Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Beach Boys, "California Girls" (1965)

Aug. 7, 1965, #3

"California Girls" appealed to me first for the pro forma geographical name-checking in the lyrics, a version of Chuck Berry's original strategy in "Sweet Little Sixteen," like ticking off boxes on a medical form: "East Coast girls are hip ... Southern girls with the way they talk ... Northern girls with the way they kiss," etc. But it's much more than a lyrical schema that appealed to a 10-year-old. The grand production, which opens so big on the chorus, is hard to miss even across staticky AM radio. Coming at the top of their game, "California Girls" remains one of the absolute best by the Beach Boys. The instrumental section reportedly took 44 takes to get, more evidence for Brian Wilson the mad genius who knew very well exactly what he was doing. What I didn't know until recently is that the song is also partly a result of an LSD experience, Wilson's first trip actually, during which he hammered out much of the musical framework (Mike Love also made contributions, evidently unconnected with LSD). I like "California Girls" for sentimental reasons, because it reminds me a lot of the first summer I spent listening to AM radio, down to specific images and experiences. But it's also a great example of the group's deceptive complexity. Modeled self-consciously on the Drifters' very fine "On Broadway," it's simple enough rock 'n' roll on one level, as filtered through Nik Cohn's concept of the high school years of the early '60s—it's not hard to believe the singer really wished they all could be California girls. But it is also rich with melody, sophistication, and production technique. Like the ocean they lived next to and reflexively exalted, in the fullness of time it beats you down to sand.

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