I thought of writing an essay last month in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Beach Boys first big hit, "Surfin' USA". As it happened, I got distracted and wound up calling on God to blow up evildoers. (Priorities).
But the release a couple of weeks back of "A Grammy Salute to the Beach Boys" got me excited about the idea again, although in a different way.
You see, in a world increasingly full of disappointments, the Grammy tribute was a slam dunk. That surprised me. It's been years—decades—since anything about the Grammys resonated with me, or anyone else I know. And the show rekindled all the admiration I've always felt for the band from Hawthorne, California.
No, the Grammys aren't paying me to promote their show here (although they should). I'm just impressed they did something I liked after all these years.
Norah Jones does a really nice rendition of "The Warmth of the Sun". Brandi Carlile pulls off "In My Room". "Do It Again", "Good Vibrations", "Sail On Sailor"—all the biggest and best songs are there. And everyone's good.
But for my money (and my dad's), the showstopping highlight of the show is Leann Rimes' version of "Caroline No". It's a 450 foot Shohei Ohtani home run, way out of the park. Her vocal performance is incredible. The extended song structure is better than the original. The musical accompaniment is flawless, and even incorporates the unusual original Carol Kaye bass parts. My dad and I have watched it probably half a dozen times now—yes, with "spectrum"-like focus—absorbing every note of every instrument, every pause, every everything.
It was only after the show finished that we discovered that my friend, Rick Krim, who originally plucked me from obscurity and helped me get my record deal at Columbia in the late 90s, helped produce the whole thing. In any case, if you're a Beach Boys fan, you can check out the special on Paramount Plus.
As for the Beach Boys themselves:
They were the first concept band. I mentioned in my recent Jobim/Getz/Gilberto and U2 pieces that those musical acts were more than just musical acts. They were self-contained cosmoses of specific images, types of people, attitudes, aesthetics, ethics, ways of being. And they were rooted in a particular place.
It was the same with the Beach Boys, who from the start beamed a distinct form of Southern California living to the world: sunshine, surfing, pretty girls, cool cars, hamburger stands, and harmless fun. We're talking about "I Get Around", "Fun Fun Fun", "Surfin' Safari", "California Girls", "Surfer Girl", "Little Deuce Coupe", "Help Me Rhonda", and all the other early hits. To listen to those anywhere was to instantly, viscerally experience the Beach Boys's world.
In this respect, Beach Boys music functioned as a kind of trance-inducer—it spawned spontaneous visions and visceral feelings. You wanted to be in their world, because you felt you knew, by listening, just what it was like to be there—and it was awesome.
Certainly this was how The Who's drummer, Keith Moon, felt. The seventeen year old Londoner fell enraptured when he first heard the band. They instantly became his favorite band, and the only band he ever listened to aside from The Who itself. At the height of The Who's fame, Moon even secretly wrote a letter to the Beach Boys asking if he could join as their drummer. The Who's lead singer Roger Daltrey remarked, "He was a mad Beach Boys fan. He would have left The Who at the drop of a hat to join the Beach Boys. Even at our height, when the Beach Boys were on their way down and The Who were at the top of the world, if the Beach Boys had asked him to drum for them, he would have gone."
The Beach Boys declined Moon's offer. Undaunted, the forever-entranced Moon announced he was emigrating from England and moving to Southern California anyway. At least there he could live in a Beach Boy World, and be physically close to his heroes. (Moon then purchased and moved into a house on Malibu beach right next door to Steve McQueen's).
As the Beach Boys moved from straight surf music into deeper, more symphonic pieces, they entranced other famous musicians, too. The Beatles flipped over the 1966 Beach Boys album, Pet Sounds, and for good reason: between the melodic and chordal complexity, the robust orchestral accompaniments, the sophisticated vocal harmonies, and the ethereal, reverb-y sound of the recording studio, the album sounded like no other pop album before it. The truth is, with Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys had outdone the Beatles. And Paul McCartney knew it.
"It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. The orchestration, the instrumentation that's used on it, I was very fascinated by. It certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways. I've often played Pet Sounds and cried. It's that kind of an album for me".
The album directly inspired a competitive Paul to spearhead Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club. That in turn inspired hundreds of other acts, and on it went.
For those unfamiliar with the album, I would recommend listening to it front to back one evening, on a proper stereo. Light a fire, open up a bottle of wine, turn off the phones, lie down on the sofa, and just play the whole record. (My own favorites off the record are "God Only Knows", "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder", and the aforementioned "Caroline No", but you really should listen to the whole thing).
And if you want to do a Beach Boys dive after that experience, you can go back to the early stuff, and then move ahead to the post-Pet Sounds material.
Lyrically, "When I Grow Up To Be a Man" is clever and moving (lead singer Mike Love wrote the lyrics). Almost all the other Beach Boys songs of that era describe young guys out having a blast at the beach. But in "When I Grow Up To Be a Man", the young speaker pauses to reflect on his future. He will one day be a husband. He won't be running around with girls anymore. He'll be committed to one single woman. What will that even be like? Will he really be satisfied with her, and love her and only her, forever? He'll also be a father. What will his children think of him? And will his personality change once he's matured? Or will he just be the same person, just with more responsibility?
The speaker has no idea. In fact, every line in the entire song, minus the phrase in the coda, is a question. He just doesn't know. That's some lyrical depth deftly inserted into a fast-moving pop song.
"In My Room" is another introspective tune, with lyrics written by Gary Usher, a friend of the band (music as always written by Brian Wilson). The speaker's room, he tells us, is a sanctuary—his personal little temple. There, he finds respite from a worrying world. He can calm himself down to reflect, plan, and communicate with God. He can allow himself to fully feel insecurities he can't reveal outside. Without this private physical space, he wouldn't be able to navigate a confusing, sometimes unnerving world. Because of it, he can.
These are early songs, but they foreshadow the intimacy and introspection we hear later on Pet Sounds.
Of the post-Pet Sounds songs, I quite like "Do It Again" —a reprise of their simpler, pre-Pet Sounds style, with a nice little bridge.
There's lots more to say about the Beach Boys, but one of the most important for now is that by around 1970, the band's great creative force and primary songwriter, Brian Wilson, had mentally damaged himself through excessive LSD use. He has never recovered. The great musical talent he displayed in the early and mid-sixties just hasn't been seen since.
The band has soldiered on through thick and thin, and are still out there performing. Beach Boys shows are still worth seeing. The albums are still worth listening to. But it's hard not to wonder about all the great music Brian might have created the past fifty years, but for his drug damage.
In any case, I just wanted to recognize the 60th anniversary of "Surfin' USA", and laud a great, innovative band which has left a huge mark on popular history. And if you're a fan, do look up Leann Rimes's version of "Caroline No", and the whole Grammy tribute. And if you're not a fan yet, check out "Pet Sounds" one night and tell me what you think.
See you next week.
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