“Beach Baby” — First Class
I briefly mentioned “Beach Baby” by First Class in a recent article, but I couldn’t leave my favourite happy song of all time languishing as a footnote to an article about a different song altogether…so here goes…
First Class are credited as the performers of “Beach Baby”, but there wasn’t a “real group” behind this record. First Class were formed out of a collection of session musicians for the sole purpose of recording the track.
This has some upsides. The quality of the performance is exceptional, and much better than you would expect from a run-of-the-mill, self-taught pop group. I especially love the drums, which display the deft touch of a great percussionist, although the strings and the brass are both brilliant too.
Having recorded a great track, the session players…as session players do…went off in all sorts of different directions to work on other projects. After all, they all had rent to pay…
That made things a little awkward when “Beach Baby” started to canter its way up the charts in the summer of 1974. With a Top 5 song in the Billboard Hot 100, and peaking just outside the Top 10 in the UK, the record company was clamouring for a tour…but there was nobody left from the original recording ensemble to do it.
Being resourceful, as record companies usually are when there’s a whiff of a few bucks for themselves somewhere, a touring band was quickly formed. By all accounts they did a very decent job, although none of the “live” performers had appeared on original recording.
I’ve got strong memories of “Beach Baby” from our family summer holiday in Scotland back in 1974. It received plenty of airplay on the little transistor radio that I’d been given for my birthday a few months previously and it became the title track for my summer that year.
That year’s holiday was blessed by unusually good weather (not universally true for summer holidays in Scotland, in my experience…). So the summer sound of “Beach Baby” on my transistor radio was the perfect accompaniment for our journeys across sun-dappled fields for picnics on deserted little beaches along Scotland’s west coast.
My childhood association of this song with an enjoyable family holiday might have helped me remember it all these years later, although I think it’s got more to do with it just being a brilliant song.
Husband and wife team John Carter and Jill Shakespeare wrote “Beach Baby”.
john Carter was a significant writer, producer and performer right through the 1960s. With his writing and production partner Ken Lewis, John Carter formed several highly successful studio acts under a variety of pseudonyms, including The Ivy League…best known for their 1965 hit “Funny How Love Can Be”… and The Flower Pot Men, who had a massive hit in 1967 with “Let’s Go to San Francisco”.
Although the Ivy League and Flower Pot Men songs are both great, I’ve got a real soft spot for “Beach Baby”.
John Carter had always been more interested in writing and production than in touring and performing. “Beach Baby” has all the hallmarks of a well-written song, pulled together in the studio by someone who really knew what he was doing.
In fact “Beach Baby” is so good, a lot of people think it’s a Beach Boys song…and let’s face it, any writer and producer whose work is often mistaken for Brian Wilson’s clearly knows what he’s doing.
The Beach Boys feel comes most of all from the vocal, with all of its perfectly-delivered multi-layered harmonies. The strings are sublime…a really great arrangement which sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it… and the brass is wonderfully sharp and punchy.
I suppose one of the benefits of using session musicians to record a song is that you can pick the best in the business. John Carter and Jill Shakespeare certainly did that.
In a delightful twist, “Beach Baby” ends with a marvellous in-joke, and one that most people listening to the song on the radio in the mid-70s, myself included, would never have spotted.
At the time, most songs played on the radio were (and indeed still are…) about three minutes long. Songs that went on much beyond that were usually faded out before they finished.
But keep going right to the end of the video I’ve linked to below and you’ll clearly hear the horn section reprise part of the melody from The Flower Pot Men’s “Let’s Go To San Francisco” on the fade out.
I’m sure this was seen as a huge laugh in the recording studio because the experienced writing, production and performing team behind “Beach Baby” would know that most radio stations would fade out a track well before the real fade out took place.
Only people who actually bought the single on vinyl would ever know this little homage to one of John Carter’s previous hits was even in there.
I like to imagine everyone in the studio convulsing with laughter as they laid down that part of the track. They placed a brilliant in-joke in plain sight, all the while knowing that only people who bought the single would ever hear it, just after the 4' 30" mark.
That reprise of “Let’s Go To San Francisco” makes me chuckle every time I hear it. “Beach Baby” is worth listening to all the way through for that moment alone.
“Beach Baby” was written by John Carter and Jill Shakespeare at their home in East Sheen, in south-west London. And I can tell you for certain that back in 1974, none of the situations, events or items the lyrics refers to existed in East Sheen, or anywhere else in the UK…many of them still don’t exist here today.
Whether that’s another in-joke, like the horn refrain on the fade-out , or just an imaginative way to bring an exotic West Coast vibe to a song recorded in the drizzly London spring of 1974, we’ll never know.
But to a kid enjoying a school summer holiday in Scotland it certainly conjured up the idea of being an impossibly-cool teenager carrying a surfboard along a beach somewhere in southern California…
Do you remember back in old LA
When everybody drove a Chevrolet
Whatever happened to the boy next door
Suntanned, crewcut all-American male?
Remember dancing at the high school hop
The dress I ruined with the soda pop
I barely recognised the girl next door
With beat-up sneakers and a ponytail
That’s the great thing about lyrics. They don’t need to be factually accurate…they just need to do their job to tell the story and create the right atmosphere to get the feeling of the song across.
Whether “Beach Boy” was written in a south London suburb or on a beach under the blazing Californian sun doesn’t matter in the slightest.
All that counts is that I can’t listen to “Beach Baby” without dreaming I’m a teenager with a surfboard under my arm, strolling along a California beach while the waves roll up onto the sand…not a care in the world…just enjoying life one day at a time.
“Beach Baby” is the happiest song I know… one that never fails to lift me up any time I’m feeling down. Here’s First Class to take us all the way back to a time when life was so much simpler…
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/3gOsZGaMej7EMVy6VBjxHM
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.