Thursday 11 July 2013

How Sun Stroke Finally Made Me Appreciate The Beach Boys

So me and some friends are chilling on the beach when we notice the only sounds around us are from annoying kids half the beach away and some nearby dogs which look so big one of my friends keeps referring to them as bears. Obvious solution: music. Lucky for everyone people are making mini-speakers and ipods full of songs materialize. Unlucky for me not one of my friends has any interest in anything other than modern pop. I know this well by now and don't bother to complain, but it still hurts to sit and bask in an atmosphere of enjoyment when Olly Murs plays in the background. Even Calvin Harris who I like feels like a cop-out compared to the multitudes of music no-one else here has ever heard of.

Then again not all of that music would work on that beach. Actually, none of my favorite artists, be it Nirvana, Rolling Stones or Kanye West would fit here. The only band that I could think of was Beach Boys. I wasn't much of a fan, but there was still more to them than the name that made them perfect beach music. Something so simply, almost childlike, about their music. Their optimism reflecting back the sun's rays.

The beach trip ended, fun overall, and I got home to face the consequences of 5 hours sweltering without sun cream. Some might say I'd write about this experience because it's one of the things on my mind, but sitting trying not to move my tomato-red arms or slowly peeling neck I must confess it's the only thing on my mind. Being a Brit the sun has managed to catch me off guard (not that I'm an expert on the sun, or beaches, or having skin a darker shade than pale). It's done so much damage I've been transformed into a lowly cripple boy, or at least the next worst thing; to paraphrase me some Jagger: what can a poor boy do except to listen to a rock n roll band.

That rock n roll band ended up being The Beach Boys. Not right away, I spent the rest of that first day hunched in the exact same position, as to avoid injury, leaving the only body part for movement being my mouth, which was opened and closed every time I felt like feeling sorry for myself. It all felt completely justified. My history with The Beach Boys had been an uneventful one thus far. I had first heard them as a kid at my grandparent's family get togethers. It was the traditional surfer songs and the classics, namely God Only Knows, Good Vibrations and Wouldn't It Be Nice. It sounded, like everything at these get togethers, like old people music. Not for me. No rage or internal hate like all the stuff I was already into at such a young age. It was good stuff though, all very memorable, and probably more appropriate than blasting The Prodigy at the old timers. I never followed any of these listens up, which at the time would have meant watching tracks individually on Youtube or illegally downloading on Limewire.
My other experience with The Beach Boys was a few months ago when I was working my way through all of the "classics". I already had their popular tunes on my Spotify playlist but I knew where I would start to really bite into The Beach Boys, with an album all fans and critics (and snobs) never shut up about: Pet Sounds. The Boys have a fair few albums, and as you'd expect of a successful of artist of over five decades they've got quite a few good ones, but Pet Sounds represents their only officially certified classic. I ended up enjoying it, no classic or even as good as the Beatles albums I was championing at the time, but it was different from what I expected. I understand Pet Sounds isn't trademark Beach Boys; by then they were off the surf boards and into the studio, lots of experimentation and Brian Wilson going crazy trying to let his artistic side out. I still didn't find much though. I felt like these guys didn't know how to rock, at least not with the same force of other classic bands, and their big defense against this, the studio innovations, had grow old. They didn't have me just yet.

Jumping to a few days ago; I'm sitting on my computer cycling through tracks not for pleasure but for distraction from my skin which has by now turned on me. The Beach boys were on my mind. They were on this doc the night before. It was called something like "Young Forever: How Rock 'n' Roll Grew Up" and it was basically a big joke on the BBCs part towards The Rolling Stones. They spent the first half of the show kissing the 'oldies asses and giving a history of British music in the 60s, after that they showed how the punks took over and shelved all of the 60s crew, with the last part showing were all these artists are now and lots of apparently brainy people discussing what aging should be like for an artist. The Stones were the main focus, with the holy grail of the footage being an interview with Jagger from the early 80s, at the time of the first Stones tour in 6 years, where he talks about being an older rockstar. He assured fans who had wrote into him that a man in his late 30s shouldn't be performing in such a way that he would be fine, right before telling the interviewer he thinks he has about 5 years left with this sort of performing before his body becomes useless and he has to pack it all in. Ironic at first but in the end inspiring in the same way as that guy in his 90s who runs all those marathons.

The Beach Boys were also on the show, after all The Stones aren't the only ones who've passed 50. They were in a reunion gig with Brian Wilson back after a few decades of absence; nice to see the guy kept up a good appetite in his years as a recluse. All they played was God Only Knows but they were still rolling around my head the next day; which is why I dedicated a perfectly good sunny day sat inside finding out who these Beach Boys were (are?).
I'll set the ground rules straight away; The Beach Boys started, like The Beatles, as the first of a new type of rock music in the early 60s and spent their first few years a respectable boy band with a clean image. Then, from 1965s Pet Sounds to 1971s Surfs Up they made lots of great music that is considered hugely influential. Since then they've coasted for a solid 40 years, although it's showing of that 7 years quality period that the good will fund hasn't run dry just yet. The music found in this quality period is what I've been listening to, and even as a new found fan probably what I'll always be interested in. As much as my excessive fandom might grow I still don't see myself ever uttering the words "Y'know what I really need right now Dave? The Beach Boys christmas album".

The biggest crime against The Beach Boys is that they've always been lumped with other 60s titans, Beatles and Stones, despite being a very different beast. I'd always put them on the same league as The Monkees; a bunch of yanks trying to steal the fab four's thunder who hit it lucky with a few classic tunes. Which is a sign of bad marketing because The Beach Boys are nothing like the corporate cheesefest they're made out to be. It is true they couldn't rock; no blazing guitar solos or any sort of cool aura about them, but they were the most personal band of their time, possibly ever. It was a band made of three brothers, there was also a cousin and a friend in there too but no-one gives a fuck about them so why should I? In a sense it was a family band; and even after hitting the big time they somehow managed to keep it in the family. Bands like The Stones or The Who got around to making complex music that connected with people but neither could have pulled off a song like In My Room, but that was The Beach Boys in their element.

I've always associated The Beach Boys with a sense of perfect childhood-style happiness. A bit like Abba. And in a way I still do, but when the music finally clicked for me I saw a distorted side to that happiness. At the beginning of Wouldn't It Be Nice as the bell rings out I imagine a single lonely lifeboat floating out in the middle of the night into uncharted waters. All music of The Beach Boys has a sense of discovery to it, of something mysterious and alien. You can listen to The Beatles and you can tell what your listening to instantly, and don't get me wrong your listening to great music, but you can't quite put your finger on what sound The Beach Boy's are creating. All of the tracks are extra short, 3 minutes is long for a Beach Boys track; small compact classics that come and go so quickly you hardly have any time to get to know them, as if they're floating in and out of your conscious, flying back to that magical ether in the sky as fast as they flew down.
This is all perfectly captured in my favorite Beach Boys track 'Til I Die. Brian Wilson asks "how deep is the ocean?" and from then on your swept into the song, like the leaf described in the lyrics; floating, soon to be blown away. After listening to the song for the first time I found 'Til I Die replaying over and over in my head, but I could never figure out what song it was until I heard it. There's no memorable beat or even recognizable instruments, even those lyrics, while oh so memorable, are as wandering as the sound. It still managed to get stuck in the ol' noggin thou. It's as natural as music can get, not in a technical sense of course, it was the work of extensive studio wizardly and endless overdubs, but the sound created there is more personal and human than anything coming out at the time, or anything since for that matter. It doesn't get my vote for best song ever, but there is a sense of discovery and wonder in the sound there that can't be created on a whim or even with the help of impressive studio technology; no, that feeling has to be inside the musician, and it was inside The Beach Boys, or in Brian Wilson at the very least.

History's had it chalked down somewhere that The Beach Boys were out there making music for Mr. America, which isn't true at all. They were a few kids growing up in suburbia and the music reflected that. I suppose it would be easy to look at all the songs about cars and spray paint "corporate rock" over everything, but in truth these songs came from a few kids, brothers even, excited about getting their first car and what it must have meant at the time. I see now that they weren't spokesmen for America, they told personal tales of suburbia, the same one as David Lynch of Blue Velvet, just maybe a bit more kid friendly.

It was Brain Wilson's producing that channeled all of this into the music; an obvious explanation for why the music started going downhill when Brain took a backseat in the band. His productions don't quite stand against the technical works of grandeur from modern producers (Dr. Dre), or even have the conceptual ideas Kanye West has been working with for his recent albums, but I'd argue they still stand as the high point of musical producing. Not just because doing such complex manipulations in the 60s was like drawing the Mona Lisa with crayons, but because it still sounds great, it makes the music unique and is still a showcase of how with the right man behind the wheel studio manipulation can really help to realize someones original vision.
The best album never made, apparently
That's saying little of who The Beach Boys were tho, and don't mistake them for their sun-soaked squeaky clean image; The Beach Boys were weird. One of them went reclusive for a few decades, another drowned in a pool, one even lent his house to Charles Manson just before all those brutal killings. Which is probably why there's something quite creepy about the bands perfect image; something slightly wrong with an album so enthusiastic it's called Smiley Smile. They had their psychedelic album, and their change in direction album, and yes even their fucking christmas album, but they never had a dark album. Not really. They've kept those mouthes smiling for 50 odd years. Which in the end I guess is a good thing; The Beatles turned their backs on what they started out as and when they all got free they couldn't stop trying to one up their old selves; probably the reason they all remained beatles forever. Most bands, especially when given a lot of time, start second guessing themselves; it's why there's no signature Stones, they've had so many faces it's impossible to know which are the real ones, if any are. Not The Beach Boys, they remained themselves through good and bad, which I guess puts them at the top of something.

Not that it matters who they were, just go listen to The Beach Boys. Ignore the image they have of fairground showbiz performers, and listen to the music. Listen to Sloop John B, to Don't Worry Baby, and Feel Flows. Brain Wilson should go down as one of the best music producers ever, and the band's back cataloge is nothing to laugh at, but really what I like about the Beach Boys is that feeling of discovery and endless possibilities captured in the music. It feels lost now in time and space, but it's all recorded and listenable forever. It took me a long time to see who The Beach Boys really are, and most probably never will, but I'm glad I did; my dad summed it up perfectly that first night when he walked in the house to see me, the red of my arms almost luminous in the dark: "I guess you just had to learn it the hard way".

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