Saturday, October 14, 2006

Vinyl Tap: The Beach Boys - Endless Summer

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #19:

Since the confines of the 4th of July holiday this year are being stretched by many into a four-day weekend and neighbors have begun to set off fireworks, which in turn sets off my pooch, the traditional “The Playing Of Pet Sounds To Placate My Neurotic Dog” started a little early this year.

No, this isn’t some kind of weird “Son Of Uncle Sam” ritual in which I’m taking musical requests from Gus, but the Beach Boys seem to do the trick for him. This year, however, I thought I’d mix it up a bit, and start off with the 1974 compilation Endless Summer, which has endless resonance for me.

In 1964 I was ten-years-old and my musical world revolved around the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but since the surfing sensation pre-dated the British Invasion, it was All Beach Boys All The Time for a while. The first album I owned was Beach Boys Concert, recorded live in Santa Monica, my birthplace. I also was to find out later that the Wilson brothers, Brian, Dennis, and Carl, were raised just a few blocks from where I grew up in Hawthorne, on a street where they crudely but effectively recorded the squealing-wheels intro to "409," burning rubber and burning up the neighbors.

(Incidentally, the house they lived in, Hawthorne’s main claim to fame, was demolished a while back to make room for yet another freeway -- so L.A.  When I got a look at the de-construction scene, it seemed like the freeway could have been moved over about 80 feet to salvage the home; houses across the street were unaffected.)

Despite the Southern California connection, I think, like many, I would’ve still been a fan. After all, the Beach Boys, for a time, were more popular in Britain than the Beatles, who apparently were more popular than -- well, let’s not get into that.

But, to take the road less gaffe-filled, I first heard the Beach Boys when a friend played his copy of Surfer Girl. I was immediately hooked by the alternately lively and gorgeous hooked-filled harmony-drenched songs of be-all and end-all teenage angst-land and extra-curricular elation, served up post-war suburbia-style. I couldn’t get enough of the melodically questing and dreamy title song, the coastline craze described in “Catch A Wave”; the bragging rights that apparently come with owning a “Little Deuce Coup,” (“one more thing, I got the pink slip, daddy”); and especially the melancholic and poignantly haunting “In My Room” where “Now its dark and I’m alone / But I won't be afraid.”

Indeed, the song, capped off by Brian’s heavenly falsetto, is not only somewhat prescient in foreshadowing Brian's increasing reclusiveness and urge to retreat to a world where “I lock out all my worries and my fears,” but perhaps reflected a little bit of my own head-in-the-clouds refuge-seeking as well -- though I stopped short of putting a sandbox in my living room.

Such introspection would ultimately be harnessed to the 33-1/3 degree with 1966’s stunning Pet Sounds. While I love that classic work's eccentrically layered production and thematic maturity, I also cherished, in a more inconsistent way, many of the subsequent late-‘60s and early-‘70s commercially flat-lined albums such as Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, Sunflower, Surf’s Up and Holland.

The older songs from the early-to-mid-’60s that Endless Summer showcased, however, were always within humming recall and turntable reach, regardless of the Beach Boys’ un-hip status or despite Jimi Hendrix’s contention that “there’ll never be surf music again.” Their three-minute fantasies in word and music, evolving as they did from surfin’ safaris and “this car of mine” to more pensive leitmotifs, were as much a quintessential encapsulation of American youth as Chuck Berry’s savvy pulse-of-America songs (and then some: the tune of “Surfin’ USA,” lifted from Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,“ ultimately led to a songwriting credit for the rock legend).

These decidedly un-guilty pleasures -- hey, the bad guys know us and they leave us alone -- remained unashamed delights as, jumping ahead 10 years, I found myself in a dream job of working in a record store, and with the release of Endless Summer, having the unexpected satisfaction of seeing others sharing this pleasure. With accessible songs of such snap and crackling pop infectiousness that didn’t pummel you with schmaltz or pretension, the album was an immediate hit with the rest of the staff, becoming a frequent in-store play item, and with the customers.  Rare was the time when we did not sell extra impulse-item copies when the album was playing.

Everyone with ears seemed to respond to the appeal of genial and timeless vocals and music, including a considerable number of sonic-centered youth -- whether unabashed open-minded new believers or a new batch of begrudging, furtive fans -- among the garden variety nihilistic nay-saying too-cool-for-the-room auricular philistines.

For rediscovering adults there was, of course, the instant nostalgia triggered by songs about “cruising to the hamburger stand now” (Mike Love’s crowning achievement in the group was adding “now” to every other line, now). We would sometimes see these customers again soon enough, bringing back the album and complaining of defects because “Help Me, Rhonda” faded in and out toward the end. Most of these customers accepted the explanation that this was intentional, that the particular version on Endless Summer was the original Today! version, not the single version they were no doubt accustomed to. One man, however, was not content even after I tore into a couple other copies for comparison‘s sake. Finally, we came to a mutual decision that he should go to our competitors down the street and bother them.

In short, Endless Summer became a huge, chart-topping hit, giving the Beach Boys a higher commercial profile than they’d had for years. And why not? Contained within the double album were 21 tracks, including the knockout punch of their first number one hit, the dizzily delectable “I Get Around,” driven with swirling harmonies and propulsive energy. Its 45-form flipside, metaphorically and literally -- comprising one of the greatest back-to-back hit singles ever -- is also here in the soothing, absolutely sublime “Don’t Worry Baby,” with its plaintive expression of teen vulnerability and apprehension.

Some of the hits on Endless Summer, familiar as they are, do not need much comment or extra praise heaped upon them -- including the territorial neener-neener travelogue of sorts, “California Girls,” with the majestic instrumental build-up. "Fun, Fun, Fun” is, well, fun. And the road to Billboard Gold is paved with “Good Vibrations” -- the “pocket symphony” of applied innovation and inspiration (listen to the Pet Sounds box set to get an idea of Brian Wilson’s masterful perfectionism as a producer in the studio).

Other under-the-radar but essential tracks that might give you excitations include the ever-shifting “Let Him Run Wild,” a single release of vulnerability and competition that lyrically takes a stand (“Before he makes you over / I'm gonna take you over”), but with its foretaste of Pet Sounds-style rhythms and patterns and a radio-unfriendly instant of dead air, it also takes a musical stance as a captivating try-out that didn’t pan-out.

“Girl Don’t Tell Me,” as a single, was also a low-show on the charts and features an affecting vocal solo by Carl -- his first as a lead vocalist, with a trace of the sweetly soulful sound that would later grace such great songs as "I Can Hear Music" and "Darlin.'" "Girl Don't Tell Me" unusually but effectively eschews any background harmonies to tell a tale of the capriciousness of summer love: “But this time I'm not gonna count on you / I'll see you this summer / And forget you when I go back to school.”

Never released as a single was “Warmth Of The Sun,” one of the most melodically and lyrically beautiful and poignant Beach Boys songs ever, written by Brian and Mike Love on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. In lush, angelic harmonies featuring Brian’s soaring falsetto, the moving, impressionistic commemoration couches the emotional shock in more personal terms, conveying the sense of heartrending loss while solace is sought:

    What good is the dawn
    That grows into day
    The sunset at night
    Or living this way...

    ...The love of my life
    She left me one day
    I cried when she said
    "I don't feel the same way"

    Still I have the warmth of the sun
    (Warmth of the sun)
    Within me tonight
    (Within me tonight)

    I'll dreams of her arms
    And though they're not real
    Just like she's still there
    The way that I feel

    My love's like the warmth of the sun...

Though it was no doubt difficult to make track choices for this kind of an LP anthology, it is disappointing to note some glaring oversights for avid Beach Boys fans. The wonderfully manic missing-in-action go-go of “Dance, Dance, Dance” puts it up there with the best of the Beach Boys' up-tempo thrills, while “Breakaway” somehow broke away from the pack as a strong and polished burst of encouragement, surprisingly written for the most part by the feared and abusive patriarch, Murry Wilson. And to undercut any excess of positive-thinking that might have arisen, a perfect counterargument for self-doubt and insecurity could’ve swept in with “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man).”

These songs would show up in the 1975 follow-up collection, Spirit Of America, as does a track, “Please Let Me Wonder,” from Brian’s testing-the-waters departure and precursor to Pet Sounds, side two of Today! 

It's unfortunate, then, that at least one of these less sprightly but more deeply evocative songs, perhaps “Kiss Me, Baby,” “She Knows Me Too Well,” or “In The Back Of My Mind,” -- the latter featuring the vocals of Dennis Wilson and a jarringly odd yet striking ending -- could not represent on Endless Summer the peerless imagination of Brian Wilson. If room could be made for a post-Pet Sounds track, “Good Vibrations,” (no tracks from Pet Sounds made the cut), then something from an earlier time of experimentalism could and should have been allowed.

Oh, there I go again -- harshing my own mellow, probably harshing my long-placated dog’s, too. I can just about see my endless summer coming to a finite end and feel the endless resonance dissipate to airy nothing. Shouldn’t be too hard to recapture the spirit though -- all it takes is a turntable and sides one to four of Endless Summer, and soon enough we’ll be catchin' a wave of euphoria and "sittin’ on top of the world."

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