Friday, June 10, 2011
The Beach Boys: Surfin' Safari (1962)
"Garage rock" wasn't a fitting descriptor for the Beach Boys' music for the majority of the '60s, but in the beginning, it was a literal truth -- the band formed, practiced, and spent the majority of its earliest days in the Wilson family's garage. For all the generic lumping in they've endured with the instrumental surf bands whose heyday immediately preceded theirs, it's the mid-'60s garage explosion that the Beach Boys' crucial early singles most accurately predicted. The direct line the band's early material draws from the Nuggets era on through to American punk rock, from the Ramones to the future inconsequentials in their decades-spanning wake, is startling -- it is hardly a stretch at all to picture any number of high school emo kids yowling along to "Heads You Win, Tails I Lose" or, indeed, dismantling a pop song the way Dennis does "Little Girl (You're My Miss America)," or lovingly adapting the work of a hero like Eddie Cochran ("Summertime Blues") but making a mess of it.
Modern shadows notwithstanding, it's tempting to look back on this as all quite wholesome. But the Beach Boys, in some sense, invented the white American rock band as we know it today. It was remarkably innovative, ballsy, perhaps even stupid for Capitol Records to allow the band's publicity and work to circulate with no obvious leader, with such an initially novelty-courting, later confrontational name, with such now-astoundingly spare, harsh, rough-hewn music. But a glance at Capitol's repertoire in 1962 reveals why, perhaps, they gunned it on the Beach Boys -- the label's absence of youth appeal, their fear of rock & roll and black music and even edgier teenage music in general, was crippling. It was Lou Rawls, the Lettermen, Dick Dale and these guys. Perhaps the Beach Boys appeared to them an agreeable, whitebread, easily controllable (and marketable!) nod to the kids. It must be an accident that they issued perhaps the rawest music heard on a major label up to that time, a band with chunky guitars, floating and breathless harmonies, ridiculously quick pogo-friendly tempos, lyrics about "the most specialest girl I knew." Generations of adolescent-courting rockers wish they could've ever made their point so succinctly.
This record is the sole LP to capture the Beach Boys at the special moment when their youth was charming enough to carry them, when Brian Wilson's simplest ideas (complemented in large part by his then-confidante and lyricist Gary Usher) were carried by the others with enough freshfaced enthusiasm to make them work, when they were the most unadulterated stab of rock & roll yet to be heard in the U.S. from white boys, when it wasn't about production or romance, when it was about drivin' a 409 and anglin' in Laguna and Cerro Azul and kickin' out in Doheny too. A bunch of shit these kids (drummer Dennis excluded) knew nothing about, much as their suburban universe could offer them nothing of the worldly young wisdom Little Richard or even Elvis Presley had used to light up the world -- which perversely made them all the more subversive.
It's easy to romanticize this as proto-punk, which it often is, but it's also suburban amateurs singing songs about cuckoo clocks and county fairs. Just bloody kids. But I'm still skeptical of the ideological notion that they ever represented some sort of mom-and-apple-pie propaganda. They loved R&B and the Four Freshmen and Chuck Berry, so they took their innocently raunchy guitars and bottom-heavy rhythms and banged out some tunes. It's clear that they were never dangerous, and I'd venture to guess that the voices played no small role in that. Plus, at a surface glance anyway, they'd led sheltered lives. (Never mind the abuse at the hands of then-manager Murry Wilson that would become the stuff of depressing legend later.) They were not leather-clad hellions like the Beatles, who were rousing the wrong element in Hamburg while the Wilsons were finishing high school. Dennis may have been the only one at the time this was recorded who'd much of any sense of a larger world; Carl Wilson and David Marks were probably even virgins at this point.
So maybe it's more than just a result of their place in America (Americana, even, a product of the real-and-actual nuclear family; David Anderle called their hometown of Hawthorne, California "Iowa with a beach") that the guitars, frequently louder and more adventurous than you'd expect, never suggest sex or even aggression, just general vaguely dissatisfied angst, even when -- on "The Shift" -- they sing more explicitly about sex than anyone outside of what were then called race records. This plus the harmonies was new, and so was the audience. Capitol viewed the boys as safe, but for their gradually building audience they were rocking and edgy, managing to be heroic and sexy but uncontroversial. There was precedent to this, Cochran himself most clearly, but up to now nobody'd said so much on such a wide-ranging platform with so little at their disposal.
Brian Wilson's instincts as a songwriter were already promising; it was largely this facet of the band's talent, along with their fresh demeanor and the effortless but complex harmonies, that brought them from the garage to the living room of local homespun composer-producers and talent spotters Hite and Dorinda Morgan to a charting if rudimentary single (issued on Candix, otherwise best known as home to the minor instrumental classic "Underwater" by the Frogmen) to a professional demo tape made by Murry to Capitol A&R man Nik Venet's attention. If you limit it to both sides of the single, their Capitol debut, "Surfin' Safari" and "409," you've got a divinely perfect and singular moment of immediate, pounding rock & roll with much more finesse than the stark earlier independent single "Surfin'" (included here but sped up) but no less unkempt charm. If "Safari" sounds weak or facile to you, try louder volume or even bigger speakers, fleshing it out until the drum sound dominates -- it's exciting and evergreen, and "409" might be even stronger. Unlike the later "Surfin' U.S.A.," neither seems really to lead into what the band would later attempt. They're keyed into a movement of their own, and both are rollicking signature licks of the early DIY aesthetic in a league with the Barbarians' "Moulty," the Troggs' "Wild Thing," and ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears." Pretension isn't just absent here, it's unheard of.
The rest of this, thrown together in a handful of sessions with Venet acting ostensibly as producer and Brian already dominating the room, is outwardly disposable but still ingratiating in spots -- the immensely fun "Heads You Win, Tails I Lose" is garage angst at its most entertainingly petty, squeaky clean root beer anthem "Chug-a-Lug" is a delightful if whitewashed slice of authentic life. And although it's best heard elsewhere, "Surfin'" brings us back to the original conceit: a few guys who loved to sing, still learning to play, swarming on a microphone and using any excuse to do so. The group's passion for surfing and for the beach was born of a need for a novelty, a hook (Candix first wanted to call them the Surfers before renaming them without the band's knowledge in time for the single's first pressing); for Brian Wilson, any surface motivation was secondary to the love of creating and arranging songs and records. We'd never hear him and his group in so pure and young a form again.
Still, Surfin' Safari is the first of many Beach Boys LPs better in theory than in practice. What's most impressive about it are the ideas that were likely unconscious, the way the songs burst in and back out before barely a minute and a half has passed, but the problem is too many of them are short on the goofy charm of "Cuckoo Clock" (Brian's only lead vocal here) and the amiable grittiness of "Heads." Instead you have the offensive, half-assed "Ten Little Indians," which was inexplicably released as a single by Capitol, and the bizarre "County Fair," a mostly spoken word piece in which a woman ditches the protagonist over his inability to ring a bell at the eponymous festival and win her a "stuffed koala bear," for which her enthusiasm seems disturbingly erotic ("oooOOOOOOHHHHHH!!!"; "Come onnn, baby!"), somehow not even the only sexual undercurrent hidden on this album (there's also Mike's vocal about "balling it" in "The Shift"; I'm tempted to also nominate the line "Dennis wonders what's under the hood" in "Chug-a-Lug"). The tracklist is filled out by a cover of the Gamblers' primitive but ghostly surf instrumental "Moon Dawg," likely present because of Venet's involvement in the original, but it only serves to emphasize that instrumentals were not the Beach Boys' strong suit (yet).
"County Fair," however, is the most prophetic song on the album, both for the Beach Boys' career and for the alternative rock future that would have its prototypical beginnings in the near future. The hero of "County Fair" is not the strong man, not Dion Dimucci's loathsome promiscuous wanderer, not Elvis' sneering sexpot, but the put-upon "loser" who tries to escape before his girlfriend makes him fight for her in a test of strength he knows he will lose. Coming from Brian Wilson, this Charlie Brownesque sense of inevitable loss and romantic doom seems far more felt than any lyric about a car or a surfboard, and soon enough his predominant themes of women and suffering would emerge. And the entire modus operandi of alternative, college, garage, and punk rock, converse to what would by decade's end become the mainstream variant, would be the celebration not of the Strong Man but of the isolated dork, male or female, whose solace comes from a guitar to weep out his or her deepest, loneliest longing for warmth, or from the headphones that provide the only known sense of acceptance. That's quite a lot for a mere disposable pop song to chew on; good thing there are unknown masters lurking in this one.
[Note: This is a revision and expansion of a review I wrote and posted on my old website in 2003. In addition, the post was edited to align with a larger Beach Boys project in 2016.]