The Formation of the Sound of the Beach Boys by Peter Reum
The summer of 2016 has been a year of gaining some perspective of The Beach Boys' first studio recordings. The folks at Omnivore Records are the first company to have unrestricted access to the full sessions that were recorded in 1961 and 1962.
As noted by James Murphy, author of Becoming the Beach Boys 1961-1963, this is the first complete study of the founding of the group that became the favorite American Band in the Rock Era. Murphy has raised the quality of the discussions and the information and regarding the dynamics of the extended families of the Wilson and Love clans. Brian in his own way became an apprentice in the record producing community by helping the Beach Boys understand what the Morgans were expecting in the performances of these pioneer recordings.
Complete Beach Boys Early Sessions CD Package Cover
The group's willingness to rehearse and perfect the songs that form their output with the Morgans led to Hite Morgan being willing to pay for studio time to attempt to get useable (read releasable) recordings from the band. The stories of the practice sessions for Surfin' in the Wilson's music room are almost legendary. The release of a few practice takes of Surfin' from the legendary Tapes From Audree's Garage earlier in this century illustrated just how rough the group sounded before recording with the Morgans.
In listening to these tapes, it becomes apparent that Brian Wilson was already directing the group in their singing, with Morgan calling off takes and steering the group toward a more commercial and professional sound. That Brian understood the importance of sounding professional, even in these first recordings, foreshadowed his streak of perfectionism with group vocals in the group's Capitol Records period of recording.
The essence of the spirited singing that has characterized the group through 54 years of music recording and performance emerged from the ease that the Wilsons as a family harmonizing time spent around the piano or organ at the Hawthorne home. Music was also a center of activity in the Love household. Music had a calming effect upon the Wilson Brothers and Murry when Murry was angry. Although many articles have stated this point, the use of warm and harmonic singing has been a prominent tool for deescalating family members with toxic levels of anger in families and schools for generations. It is often said that you cannot entertain toxic anger and soothing harmonic singing simultaneously.
The fact that Morgan only recorded nine tunes with The Beach Boys is indicative of a hesitation to commit money or time over the long term to help the group's popularity grow. For the Morgans, it appears that they hoped to get a hit single out of the sessions, but did not envision a longer term commitment to the group. This conclusion is fortified by Murry Wilson's disclosure in a 1971 extended article in Rolling Stone in which Murry states that he offered to have the group affiliate with the Morgans for an extended recording contract and music publishing contract only to be told by them that they did not see enough talent in the Beach Boys as a group to justify a long term financial commitment.
For years, these seminal recordings were vilified by the Beach Boys as being primitive and many attempts to market the nine tunes were halted by the Beach Boys' attorneys. Despite the static the recordings generated in the Beach Boys, it seemed that after their 1969 Era album premiere, there was often a minor record company that managed to get an album out despite legal threats from the Beach Boys. After a number of expensive court battles, the legitimacy of these nine songs was affirmed, and the Morgans were able to license them for release. Occasionally, the tunes were licensed by the Morgans to be released outside the United States. The first known foreign releases occurred on the Ariola label in Germany and more obscurely in Canada. The reader is referred to Jim Murphy's excellent notes contained in the Omnivore Records double cd.
What observations can be gleaned from these most primitive but spirited recordings?
1) Even at this early date, Brian was already honing the Beach Boys' vocal sounds, working with them in the studio live while recording, or rehearsing for live performance. The basic modus operandi of Brian's vocal production style was here in the fountainhead of the earliest recorded works.
2) The years of studying the arrangements of the Four Freshmen led to a beautiful vocal blend, even in these early recordings. They may be heard most prominently in the outtake tune Lavender.
3) The prominence of Mike Love's voice for uptempo tunes is very important, with the nasality and at times humorous sound he employed marking the Beach Boys' uptempo numbers as nearly being exclusively his. The vocals he recorded on the tapes herein and future songs for Capitol Records were immediately recognizable as being by The Beach Boys, even 50 years later in their Reunion Tour of 2012.
4) As Fred Vail has stated many times, it is disingenuous to exclude Murry Wilson from the credit he deserves in using his own music publishing experience to help begin the Beach Boys in their efforts to get played on stations using a Top 40 format around the United States. That he made so much of an effort to promote the group is an undeniable fact.
5) Brian's songwriting, as primitive as it is in these early recordings, created a perfect opportunity for the Beach Boys to sing about the California teenage scene they knew intimately and which was seized upon by youth all over the world. The humor in the lyrics Brian and Mike Love wrote was never at other people's expense, and made the group human and approachable.
6) A young Carl Wilson plays the guitar with style and panache. His sounds were the root of the instrumental tracks Brian cut with the band.
7) The life that The Beach Boys chose was a reflection of all that was right and that was wrong with Southern California culture. The active, outdoor lifestyle that The Beach Boys promoted in their songs was a pattern which nearly every town in the United States aspired to become. That things would get complicated in the mid and late Sixties was a combination of freedom and autonomy that previous generations of teenagers never even approached. That the group managed to get through those more complicated times is because of their being related to each other.
8) The pattern of Brian's writing and arranging in the early and middle Sixties is present in these nine tunes. Beautiful aching ballads like Lavender (not written by Brian) and Surfer Girl contrast well with uptempo "lifestyle" songs about Southern California such as Surfin', Surfin' Safari, and Judy. The pattern of a Mike Love sung tune on the 'A' side of a single followed by a slow romantic ballad sung by Brian continued until 1967.
9) There has often been humorous, and sometimes serious speculation about what group members would have done vocationally had they not been in a hugely successful American band. This type of thinking has been applied to the Beatles, Elvis, and other popular acts. The question that goes begging is why did the Beach Boys, Beatles, or Elvis succeed when so many acts failed? The answer that each band or singer had in common was a person who believed in them and went out and marketed them as important artists. Murry Wilson, Brian Epstein, and Colonel Tom Parker were examples of canny managers who took care of the business end of the music biz so that each artist could focus on their artistic flashes of creativity.
10) Finally, if one goes to the earliest recordings of each artist, there is obvious raw talent that needed careful supervision and encouragement from members' families. It is apparent that people from the families of major talents as cited above were behind their son's efforts in music. If one endeavors to examine the family dynamics of each group member, there was always at least one family member who was unfailingly encouraging of their show business inclined family member/s.
If you are so inclined, I would encourage each of you who read this short article to spend some time with their favorite artists' first recordings. In listening to this fine package put together by Alan Boyd, Mark Linett, Brad Rosenberger, Jim Murphy, and Cheryl Pawelski, it is obvious that they do their best to present Beach Boys work in a positive, yet truthful light. That Brother Records finally consented to a comprehensive package of these recordings is demonstrative of everyone's acknowledgement of their importance in Beach Boys history.
Copyright 2016 by Peter Reum--All Rights Reserved.
The Jim Murphy History of the Early Beach Boys
Pick it up if you haven't read it.