1964 was a monumental year for The Beach Boys. They’ve had plenty of them over the course of their 50-year history, but it was during that 12-month stretch that, behind the scenes, everything changed for the band. It began with the firing of their manager, Murray Wilson, the father of the group’s leader and principal songwriter, Brian Wilson, and ended with the latter having a nervous breakdown. Along the way, vocalist Mike Love divorced his first wife, and his first daughter was born.
In the public eye, things were humming at a frightening clip. The group hit commercial peaks with their first No. 1 single (“I Get Around”) and No. 1 album (the live recording Beach Boys Concert) and made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. They released two full-length albums with Shut Down Volume 2 and All Summer Long. There were more tours, more writing, and more production work for Brian outside The Beach Boys fold, and appearances in the Annette Funicello film The Monkey’s Uncle and The T.A.M.I. Show to be filmed.
Somehow, in the midst of all of this, they found time to record The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, the only holiday record that the group would release during their time together.
All of this seems important to properly assess their fourth full-length release of 1964. Because as beloved as it has become in the 54 years since it came out, the album is a strange one, a mix of awkwardly written originals and versions of holiday standards on which the group’s vocalists sound absolutely exhausted.
It doesn’t start off that way. Opening track “Little Saint Nick” is the perfect jaunty Christmas tune written in the midst of The Beach Boys’ attempt to pivot from beach culture to car culture. Hence, the “Saint Nick” of the title is a candy apple red bobsled “with a ski for a wheel/ And when Santa hits the gas, man, just watch her peel.” An instant classic, done and dusted in under two minutes.
The success of that song can be attributed to the fact that it was recorded and released as a single a year earlier. Everything else on Christmas Album was done in and around the sessions for the group’s next album, The Beach Boys Today!. The tunes that came out in the summer of ‘64, even with the symphonic arrangements provided by Dick Reynolds, the man behind many of the Four Freshman’s hits, felt comparatively flat.
Brian’s lead vocals on “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” sound melancholic, as if they were recorded with him lying supine underneath a piano. The tenderness required for those songs only comes alive on a gorgeous rendition of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and a closing “Auld Lang Syne”, both of which make great use of the group’s airtight vocal harmonies. But even a swingin’ “Frosty the Snowman” couldn’t dredge the holiday cheer from the head Beach Boy.
As for the other originals Brian wrote, or co-wrote with Mike Love, for Christmas Album, they feel downright tossed off when compared to the gems that they were creating around them. The production is minimalist, a byproduct of the decision to use their own instrumental skills rather than leaning on the hot-shot session musicians that populated the rest of their studio discography. Their abilities are passable, enough to get through live performances where they were surrounded by screaming young women, but not enough to dazzle anyone. There seemed to be such little thought put into it that they couldn’t even be bothered to tune the guitar properly for “Christmas Day”.
The songs themselves are a motley bunch, too. “Santa’s Beard” imagines Love taking his little brother to see a department store Claus and causing chaos when he tears the fake facial hair off the poor schlub. “The Man with All the Toys” is almost like a Beach Boys parody, with its fractured falsetto and groovy shuffle beat. Beyond “Little Saint Nick”, only “Merry Christmas Baby” has any punch. It feels like a quaint demo for a future Beach Boys hit as Love opines the girl that got away this Christmas season.
What feels startling to consider is that within a year of these sessions, Brian Wilson would start working his way down the twisty rabbit hole that would result in the Beach Boys’ uncontested masterwork, Pet Sounds. Sooner than that, the band would hit the heights of their pop powers with “California Girls” and “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”. At the time of its release, The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album must have felt like an unexpected gift. Viewed through the often warped lens of hindsight, it seems more like The Beach Boys’ version of a light practice before the big game.
Essential tracks: “Little Saint Nick”, “Merry Christmas Baby”, and “We Three Kings of Orients Are”