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ROCK MUSIC — Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: SURFIN’ US/K

In celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music, politics, television on February 10, 2008 at 1:04 am

Excerpt #2 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Musicby G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com and available for around $19.95 from Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble or any other of your favorite Internet stops

Sales peak thus far: #23 on Amazon.com’s hot 100 Music History & Criticism books, April 26th 2008


In 1965 the world was looking scary — and not only because the most inane warblings of the British Invasion looked like they were here to stay. Twenty years after the end of WWII it turned out that old tensions and seething enmities between cultures had only been swapped for new ones. The USSR, China, and satellites Eastern Europe, Cuba, North Korea and North Vietnam lined up against The West. In January, Britain’s Winston Churchill, savior of western democracy and hawk of the Cold War, died. Khruschev of the USSR had been deposed for not bringing the West to heel though his USA opposite number John F Kennedy was dead a year. In little more than twelve months the three potent figures of the post-War world were gone.

In February and March two events denied all the brief Kennedy Era stood for. Malcolm X, Black Muslim and leader in the civil rights movement, was murdered, spurring race riots in the Watts district of LA. And President Lyndon B Johnson (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”) committed the first combat troops to Vietnam, an undeclared war plaguing the American psyche long past its ten-year duration.

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, Carl Wilson, leader Brian Wilson, middle brother Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, little brother Carl Wilson (lead guitar, vocals), big brother and leader Brian Wilson (bass guitar, keyboards, falsetto harmony and lead vocals), middle brother Dennis Wilson (drums, vocals), cousin Mike Love (lead vocals, occasional saxophone), and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine (rhythm guitar, occasional lead vocals)

The Beach Boys, victims of their idealism, were about to be trapped in a time warp, objects to be vivisected by the fashion police. For a year pop commentators had questioned the reason for being of these stubborn squares who seemed naïvely unaware of all Beatledom had to offer. The Byrds, switching to folk rock and Dylan, still made the effort to look and sound like Beatles; everyone knew they were “America’s answer” to them. It was “in” and “far out” to conform to the new ‘Counterculture’.

Dennis had gone some way toward beatlesque, hair-wise, in summer ’64; a year later the others were looking fluffier too, if not longer, yet. Mike grew a neatly trimmed beard to distract from his thinning hair, lending a ‘Peter, Paul & Mary’ professorial look to the frontman of a group already up against it with ever younger record-buyers. In November 1966 for their Good Vibrations tour of the UK the eldest Beach Boy — months younger than Ringo Starr and John Lennon — would go the whole hog for the Oxford don look, posing for group publicity stills dressed eccentrically in British tweed, country gentleman’s cap and holding a pipe. Brian (to be replaced in spring 1965 by the lean and handsome, if bland, Bruce Johnston for touring) and Carl were unfashionably chubby — and still clean-shaven unlike the bulky turned-on musos of San Francisco psychedelia just emerging, who knew where it was at and let it all hang out: Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Bob Hite of Canned Heat…. It was all a clear snub to populism: the Beach Boys would go their own way, in their own time.

FEBRUARY 15TH 1965 BROUGHT A REALISATION THAT irreplaceable figures had died in the past two months: Sam Cooke, murdered; Alan Freed of a failing spirit; now Nat King Cole of lung cancer. For the Beach Boys the year opened with their first ever shows in Canada — good for a dozen big hits so far, their second expedition into the foreign territory of the British Commonwealth (following Australasia a year before). First came a date at Vancouver, the French city of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Brian, hungry for new experiences, plays all but the last, replaced by Glen Campbell. They will take in the same round of cities again in September, with Bruce Johnston and supported by new stars Sonny & Cher.

BBstoday On vinyl, from the completed Beach Boys Today, a new 45 is lifted that fatal February day. On top of a wall of sound but in a flourish of driving, modernized rock, is their rebirth of ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ both spirited and lush — so maybe too American. Dennis’s sole solo hit, it’s the top debut in the Nashville top 40; streaks fifteen places into the St Louis ten to quench a nine-month drought there; L C Cooke, brother of Sam, rushes out an alternative version that hits the St Louis r&b chart. In the Midwest’s Chicagoland, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, Cincinnati, the Southwest’s Dallas, Phoenix, Tulsa and the Eastern Seaboard’s Washington DC, Baltimore, New England, Newark, Hartford, it is top five with West Coast markets Seattle, Portland, San Jose, San Diego — though here sales are split with its B-side (haunting ballad ‘Please let Me Wonder’); #6 in the South’s St Louis, Memphis, Norfolk, Richmond; lower top ten Montreal, San Francisco, Vancouver, Kansas City. Taking off the gloss are below par receptions just outside in Philadelphia, New York (best at WINS, #12-13, its level in the major national hit parades), Miami and Toronto; and languishing lower top 20 on the playlists at influential stations in Detroit, Houston, Pittsburgh and hometown LA (where it nonetheless peeks in at #6 at local stations in Van Nuys and San Bernardino). Elevated to no.5 in the ShowTime chart distributed to newspapers nationwide, additionally no.8 by United Press International, and no.9 by Gilbert’s youth survey for the Associated Press, mainstream in the leading trade papers (Billboard, Cash Box, Variety) it is no threat to Herman’s Hermits and Freddie & the Dreamers with their red carpet treatment from the media and squatting pampered in the Brit penthouse hosted by the Yanks. The current WABC-New York sales survey, covering the USA’s biggest market, lists Brit acts taking 11 of the top 16 tunes.

In the UK it wasn’t released (‘All Summer Long’ was — later celebrated by George Lucas at the end credits of his American Graffiti but a joke in terms of the hard tack Brits expected from groups at the time), maybe because EMI feared it could take long-term sales from its Cliff Richard & the Shadows’ 45. Following as it did their recent European tour, ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ should have reinstated them on the Continent, which had given the previous two singles the silent treatment. While it was bought in loyal Scandinavia and played in Italy, it was invisible in Germany, France, Holland and now Australia too, preoccupied with all things Fab.

‘Please Let Me Wonder’ went to #1 as the chosen ‘A’ in San Jose and San Bernardino; #3 in Chicago, Seattle and upstate New York; similarly top five in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Sacramento; top ten Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, San Diego, Milwaukee, Columbus, Hartford, Fresno; Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami, San Antonio, Denver, Vancouver, Buffalo the twenty. It drove to no.9 separately in the Associated Press chart a week before its designated A-side but stalled halfway up the two big charts’ top hundreds, though rising to no.32 in Variety. It is a favorite on compilation albums and retrospective videos.

April 21st they played both sides on Shindig, ‘Help Me Rhonda’ just released and pocket jams of ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and ‘Long Tall Texan’, demolishing English guests Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders and Cilla Black, producer Jack Good still plugging his countrymen and women though as many would come unstuck as stick; no.1 Italian songstress Rita Pavone also ran. They met up too on set with the Shangri-Las and the Ikettes—from that first bill over three years before.

Both hits were — happily — out of sync with prevailing (lack of) taste, which saw what was already a year-long lapse accelerate into a headlong dive. The public was forcefed the silliest pop ditties yet, Top 40 stations now programmed via remote control by bosses in the biggest cities at network h.q.s, even star DJs straightjacketed from injecting local content or personal favorites. Songs masticated into the new chew for a few weeks, losing what bland flavor they had. Previously this trend was signalled by the Beatles’ superior ‘And I Love Her’ and somewhat lesser ‘If I Fell’, both lapped up by sentimental moviegoers. The Dave Clark Five jumped at the Beatles’ lead, and made them utterly sickening: ‘Because’, ‘Everybody Knows’ — two glutinous-syrupy ballads vying with Brian Poole & the Tremeloes’ ‘Someone, Someone’ for most nauseating weepie of the era.

The Beach Boys sustained their fun-loving, exuberant image, seen in a stocktake-of-things-that-matter Carl wrote for Tiger Beat:

Brian: a Cadillac Eldorado and Mustang

Dennis: a Ferrari and Cobra

Mike, the real collector: a Pontiac MG, Jaguar and Classic MG

Carl: an Aston Martin (James Bond style), Triumph 500 motorbike

Al, ever sensible: a lone T-Bird, as featured in ‘Fun Fun Fun’

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

By now the three Wilson brothers had bought their own homes on the outskirts of Hollywood. Mike and Al stayed close to home at Manhattan Beach. A roll call of Dennis’s pets told much of the elemental Beach Boy: two (wild, freedom-loving) horses, an otter (at home in water), a parakeet named after mother Audree, a power-dog German Shepherd and ever-present underdog for Dennis to look after — a lost puppy run over outside his house, with a broken leg needing healing. Always a mass of contradictions, supposedly least talented when the group started, he was turning himself into a multi-instrumentalist. The most Beach Boy — runner-up in a Hawaiian surfing tourney, an accomplished danger-skier on hair-raising Rocky Mountain slopes — he was also the most un-Beach Boy, developing a husky, cracked blues voice.

It was Dennis in full flight who pulled as much mob appeal as a Beatle. Fans would breach the carefully mounted barricades at concerts, and all of the boys had their clothes torn and were taught tactics to escape girls’ clutches — rolling out of the tackle grid-iron style. Dennis, though, sometimes surrounded despite the best game strategies, had several times been literally k.o.’ed by love. In Louisville, Kentucky, coincidentally the home of Muhammed Ali, he required three stitches to his head. When audience reaction was deemed out of hand local police forces used their ultimate power of censorship, cutting the feed to amplifiers or yanking down the stage curtain mid-performance, much to the group’s disgust. In l.p. liner notes Mike remarked on the Cincinnati fans as champion “cop-dodgers” and “Then there’s the helpless feeling of seeing a girl, who maybe spent her last dollar to see us, crying or something, ’cause the cops wouldn’t let her stay and get a Beach Boys autograph.” Unlike the Beatles, the group never had sealed, womblike limos to duck into to separate them from their public, and for less hysterical crowds would often stay behind for hours to sign autographs and chat.

UNLIKE THEIR HERMETICALLY PROTECTED RIVALS the Beach Boys no doubt felt themselves in the full swim of the Swinging Sixties. Carl named his favorite acts as the Beatles, Four Seasons, Supremes, Manfred Mann and the Animals—in preference over the Rolling Stones. The Stones, he said, showing considerable prescience, would be around as long as they made hits. Brian, in a 1996 interview, said that he and Carl “liked John [Lennon] a lot” — and that he wrote ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ as “a kind of tribute to John.” Said at one time to have been intended for the Beatles to record, it was one of Brian’s favorite songs, written on vacation in Hawaii without a piano or guitar: “And it’s the only song I wrote that way.” He had penned ‘Kiss Me Baby’ months before in a Copenhagen hotel room, also without much in the way of composing aids.

Certain other revelations Brian has made about his lifestyle at this time have shed light on his creative processes: Put simply, take marijuana and sit down at the piano. For The Beach Boys Today!he was experimenting: “The whole second side had been written and arranged while I was high. Compared to previous Beach Boys albums the music was slower, more plaintive, and emotional. The chord patterns were more complex, the production denser, richer in sound, and my thinking in regard to making records was different. Able to break down songs to precise little increments, I began to deal with each instrument individually, stacking sounds one at a time” (BrianWilson.com).

Three months later in April he took a quantum leap into the drug world with his first experience of LSD. He at first justified this by the fact that it led instantly to the composing of ‘California Girls’. Later, he noticed that it was the beginning of auditory hallucinations—voices talking to him, often threatening ones — and an everworsening fragility of mind. It was about this time too he wrote and recorded its flipside ‘Let Him Run Wild’ in hommage to Burt Bacharach’s renowned chord progressions — and that’s as far as any resemblance goes.

BEACH BOYS LIVE in New Zealand, 2007 — REVIEW

In celebrity, generational/fashion, music on January 21, 2008 at 10:58 pm

THE BEACH BOYS (Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, John Cowsill, et al)

Supported by: Christopher Cross & band

Vector Arena, Auckland, New Zealand; 7.30 to 10.50pm
18th November 2007; $NZ129

Promotion was good for this show. There had been an interview done with Mike Love on the Australian leg of the tour, shown on New Zealand current affairs tv two nights before the Auckland concert. And news footage of the Beach Boys entourage of Thirties-Forties American classics, speeding up the highway the morning after their New Plymouth show, heading for Auckland 400 kilometres away. But the fact that ticket sales were slow was shown by the fact that after four months, the very day before the show, there were still tv ads trying to move them. In the event, a crowd of 5,000 (my estimate) filled the 12,000-capacity Auckland venue with joyous noise and singing.

The tv ads for the concert had only mentioned Christopher Cross in support, so it was with mixed feelings—torn between irritation and resignation—that we entered the arena three minutes after start time to be greeted by a nondescript ‘girl band’ intent on singing Queen and ELO songs. (All these people must have come simply for nostalgia, so anything pre-Rap will do, right?) I had been expecting to grit my teeth through Chris, the one-time crown prince of castrato Easy Listening, but this was too much. Ambiguously called the Ladykillers, I recognised two of the four as popular Kiwi stars of yesteryear, one of them (Suzanne Donaldson that was) going back the entire forty years and more to the mid-Sixties heyday of the Beach Boys, the other (Tina Cross) merely to the beginning of Disco. They might have been reasonably entertaining in their field of Cabaret Soul on another occasion, accompanied as they were solely by a pianist, but I just wasn’t in the mood. Why not give an opportunity to local up-and-coming rockers—someone at least vaguely in the spirit of things?

I had bought two tickets in July when the box-office opened, half intending to take my usual girlfriend. Only, whenever I had played her the Beach Boys on record or DVD before she had made unfortunate remarks like, “They should do songs that are easy to sing, like Abba or the Beatles.” By a few days before the concert I’d suffered months of daytime nightmares involving her sitting through the concert, seemingly enjoying herself, as she always did, then remarking, ‘Ah, that was quite nice… But if only it had been Abba, or the Bee Gees!” I’d asked my mother first if she wanted to see the Beach Boys—she’d expressed a liking for their music for years, in fact forty years. But, inundated with it whether she wanted it or not, as she’d been since the Sixties, I wasn’t sure that she wasn’t just being sociable in hesitantly assenting. At these prices I wanted someone who would actually appreciate the experience for what it was—the last ever visit to these shores by representatives of the greatest sound ever. I was determined not to take my best (male) friend, as I had to Brian & the Wondermints in December 2004. So “Maw” it was.

The brilliant planning of logistics that went into this special evening—I only fork out for shows when at least one Beach Boy is involved—was something to behold. My mother is elderly, heading well towards frail, is diabetic, and needs a walker to travel more than fifty metres at a time. She needs careful timing of meals and snacks, and she’d decided to leave her walker at home.

I’m glad the current Beach Boys turned out to be worth every penny and every bit of inconvenience. For quality and enjoyment I would rate them well ahead of the February 1978 lineup—made up of the five originals —and behind only the April 1970 lineup (Bruce substituting for Brian) with its immaculate reproduction of recordings. And this show outdid the classic 1970 show for enjoyment because of its overwhelming crowd reaction compared to the staid, inhibited audience of that time, offering polite applause.

As it happened, the surprise guests mainly acted to slow the show down, heralding the beginning of long setting-up delays and disruptive but fortunately intermittent lighting problems. It was a happy surprise that Christopher Cross was more of a rocker than I expected (I only knew ‘Theme from Arthur’ and ‘Sailing’). Though I’m certainly no expert, Christopher seems a fluent, skilled lead guitarist and his accompaniment—good vocals also—especially from a sexy blonde California Girl keyboard player and veteran bassist, improved things beyond anything I’d anticipated. His voice is somewhat stronger and more versatile than it sounds on record, and its Carl-Wilson-before-his-balls-dropped quality would come in very handy on a sincerely felt ‘I Can Hear Music’ guest spot within the Beach Boys’ segment; and later faithfully rendered ‘Carl’ vocals on ‘Kokomo’. The final song in his set, ‘Hey Laura’, was a lovely solo tribute to Dennis & Carl.

The Beach Boys Band, a more accurate description surely than what is implied by coopting the Beach Boys’ name with all there is to live up to, came on around 8.50pm after a 15-minute interval, to the tune of ‘Wipe Out’. This, in a single moment, set the tone—with a contagious bonhomie flowing out to the audience and back again in waves. Make no mistake, this was “The Mike Show” delivering a hits package—but all in great style and spirit. It was actually like being back in the Sixties, a claim I can’t make for any other show I’ve seen, by anyone. The Big Kahuna surfboards brought on to stand either side of the stage set helped, and two or three sweet little girls later invited on stage to singalong with ‘Barbara Ann’, ‘Fun Fun Fun’…

What Mike Love has lost in mobility at 66, possibly due to reported back problems, he has certainly made up for in working the crowd far better than I’d seen from him during the previous Beach Boys shows in Auckland. He has blossomed, admittedly belatedly, out from under the gaze of Brian and the others, regardless of the rights and wrongs of all feuds among the original members—which will never be resolved objectively or justly no matter how long the arguments continue to fly back and forth.

Bruce Johnston, 63, on keyboards—backed up by a specialist producing all sorts of sounds from a multi-deck instrument—was no slouch, the cheerleader for Mike and others at the slightest sign of the pace of the show flagging. The only time it happened was during the aforementioned lighting problems. Bruce sang ‘Do You Wanna Dance? well, with surprising energy—and performed ‘God Only Knows’ even better.

Certainly the most energetic of all was John Cowsill, who must be well into his fifties. Taking the trouble to reproduce percussive subtleties in a way Dennis rarely did live, at times he looked a lot like Dennis, flailing as he did in his youth, long hair flopping on his face. Apparently this was a warm-up tour for him, before he returns to his own family band, the Sixties’ Cowsills—styled halfway between the Beach Boys and the Mamas & the Papas. This Cowsill sang ‘Darlin’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’ and ‘California Dreamin’ (more like the Mamas & the Papas original than the Al remake) passably well.

Of the three unknown players thus far unmentioned, two were young guitarists and the other a bass player/falsetto. The falsetto sang a serviceable solo on ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and so on but of course without anything like the dexterity and feeling of Bri. He was better singing backup on the likes of ‘Surf City’, where a somewhat limited, shrill high voice would serve. Between the three of them they sang about ten of the leads—I can only assume engineered by Mike and Bruce to save energy.

Given that, the only jarring interpretation came from the young rhythm guitarist, who on ‘Then I Kissed Her’ gave nothing like the quality of Al Jardine (and isn’t the primary role of stand-ins to reproduce the sound of the originals?), but more like an American Idol contestant trying to do Phil Collins. An interesting variation on this song, though, was contained in the middle break—there isn’t one in the Beach Boys’ recorded version of 1965—reverting to the Crystals’ more elaborate 1963 original.

If I was tempted to carp a little more I would mention the Latin rhythm rather annoyingly employed on ‘When I Grow Up’— seriously missing Denny’s innovative stick work heard as a highlight on the original track. Conspicuously missing: ‘Heroes & Villains’, and all others from the Smile era—obviously not a Mike scene. And the way Mike has brought ‘Kokomo’ into focus for the encore instead of ‘Good Vibrations’ is a little obvious. Mike himself, as always, was best in his his deeper registers, on ‘Catch a Wave’, ‘Hawaii’, ‘Still Cruisin’, ‘Kokomo’…

Early on, the two ‘Dance’ numbers were performed best, and seven songs in, on ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’—a revelation, counterpoint harmonies that wouldn’t be matched the rest of the evening. ‘Warmth of the Sun’, ‘Good Timin’ and ‘In My Room’, in that order, also boasted excellent harmonies. Somewhat surprisingly —and all the more so because following a lacklustre ‘Sloop John B’— ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’, which was written off as “obscure” in 1970 by an Auckland reviewer, raised the humungous audience response of the night: a standing ovation and singalong from start to finish. Not to disparage the motive for such an overwhelming ovation, it is probably due to (a vastly inferior version) being the theme for Cadbury chocolate ads, played on television here for years.

Yet, ‘God Only Knows’, the theme to tv’s Big Love, got nothing like the same reaction, though equally beautifully done all round. ‘Little Honda’ was all excitement, attracting second biggest response and almost bringing the house down, then ‘Surf City’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’, with ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’, and ‘Fun Fun Fun’ other big participation numbers. Strobe lighting effects pulled out for ‘Good Vibrations’ were highly effective; ‘Surfer Girl’ had been introduced as the “cellphone participation song”, prompting innumerable flashes toward the stage from all points for the duration. By the time of ‘Barbara Ann’—with the Christopher Cross band joining the Beach Boys on stage in a party atmosphere—all the stops were well and truly pulled out and what had been a fast-paced show accelerated still as ‘Surfin’ Safari’ segued frantically into a rocking-out ‘USA’.

Oh, and Maw really grooved, as well as she was able—as I was taking notes in the dark. I’m glad I gave her one of the highlights of her life as it winds down. She still tells people about it more than two months later. Count them: three dozen hits in two hours flat. I call that value for money.

SETLIST

1. California Girls 20. Don’t Worry Baby
2. Dance Dance Dance 21. Still Cruisin’
3. Do You Wanna Dance? 22. Little Deuce Coupe
4. Then I Kissed Her 23. 409
5. Darlin’ 24. I Get Around
6. When I Grow Up 25. In My Room
7. Why Do Fools Fall in Love? 26. Good Timin’
8. Sloop John B 27. California Dreamin’
9. Wouldn’t It Be Nice? 28. God Only Knows
10. I Can Hear Music 29. Good Vibrations
11. Surfer Girl 30. Help Me Rhonda
12. Do It Again 31. Rock and Roll Music
13. Surf City 32. Barbara Ann
14. Catch a Wave 33. Surfin’ Safari
15. Hawaii 34. Surfin’ USA
16. Little Honda
17. Be True to Your School Encore:
18. Warmth of the Sun 35. Kokomo
19. Getcha Back 36. Fun Fun Fun

G. A. (Gary) De Forest
‘Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music’
Booklocker.com, November 2007

To be published in the “Beach Boys Britain” newsletter

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