Essays, Reviews, and Comments from Marc Ribot, Dominic Priore, Robert Christgau, Eric Lott, Jonah Raskin . . . More Links at the bottom.
“Having spent a lifetime digging into everything the Beach Boys have recorded, Tom Smucker knows it to be fun fun fun, great art, and a barometer of our class, race, and gender politics since World War II.” — Robert Christgau, Dean of American Rock Critics, Author of Is It Still Good to Ya?: Essays on Music 1967-2017.
“I’ll confess: Although the Beach Boys were part of my early teenage pop musical landscape I never identified with them. They were simply there: like the Post Office or the glistening gasoline slicks on the branch of the Rahway River trickling through my hometown.
My own moments of musical revelation began with Keith Richards et al… were soon displaced to the objects of their love/theft…and fixated there happily ever after (with occasional infidelities, regressions, and a trick or two).
So I never regarded my indifference to the Beach Boys as something in need of confession or explanation; let alone apology.
On the other hand, I’ve admired Smucker’s smart, funny, and passionate writing on pop music since his Village Voice days. And so I found myself running back, half a century later, to re-listen…and damned if Smucker isn’t right! There’s something in the Beach Boy’s music that’s simply amazing, and fully deserving of the critical attention it’s received.
Smucker’s mix of unabashed fanboy enthusiasm with razor sharp analysis makes him the perfect teller of this story, which is not only the story of the Boys, but also of the great dry beach of American suburbia on which their popularity surfed. Smucker’s telling intertwines (his own) personal narrative with that of the music/ musicians; and traces their mutual trajectory through our collective political/cultural body.
In doing so, Smucker pulls off something which is rarer than one might imagine, even in the supposedly enlightened precincts of NYC rock crit: the sympathetic telling of a white story— stripped of the myths of supremacy.
The crash of the music industry due to silicon valley exploitation will certainly prevent any new acts being able to afford studio time on anything like the scale that enabled the Beach Boys to experiment and create their sound.
I’ve recorded in some of the LA studios where Brian Wilson worked…many now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy after a decade and a half of Silicon Valley’s “disruption”. The industry crashed by over 60%— estimated at 7 billion annually.
There has been a slight influx of bread in the last 2 years (we’re now supposedly up to a 5% collapse): but whether this is a real trend or simply market manipulation designed to lift Spotify’s IPO value (so the majors can cash out their equity and write their officers golden parachute retirement packages) is very much up in the air.
The recording economy which granted Wilson the time and space to interact with great studio musicians and technicians in a state of the art studio is gone for all but a very few.
Not only did Brian Wilson get the studio: he got a room full of extremely qualified musicians and technicians who helped him realize his ideas. A room full of people getting union scale +: week after week.
A few star artists who invested their pre-digital $ in record studio and company infrastructure can still afford at least the studio part.. Very few new artists who aren’t independently wealthy can.
Working class or lower middle class genius’ like Brian Wilson who approach majors now are being forced to sign ‘360 wrap around deals” that would deprive them of the economic and artistic freedom Wilson enjoyed.
Those approaching indies are being asked, in addition to paying ALL production costs, to pay 3-7000 to “share the risk”. Could the early Beach Boys have worked under those conditions?
The Wrecking Crew didn’t exist in isolation: they were the best out of a large field of hundreds of studio musicians who worked EVERY DAY. I knew some of them: Larry Knechtel, Jerry Scheff, both of whom worked often with Hal Blaine et al. They recorded 3 finished records a DAY for years on end. The field has shrunk exponentially.
Although the benefits of sequencing technology for those who work exclusively through sampled/sequenced sounds are clear: its worth noting that that isn’t how Brian Wilson worked.
This is in no way a dis to those who do work primarily through digital processes: but there is a lot of auteur theory hype going on around those productions too. A lot more trad studio time put in than often acknowledged. And a lot more money spent on production than is often acknowledged.
Few hits are simply produced on “a laptop” (although this is often self mythology on the part of artists): virtually all pop needs mic pre’s, compressors, good quality A to D converters, Mastering studio, art work, publicists.
And most supposedly “viral” hits that “just happened” have the fingerprints of skilled digital publicists (7-12,000 per cd).
Part of the reason Smucker’s book was poignant for me is that Wilson’s life is coterminous with a golden age of US studio production. Its an art form that is literally being driven out of the economy. With the coming full rationalization of streaming (see MMA bill, see the strong-arming of the last streaming holdouts like ECM), I suspect that the shutdown of the industry that began post Napster is going to be made irreversible.
There is still some possibility for reforms that would change that (see section 512 DMCA). But its a long shot, and sanguine conclusions aren’t justified at this point.” — Marc Ribot, musician, Songs of Resistance 1942-2018, Ceramic Dog.
“Back in the early 1970s, Tom Smucker was one of a handful of music journalists who was ‘ahead of the curve,’ and he pointed me in the right direction for what became my life’s journey.” —David Leaf, writer, director, and producer of Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of “Smile”
“From its lovely and arresting first paragraphs through cars and guitars, stages and studios, shrinks and gurus, and a postwar endless summer with plenty of shady places, Tom Smucker’s Why the Beach Boys Matter perfectly captures the world the Beach Boys made. This is the band in full career ricochet summing up and summoning a whole way of life. Smucker’s encyclopedic detail is cast in his characteristically wry, open-hearted voice. Full of stunning insights into love and mercy, it’s as good a book on music, and a lot of other things too, as any I know.” — Eric Lott, City University of New York Graduate Center/author of Black Mirror: The Cultural Contradictions of American Racism
“I first became aware of Tom Smucker while researching my first book, Look! Listen! Vibrate! SMILE! The goal was to find EVERY article from 1966 into the early ’70s that shed light as to what Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece (my second book title… on the same subject) would have been. Tom’s 1972 story for Creem on The Beach Boys featured a headline page with nothing more than the Smile album cover; I was intrigued. This was published in the year that Carl Wilson and Stephen J. Desper first began to assemble what was in the tape archive on Smile, and Tom’s was the last article where it seemed possible that indeed, the original Beach Boys would finally get their progressive-era coups de gras out to the public. A release in 1972-74 was still in time for Smile to become an “F.M. classic.” None of this came to pass, but progressive F.M. went downhill after 1975 anyway, so no big, these days. The band won its first Grammy Award for The Smile Sessions box set, in the end.
That said, Tom has finally got around to writing a book about this group who, during the early ’70s, were still bound in a struggle for legitimacy within the jaded American hippie culture (European hippies did not share this aversion). In this text, Smucker insightfully recognizes The Beach Boys as part of the West Coast R&B Vocal Group sound, crossed with L.A.’s high-level recording studio environment – a setup created for the audioscapes of Hollywood movie production. He shows how those two elements ushered Los Angeles past New York as the center of the music business for the second half of the 20th Century. Tom acknowledges the local importance of Leo Fender being in town, and his part in the sound revolution of “Surf” guitar reverb… something most Beach Boy authors (and fans) overlook due to its ubiquity. The Beach Boys song connection not only to Detroit’s auto industry, but the Kustom Kulture of Los Angeles, gets its due, L.A.’s constant sunshine locale tweak the primary influence, as California youths grooved-out car industry standards during the first Corvette and Mustang era.
It’s key how Smucker gets that books and musical recordings were the only cultural artifacts readily accessible for ownership in the pre-digital world of the ’60s. He puts together James Brown and Brian Wilson in the same auteur respect, giving context to how W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of a future where both creative entities could be similarly hip. It’s a fine understanding where Pet Sounds, Live at the Apollo and The T.A.M.I. Show preclude a further sense of positive change in their aftermath. Tom Smucker has given us something crucial; this is fresh perspective, from what may very well be the last voice we’ll hear on The Beach Boys that had also been published during their original era of creativity. This was a time when Rhythm & Blues was still the most dominant aspect of Rock ’n’ Roll, and the inherent social change coming with that had a sense of mission, revelry and humor, a whole package often swept under the rug by the complacent. –Domenic Priore, author of Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood (2015 Jawbone Press, London)
“For survivors of The Sixties and for members of other generations who look back at the era either with nostalgia and regret or with fear and loathing, the real value of this book might well be its reflections on the era of Vietnam, civil rights, the counterculture, the mindlessness of suburbia and a nation in which, from the White House to the house next door, “no one’s in charge, and everyone can do their own thing” which allows for both “positive” and “negative” space.” Jonah Raskin, NY Journal of Books
“Rather than land on a single thesis in answer to the book’s title, Smucker gives the reader myriad starting points for determining why the Beach Boys matter…While the rhizomatic nature of the book’s short, chronologically nonlinear chapters may frustrate some academic readers, others will find that the structure is a perfect metaphor for the answer to the problem posed by the book’s title. There is a multiplicity of reasons for the importance of the Beach Boys, musically and historically, and to say otherwise for the sake of a central thesis would be to attempt to insert an intellectual square into an intellectual circle…the arguments…[are] just right.” Journal of Popular Culture