The Beach Is Back

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Deep down,
those who didn’t live through the decade of the 1970s are mystified that
those who did reacted so violently against it. Youngsters accept that Ronald
Reagan’s election answered a pressing felt need to take the decade
out behind the shed and club it to death with drug laws and tight money. They’ll
nod respectfully when their elders tell them that punk felt like a liberation,
that buzzcuts and narrow ties and two-tone mobster jackets were an improvement
on angel-wing hairdos and leisure suits stitched together out of car upholstery.
But at heart, your average 23-year-old, let’s say, cannot see what people
were complaining about. I’da dressed that way if I coulda got laid that
, is the dominant strain of thinking.

What they have
a hard time understanding is just how oppressive, exploitative and fraudulent
the cultural texture of the time was. I’d say you had to be there, but
actually, you can capture the dreckiness if you’ll just listen to "Beach
Baby," by the British group First Class, which was played at least hourly
throughout the summer of 1974. It’s the soundtrack of Richard Nixon’s
resignation. It’s a hoppy, boppy summer tune. It’s an anthem to youth
and the wild life. It’s a pile of dogshit. And as with so many 1970s songs,
the thing that makes me shiver with queasiness is that, at the time, I absolutely
loved it.

To call First
Class a "one-hit wonder" would be a misclassification. It was actually
a bunch of by-the-hour studio musicians hired to perform this one "catchy
number" for the English music mogul Tony Burrows. In 1970 alone, Burrows
packaged four hits this way: "My Baby Loves Lovin’" by White
Plains, "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" by Edison Lighthouse,
"Gimme Dat Ding" by the Pipkins and "United We Stand" by
Brotherhood of Man. At age seven, I ranked all these groups high on my list
of faves. Too bad none of them existed.

There are two
things I remember about a long drive home with my grandparents from the Baseball
Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The first was "Beach Baby," which I heard
probably a half-dozen times on radio stations out of Albany, Springfield, Worcester
and Boston. The second was orthodontia. For some reason, my parents had sent
me to an orthodontist in the penurious and quack-infested inner-city neighborhood
they’d grown up in. (His legacy would be the open-cash-register underbite
I display to this day, but all that lay in the future.) Dr. Katsoutakis didn’t
have many patients, and I was his meal ticket. He fitted me out with a "retainer"–a
rather understated term for that Rollerball-style helmet of hooks, straps,
pulleys, hinges, tines and bungee cord–and ordered that I wear it 12 hours
a day.

It was only
by getting in as many retainer hours as possible on the drive that I would be
able to leave the house when we got back, because I had promised myself I would
never be seen in public in the thing. There was a girl in my class named Emily
Pidgeon who had been one of those homely wallflower types since kindergarten.
No one had ever noticed her–until she got her retainer. Boy, did people
notice her then! Kids would stick things to her, like uneaten pieces of Twinkie
and the Salisbury steaks that came as the Tuesday hot lunch. They’d remark
on her resemblance to a quarterback calling signals ("Three, ninety-five!
Three, ninety-five! Hut! Hut!") or to an astronaut ("Ground
control to Major Tom…") Or merely shout, with all the understated
wit of seventh-grade boys, "Woof! Woof!"

was just beginning, and it was not going well. A thin line separated all of
us from Emily Pidgeon—hood, and in my orthodontia phase, I had no surefire
way of staying on the right side of it. I no longer cared to watch cartoons
and hadn’t yet developed an interest in chasing girls–or, better put,
I hadn’t yet shed the awkwardness that would allow me to feel at ease with
that interest. So adolescence was like living in a doctor’s waiting room:
a mix of boredom, dread and vaguely discerned authority. Listening to music
made me feel much better. It gave the promise of forward movement.

To hear first
the clonking guitar chords (or was it a flourish of violins?) of "Beach
Baby" would send me into soaring reveries.

Beach Baby,
Beach Baby, there on the sand

From July to
the end of September…

called to mind
a bunch of 18-year-old girls slathered with suntan oil and reeking of macaroons.
And where was this beach? Well, just listen to the song:

We couldn’t
wait for graduation day

We took the
car and drove to San Jose …

Oooh! San Jose!
In my New England ignorance, I thought San Jose was some kind of tropical fleshpot,
like San Juan, or Santo Domingo. (So, probably, did the Brits who wrote
the song.) What’s more, my friends and I thought for a while that the
song was actually called "Bitch Baby," which–since bitch
passed for a dirty word where I came from–gave the whole performance
a feeling of adventurous disobedience.

I wasn’t
surprised to hear the song years later and discover what a torrent of schmaltz
it was:

Remember dancing
at the high school hop?

The dress I
ruined with the soda pop…

But I was stunned
to find out how sad "Beach Baby" is. After driving to San Jose,
Burrows continues:

where you told me that you’d wear my ring

I guess
you don’t remember anything

"I guess
you don’t remember anything"? What? Getting married senior year in
high school and settling down in San Jose may suit some people. But anyone would
draw the line at being shackled to a wife so unromantic she can’t even
what it’s like to go the beach.

So in later
years, I’ve wondered which is the bleaker thought: that the repository
of my hopes and dreams at a pivotal stage of adolescence was basically an advertising
jingle–or that the repository of my hopes and dreams at a pivotal stage
of adolescence was basically a dirge.