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Shell-Shocked by @howardkaylan

Posted in books, music by Andrew Hickey on June 22, 2013

For the next month or so, most of my writing time will be taken up with copy-edits on the Beach Boys book and on my novel (along with the Doctor Who posts and How To Build Your Own Time Machine). So for the next month most of what’s posted here will be rather light book reviews.

To start with, Shell-Shocked: My Life With The Turtles, Flo And Eddie, Frank Zappa etc. by Howard Kaylan.

For those who don’t know the name Howard Kaylan, he’s probably most famous as the lead singer of the Turtles. He sang lead on all their hits, as well as writing Elenore and a lot of their album tracks, but after they split up in the late sixties, he and Mark Volman (the Turtles’ backing vocalist, tambourine player, and comedian to Kaylan’s straight man) went on to do an immense amount of other interesting work — lead vocalists with the Mothers of Invention for a couple of years, backing vocals with T-Rex, backing vocals on Hungry Heart by Springsteen, and much more, as well as their own albums of hippie comedy-folk-pop under the name Flo And Eddie.

Kaylan’s autobiography is a fascinating, but frustrating read. Kaylan is clearly one of the more intelligent, thoughtful, 60s rock stars, and some of the insights given into the actual working methods of the bands he’s worked with are absolutely fascinating. I hadn’t realised before that Kaylan modelled his vocal style on that of Colin Blunstone (musically he and Volman were definitely Anglophiles, working with Ray Davies and covering the Small Faces at a time when those musicians were nearly unknown in the US), that he and Volman patterned their stage double-act on Louis Prima and Keely Smith, or that the Turtles’ stylistic change from their early folk-rock to the bouncy pop of Happy Together was inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful, but all these things are very obvious once you know.

When he talks about this stuff, the book is at its best — I found the discussions of his writing the great Turtles song Marmendy Hill, or the recording of Lady-O (the last and best Turtles single) riveting, and also loved the insights into Zappa’s working methods, and little details like Springsteen being unable to sing on-key without holding his guitar.

Those portions of the book are, to my mind, easily the most interesting, and I wish there could have been more of them — the recording of the Turtle Soup album, for example (one of the best 60s pop albums of all time) is covered in a little over a page, although this is possibly because it was the Turtles album with least active involvement from Kaylan.

Almost as interesting are the anecdotes about other pop musicians, ranging from the heartbreaking :

When “The Puppy Song” played, Nilsson’s eyes filled with tears. “Dreams are only made of wishes and a wish is just a dream you hope will come true.”
“I was a pretty good singer once, wasn’t I?”
“You’re the best there ever was.” I told him, meaning every word. I was tearing up too.
“He took it from me. He stole my voice and I never got it back!”
The “he” that Harry referred to was John Lennon, who famously produced the Pussy Cats album for Nilsson in 1974. Harry spoke of the primal screaming contests that John would coerce him into.
“I can scream louder and longer than you!” and John could. But, sweet, gentle Harry couldn’t do it. He tried. The competition was fierce, and by the time Lennon returned to London, abandoning May Pang and the lost California years, it was too late; the damage had been done. Harry’s vocal cords were abraded beyond repair and the new stuff was scratchy and desperate. Harry cried.
“Once I was a king, Howard. Now look at me. I’m just waiting to die

to the… well, to this:

Tom Jones was an education all by himself. Every day, when the tour bus arrived at our venue, there were hundreds of waiting, screaming teenage girls, and Tom taunted them mercilessly from behind the safety of his window. He actually pulled out his legendary-for-good-reason schlong, which he had nicknamed Wendell, and waved it at the befuddled girls, who hooted, hollered, and pushed their friends aside to get a look at the one-eyed monster.
“Ooh, you’d like to meet Wendell, wouldn’t you, ladies? Arrrgh, here he comes, girls.” Tom was very advanced.

The best of the anecdotes reveal a huge amount about the musicians Kaylan has known (which seems to include almost every major figure from the 60s and 70s). The worst are just the usual stories of hedonistic excess that pad out every rock bio. For those, you had to be there, I suspect.

What’s rather sad here is that Kaylan’s personal life seems to have been a mess. I lost track of the number of wives he had (I *think* I counted five or six) because each marriage seems to be described in pretty much identical terms — Kaylan meets a woman and marries her. He is convinced that she is The One and he will never need another woman, she promises she’s going to get off the booze and drugs Real Soon Now. Cut to a year or so later, and he’s sleeping with every woman in the continental United States while she’s permanently off her head. Rinse and repeat. (Thankfully, his current wife seems to have been with him about twenty years, so maybe things are better for him now).

Frankly, the book is too short for what it’s trying to do, which is to be both a straight autobiography and a collection of anecdotes and reminiscences about other people. There’s almost nothing, for example, about Kaylan’s working relationship with Mark Volman — despite the fact that the two have been colleagues for fifty years now, I came out of the book knowing next to nothing about him.

But what *is* there, particularly in the first half, is essential reading for anyone who’s interested in the LA music scene of the 60s.

Penn Jilette’s foreword, as well, is fascinating, and makes me think rather better of him than I did previously:

Years later, brilliant voice actor Billy West would say, “There’s one show business.” I didn’t have those words for it then, but Frank Zappa, Howard Kaylan, and Mark Volman taught me that there was only one showbiz that night in Boston. These lightweights were onstage with the heavyweights and they were doing the best show I would ever see. Their voices were beautiful. The music was hard, and they were still having fun. Some of the jokes were very serious and over my head (what the fuck was going on singing in German about a sofa?). Some of the jokes were just stupid jock cock jokes that I would sneer at in my school. It was all mixed together. It was a show that was smart and stupid, heavy and light, beautiful and more beautiful.
They were doing a show with cheesy jokes, and it was also art. How could that be? It wasn’t stuffy—it was funny, entertaining, showbiz, vaudeville, and fun, and it still had content. Those turtlefucking Mothers with those motherfucking Turtles.
They did “Happy Together” in this Mothers show, and it was a really good song. And the music was more sophisticated than I had ever thought. Those perfect AM voices doing art. I loved hearing something I knew from the radio in a smarty-pants show. Were they making fun of it? Yes. Were they also playing it for real? Yes. Were they playing it because it was fun? Yes. My view of showbiz and art came together. It was that moment, during that show in Boston, that the line between showbiz and art was erased for me. If Turtles could be Mothers, maybe a hick juggler could speak his heart in a magic show.
I drove back to Greenfield and now did my best to look as much like the Phlorescent Leech as I could. When people said, “You look like that guy,” I said, “Yeah, the guy in the Turtles, he’s also in the Mothers now.” I was proud of being in showbiz and I was proud of how I looked, and I knew what I wanted to do in life. That’s a lot to learn from a couple of Turtles.

The Beach Boys On CD: Carl Wilson

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on June 4, 2013

In 1981, the Beach Boys were a shambles. They’d just put out a terrible album, Dennis Wilson was spiraling down into the self-destructive spiral that would soon lead to his death, Brian Wilson was ballooning in weight, and the band were putting on poor shows, joylessly grinding out the hits yet again.

So it was unsurprising that when Carl Wilson’s eponymous solo album, recorded the previous December, was released, he announced that he wouldn’t be touring and recording with them, “until they decide 1981 means as much to them as 1961”, in a press release that also stated that there had “hardly been a full Beach Boys rehearsal in more than a year” and that he didn’t want to play “multi-night engagements in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas and places like that”.

What was surprising, however, was the album. Where Dennis’ solo recordings had shown the untapped potential in an overlooked talent, Carl’s showed the opposite. While the vocal performances are never less than excellent, the music is dull, plodding AOR, the type of thing that might easily have been recorded by Bryan Adams or Huey Lewis.

Carl’s main collaborator on the album was Myrna Smith (later Myrna Smith-Schilling), the partner of the band’s manager Jerry Schilling. She was a great singer (she was a member of the Sweet Inspirations, who as well as their own hits also sang back-up for Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley, and performed on Van Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl) and carried her weight as a backing vocalist, but seemed not to bring out the best in Carl.

The album was recorded by a very small core band — Wilson and Smith, along with John Daly on guitar, James Guercio on bass and guitar, James Stroud on drums, with additional musicians limited for the most part to the odd tambourine or saxophone overdub — and produced by James Guercio. It only charted in the US at number 175, for the very good reason that it wasn’t actually any good. It’s not as bad as MIU or Keepin’ The Summer Alive, but it’s not something that has any reason to exist, either.

(All songs are written by Carl Wilson and Myrna Smith, except where noted).

Hold Me

The album’s first single was this plodding rocker, a duet between Wilson and Smith. There is next to nothing interesting to say about it. The production is straightforwardly dull, with a clomping drum part dominated by hi-hat and cowbell, and a strangely swimmy guitar sound. And the song itself is as basic as it’s possible to get — a dull I-V riff for the verse (sung by Wilson), a brief bridge sung by Smith (chord sequence vi-I-vi-V), then a chorus sung by both, over the same dull riff as the verse. Repeat. That’s it.

There’s not even a middle eight or a solo to break the monotony, just a near-endless repetition of the chorus (actually lasting only eighty-five seconds, but feeling like much more). Tedious in the extreme.

Nice vocals though.

Bright Lights

With its semi-disco beat under standard doo-wop changes for the verse, this beats the previous track in that the chorus is made of different musical material than the verse is. In fact there’s even a key change between the verse and the chorus, though only a change to the subdominant, about as banal a change as it gets.

But we don’t need Carl Wilson singing in an over-reverbed voice over a synth bass “Take a number in my black book/And promise to call”.

And again there’s a stunning lack of craft here — the structure is just verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-verse-repeat chorus to fade. Nothing at all to disrupt the monotony.

Nice vocals though.

What You Gonna Do About Me?

This track seems to be recorded to the same click track as the last one. There does seem, however, to have been some actual thought put into the track. There’s a verse, a bridge, and a key change into the chorus (and it’s a key change down a tone, which is more interesting). There’s even a rudimentary instrumental break, some changes in the dynamics, and an overdub of what sounds like a jew’s harp on the chorus to make it stand out.

However, to make sure that nobody accidentally gets a feeling stronger than a mild sense of ennui from the album, the last two minutes and nine seconds of the track’s four minute twenty-nine running time are (apart from a quick drop down to just the drums) a repeat of the chorus musical material, over and over, with no new ideas. And the lyrics are the worst so far, being the whinging of a Nice Guy complaining he’s in the “friend zone” (“I’m the one you keep on running to after they’ve walked all over you/I’m the one who dries your lonely tears, so what you gonna do about me?”)

Nice vocals though.

The Right Lane

Another song at approximately the same tempo, but this one’s definitely the ‘rock’ one, because the guitars are crunchier and the drums are being hit harder.

This is another one with a straight A-B-A-B structure, this time alternating between a two-chord (charitably — the two chords are E7 and E7sus4) verse and a four-chord bridge. Once again we have the last two minutes and forty-four seconds of the song being an extended repetition of the two-chord riff.

This song’s distinguishing feature (all the songs so far seem to have precisely one) is that it has an actual solo, quite early in the track. There’s even an amusing little ‘pew’ noise repeated during the solo and fade.

What’s most ridiculous is that the lyrics to this song are all about breaking the mould, doing something different, breaking away, and yet this is the fourth song in a row to be, to all intents and purposes, interchangeable.

Nice vocals, though.

Hurry Love

Old habits die hard. In the 60s, the Beach Boys’ albums had, on occasion, been sequenced into an uptempo side A and a slower side B, a legacy of the early rock era when there would be a side ‘for the kids’ and a side ‘for the grown-ups’. Whether deliberately or not, Wilson emulates that on this album, so while side one had four rockers, three of the four tracks on this side are ballads.

Immediately the album starts feeling slightly better, because for a ballad you have to have an actual song, and just not having the same bludgeoning drums and crunchy guitars makes this song seem like a relief. This one even has a middle eight.

The track is, overall, quite pleasant. Nothing special, but Carl Wilson singing even a mediocre song, over a backing of acoustic guitars and hand percussion, is always going to be at least listenable. This is up to the standards of such Beach Boys filler tracks as Sweet Sunday Kind Of Love or Full Sail, and was the B-side to both singles from the album.

Nice vocals.

Heaven

Songwriters: Carl Wilson, Myrna Smith, Michael Sun

The second single from the album was this ballad, the only song to involve a songwriter other than Wilson and Smith. On this evidence they should have had Michael Sun work with them more.

That’s not to say this song is as good as its reputation — since Carl Wilson’s untimely death in 1998, this song has, at least among Beach Boys fans, taken on something like the status of Forever and God Only Knows, but it’s very inferior to those songs. But it is a good song — something that has been lacking up until this point.

In fact it seems far more like a Beach Boys track than a solo track, right down to the lyrics about “The gentle waves of love in motion, and the warmth of summer sun”, and this gives Carl the chance to show that he could be a whole Beach Boys by himself, performing some absolutely lovely multitracked harmony parts, and singing what may be the highest falsetto part he ever sang on the line “Heaven could be here on Earth” — so high he’s clearly straining for the notes.

As a single, this flopped, but it was performed off and on in Beach Boys shows for several years later, and Brian Wilson recorded a solo version in 2007.

Very nice vocals.

The Grammy

This is probably the best of the uptempo songs, mostly because of the dropped beats in the chorus, but also because it bothers to have a middle eight (and the high vocals on the middle eight are by far the most interesting thing on any of the rockers here, sounding almost like Queen or Sparks).

But it’s a petulant whine of a song. Apparently inspired by Billy Joel, it casts Wilson as a rock star snubbing the Grammy awards (“You invite me to pick up my award, after all the time I’ve been out here/My music is still the same, why is it just now getting there?”) and being more interested in art than awards, while the multitracked Greek chorus backing vocals sing “We thought you wanted to be a star?/Who the hell do you think you are?”

Of course, this principled renunciation of the Grammies and all that they stand for would have had nothing to do with the fact that the Beach Boys themselves had never actually won a Grammy award.

(For the record, when the Nobel committee come calling about giving me the prize for literature for this book, I shall definitely turn it down.)

Nice vocals, though.

Seems So Long Ago

And we get another ballad, and so another actual song. Unfortunately it’s a banal, plodding song, with a hugely overextended lounge sax solo (not that there’s such a thing as a lounge sax solo that doesn’t outstay its welcome, but if there was, this wouldn’t be it). The lyrics are doggerel that wouldn’t even measure up for a Hallmark card (“I can see Mom and Dad and the house we had/The trees in the yard and how Dad worked so hard/The good times we shared and how much they cared”) and once again a hugely overextended fade nearly doubles the length of the song.

So at the end of the album (while it only has eight songs, it’s actually a respectable length — it’s just all the songs are at least two minutes too long), the feeling one gets after listening is… “well, that was certainly a recording of some musicians playing some songs.” That’s about as much of a strong opinion as it’s possible to muster about this album.

Nice vocals, though.

The Beach Boys On CD: Keepin’ The Summer Alive

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on June 1, 2013

After the commercial and critical failure of LA (Light Album), CBS insisted that the next Beach Boys album have a reasonable amount of actual Brian Wilson involvement. Unfortunately, Brian Wilson wasn’t in any state to do anything much. The group went into the studio with Chuck Britz, the engineer who had worked with Brian on much of their best 60s output, but all they cut were four uninspiring covers of oldies — School Day (Ring Ring Goes The Bell), Little Girl, Jamaica Farewell and Stranded In The Jungle — before it became clear that he wasn’t going to be capable of producing an album.

Instead, the band turned again to Bruce Johnston as producer, and managed to get enough new Brian Wilson songs together to make the album look like a respectable effort — until you play it.

This is, by far, the worst Beach Boys album up to that point. While Dennis Wilson is pictured on the album cover (a cover which itself tells the whole story — a bad painting of the aging band performing in a sealed glass bubble full of sand and palm trees, in the middle of a polar winter, watched only by a penguin, two polar bears, and a woman in a bikini) he refused to be involved with what he thought was a substandard selection of songs (though he was also suspended from the band around this time after a fight with Mike Love), and can only be heard on one track.

The songs are uninspired, the vocals hoarse and off-key, the instrumental arrangements bludgeoning… the actual sound of the record is good, thanks to the temporary return of engineer Steve Desper, but good engineering can’t save terrible songs, performances and arrangements.

The first Beach Boys album of the 1980s would also be the last to be even nominally by the band’s classic line-up, and it’s a sad way for them to go out.

line-up
Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston

Keepin’ The Summer Alive
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Randy Bachman
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

The album doesn’t start too unpromisingly. The first twenty seconds of this are actually quite promising — Mike Love doing a wonderfully goofy reprise of his Louie Louie bass vocals — before the squealing rawk guitars come in.

This is one of two songs on the album written and co-produced by Carl Wilson with Randy Bachman (of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive), and it shows his new fascination with crunchy, guitar-driven AOR, a style that would unfortunately blight all the rest of his songs.

The song itself seems to have been written as a joke — the three-chord verse/chorus chord sequence is in fact the Louie Louie sequence played backwards — and the parts where it’s allowed to be a goofy, fun track are OK. But too much of it involves guitar sounds that wouldn’t be out of place on a Huey Lewis And The News album, played by Joe Walsh of the Eagles.

Oh Darlin’
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

This terrible, plodding ballad started out as listenable, if not great — there’s a version of this on bootlegs that has a very stripped-down instrumental arrangement, and one of Brian’s very best late-period vocals, and it doesn’t sound half-bad. Had it been left like that, it would have been one of those little nice tracks that everyone forgets about but, when reminded of them, likes.

Instead, several big mistakes were made. Firstly, and least importantly, the lyrics were rewritten to make them even worse — and they weren’t good to start with. Secondly, the instrumental arrangement was overlaid with tons of unnecessary instruments, including a strange horn arrangement that sounds like something between an accordion and a swarm of angry bees. Brian’s pleasant, if hoarse, guide vocal was replaced by a lazy, almost contemptuous, vocal from Carl, a nasal middle eight from Mike, and a strange, unpleasant, backing vocal arrangement.

But worst of all, they made the same mistake they made on seemingly every track in this period — on the tag, Bruce starts singing “God only knows/how I love only you”, which just reminds the listener that they could be listening to a much, much better song.

Some Of Your Love
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

Easily the best uptempo song on the album, this saxophone-driven uptempo riff-rocker was originally recorded during the MIU Album sessions under the title Mike Come Back To LA, and appears from the video footage of those sessions to have been a largely spur-of-the-moment exercise.

The energy from that session still shines through in the backing track, which is based around two very simple two-chord riffs (I-vi for the verses and V-IV for the choruses), and as long as the track is just a honking sax overdub, that backing track, and the band singing “some, some, some of your love” over and over, it’s a lot of fun.

The mood dissipates somewhat on the verses, where Mike takes a nasal lead, singing lines like “She’s got my vote for number one in the class/I couldn’t help but try to make a forward pass”, but the biggest misstep is in the bridge, where again they reference a much better old song, this time having Carl sing “kiss me baby, hold me tight tonight”.

But it’s fun enough, it’s lightweight and it knows it, but it would have made a perfectly acceptable follow-up single for Celebration after Almost Summer.

Livin’ With A Heartache
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Randy Bachman
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

The second Wilson/Bachman collaboration is much, much better than the first. A simple country song, it’s structured around a long, twenty-two-bar chorus (which itself breaks down into an eight-bar, two-chord pseudo-verse in an almost ska rhythm, an eight-bar, three-chord bridge, a two-bar breakdown, and a four-bar repeat of the pseudo-verse) and an eight-bar verse based around a variation of the bridge chords taken at a slower pace.

Unfortunately, less effort seems to have gone into the lyrics, so this country-ska, strange-number-of-bars song is lumbered with lyrics that must have taken literally seconds to write, lines like “after all this time, I still wish you were mine, I miss you every day, come back to me and stay”.

Those lyrics should sink the track altogether, but luckily Carl gives his best vocal performance of the album here. According to Steve Desper, when recording the lead vocal Carl was so drunk that he had to lean against a barn wall while singing. It worked, and his vocal holds the track together and carries real conviction.

This track apparently features no Beach Boys other than Carl Wilson, with the backing vocals provided by Curt Becher, Terry Melcher and Jon Joyce. I say apparently because while Becher in particular is clearly audible in the vocal stack, one of the vocalists sounds very like Bruce Johnston.

This was released as the second single from the album, and didn’t chart.

Four songs in and we’ve finally had one that doesn’t rely on references to older, better songs. Possibly the album is going to get better from here on in?

School Day (Ring Ring Goes The Bell)
Songwriter:
Chuck Berry
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

Chuck Berry covers had been good to the band before, so why not try it again?

And this is, if nothing else, far better than the cover of Rock & Roll Music that had been the band’s biggest hit of the 70s. While the a capella intro does the band no favours, by exposing just how weak their voices now were, Al gives a typically strong, exuberant performance on lead vocals, although the 50s style reverb added to them doesn’t work all that well.

The arrangement is perfunctory, and it fades out early rather than coming to a proper climax, but this is a good enough song that just by playing it straight and not messing anything up too much, it becomes one of the better tracks on the album.

Goin’ On
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Carl Wilson

The lead single from the album, and the first track of side two, is this plodding doo-wop flavoured track. The track was originally titled Why Didn’t I Tell You and featured an incongruous drum solo, before being edited together into its present form.

It just…doesn’t quite work. Nothing on the track is irredeemable (well, maybe the lounge sax solo), there are a lot of interesting musical ideas (the opening, with the band’s harmonies spreading out wider and wider, is something they’d first tried with the unreleased All Dressed Up For School ), and it’s easily Love’s best lyric of the album, but the general feeling is of a poor man’s Good Timin’ (and that track is itself nowhere near as good as its reputation). And again, the track just fades without coming to any resolution.

Sunshine
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: group/Mike

This track started out as a Brian-produced cover version of the Crystals’ Little Boy, retitled Little Girl, before someone had the bright idea that they could take the backing track, edit it a bit, put new lyrics on it, and call it a new original from Brian and Mike.

The result is a mess, consisting of the Little Girl track, reworked as a bad calypso track in the style of some of Curt Becher’s California Music singles, with a backing vocal line taken from the old doo-wop song Smokey Places by the Corsairs, and with the caterwauling excuses for harmonies that ruin much of the album.

This is not only joyless itself, it points the way to the band’s future attempts at Carribean-style music, none of which ended well at all.

When Girls Get Together
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Brian Wilson

Even when digging into their back catalogue, the band can’t seem to get it right with this album. This track was originally recorded during the sessions for Sunflower, and has that album’s sound all over it, from the marxophone (a type of zither) in the top of the arrangement to the banjo and horns underneath.

But the vocal melody doesn’t fit the scansion of the lyrics at all, and the lyrics themselves have more of the stamp of Brian in eccentric mode than of Mike — “When girls get together, they don’t waste time on things like weather and stuff/They all just play around and never seem to discuss it enough”. The vocal arrangement is also odd, just Brian and Mike singing in near-unison, and the whole thing feels like an interesting experiment that doesn’t quite come off.

It’s better than much of the dreck on the album, but given the vast quantities of wonderful music the band had recorded and not yet released, how this got chosen to be pulled from the vaults is a mystery.

Santa Ana Winds
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine with the group

This is another track that has a curious gestation, having started out in a very different arrangement during the LA (Light Album) sessions, with totally different lyrics (“On my porch/thinkin’ about the torch/I been carrying for you so long).

All of that track was stripped away except for Brian’s chorus vocals and harmonica part, and it was rebuilt as a rather lovely, folky little track carried by acoustic guitars, banjo, strings and Al’s multitracked vocals.

This has a lot of the flavour of California Saga about it, from the spoken intro to the acoustic guitars and the slightly mystical lyrics about California. In fact it was planned originally as part of another themed trilogy, along with Looking Down The Coast and Monterey. The latter two songs were eventually resurrected, under just the first name, on Al’s 2010 solo album A Postcard From California.

While the rest of the album ranges from horribly poor to merely competent, this is the only track which is an actual pleasure to listen to.

Endless Harmony
Songwriter:
Bruce Johnston
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston and Carl Wilson

This, on the other hand, is just horrible. Bruce’s first songwriting contribution to the band since Disney Girls actually dates back to 1972, when it was titled Ten Years’ Harmony. It’s the first, and one of the worst, example of the band self-mythologising, as Bruce sings about just how great the Beach Boys are.

It starts out bad, with Bruce on electric piano singing solo, much like his Going Public album, and all the augmented, ninth and minor sixth chords just make this sound like the worst kind of lounge singer nonsense. And the lyrics are just terrible — “Ocean lovers, who like to harmonise/they’re all brothers, friends and cousins, and they make their mamas cry…”

Then at 2:15 the drums kick in (Dennis’ only appearance on the album) and Carl starts to sing, and the lyrics get even worse — “and we sang God Bless America/It’s the land where we tour/She takes great care of us/And people love the way we sing…”

This kind of self-congratulatory nonsense would be bad enough were it on an album that showed any sign at all of being the work of people who deserved congratulation, but after thirty-five minutes of lazy, incompetent, badly-sung dreck that leaves one with no goodwill towards the band at all, it’s frankly nauseating.

And then it ends with twenty seconds of utterly gorgeous harmony, topped with a pure, lovely falsetto from Bruce. It’s lovely, but if anything it adds insult to injury. In the context of just this song, it’s “look what we can do!”

In the context of the album, however, it’s “look what we could have done if we’d tried.” The singing on this album as a whole is inexcusably bad, and to be shown twenty seconds before the end that they could have done better if they’d tried just makes it all the worse.

This song was used as the theme tune for the 1999 TV documentary of the same name about the band.

The Beach Boys On CD: MIU Album

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on May 28, 2013

In September 1977, the Beach Boys split up, briefly. There were many reasons, but the fundamental split in the band came down to Al Jardine and Mike Love wanting to live cleanly, coast on past glories, and practice transcendental meditation, while Carl and Dennis Wilson wanted to make artistically progressive music while abusing as many substances as possible (Carl later cleaned himself up).

The split was only temporary, but it’s obvious which side won control of the band from the title of this album — MIU is short for Maharishi International University, where the bulk of the album was recorded.

In fact, this was originally two albums. After the band had decided not to put out Brian’s Adult/Child follow-up to Love You, Love, Jardine, Brian Wilson and the backing band decamped to Iowa, to the titular university, to record two albums simultaneously, one to be called California Feeling, the other Merry Christmas From The Beach Boys. Given that they’d just signed to CBS Records, while still owing an album to Reprise, it seems plausible that they were trying to record a contractual obligation album while also recording the first album for their new contract.

In fact, a third album was being recorded along with these two — Mike Love’s side band Celebration, featuring many of the touring band members, was recording Almost Summer, the soundtrack album to the film of the same name, including a title track, co-written by Love, Jardine and Wilson, which made the top thirty in the US when released as a single.

Unfortunately, they spread themselves too thin. Some of the Christmas tracks had minimal lyrical rewrites, to take out the Christmas references, and a compilation of tracks from both California Feeling and Merry Christmas, plus a couple of outtakes from the New Album and Adult/Child projects, became this album [FOOTNOTE Several of the Christmas songs were released on the later compilation Ultimate Christmas, and will be reviewed in volume three.].

The result, which was released in October 1978, is, frankly, horrible. It features no active involvement from Dennis Wilson (who said of the album “I hope that the karma will fuck up Mike Love’s meditation forever. That album is an embarrassment to my life. It should self destruct ”) beyond the archive tracks, and Carl Wilson only contributes one lead vocal (Dennis didn’t turn up to Iowa at all, and Carl only attended briefly). Brian Wilson was there in body, but not in spirit, leaving production duties to Al Jardine (who looked after the vocals) and backing band keyboardist Ron Altbach (previously of one-hit wonders King Harvest, Altbach looked after the backing tracks).

Beach Boys albums had misfired before, but never because of a lack of artistic ambition. Unfortunately, MIU Album was to set the pattern for much of the next few decades.

line-up
Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love

She’s Got Rhythm
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Ron Altbach
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

At least the first track doesn’t give you any false hope. The album starts with Brian Wilson screeching, as if in agony, “Laaaaast night I went out disco dancing…”

This really does set the tone for the whole album. There’s an attempt to recreate past glories that falls laughably short — this tuneless screech is apparently someone’s idea of a Brian Wilson falsetto — combined with an equally laughable attempt to be up-to-date and trendy.

The song itself is a basic shuffle, based on an instrumental composed by Altbach for the Almost Summer soundtrack, with lyrics provided by Love and Wilson. It consists of a strict alternation between a sixteen-bar, three-chord, major key verse/chorus ‘sung’ by Wilson, and an eight-bar minor-key bridge sung nasally by Love.

This is one of the few songs to which Carl Wilson contributed during his two-day stay in Iowa, and he seems to be just barely audible in the backing vocal stack.

It boggles my mind that something this piss-poor could have been released by a major band, on a major record label.

Come Go With Me
Songwriter:
Clarence Quick
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

This is much better. The Beach Boys had tried this during the New Album sessions, but this appears to have been a completely new recording from 1978. It’s a cover version of a hit by the doo-wop group The Del-Vikings, a song that is probably otherwise best known as the song John Lennon was playing the first time Paul McCartney saw him.

The track seems to feature only Jardine on vocals, but at this point Jardine was probably the most proficient vocalist in the band, and he manages to make a better job of doing Beach Boys style harmonies by himself than the band were doing at this point. The production is ersatz-Spector, and the whole thing is pleasantly enjoyable. While it’s not earth-shattering, it’s cheerful and listenable.

This was released as a single three years later, on the back of a compilation of the band’s 70s work, and made number 18 in the US charts in January 1982. It has remained in the set of the various touring iterations of the Beach Boys to this day.

Hey Little Tomboy
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson

Oh dear. The unreleased New Album and Adult/Child included some of Brian Wilson’s best songwriting, including wonders like Sherry She Needs Me and Still I Dream Of It. They also included this…

A song where five hoarse-voiced bearded men in their mid-thirties ask a ‘little tomboy’ to ‘sit here on my lap’ and tell her ‘I’m gonna teach you to kiss’ and ‘it’s time you turned into a girl’.

It’s easy enough to see why Brian Wilson wrote this — most of his material around this time was from a youthful perspective, and he wasn’t especially mentally well at the time. It’s even possible, just about, to see why the band would record it, to encourage Brian in his work. What it’s not possible to understand is why, when they had at a conservative estimate at least three albums’ worth of material in the can from which to pick for MIU, even not counting Dennis’ solo work, they would choose to put this on the album, especially since it’s not even musically interesting.

We can thank heaven for small mercies, though — the reason the instrumental section sounds so bare is because there was originally a spoken section, with the band members leering “Now shave your legs for the first time”, “let’s put on a little lipstick and see what it looks like”, while making oinking noises like pigs…

Kona Coast
Songwriter:
Al Jardine and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Brian Wilson

And after that, a return to solid mediocrity is a welcome relief. This track was originally recorded for the Christmas sessions as Kona Christmas or Melekalikimaka, and had a lyric about how “I wanna spend Christmas where I dig it the most, in Hawaii”. One quick rewrite later and it became “I wanna go surfin’ where I dig it the most, in Hawaii”, making this the first Beach Boys track to mention surfing in a decade.

Add in an out-of-tune falsetto screech from Brian Wilson, failing to replicate the vocal line from Hawaii from the Surfer Girl album, and some mild ethnic stereotyping (“I’ll learn to talk-a like a local, I betcha”) and you have a crass, boorish track that is nonetheless better than half of what came before, thanks largely to a single mildly interesting chord change (the iim7-III7 change that also heralds Al Jardine’s vocal part, which is much stronger than Love or Wilson’s).

Peggy Sue
Songwriter:
Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison and Norman Petty
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

This track was originally recorded for the 15 Big Ones sessions, before being resurrected in the Iowa sessions, initially as a Christmas song with new lyrics (“Christmas time is here again”), before Al polished it up for MIU Album.

The result is a mess. While it does at least feature actual Beach Boys harmonies, it’s a clodhopping, joyless, stifling wall of sound, taken too slow and without any of the joy and inventiveness of Buddy Holly’s classic original. Al Jardine turns in a typically excellent lead vocal, but when this was released as the single from the album it got no higher in the US charts than number 59, which is about right.

Wontcha Come Out Tonight
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Brian Wilson

It comes to something when a track like this is an improvement. There’s no actual song here, in any real sense — the song alternates between a trite chorus and a not-much-less-trite verse, with lyrics so forgettable you forget them while actually listening, while the chord sequence is a hackneyed doo-wop progression in the choruses and a ii-I progression in the verses, two of the biggest cliches in rock and roll.

But the intro and outro vocal parts show some real inventiveness — a multi-tracked Brian singing in a variety of different voices, with more enthusiasm than he does anywhere else on the album, while Mike Love puts in an excellent bass vocal.

And Brian’s vocals on the choruses (which sound like they might be the same vocal take pasted in multiple places) are just gorgeous. He’s singing in his ‘low and manly’ voice, but gently, rather than in the gruff bellow of the last two albums. The singing style he uses here, on Match Point Of Our Love, and on Winter Symphony from the Christmas sessions, is one he never used before or since, but it makes one wish there were whole albums of him singing like this.

Unfortunately, it’s spoiled by Love’s over-nasal verse vocals, and the song itself is a nothing, but as the closer to side one it at least ends the side on a moderately positive note.

Sweet Sunday Kinda Love
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Side two opens with one of the two songs that comes closest to being actually good on the album. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a solid song, and a return to Brian’s old obsession Be My Baby, with which it shares a rhythmic feel and the chord sequence of the first eight bars of the verse.

There’s not much in the way of major harmonic innovation in the song, but it feels thought about in a way that much of the rest of the album doesn’t — the change to v for the middle eight, and then having the descending bassline drag the chord from the minor fifth to the major fifth by descending by semitones, isn’t harmonically outrageous, but it is interesting.

Carl Wilson doesn’t turn in one of his best leads — he sounds a little bored with the material — but he sings on-key and in his beautiful voice, and on an album dominated by nasal sneering from Love and off-key shrieking from Brian Wilson, that’s a huge improvement.

Belles Of Paris
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Ron Altbach and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

And then they go and spoil it, again showing the lack of thought that went into this album. Quite simply, if you have two songs that rip off Be My Baby, you don’t sequence them back to back!

This, too, is based around the I-ii-V7 progression that powers Be My Baby (very slightly modified — here it goes I-Imaj7-ii7-V7, and the changes don’t come in precisely the same places, but the resemblance is clearly there), and has the same rhythm to it.

Love actually does a very good job of the vocal here, singing in his lower, more mellow register, but the song is a less inventive version of the previous track, the harmonies are off, and the lyrics (describing a trip round Paris “watching belles jeunes filles and the handsome gendarmes”) are pap.

This was originally recorded during the Christmas sessions as Bells Of Christmas, and oddly, when that was released, Brian Wilson wasn’t credited as a writer and Alan Jardine was, suggesting Wilson’s contribution was purely lyrical. Even more oddly, Wilson released a near-identical track, with different lyrics, On Christmas Day, on his 2005 Christmas album, and he was credited as sole composer.

Pitter Patter
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Al Jardine

This is one of the more listenable tracks on the album, a mid-tempo rocker dominated by Jardine’s very strong vocals, with a decent performance from Love, with his nasality working to the song’s advantage.

There’s absolutely nothing of interest to say about it, but it’s not bad either. Had the whole album been like this, it would have been mildly disappointing rather than an utter travesty.

My Diane
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

And suddenly, I’m in tears listening to this album. Even though I’ve listened to this track more than all the others on the record put together, it still has the power to move me to tears.

This song is a leftover from the 1976 New Album sessions, and the difference between this and even the best of the rest of MIU is… to say it’s night and day would not only be too cliched, but wouldn’t go far enough. It’s the difference between music and Muzak. The difference between a work of art and a cola commercial.

The song itself is simple enough, alternating between a minor-key verse that progresses through related chords, and a chorus that’s just the I, IV and V of the relative major, along with a very brief bridge, but it’s a song written entirely from the heart.

Brian Wilson wrote this about his wife’s sister, with whom he’d had an on-and-off affair for a long time, and it’s a cry of loss like that of a child, who doesn’t understand what loss even means — “Now that I have lost my Diane, there’s no plan as to where to go/It was hard to lose my Diane, now I just miss her so”. It’s simple — simplistic, even — but because it’s an absolutely direct emotional expression.

Dennis Wilson rises to the occasion, bellowing the lyrics like a wounded animal, and the result is one of the most emotionally devastating things the Beach Boys ever did. Powerful enough out of context, when it blindsides you in the middle of the pabulum that surrounds it, it’s almost too much to bear.

Match Point Of Our Love
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

And then we have Brian Wilson singing over the kind of disco-lite background that the Captain And Tennille might have thought was a little too uninspired for them, and the lyrics he’s singing are an extended metaphor treating the end of a love affair as a tennis match. (“So we volleyed a while with small talk and a smile and as push comes to shove/I’d say this must be the matchpoint of our love”). If that’s the sort of thing you like, then you’ll certainly like this track. Well, possibly.

Brian’s vocals are excellent, but there’s nothing here to suggest this is the same band who even recorded 15 Big Ones, let alone any of the Beach Boys’ good albums.

Winds Of Change
Songwriter:
Ron Altbach and Ed Tuleja
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love

And this is…not terrible, compared to the rest of the album. Incredibly, the Beach Boys only turned to outside songwriters for new songs three times in their career (as opposed to collaborating with outsiders, or performing cover versions). On their self-titled 1985 album they recorded songs by Stevie Wonder and Culture Club (who were then one of the biggest bands in the world). Here…two ex-members of King Harvest who were in their backing band.

The song itself is perfectly adequate if you like wistful 70s piano ballads with ‘spiritual’ lyrics like “Worlds in motion endlessly/Cosmic ocean flows into my heart” (I bet Bruce Johnston loved it), and it’s just about made listenable by an astonishingly good vocal performance from Al Jardine and a decent one by Mike Love, before being killed by syrupy orchestration, and then buried by the coda, in which Brian sings “won’t last forever” in his screechy falsetto, referencing When I Grow Up (To Be A Man), and reminds us just how good the Beach Boys used to be, and how little this has to do with what made them so great.

The next album would be better, but after listening to MIU Album you can tell that everything that had made the Beach Boys great was gone, perhaps forever.

It’s kinda sad.

The Beach Boys Live: The 50th Anniversary Tour

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on May 22, 2013

If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two disasters just the same…
Then you’re a Beach Boys fan, since triumph and disaster are so intermingled in this band that it has become impossible to tell them apart.

Take this CD as an example.

Last year’s reunion tour (of a Beach Boys lineup that had never played together before, but we’ll let that pass) eventually managed to become an artistic triumph. After starting out with essentially the same hits show that Mike Love and Bruce Johnston play to county fairs across the USA every year (not that there’s anything wrong with county fairs, or the Beach Boys’ hits…), they steadily added more different, interesting material to the sets, while being backed by what is, bar none, the best band I’ve ever seen. The last of the three shows I saw on the tour, at Wembley, was the second best live musical experience of my life (the best, Brian Wilson’s UK tours of 2002, featured six of the same people).

And that is more-or-less reflected on this double-CD set. While it’s shorter than most of the shows, at forty-one songs, it manages to contain pretty much all of the hits you’d expect, but also songs like Marcella, The Little Girl I Once Knew, Disney Girls, Pet Sounds, Sail On Sailor and All This Is That, all performed exquisitely.

There’s nothing wrong with the performances, the song choice or the album cover at all.

I want to repeat that. The vocal, instrumental and songwriting abilities of the people on that stage shine through here.

No, the problem is the mix.

The problem most people have been noting is the autotune, slathered on by Joe Thomas, the album’s ‘co-producer’. (Brian Wilson is credited as co-producer as well, but this is almost certainly a vanity credit). And that is bad. Mike Love and Brian Wilson both sound utterly robotic at points, like they’ve been replaced by a square wave.

There’s also utterly shameless use of studio-recorded material — the rerecording of Do It Again from last year, the studio versions of That’s Why God Made The Radio and Isn’t It Time, and even Brian Wilson’s 2004 solo recording of Heroes & Villains (autotuned almost out of recognition, but definitely the same recording) all make appearances, lightly dusted with a few dropped-in live bits. But that’s sort of OK — there’s no such thing as an actual live album any more, and at least this doesn’t pretend to be a single show (Bruce says “We must be in Texas!” near the beginning, and sings “in a smaller Texas town” in Disney Girls, Mike says “thank you my people, the car people of Arizona!” after the car medley, and Bruce sings “I wish they all could be Colorado girls” later on. And now those who collect unofficial recordings will know they already have several of the tracks).

The autotune is, frankly, unforgivable — but it wrecks less than a quarter of the album. While it’s present on most of it, there are only a handful of songs where it jumps out as unlistenable. The rest isn’t too badly affected. (The same goes for the reverb that’s all over the thing, and the decisions to double-track some vocals, presumably using performances from multiple shows).

But the other mixing problems are worse. Huge chunks of instrumentation are mixed down or out altogether. Nelson Bragg’s percussion is a particular casualty — when he mentioned the album on Facebook, he said “I don’t know if you’ll hear me on it”, and I didn’t know what he meant, but now I do. Half his parts simply aren’t audible. There are usually no more than two guitars in the mix at any time, and two keyboards (at various points on the tour there were up to six guitars playing, and up to four keyboards). This sounds empty and sterile. Mike Love introduces California Saga by talking about Al playing his banjo, and we hear it being tuned in the background — but then it’s inaudible during the song itself.

And I feel very sorry for John Cowsill, who is bar none the best live drummer I’ve ever seen. But his parts on this tour were worked out to blend with the (now inaudible) percussion parts, and to make matters worse the drum sound on this record is like hearing someone play on biscuit tins.

And then there’s the audience… mixed completely out, for the most part, then mixed up at random intervals for half-second bursts, at maximum volume, like they let a small child control that fader.

Given the horrible production Joe Thomas inflicted on the otherwise very good That’s Why God Made The Radio album last year (not to mention the horrors of Stars & Stripes vol 1, The Wilsons and Imagination in the 90s), why do the Beach Boys keep employing this buffoon?

My final problem with the CD is the credits. The musicians are all given minimal credits, so Probyn Gregory is only credited for guitar/vocals (no mention of his horn, tannerin or bass playing), Mike D’Amico bass/vocals (no mention of his drumming on a couple of songs), Scott Totten guitar/vocals (no mention of ukulele), Darian keyboards/vocals (no mention of the tuned percussion parts) and Jeff Foskett guitar/vocals (no mention of the mandolin).

Worst of all, Nick Walusko, who dropped out of the tour for health reasons half way through but who definitely played on several of the shows used here, isn’t credited at all. Now, of course, it’s entirely possible that they cut him out of the final mix, but if they can credit the accountants and carpenters they can credit him.

But by focusing on the negatives so much, I really am giving a misleading impression of this album. For the most part, it’s a very listenable, pleasant, if over-clean, rendition of some of the finest songs ever written. There are little moments of beauty scattered throughout it, and despite the mix you can hear just how wonderful these musicians are — and they really are. Hearing the five surviving Beach Boys harmonising on Surfer Girl and In My Room, or hearing All This Is That live, is still captivating.

It’s worth buying, or at least listening to on Spotify, if you like the Beach Boys. But just don’t expect anything to show you why those of us who were lucky enough to be there will remember last year’s tour with awe forever.

Tracklist (all leads Mike Love, with falsetto Jeff Foskett, except where noted):
Disc 1
1. Do It Again
2. Little Honda
3. Catch A Wave
4. Hawaii
5. Don’t Back Down
6. Surfin’ Safari
7. Surfer Girl (group/Brian Wilson)
8. The Little Girl I Once Knew (group/Brian Wilson/Mike Love)
9. Wendy (Bruce Johnston)
10. Getcha Back (David Marks)
11. Then I Kissed Her (Al Jardine)
12. Marcella (Brian Wilson)
13. Isn’t It Time (group)
14. Why Do Fools Fall In Love (Scott Totten and Jeff Foskett)
15. When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)
16. Disney Girls (Bruce Johnston)
17. Be True To Your School
18. Little Deuce Coupe
19. 409
20. Shut Down
21. I Get Around
Disc: 2
1. Pet Sounds (instrumental, lead guitar David Marks)
2. Add Some Music To Your Day (group)
3. Heroes And Villains (Brian Wilson)
4. Sail On, Sailor (Brian Wilson)
5. California Saga: California (Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love)
6. In My Room (group)
7. All This Is That (Mike Love & Al Jardine verses, Brian Wilson & Darian Sahanaja choruses, Jeff Foskett tag)
8. That’s Why God Made The Radio (group)
9. Forever (group backing a pre-recorded Dennis Wilson)
10. God Only Knows (group backing a pre-recorded Carl Wilson)
11. Sloop John B (Brian Wilson)
12. Wouldn’t It Be Nice (Al Jardine and Mike Love)
13. Good Vibrations (Brian Wilson and Jeff Foskett, with Mike Love)
14. California Girls
15. Help Me, Rhonda (Al Jardine)
16. Rock And Roll Music
17. Surfin’ U.S.A.
18. Kokomo
19. Barbara Ann (group)
20. Fun, Fun, Fun

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