Tag Archives: brian wilson

136) The Beach Boys – “Help Me, Rhonda”

Since we last checked in with Brian Wilson, his ambition has expanded beyond arranging intricate vocal harmonies over more-or-less standard surf-pop to constructing majestic pop symphonies to rival the Wall of Sound. “Help Me, Ronda” (as it was then spelled) first appeared on the 1965 album The Beach Boys Today! as an overstudied emulation of the Philles Records style. There’s Latin percussion and semi-unusual instruments (ukulele, saxophones, harmonica), vocals swathed in echo, and volume levels that fade in and out, but the pieces feel jumbled without Phil Spector’s intuitive sense of order. Perhaps realizing he’d gotten ahead of himself a bit, Wilson rerecorded “Help Me, Rhonda” for single release in a more straightforward, slightly more uptempo version. But while “Rhonda” doesn’t have the showiness of “Ronda,” it’s a far more immediate record. “Rhonda” launches straight into Al Jardine’s lead vocal with no introduction, bouncing along from there on an insistent tambourine beat. A brief guitar solo replaces an undercooked harmonica break. The harmonies are now tighter and more melodic; Mike Love’s bass “bow-bow-bow-bow” adds an extra hook.

This newfound sense of urgency keeps “Help Me, Rhonda” fresh and vital, yearning with the pangs of young lust. Our narrator sketches a story of heartbreak, but frankly neither Jardine nor the rest of the band sound all that broken up about it. It’s a pretty good come-on, though, one that makes him look sensitive and vulnerable while also appealing to her vanity, making her believe that she’s the only girl who could possibly save him from his misery. Meanwhile, the rest of the Boys are gazing soulfully in her eyes, cooing “come on, Rhonda,” don’t you see how down this kid is, if you really liked him etc. We never find out how sympathetic Rhonda is (though what girl could resist a line like “I know it wouldn’t take much time”!), but that doesn’t matter. “Help Me, Rhonda” isn’t about getting the girl; it’s about wanting the girl, and the euphoria of anticipation. Every element on the single slots neatly into place, with none of the clutter of the Today! version. Wilson’s still experimenting with dynamics, for instance, but now the crescendo into the chorus soars because it has a purpose: to signify the flood of desire overtaking our narrator. With the new “Help Me, Rhonda,” Wilson modifies Spector’s lessons to his own ends, creating a style that emulates the intensity of adolescent emotions but feels a little less grandiose, a little more rock and roll. 8

Hit #1 on May 29, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
136 of 1009 #1’s reviewed; 13.48% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 08, 1965

112) The Beach Boys – “I Get Around”

With the exception of Peter & Gordon (and The Beatles themselves), all of the number-ones after “I Want to Hold Your Hand” were by American musicians: Louis Armstrong, Mary Wells, The Dixie Cups.  But it’s “I Get Around” that is commonly misremembered (at least among the sources I read) as the record that finally deposed The Beatles from atop the charts.  It does make for a nice narrative.  After all, The Beach Boys were the ultimate embodiment of the fruits of post-war American society: increased leisure time, the development of driving culture (including hot rods), and the emergence of the teenagers as a distinct demographic.  Add to that their tans and sun-bleached hair, their button-ups and white pants, their familial bond, their patriotism and school chauvinism – The Beach Boys were the golden boys, the all-American alternative to the pasty, foreign, working-class Beatles.  That “I Get Around” started its run at the top on the Fourth of July was poetic justice.

It’s also tempting to remember The Beach Boys as chart successors to The Beatles due to the rivalry and cross-pollination of ideas between the two bands through the mid-‘60s.  Paul McCartney has stated that Sgt Pepper’s was a response to Pet Sounds, which in turn was Brian Wilson’s attempt to out-do Rubber Soul.  But in 1964, The Beatles were just another stumbling block keeping The Beach Boys from being the top group in America.  Before the British Invasion, The Beach Boys played second fiddle to The Four Seasons.  Then Brian Wilson gave away “Surf City,” the song that would be number one, to Jan & Dean.  Yet this frustration would also drive the group – Wilson, specifically – to ramp up their ambitions.

On its surface, “I Get Around” follows the same formula as previous Beach Boys hits: lyrics about California kids busting up the weekend; complexly-layered five-part harmonies; reverb-heavy surf guitar.  But “I Get Around” is even more meticulously constructed than anything the group had tried yet.  The record sticks to standard rock and roll instruments, with none of the strings or brass favored by Wilson’s idol Phil Spector.  The Beach Boys’ Wall of Sound instead derives from the power of their vocals. Instead of wading in with a standard introduction, the song begins a capella – albeit with harmonies so precisely arranged that other instrumentation would be redundant.  And rather than Spector’s full-bore instrumentation, Wilson focused on creating a depth of sound.  The rhythm section fluctuates in and out over the course of the song.  Guitar lines get doubled on bass, then organ.  Keys shift between verses.  Then, seemingly at random, the introduction drops back in to the middle of the song.  Of course, that random recurrence is actually the recapitulation, part of the sonata form and an essential warm-up for composing a “teenage symphony to God.” But while “I Get Around” adheres to classical music structure, the fluidity of the arrangement creates twists and turns that keeps the song fresh and exciting and not at all unlike the mood swings and short attention spans of adolescence.

“I Get Around” was The Beach Boys’ first number-one, but in many ways it’s a transitional record. Before the year’s end, Brian Wilson would have a nervous breakdown and retire from touring to focus his obsessive tendencies in the studio.  The cars and surfboards that had dominated the lyrics of the group’s early hits would fade away, while the vocal and instrumental arrangements would become ever more elaborate and experimental.   The Beatles, too, would evolve from rock and roll revivalists to sophisticated musicians with avant garde tendencies; they would play their last concert in 1966. While “I Want to Hold Your Hand” boldly announced itself as a record to change pop, “I Get Around” subtly presaged the metamorphosis of ’60s music: the frivolity of “rock and roll” would become the art of “rock.” 8

Hit #1 on July 4, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
112 of 983 #1’s reviewed; 11.39% through the Hot 100

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94) Jan & Dean – “Surf City”

As wicked as the snarl of a surf guitar sounds on an instrumental, I’ve never been able to embrace songs about surfing.  My beach-going is limited to childhood summer trips to the placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Even if I had grown up within commuting distance of the Pacific Ocean, though, my wussiness, fair skin and distaste for/fear of popular people ensured that surfing would not have been one of my chosen pursuits.   Surfing was reserved for beautiful teenagers thousands of miles, and maybe even a few decades, away.

Of course, Brian Wilson didn’t surf either.  Neither did most Beach Boys fans, I’d wager.  But Wilson’s genius (well, one of his geniuses) was recognizing what surfing represented to millions of landlocked young people: endless summers, freedom from parents, girls in bikinis.  The premier statement of surfing as metaphor for teenage paradise is “Surf City,” a track Wilson co-wrote with Beach Boys tourmates Jan & Dean.  The lyrics detail the few things every guy could dream of: a set of wheels, a surfboard and “two girls for every boy.”  This last item seems particularly necessary, as it’s repeated several times throughout the verse and chorus.  That Surf City’s male-favorable ratio garners far more mentions than surfing does just proves the analogy of surfing is more important than the activity itself.

But it isn’t just the lyrical content that’s reminiscent of Wilson’s work with The Beach Boys.  Jan & Dean’s falsetto vocals were supplemented with backing singers to approximate the other band’s melodically-shifting, multi-part harmonies.  The resulting effect is somewhat eerie: a Beach Boys #1 before the Beach Boys actually had a #1.  Yet “Surf City” also works on its own terms as the feel-good hit of the summer – even if that summer is far away from any beach. 6

Hit #1 on July 20, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
94 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 9.63% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 06, 1963