Friday, July 12, 2019

Why I Didn't Like The Beach Boys

I have listened to Part I and half of Part II of the Political Beats podcast about the Beach Boys, on the recommendation of my eldest son. They are episodes 60 and 61, hosted by various writers from Reason and National Review. No politics are discussed, and I don't think I'd heard of these particular writers.  They are big, big fans of the Beach Boys, and phrases like "preternatural genius" fall from their lips every few minutes. Still, they make good points and they tell a good story.

Brian Wilson, and "Pet Sounds" in particular, is supposed to be some pinnacle of rock creativity, consistently making Top 100 lists and having documentaries made. I have a few Beach Boys songs that I like very much.  But mostly I just kept a "best of " album around for fun, when I wanted that sort of summer sound occasionally.  My son insists I played them a lot, which is why he likes them.  This is untrue. I likely did overpraise "Good Vibrations" every time it came on the radio and made everyone stop talking so I could listen. I will acknowledge that.

1.  Their voices were tinny, thin, nasal.  I did not appreciate how young they were in those early songs, and might have been more forgiving of the lack of richness and tone. Even their instrumentation in the early years was circusy, trebly.

2. The lyrics were ignorable at best, but more usually a terrible distraction. One of the podcasters keeps talking about the great vulnerability and emotionality of the lyrics of many of their songs, such as "In My Room," or "Warmth of the Sun." For a folkie, used to PP&M, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, this opinion is merely silly.  I wrote equivalently good (or bad) lyrics in junior high, and better by late high school.

3.  I thought the arrogant celebration of Surfing/Beach/Cars/California culture was annoying. It was one more feeding of the monster, that coolness was more important than anything.

On the plus side, the harmonies were spectacular, and the arrangements became more fascinating every year. I am a big fan of harmony, and their use of multiple lines always fascinated when I tried to hum along, even when I didn't much like the song. They slowed things down, stopped, waited, used interesting percussion. I wasn't hugely impressed with "Wouldn't It Be Nice" or "God Only Knows" at first, but did find myself humming them years later.

No one covered these songs, except maybe "Barbara Ann," a rather silly piece. They were just too difficult, with unusual timings and key changes.  Try to sing the backup vocal precisely even on one of their easy songs, like "Fun, Fun, Fun."  I also appreciate the whole idea of competition and challenge with the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, finding ever-better ways to use the studio and be creative.  One can listen to songs like "Magical Mystery Tour,"  "Strawberry Fields Forever," and "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and hear the Brian Wilson influence. In the reverse direction, one can hear both Rubber Soul and Revolver in Pet Sounds. You will notice in the exchange that the Beatles have good lyrics, and the Beach Boys don't, however.

Jimi Hendrix called it "psychedelic barbershop," and I am confident that was more dismissive than complimentary. It does highlight what is happening in this music, however.  This is not rock-n-roll, even though they started with that Lead/Rhythm/Bass/Drums package, the same as the Beatles. When the Beatles came out with Sgt Pepper, and the Beach Boys with Good Vibrations, those were clear announcements that this was pop music, not R&R.

I favored the folksingers and the harder rock of Jefferson Airplane, Vanilla Fudge, and Cream.  Both of those audiences looked at pop music with a bit of contempt, and that was where I sat in those days.  Harmonies, percussion, arrangements?  Loved that, but I could get better ones in Christmas Carols, hymns, American Musical Theater, and yes, barbershop.

Good Vibrations did blow me away when it came out, and I went out and bought the album "Wild Honey," which was terrible, and  perhaps convinced me to never fall for that Beach Boys stuff again.

Unlike their earlier surfin' music, their later stuff was not background party stuff that the kids could dance to (I gave it a 95). Nor was it anything that you could perform easily, though it was fun to sing along to.  It had to be listened  to, attended to.  Even now, I only play them when I can pay attention.

Short sections of 26 seconds each, some repeated.  They are not strongly related, but because of the chorus it holds together. The lyrics still suck.


james said...

"Say goodnight and stay together" is a nice line in context. "Good vibrations" is pretty disjoint grammatically and logically. And I never got into the "vibrations" business--way too "woo". But for some reason I rarely gave a lot of thought to the lyrics from that era. Part of that may be because I had lousy radio reception until about '73, and diction wasn't always the strong suit of the bands. I used to joke that the best lyrics from the era were in Classical Gas.

OTOH, in a lot of operas the lyrics are not so much bad, as incomprehensible. You just go along with it and, unless you're Anna Russel, don't try to analyze it too much.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That was an old Larry Norman joke, about not being allowed to listen to rock because it was too loud and you couldn't understand the words. "They wanted me to study German opera instead. What's the only thing you know about German opera? Right. It's too loud and you can't understand the words."

Sam L. said...

Ya don't gotta like all, or even a little, of any one's or group's songs. And I don't care which ones you DO and which ones your DON'T.

RichardJohnson said...

One time in Latin America, I was asked to translate the lyrics of a rock song. My reply was that I couldn't tell what they were saying in English, I couldn't translate that incoherence into Spanish.

Texan99 said...

The lyrics were like something from a 14-year-old, but the music was wonderful. I always got an idiot-savant vibe.

GraniteDad said...

Texan99, that’s probably about right since they started young and Brian Wilson clearly had issues holding him back emotionally, and then he piled drugs on top of it. So a lot of that “teenage boys” vibe remains long after they outgrew it age-wise.

AVI, I’ve taught Sarah to love The Beach Boys this week. “Sloop John B” is her favorite because of the repeating line “I wanna go home” which sums up her approach to the world. So if you want to force the Kingston Trio on her, now’s your chance.

RichardJohnson said...

AVI, I’ve taught Sarah to love The Beach Boys this week. “Sloop John B” is her favorite..

I am partial to Dwight Yoakum's version of Sloop John B. Dwight and I are partial to the CalMex/TexMex accordion. Though "Streets of Bakersfield" is probably Dwight's best use of the accordion. (Accordion came to TX courtesy of Hill Country Germans & Czechs.Viva Kolache!)

The Fendertones, a Beach Boy cover band out of the Philly area, do a pretty good version of Sloop John B.

As far as I am concerned, the Beach Boys could have been singing classified ads. Great lyricists, they were not. But their harmonies were heavenly.Which is also why I like Doo-Wop.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I actually had known that about Texas and the accordion. When we visited Ben in Houston we looked at that collection of Czech painted churches on the way to San Antonio. It crossed over into Mexico as well.

Yoakum's version is the Beach Boys' but slowed down a touch and with a more southern than Caribbean flavor. Not bad. Thanks for sharing it.

As for my granddaughter and an introduction to the Kingston Trio, that would be a tremendous irony in the family history, as precisely none of the five sons ever took to the Trio, and even my younger brother drifted away to more "authentic" folk music like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He would agree that authentic is rather a joke in the whole discussion, but would continue to maintain it's a matter of degree.

There are a couple of places where the Beach Boys did blues, R&B, traditional, or historical music, but not that successfully. Sloop John B is an exception, as I don't think anyone can ever do it again without engaging their version. One would either have to embrace it and just play at the edges, as Yoakum did, or go in a completely different direction.

We discussed this phenomenon at men's beer night a bit. It may be worth a post of its own.

RichardJohnson said...

I also associate the Beach Boys with my LA cousins. The summer before I began college, I hitched out to California. My LA cousins- one just a year younger- were a revelation. None of this serious Northeast gotta study and get into the good school stuff- they were out to have fun - especially my year younger cousin. The Beach Boys were a perfect fit. And the beach was just a couple of miles from their house.

Years later I hypothesized that this "fun fun fun" schtick was covering something up- that my cousin was playing dumb. When I asked my cousin if she had ever played dumb, she 'fessed up right away. "Oh yes." Her reasons are for another discussion.

Donna B. said...

Psychedelic barbershop is a perfect description. Since Hendrix seemed to be in favor of psychedelic, it would be the barbershop part that is dismissive. Why would Hendrix do that?

I still love the car songs. I want to be the Little Old Lady From Pasadena. Alas, I now drive a minivan. It actually has more horsepower than most of the cars I've owned, but it's no fun.

Barbara Ann -- the Beach Boys was the worst cover, though it could be called the silliest. It's too slow and the falsetto fumbles on the "Babwa". A DJ friend of mine used to argue over who did this best (yes, we were silly) but we both agreed the BB were the worst. I liked Jan & Dean, he liked the Regents. He's the one who told me Dean is singing lead on the BB version and that Brian Wilson sang on some Jan & Dean recordings.

Unknown said...

Barbara Ann isn't a Beach Boys song. It was originally by Fred Fassert.

The BB version comes from the 1965 Beach Boys party album. They owed the label one final album so, they created this odd, phony party vibe in the studio. I think I read somewhere McCartney played or sang on a track. Although it was unverified.

Due to record deals/contracts, Dean Torrence would not have been allowed to make that guest appearance on Barbara Ann but, he happened to be in the building and wondered what all the party noises were about so, he just kinda moseyed on in, and sat in on a track.

Anyways, Barbara Ann, and the whole Party! album are what you get when an artist owes the label but, doesn't care enough to put their heart into it.

I haven't heard the entire thing but, I've read that it was a lot of covers and the boys just hamming it up on their own tunes.

And the author of this article needs to shut his dirty, whoreish mouth. Just because he's too simple to appreciate the greatest band in the history of forever, doesn't give him the authority to bad mouth them.

And people in general need to just shut the fuck up about The Beach Boys vs The Beatles. Everything The Beatles did, The Beach Boys did first, and did better. Far better.

Brian only thought that he was in competition because he was (and still is) certifiably insane. And the drugs didn't help him, either. As much as I admire, respect, and practically worship the guy, he's absolutely out of his fucking tree.

Furthermore, fuck Jimi Hendrix already. Fuck. People act like he was the 2ns through 15th comings of Jesus.
There's a whole mess of guitarists who are light-years beyond anything Hendrix could have dreamed of playing. Half of which are just YouTubers.

Lastly, while Pet Sounds is great, everything after sucked (except Kokomo, obviously). It's the songs before PS that are the true works of art.

Fun Fact that most music reviewers and know-it-all commentators always ignore:
The Beach Boys didn't just record the Pet Sounds record and the Good Vibrations single.

Believe it or not, they had other music, too. Music which deserves to be treated as more than just a footnote. Music that was ten times better than anything on PS.

Travis Grant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Travis Grant said...

A lot of musicians tend to view the Beach Boys differently, since Brian Wilson was so adept at using complex chord structures and harmonies to deliver deceivingly simple pop tunes. Compositionally, Wilson had no equal in pop, and Hal Blaine and the rest of the Wrecking Crew, which included Carol Kay and Glen Campbell, would agree.

I'm perplexed by your hate for Wild Honey—Robert Christgau of The Village Voice gave it a rave review when it came out. It's different because it's a soul/R&B record.

As for lyrics, the Beatles were churning out equally silly lyrics until Rubber Soul in 1965. Brian Wilson and Tony Asher's lyrics on Pet Sounds (1966) were the band's best to date, and the follow-up project, Smile, saw Wilson collaborate lyrically with Van Dyke Parks.

Based on what I've read here, it sounds to me like you've formed some strong opinions without really knowing much about the band at all. And that's fine. You're entitled to your opinions. But I definitely don't agree with most of what you have to say on the matter.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It's never a good idea to assume I haven't done my homework or thought about an issue before writing.

I didn't much like the Beatles at the time, but they have dozens of songs with better lyrics than even the best of the Beach Boys offerings. I just plugged in a random CD by an unknown named Jake Armerding in the car tonight, and half of the twelve songs had better lyrics than every single Beach Boys song ever. Brian Wilson had stunning harmonies and arrangements. Those are good things. But that's the ceiling for him.

Texan99 said...

Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen shared a droning, tuneless singing style that often hid a downright pretty song composition. You don't notice the tune much until someone with a different style covers it. They certainly put more thought into their lyrics than most pop artists. I appreciate Dylan in a distant way, but Cohen imprinted on me when I was barely yet a teenager. I find his influence has never waned since. There's just some music that hits you at a certain age.

Texan99 said...

I agree about "psychedelic barbershop"--what's not to like? What's more, it's barbershop with fuguing tunes and a beat you can dance to. Most of the Beach Boys is a little before my time. I associate it with being 8 or 10 years old and just beginning to notice what the older kids are listening to. It was exuberant and cheerful.

Unknown said...

If you don’t get why Pet Sounds is one of the greatest albums of all time, there is really nothing to discuss. That’s what’s great about music, one persons opinion is as good as the next as it is about what you like. For what it’s worth, Brian Wilson is a musical genius.

Josh the Kook said...

If you don't like the Beach Boys- #1) you don't like music. 2)you don't like rockNroll. 3) you don't like the USA. 4) you're probably an ignoramus prick. If you disagree with any of that email me at adams85 at mail dot com, not g mail.