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.
[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
Line-up: 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
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
Catch a Wave
Don’t Worry Baby
Little Deuce Coupe
I Get Around
The Warmth Of The Sun
Please Let Me Wonder
Kiss Me, Baby
Then I Kissed Her
Why Do Fools Fall In Love?
When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)
God Only Knows
Sloop John B
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Dance Dance Dance
Help Me, Rhonda
Rock and Roll Music
Do You Wanna Dance?
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
Dance, Dance, Dance
Catch a Wave
Hawaii (Al lead)
Little Deuce Coupe (Al lead)
Cotton Fields (Al lead)
In My Room
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
Help Me, Rhonda (Al lead)
I Get Around
Barbara Ann (Matt lead)
Fun, Fun, Fun (Al doubled Brian’s lead on the last verse)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.