By the time The Beach Boys appeared on ABC’s variety series Shindig! on December 23rd, 1964, they were one of the biggest American bands in the world. Since the release of their 1962 debut album Surfin’ Safari, the Hawthorne, CA pop group had been on a meteoric rise with an onslaught of prolific releases: Surfin’ U.S.A. (1963), Surfer Girl (1963), Little Deuce Coupe (1963), Shut Down Volume 2 (1964), and All Summer Long (1964). Unlike their American pop peers, The Beach Boys’ records consisted mostly of original compositions. The group’s primary songwriter and bassist, Brian Wilson, had garnished the reputation as a studio whizkid, expanding his musical prowess to writing and producing for other artists such as The Honeys and sitting in on Phil Spector sessions at Gold Star Studios. Ever the Spector fanboy, Wilson had attended sessions for Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You, even contributing piano to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” by The Crystals (Wilson’s piano track was later scrapped by Spector due to “substandard piano playing”). These fly on-the-wall studio experiences prompted Wilson to begin writing and arranging his own Christmas songs, the seed that would eventually blossom into The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album.
The group began 1964 with a two-week-long international tour, their first time performing outside of the United States. Opening up for Roy Orbison alongside The Safaris, The Beach Boys would play throughout Australia and New Zealand to crazed crowds, many of which would greet them on the airport tarmac days and hours before the shows. The rest of the year was spent bouncing back and forth between studio sessions and touring, all the while releasing hit singles and seminal albums. The frantic pace, grueling schedule, and incessant pressure would hit a fever pitch by the end of 1964, resulting in Brian Wilson’s nervous breakdown and decision to quit touring.
During this fury of activity, Shindig! booked The Beach Boys to perform “Little Saint Nick.” The single had been released the previous year on December 9th, 1963, peaking at number three on Billboard’s seasonal Christmas singles chart. Following its success, “Little Saint Nick” was tacked onto The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, the group’s seventh studio record. Recorded throughout June of 1964 directly after the All Summer Long sessions, the album features five original compositions and seven holiday standards. Initially hitting the number six position on the US Billboards Top 200 Charts, the record would soon thereafter be certified gold.
Shindig’s host and Los Angeles disc jockey, Jimmy O’Neill, introduces the group amidst a cacophony of teenage screams from the studio audience: “Direct from their riotously successful invasion of Europe, here’s America’s number one group…The Beach Boys!” The camera pans over to the stage, where the effervescent group plays “Little Saint Nick,” singing live over taped backing tracks. Dressed in their famous striped, short-sleeve button-downs with plastered smiles, they bop along to their seasonal repurposing of “Little Deuce Coupe” as Mike Love hams it up for the cameras. It’s clear from the lighthearted performance that the group is still in their Tiger-Beat phase, but they’re also only two years away from the creative crescendo of Pet Sounds.
Much like tracing the ambitious artistry of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s by examining the foreshadowings of Revolver, the early rumblings of Pet Sounds are most commonly traced back to Today! With songs like “In The Back Of My Mind” and “She Knows Me Too Well,” it was becoming clear that Brian Wilson was moving away from ear-worms about surfing and cars, finding a new voice in introspective ballads about insecurities and neurosis from the first-person perspective. Things are still surfy and fun (“Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Good To My Baby”), but there’s darkness closing in; a bittersweet undercurrent to all those endless summer days (“When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” and “Please Let Me Wonder”). Enhancing the lyrical themes are sophisticated musical compositions, borrowing more from jazz than pop/rock. Utilizing major/minor sevenths and ninths chords in unorthodox progressions, the sunny disposition most often associated with The Beach Boys becomes somber. The result is a record more intimate and vulnerable than anything previously heard from the happy-go-lucky group. For many, Today! marks The Beach Boys’ turning point from surf band to pop majesty.
But before Today! we have The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, which for obvious reasons has gone down in history as – you guessed it – a Christmas album. The Christmas Album is typically overlooked, ranking low in The Beach Boys’ discography. But it contains some of the most refined arrangements in their catalog, as well as Brian Wilson’s most enduring songwriting and production. Dick Reynolds, the arranger for The Four Freshmen (one of Wilson’s favorite groups), was brought in by Wilson to conduct the 41-piece orchestra that supplied the backing tracks for the Christmas Album. Before the grandiose arrangements of Pet Sounds and Smile, The Beach Boys were employing orchestral arrangements on the Christmas Album, already beginning to blur the line between pop songs and teenage symphonies. Wilson’s choices for overdubs on the Christmas Album included xylophone, sleigh bells, celeste, and glockenspiel – unconventional choices in pop music at the time, all of which would reappear throughout the colorful sonic landscape of Pet Sounds. The structural harmonies and novel chord voicings that would populate future Wilson songs are also present on the Christmas Album, stealthily disguised as popular fanfare (a personal favorite being the chorus hook of “Santa’s Beard,” which goes straight from the I chord (G#maj) to a tense augmented chord (G#aug) before the IV chord (C#maj). And while the original compositions on the record are predominantly cheerful, there are notable outliers such as “Santa’s Beard,” which finds the narrator watching his younger brother come to the painful realization that Santa isn’t real: “He yanked the beard right on off of his chin/And in his eyes I could see he was hurt.” The plain language used to convey the emotional gravitas of a coming-of-age moment coupled with the buoyancy of the backing tracks is signature Brian Wilson, two years before penning songs such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and “Caroline, No.”
In The Beach Boys’ Smile installment of the 33 1/3 series, author Luis Sanchez writes, “The Beach Boy’s Christmas Album proved that the Beach Boys’ vocal power was bigger and more agile than the surf and hot rod records, staking a claim for wider musical terrain…The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album music shows a quality of aesthetic selectivity that none of the group’s records that came before it do, aspiring not just to assimilate one of pop’s stock ideas, but also enabling Brian to make one of his biggest artistic advances.”
Removed of all seasonal connotations, it’s arguable that the Christmas Album would be considered one of The Beach Boys’ best records, right up there with Pet Sounds and Smile. After all, Christmas songs are just classic pop songs, dressed up in broken triplet rhythms and disguised with winter imagery. Imagine songs like “Merry Christmas, Baby” or “Christmas Day,” but with new titles and lyrics removed from Christmas, delivered on a record that didn’t bear a kitschy cover of the band putting ornaments on a tree. If this was the case, would the Christmas Album get the respect it deserves?
It’s tough to tell from the Shindig! performance, but The Beach Boys had already begun ramping up to their musical summit, and their sheepish bass player was one record away from writing and producing what would come to be considered pop music’s masterpiece. But the wheels were already in motion, as made evident by the musicality of the Christmas Album. The group on Shindig! is nearing an artistic crossroads, and they’re about to change musical history. But for now, they’re happy just to tell you about “a real famous cat all dressed up in red, who spends the whole year workin’ out on his sled.” | e hehr