By: Gary Pig Gold
Few would argue that along with ELVIS' CHRISTMAS ALBUM and Phil Spector's A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU, THE BEACH BOYS CHRISTMAS ALBUM is certainly one of the quintessential holiday albums of the rock era. On that album you not only get five great original -- and timeless -- Brian Wilson melodies, but a rare glimpse at an era when the "down to Earth" Beach Boys Sound dominated the music charts.
I can still picture Brian, in his bright shiny '64 Grand Prix, cruising down Hawthorne Boulevard and pulling into the Foster's Freeze while he hums an idea for a new song. That song, "Little Saint Nick," would fascinate us through the 1963 Christmas season, and continues to delight us thirty-five years later.
These evocative words of wisdom come from one Frederick Vail of Nashville, Tennessee. Not just your usual, run-of-the-pier Beach Boy Freak, he absolutely knows of what he speaks. For you see, way back in '63 a nineteen- year-old Fred took a chance on a little-known family combo from hicky Hawthorne, California and hired them to play at a teen dance he was throwing up in far-flung Sacramento. So successful was this, and then future Beach Boy shows he staged that Fred eventually became the band's exclusive concert promoter, was later promoted to their overall business manager ...and today can be found hob-nobbing amongst ex-Presidents and assorted country music glitteratia from his office high atop Music City, USA.
Mr. Vail and I were talking about the marvelous new ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS ALBUM, part of Capitol Records' on-going revitalization of their extensive Beach Boys back catalog, and it got me thinking: Why do apparently rational-thinking music lovers the world over often think first of those Southern California, stripe-shirted, "surfing Doris Days" (as Brian's longest-lasting fill-in Bruce Johnston once remarked) rather than throw Bing, Bowie, Santa or even the aforementioned Elvis onto their Yuletide disc player?
Well, truth be told, it turns out some people don't automatically conjure sand, sun 'n' surf along with their snow and sleigh bells: I was just in Europe, and I'd rather listen to the Yobs than the Beach Boys' Xmas LP, Canadian rock historian and record collector extrordinaire Imants Krumins told me in no uncertain terms. In a somewhat similar vein, original Mother of Invention (and veteran ground beef connoisseur) Don Preston cryptically insists The only reason I would rather listen to the Beach Boys this Christmas would be if I lived in Kentucky. Hmmm. Okay.
Then there's the one and only Dick "King of the Surf Guitar" Dale, who wasted no time at all letting me know that he'd, and I quote, rather listen to dick dale this December 25th. Bah Humbug, I say to that!
(by the way, like e.e. cummings, Mr. Dale never uses the Upper Case button when firing off late-night E-mails) (and, like Bob Dole, Dick always seems to refer to himself in the third person these days. Just thought you might like to know).
Still others I polled seemed confused when I asked them why they'd rather be listening to The Beach Boys this Christmas: The question does not say rather than WHAT. Do you mean rather than Christmas songs, or rather than ANYTHING? pondered New York City's legendary anti-folksinger Lach. Still, he admitted that I can't think of anything much more romantic than lying beneath the tree beside yer sweetheart on Christmas Eve with "Put Your Head On My Shoulder" playing in the background.
Wait a minute...now I'm confused! Is Lach referring here to PET SOUNDS exquisite "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)," or just that sappy old Paul Anka tune? I think I'll have to wait til next Christmas to find out, if you wouldn't mind.
Meanwhile, author / musician / producer / all-round audio Yule log Billy James, aka Your Ant Bee, remarked that it's their spiritual direction that I find amusing. I mean, that soulful voice of Ray Collins, that intense blowing from Bunk Gardner, those beautiful harmonies of Roy Estrada, and that furious rhythm from Jimmy Carl Black, yes they are ...wait a minute. Did you say Beach Boys? Oh! I thought you said the FUGS! [sic, I'm assuming] Sorry - forget what I just said. Umm...Done!
Curiously, I discovered that the two most well respected champions of the B.Boy-inspired Power Pop Movement (both of whom ironically reside these days near B. Wilson's actual SoCal stompin' grounds) for some odd reason each equated THE BEACH BOYS CHRISTMAS ALBUM with that venerable Noel beverage of choice ?yet did so far from favorably, I hasten to add: I'd rather listen to the Beach Boys this Christmas because eggnog sucks! insists auteur John M. Borack, while his pal-in-all-things-pop David Bash wasted no time in concurring I like the Beach Boys a whole lot better than eggnog. Well then! Let us hope this disturbing e-nog backlash does not continue to infest the once-nothing-but-friendly Pure Pop scene, for remember: Brian himself was seen chugging veritable cartons of the sticky sweet nectar while directing those landmark PET SOUNDS vocal sessions, y'know!
Away from the refrigerator, others seemed to opt for the Boys only because of the paucity of jingley alternatives, musically speaking. The reason I would rather listen to the Beach Boys this Christmas is because it beats hearing that crappy muzak they play in the malls, says Beverly Paterson of "Twist And Shake" Magazine. And they're TONS better than Kenny G! No argument there. I'd rather listen to The Beach Boys this Christmas because it beats surfin' on heroin! declares fellow zine-meister Jaimie Vernon of Canada's "Great White Noise" rag. (and no, Jaimie does not, nor has he ever, hung ten with the dreaded Mr. H, I'll have you know. He's only providing us with a sly reference to the Forgotten Rebels' classic, though far-from-Yule-y beachtune "Surfin' On Heroin.") (Honest!)
Meanwhile, Jaimie's proud fellow Canadian Coyote Shivers has the ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS disc in his ears cuz the alternative seems to be stupid carols for inane children (true enough), while New York City scribe Mark Keating writes Q. Why would I rather listen to the Beach Boys this Xmas? A: Because I'd rather find a surfer girl under my tree than Alanis Morissette! You and how many millions of others out there right about now, I'm wondering.
Yes, from inside, outside, USA the answers flooded in favor of The Beach Boys over more current flavors-of-the-month: KISS didn't use any sleigh bells on their new release, reveals Pat Meusel of Sony Music Nashville. They're a lot better than Marilyn Manson (Walter Ocner of Boston), You can have your Celines and Babs and Mariahs: Just gimme my Boys! (someone calling himself "Porky Pig, of Windy City, USA," which I bet means Chicago) ?why, legendary "Pig Paper" photog John J. Pinto even rose to take a chip off the ol' Wall of Sound Itself with this decidedly bold declaration: I'll be listening to the Beach Boys this Christmas because every year the sound of Phil Spector's voice on A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR YOU messes me up so badly that I need a dose of close harmony to save the day. Mr. Spector's attorneys will be on the phone by tomorrow morning I should imagine, John.
The Kenny Rogers Christmas album makes me want to buy a machine gun, and that's not good, admits David Ribyat of Hoboken's own Tennessee Tuxedo combo, while his erstwhile bandmate Elizabeth Walsh confesses she likes to play along with the Beach Boys on the piano inside my giant sandbox. Keep the cats at the other end of the house is about all I can say about that. Others I quizzed duly recognized the profound and continuing influence Brian Wilson casts over most each and every note played and sung out there to this day, regardless of the time of year: Two of my favorite bands, The Dukes of Stratosphear and The Pretty Things, have absorbed Beach Boy influences into their music, Tina Max of "Noise" Magazine points out, while the East Coast's reigning King of Pop, Scott Finter, duly realizes The Beach Boys offer something rarely heard these days: Great songs, strong hooks, and outstanding harmonies. Spoken like a true disciple of the immediate post-Kennedy era! Now pass that eggnog, would you?
Still, when all is said and sung, after the tree's been pulled down and the tube-sock and underwear gift sets have all been returned to the exchange counter, it's very safe to say anyone unwrapping The Beach Boys' ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS this month will be enjoying it far into the coming New Year ?as well as throughout many, many new years to come. Brian Wilson's magic music really does seem immune to the ravages of time and season, and his brotherly way with a vocal refrain truly has become just as at home atop the ski slopes or under the mistletoe as it is inside a Huntington Beach waterwall.
But for me, it was one Kerneels Breytenbach, General Manager of Human & Rousseau Publishers in far-off Cape Town, South Africa who said it best of all, and so very simply and elegantly at that (just like Brian's best songs always do):
I'd rather be listening to the Beach Boys this Christmas because, as was the case these last 33 years, there is no other feasible alternative to get closer to heaven.
Amen. Merry Christmas, everybody!