The specific classification of the Beach Boys is something of an ongoing debate in retro-pop circles. They started with surf and hot-rod tunes that slot in nicely alongside the surf rock genre yet their reliance on vocal harmonies puts them at odds with the likes of Dick Dale and all the guitar-driven instrumental combos he inspired.
The truth is they are an evolutionary offshoot of the surf rock genre and an accidental one at that: group leader Brian Wilson drew his main inspiration for the group’s style and songs from pre-rock vocal harmony groups like the Four Freshman while it was guitarists Carl Wilson and David Marks who snuck in a certain Dick Dale influence into the instrumentation. The guitar element was useful to their early singles as they sought to establish themselves in the marketplace but Brian’s gift for arrangement would soon lead the group far beyond their garage-rock origins.
Thus, the Beach Boys’ catalog of classic-era albums, great as they are, have little to offer to aficionados of six-string twang and reverb… with one notable exception. Surfin’ U.S.A. was the group’s 2nd album and it catches the group in a transitional phase. They were primarily touring Southern California at the time, facing true surf-rock audiences who weren’t exactly sold on their vocal-oriented style. Thus, they fleshed out their repertoire with a number of surf-rock favorites that not only kept the peace with these audiences but also reflected the interests of guitarists Carl and David.
Surfin’ U.S.A. is the only Beach Boys album that truly reflects their status as a frequent attraction on the surf-rock concert circuit. In fact, it’s the only album in the group’s repertoire where instrumental pieces almost match the number of vocal-driven songs. Some fans reject this album as being padded with filler due the 5 surf-rock instrumentals that flesh it out but a listen will reveal this perception to be misguided.
Though the group didn’t qualify as instrumental virtuosos, their takes on standards like “Misirlou” and “Honky Tonk” are punchy, tight and easily on the same level as the many other young surf-rock groups of the era. Better yet, the two original instrumentals are worth a listen: “Stoked” is an effective meditative-paced cruiser that shows of the Wilson/Marks dual-guitar style to good effect while “Surf Jam” is an effective rocker with Carl trotting out every Chuck Berry lick he can think of atop a stomping, primal beat from Dennis. Even Mike Love gets in on the fun with a few honks from his saxophone.
That said, the really compelling part of Surfin’ U.S.A. are the vocal numbers, which showcase the ever-growing compositional and arrangement prowess of Brian Wilson to great effect. Though he still had to share producing credits with Nick Venet here, Wilson dramatically improves on the anemic, threadbare arrangements of the first Beach Boys album, Surfin’ Safari.
As a result, it boasts the first really classic-sounding Beach Boys hits: the title track transcends its Chuck Berry rewrite status with great guitar leads from Carl and a swirling mass-of-vocals chorus that peaks with a killer falsetto hook from Brian while “Shut Down” is peerless hot-rod rock where the vocals are as rhythmic as the stuttered guitar lines. Even lesser cuts have interesting hooks courtesy of Wilson’s arranging skills: a great example is “Noble Surfer,” which offsets its humdrum lyrics with a clever chorus that interweaves bass and tenor lines to rhythmic effect. Another impressive arrangement pops up in “Finders Keepers,” which pumps up a simple surf tale with an array of key changes and time shifts that hint at future melodic inventiveness.
Better yet, the album cuts reveal the sensitive, melodically brilliant side of Brian coming to the fore. “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Lana” show off his ability to use to create addictive melodies that could showcase his stunning falsetto voice. The former is a big favorite with fans, including Fleetwood Mac: they closed their 1981 live album with a lovely, informal version of the song. That said, the most important song amongst the album tracks might be “The Lonely Sea,” a haunting expression of melancholy that uses the ocean as a metaphor for the inevitable changes of life. Within a few years, dealing with life changes would become the main theme for his all-time classic album Pet Sounds and he’d also revisit the ocean/life metaphor to devastating effect on “Til I Die.”
In short, Surfin U.S.A. is an effective, straightforward album that works as a creative statement by Brian Wilson while also showing off the group’s underrated surf-rock chops. They’d be going from triumph to triumph well into 1966 but this charming little period piece shows that even in their younger, more naive years, they could put together an album full of the hooks and harmonies their fans would quickly become addicted to.