Amy Miles, Anderson Council, Fleko, Fossil Cliffs, Fuzzy, Gal Gun, Girl Don't Tell Me, Gumball, Gyllene Tider, Heartworms, Hot Pockets, Jared Letkis, Joe Jitsu, Keith Green, Ken Sharp, Kevin Robertson, Laura Biagini, Mudwerks, Nomadi, Oceanics, Stephen Bates, Summer Days (and Summer Nights), The Beach Boys, The Smithereens, Tony Rivers and the Castaways, Truly
This just might be my favourite Beach Boys song. When it was released in late 1965 it represented a departure from the band’s prior neo-1950s surf rock for more Beatles melodic territory, particularly its jangle guitar and Carl Wilson’s lone vocals, sans the usual group back up. Brian Wilson would later cite the Fabs’ “Ticket to Ride” as particularly influential here. I didn’t hear the song until my Dad came home with Endless Summer in 1974 but immediately it stood out for me from the rest of the band’s early period hits on the collection. Brian Wilson’s usual subject matter – teen drama – remained the same but the song’s structure and subtle hooks were nothing like the other 19 songs. It’s a tune I can play and play and still want more. Curiously, covers of the song were few until more recent times, no doubt reflecting the increasing critical appreciation of the band and their legacy that has occurred over time.
“Girl Don’t Tell Me” appeared in December 1965 on the Beach Boys’ eighth long player Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) and as the b-side to the “Barbara Ann” single. But Brian Wilson had written the song back in February and the composition had been shopped to various artists. 13 year old Keith Green would actually release the first version in October 1965, his vocal range suiting the teen angst of the song. Green’s career as a teen star was ultimately cut short by the rise of Donny Osmond but he later surfaced as a highly successful Christian rock artist. Teen pop idols Dino, Desi and Billy recorded a version of the song in 1966 but couldn’t quite hit the ‘I’s in the “I’m the guy who left you …” line. A much better version was put together the same year by Tony Rivers and the Castaways, a Brian Epstein managed group that had the Rolling Stones’ Andrew Loog Oldham produce their release. And then … nothing. Covers of the song evaporated as critical interest in the Beach Boys’ early material declined and the band’s commercial and creative drive stalled in the 1970s (other than as a featured act on the emerging ‘oldies’ circuit).
Covers of “Girl Don’t Tell Me” only really start to appear in the 1990s and beyond as the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson in particular start to gain traction as important, critical influences on late twentieth century popular music. An early adopter was Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens who included a cover on the band’s debut EP Girls About Town as far back as 1980. That band drive the lead line home throughout the song, making it a killer hook. But things really take off in the 1990s with covers from Gumball (1992), Heartworms (1995), Fuzzy (1996), and the Sparkle Jets (1998). The first two bands perform the song with a grunge and rock demeanor while the latter two are more into the indie and jangle scenes.
In the new millennium bands started to take refreshing new liberties with the song, like Truly’s Beach Boys-meets-The Who rendition that appeared on their rarities collection Twilight Curtains in 2000. Other reinventions include Ken Sharp’s baroque interpretation (2000), the blistering punky version from the Hot Pockets (2002), Amy Miles’ fantastic 1970s throwback (2005), and Joe Jistsu’s Weezer-ish treatment (2007).
Since then bands have increasingly experimented with the song’s structure and traditional instrumentation. Check out Oceanics radically retooled version (2012) for a take you won’t recognize until the lyrics kick in. The Lunar Laugh’s Jared Letkis (with Laura Biagini) gives a performance that is pure ear candy, adorned with all sorts of catchy instrumental choices and unique harmony vocals. Mudwerks has a wonderfully different interpretation of the song, with neat keyboard echo effects and distinctive guitars. Meanwhile Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Fossil Cliffs offer up a very satisfying psych rock workout.
As our new decade begins, interest in “Girl Don’t Tell Me” continues unabated. 2020 alone offered up three more inspired covers. Stephen Bates loves all things beach and summer and his take on the song has a refreshing, slightly punk/DIY feel. Chicago’s Gal Gun uses just an acoustic guitar to offset his stark, intimate vocal. Kevin Robertson lets loose the jangle on a cover that appeared with all the other songs from Summer Days (and Summer Nights) put together by the should-be famous TM Collective. The most recent cover comes from another tribute collection, the Jem Records Celebrates Brian Wilson album. This time the Anderson Council put an inventive pop psychedelia stamp on the tune, with fabulous results.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the many non-English covers of the song as they too show remarkable ingenuity and talent. Italy’s Nomadi put out “La mia libertà” (translation: “My Freedom”) in 1966, switching out the traditional guitar lead line for what sounds like a cello. And it works spendidly. The Hik put out a less engaging Dutch version in the same period. Next up, Sweden, with Gyllene Tider’s great “Ge Mej Inte Det Där” (translation: “Do Not Give Me That”) in 1981. More recently Argentina has gotten into the act with Fleko’s 2016 Spanish language version, which has some far out spacey guitar adornments and fierce vocals.
Well here I am, 23 versions of the song later and I’m still ready for more! Sometimes a song is just so good you can’t break its hold on you, regardless of how it is played or how often you hear it. So I say, bring it on cover bands! I’m ready for even more of Brian Wilson’s deceptively simple, addictive earworm.