Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

CD Reissues Of The Year

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on December 4, 2013

Andrew Sandoval just posted a link to “Ultimate Classic Rock”‘s list of the best reissues of the year, and it looked frankly dull for the most part — deluxe editions of ‘classic’ albums we’ve all heard a million times. Elvis, Beatles, Van Morrison, Nirvana. Yes, yes. All very nice, I suppose, but not really any use to anyone. You already know if you’re going to buy box set versions of Rumours or Tommy, and nothing I can say will persuade you not to if you plan to.

These, on the other hand, you might not even realise you wanted. But you do.

Harry Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection
I reviewed this when it came out, and I stand by everything I said. A gorgeous 17-CD collection, this collects fourteen of Nilsson’s proper albums, along with mono versions of the first two albums and well over a hundred additional tracks (either as bonus tracks on the albums or as bonus discs). It’s *slightly* more Nilsson than you really need, but there’s a hundred and fifty or so tracks here that stand up to any music you’ll ever hear, and even the worst of it is interesting.

Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band: Safe As Milk
Beefheart’s first album doesn’t get much love from his fans, who see it as too poppy. That’s precisely why I *do* love it — this is Beefheart at a point where he and his band still seemed to see commercial success as a possibility, and they were making music aimed at a broad audience but without watering down the strangeness of the music. The result is, at times, incredibly close to the sound of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd by the Monkees (which was recorded around the same time with the same engineer).
This CD reissue restores the original mono mix on CD for the first time, and while it’s not as vast a difference as with some 60s mono versions, it does cohere slightly better this way.

The Beach Boys: Made In California
A six-CD box set of *nearly* all the Beach Boys you need, this is a career-spanning set covering everything from Surfin’ in 1961 to Isn’t It Time in 2012. Roughly three CDs of it is material you’ve already got if you have the slightest interest in the band, but it sounds clearer than ever, while the other three CDs worth of material is made up of unreleased tracks, live versions and alternate mixes, including some truly spectacular unreleased songs like You’re Still A Mystery and Where Is She?

The Monkees Present: Deluxe Edition
The Monkees Present is one of the Monkees’ weaker albums, recorded when pretty much everyone had lost interest in the band, including the band themselves. But Andrew Sandoval and his colleagues at Rhino Handmade have made something of a silk purse from it with this 3CD set, collecting together all the sessions from that era, including in particular several great Nesmith and Dolenz songs which remained unreleased at the time for God knows what reason. Putting it all together in one place shows that there was a great album in there if anyone had been bothered to release one at the time.

Windy: A Ruthann Friedmann Songbook
Ruthann Friedmann is best known for writing Windy for the Association and Candy Apple Cotton Candy for Pat Shannon. This collection of unreleased recordings from the 60s, demos and recordings for a never-released solo album, features both those songs plus versions of High Coin and I Think It’s Going To Rain Today, and has Van Dyke Parks, Curt Boettcher and Randy Newman contributing as producers and musicians, along with Lee Mallory from the Millennium and several of the Wrecking Crew. Soft-pop folk loveliness.

The Family Tree: Miss Butters
This was actually reissued in November 2012, but I didn’t do one of these lists last year and I’m feeling generous. This is *very* much in the mould of Nilsson’s Aerial Ballet, having the same producer, arranger, cover designer and record label (and one song co-written by Nilsson), but also has something of the feel of Odessa or Genuine Imitation Life. It’s a concept album, possibly the first “rock opera” ever, and anyone who likes toytown pop music will love it — song titles like Melancholy Vaudeville Man and Mrs McPheeny (Has Flu In The Chest And Has Needed A Rest For So Long) give you some idea of what kind of thing it is.
The band, after a couple of lineup changes, went on to be moderately successful as The Wackers.

Michael Fennelly — Love Can Change Everything (Demos 1967-72)
Michael Fennelly was one of the most underrated songwriters of the 60s. He wrote and sang lead on Go Back by Crabby Appleton, but these days he’s probably best known for his contributions to The Millennium, including the gorgeous To Claudia On Thursday.
This collection of demos spans his pre-Millennium recordings, The Millennium, Crabby Appleton, and the recordings for his Chris White-produced solo album Lane Changer.

The Paley Brothers: The Complete Recordings
Before Andy Paley became known as a collaborator with the Beach Boys, Madonna, and Spongebob Squarepants, he and his brother Jonathan were playing CBGBs and making catchy skinny-tie pop-punk. This compilation, featuring collaborations with the Ramones, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and Jonathan Richman among others, shows a very good but not quite great pop duo who even then had the knack of finding great people to work with and writing catchy pop hooks.

Harry Nilsson: Flash Harry
Nilsson’s voice was pretty much shot by the time he recorded this, but he still manages an interesting version of the Van Dyke Parks/Lowell George Latin song Cheek To Cheek, and a decent stab at his own Lennon collaboration Old Dirt Road. It’s hardly essential, but if you’re going to spend the fifty quid for all Nilsson’s other albums in the box set, you might as well add this — the only proper Nilsson album not included in the box — as well and get the complete set. This had never been released on CD before this year, and had been out of print for thirty years, so even though it’s not great it’s nice to have it available.
It’s also bookended by two Eric Idle songs — it begins with Idle singing a song he’d written about Nilsson, and ends with Nilsson’s cover of Bright Side Of Life (possibly the first cover of that song ever recorded) — an appropriate ending for Nilsson’s last ever album.

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Where The Action Is

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on June 30, 2013

One of the most interesting phenomena in music is the idea of the ‘scene’ — the way that good music isn’t generally created by artists in a vacuum, but certain times and places seem to produce vastly more good music than they should, usually by musicians who know and work with each other. Collaboration and competition seems to spur people on to much greater heights, while great musicians with no scene tend to stagnate.

Possibly the greatest of all these scenes is that of mid-60s LA, which was almost unique in that there were at least four separate but overlapping groups of musicians — the Laurel Canyon folkies, the studio pop bands, the Sunset Strip rockers and the Zappa/Beefheart contingent.

Each of these groups of musicians tends to have its own following, and there is at first glance little to connect, say, the Mamas And The Papas to Captain Beefheart, or Tim Buckley to the Beach Boys. But the connections are there — I remember once talking to a friend who is very into the pop music from that period, who had just heard Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band for the first time. When I asked what he thought of it, he said “It sounds just like the Monkees”.

And while that’s not a connection I’d have made at the time, it does — and it’s not surprising. Both bands were recording in the same studios, with the same engineers, and knew each other socially. Ry Cooder worked with both bands around the same time. Electricity or Yellow Brick Road could easily fit on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.

The whole LA scene — all the parts of it — is documented on the wonderful box set Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-68, released in 2009 (but which I only got round to picking up the other week). At 100 songs, it covers almost all the important musicians from this era (apart from Frank Zappa, whose estate have a bad relationship with Warners, the producers of the set), as well as many, many bands who released just one or two great singles.

As a Nuggets set, it is biased more heavily towards the garage rock Sunset Strip bands than I would personally have chosen, but it still does an extraordinary job of putting this music into a proper context. You get the demo of the Monkees’ hit Words, by songwriters Boyce & Hart, along with the Monkees themselves with their Moog-psych masterpiece Daily Nightly, but then you also get the Rising Sons (Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s mid-60s blues band) doing a riffy blues cover of the Monkees’ Take A Giant Step.

You get Dino Desi & Billy (who were a teenage band including the son of Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball, and Dean Martin’s son Dino), and Jan & Dean singing about perfume flavoured chewing gum, but also Captain Beefheart.

And there’s also the Byrds, the Mamas & The Papas, the Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Love, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Sagittarius, Tim Buckley, The Dillards, The Knickerbockers, The Turtles, The Electric Prunes, The Penny Arkade, The Association, The Standells…

The hundred tracks here lead smoothly from fuzz guitar and Rickenbacker jangle to the outer reaches of psychedelia via the most bubblegum of mainstream pop, and manage to do it in a way that makes the links between these different bands and styles apparent.

This set, particularly discs three and four, is absolutely essential to anyone with any interest in 60s pop and rock music.

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Christmas Cloudcast

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on December 9, 2012

My latest ‘cloudcast’ — a Christmas special. As it’s Christmas music, this one is more straightforward than my normal ones, but I hope it still manages to have plenty of music you won’t have heard before, while still having a few familiar ones to keep things appropriately Christmassy.

Tracklist:

Stew — Xmas Again

The Free Design — Close Your Mouth (It’s Christmas)

Blake Jones And The Trike Shop — Christmas Sale

Elvis Presley — The First Noel

Neil Innes — Tinsel And String

Waterson:Carthy — On Christmas Day It Happened So

Mary Margaret O’Hara — What Are You Doin’ New Years Eve?

They Might Be Giants — Santa Claus

Pete Seeger — What Child Is This?

Frank Sidebottom — Christmas Is Really Fantastic

Brian Wilson — Joy To The World

Peggy Lee — Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Paul Simon — The Star Carol

Dean Martin — Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Margo Guryan — I Don’t Intend To Spend Christmas Without You

The Muppets — It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

The Knickerbockers — I Want A Girl For Christmas

Jake Thackray — Joseph

Ray Charles — Rudolph The Red-Nose Reindeer

Martin Newell — Christmas In Suburbia

The Monkees — White Christmas

Half Man Half Biscuit — It’s Cliched To Be Cynical At Christmas

The Beach Boys — Winter Symphony

Bert Jansch — In The Bleak Midwinter

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My latest cloudcast

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 23, 2012

In which I continue to try to find the right balance between tuneful pop songs full of harmony and electronic burblings that go skree skronk bloop bleep. This week’s show includes the Monkees, Sun Ra, the theme from Horror Express, the Beach Boys, Gershwin played on the Moog, Waterson:Carthy and Van Dyke Parks, plus much more.

Can be found here.

Incidentally, sorry for the lack of replies to comments recently. My health is currently in a state where I can either write or comment, but not both. Unfortunately, all the writing I’ve been doing is for the novel, rather than stuff that can go on here. Bear with me.

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The Beach Boys at Wembley

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on October 1, 2012

That was either the best or the second best gig I’ve ever been to (the other contender was Brian Wilson at the Manchester Apollo in 2002).

The show on Friday seems likely to have been the last ever proper Beach Boys show (although despite press reports, Mike Love has not ‘fired’ the other members — the reunion tour was a specifically bounded thing that always had an end date), but there was no funereal atmosphere. Rather it was, as all the tour so far has been, a celebration of the band’s whole career.

The night before at the Albert Hall, they’d performed sixty-one songs, and when I spoke with Nelson Bragg, the band’s percussionist, before the show, he said that was the plan for this show as well. Unfortunately, there was a curfew at Wembley, which meant they ‘only’ did fifty-six songs — Scott Totten, the co-musical director, was actually apologetic about this.

Truth be told, for most of the audience that was probably slightly too much. In the last half hour of the show there was a steady stream of people leaving as it got too late for them — many had clearly waited to hear their favourite song before leaving. The band are in their 70s now, and their audience aren’t much younger.

Everyone was on top form. I’d been a bit worried about Mike Love’s voice after some fairly poor radio and TV performances at the start of the week, but he’d clearly just been a bit rusty after a couple of weeks off — this show he was in great voice. Al Jardine is *always* in great voice — the only difference between his vocals now and in 1965 is that now his voice sounds stronger and richer. And Brian Wilson was the happiest I’ve ever seen him, clearly loving playing this music with these people. The only one who wasn’t singing perfectly was Bruce, who was even huskier than normal, but as he only had two leads that was OK.

The backing band, as always, were spectacular, from Probyn Gregory (who as well as being a wonderful musician is also a lovely man, and who got me a backstage pass for the show, which let me embarass myself by being a gushing fanboy towards several band members) playing every instrument under the sun to John Cowsill still being the best drummer I’ve ever seen — the interplay between Cowsill’s power on the drum kit and Nelson Bragg’s skill on percussion is a joy to watch and listen to. I’d go and see this band without the Beach Boys — they’re good enough to carry the show by themselves.

It’s hard to overstate how good this show was. Even the cornier aspects of Mike Love’s stage presence were toned down, because the sheer number of songs performed meant he had to cut out some of his more rehearsed bits. But the whole reunion has been far better than we could expect — while I don’t care all that much for That’s Why God Made The Radio, it’s still the band’s best album since at least LA (Light Album), and the tour has, with a couple of hitches, been carried off with great dignity. And who’d have thought *that* would be a word that could be applied to this band any more? It’s certainly not been applicable since before I was born.

If you’d told me five years ago that I’d see a Beach Boys tour with all five surviving members, where they actually appeared to get on with each other, and where they did a set that included three songs from Sunflower, two from Holland, five from Pet Sounds, and three from a new album that was their biggest hit since 1965, I’d have said you were utterly mad. But that’s what we’ve seen on this tour.

I’ll post a tracklisting and thoughts on individual songs below, but someone very kindly filmed the whole show from the audience and uploaded it to YouTube, so I’ll embed that here and you can listen along:



The band:

Brian Wilson — vocals, keyboard, bass
Mike Love — vocals
Al Jardine — vocals, guitar
Bruce Johnston — vocals, keyboard
David Marks — vocals, guitar

with
Jeff Foskett — vocals, guitar, mandolin
Scott Totten — vocals, guitar, ukulele, musical direction
Probyn Gregory — vocals, guitar, bass, tannerin, French horn, trumpet
Mike D’Amico — vocals, bass, percussion, drums
Nelson Bragg — vocals, percussion
John Cowsill — vocals, drums, percussion
Scott Bennett — vocals, keyboards, percussion
Darian Sahanaja — vocals, keyboards, percussion
Paul Mertens — sax, flute, harmonica, musical director

The show started with the usual set of surf songs with Mike Love on lead, the same songs in the same order that Mike always uses in his own shows:

Do it again
Little Honda
Catch a wave
Hawaii
Don’t back down
Surfin safari

Surfer girl — Brian took the middle eight, and the entire audience went wild. He sounded glorious.
Please let me wonder
This whole world
— I could have gone home happy after hearing those two songs sung by Brian back to back. Two of the best songs they’ve ever done.

Wendy — Bruce on lead, a little weak
Getcha back — David Marks’ only lead vocal — and only audible vocal — of the show
Then I kissed her — Al sang the second line twice rather than sing the first line (he did the same in Milan), but then made up for it by singing the first line a capella at the end of the song.
You’re so good to me — The crowd *loved* this, obviously all knowing the song from hits collections even though it was never a hit.
Kiss me baby — this was just astonishing. I had to let out a gasp at this. Brian took the lead, even though Mike sang it on the record.
Isn’t it time — it’s a silly piece of nothing, but it’s an enjoyable piece of nothing, and works better now they’ve got rid of Foskett’s part in the middle eight (it was just out of his range) and replaced it with a descending part from Mike. Catchy and fun.

Come go with me
Why do fools fall in love
When I grow up to be a man
Dance dance dance
— all as you’d expect

Darlin — Darian on lead. Wonderful.
Disney girls — Jeff played the mandolin part on the intro. When the massed backing vocals came in on the word “love” it was one of the best moments of the show.
It’s ok — Brian really loved singing the “find a ride” parts here.

Cotton fields — Al pointed at Mike on the line “a nice old man, he had a hat on”.
Be true to your school
Ballad Of Ol’ Betsy Scott Totten sang lead on this, very well
Don’t worry baby — Foskett on lead, just gorgeous.

And the first half finished with the normal car song medley:

Little deuce coupe
409
Shut down
I get around

After the intermission, there was a brief snatch of the James Bond theme, going into
Pet sounds — Dave Marks’ big solo spot
Add some music — all the Beach Boys clustered round the piano, passing hand-held mics around. Funny to hear when Bruce passed the mic to Al, and the vocals went from whispery to dominating the whole stadium.
Sail on sailor — Brian really got into this, growling “DAMN the thunder!”
Heroes and villains — as good as music gets
I just wasn’t made for these times — spectacular. Al took the answering phrase on the chorus, and sang “HE just wasn’t made…” at the end.

California dreamin It shows how much Brian was getting into the show that he decided to sing the answering phrases on the first verse, even though the Beach Boys’ arrangement doesn’t normally have them. And he was great on his lead on the second verse.
California
In my room
All this is that
— Jeff Foskett sounded eerily like Carl on this one at the end. Lovely.
That’s why god made the radio — never been a huge fan of this one, but it definitely gets the crowd going.
Summer’s gone — only the second time they ever played this live. Works far better live than on record, though it’ll never be a favourite of mine.


Forever
God only knows
— these two used videos of Dennis and Carl Wilson, with their recorded lead vocals, while the band backed them.

Sloop john b
Wouldn’t it be nice
Good vibrations
California girls
All summer long
Help me Rhonda
Rock and roll music
Do you wanna dance
Surfin USA
— all as you’d expect. Some great performances, especially Wouldn’t It Be Nice, but no surprises. Scott Bennett surfed on Brian’s grand piano during Surfin’ USA.

Encore:

Kokomo — the only real misstep of the show, this saps all the energy when played at this point of the show in the UK, because no-one here knows it except the big fans, and they don’t generally like it. It worked better on the Mike/Bruce/David 2008 tour, when they played it coming out of the obscure tracks and into the last run of hits.
Barbara Ann
Fun fun fun

And with Bruce Johnston’s falsetto “away”s, the Beach Boys’ career as a touring entity may have ended. Mike & Bruce’s band (Love, Johnston, Totten, Cowsill and Tim Bonhomme, Randell Kirsch and Christian Love) are already back on the road — they played a charity show in Mexico last night, and apparenly raised a million dollars for a children’s hospital — but it’s unknown whether the five surviving Beach Boys will ever perform together again.

If they don’t, I can’t really imagine a better way to end their career. The band have suffered a lot of self-inflicted wounds over the years, but other than Johnston’s unwise comments about ‘socialist assholes’, and the storm-in-a-teacup whipped up by the media about the end of the tour, they haven’t put a foot wrong this year. I feel privileged to have been at that show, and to have met up with a few of the band members before and after it, and I look forward to whatever the people on that stage do next, together or separately.

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