Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Shut Down Volume 2 (1964)
The Beach Boys were a very prolific band in the '60s, but one's admiration for this is inevitably tempered by how often the strain showed. Less than two years into their demanding Capitol contract, the Beach Boys delivered this, their fifth album, and it was clear that the breakneck pace had taken its toll on producer and lead songwriter Brian Wilson. The impending threat of labelmates the Beatles couldn't have helped much, though surely a hit the size of "Fun, Fun, Fun" couldn't mean his confidence was shot either. Shut Down Volume 2, which features the band's worst descents into pathetic filler, even on the heels of a one-third-recycled Little Deuce Coupe, can be semi-forgiven for two reasons: What's good on the album ranges mostly from excellent to classic, and frankly nobody can be expected to churn out so much in such a short amount of time. In truth, it's incredible that they still had so much ace material to throw around, although one wonders what kind of classic we'd have on our hands if Capitol had stalled long enough last time around to combine Deuce Coupe minus the old songs with this one.
Despite the title, there's no recycled material here, although there is a worthless instrumental "sequel" to "Shut Down," again with Mike Love on sax. The name was a snipe at Capitol for naming a various-artists album after their own song without their permission. The only weak cut on Side One isn't actually a song, it's a very obviously staged argument between Mike and Brian in regard to their singing voices; there are song clips to illustrate each side's point, and Al Jardine seemingly unable to read, and Mike attempting the lead to "Farmer's Daughter," and it's not even stupid-funny, it's just flat and embarrassing, more than likely the worst thing they released in the '60s. The biggest beef to raise with it is that it breaks a flow of wonderful songs, situated awkwardly between "In the Parkin' Lot" and "The Warmth of the Sun." Were it moved over to the flipside, swicthing places with "Keep an Eye on Summer," it would at least be convenient in that casual fans could just skip over the second half of the album entirely.
Much of that back half is unfortunately dire. The cover of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers' classic "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" -- the first full-on Wrecking Crew production Brian crafted specifically for the Beach Boys -- isn't bad at all, but it shows little genuine creativity beyond a penchant for turning something elegant into something rather absurdly florid -- a far cry from the light rock & roll touch conspicuous on the Beach Boys' hit singles. Brian sings and sings, but the whole thing seems like an uncomfortable forecast of the band's icky relationship with early rock and doo wop chestnuts in their later years. Another cover, this time of "Louie Louie," famous two years later thanks to its inexplicable presence on a popular greatest-hits album, has been the victim of Dr. Demento-style terrorism for years, but the Kingsmen's hit was a cover itself and the Beach Boys are influenced here more by composer Richard Berry's soulful, reggae-like original (with his backing band the Pharaohs). It's still pretty bad, half-heartedly sung and badly played, and the appeal of the Kingsmens' unassailable version is the amateurish dirt of it all, missing in action here. (If only the Beach Boys had attempted the track on their first album.)
When I first picked up my brother's cassette copy of Shut Down Vol. 2 I was, I dunno, six or seven, and I really did hope that "Denny's Drums" was a song about a drumkit. This idea appealed to me and I came away from the ordeal upset and bewildered. It's just Dennis -- replete with composer credit! -- doing a pointless two-minute drum solo. Drum solos in rock & roll are generally a bad idea, and two minutes is a minute and fifty seconds past the breaking point. Awful, awful, awful, and why does it exist with "Back Home," "Thank Him" and all those songs Brian contributed to other groups sitting around? Even the maniacally weird "Mother May I" would have been preferable.
"Pom Pom Play Girl," teenage Carl Wilson's first lead vocal, fares a bit better despite its inauspicious title. His voice buried in the mono mix but right out front in stereo, Carl sounds like a perv when he requests that the title character "shake those pom poms all around," but the song is at least a complete, original creation and somewhat propulsive. The lyrics, not great but not as chauvinistic as "California Girls," decry a cheerleader with unseemly but somewhat engaging sarcasm ("with a freshman or a sophomore she wouldn't be seen"); there's a lot of talk about how hot and full of herself she is, but she's a reasonably well-drawn character, if somewhat less heroic than the female protagonists of "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Car Crazy Cutie." The song is one of those, like "No-Go Showboat" and "Noble Surfer," that hides its ambition in production and composition terms behind trite lyrics, and again, Mike's bass vocal interludes are hook-ridden.
All of the above mentioned cuts are demolished by the album's better half, with only one real gem stranded on Side Two: the sweet, beautiful ballad "Keep an Eye on Summer" is decried in some circles as an example of Wilson resting on his laurels, but what laurels! Sure, it''s not "I Get Around" and it is a bit too similar to "Your Summer Dream" for its own good, but it has a better chorus and lovable lyrics, plus what counts undoubtedly as among Brian's finest vocal arrangements and maybe the most irresistible bridge he wrote in the first three years; it's almost jazz, with the Four Freshmen influence on plain display. Then there's "This Car of Mine." Maybe it's a bias, maybe it's because Dennis Wilson's lead vocal is so damned charming, or maybe it's just great, but even with classic stuff like "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Our Car Club" in competition it's one of the band's best, sweetest car songs. The lyrics are affectionate and sad enough to be endearing, but not worshipful and cloying like the thematically similar "Ballad of Ole' Betsy." "Ain't no amount of gold in any mine that'd be enough to take away this car of mine" is the best line on the subject in the catalog since "Well, I saved my pennies and I saved my dimes..."
Then there are the classics, the ones that redeem every ounce of tentative dross that made the cut. "In the Parkin' Lot" is the one a lot of people would probably disagree with, but I'll never budge. Here's the only track in the running aside from "I Get Around" in the great contest to find the one song that is a true microcosm of the Beach Boys' work. It has the beautiful a cappella intro, the sheer excitement, the youthful exuberance, and the casually eloquent romance: "Outside it could storm, but we'll still keep warm." It exemplifies Brian's writing and production mastery at a new height of theatrical teenage ecstasy, not to mention his grasp and love of rock & roll. "The Warmth of the Sun" is the rare Beach Boys track in which the words out-perform the music. The vocal arrangement and the wild, evocative chord changes more than compensate; as a production it recalls "In My Room," something of a throwback to haunted simplicity in the face of elaborate concurrent material like "Don't Worry Baby" and "Parkin' Lot." The old allegory about it being written in response to the Kennedy assassination is a nice enough story but I'd say the song works better without that framing so it can be seen for what it is -- a stark, passionate plea for sanity after loss of a love that at some time must have seemed so permanent. The protagonist of "Warmth" might yearn for the past and he might be applying a blemish with the impossible-to-avoid rose tinting of memory. Surely what he wants, and what we all want, is the character in the album's finest ballad who repeats the title refrain of "Don't Worry, Baby" -- the unconditional, adoring comfort and friendship of an understanding lover.
For years we've all heard consistent allegations that the lyrics of "Don't Worry, Baby" make no sense and/or are stupid, that the point of the song is all in the chorus. The latter may be true, but aside from "In My Room," no better lyrics exist in the Beach Boys' catalog, and few in rock as a whole. They make perfect sense -- he's gotten into some shit and he doesn't know how to deal with it, she tells him she loves him. Anyone who can trash a line like "If you knew how much I loved you, baby, nothing could go wrong with you" needs some grace in their life. But enough about that. "Don't Worry, Baby" would be, even with words about the growing and maintenance of wheat, a comforting and impossibly eloquent piece of music. A melody that evokes more precisely the particular kind of love its writer was attempting to chronicle is hard to imagine. The harmonies, the arrangement, and production all fit together beautifully, wound tightly by Brian's lead. Heartbreaking and beautiful and suggestively feminine to a degree hidden by a younger man in the somewhat less sophisticated but equally beautiful "Surfer Girl," it's unlike any other vocal in rock -- comforted and comforting, man and woman and child and mourning balladeer. In its own way just as wrenching, David Marks' delicate non-solo -- just two notes -- is perfect enough to spit in the eye of the entire guitar hero conceit.
Carl plays a bigger role when he duck-walks his way through the hit here, "Fun, Fun, Fun," simply one of the best A-sides ever called forth by a rock band. Having graduated from the eager but tentative marching-band rudiment of "Surfin' U.S.A." to a grinning, assured confidence, the Beach Boys make their way through a charged catalog of Berry-vintage hooks, treating "Johnny B. Goode" like a template of sorts as if Berry had been some old country blues traditionalist. It becomes their own first of all because of Mike Love, who would later cheese his way through the song nightly in concert but sounds nothing but smitten and casual here, second because the music and lyrics are direct and fast-paced enough for mass approval yet smirking and witty enough to mark something of depth and subtlety. It follows the adventures of a young girl in a fashion that is never trite and never stoops to the obvious by defining her by her looks or boyfriend. Instead, the character portrait Brian and Mike paint is witty and admiring ("She makes the Indy 500 look like a Roman chariot race"), not disrespectful. To some degree it's just a remarkable song about the inherent freedom (and imprisonment) of being young, but it also carries with it at least some trace of feminism and a more dimensional, sympathetic understanding of relationships than nearly anyone else in pop music of the time ("You can come along with me 'cause we've got a lot of things to do now"). The girl in "Fun, Fun, Fun" displays all the tendencies of a regular cocky Beach Boy protagonist and our hero Mike is unsure enough of how to deal with it that he just sputters off into a promise of "fun, fun, fun." It's about silliness and cars, but it's also about companionship and youth, buried as deeply in love as "Don't Worry, Baby."
At the beginning of 1964, it was this single that signaled the Beach Boys' coming of age into a fully realized, muscular rock band, fusing their fast and fierce power with the introspection evidenced on the terrific Surfer Girl album. To begin with, they proved themselves able to withstand the crushing tide of the British Invasion, landing this instant classic high on the charts at the peak of Beatlemania. The lyric is eloquent and the song is anything but crude (they can play now, quite brilliantly), but the song is marvelous enough that it always seems raw and revelatory, and of course charged from start to finish like a two-minute interstate road trip.
"Fun, Fun, Fun," "Don't Worry Baby" and "The Warmth of the Sun" are as monumental as any songs in any rock band's catalog; that they occupy the same original album is rather alarming to contemplate. But that said album also is the home of "Denny's Drums," "Shut Down Part II" and "'Cassius' Love vs. 'Sonny Wilson" is a good example of just how frustrating the Beach Boys could be. Perhaps it wasn't their fault; the constant screaming for product by Capitol seems to have put unfathomable pressure on Brian Wilson, especially following the departure of second guitarist David Marks, which made it harder for Brian to avoid live shows. By at least one account, though, Brian was pretty dismayed at having to let Shut Down Volume 2 out the door with so much obviously subpar material, and nearly scrapped it; with his competitive spirit flaring, he vowed to create something more unified. Having conquered the rock & roll single by 1964, Brian would now turn to effectively inventing and then refining the American rock & roll LP. The highs and lows that would result are the crux of the great Gothic tale of the Beach Boys in the '60s.
[Originally posted in shorter form in 2003.]