Friday, August 29, 2008

Do You Remember Back in Old L.A.? The Power Pop Genius of "Beach Baby"

Some songs you merely like for a long time. They're either hits or just songs you like and they're always there, be it on the radio or in your iPod or on CDs you listen to, and you know you like them, but you don't always give them much thought. You don't turn them off when they're on, but you don't hit the repeat button on them, either. But then at some point, something about you changes and all of a sudden that song that you'd always passed over in favor of other songs suddenly hits you as a masterpiece. It's not a matter of "Where has this song been all my life?" so much as, why haven't I noticed it's brilliance until now? So you spend a lot of time listen to this one song again and again, extolling its virtues to friends and enemies alike and, if you're anything like me (don't go there), you devote an entire blog posting to it. As if you haven't read the headline, such a song is The First Class's 1974 hit "Beach Baby" and as we reach the end of summer (for some of you - I live in Texas now, where it's going to remain in the 90s for the next two months or so), let's all take one last dip in the ocean of one of the best - if not the best - summer songs ever written.

I listened to the radio a lot as a kid, be it in the car as mom ran errands (we always insisted on 77 on the AM dial, WABC, NYC's pop station of choice in the 70s) or on my little clock radio, and I remember when this song was new, although I couldn't have told you who sang it or what most of the lyrics were because I was, like, 4 at the time. I'd hear it off and on throughout the years, a bit more so when I'd start listening the Glen Jones on WFMU, who would play it during summer shows (his archives - 8 years of them! - are available here). But it was in early '03, when I was working on a show on FMU and raiding the new bin by making burns of all the new CDs that I happened upon "Beach Baby" again on a compilation of the works of John Carter, the song's co-writer and producer (Tony Burrows sang lead vocals), called Measure for Measure: The John Carter Anthology, from the amazing RPM Records. Although you can constantly hear the inspirations (Spector, Brian Wilson, Roger McGuinn and The Beatles) throughout the compilation is one of my favorite CDs, since it's loaded with one brilliant pop ditty after another. When "Beach Baby" popped up during my first listen to this set I got very enthused, mainly because I'd never had a copy of the song before, and coupled with the rest of Carter's significant pop output my admiration of the song increased significantly. I can only assume that the Carter comp sold well for RPM, because two years later they released The First Class: Summer Sound Sensation, devoted to the best of Carter's group that recorded "Beach Baby", and I couldn't help but love that, too. Both albums have spent a significant amount of time in my CD players throughout this summer and I can't help but listen to each again and again and again. All of these songs are so sugary sweet that they'll give you cavities, but it doesn't matter one whiff because god dammit they're good, and I have declare "Beach Baby" as one of the all-time power pop greats.

One of the things that makes "Beach Baby" so incredibly fucking brilliant in my mind is that it builds. It starts at a high note (the perfectly harmonious opening crescendo), stays at an even level, goes down, then builds back up in a manner of pop genius that's rivaled only by "September Gurls" and "Hey Jude" in my mind. It's almost a pop opera in a way (it's 5 minutes long, for Christ sake!), just getter bigger and fuller, even more dramatic, as it reaches the climax. Carter had masterstrokes like this before (such as The Flower Pot Men's "Let Go to San Francisco" and Kincade's "Dreams Are Ten a Penny"), but "Beach Baby" is something truly transcendent. It's such a happy song, one that doesn't just give you happy memories of days gone by but it's also saying that today and tomorrow can be just as good as yesterday, if not better; "Beach Baby" is like happiness in a bottle, musical crack that's addictive but not destructive. In an odd way, it gives you false memories of California teenage years spent at the beach and even though it's totally phony and nothing more than a nostalgia piece (early 60s nostalgia was just starting to become big in '74) it feels like the real thing. "Beach Baby" is easily the best Brian Wilson song Brian Wilson never wrote, but more so than that, it's a great tribute, honoring Wilson and the California sound while completely being a song that can stand on its own. Sometimes the tribute can match the master, and "Beach Baby" is one of those rare occasions where that happens. It's a beautiful thing and I'll love it to the day I die.

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