An infinite number of rockin’ pop records can be the greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
THE FIRST CLASS: “Beach Baby”
Can a pastiche touch the divine? Can a copy become more than it is? Can mere imitation transcend its mundane genesis, and live on its own as something great?
In rock ‘n’ roll? Yeah. It happens all the time.
“Beach Baby” was intended as commerce, not art. It conjured the classic, elegaic sound of The Beach Boys, without ever calling to mind any one specific Beach Boys track. Perhaps there were hints of “In My Room,” or “Don’t Worry Baby,” or “California Girls,” or other lush, luxurious, mid-tempo hits from the pride of Hawthorne, but we’re just grasping at straws in the sand to say so. Really, “Beach Baby” sounds like none of these. And yet it sounds like all of them, all at once. Gloriously, triumphantly, all at once.
And the record was made by a studio group, a band that didn’t exist. The lead voice belonged to Tony Burrows, an accomplished singer who had already graced the Billboard pop charts as the voice of Edison Lighthouse (“Love Grows [Where My Rosemary Goes]”), White Plains (“My Baby Loves Lovin'”), Brotherhood Of Man (“United We Stand”), and The Pipkins (“Gimme Dat Ding.”) Like The First Class after them, each of these combos was an imaginary entity; with the success of “Beach Baby,” Burrows earned the distinction of becoming the first and only artist to be a One Hit Wonder five times.
If that seems snarky, lemme assure it’s not intended to be. These were all bona fide hit records. Maybe I won’t have much to say on behalf of “Gimme Dat Ding,” but the other three were fine examples of pop radio songcraft. “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” is still a staple of This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio today. The relative anonymity of the principles takes nothing away from the quality of the work.
“Beach Baby” is the crowning achievement. Wafting breezily from AM radios across the country and around the world in 1974, it sounded almost–almost–like a lost hit from somewhere in the vast mobile pop terrain of 1963 to 1966. Yet it doesn’t really sound like a ’60s track, either. Its production, its spirit, its good vibrations were all audibly, palpably of the ’70s. It would have ultimately sounded weird, out of place, in between Jan & Dean and Sunrays hits on Your Fave Rave station in 1965. But in 1974, “Beach Baby” sounded like a welcome communique from a warmer, sunnier place.
And it was not Brianmania; it wasn’t The Beach Boys, but nor was it an incredible simulation. Burrows’ voice (or voices) didn’t sound at all like Brian Wilson or Carl Wilson or Dennis Wilson, not Al Jardine nor David Marks, and for damned sure nothing like Mike Love. No one with ears would mistake it for a Beach Boys record. But the homage was clear and true, the tribute seemingly sincere, the result unerringly effective and moving. It was sad, like a memory of summer love long gone. It was celebratory, like the songs shared as one by revelers gathered around the fire as the moon lit the sand, and the promises of the stars above were reflected in the irresistible spark you could swear you saw in the eyes of someone you just might want to love for ever and ever.
Long hot days
Cool sea haze
But now it’s fading away
It seemed so long ago, if it ever really existed in the first place. But it also seemed real and immediate, perhaps just beyond our ability to grasp and hold on, but with us still, with us always. Give me your hand, give me something that I can remember. The authenticity of its origin is immaterial. Brian Wilson himself is said to have been certain that The First Class was an American group, rather than a bunch of British session players channeling a mythic beach scene that never was. Just like before, we can walk by the shore in the moonlight. It may not be too late to fall in love, all over again.