Beach Boys – Becoming the Beach Boys (review)

Beach Boys – Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hite & Dorinda Morgan Sessions (Brother/Omnivore Recordings) review

The budding seeds of America’s finest musical export

The Beach Boys are America’s greatest rock n’ roll band.  An often over-looked aspect of the group, their very early days, gets heavy scrutiny in a new collection, Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hite & Dorinda Morgan Sessions, a two-disc set containing virtually every note recorded prior to their July 1962 signing with Capitol Records.

The last collection to spotlight this nascent era of the band, Lost & Found 1961-62, came out 25 years ago and only highlighted a handful of alternate takes.  This new set brings together demos, rehearsals, false starts, studio chatter and alternate versions of all seven songs the recently-formed band had recorded with Hite Morgan, a family friend, as producer, all with improved sound quality.

Disc one opens with the demo of “Surfin,’” recorded in the Morgan’s living room.  Featuring only the five boys’ voices, accompanied by Carl Wilson’s guitar (he’s only 15, by the way), it’s still surprisingly polished.  After that, the quintet, then known as the Pendletones, enter the studio and run through eight takes of the song, each a little better than the previous.  This is a live recording with no overdubbing, so everyone’s performance has to be perfect (note Mike Love’s voice crack that derails take 3).  Take nine is deemed the master of what would become the A side of their very first single.

“Luau,” a song written by the Morgans, and the B side to their debut, is first unveiled in three takes from that same living room demo session. By the time they enter the studio, Carl’s guitar intro is more sophisticated, yet the band seems to struggle with the song’s timing.  They eventually get it right in take 13.

“Lavender,” another Morgan composition, is a real revelation, showing the band working extremely sophisticated, Four Freshmen-like harmonies.  Also apparent is Brian Wilson’s control of the proceedings as he implores the guys to “look at your paper,” and “go slower.”  The rehearsals are far superior to the attempts in the studio, which add additional instruments, but see the band having difficulty singing and playing this complex music at the same time.

After the unexpected success of “Surfin,’” the newly-christened Beach Boys returned to the studio and ran through several songs that would become legendary.  “Surfin’ Safari” contains different lyrics (“some honeys will be making the scene”), and this time, Morgan allows the boys to overdub Carl’s guitar solo.  “Surfer Girl” is more problematic, with Brian finding it difficult to sing lead and play bass at the same time.  Things come to a head on take 6 where Brian asks Hite if he can overdub the bass, to which Hite barks back “no”!  This is probably the last time anyone said no to Brian Wilson!

There are also two songs billed as Kenny & the Cadets, “Barbie,” and “What is a Young Girl Made Of.”  These are studio tracks featuring the Beach Boys on vocals only.  Although not originals by the band, these two songs are interesting for several reasons.  First, Brian’s glorious falsetto is clear and breathtaking, and second, the group is joined by the Wilson’s mother, Audree, possibly the only time she got to sing with her sons on a recording session (she can especially be heard on the bridge section of “Barbie”).

There are also a couple of strange oddities here, including an unknown girl’s lead vocal on one take of “Surfer Girl,” and a studio vocalist doing the demo for “What is a Young Girl Made Of.”  Probably the weirdest track is “Surfin’ Safari (Stereo Overdub),” an attempt by Hite Morgan to create a more polished version of the song by adding additional drums and guitar.  The problem is, the drummer can’t keep time with the original recording, making for some uncomfortable moments (that didn’t stop Morgan from licensing the track to a German record label).

Of particular note is the 20-page accompanying booklet, featuring multiple essays documenting these historic sessions, augmented by photos of tape boxes and original 45’s (there’s a rainbow-swirled copy of Kenny & the Cadets that may be the coolest looking single ever!).

Out of the 63 tracks, there’s only nine actual songs – so this collection isn’t for everyone.  Yet, rarely do we get the opportunity to venture this deep into the creative process of any band, let alone a band that would go on to legendary status.  If you’re a Beach Boys’ fanatic, you’ll love delving into Becoming the Beach Boys.  Tony Peters