Why the Beach Boys Matter (Tom Smucker)

Release date, Oct. 2, and breathlessly awaited by some (i.e., me). Table of contents is here, and is fetching (“Harmony and Discord,” “Innocence and the Second-Best Pop Album Ever,” “Summer’s Gone, the Endless Summer”).


The Beach Boys matter to me enormously–more than the Beatles, more than the Velvets, more than Prince, Chuck Berry, Elvis Costello, and many others (well, at least if “mattering” is best measured in listening/thinking-about time). (Not more than the Stones and Roxy Music, though, but with Bowie carrying approximate equal meaningness.)

Smucker has  already written about the Beach Boys better than anyone; the way he keeps returning to them in his  Stranded essay on Thomas Dorsey’s Precious Lord was a big influence, particularly the line—paraphrasing, as I don’t have the book nearby right now—about how, while digging through scads of Beach Boys records (unwanted, discarded, ignored), all of it sounded good to him, a thought that gets at the strange appeal of the Beach Boys (certainly for me) better than any other I’ve come across. When I go on a BB bender, I tend to get lost inside their sound and their world, and I just want them in any shape or form (though of course I have my favourites too)—at least up to and including 1977’s Love You. (I’ll be curious to find out from Smucker’s excavation efforts if anything after that LP is worth a damn; I have such an aversion to “Kokomo” I’ve been too scared to find out for myself.)

Anyway, a quick, impermanent Beach Boys Top 10 (sadly lacking in post- or late-60s gems like “‘Til I Die”):
1. “Help Me, Rhonda” – The 45 single version, which has much more kick than any of the other versions (I think I’m citing the correct recording—the one with the barrelhouse piano solo followed by the skronky guitar splash).
2. “Don’t Worry Baby”
3. “Catch a Wave”
4. “Fun, Fun, Fun”
5. Pet Sounds – My daughter is addicted to the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore movie, 50 First Dates, which means I’ve not only watched the movie but heard it from the other room about half a dozen times. Anyway, it’s standard fare Sandler (who I don’t mind at all), but the use of “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” is transcendent.
6. “Country Air”
7. “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”
8. “Girl Don’t Tell Me”
9. “Ding Dang”
10. “Surf’s Up” (Critics can be so fucking stupid; “Columnated ruins domino” is a terrific line, just don’t ask me to explain right now—or ever.)

cf. Steven Ward’s 2000 interview with Smucker (with further BB thoughts)
cf. cf. Sometimes-contributor Frank Kogan‘s Why Music Sucks line (I don’t have the issue in front of me, and don’t remember the essay or context, but I’ve never forgotten the toss-off itself): “As the proud owner of zero Beach Boys records…” Hmmm.


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9 thoughts on “Why the Beach Boys Matter (Tom Smucker)

  1. “I indulge my obsession with the Beach Boys, who are between their early sixties and late seventies popularity. Record stores are clearing out their Beach Boys stock at bargain prices and I buy everything and find, oddly, that I like it all.”
    Stranded, edited by Greil Marcus, 1979, p. 164

    My throwaway line is in my description of “I Wanna Dance wit’ Choo (Doo Dat Dance)” in The Disco Tex Essay, WMS #5, “…this wailing voice comes in with this entirely wonderful doowop or proto-Beach Boys (I’m the proud owner of zero Beach Boys records) falsetto ‘I wanna rock ’n’ roll with you…'”

    There’s a hilarious retort in WMS #6 from Don Allred but the box is in a corner under a pile of other boxes so I don’t have it at hand this second.

    I remember reading an interview with Richard Roud, probably regarding one of the New York Film Festivals, where he referred to a story about the old lady who said, determinedly, “I respect Bach but I don’t like him.” Anyway, I absolutely recognize the Beach Boys’ genius, and I like them, but I don’t love them. I do visit them on the Internet from time to time, including just the other day when I listened to my favorite Beach Boys track, “Surfin’ USA.”

    Taxonomic query: In the wake of beginning to think hard about Kazakhstan’s Ninety One, I’m planning on doing a second Boyband 15 post. That’s why I was listening to “Surfin’ USA.” Can I count the Beach Boys as a boyband? I’d say so, more legitimately than counting the Beatles (whom I did anyway last time). One thing I respect about the Beach Boys is that, unlike the Beatles, they remained a teenybopper band forever, even when becoming an officially serious band. (On the other hand, I’d have respected them if they’d abandoned teenybopper, too.)

    I remember, I hope correctly, that it was Tom Smucker who wrote a seminal, for me, account in Fusion on the Rolling Stones’ Madison Square Garden show, 1969. Unfortunately, I don’t have the issue (wasn’t yet saving the mag, partly due to my mom’s discomfort with it), so I can’t confirm that it was Smucker or refresh myself on what it actually said. For me, though, age 15, it was about a band and its audience making impressive demands on one another that neither could possibly live up to, though I doubt the article stated it like that. I’d guess the phrase “neither could possibly live up to” is a later addition, not yet in the piece or in my mind but there as potential.

  2. “Help Me Rhonda” is an awesome number 1. That 45 blasts through an AM radio speaker. Gonna read this book as soon as I can! I’m not sure I’d be able to state a top 10, unless it were “least celebrated great Beach Boys songs,” one of those super-temporary categories. (“Girl Don’t Tell Me” is as of now officially celebrated, god I love that one.) Glad to see action on the site as always.

  3. Frank, that’s an interesting question, one I’d never considered (“are the Beach Boys a boyband?”) (I also like boyband as one non-hyphenated word). I’d have to have a better understanding of the criteria, of course, but in some ways they might be the quintessential boyband, at least in regards to a) being an early version of one; b) their staying power (not just that their songs have hung around–that’s probably true of a bunch of them, no?–but that they themselves kept at it well into adulthood); c) the fact that for many years they worked under the rule (it can only be called that–the man was a tyrant) of Murry Wilson (assuming that has something to do with the criteria). Certainly, they played and gave voice to the teen aesthetic for a long while, and I’d wager that their shift into adult feelings, or whatever you want to call it, on Pet Sounds and so forth, was in many ways about the struggle of letting their teen selves go (or anyway, his teen self, since so much of it was about Brian at that point). “I once had a dream so I packed up and split for the city/I soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty.” Or even “Where did your long hair go? Where is the girl I used to know?” Seems to me that the mid-60s Wilson was feeling the pull in both directions, though maybe more backwards than forwards (he never really wanted to let go of teendom). And yet–to maybe confuse matters more, my understanding is that the group were entirely embarrassed to wear the surf outfits for as long as they did. “Wouldn’t it be Nice” might capture the contrast best; ostensibly a longing for adulthood (marriage, even!), Wilson implicitly seems to already understand that it might in reality kind of suck. (I will be extremely interested to read how Tom writes about this period in particular. Not necessarily their greatest music, but maybe the most interesting…challenge to their art?)

    (I might be stating something very obvious above about adulthood. Did the Beatles and Stones look forward to adulthood? To me, the Stones were always already there, in a way–but the Beatles, I’m not sure. Is it something you can even glean from their music? They just seemed to, over time, shift into adulthood naturally, and unlike Brian Wilson, lived with it without speaking much to it. Or did(n’t) they? First time I’ve ever really thought about this.)

  4. Glad you like “Rhonda,” Vic. It really does motorvate. The part that gets at me most is the chord change (I don’t know anything about what it is, or why it works as it does, unfortunately) that drives into the “a-Rhonda you look so fine…” Never fails to bowl me over. (There’s also a terrific live version of it–and a few others from the period as well–on a mostly cheesy documentary called Beach Boys: An American Band, which I highly recommend. The version of “Rhonda” is slowed down a few beats per minute, and drummer Dennis Wilson—who I don’t think even played on the records—really lays into it, hard. It’s terrific.)

  5. Pretty sure it was Mike Love and not the “critics” (I assume you mean print critics and not critics in a general sense) that had problems with Van Dyke Parks’ lyric for “Surf’s Up.”

  6. Nah the hostility is documented:

    Robert Christgau on Surf’s Up: “the legendary title opus is an utter failure even on its own woozy terms and there are several disasters from the guest lyricists–Van Dyke Parks’s wacked-out meandering is no better than Jack Rieley’s.” 1971

    Greil Marcus: “Brian Wilson’s thirteen-year failure to make a better record than ‘I Get Around.'” “Brian Wilson’s genius had much more to do with the opening lines of “Be True to Your School” than with anything about “Surf’s Up;’ but certainly no one willing to devote himself to a whole book on the Beach Boys would ever understand that.” 1979

    whatevs dudes. surf’s up mmmm hmmm mmm hmmm

  7. It was a fair point to raise, insofar as I wasn’t at all specific about the line I quoted (meaning, who was so upset or turned off by it, etc.). I felt certain when writing that that at least one critic I’d read on the subject cited those specific words (“columnated ruins domino”), but now I’m thinking it might just as well have been Mike Love. Or maybe it was Mike Love as well as some critics. The point I didn’t raise is that “columnated ruins domino,” whatever the hell it means or however pretentious it may or may not be, is a very pretty, singable (albeit somewhat weird) lyric, though perhaps that melody would’ve propped up ANYthing.

  8. I see what you mean — just that one line. Well, google brought me not only — Johnny Bacardi is correct – a ref to Mike Love objecting to that one line, but the other Smile session incident I knew about, which was “over and over the crow flies uncover the cornfields” on Cabin Essence (which Love sang well anyway).

    Looks like Surf’s Up the album got a generally warmer reception from other critics than Marcus and Christgau too.

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