Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965)
!!! A+ RECORDING !!!
It isn't their best album; indeed, I could make a better case for the music on the one just before it. Summer Days is, however, their most complex and truly representative -- with odd humor and odd pathos and a strange melding of both at times -- including their celebrated late '60s work, and perhaps as well their most unsettling and autobiographical, if not personal (that award goes to Love You). It also is noteworthy for being the first Beach Boys album to point clearly in the varied, dark, bizarrely quirky direction they'd end up taking.
The rockers are generally even more innocuous than "Our Car Club," so all in all they're a delight, particularly the hilarious "Salt Lake City." ("The way the kids talk so cool is an outta sight thing.") They find time to namecheck Disneyland in the utterly terrifying organ-driven "Amusement Parks, U.S.A.," a kind-of-rewrite of "County Fair" combined with "Palisades Park" which also features Hal Blaine as a carny emcee and Brian Wilson doing indescribable voice work as he portrays Regular Citizens visiting the circus and complaining about the price. With Brian in full mad-scientist Orson Welles mode, they'd never again be more hedonistic or gleefully weird, Smiley Smile notwithstanding.
If Summer Days marks the discovery of an identity, though, it also sets the battle lines for the Beach Boys' crippling identity crisis. Between those two playful compositions on side one sits a maddeningly straightforward cover of "Then He Kissed Me," now "Then I Kissed Her," which tampers far too much with the gender-specific lyrics and finds Brian trying too hard to duplicate the feel of Spector's production on the original Crystals single, only with the Beach Boys predominately playing instead of the Wrecking Crew and thus a much smaller lineup. (Kudos to Al, an underappreciated and versatile singer, for a fine lead vocal.) As the shimmering "Salt Lake City" proves, he's at least Spector's equal on his own terms; in his hands a fairly stupid song turns into something magical. It can go the other way, too: The first half closes with "Help Me Rhonda," which was already on a Beach Boys album, but this time it's the single version, seemingly an improvement by all accounts except mine. I think the original from Today! is a gem and I think this one is messier, flimsier, despite a fabulous Carl Wilson guitar solo and an admirably weird backing track.
And then there's "California Girls." It actually contradicts "Salt Lake City," which claims that "girl for girl" Utah has "the cutest of the Western states." Anyway, this time out they've decided they wish all girls could be from California, for what that's worth; the lyrics are among the band's worst and most chauvinistic ever, "Pom Pom Play Girl" without a sense of humor, and they're delivered somewhat obnoxiously by an especially nasal Mike. The song is musically brilliant, obviously. Its introduction is a moment of pure, proto-psychedelic magic that seems to define the sound and mood of summer 1965 the way the opening seconds of Mary Wells' "My Guy" did for the previous year. Otherwise "California Girls" lacks the easy charm of both the Beach Boys' sensitive Pet Sounds-era work and, thanks to its elaborate production, the loud-and-fast punchy appeal of "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Surfin' USA." Despite a wonderful fadeout and flawless arrangement, it sticks out more as a record tied specifically to its time than most major Beach Boys hits, but it was the perfect summer single and it served its purpose well. It's just slightly more difficult to warm up to now, perhaps because it's a song about a rich rock star cavorting around the world having sex.
When complaints are limited to the acknowledged classics, though, you know an album is special. Even the comparative throwaways are enjoyable; the oddly brief a cappella closer, "And Your Dream Comes True," is gorgeous and thanks to it pregnant sense of anticipation leads neatly into "The Little Girl I Once Knew" and Pet Sounds. Equally inviting is the Hollyridge Strings-like instrumental "Summer Means New Love," though it helps in that case to be an aficionado of Mancini and cornball easy listening. And to accuse "I'm Bugged at My Ol' Man" of unconscious novelty is to betray one's total lack of respect for warmth and humor in rock music, Dr. Demento be damned. Brian's minimalist venting session about being locked up by his dad in a room with the windows boarded up, with deadpan contributions from the Boys, is hilarious and charming -- and, inevitably, quite revealing in regard to the Wilsons' prevailing attitude toward their father. By the end and the line "He doesn't even know where it's at," he's transformed his own clichés to a startling expression of universal teenage frustration. Sitting at the piano he documents an alienation everyone has felt at some point with their parents; knowing even just a bit about his childhood, his easygoing humor is admirable.
Grittier and sweeter than "California Girls," the opener "The Girl from New York City" is good old rock & roll, with sax and riffs and smitten (not leering) vocals and lyrics. It's one of Mike Love's finest hours. Increasingly he is in the background on the more innovative songs in the catalog, but his bass vocals remain incredible and his leads still reflect at least some of the evocative joys of earlier years. Carl and Brian, of course, offer the album's best leads, the former on one of the Beach Boys' greatest and angriest rockers, the sensitive and fabulously subtle "Girl Don't Tell Me," a brilliantly written tale of broken hearts. Carl was now coming into his own as Brian's best interpreter, and following Dennis' pair of strong leads on Today!, he nails this one; he sounds committed enough to the material that you get the urge almost to apologize to him for the mail snub. Mostly you just relate to his irritation and desperation, and the priceless kissoff: "I'll see you this summer, and forget you when I go back to school." The Beach Boys have captured teenage heartbreak with the intensity it has as it happens, but "Girl Don't Tell Me" is only teenage in the sense that it's fast, pissed-off, and bare. one of two songs that hark back to Surfer Girl and the like in their stark arrangements. The resemblance to "Ticket to Ride" is inescapable, especially in the brief electric guitar break, but the songs feed off and complement one another because it was that kind of time. (There's also a superficial resemblance to the general aesthetic of Rubber Soul, still a few months away from completion and release. "I'm Looking Through You" in particular seems like an adequate comparison.)
If "Girl Don't Tell Me" successfully foretells the folk-rock revolution kick-started around the same time by "Mr. Tambourine Man," I find it much harder to nail down the hybrid of the Beach Boys' most astounding and heartbreaking track, "Let Him Run Wild." I know there's a bit of Supremes in it, and there's reportedly a personal motivation behind the lyrics (the "him" being Murry Wilson) similar to that of "I'm Bugged at My Ol' Man." It's useless to attempt to factor out a formula to produce something like "Let Him Run Wild," most famously the b-side of "California Girls," because during its two and a half minutes it is the only song.
Brian here supplies the vocal to end all vocals. Wounded, cathartic and unearthly from a source that not so long ago was painting the sad and soothing portraits of "Don't Worry Baby," it's the sound of man who's learned not everything is simple enough that the nine-word chorus of the earlier classic can fix it. He has been faced with a truth which he cannot grasp, something that includes but expands far beyond the boy-girl follies of the (excellent) lyrics. Even the casual lashing of "Girl Don't Tell Me" seems mild compared to Brian's vicious attack upon a man's "lies." By the end, he has left everyone behind, whereupon he confronts us with that final line, the bitter spit of hatred: "And now that you don't need him, well, he can have his freedom." It's nearly impossible to hear this portion and not realize that something unseen and beyond the surface is happening, that the tone of Brian's voice alone is telling a story all by itself. It does not matter what the story is, but it's a terrible and haunting one and everything you need to know about it is in that line.
The music almost seems like an afterthought, but the melody and production are just as wounding, somehow raw with fury despite boasting a far more elaborate arrangement than "Girl Don't Tell Me" and such. It's clear this was always a song that really meant something to its writer; it may well be the Beach Boys' greatest, most brutal song. On the compilation Endless Summer, it's searing enough that the final notes (featuring the hardest, most impassioned playing from the Wrecking Crew or any non-Motown session crowd I've ever heard) still echo. Every second resonates on the recording, putting it in a league of its own with "In My Room" and "When I Grow Up" and portions of Pet Sounds. Brian's insistence on re-recording it three decades later only solidifies the truth that pop music is a moment, and "Let Him Run Wild" is among the most deeply moving of them all, because the antiseptic result of the 1998 attempt sounds as weak and facile as a paper airplane.
But then you have the marvelous British Invasion-infected "You're So Good to Me," because catharsis is always a good excuse to dance and fall in love, and maybe Brian's just on a roll here, because the thudding 4/4 beat, the sublimely warm backing vocals, and his rollicking lead all seem to belong in yet another pantheon. The lyrics couldn't be far from his best, either, and as love songs go, its sincerity and innocence are enough to make it neither cloying or cold, a fine line to walk. It all comes across beautifully, as usual. Fulfilling all the promise of their best work in the first half of the '60s, Summer Days is the sound of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys hitting a seemingly unshakable stride.
[Originally posted in slightly different form in 2003.]