THE BEACH BOYS: SUMMER DAYS (AND SUMMER NIGHTS) (1965)
1) The Girl From New York City; 2) Amusements Park USA; 3) Then I Kissed Her; 4) Salt Lake City; 5) Girl Don't Tell Me; 6) Help Me, Rhonda; 7) California Girls; 8) Let Him Run Wild; 9) You're So Good To Me; 10) Summer Means New Love; 11) I'm Bugged At My Old Man; 12) And Your Dream Comes True.
History has marked Summer Days as a slight fall-off from Brian's unprecedented mountaineering record — an involuntary concession to pressure on the part of both Capitol Records and Mr. Mike Love, so that the band's loyal fan guard suffer not the painful deprivation of the good old surf / girls / cars saccharose intake. And nothing is going to change that history, because it seems to have been objectively true: Summer Days was rather hastily put together by Brian to assuage his worried pals, just as Pet Sounds were already flooding his brains.
That said, for a «marking-time album» this one is remarkably filler-free — so much so that, in a way, it would be possible to imagine Summer Days/Pet Sounds as a joint double LP, twice the length of Today! but sharing the same structure: one half dynamic, upbeat, and commercial, one half slow, introspective, and experimental, yet in such a way that both halves are clearly the product of a single mastermind conscience. (Even bearing in mind that the former half still showed some signs of collective output, whereas Pet Sounds is 100% Brian).
Yes, there are a few saddening throwbacks. For instance, the instrumental composition 'Summer Means New Love' is technically pleasant, but essentially sounds like generic early Sixties soundtrack muzak (à la 'Ringo's Theme' off Hard Day's Night, except the melody is nowhere near as captivating as 'This Boy'). Worst of the lot, a serious blemish on the album's reputation, is 'Amusement Parks USA', a carnivalesque romp dominated by artificially cheery lyrics and vocals from Mike, festival barkers and what-not, a tune whose closest match in style would be something like 'County Fair' off Surfin' Safari — and that was three years ago, when the band was just starting out and its lack of expertise, professionalism, and taste could still be excused. In mid-1965, there was no more excuse. Every time I hear that frantic laughter in the background, I have to turn the volume down — if anybody catches me listening to this over the Brandenburg Concertos, my reputation is gone forever.
The expertise, however, breaks through on 'Salt Lake City', which must have been intended as yet another silly-sounding, life-asserting anthem to the pleasures of American life (through a Mormon perspective, no less, although, judging by the lyrics, Mike Love might have been totally unaware of that obvious association, being far more interested in the sensual pleasures that the location offered). But midway through, an entirely different sax-and-keyboards section cuts in, with complex interweaving patterns, and becomes the focal point of the song — so good that the melody would stick in the band's subconscious and eventually be rewritten as 'Do It Again'.
And when the collective spirit is not that strongly dominated by the «surf-o-rama» (meant figuratively, of course; technically, there are no surf songs here at all, in spite of the tempting album sleeve), we simply get pop classic after pop classic. 'Help Me, Rhonda' is here again, in a heavily revised version that adds more melodic overdubs, more complex vocal layers, and a more inventive build-up in the solo section. Phil Spector and the Crystals' 'Then He Kissed Me', with the gender roles wisely reversed, is not a huge improvement over the original, but is exactly what one would expect of a Beach Boys' reversal of a fabulous girl group hit song.
The magnum opus of the record has always been recognized as 'California Girls': easy-going catchy pop lovers adore it because, well, it would be fairly hard to find a catchier pop song in existence, while artsy-minded types love to concentrate on the song's small «symphonic» opening, simple in melody but, sound-wise, completely identical to the instrumental style of Pet Sounds ('Wouldn't It Be Nice' would soon be introduced in a very similar way). Me, I like the tempo of the song — before that, somehow, the band would generally favor either fast pop-rockers or slow ballads, but here we roll along on a steady midtempo that somehow gives the song a statelier character than all those other early anthems to the Californian lifestyle. It is really a perfect culmination, and a fitting conclusion, to the band's career as troubadours of teen-centered West Coast values, which they would never again return to in a fully convincing, «authentic» manner.
On the other hand, the magnificence of 'California Girls' sometimes obscures the fact that its immediate follow-up on the album, 'Let Him Run Wild', is also one of the greatest achievements of Brian Wilson's career. It isn't just a ballad, it's a little bit of an über-romantic thunderstorm that, for the first time on a Beach Boys album, almost threatens to break out from under control and turn into emotional chaos — even if it's only an illusion, since, at that time, Brian was still in full control of his senses and instincts. And that nervous beginning, when Brian's high-pitched vocals break the wall of the near-psychedelic keyboards, is every bit as good as the famous start to 'Good Vibrations'. Don't you go forgetting this little masterpiece.
Almost everything else on the album also ranges from interesting to excellent. Beatlesque influences crop up on 'Girl Don't Tell Me', one of Carl Wilson's first lead vocals over a refrain that, admittedly, was influenced by 'Ticket To Ride' (although the lyrics treat their female subject with far less reverence than John Lennon reserved for his female protagonist); overall, however, the two songs are entirely different. And 'You're So Good To Me', with a non-falsetto lead from Brian, also sounds a little Mersey-beat-ish to my ears, or, perhaps, even reminiscent of the style of the Hollies — in any case, more British in stylistics than American.
Of note is the near-complete lack of transparent filler, and the complete lack of goofy material ('Our Favorite Recording Sessions' etc.), unless one wants to count 'I'm Bugged At My Ol' Man' as a bit of goofiness. The tune, a sort of mock-comical musical swipe that Brian took at his father (hyperbolically exaggerated enough so that a «c'mon, Dad, it's not really about you» would always be in order), is made to sound like a rough demo, with just Brian at the piano and the rest of the band surrounding him like a barbershop quartet — in a way, presaging similar rough-cut musical skeletons that he would accumulate twelve years later for Love You. It is so completely out of place here, though, that, for the first time ever, we get to sense Brian's own bits of mental instability: a person more or less at peace with himself could hardly be expected to put this kind of stuff on the same album with 'California Girls'.
To summarize, Summer Days is, in general, a bit of a retread indeed, but, taking one big step backwards, the band still manages to make a few intriguing short steps forward at the same time. And it is the last we will ever see of these early, smiling, still beardless, still having-fun-in-the-sun Beach Boys — before the towering ambitions of their leading genius, the relentless marching on of time, the personal troubles and turmoils, drugs, disfunctions, depressions, derision, Charles Manson, and whatever other avatar of chaos came along, took over and wiped that smile off the band's collective face, never to return again, unless in a very forced and unnatural state. Thumbs up, album — thumbs down, loss of youthful innocence.
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