In Praise of The Beach Boys

In Praise of The Beach Boys

By Michael Quigley

The following article appeared in The University of British Columbia newspaper, The Ubyssey on March 28, 1969. This resulted in me becoming stereotyped as "the guy who likes The Beach Boys" (sort of like the way I am now stereotyped as "the guy who likes Hawaii Five-O"). People would come up to me years later and tell me that they had read it.

Whenever The Beach Boys are mentioned among university students, there's usually a great deal of snickering and a tendency to resort to the technique of the put-down. This is probably an extension of the ultra-critical attitudes fostered in many sections of English 100 and 200. These attitudes find expression in laughing at the sentimental parts of films shown in the SUB [Student Union Building] Auditorium, a phenomenon probably due to self-consciousness as well as hypercriticism.

However, for some reason, The Beach Boys' concert last January 18 was a sell-out with about six thousand people present, so that perhaps means that in some small insignificant way The Beach Boys might have some significance aside from a strictly commercial viewpoint.

So the point of this somewhat extended article is to explore some of these possible significances, perhaps refute the charges of "grease music" and other vile epithets hurled at the group, and perhaps revive a few memories in the process.

The strange thing is that I never liked the Beach Boys when I was a kid (a whole seven years ago), mainly because I never had a radio and therefore never listened to them. Anyway, I was too busy practising the piano and diligently doing my homework. (Slurp)

My interest in the group began about a year ago when my friend Shameless was playing some of his old "groovy greats" albums, the kind pressed in Canada on the Arc label and sold in supermarkets at abysmally low prices, and about as much of a bargain as last week's lettuce. (You'll remember that if you bought one of the albums it wasn't until you got it home, opened it and played it that you realized you'd been duped. It wasn't the original groups singing at all, but some hack rock band with a tentative name.)

The one song on Shameless' record which blew my mind, or, to use the more common vernacular, caught my attention, was "Be True to your School". It brought back all sorts of gooey and sticky memories from late high school years like basketball games, bus rides, and cheerleaders, phenomena most of us now dismiss with a snicker while listening to "Status Back Baby" by The Mothers of Invention. But back then all that "phoniness" formed a genuine social context which provided numerous friendships, many of which still exist, and (if I can use this expression) general good times.

So after learning that The Beach Boys had done the original of "Be True to your School", I searched around and quickly found and borrowed a copy of Little Deuce Coupe, the Beach Boys album which contained the song. (Living in a university residence such as Fort Camp [the university residence where I was living] can do wonders for increasing your popular musical knowledge.)

The version of "Be True" on Little Deuce Coupe was much better than the other -- the sound was fuller and the back-up vocals more imaginative. As could be expected, I listened to the other tracks as well, and found therein all sorts of fascinating music, not that it was particularly profound, but it probably related in some vague way to all those trendy movements I had missed out on earlier.

So my fascination led to curiosity about what the significance of the Beach Boys could be.

I soon borrowed more albums and bought a few of my own, and eventually became a Beach Boys fan(atic) whose new beliefs were generally accepted with gentle comments of a nature usually reserved for puerile minds. However, I continued my musico-cultural investigations, and at the beginning of this year, I got the opportunity of interviewing them when they were in Vancouver for their concert.

Following is a somewhat random sampling of quotes from that interview, which might help to throw some light on The Beach Boys as a phenomena [sic], beginning with a brief history of the group. The group members are Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine and Dennis Wilson. (How [Vancouver] Sun critic Bob Smith was under the delusion that Brian Wilson, mentor, producer and Wunderkind of the group was with them in Vancouver will remain one of the musical mysteries of our time. Brian hasn't been touring with the group for over five years, in spite of the fact that Smith mentioned in both his Leisure preview and review of the concert last January that Brian would be in Vancouver.)

Bruce Johnston: Carl, Dennis, and Brian are brothers, and Mike Love's a cousin. And Al Jardine was one of the original members. After the first hit or two, he left the group to go back to school because he wasn't sure (and I don't blame him) that a group's gonna have a successful businesslike affair making surfing records. You know, they're all young. Then Dave (David Marks) was the next-door neighbour to Dennis and Carl and Brian, and he came in the group for a while. Then Brian stopped touring, so Al started replacing Brian on the road, and then there was a big flare-up with Dave Marks and he left the group, and Brian came back in the group and Al stayed. Then Brian didn't tour for a while, so we replaced him with Glen Campbell, and then they replaced Brian with me because Glen was starting on his own thing.

BRUCE JOHNSTON ... the Beach Boys' image is kinda like a group Doris Day ...

MQ: What groups influenced you for your vocal style?

Al Jardine: Mainly The Four Freshmen.

MQ: What about the influences except The Four Freshmen. Any other groups?

Carl Wilson: No. No other groups. No. I was influenced personally by Chuck Berry, you know, his guitar-boogie-woogie.

Mike Love: We were all influenced by Chuck Berry's sentence for being, you know ... crossing the state line with an underage chick. It influenced us a lot too.

MQ: I see.

Mike Love: Did I hear you say something about the cultural significance of The Beach Boys?

MQ: Yeah, believe it or not.

ML: Aren't you trying to read something into this whole thing?

MQ: I don't know. Do you think I am?

ML: Probably.

MQ: You mean you don't consider yourselves that seriously? Consider all the guys that are listening to you know. You've been here for seven years or so, haven't you?

ML: We consider ourselves very seriously, but I think that the erstwhile critics get into ft a little too much for their own good. I think they overdo it a little bit. Like in finding hidden meanings ...

MQ: I don't mean that. I don't mean your song content. I mean just the fact that you've existed and influenced all these kids, like for the last seven years you've been around. There's very few groups that seem to last and have this continuing influence. The Beach Boys is one of them.

ML: I guess it's greed.

MQ: Yeah.

ML: No.

Carl Wilson: No, really, I guess our influence was just the goodtime music. that's all. You know-having fun, wouldn't you say?

ML: Yeah ... we have mostly concentrated on the more fun-type elements that you can work with.

Bruce Johnston: You know, The Beach Boys' image is kinda like a group Doris Day, you know what I mean? A lot of people stopped digging The Beach Boys, you know, and in their minds that image is probably still that Doris Day image and I think a lot of kids are going away from all that "clean" thing because that's where their parents are at, and they're trying to get into another thing and they don't like groups that represent that "clean" thing as much as other groups, which is OK because it's just another form of growing up.

MQ: Do you think any of your songs are put-ons? "Be True To Your School", for example?

ML: Yeah, well maybe it would be a put-on if we did it now.

MQ: But back then it was real?

ML: It was ... it was reminiscingly real.

BJ: Records ... a record just shouldn't be that important. I mean it shouldn't hang you up emotionally if your record fails. You shouldn't get into it that way. It's just nice if it all happens. I wonder if someone might read that and think, "Well, this guy's connected with a group that probably has enough investments or something to say that. It's not important because he has that security, but it really isn't. I really dig the scene that's happening now, I really do, because there might be a lot of bad things going on, but if out of all of those bad things ten per cent of the groovy part of it stays, wow ... you can't beat that.

Although these few quotes are taken from an interview which is eleven typed pages long, they are offered in hopes of relating to the claim that the Beach Boys are more than a synthetic commercial product. Now, for some consideration of the group's significances. Their albums which I think are particularly relevant to this are Little Douce Coupe (Capitol ST 1198), Pet Sounds (DT 2458), and the Best of The Beach Boys, Volume 1 (DT 2545), 2 (DT 2706) and 3 (DKAO 2945).

First, their musical significance. Standard procedure here is a few derogatory comments on their musical ability. For example, Carl's Chuck Berry riffs which are quite simple compared to Clapton or Hendrix. But is this comparison really valid? Does one say that Haydn is inferior merely because he isn't heavy like Wagner? (Haydn and Wagner -- two famous jazz musicians of the forties.)

Vocally, however, The Beach Boys have many groups beat. Taking the barbershop-type harmony from The Four Freshmen, they added the vocal backings from mid-fifties rock to produce, with the help of over-dubbing and careful preparation, a musical texture which can best be described, as "a wall of sound", amazingly full-bodied and sonically thick. As well, rather than repeat inane catch phrases like "Weem a walla" or "shoop shoop", The Beach Boys would often in their earlier songs repeat phrases relevant to the song like "Deuce Coupe" or the "rah-rah-rah-rah-siss-boom-bah" of "Be True".

Their vocal efforts progressed through Pet Sounds, the album to The Beach Boys what Sergeant Pepper is to The Beatles, to culminate in the rock masterpieces "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations." In these two songs, two of their longest and most costly to produce, the old harmonies were combined with new techniques worked out with the aid of VanDyke Parks, whose own Song Cycle greatly expanded the potential of rock and popular music. In these two songs, both on The Best, Volume 2, the emphasis is on sound rather than the words and music, which demands a very McLuhanesque involvement.

Poetically speaking, The Beach Boys are also interesting, at least if we believe the approach of Richard Goldstein's recent collection, The Poetry of Rock (Bantam Books P3964). In this encouraging but not very comprehensive mini-anthology, Goldstein has Included only one Beach Boy song - "Wonderful" (from their album Smiley Smiles), which I don't consider that representative of the group.

Not much attention has been paid of some to their early lyrics about surfing and cars. In fact, Little Deuce Coupe might represent the epitome of glamorization of the car in popular song, Every song on this record except one -- "Be True to your School" - is about a car, ranging from "The Spirit of America" to show cars <"No-Go Showboat"). Even James Dean, victim of a car, is brought in the a cappella "When a Young Man's Gone." What is important about these songs is mainly the lyrics, which demonstrate the possibility of wide-range subject matter for song-lyrics, just as W. H. Auden's "The Express" does for poetry.

Consider the words to "Shut Down", for example:

Tak it up, tak it up, buddy, gonna shut you down
It happened on the strip where the road is wide,
Two cool shorts standin' side by side.
Yes, my fuel-injected Stingray and a Four Thirteen
Revvin' up our engines, and it sounds real mean.
Tak it up, etc.
Declinin' numbers at an even rate,
At the count of one, we accelerate.
My Stingray is light, the slicks are startin' to spin,
But the Four Thirteen's wheels are diggin' in.
Gotta be cool now. Powershift, here we go.
The Superstock Dodge is windin' out in low,
But my fuel-injected Stingray's really startin' to go.
To get the traction, I'm a-ridin' the clutch.
My pressure plate's burnin', that machine's too much.
Pedal's to the floor, hear his dual quads drink.
And now the Four Thirteen's lead is startin' to shrink.
He's hot with ram induction, but it's understood.
There's a fuel-injected engine sittin' under my hood.
Shut it off, shut it off, buddy, now shut you down.

(Copyright by Sea of Tunes Publishing Company)

But, finally, what makes The Beach Boys significant is, as was stated earlier, the fact that they have existed for the past seven years and continued to play what they term "good time music". This music continues to draw young fans who want to escape "heavier" musical sounds or else who just want to dig The Beach Boys because of their mythical star-status qualities, and it also brings back "reminiscingly real" memories of growing up to their older fans.

BRUCE JOHNSTON: ... we're really kind of an underground group that's way above ground because of some of the things that we try ... We try some really interesting things besides being outright commercial.

In fact, in their latest two albums, the Beach Boys are really into a memory trip as well as continuing their sonic explorations. Consider these lyrics from Friends:

We've been friends now for so many years,
We've been friends now through the good times and the tears ...

and from the first song on their latest album, 20/20, released last month:

It's automatic when I talk with old friends
The conversation turns to girls we knew when
Their hair was soft and long
And the beach was the place to go.

The sun-tanned bodies and waves of sunshine
The California girls an a beautiful coastline
And warmed-up weather
Let's get together and do it again.

And if you don't believe there's some significance in "sentimental crap", I'll again quote Frank Zappa from the cover of Ruben and The Jets where he explains why he likes to listen to "reminiscingly real" greasy fifties love songs. He finishes by saying "Ten years from now you'll be sitting around with your friends someplace doing the same thing if there's anything left to sit on."

Thanks to all the following who helped in the production and preparation of this article: Gord, Leslie, Gillian, Greasy Roy, Barry, Ruth, John C., Dale, Steve, Select Music in Vancouver, Dick, Tom and Carl, Bruce, Al, Dennis and Mike. The two pictures of the Beach Boys concert in Vancouver last January were taken by Gordon Long, who struggled mightily through hordes of screaming teenyboppers to take them.