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.


21 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.

  9. Just want to report that I’ve voted for “Good Vibrations” in all four of the rounds so far in Tom Ewing’s World Cup Of UK Number Ones, including over a Rounds 2-through-4 gauntlet of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” I decided that “Reach Out” and “Grapevine” were each slightly slightly slightly slightly too much the same thing from beginning to end – not a complaint I’ve ever heard about “Good Vibrations.” (Note that I’ve also been voting consistently for “I Feel Love,” which I own in the 12-inch version which is 8:05 of being perfectly the same thing.) “Good Vibrations” is struggling for support in Round Four, though, so I may not get the chance to vote for or against it in Round Five.

  10. Hi Frank, hope you’re staying safe.
    Under the circumstances, I would think “In My Room” might be more apt. “I Get Around” on the other hand should be banned from every playlist on the planet ASAP.

    “Good Vibrations” was the first Beach Boys record I loved as a kid–it opened up a Beach Boys comp we had in the house, which wasn’t Endless Summer, which eventually was played endlessly also–and I can’t dispute it’s a great record but for some reason I don’t play it much; pretty sure I can think of 25 BB songs I play more for pleasure. I might pick it over the rest of the ones you mention, though I think I’d get more of a kick right now from “Reach Out.”

  11. A facebook friend just posted something about Todd Rundgren’s version of “Good Vibrations” (featured on Faithful, his album half-comprised of covers) and I’m pretty certain now I knew that version before the Beach Boys’. Weirdly, Todd’s was a Top 40 hit, though I definitely don’t recall hearing it on the radio; might’ve been one of those rare U.S. hits that didn’t crossover to Canada.

  12. Hmmm. I don’t remember hearing it at all. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to Top 40 then but I was keeping an ear open for Rundgren: he’d recently produced albums by the Dolls and Grand Funk Railroad, and I’d seen him perform in Central Park in 1974 or so, his hair dyed rainbow. And “Hello It’s Me” had touched me. I do remember perking up that year and the next – the song had a long airplay run, I recall – whenever Grand Funk’s Rundgren-produced “Loco-Motion” came on. The Rundgren “Good Vibrations” only hit 34, which probably means there were places it got no airplay at all; went higher in Canada: 28.

    Anyway, I likely did hear it – I must have – but paid it little mind. It not only covers the song, it copies the arrangement, the only reinterpretation being that for the nonvocals he was using synthesizers made to sound electronic like synthesizers. Like, look what I can do in my home, and you can too! Compare to “The Loco-Motion,” which was, We can give this song HEFT! I’m guessing that at the time – as now – his “Good Vibrations” did little for me or to me, was neither galvanizing nor antagonizing, nor much of anything, and I passed it over.

    What did your friend say?

    Btw, Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” made it to the round of 16 (the cut was down from 24, so the top four third-place finishers went through) and so far is holding even in a head-to-head with Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes” (whose strong showing so far has baffled me; think it has an enthusiastic but not necessarily wide fan-base, and “Vibrations” is no longer hurt by vote splitting; but the heat’s not over for 16 hours, and late votes tomorrow in the British afternoon could well give “Ashes” a runaway over the groggy Americans).

    –I’m doing well so far, though I don’t think most people get that the toll is about to skyrocket; I don’t know if I get it, not as reality. I like the beings I’m trapped with, though worried immensely by the cat only eating half or quarter of her food and moaning when she goes to the litter box, and not pestering us to play with her. In different times we’d have brought her to the vet; now we’re torn. (Ah, at 4:12 in the afternoon she finally ate her breakfast, and at 7:12 is nibbling at her lunch. At least she’s eating, and I hope she holds it down. UPDATE: Picking her way across the kitchen counter at 8:30, getting in the way. Hurrah!)

  13. “Ashes to Ashes” baffles me, too… “I Get Around” was in the running for my favourite Beach Boys song when I was obsessing over Endless Summer, sometime around 1975, but I haven’t heard it in ages. Stay well, Frank!

  14. Thanks. Stay well yourself, Hunsy – speaking of whom, I found this on Wikip:

    “Lehman’s story had originally appeared in the April, 1950 issue of Cosmopolitan, renamed ‘Tell Me About It Tomorrow!’ because the editor of the magazine did not want the word ‘smell’ in the publication. It was based on his own experiences working as an assistant to Irving Hoffman, a New York press agent and columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. Hoffman subsequently did not speak to Lehman for a year and a half. Hoffman then wrote a column for The Hollywood Reporter speculating that Lehman would make a good screenwriter, and within a week Paramount called Lehman, inviting him to Los Angeles for talks. Lehman forged a screenwriting career in Hollywood, writing Executive Suite, Sabrina, North by Northwest, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The King and I, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    “Good Vibrations” and “Ashes to Ashes” ended in a tie, 157 votes each! Tom had his wife, Isabel, cast the tiebreaker. She chose “Good Vibrations.”

    On such threads does happiness depend.

  15. Frank, the original post that led me to thinking about the Todd cover noted that “There’s an argument for 1976 as the weirdest year ever for Top 40–said ‘weirdness’ being through the inherent neurosis of being on the cusp of the Bicentennial-era AM-to-FM transition, and the generation and cultural gaps just starting to sink in with more yet to come. And the fact that this [Todd’s BB cover] managed to be a #34 Billboard hit goes a long way to underlining what made such weirdness, weirdness–how much of that was deliberate, or in spite of itself.”

    “Like, look what I can do in my home, and you can too!”
    Yes, that was the whole futile point of the album Todd’s cover came from, aptly titled Faithful. The first side was all covers, and the idea was to mimic the songs, though using up-to-date technology. For myself, 12 at the time but exposed to the LP through my brother (a huge Todd fan for many years), this did have some utility in that it introduced me to some cool tunes. I can’t recall if this is where I first heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” — not likely, though I don’t think I would have been overly familiar with it in 1976. But probably, as I said, “Good Vibrations,” and for sure “Rain” and “Most Likely You Go Your Way (I’ll Go Mine”), “If Six Was Nine,” and the Yardbirds’ fantastic “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (which I didn’t hear in its original version until 20 or so years later, until I got on the web and checked it out).

    I’m guessing I’m the biggest Bowie fan on this thread, and “Ashes to Ashes” has never once moved me, not even enough in 1981 to buy the Scary Monsters album.

  16. also,Frank, meant to say earlier: glad your cat seems ok. This crisis is going to upset so many otherwise normal courses of action (of COURSE you would take your sick cat to a vet; no longer so easy, if even possible).

  17. So I tune in to the site and find out a discussion of Good Vibrations is going on! Just the other night this DJ started off his show with his curating of sections from the recording sessions for that (which produced 90 hours of tape). Normally I’m not much into listening to workshop materials but in this case, it’s genuinely entertaining, how many different directions this went in, including a lot of instruments that didn’t end up on the final product and variations on the main themes.


  18. More Beach Boys convo, starting with Tom Ewing’s heretical pop opinion, “Sloop John B > God Only Knows.” Convo also includes personal reminiscence, further aberrant opinions, little-known cover versions.

    And because of the insanity of Twitter’s nested threads (you’ve got to notice when a reply is labeled with two or more responses, meaning that there’re replies now hidden from the main thread, and you have to know to click the reply, follow all of its replies (ditto for hidden responses), then remember to find your way back and click on the right earlier response – I hate nested threads!), here are a couple of side posts that might get lost:

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