The Beach Is Back

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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 often, 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!"

Adolescence 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:

That's 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 remember 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.

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