Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: All Summer Long (1964)
The numbers don't say much -- six albums in something like eighteen months seems to defy logic, but so does an LP that spawned only one hit even though well over half the songs have entered the permanent rock & roll lexicon. It's their best album yet, the ultimate instant-greatest-hits effort, only slightly less consistent than Surfer Girl (thanks to a brief lapse into talkative filler under the exciting label "Our Favorite Recording Sessions"), and although there's nothing here quite like that album's "In My Room," "I Get Around" surpasses everything else the Beach Boys did on some level. Long after the harmless fun of the other songs here has faded, something about that one never stops nagging at you.
The Beach Boys' first single to hit the top of the charts, in nothing less than the year of the Beatles and the Supremes' peaks, "I Get Around" is still gripping today with its sparse instrumentation, dizzying chorus, and an attention-grabbing a cappella intro. It also dares not only to evoke a fast-living youthful lifestyle but also to admit boredom with it ("I'm gettin' bugged drivin' up and down the same old strip"), allowing the two opposing forces in the Beach Boys' music -- not to mention their wickedly offbeat sense of humor ("I'm a real cool head / I'm makin' real good bread") -- to combine for a song more sophisticated and personal than most major recordings of the later psychedelic era, "Good Vibrations" inclusive. In terms of pure rock & roll, this may be their finest recording, and with its ambitious production it encompasses the past while pointing ahead. Mix out the vocals and you end up with a track that borders on avant garde but is put forward with such infectious energy by the group that it achieves immediacy; it's a pop song that is, in every possible sense, alive.
Nothing else on the album, makes it quite to the level of "I Get Around," but the best of the remaining songs each expands on a theme dropped in a matter of seconds within that manifesto. Maybe there's no mythology imaginable to fit the throwaway instrumental, "Carl's Big Chance," but it is head and shoulders above previous attempts along the same lines. Perhaps "Do You Remember?" -- a slight rewrite of an old composition called "The Big Beat," recorded by Bob & Sheri -- does a poor job of making its bloated tribute lyrics sound sincere, but there's no reason to doubt Brian and the band's love of rock & roll. Rather, it comes off as a put-on strictly because the central premise that Brian Wilson has any interest in delving into the musical past is so absurd. As he would repeatedly insist to his father a year later, "Times are changing."
Unsurprisingly then, expansion is the rule of the day this time out, and more than on previous efforts there seems to be a conscious goal to maintain a specific mood, the happy summertime scene depicted on the cover, blissful but tinged with sadness, maybe or maybe not because autumn is just around the corner. Or else why would "Girls on the Beach," which bears a superficial resemblance to the moody "The Warmth of the Sun," be such a mournful, turtle-speed ballad when it's about fun in the sun and getting laid and all that? The harmonies carry the thing -- with Dennis sounding on the aching bridge like he almost can't handle all the beauty and tranquility around him by the water -- and, despite the miserable couplet that rhymes the title with "they're all within reach," what mythology these guys had! You can carp that Brian bent his lyrical ideas to fit the Beach Boys' image even after his music progressed far beyond the early simplicity, but teens of today should be envious of the life led within this package. It may not have been so unattainable and great, but they made it sound like a spiritual journey of the senses. In fact, All Summer Long feels like Brian Wilson's big poetic move: a series of short vignettes serving a single purpose to bring forth an inscrutable emotion. The local drive-in is the Mecca, and why shouldn't it be? What the hell does our generation get to write about, our Instagram pals and the drones we saw floating above the freeway?
An odd track like "Drive-In," which could be some other no-name band's greatest-ever hit, has some modest ambitions about it but really only works within the landscape Brian Wilson has established here. In way he really is repeating himself -- in this case the production and vocals are similar to "In the Parkin' Lot," and the backing track is apparently a discarded alternate from the 1963 "Little Saint Nick" sessions -- but he's not self-plagiarizing so much as elucidating upon established themes like a painter or filmmaker whose primary interest is teen pursuits of good times. I don't find Mike Love's imitation of Smokey the Bear especially charming, but there's something about it that seems sweet, like he's trying to impress somebody but knows he's making a fool of himself, and that's the mindset that, even in such an odd moment, comes closest to revealing the idea behind this LP.
Not everything here is brand new. Besides the aforementioned "Do You Remember" and "Drive-In," there's a cover plus an older song, the Gary Usher-cowritten "We'll Run Away." A bit clumsy and surely dated, it still has charm and sultry singing; it's impressive that an adult (Brian) is able to sing the Spector-like opening line "We know they're right when they say we're not ready / But all we care is how we feel right now" without the slightest trace of condescension. It's beyond a shadow of doubt that his reading of this teen lament is heartfelt. This complex feat of empathy points the way toward a raw directness he would perfect two albums later on "She Knows Me Too Well." For this reason, I wish Brian had taken the lead vocal on the equally complicated "Wendy," a densely layered pop song with sophomoric lyrics that might have come across better from another voice. When Mike sings, smarmy but in all seriousness, "I never thought a guy could cry / 'Til you made it with another guy," all you want to do is ignore whatever he's saying for the rest (and you wouldn't be missing much, my favorite moment being his very yuppie-ish accusation that his former betrothed's new beau's "future looks awful dim"). Musically, from the intro on down, it's a remarkable composition -- a precursor of sorts to the impossibly beautiful single "The Little Girl I Once Knew" -- but it sacrifices the first line of defense in the Beach Boys' oeuvre: sincerity.
Thankfully, this remains the exception rather than the rule. It's a bit shocking that the title track does not end the album; it is a perfect and seemingly obvious closer. Even so, it's hard to imagine "Don't Back Down" taking up residence anywhere else on either side. Like "Don't Worry Baby," it's an extremely personal lyric thinly veiled by the usual teen-oriented Beach Boys mold. Ostensibly it's about escaping fear of big waves, but reading the lyrics it's impossible not to relate it to workaholic Brian's need to constantly top himself in the studio. (The analogy is even heavier on an earlier and vastly different version, released in 1990.) Despite the reflective tone, few of their songs are more immediate and fun, with a perfect Brian falsetto hook on the very telling brotherly tip "you gotta be a little nuts."
Side One is the roller-coaster. Encompassing an evocative, intense production and some impossibly cool lyrics, "Little Honda" casts Brian as the engineer of a quick, flawless fix of blustery city nightlife. Incredibly enough, the song was never issued as a single; Gary Usher took the opportunity to assemble his own novelty group, the Hondells, who hit #9 with a nearly identical version of the song. Brian had planned it as the follow-up to "I Get Around," until according to legend a random studio employee walked by during playback and questioned its potential strength as a hit. Crushed, Wilson buried it on the LP. "Little Honda" is far from an obscurity, so "Hushabye" must qualify as the hidden gem here. Expansive beyond all imagination -- a fine doo-wop hit by the Mystics transformed into an utterly transcendent lullaby glittering with gorgeous harmonies and vibrant sonic wonder -- it remains the Beach Boys' greatest cover. Brian's lead is one of his best, nearly equal to "Don't Worry Baby" and "Let Him Run Wild," and in every way this is a lost classic. "Hushabye" alone could cement Brian as an equal to Phil Spector (not to mention damn near anyone as an interpreter) in even the most skeptical mind, and its cinematic, expansive sound requires only the Beach Boys' voices.
The dubious honor of its placement at the close of George Lucas' American Graffiti has made "All Summer Long" itself an acknowledged masterpiece. For its elegantly detailed remembrances of slight events, not to mention a sense, however subtle, of encroaching melancholy, it's as fascinating and irresistible as any of the Beach Boys' singles. The bouncy percussion and the subtly intricate instrumentation, particularly the bridge, stands as a contrast and complement to the grasping-for-the-moment sadness of the lyric and harmony vocals. It's another side of the buried, even unconscious angst of "I Get Around." by creating a collection of songs that added to and expanded upon rather than moving past the mythic universe of the single, Brian and the Beach Boys produced something an early inkling of what are now the modern standards for pop albums. The result is certainly the most innovative of the Beach Boys' early LPs, and the biggest step yet in their evolution.
[Originally posted in shorter form in 2003.]