Of Surf, Sun and Shadows
By David McGee

The Beach Boys: U.S. Singles Collection—The Capitol Years (1962-1965)
Capitol Records

For those who grew up with the Beach Boys the release of the 16-CD The Beach Boys: U.S. Singles Collection—The Capitol Years (1962-1965) is yet another chance to ponder the world of their youth and wonder anew whether it was ever as clear-cut as these great songs made it out to be. Of course it wasn’t; there were tensions all over the globe during the years in question, and especially on the home front, with Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement heating up. But with no Internet, only three TV networks broadcasting the day’s events, no FM radio to speak of, and AM dominated by rock ‘n’ roll, it was easy to be a kid back then. If you were old enough to drive, gas was 25 cents a gallon, and with a part-time after school job, buddy, you could round-round-get-around (at least until your money ran out chasing the girls whose gas tanks stayed on Full courtesy daddy’s credit card). Even in land-locked Oklahoma, where I grew up, we may not have had surfing, but we could dream about it while we were getting char-broiled at the lake, and we most certainly had girls, cars, sock hops, drive-ins, cruising, cheerleaders, and, first, the can-do spirit JFK had brought to America (anyone remember 50-mile hikes? Two friends and I made it 16 miles, to Jenks, Oklahoma, from Tulsa’s north side, before placing an apologetic call to one’s parents for a ride home), then, post-assassination, the boundless, optimistic energy ensuing in the wake of the Beatles’ arrival on these shores. Oceans weren’t rising, glaciers weren’t receding, polar ice caps weren’t melting, honeybees and rain forests weren’t vanishing.

The Beach Boys, ‘God Only Knows'

The Beach Boys could do no wrong during the years chronicled in this latest retrospective. It would be interesting to see the group’s tour itinerary from 1962 through 1965, because it seemed like they were playing my home town about every two or three months, and when they weren’t, James Brown was, if memory serves, which it probably doesn’t. Maybe it was because the life-affirming spark their music ignited in young people attending their shows had a robust half-life, so much so that the chatter about how great their concerts were sustained across time until they came ‘round again.

When it was released in 1962, “Surfin’ Safari” (the big hit, backed by “409,” a lesser charting item nationally but beloved in my part of the world, because every guy I knew cherished the idea of having a “fine, fine 409”), the earliest of the singles in this box, I was in junior high school. My cousin, two years my senior, was then in a heavy high school romance. He was a star swimmer, self-consciously cool, popular, member of the Barons social club, and dating a drop-dead gorgeous cheerleader. Add to his attributes obnoxious, self-absorbed, condescending, duplicitous and congenital dishonesty, then cue the applause for his beloved dumping him unceremoniously, sending him on a downward spiral that culminated in his dropping out of school to join the Navy (well, he was a good swimmer) and then going AWOL before being nabbed and dishonorably discharged. But in his pre-Navy grief over his lost love, he opened a new window on the Beach Boys’ (specifically Brian Wilson’s) work for me, after which I never heard the band’s music the same way again, and in fact elevated it to a personal pantheon alongside the Beatles’. It wasn’t a Beach Boys album, per se, that provided this insight, but rather an all-instrumental album of Beach Boys music by a collection of anonymous, all-star session players dubbed The Hollyridge Strings, who had already scored big with an easy listening collection of Beatles songs (which would lead to several more volumes of same through the ‘60s; at one time the group had three albums in he Top 20 simultaneously). The Strings' mellow offerings, impeccably arranged and expertly played, were conceptualized and produced by a classically trained Capitol Records executive, Stu Phillips, whose impressive resume lists a wealth of scores for TV and film projects, and as a producer includes the Marcels’ “Blue Moon,” Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel,” and James Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World,” all terrific ‘60s singles. (He also produced the Ronettes before Phil Spector got hold of them, but that’s another story.) Clearly Phillips, with his trained ear, heard things in melodies that the rest of us, when immersed in the experience of a song, might not intuit so easily, if at all. The Strings’ Beach Boys Songbook underscores the winsome nature of so many Brian Wilson melodies, touchingly so, to the point where a hard-ass such as my cousin was reduced to tears by the instrumental version of “Surfer Girl.” When he left for the Navy, he bequeathed to me his Beach Boys collection, which I still have, and I found there was a lot more going on in Brian Wilson’s songs than the Boys were getting credit for. I didn’t know he wrote “The Warmth of the Sun,” the B side of 1964’s fierce Top 10 single, “Dance, Dance, Dance,” in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination (remember, there was no rock press to speak of at the time), but the lyric, “The love of my life/She left me one day/I cried when she said/I don’t feel the same way/Still I have the warmth of the sun/within me tonight…” was enormously comforting in difficult times that had nothing to do with matters of the heart, but everything to do with getting through a day with all the stuff coming at you as a teenager. Although a three-sport athlete who enjoyed the cheerleaders’ attention, I found meaningful reflection and affirmation for my own need for solitude in “In My Room,” when others were exulting over its hit A side, “Be True to Your School” (this is a good spot to note that the singles in this box contain three, often four cuts, many being stereo or mono album mixes of the hit single, which are sometimes strikingly different from what radio was pushing, none more so than the sluggish, inferior mono album mix of “Be True to Your School,” on which the single’s cheerleaders—who were the vocal group the Honeys, among their members Brian Wilson’s future wife—are completely absent, to the track’s considerable detriment). “When I Grow Up To Be a Man,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” “Let Him Run Wild”—there was much wisdom—direction, too—to be gained from these songs, and I’m hardly the first to point this out. The Boys were grappling with the realities of alienation, the pressures of conformity, sexual politics, and self image. They were celebrating an exalted moment in American culture and the liberating, carefree pursuit of that moment, but in the shadows of their sunny pursuits lay hints of looming cataclysms. Who knew it would sour so soon? (The reader is invited to debate what the meaning of “it” is.)

I have my Beach Boys; you’ll find yours in this nice little package. The songs are out there in many forms, of course, and in tidier configurations than these 16 CDs. There’s very little new here, and nothing at all of import for the casual, hit-oriented fan. What the songs say about America at a certain point in history is one thing, but more important, this music has a place in my heart. It offers a welcome opportunity to reflect on the world I used to know as it recedes farther from memory and is supplanted by an uglier one I wish my sons didn’t have to know. But I have the warmth of the sun…

(The Beach Boys: U.S. Singles Collection—The Capitol Years [1962-1965] is a limited edition box set of 16 CDs, each packaged in the original single’s seven-inch vinyl sleeve, some of which picture the band, some of which show only Capitol’s orange and yellow swirl label of the time. Each CD contains the original’s A and B sides and alternate mono or stereo mixes either previously unreleased or contained only on albums. Two Christmas singles are included, as well as a four-song EP featuring “Wendy,” “Don’t Back Down,” “Little Honda” and a cover of the Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman classic, “Hushabye”; extras on the EP include three stereo mixes from the band’s classic All Summer Long album. The box also includes a 56-page hardcover photo album containing many rare shots of the Boys through the years. The box set is available at www.amazon.com at a significantly reduced price.)

The Beach Boys—'The Warmth of the Sun'

(Ed. Note: This piece was originally published in the June 2008 issue of www.TheBluegrassSpecial.com and is reprinted here as part of our retro-summer celebration.)

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