Why oh why have the Beach Boys’ early records become something that we have to defend? Is it because of our parents, who grew up landlocked in the sixties, and floated on that wave of harmony out to a kind of California of the mind, that land of idealism where they’ve more-or-less stayed and tried to coax us and history into joining them? Is it because of the band’s (admittedly, obviously, overwhelmingly) brilliant late studio work, by which I mean Pet Sounds and Surf’s Up and the assortment of odds and ends that would, years after we jettisoned the early stuff, finally congeal into Smile? Is it because of The Beatles, and Sgt. Pepper’s, and the ensuing myth of art-rock whose unchecked end was seventies prog? Are we too hardened and cynical to hear anything interesting going on in music that’s been so firmly woven into the mennonite quilt of Americana that our ears pass it over? And but then why can we still hear Johnny Cash on Sun, who (sure, why not) was granted an edge by the bottles of speed he took down but who also recorded “The Great Speckled Bird” and any number of syrupy love songs and mid-century hymns?
Allow me to put the pin to my inflated rhetoric: Because the Beach Boys sound fake, and the world they portrayed from the release of Surfin’ Safari in 1962 to Beach Boys’ Party! in 1965 is fake. And we, who first heard this music as kids, who heard it before we knew what music was, have maybe never actually heard it. Not in the same way as our parents, to whom “Surfin’ U.S.A.” must have been a complete revelation, music unlike anything they’d ever heard before. But we’ve heard plenty of bands who sound like this, whether we heard The Beach Boys first or not, whether The Beach Boys invented this whole thing or not. And our bands do it honestly. Unlike the Beatles, whose pre-Rubber Soul work (which is to say, the cheerier stuff) is also undervalued but which isn’t nearly so period-specific in its subject matter, The Beach Boys portray as an ideal a world that seems to our minds like nothing more than a choice, one of several lateral options. California doesn’t mean very much to us. We’ve never surfed, but we’re also not entranced by the possibility of surfing. We associate cars with traffic, L.A. with traffic, Little Deuce Coupes and 409s with a weird naïveté that eventually created traffic. That unsetting sun and unchanging and perfect weather are grotesque and dishonest.
All of which makes it difficult to hear Endless Summer, which collects the group’s hits from 1962-1966, taking us all the way up to cusp of Pet Sounds without quite knocking us over. Or, it makes it difficult to hear the album in anything but a mindless way. Because this music is very, very easy to dance to. Played at the right volume–loud enough to crowd out anything else–it’s hard not to get lost in the handclaps and oo-wahs. I saw the reconstituted group at Jazz Fest this spring, where even at their advanced age they had people dancing to “Surfin’ Safari” and “Be True to Your School” and “Catch a Wave.” If you keep the songs loud enough (and believe me, they sound good, even vital, when they’re played loud), you won’t think about what you’re not listening to, and you won’t feel as though you’re whistling past a kind of sonic graveyard where all of the carefree pop music is buried.
But when you’re sitting on your floor with your morning coffee, and the skies over Chicago are grey, and it’s not cold enough to snow and not warm enough to put away your jacket, you have to listen then, too. With neighbors below you, you have to listen. And what moderate volume does is it moderates the way you hear these songs. “Little Deuce Coupe,” for instance, a song that might as well have been written for a Sonic commercial. Hear it chug and shuffle over its beat, and notice the rhythmic plink of the piano. With different voices (read: black voices) and enough innuendo to turn the car into a girl, “Little Deuce Coupe” is a classic of early R&B/rock ‘n’ roll hybrid. And so it is, it’s exactly that. Or “Be True to Your School,” even this version, which is missing the cheerleaders and the interpolation of “On Wisconsin,” but jukes back and forth over honking baritone sax, and is both charming and goofy.
Still, there’s a temptation to look for a kind of artistic progression in these songs, to assign them a spot on a scale of advancement as a way to justify The Beach Boys’ early existence: What was building towards Pet Sounds, and what’s mere chaff? The version of “Help Me, Ronda” that’s included here (entitled “Help Me, Rhonda,” that “h” signifying something, surely, of course) shakes off the better-known version’s shrill high-harmony, and features buzzing bass harmonica work. There are several false fadeouts–really just Brian Wilson dickeying the volume knob–and a jarring tempo shift just before the coda. There’s “California Girls,” of course, with its symphonic intro (which Brian apparently considers the best thing he’s ever written) and its foregrounded organ jaunts. And “In My Room,” with its wandering harmonies, slow-plucked guitars, and lyrics that foreshadow Brian’s coming turmoil, makes “Shut Down” seem completely vapid in its wake.
But, some perspective. Nobody heard these songs this way when they were released. They weren’t appreciated as some kind of key to the future of pop music, but as songs-in-themselves, pop songs with complicated arrangements and ambitious vocal harmonies. They would be completely alien were they not built on the recognizable chassis of R&B and the Everly Brothers and the emerging picture of California as an American oasis. On the one hand, you wish they’d written about something besides California and surfing and school with a little more frequency. But on the other hand, they created and sustained an incredible myth. The brilliance of expression that is Pet Sounds notwithstanding, The Beach Boys’ major achievement is as aesthetically traditional as it gets, and it’s the same achievement for which we praise TV shows Friday Night Lights and bands like The Hold Steady and filmmakers like Wes Anderson: They created a small, self-contained world. That’s not to be overlooked or discounted. After all, it only putrefies when you begin to believe in it–some myths aren’t built to carry that kind of load, and the myth of The Beach Boys, with its endless adolescence and endless summers and unending chances to get things right, is one of them. But pop music doesn’t always have to be a perfect re-creation of reality; other worlds are often worth exploring.
All rhetorical qualifiers aside, “I Get Around” is a masterpiece of pop art, and for my money it’s among the very best songs The Beach Boys ever recorded. The backing track is phenomenal, with its chugging guitars kept high in the mix, and the way that start-stop rhythm in the verse is doubled and teased by the guitar line and handclaps that punctuate each line works perfectly. It’s silly, and it knows it’s silly. But that chorus, the way that all of those voices unfold over one another and snap back to attention at the starting gun of the verse. And the break near the end, when all of the instruments drop out and the voices take over, only for the band to come surging back in a boogey that carries the song to its fadeout, the voices going back and forth forever over “‘round/‘rou-oo.” It’s great, great pop music.
Endless Summer was released in 1974, with the hopes of propelling The Beach Boys back into the commercial spotlight. These are the songs that made them popular, though the cover art, which is suggestive ofthe foliage that covered Smiley Smile, points to the work that made them geniuses. It was apparently going to be called The Best of The Beach Boys Volume Three, but Mike Love suggested it share a name with the 1966 documentary about surfers who follow the summer into the Southern Hemisphere. I could be cynical and point out that, despite the deep emotional connection our parents have with this collection, it was nothing but a product of capitalism, and a very deft one at that. But it’s not only that. It’s also a reminder of the myth, a perpetuation of it, its orange and blue and green spine a promise of momentary escape threaded into record shelves that were suddenly taking themselves very seriously.