Segregation, Gentrification, Pandering, Love: Inside the Roots of the Sixties’ Summer Sound

In 1974, Capitol Records was gearing up to reissue old material from the Beach Boys, an act which had already moved over to rival label Reprise. The plan was to name the album The Best of the Beach Boys, vol. 4 in tandem with the first three of their ‘greatest hits’ work. But when the notably lovable lead vocalist Mike Love got word of the upcoming release, he suggested that the label use a better title. Say, Endless Summer, perhaps.

So the story goes, anyway. Mike Love talking about the genius of Mike Love is not exactly the apex of dependable sources. It is true, however, that Endless Summer remains the only Beach Boys album to reach number one on the U.S. Billboard 100 chart, and one of just two to go 3x platinum. The Beach Boys morphed from a modern outfit into an oldies act as a result of the release. It became clear their audience just wanted to feel good in the summer sound of old.

But what exactly is that sound? Endless Summer only covers Beach Boys material from 1962 to 1965, far from the period most consider to be their strongest for albums. It doesn’t have any of the more psychedelic masterpieces of their career like Pet Sounds. It’s frankly a barebones setup with just guitars, drums and vocal harmonies. Breezy, sure, but if main songwriter Brian Wilson and Mike didn’t write in a bunch of cheesy surfer lyrics, would it even be summer music? And if it wasn’t summer music, would it have even been popular? And what is up with Western listeners’ obsession with summer, anyway?

I still do not have much of an idea of what that answer entails. But digging into the roots of the music of beaches and surfing has revealed some unpleasant truths that are worth a closer look.

On the Whitest of Sands

Summer music is about summer marketing, and summer marketing is about teenagers. By the 1920s high school enrollment in the United States had become the norm for the majority of teens, and with that were summer breaks in between sessions. Within the next 30 years, American teenagers were provided with a disposable income from their parents (or their own work outside of school) and thus, could be mined for profit. This became most apparent in the post-war era, when magazines and music and movies catered to this demographic, particularly white girls. Initial trends weren’t necessarily summer-specific, though they shared a common thread of white mainstream artists pilfering the style of 'race records' — something still quite common today. In fact, much of the segmentation that separated white from black audiences has never really gone away.

Unlike these forgettable fashions was a fad that was all about the summer. It certainly helped that the genre was buoyed by radically innovative guitar techniques, primarily by guitarist Dick Dale, who used tremolo and reverb to imitate a “crashing wave” sound. (Dale in particular had a penchant for using “middle eastern” affects like the Persian Scale, such as on the famous “Miserlou”, that were exotic to the American public at the time.) But surf music isn’t necessarily characterized by its sound, distinctive as it was at the time. Surf music is more about the culture, the marketing craze brought on by those intriguing Californians borrowing a pastime from the Polynesians on the other side of the water.

The Beach Boys were trend chasers in this regard. Their version of surf music had almost no use of Persian scales or anything beyond the slight reverb and tremolo placed on the lead guitar. (Take their flaccid cover of “Misirlou”, now with a different spelling, as an example.) Instead, the band takes the far more simplistic route, adding vocal harmonies to more standard rock ‘n’ roll fare and slapping together random lyrics about walking the nose.

Most of the time, they don’t even write songs with surfing lyrics in them. Their debut album, 1962’s Surfin’ Safari, only contains two songs that are actually about surfing. Instead, the Boys write of county fairs and cuckoo clocks, proving Dale’s point about them being nothing but fad-chasers. On Surfin’ Safari, they also dove into subjects that are less than tasteful.

Take “Ten Little Indians,” a song that checks off just about every racist stereotype in the books about Native Americans. Not only is this the third song on the album, but it was actually released as its own single and made it to #49 on the Billboard charts. There had been precedence for chart-topping “novelty Indian” records before, but even if this was a rushed release due to the demand for the Beach Boys at the time, it’s surprising that the band was able to bury it so easily.

The racism did not stop with stereotypes. Occasionally the group stole the songs of people of color, too. “Surfin’ U.S.A,” the namesake of their second album and one of their biggest hits of the era, is just Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” with lyrics about surfing, and Brian Wilson readily admits it. Not only did they blatantly whitewash Berry, they had the gall to only credit Wilson as a songwriter when it was first released in 1963, though that changed within a few years.

In 2015, our old friend Mike Love would claim that he too, deserves credit for “Surfin’ U.S.A.” among other Beach Boys songs. Fuck Mike Love.

Time of the Season(s)

The actual “summery” value of early Beach Boys work is debatable (aside from its on-the-nose lyrics.) But as the public moved on from the surfing fad, a new genre took hold, one with music that would define many summers to come — psychedelia.

There are enough articles talking about how the Beach Boys and Beatles fared. Yet, as those kinds of articles tend to acknowledge, it can be summarized that the psychedelic movement, mainly coalescing in 1967 and 1968, were complete cultural gamechangers. And when a game-changer arrives on the scene, there are always attempts by established acts to join the bandwagon and gain more fans along the way. It’s never a particularly smart decision, and usually just reeks of desperation.

In 1969, one of the most desperate albums ever was made to capitalize on the psychedelic movement. Its commercial failure is worth a thorough examination.

The boys were in a tight spot. 

Doo-wop was decidedly out of fashion once the Beatles arrived, and attempts to switch over into Northern Soul territory had mostly failed, with the exception of “Beggin’” which was a decent hit for them. The band was in dire straits, releasing works under pseudonyms as lead vocalist Frankie Valli put out “solo” records despite the fact that the Four Seasons themselves were recording these “solo” records alongside Valli.

Enter Jake Holmes, a songwriter who later became known for writing jingles for the Army and Dr. Pepper. He and the band’s primary arranger Bob Gaudio got together and decided that an ambitious concept album like Sgt. Pepper’s would put them in competition with the rest of the scene. This would be the album that moved the Four Seasons out of schmaltzy mom-and-pop territory and into the cutting edge of the industry. 

So Gaudio and Holmes get the other members together to concoct this monstrosity of an album. The original vinyl came with an eight-page newspaper with a satirical edge in the style of Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick (which would come out six years later.) Its execution here, however, is suspect. Whose idea was it to put Valli and Co. on the front cover, the Joy-sey boys themselves, at a protest? 

I don’t understand many of the comics put into this “newspaper” either (you can see them better on the album’s Discogs page.) There is some risque stuff involving blackfaced characters and the absence of any women that aren’t characterized as sex objects, presumptively under a veneer of satirizing the mainstream that provokes those stereotypes. It feels more like an attempt to be edgy than an actual statement. The jokes just don’t land. Maybe they thought their new audience would be high enough to understand them?

The biggest problem of all is that the album fails at its main goal — being psychedelic. The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette is trying so hard to be drug-oriented and trippy, throwing every effect into the pot and hoping the final result comes out okay. “American Crucifixion Resurrection” opens the album as a three-part suite with distinct sections and a bombastic orchestral backing, and “Look Up, Look Over” sounds like a proto-dream pop track a la the United States of America. They even steal the “Hey Jude” coda on “Genuine Imitation Life.” (A fitting title!)

Groovy phasing effects and multi-layered song structures do not make a psychedelic album. They still have those classic vocal harmonies and Valli is still belting his heart out like it’s one of their many soul albums. Even if the album actually has some great songs, the theme feels like a complete put-on. Neither time nor their audience has been kind to the Life Gazette as a result, judging by how little information there seems to be on this album despite over 150,000 copies sold. One gets the sense the band underestimated how difficult it would be to simply cross over to a new audience.

That narrative certainly proved itself with other artists. The career of Del Shannon was in even bigger trouble than the Four Seasons in 1968. Shannon had hit his peak with the smash debut single “Runaway” in 1961 and then fell off a cliff in terms of relevancy,  without a hit since “Keep Searchin’” in 1964. He required quite a spark to make a comeback.

The Further Adventures of Charles Westover was no such spark. In fact, Shannon would leave the industry after its release and would not reappear for another 10 years. Like the Seasons, Shannon went for a big overhaul in sound, moving toward the psychedelic canon. And like the Seasons, Shannon failed to convince an audience to buy the album. He didn’t have the built-in audience the Seasons did, and Charles Westover failed to chart, languishing in even further obscurity than Life Gazette.

What makes Shannon’s failure even harder to swallow is that he puts together an album more impressive than Life Gazette by actually using his psychedelic influences tastefully. They bolster his slightly countrified tunes without being too obvious or flashy like the aforementioned Life Gazette. Where the Seasons wished to make their own Sgt. Pepper’s, Shannon came across as being akin to the Millennium’s album from the same year, Begin, already putting him on a different level of creative influence. And yet, like Begin, nothing came in terms of financial success. Maybe it was the cover.

Songs of Innocence

What we know as the “summer sound” shifted dramatically as decades passed, with the popular charts transforming as the landscape widened. Nowadays, what constitutes “summer music” is very much dependent on taste. A diversified listening audience obviously means less dependence on the predominantly white surf sound of yore, and is instead based on many multicultural influences.

Still, there are some more modern musicians who have incorporated the sounds of the sixties into their repertoire. There are a couple of special examples that go so far as to make it a main point of their sounds. The biggest one would be Jonathan Richman, who is behind the multiple incarnations of the Modern Lovers. Originally a proto-punk outfit, Richman spurned its original lineup in favor of a rock ‘n’ roll sound in the style of Chuck Berry. Richman does add a bit of a twist through his being influenced by the Velvet Underground. (Richman, of course, got his start by hanging around them.) Richman, like Reed and Cale, plays his guitar as if it were a percussive instrument.

Of course, the biggest part of Richman’s sound is Richman himself. His personality is the most important update of the sixties sound, not because it makes too many changes to the often sappy lyrics of songs like the ones by the Free Design and other bands of the decade, but because it actually turns up the innocence factor to an exponential degree. Richman is a completely transparent songwriter and sings about the most innocent of topics.

Richman’s music borders on children’s music at times. “Here Come the Martian Martians” is about wondering what flavor ice cream Martians like. “You’re Crazy for Taking the Bus” is claims the bus is much more interesting to take than the plane. “New Kind of Neighborhood” is about how Jonathan can’t seem to find the new neighborhood everyone is talking about. “I Eat With Gusto, Damn! You Bet” is a spoken-word track about eating in such a disgusting manner that no one wants to be around you. And in between, a smorgasbord of love songs, including one directly to his first wife.

As one might expect, this radiating innocence translates to a live show as well. Acts like the Beach Boys often brought an almost frat-like atmosphere to their performances, slowing down their tempos and cracking awkward jokes on stage. Richman, on the other hand, seems to genuinely love his audience. He comes across as extremely charismatic for someone who is not concerned with a trendy sound. (Check out his various television performances for an idea.) His unbridled positivity is simply infectious. As detailed in a fantastic article from Popula, Richman even spent a few years winning the affections of rough-and-tumble bar customers in rural Maine, proving that no audience was safe from Richman’s charms.

While Richman does have some more modernized takes, he was approaching 70 at the time of writing, a little too old to appeal to newer generations. Someone more relatable might be the equally romantic troubadour Jens Lekman. The Swedish singer-songwriter touches on many topics with the same wide-eyed idealism as Richman does, like on unrequited love on “I Don’t Know If She’s Worth 900 Kr” or on being embarrassed at a protest on “Do You Remember the Riots?”.

Where Lekman tends to stray from Richman is in sound. There is a guitar-oriented base on Lekman’s songs, but it’s often buoyed by lush and expansive instrumentation. On his earlier work, this is done through some brilliant sampling that pulls from sixties releases. The 1967 version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” by Glen Campbell, for example, is used on Lekman’s “Maple Leaves.”

But even when he isn’t directly sampling (or at least sampling a traceable work), Lekman is still mined from the same sound that Richman did. Songs like “Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo” (a song about his real-life experience of working at said drive-in bingo) go back even further, with a doo-wop progression and a saxophone straight out of the Big Jay McNeely playbook. Though Lekman uses some clever tricks to break from the fifties tradition like speeding up the song in its second half, what makes “Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo” work is Lekman’s sweet and humorous take on an outdated song structure.

Lekman’s penchant for sampling, however, is surpassed only by a group whose sound is entirely created out of sampling. The Avalanches, particularly on their 2015 album Wildflower, update the sixties sound by directly using music that was released in the era, then infusing it with modern-day genres and production techniques. Take the track “The Wozard of Iz”. It features no less than nine samples, five of which were released between 1967 and 1969. What contrasts the song from other artists detailed here is a Danny Brown verse rife with vice. There are references to selling drugs and masturbation, among other equally lewd details. Imagine the uproar that the Beatles would have if they sang about these topics!

It actually is not so farfetched. Recall the way that the Beach Boys sounded at their live shows. They were loose and slightly inebriated, and one could get an idea that the band wasn’t always the innocent type that they would be marketed as. Brown is much more open in his intentions. He is honest about the darker side of enjoyment that he partakes in. This is a major change that the Avalanches represent.

The Beach Boys may hide their more debaucherous intentions under the surface of songs about their cars or their love interests, but The Avalanches choose to present all sides of the matter. Songs like “The Wozard of Iz” are placed alongside “Because I’m Me” and “Harmony,” tracks that are more explicitly positive. It is a representation of inclusion in a genre that flourished in a decade of segregation and imbalance, an example of how it took until the present day for the positive implications of the summer sound to be fully realized. 

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