Surfer Girl was the third album for the Beach Boys but it’s where the magic really begins for this group. It represents the first time that Brian Wilson was allowed to assume sole production responsibilities on a Beach Boys album. Freed up to follow his muse, he’d quickly develop the group’s basic “surf and drag” formula into something amazing.
It also consolidated Wilson’s collaboration with his most important collaborator from this era, engineer Chuck Britz. He’s the unsung hero of the classic Beach Boys period, a gifted technician whose recording smarts and dedication made it possible for Wilson to put the sounds in his head onto tape. You can hear the fruits of the Wilson/Britz collaboration immediately in the album’s lead-off cut, the famous title track. This ode to surfside romance glides out of the speakers like a daydream in musical form, an elaborately woven tapestry of ebb-and-flow harmonies that draw the listener into the lyrics’ mix of love and uncertainty. Wilson tops it off with a stunning lead vocal that works his tenor and falsetto ranges with dreamy grace.
And that’s just the beginning of the strong material tucked away in the grooves of this album. The spiritual side of the Beach Boys comes into view with “In My Room,” a tribute to solitude and reflection whose lyrical maturity stands out amidst all the sun and fun fare here. Surfer Girl also sports two key drag rock tunes. The first is “Little Deuce Coupe,” a charmer that sets its playful tone with a rollicking groove from Wilson on the piano and a thick bed of vocal harmonies that gently soar during the verses to prop up Mike Love’s swaggering lead vocal before flowering into an elaborate multi-part harmony at chorus time, complete with dove-tailing bass and falsetto lines.
The other killer car song is “Our Car Club,” one of the first Beach Boy tracks to use studio musicians – Hal Blaine on drums and Steve Douglas and Jay Migliori on saxophones. All three were regular Phil Spector sidemen and they really beef up the sound on this track, with Blaine adding half-jazz/half-tribal drum tattoos to punctuate the song and the Douglas/Migliori sax section doubling the bass lines. The resulting track is really dynamic, including a great bridge where the backing “swaggers” to match the bravado of the lyrics. It showcases a new level of sophistication in instrumental arrangement for Wilson, something he would carry to greater heights on each album through the Pet Sounds/Smile era.
Elsewhere, Wilson elaborates on his surf-song formula by adding interesting frills to flesh them out: “Catch A Wave” conjures up a musical reflection of its surf-theme lyrics by weaving in a harp to atmospheric effect and creating additional instrumental swirls on the organ while “Hawaii” uses timbales (added by Blaine) and a dense array of carefully arranged vocal lines to create the euphoric rush that its trip-to-the-islands scenario suggests. In contrast, he pares things down on “Your Summer Dream,” a deep catalog gem in which gentle acoustic guitar strums, a brushes-on-cymbals beat and a lovely mid-range vocal from Wilson effortlessly conjure up the dreamy, gentle rhythms of an idyllic summer day.
Even the filler tracks have clever touches: “Surfers Rule” kicks off with a lovely a-cappella harmony bit anchored by a soaring Wilson falsetto and “The Surfer Moon,” a recycled single written for a friend, not only adds strings but also uses them for an interesting staccato instrumental motif. There are also two instrumentals that allow Wilson to flex his keyboard skills, “The Rocking Surfer” and “Boogie Woodie.” The latter is particularly interesting as it features Wilson pulling double duty on both organ and piano, with his work on the latter instrument showing off the love of boogie-woogie piano playing that he inherited from his mother.
Simply put, Surfer Girl is not only the beginning of the classic era for the Beach Boys but a beautiful statement of the California Myth that draws you into Wilson’s fantasy vision of an eternal teenage surfside paradise. It’s surprisingly consistent for an early 1960’s long-player and the sheer fun that Wilson is having as composer, arranger and producer is downright contagious.