Saturday, August 11, 2012

Song Lyric of the Day (The Beach Boys, on the Surfing Craze)

“Let's go surfin' now
Everybody's learning how
Come on and safari with me.”—“Surfin’ Safari,” written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, performed by the Beach Boys, from their Surfin’ Safari LP (1962)

Though released as a single two months before, “Surfin’ Safari” by the Beach Boys entered the Billboard charts on this date in 1962, eventually peaking at #14. It would become the centerpiece of the group’s first album, released two months later.

“Surfin’ Safari” (labeled “Surf and Safari” at the time) was one of the songs featured on the demo tape that Murry Wilson, father of the three sons  that comprised the heart of the group, used to promote the young musicians to Nik Venet of Capital Records, who signed them almost immediately after hearing the demo in April 1962.

It was a fun (or, as the musicians would later put it, “fun, fun, fun”) record, brimming with influences such as the Four Freshmen and Chuck Berry. It’s also, indisputably, a song born of a time, place and mood unique in American life.

It’s hard to believe for a state with such a rocky economy these past several years, but Southern California in the early 1960s symbolized good times, in every sense. The defense and aerospace industries in the state were riding the wave of a postwar boom. Somehow, it seemed appropriate that, for the children of the white-collar workers at the heart of this boom, “catching a wave” came to have literal force, as a whole youth culture flocked around the state’s beaches.

Brian Wilson might have been the group’s principal songwriter and troubled genius (though not yet cracking under the effects of his abusive father), but it was younger brother Dennis Wilson who was the group’s only actual surfer. It was he who tipped off Brian and cousin Mike Love about the growing surf trend: “You guys ought to write a song about it,” he urged.

A month and a half ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks marveled over “The Power of the Particular”: “If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.”

The inspiration of this epiphany was the columnist’s astonishment over how Europeans could embrace so readily Bruce Springsteen, whose songs (particularly the early ones) are spiked with references to his home turf of the Jersey Shore. But the same applies just as much (perhaps even more so) to the Beach Boys.

Consider this: In “Surfin’ Safari,” the group summoned such California places as Huntington, Malibu, Rincon, and  Laguna. In another early group tribute to surfing, “Surfin’ USA,” the place-dropping was even more vigorous, with 11 different beaches in the state mentioned. It was all more than just a rock ‘n’ roll adaptation of the kind of “list song” that Cole Porter had made famous. No, this evoked an entire world—one that people all over, at that time, couldn’t wait to join.

A little over a decade later, the California Dream had already started to curdle, perhaps evoked nowhere more savagely and poignantly in The Eagles’ Hotel California song, “The Last Resort”: “They called it paradise/The place to be/They watched the hazy sun, sinking in the sea.”

The early 1960s were the Beach Boys’ sun-kissed moment—before Brian’s breakdown, before the band’s late ‘60s slide into an oldies group, before the death of the one true "beach" boy, Dennis in 1983. In 1962, with “Surfin’ Safari” and other tunes that Brian began to crank out (and soon tire of as formulaic), they were about to become America’s Boys of Endless Summer. None of the boys had any idea of the stress and storms waiting for themselves, their state, and their country in the next decade—and half-century.

(The photograph shows the Beach Boys at their so-called “Lost Concert,” 1964, a performance believed lost for 35 years.)

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