Music Review: ‘Becoming the Beach Boys’

Becoming The Beach Boys

For some people—OK, for the vast majority of people—the Beach Boys’ pre-2016 catalog will suffice. After all, the group’s landmark original albums have already been remastered and reissued with bonus tracks; and you can also buy 1993’s Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys, a five-CD box that gathers all the significant singles and album tracks plus radio spots, live material, demos, and more; and the six-CD Made in California, which appeared two decades later, and couples a chronological presentation of all the high points with more than 60 previously unreleased studio and live tracks.

If all that isn’t enough to sate your appetite, you can opt for Endless Harmony, a 2000 release consisting almost entirely of previously unissued material; The Pet Sounds Sessions, which expands that classic LP to a four-disc, 90-track box set that includes, for example, eight versions of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”; and The Smile Sessions, a two-CD collection of the recordings from what is probably the most famous unfinished album in the history of rock.

What more could the vaults possibly yield? Well, certainly nothing that the casual fan really needs. But we’re talking here about what many, including me, consider one of the most important groups in the history of popular music. And those of us who can never get enough of this outfit will find the new Becoming the Beach Boys compelling.

The two-CD set collects the group’s earliest existing studio work, which they recorded between September 1961 and March 1962, just before they signed with Capitol Records. At the time of the first session preserved here—which took place in the home of producer Hite Morgan and his songwriter wife Dorinda—Mike Love was 20 and Brian Wilson and Al Jardine were 19; Dennis Wilson was just 17 and Carl Wilson was a mere 15.

The two-CD set collects the group’s earliest existing studio work, which they recorded just before they signed with Capitol Records.

Because it embraces every surviving take of each number, the 63-track collection—including more than 40 previously unreleased tracks—features only nine songs. Three of them (the ones about surfing) have become famous; the others are obscure. The fine sound quality throughout belies the age of the recordings.

Seven of the tracks feature the original Beach Boys: Brian’s gorgeous first composition, “Surfer Girl,” which sounds very different in the initial take here, a take that ends mid-verse when someone calls out, “Stop the whole thing!”; “Judy,” his doo-wop-influenced ode to his first girlfriend; Brian and Mike’s classic “Surfin” and “Surfin’ Safari”; Carl’s instrumental “Beach Boy Stomp” (aka “Karate”); and “Lavender,” which Dorinda Morgan wrote but which sounds like a result of Brian’s passion for the Four Freshmen.

Performing at a local high school in the early 1960s, not long after the Hite and Dorinda sessions were recorded.

Also here are versions of two songs written by Hite and Dorinda’s son, Bruce Morgan, that were released as a 1962 single under the name Kenny and the Cadets: “Barbie,” performed by Brian and Carl Wilson along with Al Jardine, with backing vocals by Audree Wilson, the Wilsons’ mother; and “What Is a Young Girl Made Of,” which showcases Brian on lead vocal but features no other Beach Boys. The bouncy mid-tempo latter song seems more suited to a teen pop idol like Frankie Avalon than the Beach Boys; but “Barbie,” which sports the Beach Boys’ trademark harmony vocals, is redolent of “Surfer Girl.”

Many listeners will consider this album too much of a good thing, not only because so much else is available but because it contains an average of seven versions of each song. For serious fans like me, though, the aptly titled Becoming the Beach Boys is a treat and, often, a thrill. You can hear hints of the doo-wop music and pop vocal groups that supplied key ingredients for the band’s music, but you can also hear a brand-new sound emerging—and sense the excitement and professionalism of the people making it.

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