Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Christmas Sessions (1964)
Surprisingly, since Christmas Album is probably by default the weakest Beach Boys album of the '60s, Sea of Tunes' three-disc set of sessions is more interesting and eminently listenable than the shorter investigations of the band's many superior early albums. That's largely because the wealth of material made available here is valuable in a manner wholly separate from the songs being performed, which vary (like the album) between traditionalist pap and fairly rote, haphazardly inspired originals. Apart from "I'll Be Home for Christmas," there's some session material for all of the songs on the record, plus a few outtakes. "Little Saint Nick" doesn't warrant much besides the revelation that Brian swears loudly after the song fades out. We get the backing track and guitar overdub for "The Man with All the Toys," and a couple of mildly diverting vocal takes for "Frosty the Snowman," "White Christmas," "The Lord's Prayer" and "Auld Lang Syne."
But the good stuff is elsewhere, and some of the most undiluted documentary audio of the Beach Boys working together, interacting and goofing off as a group, not to mention Brian's evolving relationship with the other Beach Boys and Chuck Britz, with whom he clearly shares a rapport despite both of them often being cantankerous in the studio. During an endless series of breakdowns of the backing track to the totally innocuous "Santa's Beard," Britz gets increasingly irritated then slowly becomes amused as the band simply cannot get a complete take of the simple song in the can; out on the floor, Brian and the others start to lose their patience as well ("Wait a second, will ya!? Christ!"), and when it comes time for the vocal overdub you can hear Mike, seemingly the source of a lot of the unprofessionalism on the recording dates, straining to get the song out. On the other hand, the Beach Boys are so tight on "Merry Christmas, Baby" they could pass for a stripped-down Wrecking Crew... but the struggle on "Beard" is merely a prelude to "Christmas Day," a song that seems to cause nothing but trouble during the tracking session; having now spent a lot of time working with pro session players, Brian is starting to get audibly irked with his actual band and can't conceal his frustration: "Don't play fucking rolls, Dennis!"; "Twenty-three takes on a fucking piece of shit"; "Let us make the fucker!"
The vocal session is somehow even more amusing. While recording his first lead Al keeps standing too close to the microphone, but otherwise is a good soldier. When the rest of the gang comes in for an eventually abandoned harmony track, though, all hell breaks loose and they are never able to lay down anything useable, at least nothing preserved here. Instead we get the group making fun of Chuck Britz, who responds in kind before both band and engineer begin laying into the absent Murry, with Mike Love giving an eerily perfect impression of the aggressive, out of touch erstwhile father figure. (Immediately after he finishes, Britz one-ups him: "You're off key, Mike.") It's all very much in the holiday spirit... and heaps more fun than the real record.
"Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" takes up a lot of space on this set, and seeing that on the tracklist you're likely to groan a bit, but the numerous takes of the vocal on the intro are an absorbing glimpse of the interplay between the band, and Brian's personality as a leader of musicians and a producer of records; the same goes for the outtakes of "Auld Lang Syne." Then there are the moments when everything falls away and we hear the sound of the Beach Boys working out vocal arrangements among themselves, with Brian taking the lead, and while I've personally never warmed up to rock band interpretations of Christmas music, especially in such a relatively bland atmosphere as Christmas Album establishes, the outtakes and performances of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" offer as persuasive an extended look at the group's mastery as singers as "Our Prayer." When the tape periodically has to stop during the overdubs to return to the sound of Brian directing, Chuck Britz editing and Carl defending himself ("I'm not instigating anything!"), it really is like coming back down to earth abruptly.
In a way it's even more impressive to learn that, before laying down his gorgeous vocal on "Blue Christmas," Brian seems to be eating something. He also has to take Britz to task for a problem with the playback -- "You've got to have that darn thing fixed, Chuck. You've got to have your boss fix that thing cause it sounds like shit when it phases like that. That's a time consumer, I'm not kidding." -- and the contrast of this moment of casual, adult authority with the goofing off and hepless chaos management when he's with the other Beach Boys says a lot about where Brian Wilson was in 1964.
There's just a tiny amount of material from non-Beach Boy tracking sessions for the syrupy side of the album, as arranged by Brian hero Dick Reynolds, including the abandoned "Jingle Bells," which makes sense because Brian Wilson had less involvement than usual in those takes. (In fact, on an early take of "We Three Kings," he seems completely unfamiliar with the arrangement and comes in at the wrong time.) The only really odd choice here is assembling a few outtakes and mixes, generally only slightly different from material on other parts of the set, into a third disc as a sort of alternative version of the album that only runs half an hour. It's just slightly "off" enough to be pointless... but it doesn't negate the engrossing, insider view this collection generally provides.