The Beach Boys had become full-fledged rock stars by late 1963. The Capital label’s quest for new product was insatiable and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys were under constant pressure to provide that product.
Little Deuce Coupe was the fourth Beach Boys album released within a year’s time and arrived about a month after Surfer Girl. While this deluge of mostly excellent material would sell in the millions, this constant pressure would wear on Brian Wilson over the next five years, with ultimately catastrophic results.
The Capital Label had released a compilation album of car songs, featuring a couple of tunes by the Beach Boys, and it sold well. The Beach Boys decided to jump on the car song bandwagon. Little Deuce Coupe is, in a way, the group’s first theme album, as all the songs, except “Be True To Your School,” are stories about cars.
The Beach Boys would recycle four of their songs for Little Deuce Coupe. The title song, plus “409,” “Our Car Club,” and “Shut Down,” would all reappear. While all were strong songs, they had been heard before and recently.
With four songs in place, the Beach Boys still needed eight more to create a full album. Production notes show all eight were recorded the same day. While Brian Wilson would tinker with them for a week or so, it was still an amazing achievement. This creative burst would produce a number of creative and memorable, if mostly, non-hit songs.
“Ballad Of Ole Betsy” is an ode to an aging car. I still remember my first car and trading it in for a newer one. The unique aspect of this song is the first use of a capella, which presents the young Beach Boys in all their vocal and harmonic strength.
“Be True To Your School” was an early version on the song. It would emerge as a classic Beach Boys single later on. One can’t help but wonder if Brian Wilson just did not have enough time to finish the song. Looking at the ultimately finished product, it does give an excellent look at how Brian Wilson could refine a basic song when given enough time.
“Spirit Of America” was a biographical song about Craig Breedlove who was trying to set a land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. His car was called The Spirit Of America. This song would later be the title song of a multi-platinum-selling Beach Boys greatest hits album.
“No Go Showboat,” while simple on lyrics, has interesting chord changes plus a Brian Wilson and Mike Love duet. The song is about a car that cannot go fast, which is the antithesis of the Beach Boy automobile philosophy.
Brian Wilson always mentions the Four Freshmen as one of his musical inspirations. Here he takes their song, “There Hearts Were Full Of Spring,” and substitutes his lyrics, creating “A Young Man Is Gone,” a tribute to James Dean who died in a car crash. Again, the use of a capella accents just how pure the early voices of the group were and how well they fit together.
“Cherry Cherry Coupe” has always been my favorite song on Little Deuce Coupe. There were no dramatic highs; just a smooth vocal by Mike Love with subtle backing vocals. It flows along and is relaxing in its own way. “Custom Machine” ends the album as it began, with a song about a dream car.
Little Deuce Coupe was a quickly thrown together affair, and it shows in some ways. There is very little musical and technical advancement from Surfer Girl. Having said that, Brian Wilson proved that even when hurried, he could still produce an album superior to most of what was being released in 1963. Time was passing, and Brian Wilson was still learning.