Speed, sound, and the Beach Boys’ car-culture gospel
On June 22, at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, the latest in the Hall’s “Hops & Harmony” events (in which attendees form an ad hoc chorus to learn and perform popular songs) features a moving target: the Beach Boys’ 1964 “I Get Around,” an ode to the liberating transience of teenage driving. Mobility — personal, artistic, vehicular — permeated the song. Its April 1964 recording session became the occasion for Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson (along with cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine) to fire father and manager Murry Wilson and strike out on their own. In the studio, Brian, spurred by the example (and threat) of competitors like the Beatles and Phil Spector, pushed ahead with novel production and songwriting ideas.
The lyrics, meanwhile, preached the gospel of car culture. Car songs were a Beach Boys trademark; the previous year had brought the release of “Little Deuce Coupe,” an auto-themed proto-concept album. But “I Get Around” didn’t just revisit the subject, it practically sounded automotive: The verses’ sparse, start-and-stop rhythms give way to the chorus’s steady, purring drive; the chorus harmonies, interpolating a triad built on the flatted seventh scale degree, slip into their turnaround like a reengaged clutch. The forward push was a success: “I Get Around” became the group’s first single to reach No. 1.
By 1964, car culture inspired equal parts celebration and skepticism. The car’s colonization of American life and landscape engendered cookie-cutter suburbs, ribbons of Interstate, and a consumerist merry-go-round of model years and styles, sparking fears of conformity and waste. Writer John Keats crystallized the anxieties in his tart 1958 polemic “The Insolent Chariots.” He decried the industry’s planned obsolescence, manufacturing cars “headed for the junk heap at a predetermined speed,” creating an economy “predicated on the hope that a man who can’t afford to buy a decaying automobile will, nevertheless, buy one.” Keats satirically predicted a completely paved continent where “everyone will scurry around in a kind of Brownian movement, each couple in its own huge car, going 500 miles an hour, here and there, round and round, up and down, day and night.”
“I Get Around” hardly amplifies such dissent, but it doesn’t exactly refute it, either. The song’s constant drive for additional space, “a new place where the kids are hip,” might be an embryonic version of Keats’s blur of pathological transport, and the song’s most sociologically fascinating couplet — “None of the guys go steady, ’cause it wouldn’t be right/To leave their best girl home on a Saturday night” — posits planned obsolescence as a relationship ideal. Ot does such analysis weigh too heavily? In more ways than one, “I Get Around” advocates not hanging around long enough to find out.
Mechanics Hall in Worcester presents Hops & Harmony, June 22 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $10, or $20 for four. 508-752-0888, www.mechanicshall.org