk Like A Man', even if the rest of the song is pure Beach Boys). While on the face of it Frankie Valli and Brian Wilson had much in common (same falsetto and focus of the band), he actually made more in common with shy and sweet writer Bob Gaudio: either way The Beach Boys clearly won that little battle, although it's more than a little unfair as the East Coasters never replied (or even knew the fight was on, apparently: to them the Beach Boys were just another teenage fad albeit with better than usual harmonies). Brian has often commented on how the early Beach Boys lyrics dealt with competition - and that's true, so far as it goes. Generally speaking, though, the narrators are challenged to a fight which isn't quite the same thing (usually some upstart with a supposedly better car) - 'Surfers Rule' is a rare example of the Beach Boys spoiling for a fight and even without knowledge of the 'peace and love/transcendental meditation' phase in the band's future to come it all sounds simply wrong somehow.

'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. 

'Your Summer Dream' is another impressively ahead-of-it's time song, once again featuring Brian singing on his own instead of using the Beach Boys chorus. Slow and dreamy, it's another sign of Brain's progress as a writer that sounds simple as can be but is actually oh so hard if you follow the chord progressions properly (this is another song co-written with Norberg, although surprisingly he doesn't seem to have recorded this one himself as per 'The Surfer Moon'). The song sounds less Beach Boys like than 'Surfer's Moon', though, despite featuring the more common Beach Boys backing of strummed acoustic guitar and drums and lacks the instant melody Brian usually wrote. It isn't a bad song, however and the lyrics are amongst the sweetest on the album, imagining a wander down the beach hand in hand with a girlfriend that's so special to both halves that they'll each remember it all their lives (compare with the later, similar 'Girls on The Beach', although here the narrator only has eyes for one girl). Cute and sounding at least partly heartfelt (this must surely be another song for Marilyn), the fact that Brian chose to do this song solo instead of giving it to the other Beach Boys (unlike 'Surfer Moon' it's easy to imagine where their parts might have slotted in), this song clearly meant a lot to its creator, although unlike a lot of this album's songs (even 'Hawaii') it's never been re-claimed by him live on his solo tours. On an album without 'In My Room' this would have been the album's great introspective masterpiece - alas with that song on the album this one just can't compare, just a little too meandering for its own good.

The album then ends on an odd note indeed. Have you pianists out there ever tried to make your own boogie-woogie version of 'Flight of the Bumblebee?' No, me neither - and I don't fancy trying given how frenetic this performance of 'Boogie Woodie' is. The Beach Boys are back playing here again (presumably with Brian doubling the piano and organ parts) even though the song is largely out of their league and poor Dennis sounds like he's having a breakdown trying to keep up on the drums by the end. The writing credit to 'Wilson/Rimsky-Korsakov' (a rare America-Russian Cold War collaboration!) raises a laugh, but really this song has very little to do with 'Flight Of The Bumblebee' except for the frenetic tempo. The song owes more to Brian's attempts to teach himself to play the piano, learning chords using boogie woogie techniques: even now, in his 70s, Brian can play a meaner and faster boogie-woogie than anyone and rough as it is his performance here is a good one. As a chance to hear how Brian learnt the piano, then, 'Boogie Woodie' is a lot of fun - as one twelfth of a largely complex and fascinating album it makes for a disappointing conclusion. The whole thing sounds suspiciously like it was simply written to match the excruciating pun in the title (a 'woodie' being the vehicle that transports your surfboard to the beach which features in a lot of Beach Boys songs, perhaps because it combines their twin early loves of surfing and cars). 

Overall, then, 'Surfer Girl' is a case of one step backwards in terms of the worst filler - but two giant leaps forward in the case of the album's best known tracks 'Surfer Girl' 'Little Deuce Coupe' and 'In My Room' plus the impressively complex 'Our Car Club' and shoulda-been-a-single 'Catch A Wave'. Whilst that's not enough success for a masterpiece, 'Surfer Girl' is impressive enough for an album recorded at speed to a tight deadline by a band already tired of being on the road. The first album produced by Brian Wilson - and arguably the closest he comes to a solo album until 'Today' and 'The Beach Boys Love You' (an album technically started as a solo album before the others got involved) - it's a great opportunity to hear Brian's blossoming musical and production confidence come into play and still features some of his most impressive career performances over 50 years later. It's just a shame that the compositions aren't quite there yet - although they'll slot into lace very soon and already the best of this album's songs can hold their own with anything the Beach Boys will go on to create. It's not perfect, it's not always that polished and the immaturity (the eldest members of this band were 21 when they made this record) occasionally shines through, but like the surfer girl herself this is a pretty album with a hypnotic spell that can easily make you fall in love with her. 

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

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

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

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

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

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

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

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

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

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

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

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

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

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

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

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

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