Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Surfer Girl (1963)
It might look slight at a glance -- with Brian Wilson filtering his many ideas into songs that are largely designed to strictly fit the surf and cars regiment -- Surfer Girl is one of the first great American rock & roll LPs. It's also one of those that demonizes technological progress: it must be heard in mono, a form in which it was long unavailable on compact disc. In stereo the title track and "The Surfer Moon" -- Brian Wilson's most florid early creation for the Beach Boys (with strings arranged by Jan Berry!), though he first used the track for a record by forgotten pop duo Bob & Sheri -- seem too theatrical, many of the others feel drained of their energy, and "Little Deuce Coupe" shows traces of artifice. In mono Brian Wilson, now in full control of the Beach Boys' studio output, manipulates his audience through a maze of teenage fantasies, wisdom, and dark truths. He has clearly grown into his own skin as a composer, seemingly almost overnight, but it makes a world of difference that no one is holding his creative ambitions at bay any longer. He and the band may falter a bit at times, "South Bay Surfer" and "Surfers Rule" being relatively trivial, the two instrumentals ("The Rocking Surfer" aka "Good Humor Man" and "Boogie Woodie") that are better than any of those on Surfin' U.S.A. still being the work of a band not built for instrumentals, but they never cease to be fun or affecting.
The Surfin' U.S.A. album had displayed the Beach Boys' exceptional penchant for ballads ("Farmer's Daughter," "Lonely Sea," and the unjustly forgotten "Lana"), and the group's melancholy was suggested by early outtakes like "Land Ahoy," but "Surfer Girl" was the single that put this wider dimension of their sound on public display. When the context of its time has long since passed, it's clear that this song is not only a glance at the pop mastery to come but remarkable in itself. The last of the four "surf" singles in the canon, it may be the most durable track Brian ever wrote. It's sentimental but not overreaching, sweet but not corny, and it shows Brian using his musical arena for some surprisingly sophisticated lyrics -- note the romantic escape suggested by "I will take you everywhere I go" -- as well as, of course, his penchant for an intoxicating melody and his nearly peerless skill with vocal arrangement. Even before Brian became a Spector nut and before the band could play particularly well, they were jointly capable of a classic that endures as well as any work they later did.
The flipside "Little Deuce Coupe" is their highest-charting b-side ever and a classic in itself. A single moment of comparison to "Shut Down" or "409" puts the Beach Boys' rapid evolution in full perspective. "Little Deuce Coupe" is smart, sassy, and relentless, with a shuffle rhythm, bass line, and fabulous lyrics and vocals. The song is easily the grittiest rocker the Beach Boys had released thus far (check out the demo version on Hawthorne, CA to catch an earful of its raw blues origins), and Brian Wilson certainly has no interest in using his harmonies just to sweeten the material. Like the album, this single is a staggering step forward on both sides.
Like "Surfer Girl," "The Surfer Moon" and "Your Summer Dream" are lovely prototypes. Influenced though they may be by Brian's heady ambitions as a songwriter, absorbing the Four Freshmen, Mancini, and Disney films, they create the Beach Boys' hopeless white-boy romantic persona that would be imitated unstoppably by sensitive rock groups for decades. "Your Summer Dream" is especially prescient, placing the roots of the c. 1999 alt-rock ballad in 1963. By immortalizing this, the Beach Boys -- not just Brian -- are placing and courting a new voice on record. It would be silly to suggest that record-collector geekdom can be traced back to this, but no mainstream performer aside from Buddy Holly had previously been possessed of what we'd now call indie appeal. That's not down to race, at least not strictly -- rather, it's down to ordinariness. All of Brian Wilson's gifts -- as well as those of his brothers -- are below the surface, the product of secret fixations and pleasures; the sex appeal of Dennis may help to sell it, but by and large these are gawky young men. It's not insignificant.
It all cuts deeper than simple trends, though. That's why "Catch a Wave" is a tower of glory (and incredibly, not a single, though Jan & Dean took it to the charts rewritten as "Sidewalk Surfin'") and "Little Deuce Coupe" has all the legitimacy of a Delta blues side despite the escapist subject matter of both. Brian's talent for, without condescension, evoking the thoughts and desires of teenage life like some sort of undercover journalist is still striking. In his lightest moments -- the miraculous rocker "Hawaii," the rhythmically enticing "Our Car Club" (a revision of a discarded Honeys tune called "Rabbit's Foot" with ingenious, jazzy drumming by Hal Blaine) -- he's still got his finger on the pulse of the adolescent moment. Moving away from the confines of the Capitol tower once and for all, Surfer Girl is the first full album to credit Brian as producer, following a bit of nastiness between band and label over the credit on the "Surfin' U.S.A." single and coming after he'd already proven his mettle as a composer and producer for other artists, and it emphasizes his skill as a showman. Surfing and cars weren't his scene, but he gives them everything he's got, at least as pretext.
"In My Room," though, is something else, and it's the type of creation you can't ignore in any context. Articulating insecurity and unrest -- arguably the very purpose of rock & roll -- better than any other work of our time, the lyrics move past distortion and aim not to move but to understand. If everyone could speak with such grace, wit, and intelligence, we'd all write this in our diaries. That the Beach Boys are expressing something extremely personal that happens to extend to everyone to whom they're speaking exemplifies a capability rare in all art and certainly in pop culture. Few rock & roll records touch the significance and power of this one. "Do my dreaming and my scheming / Like awake and pray / Do my crying and my sighing / Laugh at yesterday." That's all that most people would ever need to say.
[Originally posted in slightly shorter form in 2003.]