1963, Music

Surfin’ USA (1963) by The Beach Boys

I know this record is supposed to be the Beach Boys’ best album of their early years – hell, at least one writer is on record claiming it as the best record by an American rock band released before the British invasion, which is one tall order – but I prefer their debut album. I’m not saying the debut album is better, I just enjoyed it more. It’s more fun and, oddly, more ambitious than this record. This record is more professional sure – it’s clear the band has mostly improved as musicians since they first started recording – and it contains perhaps the first inklings of their classic later sound, but it’s less brave, less fun, kind of boring and has some real filler (which is insane for a 24 minute record). Further, listening to this record at the same time as the Beatles’ debut album, which came out two days earlier, is really instructive as what was possible in 1963.

“Surfin’ USA” is justly famous, I guess, because of the craze it started. But 55 years later it’s hard for me to care much about it. That being said, it’s their signature song for this era of the band and, though I don’t love it, it’s hard for me to deny it works.

Though the lyrics of “Farmers Daughter” are rather inane the vocals are pretty pure Beach Boys and its an indication of the path they were about to go down. I don’t know much about the history of tracking vocals, but I believe Brian Wilson was a huge pioneer in this regard and a couple of the tracks here were near-firsts (or maybe even firsts), far as I know.

Does anyone really prefer the Beach Boys version of “Misirlou” to Dick Dale’s? I get that this launched the craze for recording it but this version pales in comparison to the “original.” Also, This song really shows that the Beach Boys were not the greatest musicians at this point (excepting Brian of course). Carl Wilson is not Dick Dale.

“Stoked” is one of those dumb surf rock songs from this era only this one’s riff is not as memorable as some of them. (That’s not to say it’s not memorable, just that it’s not among the classics of the genre.)

“Lonely Sea” is probably the highlight of the record, the closest thing to their later sound here and once again featuring Wilson’s pioneering vocal recording techniques, giving the group a way fuller sound than anyone else.

“Shut Down” is almost like the sincere version of the kind of commercial parodies the Who would record for The Who Sell Out. But I will say it has a narrative (like a bunch of the more interesting songs on their debut) and that’s more than can be said for the rest of the songs on the record. Mike Love’s sax parts are either really forward thinking or awful.

The most notable thing about “Noble Surfer” are the backing vocals and that glockenspiel solo, which feels like one of the most bonkers things done by a rock band up to this point. The song itself is pretty typical of the era and not anything to remember.
There are a million versions of “Honky Tonk” – I don’t think this is a notable one. (This style of music is not the Beach Boys’ thing.) Carl Wilson acquits himself here pretty well, though.

“Lana” is another song that’s impressive for the quality of the vocal arrangements and their rich sound but, like many of Wilson’s non-narrative songs of this era, the lyrics leave a lot to be desired. (I think I hear a celeste or something doubling the guitar solo, which is further indication that Brian Wilson was thinking about music in an entirely different way from most of his contemporaries.)
“Surf Jam” is very much a Dick Dale wannabe. Meh. Decent lead playing from Carl again, not great sax from Love again (which is maybe why it’s mixed so low as to be virtually inaudible without headphones).

Is this version of “Let’s Go Trippin'” really preferable to Dick Dale’s?

This record is short, a few songs less and it might be an EP. And yet this band had so little material that somehow “Finders Keepers” made it on this record, to pad it out to 24:15 so they could pretend it was an LP. (Maybe 1963 EPs couldn’t contain a full 20 minutes but they can now.) If one looked up filler in the dictionary they are likely to find “Finders Keepers” there as a prime example. Though there are three brief verses featuring typically detailed narrative lyrics from Brian, they exist so that the band can sing the child’s refrain over and over ad nauseum; the chorus has to be one of the laziest the band ever wrote. Perhaps the laziest.

All that being said, I can’t actually say this record is terrible, bad or even average. This may not be the best album ever released by an American rock and roll “band” prior to the British invasion, but it’s not as though I have another candidate. (As much fun as their debut is, it’s clearly the work of amateurs.) The most successful songs here are unlike anything else being made at the time. And the record was hugely influential for a very brief period, when surf music dominated the charts.Most of what I have to say negative about it is with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, in the US, this was probably very impressive even if it’s so much less good than something like Please Please Me.

7/10 I guess

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