Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Tuesday Top Ten: Favorite Beach Boys Songs

As you may or may not know, Brian Wilson is on tour for the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, which is unquestionably one of the best albums in rock history.  Wilson played this past Saturday at Pitchfork Music Festival, here in Chicago, and I bought a pass for Saturday basically just to see him.

When I was there, I realized I had actually been waiting longer to see Wilson (or any of the Beach Boys, for that matter) in concert than I had been for Guns N' Roses, who I saw a few weeks ago.  When I was a kid, my parents had a few old Beach Boys records, which my dad graciously dubbed onto cassette tape for me.  I listened to the tapes pretty regularly, if not religiously.  Hearing these wonderfully crafted pop songs about surfing, driving fast, and girls in the sun convinced me that, when I grew up, I would move to California and be a surfer.  They were my favorite band for several years in the mid '80s, right up until I heard "Pour Some Sugar On Me" on the radio for the first time.

But anyway, back to the concert.  Wilson, who was joined by fellow original Beach Boy Al Jardine, and a large (and talented) backing band, played the Pet Sounds album from beginning to end -- with a special cameo by John and Joan Cusack, who sang backing vocals on "Sloop John B" -- followed by a short set of greatest hits.  Wilson has gotten a lot of negative reviews because he basically just sat there at the piano and was rather emotionless (and, of course, can't hit the falsettos that he could hit fifty years ago, which he lets others in the band handle these days), but I'm not sure what people were expecting.  He has notoriously less-than-enthusiastic feelings about touring and being on stage, and the man is 74.  Frankly, it's Brian Wilson, so everyone needs calm the fuck down because he has earned the right to sit at a piano without cracking a -- wait for it -- smile.
While at the show, I figured out that, when the Beach Boys recorded and released Pet Sounds, Wilson was 23 years old.  By then, the band already had 17 Top 40 songs and had established itself as the premier American rock band, but then they (well, mostly Wilson) made what was probably the most ambitious rock album that had been made to that point.  They went from singing mostly about teenage love and surfing -- albeit with the most beautiful harmonies you've ever heard -- to making the album that helped usher in the psychedelic era and inspired The Beatles to make Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

By comparison, when I was 23, the most interesting thing I had ever done was vomit poolside at the Flamingo within about five hours of arriving in Las Vegas for the first time, after drinking far too many tropical drinks, all while getting a rather remarkable full-body sun burn.  The beauty about Vegas is that when you pass out at 6 p.m. and wake up fully rested and ready to go at 4 a.m., some of your friends will still be up.

But anyway, here are my ten favorite Beach Boys songs, in alphabetical order, with the release year and peak Billboard Hot 100 position.

Honorable Mention:  "Dance, Dance, Dance"; "Do It Again"; "Fun, Fun, Fun,"; "God Only Knows"; "Hang On To Your Ego"; "Here Today"; "Hushabye"; "I Can Hear Music"; "In My Room"
"Little Honda"; "Surfer Girl"; "Spirit of America"; "Wipe Out" (with The Fat Boys)

1.  "Barbara Ann" (1965, #2)
I have always liked the feel of this cover of The Regents' 1961 song.  The Beach Boys' recording sounds like they were just goofing around and someone turned on a tape recorder.  This song made me wish I was there with The Beach Boys, hanging out and jamming.  Maybe I could have been the guy who played the ashtray.

2.  "Don't Worry Baby" (1964, #24)
Released in May 1964 as the B-side to the group's first #1 hit ("I Get Around"), "Don't Worry Baby" hit #24 on its own, but I think it's the better song.  It's thoughtful and pure and a little dark -- kind of a harbinger of the end of the California Sound era.  That was kind of Wilson's genius.  He could write these gorgeous pop songs that had these sneaky undertones of anxiety and self-doubt.  But at the end of the day, don't worry, baby, because everything will turn out all right.

3.  "Do You Wanna Dance?" (1965, #12)
Originally recorded by Bobby Freeman in 1958 and also covered by Cliff Richard & The Shadows in 1962, "Do You Wanna Dance?" is an uptempo pop/doo-wop song.  It's extremely catchy, and The Beach Boys took the original -- which kind of had a Latin feel to it -- and made a version with a Phil Spector feel to it, with some great wailing backing falsettos.  Interestingly, it was the group's highest-charting song featuring Dennis Wilson on lead vocals.

4.  "Feel Flows" (1971, N/A)
I don't think I had ever heard this until the closing credits of Almost Famous.  It's kind of a trippy, post-psychedelic song, with a reverb echo used for Carl Wilson's vocals that gives the song an ethereal feel.  

5.  "Good Vibrations" (1966, #1)
Anyone who has had the pleasure of taking History of Rock and Roll II at Indiana University with Dr. Glenn Gass has a special place in his or her heart for this song.  I had always liked this song, but Professor Gass's energetic lecture about "Good Vibrations" in the spring of 1997 was unlike anything I have every experienced.  He played the song and excitedly talked about every part, pointing out all the layers and intricacies, all while flailing about in front of a packed 350-person lecture hall.  When the song ended, he got a standing ovation, and there wasn't a person in the class who didn't walk out of there without a greater appreciation for "Good Vibrations."

6.  "Help Me, Rhonda" (1965, #1)
"Help Me, Rhonda" was the group's second #1 hit.  It's a classic Beach Boys song that presumably ruined the name Rhonda.  Seriously, Rhonda had been rising in popularity as a girl's name since the mid '40s.  In 1965 -- the year this song was released -- Rhonda had risen to become the 37th most popular girl's name in the U.S.  That year was the peak in the popularity of the name, as it fell consistently over the coming years, falling out of the Top 100 by 1976 on its way to falling out of the Top 1000 by 1995.  After all, any time you meet someone named Rhonda, don't you immediately want to say, "Help me, Rhonda?"  I do.  On a related note, I don't have any friends named Rhonda.

7.  "I'm Waiting For The Day" (1966, N/A)
"I'm Waiting For The Day" is an underrated gem from Pet Sounds, alternating between bombastic timpanies and Wall of Sound woodwinds, and quiet, sweet verses.

8.  "Surfin' U.S.A." (1963, #3)
"Surfin' U.S.A." is pretty much the epitome of Beach Boys songs.  Set to the melody of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen," it's fun, it's catchy, and it's about surfing.  I learned the names of more beaches while listening to this song than any other song I've ever heard.  Fact.

9.  "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" (1964, #9)
When I was around 8 or 9 years old, I remember this song really striking a chord with me (music pun not intended) because it was the first time I remember thinking about the realities of becoming an adult.  In the song, the narrator laments whether, when he grows up, he'll "dig the same things that turn me on as a kid."  I heard this, and I lost a little bit of my innocence because I realized that, when I became an adult, I probably wouldn't still watch cartoons every morning, trade baseball cards with my friends, or build reckless bike ramps on the sidewalk.  That said, I still love pussy, so one out of four ain't bad.

10.  "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (1966, #8)
This is the first track off of Pet Sounds, and it's just about as perfect a pop song as you can get, from the fairytale-esque intro to the Wall of Sound production for the rest of the song to the quaint and relatable topic of talking about your future with your girlfriend/boyfriend.  My mom always used to tell me that this was her and her high school boyfriend's "song."  I had always assumed the woman who gave birth to me wouldn't lie to her son's face over and over again for the better part of thirty years, but the other day, I realized that Pet Sounds was released only a couple weeks before she graduated from high school, and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" wasn't released as a single until several months later.  What else, Mom?  When I talked to the Easter Bunny on the phone, it was really my aunt pretending to be an anthropomorphic rabbit?

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