Where do you start with Beach Baby by The First Class? There’s a lot going on in there. When I hear Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, I gather the studio kitchen’s a sink down. When I hear Beach Baby, it sounds like they’ve made a studio out kitchen sinks, specifically to record a song that is, equally, if not more, no stranger to the plumbing aisle in B&Q.
And you don’t hear it very often these days, do you? Well, I don’t, but as I don’t really listen to the radio, I suppose wouldn’t know anyway.
Which isn’t necessarily all that surprising, in the same way that you don’t hear Angelo by Brotherhood of Man anymore – and you didn’t even during the 1970s revival in the early 90s, and through Britpop, when kitsch accidentally took itself seriously for a couple of years. Or at least, the wrong sort of serious – it’s easy to dismiss things like this as being too naff to revive. In the case of Brotherhood of Man, it is, really. In the case of Beach Baby, I think it’s too good to be naff, but a little bit goes a long way.
I’d not heard it for years, and hadn’t given it a moment’s thought until my phone conked out and I lost all the music on it – I use my phone as an Mp3 player, most of the time. I’ve been putting it all back – my MP3’s – but it had built up an enormous selection of all sorts of stuff – stuff I didn’t have on computer anymore, and I didn’t have a list, so I put the basics back and I’m filling in the gaps as they occur to me. And, in looking for one thing, you find something else, and I bumped into Beach Baby like that.
I recognised it, of course. It came out in May 1974, when I’d just turned three. I don’t remember much about being three. My earliest memory is around then though. Our living room had a window that went down almost to the floor, in two bits, separated by a windowsill at about the normal height. Above that was plane glass, like normal. Below that was wobbly, frosted glass with chicken wire in it. Like the glass in your bathroom window, probably, except yours probably won’t have chicken wire in it. Anyway, at three, I couldn’t reach to see out of the clear window, so I’d press my face against the lower part and watch colours undulating by, like convicted horizontal globules in a lava lamp. Maybe that’s why psychedelic imagery appealed to me later, who knows?
Anyway, the point is, when I think of all the records I’m going to write about in this series about the first records I really remember hearing and being moved by, I think of being out and about because I didn’t really hear music in my house until I brought most of it in. Apart from on telly. Including Television theme tunes, which I’ll be writing about at some point in this series.
At that age, and for the next fifteen years or so, being out and about meant being at other people’s houses or shops, basically. A lot of shops didn’t play records at all. What was different was that a lot of shops played what was then called Muzak, and then had a bit of a re-evaluation in the 90s.
Things like that, which I really quite like. I’ll be writing about this sort of easy listening another day.
Diversion – Local Supermarkets
And when I say, “supermarkets”, I don’t mean Tesco or Asda because we didn’t really have those. Maybe the odd smallish one here and there, but nothing too super. I went to France on holiday when I was about ten and had a look around a hypermarket. I was amazed. It was like a warehouse compared to what I’d been in before. Walls of televisions. It was ludicrous.
What we had in Hull was Frank Dees and Clifford Dunns. Binns had a food hall, but that was the equivalent of Harrods. I don’t know who did their food shopping in there, but nobody I knew did.
The only picture I can find of Frank Dees is where it’s on fire, which is a shame. It was on a roundabout about two miles out of town towards our house, once I’d turned about seven.
The building closest to the camera’s what was Clifford Dunns, which was in two parts. The bit on the left was non food – washing baskets, colouring books, ironing board covers, toys, things like that. The bigger part on the right was food and washing powder. Frank Dees had the same sort of things, but on two floors. I vaguely remember furniture upstairs, but I might have imagined that.
I quite liked both of them. I’d go with my parents and wander off to the books and toys while they bought toilet roll and tins of beans. My mother didn’t like the fruit, veg, or meat from supermarkets, so she’d go to the greengrocers and the butchers separately.
So, I’d be standing around, reading Treasure Island or an abridged and illustrated Huckleberry Finn, or a book about Unsolved Mysteries of The Universe, featuring Bigfoot on the cover and the JFK assassination, but aimed at kids about my age. And while I did that, I listened to the pop music that was on, at least in Frank Dees.
I don’t specifically remember listening to Beach Baby in Frank Dees, even though I do remember the book with Bigfoot on the cover and enjoying the illustration of the “magic” bullet’s path in the JFK part. There was Amelia Earhart in it too. Funny what goes in, isn’t it? Not Beach Baby, evidently, though I do recall queueing up for the till and listening to Nice One Cyril and mildly enjoying its brainless exuberance. I’m not going to write about Nice One Cyril.
That’s the record of it, which must have been an FA Cup record by Tottenham Hotspur in 1973, but I didn’t know about that. It was on a bread advert too. It must have been in the charts though because I can’t imagine there were that many Tottenham Hotspur fans in Hull in 1973.
Anyway, that was before Sainsbury’s came to Hull, or just outside Hull -and that was a big deal. Frank Dees and Cliff Dunns hung on for a bit, as did Gateway, Presto and one or two others, but the writing was on the wall for them from then on, really.
End of Diversion.
But that’s what I mean about supermarkets in the 1970s: they often sounded like that sort of easy listening or, if they didn’t sound like that, then they sounded like Beach Baby, or Angelo, or the other records I’m going to be wittering on about in this series. And Beach Baby was a big summer hit, and got aired throughout summer, throughout the 1970s. I must have heard it around 1978, so it was looking like being a hardy perennial, Until at some point, it wasn’t. The 80s. I suppose.
If there’s a common theme in this series, I suppose it’s 1970s pop music that was big for a while, and then it just fell off the cliff. The ones I like tend to have a tendency towards melancholy. Even Angelo’s trying to be melancholy, even if it’s also trying to be triumphant at the same time, which it doesn’t quite pull off. And that’s slightly melancholy in itself, isn’t it? Something for us all to think about there. Cheers.
Beach Baby‘s a lot more competent than Angelo, though. Beach Baby manages to be about ten different things in about five minutes, although not all at the same time. and it pretty much pulls all of them off.
There’s a lot going on, in Beach Baby – maybe too much. Maybe all that kitchen sink action ends up being a bit confusing and you can listen to it and enjoy how it gormlessly bounces, and at first you think it’s pretty much an early 70s take on The Beach Boys, all harmonies and putting girls on pedestals, and it is that, but it’s a lot more complicated than that too.
Although, let’s face it, there had been a lot going on in The Beach Boys’ records too. When Mike Love took his eye off the ball and let Brian fuck with the formula, there was something very similar going on to this. And, as mid-late 60s Beach Boys pastiches go, it’s had an awful lot more care and attention than most.
Diversion – Play The Hits by Hal.
I don’t think this was a hit, sadly. Earlyish 2000s. I liked it. It wasn’t a million miles away from The Beach Boys, and it’s a good song, played nicely. But it didn’t really happen at that point for post Britpop bands who decided to be The Beach Boys. The Thrills were similar. Never going to set the world on fire, and a bit less Beach Boys and more generic 60s American harmony pop than Hal, but alright as far as they went.
What I’m getting at is that, not only were Hal and The Thrills out of time, but they also went for the harmonies but not the instrumentation so much. They were both guitar bands – indie guitar bands at that – and making do with what they had.
End of Diversion.
However, the other thing is that Hal and The Thrills would have had to play live, and The First Class didn’t, which probably wouldn’t have helped in some ways. Mind you, I saw The Thrills live and they were appalling. Possibly the worst band I’ve ever seen. Maybe it was an off night, but everything about them was bad. Maybe Hal were better, but it didn’t matter really because even the polished studio versions sound like ham fisted crayon scribbles in comparison to Beach Baby. And fair dos, Beach Baby‘s pretty extraordinary.
I mean, get a load of that. There’s a lot going on in that. In every sense of the word.
John Carter and Gillian Shakespeare, Carter’s partner in more than one sense of the word, I don’t know anything else about Gillian Shakespeare, but Carter was in The Ivy League, whose Funny How Love Can Be, along with Silence Is Golden by The Tremoloes and No Milk Todayby Herman’s Hermits, is one of the great Kitchen Sink songs of the early-mid 60s. I don’t mean kitchen sink like Beach Baby‘s kitchen sink. I mean like Kitchen sink dramas of the early 1960s. A Taste of Honey, mainly. He wrote Funny How Love Can Be, which is another great record, as are all of the above. Still, The Ivy League turned into The Flowerpot Men, famous for Bobby Gillespie’s all time least favourite record, Let’s Go To San Francisco – so it can’t be all bad.
I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that Carter met Tony Burrows at some point after that. Carter concentrated on writing, and Tony Burrows joined The Flowerpot Men, though after LGTSF. The reason I think this is because Tony Burrows, the lead singer on Beach Baby, was a session singer who fronted several pretend groups in the early 70s, having big hits with five of them. He was, in a way, a bit like the English Joey Levine – who was the lead singer in a load of pretend American Bubblegum pop bands on Buddha records. Joey Levine wrote too, and moved onto jingles, writing “Just For The Taste Of It” for Coca Cola.
Tony Burrows – he looks a bit like Ed “Stewpot” Stewart off Crackerjack, doesn’t he? Maybe that’s just what men looked like in the 1970s. I mean, they didn’t – not all of them, my dad looked more like Rigsby from Rising Damp – but some of them evidently did.
Anyway, Tony Burrows also fronted Edison Lighthouse (Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes – I’m a big fan), Pipkins (Gimme Dat Ding – I’m not a big fan), White Plains (My Baby Loves Lovin’ – I’m not fussed either way), Brotherhood of Man – which had no members of the later, successful line up at all – (United We Stand – not a big fan), and this, which John Carter wrote – with Gillian Shakespeare, who I’ve looked up and who wrote a lot of songs, none of which I’m familiar with.
Still, it doesn’t matter anyway, because if she wrote half of this and nothing else, that’d have been enough for me.
It starts off with an organ note, joined by the drums, then those perfect multipart Beach Boys’ harmonies within the first ten seconds, then the brass and strings burst in, like they’re trying to catch up with everything else, and that’s pretty much where it all stays, which is to say, with the kitchen sink right in there from the off. The drums pound – snare on every beat, taking no chances – the harmonies soar, the strings cascade upwards jubilantly, while the brass punctuates and drives it. As arrangements go, it’s full on. It means it.
The words sound like they’re typical, “Gee-whizz, me and my best gal-pal are having a wholesome, swell time at the beach“, but they’re not. It’s not even on closer inspection, because it makes it clear from the start that this is going to be lyrically nostalgic, as well as instrumentally. The only question is, it it going to be sort of happy nostalgia or sad nostalgia. And the answer to that is the same as all nostalgia, which is that it’s going to be melancholic. And what that means – as far as I’m concerned – is that it’s going to be sad, but enjoying it a bit.
Because Beach Baby is the story of an American kid who spilled his “soda pop” on the girl next door’s dress at the hop, realised she was a groovy chick, went for a walk along the beach with her, hung around at the beach and had an all American, hot-diggity time. They graduated high school, drove to San Jose, where she agreed to – presumably – get married but they can’t have because, as the singer comments, “I guess you don’t remember anything. ”
Which I interpret as meaning, he’s looking back at that summer as being important to him, and she doesn’t seem bothered. Have they met up again and she doesn’t really have the same affection? That’s my guess.
Which is sort of doubly sad, isn’t it? Because not only did they not make it the first time around, it can’t even have been that big a deal for her, or she’d have some recollection of it, and she says she doesn’t.
You could read more into that if you wanted to she either isn’t sad about it, because she’s moved on, or, or she’s encouraging him to move on from the past by showing him the way, or she’s still pissed off with him and can remember but wants to piss him off by pretending not to.
The important thing here is that he’s sad about it, but the arrangement and the melody are – mainly so upbeat that you realise in the end, they’re just how he remembers it being – exciting and full of soaring promise. And now that’s all it is – a memory, and there won’t be any more. Which is sad.
And the melody does reflect that. It’s yearning, isn’t it? I had a look around the web about this, and someone’s said how this is the happiest sounding song in the world. Which is what I mean. It should be happy, but it’s not. The only happiness is his recollection of before, and even that’s tinged with sadness and loss now and not only that, but his memory of that summer is the only one that exists, because the only other person who would remember it in anything like the same way is the girl, and she doesn’t.
That’s not the happiest song in the world, is it? I don’t think it even sounds like it is. I know what they mean, but that’s the best pop music, isn’t it? Happy and sad at the same time. Like The Smiths ten years after this.
As far as 1970s singles go, this is a long one, although it ended up shorter.
Towards the end, it goes into a breakdown of sorts, during which most of the excitement drops out and the brass plays a straight lift from Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, which Strawberry Switchblade also helped themselves to for their early 80s goth-pop classic Since Yesterday.
As a result of that, First Class were sued by the estate of Sibelius and took 50% of the royalties, which seems slightly harsh, because it’s not like the entire song is based on it, and the brass plays the theme a few times, then goes straight into the melody of Let’s Go To San Francisco as the rest of the instrumentation returns. There’s a shorter edit that chops the Sibelius and LGTSF brass off, and maybe that was to limit the legal action, but it’s not as good without them.
In fairness, Strawberry Switchblade’s record leans a lot harder on Sibelius than First Class’ does, but Sibelius’ estate seem to be relatively unconcerned by that, presumably because Beach Baby was a huge worldwide hit single, and Since Yesterday wasn’t, really. Which probably isn’t too surprising, but they’re both similar, lyrically – they both yearn.
I left it at that for about a week and, having made a point of coming back to finish this off, I’ve realised that I’ve barely thought about it at all. Which is unusual for me. I gave it a bit of hammer a week or so ago, and I was taken right back to Frank Dees and Cliff Dunn’s as I heard it. Proust had his lemon cakes and I’ve got parochial local supermarkets of the 1970s. Fair dos.
Still, I’ve realised that, for me at least, Beach Baby is great while I’m listening to it, but it soon fades from the memory. Which appears to also have been the case as far as the wider population goes too.
Why is that? I don’t know, but maybe it’s because it leaves so little to the imagination. It’s so full on, and so crammed full of hooks from the moment it starts up that you want to play it again as soon as it’s finished, but once you move onto something else, it soon fades.
It’s a bit like McDonalds – while you’re eating it, it’s great but it doesn’t fill you up for very long and you’re craving something a bit more substantial. I don’t want McDonalds every day, but I always enjoy it when I have it, and it’s the same for Beach Baby. Whenever I hear it, I think nice thoughts about it, I admire it, and I want it again as soon as I’ve finished it, but once I’ve had my fill for one day, I’m not tempted for a fair while afterwards.
And maybe that’s the point – it’s designed very much as a disposable piece of pop that evokes the dawn of the teenager in America in the late 50s, early 60s – and maybe it’s too successful in that way.
I don’t know if it works lyrically – it’s about nostalgia and remembering the past being exciting and promising, as opposed to the present – and it does that alright, but nobody’s very nostalgic for it. Unlike the relationship it so fondly recalls, the memories of Beach Baby itself have dulled with age, and we don’t really want to go back to it.
And that’s why I’m not convinced that it works lyrically in that way – the writer’s memories of the relationship might have made it into something bigger than it actually was, but my memories of Beach Baby are that it can’t have been the big deal that it seemed to be at the time.
I don’t know. I mean, how could you improve on it? The harmonies, instrumentation and arrangement are all, ahem, First Class. But it just doesn’t seem to matter, except when it’s playing.
And that’s disposable pop music, isn’t it? That’s what it’s supposed to be. Some records do have a degree of timelessness about them, and Beach Baby hung around, at least in Frank Dees and Cliff Dunn’s for maybe ten years.
Maybe that’s what it deserved. Either way, that’s what it got. I’m glad it’s around, and I’ll enjoy it when it crops up on my MP3 player, but I don’t imagine I’m going to seek it out very often.
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