In 1965 it seemed like everyone was recording a version of It Ain’t Me Babe. Johnny Cash had got in first, having a country hit with a mariachi-tinged version of the Dylan song at the back end of 1964, but after Mr. Tambourine Man was such a hit, everyone latched on to this song. It was a song that had proven hit potential — it had been a country hit, so it could be a pop hit too — and it was about a romantic relationship, so it wasn’t threatening or weird like Dylan’s other songs; but it was still a Dylan song, so it gave Instant Folk-Rock Cred. You too could be the new Byrds!
And so Jan & Dean, ever the bandwagon-jumpers, recorded a version on their Folk ‘n’ Roll album. Davy Jones, a child star whose biggest claims to fame were appearing in the Broadway version of Oliver! and having been on the Ed Sullivan Show on the same day as the Beatles, recorded a version on his debut album. The Surfaris released a surf cover, and Wrecking Crew member Billy Strange released a guitar instrumental version.
But it was a band of teenagers who struck gold.
The Crossfires had been kicking around for a couple of years as an unsuccessful garage band, playing the standard LA repertoire of sax-and-guitar instrumentals. They’d released a few novelty recordings, tracks like Santa and the Sidewalk Surfer and One Potato Two Potato, to absolutely no notice at all, and were seriously considering splitting up.
They had two things going for them that other bands didn’t, though. The first was that Howard Kaylan [FOOTNOTE: Kaylan was born Howard Kaplan and changed his name when It Ain't Me Babe was released.] had seen Louis Prima and Keely Smith’s act and essentially stolen it. He would sing lead impassively while his fellow vocalist/saxophonist Mark Volman would interject, joke around, and try to distract him. It was effective when Prima and Smith did it, and it was effective for the Crossfires.
The second was that while every other band in America was trying to sound like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, Howard Kaylan had decided to emulate the vocal style of a less popular British singer, Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, and in particular the sound of the Zombies’ hit She’s Not There.
And so in 1965 when the Crossfires quickly changed from being a surf group to being a folk-rock group and got signed to a deal with new independent label White Whale on the basis of their live cover of Mr. Tambourine Man, they had a new take on the folk-rock sound, one that was poppier and had a better sense of dynamics than the Byrds and their imitators.
She’s Not There had had Blunstone almost whispering the minor key verses before the band belted out the rave-up chorus, and the Crossfires applied this to It Ain’t Me Babe, with Kaylan singing the verses softly over acoustic guitar with a tambourine and occasional electric guitar embellishment. The full band come in on the bridge, with the guitar playing essentially the same part as on the Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, before the chorus turns into a four-on-the-floor Motown/Four Seasons stomper. The whole pattern repeats, and then the song fades out on a repeat of the chorus. No solos, no fuss, and no third verse (as was often the way, they dropped the most cutting of Dylan’s verses, with the line “anyway I’m not alone”) just two minutes and fourteen seconds of classic pop tension and release.
But this alteration of the song’s dynamics had an even more profound effect on the song’s meaning. Dylan had originally sung the song with a cynical sneer — to Dylan, the subject of the song has been deluding herself that she’s the only one for him, and that makes her a fit subject for mockery. Cash’s version of the song, by contrast, is more mature and resigned. To Cash, it’s a tragedy that this couple aren’t suited for each other, but a tragedy to be borne in good humour.
But Kaylan takes an altogether more adolescent approach even than Dylan. While Dylan’s protagonist is the sixth-form poet who reads Rimbaud and wears black, Kaylan’s is a confused, hormonal, teenager. In the verses he’s trying to be nice, to let the girl down gently, to be as kind as possible, and taking the lines utterly sincerely at their face value. He doesn’t understand why he’ll only let her down, but he knows he will, and he has to tell her that for her own good. But slowly, as the bridge builds, the anger and resentment starts to spill out, and he’s eventually yelling “NO! NO! NO! It ain’t me, babe”, full of confused, upset, fury.
It’s a remarkable reading of the song (though the fact that the song is strong enough to withstand three such distinct readings is in itself remarkable), and while it may be one that was forced by the dynamics Kaylan imposed on it from She’s Not There, it’s also the case that Kaylan soon proved himself an intelligent enough singer that it’s likely to have been intentional.
It’s certainly an attitude that appealed to the teenagers of America, and the track would soon hit the top ten, just as soon as one final change was made. Just as Howard Kaylan had changed his name from Kaplan, so too would the band change their name, on their label’s advice, to one that sounded “like they come from England”.
The Crossfires had become the Turtles.
It Ain’t Me Babe
Composer: Bob Dylan
Line-up: Howard Kaylan (lead vocals), Mark Volman (backing vocals), Al Nichol (lead guitar and backing vocals), Jim Tucker (rhythm guitar), Chuck Portz (bass), Don Murray (drums)
Original release: It Ain’t Me Babe/Almost There White Whale single 222
Currently available on: Save The Turtles: The Turtles Greatest Hits Manifesto CD (the It Ain’t Me Babe album itself is currently out of print but is being reissued on vinyl and MP3, though not CD, on July 28 2014)
It might have seemed in 1964 that Brian Wilson was on top of the world. Not only had the Beach Boys managed to withstand Beatlemania, despite the British band being on the same record label as them, but unlike almost every other American group they’d actually become more successful, having their first number one hit with I Get Around. Brian’s songs were still becoming hits for Jan and Dean, as well, and being covered by bands like the Hondells. He was a massive pop star at the point when pop music seemed like the most important thing in the world, and he was engaged to be married.
But there was an increasing pressure on Wilson, who had by the end of 1964 been responsible for writing, producing, and performing on eight Beach Boys albums, as well as working on other people’s records. He was trying to become a more mature artist at the same time, writing instrumental arrangements of increasing sophistication, which required him to augment his band in the studio with more and more members of the Wrecking Crew. Meanwhile his original strategy to take the pressure off — retiring from touring — had had to end after David Marks had quit, so he was back on the road as well.
And the signs of the stress were showing — while there had always been a melancholy edge to the Beach Boys’ ballads, their uptempo songs had generally been cocky and full of confidence, but now there was a restlessness, an anxiousness, an insecurity to the songs. “I’m getting bugged driving up and down the same old strip”, “you’ve got to be a little nuts, but show them you’ve got guts, don’t back down from that wave”.
Nowhere was that insecurity more obvious than in Guess I’m Dumb, one of two songs Wilson wrote with Screen Gems staff writer Russ Titelman in mid-1964. Here the bragadoccio is totally gone, and for the first time we see the themes of male insecurity that would haunt Wilson’s music from here on, without even the fig leaf of a car race to mask it. The song opens with “The way I act don’t seem like me/I’m not on top like I used to be”, and while it ends with a statement of hope that “this time girl it’s gonna be for ever more”, the protagonist isn’t fooling anyone — the constant tug to the minor fifth in the chord sequence is telling us this is a dark, depressing, mood, not a hopeful one.
The backing track was recorded in October, and then set aside for vocals to be recorded after Brian returned from touring — the Beach Boys spent the next two months on the road.
But on the 23rd of December, 1964, just three years to the day after the Beach Boys’ first gig, Brian Wilson had a breakdown on a flight to Houston. He’d had mental health problems before, but this breakdown was much, much more serious. He managed to get through that night’s show, but simply couldn’t continue with the tour.
The Beach Boys needed someone to cover for Brian quickly, someone who could join the band the next day and take over Brian’s parts. And there was only one man who fit the bill.
Glen Campbell was a member of the Wrecking Crew. While he couldn’t read music, he was one of the most in-demand session musicians in LA, thanks to his proficiency on guitar and banjo and his ability to play anything from bluegrass to loud rock and roll. The band knew him — he’d played on several sessions for their upcoming album — and he knew the songs, having played on enough Jan and Dean or Gary Usher sessions making remakes and knockoffs of them. Campbell also had a parallel career as an unsuccessful country singer, but his lack of success wasn’t down to a lack of talent — he had a strong tenor voice reminiscent of Roy Orbison (a favourite of the Beach Boys’) and could easily sing the parts.
Campbell flew out, quickly rehearsed, and fit into the band straight away, staying with them for almost five months. But while he was apparently offered the chance to become a full-time Beach Boy, it didn’t appeal to him — Campbell wanted to keep making his own records, and so towards the end of his time in the band, Brian Wilson gave him Guess I’m Dumb to release as a single as a thank-you.
And by God does it work. Head and shoulders over everything else Brian Wilson had done to this point, the track seems equally influenced by Bacharach, Phil Spector, Orbison, and mariachi music, a big, swelling, intense, orchestral pop song, with the Honeys (a vocal group consisting of Wilson’s wife, her sister, and their cousin) adding girl-group backing, Brian and Carl Wilson providing wordless backing vocals that can only be described as a mumbled moan of despair, and Hal Blaine providing a broken drum part that eerily prefigures much of the Beatles’ more interesting drum parts of the next year.
And over this, Campbell delivers an absolutely breathtaking performance, singing at the top of his chest range, with occasional smooth, seamless, moves into falsetto. Hearing him on this material it’s immediately obvious why he was chosen to replace Brian Wilson on the road — both men could move between chest and head voice on the same word without a break, a far rarer gift among vocalists than many would expect, and something that’s absolutely essential to get the right effect on Wilson’s melodies.
One could argue perhaps that there’s less vulnerability or fragility in Campbell’s tone than in Wilson’s, which in general terms is probably a good thing but on this particular track may be a weakness, but that’s just nitpicking — at the end of the track you can faintly hear Brian Wilson telling Campbell “that was outta sight!”, and it is. This is a truly remarkable record.
Unfortunately, the listening public didn’t think so, and the track didn’t even make the top 100. It would be interesting to imagine what would have happened had Campbell stayed with the Beach Boys, rather than gone back, at least for a time, to being a session player. But by the time this track was released, Campbell had already been replaced. Bruce Johnston, who we’ve heard from previously in the Gamblers and the Rip Chords, was now a Beach Boy…
Guess I’m Dumb
Composer: Brian Wilson and Russ Titelman
Line-up: Glen Campbell (vocals, guitar), Brian Wilson (backing vocals, piano), Carl Wilson (backing vocals, guitar), Marilyn Wilson, Diane Rovell, and Ginger Blake (backing vocals), Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Larry Knechtel (bass), Hal Blaine (drums, percussion), Roy Caton and Ollie Mitchell (trumpets), Lou Blackburn and Harry Betts (trombones), Steve Douglas and Jay Migliori (saxophones), Sid Sharp , Leonard Malarsky, Arnold Belnick, and James Getzoff (violins), Alexander Neiman and Darrel Terwilliger (violas), Jesse Ehrlich and Anne Goodman (cellos)
Original release: Guess I’m Dumb/That’s All Right Glen Campbell single, Capitol 5441
Currently available on: Rhinestone Cowboy: The Best of Glen Campbell EMI CD
I posted a link to Tim Farron’s rather good speech on Tumblr yesterday. Someone who’d been following me there for a few weeks posted Standard Aggressive Rant Number Five in response (take the couple of lines saying Thatcher wasn’t utterly evil out of the context of a speech that says she was wrong about everything important, in damaging, harmful ways that will take decades to fix, and use that to “prove” that Lib Dems are “really” evil, heartless bastards who deserve to be shot). I posted this in response, and thought it worth posting here too: