Thoughts on the No Pier Pressure Previews

Now that about half Brian’s new album has become available to listen to in one form or another, my very preliminary thoughts on what we’ve heard.
Note that my opinions on Brian Wilson tracks change a LOT in the first year or so after I hear them, and also that this is based on lossy streams of one kind or another. This is after only hearing these songs once or twice, and I’ll be posting a proper review when I get a CD copy in a week and am able to properly listen to the whole album, in order, on headphones, a few times. This is just my initial opinion.
The Right Time has some nice harmonies, but a dull AOR instrumental arrangement. A gorgeous lead vocal from Al is marred a little by the autotune, and there’s no real song there as such, but it’s a bit of a grower.
Saturday Night on Hollywood Boulevard sounds like it comes from the soundtrack of a bad 80s family adventure film starring Michael J Fox or someone. If you’d told me this was Huey Lewis & The News’ new single I’d believe you. Given that Brian’s not on it vocally very much, I’d honestly not have guessed it was a Brian song.
Runaway Dancer sounds like a Scissor Sisters B-side. Which is brave, coming from Brian, but not really something I’m interested in listening to a lot.
Our Special Love has some lovely harmonies, but the song’s unmemorable — I’ve heard it half a dozen times and couldn’t remember it to write this (I had to put it on again just to check what it sounded like). I don’t like Hollens’ voice at all on his lead sections, and Brian’s voice on the “Our special love” section is autotuned to death. I’m also not a fan of beatboxing.
The Last Song This one’s very nice, and sounds much more “Brian” and less “Joe Thomas” in its production than some of the others. It reminds me of Pacific Coast Highway from That’s Why God Made The Radio or Midnight’s Another Day from That Lucky Old Sun, both of which were very much growers. The strings also sound like Paul Mertens’ arranging, which has been a feature I’ve liked a lot on Brian’s solo work over the last decade or so (he has a fairly unique style of string arrangement which reminds me of Bartok by way of Van Dyke Parks). I’m not sure if the song is as strong as the production, but this is by *far* the best arrangement, and the one that sounds best to my ears.
On The Island is another favourite. A perfect Jobim pastiche, with Zooey Deschanel sounding quite a bit like Peggy Lee. A trifle, but a fun one, and the most natural sounding vocals on anything we’ve heard so far.
Sail Away isn’t the song that Brian did with Van Dyke Parks in 1995, and nor is it a cover version of the Randy Newman song from one of Brian’s favourite albums. Which is a shame, as both those Sail Aways are better than this one. Which isn’t to say it’s bad as such, and it’s always good to hear Blondie Chaplin and Al Jardine back with Brian, but this has the sort of slightly overblown feel of the Beaks Of Eagles section of California Saga, or the Monterey bit of Al’s Looking Down The Coast, and the musical quotes from Sloop John B just highlight how much better that song was than this one.
I’m Feeling Sad is a nice track. A nice, bouncy, piece of sunshine pop, very Paul Williams or Burt Bacharach.
Guess You Had To Be There is a pleasant, if insubstantial, track. Kacey Musgraves’ vocals are processed to death, unfortunately, but the song is very catchy.

So after having heard about half the tracks, about half of what we’ve heard is at least pretty good. Given that the stuff that was let out first is far worse (to my ears) than the stuff we’ve heard more recently, I’m guessing the ratio of good to rubbish will only improve on the actual album itself. I’m cautiously optimistic about this one.

Flash Fiction: Filth

[Once again doing Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge. This time he’s said to write, in 2000 words or fewer, a story that’s in some way about filth, inspired by the controversy over Clean Reader, an app that removes swear words from books. This story was written in 48 minutes with no revision and is UNPLEASANT, though I will note that it contains not a single word that Clean Reader would block. This story has trigger warnings for self-harm, body dysmorphia, homophobia, and general nastiness. It’s unpleasant enough that I didn’t want to post it, but I kept to the spirit of the thing.]

This one’s genuinely nasty, so I’m putting it behind a cut

My prediction for the election

I’m going to do a proper blog post later, if I’m well enough (been busy today and it’s taken it out of me), but I thought I’d set out my best guesses as to what the final result of the election will be.
I think in terms of MPs, we’re going to have something like 280 Labour, 270 Tory, 38 SNP, 35 Lib Dems, and no other party having any significant numbers (the Northern Irish parties will be roughly the same, Plaid will get four, UKIP will if they’re *very* lucky get three but will most likely get one, the Greens will probably hold their one MP). The other parties will mostly be interesting in terms of how they affect the results in marginals — will more Labour-leaning than Lib Dem-leaning people defect to the Greens, for example, giving the Lib Dems an advantage in otherwise difficult Labour-facing seats?

I also suspect that the Tories will get *slightly* more votes than Labour, but fewer seats, and that UKIP will get a *LOT* more votes than the Lib Dems (though not as many more as the polls show at the moment — UKIP’s support is very soft and they’ve got lousy get-out-the-vote compared to other parties) but basically no seats. The SNP will come sixth in votes and third in seats. Basically, the result will be a mess.

If I’m right, or anything close to it, there will need to be a three-party agreement in order to form a government. The SNP have already ruled out working with the Tories, but not with Labour. Labour have ruled out coalition with the SNP, and vice versa, but neither have ruled out confidence and supply. The Lib Dems haven’t ruled out working with either Labour or the Tories, but *many* of the front-benchers have been hinting very strongly that they think Labour would be easier to work with, and Ed Miliband recently refused to repeat his old rule that he won’t go into coalition with the Lib Dems while Clegg is the leader.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are very unlikely to be happy with confidence and supply if the party can keep a fairly reasonable number of MPs. They’ll want full coalition.

So my guess is that if the result looks *anything* like what I expect, the only viable option will be a Labour/Lib Dem coalition with SNP confidence and supply. The stupid result will reopen the debate about electoral reform, and even Labour, who will have benefited from it, will notice that they’ve been nearly completely wiped out in their former strongholds in Scotland. So I *very* strongly suspect we’ll get electoral reform *at least* at the council level. Labour may well be persuadable that STV would be better than d’Hondt for Euro elections, too…

I suspect that with a result like that Nick Clegg would have to step down, but not until coalition negotiations had been completed and enough of a decent interval had passed that it didn’t look like he was being forced out by Labour — possibly waiting until party conference in September. If we *don’t* get a coalition, he’s pretty much definitely gone long before then.

I must admit, though, that a Lab/Lib coalition is my preferred outcome out of the possible ones (though I’d wish for a MUCH larger number of Lib Dem MPs than we’re likely to get, and if it relied on a third party for support I’d prefer the Greens or the Pirates to the SNP, though I don’t find the SNP as viscerally revolting as some of my Scottish friends do), so while I think I’m being sensible here, there may be an element of wishful thinking. But I don’t think so. I think something like this is the most probable result, though “most probable” when predicting a chaotic system through several inferential steps is still not hugely likely in absolute terms.

On the other hand, those results *could* go another way. There’s been an uncomfortable amount of kite-flying about a Labour/Tory coalition recently, and other than UKIP being in government I can’t imagine anything worse for the country.

What do you think?

The Solid Silver 60s Show

One thing I do occasionally, but rarely write about, is attend package shows of old 60s pop stars. These shows have a bad reputation, and not without reason, but at the same time they do provide a service. Very occasionally you’ll get someone on there who could hold down a full show by themselves — I saw the Zombies on a package tour last year, for example — but there are a lot of musicians who had one or two big hits, but who you wouldn’t particularly want to see do a full show. But put five or six of them on the same bill, and there’s no chance of getting bored.

They’re also a useful source of money for these older performers. Almost all the performers who end up doing these tours are non-writing performers, doing material written by others — and songwriting is where the long-term royalties are in music.

This is a review of last Monday’s Solid Silver Sixties Show at the Palace Theatre, but really it could double for any of them. While this show ended up almost accidentally organised by genre — Immediate Records pop-soul followed by Merseybeat — all these shows really have a hierarchy based on number of recognisable hits and, crucially, original members — with original members, it’s not just number that counts, though. A drummer counts least, the lead singer most. Non-original members who played keyboards with the band for two weeks in 1965 and rejoined in 2004 get half points.

All these shows start with the band with fewest original members, first doing their own set and then acting as backing band for the solo performers who aren’t big enough to have their own band. For this show, that was The New Amen Corner, who can be distinguished from Amen Corner by their not having any members of Amen Corner (the programme suggests that their sole connection to the original band is that their saxophone player is a friend of the original band’s sax player). They did, however, do a competent medley of Amen Corner’s hits, or at least the first verse and chorus of each of them, and they all looked very smart in their blazers.

Then on came P.P. Arnold, the main reason I came to this show, and she was utterly breathtaking. Her performance was slightly let down by The New Amen Corner’s drummer (who’s fine on the ballads, but on anything above mid-tempo just thrashes the hi-hat frantically, trying to keep on the beat). But her performance of Angel Of The Morning in particular (her opening song) sent literal shivers down my spine. She sounds as good as she did fifty years ago, and on If You Think You’re Groovy and The First Cut Is The Deepest she was almost indistinguishable from the records. I was in actual tears at points, and she was worth the ticket price on her own.

She rounded out her set with covers of the Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder, and River Deep Mountain High (the record she was promoting as an Ikette when she first came to Britain) before introducing Chris Farlowe.

I’d seen Farlowe before, about fifteen years ago, supporting Van Morrison, and remembered him as being a bit rubbish, but I really like a couple of his singles from the 60s, and I’d thought maybe I’d misremembered or had been a bit harsh. It turns out I *had* misremembered, in that he isn’t just a bit rubbish, he actually has magical anti-music powers.

Farlowe has a fantastic voice, even now, and Out Of Time and Handbags And Gladrags are great singles. Adding in a Small Faces cover, a version of Stand By Me, and a couple of other crowd-pleasers should mean that he’d be able to put on a great show.

But sadly, where on the record Farlowe sings, say “what’s become of you my love, when they have finally stripped you of, the handbags and the gladrags that your granddad had to sweat for you to buy?”, in performance he sings something like:

“Wha-a-a-a-at, I say what, what what what, I say what Manchester becomes, I say what becomes, what becom-om-om-om-omes oh yeah oh yeah, I say what becomes of you mamamamamamama ma luhhhhrve oh yeah what becomes of you Manchester, when they I say they lord oh lord when they have I say when they have I say what becomes of you Manchester when they have…”

On top of this he jumps between registers completely at random, going from a growl to a falsetto shriek to his normal voice with no thought whatsoever to musicality or the needs of the song. It was painfully, shockingly bad, the worst performance I’ve ever heard from a professional singer. Oddly, he went down quite well with the audience, but it was godawful.

Next up were The Merseybeats, closing the first half of the show in the pseudo-headliner spot always given to a band who still have their lead singer. In the case of the Merseybeats, they actually have both guitarist/vocalists, who’ve been performing together for nearly sixty years, and while neither has an exceptional voice, they harmonise beautifully together, in a very Everly Brothers manner. Their set included very strong versions of their major hits (including a FANTASTIC version of Sorrow, one of the best singles of the 60s), and cover versions of songs they would have played at the Cavern in the early days (Hey Baby, Let It Be Me). They’re not a band I’d want to see do a full show, but a half-hour set of hits left a big smile on my face.

For the second half, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Amen Corner came back on, this time in collarless Beatle suits, to back Mike Pender, former lead singer of The Searchers. A friend tweeted to me earlier that day calling Pender the epitome of chicken-in-a-basket performers, and there was certainly an element of that about him (in fact, his scouse banter and white quiff combined to remind me more than a little of Tom O’Connor), but there’s no doubt that some of the Searchers’ hits are among the best records of the early 60s, and he performed them competently enough. The best moment, though, came when he performed Four Strong Winds, a song he had apparently been encouraged to add to his normally-fixed repertoire on the recent US British Invasion package tour (I suspect Andrew Sandoval, who produced that tour, suggested it). At that point, the slick professionalism gave way entirely to a much more subtle performance — I suspect because he’d not played the song ten thousand times before.

The final act was Billy J Kramer, backed by his own band. Kramer (who was also on that package tour with Pender) is in many ways the anti-Farlowe. Kramer is well known for having had no singing voice or ability whatsoever, and for only being signed because Brian Epstein fancied him. His vocals on his hits were only barely competent, and that because George Martin got him to multitrack them to smooth out the errors, and then added a harpsichord line to show people where the melody was.

But over the last fifty years Kramer has clearly worked on his vocals a LOT. He’s someone with no natural ability who has managed through sheer effort to get a resonant voice, great projection, and good musical sensibilities. He’s still not a *great* singer, but he’s more than competent, and he’s managed to give himself a really quite impressive voice.

Unfortunately, the impressive voice he’s given himself is his chest voice, which is a resonant baritone somewhere in the general vicinity of Scott Walker or Johnny Cash, while his records were all sung in his head voice, a rather breathy tenor. He now sounds nothing like he did on his hit records, and his attempts to sing them in his new style clearly disappointed a LOT of people — a substantial chunk of the audience walked out. However, when he performed Jealous Guy and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More, he was genuinely impressive. It’s sad that by becoming a much better singer, Kramer disappoints so much of his audience.

The show then finished, as these things always do, with a full-cast singalong, this time to Glad All Over.

Overall, these shows are generally more interesting anthropologically than as a musical entertainment — a lot of the interest is seeing the old showbiz patterns of fifty years ago, things that have become cliches and signifiers of schlockiness, preserved almost as in amber and still managing to appeal to crowds as much as they ever did. For someone who grew up in a time when there was a huge distinction between serious music and showbiz, seeing Mike Pender say “Oh, you don’t want to hear Sweets For My Sweet or When You Walk In The Room or any of that old stuff, do you?” and the crowd eating it up is quite bizarre but fascinating — this is a show for people who have a totally different set of expectations than any other musical performance I’ll attend this year.

But at the same time there *is* plenty of genuine musical value there. P.P. Arnold singing Angel Of The Morning (and if she ever tours doing full shows on her own, I’ll be there — she’s incredible). The Merseybeats doing Sorrow. These are things I’m very glad to have seen and heard, and the fact that they’re presented in a less-than-sophisticated context makes the performances all the sweeter — that these people weren’t performing for an audience of music snobs *but still managed to be that good* is impressive.

These shows aren’t for everyone, but it’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone who has any affection for the music of the pre-psychedelic 60s. Wait until you see one of these tours (there are three or four of this type every year) that has at least one act you actually want to see, and buy a ticket. It’s a trip back to the past in more ways than one.

Linkblogging For 25/3/15

No new blog post today — my CPAP machine leaked last night, and I was so unwell I had to come home from work at lunchtime and spend most of the afternoon in bed — so you get links.

Brian Wilson is touring the UK with fellow Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin in September, in what may well be his last ever tour (sadly in arena venues with support, rather than his normal theatre venues with no support acts). Presale tickets are here (I’m going to Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds).

If the Lib Dems are in government after the election, British embassies will be given the power to perform same-sex marriages abroad, even if one partner is not a British subject.
Great work there from Lynne Featherstone and Tim Farron, two of my favourite Lib Dem MPs.

Andrew Rilstone pays tribute to Leonard Nimoy

Sarah Brown’s way of dealing with annoying people on Twitter is fantastic

On Bede, Pagan Kings, Rival Churches, and the Great Anglo-British Miracle-Off

How porn and lust have changed since the 70s — an interview with the (female) former editor of several porn magazines. Not safe for work, obviously. (Link was through a Facebook friend who currently works for one, and says her experience of the men who write in is similar).

Jon Hunt on why the Archies matter

“I gave my child autism”

And a prosecutor who sent an innocent man to death row apologises and calls for an end to the death penalty

California Dreaming: Daddy’s Song

The Monkees were at a crossroads in their career.

The second series of their TV show had been just as popular as the first, but as with the records, they’d wanted more control, and so by the last episode Micky Dolenz had been writing and directing, they’d brought in several of their LA scene friends (notably Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley) to appear on the show, and the series had become notably more psychedelic and satirical. But they were still bored with it, and the network weren’t interested in their ideas for a new format for the third series. The series was cancelled, and replaced with a planned three TV specials.

This had an immediate negative effect on their career. The first single they released after the cancellation, D.W. Washburn, “only” reached the top twenty, partly because it wasn’t featured on TV as their earlier singles had been, partly because its 1920s vaudeville feel didn’t fit the band’s image, and partly because the Coasters released a competing version of the song.

But the Monkees were going to show they were true artists, worthy of respect. They were going to make their own film.

Originally titled Changes, but later named Head, the band’s film was produced and directed by Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who had also made their TV series, with a script by Rafelson and a jobbing actor named Jack Nicholson. Allegedly, to write this script, Nicholson took the Monkees away for a few days, fed them LSD, noted down what they said, and then wrote the script based on that.

The result was one of the strangest — and most brilliant — films of the decade. An anti-war collage comedy that had a style that prefigured by some fifteen years Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, its nearest equivalent, the film is a meditation on war, escaping from the confines of one’s ego, karma, and circular time. Starting with the band committing suicide, the film cuts between a war movie, a sports film, a desert adventure, a concert film, and the band wandering around the studio lot where all these films are being made, and features Annette Funicello, Victor Mature, Sonny Liston, and Frank Zappa.

The soundtrack album, compiled by Nicholson, has a collage style of its own, taking dialogue from the film and recontextualising it, and sounds like nothing so much as the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only In It For The Money. It’s also the album that has least involvement from Davy Jones, the Monkee who was least happy with the film they were making.

Jones’ one vocal lead is on Daddy’s Song, a Nilsson song about his father, very much in the lyrical vein of 1941, and musically similar to Cuddly Toy, the Nilsson song Jones had sung previously with great success. The song had originally featured on Nilsson’s second RCA album, Aerial Ballet, but had been quickly cut when it was chosen to feature in the Monkees’ film.

The Monkees’ version featured Nilsson, with Nesmith and long-term Monkees session drummer Eddie Hoh, as the basic rhythm section in a horn-led arrangement that was very similar to Nilsson’s own earlier version of the song, but playing up the vaudeville aspects of the track. In fact an initial version of the song featured Nesmith, rather than Jones, singing lead, and on this he used a vocal effect to sound like he was singing through a megaphone in the style of Al Bowlly and other pre-electric singers (a similar effect had been used on Nesmith’s song Magnolia Sims on the Monkees’ previous album).

Jones’ vocal mostly ignored the pathos of the song, in favour of its bouncy uptempo feel, and so loses some of the subtlety of Nilsson’s version. Rather than focussing on the harsh lyrics as a way of subverting the music, instead that function is left to Frank Zappa, who in his cameo appearance in the film comments on the song “That song was pretty white”, before noting that Jones had been working on his dancing and should maybe work on his music.

The song is possibly the ultimate example of the direction in which Jones wanted to take the band — the “vaudeville rock” he had been enthusing about in interviews — but perhaps understandably, given the failure of the similar-sounding D.W. Washburn, it wasn’t chosen as the single from the album, with Goffin and King’s cod-psychedelic Porpoise Song, the opening song from the film, being chosen instead. This is a shame, as Daddy’s Song is undoubtedly the best song, as a song, in the whole Head project.

Sadly, both single and album flopped, while the film didn’t gain an audience for more than a decade. The pre-teens who loved the Monkees on TV didn’t want to see a film which included footage of an execution, had the band committing suicide, and had the band mocking their own image, while the college students who might have loved the film wouldn’t be seen dead going to see something with a manufactured band who “didn’t even play their own instruments”. The film eventually found an audience, and was one of the major reasons for the rehabilitation of the Monkees’ image as serious musicians in later years, but in 1968 it essentially killed the band’s career.

Only one of the three TV specials for which they had been contracted was ever made. 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was the last thing the band would do as a quartet, with Peter Tork leaving as soon as filming ended. It was widely regarded (slightly unfairly) as a disaster, and the network decided to air it opposite the Academy Awards, giving it so little regard that the parts of the show weren’t even aired in the right order.

The Monkees were down to a trio, and their career as hit-makers was over.

Daddy’s Song

Composer: Harry Nilsson

David Jones (vocals), Michael Nesmith (guitars), Harry Nilsson (piano), Rick Dey (bass), Eddie Hoh (drums), Tony Terran, Pete Candoli, Buddy Childers, Dick Leith, Lee McCreary (horns) Stu Williamson or Carroll Lewis (flugelhorn), Ray Kramer, Eleanor Slatkin, Emmet Sargeant & Justin DiTullio (cellos), Keith Allison & Bill Chadwick (unknown instruments, presumably additional guitars)

Original release:
Head, The Monkees, Colgems COSO-5008

Currently available on: Head, Rhino CD