Three-Minute Records: 4th of July

Three-Minute Records is a periodic feature at Pop Culture Has AIDS where we take a closer look at great, notable or interesting songs in pop music history.

The Beach Boys’ recorded “4th of July” for their 1971 album Surf’s Up, omitted the track from the final cut, then finally released it on the 1993 box set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys.

The early ’70s were fascinating years for The Beach Boys. They were a half-decade beyond the final days of their commercial peak. Brian Wilson had gone full lunatic. In an effort to regain their popularity, the band alternated between Wilson-inspired chaotic weirdness and safe, straight-forward pop music. By 1971, Wilson himself was at best intermittently involved with the group, leaving his brothers and bandmates to fill the creative void left in his absence.

As a result, those late ’60s/early ’70s albums were the group’s most egalitarian and schizophrenic, and featured the biggest creative successes of the careers of the non-Brian members. Carl Wilson stepped forward to take more lead vocals, and wrote or co-wrote gentle shoulda-been classics like “Feel Flows.” The collapse of the Smile sessions left a number of unfinished Brian tracks, and Mike Love took the reins on finishing some the most commercial-sounding, leading to singles like “Wild Honey” and “Darlin’.” Even Bruce Johnston contributed the lovely “Disney Girls” to Surf’s Up.

The resulting albums were never great, but always interesting and containing moments of spark — often but not exclusively when the rest of the band would cobble together Brian’s scraps of genius or the great man himself would make a rare appearance in the studio.

The other Wilson brother, Dennis, was fresh off an ill-fated involvement with the Manson Family, battled alcohol and other demons, and was never known as one of the driving forces behind the band. But as Brian receded into the shadows of his own mind, Dennis ascended.

For the first time, his compositions appeared on Beach Boys LPs with regularity, and his increased confidence and presence helped lead to a schism within the band. Carl and Dennis (and Brian, when he was making sense) wanted the Beach Boys to continue pursuing the experimental direction of Pet Sounds and Smile. They found themselves resentful of the group’s square image in the wake of the sexual and political revolt of the late ’60s, and took steps to change it. Tentatively taking steps toward cultural relevance, they played anti-war protests, aligned themselves with the Grateful Dead, and began to write politically expressive lyrics.

Meanwhile, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Johnston wanted none of this. They desired nothing more than a return to 1964 and felt that if they could pull the band’s music back to that time, they’d regain their success. Those three would have been happy wearing Hawaiian shirts and singing about surfer girls until the end of their days. And, given what became of the Beach Boys in ensuing decades, it’s difficult not to think of Love as one of rock music’s greatest villains.

This clash led to Dennis’s best song, “4th of July,” getting left of the track list for Surf’s Up. Which is a shame because the song (co-written with then-manager Jack Rieley) would have fit in well with the album and because it stands as one of the Beach Boys’ career highlights.

Listen here.

Featuring exquisite, aching vocals by Carl, “4th of July” is reportedly about U.S. government censorship of the media in the era of the Pentagon Papers. But the specifics don’t particularly matter. “4th of July” is at once both perfectly of its time and completely timeless. On one hand, the song’s mournful tone and disgusted American symbolism could only have come from the early 1970s, as the optimism and hope of the ’60s gave way to something darker and more cynical.

Born of the age
Flagged hopes
Censored rage
The black clad box
Bombs bursting in air
Bleed white red and blue
Cried dawn’s early light
For the hope
Oh, where has it gone?

The United States was beginning its long, slow slide into Watergate, and disillusion with Vietnam overtook the naïve belief in peaceful domestic revolution. The country was tired…of strife, of war, of assassinations, of fucking on acid in muddy fields. And that exhaustion infuses “4th of July” with a defeated air. The song doesn’t end so much as peter out with piano and flute limping along to an uncertain conclusion. It sounds like a last waltz before the laying down of arms.

And yet…and yet…there’s something hopeful and patriotic in there too. If nothing else, the Wilsons leads us to believe that this losing fight was still one worth fighting. That, even if the battle’s winding down and we’re on the wrong side, it was a hell of a ride.

The use of iconic American imagery and snippets of lyrics from patriotic anthems reminds us that even if a lot of what we love about the country is mythical, then there’s still part of that myth worth believing in. That’s what makes the song sound pertinent today, and not just another Country Joe & The Fish-type relic of a political minefield long since past.

Brothers sisters stand firmly and try
Reaching the spacious skies
Fourth of July

For those of us who feel conflicted about the United States — its past, present and future, this hope feels like a branch to grab before we drown. For those of us who aren’t Lee Greenwood-style blind patriots, who often wonder if we’d be better off living somewhere else, who feel weird about standing for the national anthem at baseball games….”4th of July” is an American song to hang onto.

It reminds us that as much as we may resent actions taken in our name, or the twisting of founding American principles, that there might be some ideas in the country’s history and lexicon worth pursuing or debating. Or, maybe it’s just better to believe in something than to believe in nothing.

The Beach Boys are one of the bands most identified with the United States. In the ’60s, they were our flag-bearers against the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; and the weight of that burden is part of what drove Brian Wilson to his sandbox. Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983, while drunkenly swimming at an L.A. marina. Listening to “4th of July,” that’s all in there. It’s can’t not be in there.

So the song is what it was meant to be and it’s much more than that too. It’s an elegy for what we’ve lost, a wistful hymn for summers past, and a despondent memory of sitting on a blanket as a kid, watching fireworks and eating ice cream, when none of the rest of it fucking mattered.

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4 Comments

Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

4 responses to “Three-Minute Records: 4th of July

  1. John

    Wow. I just discovered this song, googled it and landed here. You really nailed it, conveying everything it means nearly as heart-breakingly elegantly as the song itself. I had no idea Dennis was capable of such majesterial sophistication. Just brilliant. Until this moment I assumed Brian wrote the music and found a lyricist, or just set music to a poem he discovered. How the hell did that get left off the album?

  2. What an ironic song from a group who only a few years later would be labeled as “America’s Band”, giving concerts at the National Mall in Washington D.C.ON the “4th of July”. Rarely would the Beach Boys be this lyrically adventurous again, producing music of the sort that the “Lee Greenwood-style blind patriots” would accept, with Mike Love leading the way.

  3. Anonymous

    Beautiful and timeless. Thank you for introducing me to this song.

  4. Pingback: Three-Minute Records: Champaign, Illinois | Pop Culture Has AIDS

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