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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Beach Boys: Surfin' Safari


1) Surfin' Safari; 2) County Fair; 3) Ten Little Indians; 4) Chug-A-Lug; 5) Little Girl (You're My Miss America); 6) 409; 7) Surfin'; 8) Heads You Win – Tails I Lose; 9) Summertime Blues; 10) Cuckoo Clock; 11) Moon Dawg; 12) The Shift.

Listening back on 'Surfin', the Beach Boys' first single and a song that, in a way, opened up a new page in the history of American popular music (without knowing it at the time, of course), one could probably build up a solid case for a complete lack of progress in mainstream pop in fifty years time — the period it takes to span the distance from 'Surfin' to thoroughly «modern» «plea­sures» like Miley Cyrus' 'Party In The USA'.

Yet there is a difference. From the very start, the Beach Boys — the three Wilson brothers, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine — were truly committed to music. With their sim­ple blue-collar origins, it was all very much homebrewn at first, but the boys practiced hard and, most importantly, amalgamated tons of influences. It is true that their first two singles and the accompanying LP could not yet let anyone see the true greatness to come, but perhaps, buoyed by the freshness of the idea to write a vocal song about surfing, they were simply pushed into the studio too soon: compare the Beatles, whose serious studio career only truly took off after a gru­e­ling five year schedule of playing and honing their act.

Even so, the simplistic-hedonistic vibe of 'Surfin' still sounds cute and seductive today, if only for its utter innocence and, I'll say it again, freshness — basically, it was one of the first situations in which a bunch of normal, clean, non-threatening kids, raised on proper suburban values, would pick up their electric guitars and take their inspiration from the «right» people in the business, na­mely, rock'n'rollers, surfers, and folksters.

19-year old Brian Wilson contributed a whoppin' nine originals here, with lyrics contributed ei­ther by cousin Mike Love or pal Gary Usher. His growth as composer and arranger is evident already during the transition from first to second single: 'Surfin', behind the lively ba-ba-dippity's (courtesy of Mike, not Brian), is almost non-existent on the musical plane, whereas 'Surfin' Safari' already has a steadier beat, a guitar solo, and Mike Love, although still suffering from too much nasal whining, hits a few more notes here and there. Fairly big progress, actually, achieved in less than half a year, at a time when the very idea of «progress» in a pop musical career was not yet formulated explicitly.

But overall, there is not much diversity: at this point, Brian's originals are mostly fast-paced surf pop variations on pre-existing rockabilly / surf-rock compositions. The arrangements are fleshed out only inasmuch as they can distinguish «songs» from «early demos» (guitar-bass-drums and very thin, insecure vocal harmonies; kudos for playing all the instruments on their own, but this is actually a case where outside professional help couldn't hurt). And, although his services in the future would occasionally be of more significant use, Gary Usher is essentially a crap lyricist — after all, you needn't go further than Chuck Berry to learn that it is possible to write smart, funny, and provocative lyrics about cars, girls, and other simple pleasures of life, yet, apparently, Usher was not a fast learner, what with his idea of a provocative chorus amounting to "Chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug, give me some root beer". ROOT BEER? Cute little darlings, are we?

Some of the more interesting failures, the likes of which one can only encounter on this debut, involve: (a) 'Sum­mertime Blues' — the only time the Beach Boys dared to put a bona fide rock'n'roll classic on a studio album before the even bigger failure of 'Rock'n'Roll Music' in 1976; I guess they just weren't made for this style; (b) 'Ten Little Indians', an «original» experiment in kiddie-folk that the record label embarrassingly selected as the follow-up single to 'Surfin'; (c) 'County Fair', «enlivened» by pseudo-carnival atmosphere overdubs that only further emphasize its silly amateur entertainment status.

Yet, when all is said and done, 'Surfin' Safari' is arguably their best straightforward surfing an­them (as opposed to «best song that has the word 'surf' in the title», an honor that goes to the much later 'Surf's Up' which, frankly speaking, had nothing to do with surfing whatsoever); and '409' firmly establishes their «car song» format, even if the lively chorus of "giddy up giddy up four-oh-nine" sounds dangerously close to "idiot idiot four-o-nine" (intentionally, perhaps?). A minor sensation upon release, almost immediately forgotten in the wake of a wave of much gran­der successes, these days Surfin' Safari is simply an exciting case study in «a day in the life» of fresh-faced, innocent teenage America before the filthy British Invasion came and perverted the land of the free and the brave beyond repair. Thumbs down, of course (I could not win the argu­ment that this is objectively better than Miley Cyrus had I really wanted to), but with reservations concerning its instructive, period-piece-ish, value.

Check "Surfin' Safari" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Surfin' Safari" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. The Beach Boys!!! One of my favourite bands.
    But yep, this album mostly bites. It's interesting from a historical point of view but that's about it. All the good songs are on compilations anyway.

  2. Never heard it. I have to say, in your previous review there was a lot more humour, bring back your sense of humour to these reviews! - I know music has a right to be taken seriously 'n all, but I thought, for example, it was funny in your previous review when you said that "Chug-a-Lug" was a root beer anthem! Kind of tickled me. Anyway, your reviews are always interesting to read, and very well written (even though I disagree with your low rating of The Times they are A-Changing :D)

    On a side note - I'm looking forward to reading your opinion on Bob Dylan's post-Love and Theft albums.

  3. "... is simply an exciting case study in «a day in the life» of fresh-faced, innocent teenage America before the filthy British Invasion came and perverted the land of the free and the brave beyond repair" hey I agree with this statement. But the reverse is probably more true. American music changed British music forever. Nice review by the way.

  4. I actually quite like this album. I have a strange fondness for these cutesy early 60s albums made by the groups that later became huge (such as these guys and the Beatles). If I were to use your old system on, I'd give this 11/15 (equal to 6/10, as I disagree with you having these guys, not to mention Led Zeppelin, as 3-star artists).

  5. Anonymous: of course, American music changed British music, I don't think anyone can place that fact under question - but there was a whole lot of "trade waves" in the 1950s-1960s (and beyond, in fact) where both sides of the ocean were constantly pushing each other forward. "Surfin' Safari" is the Beach Boys in pre-Beatles era. Once the Beatles got there big time, things would never be the same.

  6. Pretty cute album. Rushed into the studio by Murry and produced by a disinterested Nick Venet (who could have really cared less about the band) Brian actually did all the arranging and producing himself. And it's so amateurish. Tempos are rushed. Vocals are clipped. The playing basic and somewhat out of control (or out of time, perhaps). An early form of punk rock?!

    Of course not. But punks do love this early period of the Beach Boys. I do like the album but wow is it rather silly. That's kind of the appeal. Carl was something like 15 when they recorded this. Can you imagine? He STILL stands out as the best instrumentalist. The solos are typical early rock and roll: completely unmemorable bursts of energy that are still a lot of fun.

    Compositionally, I think "Heads You Win-Tails I Lose" is a relatively complex tune. The introduction and chordings aren't just Beach Boy bashes (i.e. bashed out basic rock tunes) and while the lyrics are incredibly embarrassing on everything, they're just little kids. They were VERY sincere which is a huge bonus. I don't mean to pick on him (because it's too easy) but can you imagine the similarly youthful Justin Bieber making anything this good? Not on his own, anyways: remember, the band is similar in age and making this all on their own: writing, arranging, playing and producing. The first band to take complete control of their musical output.

  7. I love "Surfin' Safari" (the song). It sounds amazing, with a rare balance between the instruments and voices, and a "magical" vibe that i don't see, p.e., in "BB Today!" songs. I think that the power of The Beach Boys is in the "flow" rather than in the "rock n roll edge", so the low drums, the clear vocals and the soft transitions between melodies (with no breaks or jumps) are a plus. I'd like to say that the "flow" of the (best) Beach Boys is not related to a sugary version of rock n roll, it has a real own value in the way they manage to "find the musical path".

  8. Me encanta "Surfin Safari" (la canción). Suena increíble, con un extraño equilibrio entre las voces y los instrumentos, y un no sé qué mágico que no veo, p.e., en las canciones del Today!. Creo que la fuerza de los Beach Boys está en el "fluir" más que en la "vena rockanrolera", así que la baja batería, las voces claras y las suaves transiciones entre melodías (sin saltos ni parones) ayudan a la canción. Me gustaría añadir que el "fluir" de los mejores BB no es una versión edulcorada del Rock n Roll, sino que tiene un valor intrínseco como una manera especial de "encontrar el tono, el hilo musical".

  9. Easy to knock Ten Little Indians but it's harmonies might be the best on here - definitely closest to the high-pitched Beach Boys harmonies of the near-future. And maybe 'cause I'm not from a country (New Zealand) really exposed to it I don't quite see it is a 'nursery rhyme' and so can somewhat enjoy it sometimes.

    I also find "Cuckoo Clock" (not mentioned) pleasant. Very mixed bag of an album but I think there's enough good moments for a thumbs middle rather than down. Just me.