Reviewed by Robert Iannapollo
Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal, p. 307-309, Vol. 46, No. 2 Fall 2015
Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963. By James B, Murphy. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. 422pp, including multiple appendices, extensive footnotes, photos, bibliography and index. ISBN= 978-0-7864-7365-69
Knowing I was quite the Beach Boys maven, my editor presented me with Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963 by James B. Murphy for review. He wondered what a veterinarian could add to the vast Beach Boys bibliography, as did I. Quite a bit, as it turns out.
The years from the band’s formation in 1961 until the initial banner year of 1963 (the year of three top 10 hits, with their “B” sides also scoring well), has been covered in most bios in a cursory manner at best. Yet it was a very important time for the group in getting their act together (so to speak). The story is a confusing jumble of memories, facts, recording session credits, and concerts. Having occurred over 50 years ago, it gets murkier with every passing year. There are essential questions to be asked about the Beach Boys development. Who exactly was in the first formation of the group that recorded the first single? What were the circumstances that led up to that recording? With who was group mastermind Brian Wilson working when he made his various breakthroughs? These questions and many others are tackled by Murphy, relying in part on previous interviews with a cast of characters that are frequently self-serving: their father/manager Murry Wilson; their initial producer at Capitol records, Nick Venet; and Brian’s early collaborator, Gary Usher, all of whom are dead but have made various conflicting claims about certain incidents and credits. But Murphy has done a lot of his own leg work as well, interviewing a lot of peripheral characters (high school friends, early group members, studio personnel, etc.), digging back into the archives of city and high school newspapers, reproducing ads of concerts and performances, and digging up clips of early performances to study. The result is a substantial piece of work.
Initial chapters provide background on the group members: the Wilson brothers Brian (the eldest and the most musically inclined), Dennis (the unruly middle child who was the only one of the brothers actually to surf), and Carl (the youngest, who would go on to become an adept guitar player and singer in his own right). He also details cousin, lead singer, and early lyricist Mike Love, Al Jardine, a high school friend, and early member David Marks. But Brian is the rightful focus of this story. It was he who was most ambitious about creating music. The Wilsons’ father, Murry, was an autocratic, sometimes abusive parent who was an amateur musician and had written several songs that were subsequently recorded by people like Lawrence Welk (no small personage in those days). He tended to operate on the periphery of the industry but had fostered several relationships that would serve him well in the future when he became de facto manager of the Beach Boys. From a very early age, Brian was fascinated by music, picking out songs at the piano and easily figuring out melody and harmony lines. He was particularly enamored with the Four Freshman, and dissected their vocal arrangements. For one of the pivotal events of Brian’s life, in 1958 for his sixteenth birthday, his dad took him to a nightclub to hear the group. He met and talked with Bob Flanigan, who came away impressed by the young man’s dedication to their music. But that wasn’t Brian’s only musical interest. He also listened to rock and roll and black music stations, absorbing those sounds. He had an interest in folk music as well.
Among the interesting facts Murphy unearths was Brian’s first public performance during a school assembly in March 1960. He assembled a quartet of classmates to sing a song he liked on a Kingston Trio album, “Wreck of the John B.” Murphy even unearthed a photo of the performance, noting that one of the group members borrowed 13-year-old Carl Wilson’s Kay guitar for the performance. As most Beach Boy fans know, six years later he fashioned that song into one of the group’s most creative, complex, and popular singles, “Sloop John B.” This is priceless information and highlighting it demonstrates Murphy’s deep understanding of the creative development of the artist.
Murphy goes into detail about the various recording sessions and is particularly enlightening on the recording of their first release, the track “Surfin’,” recorded for the Candix label. The label was run by friends of Murry Wilson’s, Hite Morgan and his wife Dorinda. Murphy devotes several pages to the obscure recordings Brian did as a solo singer at the behest of Dorinda Morgan (to get decent recordings of her compositions), where Wilson learned about making records. While the Morgans are deceased, Murphy had contact with their son, Bruce, who had preserved many of the documents and recordings. Murphy pored over contracts trying to unweave the tangle of who exactly played and sang on what tracks. Al Jardine left after recording of the “Surfin’” single to go to college. It was a decision he would rue because the single took off, topping the charts in Southern California. Fifteen year old David Marks, a neighbor, replaced Jardine. Marks did very little recording with the band and whenever Jardine was available Brian would invite him to sessions to flesh out the harmonies and instrumentation. When they got to Capitol, Brian was able to use session musicians for his tracks. This was especially helpful since brother Dennis was a less than optimum drummer. Brian knew what he wanted and after recording their first album (Surfin’ Safari), Capitol in-house rock producer Nick Venet, eventually relinquished the reins of production over to him. Venet still retained credit on the cover.
There was much head-butting between then-manager Murry Wilson and the Capitol brass, causing various problems, which is satisfactorily detailed from multiple perspectives by Murphy. Murphy does not shy away from delineating the negative impact of Murry – especially vis-a-vis the band and its dealings with band outsiders – but he doesn’t dwell on these negatives as so many other books do. He also mentions the positive impact Murry had in certain instances.
There’s a lot to recommend this book. Murphy’s writing style is engaging and entertaining, not an easy thing to do when delving into the minutiae of music. The best book on the Beach Boys’ music is still ARSC Award-winning Inside the Music of Brian Wilson by Philip Lambert, but Becoming The Beach Boys, while maintaining a different focus, is a close second. And that, in a nutshell, is what a veterinarian can do to add substantially to Beach Boys literature. Reviewed by Robert Iannapollo