Palm Meets Pine in Brian Wilson’s Christmas Romp
I’ve talked about the Beach Boys before in this vaunted series of articles. In that edition, I discussed their masterpiece Pet Sounds. This time, I want to take a look at a more seasonally appropriate album. Lots of folks know the Beach Boys’ Christmas classic, “Little Saint Nick.” But few are aware of the greater body of work from which it originates. The ever-so-creatively named The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album is a 1964 release by the five famed Californians. The cover art tells you quite a bit about what’s housed inside; it features the fellas bedecked in sweaters trimming a Christmas tree in a rather sparse studio. For all intents and purposes, it strikes the viewer as a manufactured attempt at marketing the Beach Boys’ popularity in the colder months, when surfboards and palm trees would feel like visions from another world, all wrapped up in the early 60s aesthetic of polyester and cellophane. While what’s inside the record is of far greater substance than its packaging, the lacking aesthetic represented by the cover art is found in a few songs.
I’ll steer shy of “Little Saint Nick” to spend more time on some of the lesser known cuts from this record, and I’ll start with a pretty harsh critique. “Santa’s Beard” is an attempt to recount the humorous/heartbreaking story of a young boy realizing that the department store Santa he was looking forward to meeting was in fact just a regular guy dressed as the Man with the Bag. I hope that in recording this, the ‘Boys realized how bad of a song this was. The lyrics are nothing short of atrocious. It reads like a rough draft of a song. The whiny chorus is quite grating, though perhaps it’s an accurate interpretation of a five year old kid who wants to meet Santa Claus. There isn’t much redeemable here; it’s the album cover put to music.
Now for the positives. That atrocious song discussed above exists on the same album as their version of “We Three Kings.” This is a beautiful harmonization of the classic Epiphany carol, orchestrated with a symphonic accompaniment that stays just out of the way of the lovely Brian Wilson harmonies that give the rendition haunting beauty. The orchestration sits behind the voices whenever the voices are in play, and takes the spotlight seamlessly when they step back. There’s an authenticity to their performance that comes out clearly at the end of the second verse. Perhaps it’s the harmonies, or just the timbre of their voices, but when they sing “King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign,” there’s some belief behind those words, or at least some emotional weight in those lines.
I wonder if the thicker orchestration on this album would influence Brian Wilson’s ear as he lead the group in the more experimental direction that resulted in Pet Sounds. It seems reasonable; the french horn which features so strongly on that later record is heard in a beautiful melody during the beginning of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” another standout on this album. A great balance between the orchestra and the singers again, but this time there’s some differing texture within the vocal parts; solo voices move in and out of the harmony in the beginning of the song. The lonely solo voice is joined by the rest of the band as he dreams of being home for Christmas surrounded by family and friends. The song strikes a wonderfully nostalgic note, one that really comes forward in that french horn solo and in the clarinet which features throughout. There’s no Phil Spector-esque “Wall of Sound” on this recording. On the contrary, there is a great deal of clarity in the individual lines, both vocally and instrumentally.
The album closes with “Auld Lang Syne.” This song is a step above the rest on this album. A true masterpiece of Wilson’s passion for close harmony. To listen to this cut is to step into the musical mind of Brian Wilson and see what was hiding under the surface as the group began to transition from surf-pop into their maturity as artists. The deceptive resolutions, complex ninth chords, and other outlandish harmonies are the star of the show here, yet the integrity of the song is never compromised. It isn’t as if Dave Brubeck got ahold of the song and riffed on it until there was nothing left but a vague memory of its chord progression; no, this is the good ol’ Auld Lang Syne throughout. Wilson is able to elevate it and give it a musical vocabulary beyond what had been previously conceived. Yet, in the same spirit of marketing which mars the beginning of the album, they decided to record Dennis Wilson giving a Christmas greeting atop the song. It’s a campy and clichéd way to try and bring the listener closer to the music and feel an authentic connection with the group; instead of achieving that goal, it sets up an artificial barrier between the listener and the musician. Do yourself a favor and find the remastered version which gets rid of this overdub; then, you won’t stop listening!
The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album shows the tension between the group as a commercial hit machine and a group as talented musicians on their way to changing the music of the 60s. It’s an album of highs and lows, as is much of the Beach Boys’ catalogue, but it offers some music with real gravitas when it wants to. At the strength of those gems, I recommend the album, but perhaps it’s better to choose a few choice selections for your Christmas playlist than to take it as a standalone work. Merry Christmas!
Zach Pearson is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies with a second major in music. He wishes that people wouldn’t celebrate Christmas until the liturgical Christmas season arrives, but he loves the decorations and traditions too much to protest society’s ways.