Welcome to Beach Boys Week, in celebration of #94 in the 33 1/3 series, Beach Boys’ Smile by Luis Sanchez (out now!). This time around, Sanchez looks at the relationship between the band and comedy.
A Beach Boy walks into a bar…
There’s a peculiar moment captured during a Beach Boys studio session outtake that you can find on the 1996 Pet Sounds Sessions boxed set. It punctuates a break between takes for the instrumental track for “Hang On To Your Ego.” The session sounds like it’s going well enough—musicians are on task, following Brian Wilson’s instructions, no funny business. Then, as if to break the stern studio energy, Brian, in an exaggerated hipster patois, blurts out, “Just relax, me and this other cat are gonna straighten you guys out, then, we’ll get, you know, wooorld peace!” That he doesn’t really get a laugh doesn’t make the joke less intriguing, though. He goes on to enthuse over the source of the quip—an obscure 1959 comedy album, How to Speak Hip, by Del Close and comic John Brent. “Has anybody ever heard it? Oh, it’s funny!” Brian pronounces.
What’s intriguing isn’t so much that How to Speak Hip—a well-crafted parody of hipster slang and mindset, presented as a language lesson for squares—is a funny album if you seek it out and have a listen, but the little known ways in which Brian’s staunch appreciation for the power of humor revealed itself in various creative projects throughout his career.
If Smile was partly an attempt to make laughter a metaphor for Americana, the impulse behind that attempt revealed itself in some peculiar ways. In fact, Brian had been experimenting with idiosyncratic modes of humor in his studio productions as early as 1963. Not all of these side projects came together as well as his straightforward pop productions, but they are indicative of a strong sensitivity to the art of making people laugh.
So, in an attempt to shed some light on this aspect of Brian Wilson’s body of work, I’ve compiled some miscellaneous examples that I think, in one way or another, illustrate the idiosyncratic style and dimension of his humor, and maybe trigger a laugh.
According to Beach Boys chronicler, Keith Badman, this odd surf-guitar instrumental was recorded in January 1963 at Hollywood’s Western Recorders as a sort of precursor to the sessions for the Surfin’ USA album. It was one of the first studio sessions in which Brian and the Beach Boys were allowed to record as a group outside of Capitol’s in-house studio. Built around a jaunty organ part, a twangy guitar solo, and some outrageous howls of laughter, the track is all lusty energy and utter nonsense. The track’s title implies some kind of joke, but I have no idea what it could be. Still, there is something irreducibly amusing about the sound of the Beach Boys’ unfettered cackling.
“I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man”
The penultimate track on side two of the Beach Boys’ 1965 album, Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), “I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man” is one of the wryest songs the group ever recorded. If there was ever any doubt that the deeply troubled relationship between Murry Wilson and his sons had a profound effect on the Beach Boys’ creative self-determination, this song gave tangible voice to that dysfunction, and did it with humor.
“Psycodelic Sounds: Brian Falls Into A Piano, Brian Falls Into A Microphone”
In November 1966, Brian told UK pop music newspaper, New Musical Express, that the imminent untitled Beach Boys album would “include lots of humor—some musical and some spoken. It won’t be a comedy LP—there won’t be any spoken tracks as such—but someone might say something in between verses.” These eccentric pieces of comedy were recorded that same month at the end of a session for the song “Surf’s Up,” presumably sketch ideas of what Brian had conceived to be an important component of Smile. The premise is that Brian gets trapped inside piano, and then inside a studio microphone, and tries to get out with the help of friends Danny Hutton, Michael Vosse, and Van Dyke Parks. Oddly, the real humor of the routine doesn’t spring from its premise, which feels somewhat strained, but from Brian’s clear commitment to making it work.
“Teeter Totter Love”
With the help of friend David Anderle, Brian and the Beach Boys started a label called Brother Records in late 1966. Much like the Beatles’ Apple Corps., which came later, the label was implemented as an outlet for unconventional creative projects that would’ve been commercially unviable for the Beach Boys’ primary label, Capitol. Recorded in January 1967, but never commercially released, “Teeter Totter Love” was among the first projects produced under Brother Records. For a love song built around a puerile lyric, it’s nevertheless one of the most hysterical things Brian ever recorded. The vocal is provided by photographer, Jasper Dailey, a man employed to document the Smile recording sessions. The genesis of the song itself is a little murky, but what’s clear is that Brian was serious about the production, employing some of the same crack session musicians that he used on the Smile sessions. The juxtaposition of Dailey’s ham-handed singing against the simple arrangement evokes a comical stupor the likes of which I hear nowhere else in Brian’s music.
Beach Boys’ Smile is available on Amazon, at Bloomsbury.com, or wherever 33 1/3s are sold.