Sunday, August 13, 2006

Number 27: The Beach Boys

When I Grow Up (To Be A Man) (Capitol CL 15361)

Chart debut: 29th Oct 1964

Writers: Brian Wilson/Mike Love

Yeah, I know. Only 27 - what were they thinking? In context, though, this was only the third Top 40 hit for the Beach Boys in the UK, although it followed the Top 10 hit 'I Get Around'. It was to be almost a year before they reached the album chart - real stardom didn't happen for them on these shores until 1966, ironically just before the point when their star began to wane in their homeland. But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
As it happens, 'When I Grow Up' comes from a pretty pivotal juncture in their history. It got its US release in August 1964, already their third single of the year (there were two more 45s and an EP by December, not to mention two studio LPs, a live album and a Christmas one) but didn't make it onto an album until March 1965. By then, Brian Wilson had retired from the stage and begun working more-or-less full time on recordings while the band were away on tour (with Glen Campbell standing in). The UK single release was postponed until the eve of their first visit to these shores.

It's inevitably the lyrics that catch the attention first on here, all the more so in the knowledge that Brian Wilson was only 22 at the time. He also had yet to marry and had no children, so it's quite likely that he is really asking himself some of those questions: "Will I look back and say that I wish I hadn't done what I did?", and all. It's also very tempting to load in all kinds of retrospective significance to the lines about "Will my kids be proud or think their old man's really a square?" in the light of what we now know about the relationship between the Wilsons and their father, or to relate that cry of "Won't last forever!" in the fade to the fact that Dennis Wilson died before he was forty.
Nonetheless, these lyrics are (as a result of a 1995 court judgement) credited to Mike Love, who sings the first half of each verse. Love doesn't normally seem as introspective a character, and it may well be that he's writing simply in order to appeal to the concerns of a teen audience - you can compare this to the dozens of surf songs on their first three albums, written despite the fact that most of the band weren't really interested in the sport. And no bad thing, that. What really makes this song matter is the arrangement. Brian Wilson, not uniquely in that era, was constantly looking for new sounds to take advantage of the possibilities of the studio. This time around he settled on, of all things, the harpsichord, not a typical part of the rock sound at that time (and not something a rock band could play on stage) but it's the most striking instrumental part here, playing a distinctive melody and lending the song an atmosphere of classicism. Thr rhythm beneath it is complex enough that it took the band (who seem to have played the instruments themselves this time) 37 attempts to get a good enough backing track to dub the harpsichord onto. Well worth the effort, though, and this sort of combination of looking forward and back seems to me very much the essence of what the Beach Boys were about at this stage. Atop that is a very intricate vocal arrangement, most notable for the contrast between Mike Love's low voice and Brian Wilson's falsetto, but also full of clever little details like the group humming "Maa-aan" through the middle section. Indeed, if this record has a flaw it's that there's so much packed into two minutes that it can sound a little crowded in the mono mix. The 1993 box-set includes a remix with vocals and instruments pushed into opposite sides of the stereo spectrum, which wouldn't have been viable for mainstream release but is revelatory (and helpful for researching things like this).

Flipsides are usually outside the remit of the Hit Parade, but I think it's worth putting in a word for 'She Knows Me Too Well', one of my favourite non-single tracks by the band and another example of their growing sophistication.

Official website: Coming soon at apparently. In the meantime, there's and, let's be generous,
YouTube if you want to: Of course we're in the pre-video age here, but their UK television debut on Ready Steady Go includes live performances of this song and 'I Get Around', bisected by a classic slice of Sixties British interview technique. Also, look out for Mike Love emphasising the word "square".
Where To Get It: Both sides of the single ended up on the 1965 Beach Boys Today! album, which is one of the very best they ever put out; some have suggested that in hindsight, the sequence of five slow songs on Side Two resemble a dry run for Pet Sounds. It's currently coupled on CD with the follow-up Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) which is exceedingly patchy but does contain some classics. Has there ever been a really good album with two exclamation marks in the title?
If you prefer the compilation route, the latest to arrive on these shores is Sounds Of Summer, which was unfortunately based around their US chart hits and is consequently full of rubbish tracks from the Eighties, although you do get a bonus DVD. The 2001 Very Best Of offers a more UK-friendly selection of tracks, although the packaging is unimpressive. On the opposie side of the coin, the Good Vibrations box-set is a fascinating mix of hits and rarities. I also tip my hat to Keith Badman's diary of the band's activities from 1961-76, which was a helpful source for this piece.