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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Beach Boys: Surfin' USA


THE BEACH BOYS: SURFIN' USA (1963)

1) Surfin' USA; 2) Farmer's Daughter; 3) Misirlou; 4) Stoked; 5) Lonely Sea; 6) Shut Down; 7) Noble Surfer; 8) Hon­ky Tonk; 9) Lana; 10) Surf Jam; 11) Let's Go Trippin'; 12) Finders Keepers.

Professional growth a-plenty. From the toddler infancy of 'Surfin', through the humble teenage­hood of 'Surfin' Safari', the Beach Boys grow into adulthood with 'Surfin' USA', a true anthem to surfing as the ultimate embodiment of F-U-N — even if they just happened to take the melody from Chuck Berry's 'Sweet Sixteen', a fact that was so utterly obvious that loving dad / ruthless tyrant manager Murry Wilson was so afraid of, he immediately ceded complete copyright to an eager-to-complain Chuck Berry, even though the lyrics most certainly weren't his.

Nor was the arrangement, which seriously «surfed up» Chuck's original rock'n'roll mood, and, most importantly, introduced the Beach Boys to the technique of double tracking. Now that there were eight Beach Boys singing harmony to the world, instead of four, all of a sudden, this no lon­ger sounded like silly homebrewn product: Brian Wilson still had plenty to learn in the studio, but here you finally had material produced according to modern standards, songs that still sound re­spectably enough when placed on compilations of highlights from different periods.

'Surfin' USA' was a well-deserved monster hit for the Boys, the first one in a series of nuggets that would last all the way unto 1966; and it wasn't merely the vocal overdubbing technique that it introduced — it is also performed much more steadily and self-assuredly than anything on Sur­fin' Safari, showing that the kids were fairly well dedicated to improving as musicians. Brian plays a little electric organ, Carl plays a livelier and more fluent solo than ever before, and Dennis can actually both keep the rhythm and throw in precise fills — nothing extraordinary, but for a guy who was frequently accused of being kept in the band for his good looks (and wild reputation) rather than his musicianship, he acquits himself fine already on this first track of their second al­bum. The grooves are fine.

The bad news is, of course, that Surfin' USA (the album) was rushed — let alone the fact that, like all the US pop albums of the early Sixties, it only contains twelve songs that do not altoge­ther amount to even twenty-five minutes' worth of music, more than half of them are transparent filler. The Beach Boys trained themselves as respectable musicians, to be sure, but with Dick Dale, Duane Eddy, and the Ventures around, who would, honestly, want to hear a bunch of surf instrumentals played by a bunch of teenage sweeties? Clearly, it is not the Beach Boys' version of 'Misirlou' that is going to go down in history, even if they pull off the basic structure; and even if I have nothing displeasing to say about 'Surf Jam' or 'Honky Tonk', the best thing there is to say is — if these recordings played their part in helping the Beach Boys gain a necessary level of self-confidence as bona fide musicians, so be it, and let us move on.

As the dust settles, 'Surfin' USA' finds itself in the company of, at best, four additional treasurable songs. 'Farmer's Daughter' introduces us to the flourishing of Brian Wilson's falsetto vocals (an event that must have produced so great an impression on the 14-year old Lindsey Buckingham, he had to cover the song for Fleetwood Mac's Live album seventeen years later), and also to one of the most hilariously unintentional double entendres in lyrical history — "Glad to help you plow your fields, farmer's daughter". So that's what they call it now.

'Shut Down' is a little bit of a vehicular improvement on '409' ("tach it up, tach it up, buddy gonna shut you down" is certainly a step up from "giddy up giddy up four-o-nine"), but the real major progress is the entrance of ballads: fast ones ('Farmer's Daughter', 'Lana') and, most notably, the slow «downer» 'Lonely Sea', also sung by Brian. The harmonies here are still a bit crude, not hit­ting the heights they would be hitting in just a few months, but the spirit is already there, that par­ticular one which pushes the band's output outside the realm of teenage muzak and doo-wop cli­chés into higher places (if you want to believe it, of course).

All of which makes Surfin' USA a historical marvel — so many steps up (double-tracking, full fledged production, improved musicianship, strengthened songwriting, introduction of balladry, etc.) and so little material to prop the steps. Even as a two-for-one CD offer, with Surfin' Safari getting top billing, there is still not enough classic material to fill up twenty minutes of music. Fortunately, this is the very last time the band allowed itself such a high filler quota — at least, until so much later, when the band's very existence came to define the idea of filler.


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

7 comments:

  1. Yeah, fillers abound. And since the band didn't know when to stop, you actually have to review Beach Boys for the next half a year.

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  2. I find this album weaker than the last one. Only three songs are as good as/better than the last one's: the title track, 'Farmer's Daughter' and 'Shut Down'. The rest are weaker than the last album by far. Still, using the rating system you used to use, I give this a 9/15 (or 4/10, as I consider the BBs a five-star artist).

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  3. Might the "improved musicianship" be due to the BB beginning to use the wonderful musicians of the Hollywood scene? I don't know if they started here or not, but I think I read Carol Kaye remembers playing guitar (not bass) in this album, and the drum fills in Surfin' USA certainly sound more like Hal Blaine than like Dennis Wilson.

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  4. Well, nobody is listed on the credits except for the Beach Boys; session musicians start getting their due only on Surfer Girl. Either they were helping out in total anonymity, or we'll have to accept that it was Dennis, after all.

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  5. Look at Dennis go in that Youtube clip of 'Shut Down', he certainly seems capable to hold his own against any regular session man (not that Hal Blaine isn't more than just that of course).

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  6. ...which we couldn't, of course, say of Mike Love as a sax player in said clip - his performance reminds me of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgfZVNv6w2E .

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  7. Pretty good assessment. Technically, the band is much improved. Double tracking the vocals was a brilliant discovery. The band sound gorgeous instead of weedy. The instrumentation seems fully and definitely more assuredly.

    Oddly, the material here is indeed much weaker when compared to the classic numbers. I can't say Surfin Safari had a wide range of utter classics but the material was always pretty melodic. The abundance of solid, well performed, tolerable (but obviously throw away) instrumentals show the band was never going to be known as a "true" surf band. That's fine.

    Kudos to Carl, though, for playing Misirlou was well as he does. He was what, 16 or something? He holds his own: I know 28 year old guitarists that can't play this song as well. The tone on the surf tunes are much too wimpy and lack real "oomph" which separates them from the fuller sounding, more "dangerous" (heh) sounding surf material by Dick Dale and The Ventures.

    That said, the band shows off their vocalization and the great tunes are truly great. Surfing USA has a great drive and a cool arrangement. Lana, Lonely Sea and Farmer's Daughter are actually quite solid, if under developed. Good melodies and solid arrangements ahead of their contemporaries but still pretty under developed.

    Actually, my opinion is basically the same as yours here. Brian is learning producing quite well but is still somewhat struggling as a writer. Them's the breaks.

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