A Wilson-Inspired Lost Concept Album From '70s Bubblegum Studio Wonders

Page 1 | Page 2

When I was in junior high in the mid-1970s, there was this sort of annoying song being played -- seemingly all the time -- on the radio that sounded like a cross between the cheesier sides of the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys. I never paid much attention to it but it was all over the airwaves on "AM" pop radio at that time, so it was hard to avoid.

FirstClassPromoSleeve225.jpgYears earlier, however, there was a slew of singles on the radio by equally mysterious one-hit-wonder type bands that were undeniably catchy and ultimately got etched into one's psyche growing up at that time:

  • "Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes," by the Edison Lighthouse
  • "My Baby Loves Lovin'" by White Plains
  • "Gimme Dat Ding" by the Pipkins
  • "United We Stand" by the Brotherhood of Man.

The sonic glue between all of these records was their lead singer. It turns out that these bands all had the same lead singer: Tony Burrows.

And yes, he sang lead on that annoying song from 1974: "Beach Baby."

This group, the First Class, was the brainchild of one John Carter, who scored a 1967 hit with Burrows as the Flower Pot Men ("Lets Go To San Francisco") and who later went on to be a session singer (according to the Wiki he sang backups on The Who's "I Can't Explain" ?!?!).

Recently (at music store or a garage sale somewhere along the way) I picked up a copy of the full album by the First Class, featuring the single "Beach Baby."

It was a particularly interesting find as albums by these groups were not especially popular sellers. These were singles bands, and in the case of the Edison Lighthouse, an album was never actually made. Just 45 RPM singles (kinda like today when some new artists only issue a single track download vs. a whole collection of songs).

FirstClassPromoSleeveBack225.jpgThe other curious thing about finding this actual album by the First Class was that it included the promotional copy (seen in the photo at right), likely intended for radio stations or retailers which the record labels hoped would play this in-store to promote sales.

It was also especially interesting that I found two copies of this album -- again, which I'd never seen before -- sitting side by side in the bargain bin ($2 each!) in perfect condition. As a fan of all things power pop and bubblegum, I grabbed them knowing I'd not likely see these again anytime soon in this manner.

These copies also included a special bonus: an original press release from the time of the album's release was physically taped to the back cover (under the shrink wrap, so it was no accident!).

Carefully peeling one of them back, I found that the liner notes under the press release were pretty over the top :

"Banks of wheeling brass and strings highlight magnificent melodies, lyrics of humor and atmosphere, and most importantly the powerful rhythm sound heard for the first time on First Class records."

Heavy promotional hype for sure that was completely inconsistent with the lighthearted flavor of "Beach Baby."

I suspect that the press release being scotch taped over the liner notes was thus a quite intentional effort on the part of whomever was assigned the task of trying to publicize and promote this album.

Realize that at that point in time, bubblegum pop was nearly dead, disco was on the rise, hard and progressive rock from the likes of Led Zeppelin and Yes dominated the FM airwaves. At that time, Brian Wilson was still viewed as a casualty of the psychedelic '60s, yet pockets of musician types certainly knew of and revered his innovations. Phil Spector was virtually in retirement by then. Big Star was wallowing in obscurity. The Raspberries were breaking up. Even with bands like the Ramones and Blondie starting to hit in the late '70s, it would be six or seven years before a new generation began to rediscover and embrace this type of music. Then new bands like REM and the dBs began to emerge, groups which had started mining some of these pure pop sounds for a new generation of listener.

Anyhow, one thing I've learned over the years while exploring many recordings made by studio session musicians (Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, Gary Usher, Curt Boettcher, etc.), these seemingly simple pop music toss-offs are anything but throw-aways. Closer listening often indeed reveals said "banks of wheeling brass and strings...."

So... all that covered-up promotional hype under the press release got me listening to the First Class album in a more serious manner. I quickly discovered that it was produced to be a bit of a concept record: It plays like a radio show, with DJ introductions for many of the songs as if you were listening to radio at the time. (Echoes of the Who's Sell Out, for certain.)

All of a sudden, that cheesy song "Beach Baby" makes a lot of sense in context with these other tunes.

As an end-to-end listen, it is actually quite fun, with a number of the songs approaching mini pop epic status. Character studies like "Surfer Queen" could be a lost track by influential '60s surf pop band the Rip Chords (by way of The Raspberries). "What Became of Me" is a quite spectacular homage to Brian Wilson replete with harmony constructs that were common to Beach Boys' pop symphonies found on Pet Sounds and the (then unreleased) SMiLE album.

Page 1 | Page 2
comments powered by Disqus

Audiophile Review Sponsors