Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Beach Boys: Surfin' U.S.A. (1963)


They weren't much of a surf group. The best genuine surf music is instrumental and has little to do with the Beach Boys' entirely separate if not incompatible skill set; rock instrumentals were for a time an explosive subgenre that achieved occasional transcendence with miracles like Dick Dale's tricky, evocative guitar heroics. Such music just as frequently emanated from minor bands or studio musicians who'd unroll one crucial, vibrant single, maybe two, then disappear. Surf music didn't have much commercial or cultural presence for long, and as the subculture itself grew it was apparent that the music of genuine surfers was neither "Pipeline" nor "Surfin' Safari" but harder-edged R&B. So the irony is the Hollywood guys who in all but one case had never surfed in their lives have this gorgeous album cover on which it is proclaimed that they are "the no. 1 surfing group in the country."

The Beach Boys were undoubtedly "bigger" by the time this album rode up the charts than any other popularly identified progenitors of surf music. But not better, at least on the evidence of the whopping five instrumentals that fill out the tracklist on their second album. Three of them are covers, one dull but enthusiastic ("Misirlou"), one competent but uninspired (Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk"), one that drains all the life out of the original, indicating the harsh limits of youthful enthusiasm (Dick Dale's "Let's Go Trippin'," in its original version probably the best surf 45). Of the originals, "Surf Jam" is scrappy and fast but forgettable and "Stoked" is exactly the same, only it contains the band obnoxiously repeating the title.

Then the Beach Boys, it seems, are no more a surfing group than Loudon Wainwright is a calypso singer. Their true innovations lie someplace else entirely, exemplified by the title track here, an exhilarating and real moment hampered only by the lifting of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen." (The song was supposed to be credited to Berry as cowriter but Capitol botched it on the single.) The song has little to do with the conventions of surf music, everything to do with pure rock & roll and the sheer aural rush of its strong, forceful sound and escapist lyric. Like Berry, the Beach Boys lyrically are literate and wordy, instrumentally raw and therefore infinitely expressive. In mono, at least, I could put "Surfin' U.S.A." on a par with any rock & roll recording; it's utterly explosive and has a power over any listener that remains potent to this day, maybe because there's not a human alive who can't relate to the opening line -- "If everybody had an ocean..." -- including those with no interest in water or surfing. It's one of the greatest statements of purpose in all rock music.

The b-side signals that all isn't right. The popular but oddly listless car song "Shut Down," built from one of Roger Christian's oddly romanticized, jargon-filled car poems, feels contrived compared to its coupling and both sides of the first Capitol single. Insincere formulas invariably wear thin quickly, after all, which may explain, on the album, the prevalence of ballads above all else, surely something that seems to stand in a kind of contradiction to the teenage utopia symbolically depicted on the front of the package.

"Lana" is simplistic to the point that it barely exists, but it plays to the band's strengths because it seems that Brian, taking one of his first leads, actually cares about what's being sung. Indeed, he'd stumbled at last on the ideal subject, as had so many before him. Just as, with "409" and "Shut Down," he'd discovered cars to be twice as universal as surfing, girls had tenfold or more on both of them. The two other knockout tracks here, "Lonely Sea" and "Farmer's Daughter," both have Brian slipping into lovelorn balladeer mode. Written mostly by Gary Usher, "Lonely Sea" is an early classic, astonishingly enough lifted from the band's Murry Wilson-produced demo tape for Capitol, the same one that brought us "Surfin' Safari" and "409." However, the beloved "Farmer's Daughter," famously covered by Fleetwood Mac, remains the loveliest song here, its depth of emotion -- surely as wrought and considered as on the mournful "Lonely Sea" -- is suggested rather than explicitly stated, thus drawing a direct line to the next album and the Beach Boys' work thereafter. The minimalist lyrics carry a kind of hopeful sadness that takes its time to hit you, and then suddenly "Surfin' U.S.A." seems like a song not about beach party fun but about how everybody wants to be where they can't, by the ocean or next to the farmer's daughter.

Thus, it's not hard to link these tastefully restrained but still exuberant love songs to the bright "Noble Surfer," full of delicious bass vocals from Mike Love, concerned with admiration of a hero from a distance and equipped with an atypically clever lyric and an unexpected celeste solo. The ideology is enough to weigh you down, but that's why we have the Frankie Valli-like "Finders Keepers," because beach party fun is still damned important too. Either of these eclipse "Shut Down," though that song's celebrated breeziness make it easy enough to forgive. The five solid originals plus both sides of the single comprise half of a solid, though not brilliant, sophomore album, but the record's pacing is so fouled up by the constant instrumental interjections that it's best heard piecemeal and, despite higher peaks, is a far less consistent record than Surfin' Safari. Modern non-obsessives are likely to lose patience digging for the gems, a problem that anticipates similar issues with Shut Down, Vol. 2 a year later.

Consumers turned Surfin' U.S.A. into the first rock & roll album to sell in mass quantities in the era of the LP as a vehicle primarily intended for classical, opera, jazz, and bloated film soundtracks. It success would be parlayed into much greater artistic control for the Beach Boys -- namely, the ability to record wherever they wanted and to credit one of their own, Brian Wilson, as producer. (Brian had all but officially produced this album but, as was then customary, A&R man Nik Venet received the sleeve recognition.) Credit the band's bizarre appeal to nearly everyone, the universal spontaneity that seemed so simple then and was slightly less simple for the Beatles and became an impossibility by the time of the Stones and the Who. In some terms, it actually is a step backwards for the group, but a closer look reveals that it's scarcely related in any fashion to the first album, a different beast entirely. Dodge the stereo mix and approach it with historical distance, plus a promise for a few lost jewels. And for what it's worth: in his autobiography, David Marks reports a fan running up to him in the late '90s with a copy of this LP bearing the three Wilson brothers and Mike Love's signatures, asking Marks to complete the set. That fan: none other than Dick Dale.


[Originally posted elsewhere in 2003. Subsequently fact-checked and revised to align with a larger Beach Boys-related project in 2016.]

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