If you get into Beach Boys fandom, you’ll read and hear a lot about “the California Myth.” This phrase comes from The Beach Boys And The California Myth, the groundbreaking book on the group by David Leaf that redefined their group and their appeal for a post-modern rock audience. It refers to the fantasy destination that the group created in their songs, a place where the teenager was king and the kingdom consisted of surfing, drag racing and romance on the beach. This glorious illusion is a big part of what keeps fans coming back, an illustration of the power of music to create a secret world that fans want to endlessly revisit.
All Summer Long is the last studio album of the Beach Boys’ first, most innocent phase as recording artists: Wilson would start experimenting with drugs and experimenting with his formula on the next album, a path that would lead him to the triumph of Pet Sounds before ending all too soon with the soul-shattering implosion of the Smile sessions.
All Summer Long also happens to be the best album of that first Beach Boys era. By this point, resident surf-pop auteur Brian Wilson had mastered his approach to the group’s sun & fun subject matter and infused it with an unexpected emotional depth. As a result, the songs presented here represents his most cohesive and definitive portrait of the California Myth.
Indeed, All Summer Long is full of tight yet lushly-textured songs that are staples on Beach Boys compilations. The title track, later immortalized as the end credits music of American Graffiti, offers a travelogue of California teen fun — amusement parks, hot rodding, miniature golf and, of course, visits to the beach. The breakneck trip through these destinations becomes transcendent when gorgeous, interlocking layers of vocal harmony are applied. A similar vocal approach is pursued on “The Girls On The Beach,” a portrait of surfside beauty where the harmonies soar in an intoxicating manner that sells the loveliness of the titular ladies.
The loveliness of those highlights is balanced by other classics that have a more rhythmic, propulsive approach. “I Get Around” captures teenage restlessness and the desire for new experiences with a clever, stunningly complex mix of an instrumental track brimming with tricky rhythmic frills and fast-moving waves of vocal harmony that “accelerate” higher from one key to the next on the chorus. Driving around is also a concern on “Little Honda,” a taut little pop rocker where the harmonies perform a similar “acceleration” trick over a track built on a staccato hook doubled on bass and guitar. Even the ballad theme of “Wendy” is propelled by tumbling drum fills and tautly strummed rhythm guitars.
Even the tracks that are obviously filler have their charms. For example, guitar-driven instrumental “Carl’s Big Chance” is the kind of twangy guitar showcase that would have fit in on an early 1960’s Ventures album and “Our Favorite Recording Sessions” adds a bit of amusing goofball fun that fits in nicely with the thread of locker-room humor that runs through the Beach Boys discography. Neither of these fillers overstay their welcome like similar tracks did on Shut Down Vol. II and the album’s sense of balance between ballad, rockers and tongue-in-cheek fun shows how rapidly Wilson was coming to terms with the idea of an album as a tool of musical expression.
Finally, it’s worth noting that All Summer Long stands head-and-shoulders at the top of the early Beach Boys album stack because of how impressive it sounds. Wilson’s secret weapon, engineer Chuck Britz, gets a bold, detailed sound for Wilson that lends clarity to the mix of rhythm-section punch and vocal-harmony lushness he was going for. Wilson lives up to the skillful recording quality by taking advantage of it with intricate arrangements at both the instrumental and vocal levels: the instrumental track for “I Get Around” is a stop-start marvel packed with ornately-interlocking hooks and surprise left-turns while the cover of doo-wop favorite “Hushabye” retains the passion of the song’s original street-corner harmony style while opening it up to a choir-size level of vocal stacking and harmonic richness. For a pop album aimed at teenagers, Wilson managed to create a surprisingly intricate feast for the ears here.
In short, All Summer Long is the perfect closing chapter for the Beach Boys’ early era: it shows a mastery of the hot-rod and surf pop idioms that the group helped kicked off while showing a complexity in vocal and instrumental textures that hints at the glories yet to come. The next phase would see Wilson pushing his group’s sound into more grandiose and baroque directions. Neither the Beach Boys — nor American pop music itself — would ever be this sweetly innocent again. As a result, All Summer Long has become a bittersweet treasure from an era when pop music was ambitious enough to sustain a dream as big as the California Myth.