THE BEACH BOYS: SURFIN' SAFARI (1962)
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.
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