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California Dreaming: Surf City

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on January 22, 2014

“Two girls for every boy…”

The Beach Boys came along at the perfect time for Jan and Dean.

In August 1962, the Beach Boys were the exciting new kids on the scene. They’d just had their first top twenty hit, and had only just signed to Capitol Records. Meanwhile, Jan and Dean had some claim to being elder statesmen. Their latest album, in fact, was called Jan and Dean’s Golden Hits. Never mind that most of the hits weren’t theirs.

But, as the title might suggest, Jan and Dean’s career was looking like it might be over. Since their big hit with Heart and Soul, fifteen months earlier, they’d released five singles, and none had charted higher than number 69.

But they were still big enough that they could be the headline act at the Reseda Jubilee, with the Beach Boys as their support act and backing band. The young band played their own limited set, then backed Jan and Dean on a run-through of their own hits, before (in an act of desperation due to a lack of material) performing Surfin’ and Surfin’ Safari again, with Jan and Dean joining in.

The experience was an invigorating one for Berry and Torrence, partly because the two enjoyed hearing fuller harmonies behind themselves — while they’d thickened their sound with overdubs in the studio, they really wanted to be in a vocal group, and they had their wish that night.

The two groups struck up a friendship, and played a couple more gigs together in the next few months, during which time Jan & Dean also managed to score another top thirty hit with Linda, a song originally written in 1946, about the then one-year-old Linda Eastman (later better known as Linda McCartney).

Jan Berry noticed Brian Wilson’s songwriting talent and asked him to play some of the songs he was working on. The first thing Wilson played for them, a rewrite of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen with lyrics about what it would be like “if everybody had an ocean across the USA”, he insisted on keeping for his own band, but he had another song, with the working title Goody Connie Won’t You Please Come Home?, which he was very glad to offer to the duo to work on.

Various people — Dean Torrence, Don Altfeld, and Roger Christian among them — have been named at times as having contributed to the finished song, which turned into a paean to bisexual polyamory [FOOTNOTE: Well, maybe that's stretching it slightly. But after all, “two girls for every boy” is just another way of saying “a boy and a girl for every girl”...], but the eventual writing credit went to Jan Berry and Brian Wilson.

On March 7, the Beach Boys went into the studio to back Jan and Dean, vocally and instrumentally, on the duo’s cover versions of Surfin’ and Surfin’ Safari. A few weeks later, Brian Wilson was back in the studio with them to record the newly titled Surf City and another song on which they had collaborated, Gonna Hustle You (later issued under the name The New Girl In School).

Surf City, in its finished version, is clearly the product of the same songwriter who wrote those first two Beach Boys singles. The structure is identical to them — start with a vocal hook, then go into a verse sung by a nasal tenor lead, before a chorus where that lead drops down and sings a boogie bassline while block harmonies sing the title, have the chorus end with the intro hook, and repeat a couple of times.

But this is a far more sophisticated take on the idea than any of the earlier versions Wilson had created. The opening “two girls for every boy” at first sounds simple enough — it sounds like we’re hearing a I-IV-V song in B…at least until we hit the word “boy”, which is on a chord, E-flat, which makes no sense at all in that context — it’s the V of vi, about as far tonally from what’s been set up as one can get.

But the next chord, the start of the verse, makes it make sense — it resolves nicely into A-flat for “I got a thirty Ford wagon”, and we’ve got a nice, safe, tonal centre. We’re in A-flat, not B, and for the first two lines of the verse it’s straightforward shuffling between I and vi.

For the bridge into the chorus (“it ain’t got a back seat”) we move up to the IV, and have a brief stab at doo-wop changes in that key (we hear D-flat – B-flat minor – G-flat, which is either a I-vi-IV in D-flat or IV-ii-VII in A-flat, depending on how you want to look at it), but then rather than go to the A-flat that would resolve that we jump up to the E-flat that we last heard leading into the verse.

This is very clever, because it means that while we’ve had a fairly stable tonal centre for the whole verse, and the chorus is in the same key of A-flat, it feels like a key change.

The chorus then starts off a fairly standard twelve-bar blues progression — and here we see the final building blocks of Brian Wilson’s early style fall into place, because here for the first time, along with the boogie bass vocal and the chanted song title in block harmonies, we have a third moving part, a wordless falsetto, sung by Torrence (and apparently doubled by Wilson, though everything’s double-tracked and drenched in reverb so it’s hard to tell who’s singing what), singing a different melody from anything going on below. This is, finally, the Beach Boys’ classic sound, albeit not on a Beach Boys record.

And while the chorus starts out sounding like a twelve-bar blues, for the last four bars we have, instead of the expected V-IV-I-I change, the utterly bizarre (in context) repetition of the “two girls for every boy” intro in B, making the chorus tag in context be III-flat – VI-flat – VII-flat – V, and again giving us the sense of a key change going into the next verse, even though we’re once again going back into the home key.

This is, of course, not exactly Stockhausen — most of the changes make sense on their own terms — but when put together it gives a quite bewildering sense of constant movement in unexpected directions, even though most of the time it ends up back where it started. And just to make sure you don’t ever quite get sure of what key the song’s in, after two more repetitions of this verse-chorus structure, we end with a repetition of the final “two girls for every boy” a tone up, placing us in C, and end on a repeated C chord to fade.

That technique on its own is a cliche — the “truck-driver’s gear change” — but when combined with the tonal ambiguity of the rest of the song it makes the whole thing seem quite bewildering when compared to other music on the US pop charts in 1963.

But the performance hangs together, and has an incredible sense of excitement, thanks in large part to the contributions of several of the musicians who would later be known as the Wrecking Crew. There are many myths around the Wrecking Crew, but the term is just used to describe the couple of dozen session players who were most frequently chosen to work on rock records in LA, and so ended up playing on many hits (though nowhere near as many as some of them claim). We will be hearing much more from them later, not least on productions by Brian Wilson.

Unfortunately, production techniques in the early 1960s relied on “bouncing down” — taking two or three tracks from a multitrack tape and recording the sound from them onto a single track — in order to do the multiple overdubs that Jan Berry loved, and the build up of tape hiss from this means that the details of the track are not as audible as one might like. Even so, it’s clear that arranger Billy Strange took the sound the Beach Boys had created and tightened it up — parts like the Dick Dale style semiquaver runs on the bass strings of the guitar during the chorus show both more thought and more skill than anything that had been on a Beach Boys record to that point.

The result was an astonishing, exciting, record that, when released as a single coupled with She’s My Summer Girl (a Berry/Wilson/Altfeld collaboration) became the first number one single for either Wilson or Jan & Dean. Murry Wilson, Brian’s father, was apparently apoplectic that the song had been “given away” rather than kept in the family, and referred to Berry as a pirate — prompting Berry, allegedly, to turn up to a Beach Boys recording session in full pirate outfit.

But Brian Wilson was learning production from Berry, just as Berry was finally getting to collaborate on writing hit songs. Together, they’d found the new sound, and both men were going to make as much of it as they could, while they could.

Surf City

Composers: Brian Wilson and Jan Berry

Line-up: Jan Berry (vocals), Dean Torrence (vocals), Brian Wilson (vocals), Billy Strange (guitar), Ray Pohlman (guitar), Glen Campbell (guitar), Bill Pitman (bass), Hal Blaine (drums), Earl Palmer (drums), uncredited piano (probably Berry and/or Wilson), uncredited horns

Original release: Surf City/She’s My Summer Girl, Jan & Dean, Liberty Records single #55580

Currently available on:
Surf City/Dead Man’s Curve / New Girl in School BGO Records CD, plus innumerable budget compilations. Note, however, that there are many inferior re-recordings by either Jan & Dean or Dean Torrence working under the duo name, from the last few decades.

California Dreaming: 409

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 13, 2013

The Beach Boys didn’t really capitalise on their initial success. Surfin’ was released in November, and they did two shows in December (one of them a two-song set in the intermission of a Dick Dale show which apparently went badly) before going into a studio in January to record a few more songs about surfing, in their newer electric style.

But then Alan Jardine left the band, deciding he’d rather concentrate on his studies and his folk group than on a pop group. His departure was perfectly amicable — he would record a single under the name Kenny & The Cadets that March with Brian and Audree Wilson (Brian’s mother) — but it left a gap in the band’s line-up.

The gap was quickly filled by David Marks, a thirteen-year-old neighbour of the Wilson family who had been learning guitar along with Carl. Marks was not the singer Jardine was, but he was an accomplished guitarist for his age, and knew the family well.

But one further big change had taken place — one which would have big results for the band over the next few years. Brian Wilson had found his first outside collaborator.

Gary Usher was three years older than Brian Wilson, and had released a single himself a couple of years earlier, an unsuccessful track called Driven Insane, a startlingly odd combination of reverbed Fender guitar, a sobbing Gene Pitney-esque vocal, and a high, almost theremin-sounding, female backing vocal. He and Wilson quickly hit it off and began collaborating on songs, both for the Beach Boys and for other side projects.

One song they came up with was a variant on the formula Brian and Mike had hit upon with Surfin’. Brian and Mike had already written another song, Surfin’ Safari, that was a virtual clone of their original hit, but which had tightened the formula. That song opened with almost unadorned vocal harmonies singing the hook, before going into a repeated twelve-bar blues pattern, over which Love sang the verse in his tenor range, and using the same pattern for a chorus, but with Love singing a bass melody while the rest of the band chanted the title before they all came together for the last line.

It’s the same basic structure as Surfin’, but tighter, and with twin electric Fender guitars providing much more drive than the single acoustic guitar of the earlier song, and with a prominent Chuck Berry influence on the guitar style.

Usher and Wilson took that same structure, and instead of writing about surfing, decided to write about the cars Usher loved so much, and in particular the Chevrolet Impala SS car Usher was desperate to buy, which had Chevrolet’s latest top-of-the-range engine, one with a 409 cubic inch capacity.

Mike Love, who has since gained a co-writing credit for this song following a lawsuit in the early 1990s, apparently added the opening “She’s real fine, my 409” hook and the “giddy-up” backing vocal idea. Love has often claimed that the reason for writing car songs along with the surf songs the band had been doing was a commercial one — that while the people on the coasts enjoyed surfing, the landlocked middle states all had cars as well — but it’s notable that while Love was Wilson’s principal collaborator, he worked on relatively few of the car songs. Usher (and Roger Christian, who later collaborated with both Wilson and Usher) clearly knew and loved cars.

This led to a rather odd situation — the song itself manages to clearly communicate its lyricist’s passion for the subject, precisely because its relatively short lyric contains the almost incomprehensible phrase “my four-speed, dual-quad, positraction 409”. Only someone who really loved cars would talk about them in such detail, and the enthusiasm is infectious even for those of us who barely know one end of a car from another.

Usher was also encouraging Wilson to stretch himself as a producer. When the band went into Western Studios with engineer Chuck Britz to record this song as a demo, along with a new version of Surfin’ Safari, Wilson and Usher’s ballad The Lonely Sea and the old Four Freshmen song Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring, they took with them a tape recording, made on a reel-to-reel recorder, of the engine of Usher’s car revving up. The addition of this sound effect at crucial points in the track turned it from just a Surfin’ Safari rewrite into something more.

Brian Wilson’s father Murry was credited as the producer of the session, but Brian was calling the shots in the studio from the beginning, and the results are wildly more exciting than the rather tentative Surfin’.

Nik Venet agreed. Venet had recently moved from World Pacific Records to become Capitol Records’ head of A&R*. Venet had been in at the birth of surf music with Moon Dawg, and decided that the Beach Boys were going to be big. He bought the demos of Surfin’ Safari and 409 and released them as a single in June 1962, and Surfin’ Safari quickly rose to number 14 in the charts. 409 did less well, but still made the Hot 100 on its own merits, and by September the band were in the studio, recording five more Wilson/Usher songs and one more Wilson/Love one, along with a couple of covers of popular hits and a remake of Moon Dawg (credited to Venet rather than its composer Derry Weaver), for a quick album release to capitalise on the single’s success.

The Beach Boys were no longer one-hit wonders, and they’d already expanded from just singing about surf to cars as well. Where could they go from here?

409
Composers:
Brian Wilson, Gary Usher, and Mike Love
Line-up: Brian Wilson (vocals, bass), Mike Love (vocals), Dennis Wilson (vocals, drums), Carl Wilson (vocals, guitar), David Marks (guitar), Gary Usher (sound effects, uncredited)
Original release: Capitol single 4777, as the B-side to Surfin’ Safari
Currently available on: Surfin’ Safari, plus many public domain compilations

*Artists and repertoire. An A&R man was at the time the main contact between the record company and the performer, and would sign artists, choose material for them, and produce their recordings.

The Beach Boys On CD: The Beach Boys Love You

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on February 3, 2013

The follow-up to 15 Big Ones may well be the most controversial album the band ever did, with fans almost evenly divided between those who love it and those who hate it. In a recent (totally unscientific) poll on one fan forum, Love You made the top ten both of fans’ favourite and least favourite albums.

And there’s a good reason for this. Love You is, quite simply, unlike anything else ever recorded, not just by the Beach Boys but by anyone. It’s almost impossible to get across to people who haven’t heard it just how unlike anything else any major band has ever done this is. Possibly the best way to explain the album’s sound is by a hypothetical:

Imagine playing J.S. Bach a Phil Spector album, then telling him “you have an hour to write as many songs that sound like that as possible”, and locking him in a room with Jonathan Richman as a lyricist. Then take those songs and give them to Tom Waits to record, but with the only instruments allowed being a Moog with its settings stuck on “fart sound” and a single snare drum.

While the result wouldn’t exactly be The Beach Boys Love You, it would probably be close enough on a first approximation. It’s an album where the vast majority of the instrumentation is played by Brian, and is as rudimentary as that implies. Given its release in 1977, it would actually be the only sensible response by a major band to punk, were there any evidence that Brian Wilson had ever heard a punk record at this point — as it is, we have to see it as just convergent evolution. This seems to be the cause of the great split in Beach Boys fandom over this album. Very roughly, anyone who became a Beach Boys fan before punk despises this album, anyone who grew up listening to punk and post-punk music seems to get it instinctively.

This is one of only two Beach Boys albums to be made up entirely of previously-unreleased Brian Wilson songs (the other being Smiley Smile) and is as personal a statement as Pet Sounds, Smile or Smiley Smile. And I am absolutely in the camp for whom this is one of the pillars on which the Beach Boys’ artistic reputation rests. Certainly this is the last album by the group that anyone could possibly argue was great — and there are only two after this that one could reasonably argue are even listenable (though the band’s members would make plenty of good music solo).

It’s not an easy listen, though. It’s bare, minimalist, raspy and human. Apparently Carl Wilson did a lot to sweeten the album before its release (he’s credited as ‘mixdown producer’, with Brian Wilson credited as ‘producer’, but supposedly he did a lot more than that implies), which just makes one wonder what on Earth this could have sounded like before the sweetening.

One thing that must be addressed before we get to the album proper, though, is the claim by some that the people who like this album do so because they’re fetishising mental illness, and that the album itself is ‘a product of mental illness’. This is nonsense.

The album isn’t “a product of mental illness” — it’s a product of an artist who happened to be living with a mental illness. Yes, it wouldn’t be the same if Brian had been mentally better, but likewise none of his music would have been the same if he’d been able to hear in both ears, and we don’t call Pet Sounds “a product of physical disability”.

Just having a mental illness doesn’t make one magically able to make music of the quality of Love You — I worked for several years on a psychiatric ward, and several of the people on that ward fancied themselves musicians, so I can tell you that from personal experience. Conversely, having a mental illness doesn’t suddenly remove all talent, intelligence and humour from someone who has those things when they’re well.

The narrative that mental illness is in some way romantic or confers mystical talent upon those who have it is definitely a pernicious one that needs to be fought. But just as pernicious is the opposite myth — that because someone has bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or whatever, they instantly become unable to do anything or make any rational decision. People with mental illnesses can be capable of creating great art — even great art that stems from their illness. Or should we dismiss Van Gogh and William Blake, too?

No, Love You wouldn’t be the same album if Brian Wilson hadn’t been suffering from a mental illness at the time — but that’s a good thing. Not a good thing that he was ill, but a good thing that while ill he was able to create great art. Personally, I think we need more art from people with mental illnesses — they’re marginalised, and their opinions and thoughts more or less ignored or mocked, in this society.

But this isn’t something that has to be treated as outsider music and listened to as one would listen to Wesley Willis. This is an album that had a rave review on its release from Patti Smith, that Peter Buck considers one of the greatest ever and that, most importantly, Brian Wilson himself often says is his favourite by the band. This is a strange, but beautiful, work by one of the greatest songwriters ever.

To those who have ears, let them hear.

line-up

Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston (uncredited)

Let Us Go On This Way
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist:
Carl Wilson and Mike Love

And the album starts as it means to go on — with a riff almost identical to that of Gimme Some Lovin’ played on a cheap-sounding electric organ and a Moog bass, while a single snare drum thwacks on the off-beat and Carl Wilson grunts.

This is pop-R&B for the post-punk age, the Spencer Davis Group in a world where the drum-kit and the electric guitar had never been invented. Over a simple, grunting riff played on a farting Moog, stabbing chords on an organ, Jay Miglori’s baritone sax and a solitary snare drum, Carl Wilson soul-shouts “To get you babe I went through the wringer/Ain’t gonna let you slip through my fingers”. The verse is simplicity itself, but then for the chorus line we get something totally different — all the instruments drop out, replaced by a piano, and the two-chord riffs we’ve had so far are replaced by seven chords in three bars, as the ecstatic harmonies come in — “God, please let us go on this way”.

To those who’ve been following the band’s career, this can’t help but be a reminder of the last time the Beach Boys invoked the deity in this way — the similarly gospel-infused He Come Down — but while the harmonies here work in the same way, here they’re shattered voices. The Wilson brothers at this point had destroyed their voices with a combination of cocaine, alcohol and smoking, though Carl’s voice remained comparatively unravaged, and so here rather than the ethereal beauty of even a few years ago, we have what sounds like ancient, weary old men, their voices cracked and shattered, even though when this was recorded all the band were under thirty-five.

But the significant word here, as Patti Smith correctly noted in her review for Hit Parader [FOOTNOTE Which can currently be read at http://www.smileysmile.net/uncanny/index.php/the-beach-boys-love-you-october-1977-hit-parader-selection-by-patti-smith], isn’t “God” but “please”, which she called “the catchword of Love You” but which could equally be called the catchword of Brian Wilson’s entire career. This is a pleading album, and I can’t really put it better than Smith did:

they are pleading w/ the same urgency as the boy in the back seat to the girl in 1963. please it won’t hurt. please. come to me/give to me/tell me/listen to me…[orthography as in the original]

Then after another verse we get the middle eight, and Mike Love’s sole songwriting contribution to the album (apparently he wrote only these lyrics, not those for the rest of the track). And suddenly we’re back in the world of Holland, with Love’s obsessions with telepathy and levitation coming to the fore again. “Seems we have extra sensory perception…now we can fly”. It even sounds different from the rest of the track — the single snare drum thwack has been replaced with a single thump on a tom.

The track builds cleverly, from the single Moog bass under Carl’s vocal at the beginning, to a mass of Moog, organ, sax and chanting Beach Men by the end, but throughout it there is a propulsive energy that had been missing from everything the band had recorded, no matter how good, since about 1971.

A staggeringly good opener.

Roller Skating Child
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

“And we’ll make sweet lovin’ when the sun goes down/We’ll even do more when her mama’s not around/Well, oh my, oh gosh, oh gee/She really sets chills inside of me”.

This is one of the comparatively weaker tracks on the album, sounding in fact like a rewrite of the previous track (the verse riff is essentially the same but a tone up), but less inspired, with handclaps and some rudimentary blues guitar attempting to liven it up. Even so, lyrics like the chorus lines quoted above, or “we do it holding hands, it’s so cold I go brrr”, are quintessentially Brian Wilson.

This is probably the most “Beach Boys” sounding track on the album, with Mike Love taking the lead in his nasal tenor, but still the greatest moment is the end, when out of nowhere comes a quick G-flat – A-flat – B-flat rise that’s reminiscent of the chorus to Sail On Sailor, and Brian sings, in his ravaged “low and manly” voice but with the innocence and enthusiasm of a five-year-old, “Roller…skating…CHI-ILD!”

It’s the real entry of the voice that will define much of the album.

Mona
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

The Beach Boys Love You, like many records where Brian Wilson has had control, is structured in a way that seems strange to modern ears but made sense at the time. When the Beach Boys were first starting out, in the very early 60s, the convention was that albums would have two sides that were different in style. Side one would be “for the kids” and be R&B or rock style tunes, while side two would be “good music” “for the grown-ups” — orchestrated, sweetened ballads. This was the convention to the point where I actually own a Ray Charles album from the early 1960s whose liner notes feel the need to explain that they’d chosen to mix the two styles up rather than do it the conventional way.

And this is how Brian Wilson structured many (though not all) of his albums. It’s most obvious on The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, but it’s also there on The Beach Boys Today and (to a slightly lesser extent) Summer Days…And Summer Nights! — a side of mostly uptempo rockers, and a side of more sophisticated, more complex, ballads.

So here we get the third uptempo track in a row, and the most fully fleshed-out. This has a full wall-of-sound style production, with massed backing vocals, multiple saxophones, and even drum fills (unusual for this album). Over a four-chord doo-wop progression, a badly double-tracked Dennis Wilson, his voice so damaged he can barely enunciates, shouts lyrics like “Come on, listen to Da Doo Ron Ron now, listen to Be My Baby, I know you’re gonna love Phil Spector” and “Will you, will you will you will you just kiss me/When you leave me won’t you just miss me?” (See what Smith meant about “please”?)

This is a man in his thirties singing a song about the concerns of a boy in his teens, in the voice of a man in his eighties, and if you can listen to it without a huge grin on your face I pity you.

Johnny Carson
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Carl Wilson

Johnny Carson starts off with a verse that sounds almost like the kind of louche Weimar cabaret song that Scott Walker or someone of that ilk might cover, low piano chords and Moog in a minor key, with no other instrumentation, while the singer sings in a low baritone, being almost mocked by the answering chorus.

Except that that singer is Mike Love, and the words he’s singing are “He sits behind his microphone/(Joh-nny Car-son!)/He speaks in such a manly tone/(Joh-nny! Car-son!)”

This is the make-or-break song for this album — at this point either you just decide to go with it and accept that, yes, this is going to be a song about how great Johnny Carson is, and how “every night at eleven-thirty he’s so funny”, where the instrumental break consists of four bars of just a stabbed Cm chord, played on organ and piano, on the on-beat, followed by four more bars alternating between B-flat and E-flat, and where there is a single cymbal crash that is almost the only use of cymbal in the entire album, or you turn the album off and give up on it.

As the song ends with another doo-wop progression, over which the band chants “Who’s the man that we admire?/Johnny Carson is a real live wire”, only those who are willing to listen with an open mind are left, as the album starts to get really good.

Good Time
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

This song is often considered to not fit on the rest of the album — it was originally recorded during the Sunflower sessions in 1970, apart from one “Hey!” at the end that Brian added in 1977, and features a much fuller arrangement than anything else on the album, including strings and horns, as well as having Brian’s very different 1970 voice in the lead.

It’s also the only song that had had any kind of release before this, having been released as a track by American Spring (a vocal group consisting of Brian Wilson’s wife Marilyn and sister-in-law Diane) with the same backing track but slightly revised lyrics (including a vocal part on the instrumental break — “Hey baby, turn up the radio/The DJ just said he’s playing our favourite song/talk to me”). That version is actually in many ways the better mix, having some instrumental parts missing from the Love You mix, and sounding overall much clearer.

Despite all the differences — the orchestration, the simpler structure, Brian’s voice — this does still fit on the album, simply because of the eccentric sense of joy in the track. There’s no other album in the world where a line like “My girlfriend Penny, she’s kinda skinny/And so she keeps her falsies on” would fit.

Honkin’ Down The Highway
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist:
Al Jardine

The only single from the album was this utterly joyous country-rocker. One of the fuller productions on the album, this harks back to the band’s early days of singing about cars and girls, but with a mixture of sophistication and naivety that is utterly astonishing.

On the one hand, you’ve got Brian and Dennis bellowing “honk honk, honking down the highway”, and the fact that Al is singing about “honking down the gosh-darn highway”, but on the other you’ve got astonishing musical moments like the bridge, where a song that has been in E major throughout the verse diverts into a minor key, but only so the song can build up from Bm7 through Em7 and F#m7 before triumphantly going to G major and then to B major, the fifth of the original key — taking us from a minor version of the chord to a major one through a continuous lift that is just about the most joyous thing ever committed to record, especially when combined with Al singing over the top “I guess I got a way…WITH…GIRLS!” in his magnificent, rich voice.

And this is the thing that makes Brian Wilson so special as a songwriter — the combination of an utterly unmediated emotional expression with a peerless musical intelligence and craft. This is the music that an enthusiastic child would make, making up a song about the first thing that came into her head — if that child was at one and the same time someone with decades of songwriting craft.

No-one else can do this.

Al Jardine re-recorded this song on his 2010 album A Postcard From California, with Brian Wilson adding backing vocals, but this is still the superior version.

Ding Dang
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Roger McGuinn
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

A very silly song indeed, running slightly less than a minute long, all on one chord, with the band singing “Ding, dang, dang, Whoo!, ding and a ding dong” while Mike sings “I love a girl/I love her so madly/I treat her so fine/But she treats me so badly” over and over. This took two people to write.

This is Brian Wilson’s favourite song from the album.

Solar System
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

Side two opens with a wonderful waltz-time ballad, layers of synths under Brian’s ‘low and manly’ voice as he sings a song about the planets that seems aimed at children.

Harmonically, this is the most interesting thing so far — the verse/chorus seems to start in G or D, but soon moves to A, before going to F for the chorus, but then ending on a D chord. It’s one of the most harmonically mobile things Brian had done in years, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The middle eight, meanwhile, seems to stick mostly to the key of E minor, but with a Cm7 chord that doesn’t neatly fit into any of the other keys.

Lyrically, the song is a look at all the planets in the solar system (except Uranus) and the moon, from a childish point of view — “If Mars had life on it/I might find my wife on it”, along with mentions of various other celestial bodies (“Then there’s the Milky Way/That’s where the angels play”).

It’s absolutely lovely, and for all the criticism Brian’s gruff 1977 voice gets, I have to say that I find the vocals on this track fit perfectly — he was still a great singer, even if he didn’t have a ‘beautiful’ voice. The harmonies on the chorus, with Brian multi-tracked, straining for the high notes he would once have hit easily, are lovely.

The Night Was So Young
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

By common agreement, this is by far the best song on the album, and for once the consensus isn’t wrong. This is the most fully-produced track on the album — and it sounds like a lot of that production is the work of Carl Wilson, as there are probably more guitars on this one track than on the entire rest of the album, with at least three clearly audible parts (a barely-there rhythm part, a vaguely “Hawaiian” sounding two-note repeated phrase mixed high, and a double-tracked lead part played on the bass strings and mixed low). It also has the most conventional drum part, to the point of actually having a little hi-hat work (one of the little-remarked quirks of Brian Wilson’s production is that he rarely uses cymbals of any kind on his recordings, preferring to use hand percussion to play those parts).

Carl Wilson turns in the best vocal performance of the album, a quite extraordinary effort. Listening to “Why she has to hide/She’s passing it by, she won’t even try/To make this love go where it should” you could believe this was Brian’s old trick of passing vocal lines between different vocalists, but they’re all Carl. In fact, it sounds like the only vocals on this track at all are massed Brians in the harmony stack and Carl on lead.

The song itself is a lovely, simple one, with a vaguely Latin or Hawaiian feel thanks to all the major 7ths and 6ths, and with simplistic but effective lyrics that perfectly express the emotion of being awake at night thinking about a love you can’t have. Absolutely beautiful.

This is the only Love You song that Brian Wilson has included in his solo sets when performing live, playing it in 2002.

I’ll Bet He’s Nice
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson, Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson

Another absolutely stunning song. The simplest way to describe how good this is is to say there’s a bootleg tape, quite widely available, of Brian demoing several Love You era songs for his bandmates. Their reactions to songs like Mona are…not hugely enthused. But when he plays this one, there are astonished noises and “woo-hoos” in the middle eight, Mike Love starts singing along with the choruses, and Love says at the end “Man, that knocked me out, that was a motherfucker.”

[Note to self -- check that this line was actually in that place before releasing the book version of this, as the tape has been edited quite a bit].

A lovely song built on layers of synths, with the only other instrument audible being a tambourine low in the mix in the left channel, this is an absolutely heartbreaking little song — “I’ll bet he’s twice/As nice as me and it makes me cry/Please don’t tell me if it’s true/Because I’m still in love with you”.

It would be an absolutely perfectly constructed song, in fact, were it not for the middle eight lyrics, which are sung from the point of view of a lover afraid his love will leave, rather than one who has already been left.

This track also features a prominent vocal cameo from former and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who sings the multitracked “Well it’s you…” harmonies in the left channel on the fade.

Let’s Put Our Hearts Together
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Marilyn Wilson

A simple duet, again built on layer upon layer of synth sounds, this is one of the less complex songs on the second side, rarely venturing far from its home key and staying for much of the song on two chords.

There’s an appealing sweetness to this, and it would take a heart of stone not to be affected at least a little by Brian earnestly singing lines like “maybe I’ll come up with some idea and you’d think that I was clever”, but Marilyn Wilson was never a particularly good singer, and giving her lines where she has to sing a melisma that stretches the single word “good” into six notes over four beats is, frankly, cruel.

I Wanna Pick You Up
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson and Brian Wilson

A rather sweet, charming song sung to one of Brian’s children, who were at this point old enough to be going to school — “I love to pick you up, ’cause you’re still a baby to me”, this is an innocent little song about loving and caring for one’s children. There’s a subsection of Beach Boys fandom which likes to infer a sexual double-meaning to this song (mostly because of the line “pat her on her butt/she’s going to sleep, be quiet”), but while some of the other songs Brian was writing around this time have some disturbing aspects to it, this is as innocent a song as it gets.

The song is not one of the best on the album (Darian Sahanaja, later musical director of Brian Wilson’s backing band, released a solo version of the song with Pet Sounds style orchestration in the mid-90s, and it doesn’t really hold up under the weight), but like the whole album it manages to communicate an honest emotion, in a direct way, and it’s an emotion that is very rarely dealt with in rock or pop music. And the harmonies at the end are exquisite, with Love’s held bass note about as deep as he’s ever sung, while Dennis sings “little baby go to sleep”.

A minor piece, but a nice one.

Airplane
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Carl Wilson and Brian Wilson

One of the very best things on the album, here lyric and music work perfectly together, as the tiny drifts in chord in the verses, from Gmaj7 to G7 to Cmaj7 to Am7 to D7, always keeping several notes in place from one chord to the next, perfectly capture the feeling of floating along above the clouds, thinking about arriving home.

It’s a hard song to analyse, because it’s just so direct and affecting. Love turns in a remarkably good vocal for him in this range (it’s right at the top of his tenor range, where he’s normally most nasal). But it’s a great one. After the two verses, we get a new section — “Airplane, airplane”, bringing in a hint of Gm to go with the G major key established in the rest of the song, but only so that on the “carry me back to her side” line we can have the rising Sail On Sailor Eflat-F-G sequence. This repeats and then we get Brian singing, almost a descending scale, “down down, on the ground, can’t wait to see her face”, again evoking perfectly in sound the feeling of a slow descent.

And then there’s the tag, where over a two-chord R&B vamp, Brian and Carl engage in a joyous call and response — “I can’t wait (can’t wait) to see (her face)”. This makes up nearly a quarter of the song, and frankly I’d have been just as happy if it had gone on for another five minutes, just hearing the two brothers playing off each other vocally, Carl growling and Brian singing “I can’t wa-hay-hait”. There’s nothing musically clever going on here, just two people singing with such infectious joy that the listener can’t help but smile.

Love Is A Woman
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine

And then finally we get to the song that most people use to dismiss the album. This is, frankly, a bit of a failure — a doo-wop song with lines like “Love is a woman/so tell her she smells good tonight” and “One two three/She’s fallen in love with me/Four five six/She fell for all my tricks”, this has the same childish eccentricity as most of the rest of the album, but doesn’t have the imagination to go along with it, and to make matters worse there’s just enough sweetening added to the mix (multiple saxophones and what sounds like a flute) to make it sound cluttered, while still sounding amateurish.

You can’t expect every song to be a classic, and this is the only one on the album that is less than wonderful, but it seems strange that it was sequenced as the last song on the album. The band — or at least Brian — seemed to like it though, and it was kept in their live set for a while, while Brian chose to perform it on a rare solo TV appearance around this time.

I am entirely prepared to accept that I’m missing something with this song, and that in two or three years something will click, and I’ll realise it’s a great work of genius, because the rest of this album is so unbelievably good that I’m willing to see any failure in it as a failure in me. But for now, I have to say that this is an imperfect ending to an otherwise perfect album.

The Beach Boys On CD: 15 Big Ones

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on January 22, 2013

The years between 1972, when Holland was released, and 1976, when this album came out, were the most important in the Beach Boys’ career. It’s no lie to say that the band on this album is utterly unrecognisable as the one which, a handful of years earlier, had been recording extended suites with flutes and spoken poetry segments.

The reasons for this change are far too complex to be covered in full in a book like this, which is devoted to the music more than the personalities, but a huge number of factors converged to change the band permanently, and not for the better. Firstly, both Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar quit the group, and Jack Rieley stopped managing them, and thus also stopped collaborating with the Wilson brothers as a lyricist.

On top of this, Murry Wilson, the Wilson brothers’ father and the band’s early manager, died of a heart attack. The loss of their father caused the already-vulnerable Brian Wilson to descend into his worst ever period of depression (this period is the source of the urban legends about Wilson spending years at a time in bed), while Dennis Wilson’s substance abuse and alcohol problems became even worse.

But at the same time, the band had suddenly become, for the first time in a decade, the most popular band in America. The OPEC crisis in 1973 had precipitated a wave of nostalgia for the late 1950s and early 1960s in American culture, and with this came a reappraisal of the band’s early surf and car material. All Summer Long was used on the soundtrack of the hit film American Graffiti, and a rather shoddily-packaged double hits collection, Endless Summer, went to number one in 1974, spent three years on the charts and sold three million copies. A follow-up, Spirit Of America, went top ten and gold despite having few hits on it. The Beach Boys went from playing mid-sized college venues to headlining stadium gigs.

All this meant that there was a huge appetite for new Beach Boys material — but only if it came from Brian Wilson, and was in the same mould as the early hits. After intensive therapy with the controversial therapist Eugene Landy (who will show up much more in volume three), Wilson was ‘well enough’ to return to the studio and produce a new album, and to rejoin the touring band.

15 Big Ones was released with a massive publicity campaign, based around the phrase “Brian’s Back”, and became the band’s first top ten album in a decade, as well as spawning two hit singles. But many were shocked by what they heard. The album was a mix of new material and 50s covers, and Carl and Dennis Wilson as good as disowned it before it even came out, saying that they had believed the plan was to record the oldies as a warm-up before doing a full album of new material.

The arrangements were idiosyncratic, with much use of Moog, but the vocals were what shocked listeners the most. Brian and Dennis’ voices had been almost destroyed by alcohol and drug abuse, with Brian having lost his falsetto (though there is some doubt as to whether this was a deliberate decision on his part, as he wanted to sound more manly), while Dennis’ vocals were a husky rasp, sounding like nothing so much as Tom Waits. The harmonies on the album are sloppy, ragged, and often off-key.

There’s still much to like about 15 Big Ones, but as with many Beach Boys records to come, there’s a lot of music that sounds truly terrible, too. And the question then becomes how one interprets this music, as a listener. Is it a genius doing something too clever for the listener to get? A genius trying and failing to do something clever? A mentally ill man incapable of coherent work? An act of rebellion from someone being forced to work with a band he no longer cared about? A subtle musical joke?

At different times, the conclusion I come to comes out different ways, and I suspect that the true answer has elements of all the above in it. But the fact remains that in 1976, all the Beach Boys had to do to cement their artistic reputation, and re-establish themselves commercially, was to release something even vaguely competent. They didn’t manage to do it, and it would be thirty-six years before they released another top ten album.

line-up

Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Ricky Fataar (uncredited), Bruce Johnston (uncredited)

Rock And Roll Music
Songwriter:
Chuck Berry
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

The album’s opening track, and lead-off single, sums up the whole project in a nutshell. It’s a cover of the Chuck Berry classic, with an inventive backing track largely played by Brian Wilson, but given a curiously flat mix, and with an unimaginative “rock, roll, rockin’ and roll” backing vocal chant that has none of Wilson’s normal flair for vocal arrangements. And over this, Mike Love sounds like almost a parody of himself. Recording a song by Chuck Berry (and one which had a famous cover version by the Beatles, to boot) invites comparison with some of the greatest vocalists of the rock era. Love’s vocal is neither as witty as Berry’s nor as exuberant as John Lennon’s, just a flat statement, and we’re left wondering why anyone would want to dance with him.

The superior (though still not very good) single mix of this track went to number 5 in the US charts, more because of the immense affection the band were held in at this time than because of any redeeming qualities in the record itself, making it the band’s biggest hit since Good Vibrations a decade before.

It’s OK
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Dennis Wilson

The second single on the album, and the first original, actually dates from 1974, and was recorded with Ricky Fataar on drums (most songs on this album actually feature Dennis Wilson on drums, the first where that was the case for some years), along with members of Roy Wood’s band Wizzard on saxophone [FOOTNOTE Wood has talked about being invited to the session because Brian Wilson admired Wood's Beach Boys-esque doo-wop pastiche Forever, a hit for him in the previous year. He's spoken in interviews about having sung on at least one track with the band, singing at the same mic as Brian and Carl. Whether his vocals are somewhere in the mix here is, however, hard to ascertain, and it may be that they were wiped or that he sang on a different, as yet unreleased, track.] .

Essentially a return to the feel of Do It Again, this was the first ‘fun in the sun’ Beach Boys song to be released since that song eight years earlier, and it’s enjoyable enough, but there’s a sense of diminishing returns here, with its “in the sum-sum-summertime” chant and banal lyrics. The track mostly works because of the saxophone line and Dennis Wilson’s gloriously goofy bass vocals, but it’s a creative dead end. As a single, this went to number 29 in the US charts. The song remained in the band’s live setlist for the next two years, and has been a regular in the set of Mike Love’s touring Beach Boys in recent years.

Had To Phone Ya
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Diane Rovell
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love

The first really strong track on the album is this one, originally written for and recorded by (American) Spring, a vocal group consisting of Brian Wilson’s wife Marilyn (who sings backing vocals here) and her sister Diane (credited as a co-writer of the song).

The song is a miniature, only two minutes eleven seconds long, but has a typically Wilsonesque chord sequence, full of major ninths and sixths, and a wonderful section (starting with the line “it lifts my spirits…”) where the melody climbs as the bassline steadily descends underneath.

The arrangement, too, is outstanding, with interjections from clarinets having much the same function that the Moogs in Wilson’s other arrangements of the time do, and with every band member getting a couple of lines of lead vocal in turn, ending with Brian’s new ‘low and manly’ voice, singing “come on, come on and answer the phone” (and a very buried Marilyn saying “Hi Brian” right as the song fades out).

While Brian’s beautiful voice had been more-or-less destroyed, and would never really return, his gruff vocals here still show a musicality, and an emotional honesty, that makes them equally as good in their way as his earlier performances — the artistry is still there.

This is only a minor track, but is a lovely one.

Chapel Of Love
Songwriter:
Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

And here we get to one of the tracks that it’s almost impossible to judge, except possibly as outsider music. This is a cover of a track Wilson admired enormously, but with a wildly eccentric arrangement — cymbals playing triplets, when Wilson normally avoided them, a bank of saxophones droning, stabs from an ARP string synthesiser, and Moog bass. Then over this Brian Wilson sings what sounds like a serious attempt at the lead in his low, gruff voice, with Love doing a competent job on the bass vocals — but Wilson then screeches answering vocal parts, sounding like a small child doing a joke voice. Is this an experiment that didn’t quite work out? Is it a joke? Is it just Wilson being enormously lazy? There’s no possible way to tell. It’s not actually unlistenable, in its own strange way, but its qualities are…orthogonal to those one normally looks for in music.

An alternative mix of this exists which is slightly less eccentric, with some additional backing vocals, but that mix makes it no clearer what the intent of the track was.

Everyone’s In Love With You
Songwriter:
Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

This track is a much more conventional one than anything on the album up to this point, and the explanation lies in the credits — while Brian Wilson is still credited as producer, Love is credited as arranger, and Darryl Dragon [FOOTNOTE the Beach Boys' former touring keyboardist, then having success with his wife, Toni Tennile, as The Captain And Tennile. Tennile sings the high vocals on this track.] as vocal arranger.

This is Love in mellow mode, much like on Big Sur, as he sings to someone who is loved by everyone, but who “can’t give your love to only one” — the person in question being the Maharishi, though this is not made explicit in the lyric. The backing is very, very loosely inspired by Bach, probably via Procol Harum, as the track has more than a little of the feel of Whiter Shade Of Pale about it, and jazz musician Charles Lloyd (a fellow follower of the Maharishi, and a member of the Beach Boys’ touring band at this point) provides some nice flute.

This song is clearly important to Love, as he rerecorded it in 1978 (for his unreleased solo country album Country Love) and again in 2004 (for his unreleased album which at various times went under the name Unleash The Love and Mike Love Not War) and regularly includes it in sets by the touring Beach Boys. However, it was less popular with the public — when released as the third single from the album, it failed to reach the charts.

Talk To Me
Songwriter:
Joe Seneca/Bob Crewe, Frank C. Slay Jr. and Frederick A. Picariello
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Another track where it’s literally impossible to understand what Brian Wilson could have been thinking. The bulk of the song is a rather plodding cover of Talk To Me, a fairly nondescript 12/8 R&B ballad, originally recorded by Little Willie John, and it’s passable enough, though Carl Wilson sounds quite bored. But then, for no discernible reason, at the end of the middle eight, the song is interrupted by ten bars of the uptempo rocker Tallahassee Lassie, a minor hit for Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon, which is in a different key, tempo, and time signature, and whose lyrics have no connection with those of the earlier song. After these ten bars, the original song is resumed. It sounds for all the world like a mistake, and many people listening in this download age will assume they have a corrupted file, but it’s totally deliberate.

That Same Song
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

And suddenly we get an absolutely joyous gospel-flavoured track, with an enthusiastically gruff Brian turning in one of his best vocal performances of the album, as he tracks the evolution of music from Gregorian chant to rock and roll. It’s utterly simple — for much of the track it’s just Brian on piano and organ and Dennis tapping a cymbal, while Brian and the band sing, although there are occasional passages with more instruments (most notably saxophone, provided here as on much of the album by old Wrecking Crew stalwarts Steve Douglas and Jay Migliori) — but the vocal performance is filled with such irrepressible joy that one can’t help but be swept up by it.

T.M. Song
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

Easily the most “Brian” song on the album, this ode to transcendental meditation has more inventiveness in seventy-four seconds than most of the rest of the album has in total. Starting with twenty seconds of scripted arguing, reminiscent of some of the attempts at comedy on the band’s very earliest recordings, ending with Al saying “phew, it’s time for me to meditate”, we then have two fairly straightforward verses, describing the effects of meditation, before going into a middle section that almost defies description, with a melody line wandering all over the place while the track speeds up and slows down under the line “sometimes it goes real fast and other times it goes real slow”. There’s then yet another eight-bar section, an uptempo tag which tells you “transcendental meditation really works for me good/more much more than I thought it would”.

The track manages to remind one simultaneously of the jokey material on the earliest albums and of both Smiley Smile and Friends, and so probably should have been the kind of thing people who wanted Brian to be “back” were expecting. But it wasn’t.

Palisades Park
Songwriter:
Chuck Barris
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Side two opens with the second Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon cover of the album, this time of a song written by Chuck Barris [FOOTNOTE A TV gameshow producer, who created The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game (for UK readers, these are the shows that were remade as Mr. And Mrs. and Blind Date), and who later became the presenter of The Gong Show. His autobiography, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, also claims that he was a CIA assassin who killed thirty-three people, though the CIA have denied this.].

The original version of this had been a huge influence on the band, to the extent that Brian Wilson had more-or-less blatantly ripped it off twice, for County Fair and Amusement Parks USA, and this seems a far more respectful take on the song than many of the other covers. It’s also the only track on the album where all the instrumentation is played by old Wrecking Crew members — almost every other track has instrumentation provided by the Wilson brothers, touring guitarists Ed Carter and Billy Hinsche, and then session players only augmenting the band for instruments like saxophone, but here the old gang are all back together.

The track is a fairly straight take on the song, with the only new addition being the “run run running, now the rides are running” backing vocals, replacing an organ part from the original, and Carl Wilson gives the vocal his all. The song itself is not especially inspired, but the track is fun.

Susie Cincinnati
Songwriter:
Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

This track of Jardine’s actually dates back to January 1970, and so features Bruce Johnston on backing vocals. It had actually been released twice before, as the B-side to both Add Some Music and to the 1974 single Child Of Winter, in two different mono mixes, and the stereo version on the album is apparently those two mono mixes synced together.

One of the most enjoyable, catchiest things Jardine has ever written, this is a simple four-chord rocker (with a key change for the last verse), with incredibly silly lyrics about a taxi driver in Cincinnati (whose “looks aren’t exactly a plus/but it doesn’t matter to us”). It’s an absolutely ridiculous song, but it knows it’s ridiculous, and Jardine sings it with such enthusiasm it’s impossible not to grin, especially when Brian Wilson’s harmonica impersonates a car horn. The song became a B-side yet again when it was released on the flip of Everyone’s In Love With You.

A Casual Look
Songwriter:
Ed Wells
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Al Jardine

A straight cover of a minor doo-wop record, originally by The Six Teens, with the gender swapped in the verse lyrics. The track’s not bad, except for some utterly horrific nasal vocals by Love on the first verse. Jardine almost rescues it with a wonderful performance on the second verse, but by then the damage has been done.

Blueberry Hill
Songwriter:
Vincent Rose and Al Lewis
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

This cover of the old standard works really well for the first verse, with just string bass, clip-clop percussion, and Love’s vocal, and it sounds like we might be in for something very special. But then a whole wall of sound comes in (this is another track that features mostly Wrecking Crew members, though Brian and Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston contribute instrumentally) and overwhelms Love’s voice, to no real purpose.

Back Home
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

Given that the theme of the album is looking back at the past (the fifteen “big ones” of the album title refers both to the number of songs on the album and to the length of time since the band’s first recordings), it makes sense for them to dig up a song that dated back to the earliest days of the band’s career.

This simple four-chord country song, with much the same feel as some of Brian Wilson’s work with Gary Usher (notably Sacramento and That’s Just The Way I Feel) was first attempted by the band in 1963, and then again in 1970 in a version with totally different lyrics. This version mostly reverts to the 1963 version, though it replaces its middle eight with a simple chant of “Back home, I’ll spend my summer, back home”, and the track mostly gets by on the enthusiasm of Brian Wilson’s croaky lead vocals. It’s not a great song, but it’s an enjoyable performance, and remained in the band’s setlist for a couple of years. Brian Wilson also included this in his sets on his first ever solo tour, in 1999.

In The Still Of The Night
Songwriter:
Fred Parris
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

An almost note-for-note identical cover version of the 1950s doo-wop song, originally a hit for The Five Satins. The only notable difference is the lead vocal, where the silky, beautiful vocal of the original is replaced by Dennis Wilson’s wounded bellow. While not sounding as ravaged here as he did in later years, his voice is clearly raspy, and he’s already started slurring his words slightly. Brian Wilson plays everything except the drums (played by Dennis) and contributes what may be his last really good falsetto on the tag, where he sounds huskier than previously, but still capable of hitting the notes and with a fragile tone that is in some ways an improvement on the perfection of his 60s work.

Just Once In My Life
Songwriter:
Gerry Goffin, Carole King and Phil Spector
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Brian Wilson

And the album ends with a real reunion, with both Ricky Fataar (on percussion) and Bruce Johnston (on backing vocals) rejoining their old band for this cover of the Righteous Brothers’ classic.

The original on which this was based was an attempt at following up You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling with something written to the same formula, and was an absolute masterpiece. Wisely, here the band stick almost exactly to the template of the original, capturing most of the crucial elements of Jack Nitzsche’s magnificent arrangement, but they make a few subtle changes, notably swapping lines between verses to give the lyric a better through-line (in the original “I’ve given up on schemes…” was in the second verse, while “there’s just one little dream…” was in the first).

Carl Wilson takes the verses and the middle section here, turning in by far his best performance on the album, going from a gentle, placid start with “There’s a lot of things I want…” to a hopeless but still kind “that old pot of gold ain’t so easy to find…” to almost screaming on “I can’t give you the world, but I’ll work hard for you girl”, to begging on “do this for me, baby”. The range he displays here is just extraordinary.

Brian, meanwhile, takes the choruses, and here his broken, wounded voice works perfectly, as he sings “just once in my life, let me hold onto a good thing I’ve found”. It’s an extraordinarily moving performance.

It doesn’t quite beat the original, which is one of the greatest singles ever recorded, but it comes close enough that it’s not a ridiculous comparison, and at the end of an album which even the most charitable listener would have to concede was patchy, it provides, at last, some proof that this once-great band still had the potential for greatness inside them.

The Beach Boys On CD: Holland

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on January 17, 2013

Holland is, in many ways, the last gasp for the Beach Boys as an artistic group. They would produce good work again, both as a band or as individuals, but in future their work would be driven by one or two members of the band at a time rather than being a true group effort.

For the recording of the bulk of the album, the band decamped to Baambrugge in the Netherlands, and had their recording studio shipped over as well (which caused a huge amount of delay). This was at the instigation of Jack Rieley, and many reasons have been given over the years for the move, including tax issues, the idea that a change of scenery would inspire Brian Wilson, and even the laughable claim that it would be harder for those band members with drug problems (especially Brian Wilson) to obtain drugs in Holland than the USA. The fact that Rieley opted to remain in the Netherlands (and, for a while, attempted to continue managing the band’s career from a distance) may say more about the reasons than anything else.

The trip abroad did inspire Brian Wilson, but not in the way that the band had hoped or expected. Instead of coming up with any new conventional songs, his main piece of work during the trip to the Netherlands was a short story with musical accompaniment, Mount Vernon And Fairway (A Fairy Tale), that was initially included with the album as a bonus 45 and is now included at the end of the CD release.

The resulting album was considered too weak to release by Warner/Reprise, until Van Dyke Parks suggested that the song Sail On Sailor, initially not part of the album’s line-up, would make a good single. This replaced the Chaplin/Fataar/Love track We Got Love (which was accidentally included on some early German pressings of the album) and the resulting album got some of the best reviews of the band’s career, though it was less commercially successful, scraping into the top forty in the US, but doing slightly better in the UK where it made the top twenty.

The album is actually one of the most cohesive the band had done, with an ongoing theme of travel, especially by sea, and of a homesick longing for America. It’s also the most collaborative of the Beach Boys’ albums, with many different combinations of band members writing together in ways they otherwise never did.

This cohesion helps overcome what is actually a fairly weak set of material — there’s nothing here on the level of an All This Is That or Make It Good, let alone Til I Die or Surf’s Up, but the album is nonetheless one of the more worthwhile listening experiences of the band’s later years.

line-up

Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar

Sail On Sailor

Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Ray Kennedy, Tandyn Almer and Jack Rieley

Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin

The opening song has a history which has been the subject of much recent debate. The generally-accepted story until recently was as follows: the Beach Boys turned in the Holland album but it had no obvious single on it. At this point Van Dyke Parks remembered a cassette he had in his possession of a song being written by himself and Brian Wilson, which had single potential. Various hands brushed up the song, at which point Carl Wilson took various backing band members into the studio and cut a backing track, with Brian supervising over the telephone. Dennis Wilson attempted a lead vocal, but gave up after a couple of takes, and Blondie Chaplin took over.

However, Steve Desper, who had been the band’s engineer for much of the late 60s and early 70s, but had stopped working for the band just before the trip to Holland, claims that the backing track dates back much earlier, and is a track that Brian Wilson had been working on for a long time. He also claims that the song originally had Carl Wilson on lead vocals, and that Chaplin is imitating Wilson’s phrasing exactly (a reasonable claim — Chaplin sounds spookily like Wilson here).

Whatever the truth of this (and I am inclined to believe Desper here), there is also the question of who exactly wrote what. A press release at the time claimed it was “a Brian Wilson-Jack Rieley song with writer credits suggesting informal assistance from a wide range of characters, among them Van Dyke Parks”. Steve Desper, on the other hand, has claimed that the lyrics are entirely Parks’ work, and Parks has claimed in the past that not only did he write all the lyrics but also the chord changes in the chorus and the start of the middle section. If this is the case, then Brian Wilson’s contribution to the song is reduced to coming up with the verse riff (a 12/8 shuffle between I and IV, actually quite similar to a gospel take on Imagine) and possibly the melody.

One might possibly get an idea of what actually happened by listening to a version of the song recorded by KGB, a band featuring Ray Kennedy. This version is credited only to Wilson/Kennedy, and has fairly incoherent lyrics about cocaine and trying to get out of the ghetto. One suspects that Wilson brought his initial idea to several different collaborators, at different times, without necessarily thinking to mention to them that he was working with other people. My own guess (given the reliability of the various parties involved) is that Parks’ account is largely correct — not only is Parks the most scrupulously honest person involved, with an excellent memory, but the song just sounds like a Van Dyke Parks song rather than a Brian Wilson song.

Whatever the process involved though, the end result is the most convincing attempt at R&B that the Beach Boys ever did, with a strong lead vocal from Chaplin, excellent group backing vocals (apparently only featuring Carl Wilson, Chaplin and Fataar from the Beach Boys, along with backing band member Billy Hinsche, session steel guitar player Tony Martin, and Gerry Beckley from the band America, though some have claimed that the other Beach Boys later overdubbed additional vocals), and in its VIb-VIIb-I chorus changes a hook so powerful that the band reused it (a tone up and in 4/4 time) for their 1985 hit Getcha Back.

The song was released twice as a single, hitting number 79 on the charts in 1973, and number 49 in 1975. Despite this relative lack of chart success, it was popular on the radio at the time and has remained a fixture in the setlists of the Beach Boys and their various solo shows.

Steamboat

Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Jack Rieley

Lead vocalist:
Carl Wilson

The second track on the album continues the sailing theme, here with a typically-inscrutable Rieley lyric about steamboat travel. The lyrics are pretty and evocative, but make very little sense on any kind of literal level — lines like “The stream is a timepiece of children bridged with crystal haze” defy any normal interpretation. On the other hand, the lyric is slightly more comprehensible in the USA than elsewhere, as the “Mr Fulton” referred to, Robert Fulton, is considered a major historical figure in the US for his development of the first successful steamboat. He doesn’t, however, have the same “as every schoolchild knows…” status elsewhere.

Musically, the song is built around simple I-V7 changes for the most part (with a V7-VI7-II7 change at the end of the verse which is actually similar in its effect to the more outrageous chorus progression in Sail On Sailor), until the tag when the V7 changes into a VIb7, with mechanical-sounding drums perfectly evoking the feel of a paddle-wheel turning in the water and the hiss of steam.

The effect is possibly a little too dragged out — the combination of Carl Wilson’s lazy-sounding vocals, however, lovely, and the slow, mechanical pace of the song, tends to drag long before the four minutes and thirty-six seconds of the song is up — but it’s a worthwhile track, and a sign of the stylistic evolution that was bringing Dennis Wilson to the more confident style of his later work on Pacific Ocean Blue.

California Saga: Big Sur

Songwriter: Mike Love

Lead vocalist: Mike Love

The centrepiece of Holland, covering the bulk of side two, was a thematically-linked suite of songs by Love and Jardine called California Saga. Possibly the most artistically-ambitious thing either man ever did, this was in part inspired by their homesickness for California while living in Holland, but also tied into the themes of the environment and of travel that suffuse the band’s music at this point.

California Saga is unusual in the Beach Boys’ work in that rather than celebrating Southern California, and in particular Los Angeles, as most of their California-centred work did, it instead focuses on Central and Northern California, especially the less-populated areas.

The first of the three songs is this, the first song released by the band to have Love as the sole credited writer, and a surprisingly pleasant song. Starting with the ascending/descending Cm arpeggios that make up the bulk of the next song, we then go into a pleasant country-folk waltz, mostly based on a single C major chord with a scalar bassline that goes up and down much as the arpeggios at the beginning.

The song only really contains four chords, and is the kind of thing that could be written by someone with rudimentary or non-existent instrumental skills, but it has a catchy enough melody, and shows that Love was at least a competent songwriter in his own right. The instrumentation is equally primitive, mostly acoustic guitar and harmonica, evoking a campfire singalong, along with piano, drums and steel guitar.

The whole track is surprisingly pleasant, for a first solo songwriting attempt, but it could have been better — the song was first recorded three years earlier, and that version (unreleased but widely bootlegged) is in 4/4 rather than waltz time. Once one has heard this earlier version, the version on Holland sounds slightly ungainly in comparison, with the stresses falling less gracefully than on the original.

California Saga: The Beaks Of Eagles

Songwriter: Al Jardine, Lynda Jardine and Robinson Jeffers

Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love

The second part of the California Saga is unique in the Beach Boys’ catalogue, though it points the way stylistically towards some of Jardine’s later work.

It’s almost two separate songs in itself, in fact. In what, for want of a better term, we can call the verses, we have the ascending/descending C-minor piano arpeggios (with a descending bass) that started Big Sur, along with some Morricone-esque flute from Charles Lloyd. Over this, Love recites, in three sections, The Beaks Of Eagles, a poem by far-right-wing environmentalist poet Robinson Jeffers, about how in the lifetime of one eagle human civilisation could change utterly, and how yet ultimately humans are constrained by their natures just as much as the eagles are.

The choruses, meanwhile, are in C major, built around yet another ascending/descending bassline, and feature Jardine, singing new lyrics to a conventional melody, over a guitar/bass/piano/drums/flute backing.

The thing that most people listening to this will notice now is that it is the first time Jardine uses a style which he uses consistently in his later songs, of having someone speak or recite poetry over part or all of a song (see especially the Tidepool Interlude on his solo album A Postcard From California , but also California Energy Blues and Santa Ana Winds), and it’s interesting to see this as a step towards that style from Jardine, probably inspired by the artistic success he’d had using The Road Not Taken for All This Is That (Robert Frost, the author of The Road Not Taken, was a contemporary of Jeffers and wrote on similar themes).

But what’s more interesting is to compare the poem that inspired this piece, and which Love recites verbatim, with the interpolated material by the Jardines. Jeffers referred to himself as an ‘inhumanist’, and claimed that humanity was fundamentally unimportant to him, that he preferred nature to humanity. His poem, therefore, like much of his work, is an attempt to see things on an inhuman scale, to apply a perspective that one might call either realistic or misanthropic depending on one’s own sympathies.

The chorus material, though, is all on the human scale — about death, and rebirth coming from it. The lyricist here (either Al or Mary Ann Jardine) is also writing about natural cycles, as Jeffers is, but on a human scale, and based in human needs and concerns. And despite the rather hippyish conclusion, there’s a real sense here of how the need to acquire mineral wealth can destroy people’s lives (the image of the dead mariners, shipwrecked while transporting limestone ore, ties in nicely both with the first two songs, but also with The Trader).

Fundamentally, while Jardine may have been inspired by Jeffers’ poetry, their worldviews are incompatible. The writer of those chorus sections cares about human beings in a way that Jeffers doesn’t, and while one may argue that in the grand scheme of things Jeffers’ worldview is more correct, the worldview of the choruses is much more caring and decent.

California Saga: California

Songwriter: Al Jardine

Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine

The second single off Holland was this song, the last part of California Saga, and with good reason. Easily the most commercial thing Jardine has ever written on his own, this is an updating of California Girls for the 1970s country-rock era, keeping Love’s nasal voice and the Tumbling Tumbleweeds bass-line (here played on Moog), but using acoustic guitar, harmonica (apparently played by Brian Wilson) and banjo rather than a Wall Of Sound orchestra.

Musically, it’s a simple song, just using the chords C, F and G, but it communicates a feeling of relaxed joy in nature that really does seem like a more mature version of the youthful ecstasy of California Girls. Out of the larger context of the California Saga, this is an unpretentious and unambitious song, but all the better for it.

Despite its relative lack of commercial success (barely scraping the top 100 in the US, though reaching the lower reaches of the top forty in the UK), this has remained a fan favourite, and was the only solo Jardine composition (and, other than All This Is That, the only one for which he was primary songwriter) to appear on the career-spanning Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set. Jardine returned to the song on his 2010 solo album A Postcard From California, remaking it with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young providing harmony vocals, and the song also became a regular in the setlists of the Beach Boys’ 2012 reunion tour.

The Trader

Songwriter: Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson (with Justyn Wilson saying “Hi”)

The Trader is Carl Wilson’s primary songwriting contribution to the Holland album, and the last new song he would bring to the band until LA (Light Album) in 1979, so it’s a good job that it’s a good one.

The song breaks into two halves, with little connection between them, either musically or lyrically. The first half is possibly the most overtly political thing the Beach Boys ever recorded (albeit it is a condemnation of acts carried out by people who were long-dead). Over a piano-led rock background, Wilson sings about the colonisation of the Americas, the genocide of their native population, and the way the land had been ‘civilised’. It’s Rieley’s most straightforward lyric, and also his best. It also manages to tie in with the themes of sea travel, America, and nature in opposition to industrial civilisation that permeate the whole of the album.

But then, almost exactly half-way through the song, the key changes from G to C, the prominent piano drops out to be replaced by sighing backing vocals and tinkling Moog, and the lyric goes from concrete to utterly abstract, as the song turns into something closer to Carl Wilson’s songs from Surf’s Up. Instead of “Trader found the jeweled land was occupied before he came/By humans of a second look who couldn’t even write their names”, the lyrics suddenly become “Embracing together, like the merging streams, crying dreams”.

Frankly, it shouldn’t work — this song sounds exactly like something that’s been bolted together from two different ideas, with no real thought as to how the two sections actually interact. Yet it does work, mostly through sheer chutzpah, but also through an absolutely remarkable vocal performance from Carl Wilson, who goes from a strained, pained vocal near the top of his range in the rock section to a softer, gentler, reassuring vocal for the second, mellow section. Somehow, the result is actually better than the sum of the parts, though there’s no earthly reason why it should be. It works because Wilson and Rieley say it works, and because they both had enough talent at this point to do something as ambitious as this.

The song became a regular in the band’s setlist for much of the rest of the 1970s, even as the rest of the set became increasingly dominated by hits, and was a favourite with crowds, again thanks largely to Carl Wilson’s vocal performance.

Leaving This Town

Songwriter: Carl Wilson, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar and Mike Love

Lead vocalist:
Blondie Chaplin

A tedious song that unfortunately merges the worst aspects of both Carl Wilson’s and the Flame team’s writing, this plods along based on slow, steady piano chords in much the same style as Feel Flows, and has a simple chord sequence (alternating between I, V, i and v in two keys a tone apart) with little of interest about it. Then the melody over the top stays, like all the Chaplin/Fataar material, in a narrow range, and consists mostly of long, held notes.

Once the song gets to the two minute long Moog solo, it takes a great deal of effort for the listener to keep awake, and the lyrics are enough of a formless mess (a case of too many cooks, one suspects) that there is no emotional hook there to encourage one to listen for much longer. Easily the least interesting thing that Chaplin and Fataar had a hand in during their time with the Beach Boys, and the most pointless thing on the album (Beaks Of Eagles is worse, but it’s an ambitious failure, while this seems to have been made with no greater ambition than filling six minutes of vinyl).

Only With You

Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Mike Love

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

In an unfortunate piece of sequencing, Leaving This Town is followed by another sedate, mellow song at a near-identical tempo, and the momentum of the album is killed stone dead. It’s a shame because, unlike the previous song, this one really is worthwhile.

While Love and Dennis Wilson had a legendarily fractious relationship, their few songwriting collaborations (of which this is the only one to end up on a Beach Boys album rather than a solo release) show a deeper mutual sympathy, and Love’s lyrics and Wilson’s music here complement each other perfectly.

Musically, this is one of the simplest things Dennis Wilson had composed to this point, possibly because it wasn’t written in collaboration with the more musically-sophisticated Daryl Dragon, and the only really interesting change is the one from Em/G to E7/G# (in a section that feels like it’s in G, but which is in fact in the same key of D as the rest of the song) under the phrase “love had always had its ups and downs”. However, the song’s simplicity is its key — a direct lyric combined with simple changes gives this song a formal grace that is very different from the primal howl of many of Dennis’ songs.

While Carl Wilson’s vocal on this track has been almost universally praised, it doesn’t quite work as well for me as for many others — while his vocal on the quieter verses is exemplary, he is a little mannered on the middle eight and tag (something that would become increasingly true of his vocals over later years). It’s a very good performance, yes, but one is left wishing that Dennis had sung his own song, with his less technically perfect but more expressive voice.A version of the song with Dennis Wilson on vocals was released in 2008, on the Pacific Ocean Blue CD reissue, and will be discussed in the chapter on that album.

While it’s not as perfect a song as Forever or God Only Knows, two songs it is clearly an attempt to emulate, it’s still extremely good, and one of the best things on the album, and it makes one wish that Love and Dennis Wilson had been able to work together more often.

Funky Pretty

Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Jack Rieley

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin. Ricky Fataar and Mike Love

The only song, other than Sail On Sailor, contributed by Brian Wilson to the Holland project proper was this track on which he contributed nearly all the instruments (Carl Wilson added some guitar, and Fataar some percussion, but Brian played the drums as well as probably playing all the keyboard parts).

Musically, the song is not all that interesting as a song, but is fascinating as a pointer to Brian Wilson’s musical direction at the time and for the next few years. The entire track is based around Moog, with Moog parts in three ranges (a squelchy, fuzzy bass part, a mid-range part in the same range as the piano, and a high counter-melody), with only the most rudimentary drum part and no real connection to conventional rock music at all.

While the song’s title sums up the feel very well (the vocals have a great, soulful feel, while there’s an ethereal beauty to the Moog parts), the lyrics as a whole are fairly pointless, combining the worst of both Rieley (pointless prettiness without any sense) and Love (an obsession with astrology, a long list of place names, and a slightly lecherous tone). The vocals, though, are extraordinary. For those playing along at home, Carl Wilson takes the verses (and the verse backing vocals), Jardine takes over on “where’s my spark in the dark?”, Fataar “Glow glow glow come on glow”, Chaplin on “the funky pretty flame in my heart” and Love “me and my Pisces lady are apart.”

On the second chorus, Chaplin sings “Cos it’s a silent night in the sea”, Jardine “and if you’re cosmically conscious you’ll see”, Fataar “why she’s a princess imparted to me” and Love “daughter of Neptune, the ruler of the sea”. Carl Wilson takes the middle section with the listing of place names, and Chaplin takes the fade. The fade-out would be the perfect end for the album, but then we have…

Mt Vernon And Fairway (A Fairy Tale)

Songwriter: Brian Wilson (with Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley)

Lead vocalist: Jack Rieley (with Brian and Carl Wilson)

Possibly the most controversial thing the Beach Boys ever released, this is, depending on who you talk to, either one of Brian Wilson’s greatest masterpieces or a sad record of a once-great talent’s decline.

When the Holland album was being recorded, Brian Wilson was at a low ebb, mentally and creatively, and wanted little or nothing to do with the recording process. Instead, he found himself listening over and over to Sail Away by Randy Newman [FOOTNOTE:An absolutely wonderful album, which anyone who likes good songwriting should check out.].

He discovered that while he was listening to this, he was able to get into a creative mood, and wrote a fairytale, about a young prince who lived at Mount Vernon And Fairway (the address where Mike Love had grown up) and who, while alone in his bedroom, discovered a magic transistor radio, which normally played the music of Bach, but sometimes was possessed by “the Pied Piper from the faraway land of night”, whose music was unlike anything the prince had ever heard.

Unsurprisingly, when he presented this fairytale to the other band members and suggested it go on the album, their reaction was not hugely enthusiastic, and Brian was apparently so discouraged that he didn’t finish the story (Jack Rieley apparently supplied the rather abrupt ending, as a result). Nonetheless it was agreed to package the result as a 7 inch single with the album (it appears as a bonus track on CD releases), and the finished piece is one of the most interesting, ambitious, and beautiful things Wilson has ever created.

Rieley narrates the story, which is clearly the work of someone who is not especially articulate, but which makes up for in emotional honesty what it lacks in craft, while under it we have electronic sound effects, piano music, and snatches of vocal music, mostly repeated lines (“Pied Piper, I’d better get back in bed,” “I’m the Pied Piper in the radio”, “Dom dom King dom”). The effect is somewhere between Peter And The Wolf and Nilsson’s The Point, with tiny moments of beauty that are never developed into full songs, but drift away like someone tuning the radio to another station.

The music itself has had more appreciation since it was released, without the spoken narration and sound effects, as Fairy Tale Music on the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set, but while the story is not the work of someone with any great skill in language, it’s still joyful and perfectly conveys the wonder of a lonely teenager, sat in his room listening to the radio, hit from out of the blue with music only he can hear, more wonderful and exciting even than Bach.

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