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DIY Rock Stars (Part 1)

In history, music on November 11, 2013 at 6:02 am

In the 1960s the Beatles and Monkees both hit with a formula for unbridled, all-round success, or rather stumbled on it because in the end their own abilities had not much to do with it. They were big-business success stories more than anything else, in a pattern that became more common in ensuing decades as independent artists grew rarer. Both groups were the passive objects of well-connected, highly driven managers; were the favored projects of big corporations in disc recording and television, even movies. And both groups played the game for whatever it took, going well beyond the bounds of their own good taste to ensure bigger bucks for everyone in their trans-continental organizations. The Supremes too, with much less to offer as non-songwriters and non-musicians, were hoisted as the pet superstars favored above everyone else at the Motown label. Everyone else had to do it themselves in the Sixties.

Beach Boys wait with parents (co-signing for minors) in the outer office of the Capitol Tower, Hollywood, ready to sign with the label, May 1962: from left, Carl Wilson, 15; Brian Wilson, 19; Dave Marks, 13; Denny Wilson, 17; Murry Wilson, Audree Wilson and the Marks parents.

Beach Boys wait with parents (co-signing for minors) in the outer office of the Capitol Tower, Hollywood, ready to sign with the label, May 1962: from left, Carl Wilson, 15; Brian Wilson, 19; Dave Marks, 13; Denny Wilson, 17; Murry Wilson, Audree Wilson and the Marks parents.

The Beach Boys, with the Wilson brothers’ father as manager, had scored a rare coup — a minor national hit with their first recording that became a big hit locally in Los Angeles, San Diego and the rest of Southern California, and got airplay up the rest of the Pacific Coast and as far afield as Erie PA and Italy. It was six months before a major label — Capitol/EMI — took them up and they had to do it themselves all over again, this time with the classic Surfin’ Safari. This vinyl single by itself (backed with co-rocker car song 409) represented a nine-month struggle that brought survival for the group and rock music back to the airwaves after a consensus of radio stations, particularly in New York, had agreed in early 1962 to push nice, quieter, slower melodic music for “grown-ups”.

Produced by the group and recorded at an independent studio in April, signed over to Capitol in May and issued early June, the A-side was being played two weeks before release at KMEN-San Bernardino though “put down” by radio bosses in LA itself. The virtual blacklist on rock that existed among radio stations across America, the prejudice against newcomers in LA and the overriding preference for c&w across the South, Southwest and great swaths of the Midwest, would all have to be overcome by any new act entering the rock scene and wanting to go nationwide, never mind worldwide. Capitol put no more than $5,000 into promoting the label’s first rock group into stars (one tenth of the budget they would lay out 18 months later to establish the Beatles in New York City, gateway to North America). By the end of its first month it was high on playlists in Ohio, at the independent WDON in Washington DC and WYDE-Birmingham AL.

It would hit high on charts at “surfin'” spots on the West Coast but “early” only in one sense: early in August in San Diego, Fresno and Seattle; early September in LA; and finally rebounded back to San Francisco early in November. In time the Beach Boys’ first big hit, which bore a passing resemblance to the Chubby Checker and Coasters style of r&b, would also top in Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Dallas-Fort Worth, Buffalo, Minneapolis-St Paul and other regional centers. It sold most in New York City, breaking Capitol sales records there in rising to runner-up and over the next fifteen years surveyed as the seventh biggest- selling song in the 25 million catchment area of the major WNBC network station; and did (proportionately) almost as well in the other big music centers of the day, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. In September also it reached the top ten in Sydney, Australia, to register as the group’s first international winner, and in November topped the Swedish chart.

In the meantime, 409 on its own would top-ten charts in San Bernardino-Riverside, Seattle, Denver, New Jersey, New Hampshire… and go to the very top in Charleston WV, and Dallas only in the very last week of 1962.

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