If I asked you to name your favorite Beach Boys album, what would you say? I’m guessing many of our readers might say Pet Sounds, and that’s a valid response given that it’s one of the most critically acclaimed albums ever recorded. Some might say Endless Summer, because although it was a greatest hits compilation, it brought the Beach Boys to a whole new generation of listeners (like me) in the 1970s when they’d been more or less out of the limelight for a few years. Or maybe Surfer Girl? Wild Honey? Surf’s Up? My point is that I have a feeling I’m in the overwhelming minority of Beach Boys fans who would answer with The Beach Boys’ Party!
First and foremost, by any standards it’s an odd album, a concept album before there were concept albums. The idea behind Party! is that it was supposed to be a live performance taped one evening while the Beach Boys were just kind of sitting around in the company of friends. They knock out a few songs accompanied only by acoustic guitars, a tambourine, a harmonica, and bongos, and their friends chime in on vocals once in a while as well. They sing a few old favorites, some new favorites by other artists, and even throw in a couple of their own songs. There’s background chatter, girls laughing, and a fair amount of joking around and misremembered lyrics as they enjoy themselves as they sing one song after another in one continuous take. If I’d heard it when it was released in 1965, I’m betting I would have thought it was exactly what I would have imagined a Beach Boys party to be like.
Except the whole thing was one big fabricated put-on, and unlike the first grader I would have been if I’d heard it in 1965, today I’m wise enough (and cynical enough) to know there’s no way this was a live, one-take party album. Granted, it’s so seamlessly engineered that one track flows right into another and it literally does sound like they sat down, played and sang for a little more than half an hour, and recorded it all the while. If there was a Grammy for “Best Sound Engineering” or whatever back then (and I’m sure there wasn’t), this album should have received it. The reality is, though, that the group recorded this over a period of many days, and it was heavily edited and carefully crafted to sound like an impromptu recording. Despite the fact that it sounds seamless, a number of aborted attempts to casually sing songs were excised because they didn’t work so well. This included versions of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” and others, the best of which is the Drifters’ “Ruby Baby” (which appeared for the first time on the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys box set in 1993). I would assume they chose the 12 songs that seemed to work best and included those here. What follows is my take on those songs, and despite what seems to be a somewhat non-commital introduction here, I really love this album.
Tracks 1 and 2: “Hully Gully” and “I Should Have Known Better”
I’ll admit the first two tracks are pretty disposable. Track #1 is a forgettable, if harmonious version of the Olympics’ “Hully Gully,” followed by a somewhat discordant version of the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better.” It was pretty ballsy to cover a Beatles tune when both groups were at the height of their popularity, but with this version the Beatles clearly had nothing to fear: the Beach Boys acoustic version is little better than what you might have heard at summer camp in 1965 with everybody singing it around a camp fire. Both of these are okay, but nothing special.
Track 3: “Tell Me Why”
It’s with the third track, this time another cover of a Beatles tune, that the album starts to build momentum. On the Beatles’ A Hard Days Night LP “Tell Me Why” was probably the weakest track on the album, but the Beach Boys do a really nice job with it here. It lends itself well to the live/party atmosphere, and although very few songs from this album surfaced again on greatest hits albums and the like, Brian Wilson apparently did think enough of “Tell Me Why” to include it on Spirit of America, the 1975 album that was released to follow up the monstrously successful Endless Summer collection.
Track 4: “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow”
Listen to “Tell Me Why,” and at the end you’ll hear them start playing around with the Rivington’s “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.” When the video above ends, click on the one below. That’s how they flowed together on the original album, and here they do a really fun version of “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.” Despite the fact that Brian Wilson and Mike Love share lead vocals, they sound a bit raw at times, but that’s what you’d expect of a real impromptu session (if it had been one).
Track 5: “Mountain of Love”
I didn’t care for a lot of Johnny Rivers stuff outside of “Secret Agent Man,” but honestly this Beach Boys cover made me reconsider his music. I know it’s rough, crude, and disharmonius at times, but somehow it feels right. And as I later discovered, Rivers’ version is a pretty good song after all.
Tracks 6, 7, and 8 : “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Devoted to You,” and “Alley Oop”
Perhaps no song sells the Beach Boys Party! idea better than the cover of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” It’s not a great song, and Dennis Wilson’s vocals are no match for John Lennon’s to be sure, but the girls seem to have a lot of fun with it, especially the “Hey!” parts. Unfortunately, it’s the only song on the album Dennis sang lead on and it does nothing to sell his ability as a singer. The group’s cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Devoted to You” has nice harmonies that the Beach Boys’ voices naturally lend themselves to, so it’s a pleasant track. The Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop” was a silly novelty song when they released it, so it seems an appropriate cut for Mike Love’s clowning around as the lead singer on the track. It sounds exactly like you’d expect a bunch of people to sound like if they were sitting around drinking and singing.
Track 9: “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)”
This song, originally recorded by the Crystals, is a strange choice for several reasons. First, it’s a girl-group song, and so it took some gender switching with the pronouns to work. Secondly, its a slow, love ballad, so it’s not as raucous as most of the tracks. When they kick in at about the 18 second mark, the Beach Boys harmonies have never sounded better, and if nothing else that makes it a track worth hearing.
Track 10: “Medley: I Get Around/Little Deuce Coupe”
Fans surely would have been disappointed if they hadn’t attempted at least a song or two that they’d recorded themselves, but that’s a pretty risky proposition. If you hear them sing it acoustically, and as close as it gets to a cappella, you’ll hear exactly what the guys sound like sans the magic of the studio, which might not be a good thing. Of course in this case we are in fact hearing a studio album despite what the record implies, but that may make it even a harder task: make the record sound good, but not over-produced and artificial. The answer seems to be to clown around and sing the songs in a way that shows they weren’t serious. There’s a lot of joking, lyric changes, and the like, but when the harmonies are on, they’re fantastic. One thing is for sure — after this track you were convinced that party with Beach Boys would be a helluva of a good time.
Track 11: “The Times They are a-Changin”
For the penultimate effort on the album the group forays into a completely new area, a song by Bob Dylan. Whereas the Beatles tracks they’d covered were standard pop fare, “Times” is clearly not your run-of-the-mill pop song. Before the song begins, Al Jardine, who will handle lead vocals, says “It’s a test song. It was a protest song.” Again there’s a lot of joking around, so much so that there’s no fear that the guys will become folk rockers. It’s just a nod to one of the other great contemporary artists of the time.
Track 12: “Barbara Ann”
The pièce de résistance here is a cover of the Regents’ “Barbara Ann,” which had risen to #13 on the charts in 1961. It just so happened that Dean Torrance (of Jan and Dean fame) was in the studio that day and he and Brian Wilson shared lead vocal duties on the song. At the time the group’s previous single, “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” had stalled at #20 on the charts, and the group was looking for a hit. Listener response was apparently good for this cover of “Barbara Ann,” and so Capitol decided to release it as a single. It went all the way to #2 on the charts in 1966, becoming the one and only single hit from this album. It is, unquestionably, a classic.
In many ways, the Beach Boys’ Party! was a benchmark. It was their last record that belonged largely in the realm of the simple surf, cars, girls, and “let’s have some fun” music that had come before it, and maybe the inclusion of songs by Dylan and the Beatles should have been an indication that indeed times were a changing. Pet Sounds was their next album, and “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “Sloop John B” and the other tracks found there were an entirely different, more mature type of Beach Boys’ music. Maybe some listeners weren’t quite ready for the “new” sound: Beach Boys’ Party! rose all the way to #6 on the national album charts, while subsequently the now-legendary Pet Sounds peaked at #10. In the UK, the album also made an impact. Both “Barbara Ann” and the album peaked at #3 on the British charts, making them the Beach Boys’ highest charting album and single on the British charts up until that time. But any way you cut it, it was a unique, and fun, record, and in some ways the last vestige of those innocent early years of Beach Boys music.