I, too, am a bit surprised at the lack of recognition from the U.K. contingent on "409", since it usually pops up on the Beach Boys comps I'm familiar with. But hey, at least you guys hung in with the Beach Boys while they were still putting out great music in the 70s and the U.S. pretty much stopped paying attention.
Anyways, hot off the presses is my write-up for Surfin' Safari (album):
Like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys debut sometimes seems to get a bit lost in the shuffle when folks discuss the band. As with the others listed, this is because the debuts - while good - tend to seem a rather slight compared to what would come later. For the Beach Boys, the difference from first to second LP is less drastic than Dylan and the others, but also probably even more drastic once you stretch your timeframe to, say, a five year time-frame. This has the effect of making Surfin’ Safari seem both less of a curio than the debuts from those other folks (it’s hard to argue that Surfin’ U.S.A. eclipses Surfin’ Safari in any real sense, while that argument has been made for the Beatles, Stones and Dylan when discussing each of their first two albums), and has it coming off as a bit of a slighter effort in comparison to their catalog as a whole (again, the debuts from all those folks come off fairly well compared to their respective high water marks. But playing Surfin’ Safari next to Pet Sounds can be almost startling). And there’s some truth to this quasi-dismissal of this first Beach Boys LP, but Surfin’ Safari is still a pretty good album with some great cuts on it.
Also, for the record, I grew up in a household that always loved us some early Beach Boys albums, so the idea that these albums were considered less impressive than what would come later is an opinion I’ve engaged with only later in my life.
I will say that, in the grand scheme of Beach Boys albums, out of their “good” stuff, I’d rank this one on the low end of that scale. There are a few reasons for this: 1) the covers of “Summertime Blues” and “Moon Dawg” - while perfectly competently executed - smack of “oh shit, we gotta fill this album out” filler; 2) a few of the songs, including the second single drawn from this album, come off as a bit novelty-ish; 3) the album doesn’t say “Produced by Brian Wilson” on it. Now, by all accounts Brian was still pretty heavily involved in the production of the album, but to my ears there’s still a noticeable improvement on that end from the first to second LPs when Brian formally takes charge.
So, how do the songs work out? The lead-off track, Surfin’ Safari, I covered on the entry for the single release. Suffice to say, it’s a classic Beach Boys song. County Fair and Ten Little Indians I’m not so hot on. I’ll cover those more in an upcoming entry for the single, but they both feel - even for early Beach Boys - a bit dated and not fully realized. I think, more than anything else, having those two tracks as the second and third songs on the album is what drags the LP down a bit. Start off with a stone cold classic like “Surfin’ Safari” and then slap on two of the sillier songs on the album, the first of which doesn’t even feel fully developed? Eh.
Picks up after that, though. Chug-A-Lug, which Brian Wilson has said he thought should have been the follow up single to Surfin’ Safari/409, is great. The lyrics are pure Teen-Age Dream stuff, but where the cheesy Americana doesn’t quite hang together on the previous two songs, it’s delightful here. The more fully formed arrangements and vocal harmonies probably help. Also, there’s a killer guitar bit about halfway through the song. Really nice stuff. Little Girl (You’re My Miss America) is a Herb Alpert penned song and was probably recorded to flesh out an album that, by all accounts, was scrapped together pretty quickly. That said, it features a Dennis Wilson lead vocal and I am a complete sucker for Dennis lead vocals. He’ll be chronically underutilized with the band up until his death. 409 closes out the A-side of the album and, given how I raved about it on my post about its single release, it’s probably about my favorite song on the album.
The B side of the album opens up with Surfin’ (read about my thoughts on the song on my post about the Beach Boys debut single here), which is a fine track but already feels a bit behind the curve of what the Beach Boys were cutting for this album. Heads You Win - Tails I Lose follows, and it’s another I rate highly. Again, great little song that feels pretty fully realized. A single of Chug-A-Lug b/w Heads You Win would have slayed, I think. Summertime Blues is good - hell, it’s such a great song it’d be tough to mess up too badly* - but, as mentioned, it definitely feels like a recording for the sake of having a recording to finish the album. Cuckoo Clock has some good vocal work, but falls into the same trap as “County Fair” and “Ten Little Indians” (to be clear: I enjoy all three of those songs, but when I read folks complain about about how the Boys are still a bit undercooked at this point, I listen to those cuts and think I see their point). Moon Dawg falls into the same category as “Summetime Blues” for me and The Shift is a fine closer for the album, if a bit forgettable in the long run (for example: I just re-listened to the album in preparation for this post and anything interesting I had to say about the song has already escaped me).
Overall, I rate Surfin’ Safari a fine first full-length for a band when the music industry was still mostly about slapping together a hit single or two and then padding out around those. The Beach Boys would steadily improve from here, but the early stuff is still fun and by no means without merit. Of course, the crazy thing of it all is that the best danged song from the recording sessions, Land Ahoy, which offers up a vocal and lyrical sophistication which would be a harbinger of things to come, would be left on the cutting room floor until the CD reissue of the album. And for your listening pleasure, here it is:
Full article, track, formatting and whatnot: