Monday, August 22, 2016


Huge boxed sets by The Beach Boys for Pet Sounds and Smile, as well as the fascinating recording studio scenes in the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy have created an interest in the process of making songs. Take after take have been issued, allowing us to listen to the making of a record like Good Vibrations or God Only Knows, with different parts and instruments added and subtracted, vocals flubbed, and lyrics altered. The Beach Boys are not alone in this either; the most recent of the Bob Dylan bootleg series did the very same for his 1965-66 period, including an entire disc of sessions for Like A Rolling Stone.

This two-disc set takes us back to the very creation of the band, even before they were named The Beach Boys, just some suburban L.A. kids who thought surfing might make a good topic for a hit. It's 1961, and the 19-year-old Brian Wilson had dragged his brothers, a cousin and a friend into a local low-level studio, recording for a couple named Hite and Dorinda Morgan, who pretty far down the ladder when it came to the music industry, but a chance is a chance. With a rudimentary mono recording of the song Surfin', written by Wilson and Mike Love, the group got on local radio, got named by a local radio promotion guy, made it to #3 on the charts in Los Angeles and #75 nationally. It was enough to get them in the door at the big time, Capitol Records, and stars were born, with hits such as Surfin' Sufari, Surfer Girl and Surfin' U.S.A. making them the top band in the States for the next five years.

This set shows us it wasn't that quick a process, and how important the six months working with the Morgans were to Wilson, and how much growth the band went through in this short period. Hite Morgan was no great recording genius, and didn't realize he had one right under his nose in Brian. All Morgan did was call out for a new take when a mistake wrecked the recording, and it was left to Brian on the studio floor to figure out how to get a full take from his teenage mob. At this point, they weren't great studio singers, nor were they good players. The instrumentation is as simple as can be, all that they could manage. On Surfin', the percussion is a snare drum played by Brian with his hand. But within a few takes, all heard here, they manage to get it together.

After Surfin' hit, the band was back in, looking for a second single. Now, Wilson brought in more sophisticated tunes, including Surfer Girl and Surfin' Safari. These are early versions, not the hits released a year later by Capitol. The lyrics are very different to the latter track, but the basic tunes and arrangements are fully formed, showing that Wilson had in just a few weeks gone from the simplistic to the sublime, and on his own come up with two future smash hits. The band goes through the process again, several takes of working the songs into a decent shape. But wisely, the band and their manager, the Wilson's father Murray, decided they could do better than the Morgans, and started shopping these tracks around, leading to the Capitol deal.

Some of this music has been available for years of course, and back in the late 60s the Morgans sold most of the tracks to other labels for cheap budget-priced albums. They have filled bargain bins and used stores for years, with titles such as The Beach Boys Biggest Beach Hits, confusing listeners with weaker takes of familiar songs, or a limp instrumental called either Karate or Beach Boys Stomp, 15-year-old Carl Wilson's first attempts at lead guitar. But we've never had all the takes, all the material the Morgans recorded until now. There's the rare Kenny and the Cadets single, where the Morgans hired Brian, Carl and even their mother Audree to sing on a couple of tracks to try to cash in on the Barbie doll craze. Brian's pure falsetto sounds great on that one. There's even a version of Surfer Girl where Morgan added an unknown session singer as the lead voice later in the track, which completely recasts the very famous song.

I can't say everybody will be entranced by this process, hearing several takes of the same song, and only nine different cuts over two-plus hours of listening. But if you're into the history of the great bands, and enjoy the unfolding of the important moments, this kind of set is lots of fun.

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