Add Some Music To Your Day
I was watching the news on Channel 4 last week, and there was Brian Wilson, looking and sounding like some mad granddad from out the Ark, making only the slimmest sense. It was pretty funny.
I never got the Beach Boys for a long time. For a while back there in the '80s I kept hearing friends telling me how great the Beach Boys were, and it puzzled me because all I could hear were songs about surfing and cars and girls, and it was all sunshine and smiles, and I didn't want that thanks very much, being much more content and safe within my walls of gloom and desolation. Of course it then turned out that the Beach Boys did gloom and desolation pretty much better than anyone else too.
Everyone told me that The Beach Boys were terrific and that Pet Sounds was the greatest album ever made. The NME or some such rag said so too, which was always a bad sign. But eventually, one afternoon on a shopping trip to Reading town centre in 1991 I finally gave in and bought it. I was determined to play it and to smugly proclaim myself right, and everyone else wrong. Like so many things of course it didn't quite turn out that way.
They were right, and I was wrong. I wasn't too big to admit my defeat. The Beach Boys were indeed terrific, and Pet Sounds was indeed one of the greatest records ever made. IS one of the greatest records ever made. At last I agreed with a piece of received wisdom... it had to happen sooner or later. Naturally I didn't make a habit of it. I still don't.
Strangely though, it took me another ten years to seriously pick up more Beach Boys records, and in some respects I'm glad of that because, like discovering Dylan around the same time last year, I've been having great fun exploring, tracking down what works and what doesn't. I think Today! is the earliest album I have. I'm still learning, you see, still trying to pin down the lineage, and that's half the fun of course. I love Today! because it's a joyous leap in the air, a hand-tinted photo that captures a past that is only ever capable of being mythic, and what better mythical Pop group is there than the Beach Boys? The Beatles were making similar straight Pop records at this time, and if pressed I'd say they were the best Beatles records because they were unpretentious and fast, but the Beach Boys records are better by far because they have a sunlight and a lightness of touch that the Beatles could only ever dream of. 'Help Me Ronda' of course is a classic track, and the fact that I haven't been able to get it out of my head this past fortnight is all the proof you need. I love the way that this album version just keeps coming back for more, leaping back from the fade to kick it out once more. What more could you need from a Pop record?
Summer Days is also hot, with the fantastic 'California Girls', a song I hated for so long because... well just because. I hated the whole California sunshine lifestyle thing, as many did in the '80s on the back of stuff like all the Bon Jovi shit, but whatever. I just didn't dig into the history of course. Now 'California Girls' is a wonderfully evocative tune, and it puts me in mind of blue skies and desert inland islands. Just as good though is 'Girl Don't Tell Me', such a terrific blast of summer loves lost and found, full of cloaked vitriol, and this song makes me realise how important the Beach Boys must have been to groups like Hurrah!
I also rate Sunflower, if only for the classic 'Add Some Music To Your Day', which is like a weird blueprint for Primal Scream's 'Come Together', at least in spirit, and spirit's all that counts after all. I had Sunflower with me nearly a year ago in the sun of South California, but strangely I didn't play it much at all at that time. Instead it's been on the CD player a lot this January, spreading some light through the rain and gales, which is what music is there for after all; to act as much as mood changer as enhancer. Actually I think Sunflower is the blueprint for the whole Screamadelica album, opening as it does with the wonderful 'Slip On Through', which is as uplifting an opener as 'Movin' On Up' or anything else you care to mention. And of course the analogy breaks down pretty much right there (although the space dream Pop of 'All I Wanna Do' might be a 'Higher Than The Sun' for some warped alternate universe), and maybe instead Sunflower is more of a Give Out But Don't Give Up, but there you go. Certainly songs like 'It's About Time' and 'Got To Know The Woman' are as bluesy and, uh, 'Rock' as the Beach Boys kind of get while still saying on the right side of the Pop tracks.
Surf's Up is the other great Beach Boys album and it includes a couple of my favourite Beach Boys songs anywhere. 'Surf's Up' is a melancholic descent into misty eyed movie daydreams, falling softly into slumber and then blinking awake in a start to the beauty all around; startled by the very wonder of life and then... is that all there is? Falling back asleep, back into dreams. 'Surf's up, hmm, mmm'. Classic, unbeaten, beyond belief. Ditto 'Disney Girls' which makes me crumble whenever I hear it. It's like some soft, sad reflection, a glance back in time to see an already mythic and lost America, like one of those innumerable recordings of a time before America lost its innocence for the millionth time. Like Jonathan Richman's classic 'That Summer Feeling', or the Kinks 'Village Green Preservation Society', 'Disney Girls' is a knowing surrender to memory and pasts that we can never be sure really ever existed outside of magazine articles and faded photos. It all works particularly well in the context of the album, followed as it is by 'Student Demonstration Time', which is a pretty forgettable and embarrassing song, but still, the juxtaposition of 'kisses and a Tootsie roll' with 'the special riot squad' is pretty fine stuff.
I don't rate Smiley Smile all that much, despite the undeniable brilliance of 'Good Vibrations' and 'Heroes And Villains'. I remember the Pooh Sticks or some other pseudonym thereof did 'Heroes and Villains' on a 7" single back in the day. It had an orange sleeve with that picture of Brian Wilson on the fire-fighters hat, if I remember correctly. I didn't like that at the time. I didn't like the whole Beach Boys thing then, as I've said before. I thought the Pooh Sticks were above the Beach Boys. I was really stupid.
Wild Honey similarly doesn't really cut it for me, at least not at the moment. Knowing the way these things go though, I'll be playing it sometime soon and the clouds will reflect the sunlight through the curtains just so, and it will all make the greatest sense in the world. Kevin says that we all eventually understand the appeal of all musics, and I think he's right at that. You just need the right context, and that of course depends on each of us finding it in our own ways, in our own moments.
I'm looking forward to finding more contexts for loving the musics of the Beach Boys, both known and so far unknown. I'm sure it's going to be a wonderful adventure.
© Alistair Fitchett 2002