The Monkees at Hammersmith

So along with being ill and trying (and largely failing) to finish up California Dreaming (though that will be done Real Soon Now — it really is just a matter of pulling stuff together, and it’s a matter of days, not weeks, of work) the big thing that kept me away from this blog last week was traveling first to That London and then to Birmingham to see the Monkees.

Well, two of them, anyway. Seeing Davy is sadly no longer a possibility, while Michael Nesmith, after touring with the band through 2012, 2013, and 2014 — his longest period with them since the 60s, by a very long way — has declined to be part of the tour this year; annoyingly, none of those tours came to the UK, but we can hope he’ll reconsider for the fiftieth anniversary this year.

No matter which combination of members is present, though, the Monkees have an affection from their audience that I’ve never seen with any other band. I’ve seen bigger crowds, and more obsessive ones, but never crowds that are so happy to be there. Sat outside the Hammersmith Apollo, waiting for the doors to open, I saw dozens of people taking photographs of themselves below the marquee, just wanting a record of themselves going to a Monkees show. That’s something I’ve not seen before, and suggests a kind of love for the band that is not at all common.

After the opening music (a mixture of solo Monkees obscurities and covers of Monkees songs by other artists) and montage of video clips, the band that came onto the stage was much smaller than the band I saw in 2011. Not only was there (obviously) no Davy, but there were far fewer backing musicians — no horns, just one guitar, bass, drums (only one kit — Micky didn’t play drums on this tour) and keyboards, plus Micky’s sister Coco Dolenz on backing vocals and hand percussion. That, plus Peter Tork switching between guitar and keyboards, and Micky occasionally playing acoustic guitar, was the entire band.

This makes sense in a lot of ways. Davy’s “Broadway rock” stuff was the only music that they did that really needed the horns, and they’d always detracted from, rather than added to, the other music — Pleasant Valley Sunday isn’t improved by sounding like it’s being played by the studio band from a US late-night talk show.

But the combination of this, along with the lack of Davy as a frontman (and the concomitant lack of dance routines and much smaller number of old music-hall jokes) gave the show a completely different feel to that from 2011. Where the earlier show, even before they walked on stage, felt showbiz, this felt rock and roll. The earlier show was, for me at least, watching three of the stars of one of my favourite TV programmes from when I was a child, whereas this was watching the band who made some of the records I’ve loved the most in my thirties.

This meant that even the parts of the show that were most similar — Micky singing I’m A Believer or Porpoise Song — felt different, and like they were being asked to be judged by a different standard. Luckily, as a rock and roll show, the new Monkees (not to be confused, thankfully, with the New Monkees) are as good as any out there.

One could argue that the Monkees, as a quartet, were each a quarter of the perfect entertainer — Davy the frontman, Micky the singer, Michael the songwriter, and Peter the instrumentalist. Given that they still play many of Nesmith’s songs, the lack of the other two in musical terms is fairly minimal on the songs they do play.

The main way the lack affects the show is that the setlist chosen has almost no songs that originally had lead vocals by either Davy or Michael, with only two of each — A Little Bit Me and Daydream Believer in Davy’s case, and Papa Gene’s Blues and Listen To The Band in Michael’s. Everything else was something that had originally been sung by Micky or Peter.

This made for a truly odd setlist. Previous Monkees setlists have largely been ones anyone could write — take any Best Of The Monkees collection, add in a couple of extra songs that Peter can sing, and the job’s done. But while Dolenz sings almost every one of the massive hits (Clarksville, Steppin’ Stone, I’m A Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Randy Scouse Git, She) and several of the more recognisable non-hits (Goin’ Down, Porpoise Song, Girl I Knew Somewhere), having a show where only Micky and Peter are singing means that many well-known non-hit songs (Daddy’s Song, Cuddly Toy, You Just May Be The One and so on) are out of bounds, and the setlist mixes the famous songs in with songs that are not completely familiar even to a dedicated fan like myself.

For the first, shorter, set, Dolenz utterly dominated proceedings. While Peter got two leads (Your Aunty Grizelda and For Pete’s Sake), took a part of the lead on No Time, duetted on Words, and was as good a visual clown as ever (and the man is an absolutely remarkable mime — he could have been Harpo Marx good if he’d gone in that direction), the bulk of songs were all Micky leads, and all utterly familiar to anyone who knows the Monkees at all — Clarksville, A Little Bit Me, Girl I Knew Somewhere, Mary Mary, Randy Scouse Git, She — songs that anyone who ever owned a Monkees Greatest Hits compilation, or watched the TV show, knows like they know their own mother.

The one exception was the interesting choice of I’ll Be Back On My Feet, an album track that had never been performed live before this year. Oddly, this rather muzaky song has become quite funky in the live arrangement — with a smaller band, the song has a real groove to it, in a way it doesn’t on record.

After an intermission, during which commercials featuring the Monkees were played (a nice idea of Andrew Sandoval’s), interspersed with videos of songs that wouldn’t be played live this time (largely Nesmith ones), the band came on for a semi-acoustic set, with Dolenz and Tork down the front on acoustic guitars. A brief snippet of Tork’s song Tear The Top Right Off My Head was followed by a rearranged version of Clarksville, done as a blues number with Tork on lead. This was followed by two Carole King numbers — Take A Giant Step and Sometime in the Morning — both rearranged by Tork to emphasise his finger-picked, almost ragtime, guitar style. Both of these were highlights, Take A Giant Step for Tork’s wonderful playing (and his singing — the pitching problems which he had in earlier decades are now gone, and he sounds almost like Willie Nelson), and Sometime In The Morning for Mick’s vocal. On the 2011 tour he almost bellowed this one, rather destroying the beauty of it — he has a tendency nowadays to project more than he did in the 60s, and this sometimes is at the expense of subtlety — but here, with a softer backing with which he didn’t have to compete, he sounded lovely.

These were followed by acoustic versions of Midnight Train (with Coco Dolenz brought up to join them) and Papa Gene’s Blues. Coco Dolenz is a far more important addition to the show than people might imagine, despite being “only” a backing vocalist, for the simple reason that she has *the exact same voice* as her brother. This makes the harmonies sound quite wonderful — and indeed this version of the band has astounding vocal harmonies all round, as a surprise a capella break at the end of The Girl I Knew Somewhere showed.

Papa Gene’s Blues was interesting as well, because both nights of the UK tour it was introduced with effusive praise for both the song and its writer, Michael Nesmith (both Tork and Dolenz said it was their favourite of his songs “except Rio”). With the fiftieth anniversary next year, they’re clearly trying to be as publicly complimentary toward him as possible so as not to burn bridges, and many times mentioned just how great a songwriter he is. This stands in contrast to Davy, who was only mentioned once, in the list of songwriters who’d written for the band — were it not for the video footage of him, one could be forgiven for thinking Davy was never in the band at all.

We then had two songs from Head — Porpoise Song and Long Title (though not, oddly, Tork’s other usual lead, Can You Dig It?), and a giant rush through the hits, interrupted only for solo spots for each Monkee (a torch-blues version of Sugar Sugar for Micky and Saved By The Blues, a song originally by Tork’s band Shoe Suede Blues, for Peter). During Goin’ Down, Micky made the lifetime of Iain Lee (yes, “TV’s Iain Lee” — he’s one of the biggest Monkees fans in the world, and a big fan of LA 60s pop stuff generally, and a very nice bloke) by passing him the mic to sing a verse from the audience.

There were flaws to the show — mostly because of the acoustics of the hall (the sound balance didn’t seem quite right in the first set, though it was spot on for the much longer second set) — but the show was about as good a representation of the Monkees’ music, and of why that music stands up completely outside the context of the TV series, as one could hope for.

Sunday’s show at Moseley was also special, in a rather different way, and I’ll talk about that tonight or tomorrow…

California Dreaming: To Claudia On Thursday

Curt Boettcher was feeling stifled by Gary Usher.

Usher was still necessary to Boettcher’s musical plans, as his position at Columbia Records gave Boettcher the ability to do whatever he wanted musically, but even Boettcher’s closest friends described him as a control freak, and he wanted to have a project that was his own, not playing second fiddle to Gary Usher.

So while still working with Usher on the Sagittarius recordings, Boettcher started to put together his own band. Initially he worked with Jerry Scheff, Ben Benay, and Toxie French, three session musicians who had played on sessions Boettcher had produced for Lee Mallory, but they soon quit and were replaced by two members of the band The Music Machine (sometimes also known as The Bonniwell Music Machine), a one-hit wonder band whose song Talk Talk is now a garage-rock classic. Boettcher had worked with Ron Edgar, the Music Machine’s drummer, in the Goldebriars, and Edgar brought along Doug Rhodes. A third Music Machine member, Keith Olsen, did not join the new band but became Boettcher’s co-producer on the new recordings (with Gary Usher being relegated to executive producer status).

However, Boettcher wanted a proper band, with multiple vocalists capable of taking leads, and so he expanded the new group to seven members, with four additional songwriter/vocalists. Lee Mallory had recorded a couple of mildly successful singles produced by Boettcher, and had worked with him on records by the Association, Sandy Salisbury was a former member of Boettcher’s group The Millennium, and the group was rounded out with two newcomers, Michael Fennelly (who Boettcher had picked up hitch-hiking to an audition and invited to join the group), and Joey Stec.

All of these people were hugely talented singers and songwriters, but they were all virtual unknowns, so Boettcher had a group who could all contribute commercial material and lead vocals, but who would also take their orders from him, as he was the one whose contract the band were using to record their album (Boettcher having been signed to Columbia as a solo artist).

The band’s first single, It’s You, was written by Fennelly and Stec, and featured Fennelly (who was very obviously the member with most star potential), but despite getting some small amount of airplay, the song (about government cover-ups, but phrased ambiguously so it could also work as a song about an unhappy romance) had little success.

That didn’t deter the Millennium, though, and they continued working on their ferociously ambitious first album, Begin. As might be expected from a band with seven strong creative figures, one of whom was among the most experimental producers working in Hollywood, the band ended up spending far more time in the studio than the label were comfortable with, and the album, by the time it was finished, ended up costing the label more than any other record in its history, coming in at a cost of $100,000 at a time when $50,000 was a more-than-respectable budget for an album. This was mostly down to Boettcher’s habit of writing and rehearsing vocal arrangements in the studio, teaching them to the band while listening to playbacks of the instrumental tracks, rather than having the band rehearsed before entering the studio.

Despite featuring songwriting credits for all seven members, the bulk of the album was split between solo songs by Boettecher and Mallory and songs written by the Fennelly/Stec team (with a couple of Boettcher/Mallory and Boettcher/Mallory/Fennelly collaborations thrown in). The Fennelly/Stec songs were far and away the most catchy, and so it made sense that (after the brief instrumental Prelude) the first song on the album hould be another of their songs.

To Claudia on Thursday was so named because it was written on a Thursday, for Boettcher’s then-wife Claudia. Claudia (who later married the band’s drummer, Ron Edgar), was heavily pregnant at the time and apparently needed cheering up, so Stec and Fennelly came up with a song asking her to “relax and smile”. Coming after the instrumental sounding opening, which combined baroque pop instrumentation with a repetitive beat that sounded looped (so that to modern ears it can’t help but sound like a 90s dance track), the almost calypso feel of To Claudia…, with its variety of odd-sounding percussion, made it clear that this wasn’t just another harmony-pop album, although the cascading harmonies on the line “in your eyes…” showed that the Millennium were as capable of pure harmony gorgeousness as anyone.

The song was clearly the most commercial thing on the album, and should have appealed to the same audience that had been buying the Association’s singles, with its simple lyric about taking life easy and being happy, but for some reason (perhaps an over-light mix — compare the early version later released on the compilation Again, and you’ll hear how much thicker the song could sound, rather than the airy trebliness of the final version) the song did nothing on the radio. Released as the third single off the album (after Salisbury’s 5AM), it sank, and with it the band’s career.

The band briefly started work on a second album before Columbia pulled the plug, unhappy with the album that had been delivered, the money spent on it, and the band’s unwillingness to tour to promote it, but even before that there were clear tensions within the band. Fennelly and Boettcher, in particular, didn’t get on (Boettcher felt that he could have moulded Fennelly into a star if Fennelly were more interested in being a teen idol and less in playing rock music), and Boettcher’s control-freak tendencies were asserting themselves. Boettcher had complained about Gary Usher doubling Boettcher’s vocals on the Sagittarius album, but was now doing the same to all the vocalists in the Millennium, creating Frankenstein leads in just the way Usher had, and imposing Boettcher’s vocal sound on all of the singers in the band. There was clearly no democracy here, but rather Boettcher making use of others’ talents for his own ends.

The album marked the end of Boettcher and Gary Usher’s relationship with Columbia. Usher soon started his own record company, Together Records, which released a second Sagittarius album, The Blue Marble, before collapsing, leaving other projects such as a Sandy Salisbury solo album (co-produced by Boettcher) and an orchestral tribute to Brian Wilson unreleased. Both Usher and Boettcher would continue making records throughout the 70s, but their moment had passed.

To Claudia on Thursday

Composer: Michael Fennelly and Joey Stec

Line-up: Curt Boettcher (vocals, guitar), Ron Edgar (drums, vocals), Michael Fennelly (guitar, vocals), Lee Mallory (vocals), Doug Rhodes (horn, keyboards, vocals), Sandy Salisbury (guitar, vocals), Patrick Shanahan (drums), Joey Stec (guitar), Red Rhodes (pedal steel), Doug Dillard (banjo)

Note, these are the credits for the full album, and not every member may be on every track.

Original release: Begin, The Millennium, Columbia CS 9663

Currently available on: Begin, Sundazed CD

California Dreaming: Laurel & Hardy

Jan Berry was back from Dead Man’s Curve.

At least, he was part of the way back.

Jan was, if not an actual psychopath (a diagnosis it would be improper to give without knowing him personally, but which is not implausible), certainly an incredibly impulsive, thrill-seeking personality. His car crashes had caused problems for Jan and Dean in the past — they were about to make their feature film debut when Jan was in a serious accident and had to cancel filming — but one was significantly worse than any of the others.

On April 12, 1966, Jan had his final appeal with the draft board. The man who had written The Universal Coward, attacking anti-war protestors, was himself a chickenhawk who was desperate to get out of military service, and his attendance at medical school had so far kept him out, but this like time it looked like he was going to Vietnam.

To this day, no-one knows what the result of his draft board attendance was, because straight after it, he got in his car, sped off — and was in a crash so bad that he was in a coma for two months.

Was it exhilaration from discovering he didn’t have to go? A suicide attempt from discovering he did have to go? Anger and frustration? Just wanting to be on time for his next meeting? No-one can know. But it seems at least plausible that Berry was attempting to get hurt — not badly enough to do himself serious damage, but badly enough that he could have the draft deferred.

If that was the case, his plan backfired spectacularly. When Berry awoke from the coma, he had almost completely lost the power of speech, which had to be regained over a period of months, he was almost paralysed on his right side and had to go through intense physiotherapy, and his brain was sufficiently damaged that the young man who was widely regarded by those who knew him as a genius (it’s been widely claimed that he had an IQ of 180, and while IQ is a very unreliable measure of intelligence, that would put him in the top 0.00003% of scorers if true) now had very severe learning disabilities.

While doctors were using words like “vegetable” about him, Jan still hoped to get better, and that hope was shared by those around him. Dean Torrence, in particular, decided to keep the “Jan and Dean” name alive until Jan was capable of working again. Singles were released of material that the duo had previously recorded, and the promotional material was deliberately vague about how well Jan was doing. Eventually Dean went into the studio himself, and recorded a new “Jan and Dean” album, Save For A Rainy Day.

Dean thought that Jan would be pleased that Dean was keeping their career going, but he was anything but. As far as Jan was concerned, he was Jan and Dean. Dean hadn’t even sung on many of their big hits, while Jan had written, produced, and sung on them. Jan would show Dean who Jan and Dean really were.

After a year of physiotherapy and constant support from his friends, including Davy Jones of the Monkees, who had befriended Jan when he first moved to LA and had become a star while Jan was still recovering, Jan felt that he was ready to go back into the studio. But the problem was, he couldn’t sing — he was still slurring his words, and losing words all the time. He couldn’t write songs — he could get vague musical ideas, still, but he didn’t have the concentration to pull them into coherent shapes. And he couldn’t arrange or play any instruments — he had no control yet over his right hand.

But Jan did have an iron will, an ability to manipulate people, and huge amounts of energy, and he could put those to use. He called in Roger Christian, and gave him ideas — sometimes a few bars of melody, sometimes just a title — and Christian finished the songs for him and gave him co-writing credit, as did Jan’s songwriter ex-girlfriend Jill Gibson. George Tipton and others wrote arrangements, and Jan hired in session singers, including Glen Campbell, Jill Gibson, Tom Bahler, and Davy Jones.

A typical track from the era was Laurel & Hardy. Jan Berry had always been a fan of the films of Stan & Ollie, and Jan and Dean’s between-songs comedy routines had been inspired by them, and he and his collaborators took them as inspiration for a piece of “psychedelic” music, which to Jan apparently meant just that the track had a sitar on it (played by Mike Deasy, a frequent collaborator with Curt Boettcher), while otherwise being highly-orchestrated soft pop.

Two versions of the song were recorded, with slightly different lyrics, one with Davy Jones on lead vocal which didn’t see release until the 2000s, and another with Tom Bahler on lead that was released as a single under Jan & Dean’s new Warner Brothers contract (presumably Davy Jones’ voice was too distinctive for use on a single, given that he was signed to another label — Bahler on the other hand does a fairly decent imitation of Jan’s vocal style.

Starting off with a sitar version of the famous Laurel & Hardy theme, the song goes on to talk about how what “Mr. Laurel and Mr Hardy” meant to Berry was “roller coasters on a rainbow reaching far across the sky” (and in the released version, but not the version with Jones singing, that Laurel and Hardy were sat in said roller coaster with the Maharishi behind them — Jan Berry once again trying to leap on every bandwagon going, regardless of logic).

From these sessions, two singles eventually emerged — I Know My Mind/Laurel & Hardy, and Girl You’re Blowing My Mind/In The Still Of The Night (the latter of which featured Jones in a spoken section in the middle eight), but neither was successful. An album was recorded, to be titled Carnival of Sound, but it remained unreleased until 2010.

When it was finally released, it was greeted by some as a lost masterpiece of psychedelic pop, but in truth it’s a mixed bag at best in terms of musical quality. But as testament to someone who was struggling to keep making music despite having lost everything that had made him capable of doing it, using sheer force of will to overcome his incapacity, it’s quite astonishing. On the released CD, one of the bonus tracks is Jan Berry’s guide vocal for Laurel and Hardy. We hear him not even attempting the words, just “la-la”ing through the melody — and the “la la”s are flat, slurred, and off-key. Yet he got the single out, and the album was recorded, if not released.

Carnival of Sound was the last gasp of Jan Berry as a recording artist, but despite the fact that he wasn’t vocally present, it may be his greatest achievement.

Laurel and Hardy
Jan Berry & Roger Christian

Line-up: Davy Jones (vocals), Jimmy Bond, Joe Osborn, Lyle Ritz, and Ray Pohlman (bass) Don Lodice, John Cave, Ronnie Ossa, Roy Caton, and Virgil Evans (horns), Emmet Sargeant, Igor Horoshevsky, Jan Kelley, Jesse Ehrlich, Joseph Ditullio, and Joseph Saxon (cello), Al Casey, Bill Pitman, David Cohen, Don Peake, Tommy Tedesco, and Glen Campbell (guitar), Michael Deasy (guitar and sitar), Don Randi, Glen D. Hardin, and Larry Knechtel (keyboards), Harry Hyams, Joseph Difiore, Leonard Selic, Philip Goldberg, and Samuel Boghossian (viola), Arnold Belnick, Darrel Terwilliger, Israel Baker, James Getzoff, Leonard Malarsky, Ralph Schaeffer, Sid Sharp, Tibor Zelig, and Bill Kurasch (violin), Tom Bahler (vocals on released version). NB this is the list of players on the Carnival of Sound album, not all of whom may be on this particular track.

Original release: The version without Davy Jones on was released as I Know My Mind/Laurel & Hardy, Jan & Dean, Warners 7219. The version with Davy Jones on lead was only ever released on the now-deleted The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees 3CD box set from Rhino Handmade.

Currently available on: The Davy version is not currently available. The version with Bahler on lead is on Carnival of Sound, Rhino CD

The King

Had he lived, Elvis Presley would have been eighty years old today.

Elvis’ artistic legacy is one that still hasn’t properly settled down. For the most part, to the extent that people under about the age of fifty are aware of him at all, it’s as an image, not an artist — either the young pompadoured sneering rebel in the pink jacket, or the fat, bloated, self-parody. The question of whether he was actually an artist of any stature seems to be beside the point — astonishingly so, for someone who sold over a billion records.

The problem is that Elvis was sui generis, he was “the King of rock & roll”, but in many ways he was the last of the pre-rock singers — a singer who didn’t write his own material, just performed. Even in the 50s this was starting to become less common — artists like Little Richard, Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, or Eddie Cochrane all recorded other people’s material, but also all wrote plenty of their own hits — but by the time Elvis turned thirty, there was already a growing fissure between those “artists” who wrote their own material, the Dylans, Beatles, and so on, and the “artistes” who performed other people’s material. For the fifty years since then, rock criticism has centred on the songwriter, and non-writing performers (except for guitarists who can play bitchin’ solos) have been ignored to the point that there is no rock-critical vocabulary for the pure performer.

And this has led to nonsenses like the claim that Elvis “stole” his music from black people. This is something I must see repeated at least once a week, and is based on an understandable confusion of two facts. The fact is, yes, Elvis performed some music by black songwriters, because he didn’t write his own material. And yes, there were white performers such as Pat Boone who made their living from performing insipid cover versions of records by black musicians who couldn’t get played on the white radio stations.

But Elvis was not one of them. Boone’s level of respect and understanding for his material can be summed up by the story that when he recorded Fats Domino’s Ain’t That A Shame he suggested changing the lyric to “isn’t that a shame?” instead, because “ain’t” was vulgar. By contrast, Elvis was, in the early years, singing the songs he knew and loved, no matter what the race of the original performer. That included people like Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup or the Ink Spots, but it also included Bill Monroe — in fact Sun Records, the label Elvis was on for the first two years of his career, had a policy of releasing his singles with a blues cover on one side and a country cover on the other. He was also recording songs from Broadway musicals, old folk songs, and gospel tunes, because that was the music he’d grown up listening to. His performances were influenced by black musicians — but as much by the Ink Spots as by B.B. King — but also by white gospel quartets and Dean Martin (probably the single biggest influence on his vocal style).

And those blues covers were his early recordings, not the records on which his career was based. Those records were written for him by Tin Pan Alley writers, some of whom were black (notably Otis Blackwell) but the vast majority of whom were white and usually Jewish (Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman). (In fact, the person who had most right to get annoyed at Elvis “stealing” his material was the country singer Carl Perkins, who was in a car crash just when his single Blue Suede Shoes charted, and was in hospital long enough that Elvis’ inferior cover version overtook it in the charts).

Yes, Elvis’ success was, in part, because he was a white man, and there were black artists making similar music who didn’t get the success he did — but he always did his best to acknowledge those artists, for example in a 1957 interview with the black newspaper Jet, saying “A lot of people seem to think I started this business, but rock & roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it, I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.” His music can’t be dismissed because he was a white man — after all, while his selling more than Chuck Berry or Little Richard or Fats Domino or Larry Williams or insert-black-artist-here might be down to pure racism on the part of the public and those publicising his music, his selling more than Bill Haley or Gene Vincent or the Everly Brothers wasn’t.

This seems like protesting too much (and being a clueless white man, the more I claim something isn’t racist, the more likely it is that it’ll be seen as exactly that), and I didn’t really want that to be the focus of this piece, but that’s the nature of this myth — there are generations of people now who *only* know Elvis as “the man who stole black people’s music”.

And like I say, this is because of the impossibility of proper critical analysis of performance in post-Rolling Stone rock criticism, where a non-writing performer is either a puppet or a thief.

The fact is, though, that there were very good reasons for Elvis’ success. Even leaving aside his stage presence (and my *GOD* that man had a charismatic smile, which probably sold him fifty million records or so by itself), he was born with an extraordinary voice, and also had an amazing artistic sense. Just listen to his 1954 take on Blue Moon, which I think may still be the best recorded solo vocal performance in history. He strips the song down to the first two verses only, singing them in a gorgeous baritone, before going into wordless falsetto “wahs” of the kind that Harry Nilsson would later build a career on, and then the song sort of decays, with him repeating the first verse over and over, but singing less of the lyric each time, replacing more and more of the lyric with a keening falsetto howl. Not for Elvis the middle eight and the turnaround in the protagonist’s fortunes, no moon turning to gold, just a descent into wordless agonising loneliness.

That’s the 19-year-old Elvis, in one of his first recording sessions, doing something about as far from the rock and roll he’d become known for as is possible (the only similarity to his more famous records being the massive amounts of slapback echo added by Sam Philips). Even at that age, the man had a miraculous sound.

But of course, it’s easy to defend early Elvis, at least to those who don’t immediately say he was a racist thief. Early Elvis was *cool*. He was young and handsome and had long hair and wore ridiculous clothes and swung his hips in a way the old people thought was pornographic. But “Elvis died when he went into the army”, right? John Lennon said so, so it must be true.

Well, up to a point.

The very first music Elvis made on his return from the army was actually some of his very best. The recording sessions that led to Elvis Is Back! and the contemporaneous singles saw him finally in complete control of his voice, and branching out, so he was covering everyone from Al Jolson to Lowell Fulson, singing light opera (It’s Now Or Never, an English reworking of O Sole Mio), girl group songs (Soldier Boy) and jazz-blues (Fever). At this point he could jump from a rumbling bass to a light, airy, tenor in the space of a single note, with a precision that is quite breathtaking. Where his early recordings had been all about youthful energy, here he could marry that energy to an almost unparalleled vocal precision.

Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance to build on that. For the next few years, Elvis’ career was entirely in the hands of his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, one of the most greedy men ever to work in the music industry, which is saying something. Parker, along with Elvis’ father Vernon Presley, pulled Elvis into a series of ridiculous contracts designed solely to put money in Parker’s pocket, and obliging Elvis to record ever-more-awful songs, eventually getting to the point where songs were deliberately chosen as insults to Elvis (Yoga Is As Yoga Does, a song that mocks Eastern mysticism, was chosen because the people around Elvis disapproved of his interest in non-Christian religions).

This started to change in 1966, when Elvis recorded a rather lovely album of gospel songs, and slowly over the next few years he reasserted control over his own music, with the help of producer Felton Jarvis, but the damage had been done.

Most critics will at least give a grudging respect to Elvis’ 1968 TV “comeback special” and the album From Elvis In Memphis which followed and which teamed Elvis and Jarvis with the great Chips Moman, but pretty much none will give any credit at all to the music Elvis did in the 70s.

Well, almost none. I still remember, 20 years later, reading Charles Shaar Murray’s review of the Essential 70s Masters box set in Mojo. I think this is word-for-word — “the seventies were when Elvis finally got good. He was fat, and lonely, and crippled inside, and making music for the fat, the lonely, and the crippled inside.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I remember that so well because it was the first time I’d ever seen a critic who agreed with me on that.

In the 70s, Elvis finally had the artistic control he wanted. He had a live band consisting of some of the finest session musicians in the world, including most of the same people used by Gram Parsons among others, he had two great groups of backing vocalists — JD Sumner and the Stamps, for the gospel quartet sound he loved, and the Sweet Inspirations, Aretha Franklin’s backing group, for soul. And the music he created was something utterly unique — a combination of swamp rock, 70s divorce rock, Spectorian wall of sound, soul, and country, topped with Elvis’ vocals. Even though Elvis didn’t write the material, he would take everything from My Way to Proud Mary and turn it into his own artistic expression.

The problem is, it was Elvis‘ artistic expression, and Elvis was, fundamentally, uncool.

There is a huge classism in most rock criticism. There’s a worship there of the working class, but it’s in the same way that the Socialist Workers’ Party worship the working class — from afar, and with no desire ever to meet a real one. Their idea of working class music is punk — a musical form that came from art schools and was inspired by situationism. Which is no criticism of punk, of course.

But Elvis was a fat, divorced, forty-year-old, ex-truck driver on prescription medication, and he was making music for fat, divorced, forty-year-old truck drivers. It was big and bombastic and schmaltzy and dealt with divorces and custody battles and the pain of everything going wrong in one’s emotional life, and did so in simple terms with a giant string section backing.

That’s not something that’s ever going to appeal to critics — and to be honest, I have a hard time with some of it myself. My reflexive cynicism and my aversion to simplicity and emotion mean that when Elvis sings “Daddy, you’ve still got me, little Tommy/Together we’ll find a brand new Mommy”… well… I can’t say I’ve never sneered at that.

But fat, divorced, truck drivers need music that speaks to them at least as much as middle-class graduates who work in the media and think of themselves as rebels do, and probably a lot more. And Elvis delivers this with utter, complete, conviction. When Sinatra sang My Way, you could always hear the sneer in his voice, the contempt for the material showing through even with his perfectionism. Elvis, on the other hand… he means it, man. Taken on their own terms, Elvis’ 70s recordings are the perfect expression of the Silent Generation just then entering early middle-age, wishing they were young enough to have some of this sex and drugs the younger people had, and having their marriages break down at the same time it looked like the country they grew up in was disappearing forever. It’s the same audience Neil Diamond or (a little later) Barry Manilow were appealing to, but with an emotional honesty and artistic integrity neither of them ever had.

But it’s music that has no real descendants. Elvis’ 50s music influenced everything that followed, to the extent that the difficulty when listening to it is appreciating how revolutionary it sounded at the time, so thoroughly have its innovations been absorbed and normalised. Elvis in the 70s, though, was up a musical dead end — a fascinating one, but one where no-one else followed. And it’s one for which we don’t have a critical, or even appreciative, vocabulary any more — it’s very, very hard for anyone who grew up in the decades since Elvis’ death to appreciate music which has absolutely no sense of irony, self-awareness, or distance whatsoever. We don’t have the context. It’s too big, too bombastic, too much.

But there are ways into it, usually when the performance is stripped down. Take a look at this:

That’s Elvis, alone at the piano, on stage, six weeks before he died, performing Unchained Melody. He’s clearly ill — not just fat, but *bloated* (you can be healthy at any weight, but that’s clearly water retention, a sign that his kidneys were packing up), with his hair obviously dyed to hide the grey, and sweat dripping from his face onto the microphone. He can’t breathe properly, and you can hear him gasp. He’s completely lost the top end from his voice, and he can’t control it the way he could even a year earlier — he’s having to rely on vibrato and sheer power to get through the song, rather than any kind of subtlety.

But watching the video, his voice still sounds amazing, deteriorated as it was. But more to that, I find myself awed at this sick, dying, man, pushing this song out of himself. It’s a battle between his physical limitations and his sheer will to get the song performed, and I find myself feeling tight-chested myself, as if my own breathing’s restricted, gasping every time he inhales, willing him on to finish his performance, to complete this task which would have been so simple to him so recently before, but which now seems to be almost superhumanly difficult. Go on, E, you can do it.

And he gets to the last note, and manages to gasp out something approaching the right note in falsetto, and then as he slams out the final chords on the piano, he lets out a yell, half angry at himself for not *quite* getting the note, but half triumphant that he did it at all. He turns to the camera and grins, and for a moment twenty years and seven stone drop off and he’s Elvis again. Just as this video cuts out (you can see it better on the full show from which this is taken) he raises his arms in the air in victory.

He did it.

He was still the King.

California Dreaming: Along Comes Mary

[NB this should come before yesterday’s post.

A note on sources — for most of these essays I have used multiple sources. For this essay, I have relied more than any other on a single source, Steve Stanley’s liner notes for the And Then… Along Comes The Association reissue, and I thought this should be noted. ]

Frank Zappa hadn’t only been listening to doo-wop and Edgard Varese as a teenager — he had also been a very big fan of folk music, especially Ewan MacColl’s recordings of sea shanties, and in 1961 he had been in a folk duo, with his friend Terry Kirkland. They played improvised pieces, with Zappa on guitar and Kirkland on clarinet and bongos, read beat poetry, and played blues songs.

However, Kirkland soon left to work in Hawaii, where he met Jules Alexander [FOOTNOTE Alexander used the name Gary Alexander on early Association albums, but later reverted to using his birth name, which I will use throughout this book for simplicity.], who was in the Navy at the time, and struck up a musical friendship.

Both men moved back to California in 1963, and there Kirkland had a musical epiphany after watching the Modern Folk Quartet — while the music he had played with Zappa had been folk influenced, it had been based on difficult, abstruse, folk, and Kirkland’s musical tastes had run more to jazz. This was Kirkland’s first exposure to the more accessible folk music that was becoming popular among college students, with lyrics relating to the concerns of normal people.

Alexander and Kirkland quickly became the centre of a regular amorphous folk jam session called The Inner Tubes, which at various times featured Roger McGuinn, Doug Dillard, Cass Elliot and David Crosby, among many others. This evolved into a thirteen-piece professional band, The Men (so called because there were no women in the band), and eventually this in turn became the six-piece The Association, with a line-up of Kirkland, Alexander, Russ Giguere, Ted Bluechel Jr, Brian Cole, and Jim Yester (brother of Jerry Yester of the Modern Folk Quartet).

The band became an instant live success, but their first single, a version of Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, was a flop. A second single, One Too Many Mornings, was slightly more successful, but still not the hit they needed.

But then Curt Boettcher, a friend of the band who had been chosen to produce their next single, asked Alexander to play on a demo session for songwriter Tandyn Almer. Almer’s song had originally been intended as a ballad, but Boettcher had come up with a new arrangement of it, in an uptempo pop style [FOOTNOTE There is a possibly apocryphal tale that he also rewrote the melody, keeping just Almer’s lyrics and chords.], and so he, Alexander, Almer, and session bass player Jerry Scheff went into the studio to cut a demo of Along Comes Mary.

Alexander was amazed, and asked Almer if his band could have the song to record in their next session. Almer readily agreed, and soon the band were in the studio with Boettcher and a group of session musicians (the band all played their own instruments on their first two singles, but the label insisted that they use session players for this session) recording Along Comes Mary, Your Own Love, Remember, I’ll Be Your Man and Better Times. After a consultation with the leaders of Subud, the new religious movement with which several of the band were involved, it was decided that Along Comes Mary and Your Own Love were the songs which best expressed the power of God moving through the band, and so they were chosen for the first single.

Your Own Love was chosen as the A-side, but DJs soon flipped the single and started playing Along Comes Mary, and its tumbling internal rhymes (“when fake desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks whose sickness…”), syncopated rhythm, and hints at a meaning just outside the literal meaning of the lyrics quickly drove it to number seven in the charts.

While the song was, at least on the surface, a love song to a woman, many people interpreted the lyrics rather differently, insisting that “Mary” was “Mary Jane” or marijuana. That may well have been the songwriter’s intention, but other interpretations were certainly possible, as the band found out when they read a newspaper report about the nuns at Loyola Marymount University declaring the song the best of the year.

A follow-up was obviously needed, and Cherish, written by Kirkman and with additional backing vocals by Boettcher, was soon released, and this time went all the way to number one. The team of the Association and Curt Boettcher was clearly going places — so it was all the more surprising when the Association decided to stop working with Boettcher, and to hire Jerry Yester to produce their next album. While Boettcher was a great producer, he was seeming more interested in just using the band as hired hands to realise his ideas than he was in collaborating with them as equals. The Association didn’t want to be a manufactured band…

Along Comes Mary

Composer: Tandyn Almer

Terry Kirkland, Jules Alexander, Russ Giguere, Ted Bluechel Jr, Brian Cole, and Jim Yester (vocals), Jerry Scheff (bass), James Troxel and Toxey French (percussion), Ben Benay, Mike Deasey, and Lee Mallory (guitars), Michael Henderson and Butch Parker (keyboards). Uncredited horns.

Original release:
Along Comes Mary/Your Own Love The Association, Valiant V-741

Currently available on: And Then…Along Comes The Association (Deluxe Expanded Mono Edition) Now Sounds CD

Two Weeks, Three Shows, Four Beach Boys

In the last fortnight, the people of Great Britain (or at least the little bit of it around London, because of course nowhere else matters to international touring bands) have been visited by two different bands, both featuring half the surviving members of the classic Beach Boys line-up. The band currently touring as “the Beach Boys”, featuring Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, played Hampton Court Palace on the 24th and 25th of June (and Goodwood Park on the 28th, but I didn’t get to that show), while Brian Wilson and Al Jardine (billed as just Brian Wilson on promotional material, but introduced as “Al Jardine AND BRIAN WILSON” in that order — Jardine was only confirmed for the show a couple of weeks ago) played Hop Farm Festival on Saturday.

Two bands playing essentially the same set, but which is best? There’s only one way to find out… FIGHT!

Or, at least, that’s the view of many of the people who frequent Beach Boys message boards, where the mere existence of the Love/Johnston Beach Boys is taken as a personal attack on the sainted Brian Wilson to whom all blessings must flow. When Jeff Foskett, in May, announced that after fifteen years he was no longer touring with Brian’s band but instead moving over to play with Mike’s band (Foskett was originally discovered by Love, and toured with the Beach Boys from 1981 to 1990), there was a huge uproar, with people calling him a traitor and screaming about his betrayal.

Brian Wilson’s own response (according to his best friend) was “Well goddamn! That’s great! I’m really happy for Jeff, he’s always loved the Beach Boys!”

This, of course, did not stop people fulminating about Foskett’s “treachery”.

My own view is a little more nuanced. I am a Beach Boys fan because of Brian Wilson, and I agree with the criticisms of Love’s band that say it shouldn’t be called “the Beach Boys” with only two band members in it, but I don’t understand the rabid, near-psychotic, hatred for Love from certain quarters.

Love’s band has a bad reputation, but it’s one that’s almost entirely undeserved. When Love first got the license to call his band “the Beach Boys”, it’s true that it was, well… very poor. The band that Love had for the first few years of the license had Mike Kowalski, the very worst drummer I’ve ever heard in my life, and Adrian Baker, an equally bad singer, and would blast through off-key run-throughs of the hits, with any difficult bits dropped, and with covers of songs like Sherry or Duke of Earl filling up the set.

But then, that band was largely the same as the band that had toured as the Beach Boys before 1998, too — watching videos of the band from the mid-1990s shows just how bad their live shows were then, with Carl Wilson and Al Jardine contributing little other than one or two lead vocals each, and the backing band doing all the heavy lifting.

Love’s touring band has improved drastically though, and largely thanks to the efforts of musical director Scott Totten they now sound better than any version of the Beach Boys (other than the reunion tour from 2012, which merged the best of both current bands) since at least 1977. John Cowsill, the drummer, in particular deserves all the praise he could possibly get and then more.

The two Hampton Court shows were a perfect example of the current lineup’s strengths. While the shows were short, they managed to pack thirty-six songs into the sets, and while they did all the hits one would expect, they also included a fair number of songs which only the hardest of hardcore fans would know.

Love’s stage patter is still predictable — it’s possible for someone who’s seen the band a few times to mouth along as he says “Do It Again y’all”, “how about a big hand for our drummer, X songs without stopping, John Cowsill!”, “Now let’s hotwire the hotrods one more time!”, “thank you my people the car people!”, “Now it’s time for us to have an intermission [beat, beat] followed by a nap” and all the rest — these are at least as well-rehearsed as Shut Down or Little Deuce Coupe.

But this stuff works — audiences love it. And while some of the patter might be old (when they introduce Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring they still say a capella means nude, a joke they were using as far back as 1968) Love’s act has become significantly less arrogant and more pleasant over the years. Love is also a truly engaged performer — he pays a lot of attention to the audience.

And with Love’s band being relatively small — seven people, six of whom sing, might seem a lot, but many of the records had six-part harmonies on them, so it’s the minimum number necessary just to sing the vocal parts — everyone on stage has to pull their weight. I’ve already praised Cowsill and Scott Totten, and they deserve all the praise they can get. but Jeff Foskett is a wonderful addition to the band. While Christian Love, who he replaced, often seemed bored, Foskett is thoroughly professional, and knows how to save a situation when it goes wrong.

This was displayed especially on the first night, when Johnston’s mic went wrong on Please Let Me Wonder, one of his few leads. Foskett caught this on the first line, stepped in, and took over the lead vocal without missing a beat. I suspect the majority of the audience wouldn’t even have known anything was wrong had Johnston not turned it into a joke, going over to Foskett’s mic for the choruses and jumping up to sing his lines (Foskett is a good six inches taller than Johnston).

Love’s show is more entertainment than art, and more-or-less ignores the music that made me love the Beach Boys — the wonderful string of albums from 1967 through 1977 — in favour of pre-1965 material. But that’s just playing to the strengths of the guitar/bass/drums/keyboards lineup. A lineup like that can’t accurately reproduce the textures of the more orchestral later material — when they play God Only Knows, for example, backing a video of Carl Wilson singing the lead, the reliance on synths for the French horn part detracts slightly — but on songs like Kiss Me Baby they absolutely shine, Warmth Of The Sun sounds lovely, Disney Girls is as moving as ever, and entertainment is not a bad aim for a band to have.

Wilson’s band, on the other hand, are not playing to their strengths when they do hits shows, but still pulled off an equally great show at Hop Farm on Saturday.

Wilson’s larger band (there were eleven people on stage) are possibly the best live band working today, a group of multi-instrumentalists who can between them play pretty much any instrument you might need. This is a band that do have the French horn part in God Only Knows, and the flute in Sloop John B, and can add trumpet, vibraphone, banjo, or theremin as required. To have them all just playing four chords on guitars for Shut Down and Little Deuce Coupe seems a bit like using a Rolls Royce to nip to the shops for a pint of milk. It says something about their professionalism, though, that they still play those songs wonderfully, and give every appearance of enjoying doing so.

Brian Wilson himself seems a little bored with those songs, though. The first half of the show on Saturday was not one of his better nights — quite a few times during the early part of the show, he seemed to be concentrating on his piano playing to the point where he forgot to sing.

Luckily, Al Jardine was there, and took far more lead vocals than he did on the reunion tour a couple of years back, taking maybe a quarter of the leads. Jardine has by far the best singing voice of any of the surviving Beach Boys, and sounds if anything better than he did in his twenties and thirties, and having him onstage meant that he got the vocal spotlights he deserved, taking leads like Hawaii and Little Deuce Coupe as well as the songs he sang on record, while Brian Wilson didn’t have to carry the show by himself. Jardine’s role in the show was absolutely vital, and ignoring any intra-band political stuff and from a purely artistic perspective, he should really become an integral part of any future Brian Wilson shows. Having a co-frontman and co-lead-singer as good as Jardine saved the early part of the show from disaster and turned it into a minor triumph.

The second half of the show was a dramatic improvement, though, as the band got to play some of the more interesting material, and Wilson rose to the occasion. Heroes and Villains was almost certainly the best live performance of that song I’ve ever heard (and I’ve seen Wilson perform it live nine times solo and three times with the reunited Beach Boys, seen Love’s band do it once, and heard Van Dyke Parks, its lyricist, play it three times, so that’s not faint praise). The cascading barbershop vocals were utterly spellbinding — hearing all those fabulous voices singing interweaving lines is really what music is all about — and it was also fun to watch the confusion on the faces of the audience, most of whom clearly recognised the single version of the song but got completely lost during the cantina section.

God Only Knows was also lovely, with Brian singing it as well as I’ve ever heard, and the band playing beautifully. Wilson’s tone on this one was much older and frailer than he sounded even a couple of years ago, but the slightly thinner, reedier, tone suited it marvellously.

And the other vocalists in the band got moments to shine, too. Matt Jardine, Al Jardine’s son, has replaced Foskett in Brian’s band, and I’m almost tempted to make a variant on the old joke about a political defector raising the average intelligence of both parties. That would be cruel, though, because both Foskett and Matt Jardine are exceptionally good singers — it’s merely that Foskett’s voice fits better in Love’s smaller group, while Jardine’s fits better in Wilson’s lusher, thicker, vocal sound. Matt Jardine took lead on a few songs, including a lovely Don’t Worry Baby and an enthralling Wild Honey.

(Wild Honey was actually a highlight of both bands’ shows. Both play it in something close to the 70s live arrangement, with a hard, throbbing feel and lots of emphasis on the theremin and percussion parts. Cowsill and Matt Jardine both sing it fantastically, and it showcases Cowsill and (Wilson percussionist) Nelson Bragg’s percussion skills.)

Darian Sahanaja and Scott Bennett also got vocal spotlights, on Darlin’ and Sail On Sailor respectively, and both did extremely good jobs on them. I’ve been saying for twelve years that Bennett should get the lead on Sail On Sailor, ever since I heard him on a very Sail On Sailor-ish version of America The Beautiful on an album of “patriotic” songs Foskett and Gary Griffin put together after the September 11 2001 attacks.

It’s fascinating, though, to compare these two very different bands playing substantially the same material, because you can see how even though both bands are remaining “faithful to the record” you can end up with very different performances.

Small choices can affect the whole structure of the show — for example how to deal with endings on songs where the record fades. Love’s band tend to either play those songs as medleys or come to a dead stop at around the point where the record fades out. Wilson’s band, on the other hand, tend to vamp on the fades a bit before coming to a more satisfying ending. This means that each individual song tends to work better, but also that the band get through fewer songs — both bands had ninety minutes per show, but Love’s band played thirty-six songs, while Wilson’s did twenty-eight.

The most interesting variation comes with Good Vibrations. If you heard either band’s performance of this on its own you’d think “that sounds just like the record” and leave it at that — both bands are remarkably faithful to the sound of the record, despite it being incredibly difficult to reproduce live.

But comparing the two bands’ performances, they’re actually emphasising radically different things about it. In Love’s band’s hands (with Foskett and Love taking lead vocals) it’s all garage-psych eeriness, throbbing bass and screeching theremin, a genuinely strange sound. Wilson’s band, on the other hand, emphasise the song’s gentle, delicate beauty, with Wilson giving one of his best vocal performances of the night. For Love’s band, the point of the song is the juddering, eerie, chorus, and the crescendoing “Aaaaah” before the fade, while for Wilson’s it’s the meditative, hymnal “I don’t know where but she sends me there” and “gotta keep those lovin’ good” sections. Neither capture everything about the song, but both are utterly valid interpretations of it, and it says a lot about the song that it can lend itself to two such different readings.

Both of these approaches are entirely valid ones. Everyone at both band’s shows went away happy, despite none of the audiences being made up primarily of big fans. Love’s show was more consistent, never rising to the highs of Brian’s performance of Heroes & Villains, but also never reaching the lows of his version of Shut Down, so if one had to make a choice between these two bands’ hits shows, that’d be the way to choose — do you want moments of transcendent beauty along with moments where the lead singer forgets he’s meant to be singing, or do you want a smile on your face throughout without ever quite hitting the moments of ecstasy that the very best music can cause? (Choosing between their longer, artier, 50-plus song, theatre shows would be a different matter, of course, but neither band has done those in the UK this year).

But we don’t have to choose. We have two truly great sets of musicians, both giving very different interpretations of some of the best pop music ever written, and we can go and see either. It’s not “betrayal” to prefer the hit-after-hit adrenaline rush of Love’s show, any more than it’s snobbishness to prefer the delicate complexity of Wilson’s band.

Love’s band is returning to the UK later this month and in November. I can’t go to the shows myself — they’re all on weekdays and in different cities (including one in York, the first time any Beach Boys related band has played in Great Britain outside the London area since 2010), and I’ve used all my holiday time for the year, but I would urge anyone, even those sceptical about his shows, to go and see them. And if Wilson’s band return to the UK (especially if Jardine comes along), though they’ve said that this would be his only British show this year, then grab tickets as soon as you can.


Mike & Bruce, June 24:

Do It Again
Goin’ to the Beach
Little Honda
Catch a Wave

Surfin’ Safari
Surfer Girl
Don’t Worry Baby
Little Deuce Coupe
Shut Down
I Get Around
The Warmth Of The Sun
Please Let Me Wonder
Kiss Me, Baby
Then I Kissed Her
Cotton Fields
Why Do Fools Fall In Love?

When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)

Disney Girls
Pisces Brother
God Only Knows
Good Vibrations
Sloop John B
Wouldn’t It Be Nice

Dance Dance Dance
California Girls
Help Me, Rhonda
Rock and Roll Music
Do You Wanna Dance?
Barbara Ann
Surfin’ U.S.A.
Wild Honey
Fun, Fun, Fun

on June 25 they dropped Hawaii, The Warmth Of The Sun,  Why Do Fools Fall In Love?, and When I Grow Up, and added Ballad Of Ole Betsy, Good To My Baby, Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring, and California Dreamin’

Brian & Al: July 5

California Girls
Dance, Dance, Dance
Catch a Wave
Hawaii (Al lead)
Shut Down
Little Deuce Coupe (Al lead)
Cotton Fields (Al lead)
In My Room
Surfer Girl
Please Let Me Wonder
Then I Kissed Her (Al lead)
Heroes and Villains
Darlin’ (Darian lead)
Do You Wanna Dance? (Matt lead)
Don’t Worry Baby (Matt lead)
Do It Again (Brian and Al shared lead, doubling each other)
Wild Honey (Matt lead)
Sail On, Sailor (Scott Bennett lead)
Wouldn’t It Be Nice (Matt lead)
Sloop John B (Brian and Al shared lead)
God Only Knows
Good Vibrations
Help Me, Rhonda (Al lead)
I Get Around
Surfin’ U.S.A.
Barbara Ann (Matt lead)
Fun, Fun, Fun (Al doubled Brian’s lead on the last verse)


Shell-Shocked by @howardkaylan

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.