Revisiting the Beach Boys’ Heartfelt Concept Album About Cars, ‘Little Deuce Coupe’
To fully appreciate the Beach Boys' Little Deuce Coupe, which was released in October 1963, you have to accept that it's possible to create a pop record with occasional moments of stunning beauty about the awesomeness of cars.
Considered to be one of the earliest examples of a rock concept album, Coupe was the Beach Boys' third LP in 1963 – a pretty breathless achievement. Like many of rock's early artistic statements, it was inspired by a subject of teenage fascination, in this case the hot-rod phenomenon. A car-themed compilation album assembled by Capitol Records did big business in the summer of 1963, so a quick follow-up was devised, hitting stores just a few months later and just one month after the Beach Boys' previous LP, Surfer Girl.
For many fans, much of the Beach Boys' appeal lies in tracking the evolution (and, at times, total disintegration) of singer, songwriter and producer Brian Wilson. Coupe emerged at a moment when Wilson found himself divided between the constant demands of the teen-pop marketplace and his own ambitions to discover new sounds and define his musical era.
Wilson was an enthusiastic admirer of fellow pop impresario Phil Spector, and by late 1963, he was already bowled over by such Spector singles as "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Then He Kissed Me." You can hear Wilson stepping slowly toward Spector's famous Wall of Sound on tracks like "Spirit of America," where a chorus of saxophones blends in with the vocal harmonies, and the single version of "Be True to Your School," which apes Spector's studio echo and lathers a marching band onto the original cut for good measure. (The opening "run, run, a doo run run" refrain of "Car Crazy Cutie" is a more direct homage.)
When Coupe hit stores in 1963, the idea of a full-length LP being more than just a collection of singles and random filler was still at least a year or two away. So overall the album is a mixed bag, made all the more curious by its overriding obsession with cars, which can't help but date some of the songs. There are some aching and delicate moments that find Wilson continuing to explore the rich vein he tapped on "Surfer Girl," like in the beautiful harmony-drenched ballads "Ballad of Ole' Betsy" (about an old car loved in spite of its rust) and "A Young Man Is Gone," about the death of James Dean, who died in a car accident. Rockers like the title track, "409" and "Shut Down" may not rank with the Beach Boys' greatest songs, but they still helped define the band's early sound with their mix of Four Freshman vocal harmonies and Chuck Berry guitar licks.
If you listen closely, you can hear one of pop music's great auteurs learning his craft and finding his way on Little Deuce Coupe. Less than three years (and six more LPs) later, he would release his masterpiece Pet Sounds. But in the fall of 1963, Brian Wilson served two masters: the strengthening beat of his artistic heart and the never-ending hunger of the pop-music machine.