The Beach Boys
Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!)
Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.
When the time came to reissue Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) on CD in the early 1980s, Capitol Records decided to cut out the songs “Amusement Park U.S.A.” and “I’m Bugged at My Old Man” while renaming the LP California Girls after its lead track. The truncation of The Beach Boys’ hefty endowment to pop music is fodder for a thousand stories but this one stings a little than some of the others. With the growth of the classic radio format and the popularity of The Eagles Greatest Hits, some of the most important music from the 30 years previous were reduced to sterile snapshots taken out of sequence. The extended Wilson clan’s steady maturation as artists became moot and songs like “Surfin’ Safari” and “Good Vibrations” sit alongside one another on CD racks while, in any vinyl collection, there would be about ten pounds of plastic between them. But just as every tide breaks and rolls back, The Beach Boys too have their moment to shine once more in an age where complete reissues can set history right .
1964 was in many ways the banner year for the first stage of The Beach Boys’ development. While The Beatles were invading from across the Atlantic, the Boys had defended the Pacific with four original LP releases that year alone. Among them, All Summer Long leads the pack with enough overlapping harmonic ideas and detailed settings to mark new territory in the band’s development. When the next year rolled around Brian Wilson began his hiatus from live performing and helped craft The Beach Boys Today!, their first record devoid of summer references. It was clear they were grooming themselves to be a group that didn’t need the roadside clichés of hot dog stands, fast cars and surf boards to say something about life. But there was one more summer left in them, though not the one that people had grown used to.
We can say in retrospect that Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) is brilliant based on its status as the album before Pet Sounds. All of the perceived strengths of that legendary record, tilt the critical lens on its immediate predecessor and invite a bit of harmless bias. But on its own, the band’s foray back into their trademark season feels satirical and even a little bitter. How else to explain an anthem rhapsodizing the party life of “Salt Lake City?” Or the beguiling insanity of the four part blues in “I’m Bugged At My Old Man”; coming off the heels of the turbulent dismissal of manager Murray Wilson, father to Brian, Carl and Dennis, a short time before. What may have seemed like teenage rebel pop back in ’62 now came with matching sets of psychological baggage. The record’s title even implies a darker side to summer, suggesting a shadow life for its All American characters once the sun goes down.
Pressure by both Capitol Records and lead singer Mike Love for Brian to steer the band back to their wholesome beginnings makes this album a seemingly corrupt bargain that would be, ironically, a Trojan horse to test denser studio tricks and more psychedelic songwriting. “Amusement Parks U.S.A.,” takes the “Surfin’ U.S.A.” travelogue format the band had all but perfected and adds spoken word simulation of sinister carnival barkers and dazzled spectators. The tune pulsates like a dark neon heart jolting to life a dizzying summer evening while showing Brian’s new fondness for bigger horns, keyboards as a dominant narrative voice, and steadier harmonic synchronization on vocal tracks. Combined with slow and heavy bass lines of “The Girl From New York City,” it’s apparent from the onset of the record that the band had found their new sound after years of tinkering. Beach Boys albums were often inhibited by their slavish reliance on Chuck Berry influenced speed and rhythm but all that seemed to be old news with the ’65 releases. The band could now make heavier and more pointed songs which moved more freely; bridging together the unlikely duo of Phil Spector’s wall of sound and proto-Cream acid garage.
As the beginning of this unholy fusion, “California Girls” burns eternal. Legend has it that while strung out on acid, Brian rushed to the piano to set down the opening chords of the song as well as the first verse and there’s no reason not to believe this. You never shake the intuition that everything feels uneasy with this song no matter how many times you hear it on the radio. The impossibly simple group chorus threatens to bottom out at any moment but it never does. Love’s bass vocals and added lyrics hold together the tentative music box songwriting just long enough to create one of the most feverish Top 40s songs ever released. It’s like watching a drunk trying to hold it together long enough to play poker, and just before he cleans you out with three jacks.
Predating Radiohead’s two versions of “Morning Bell”; Brian reworked “Help Me Rhonda” (the first version also excluded the “h” in her name) to a cleaner and sweeter radio anthem, weeding out the folk elements of the version on Today! and delivering a clearer emotional appeal. If there’s a strength to these increasingly complex Beach Boys arrangements, it’s that the sentiment of each song came off as far more direct. The shrill jealous dread of “You’re So Good To Me” tops the impossible, making a song more insecure than Frankie Valli while mining the same high pitched neurosis.
Despite the stretching and teasing of the band’s whole milk image on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) there’s a genuine wistfulness that time has awarded its harried search for new identity. Like a firefly, we can catch an undeniably bright time for The Beach Boys on these tracks. Just before they would burn out in the never ending acrimony brought on by lawsuits, creative infighting, drugs, Charles Manson, death and self-parody. We can see them as they always saw themselves; reaching for something better and more beautiful.
by Neal Fersko