And so we come to the last album the four Monkees would all appear on until the mid-1990s.
Head is a wonderful trivia-quiz question supplier – “What album, compiled by Jack Nicholson, features Neil Young, Frank Zappa and Bela Lugosi?” as an example – and by far the strangest album the Monkees ever released.
In late 1968 the Monkees released their film Head. Written by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson from ideas that the group had supplied, the film is a collage of loosely-interrelated sketches and what would now be called music videos, a psychedelic montage which tries to link the Monkees’ status as plastic pop idols with the Vietnam War, with both being regarded as traps of the mind, to be escaped from by attaining mental or spiritual freedom. It features, among many other scenes, Peter Tork punching a female impersonator, the Monkees as dandruff in Victor Mature’s hair, and Davy Jones beating Sonny Liston in a boxing match.
The film is bizarre, and utterly unlike anything you might imagine from the phrase ‘a Monkees film’, but is in its own way a masterpiece. Probably the closest comparisons are Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels and Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life, both of which came out much later, and neither of which were aimed at an audience remotely comparable to the Monkees’. On top of this, the film had an…interesting…advertising campaign, based around the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, which didn’t bother with giving information like the fact that Head was a film, or that the Monkees were in it, choosing instead just to show the head of advertising executive John Brockman with the cryptic slogan “What is Head? Only John Brockman’s shrink knows for sure.”
The film was, understandably, a gigantic flop, and inspires mixed emotions in the band members these days. Nesmith, when he will speak about the Monkees at all, regards the film as a masterpiece. Tork is proud of it as a technical achievement, but dislikes what he sees as its overly cynical attitude. Jones, on the other hand, loathes it, blaming the film for the destruction of the band’s career.
That may or may not be the case, though from singles sales the band were probably doomed as soon as the TV show went off-air, but what Head did do, very successfully, was show future generations of fans that there was more to the band than the TV show and hits, when shown on late-night TV. Tork, Jones and Dolenz acknowledged this in their most recent (as of this writing) reunion tour, by opening the second half of their show with all the songs from Head.
It’s not the place of this book to go into the film in any more detail, but anyone with any interest in the band should read the slowly-updating but exhaustive analysis of the film and its making by comedy site Some Of The Corpses Are Amusing [FOOTNOTE: http://head.sotcaa.net/ ].
The soundtrack album is, in its own way, as interesting as the film. Edited together by Nicholson, the album was inspired by The Mothers Of Invention’s We’re Only In It For The Money, and mixes the seven songs from the film with collages of dialogue (both from the film and from bits of other films excerpted in the film) and orchestral soundtrack music. All of this was taken out of context, so for example the line “Boys, don’t never, but never, make fun of no cripples” from one scene in the film is followed by “Somebody come up and giggle at ya, that’s a violation of your civil rights” from a vox-pop section, while the question “Are you telling me you don’t see the connection between government and laughing at people?” is followed by Tork’s “Well, let me tell you one thing, son, nobody ever lends money to a man with a sense of humour.”
The result preserves many of the best lines from the film while recontextualising them, and the repetition of different snippets of songs and dialogue gives the album a through-line that’s missing from many of the Monkees’ other records. While this is the Monkees’ most ‘experimental’ album, it’s also, without a doubt, the one that has the greatest feeling of unity to it, thanks largely to Nicholson’s editing.
It’s also, after the largely solo The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees, slightly more of a group effort. While only Ditty Diego (and the live version of Circle Sky used in the film but not the album) features all four Monkees, the majority of the tracks feature two of them. And after Tork’s near-absence from the previous album, and Dolenz’s general lower profile, the two dominate this album at the expense of Nesmith and Jones, who only get one song each. The level of group control over the creative process in this album can be seen by the fact that it’s the only 60s Monkees album to feature no Boyce & Hart tracks.
After this, the Monkees only did one more project as a quartet, the deeply strange and uncommercial TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, the music from which has never been released on CD, before Tork left, frustrated that the four were no longer working together in the studio as a unit.
While the two albums that followed have their moments, this is really where the Monkees meet their end.
All the actual songs on the album are credited as produced by The Monkees, with the exception of Porpoise Song which is produced by Gerry Goffin.
While a 3-CD deluxe edition of this album does exist, it has relatively little in the way of new music, featuring mostly alternate mixes, some live tracks from the concert that was filmed for the Circle Sky scene, and lots of promotional material (radio adverts, interviews with Jones and so on) that doesn’t really come under this book’s remit.
This track starts as a collage of lines from various parts of the film, over sections of music from Porpoise Song , As We Go Along, Daddy’s Song and Circle Sky, while two people say, as dialogue, “Head” ,“Soon”, over and over.
It then cuts to a speech from the opening scene from the film (the dedication ceremony for a bridge), overlaid by additional sound effects.
Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)
Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones
Producer: Gerry Goffin
Other Monkees present: None
This is Goffin and King being all cod-psychedelic, but it works here. While the lyrics are gibberish (where they’re not in-jokes like “riding the backs of giraffes for laughs”, a reference to Dolenz’s child stardom on Circus Boy), the music is perfectly put together.
The verses are, roughly, inspired by A Day In The Life, in their stately rhythm, especially with the piano chords early on, while the bridge and chorus are both tips of the hat to A Whiter Shade Of Pale , being as they are progressions based on a single chord each but with a scalar descending bassline. This is most notable in the organ part, which sounds near-identical to the Procol Harum song.
Both Dolenz (on the verses and bridges) and Jones (on the choruses) turn in stellar performances, but what really makes this track is the extraordinary arrangement by Jack Nitzsche, one of the great unsung heroes of American music in the 60s. He manages to combine a string arrangement perfectly in the style of George Martin (using only double basses and ‘cellos) with the Procol Harum organ, but then adds reverbed, clanking bells to remind the listener of the sea.
This is especially effective on the extended mix used for the single, which features an extended instrumental coda for strings, bells, organ and cymbals that is one of Nitzsche’s most beautiful pieces of work.
The whole thing seems to be a response to the Beatles’ psychedelic work, saying in effect “Okay, we can top that” – an effect which is added to on the album by the police sirens at the beginning, giving a reminder of I Am The Walrus. Unfortunately, the Monkees weren’t able to take the teen audience with them the way the Beatles had, and this single only reached number 62 in the US charts.
Ditty Diego-War Chant
Writers: Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson
Lead Vocalist: All four Monkees
The last pre-reunion track to be released featuring all four Monkees, this is a parody by Nicholson and Rafelson of the Monkees Theme, with verses alternating between skewering the band themselves (“Hey hey we are the Monkees, you know we love to please/A manufactured image, with no philosophies” “Hey hey we are the Monkees, we’ve said it all before/The money’s in, we’re made of tin, we’re here to give you more”) and describing the film’s plot and structure (“We know it doesn’t matter, ’cause what you came to see/Is what we’d love to give you, and give it one, two, three/But it may come three, two, one, two, or jump from nine to five/And when you see the end in sight the beginning may arrive”).
This chant, spoken at times by the full band and at times by individual members, is spoken over a barrel-house piano part reminiscent of silent-film comedy accompaniments, and the whole thing is then sped up and slowed down to sound like the tape is stretched and distorted, before there’s a sharp cut to the band exhorting a concert audience to “Give me a W! Give me an A! Give me an R! What’s that spell?!”
This track is so breathtakingly cynical about the Monkees themselves, it may be the bravest thing ever recorded by a major band. It’s not, however, worth listening to the twenty-two minute session excerpt on the deluxe box set more than once.
One of the oddest moments in Tork, Dolenz and Jones’ reunion tour of the late 80s was that they performed an abbreviated version of this in a hip-hop style.
Writer: Michael Nesmith
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: None (studio version)/Micky Dolenz (drums), Peter Tork (bass), Davy Jones (maracas and organ) (live version)
The closest thing to a hard rock track the band ever recorded, this is for the most part just hammering away at a single chord in a manner inspired by Bo Diddley (apart from the instrumental breaks, which are just descending bar chords from B to D, and the middle eight, which is the minor-chord equivalent of the breaks). Lyrically, it’s a stream-of-consciousness description of Nesmith’s impressions of a Monkees tour (“Colours, sounds/all around”), although the themes of circularity and repetition (“it looks like we’ve made it once again”) work well with the themes of the rest of the album and of the film.
This song was very specifically written to work well for the band in a live setting, and the performance in the film is taken from a real live show – possibly the first time a rock band had used actual live footage rather than mimed performances in a film like this. However, strangely, the version on the album is a nearly-identical studio take, performed by Nesmith with studio musicians.
This upset the rest of the band, especially Tork, who blamed Nesmith, but Nesmith himself now says that he prefers the live version and had nothing to do with its replacement on the album. Either way, the live version is now included on all CD reissues along with the studio performance.
The band later rerecorded this for the Justus album, making the only song to have been released by the band as part of two proper albums. That version will be dealt with in that chapter.
Some Moog wind effects, a snatch of orchestral music, a cymbal with backwards reverb, and a voice saying “Quiet, isn’t it, George Michael Dolenz? I said…” (the latter taken from a scene in the film where Dolenz becomes delirious in a desert).
Can You Dig It?
Writer: Peter Tork
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz
Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (guitar and vocals)
This is possibly the most 1968 piece of music ever, with pseudo-Indian sitarish acoustic guitar, bongos, and a chorus that goes “Can you dig it?/Do you know?/Would you care to let it show?”, as well as a long instrumental freak-out at the end.
However, it’s also the Monkees track that changed most from its original conception. Before becoming the minor pop-psych masterpiece it started out as a ragtime-ish acoustic guitar piece that sounded equal parts Blind Blake and Bert Jansch (this version can be heard on the Headquarters Sessions box set), with a bridge that didn’t make it to the final version.
To my ears, that version is even better than the finished record, but the track as heard on the album, with its lyrics about the Tao and ‘exotic’ textures, is still one of the best things Tork ever brought to the group.
The song was originally intended to have Tork singing lead, but Dolenz recorded a new (and extremely good) lead vocal at the request of Rafelson, without any objection from Tork. However, the version with Tork singing lead is available as a bonus track on all CD releases, and Tork now sings this song live.
Side one finishes with Jones saying “And I’d like a glass of cold gravy with a hair in it please”.
A snippet from the 1934 Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi film The Black Cat, briefly seen on a TV in the film. This just consists of David Manners saying “Sounds like a lot of supernatural baloney to me”, with Lugosi replying “Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not.”
As We Go Along
Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz
Other Monkees present: None
This gorgeous little ballad is notable for having possibly the most unnecessarily-stellar group of session guitarists ever. The wall of acoustic guitars in Jack Nitzsche’s arrangement, mostly just strumming chords, includes Neil Young, Danny Kortchmar, Ry Cooder and Carole King.
The only song in the film to feature only one Monkee, this is a delicate, yearning ballad, which Dolenz sings perfectly, despite its difficulty. The song is one of the most metrically difficult things the Monkees ever did – starting out with an extended intro in 5/4, once Dolenz’s vocal comes in we have a verse of three bars of 5/4 (in one of which the bass accentuates the wrong beat, adding to the metrical confusion – the bass seems to be implying that these fifteen beats should be broken up 6,4, 5 rather than the 5,5,5 everything else implies) one of 6/4, three of 3/4 and one of 6/4. The chorus, though, is in pretty straight sixes.
This is the kind of song with which King would later have a huge amount of solo success, but as the B-side of Porpoise Song this failed even to make the top 100 in the US. A shame, as while the song is very different from the rest of the Head material, it’s a beautiful, gentle track that deserves a wider audience.
A quick reprise of Lugosi’s line, before brief snippets of three sections of the film – a factory tour in which the band are told “the tragedy of your times, my friends, is that you may get exactly what you want”, a policeman calling them weirdos, and the band being directed to act like dandruff in a commercial.
Writer: Harry Nilsson
Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: Michael Nesmith (guitar)
This Nilsson song was originally recorded during a Nesmith session, with Nesmith singing lead (this version is available as a bonus track on the CDs, and is much better than the released version, with Nesmith’s heavily-processed vocals working wonderfully with the muted trumpet).
The song is one of Nilsson’s more heartfelt, talking about his relationship with his father as a small child, and his sadness and confusion at his father abandoning his family when Nilsson was aged three. Unfortunately, Jones seems to have ignored the lyrical content and treated this as Cuddly Toy part two – understandably, since the songs share a bouncy tempo and 1920s musical style.
There is a longer version of the track, which features both some Nilssonesque additional scat vocals by Nesmith and a much slower rendition of the verse starting “the years have passed and so have I”, where Jones does seem to sing that part sadly – but there, he’s hamming it up to the point of schmaltz.
It’s a great song, but only an adequate performance. If you want a good version of the song, either listen to Nesmith’s subtler vocal or get hold of Nilsson’s own version (on Aerial Ballet).
A collage of spoken snippets from the film, starting with Frank Zappa’s response to Jones’ performance – “That song was pretty white”, and followed with Nesmith saying “And I’ll tell you something else too, the same goes for Christmas”, from a different section of the film, before various other lines of dialogue, sound effects, bits of the vox-pop sections and snippets of Circle Sky.
Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?
Writers: Peter Tork
Lead Vocalist: Peter Tork
Other Monkees present: Davy Jones (backing vocals)
This song was actually intended to have an even longer title, as Tork introduced it in a rare solo gig in the 1970s as “Long Title, colon, Do I Have To Do This All Over Again, question mark, Or , comma, The Karma Blues”
An enjoyable rocker with some extraordinarily mobile bass playing by Tork, this song’s lyrics (“Do I have to do this all over again?/Didn’t I do it right the first time?”) do seem to sum up some ideas about karma (as does the music’s brief drop into waltz time, like a turning wheel always getting back to the same place) but were written about Tork’s frustration with being in the Monkees.
Another hard-rock song in the same style as Circle Sky, this is obviously from the heart, and Tork is almost screaming with frustration by the end. It also, though, makes a perfect end point for the film, which ends at the same point at which it starts.
Swami–Plus Strings, Etc.
Abraham Sofaer, the actor who played the head Genie in I Dream Of Jeannie recites some warmed-over Timothy Leary (with a bit of Thomas Kuhn thrown in, and a touch of Buddhism) as a Maharishi-esque character, while various other bits of the film are heard under him, before we get a chunk of the Porpoise Song and a sprightly Mozart-esque string instrumental by Ken Thorne from the film soundtrack.
The key part of this – and one of the messages of the film – is “Where there is clarity, there is no choice, and where there is choice there is misery.”
Writers: Mildred and Patty Hill
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: None
Some sepulchral (and very effective) block harmonies over a spooky church organ lead into an off-key rendition of Happy Birthday To You sung to Nesmith in the film.
California, Here It Comes
Writers: Buddy DeSylva, Al Jolson and Joseph Meyer
Lead Vocalist: Peter Tork
Other Monkees present: None
A snippet from the end of the 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee special, this track consists of a heartbeat, TV producer Jack Good repeating “the end”, and a busked banjo-and-trombone run-through of the old musical number for a few seconds. The lyric change to ‘it comes’ from ‘I come’ was apparently meant to imply an earthquake that will supposedly destroy California.
This is the only track from 33 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee to have been released on CD in any form, as most of the master tapes for that special are missing (and also it wasn’t very good, musically), but it’s fitting, as this really was ‘the end’ of the Monkees, at least as a four-piece band.
A revised version of this essay appears in my book The Beach Boys On CD. If you like this, please consider buying it. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats
And so we get to the most difficult Beach Boys album for me to write about. Not because it’s musically more difficult than any other album, but because it’s much harder to find new things to say about it. While I only know of a tiny number of books that deal with the Beach Boys’ music in any detail, I own two books devoted to this single album (those by Charles Granata and Kingsley Abbot, to both of which I have referred during writing this).
Before I carry on, if you want to know precisely which version I’m listening to and why, skip to the bottom. Otherwise you can just listen to the album on Spotify.
Brian Wilson’s life went through a massive change in 1965. In very late 1964 he’d both had his first nervous breakdown and got married, and then in 1965 he tried LSD for the first time, quit touring with the rest of the band, and got access to an eight-track recorder for the first time. He’d already recorded one album – Summer Days – using predominantly studio musicians, but with the album that became Pet Sounds he was going to come close to recording a solo album, using the other band members as only vocalists (and often only backing vocalists at that).
Brian had hear the Beatles album Rubber Soul (not the original UK version but the revised US tracklisting) and become enraptured with the idea of recording “a whole album with all good stuff” – it having not occured to him previously that you could record an album with no filler.
To help him write this album he turned, not to any of his previous collaborators, but to Tony Asher, an advertising copyrwiter with no previous experience of professional songwriting. The two of them would sit in Brian’s house, talking about Brian’s emotions, and then they would write the most personal songs Brian had ever written up to that point.
This should be remembered when one reads comments about Mike Love allegedly disliking Pet Sounds originally – something he denies. Up to that point, Love had effectively been the co-leader of the band. He was the frontman, wrote the bulk of the lyrics, and sang the bulk of the lead vocals, while Brian wrote the music, produced the records and sang a minority of the leads. Now there was an album which was not only stylistically different from everything they’d done before, but on which he got two lead vocals and almost no songwriting input. Pet Sounds is indubitably a masterpiece, but it’s Brian Wilson’s masterpiece, not a Beach Boys masterpiece, and one can hardly blame Love for being annoyed at being reduced to a sidekick for his cousin, especially when his livelihood was on the line.
In the event, Pet Sounds was hardly the commercial failure it has later been made out to be – it was a top ten album in both the US and the UK, and contained four top forty singles (Sloop John B, Wouldn’t It Be Nice/God Only Knows, the two sides of which charted separately in the US, and Caroline, No which made the charts in the US as a solo single for Brian Wilson). It did, however, mark the point at which the band’s commercial fortunes in its home country began to wane – even as it also marked the real beginning of their commercial and critical success elsewhere. While within eighteen months of Pet Sounds‘ release the Beach Boys would be washed up in their home country, the influence the album had on, especially, the Beatles, meant that the band’s future as critical darlings was assured in the UK and Europe.
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston (uncredited). All songs by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher except where mentioned.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
The opening song of the album doesn’t stray too far from ‘the formula’, being a wistful love song that could, lyrically, be considered as following straight on from the last song on the band’s previous studio album – going from “he’ll be waiting, waiting just for you, one more summer and your dream comes true” to “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, and we wouldn’t have to wait so long?” is really no jump at all.
Musically, however, this is very different from anything the band had done previously – the only guitars one can hear are on the intro (yes, that is a guitar, played by Jerry Cole) and on the middle eight (where the same figure is doubled by Al de Lory on piano). There is apparently a second guitar on the track, played by Bill Pitman, but I don’t hear it.
Instead, we have something akin to California Girls in the way it uses whole-step chord differences – you can take individual lines from the two songs and sing them over each other, though not in the same order – but with a far more staccato rhythm that would become, in the mind of many people, a trademark of the Beach Boys’ mid-60s sound. While Brian rarely used that rhythm again, so many people copied this (starting with Penny Lane, which is very much McCartney trying to remake this specific track) that the feel of the track became a cliche.
Even so, though, most people, when they’re going for that rhythm, do so with straight piano chords. Here, on the other hand, we have the rhythm track played by two accordions, an organ, and two mandolins – a standard eight-string one and a custom twelve-string. (The ‘strings’ on the middle eight are also accordion, played with extra vibrato).
Meanwhile, rather more subtly, the song sets up the tertian movements that will recur throughout the album – we start in A for the intro, move down a third to F for the first verse, then down a minor third to D for the middle eight.
In a very real sense, then, this song is the bridge between Summer Days! (with its juvenile themes and its musical similarity to California Girls) and the rest of Pet Sounds.
Brian takes lead, with Mike singing the first two lines of the middle eight and the ‘good night baby’ tag. (Mike’s middle eight vocal part is missing from the stereo mix on the box set, replaced by Brian, but is there on later stereo remixes).
This song is the most controversial of all those over which Mike Love sued in the 1990s. While no-one disputed that he had co-written, for example, California Girls, in this case Tony Asher claims to have written the whole lyric by himself. Love, meanwhile, claims to have merely added the lines ‘Good night baby/sleep tight baby’ in the fade (a contribution which most musicians I know would consider an arrangement, rather than songwriting, contribution). Love nonetheless now has equal co-writing credit, and thanks to the terms of the judgement and of Asher’s contract, now gets a greater share of the royalties of this song than does Asher, who wrote the entire lyric.
Before I move on to the other songs, two little anecdotes.
Firstly, the first time I saw the touring ‘Beach Boys’ (Love and Johnston, plus John Cowsill of The Cowsills and various (extremely good) sidemen) was at Warwick Castle in 2001, and it was an open-air gig in some of the worst weather of my life. It was a great gig despite the weather, but it was hardly reminiscent of a California beach. Then Bruce Johnston announced they were going to play some songs from Pet Sounds, the first note of this song was played, and the rain stopped instantly. It remained bright and sunny through this, Sloop John B and God Only Knows, and through Good Vibrations. Then the band started playing Kokomo and the heavens opened again. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to evidence that there is a God (for more on which see this, the culmination of Doonesbury’s most touching story arc).
Secondly, something that has made me unable to listen to this song in quite the same light, a thread on a message board my friend Tilt pointed me to, talking about ‘great shootings in rock music’ (I Shot The Sherriff, that sort of thing), someone replied “the ice cream man at the start of Wouldn’t It Be Nice”…
You Still Believe In Me
The backing track for this was recorded before Brian and Asher started working together, and the song was provisionally titled “In My Childhood” (a phrase which fits the first five notes of the intro and also those of the verse melody perfectly), hence the appearance of bicycle bells and horns on the track, which is mostly driven by heavily-reverbed harpsichord and bass guitar.
A more interesting connection to the childhood theme, though, and one which I believe has never been remarked upon, is the horn arrrangement.
Brian has mentioned that the middle eight to Wouldn’t It Be Nice is influenced by Glenn Miller (something I can’t see myself), and it’s well known that the version of Rhapsody In Blue he first listened to growing up, which had a huge influence on him, was by the Miller orchestra. What nobody seems to have remarked on before is that the horn section here is in clear imitation of Miller’s style – Miller’s sax section was unusual in having a clarinet at the top of a stack of four saxophones. (Normally in swing music the clarinet was a separate lead instrument, as in the Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw bands, or was absent altogether).
Here Brian is clearly going for the lush sound of slower Miller pieces like Moonlight Serenade, though rather than four saxes and a clarinet he has three saxes, a clarinet and a bass clarinet. The effect – a closely-harmonised block of saxes with a clarinet on top – is still the same, however.
(To add to this, these horns come in just before the backing vocals, for four bars, and as soon as the backing vocals come in they all drop out except the clarinet – the most voice-like of the instruments, this stays in as part of the vocal blend. Astonishingly clever stuff).
One other thing to note, but which you can’t miss, is the way the instrumentation drops down to just a bass ‘heartbeat’. This will be another recurring theme throughout this album.
The intro, which was recorded later, is Brian holding the keys down on a piano while Tony Asher plucks the strings inside it, with Brian double-tracked singing the same notes (if you listen closely you can hear that for the last few notes he attempts to harmonise on the lower of the two tracks and fluffs it slightly).
Lyrically, this is all Asher, which is surprising, as it fits precisely the themes that go throughout Wilson’s work, of the Goddess-like lover forgiving the imperfect, unworthy man. But Asher and Wilson collaborated so closely at this point that Asher was definitely writing ‘as Brian Wilson’ rather than as himself – writing lyrics that fit the things Wilson wanted to talk about.
Brian Wilson takes the lead (double-tracked), and Mike Love sings the answering wordless phrase after “I wanna cry”.
That’s Not Me
The most traditionally Beach Boys sounding track on the album, this is also the only track on which the Beach Boys themselves play – Brian plays organ, Carl guitar and Dennis drums on the basic track, with either Al Jardine or Terry Melcher on tambourine, depending on who you believe. There were only minimal overdubs by session players, and this startlingly empty-sounding track actually points the way forward, more than any other track on Pet Sounds, to the organ-dominated sparse productions on Smiley Smile and Friends, even while pointing backwards to earlier songs, with its Mike lead with Brian singing odd lines (he sings “you needed my love and I know that I left at the wrong time” and “I’m glad I left now I’m that much more sure that we’re ready”).
Probably the closest thing to filler on the album, this still works thematically and provides a welcome minor respite between the two most emotionally intense pieces on the album.
Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)
A strong contender for one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, attention has often been called – rightly – to the way the bass part and the tympani on this both take the role of the heartbeat mentioned in the lyrics. But the real beauty of this song (which features no Beach Boys other than Brian) is in the exquisite chord sequence. While there are guitars on here (one tremelo one and the other playing a simple answering phrase), what holds the track together is the string sextet (and the organ pad), and that’s because the chords here, with their close clustering, and with movement mostly being by single steps in one or two notes of the chords, are perfect for strings.
Listen to the way the chords under the line “I can hear so much in your sighs” slowly open up – we start with Ebm, then add in the seventh. We then move that seventh down to make Ebm6 (minor sixths turn up all over Pet Sounds) but now have F# (the minor third) in the bass – the album, again, is full of thirds and fifths in the bass, rather than the conventional root note. And from there we move smoothly to F7, which has the same C and Eb notes in the chord while the other two notes have moved down a tone and a semitone. In this sequence we’ve started with a tight, closed minor chord and ended up with an open, happy major chord with seventh, while never moving more than half the notes in the chord, and never by more than a tone. And we’ve moved up a tone even though all the individual progressions have been down.
That part is, of course, played on the organ – the strings haven’t come in yet at that part – but this sort of thing is tailor-made for creating interesting chord voicings out of interweaving melodies, and that’s what Brian does. The string overdub for this track – which can be heard separately on the Pet Sounds Sessions box set – works without any of the rest of the instruments, and is some of the most sophisticated arrangement work I’ve ever heard in a pop/rock context.
But of course none of that would matter if the melody itself didn’t stand up – but it does. As Elvis Costello said (when talking about an album he made in collaboration with opera singer Anne Sofie Von Otter, on which she sang this and You Still Believe In Me) “Last summer, I heard ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)’ played on the cello. It sounded beautiful and sad, just as it does on Pet Sounds. So now you know, if all the record players in the world get broken tomorrow, these songs could be heard a hundred years from now.”
I’m Waiting For The Day
Brian’s least favourite song on the album, this was also (on its original release) the only song to credit Mike Love as a co-writer. Originally written in 1964 (when a slightly different version was copyrighted under Brian’s name alone), this is the one song on the album that I could imagine writing myself – the chord changes are simplistic, with only the minor sixth in the chorus to give it any real flavour.
Nonetheless, it’s a triumph of arrangement – the pounding timpani intro (played by Gary Coleman, presumably not the famous one), the flute trio, and the shifts in tempo add a huge amount of interest to an otherwise by-the-numbers song, as does the string interlude which comes out of nowhere before the outro, which sounds like it’s wandered in from an altogether better song.
Apparently Brian sings all the parts on this himself, though if he does the bass part is lower than I’ve ever heard him sing on anything else.
Let’s Go Away For A While
A gorgeous instrumental piece of vibraphone-led exotica, inspired by Burt Bacharach, about which I can’t find much to say other than that it’s beautiful and it fits with the album.
One thing I *can* say though is that I am *certain* I hear voices singing wordlessly along with the melody on the fade – I’d go so far as to say I can identify one of the voices as Brian’s then-wife Marilyn Wilson. There are no vocalists credited, no vocal tracks exist, and I have never seen anyone else mention this, but I swear I can hear it. Am I going mad?
Sloop John B
And so after three Brian Wilson solo tracks in a row, at the end of side one we finally get another Beach Boys performance, and a fine one it is too.
Suggested by Al Jardine, the resident folkie of the group, this is a West Indian folk song that had been recorded by, among others, the Weavers and the Kingston Trio. Jardine modified the song slightly (adding in the Bbm chord, for a grand total of four chords) in the expectation that he would get to sing lead.
In fact Brian took Jardine’s idea and turned it into a test for the type of production he would use on the Pet Sounds album – this song was recorded before much of the rest of the album and was originally intended as a stand-alone single – having the song driven by glockenspiel, flute and twelve-string guitar and writing an ornate vocal arrangement, including the song’s a capella break, which inspired the Beatles’ similar use of the technique in Paperback Writer.
While Jardine didn’t, as he had assumed, get to sing solo lead, he is one of three lead vocalists here. Brian takes the lead on the first verse, then Brian and Jardine harmonise on the first chorus (Wilson changed the lyric of the song from “I feel so break up” to “I feel so broke up”, and you can clearly hear Jardine sing “brea-oke up”), Love takes the second verse (“the first mate he got drunk”) and then Brian takes the last verse.
An incredible feat of arrangement and production, and a great single, this ultimately is something of an outlier in the Beach Boys’ work – Brian Wilson trying his production techniques on something utterly different from their usual material, rather than being something that fits the rest of the album.
God Only Knows
It’s difficult to talk dispassionately about this song as, more than any other track on the album, it’s the kind of perfect construction that seems to come as one piece, perfectly formed. Good as, say, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) is, I can imagine writing it myself, were I talented enough. I can look at it afterward and see why Brian made the choices he made, and retrace his steps. God Only Knows, on the other hand, is not a song that can really be pulled apart and put back together again. Other than the key change for the instrumental break, the song is only twelve bars of actual musical material, repeated in a very simple ballad form, but those twelve bars are just astonishingly beautiful.
In fact, pretty much all the production work on this track seems to have been about stripping it down. The backing track is still full at crucial points, with violin, flute, French horn, harpsichord and accordion at points – but the first verse has only piano, bass, and percussion (provided by Jim Gordon, whose contributions to mid-period Beach Boys records tend to get airbrushed out of history due to his unfortunate later history). This builds during the song, but despite having eighteen different musicians, the song never gets overloaded.
But in order to get that sparse feel, Brian had to try a number of different effects in the studio. The idea of playing the instrumental bridge staccatto came from session pianist Don Randi, the beautiful three-part vocal round at the end was originally sung over a block of ‘bop bop bops’ sung by the whole band plus Brian’s wife and sister-in-law and Terry Melcher, and early mixes feature a godawful sax solo in place of the wordless vocals in the middle.
Lyrically, the song is interesting in that while it starts off very cleverly – “I may not always love you, but…” being one of the more arresting openings of a love song – the sheer force of the obsession in the lyrics comes off as a little creepy. I’ve seen this referred to as ‘the most beautiful suicide song of all time’ and while that’s not entirely true, it’s certainly a self-obsessed song in a way that few of Brian Wilson’s are. The ‘you’ being sung to is only important insofar as she affects the singer and how the singer affects her. “I may not always love you, but that’s OK because I’ll just prove that I do. On the other hand if you ever stop loving me I’ll have no reason to live”. This is a beautiful song but not, perhaps, an especially healthy one.
Which is why the single best decision Brian made was to have his brother Carl sing this one. While Brian’s vocals (audible on earlier mixes on the Pet Sounds Sessions box set) work, they have an intensity to them that pushes the song further into creepiness. Carl, on the other hand, sings with an angelic innocence and purity that takes the sting out of the words – the ‘if you should ever leave me’ becomes as unlikely as the ‘I may not always love you’, because he’s absolutely undisturbed by the line. This is the vocal with which Carl established himself as the new de facto lead singer of the band.
The only other vocalists to be featured on the track are Brian and Bruce – on the tag Brian sings both the low and high parts, while Bruce answers him in the same way he did on California Girls.
I Know There’s An Answer
An odd one out on the album, this song was written by Brian with the band’s then road manager, Terry Sachem, and is a hippie berate-everyone-else song in the style that George Harrison would later make his own, though with clunkier lyrics – “I know so many people who think they can do it alone/they isolate their heads and stay in their safety zone” is a bit of a come-down from the careful crafting of Tony Asher’s lyrics to the previous song.
Musically simple, this is notable instrumentally mostly for the use of the bass harmonica (which was to inspire its use on various tracks on Sgt Pepper the next year) and the banjo (played by Glen Campbell). Vocally, it’s interesting to see just how alike the various Beach Boys could sound – Mike Love takes the first line of each verse, Al Jardine the rest of the verse, and Brian the chorus, yet most people would swear it was a single lead vocalist throughout.
It’s also notable for being the cause of one of the biggest arguments the band would have during the making of this album – Mike Love thought the chorus lyrics “Hang on to your ego/Hang on but I know that you’re gonna lose the fight” were a reference to the LSD-inspired idea of ‘ego death’, and insisted on rewriting those lines to “I know there’s an answer/I know now but I had to find it by myself”, as well as changing “how can I come on when I know I’m guilty?” to “how can I come on and tell them the way that they live could be better?”
While Brian was working on this album, he was also working on the single Good Vibrations (of which more next week…), and several of the Beach Boys have said they think that track should have been included on this album.
I disagree – the song wouldn’t have fit – but if we had had a hypothetical Pet Sounds Vibrations this is what it would have sounded like. The last collaboration between Wilson and Asher, this is a halfway house between That’s Not Me and Good Vibrations, having a Mike Love lead and being in the keys of A and F#m, like the former, while being created as a patchwork out of ideas that had come up in the GV sessions – it has the same organ-and-plucked-bass verse, the same quiet verses building up to big choruses, and so on. (Both start with a change down from a minor chord to a major a tone below, both are built around descending chord sequences). This sounds very much of a part with the early, R&B-influenced, takes of Good Vibrations that were being recorded at that time.
There are some nice musical ideas – the descending trombone bassline in the chorus, for example – but this isn’t a song anyone involved (except Bruce Johnston) has any especial love for, and it’s easy to see why. While a good track – it’s easily one of the most commercial things on the album – it’s ultimately a piece where its composer took a few experimental ideas and forced them into a conventional shape just to get something done.
The mono mix of this is also famously shoddy, with studio noise leaking all over the instrumental break. This studio noise is actually isolated as a hidden track on one of the discs of the Pet Sounds Sessions box set, and consists of some breath noises, some attempts at hitting a falsetto note, Bruce saying “do you have that attached to the flash, do you have it rigged up?”, someone (Dennis?) replying “Yeah, I do”, Bruce saying “very good” and Brian shouting “top please!” to get the tape rewound. So now you know what that was. (These noises aren’t on the stereo mix). (There are actually more noises under the second verse too, but these have never been isolated like that, officially at least).
One of the only two songs on the album with a Mike lead vocal, this is also one of the most “Beach Boys” sounding tracks, to the extent that the current touring “Beach Boys” occasionally perform it live (very creditably – though oddly Bruce takes lead on the lines starting on a D chord (e.g. “A brand new love affair is such a beautiful thing”, the first half of the bridges)).
I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times
Possibly the most ‘Brian’ song on the album, while Tony Asher wrote the lyrics for this he’s stated many times that he was pretty much taking dictation, and has never really ‘got’ the emotions behind it.
Singing in a low register where he sounds at times uncannily like his brother Dennis (listen especially to his pronunciation of the word ‘found’ in the second verse, and compare to Dennis’ vocals on the very similar In The Back Of My Mind), the sentiments here are perhaps a little jejune, but nonetheless from the heart, and this song had a huge impact on me when I was 16. The line “they say I got brains, but they ain’t doing me no good/I wish they could” probably did more to make me a Beach Boys fan than any other moment in the band’s career, and for all that it’s easy to mock that as the kind of thing every ‘sensitive’ teenager ever has thought, ‘sensitive’ teenagers need music too.
However, for a song whose sentiments basically boil down to “nobody likes me, everybody hates me, think I’ll go eat worms”, the music really is exquisitely constructed. Like much of Pet Sounds there’s no drum kit until the chorus, the song being driven by harpsichord and bass in the verses and Frank Capp’s clip-clop percussion in the bridges, with Hal Blaine adding punctuating timpani in the second verse. And in the choruses we have a wonderfully bizarre mix of instruments – Blaine’s drum kit being almost clodhopping in its straightforwardness, while Don Randi’s barrelhouse piano, way down in the mix, chases the percussion around like a soundtrack to a silent comedy, before breaking down into a heartbreaking little melodic fragment played simultaneously on tenor sax and theremin (actually an electro-theremin, an instrument invented by session player Paul Tanner, that sounded like a theremin but was easier to play accurately).
To my ears, Brian is the only Beach Boy on the track, but there’s a whole *stack* of Brians. On the chorus we have three of him singing “O cuando sere, un dia sere” (Spanish for “when will I be, one day I will be”), while at each repetition is introduced a further Brian with a further repeated line – one singing “sometimes I feel very sad”, one singing “Ain’t found nothing to put my heart and soul into” a little higher, and finally, so high he’s almost screaming, one singing “People I know don’t wanna be where I’m at”.
A gorgeous song, however immature the sentiment.
An exotica-flavoured track, this owes equally to three separate influences. Most obviously there’s Jack Nitzsche’s surf instrumentals, like The Lonely Surfer or Surf Finger, which share the clip-clopping feel and reverbed Fender guitar. (So close are the similarities that when REM recorded their tribute to Nitzsche, 2JN, it came out sounding far more like this track than any of Nitzsche’s…)
Second there’s the exotica of Martin Denny and Les Baxter, with the reverbed percussion and mildly dissonant horns.
And finally there’s John Barry’s work on the James Bond scores (this track was originally titled “Run, James, Run”, and was half-intended to be submitted to the Bond film producers), particularly the way Barry’s arrangement of Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme had the melody played on electric guitar over a repetitive vamp.
The whole thing adds up to a minor track, but a pleasant rest between two of the most emotionally intense tracks on the album.
The final track on the album is almost a musical rewrite of Don’t Talk, having the same feel and many of the same chord relations and voicings (the Fm7/Ab – Ebm7/Db change under the verses here being very similar to the Db7-Abm7 changes in the choruses to the earlier song). However, where there the music had been in the service of a feeling of comfort and love, here it is in the service of a song about hurt, and lost innocence (this song’s similarity to Wonderful from the next album has never, in my view, been adequately explored).
Originally titled “Oh Carol, I know”, the more negative title came from Brian mishearing Tony Asher, and it’s a shame, because the earlier title is less judgemental than this one. However, this did lead to the rather smart wordplay in the second verse, where instead of “Oh Caroline No” he sings “Oh Caroline you” (oh carol, I knew).
This was originally recorded a semitone slower, and was sped up on the advice of Brian’s father, Murry Wilson, ‘to make him sound younger’. One of the few decent bits of advice Murry ever gave, this stopped the track from feeling quite so dirge-like, and made it a fitting close to the album. Outside that context, it was released as a solo single for Brian and made the lower reaches of the US Top 40.
From its opening percussion (played on water bottles) to the closing sound of a train being barked at by two dogs (Brian’s dogs Banana and Louie) the whole song has a melancholy air that is the absolute antithesis of the album’s hopeful opening. But you can always turn the album over and start again. Maybe next time it’ll end differently…
Various bonus tracks, usually alternate versions of tracks on the album, have been issued on the different CD issues of this album, but one that is there consistently is Trombone Dixie. An instrumental that was never released at the time, and recorded around the start of sessions for the album, it’s pleasant enough, bearing a strong resemblance both to Wouldn’t It Be Nice and especially to the late-1965 single The Little Girl I Once Knew, and having some ideas that Brian would come back to for Holidays on Smile. But it’s a minor work and it’s easy to see why it was left off the finished album.
It’s difficult to know that the reader is listening to the same recording as I am – Pet Sounds having been reissued, remastered, and generally messed-around with more than any other album I own.
It was issued on CD in 1990, in a rather flat mix with a ton of noise reduction, making for a listenable CD but with little top end. A Pet Sounds Sessions box set came out in 1997, with a newly remastered version with no noise reduction (which I personally find unlistenable due to the tape hiss) but with a brilliantly clear new stereo mix (which crucially missed a few overdubs) and with tons of session recordings.
Another CD issue came out in 2001, with yet another remastering job on the mono mix and a slightly altered stereo mix (including some but not all of the formerly-missing overdubs). And yet another CD version came out in 2006… (that’s not to mention the live CD of Brian Wilson performing the entire album live, or the live DVD…)
I only own the box set version on CD, but for discussions of this album I will be using the mono version in the 2001 master, which can be found on Spotify here. To hear significant details, however, you may well want to listen to the isolated backing tracks, isolated vocals, outtakes, alternate versions and session recordings on The Pet Sounds Sessions box set, which can be found on Spotify here.
Next week – Good Vibrations
A revised version of this essay appears in my book The Beach Boys On CD. If you like this, please consider buying it. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats
So we skip from the Beach Boys’ sixth album to their ninth. This is something that should be borne in mind when you read these essays, because from time to time I’ve been harsh on some of the songs. The fact is that in the first four years the band were together they recorded and releeased an astonishing eleven albums, and Brian Wilson had to write or co-write all the new material, do all the arrangements, produce and be one of the two lead singers.
The two albums we’ve skipped, for now, are Beach Boys Concert and The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. I will deal with both of these in due course, but both are minor works, both are paired on CD with other albums from many years later, and neither add much to the story of the band’s artistic progression.
The Beach Boys slowed down a little in 1965, ‘only’ recording three albums, including these two, two of their very best, but the pressure was beginning to show on Brian even so. He’d had his first nervous breakdown on a flight to the UK in November 1964, and had got married in December. Given the immense amount of new product he was under, the fact that he was newly-married, and the toll touring was taking on his mental health, it’s perhaps understandable that he decided to quit touring with the band.
The plan was that Brian would stay at home and write songs, and produce the backing tracks for the records using session musicians while the band were touring, and the band would come home and add vocals. Brian’s place on tour was first taken by Glen Campbell – then one of LA’s top session musicians, who would play on many of the band’s recordings over the next few years, before he became famous in his own right as a singer – before Bruce Johnston replaced him.
Johnston was an experienced producer, songwriter, singer and keyboard player, best known at the time for his work with Terry Melcher on various projects. The biggest hit they’d worked on was a Beach Boys knock-off called Hey Little Cobra. Credited to The Rip-Chords, this was a Beach Boys/Jan & Dean knock-off (the chorus very similar to that of Surf City) that reached number four in the US charts. Johnston sang many of the harmony parts (most clearly it’s him singing “Shut ‘em down” in the choruses) so they knew he could handle the kind of material they were doing. While Johnston wouldn’t appear on the cover of a Beach Boys album until 1968, he started appearing on the recordings with Summer Days… And Summer Nights! and, apart from a few years in the mid-70s, has remained in the band ever since, and is still a member of the touring ‘Beach Boys’ to this day.
These two albums represent a staggering increase in the quality of the Beach Boys’ output, and can be heard on Spotify here.
The Beach Boys Today!
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine
Today! is widely considered one of the Beach Boys’ very best albums – it’s in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Best Albums Of All Time, Mojo‘s 1000 Albums You Should Own and all the other lists of that type. It’s certainly the only one of the pre-Pet Sounds albums that I could almost unreservedly recommend to anyone. The run of studio albums All Summer Long, Today!, Summer Days are the peak of the early fun-in-the-sun Beach Boys albums, and of them all Today! is the most consistent.
It’s also a turning point for the band’s sound, recorded as it was right across the point where Brian quit the touring band. Thus there are tracks recorded almost as-live by just the band, tracks where the Beach Boys provide just vocals and tracks where the Beach Boys provide some instrumentation, augmented by the session musicians.
Brian Wilson used to draw from a fairly small pool of session players – the same people used by Phil Spector, for the most part – and so while there was no formal ‘band’, there were a group of musicians who would appear on many of these recordings, who were later nicknamed ‘the Wrecking Crew’. Unless I say otherwise, when I refer to session players or ‘the Wrecking Crew’ in any of the essays on 60s albums, you can assume I mean some combination of:
Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon and/or Earl Palmer (drums – Blaine also would be the contractor, in charge of hiring the rest of the musicians), Carol Kaye and/or Ray Pohlman (bass), Jay Migliori, Steve Douglas and Plas Johnson (sax), Tommy Tedesco, Barney Kessel, Billy Strange and/or Glen Campbell (guitar, ukulele, banjo etc), Lyle Ritz (ukulele and occasional bass) Julius Wechter or Frank Capp (percussion) and Don Randi and/or Leon Russel (keyboards). Of the Beach Boys, Brian and Carl were most likely to add instruments to session tracks, with Bruce occasionally contributing and the others seldom.
This album is the first one where Brian appears to have paid attention to structuring it as an album – but even so, he’s thinking in 1950s terms. Here he’s following the structure of the Christmas album the band had just done in doing a side for ‘the kids’ (the uptempo, relatively simplistic, pop songs of the first side) and one for the ‘grown-ups’ (the harmonically sophisticated ballads of side two). Side two usually gets more recognition, as it’s a pointer to the style used on Pet Sounds, but side one is also a marvel of pop music, with every song a potential or actual hit.
One final note before we move on to the track-by-track analysis – this album, more than any other, was involved in Mike Love’s mid-90s lawsuit against Brian Wilson. Before then, the only track Love was a credited co-writer on was Please Let Me Wonder – now, all the original tracks here have Love as co-writer. These claims are still controversial among Beach Boys fans, but all I’ll say is that while several songs definitely sound closer to Brian’s lyrical style than Mike’s, some of these songs have Mike Love’s fingerprints all over them – I don’t think anyone will deny, for example, that “Well since she put me down I’ve been out doin’ in my head” might be the quintessential Mike Love line.
Do You Wanna Dance?
The album opens with a hit single, a cover of the Bobby Freeman song that in the Beach Boys’ version reached number 12 in the US. Structurally, this is actually closer to Cliff Richard’s 1962 cover version, which turned Freeman’s tag into the chorus, than to the original, and it is this structure that has been covered by everyone from Bette Midler to John Lennon to The Ramones since. Dennis takes lead.
Good To My Baby
An example of the thicker production style Brian was now using, this is clearly influenced by Phil Spector, down to the prominent tambourine – this sounds like a girl-group song in the chorus, with the band singing in unison “she’s my girl and I’m good to my baby”. We could very easily imagine this being chanted by the Crystals or the Blossoms with only very slight lyrical alteration. The a capella intro/break though is pure Beach Boys, with Mike singing the title in his lowest bass range, the band echoing him in the mid-range with Brian wailing a wordless falsetto on top, Carl or Dennis (I can’t tell which) repeating the line, overlapping with the rest of the band, and Mike then repeating his original line two tones down. That break only lasts eight seconds, but it’s eight seconds that mark this track as indeliby Beach Boys. Mike and Brian sing lead.
Don’t Hurt My Little Sister
Another one with a chanted vocal chorus, this one was actually intended for Phil Spector to record. In fact Spector recorded a backing track for the song but didn’t add vocals. A couple of years later the track was released as “Things Are Changing For The Better” as a public service record for a government equality drive, with three different sets of vocals (by The Blossoms, Diana Ross & The Supremes and Jay & The Americans) being recorded for the same backing track.
This version, however, contains the original lyrics, and while I’m trying not to go on too much about the soap operatic aspects of the band’s life, the fact remains that this was inspired by something said to him by one of the Rovell sisters. While Brian married Marilyn Rovell, he had at least a bit of romantic interest in her sister Barbara, and conducted an affair with her sister Diane through large parts of their marriage, so there’s a very disturbing personal undercurrent to this song.
That said, it sounds more like a companion piece to the previous song – almost as if the previous song (where “they think I’m bad and treat her so mean/but all they know is from what they’ve seen”) was the defence of the callous boyfriend in this one – which it quite possibly was.
When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)
Apparently featuring only the Beach Boys plus a session harmonica player, this is an astonishingly complex and beautiful track, albeit with a fairly simply-structured song underneath. The drumming, in particular, sounds far more subtle than Dennis Wilson was usually capable of. Another top-ten hit, this shows the questioning side of Brian’s songwriting coming to the fore, with questions that everyone in their late teens and early twenties (as the band all were) must ask themselves – “will I look back and say that I wish I hadn’t done what I did?” “WIll my kids be proud or think their old man’s really a square?”
While Brian was listening to Bach at this time, I suspect the prominent use of a harpsichord on this track has a slightly more prosaic inspiration – Brian’s friends Jan & Dean had recently released as a single the deeply strange track The Anaheim, Asuza And Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review And Timing Association, which used the instrument in a very similar way.
But the real joy of this track is in the melancholy fade. With the band chanting ever increasing numbers, Mike sings “Won’t last forever” and Brian answers “It’s kinda sad” with a gorgeous minor sixth chord under him. It’s one of the first examples of Brian introducing totally new musical material in the fade, something that would show up later in the vocal rounds ending tracks like God Only Knows or ‘Til I Die. That something as poignant as this could still be a hit single shows just how far Brian was able to go at this point without alienating the general public.
Mike & Brian sing lead.
Help Me, Ronda
A different recording from the differently-spelled Rhonda that became a hit (which is on the next album), this one shows its roots in Buster Brown’s Fannie Mae more clearly, with a harmonica part in the chorus that makes the connnection explicit. This is very similar to the single version, but slightly less thought-out, with a weird false fade that doesn’t really work.
This was Al Jardine’s second lead vocal for the band (after Christmas Day on the previous album) and it shows just how important his vocal contributions were. The only non-family member, he nonetheless had (and still has) a voice that is spookily like the rest of the band, especially Brian in the high range and Mike in the low, and he was not only probably the strongest singer in the band, but also had the widest range. While never as gorgeous a singer as Brian or Carl at their best, Al is in a real sense the voice of the Beach Boys in a way that none of the others are.
That ‘Fannie Mae’ riff, incidentally, is one of the major themes that Brian returns to time and again over the next few years – you can hear it modified in such different tracks as Salt Lake City and With Me Tonight, and it becomes part of his musical toolkit in the same way as the intro to Be My Baby or the Shortenin’ Bread riff.
But what’s fascinating about this song in context is that despite it being on the surface a fairly jolly sort of song, it is, after all, a cry for help, repeated over and over again. When John Lennon did this sort of thing a year later people thought it was deep, but here it’s just a Beach Boys pop song. At this point Brian was barely capable of writing anything that didn’t have a dark undercurrent – a tendency that would become all the more prevalent over the next couple of years.
Dance Dance Dance
And having said that, of course, we get to the one utterly positive original song on the album. With a driving guitar riff apparently composed by Carl Wilson (who gets co-writing credit with Brian and, since the lawsuit, Mike), this is relatively simple musically (apart from the clever mid-verse semitone key change in the last verse (on the line “I play it cool when it’s slow and jump it up when it’s fast”)) but succeeds by pure joie de vivre. Another top ten US hit, Mike and Brian sing lead.
Please Let Me Wonder
Starting side two, we get an immediate change of pace. Immediately we go into one of Brian and Mike’s most beautiful ballads, full of uncertainty and doubt – “Please let me wonder/if I’ve been the one you love/if I’m who you’re dreaming of” – we’re seeing here again the recurring figure in Brian’s songs of the man who knows he’s not good enough for the wonderful woman he’s with, and assumes she must realise this at some point but hopes not to be disillusioned just yet.
While clearly inspired by Be My Baby, though a much mellower, gentler song, this has a much lusher set of chord changes, which manage to cover quite a lot of harmonic ground while feeling like they’re staying still, by moving one or two notes at a time, giving us wonderful chords like D#m(maj7)/D and F#maj9.
Brian would later cover very similar musical ground with his 1977 song Airplane, but interestingly the song I know that’s closest to this is actually Something by the Beatles. The chord sequence for Please Let Me Wonder goes:
Something, on the other hand, goes
Now, this isn’t to say that Harrison was ripping off Wilson – though he was aware of the song – both sequences, while interesting, are not hugely innovative, and I can easily see how a guitarist could come up with the Something sequence almost instinctively (it’s a very naural set of movements for the fingers). And the pace is very different – Wilson covers this harmonic material in four bars while Harrison stretches it out to twelve. But it’s still interesting how the Beach Boys could come up with something so similar to one of the Beatles’ greatest records a full five years before their rivals.
Brian and Mike sing lead, and both have only rarely been in better voice.
I’m So Young
A cover of an old doo-wop song, presumably influenced by the then-recent version by ‘Veronica’ (Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes) produced by Brian’s idol Phil Spector. While it’s a decent enough track, this is a bit of a retrograde step for the band, sounding more like We’ll Run Away from All Summer Long than the more sophisticated music around it.
Kiss Me Baby
One of the most glorious pieces of music the band ever made, the only bad thing I can say about this is that while the mono mix is of course gorgeous, this track is so musically dense that it’s easy to miss individual moments of beauty, like the French horn under ‘tossed and I turned, my head grew so heavy’, or the single vibraphone notes at oddly appropriate spots. Thankfully for those of us who study these things, a stereo remix was made available in 1999, and a vocal only mix in 2001. Thanks to these, we can make out individual parts (until the stereo remix, I’d never been able to figure out the backing vocals in the chorus – they’re “kiss a little bit and fight a little bit and kiss a little bit”), and truly appreciate the craftsmanship that went into this.
Just as an example, Mike Love’s vocal here is an astonishing piece of work, and has very obviously taken a huge amount of thought (whether by him or Brian). I single this out because Love often gets criticised for his vocals – and it’s sometimes deserved, especially in live settings, when he’s singing in his nasal tenor. But here he turns in the vocal of his career.
He sings in four distinct voices here. At the beginning, and in the verses, he’s double tracked with a hell of a lot of reverb. It’s a great double-tracking job by Love’s standards up to then (the double-tracking on earlier albums had been very sloppy, because of the pressure they were under) – he matches himself in pronunciation and pitch precisely, even matching his breaths. But he’s singing in two distinct voices – one, the more prominent one, is his standard throat voice, while the other is an almost-whispered huskier throat voice. It almost sounds in fact like Dennis is double-tracking him here. This gives the vocal a strength, but with an undertone of hesitancy, that works perfectly for the lyric.
Then on the bridge, after Brian’s line, we get him singing in his normal nasal head voice, again double-tracked, but this time so closely I had to listen to the a capella mix four times to decide if it was double-tracking or just reverb.
And then finally on the choruses he’s down in his chest, singing the ‘kiss a little bit and fight a little bit’ in his bass voice.
The thing is, though, this isn’t just a matter of range. All Love’s vocal parts here take place in a very restricted range, and he could easily have sung the whole thing in no more than two ‘voices’ maximum. There’s an attention to detail here in both arrangement and performance that borders on the obsessive, but it’s produced one of the finest vocal performances I’ve ever heard.
And Love was by most people’s reckoning only the fourth-best singer in the band!
Lead vocals by Mike & Brian. Surprisingly, this song seems to be based around a B-side instrumental Brian had written for another band, After The Game by The Survivors. While the chord changes are different, the first three notes of the melodies are the same and the guitar in the earlier song presages the ‘kiss a little bit fight a little bit parts of this song.
She Knows Me Too Well
The third world-class ballad on side two of Today!, this one suffers slightly in comparison with the other tracks, but that’s only because we’ve alread heard two of the best songs ever written. This one is ‘merely’ exceptionally good. Another song about a man who isn’t good enough for his woman (“I treat her so mean, I don’t deserve what I have/And I think that she’ll forget just by making her laugh/But she knows me, knows me so well, that she can tell I really love her”), this is the most blatant of Brian’s songs about male vulnerability yet, and one of the most haunting.
With a gorgeous lead vocal from Brian, this track apparently only features the Beach Boys instrumentally. And the quality of the performance should lay to rest any thoughts of it being incompetence on the band’s part that led to the use of session players, rather than time pressure. Other than a couple of slightly stiff fills on the drums, this performance is every bit as good instrumentally as any of the others.
In The Back Of My Mind
And we finish the album as we start it, with a Dennis lead vocal. But this song couldn’t be more different from Do You Wanna Dance?, being a slow ballad in 6/8 without any harmonies, and by far the most lushly orchestrated song on the album. Even more explicitly about Brian’s mental state than the previous track, the lyrics to this one are clearly personal – “I’m blessed with everything in the world to which a man can cling/So happy at times that I break down in tears, in the back of my mind I still have my fears”, the chords here move obsessively around the same few tones, clustering in chords like Abdim and Bbm6.
Dennis, with his fragile voice, is the perfect vocalist for this track, and his practical breakdown at the end, on the words “it will always be in the back of my mind” as the track falls away into a dissonant string fade unlike anything in the rest of the track, is one of the best moments on the album, and it makes for a perfect ending for the album.
Bull Session With The Big Daddy
Unfortunately it isn’t the end of the album, and we have the most bathetic piece of sequencing ever, as we go from that into two minutes and fourteen seconds of the band (plus Marilyn Wilson and journalist Earl Leaf) talking over each other while eating burgers and kosher pickles. Quite the most pointless thing in the band’s discography.
Summer Days… And Summer Nights!
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston (uncredited)
While Today! is considered a major step forward in the band’s musical progression, Summer Days is usually regarded as, at best, a step sideways. In truth, this is unfair. The album suffers because Today! was such a massive leap forward while Pet Sounds, the next proper studio album, is The Greatest Album Ever Made And The Only Beach Boys Album You Should Own (copyright every music magazine ever). But in truth, there’s not a single bad track on here, and it contains three of the band’s biggest hits and one of Brian Wilson’s greatest songs. Roughly contemporaneous with the Beatles’ Help, it’s also of roughly that quality. Both albums are solidly good 60s pop with a few moments of brilliance, and any other band would have killed for an album like this in 1965.
The first album to feature Bruce Johnston, Johnston was not credited as he was still signed to Columbia at the time. Al Jardine also didn’t appear in the cover photo, due to illness. This was also the first album after Brian Wilson gained access to two things which would change the band’s recordings forever – an eight-track recorder, and LSD.
The Girl From New York City
This is an ‘answer record’ to the Ad Libs’ hit The Boy From New York City. Based around the same riff, it has a different verse melody and lyrics, but the inspiration is clear. A simple, fun, dance tune, the main point of interest is Mike Love’s delightfully dumb bass vocals.
This is a song where Mike Love won co-writing credit in 1993. Love sings lead on the verses. The choruses are sung by the group, but with Carl’s voice most prominent.
Amusement Parks USA
This is one of the few actual backwards steps on the album. Based around Freddie ‘Boom Boom’ Cannon’s hit Paisades Park, this is essentially a reworking of County Fair from the Surfin’ Safari album, but with the addition of a list of place names (Mike Love seems to have become convinced that this is the secret to commercial success after Surfin’ USA). The soundscape gives a better sense of place than the earlier record (and Hal Blaine is quite risque for the time with his turn as a carnival barker advertising “Stella the snake dancer…. she’s got the biggest asp in town”), but it’s filler, albeit enjoyable, well-crafted filler.
Another one that Love won co-writing credit for, Love and Brian Wilson share the lead vocals here.
Then I Kissed Her
A cover version of the Crystals track, written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector, and originally produced by Spector and arranged by Jack Nitzsche. Other than the gender re-write, which also changes the protagonist from being passive to active (“Then he kissed me” becomes “Then I kissed her”), the track sticks very closely to the original. The main differences are that Brian gets rid of the superfluous string section (the one bit of interesting melodic material the original string part had is replicated on a Hammond organ), and he provides a full, though rudimentary, backing vocal arrangement (mostly just ‘ooh’ chords – still more than the Crystals had, where the backing vocalists were limited to doubling Darlene Love on the title phrase). They also cut the instrumental break and superfluous repeat of the middle eight and final verse.
Al Jardine takes the lead here and does a sterling job, his vocal easily better than that of Darlene Love on the original (and that’s saying something – Love was one of the best session singers of the time). The end result is a refinement and improvement on the original, already a very fine single.
This was released as a stopgap single two years later, in a very different marketplace, and still managed a very respectable number four in the UK charts.
Salt Lake City
Another one for which Love won co-writing credit, this one is a simple little rocker, driven by a neat doubled-up four-note phrase on guitar and bass. But listen for when the instrumental break starts – the sax is playing a variant of the Fannie Mae/Help Me, Rhonda riff, which continues through the rest of the song. This variant would return as late as Brian’s 2004 album Gettin’ In Over My Head, where the same sax part is used to drive Desert Drive.
Lyrically, the song is pretty standard fare, except I find it hard to believe that even by 1965 standards Salt Lake City, the home of Mormonism, had ‘the grooviest kids’. Mike and Brian share lead.
Girl Don’t Tell Me
Despite his avowed preference for Paul McCartney’s work, Brian Wilson seems to me to be far closer as a songwriter to John Lennon. Both have the same lyrical themes, both structure their songs around chord changes and harmonies rather than primarily around melody, both use lots of leaps into falsetto and small stepwise movements, rather than jumps within the same range. Certainly, when the band came to record the stopgap Beach Boys Party! album, the three Beatles songs they covered (Tell Me Why, I Should Have Known Better and You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away) were all Lennon songs as was the fourth, unreleased, cover, Ticket To Ride.
And Ticket To Ride is the crucial one here. Brian has claimed this was ‘written for the Beatles’, but he presumably means it was inspired by them – specifically, it’s very obviously written off the back of Ticket To Ride.
Quite possibly this was Brian feeling the same urge that drove Paul McCartney to write That Means A Lot – the urge to add more chord changes to a song which has none in its first ten bars. But whereas That Means A Lot keeps Ticket To Ride‘s dark, ponderous production, this goes to the opposite extreme and is light and breezy as a feather.
The whole thing is very, very clearly modelled on its inspiration. The celesta figure (played by Johnston, in his first recording session with the group) is essentially an anagram of the guitar riff from the Beatles song, the vocal melodies start out almost identically, and most obviously the chorus – “Girl don’t tell me you’ll wri-i-ite” repeated three times followed by “me again this time” is almost fingerprint identical to that of Ticket To Ride.
There are other, more general, Lennonisms scattered throughout the song as well – ‘gu-u-uy’ and ‘ti-i-ime’ both seem to be copying Lennon’s copies of Smokey Robinson (e.g, Not A Second Time).
The whole effect is very different from any other Beach Boys track of the time, especially since it features a solo vocal with no backing vocals, and that vocal is by Carl Wilson, who had only ever taken one lead before (Pom Pom Play Girl). Carl clearly sounds hesitant here, and there’s no hint that within a year he’d have become one of the greatest vocalists in rock history. It’s also a surprisingly sparse backing track, featuring only the Wilson brothers (on acoustic guitar, bass and drums) plus Johnston and a session tambourine player, and sounds like it was cut more-or-less live, with only the slashed electric guitar chords on the chorus being overdubbed.
If the song doesn’t rise to its inspiration’s emotional intensity, in some ways that’s a good thing – it’s hard for Brian to write that kind of song because he’s neither as fundamentally selfish nor as misogynist as Lennon was at that time. Even so, this song is fascinating as the most blatant example of the trans-Atlantic creative dialogue between the two bands that would heat up over the next eighteen months.
Help Me Rhonda
This is a remake of the track from Today!, and this is the version that got to number one. Comparing the two versions shows how Brian would refine his musical ideas. Rather than starting with the ukulele intro, this comes straight in with “Well since she put me down…”, backed by bass and percussion, before the rest of the instruments come in. Carol Kaye’s bassline is far more prominent here, and a much better part, with a strong jazz influence – one of the first of the truly great bass parts that Brian would come up with over the next couple of years. Mike’s bass vocal part has been completely rewritten – the “bow bow bow” and “come on Rhonda” parts that are such a crucial part of the song’s appeal only show up here. The harmonica, if it’s there at all, is submerged in a horn section and the drums don’t over power the rest of the instruments.
Rather than an instrumental break consisting of just the track without vocals, here we have a properly thought out break, a brief dialogue between boogie piano and electric guitar. And finally, instead of the annoying, overlong, fake fade on the chorus from the original version, we have a short instrumental fade on a repeat of the main riff.
While to a casual listener the two tracks are fairly similar – in fact the original version was included on the multi-platinum hits compliation Endless Summer in the 70s without many listeners even noticing – a comparison of the two shows the difference between a filler album track and a massive hit single.
This version still features Al Jardine on lead vocals, and reached number one in the US (knocking Ticket To Ride off after one week – the shortest time a Beatles record had had at the top of the charts up to that point) – the band’s second of four US number one hits.
This song is a difficult one to talk about, because its problematic aspects make it hard to hear just how good it actually is. The lyric (for which Mike Love won songwriting credit in the 90s, and which definitely sounds like Love’s work to me – a string of placenames with a bit of leering on top) is dull-witted and unpleasant, and Love’s nasal vocal doesn’t really sell it. But ignoring that, there’s a lot to love here.
It says a *lot* about the kind of songwriter Brian Wilson is that this was the result of his first LSD trip, the music being written while he was on acid. Inspired by the intervals and general feel of Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring (another of the many pieces that haunt the band’s career), Wilson and Love turn it into a celebration of a rather more secular kind of joy.
The most striking part of the track is, of course, the intro – a simple, repeated, nine-note phrase, slowly building up with the addition of instruments. Starting out with just 12-string guitar, within its twenty-two seconds it adds organ, trumpet, two saxes, bass, cymbal and vibraphone, to create a unique instrumental texture unlike anything else. (Just a shame about the studio chatter that makes it onto the very end of the intro. While in every other way a perfectionist, Wilson was never the best about ensuring his tapes were free of studio noise).
The driving force of much of the rest of the song is Carol Kaye and Lyle Ritz’s bassline, revolving for almost all the time around the notes B, F# and G, and the band’s vocals. This was the first track to feature Bruce Johnston on vocals (he can clearly be heard singing the answering “wish they all could be California” in the chorus – one of the most prominent vocal parts he takes on a well-known Beach Boys track), and also one of the first for which the vocals were recorded on eight-track, allowing them to triple-track all the vocals. This means that while previous Beach Boys tracks tended to feature just the five Beach Boys singing live plus usually the lead singer double-tracked, this has a full eighteen voices on it, giving the harmonies a thicker texture they’d never had before.
And those harmonies are astonishing. They’re low in the mix, but listen to the backing vocals under “I dig a French bikini on Hawaiian island dolls” – those block harmony “ooh-wah-ooh-wah-ooh-wah-ooh-wah-aah” parts are as good as any vocals ever recorded.
On its release this went to number three in the US charts, and it’s still one of the band’s most popular tracks. Lead vocals are by Mike Love on the verses, with Brian and Bruce Johnston on the choruses.
Let Him Run Wild
Supposedly inspired by Burt Bacharach, this actually has very little similarity to his work, being harmonically and rhythmically very simplistic, consisting for the most part of a shuffle between i7 and iv7 (or vi7 and ii7 – I’m not sure whether to consider this as being in D#m or F#, its relative major). Harmonically, there’s little here that anyone couldn’t write (I could knock out similar chord changes in a few minutes, as could any semi-competent songwriter). This one, again, Love claimed co-writing credit for in 1993.
What makes the track work – and it’s easily the best track on the album – is the arrangement. Every instrument here is made to sound unlike itself. The piano part is actually, if you listen to the isolated instrumental track (available on the Stack O’ Tracks album) a tack piano doubled with a vibraphone and with some hand percussion playing at the same time in the same range. The guitar is played through a Leslie speaker (something the Beatles didn’t start to do til Revolver, nearly a year later).
The instruments are used in ways that go completely contrary to their normal rock usage as well. The guitar, which would normally be the lead instrument, instead just repeats a four-note phrase (this use of the guitar paves the way for the track Pet Sounds next year). The bass, on the other hand, which would normally be plodding along with the four-on-the-floor feel of the piano part, is instead playing a fluid contrapuntal melody – one that changes and gets more complex as the song goes on. If you want to hear why Paul McCartney’s basslines suddenly got interesting in 1966, this song (and others like it) is why. The drums, which only come in on the bridge to the first chorus, aren’t used to keep time but to punctuate the end of the bass phrases.
The only instruments that are used in their normal way are the horns, and the backing track for the chorus sounds more than anything like the Count Basie band, a straight horn-driven slightly bluesy swing piece. I could easily hear Ella Fitzgerald or Ray Charles singing lead on this.
But Brian’s lead vocal on this track is astonishing. Unfortunately, he doesn’t think so himself – he kept it off the 1993 5-CD retrospective Good Vibrations: 30 Years Of The Beach Boys (making it, along with Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) one of only two essential Beach Boys tracks not on that superb collection) because he thought his voice sounded effeminate. But it’s an absolute tour de force. Singing mostly right at the top of his tenor range, occasionally shading over into falsetto in the verses, on the choruses, while the band sing the main melody, he hits some of the highest notes of his career as he practically screams “Let him run!”
Easily the masterpiece of the album, this is one of the greatest tracks of the band’s career.
You’re So Good To Me
Another disputed co-write, listening to this and the previous song back to back it’s hard to believe they’re the work of the same band, let alone that they have the same lead vocalist. But actually, this song helps tie the album together neatly. Like Girl Don’t Tell Me it’s a take-off on a rival band, this time the Four Seasons with their Motown-esque four-on-the-floor stampers. Like Let Him Run Wild it’s structured round two-bar crotchet phrases with simple chord changes and features a guitar put through a Leslie speaker. And it has some harmonic similarities to The Girl From New York City.
Here it’s all put in service of a Motown-style stomper, with Brian’s vocals being the closest he ever came to being a conventional rock singer, and with some delightfully goofy “duh duh duh” backing vocals from Love. This might only be a minor track, but it’s a wonderfully enjoyable one, and if I had to choose one track to sum up this album it would be this one.
Summer Means New Love
While previous Beach Boys instrumentals had been dull Dick Dale pastiche, this one is a very different beast. Melodically owing a little to Graduation Day by the Four Freshmen in the middle eight, and stylistically similar to Brian’s earlier After The Game, this little piece of semi-exotica owes most to the instrumentals on The Lonely Surfer by Jack Nitzsche (Phil Spector’s arranger and later an Oscar-winning film composer), especially Theme From A Broken Heart. While this is more romantic and less bombastic than Nitzsche, who could do subtle but always preferred to have half a dozen kettle drums bashed at full volume, the inspiration is clear. More than any other track on the album, this points the way forward to what Brian would be doing on Pet Sounds a few months later.
I’m Bugged At My Old Man
And from the sublime to the ridiculous, we get this comedy song. Just Brian at the piano, with the other band members adding backing vocals, this is possibly the first thing the Beach Boys did that could be described as ‘outsider music’, as much of their mid-70s stuff was, though this is still more knowing than that material.
Over a twelve-bar blues played in the style of Fats Domino, Brian sings, sometimes in a parody Elvis voice, about how he’s been locked in his room by his dad for being suspended from school (“I ripped up my wardrobe and I’m growing a beard/Oh when will they let me come out?”). While the punishments here are comically exaggerated, and the song is all in good fun, there’s more than a hint of truth behind it, and Brian occasionally sounds almost sincere.
This is the last of the comedy interludes on Beach Boys records, and has the virtue of being a proper song of sorts, but it’s also quite painful if you actually know anything of Brian’s personal history. I suspect it’s a case of having to laugh to keep from crying…
And Your Dream Comes True
And the album finishes with one of the lovely little fragments that are scattered about the Beach Boys’ career. This is an a capella piece, just 63 seconds long. In Four Freshmen style harmony, this is a slowed down version of Baa Baa Black Sheep, but with four lines of lyric – “You’re so sleepy, wish that he could stay/Love him so but now it’s getting late/He’ll be waiting, waiting just for you/One more summer and your dreams come true”. Surprisingly moving.
The Little Girl I Once Knew
A non-album single that ‘only’ reached number 20 in the US chart, its relative lack of success is generally put down to the fact that between the verses and choruses there are two bars of silence, and DJs don’t like ‘dead air’.
In fact, I suspect its relative failure is down to it sounding like an attempt to write California Girls Part II. It has a similar rhythmic feel, another (less successful) slow-build instrumental intro, and another chorus where Brian and Bruce sing the title in call-and response fashion. It’s structurally almost identical to the earlier song, other than the ‘lah doo day’ interlude, but less subtle, with a kitchen-sink approach that suggests Brian had been paying too much attention to Spector.
It’s an enjoyable enough single, but its reputation among Beach Boys fans as an unappreciated masterpiece owes far more to its chart position than to its quality. Had it been a massive hit, no-one would think anything of it.
It is, however, unusual in that it’s the only Beach Boys hit single never to have been included on an album. (Cottonfields wasn’t included on a US album, but was on the US version of Sunflower). It was probably originally intended for the album that became Pet Sounds, but by the time that album was being sequenced it was obvious it didn’t fit.
Dance Dance Dance (alternate take)
An early version of the song, featuring just the Beach Boys themselves performing. Fairly similar to the released version, except that the guitar solo clearly hasn’t been worked out properly, and the tambourine on the chorus seems almost to drown everything else out.
I’m So Young (alternate take)
An early, slightly-sloppily-doubly-tracked, vocal take over the same backing track as the released version. Almost indistinguishable from the released version.
Let Him Run Wild (alternate take)
Again, nearly identical to the released version, this has a different vocal part on the chorus – “Let him run wild he don’t care baby” instead of “Let him run wild he don’t care”, and the additional word ‘so’ before the word ‘before’ in the second verse. If you hadn’t heard the finished version, you’d think this was wonderful, but the chorus was hugely improved by the change.
A studio run-through, with just vocals and a single electric guitar, of a Four Freshmen ballad that was a staple of the band’s live set at the time. Being British, I haven’t had the American High School experience that this song is about, so perhaps for those who have it would give a very different impression. But to me this is fairly dull kitsch, redeemed only by some very good vocals.
Hello, incidentally, to those of you who’ve come over to this site after a bunch of us used Twitter to do naughty swears on the Telegraph website, if any of you have stuck around.
Fill Your Heart by Tiny Tim is a cover of the Biff Rose song that was made famous by David Bowie’s version on Hunky Dory. I love Bowie’s version, but this is even better, with totally over-the-top orchestration. Marvellous.
Black Sheep by John C Reilly is a song my friend Tilt turned me on to this week (I wish he’d post his playlists somewhere – not only does he make me look like someone who only owns three albums, all Now That’s What I Call Music compilations, but he’s great at sequencing, being a DJ). This is from the film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a comedy that’s far better than it looks, which I picked up on DVD on the basis of its stunning soundtrack album, where Reilly does songs by Mike Viola, Marshall Crenshaw and others in note-perfect imitation of Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. But this is the standout – a Smile parody (though understandably it sounds closer to Song Cycle) written and arranged by Van Dyke Parks himself. Just stunning.
Odessa [City On The Black Sea] by The Bee Gees is from their masterpiece, Odessa. Recorded at the time when everyone was doing ‘their Sergeant Pepper‘, this album sounds like nothing so much as Syd Barret crossed with Smile-era Beach Boys. This song in particular is very Smile-like, especially the banjo sections. If Scott Walker, rather than the Bee Gees, had recorded this, it would be considered a great psych classic. It also fits remarkably well with the previous song, even down to the ‘black sheep’ reference…
Craise Finton Kirk by Johnny Young and Kompany is a great baroque pop song that Tilt linked me to. I know nothing more about it.
Clean Up Your Own Back Yard by Elvis Presley is a great little song from 1968, possibly Elvis’ best year – this is right on the cusp of his terrible films (and was actually recorded for one, The Trouble With Girls) and his comeback special, and is at a time when he’d started working with producer Fenton Jarvis and gone in a more swamp-blues direction, as shown by songs like Guitar Man and US Male. While Elvis did a *lot* of shit in the 60s, it was the time when his voice was at its best, and the best of his 60s stuff is definitely due a reappraisal – not only the later ‘Memphis’ stuff like this, but even some of the film music, and certainly the Elvis Is Back album…
Paper Chase by Richard Harris is a wonderful baroque-pop song by Jimmy Webb, incorporating little touches of Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring, from the Macarthur Park album. It also has something of the same groove to it as the previous song, weirdly.
The Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba by Handel is from a rather good baroque compilation that Tilt included a Purcell track from in a playlist. This isn’t as good as my favourite version of this, a performance by the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Neville Mariner that I have on vinyl, but it’s always a lovely piece.
Pale And Precious by The Dukes Of Stratosphear, is from the Chips From The Chocolate Fireball anthology. The Dukes were really XTC, making an album and EP of 60s Brit-psych soundalikes (many of which were better than the bands they were pastiching/parodying). One of the few American bands they took off was the Beach Boys, with this gorgeous attempt at doing Smile in three minutes. Quite possibly the best song Andy Partridge ever wrote, at least musically, he doesn’t try here to replicate any Brian Wilson songwriting or production tics – it doesn’t sound like anything Brian Wilson had done before, although weirdly the ‘up she rises’ section sounds exactly like the bits that Andy Paley brought to his collaborations with Wilson (must be something about people called Andy P…) – but he uses his own songwriting strengths to try to do the same things that Wilson had tried to do, and succeeds admirably.
Rhapsody In Blue by Paul Whiteman is how this piece was meant to sound. Shortened to nine minutes to fit on to two sides of a 78RPM record, this is the original Ferd Grofe arrangement, recorded straight after the piece’s premiere, with Gershwin himself on piano. And it’s a hot jazz piece, rather than the more staid version that we’re used to. Absolutely extraordinary.
Busy Doin’ Nothin’ by The Beach Boys is my favourite song from one of my favourite albums, Friends. The lyrics are incredibly childlike, but the juxtaposition of that with the incredibly complex Jobim-esque chord sequences makes something strangely sublime.
Cuddly Toy by The Monkees is a Nilsson song, and absolutely evil. Hearing Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones singing “You’re not the only cuddly toy that was ever enjoyed by any boy… You’re not the kind of girl to tell your mother the kind of company you keep/I never told you I would love no other, you must have dreamed it in your sleep, sob, sob” is hilarious. It’s a nasty song from the point of view of a nasty character, and is one of the many reasons the Monkees were far more subversive than they’re credited for.
Abba Zabba by Captain Beefheart is from Safe As Milk, which he recorded at the beginning of his career. It’s more commercial than stuff like Trout Mask Replica, but in a hopeful way (if i take one step toward the mainstream then they might come to me) rather than the resigned way of Unconditionally Guaranteed (Okay, here’s a song called Happy Love Song, are you happy now?!) and as a result that album manages to show why he was great without requiring too much from the listener.
Louie Louie by Richard Berry is the original and best.
Shangri-La by The Rutles is a remake of an earlier Innes solo track, and I actually prefer the original. However, the Rutles combine so many things I like – Monty Python, the Beatles, the Beach Boys (Ricky Fataar was in both bands), the Bonzo Dog Band – into one package I can’t not link them. One thing I do love about this version is the intro – Innes had sued Noel Gallagher because Oasis’ song Whatever had a very similar melody to Innes’ How Sweet To Be An Idiot. Here, he takes the intro to the Oasis track (in 1997, when Oasis were briefly kings of the world) and alters it to be his melody rather than Gallagher’s. The video for this is also wonderful, with a mix of celebrity lookalikes (Michael Jackson lookalikes and so on) and z-list ‘real’ celebrities (including Al Jardine, who on seeing Fataar at the video shoot said “I never knew you were a Rutle!”)
Warm And Beautiful by Paul McCartney is a song I first learned from a bootleg of Elvis Costello performing it at a tribute concert for Linda McCartney, and to be honest I prefer Costello’s version. However, while the lyrics are a little cloying, this is one of McCartney’s best melodies. McCartney seems to me at his best when he’s writing very sparse, simple melodies in almost an English folk-song tradition, whether that be For No One , Here, There and Everywhere, Junk,Here Today, this song or Calico Skies. Why on Earth someone so gifted at writing simple, sparse, plain, touching melodies keeps writing bombastic semi-power-ballads like No More Lonely Nights and Beautiful Night, when not only is this stuff infinitely better but he also seems to find it easier, will remain one of the great unanswered questions…
2JN by R.E.M is a b-side that appeared on the In Time bonus disc. An instrumental tribute by Peter Buck to Jack Nitzsche, who died the day it was recorded, it also shows the influence of Morricone and Brian Wilson. Easily the best thing the band have done since the departure of Bill Berry.
Single Woman Sitting by Stew is another of his barbed character portraits. When are Spotify going to get the rest of Stew’s catalogue online, I wonder? All of it’s fantastic…
Go Back by Crabby Appleton is a great powerpop single by Michael Fennelly, formerly of the Curt Boettcher-led studio soft-pop band The Millennium. After leaving them, Fennelly recorded two albums with this band – this one, their eponymous first album, which is very much of a piece with the work of Boettcher, Gary Usher, Sandy Salisbury and the rest of Fennelly’s erstwhile collaborators, and a second album, Rotten To The Core, which is too proggy for my taste (though I’ve only listened to it a couple of times). But this track in particular is fantastic, hooky pop.
Ya Had Me Goin’ by L.E.O. (not ‘leo’ as Spotify has it wrongly) from the great ELO soundalike album Alpacas Orgling sounds exactly like ELO, in a good way.
Metaphor by Sparks is about how chicks dig metaphors. Apparently.
Normally when I write these ‘albums you should own’, I’m writing about an album by a performer. Today is rather different – I’m discussing a compilation album featuring performers as diverse as Bobby Vee, Captain Beefheart, Miles Davis and the Monkees. Nonetheless, there is an overall artistic voice to the album, but it’s not a performer, or even a songwriter or producer (although he does take on all those roles at various points during the album) – it’s the arranger, Jack Nitzsche.
The job of the arranger, like that of the professional songwriter, is very much a dying art in these days of the self-contained band, and many people reading this will have no idea what an arranger does, so a brief explanation is in order. An arranger is someone who takes a song and works out what instrument will play what part. This may sound like a trivial job, but in fact it’s the single most important step in the progression from a song to a finished record. Every time you have heard an instrument playing something other than the simple vocal melody or strummed chords to a song, what you’ve heard is the work of an arranger – either a formal arranger, or (more usually these days) a producer or band member taking on that role. An arranger will come up with a bass-line, string parts, decide when the music should build and when it should fall off, decide when there should be a solitary flugelhorn and when there should be a barrage of electric guitars.
Many of the best arrangers in the last few decades have doubled as producers – like George Martin or Brian Wilson or Quincy Jones – and the job of arranger as a separate job is mostly a historical one, with most of the most accomplished arrangers (like, say, Nelson Riddle or Fletcher Henderson) having their success in the big band era. Jack Nitzsche is one of the few arrangers who made a very successful career in the rock era. While he did other work, both as a performer (having a hit with the instrumental The Lonely Surfer ) and as a composer of film scores (he wrote the music for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest among others) as well as being an occasional member of Crazy Horse, Nitzsche’s main claim to fame was as an arranger, working with artists such as Neil Young, The Tubes, the Neville Brothers and others.
But he’s best known for, in essence, being Phil Spector. Nitzsche arranged almost every hit record Spector produced (with the exception of the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, which was done in a deliberate imitation of NItzsche’s style when Nitzsche couldn’t fit it into his schedule) and he, not Spector, was responsible for the ‘Spector sound’. While Spector produced some fine records after stopping working with Nitzsche (such as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Leonard Cohen’s Death Of A Ladies Man) none of them had the ‘Spector sound’. Nitzsche, by contrast, was able to make ‘Phil Spector’ records with or without Spector, as well as having the ability to create great records in other styles.
This stylistic variation is evident in the first two songs in this compilation. The opener, Hard Workin’ Man, is a song written by Nitzsche and Ry Cooder and performed by Captain Beefheart for a film soundtrack. Essentially a rewrite of Mannish Boy but in the style of Howlin’ Wolf rather than Muddy Waters, it’s a metrically distended driving blues driven by percussion like hammers on metal, and shows that even the slickest LA session musicians can make ‘authentic’ Chess-style Chicago blues if directed by an arranger who understands the genre. This is then followed by Nitzsche’s own Surf Finger, an instrumental that is very much in the style that Brian Wilson would use a few years later for the Pet Sounds instrumentals, all reverbed guitar and echoing percussion.
Much of the rest of the album is in the ‘Spector’ style, some of it (such as the Righteous Brothers’ magnificent Just Once In My Life, a good contender for most powerful single of all time) actually made with Spector, but much done in collaboration with others. Some of these tracks will be familiar, like Merry Clayton’s It’s In His Kiss or Frankie Laine’s I’m Gonna Be Strong, both oldies staples to this day. But others are revelatory. Baby I’m So Glad It’s Raining by the Satisfactions (a song so rare it had to be mastered for this release from a crackly acetate) is a magnificent over-the-top grandiose ballad of the type the Ronettes were known for , building from a quiet arpeggiated guitar/harpsichord in the verses through the bridge to a chorus which sounds like every instrument in the world is there. As Long As You’re Here by Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful sounds like the Spoonful turned up to eleven, with jew’s harp solos and gigantic overblown arrangements reminiscent of The Modern Folk Quartet (Spector’s attempt to create his own Lovin’ Spoonful soundalike band). And Don’t Touch Me There by art-punk band The Tubes is just magnificent, Nitzsche pastiching himself absolutely deadpan while the band sing:
The smell of burning leather as we hold each other tight
As our rivets rub together crashing sparks into the night
This moment of forever, darling if you really care
Don’t touch me there
There are also a couple of examples of the country-rock that Nitzsche became known for in the 70s, including the original of I Don’t Wanna Talk About It by Crazy Horse (later a hit in a soundalike version by Rod Stewart). The best of these is a version of Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield song Mr Soul by the Everly Brothers, arranged in the style that Nitzsche would later use for Young’s first solo album. Slowed right down, with wailing soulful female backing vocals, steel guitar, wood block percussion and picked mandolins, it’s a magnificent example of the arranger’s art.
On top of that there are a few songs, like the Monkees’ Porpoise Song and the Turtles’ You Know What I Mean that are classics of sixties bubblegum pop, and a few oddball tracks like a collaboration between John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis.
Not everything on the album works, but the highlights are so stunningly good that this compilation is one of my all-time favourite albums. On top of that, anyone listening to it will be able to hear the common threads that run throughout Nitzsche’s work, no matter what the genre and no matter who the performer or ostensible producer, and will get a better idea of what an arranger does, and the importance of good arrangements to a good record, and may get an idea of what is missing from a lot of substandard records.