Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Surfer Girl / The Beach Boys

It Was 50 Years Ago Today . . .

All this hoopla about the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary makes me yawn. For one thing, Charlie Watts didn't join until January of 1963, and without Charlie Watts, it doesn't count as the Rolling Stones in my book. Besides that, it's such a naked marketing ploy. God forbid the Stones should miss a marketing opportunity, even though they could barely get their bony billionaire asses off their Barcaloungers in time for the requisite 50th anniversary tour.

The Beach Boys, on the other hand -- that's a 50th anniversary that matters to me. Their reunion tour lasted for months and felt so positive (that is, until it crashed on the shoals of Mike Love's crazy ego). The date is a little artificial, granted -- Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson had been singing together, with or without cousin Mike, for years before their first single, "Surfin'," was released, technically in November 1961 but finally on a proper label in January 1962. It crept onto the bottom of the charts, followed by a bona fide hit single, "Surfin' Safari," in June 1962. And 50 years ago this October, their first album -- also called Surfin' Safari, for obvious reasons -- landed in record bins, soon cracking the top 50 on the album charts. The Beach Boys had arrived.

Gotta love the Wilson boys for sticking with that surfing theme. Next to come, in March 1963, would be -- you guessed it -- "Surfin' USA." Of course I knew all those songs; no kid with a radio could escape them. But those upbeat, jangly anthems to the beach lifestyle never really got to me. Nope, it took a ballad to convert me: a love song called (naturally) "Surfer Girl." 

Now, let's think about this. Who is the lead singer for "Surfin' Safari" and "Surfin' USA"? The aforementioned Mike Love, with his nasal, sarcastic-sounding vocals. And who is the lead singer on "Surfer Girl"? Brian Wilson, his soulful tenor rising to wistful falsetto ooh's. It's the same sound as all my favorite early Beach Boys songs: "In My Room," "Don't Worry Baby," "The Warmth of the Sun." Until they finally let Carl Wilson loose with "God Only Knows," this was the sound of the Beach Boys for me. 

The cockiness of those Mike Love songs put me off, but here was a tenderness, a vulnerability, I'd never before heard from this band. "Little surfer, little one / Made my heart come all undone" -- it may be a convenient rhyme, but amid those plush doo-wop harmonies, the image of  heartstrings unraveling is surprisingly affecting. And the uncertainty of that question, "Do you love me / Do you, surfer girl?" well, it's Sensitive Male 101.

The second verse is where they really grab me. "I have watched you on the shore / Standing by the ocean's roar" -- like Ray Davies in the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset," Brian Wilson is the wistful observing outsider. Has he ever even spoken to her? I'm voting for no. This song is saturated with the purity and loneliness of unrequited love, trembling on the threshold.

There a sweet huskiness to the bridge, as Brian drops in the requisite surf references (dig the line "In my Woody I would take you / Everywhere I go-oo-oo" -- trust Brian Wilson to turn a surfing song into a car song!). But notice that it's still in the conditional tense -- this is what he yearns to do, not what he has already done.

Cue an upward key change for verse three, as he makes his first fumbling declaration: "So I say from me to you / I will make your dreams come true." The upward surging chord changes, hopeful and heartswellingly eager -- this is Grade A American Optimism. Once again he dares to ask, "Do you love me, / Do you, surfer -- " And then, with a two-beat pause, he draws out the suspense, halting, making us wait too. Then, with an exhalation of harmonies, he sighs into "girl, surfer girl, my little surfer girl." Over and over, the voices intertwine and repeat, with the falsetto oohs soaring over them. The path from here to the aural tapestry of "Good Vibrations" is a straight shot. 

The difference between this 50th anniversary and the Stones'? Or even, really, the Beatles'? This is actually what I was listening to in 1962. My brother owned all the Beach Boys albums, and our parents let us play them endlessly ("You know, they sound a heck of a lot like the Four Freshmen...") They were clean-cut, All-American boys. And for us Midwestern kids, besotted with the golden sands of Southern California, they held out an enviable dream -- one that would soon be forgotten in 1963, when the British Invasion hit.

I hold these early, pure Beach Boys songs very close to my heart. Brian Wilson was working within all the standard pop idioms, believing in them with all the innocence of his SoCal heart. Fifty years later, he still seems untarnished by cynicism. That surfer girl is still out on the far wave, and he's still on the shore, yearning.


Anonymous said...

"I Get Around" is the one that hooked me...tell me a cooler, more original, macho song than that.
For a thirteen year old male, that one had all of the right elements and pounded my young ears into submission. "Drag City" was another killer tune in the same vein. I might classify those two as early power pop.
Cash Banister

Dave said...

A beautiful essay about my favorite group. Amazing, isn't it, that "Surfer Girl" is the first song Brian Wilson ever wrote. Thanks for this!

Alex said...

Fantastic song... and it does still hold up. Thanks for the reminder.