The Beach Boys’ Christmas
Although we are still a few months away from the holiday season, the first burst of chilled air has crept its way into Chicago, foreshadowing the dismal and perpetually grayness yet to come in the winter season. In an effort to focus on the positives of the holiday season and less on the negatives, I have retreated to Christmas music. While I realize this post may be a bit pre-mature, I hope to iterate the fact that the best holiday music does not subscribe to seasonal regulations, and can be enjoyed in any climate, at any point in the year.
The Beach Boys’ Christmas album is no exception. Released in November of 1964, it is a gorgeous piece of pop music, and its compositional and sonic merits transcend its seasonal association. Containing five original songs and seven standards, the album proved to be a long-running success during the Christmas seasons, initially reaching #6 in the US Christmas album chart in 1964, and eventually going gold shortly thereafter. It contains some of Brian Wilson’s most underrated songwriting (“Little Saint Nick,” “Merry Christmas, Baby,” “The Man With All The Toys”) and gorgeously lush arrangements (“”Auld Lang Syne,” “Our Lord’s Prayer”). Despite the fact that The Beach Boys’ Christmas is undoubtedly a holiday album, it still ranks among The Beach Boys’ strongest material. It is often overlooked or undervalued due to the fact that it is a Christmas album, which is a shame to both The Beach Boys’ catalogue and pop music in general. Had you kept the original compositions on The Beach Boys’ Christmas intact but changed the lyrical content to something less genre-specific, there is no doubt in mind that the album would be valued as a monumental mile-stone in their career.
Within The Beach Boys’ Christmas, you can hear the first signs of Pet Sounds (released two years later in 1966) within the flourishing orchestrations and abundant harmonies. Much of the instrumentation on The Beach Boy’s Christmas would also resurface in the lavish textures found throughout Pet Sounds. Both albums also have an organic sonic boom; an explosion of mono and reel-to-reel exquisiteness. Brian Wilson’s interest in studio engineering is strongly felt in the sonic landscape of The Beach Boys’ Christmas; a hint at the emerging producer/engineer within the songwriter/musician.
It is difficult to praise The Beach Boys’ Christmas without mentioning Dick Reynolds, an unsung hero of vocal performances in pop music. While Brian Wilson produced and arranged the original material he wrote for the album, he personally selected Dick Reynolds (an arranger of The Four Freshman, a group that Wilson idolized) to arrange the orchestral backings on the traditional holiday standards. Reynolds arrangements are imperative to the strength of The Beach Boys’ Christmas back half, and they are as emotive and beautiful as anything Wilson would later achieve with Pet Sounds and the infamous Smile.
The Beach Boys began their career as a West Coast pop act that sang about surfboards, girls, and cars. Within a few years, they slowly transformed into an elaborate studio project that sang about isolation, dejection, and the loss of innocence. The Beach Boys’ Christmas is the mid-way point in the transition from pop novelty to pop royalty, released two years after Surfin’ Safari and two years before Pet Sounds.
In 1965, The Beach Boys’ released The Beach Boy’s Today, which marked the turning point in their personal and creative career. It was at this point in time that Brian Wilson announced – after suffering a massive anxiety attack – that he would no longer tour with the band and would remain behind in the studio working on new material. The Today LP also showed the first signs of the melancholic ballads that would come to populate The Beach Boys’ future track-listings, as well as Wilson’s never-ending quest to one-up Phil Spectors’ productions through the use of strings, horns, piano and keyboards, additional percussion, and volume tricks. Many consider Today as the mark of Wilson’s artistic maturation; a pre-cursor to the technical triumphs and disasters he would encounter in future projects. If Pet Sounds is to The Beach Boys as Sgt.Peppers… was to The Beatles, then Today is The Beach Boys Rubber Soul.
But where does this leave The Beach Boys’ Christmas? An overlooked stroke of genius hiding in the shadows of Today and Pet Sounds? A trinket of pop music that contains nothing more than novelty worth? It’s in the ears of the beholder to decide, but I believe that The Beach Boys’ Christmas is a crowning achievement – in both Wilson’s songwriting and Dick Reynolds arrangements. It also supplies the lush foundation for which Wilson would base the rest of The Beach Boy’s material off of.
Replace Santa with Sarah, snow with sand, ease off the jingle bells a bit, and it would be hard to separate the material on The Beach Boys’ Christmas from the material on Today (or dare I say Pet Sounds). It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in front of a fireplace in the midst of a snowstorm or in front of an ice-cream stand in the midst of a heat wave, The Beach Boys’ Christmas is a maverick example of genius songcraft and ingenuity. Don’t think of it as a Christmas album. Think of it as a pop album.