The Beach Boys On CD: Stars & Stripes vol 1

And so we come to what seemed, for sixteen years, as if it would be the last ever new Beach Boys album.

Brian Wilson had spent much of the mid-1990s working with Andy Paley on several dozen new songs, intended for a Beach Boys record, recording what were, depending on who you ask, either very fully-fleshed-out demos or stripped-down completed records that just needed the Boys’ vocals added. Two of these songs saw release at the time — the Paley instrumental “In My Moondreams”, which appeared on a compilation titled Pulp Surfin’, and a rather lovely song called “This Song Wants To Sleep With You Tonight” which, in a Don Was-produced version, became the B-side of the “Do It Again” single from I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.

And Brian was slowly being integrated back into the group. Tentative plans for a thirtieth-anniversary Pet Sounds tour, performing the whole album, were abandoned because Carl Wilson didn’t believe his brother was in a fit state to tour at the time, but Brian performed with the band on a collaboration with Status Quo — a remake of “Fun, Fun, Fun” with a new verse written by Love — and, importantly, on a remake of “The Warmth of the Sun” with Willie Nelson on lead vocals.

But the plan was still to do an album based on the Paley material, probably with a then-hot producer collaborating on it. Johnston brought in Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas (a lounge-revival band whose albums Gideon Gaye and Hawaii had both been critically acclaimed, and who were very influenced by Pet Sounds, Smile, and Friends), but personality clashes meant that that collaboration went no further, and it was eventually decided to have Don Was produce the backing tracks, and Brian to produce the vocals. Love and Wilson collaborated on reworking at least some of the Paley material, and everything was looking good for what would be the best new Beach Boys album in twenty years.

Right up until they went into the studio.

The sessions, in November 1995, were intended to produced five songs — “Must Be A Miracle”, “Turn on Your Love Light”, “Soul Searchin’”, “It’s Not Easy Being Me”, and “You’re Still A Mystery”. The Beach Boys, plus Matt Jardine (Alan Jardine’s son, who was the band’s touring falsettist at the time, and had a voice that was spookily similar to a young Brian), managed to get vocals for two tracks done — the two best tracks they had recorded since 1977 — before Carl Wilson walked out of the studio, saying the new material was no good and he refused to work on it any further.

Carl had been unwell for some time, and would, within months, be diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him, and one can only suppose that this was part of his decision. Either way, that decision meant the end of the Beach Boys as a creative force in the studio, apart from the brief 2012 reunion.

But the band still wanted to record with Brian, and so there was a quick change of plans. The Willie Nelson collaboration, originally intended as a one-off single, now became the start of a new album, the optimistically-named Stars & Stripes vol. 1, titled in the expectation of future volumes, on which the Beach Boys would collaborate with country singers on remakes of their earlier classics.

This could have been a good idea, if the band had been paired with a sympathetic producer and the true greats of country music. One can imagine Johnny Cash singing “Til I Die”, perhaps, or Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris duetting on “God Only Knows”.

Sadly, the producer they worked with was Joe Thomas (a figure who will return several times in our narrative), a mulletted ex-wrestler who gave almost all the songs a terrible, unimaginative, 80s-rock backing suitable for a Kenny Loggins B-side, all crunchy guitar and “sonic-power” drums. And the choices of vocalist were similarly uninspired — Toby Keith, Collin Raye, Ricky van Shelton, and a bunch of other interchangeable “hat acts”.

To make matters worse, two of the best collaborations — Rodney Crowell singing “Sail on Sailor” and Tammy Wynette singing “In My Room” — were left off the album for volume two. Both those can be seen on the documentary Nashville Sounds, which is the best way to experience this album, if for some reason you have to, if only so you can see Mike Love trying to teach Willie Nelson how to sing, or Al Jardine bravely attempting to defend the album as being in some way creative by talking about how they used to sing “Ooh rah rah rah” on “Be True To Your School” but were now only singing “Ooh rah rah”.

But apart from unintentional comedy on the video, is there anything at all about this album that is actually worth hearing?

Surprisingly, there is. While James House singing “Little Deuce Coupe” or Doug Supernaw on “Long Tall Texan” are as wince-inducingly awful as one would imagine, there are three tracks on the album with the involvement of actual talented people other than the Beach Boys, and those three are really quite good.

The first, obviously, is “The Warmth of the Sun” with Willie Nelson on vocals. Not only is Nelson head and shoulders above everyone else involved, but the arrangement is far more subtle than anything else on the record, with a rather lovely harmonica part, and Nelson’s aged vocals give the song a very different feel from the youthful innocence of the original, which makes it an actually worthwhile performance.

Junior Brown’s “409” is the polar opposite of Nelson’s poignant subtlety, but in a good way. Brown rips out rockabilly solos on his guit-steel (an instrument of his own invention, combining electric and pedal steel guitars in one), and sings in a deep voice full of vibrato. It’s hilarious, ridiculous, fun, and an absolute joy to listen to.

And the band must have realised those two were the best things on the album, because in the documentary those are the two tracks Jimmy Webb mentions listening to before his contribution. Webb didn’t sing on the album, but did provide the glorious orchestral arrangement for “Caroline, No”, sung by Timothy Schmit of the Eagles, which closes the record, and which for the first time features the other Beach Boys’ vocals on what had originally been a solo Brian track.

While there are many, many, faults with this album, its closing isn’t one of them, as for the last time ever we hear those family vocals, with Brian, Carl, and Mike singing “Caroline, no” in a round like the end of “God Only Knows”, with Schmit over the top, and the album fades out not to a train or dogs, but just to the voices of two brothers and their cousin.

They did tell us it wouldn’t last forever. But still…it’s kinda sad.

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Note to Journalists: London is not Britain

There is a mutual incomprehension between London and those parts of Britain that are not London (by “London” here I include most of the Home Counties and the satellite towns around London). There are many aspects to this incomprehension, but one that comes up more than most is the media obsession with London.
Most Londoners — and most media people — deny that such an obsession exists. “Of course it makes sense to have constant news articles about Boris Johnson,” they say, “London is the home to 20% of the population of the UK.”

And yes, it does in fact make sense to have constant news articles about Boris Johnson, and this year’s London Mayoral elections. London *is* a major city, and does need coverage. I have even seen statistical evidence that London gets *less* coverage, proportionally, than any other area of Britain with the same population, assuming you take coverage of national politics (which “just happens” to be based in London) out of the figures.

I don’t believe that’s actually true — when I used to read the Guardian, even though it was the “northern edition” I was reading, it reviewed an awful lot of West End theatre productions and performances at the Hammersmith Apollo or Wembley Arena, and few if any productions at the Liverpool Everyman or Manchester Royal Exchange, no gigs from the Manchester Apollo or the Liverpool Echo Arena. But maybe that’s a coincidence and for the fifteen years or so I bought that newspaper every day the Halle Orchestra just didn’t do much in the way of interesting music while the London Symphony Orchestra did. It’s possible, I suppose…

But take the claim that London gets, if anything, disproportionately little media coverage at face value. It *might* be right. Certainly one shouldn’t rely on one’s own biased judgement for that kind of thing. But that’s not what we’re complaining about. Rather, it’s this kind of thing.

For the Londoners who think that Northerners get upset over nothing, the apparent problem with that piece — what most of those I’ve talked to about this sort of thing in the past *think* would be the problem — is that it’s a piece about London, and changes made to the London public transport system, appearing in a national newspaper.

That isn’t the problem — the subject of the article may not be of pressing interest to those of us outside the capital, but it’s still in itself an interesting subject. I first saw this piece linked by Andrew Ducker, who lives in Edinburgh. If you’re someone who’s interested in how systems work, as I am, then an article on how to improve the flow of people through a bottleneck point by 28% is worth reading, whether it’s about London, or Munich, or New York, or wherever.

No, the problem *isn’t* that it’s yet another article about London. It’s this stuff:

It’s British lore: on escalators, you stand on the right and walk on the left.

We might be bad at dancing and expressing our feelings, but say this for the British: when we settle on a convention of public order, we bloody well stick to it. We wait in line. We leave the last biscuit. And when we take the escalator, we stand on the right. The left is reserved for people in a hurry.

The standing to the right rule, first promoted in Britain, is not mirrored all over the world

Have you spotted the problem yet? If so, congratulations — you don’y live in London!

The problem is that all of these talk about standing on the right as “a British convention”, when it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a London convention. Certainly in Manchester there’s no convention of the kind, and if anything people are more likely to stand on the left and walk on the right (something that tripped me up on my first trip to London in 2002), though there’s no formal rule here.

I checked on Twitter, just to make sure that I hadn’t inadvertently been making hideous faux pas my entire life, and was told:

quite. It’s an “inside boundary zone 6 convention”. Cambridge is about 35 miles from the M25 and we don’t do it here.

yup

Spot on. Anywhere except London, Brits simply follow the convention of driving on the left hand side of the road.

Whereas in Bradford, anyone we catch using the “ghost stairs” is burned as a witch

Apart from the last one, this seems to suggest that my experience is, in fact, the norm.

And what this suggests is that the writer of that piece has either chosen to ignore any experience they have had of any part of Britain outside London or, worse, that they have had no experience of Britain outside London. That they’ve never been to any of the major transport hubs or shopping areas in Manchester, London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Bradford, Cardiff… but that they feel perfectly entitled to generalise about all those places anyway.

And *this* kind of thing is what annoys many of us. Not the explicit conversation about London, but the constant tiny assumptions that no-one outside London really counts. Talking about buses and assuming they’re red everywhere (in most parts of the country they’re different colours depending on the operator), assuming that non-London accents have to be written in “hilarious” pseudo-phonetic language (I lost count years ago of the number of times I’ve seen Mancunians reported as saying “fook” when swearing. They don’t. They say “fuck”. Londoners say “fahrk”.).

That kind of thing — the kind of thing that people refer to as “erasure” and “microaggressions” — happens *constantly* in the media. And it’s this kind of thing, incidentally, that makes some of us so sceptical about the idea of “English votes for English laws”, or an English Parliament, or really of England at all. Because we already live in a culture entirely dominated by one city that pretends the rest of us don’t exist. Giving that city even more power by removing Scottish and Welsh influence over the decision-making process just means that the rest of England will be even more ignored than it has been.

And this is why there is a great British tradition, observed in the whole of Britain (or at least those bits that matter — I can’t think of any others off the top of my head) of hating London.

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An Apology

Just a brief note to say that my productivity on this blog having increased over the last few days might mean that people think I’m “back to normal” but I’m not. I’ve been able to write blog posts, and to work on the Black Archive book I’m doing (and a little plotting of a novel I’m working on) but otherwise completely unable to function — even taking the dog for a walk has sometimes been too much for me.
Hopefully this will change soon — I have a rheumatology appointment in ten days — but I’m very aware that there is stuff that remains undone. I have one set of signed California Dreaming books that still need to be posted out (that will be done this weekend). I have books I promised to review months ago that I’ve still not posted about. I’ve had emails from many people (including, but not limited to, Alex & Richard, Plok, SBJ, PPH, and a bunch more) that I’ve not replied to or even acknowledged.
I’ve not been able to look at Facebook this week, apart from things I’m tagged in, for which I get email notification. I’ve dropped out of IM chats, Twitter conversations, and Tumblr threads without warning. I’ve generally been a bad friend and an unreliable acquaintance.
Please, if you have been affected by this and if you can, accept my apologies. I am trying to become better at this sort of thing. At least now I am aware what the problem is…

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Linkblogging for 14/1/16

Proper post tomorrow (probably a Batpost). Links now.

Bitcoin is broken

Sarah Brown on the government’s trans equality report

Why Florida will have to rethink its approach to executions

Tim O’Neil on Bowie

Paul Magrs is going to be editing an anthology of Brenda & Effie stories for Obverse. Submissions are open

Chris Dillow on the difference between capitalism and free markets, illustrated by Bowie

It looks like rather than being about police being scared because of “political correctness”, the Rotherham cover-up was because the police were corrupt and paid off.

What a depressing set of links, eh? Tried finding some more cheery, fun ones, but… nothing. It’s one of those weeks.

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Roy Wood: Boulders

I know, this week of all weeks, I should be writing about Bowie. But frankly, other people have managed that far better than I ever could, and so I thought I’d write about another glam rock genius, one who’s still alive and not as recognised as Bowie, and one who always seemed a little more emulable to me, as a bearded bloke with glasses from the provinces, than the Thin White Duke.

Because Roy Wood is a genius, unquestionably. He’s in the very first rank of British songwriters of his generation, just below Lennon and McCartney, but probably on the same level as Ray Davies, and miles ahead of anyone else. The man is, simply, ridiculously talented.

Though he usually only figures in the British consciousness now for one Christmas hit (and doesn’t register with most Americans at all), Wood had an astonishing run of hits from about 1966 to 1974, but those hits came under a variety of names, and in a variety of styles, so it’s hard for people to get a handle on him. With the Move, he wrote and sang on great psych-pop hits that invented the powerpop genre ten years before anyone else clued in to what he was doing, while recording albums that invented heavy rock music, and writing hits for artists such as Amen Corner (Hello Suzie) on the side. Then he formed ELO (whose first line-up was actually the same as the last line-up of The Move), and quit after their first album to form Wizzard, who put out a whole series of perfect Spectoresque pop singles, but also strange jazz-prog albums.

So while he had more than twenty hit singles in a short period of time, they were under so many names that he never really entered the public consciousness as one of the true greats. The fact that since a couple of flop albums in the mid seventies he essentially retired as a creator of new music, only putting out one album in 1987 and a few novelty singles, probably hasn’t helped either.

But the body of work he’s created is absolutely astonishing, and nowhere is that more apparent than on Boulders. Boulders was an album recorded in the late 60s, around the time Wood was working on the last Move and first ELO recordings, but wasn’t released until 1973, because Wood was putting out so much music, on so many labels, it was feared he would compete with himself for sales.

When it was released, it was only a minor hit, although it did produce the hit single “Dear Elaine”, but Boulders, and its follow-up (sadly long out of print) Mustard may be the most singular artistic vision ever released by a mainstream pop act.

Because Boulders is a real solo album. Wood has said that he was annoyed by seeing other people put out solo albums which featured a load of other musicians, saying that hardly counted as a solo album. For his solo album, he wanted to “play every instrument, sing all of the vocals, produce and mix the tracks, paint the album sleeve, drive the van and make the tea”.

And he succeeded in that. Other than a harmonium part on the opening track, played by the album’s engineer John Kurlander, he played everything. And this isn’t just an album of guitar, bass, and drums, either — Wood is credited with banjo, bells, cello, cowbell, double bass, drums, glockenspiel, guitar, bass, harp, harp guitar, piano, recorder, saxophone, sitar, slide guitar, tambourine, trumpet, violin, washboard, water bowl, lead and backing vocals, production, liner notes and cover art. And I don’t think that’s a complete list (for a start, “Miss Clarke and the Computer” has two balalaikas, with different tunings, on it). And nor is it the kind of album where a musician does a quick plunk or squawk on an orchestral instrument to make themselves look clever — Wood worked out full orchestral arrangements, and played them all.

But that wouldn’t matter if Boulders wasn’t any good. But it is. It’s a dazzling collection of eccentric but inspired pop music, to match Ram by Paul McCartney or the Beach Boys’ Friends or Love You. It’s amazingly stylistically diverse — from the Eurovision entry girl-group (with Wood of course being the female backing vocalists) gospel song “Songs of Praise” to the ridiculous country song “When Grandma Plays The Banjo” to “She’s Too Good For Me”, a note-perfect pastiche of the Everly Brothers’ early-60s Warners singles (Wood’s Don Everly impression was spot-on, though his varispeeded Phil Everly was less so).

But the highlights of the album are the ballads. “Wake Up”, a folkish song with percussion from a splashing water bowl, sounds *exactly* like a lost Paul McCartney song from late 1967 or early 1968. It could fit perfectly on the White Album with songs like “I Will”, “Blackbird” or “Mother Nature’s Son”, except it would outshine all of those to the point that they’d sound second-rate.

“Dear Elaine”, with its layers of mandolin and strings, proceeds in a stately, dignified manner that makes the often-overused term “baroque pop” appropriate. It’s a precise, gorgeous, melody that sounds like it couldn’t have been constructed any way except how it is.

But most magnificent of all is “Miss Clarke and the Computer”. This manages to be a ridiculous, hilarious, idea which in practice is one of the most moving things I’ve ever heard. It’s a song sung from the perspective of a computer, one that’s fallen in love with the engineer who is in the process of dismantling it. The melody is almost nursery-rhyme like (apart from the jazz instrumental break that comes out of nowhere), and the song seems to be inspired by the “Daisy, Daisy” section of 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to the slowing down and grinding to a halt, but the ending, with Wood singing “screwdriver’s so sharp, now I’m scared Miss Clarke/Miss Clarke, Miss Clarke, don’t take my heart away” wrenches tears even as one has to acknowledge how ridiculous it is. (My wife, Holly, can’t listen to the song because it upsets her so much).

To talk of a “greatest album of all time” is always ludicrous, but I think Boulders has as much of a claim to the title as any of the albums which get it more regularly, and it’s a tragedy that such a bizarre but beautiful and imaginative album remains so relatively obscure.

The album’s available on CD on its own (with a single bonus track, a rough mix of “Dear Elaine”), but the best way to buy it is as part of this box set which came out a little over a year ago. For thirteen pounds, around half the price of the standalone CD, you get the album (minus the bonus track), the last Move album Message From The Country, the eponymous first ELO album, the first Wizzard album Wizzard Brew, and Wood’s lacklustre third solo album On The Road Again. All of these are at least listenable, and the Move and ELO albums are both minor classics in their own right.

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On “Progressive Alliances” and Lib-Labbery

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how what is needed to defeat the Tories is a “progressive alliance”, between Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP, and presumably the Monster Raving Loony Party and anyone else who isn’t a Tory or Kipper.
Now, in some senses, this is trivially true. While predicting the political situation at the next election is a fool’s errand (literally no-one would have predicted in 2010 that at the end of 2015 the Lib Dems would be a rump of eight MPs, the SNP would be Britain’s third biggest party, and Labour would be led by Jeremy Corbyn) it’s true that if polls remain as they are, the chances of Labour getting an overall majority next time are slim.
It’s also true that a big part of the reason for the Tory majority is because of “tactical unwind”. With the distrust between the Labour and Lib Dem parties last time, Labour voters stopped voting tactically for Lib Dems in Lib Dem/Tory marginals — this happened enough that it’s responsible in itself for at least a dozen Tory gains in formerly Lib Dem seats.
So a progressive alliance sounds, at first thought, like a nice idea. But the problem is that too many of the people talking about it are talking about a formal alliance, with a joint programme of government.
This is, simply, an absurdity. Unfortunately, a binary idea of “goodies” and “baddies” is baked into our electoral system, and as a result there’s a tendency for people to see everything in those terms. Fundamentally, the Lib/Labbery that says “why don’t all the goodies work together?” is the same as the claims that the Lib Dems were “really Tories” for much of the last few years. All the so-called “progressive” parties have different aims, and different proposed methods of achieving those aims.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour wants to reopen the coal mines — the Greens want to move to a zero-carbon economy. The Lib Dems want a federal UK with more devolution but also tighter integration with Europe — the SNP want an independent Scotland, while Corbyn wants less connection with Europe.
And so on.
The problem is that political parties are already coalitions of different interests. As Iain Donaldson (a former local councilor and current chair of my local party) put it in a comment on Lib Dem Voice recently:

The Labour Party is an authoritarian coalition of greens, socialists,
conservatives and liberals (though the latter have had no real impact
on the party in 70 years); the Liberal Democrats are a liberal
coalition of liberals, chartists, communists, social democrats, greens
and libertines, and the Conservatives are an authoritarian coalition of
national liberals, conservatives and isolationists.

To try to bring several of these large coalitions together under one banner is bound to be a problem. Many of the small groupings within those coalitions already feel underrepresented — to ask them to water down their goals even further is to ask many of them to give up on electoral politics altogether.

But on the other hand, it is true that the average Lib Dem, Green, Labour, and SNP voter are all closer to each other than they are to the average UKIP or Tory voter. And that the interests of all those parties *would* be better served by defeating the Tories.

The solution, I believe, is not a formal alliance, but local non-aggression pacts. It would be ridiculous, for example, to say that a Lib Dem supporter in Manchester Withington should vote Labour to keep out the Tories — the Tories are a very distant third there, and the battle there is between probably the most left-wing former Lib Dem MP and a right-of-centre Labour politician.

There is a huge geographical component to the problems with our politics, which is very rarely acknowledged, and that is that the Labour party in the post-industrial north is a totally different party to the Labour of the south (and especially the south-east). In the urban north, where the Conservatives haven’t been a political force for generations, Labour are the small-c conservative party, not the “progressive” party, and it makes no sense for non-Labour progressives not to continue to fight them. Can anyone see Simon Danczuk as part of a progressive *anything*?

And of course, in Scotland, in the vast majority of seats it doesn’t matter who wins if your only goal is “get the Tories out”, because the Tories aren’t going to win there *anyway*.

So any non-aggression pact should be limited, and small-scale. It should cover, basically, “middle England” — those parts of the country where there are plenty of Labour/Tory or Lib Dem/Tory marginals, and where tactical unwind ended up losing both Labour and the Lib Dems seats to the Tories in 2015. There, it makes sense for those parties not to campaign too hard — and it might also make sense for them to not campaign too hard in Brighton, where the Greens have their only Parliamentary representation, in return for the Greens not campaigning in those marginals too.

But this should be very limited cooperation. It shouldn’t go so far as not standing candidates, or be on any formal basis. There should just be, as there was in 1997 (when both Labour and the Lib Dems made their greatest gains in history to that point) a nod-and-wink acknowledgement that we all know who the most important enemy is.

But what we shouldn’t do is go back to the behind-the-scenes planning of 1997 — the Blair/Ashdown “project”. Their aim was merger of the two major non-Tory parties, to heal what they saw as a damaging split. This is a nonsense.

Rather, we should be looking at ensuring that, if anything, a larger number of parties get representation, and a larger number of views get heard, rather than encouraging two blocs of goodies and baddies. For this reason, I think the single biggest thing those Labour supporters who want a progressive alliance can do to make one happen is to push for their party to support STV, so if there *is* any kind of nod-and-wink electoral agreement, it will be the last time we ever have to do this.

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Linkblogging For 7/1/16

Proper post tomorrow. For now, I’m closing some tabs…

The science fiction writer’s hierarchy of doubt

Scott Alexander, who does Slate Star Codex, has started a new longform serialised fiction project. I find Alexander’s non-fiction blogs alternate between incredibly insightful and utterly wrongheaded, but I’ve enjoyed all the fiction I’ve seen of his, and this looks fun so far in a way I think a lot of my friends will enjoy.

New York Public Library has digitised 180,000 public domain images, in high resolution, for people to reuse.

Why that “Star Trek fan film” CBS are suing isn’t a fan film at all

Paul Graham is (still) asking to be eaten

A free ebook of short stories by Saladin Ahmed

The passion of John Stuart Mill

On Youtube — Out Of The Trees, a 1972 TV show by Graham Chapman and Douglas Adams

A BBC radio adaptation of Spike Milligan’s The Bed-Sitting Room

I’m pretty sure I’ve linked this before, but it’s worth linking again: the Feynman Lectures In Physics are available to read for free online

And for those of you planning to nominate in the retro-Hugos this year, here’s an ebook of every public domain piece of short fiction eligible (much stuff from 1940 is still in copyright, so that’s not included).

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