Thursday, July 15, 2010

7/15/10 - Songs of the Summer, #25-26: "I Get Around" and "{I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"

Top Song of 1964: "I Get Around" by The Beach Boys

I remain convinced that the Beach Boys are severely underrated. Critical opinion on them has swung back in their favor, and certainly the Elephant 6 collective did a lot to give them some retroactive cred, and Brian Wilson is always referred to as a genius, but somehow the Beach Boys' place in the '60s rock canon has always felt a little tenuous, more subject to the changing cultural winds and less a sturdy pillar of a musical movement like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. My guess is that the factors explaining this are fourfold:

1. They're not the Beatles. No one is, but trying to match and top the Beatles served as Brian's creative challenge through the mid-'60s. He might have done it, but he was hampered by the fact that he was outnumbered two to one (it's astonishing that the Beatles had the songwriting talents of Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison at their disposal. Imagine if the Who had another songwriter on Townshend's level).

2. Their name is juvenile and misleading. It made a lot of sense when they were being marketed as adolescent music to surf and drive around to (or the evocation of that mood, anyway), but connotatively speaking, it boxes them into a certain phase of life that they moved beyond halfway through their career.

3. Their lyrics are mostly terrible. Look, rock music isn't poetry. But lyrically, almost all Beach Boys songs are pretty trite and insipid. The genius is all in the melodies, arrangements, and harmonies. This woudn't be so bad; no one accused Chuck Berry of being some profound deep thinker lyricist, but the Beach Boys songs with really good, resonant lyrics are few and far between (off the top of my head, I'd say "In My Room", "Wouldn't It Be Nice", and "Help Me Rhonda").

Once you account for those three strikes, though, it's easy to see why the Beach Boys deserve a place in the '60s rock canon. Vocally, and arrangements-wise, they were operating at a level that few bands have ever touched. A song like "I Get Around", although the subject matter is banal and the lyrics are paint-by-numbers, is absolutely packed with harmonies; three parters, four parters, multiple melodic lines stacking up on top of each other, each one carrying a different hook and a memorable harmony separate from the main vocal, which is insanely catchy in its own right. And each individual voice is distinctive and tonally pleasing. It's like "Sh-boom", but supercharged to a level of exponential complexity. And all of this complexity is hidden beneath the surface of a seemingly simplistic pop/rock song. It's an amazing trick - the song gets more complicated the deeper you listen to it. The Beach Boys are summer music through and through, and "I Get Around" is a high-water mark.

Top song of 1965: "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones

"Satisfaction" is a difficult song to write about. Like the Elvis songs, its impact is blunted by the way that it's become part of the cultural fabric. What was once the sound of danger and threatening sexuality is now the sounds of suburban lawn mowing and ponderous "This was the '60s" voiceovers in dull documentaries. It's hard to believe that the song couldn't be played on British radio because of the whole "can't get no girl reaction" line, what with the fact that "Baby Got Back" and "Hot in Herre" are coming down the pike. The most trenchant analysis comes from the two that wrote it:

So, it's the song that truly made the Rolling Stones, and it is the ur-Rolling Stones song. The Jagger quote above shows a sophistication of his understanding of how to make it in rock and roll, and points to some of the reasons the Stones have managed to endure as long as they have. Catchy title + catchy guitar riff + great guitar sound + catching the zeitgeist? That's a formula for success to this day. Although the guitar riff might need to be a synthesizer. It's this core understanding of their own strengths that have enabled the Stones to outlast all of their '60s peers. The Beatles, Beach Boys, and the Who all evolved musically at a pace that hastened their own destruction, while the Stones always kept sight of what lay at their core: a three note riff, distortion, a catchy title: it's only rock and roll but they like it.

Listen to the way that Jagger sneers out the first line - it, along with Richards's riff, is the key to the song. Rock in the '60s staged a hostile takeover of the pop charts because all of a sudden the veneer of professionalism was stripped away - no longer anonymous songwriters providing material to practiced chanteuses, or smooth-voiced crooners, but young, bored, and frustrated young men with raised sneers and a rejection of everything that didn't please them. Everyone, everyone can relate to Jagger's opening line, and, more importantly, the way he sings it, and more importantly than that, the way the itchy, nagging guitar underscores the sentiment in dirty red ink.

1 comment:

ariyele said...

one can see that you're passionate about the beach boys. but i think that what you point out about why they are underrated is not to be underrated.