Endless Summer

The Beach Boys

1974: Capitol D 223559

  1. Surfin’ Safari
  2. Surfer Girl
  3. Catch a Wave
  4. The Warmth Of the Sun
  5. Surfin’ U.S.A.
  6. Be True To Your School
  7. Little Deuce Coupe
  8. In My Room
  9. Shut Down
  10. Fun, Fun, Fun
  11. I Get Around
  12. The Girls On the Beach
  13. Wendy
  14. Let Him Run Wild
  15. Don’t Worry Baby
  16. California Girls
  17. Girl Don’t Tell Me
  18. Help Me, Rhonda
  19. You’re So Good To Me
  20. All Summer Long
  21. Good Vibrations

I’ll kick this off by getting to the point: I got this CD for “Good Vibrations” and that’s why I’ll have it from now on. Every other track on Endless Summer has been considered and reshelved indefinitely (probably permanently). And what I have to say about this recording won’t be news to any aficionado of the Beach Boys or even of this song, and it probably won’t be of much help to someone hoping to know more about “Good Vibrations,” but I do want to express my reactions anyway. You never know what might be enjoyed or helpful.

I only added this to my collection in early summer of 2005, and it was a direct consequence of acquiring the Dos Fallopia abum My Breasts Are Out Of Control, which includes an excruciatingly hilarious medley of “surfin’” tunes (including four from this album) as delivered by Lisa Koch as Ethel Merman and Peggy Platt as Katharine Hepburn. I know that’s a lot to imagine all at once, but it truly is sideswipingly funny, especially if you’ve seen Peggy do her Kate live (and I have and will never forget it). One of the Beach Boys songs briefly included was “Good Vibrations,” given unforgettably distinctive Hepburnization by Peggy.

After I’d played it countless times to get the bulk of the laughter expressed at least for the first round of times, I thought briefly about how drastically recast these songs were in this version. And most of them, being just surfer-fluff, didn’t require much consideration: I knew the songs, they’ve been radio staples since before I was born after all, and they’re not exactly the deepest lyrics in the world nor the most challenging or evocative of song structures. Still, this is an important piece of musical history, whether it’s good or not, so having it and considering it is worthwhile…if excruciating….

And then there was “Good Vibrations.” Upon reflection I noticed that while I was *aware* of the song and could immediately think of bits of it, I couldn’t actually recall how the song went as a whole. This realization perplexed me and then vexed me, and finally I decided the only way to resolve the issue was to obtain a copy of the standard recording of “Good Vibrations” and actually listen to it from beginning to end. So, after assessing the array of available options online, I chose to kill two or three birds with one stone and get Endless Summer—I’d get the track I was seeking in its classic form, I’d get to consider it in the perspective of its antecedents, and I’d have a CD with surfer tunes in case I ever needed them.

When the CD arrived, I sat myself down and listened to it from beginning to end. And I hated almost every minute of it. To reach “surfin’” overload with this album doesn’t take long, after all, but to simultaneously suffer the painfully sloppy vocal inaccuracy on top of that is really harsh. Still, I kept my finger off the Fast-Forward button and soldiered on, trying to hear something that would justify this stuff as anything more than the Spice Girls of the day. Nada. “In My Room” is obviously the exception amid all the disposable sameness, but even it is pretty juvenile. And the falsetto overload…oh my god….

And then, at the bitter end, there’s “Good Vibrations,” which absolutely wiped the slate clean and had me sitting up in alarm and confusion after all that pap. Repeatedly. I must have listened to it 20 times in a row before fleeing the apartment to have dinner somewhere I couldn’t hear it anymore, and when I returned I played it another 20 or 30. And I spent hours surfing the Web for more info and commentary about it all. I was insatiable, needing to know everything about what I’d heard and to answer every question racing through my feverish brain.

I’d reacted, responded maybe, but to what? What was so compelling? Not the pastiche structure—I didn’t like it when Paul McCartney took it to his own extremes with Wings tracks, and although this predated those it wasn’t any more magical for me. And the lyrics? No, I don’t think so. It was a combination of three things, maybe four: the production above all, the resulting harmonies and their impressions, the vocal performances, and maybe the absolutely unique and startling place this recording had in Pop Music’s history.

The recording’s structure is the reason I couldn’t think of exactly how it went: there’s this bit I remember, and that bit I remember, but how do they happen in the same song? Or do they? It was a mystery then, and even now I’m disoriented by it all. As I said, it’s a pastiche: there are bits of songs here all ostensibly linked and themed (some, such as the “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations happenin’” one, unsuccessfully). But most of the song’s disparate elements are so GOOD (or at least viciously catchy) that the pastiche aspect doesn’t matter when you’re simply hearing the song. I recall reading somewhere that this was voted the best single of the 20th Century by someone or other, and while I don’t pay any attention to such generalizations I can at least acknowledge a basis for the accolade. It was astonishing for its time, and it’s astonishing even now, nearly forty years later.

How so? An example: the unorthodox percussion elements. A relentlessly-sawing cello; a tap-dance step. This is the kind of stuff Björk was using in 2000, and it’s just as thrilling to hear now as it is to hear that it was used then (and I can only imagine what the contemporary reaction was, if there was any, to that kind of sonic sampling). And then there’s the vocal performances, which range from general to loaded. In the latter category are the “Oo, bop-bop” backup bits which you would think are of absolutely no significance at all; instead their swaggeringly hubristic delivery arms them beefily with the machinery to not just carry the song along but to hammer out a message that this isn’t just passive backup-singer stuff. They’re practically shouting the “bop-bop” at times, like feral frat boys smirking as they reveal their wilder nature. And yet as they rise into the escalation of sonic joy they fuse seamlessly into the swirl with the other elements, losing all connotations and becoming percussive, tonal contributions to the shining whole.

Of course that’s just one element in a constantly-evolving sonic picture, but that’s the kind of thing that makes “Good Vibrations” so astonishing to me. The way the “chorus” (is it?) rises a full tone after each iteration, and then descends the same way near the end, is equally dazzling. If there’s an aspect of superficiality or dismissibility to this track, it’s the lyric; by the end of the track, do you care? I sure as shit didn’t. I’m still reeling and asking myself what it was that still has me reeling, and if I’m never sure that’s O.K. by me.

What a stunning piece of work it is. I may have to dip into Brian Wilson’s Smile! in its finally-realized form just to hear how he heard its relevance. Maybe not….