Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
They released it less than a month after their first excellent LP. It's their fourth album and it also happens to be their fourth in a period of less than a year. Even mixed up in these bracing, embarrassment-of-riches standards, Little Deuce Coupe stands out as an oddity. It was created in bitter response to Capitol's peddling of a compilation called Shut Down, not a Beach Boys LP but a bizarre various-artists piece, dreamed up by Gary Usher and Nik Venet, with a few Beach Boys hits (with superfluous car sound effects) and a lot of filler, all concerning cars. They were especially irked because trade ads at the time touted it as the accompanying LP to the popular title track, a b-side that was also on Surfin' U.S.A., the album Capitol should have been plugging for them (not that it needed much help). The band responded with this album of car songs, four of them previously released, the title track among them, and most of the others recycled in one way or another. It's a shame that Capitol's insatiable appetite for product ended up with this album being thrown out so quickly, not because the rushed material is bad or because the presence four old songs is unforgivable, but because six of the eight new ones here, at least, could have been combined with the good stuff from Shut Down Volume 2, the next record, to create an incredibly consistent LP.
That's not to say the rush job doesn't show. With the exception of "Be True to Your School," the lyrics are all, and I mean all, about cars, every detail about them, sometimes to a laughable extent. This mostly comes via Brian Wilson's DJ friend Roger Christian, apparently author of a notebook full of poetry (!?) waxing on about cars. Beyond the usual bragging about engines and drag races and such, there's a song about the breaking of the land speed record called "Spirit of America," and "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" gets reworked into a ballad about James Dean's fatal automobile accident; don't you dare fault these guys for lack of commitment to a concept. Generally none of the words have the witty, oddball novelty of "Our Car Club," but "Car Crazy Cutie," a rewrite of Brian's harder-edged single for his short-lived second group the Survivors, "Pamela Jean," is amusing in its proto-"Fun, Fun, Fun" chronicle of a tomboy too obsessed with her car to give her boyfriend the time of day, and "No-Go Showboat" shows shades of grace with its wonderful self-parody ("I'm even shut down by the ice cream truck"). It's also hard to believe that Brian is serious when he claims "the chicks really dig that metal flake paint," but the lyrics don't deserve too much derision -- they're not awful, they're just there, as usual just an obligatory way for the Beach Boys to stick with the brand while they go adventuring.
In fact, the rush job is probably what makes Little Deuce Coupe special. Unguarded and scrambling to his repository of recycled ideas, Brian lets the influences flow and the result is a palette of Western music of the '50s and '60s, sort of like a miniature White Album. From the doo wop balladry of "Ballad of Ole' Betsy" (written for Surfin' U.S.A. but shelved) and the a cappella Four Freshman homage "A Young Man is Gone" to the bump-and-grind earworm rock of "Custom Machine" and the god-knows-what of the splendid "No-Go Showboat," Brian's in high gear even on this low-tier record company obligation. You can hear Dion all over "Car Crazy Cutie," a zillion vocal groups on the derivative but fun "Spirit of America" (a sentimental ode to the breaking of the land-speed record; ) and the Beach Boys are able to tackle it all perfectly, to say nothing of the apparent magnitude of Brian's skill that he can write so much of this disparate shit and make it all convincing enough that it's undeniably from the same man who released "In My Room" one month earlier.
More than anything, this LP is significant as the Beach Boys' most unadulterated stab at no-holds-barred rock & roll. No production tricks -- "Our Car Club" from Surfer Girl sounds almost too slick in this context; "409" and "Shut Down" have the opposite problem to a much greater degree -- and nothing high-minded. There's even some blatant rah-rah pandering on the brassy, nasal original album take on "Be True to Your School"; the excellent "Custom Machine" is a much more natural example of the radio-song Beach Boys, but a fully reworked "School" did hit the top 10. (They dressed up the horrible off-tune intro but they added the Honeys in a cheerleading routine. It should be pointed out that my cynicism in regard to the song is maybe due to the fact that I distanced myself from my school whenever humanly possible, and I think you should too. And I don't like bands I love promoting values that have been shoved down my throat to no end, but then there's Mike Love's politics, so never mind.)
My three favorite new songs on Little Deice Coupe -- "Custom Machine," "No-Go Showboat," and "Cherry, Cherry Coupe" -- are all under two minutes: unflashy and elegant. "Cherry, Cherry Coupe" is the Surfin' Safari outtake "Land Ahoy" rewritten and I don't even know the relentlessly technical words except the first few lines, but the melody and swagger of it are flawless and the vocals, especially Mike's bass singing, are outstanding. I don't like "No-Go Showboat" quite as much but it's great in every way and is surely one of Brian's most innovative compositions yet, with its head-spinning changes and crazed structure, neither of which leave the increasingly professional Beach Boys musically daunted. For such a simple production, it's miraculously evocative. Imagine those three plus "Ballad of Ole' Betsy," "Spirit of America," and "Car Crazy Cutie" plus the non-garbage from the next record: "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Don't Worry Baby," "In the Parkin' Lot," "The Warmth of the Sun," "This Car of Mine" and "Keep an Eye on Summer." A hell of a single album that would be, instead of two near misses. Still, padding and all, Coupe is a worthwhile addition to the canon.
[Originally posted in slightly different form in 2003.]