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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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