It’s fall 1961, and while their peers are heading off to college or getting in some hard hits on the football field, five young men — none older than 20 — are committing their harmonies to tape for the first time inside a studio in Los Angeles. They’re not so different than a swarm of other groups popping up around Southern California, nay, the country. They start off shakily, unsure and awkward about stepping up to the mic; after all, this is much different than congregating around a piano at home.
But a few moments into the first take of a primitive, doo-wop derived tune called “Surfin’,” they slide into a reverberating harmony that echoes still, and you realize why these kids have strayed from the provincial path — and why these recordings are significant.
When the first takes of “Surfin'” were recorded, the Beach Boys weren’t even a glint in the Pendletones’ eyes. In fact, their now-legendary moniker went through several incarnations before they were dubbed as such. Their first forays into songwriting came about almost as modestly: Dennis Wilson simply suggested that “somebody” write a song about surfing. Brother Brian and cousin Mike Love took it to task, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The boys migrated into Stereo Masters, then World Pacific Studio, time booked by producer Hite Morgan. Morgan and wife Dorinda had taken an interest in these youngsters; Dorinda challenged them to create their own material. Those tracks produced Hite now compiled on this landmark album from Omnivore Recordings are pristinely preserved, freezing in time a moment before the biggest band in the world was, well, the biggest band in the world.
Though there are only nine songs in total, some have as many as nine takes — all of which are presented here to generate a complete picture of how the Beach Boys came into their own. Hear them gain confidence as hits like “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfer Girl” progress and blossom from bare-bones demos to full-fledged productions. (Interestingly, “Surfin’ Safari” also contains an alternative lyric only released in Germany — listen for it.)
For example, on “Luau,” a song some fans might not be familiar with as it was hidden as the B-side on the X label’s “Surfin’,” lead singer Carl Wilson’s voice steadily gains confidence, becoming more refined and slowly easing into that silky-smooth tonation he later became known for.
Capped with a shimmering harmony on-par with anything that appeared later, even on Pet Sounds, and the progression of refinery in arrangement and crispness, it’s a raw listen into the Boys’ acute harmony blending, worn down like rocks pulverized by crashing waves.
Other tracks, like Dorinda’s “Lavender” reveal some initial struggles for creative control from Brian Wilson and Love, as Jim Murphy points out in its liner notes. (Murphy is also the author of the incredibly researched book Becoming the Beach Boys — together with this album, it’s easy to see and hear the full scope of this legendary band’s genesis in the studio.)
For the Beach Boy completist, this compilation is a must. For others, hearing the same repeated instrumental nine times might be a bit wearing, but when you consider that this was the foundation upon which one of the greatest musical acts of all time was built, it becomes all the more intriguing.
Becoming the Beach Boys is out now from Omnivore Recordings.