VARIOUS ARTISTS: Guess I'm Dumb
The Songs of the Beach Boys (Castle/Sanctuary UK)
By: Jonathan Donaldson
After seriously digging my copy of Castle/Sanctuary's corny but brilliant compilation Goin Back-The Songs of Goffin/King, which features obscure 60s British acts doing equally rare Carole King songs, I was psyched when I got my hands on this UK Beach Boys covers disc to discover that it embodies the identical concept. In this case, we have a CD full of versions of Beach Boys songs recorded back in the day by contemporary but lesser UK recording artists from Immediate (Rolling Stones' manager Andrew "Loog" Oldham's label), PYE (Joe Meek, The Kinks), and Piccadilly (probably some of the cheesiest British music ever recorded). Compared to the other two or three Beach Boys covers albums, filled with cuts by modern recording artists, (like Marina's Caroline Now or the superior Japanese Smiling Pets), Guess I'm Dumb is full of covers that were actually licensed in the U.K. and recorded with the hopes of being radio hits at the same time in which the Beach Boys were in their prime (most of these recordings are from '64-'66).
It has been said, at least on American soil, that there would be more Beach Boys covers, but it was just too hard for people to pull off the signature vocals. In fact, the title song of this CD, "Guess I'm Dumb," (written by Brian Wilson as a thank-you to touring Beach Boy Glen Campbell in 1965) had such an ambitious melody that Campbell, one of the best singers in the business, was nearly unable to complete the cut. In at least one other notable case, The Beach Boys strategically prevented other artists from scoring hits with their tunes. This was when Gary Usher, set to release his version of the campy "Help Me Rhonda" in '65, was beat to the punch by The Beach Boys who rushed to re-record their own song to ensure that they would have the latest and greatest possible version ever. The key word is "rush" here, because that's how things were done back then. Imagine that in 1963 alone, The Beach Boys released an astounding 4 long playing albums (and I assure you, they are not all good)!
Contemporary renderings of Beach Boys tunes are less valuable documents than those presented here for several reasons. First because they have been informed two or three extra decades of painstaking musical discovery and history. Pop musicians these days are simply more educated on the technical aspects of music then they were back then (when all you needed was three chords and the truth) and many today approach The Beach Boys like a history class. Therefore, understanding the complexity of the chords and harmonies is much easier now than in the past. You can even learn about them On-line. You can also find out exactly what instruments and microphones were used, what techniques were used to create certain sounds, etc. It's all been documented. Another factor which makes modern renditions less valuable then old renditions is that it is more commonplace now for musicians to engage in year-long, mistake-free recording projects, compared to back in the day, things were recorded more hastily (and that exact hastiness led directly to the unique quality of many songs). Lastly, renderings of Beach Boys songs done by today's artists are done for pure tribute value, at the hobby level if you will, and experimentation is encouraged. There is no expectation that anybody is going to actually score a hit with any of the material.
British music was extremely bad before The Beatles hit in 1963, especially compared to American music, which was great. Even after The Beatles hit, there was a lot of shite on the UK charts. Remember lame white dudes like Pat Boone doing Little Richard songs. Now make that lame white dude English. It's even worse when it's a lame white chick taking a crack at anything with any soul. Generally speaking, these British versions of Beach Boys songs are extremely cheesy. Think of Carnaby Street, disgustingly furry sideburns, babydoll dresses, and purple velvet and you're there. Keep in mind that The Beach Boys were in ways more popular in England than they were in America, especially during the era of Pet Sounds, in 1966, when The Beach Boys edged The Beatles out of the 'favorite vocal group' category in a Melody Maker poll (for some reason, such things mattered back then).
This collection scores the highest points so far above all the other Beach Boys covers albums because it represents what the world of music felt about The Beach Boys when they were still thought of as a sensation and a hit machine; before Brian Wilson lost his marbles, before Mike Love embarrassed the world, before the independent rock scene went Smile-crazy. This is the Beach Boys worth paying attention to: the hits from '64-'66. Plus these versions are still recorded in the age of the oldie with all of the charm and innocence associated with the pop music of that era.
I hate to say that the cheesiness of the material itself becomes very obvious after listening to the first few tunes on this collection. I admit, The Beach Boys are my favorite group, but I had to fall in love with them, or have faith in them if you will, before I could past some of the cheesiness of their themes, both lyrically and perhaps more importantly, musically. As if the cars and the hot-dogs aren't bad enough, The Beach Boys music is filled with indulgent strains of doo-wop ridiculousness, glass-breaking barbershop bits, and overtly ambitious if not awkward or odd musical perforations. In the hands of somebody who doesn't know exactly what is going on, this can lead to some pretty paltry results. If anything, it can show how other professional (albeit pop) musicians simply could not figure out how to copy The Beach Boys music, let alone the coveted wall-of-sound production technique (which Brain Wilson learned from listening to and watching Phil Spector at Gold-Star Studios). And Rock & Roll is supposed to be easy, baby! Therefore, the title of this CD, Guess I'm Dumb, is rather appropriate for the singers, musicians, and engineers that tried their hands at the Beach Boys catalogue.
From the early Beach Boys catalogue, Piccadilly artists The Factotums deliver a passable "In My Room" with a clipped fade that shows a reluctance to even attempt an imitation of Brian Wilson's gorgeously smooth falsetto. Likewise, a rendition of "You're so Good to Me" makes the grade instrument for instrument, vocal for vocal, but simply falls flat. Failed ventures like this make one realize just how much of the magic of the Beach Boys music is due to the signature production technique...something not one of these Brits gets right. The Ivy League's "Don't Worry Baby" offers a touchingly inept and slightly more soul-geared take at one of The Beach Boys most endearing hits. As a devout fan, I'd swear that this version milks a little magic out of the original that even Brian and gang missed.
Petula Clark's French version of "No Go Showboat" ("J'ai Pas les Temps") turns a humorously strange American rock & roll clunker into a humorously strange French pop lemon. Perfect. Likewise, Immediate artists Tony Rivers and the Castaways drop a dud version of the already lame "Salt Lake City," and in turn attempt to foolishly soup-up the glorious "Girl Don't Tell Me" with corny harmonies and embellishments. A lampooned imitation of Beach Boy Mike Love's signature bass voice and a fade-out lifted straight from The Four Seasons' "Walk Like a Man" show what the world really thought of the Beach Boys' sound and style at the time. However, the Castaways redeem themselves with a scorching version of "The Girl from New York City." Picking-up on a Stones influence that the Beach Boys own version tucks away discretely, the Castaways offer more raucous vocals and a big emphasis on the reverb-laden guitar hook that makes this song so great. (The Stones' Brian Jones in turn was a big fan of the Beach Boys, at one time even attempting to cut "I Get Around." Their 1968 classic "Street Fightin' Man" lifts a giant bass hook directly from "The Girl from New York City")
Transitioning to mid-period Beach Boys, Dani Sheradan's spineless effort on the stunning "Guess I'm Dumb" only makes original singer Glenn Campbell's fine reading of this complicated vocal more authoritative. The backing track however is fantastically accurate in full Bacharachian detail, missing only the heart-stopping complexity of Brian Wilson's brass arrangement. Two so-so versions of the surreally complex pre- Pet Sounds single "The Little Girl I Once Knew" are a great testament to the songs' mysteriously wide appeal. Both versions struggle to pay dutiful attention to the composition with the far superior being by Ireland's Freshman (on Pye), who highlight their take with a bubblegum vocal approach and succinctly punchy rhythm track reminiscent of the Move. Incidentally, the Freshman use a chipper drum fill to rectify what 1965 US radio considered to be the original "Little Girl's" main flaw, repeated sections of eight beats of silence. Personally I think that the aforementioned drum break played the scapegoat for the failure of this song because DJays and fans were hesitant to acknowledge that the disturbingly complex vocals were bugging them out.
From Pet Sounds, the Factotums embarrass themselves with "Here Today." With repeated listens, it sounds more like something that could have been recorded on a bedroom 4-track during the early 90s lo-fi movement (by Apples in Stereo, Eliott Smith, etc.), and for this alone some might want to hear it. "I'm Waiting for the Day" gets a rudimentary treatment from Peanut, who from what I gather was kind of a British equivalent of Little Eva ("The Locomotion"). It seems thankfully that at least some people had good sense to not deem Pet Sounds the end of the Beach Boys commercial potential, because they were certainly doing their best to get these versions onto the charts. In the case of Peanut's example though, it seems that a paint-by-numbers interpretation of a song as amazingly complex as "Waiting for the Day" was simply not good enough. Envision Schroeder playing "Jingle Bells" for Lucy in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, and you'll get the picture.
Two fabulous snapshots of "God Only Knows," one an instrumental version, the other by soul diva PP Arnold, are disc highlights. The instrumental version (by Sounds Orchestra) delivers the strings and the spiraling feel of the original faithfully, with an organ delivering the lead vocal melody. The last verse is delivered with a camped-up jazz piano that I think Brian Wilson would have enjoyed considering (as fans of the Pet Sounds Sessions box-set can attest to) that he was toying with the idea of a dramatic saxophone solo in the place of the vocal dalliance that he ended up using towards the end of his original. PP Arnold's "God Only Knows" is deliciously brilliant...delivered with a more deliberately rocking beat than the playful skip and snap of the original. In handling the vocal break at the end of the song with her lone set of pipes, she matches the Beach Boys passionate breath for passionate breath. Arnold's version confirms what a powerful vehicle the Beach Boys music can be for a female singer.
On this note, The Paper Dolls' (Piccadilly) sugar-dipped delivery of "Darlin" could only be second to Carl Wilson's own fantastic original vocal. "Darlin" was originally cut in 1964 as the Brian Wilson production "Thinking 'bout you Baby" by California girl group Sharon and Marie before being retooled by the Boys for inclusion on their wonderful '68 LP Wild Honey. For this reason, the girl group impression just makes sense. The Paper Dolls swank-up the more deliberate horns of the original, provide life-less back-ups, and add the line "my groovy guy" to create a truly hokey period piece; a trapping cleverly avoided in the more timeless Beach Boys original.
Castle/Sanctuary cheats by lengthening this CD with a bunch of irrelevant recordings that they must've had the licensing rights to. These are versions of songs that the Beach Boys covered...not the original versions of those songs mind you (which would have been forgivable) but concordant versions of those songs by British artists. Most are horribly irrelevant, the exception being "I Wanna Go Home" by Lonnie Donnegan, which is essentially the Kingston Trio version of "Sloop John B" that Al Jardine suggested the Beach Boys cover on Pet Sounds. Otherwise, annoyances such as "Papa Oom Mow Mow," and "The Man with all the Toys" from The Beach Boys Christmas Album pump up the cheese factor to near Limburger levels.