Google Reader alternative looks like it’s happening

Tonight’s the night that Google Reader (RIP) turns off all its social functions, and becomes useless.

However, in the nick of time, someone’s started up a Free Software clone, Hivemined, which is currently in closed beta but which will be opening up soon. You can sign up at the site to be notified.

Hope this helps people.

Liveblogging The Smile Sessions

I’m writing this introductory material on the night of the thirtieth of October. If all goes well, I should be receiving my copy of The Smile Sessions tomorrow morning, the thirty-first. I’m going to hit ‘post’ on this introductory section at 8:30 AM, and then as soon as the box set arrives I’m going to start listening to it.

What order I listen depends on whether the new stylus for my record player arrives before or after the box, but my initial plan is to listen to the two singles, commenting after each side, then to the two vinyl albums, again commenting after each side, then listen to the CDs in order, reading the two books during the nineteen-song overlap between CD1 and the vinyl, commenting after each CD.

So right now, I’m going to talk a little about what we already know about this.

I’m already very familiar with a lot of the basic musical material here, through official releases, bootlegs and Brian Wilson’s solo reconstruction of the album (if anyone here still hasn’t heard that masterpiece, there’s a live performance here – the first half of the show isn’t especially worth your while, but the second half is the whole album performed note-perfect live). The interesting thing (apart from any totally new discovered stuff) about the completed album part of this will be the choices the producers have made.

Smile, you see, was not only never finished, it was recorded modularly – little sections, often no more than a few bars long, that were to be spliced together. That splicing was never done, and in some cases it’s unclear exactly which pieces belonged to which song, or what order they would have gone in.

Mark Linett and Alan Boyd, the producers of the box set, have chosen to more-or-less follow the tracklisting that Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks settled on when they completed the re-recorded version of Smile in 2004 (with the help of Darian Sahanaja and Paul Mertens).

In some ways, this is a worrying decision – many of the songs included on Brian Wilson Presents Smile were unfinished in the 60s, and had new lyrics and vocal parts added, which won’t be on the ‘finished album’ part of the new Smile release. This might well lead to people who’ve not heard this material before getting bored during what will seem on first listen to be longeurs. I’d have chosen a tighter ten- or twelve-track album, myself, and put the rest on as bonus tracks.

But on the other hand, it *is* how Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks chose to present the material when they completed it and re-recorded it. And it’s probably the ‘conservative’ decision, in that it doesn’t require Boyd or Linett to create their own running order, which would undoubtedly have every single Beach Boys fan in uproar. Deferring to the completed version is the sensible decision here.

It also makes me more curious how they’re going to sequence this – when Wilson, Parks and Sahanaja sequenced the 2004 version, they used newly-composed linking material by Paul Mertens, which highlighted repeated motifs in the music (for example his introduction to I’m In Great Shape, which repurposed the Cantina section from Heroes & Villains and showed it’s musical similarity to the song it was introducing). Without those, it will be *incredibly* difficult for them to make this work anything like as well as a listening experience.

However, I trust Boyd and Linett more than anyone else with this. Boyd produced the documentary and CD Endless Harmony, the CD version of which is the best Beach Boys rarities collection ever – so much so that it’s my standard recommendation for a first Beach Boys album – and he’s a fine musician himself, as well as being friendly with several of my friends. And Mark Linnet has worked with Wilson on all his studio and live recordings from the last twelve years (and his 1988 solo album), including the reworked Smile, and was also responsible for remastering all the Beach Boys’ music for CD, as well as co-producing the Good Vibrations box set (the definitive Beach Boys retrospective).

So these two are exactly the right people to do this. This is going to be as close to definitive as it’s possible to get, and while I’ll undoubtedly question some of their choices, I’m sure I’ll respect them all.

So now I’m off to bed. I’m going to hit post on this when I get up first thing in the morning, and then I’ll update after the first thing I listen to…

Update 1 It is now 11:38 AM. My box set was loaded onto a van in Rochdale at 9:33. It should be here any time now…

Update 11:49 The box set has arrived. My stylus hasn’t, yet, so it shall be CDs first.

Update 13:38 Wow.

First things first. This sounds extraordinary. None of this music, whether it’s been officially released or not, has ever sounded this clear.

Boyd and Linett have made the very wise decision not to go for historical authenticity, but to cobble together a Frankenstein creation from whatever’s at hand. For example, on the track Surf’s Up, they’ve used the original Smile backing track for the first half, taken Brian’s vocal from the piano demo and time-shifted it to make it fit the track, then added in Carl’s vocal from 1971 (and the backing vocals recorded at the same time) for the missing lines. It’s not ‘how it would have sounded’, but it’s the best possible job of making something listenable out of the materials at hand. Something like 95% of the music on the ‘finished album’ is from the Smile sessions, but the other 5% comes from Smiley Smile, 20/20 and Surf’s Up sessions. But that 5% *fits*

There are also constant little surprises – elements in the mix that I’ve never heard before. On the tag of You Were My Sunshine, for example, they edit in a piece of music we’ve always assumed was a Heroes & Villains session (I *think* the bit known as ‘False Barnyard’, but while I’ve always kept up enough with Smile scholarship to recognise all the music, I can’t remember all the labels that have been attached to different fragments) – but Mike Love is clearly singing fragments from You Were My Sunshine in the background!

These constant surprises – some on the original master tapes, others painstakingly created by Boyd and Linnet – make this music fresh again. I’m very familiar with the raw materials, but there are little snatches of never-bootlegged music, and decisions made in the mixing, that draw the attention back every time I start to think “Heard it before”.

One of the effects of this is to turn it from a Brian Wilson album into something that is definitely a *Beach Boys* album. There’s a lot more vocal on here than on the bootlegged versions – some flown in from other recordings, others just raised in the mix – but it’s gone from being a primarily-instrumental album to being one which sounds much more like the Beach Boys.

And it sounds *SO GOOD*. Mike Love’s vocals, in particular, are no longer buried – there’s a lot more bass in this mix than in any of the bootlegs. And my God that man could sing when he wanted to.

The third movement still has much less to offer than the first two, but having listened through the ‘finished album’, I can safely say that the only problems I have with it are very minor:
There’s a rough edit at the end of the tag of Vegetables, to stick on another section. It’s jarring and unpleasant and should have been left to fade with the tag.
Fire sounds somewhat toned down compared to some of the raw-sounding bootlegs.
And the additions to Good Vibrations, though tastefully done, seem almost blasphemous. They sound good, but Good Vibrations is the one part of Smile that was absolutely, undoubtedly, incontrovertibly *finished* at the time, and was a massive success. It should have been left as it was.

As for the bonus tracks – a lot of it’s stuff we’ve heard before, but the montage of backing vocals is still gorgeous. And the 1967 piano recording of Surf’s Up may be even better than the 1966 one. Beautiful, beautiful music.

As for other aspects, the packaging is beautiful. The book that comes with it is great, and I’m particularly glad that no punches are pulled when it comes to Mike Love – it’s made very clear that he had a problem with the lyrics and found them inappropriate, though he also says he enjoyed the music. I was also pleased to see a lot of my oldest friends thanked in the booklet, especially the thanks to the late Bob Hanes and Greg Larson, who would have loved this.

It’s incredibly disappointing, though, that Van Dyke Parks had no active participation in the booklet. Given that they managed to interview every other figure involved in any way – all the Beach Boys, Brian’s ex-wife, Brian’s ex-sister-in-law, Dean Torrence, Mark Volman, Uncle Tom Cobley And All – there should have been some way found of involving VDP. I have no idea who’s to blame for this omission, or what the politics behind it are, but *something* should have been done.

That’s taken me 32 minutes to write. I’m going to eat now, before starting on the other four discs…

Update 15:48

Disc two there’s less to say about. Almost all sessions for Heroes & Villains and the various other tracks that started as part of that song (I’m In Great Shape, Barnyard etc), most of this material won’t be new to anyone who’s heard the various bootlegs. That said, this is in at least two generations better sound quality than I’ve heard before, and they’ve done a great job of showing the way this material evolved in the studio, and the utter professionalism of all concerned.

Disc three next.

Update 17:43 While the highlights of disc two were mostly vocal, here the highlights are instrumental – the backing track for the first half of Surf’s Up, the tag of Cabinessence, with all its bouzouki, mandolin and banjo lines weaving in and out of each other, the piano and harpsichord parts on Wonderful. Much of this stuff has been heard before of course, but never in such quality.

Another thing that you notice as you go through this material in one big session is that themes, obsessions seem to emerge. Like people being inside musical instruments or equipment – we all remember George Fell Into His French Horn, but we also have Brian in the piano, Brian in the microphone… it reminds me curiously of the people living in the piano in Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy from a year or so later than this.

Unlike the first disc, I wouldn’t recommend discs two or three to anyone who isn’t as obsessed as I am with this music. But for those who are, they’re fascinating.

Update 19:08 Of the ‘sessions’ discs, disc four is probably the most interesting as a listening experience to the non-musician, because here, as well as sessions for Smile itself, we go into the stuff surrounding Smile. So we have sessions for You’re Welcome and With Me Tonight (two Smile leftovers), for Dennis and Carl’s contemporary attempts to make music like their brother, I Don’t Know and Tones/Tune X, for Three Blind Mice (actually an outtake from before Pet Sounds, but included on Smile bootlegs so often they presumably thought it had to be there) and for Cool, Cool Water (a post-Smile reworking of some Smile material) and we have Teeter Totter Love, a track Brian wrote and produced for photographer Jasper Dailey, who has an almost Wild Man Fisher quality to his vocals.

This makes it the most varied of the discs, and the one least concerned with repeated slightly different takes of small snippets.

It also has three ‘hidden’ extra tracks, including a totally different edit of Heroes & Villains, compiled entirely from sections that weren’t used in the main edit on disc one, with different verse and cantina vocals. Well worth listening to.

And now… to disc five. The last disc (unless my stylus arrives now, which is unlikely) and one composed entirely of one song… Good Vibrations.

Update 20:38
And so 12 hours after I hit publish on this, we come to an end.
Truth be told there’s little on disc five of this that will come as a surprise to anyone. There’s been more session material released for this track – both legitimately and otherwise – than for any other, and the main thing I noticed about this is that the sessions are far less edited down. Which, given how well I know this material, was disconcerting – “Wait, that’s not where he says ‘that really felt good, let’s hear it'” and so on.

But what we have here is essentially the ‘Good Vibrations (sessions)’ bits from the Good Vibrations box/Smiley Smile – Wild Honey CD/Hawthorne, CA CD/Pet Sounds Sessions box writ large. We hear attempts at the song from every existing session for it, of which there were many. We hear sections that don’t make it onto the final track, and we hear, slowly but surely, how Brian Wilson sculpted the perfect pop single out of what started as a couple of simple riffs.

Much like disc four, the disc ends with a Frankenstein version of Good Vibrations, with the alternate verse lyrics by Tony Asher going into the chorus from the Rarities version, then into a stereo version of the “I don’t know where but she sends me there” bit missing a few crucial vocal overdubs, then into the fuzz-bass/fast ‘hum-de-ah’ section. It’s interesting, but it’s not a patch on the single.

I’ve still not got my new stylus, so I can’t yet listen to the vinyl, but on the basis of the five CDs totalling more than six and a half hours of music, and the superb packaging, I’d say that while this isn’t something I could recommend to anyone who isn’t as obsessed with the Beach Boys as I am, anyone who’s even considering buying this box set will love it.

For some of you who aren’t, I’ll recommend the 2-CD version, but with the following caveat (which my regular readers, at least, will get) – Smile is the greatest album in the world in the same way that Evil Of The Daleks may be the best Doctor Who story. With Evil Of The Daleks we have one surviving episode, a soundtrack, a bit of film footage shot on set, a load of still photographs and a novelisation. From that, we can tell it was great, but you’re not going to convince anyone who only quite liked David Tennant. In the same way, The Smile Sessions, in whatever form, is a wonderful collection of all the evidence we need to show that had Smile been finishable in 1967, it would undoubtedly have been the best album released up to that point. But those of you who just want something nice to listen to should stick with Brian Wilson’s 2004 completed version.

Polished as it has been, this is still music that requires a great deal of work on the part of the listener. The amazing thing is, it repays that work.

The Smile that you send out returns to you.


While waiting for Smile, some contemporary albums on Spotify

My Smile Sessions box set is in the post right now. It should be arriving tomorrow. If, like me, you are getting incredibly excited for this box set’s release tomorrow, here’s a dozen or so albums from 1966 through 1968 that go well with the feel of Smile, or in some cases contrast well with it. All can be listened to free on Spotify.

First up, the Beach Boys’ own releases of 1967, Smiley Smile and Wild Honey.
These are often overlooked because they’re not Smile, but there are a number of incredible moments of beauty on them.

The Many Moods Of Murry Wilson, on the other hand, is much less good. But it’s interesting to note that while Brian couldn’t get his masterwork completed, his dad was able to release his own album the same year.

Song Cycle is what Van Dyke Parks did next after Smile, and is his most Smile-like material. Beautiful, baffling, utterly wonderful, this is unlike any other music Parks made later, and unlike anything anyone else did either.

Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart may seem an odd choice, but at this time, when the boundary between pop music and countercultural rock was far more porous, and the unlikeliest people were having commercial success, Beefheart’s first album actually has a lot in common with the pop music of the time. There’s a definite L.A. *sound* at this time, and there’s a continuum from Zappa and Beefheart at the most extreme end to the Beach Boys and Monkees at the other end, with Love and the Doors somewhere in the middle.

How To Speak Hip by Del Close is a comedy album with which Brian Wilson was obsessed in 1966.

Odessa by the Bee Gees is actually from 1969, so outside this timeframe, but I include it because it’s another example of a resolutely ‘square’ vocal harmony group, with three brothers in, doing something utterly bizarre and uncommercial. Oddly, Black Sheep, Van Dyke Parks’ Smile parody written and recorded for the film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, sounds far more like Odessa than it does Smile.

Present Tense by Sagittarius is one of several collaborations under various names by Curt Boettcher and Brian Wilson’s old songwriting partner Gary Usher. My World Fell Down, the main single from this, is sung by Glen Campbell (who had toured as a Beach Boy) and Bruce Johnston (of the Beach Boys) and is possibly the best attempt at a Smile-alike I’ve ever heard. The album also features comedy interludes in some songs, performed by the Firesign Theatre – again, very like Wilson’s idea of doing an album full of humour.

The Pentangle by Pentangle is a bit of an odd one. In the mid-late 60s there was actually almost no back-and-forth influence between the LA musicians and their British contemporaries, apart from the huge names like the Beatles. But I think there’s something of the same spirit that animated Smile about this, with its marrying of older, ‘outdated’ forms of music (traditional folk in the case of Pentangle, vaudeville and Americana for Smile) with attempts to move popular music as a whole forward.

And likewise Gorilla by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band mixes 1920s novelty songs, comedy bits, and up-to-the-moment progressive pop.

Da Capo by Love is half of the greatest album ever made (the side-long blues jam rather spoils it for me). Intense and paranoid, yet utterly beautiful, this has a lot of the childlike creepiness of Smile.

Head by the Monkees I’ve already discussed.

Feelin’ Groovy by Harper’s Bizarre combines harmonies that are, if anything, over-sweet, with songwriting by people like Paul Simon, Randy Newman, and Van Dyke Parks, the last of whom also arranged the album.

(Albums I would have included but which are not Spotifiable – Genuine Imitation Life Gazette by the Four Seasons, Absolutely Free by the Mothers Of Invention, Switched On Bach by Wendy Carlos, The Wichita Train Whistle Sings by Michael Nesmith, Carnival Of Sound by Jan & Dean, Place Vendôme by the Swingle Singers with the Modern Jazz Quartet, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina by the Left Banke)

Note to the many, many people searching for “The Smile Sessions Leak”

You’re only getting here because the word ‘leak’ is in my blog’s title, as a sort of pun or play on words. This blog is not one that links to illegal copies of legally-available material, especially when that material is owned by companies who have several billion pounds more than I do and a vast army of lawyers, and especially when the commercial success or failure of that material will determine whether or not future archival releases of stuff I like will come out.
This isn’t a moral judgement on my part – not everyone has the money to pay for expensive box sets of half-finished albums, and I hope you find what you’re looking for. But you won’t find it here.

The First Time I Heard Smile

The first time I heard Smile I was seventeen. Just after Christmas, 1995. I’d got myself the Smiley Smile/Wild Honey twofer. I knew Smiley Smile had a bad reputation, but it was the album that came after Pet Sounds – how bad could it be? Anyway, I knew Good Vibrations, Heroes & Villains, Wild Honey and Darlin’ from compilations, so even if it just had those on, it’d be pretty good.
I was amazed. That album changed my view of music forever. The sparse, ethereal counterpoint at the end of Wind Chimes, the hum-de-ah Good Vibrations vocals, and most of all Wonderful, easily the best song I’d ever heard up to that point. Pet Sounds was what made me appreciate the Beach Boys, but this was what made me a fan.

The first time I heard Smile I was nineteen. Late 1997. I’d bought the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set for sixty pounds, the most money I’d ever spent to that point on anything. I put the first three discs in the changer, turned off the lights, lay down and listened.
I knew most of the proper songs by then, of course, but hearing them in context with the other work of the time was still amazing. The new-to-me version of Wind Chimes didn’t really work, and some of the instrumental bits sounded like noodling, but the harpsichord version of Wondrful and the solo piano version of Surf’s Up were two of the most magnificent things I’d ever heard.

The first time I heard Smile I was twenty, late 1998. I’d never yet bought a bootleg, though that would change very soon, but I’d found someone on the internet, a couple of years younger than me, who had a copy of the Vigotone Smile bootleg that he was willing to tape for me if I taped him a few things he couldn’t afford from legitimate CDs.
By this point, Smile had become a puzzle for me, and I made endless cassette duplicates of bits of that tape and things I had on CD, trying to fit a workable running order out of these snatches and phrases, outtakes and completed songs.

The first time I heard Smile I was twenty-five, in February 2004. I couldn’t afford to go and see the premiere when Brian Wilson announced he was completing the album and performing it live, but I waited up all night, and as soon as the first MP3s were up, I grabbed them with my superfast 200 k/s broadband.
My jaw dropped when I heard the transition from Wonderful into Look, and by the end of the second movement I was in tears. He’d done it. He’d actually pulled together all those bits and pieces, all those plinky instrumental bits and half-finished demos, into something that really was the greatest album in the world. He’d been right all along.
I saw that tour twice, and still treasure my copy of the setlist that I got from Darian in Manchester.

The first time I heard Smile I was twenty-five. It was August 2004, and my friend Gavin (not either of the two Gavins who regularly comment here – Gavin seems to be a name that is unusually common among the best sort of people) had got a promo copy of Brian Wilson Presents Smile from the record shop where he worked, a month before it was officially released. He invited me and my then-girlfriend (now-wife) Holly to come and listen to it, because he knew we’d appreciate it. We sat in silence from the opening “ooh” of Our Prayer to the closing ‘cello fade of Good Vibrations, and I knew that here, finally, was the complete album I’d been waiting nine years to hear.

The first time I hear Smile will be some time in the next four days…

Some Things You Need To Know About SMiLE

So, the Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions (as it’s now officially called, capitalisation and all) is now out. It’s not officially released until Monday (UK) and Tuesday (US), but people have seen it in shops, and some people have got their copy. Unfortunately for me, I’m not one of them – I pre-ordered from Amazon, and they’ve still not even dispatched their copies, while people who ordered from Sainsbury’s (SAINSBURY’S!) have already received theirs.

So right now I’m twitching like I’ve drunk thirty cups of coffee, and checking my email every fifteen seconds to see if Amazon have dispatched it yet. They haven’t. They still haven’t.

But I thought I’d let people know what they should know, before they go out and buy this.

Firstly, Smile is not a finished album. Alan Boyd and Mark Linnet have done their best to get something as complete as possible, but a lot of vocal parts simply weren’t recorded in 1966 and 1967. Unless there’s something I’ve not heard about yet, and that none of the lucky bastards who’ve got their copies have said, the tracks Do You Like Worms, Look, Child Is Father Of The Man, I Wanna Be Around, Holidays and Love To Say DaDa are all missing lead vocals.

If you want a complete Smile listening experience, buy Brian Wilson Presents Smile either the 2004 CD or the (preferable) live DVD version. Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, his collaborator, put together a completed version of Smile in 2004, with lead vocals, extra bits of linking instrumentation and so forth. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and quite probably the best album ever released. It doesn’t feature the Beach Boys’ vocals, but it’s still great, and the closest thing possible to hearing how Wilson and Parks intended the album to sound.

Nonetheless, this Smile will definitely be worth getting. If you like Brian Wilson Presents Smile, you *will* like this. Any album containing Heroes And Villains, Cabinessence, Wonderful and Surf’s Up would, just on the fact of containing those four tracks, be a contender for greatest album ever recorded. Just remember that what you’re getting is closer to the Beatles’ Anthology series than to, say, Revolver.

The good stuff is as good as any music out there. Mike Taylor once asked me to recommend a Beach Boys album, and seemed unhappy when I couldn’t give a straightforward recommendation of a classic album (other than Pet Sounds, with which he was unimpressed). The Beach Boys didn’t really work in album terms – they had good and bad tracks, and which of those tracks actually got released had little or no correlation with quality. This is a band that didn’t release Still I Dream Of It, possibly the most heartbreaking song ever recorded, but did release Hey Little Tomboy, one of the creepiest. This being unreleased music doesn’t mean it’s not great.

Be aware of the different versions There are at least five separate configurations for this music out there:
The single-CD version. This is just a reconstruction of the album, following the template of Brian Wilson Presents Smile, along with a handful of bonus tracks. This is what you should get if you’ve heard and enjoyed BWPS, and maybe own Pet Sounds and a Beach Boys Greatest Hits, but aren’t really a huge fan or anything.
The double-CD version. Same as the single-CD, with a second disc of highlights from the recording sessions. Get this if you’ve got most of the Beach Boys’ stuff already, maybe got the Good Vibrations box set, but aren’t hugely interested in how the tracks are put together.
The double-vinyl version. Sides one to three are the reconstruction of the album, as on the single CD, but side four is a different set of bonus tracks not available on CD. Buy this if you like vinyl.
The box set. This has the double vinyl, the single CD, two vinyl singles (apparently including at least one mix that’s slightly different from anything on CD), four CDs of session outtakes, two books, a poster, and a pretty box. Buy this if you’re me.
The download version of the box set. This just has the music from the five CDs. Buy this if you’re as obsessed with this music as me, but don’t have a turntable and don’t want some pretty books, because it’s cheaper.

Assuming I get this before Tuesday, I’ll be liveblogging the whole Smile experience here, all five CDs, four vinyl records and two books of it. In the meantime, why not visit Arkhonia ? He’s done a wonderful *long* series of posts on Smile, the myth of it, the music, and its portrayal in the media. I disagree with quite a bit of it, especially his dismissal of Smiley Smile, but he’s doing a great job of showing just why this is so important, and why I’m still twitching like mad waiting for this thing.

(And of course if you want to read more Beach Boys writing from me, you can buy my book The Beach Boys On CD. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats)

Linkblogging For 25/10/11

Still working on the Bigger On The Outside post, trying to find the same kind of balance I found with An Incomprehensible Condition but dealing with the work of multiple people rather than a single author is difficult. In the meantime, some links.

A randomly-generated programming language is as easy as Perl for new programmers. I’d have guessed that, if anything, Perl would be slightly harder…

A live bootleg of Mike Nesmith in 1975, with Dave Mattacks and Dave Pegg from Fairport Convention, via Psycho Jello.

Bobsy on the TV terror that is Alan Clarke’s Elephant

Julian Huppert on the Public Order Act (warning – MessageSpace advertising)

Alex looks at the Doctor Who: Kamelion Tales box set.

Some evidence that ME/CFS is an autoimmune disease

Colin is doing a series on Watchmen, The Dark Knight and Sandman. Part one, part two, part three.

And TARDIS Eruditorum talks about I, Clavdivs and Space: 1999 . One of those two will also come up in my Bigger On The Outside posts