THE BEACH BOYS: SURFIN' USA (1963)
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.
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