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
This is going to be the shortest of these Beach Boys articles. Partly, this is because I plan on writing at least two more blog posts this weekend – the Cerebus and scientific method ones (and maybe the first chapter of my novel) (and I’ve also got to get some stuff done for work). Mostly, however, it’s because where other albums have filler tracks, this is an entire filler CD. It can be listened to on Spotify here, if you must.
Of the two albums on this CD, one, 1968′s Stack-O-Tracks consists entirely of instrumental mixes of tracks from previous records, so I won’t be dealing with it at all here – all I’d be saying is “It’s Darlin’ without the vocals – see the entry for Darlin’ under the Wild Honey album.”
The other album, though, Beach Boys Party!, requires at least a cursory glance through.
Beach Boys Party!
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston (uncredited)
Also features – Marilyn Wilson (backing vocals), Dean Torrence (vocals), Hal Blaine (percussion), Billy Hinsche (harmonica)
I can name the other participants simply here because unlike the albums that surround it, Beach Boys Party! is as far from being a complex, heavily-orchestrated masterpiece as possible. The band’s next real album, Pet Sounds would not be ready for several more months, but Capitol Records wanted a Christmas cash-in release. The two obvious ideas – a live album and an album of Christmas songs – had both been done the year before (we’ll deal with these when we get to 1969 and 1978, so we can deal with the other albums that share the CDs with them). So this time, it was decided to record a ‘live-in-the-studio’ album as if it were recorded at a party the band were attending,
So the band got together in the studio with a few acoustic guitars and Hal Blaine on bongos, and knocked out a set of incredibly sloppy cover versions of songs chosen seemingly at random, and then got friends to add party noises, and added a few wild tracks of party effects. This means that even the better tracks on the album have mistakes left in and general chatter and noise over the top.
The album might well have made a great soundtrack to a teenager’s party in 1965 – and even today for that matter – but as music, as a listening experience, it ranges from pretty decent to outright horrible, and tends towards the latter.
A song originally recorded by The Olympics in 1959, this starts the album as it means to go on – a fun party tune with silly lyrics. Generally speaking, the album is split between songs that the band knew as teenagers (like this one) and ones by their contemporary influences. A nothing tune in this version, the original by the Olympics is a nice, strutting R&B track in the style of the Coasters, with a laid-back groove totally missing from this version. Mike takes lead.
I Should Have Known Better
The first of three Beatles covers on the album – all covers of Lennon songs (lending credence to my belief that Lennon, rather than McCartney, is the closer songwriter to the Beach Boys’ style). This features just the first two verses and middle eight of the song, sung in unison by several people. At various points the most prominent voice in the mix is Al (always the strongest vocalist in the band), Brian or Brian’s wife Marilyn (a singer herself, with girl-group the Honeys, though not a particularly good one). Mike tries to add some character with some “bow bow bow” backing vocals in the middle eight, but this is just a crowd singing along with an acoustic guitar…
Tell Me Why
The second Lennon cover, this is a more creditable performance, as the song’s simple block harmonies and four-chord changes make it perfect for this kind of atmosphere – especially since the band don’t bother with the instrumental intro from the original (like the previous song, on the A Hard Day’s Night album). Even so, the performance falls apart at the end of the middle eight like before.
I’m still unsure who’s singing lead here – Wikipedia says Carl and Al, and it could be them – but it could also be Brian and Carl or Brian and Al. No matter how many times I listen (and I’ve listened multiple times just now to the finished version and to two outtakes) I can’t decide for sure – this is in precisely the range where those three sound most similar.
In a nice touch, Brian added this to the acoustic ‘party’ set when he performed in Liverpool in 2004 on the Smile tour, in this arrangement (such as it is).
The best track so far, this was actually the second time the band had recorded this song, originally by The Rivingtons, in a year – it had appeared on the Concert album the previous year. This is actually the better of the two versions, because the fun in this song is almost entirely in the vocal performance – Love growling the ‘papa oom mow mow’ part in a comically low bass voice, while Brian screeches, yowls, whoops and wails in falsetto. The looseness of this setting allows them to go to ridiculous extremes with this, and the result is genuinely enjoyable.
Mountain Of Love
Originally by Harold Dorman, a one-hit wonder, this had been a hit the previous year for Johnny Rivers, and it’s Rivers’ arrangement the Beach Boys are clearly copying here, down to the backing vocals. A simple twelve-bar blues with little going for it, the song obviously stuck with Brian Wilson – twelve years later he copied the middle eight note for note for his song Little Children (which remained unreleased for another eleven years and eventually became a track on his first solo album). Love sings lead, and rudimentary harmonica is provided by Billy Hinsche, of the minor teen-pop band Dino, Desi and Billy. Carl Wilson would marry Hinsche’s sister Annie the next year, and Hinsche became a regular member of the Beach Boys’ touring band from the early 70s, adding keyboards, guitar and backing vocals until the mid-90s.
You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
The third Lennon cover on the album, and one of only two tracks that could really be counted as in any way good here, Dennis takes lead and plays the song straight (though the party crowd do all join in on the “Hey!” parts). While it’s spoiled by the party noises (this is anything but a party song), Dennis’ soulful croak is perfect for this song, one of Lennon’s best and most mournful. It also, more than any of the other tracks, puts the lie to the ostensibly spontaneous nature of these recordings – Dennis is very sloppily double-tracked here.
This song actually entered the band’s setlist as Dennis’ vocal spot (taking over from The Wanderer ). If you want to hear just how good the song sounds without the party noises, at least three concerts featuring the song have been widely bootlegged (two from Michigan in excellent quality soundboard recordings, one from Japan as an audience recording with some nice added harmonies), not that I could ever recommend taking such action of course, but even here this is far and away the best thing on the album so far.
Devoted To You
And this is the best thing on the album full stop. A rather light little ballad written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant for the Everly Brothers, here Mike and Brian sing it, with Carl accompanying on the guitar, and they are absolutely stunning. While the Everlys are possibly the greatest vocal harmony duo of all time, Devoted To You isn’t one of their better efforts – giving the melody to Phil while Don sang low harmony (usually Don would sing melody while Phil would take high harmony) means it doesn’t play to their strengths. On the other hand here Brian and Mike still have the vocal similarity that comes from being family members, but Brian gets to sing the song in a gorgeous falsetto while Mike harmonises in a rich baritone.
Off the top of my head I can’t think of another time when Brian and Mike have harmonised so closely – the signature Beach Boys style required the two of them to be almost antiphonal, playing off each other while the rest of the band did block harmonies in the middle. And later on, of course, the band moved away from harmony to a great extent and towards counterpoint.
But this shows how much this was a conscious choice – these two voices, alone, are absolutely spellbinding. Much as I love Brian’s more complex vocal arrangements, I’d still kill to hear an album of Brian and Mike singing two-part harmony a la Simon & Garfunkel, the Everlys or the Louvin Brothers.
The party noises are mixed down for this one, but if you want to give the track the respect it deserves, the rarities CD Hawthorne, Ca has a mix of this with the noises mixed out altogether.
Originally a country single for Dallas Frazer, this song about the cartoon caveman had become a hit for the Hollywood Argyles in 1960. The Hollywood Argyles were a studio creation put together by Kim Fowley (a schoolfriend of Bruce Johnston who managed to be involved in a minor way in almost every major music event for thirty years despite having no discernible talent – he made some of the first surf records, played on Frank Zappa’s first album, is the announcer on John Lennon’s Live Peace In Toronto and so on – he’s the LA hipster equivalent of Zelig) and their take on the song was essentially to turn it into Hully Gully (and indeed they had a hit with a cover of that song in 1961).
This is also (along with The Monster Mash) one of two songs covered by both the Beach Boys and the Bonzo Dog Band, who presumably came across both songs from the Beach Boys’ versions.
I mention all this because there’s little to say about the song itself, which is just Hully Gully with lyrics about dinosaurs.
There’s No Other (Like My Baby)
A four-chord doo-wop ballad written by Phil Spector and Leroy Bates for the Crystals, this is played fairly straight, sticking close to the template of the original record, with Brian singing the Darlene Love lead part, and the rest of the band and ‘party guests’ singing the unison vocal choruses. Other than You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away and Devoted To You this is the most straightforward, respectful cover on the album. Unfortunately, it’s a straightforward, respectful cover of a plodding dirge, but you can’t have everything.
I Get Around/Little Deuce Coupe
A ‘hilarious’ comedy medley of two of the Beach Boys’ own hits, where Mike Love tries to improvise funny parody lyrics and fails miserably.An example is that after one of the “I get around” bits he sings “square”. Oh my aching sides.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Al Jardine, the band’s resident folkie, here gets a chance to sing a Dylan song. One always gets the impression from Jardine, with his whitebread earnestness, that he wishes he’d been in one of the bands parodied in A Mighty Wind – whereas Brian Wilson obsessed over the Four Freshmen, Jardine was a Kingston Trio fan, and his later contributions to the band are often either attempts at protest songs (Lookin’ At Tomorrow, Don’t Go Near The Water) or clean-cut versions of old folk songs (Sloop John B and Cottonfields. It tells you everything you need to know about Jardine that it was his idea to do Sloop John B but that at the recent reunion performance he added “but not too much!” after the line “drinkin’ all night”).
Jardine obviously likes the song, and does a very creditable job, punctuated by random shouts from the crowd, who seem less than impressed.
Dean Torrence, of Jan & Dean, was known as a nice person. However, it was equally well known that he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, even if that bucket were inside another bucket with an easy-carry handle, and if he were aided by two professional bucket-carriers and a bucket-carrying machine. He sometimes wasn’t even allowed to sing on Jan & Dean’s own records, the falsetto parts being as likely to be sung by Brian Wilson or P.F. Sloan as by Torrence himself.
Nonetheless, he was there in the studio, and it was decided that he’d be allowed to sing lead on this, a cover of a song written by Fred Fassert for The Regents, which Jan & Dean had recently covered themselves. After all, this was a filler album, no-one was going to pay attention, right?
Carl Wilson, thirty-one years later, called this song “the bane of my life”. Released as a single by the record company without the band’s knowledge or permission, this sloppy, hideously off-key (Brian can be heard during a session outtake groaning “Hey Dean, sing on key! Jesus!”) cover version, where the band forget the words half-way through and with someone who isn’t even in the band on lead vocals, somehow became one of their biggest ever hits, and they had to sing it every working day for the rest of their lives.
Just goes to show that you should never just pump out filler crap for the money, or it can come back to bite you…
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.
The Beach Boys’ fourth album, Little Deuce Coupe, came out three weeks after their third, Surfer Girl. A concept album of sorts, based around cars, it included four songs from earlier albums. This means that the CD ‘twofer’ pairings have a slight chronological inaccuracy – the two September 1963 albums, rather than being paired with each other, are each paired with a 1964 record, thus avoiding repetition of tracks. As I’m dealing with these records on a per-CD basis, that’s how I’ll be looking at them too.
Little Deuce Coupe
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, David Marks, Al Jardine (uncredited)
The last album to feature David Marks, before his disagreements with the Wilsons’ father Murry led him to leave to form his own band, Dave And The Marksmen, this nonetheless has the stronger harmonies that show that Al Jardine was firmly in place. A collection of car songs, it’s clearly a rush job, but it still has its moments. It is, though, far from essential – it was recorded in a single session, and sounds it.
Little Deuce Coupe
The same recording included on the Surfer Girl album
Ballad Of Ole’ Betsy
Another rewrite of The Surfer Moon/Your Summer Dream from the previous album, this is the best of these three attempts at what amounts to the same musical material, thanks to being the only one to feature full band vocals. This brings out the Four Freshmen influence more obviously, and other than a double tracking error on ‘she may be rusted iron’ the vocals are gorgeous, especially on the a capella tag.
The lyrics, by Roger Christian, are less impressive, anthropomorphising a car – “she was born in ’32, and was she ever pretty/she rode a freight train west, all the way from Detroit city” and so on. This manages to make them both over-sentimental mush about what is, after all, an inanimate object, while simultaneously seeming to objectify women in a rather disturbing way (“Betsy took some beatings, but she never once complained”…)
But if you listen for the vocals, and ignore both text and subtext, it works as a piece of music.
Be True To Your School is a musically uninteresting piece of boosterism by Love and Brian Wilson, bearing some slight musical resemblance to Hawaii (whose tag is reused at the end). I’m not the target audience for this track as I never had the American High School experience, and I’ve always loathed both sports and expressions of in-group solidarity (especially when they’re expressed in an aggressive manner – “we’ll be ready to fight, we’re gonna smash ‘em now”). If you’re the kind of person who likes that kind of thing, you might have a less jaded impression of this track.
Car Crazy Cutie is a reworking of a doo-wop track Brian had written for another band, The Survivors, a short while earlier, with new lyrics by Roger Christian about a beautiful girlfriend who is more interested in cars than the singer – “But when I talk of lovin’ man, some kisses and hugs/She says don’t you think we’d better clean and gap the plugs”. This is actually something of a theme on this album – the disconnect between appearance and actuality. Along with the fact that so much of the musical material is reused (either from rejected earlier songs, songs given to other people, or just sticking an old record on the album to fill up the gaps), there are some quite interesting collisions of form and content going on here. The album is about taking old junk and polishing it up to make it look good, but it still being less than perfect under the hood. The fact that they take the same attitude towards women as to cars and their songs is unfortunate, but probably to be expected given their ages (the band members ranged from fifteen to twenty-two) and the culture they were in.
The lack of success with this ‘cutie’ though is probably why Brian is the lead vocalist, as otherwise this Dion pastiche would have been a perfect vocal showcase for Dennis. But his swaggering persona would never have worked with the rejection in the last verse. This is still, however, by far the best new song on the album.
Cherry Cherry Coupe is a rewrite of the then-unreleased Land Ahoy by Brian and Roger Christian, and appears to be about a particularly good car. I say ‘appears to be’ because here we run into one of the problems in reviewing this album for a British person born in 1978 who doesn’t drive, in that a good chunk of the lyrics don’t seem to be in anything I’d recognise as English. I haven’t a clue what “My coupe’s tuck and roll underneath the hood” or “Chrome reversed rims with whitewall slicks” are. Are they a good thing? “Chopped nose and deck with louvers on the hood” ?
I take it these *are* good things, because “It’s the sharpest in the town and the envy of my group”, but for all I know this could be advocating the violent overthrow of the government and its replacement with a fascist dictatorship. That might be what a cellunoid system is…
That said, this is catchy enough, and one of the first times Mike Love is allowed to really impress with his bass range – his tenor lead here is merely passable, but on the choruses his bass rumbling of “My cherry coupe eats ‘em up coming off the line/And she really gets lost when she starts to whine” makes the song.
The track from the Surfin’ Safari album
The track from the Surfin’ USA album
Spirit Of America
It shows how desperate the Beach Boys were getting for material that this and Ballad Of Ole Betsy were included on the same album, despite having near-identical melodies. This Wilson/Christian song, with Brian Wilson on lead vocal, is about Craig Breedlove’s first world land speed record, which he had acheived four weeks to the day before the recording session for this album. Given the circumstances one wouldn’t expect a masterpiece, and the fact that the track is even competent says a lot for how good Brian Wilson was at this point.
It seems at times like I’m slating this album – and it really isn’t very good by any normal standards – but to record something this adequate in the time they were given is frankly astounding.
Our Car Club
The same recording included on the Surfer Girl album
I think this is an attempt at a comedy song – I say I think, because again this is a Roger Christian lyric, which means the lyrics are full of things like “It really rates fine in the custom clan, with hand-formed panels, tuck-and-roll rear pan”. But I *think* it’s about a car which looks good but won’t go fast (“When it comes to speed, man, I’m just outa luck, I’m even shut down by the ice cream truck”).
A Young Man Is Gone
Bobby Troup’s maudlin Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring, a song recorded by the Four Freshmen, was one of the first things the Beach Boys ever recorded, and has remained in the band’s act to this day as an a capella showcase. It’s fascinating if you have access to enough live recordings to hear how the different voices entering and leaving the line-up over the years have affected the quality of the harmonies – to my mind the best version is the rehearsal recording from 1993 with only two original members of the band (Carl and Al) plus Bruce Johnston and Al’s son Matt.
This is their only official studio recording of the song, with new lyrics by Mike Love, here bemoaning the death of James Dean, and while the original lyrics were bad, these are, if anything, worse – “For this daring young star met his death while in his car/No one knows the reason why/Screaming tire, flashing fire, and gone was this young star/Oh how could they let him die”. However, the harmonies are exquisite, and the whole thing just about works because of that.
The last song on this album is also by far the most interesting, although it falls into the category of ‘interesting failure’ – Custom Machine has quite a lot of playing around with keys and tonality, with the chorus seeming to go off into some nowhere between-keys land (on the line “I’ll let you look but don’t touch my custom machine”). However, it sounds arbitrary, rather than clever – an experiment that didn’t quite come off. The track still almost works, mostly down to the band’s enthusiasm and tightness – a tightness that’s even more surprising when you realise how little time they (and the session musicians augmenting them) had to rehearse and learn the song – you can hear someone whispering the next line to Mike Love during the instrumental break.
Originally credited as a solo Brian Wilson composition, this is one of the songs for which Mike Love won a co-writing credit in his 1990s lawsuit. To my ears, though, it sounds if anything like a Roger Christian lyric – Love’s lyrics usually have the virtue of being singable and in something approaching English, while lines like “A stereophonic speaker set with vibrasonic sound” just sit uncomfortably, having far too many syllables for their melody.
All Summer Long
band membership – Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine
While Shut Down Vol 2 had contained two of the best tracks the band would ever record, plus one of their biggest hits, All Summer Long is the point where the Beach Boys, spurred on by at last having some real competition, became important. This was the start of their four-album golden period (this, Today!, Summer Days… And Summer Nights! and Pet Sounds) where they were not only having huge hits but making huge artistic strides forward as well.
I once played a Beatles album for a relative who didn’t really know their work, and he said to me half-way through “No, I want to hear a proper album, not a collection of hits” – All Summer Long, more than any other Beach Boys album, feels like that. While only one track became an actual hit single, four of its eleven tracks were included on the Endless Summer compilation and pretty much every hits compilation and best-of since, while another, Little Honda, became a huge hit in a note-for-note cover version by the Hondells.
While it still has its share of filler (the Beach Boys never really became an ‘album band’ til they were almost commercially obsolete), this is the earliest Beach Boys album about which one can say it’s an essential album, rather than just having essential tracks.
I Get Around
You may have heard this one…
The Beach Boys’ first number one, this is the first of their singles to show signs of having been constructed as a record first and song second. If Mike Love (who won co-writing credit for this in 1993, before which it was credited as a Brian Wilson solo track) is telling the truth, in fact, when he claims to have come up with the “round, round, get around” hook, then he can probably lay claim to 90% of the record’s success.
But that other 10% is crucial, and is all down to the structure and production, which is stunningly sophisticated. First just listen to the way the instrumental track is carefully layered. We start with two low notes on the guitar – but then there is no instrumentation for the next four seconds. Going into the chorus, we can hear a guitar and bass (a fairly poor lead guitar part was recorded but is not audible in the final mix), both essentially doubling each other (a trick Brian had learned from Phil Spector), and a very interesting drum part courtesy of session player Hal Blaine. With almost no hi-hat or cymbal at all, the part on the record consists of just a kick drum every other beat and one fill two bars in, along with some *incredibly* fast brushwork.
Rather amazingly, this brushwork is the replacement for a harpsichord part – if one listens to the session recordings (not that I would ever advocate illegal downloading of course hem hem), the same part, in more or less the same range, is being played by the harpsichord (Blaine is playing semiquavers, while the harpsichord was playing quavers, but the audible pressing and release of the keys doubled it rhythmically),
In fact the drum part seems to be a construction after the fact rather than a live performance – the basic track for the song, before any overdubbing, features a far more conventional drum pattern, with fours on the kick drum, snare for emphasis every other beat (where the kick drum is on the record) and quavers on the hi-hat. It’s only *after* the basic track is done that the drums are re-recorded (although one can still *very* faintly hear leakage from the original hi-hat track used to keep time through the a capella sections).
We then have the verse, where while Mike Love’s singing we have two bars of just guitar and bass doubling each other in a stop-start rhythm (with a stray hi-hat beat to keep them in time) under the first line, before being joined by handclaps for the second line, before a two-bar instrumental break. This break *does* feature the harpsichord, but it’s overwhelmed by the hammond organ that’s added. This two-bar break (stretching the verse to an unusual ten bar length) contains musical material found nowhere else, but which Terry Melcher (of whom much more, sadly, later) would re-use as the main guitar riff for the Byrds’ version of Mister Tambourine Man (the backing track of which was based on this song’s B-side, Don’t Worry Baby).
We then go into a repeat of the chorus, instrumentally the same as the intro, which goes into a new, short section, the ‘get around round round ooh’ section, and again we can feel the tension building as through these rising oohs we add in the hammond organ, a lead guitar solo and, barely audible, three bass saxophone notes at crucial points. We’ve gone from a single voice and ptactically no instrumentation right up to a full wall of sound, and it’s been a natural progression, like a driver slowly pressing his foot down and taking you from 0 to 100 without ever really noticing the acceleration.
And the instrumental track isn’t even what we notice on this track, it’s those five part harmonies, and Brian Wilson’s falsetto soaring like it never had before. It’s the sense of restlessness coupled with braggadoccio – of someone who knows he’s absolutely mastered the pop single, and is itching to try something better (“I’m getting bugged driving up and down the same old strip, I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip”).
Were it not that that accolade truly belongs to a single the Beach Boys would release two years later, one could easily describe I Get Around as the perfect pop record.
All Summer Long
Anything was going to be a let-down after that opener, but truth be told I’ve never been a huge fan of this song even divorced from its context. While it’s interesting from a production standpoint (the xylophone part was an inspired move) and harmonically (it’s essentially a variant on the I-vi-ii-V progression, but replacing the minor sixth with a flattened third, a rather jazzy substitution, and then extending a lot of the chords with passing sixths and augmented fifths).
While this song’s use in American Graffitti kickstarted the band’s commercial revival in the mid-70s,I have to say I’ve always found it too saccharine.
And, though it’s hardly fair to judge it on this, the trade-off between the whistle and saxophone on the instrumental break can’t help but make any British people with a love of comedy think that someone’s playing a game of Swanee Kazoo.
This is another song for which Mike Love, who sings lead, sued and won co-writing credit.
The only actual cover on the album (though see Carl’s Big Chance) this is a fairly straight cover of a doo-wop song, originally recorded by the Mystics. Written by the great songwriting team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (responsible for roughly seventeen trillion quadrillion of the great pop songs of the late 50s and early 60s) they were having a comparative off-day when they came up with this – other than the melodic referencing of Brahms’ Lullaby in the middle eight, this is a fairly standard doo-wop song. The performance and production here is absolutely exemplary – the harmonies are heavenly, the broken drum part and driving piano bass are the missing link between what Phil Spector was doing at the time and what the Beatles would be doing by the end of the year – but this is ‘only’ a very, very pleasant trifle. Brian sings lead, with Mike on the middle eight.
A Wilson/Love song for which there’s never been any credit dispute, this is one of those songs where you can see what an influence the band had on the Velvet Underground. From the throbbing low-range three-chord guitar to the held organ notes (a common thing in Brian Wilson’s arrangements, often filling in what would be another harmony part in the middle of the stack), to the monotone lead vocal melody, this is musically extremely close to songs like Foggy Notion, White Light/White Heat or I’m Waiting For The Man. There’s even a drone, courtesy of the hummed backing vocals in the verse.
Of course, the Velvet Underground rarely had lyrics like “It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys, that two-wheel bike”, but frankly that’s the Velvets’ problem, not the Beach Boys’.
We’ll Run Away
A weak filler track, this is the last Brian Wilson/Gary Usher song to be recorded and released by the Beach Boys (though the two would collaborate again in the 80s on some material, most of which was unreleased, but some sneaked out as very obscure Brian Wilson solo tracks). A 12/8 ballad in the mould of Tears On My Pillow and similar 50s hits, this would have sounded dated even at the time – but Wilson and Usher were probably thinking of the string of Phil Spector songs about being too young to get married around this time (e.g. Not Too Young To Get Married by Bob. B. Soxx And The Blue Jeans, Why Don’t They Let Us Fall In Love by Veronica (Ronnie Spector) and especially So Young by Veronica, which the band would cover on their next studio album). However, all these songs had more energy and seemed more up-to-date.
There’s also an annoying bit of shoddy craftsmanship in that the second and third verses try to shove too many syllables into their first lines, forcing the band to come in slightly behind the beat after dropping out. This is especially noticeable at the start of the second verse (“They warned us that we can’t live on love forever”).
Brian’s voice is also in his weakest point here – right at the top of his head voice where it turns into falsetto. When his voice started to deteriorate a few years later it was this range that went first, and this is the only range he’s never really recovered. Here, it means he’s drifting between a slightly off-pitch high head voice and a slightly nasal low falsetto more or less at random, occasionally singing in different ‘voices’ in each of his double-tracked vocals.
Carl’s Big Chance
This is credited to Brian and Carl Wilson, but is in fact a filler instrumental whose backing track is clearly the vamp from Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get A Witness, over which Carl plays some fairly rudimentary lead guitar – strangely sounding closer to Chet Atkins (albeit Chet Atkins as played by a teenager) than to the surf sounds on previous albums. Pointless.
Wendy, another Wilson/Love lawsuit track, is a very strong opener for side two of the original album. Other than its stuttering opening, and the studio noise (most notably a cough) heard during the Hammond solo, there’s little to talk about here, but that’s not to say it’s not good – it’s an excellent song, performed well, with a great lead by Brian. It’s just that it’s not a song that’s improved by analysis – its good points are all obvious ones, and there’s little to dig into below the surface.
Do You Remember? is Brian Wilson’s tribute to the music he’d listened to growing up, and clearly based on At The Hop. Lasting barely a minute and a half (and that with an extended fade) there was clearly very little inspiration here.
What’s interesting about it (the only thing, really) is that this is rock nostalgia from before there was a ‘canon’ and official history of rock, as reported by someone who was a teenage music fan of the time. So in ‘the guys who gave us rock & roll’, along with Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry we have the terminally uncool TV DJ Dick Clark and “Danny and the Juniors hit a groove, stuck as sharp as a knife”.
Girls On The Beach is a rewrite by Brian of Surfer Girl, but a much less pleasant one – where Surfer Girl was a romantic song of love for one individual, this is attempting to give the same romantic feeling to a song which is lyrically not all that far removed in attitude from Peaches by the Stranglers – “The girls on the beach are all within reach if you know what to do” and “we love to lie around girls with tans of golden brown”.
It’s not the sexist lyric itself that’s the problem with this song – it’s no worse in that respect than, say, California Girls – but it just doesn’t go with the warm, romantic closely-harmonised melody. There’s a cognitive dissonance there that there just isn’t in California Girls‘ leering swagger. Lead vocals are by Brian, with Dennis on the middle eight.
Another lawsuit-credited Wilson/Love song, with Mike on lead vocals, this is a comedy song of sorts, about teenage life – the Drive-in is ‘a groovy place to talk and maybe watch the show’ when on a date, (“If you say you watch the movie you’re a couple o’ liars”), and how you shouldn’t “sneak your buddies in the trunk ’cause they might get caught…And they’d look kinda stupid gettin’ chased through the lot”. Love’s vocal carries this off with the appropriate humour (and a wonderfully goofy Smokey Bear impression on “remember only you can prevent forest fires”), and the track, while not wonderful, is a pleasant improvement after the last two songs.
Incidentally, the Spectoresque backing track, one of the fullest arrangements on the album, was originally recorded several months earlier at the same session as the Christmas single Little St Nick, and a version of the backing track with the Little St Nick lyrics was released on the Ultimate Christmas compilation in the nineties. There’s some debate about whether that version was intended as a joke, or whether two backing tracks were cut for the same lyric and the better one chosen. The presence of prominent sleigh bells on this leads me to suspect the latter.
Our Favourite Recording Sessions is filler. It’s the equivalent of a film ‘blooper reel’, containing various breakdown takes and studio arguments (though only the more family-friendly ones – nothing like the argument over who spat in whose mouth that broke out during vocal overdubs on Little Honda for example). While other tracks have been relatively weak, this is the only real evidence that the band were still under immense pressure to crank material out by the yard.
And after a relatively weak run of songs, the album finishes with one of the best tracks, Don’t Back Down. Written by Brian and (you guessed it) with a co-writing credit won by Mike in 1993, this is a reworking of Hawaii (with which the current touring ‘Beach Boys’ often perform this as a medley). It’s very easy to imagine that on the choruses Brian is singing about himself when he sings “You gotta be a little nuts/but show ‘em how you’ve got guts/Don’t back down from that wave”. Right now, Brian was feeling challenged by his rivalry with the Beatles (a rivalry which they had not yet noticed themselves, though they would by the next year), but soon the fear would start to take over…
This was the last surf song the Beach Boys would record for four years.
CD Bonus tracks
Be True To Your School (single version)
A rerecording of this song, released as a single, it takes whatever simplistic charm the album version had, and bludgeons it to death, then runs over it with a steamroller to make sure. It takes the basic template of the album track, and adds a guitar solo, a marching band, an instrumental break to the tune of On Wisconsin, a cheerleading team (performed by The Honeys, a vocal group featuring Brian Wilson’s fiancee, her sister and her cousin), a kitchen sink and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.
All Dressed Up For School
This is absolutely astonishing. Between the opening Louie Louie riff with Mike Love’s wonderfully stupid doot-doot-doots and the closing Papa Oom Mow Mow bit, there are musical ideas here that would sustain many other bands for a lifetime – the verse melody was later recycled into two songs (I Just Got My Pay and Marcella), the chorus became a Honda commercial, the guitar solo seems to contain within it the seeds of the later hit Dance Dance Dance, part of the lyric was reused for The Little Girl I Once Knew, and a little bit of it at the end seems to point the way towards some of the Smile period Heroes & Villains vocal sessions. And it’s a rare lead vocal at this point for Carl Wilson.
So why wasn’t it released? With such a catchy chorus, you just can’t help singing along… “All dressed up for school/ooh what a turn on/she’s so fine/what a turn on/all dressed up for school”
Moving swiftly on…
Little Honda (Alternate Take) is almost indistinguishable from the released version, except for the backing vocal arrangement – instead of singing “Honda Honda going faster faster” they sing “Go little Honda, faster little Honda”, and Brian’s falsetto is more prominent. The change was an improvement. The only other change (changing the word ‘champ’ to ‘matchless’) was less so.
Don’t Back Down (alternate take) is in many ways the most interesting of these bonus tracks, although musically the least listenable. It also provides quite a bit of justification for Mike Love’s claim to have had input on at least this song. The backing track is identical to the finished version – obviously they kept the instrumental track – and the main theme of the lyrics is similar, but everything else is different. The melody here is actually the one Brian used for a song for The Honeys, Hide Go Seek, some time earlier (you can hear that song at this youtube link – it’s far and away the best thing The Honeys ever did), and the lyrics are totally different. Obviously the original idea was to reuse an unsuccessful but good song from a side project, before it was reworked in the studio. Given the speed with which Love has been known to work (writing lyrics in taxi-cabs to recording sessions on occasion) it wouldn’t surprise me at all had he reworked the lyrics (though the new melody still has Brian’s fingerprints all over it).
Next up, we skip (for now) the Christmas and Concert albums (I’ll get to them eventually, but they’re not part of ‘the story of the Beach Boys’ artistic evolution’, just appendices) and get to The Beach Boys Today!, often regarded as the band’s best album…
You’d have thought that after spending much of the last month finishing writing a book on the Beatles which required listening and relistening to every track they ever recorded multiple times, that I’d have had enough John Lennon for a while. And you’d be right. But then, a day after I finished my book and got it published, Lennon’s solo catalogue showed up on Spotify.
Lennon’s solo work gets a bad press these days, and his critical stock is very low. To some extent it’s justified – albums like Double Fantasy and Some Time In New York City would be weak by any standards, let alone when you know they’re the work of someone who could come up with songs like A Day In The Life, Strawberry Fields Forever or Happiness Is A Warm Gun.
But far more of it’s an over-reaction to the way that in the aftermath of his death, Lennon became the Great Untouchable in the eyes of that generation of rock critics, his every note perfection itself. And on top of that, for quite understandable reasons Yoko Ono has maintained a tight grip on Lennon’s public image, presenting St John The Martyr, Who Died For Peace. Frankly, I’d probably be doing something similar in her position – had I seen my spouse shot dead in front of me, I’d probably want to make sure everyone thought as well as possible of them, and not want to dwell on their faults.
But of course, naturally, then people find out about the man’s real faults (and he had some tremendous faults – he was at times a horrible person), presume that his public image now is how he presented himself in life, and conclude he was a horrible hypocrite, and let that judgement reflect on their view of his music.
But of course Lennon was neither a saint nor Satan, and nor did he ever claim to be either. He was, rather, someone who by instinct was an unpleasant, vicious, mysoginistic, near-psychopath, albeit one who was very charming, bright and funny. But he was someone who *didn’t want to be that way* and tried to change. Nobody desires peace quite as much as someone whose every instinct is telling him to go for the throat, and has seen where that gets you. Nobody is as sincere a feminist as a repentant former wife-beater.
And that complexity fuelled his music. While outside books like Ray Coleman’s hagiography nobody would claim Lennon was as good post-Beatles as during the 60s, and very few people would seriously argue his inspiration didn’t drop off, at the same time he *was* still one of the two or three greatest songwriters of his generation, and probably *the* greatest vocalist. Cutting this complex man down to the banality of Imagine and a load of songs about how much he loved his wife misses the point.
So I’ve put together this playlist of my personal favourite Lennon solo tracks. Listening to the new remasters via Spotify, they’re not the best mastering I’ve heard of this material – there’s a sheen to them I don’t like, and there’s even more reverb here than on the original recordings, which were already reverb-heavy thanks to Lennon’s desire to cover up his voice and Phil Spector’s obsession with echo. But I’m still glad to have Lennon’s music on Spotify, and I hope that when his critical reputation settles down, it will be higher than it is right now (though still not at the “Angela and John Sinclair are masterpieces” levels of the early 80s).
Well (Baby Please Don’t Go) is a live version of an old blues track by the Olympics, performed onstage live with Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention (the “Flo & Eddie” line-up – this was actually recorded on the second of the two shows that became the Filmore East June 1971 album). In general, I prefer the mix of this show that Zappa put out on the Playground Psychotics album to the version on Some Time In New York City, but on this track I prefer Phil Spector’s mix, just because the massive reverb works so well with Zappa’s astonishing guitar solo.
#9 Dream is from Lennon’s other solo masterpiece (the first being Plastic Ono Band), Walls & Bridges. Lennon’s last great single, it’s actually a rewrite of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross. Lennon had recently produced a rather poor Harry Nilsson album, Pussycats, on which Nilsson covered that song, and Lennon took the string melody he’d written for the backing track and used it as his vocal melody here.
The other song I’ve included here from Walls & Bridges is Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out. Originally written for Frank Sinatra (who turned it down), I *love* Lennon’s vocal here, the hesitant, croaking, laid back verses contrasting with the screamed “When I get up in the morning” section, and the way the backing track is mostly going for a lounge singer kind of feel, except that the horns do the occasional dissonant squawk and the strings are being faux-Oriental. The whole thing’s wonderfully put together, down to the way that the “ooh wee”s and “what it is”s that Sinatra would have ad-libbed are actually part of the lyric proper.
Gimme Some Truth from Imagine is actually the last Lennon/McCartney song to be recorded, though not credited as such. If you listen to the Get Back sessions, you can clearly hear McCartney singing the “no short-haired yellow-bellied” part (originally “No freaked-out narrow-minded son of Gary Cooper”) in his Little Richard voice, and studio chat referring to it as Paul’s bit of the song. It’s one of those things that once heard can’t be unheard – of course McCartney wrote that bit. George Harrison provides the great slide solo on here.
Woman Is The Nigger Of The World is the one real song worthy of the name on Some Time In New York City. Inspired by a quote by Irish revolutionary leader James Connoly, via Yoko Ono, this rock & roll waltz, musically very like some of the later Beatles material, is the perfect example of the zeal of the recent convert, and one of the greatest feminist songs of all time. “We insult her every day on TV/And wonder why she has no guts or confidence” “If she’s real, we say she’s trying to be a man/While putting her down we pretend that she is above us”. These may be obvious sentiments now, at least to that proportion of people who hold “the radical belief that women are human beings”, but in 1972 they were not especially widely-voiced sentiments.
And Lennon includes himself in his condemnation – every line is “we”, not “you” – he’s not preaching to other men from a better position, he’s a member of the patriarchy saying “this is what we’re doing”. But this would mean nothing were the music not so good, from the great sax part at the start to the end, where Lennon screams “we make her paint her face and dance!” over relentless, driving, horns and strings.
Crippled Inside is an almost-perfect track. An upbeat skiffle-flavoured 12-bar, with some lovely dobro work by George Harrison and some nice piano playing by Nicky Hopkins, it manages to turn what lyrically is a vicious put-down of person or persons unknown (probably McCartney, though as with many of Lennon’s attack songs he later admitted the lyrics seem aimed far more at himself than anyone else) into a jaunty country track.
Jealous Guy is one of Lennon’s best ballads, and one that I’m sure almost everyone can identify with. What’s amazing is that this started during the White Album sessions as Child Of Nature, with a totally different feel and different lyrics (“I’m just a child of nature/I don’t need much to set me free”) and still worked almost as well. One touch I particularly like is that he sings “thought that you was trying to hide” rather than you were. That little bit of vernacular Scouse sells the whole lyric as being honest.
Nobody Told Me is a wonderful little piece of nonsense (“There’s Nazis in the bathroom, just below the stairs”, “Everybody’s running and no one makes a move/Everyone’s a winner and no one seems to lose/There’s a little yellow idol to the north of Katmandu”) from the posthumous Milk And Honey album. Clearly a guide vocal, it’s entirely possible that had Lennon lived, he’d have added a much more polished, but much less fun, finished vocal. But as it is, his wit shines through here in a way it does all too little on his later recordings generally.
Grow Old With Me is a piano-and-beatbox demo of a song Lennon never got round to recording properly, and you can hear how even though he was only recording on a boombox for himself, he nevertheless still double-tracked his vocal to disguise what he thought were its flaws. Actually, it’s astonishing how different his voice is here – right at the top of his falsetto range, this sounds vocally like the Bonzo Dog Band track Piggy Bank Love. This song, one of my very favourites of his later tracks, was written in response to Ono writing the song “Let Me Count The Ways” – Ono’s song was based on a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, so Lennon wrote a song starting with a line by Robert Browning.
Look At Me is an acoustic track from Plastic Ono Band that was writen in Rishikesh when the Beatles went there in 1968, and is very much of a piece with other songs from that era that made the White Album, like Mother Nature’s Son and Julia, that are based around a finger-picking technique Donovan taught them while they were there.
God is one of the most well-known songs here, the climax of the Plastic Ono Band album where, over “Love Letters” piano, Lennon throws away his past and all his beliefs, climaxing with “I just believe in me/Yoko and me/that’s reality”. This has been seen as the worst kind of navel-gazing solipsism, but in fact it’s Lennon trying to get away from his own past mistakes and his own worst attributes – Lennon was always looking for a father figure, a leader, whether that be Elvis or the Maharishi, and was disillusioned by all of them. And he was, after all, singing “I don’t believe in Beatles” while Ringo Starr was drumming behind him (and indeed ‘fifth Beatle’ Billy Preston was on piano, and Klaus Voorman, who played bass, was the cover designer for Revolver. For someone who wanted to leave the past and the Beatles behind he wasn’t doing a very good job)…
Mother, the opener of Plastic Ono Band is another song that comes in for criticism for being too self-centred. But while it is very obviously based in Lennon’s traumatic upbringing – and since when did it become a bad thing to draw on personal experiences to create art? – it was, as Lennon said when introducing it in his 1972 New York concert, “about 90% of all the parents”. While I am lucky enough to have had a relatively (all things considered) stable upbringing, those people I know who haven’t can identify *VERY* strongly with this song (about Lennon’s memory of being forced to choose which parent to stay with – the father who abandoned him, or the mother who left him to be brought up by her sister). And even I am utterly astonished by the feeling when Lennon screams “Mama don’t go, Daddy come home”. One of the truly great vocal performances of all time.
Working Class Hero is essentially a rewrite of Dylan’s Masters Of War. A lot of people misread this title as triumphalist, but in fact the song is not even about class, as such, but about the way society harms everybody – “then they expect you to pick a career/when you can’t even function you’re so full of fear”, “there’s room at the top they are telling you still/But first you must learn how to smile as you kill”.
Cold Turkey is one of the greatest singles ever made. The arrangement is one of the simplest ever – Ringo’s kit damped to the point where it’s almost a click track, Voorman’s bass low in the mix, leaving empty space for that vocal and Eric Clapton’s greatest guitar part ever. What’s fascinating is to compare this to the version on the Live Peace In Toronto album (with Clapton, Voorman, Alan “the one from Yes not the one from Oasis” White, and Yoko on extra screams), which is far rawer, faster and more primal than this one, and a near-perfect performance in itself (even though none of the band had heard the song til the plane trip over). But whereas that one was angry and exciting, this is tense and scary. What amazes me is low income auto loans that Clapton actually started taking heroin after recording this – what kind of fool makes a record like this and then thinks “That sounds like a good idea!”?
And finally, from Lennon’s Rock & Roll covers album we have Just Because, a Lloyd Price song that Lennon probably knew from Larry Williams’ version. This is mostly fun for Lennon’s intro and outro banter as “Doctor Winston O’Boogie”.