— one further excerpt from ‘Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music’ by G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com in November 2007 and available for around $17.95. Top position in Amazon’s sales list in the Music: History & Criticism category is #23 on April 26th 2008
The mercurial launch of the Beach Boys to hit-making in four months contrasts with other hopefuls’ gritty struggles. The Beatles, Four Seasons and Supremes—their rivals—all paid dues through a five-year lead time. The Four Tops took ten years—from generations of pop prior at the dawn of the Doo-Wop Era, when the influential Drifters were stars.
Dennis recalled fifteen years later to the UK’s Disc trade paper it was 1955 that his father drove the Wilson kids home from his work in the pickup as they sang ‘Smokey Joe’s Café’, r&b from Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller who also created ‘Riot in Cell Block No.9’, a Beach Boy concert favorite. More street-wise, sexually-charged narratives came from the same five voices, piano, drums, bass and guitar— the Robins morphing into the West Coast’s top black group, the Coasters. In summer 1959 the big r&b hit from Leiber-Stoller was ‘There Goes My Baby’ performed by Ben E King & the Drifters.
And in that last Fifties summer Denny, not yet 15, sized up the waves at his local haunt, Manhattan Beach, dogged by cousin Mike hassling him to get musically grounded brother Brian to form a band. It wasn’t until two springs later that things began coalescing, Brian coaching them in precise Four Freshmen harmonies, favorite among favorites. In the Wilson home, going-on-19-year-olds Brian and Al Jardine, his alarmingly little (5ft-5) grid-iron buddy from the Hawthorne High Cougars, recruited youngster Carl, who gave saxophone over to Mike for Chuck Berry guitar riffs. Mike’s predominantly black former school, Dorsey High, gave him a headstart in close-up interpretation of rhythm & blues singing, and the Wilson-Love clan were imbued with r&b broadcast incessantly by LA stations. It was Dennis, dropout from high school drumming lessons, who inspired Brian and Mike to write about surfin’; in another two months, again finessed by Dennis, they had that recording contract.
The California they would come to represent around the world —then with only a fraction of its 40 million population—was emerging as the Golden Age of Hollywood movie studios passed and television invaded every living room. The USA’s West Coast seemed ripe for revolution. Those who held the purse strings over movies, TV and the big radio networks were still in New York, the center of American entertainment for two centuries. A geographical rebalancing was overdue. Pop music needed a local guiding genius to buck the powers.
As if sprinkled from a cloud of pixie dust, it would be Brian, the teenage but already eccentric creative leader of the Beach Boys, who created California Music; not Phil Spector, the savvy New Yorker transplanted to LA who at 17 had played at being a native Californian by forming the gently cooing teen trio the Teddy Bears (‘To Know Him Is to Love Him’); nor Lou Adler, Liberty Records producer soon to marry tv starlet Shelley Fabares; nor producer-trumpeter Herb Alpert, boss of brand new A&M Records and wedding Lani Hall, Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66’s vocalist.
Settlers were attracted to this land famous for its resources—the native population early dispossessed—plundered by Spanish conquistadors and Gold Rush ’49-ers. Few stars originated here. The movies came to Los Angeles, not sophisticated San Francisco, for its equable weather offering filming year-round. The Arizona wilds of Flagstaff and Tucson had been tried—a little closer to Civilization, that is, the founding colonies Back East. By the Twenties the Hollywood Hills were circled by the screen industry. As the prosperous, ultra-conformist Fifties passed, Hollywood liberals blacklisted in the McCarthy Era were allowed back, secretly. Kansas president “I like Ike” Eisenhower was better known as a war hero and golfer; his vice-president, LA’s Richard Nixon, a commie-hunter. When handsome intellectual cum touch-footballer JFK was chosen in LA at 1960’s Democratic Party convention to run as the first-ever president born in the 20th Century the time was ripe for a new breed of local go-getters—young and competitive, confident, even cultured, energized by an invigorating outdoors spirit. The Beach Boys saw LA grow into a metropolis, then exiled themselves as the inevitable decay set in.
World events seemed to barely touch the lives of the Disney-raised kids. April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was first in space, and Kennedy flunked his first real test when he allowed a CIA plan to go ahead for an invasion of Cuba from the US by expatriates; face was saved two months later by ballet master Rudolf Nureyev defecting to The West. In the tit-for-tat propaganda war, on August 13th East German border guards strung barbed wire along Berlin’s East-West boundary, now a menacing frontier. September 18th Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold, secretary-general of the UN, was assassinated—his plane shot down en route to peace talks with a Congo dictator. That month London’s Ban the Bomb protest march ends in a thousand arrests.
LABOR DAY WEEKEND, SEPTEMBER 2-3 1961, SEVEN months into the Kennedy Era: Brian, Dennis & Carl Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine, now at community college with Brian, rehearse their first hit-to-be at the Wilson home in blue-collar subdivision LA—the corner of grandly named Hawthorne Boulevard & 119th Street, five miles from the Pacific Ocean. They attract neighborhood throngs and a squad of police, but it’s a party atmosphere, just a bunch of South Bay kids whipping up a rock’n’roll storm. Within two years there would be two hundred garage bands around LA playing gigs. Arrest and trial comes with the Wilson parents’ return from a business trip to Mexico City, astonished that the emergency money they left their sons, along with additional finance from Al’s mother, is swallowed up to rent instruments. After bristling father Murry—a physical disciplinarian when frustrated—pushes ringleader Brian up against the wall and threatens the others, and gentling mother Audree calms everyone, the group performs a nerve-racking audition.
Murry and Audree—and her brother, Mike’s father—were brought as children post-World War I to the Promised Land, as it was called in the parched and rugged Midwest according to all expectations, to end up settling among other economic refugees on Huntington Beach, a locale that would only take on a romantic aura in song a generation later:
“At Huntington and Malibu they’re shootin’ the pier—at Rincon they’re walkin’ the nose. We’re goin’ on safari to the Islands this year so if you’re comin’ get ready to go.” (‘Surfin’ Safari’ by Brian Wilson & Mike Love, copyright February 1962)
They were used to hard times—and hard, make-or-break saving, young Murry coming from rural Kansas preempting the Dust Bowl exodus of the Thirties Depression, and Audree of Swedish stock from Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Loves were evidently as tough. The Wilsons and Loves stayed close, bolstered by musical get-togethers when Murry on piano and Audree on organ were augmented by the kids’ voices—until well into their teens, to the point when one of the Love girls was almost a Beach Boy. Like Ike Eisenhower, Murry nourished a Kansas conservatism destined to clash constantly with Hollywood-liberal sons. On the other side of the family coin, the rugged commonsense and integrity shown by their elders would often prove the firm base the boys could turn to.
Murry, sucking sagely on his pipe, that end-of-summer day for once forcing himself to listen to rock’n’roll, grudgingly accepts that here is something special: “I never did like that song [‘Surfin’’]… it’s so rude and crude, you know?” But on songs Murry liked, “They sang like the Four Freshmen, but with a younger, sweeter sound.” Having struggled to get a few of his own songs published, he’s struck gold and takes his boys under a smothering wing. Ambivalence about Brian’s success, and a proprietorial attitude to the group, would make inevitable the implosion of a time bomb planted with the domineering upbringing of his sons.
Though his songs tended to sub-Stephen Foster—American Hymn in style—Murry was an avid Cool Jazz follower who exposed Brian early on to jazz piano ‘feels’. He would later make his musical presence tangible in The Many Moods of Murry Wilson, recorded by Capitol to placate the Beach Boys’ ubiquitous stage father: one of those Easy Listening sixties albums that was anything but easy listening, especially in what he did to his son’s ‘Warmth of the Sun’. Life with father was hardly harmonious. At one point in his boyhood, rebelling against Murry’s physical regimen directed at Dennis, especially, and himself (young Carl retired quickly from the battlefield), Brian is said to have “dumped” on a plate and served it up for dad’s dinner, compliments to the chef not recorded.
Alan, leader of a semipro folk group at Hawthorne High but en-ticed by Brian & Carl singing “kind of sophisticated” duets at a talent show, had played stand-up bass at that first command performance and now advanced the group through his contacts song-publishers Hite & Dorinda Morgan. ‘Surfin’’ was conceived by surf-crazed Denny, backing Brian and Mike into a corner by bluffing the Morgans that the song already existed, ready to record. Reluctant surfers taught the lingo by Dennis, they took a melody written by Brian for a 12th grade ‘F’ (his teacher wanted a sonata). An October 3rd recording session led to release late in November through the Morgans’ tiny X label and then on Candix organized for mass pressing and distribution.
If it wasn’t recorded in a garage, with Brian beating on a garbage can lid for a snare drum—as once reputed—the debut hit sounded like it: raw r&b. The lineup, as reported by Carl in 1965: Mike singing lead (and wanting to play saxophone for a Coasters sound but the rest of the group forbidding it); Al on (still-rented) standup bass; Carl, basic chords on guitar; and Brian—who took off his shirt to lay it over and beat on an actual snare drum. Lack of a recording studio was a minor inconvenience—a movie-dubbing studio doing just as well for their purposes, to get a record out. They sang all the vocals together through one microphone.
October: The nucleus of English group the Beatles— John Lennon & Paul McCartney—are in Paris celebrating John’s 21st birthday. Together four years with a good lead guitarist and now a steady drummer their group has in the past year or so tripped twice to Hamburg—the Reeperbahn district, a hotspot of sleazy showbiz where many Liverpool acts find better paid work. Paul, especially, is into fashion—and he and John get their hair styled anew by friend Jurgen Vollmer, now a French resident, in the mode of Parisian art students, ungreased and combed forward. Astrid Kirscherr had already done this in Hamburg for boyfriend Stu Sutcliffe, in the group only on the strength of being John’s friend. On the way home they stop in London’s fashion district in Chelsea, and buy pointy-toed slip-on shoes. Posterity will hail ‘Le Beatle’ hairstyle and Beatle boots.
Peter Eckhorn, manager of the Top Ten Club, Hamburg, where the Beatles had played for four months up to July: “The interesting thing about the Beatles was that people liked them more for their engaging personalities, their onstage antics, and smart remarks than for their music. Their music sounded very much like all the other English groups, but as performers they were unique” (Pritchard & Lysaght, 1998).
While there the band was signed for Polydor as Liverpool teen idol Tony Sheridan’s backing group—by bandleader/A&R man Bert Kaempfert of huge American success ‘Wonderland By Night’, and recorded in a school hall by him. A Merseybeat version of the old standard ‘My Bonnie (Lies Over the Ocean)’ by Sheridan & the Beat Brothers emerges. The Beatles receive session fees. John’s art school friend Stu Sutcliffe, who has grappled with bass guitar without ever coming close to taming it, leaves the group just before recording to take up a scholarship. Those who have seen them play say the Beatles have lost their most charismatic member: apart from Paul, good playing was somehow irrelevant to this act. The best looking one—most popular with girl fans—remains for now, but Pete Best refuses the Beatle haircut: one more factor separating him from the others.
Back in Liverpool the Beatles have resumed a casual residency doing lunchtime shows at the Cavern Club. Unlike other groups— immaculately turned out in florid dinner suits modelled on the Shad-ows, the no.1 UK group—the Beatles sustain their round-the-clock Hamburg timetable and at first turn up in the attire they woke up in. It is a bohemian image cultivated by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and soon capitalised on by the Rolling Stones, much to the fury of John Lennon, who gives in to the Establishment.
Local editor Bill Harry starts ‘Mersey Beat’ with a John Lennon article on the Beatles. Week by week he favors the engaging characters so much other groups complain. “Beatlemania” won’t be coined by the British press for another two years but in Liverpool it has been part of the scene since returning from their first Hamburg trip, Xmas 1960—but shared with mob scenes for the Flamingos, Searchers and others. Eventually overtaking Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, the Big Three, Gerry & the Pacemakers and the Fourmost, the Beatles will become most popular of 350 working bands —more than there are in London.
By November 1961, after more than four years playing and com-posing together, Lennon & McCartney finally believe enough in two of their songs to introduce them to their setlist, ‘P.S. I Love You’ and ‘Love Me Do’. Orders for ‘My Bonnie’ catch the eye of records divi-sion manager and heir of NEMS stores, Brian Epstein, and assistant Alistair Taylor, who persuade Polydor to press it in the UK; it will only puncture the bottom of the chart at #48 on the momentum of growing Beatlemania a year and a half later. Epstein, a frustrated actor and dropout from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, follows his bent as theatrical entrepreneur. Visiting a show at the Cavern, his reaction is typically couched in English diplomatic-speak: “They had a very honest and unrehearsed sound. I thought that if I liked it and all those teenagers liked it, then there was something worth explor-ing.” Alistair Taylor: “There was this very scruffy band on stage in black leather and black T-shirts. They were fooling about and they weren’t very good musicians. But it was the most phenomenal experi-ence I’ve ever gone through… They had Ingredient X… So we signed the boys and nobody wanted to know about them”(Pritchard & Lysaght, 1998).
But after cleaning up—nice suits, no smoking or drinking on-stage—they are on their way to the big time. John got moody, but there was no real rebellion from the rock’n’rolling Teddy Boy. Soon Epstein’s proudest boast was that he had got the Beatles a gig for 15 pounds ($36 then)—unheard-of heights for a Liverpool group. Lon-don might as well be on another planet. Like the Beach Boys they will be hindered by recording brains who say guitar-and-drum vocal groups are on the way out.
Events are shaping the modern world—the first US military ob-servers are posted to Vietnam in December; King of Rock’n’Roll Elvis Presley has not made a personal appearance for nine months (and won’t until the end of the decade)—but the Beach Boys’ immediate concern is their new record, revelling in its primitive origins. It is none the less picked up as phone-vote favorite on the platter-rack at popular KFWB the week after Xmas, its first airing causing the Wil-sons uncontrollable excitement. Denny: “Brian ran down the street screaming ‘We’re on the radio!’ Carl threw up.” Constantly distracted, Dennis is only now let into the group at Audree’s insistence. It means a step up from his dollar-a-day chore sweeping out Murry’s workshop and free-flowing girls on stream— though all the boys (but late de-veloper Brian, at 22) would be married by 21, Mike by ‘shotgun’.
KFWB, their favorite station for its r&b, took minor vocal groups the Olympics (‘Hully Gully’), Passions, Skyliners and Fireflies to the top of the LA charts regardless of national trends, plus instrumental groups Johnny & the Hurricanes, the Fireballs and the Spacemen, and paid ongoing respect to rock’n’rollers Bo Diddly, Fats Domino, Johnny Burnette and the Bill Black Combo past their commercial prime. Black vocalists Richard Berry, Etta James, Della Reese and Sarah Vaughan got a look in here better than other mainstream outlets across the country. Ray Charles, the Jive Five, Ike & Tina Turner, Lee Dorsey, the Drifters, Chantels, Jackie Wilson, Jimmy Reed (‘Bright Lights, Big City’), Van McCoy and Mary Wells were others punching above their weight. Local youths the Jaguars, among others, featured on playlists—encouraging the new boys. Now there was one more reason to like the Warner Bros station, for breaking their group into local fame.
‘Luau’, written by the Morgans’ son, best described as rhythmic in a simple hip-hop way, was put on the B-side. ‘Barbie (Barbie, Queen of the Prom)’/‘What is a Young Girl Made Of?’, a falsetto dirge backed with a bouncy ditty—provided by Hite Morgan— were released too, luckily invisibly by tiny local label Randy under Kenny & the Cadets, said to be Brian, Audree and Al. Reflecting on these, recorded under obligation—duds at the time, and all happily lost to history—must have taught Brian a valuable lesson not to rely on the creative ability nor the business judgment of others.
Candix, making up for the Z-material the group was lumbered with, chose a new name for their green clients. On the new 45 under ‘Surfin’’ they print “The Beach Boys”—maybe inspired by ‘Beach Boy Blues’ on Elvis’s new Blue Hawaii album. There had briefly been a Beach Boys two years before on Kapp, and a Beachcombers singing sedate pop in the Fifties would soon convert to surf rock on Dot. There would turn up, too, a Beach Girls recording act. Posing a potent image of smooth confidence, decadent rebellion, danger to unwary beach girls, the name wiped memories of doo-wop style Carl & the Passions (used by Brian to lure Carl into the group) and Pendletones, Mike’s play on Washington State’s Pendleton lumberjack plaid shirts popular for winter surfing.