Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: Endless Summer (1962-65)

(Capitol 1974)


There are a lot of collections of classic Beach Boys songs from the mid-'60s; you can't simply pare their oeuvre down to singles or "hits" because plenty of the band's b-sides and album cuts became as famous and popular as any of their chart successes, but the schedule crunch imposed on Brian Wilson by Capitol Records meant that it was difficult to release the required mass quantity of music in each calendar year without the occasional lapse in quality and judgment. While the seasoned fan will find much to appreciate in records like Shut Down Vol. 2 and Little Deuce Coupe, the group's early work cries out for a sympathetic summation of some sort to refine it into an elegant, invigorating statement of purpose. Here is that definitive statement, built from twenty shorter -- not necessarily smaller -- ones. To understand what the Beach Boys meant and what they were capable of at their best, this is the item you need more than any other, more than any of their studio albums even.

The Beach Boys had departed from Capitol under not exactly amicable terms in 1970; the label subsequently relinquished distribution rights to their albums from 1966 onward, but that didn't stop them from seeing the potential to exploit the catalog, especially given that the label still controlled the vast majority of their big hits, and that the market for high-profile double-album sets of familiar tunes was proven in 1973 by the success of the Beatles' Red and Blue albums. So in a departure from the three Best of the Beach Boys volumes released in the '60s, Capitol's fourth attempt at compiling the band is not only far more generous (two records, forty-eight minutes) and sensibly put together by Capitol's Michael Ross, it's also more artful. Functioning as a proper album rather than just a gathering of cuts from disparate sources, it condenses the entirety of the Beach Boys' identity as band in their pre-Pet Sounds period into one sharp, impressively cohesive song cycle. Mike Love gave it a name, Endless Summer, and it's the rare occasion on which no one can really call his judgment into question.

The essence of Endless Summer is not just in what it gathers but what it omits. While it includes the two chart-toppers Capitol still controlled, "I Get Around" and "Help Me Rhonda," it by no means collects all of their major hits, nor does it claim to. Its goals are emotional rather than rational, and there's a method to the madness of including relative obscurities like "Catch a Wave" and "Girls on the Beach" in lieu of "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)," "Dance, Dance, Dance" or "Barbara Ann" -- that is to say, this record is about what it says it's about: summer, and the inexhaustible ability of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys to funnel it into some of the most intoxicating pop records of the last century. After the slapdash methodology behind the older compilations (and many of the subsequent ones) and certainly compared to the chronological hits sets that are now common, the specific focus of Endless Summer is some kind of masterstroke.

And it paid off in spades. Amid one of the darkest periods in U.S. history, when the hangover of the hippie era was colliding with a new youth culture, and American abuses of power were dominating headlines, Capitol unleashed this compilation and the Beach Boys' poignant evocations of the promised land seemed more dreamlike, vital and yearning than ever; the wave of nostalgia this record ushered in successfully brought young new fans to a band that had by then been considered passé in many circles for years. What the massive popularity of Endless Summer implied was in part the durability across generational lines of Brian's visions of seaside exuberance, California dreaming, hot-rod purity and mostly unspoken sexuality; but moreover, the completeness of his vision -- in a way even he could not have realized in the '60s -- as a flawless picture of the sense of infinite promise that comes with youth. Brian observed surfing, cars, all of it except maybe girls from a great distance, but his instinct for the universal saw him through all the same and allowed his wonderfully warped California, floating above but not entirely skirting its strange darkness, to stand as rock & roll's greatest ever metaphor for absolute wind-on-cheeks freedom.

Make no mistake, listening to the Beach Boys' singles from this period in chronological order is incredibly exciting, an opportunity to hear the garage chug of "Surfin' Safari" give way to the impassioned vigor of "Surfin' U.S.A.," the warm humor and budding adoration in "Fun, Fun, Fun," the acquisition of ambition and far-sighted desire in "I Get Around" and on from there. But the sequencing of Endless Summer provides unexpected contrasts and pleasures -- on their good but wildly uneven early albums, would a joyful vision like "Catch a Wave" ever be followed by the blown-out, mature despair of "The Warmth of the Sun"? Could anything like the audacious pacing of "Shut Down" just after "In My Room" or the dramatic, blissful build of "California Girls" to "Girl Don't Tell Me" to "Help Me Rhonda" to "You're So Good to Me" to "All Summer Long" be attempted?

Some of the Beach Boys' work in the '60s was methodical and endlessly worked-over, second-guessed, self-edited; Brian was always tweaking things even after they were released (witness his rewriting of the already-issued "County Fair" as "I Do" or the many manifestations of central portions of "Our Car Club" and "Marcella"). But some of it also seems to have simply fallen into place, as with the ethereal, off-the-cuff Smiley Smile and the strange allure of slice-of-life fragments heard on Wild Honey and Friends. Although Endless Summer does not investigate the "little art band" period of the Beach Boys' output, it does offer a perfect microcosm for the way that the band's work could sometimes seem to achieve greatness almost inadvertently. For Endless Summer almost from start to finish uses incorrect mixes; even if you forgive the use of stereo mixes on most of the hit songs save "Surfin' U.S.A." and the material that was only mixed to mono, it's hard to ignore the substitution of the less famous Today! version of "Help Me Rhonda" for the actual hit, the shorter LP cut of "Fun, Fun, Fun," and (in the only really harmful misstep) the draggy album take on "Be True to Your School." In the first two cases, though, these are actually superb choices: the bouncier, weirder "Rhonda" is a much more engaging recording in the final analysis than the radical radio-friendly revision down the line, and "Fun, Fun, Fun" comes off as more spontaneous without the lengthy fade. Correct Endless Summer with the "right" versions -- as some CD versions did -- and it seems like you lose at least a bit of its charm.

Whatever the case, though, its power as a perfectly curated romanticizing of the Brian Wilson sound is infallible. Despite the bites of misogyny on "Girls on the Beach," "Wendy" and "California Girls," the Beach Boys experience as defined here feels inclusive and complete, down to its variance of moods; the biting sarcasm of "Girl Don't Tell Me," wistful air of pending loss on "All Summer Long" and sweltering devastation of "The Warmth of the Sun" are visions of summer as well in their longing, stasis and frustration. What keeps a person coming back to Endless Summer -- and eventually, one assumes, to the rest of the Beach Boys' output -- is this material that complicates the amusement-park sunniness. This summer really is endless, both because of the gushing quantity of pleasure it offers and because what it encompasses is so much more complex than mere nostagia would imply.

Thus: this is the definitive way to appreciate the Beach Boys at their peak because of its astute recognition that without the sad songs, the happy ones have no grounding or meaning. A conventional hits package would surely miss "In My Room" and its private thrills and agonies, "The Warmth of the Sun" and "Let Him Run Wild" (possibly the band's greatest achievement) and their overwhelming grief, even if it did capture the taste of genuine adult comfort, compassion, responsibility and sensuality on "Don't Worry Baby." Luckily all of the multifaceted aspects of the Beach Boys' best work are here, and without even venturing near the Pet Sounds era and its aftermath. (Neatly, this simplifies the record in another respect: only three of the songs are primarily played by session musicians rather than the group itself -- "California Girls," "Let Him Run Wild" and "Help Me Rhonda.")

But always there is pleasure, and joy, the same as ever: "Little Deuce Coupe" still gets everyone moving, and "Surfer Girl" still defines young love as impeccably as anyone has, through its sweetly minimal lyric and haunting vocal melody. Taken together this all seems like so much more than a set of songs by a band that played and sang well; thanks in large part to the breadth of Brian Wilson's voice and sensibility, the classics that flow forth here play out like forgotten shreds in a book of mythology. Endless Summer is California-Gothic, the perfect introduction to the Beach Boys and the perfect way to rediscover them. The fact alone that it closes out with "All Summer Long" demonstrates that no matter how much you know and love the Beach Boys' albums, hearing these songs in this order remains an experience unto itself.

Although it gave their career a boost, Endless Summer was the beginning of the end for the Beach Boys as an artistic unit, sadly stunting their growth at a crucial moment; they never were able to retain their ambition and tireless creativity after this one dropped and the public's wish for more of the same became known. Nonetheless, it is one of the greatest rock & roll discs, much less hits compilations, ever made; get hold of this and Pet Sounds and you're on your way to a lifelong love not only of this band but of pop music.

No comments:

Post a Comment