Brian Wilson: No Pier Pressure

No Pier Pressure is, in effect, the latest Beach Boys album. Much like Al Jardine’s 2010 “solo” album A Postcard From California, it features so many contributions from other Beach Boys, along with various guest stars, that thinking of it as a solo record makes no sense.

If anything, this sounds far more like the Beach Boys than the last Beach Boys album, 2012’s That’s Why God Made The Radio. That album had a harmony stack largely made up of multiple overdubbed Brian Wilsons and Jeff Fosketts, to which a thin additional layer of Beach Boys was applied. This time, Brian and Foskett (who dropped out of the very extended recording sessions half way through, but still appears on many tracks) are joined by Al Jardine, Jardine’s son Matt (who was the falsettist with the touring Beach Boys for much of the 90s, and who recently replaced Foskett in Wilson’s band), Blondie Chaplin, and Scott Bennett from Wilson’s band. While Chaplin and Al Jardine are only specifically credited on tracks where one of them takes a lead vocal, they’re in the vocal mix on several other tracks. (Two session singers are also credited, but without a track-by-track breakdown, it’s hard to know what their contributions were).

So while Mike Love and Bruce Johnston don’t appear (although David Marks, who is touring with them on their UK tour next month, adds some guitar on a couple of tracks), there are four actual Beach Boys on this album — as many as on, for example, Summer In Paradise. The fact that it says “Brian Wilson” on the front doesn’t really make a difference here. This is a Beach Boys album.

It feels very much like a sequel to That’s Why God Made The Radio, in large part because on both albums Brian Wilson collaborated with songwriter and producer Joe Thomas.

I’m getting into very sticky territory when I try to look at what, precisely, Thomas does and doesn’t add to the recordings. A lot of people seem to suggest that Brian Wilson’s well-known mental problems mean he’s no longer capable of creating music, and that he’s a puppet for his collaborators. This is horribly offensive, not only to Wilson himself (and to anyone else with those problems), but also to his collaborators, who in the case of his band members are uniformly decent, principled, people who are being accused of acting horribly unethically.

On the other hand, Wilson is, and always has been, a very collaboratively-minded artist, and his collaborators’ contributions can’t help but show up. When he works with Andy Paley, who produces retro-sounding powerpop heavily influenced by Phil Spector, you get work that sounds very retro, powerpoppy, and Spectoresque; while when he collaborates with his own band, who were put together for their ability to reproduce the records he made between 1965 and 67, you get work that sounds very like his work between 1965 and 67.

Joe Thomas is an “adult contemporary” producer and writer, and so when Brian Wilson collaborates with him, you get something “adult contemporary” — glossy, shiny, with too much processing on the vocals, smooth-sounding, and often veering into something that could be off the soundtrack of a bad 80s teen movie (Thomas often brings in Jim Peterik, writer of Eye Of The Tiger, as a collaborator).

Those faults are present in this album, but to a rather lesser extent than even on the last one. Here, for the most part, the arrangements seem to fit the songs well, and strike a decent balance between pastiching Wilson’s old style on the one side and generic AOR blandness on the other. I suspect, though we don’t have track-by-track credits available, that this is because Wilson’s band were used to provide a great deal of the instrumental backing, augmented by session players (notably on drums, where none of Wilson’s band play, and the parts are provided by people like Jim Keltner and Vinnie Colaiuta).

It’s obviously a fool’s errand to try to separate out who contributed what to the songs, especially as we know that some of the material dates back nearly twenty years while other parts were pulled together in the studio — but then, I am a fool. Wilson has said in interviews that Joe Thomas provided the chord sequences, Wilson wrote the melodies, and both provided lyrics, but this seems like the kind of oversimplification that he comes out with in interviews — we know a great deal about the writing process for the last album, and there, at least, it seemed very collaborative (for example Think About The Days was a piano instrumental by Thomas to which Wilson added vocal harmonies, while The Private Life Of Bill And Sue had a verse by Wilson and a chorus by Thomas).

My guess is that in the songwriting process Thomas provided most, but not all, of the lyrics, which are often in an 80s-AOR mode that’s completely alien from Wilson’s normal preoccupations; that he shaped and structured Wilson’s ideas — the songs tend to be far more verse/chorus and repetitive than most of Wilson’s work (oddly, for a man who’s come up with some of the great choruses of all time, Wilson tends mostly to avoid them); and that he supervised the recording of, at the very least, the drum parts — there is more hi-hat work on the average track here than in the whole of Wilson’s work from 1961 through 1988 inclusive (Wilson doesn’t like hi-hats, but they’re skittering all over this album). I would also blame him for the overuse of processing on the vocals, which is horribly unpleasant to my ears on some tracks — but at the same time, I suspect he probably should get at least some of the credit for getting good vocal takes out of Wilson, who is not the most consistent vocalist in the world, but sounds better here than he has in years.

But having said that, Brian Wilson’s name is on the album, and he has to take the final credit or blame. Too many fans either claim Brian is incapable of doing anything and is the puppet of other musicians on one hand, or on the other think that he would be producing another Pet Sounds every three minutes were it not for the terrible collaborators sullying his perfect genius. Neither is the case, as far as I’m aware.

So, in this review from this point on, I’ll be treating Wilson as the auteur — relating things to his other work and in the context of his career. That’s not meant to take credit away from Thomas, but I only know Thomas’ work with Wilson anyway, and have no idea about how this album fits into Thomas’ general body of work, which includes live albums by Kenny Chesney, Bon Jovi, and Stevie Nicks, and studio work with Peter Cetera and Toby Keith.

No Pier Pressure comes in three different versions — a 13-track standard edition, a 16-track “deluxe”, and an 18-track extra-deluxe one that has two bonus tracks (a 2005 recording of Love And Mercy and a 1975 recording of In The Back Of My Mind). Amazon have still not got round to shipping my pre-ordered copy of the 18-track version, so this review is based on the 16-track version, which they have supplied as MP3s.

(All songs are by Brian Wilson and Joe Thomas unless stated otherwise).

This Beautiful Day is a promising opener. A simple, repetitive, song fragment (less than ninety seconds long), it starts with forty seconds of Brian singing solo over piano chords, in about the most natural voice he’ll be in all album (his voice clearly cracks on the line “hold on to this feeling”), before turning into wordless vocals, while Paul Mertens’ string arrangement restates the melody of Summer’s Gone, the last song from the last album, while a trumpet plays answering phrases, before ending on a percolating synth.
There’s not much song there, but it sets up a lovely atmosphere. Most of the credit there must go to Mertens, who has been a secret weapon on all Wilson’s music for the last decade or so. He’s often (rightly) criticised for his sax playing being too loungey, but his string arrangements, with their vague hints of Bartok and vaguely Eastern European feel, and unflinching spareness, have been an element that was, really, missing from Wilson’s work for the first forty years. His arrangements throughout this album, as always, are exemplary.
Lyrically, meanwhile, this sets up one of the big themes of the album — trying to hold on to something slipping away, whether that be youth, life, love, or the Beach Boys’ temporary reunion.

Runaway Dancer is the polar opposite. Featuring someone called Sebu, who is apparently a member of Capital Cities (a young persons’ skiffle group of some notoriety), who also co-wrote with Wilson and Thomas, musically this poor attempt at mid-tempo disco sounds like a Scissor Sisters B-side, but with added lounge sax. Lyrically, meanwhile, it sets up the *other* kind of lyric we get on this album — the string of meaningless lines that sound vaguely like the kind of thing that 80s MOR acts thought was cool (“Yeah, she’s been the talk of the town/She’s walking round everywhere, looking for an answer/Someone caught her fooling around/Acting like she don’t care, runaway dancer”). It’s almost three times as long as the previous track, and has about a third of the musical interest, just hammering on its tedious chorus incessantly.

Whatever Happened is a return to the sound of the first track, and a massive improvement. The chorus is a little too bombastic for my liking, but this is a very good attempt at making Pet Sounds-esque music. It also introduces a motif we’ll be seeing a lot — a plucked, reverbed, trebly, bass playing a descending melody. I’m sure Brian’s used this precise sound somewhere before, but the only example I can think of right now is that the melody is the same as the “doo doo” backing vocals at the end of the chorus to The Night Was So Young.
But what really makes this track worthwhile is the layering of vocal harmonies. Al Jardine doubles Brian at times and counters him at others, and the massed backing vocals sound like the Beach Boys, for the first time on a record since at least 1996’s Stars & Stripes album.
The track doesn’t break new ground, and is consciously looking back to Brian’s glory days, but within the confines of what it’s trying to do it does it well.

On The Island features She & Him, with the lead vocal being by Zooey Deschanel, and is absolutely lovely. It’s a Jobim pastiche, and a very good one, and Deschanel sounds wonderful, almost like Peggy Lee. Some of the lyrics seem to be very Brian in their unnecessary details — specifying that the TV they bought is a colour one, for example — and while there’s nothing very clever about the music, it’s catchy as hell and pretty. The only downside is that Brian’s “on the island” harmony line seems to have been cut and pasted over and over, rather than sung every time, which means that on the very last repetition, where he sings “’cause on the island”, there’s a jarring edit after “’cause”. Other than that I can’t find fault with this.

Half Moon Bay, featuring Mark Isham on trumpet, is a near-instrumental, just with wordless backing vocals, very much in the exotica/Jack Nitzsche style of previous instrumentals like Diamond Head or Let’s Go Away For A While. It’s long on mood, but short on actual melody, but it does set that mood very well. It also features a variant on that bass motif again. It’s about a minute too long for my tastes, but very pleasant.

Our Special Love is, frankly, horrible. Apparently this started as a Tommy James & The Shondells pastiche, until Wilson decided he hated the instrumental track, so instead the track was given to YouTube star Peter Hollens to turn into an a capella track. The opening and closing sections, featuring layers of Wilson, Foskett, Chaplin and the Jardines, are pleasant enough, if uninspired, but then Hollens comes in with his beatboxing and lead vocals, and it starts to sound like Title Of The Song, Davinci’s Notebook’s parody of bad boy band songs, but with more beatboxing. Beatboxing, for those who don’t know, is someone making stupid “tsst” noises over and over, so if you listen with headphones it’s like having someone spit down your ear.

The Right Time, on which Al Jardine sings lead, is essentially a rewrite of the earlier Wilson/Thomas song Lay Down Burden, with a little of Night Time thrown in. An underwritten verse leads to an over-repeated chorus, and we’re back to gibberish lyrics, but the track is inoffensive enough, and Jardine does a great vocal, although the autotune is a bit ham-handedly applied here (most noticeably on the word “never” in the first verse).

Guess You Had To Be There, featuring Kacey Musgraves on lead vocals, is a bouncy country-swing-sunshine-pop song in the vein of California Girls or California Saga, with some nice banjo, presumably by Probyn Gregory (the banjo isn’t credited on the album). Musgraves and someone called Andrew Saldago co-write with Wilson and Thomas. Apart from a dull rawk guitar solo and too much processing on Musgraves’ vocals, this is very pleasant — simple, but one of the catchier things on the record.

Don’t Worry, one of the songs that only appears on the deluxe version of the album, has been getting a huge amount of criticism, largely because of the use of synth horns. In fact, as a genre exercise in late-70s disco rock it’s much better than Runaway Dancer. The tiny nods to Don’t Worry Baby don’t spoil it, and Brian’s in very good voice. Inessential, but surprisingly fun.

Somewhere Quiet, another mid-album bonus track, is the 1965 Beach Boys instrumental Summer Means New Love, given new lyrics by Scott Bennett (one of the keyboard players and backing vocalists in Wilson’s band, and a frequent songwriting collaborator). Bennett’s a much better lyricist than either Wilson or Thomas, and while he’s hamstrung by having to write to a pre-existing melody not designed for vocals (thus leading to some odd scansion at points), he does an excellent job here, as does Al Jardine on the middle-eight vocal.
The original melody was already slightly old-fashioned fifty years ago, but with the addition of lyrics it becomes more classic than old-fashioned. While it’s patterned after 50s pop ballads, with its 6/8 time signature, you could imagine someone like Nat “King” Cole or Tony Bennett singing this, and it fitting right in with the great American songbook material.

I’m Feeling Sad is the last of the deluxe-only tracks, and is just lovely — an uptempo, bouncy, duet with Foskett, with slice-of-life lyrics that could have come off the Friends album, this is musically somewhere between Paul Williams or Burt Bacharach on one side and bands like the BMX Bandits on the other — a fragile, beautiful, piece of bouncy pop.

Tell Me Why is a return to the ersatz Pet Sounds of Whatever Happened, and again features a great vocal by Jardine on the middle eight, but is a blander song than that one — it’s the only song on the album that doesn’t have anything in it at all memorable. I’ve listened to the album a dozen or so times in the last week, and I couldn’t remember which one this was until it started playing, something I couldn’t say about any of the others. Too bludgeoning and heavy-handed for my tastes.

Sail Away, co-written by Wilson, Thomas, and AOR schlocksters Jim Peterik and Larry Millas (who co-wrote several titles on the last Beach Boys album), shares its title both with the title track of Wilson’s favourite Randy Newman album, and with a song Wilson performed on Van Dyke Parks’ Orange Crate Art album. However, this track has more in common with the similarly named track by Styx. This could be by any of those bands — Styx, Journey, Foreigner, Survivor, Toto — who only had one hit each in Britain but were apparently ubiquitous in the US thirty years ago. Personally, I loathe this style of music (and including the flute riff from Sloop John B just makes me think about how much better that record is), but a lot of other people seem to like this one.

One Kind Of Love, written by Wilson with Scott Bennett and without Thomas, is very much in the mould of their Southern California and Midnight’s Another Day. Like Somewhere Quiet, this has a melody that’s not very singable, but it’s one of the stronger songs on the album, and the breakdown where multiple Brians sing in counterpoint over just bass and a horn is lovely.

Saturday Night, written by Wilson and Thomas with Nate Reuss of the annoyingly-uncapitalised band fun, who sings lead, is another song straight out of 80s US radio — this time sounding like the kind of thing Kenny Loggins or Huey Lewis would write for a teen film starring Michael J Fox, right down to a line about “playing our music too loud”. There are some good arrangement touches — the banjo part (again presumably played by Probyn) is very pleasant — but this is uninspired, dull, hackwork.

The Last Song serves much the same purpose as Summer’s Gone did on the last album — a calculated attempt to tug at the heartstrings, with the Spector kitchen sink turned up to twelve (to mix several metaphors horribly) in an attempt to disguise the lack of song.

Overall, the album feels like the result of several different, conflicting, ambitions — to make something “adult contemporary”, to make something vaguely arty that sounds a bit like Pet Sounds, to make something that sounds like contemporary pop radio, and to just make another Brian Wilson album of nice songs. One could pull together an eight- to ten-track short album from this that would rank with anything Brian’s done in the last thirty years — but given that the bonus tracks are among the best things on the album, it’s unlikely that whoever made the final sequencing decisions would have made the right choices when putting one together.

As it is, we’ve got an album few people will love from beginning to end, but in this age of playlists I doubt it’ll be listened to that way all that often. Instead people will rip it to their MP3 collections and only listen to the good tracks (whichever they think those are) — and on that basis, rather than as a unified, whole, work, this is an album worth buying.

The Beach Boys: Keep An Eye On Summer and Live In Sacramento

The last few days I’ve had a pretty constant stress headache (hence the lack of post yesterday), but when I’m feeling stressed, there’s always the Beach Boys, and thankfully the new copyright extension releases came out a few days ago, and I’ve been listening to them pretty much constantly.

These copyright extension releases, as the name suggests, come from a fairly morally dodgy place — two years ago, Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard, and EMI records, terrified of the prospect that one day they may stop getting tens of millions of pounds a year in free money for work done before my parents were at primary school, got the term on sound recordings made after January 1, 1963 extended from fifty years to seventy years, because otherwise the Beatles in 1963 would have no incentive to record anything new…

But there was a “use it or lose it” provision in the new rules — any recording that had not been published would become public domain at the end of the calendar year fifty years after it was recorded. This meant that both last year and this, the few recording artists of the early 60s who still sell in big numbers today rushed out download-only compilations of unreleased recordings, last year from 1963, and now this year from 1964. This year, the Beach Boys’ have been the first to drop.

While last year’s compilation, The Big Beat 1963, was fairly inessential (though completist that I am, of course I have it), this year’s releases are far more interesting, as 1964 was the year that the Beach Boys went from a band with a couple of decent singles to being arguably the best band in the world.

This year has seen two releases, so far only on iTunes (though other sites are likely to follow). The first, Live In Sacramento, will probably be of more interest to the casual listener. The Beach Boys’ first live album, Beach Boys Concert was made up of recordings from three shows, one in 1963 and two in 1964, along with doctored studio versions of Fun Fun Fun and I Get Around. The two 1964 shows have been available on bootlegs for years, as just raw dumps of the multitracks, but now they get a properly mixed and mastered release, and allow people to see just what a good live band the Beach Boys were.

Instrumentally, they’re relatively tight, but nothing special — they played on more of their records than many people believed even a couple of years ago, but they were still never going to win awards for their playing — but vocally, they’re astonishing. On these early shows, Brian is obviously the standout, and hearing him sing Don’t Worry Baby live, falsetto intact, is worth the price of the downloads itself. But Mike Love, who takes most of the leads, is also far more impressive than you would expect — his perfect Igor voice on The Monster Mash is absolutely hilarious (and comparing this version and the original by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, it sounds like the version on Beach Boys Concert is the version the Bonzo Dog Band learned from, as the Beach Boys’ backing vocal phrasing is far closer to what the Bonzos would later do).

But the whole band sound vocally gorgeous, in a way that is all the more impressive when you remember that they were harmonising in a time without foldback speakers or in-ear monitors, and with thousands of screaming girls making it almost impossible to hear themselves. The shows are good enough that the casual fan could listen and enjoy them — and certainly could put together an exceptional live album by playlisting just their favourite version of each song (the two shows had the same setlists), and all the early hits are here.

It’s raw, of course — there are mistakes, and asides, and reactions to the crowd — but it’s the only extended live document of the five original Beach Boys performing together, without anyone to augment them, and with Brian Wilson still in good voice.

Beach Boys fanatics, on the other hand, will be more interested in Keep An Eye On Summer, a collection of outtakes, vocal-only mixes, and BBC live recordings, covering the sessions for Shut Down vol 2, All Summer Long, The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album and the first sessions for The Beach Boys Today!.

Much of this has, of course, been bootlegged — but here Alan Boyd and Mark Linnet, the archivist and engineer responsible for the project, have culled the session tapes to what is listenable. While the bootlegs have things like All Summer Long (takes 20-42) or Girls On The Beach (vocal overdub takes 1b-8b), here there’s just enough studio chat to get a flavour for what it was like in the studio, and only the musically interesting stuff has been kept.

And some of it has never been bootlegged before, notably the Shut Down vol 2 material and the BBC recordings, the tapes for which were lost for many years.

The result contains some genuinely sublime moments. The a capella (more or less — the instrumental track is mixed down to *almost* inaudibility) mix of She Knows Me Too Well is spellbindingly beautiful, the instrumental Let’s Live Before We Die could have been a classic Beach Boys ballad if vocals had ever been recorded for it, and the a capella In The Parking Lot is revelatory — never a favourite of mine before, but the harmonies in the massed vocal sections jump out in this new mix.

There’s also stuff that’s of more academic interest. We’ve known for a while that the Beach Boys played on more of their tracks than they’re usually credited for, but I didn’t realise that Denny’s Drums was actually played by Dennis Wilson — like almost everyone, I’d assumed that Hal Blaine had played that track. And Pom Pom Play Girl, another song I’ve never had much time for, seems in its remix to reveal that either Mike Love is a far better vocal impersonator than I’d credit him for or Jan Berry of Jan & Dean is doubling him, uncredited.

I’m not at all persuaded that these releases are ethical, and I abhor the change in the law that has brought them about. But given that they exist, thanks to Boyd and Linnet they at least are worthy of existing, and are worth obtaining (whether you want to pay for them, given the circumstances of their release, is up to you, though I did). Together they’re a record of a band that was as good as any band in the world. The music the Beach Boys produced in 1964 — songs like Fun Fun Fun, I Get Around, Don’t Worry Baby, and All Summer Long — is still the basis of their commercial, if not their artistic, reputation. These sets show why.

California Dreaming: Heroes & Villains

Van Dyke Parks was already a major figure in the LA music scene before he started working with Brian Wilson, being involved in one way or another with Tim Buckley, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Mothers of Invention, but he was unknown outside the music scene — a genius looking for the right vehicle for his abilities. He needed a collaborator who would let him shine.

Brian Wilson, on the other hand, was looking for a different kind of collaborator. He’d been making music that was steadily growing more complex, but he wasn’t a great lyrical thinker. All his songs had been about four subjects — cars, girls, fun at the beach, and existential angst, mixed in varying amounts — and whenever he’d worked with outside lyricists they’d stuck to those topics too. But now he had his sights set on a bigger goal. He was going to make an album greater than anything he’d ever done — even greater than Pet Sounds, an album recorded in the same way as Good Vibrations. It was going to be a teenage symphony to God, and no matter how good Mike Love or Roger Christian or Jan Berry had been at writing lyrics about hot rods and girls in bikinis, none of them were right for this new project, and so, acting mostly on instinct, Wilson turned to the man Terry Melcher had introduced him to, who seemed to have the verbal skills he lacked.

The two started work on an ambitious project, at first called Dumb Angel and later to be called Smile. So many myths have grown up around this album in the intervening decades that separating truth from fiction is almost impossible, but one thing we definitely know is that from the start, a highlight of the album was going to be Heroes & Villains.

The song was apparently written together by Wilson and Parks on the first night they collaborated — and already here the myths already start to creep in, because that night they are also supposed to have written Surf’s Up, Cabinessence and Wonderful, which would make it possibly the most artistically productive night’s work of all time, given that at least two of those songs have as good a claim as any to the title of best song ever written. But what we do know is that Wilson had a title, Heroes & Villains, which was quite possibly just a working title in his head, much as California Girls had been called You’re the Lawn and I Am the Mower, and he played a simple vamp on the piano while playing a descending scalar melody which reminded Van Dyke Parks of El Paso by Marty Robbins, and Parks immediately responded with the line “I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time…”

What eventually emerged from that writing session was a deceptively simple song, at least musically — a three-chord verse with a stepwise melody, and a chorus that was based around a musical idea that was obsessing Wilson at the time and would recur throughout the Smile sessions — a two-chord riff (similar intervals to the Good Vibrations chorus, but a tone lower, and with the first chord in the riff being minor rather than major) repeated, which then moves up a whole tone (as in both Good Vibrations and California Girls).

But that musical simplicity gave the song an infinite mutability, allowing Van Dyke Parks’ wonderful lyrics to tell their psychedelic cowboy story while Brian Wilson threw every musical idea possible into the arrangement.

Listening to the session recordings, we hear attempts at Western film soundtrack music, baroque pastiche, lounge music, barbershop, doo-wop and more, as Wilson pulled together ideas. The eventual result, released as a single more than a year after Wilson started working on the track in the studio, included a verse backing track taken almost note for note from Phil Spector’s production of Save The Last Dance For Me for Tina Turner, a dazzling contrapuntal vocal section that Wilson had been teaching the band members since 1961, and whole sections where almost all the “instrumentation” is actually the Beach Boys’ voices. It was a masterpiece, even though it only got to number 12 in the US charts, and essentially marked the end of their career as a commercial force.

Because Heroes & Villains was, for a long time, the only publicly-available evidence that Smile even existed. Wilson and Parks had written a set of songs as good as any ever written to that time, and Wilson had recorded exquisite backing tracks for many of them. Vocals had been recorded for about half the tracks. But the album was left unfinished.

Many reasons have been put forward for this. Van Dyke Parks (probably the only person involved in all the sessions who has both an undamaged memory and a reputation for honesty) puts the blame squarely on Mike Love, who disliked many of Parks’ lyrics, thinking the band should be doing more relatable material. Others have blamed Brian Wilson’s drug intake and mental problems, personal difficulties between Wilson and Parks, Wilson second-guessing himself to the point he didn’t know how to make the record work, legal problems between the band and Capitol records, the music industry moving on so Smile felt outdated before it was even released, and other far more unlikely scenarios. Wilson himself simply says “it was inappropriate music for us to be making”.

Instead, the band released Smiley Smile, an utterly lovely, gentle, album of stoned fragments, Smile material reworked into hippy nursery rhymes, and novelty songs, with Heroes & Villains and Good Vibrations thrown in for good measure. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t Smile, and it was utterly, completely, uncommercial — it was outsider music, not the work of a band who the year before had been beating the Beatles as best band in the NME’s polls.

The Beach Boys had committed career suicide, and while the next few years would be their most artistically fulfilling, they would, at least in the US, be has-beens from this moment on.

Heroes & Villains

Composer: Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks

Line-up: (NB, this lineup contains everyone who played on any of the sessions that were used for the final master. Some of them may not appear on the sections used.)

Brian Wilson (vocals, keyboards,percussion), Carl Wilson (vocals), Dennis Wilson (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Al Jardine (vocals), Mike Love (vocals), Billy Hinsche (backing vocals) Carol Kaye (guitar), Bill Pitman (bass), Lyle Ritz (bass), Van Dyke Parks (keyboards), Jim Gordon (drums), Gene Estes (percussion, whistle), George Hyde (French horn)

Original release: Heroes & Villains/You’re Welcome, The Beach Boys, Brother 1001

Currently available on:
Smiley Smile/Wild Honey, Capitol/EMI CD

California Dreaming: Good Vibrations

Ever since he was a child, Brian Wilson had been fascinated by the concept of ESP. David Marks’ mother had claimed psychic powers, and impressed many of the people in their community, including the Wilsons, when Brian was growing up. But when he came to write a song about it, he didn’t think of Marks’ mother, but of his own. He had asked her, when he was a child, why dogs seemed to like some people and be angry at others, seemingly with no reason, and she had told him that dogs picked up “vibrations” from people — some good, some bad.

So when in February 1966, Brian went into the studio to record a song about ESP, the obvious title was Good, Good, Good Vibrations, especially since he was currently recording an album that would end with dogs barking and that was titled Pet Sounds — because sounds are, of course, a type of vibration too.

But the track he cut wasn’t quite right — it had the basic structure of a decent pop song, somewhere in between God Only Knows and Here Today from the album he was working on, and with the electro-theremin he’d used on I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, but slightly funkier than any of those. But that’s all it was, a decent pop song.

What Brian Wilson had in his head was something more complex than that — not just a pop song, but a “pocket symphony”, a piece of music that would be at least as complex and interesting as Rhapsody In Blue, with distinct movements and changes, but in a three minute span.

He worked at it intermittently over the next few months, going into the studio every few weeks to cut a new version of his track, with different permutations of instruments — maybe a Hammond organ instead of the harpsichord? Maybe a bass harmonica? — but never getting the sound he wanted.

He put it aside for a while, eventually convinced that he just couldn’t get the record out of his head and onto vinyl, and considered offering it to an R&B artist like Wilson Pickett, whom he thought the song might suit — presumably thinking that the two-chord shuffle of the chorus as it was originally conceived (although even in the earlier versions, the song goes up a tone halfway through the chorus, a trick Wilson reused from California Girls), which was clearly inspired by Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get A Witness?, would better suit Pickett’s stye than the Beach Boys’. However, a few months later Wilson’s friend David Anderle asked if he could have the song for Danny Hutton, a new singer with whom he had been working. Persuaded of the song’s commercial possibilities, Wilson returned to it.

But there was a problem. He needed a set of lyrics for the song. Tony Asher, the lyricist for much of Pet Sounds, had come up with a set of lyrics for him to sing to get a feel for the track, but those lyrics (“she’s already working on my brain/I only look in her eyes, but I pick up something I just can’t explain”) were only scratch lyrics, far too on the nose, and Asher had never got round to finishing them before going back to his advertising job.

Around this time, Wilson encountered Van Dyke Parks, a young session musician and arranger. Parks was younger than Wilson, but he had already had a rather extraordinary life — among other things, he had played music with Albert Einstein as a child, had appeared as Tommy Manicotti in The Honeymooners [FOOTNOTE: He was one of multiple actors to play the role, and isn’t the actor in the surviving episodes, but definitely appeared in at least one episode, and probably more.], and had been the arranger on The Bare Necessities for the Disney film The Jungle Book.

Parks was a hyper-intelligent, astonishingly talented man, and he and Wilson quickly hit it off and began writing new, experimental, songs that were wildly different from anything the Beach Boys had done before, with allusive stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Parks refused to write new lyrics for Good Vibrations — he didn’t want to get involved in a song that had already had seven months’ studio time, off and on, and thought it best that it be completed without him — but he did suggest the final missing element for the song. Carl Wilson had already suggested a cello be used in the choruses, but Parks’ suggestion that the cello be playing fast triplets gave the chorus the rhythmic impetus it needed.

Wilson eventually edited together an instrumental track using bits of five different sessions — the verses from the very first session in February, the quiet organ bridge from a session in September, and so on — and rather amazingly, it all came together perfectly. The result was a perfect mixture of psychedelia, R&B, and sunshine pop, a glorious, euphoric rush, but evoking almost religious feelings in the extended bridge section, and with a strange, haunting, eeriness in the chorus. It’s a perfectly-structured song, and a lesson in dynamics that puts Phil Spector to shame.

It still needed lyrics, however, and Mike Love eventually came to the rescue, writing the lyrics in the cab on the way to the studio for the final vocal session. Love’s lyrics are far, far cleverer than they’re normally given credit for, grounding the listener in the real, sensory world in the first verse, talking about how the woman in the song looks (“the colourful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair”), sounds (“the sound of a gentle word”) and smells (“the wind that lifts her perfume through the air”), before the chorus and its extra-sensory concerns, and the altogether stranger second verse. It’s still a boy/girl love song, but it’s infinitely more well-crafted than the original, clunky, lyrics. Love is not always the most original lyricist, but when given really good material he can rise to the challenge, and this is his finest moment, and every bit the triumph for him as it is for Wilson.

Carl Wilson took the lead beautifully (with Brian dropping in the phrases “I hear the sound of a” and “when I look”, which go out of Carl’s comfortable range — luckily at this point the two brothers were practically indistinguishable vocally, and most people can’t hear the edit until it’s pointed out to them), and Love’s doo-wop bass vocal part instantly became one of the most memorable hooks of the Beach Boys’ career.

The song became their third US number one, and their biggest hit to date. To this day it often tops critics’ lists of the best singles of all time. The Beach Boys were on top of the world, and with these new songs Brian and Van Dyke had been writing, things could only get better…

Good Vibrations

Composer: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

Line-up: (NB, this lineup contains everyone who played on any of the sessions that were used for the final master. Some of them may have, for example, only played on the choruses on a take where only the verses were used) Brian Wilson (vocals, tack piano, Carl Wilson (vocals, Fender bass, rhythm guitar, percussion), Dennis Wilson (vocals, organ), Al Jardine (vocals), Mike Love (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Ray Pohlman, Lyle Ritz, Bill Pitman, Jimmy Bond, and Arthur Wright (bass), Larry Knechtel, Don Randi, Al de Lory, and Mike Melvoin (keyboards), Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon (drums, percussion), Frank Capp, Tony Asher, Terry Melcher, and Gary Coleman (percussion), Paul Tanner (electro-theremin), Plas Johnson, Jay Migliori, Steve Douglas, Jim Horn, and Bill Green (woodwinds), Tommy Morgan (harmonica, bass, harmonica, jew’s harp), Jesse Erlich (cello), Emil Richards (vibraphone)

Original release: Good Vibrations/Let’s Go Away For A While, The Beach Boys, Capitol 5676

Currently available on: Smiley Smile UMG CD, plus innumerable compilations.

California Dreaming: God Only Knows

Rubber Soul had been a shock to Brian Wilson’s sense of the music industry. When he heard the Beatles’ most recent album in late 1965, he realised for the first time that it was possible to do a whole album with a cohesive feel and no filler [FOOTNOTEIn fact the album he heard, the American release, was not the album the Beatles had put together — four tracks were removed from the British release and two added from Help!, giving it arguably a more coherent style than the original album.]. He’d already started work on the Beach Boys’ latest album, having recorded a version of an old folk song, Sloop John B, and a new track he called In My Childhood, but hearing the latest work from his rivals pushed him on to decide that the new album would contain none of the joke tracks, doo-wop covers, or generic surf instrumentals that had been featured on the band’s previous records. This would be an entire album with only good tracks on it.

With the Beach Boys touring for much of the time without him, Wilson had to turn to different methods of making records. While up until early 1965 the band themselves had played on nearly every backing track, now the majority of the sessions were to feature the Wrecking Crew, and with Mike Love not around Wilson had to look for a different songwriting partner.

He found the lyricist he wanted in Tony Asher, an advertising copy-writer who had little previous experience of songwriting. What Asher did have, however, was the ability to understand and empathise with Wilson on an emotional level, and translate Wilson’s feelings into words he felt comfortable singing. In a period of a few weeks, the two had written Wouldn’t It Be Nice, You Still Believe In Me (based on the earlier In My Childhood), Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), Caroline No, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, Here Today, That’s Not Me and God Only Knows — the core of what would become the Pet Sounds album.

Of all of them, probably the most meaningful for Wilson was God Only Knows, one of several songs where, inspired by a suggestion of Asher’s, the two tried to craft a song that would stand up alongside standards such as Stella By Starlight and Stardust.

Taking initial inspiration from the melody of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice, Wilson turned the initial melodic idea into possibly the most beautiful thing he ever wrote. There’s only twelve bars of actual musical material, other than the key change for the instrumental bridge, but those twelve bars have a wonderful harmonic ambiguity to them, full of minor sixths, diminished chords, and dissonant bass notes, with the song only resolving straightforwardly at the end of the verse, yet the whole thing feels beautiful, effortless, and inevitable.

Asher’s lyrics had a similar sense of simplicity, but were in their own way at least as experimental. Starting the song “I may not always love you…” and having the word “God” in the title of a secular song were both bones of contention between him and Wilson, but Asher prevailed, and his lyrics, which on the surface are a simple love song but in fact communicate as much about depression and insecurity as any of the songs on the album that are more explicitly about those subjects, remained intact.

The song took time to get right in the studio, too. Wilson’s original idea for the instrumental break — a lounge sax solo — was so bad it could almost have sunk the record, but thankfully he took on pianist Don Randi’s suggestion to play through the chord sequence staccato, and one of the most effective instrumental parts of any Beach Boys track was created. And while it was obvious from the start that Carl Wilson should sing lead on the track, as the youngest Wilson brother had recently blossomed into an astonishing vocal talent, what the rest of the vocal arrangement should be was less obvious. At one point during the sessions, all six Beach Boys, plus Brian Wilson’s wife and sister-in-law, plus Terry Melcher, were all singing “bop bop” backing vocals as block chords.

Thankfully, Wilson stripped this down, and the end result features just three voices. Carl Wilson sings lead, with Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston adding backing vocals in the middle section, while at the end there’s a simple call-and-response vocal round, with Brian Wilson taking the high and low parts while Johnston answers him in the middle.

The result is one of the most beautiful recordings in the history of popular music, perfect in every note from the French horn and flute on the intro through to Brian Wilson’s falsetto “What would I be without you?” on the fade. The song is one of the best ever written, and Carl Wilson’s double-tracked lead vocal is so astonishingly good that from this point on, for the next few years, he would be the band’s de facto lead vocalist, even though he’d only taken two solo leads before.

The only question now was how Brian Wilson could top an album many were already calling the greatest ever…

God Only Knows

Composer: Brian Wilson and Tony Asher

Line-up: Carl Wilson (vocals, guitar), Brian Wilson (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Hal Blaine (drums), Jesse Erlich (cello), Carl Fortina and Frank Marocco (accordion), Jim Gordon (percussion), Bill Green and Jim Horn (flute), Leonard Hartman (clarinet, bass clarinet), Carol Kaye, Ray Pohlman and Lyle Ritz (bass) Leonard Malarsky and Sid Sharp (violins), Jay Migliori (saxophone), Don Randi (piano), Alan Robinson (French horn), Darrel Terwilliger (viola)

Original release: Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys, Capitol T 2458

Currently available on: Pet Sounds Capitol CD, plus innumerable compilations.

California Dreaming: Guess I’m Dumb

It might have seemed in 1964 that Brian Wilson was on top of the world. Not only had the Beach Boys managed to withstand Beatlemania, despite the British band being on the same record label as them, but unlike almost every other American group they’d actually become more successful, having their first number one hit with I Get Around. Brian’s songs were still becoming hits for Jan and Dean, as well, and being covered by bands like the Hondells. He was a massive pop star at the point when pop music seemed like the most important thing in the world, and he was engaged to be married.

But there was an increasing pressure on Wilson, who had by the end of 1964 been responsible for writing, producing, and performing on eight Beach Boys albums, as well as working on other people’s records. He was trying to become a more mature artist at the same time, writing instrumental arrangements of increasing sophistication, which required him to augment his band in the studio with more and more members of the Wrecking Crew. Meanwhile his original strategy to take the pressure off — retiring from touring — had had to end after David Marks had quit, so he was back on the road as well.

And the signs of the stress were showing — while there had always been a melancholy edge to the Beach Boys’ ballads, their uptempo songs had generally been cocky and full of confidence, but now there was a restlessness, an anxiousness, an insecurity to the songs. “I’m getting bugged driving up and down the same old strip”, “you’ve got to be a little nuts, but show them you’ve got guts, don’t back down from that wave”.

Nowhere was that insecurity more obvious than in Guess I’m Dumb, one of two songs Wilson wrote with Screen Gems staff writer Russ Titelman in mid-1964. Here the bragadoccio is totally gone, and for the first time we see the themes of male insecurity that would haunt Wilson’s music from here on, without even the fig leaf of a car race to mask it. The song opens with “The way I act don’t seem like me/I’m not on top like I used to be”, and while it ends with a statement of hope that “this time girl it’s gonna be for ever more”, the protagonist isn’t fooling anyone — the constant tug to the minor fifth in the chord sequence is telling us this is a dark, depressing, mood, not a hopeful one.

The backing track was recorded in October, and then set aside for vocals to be recorded after Brian returned from touring — the Beach Boys spent the next two months on the road.

But on the 23rd of December, 1964, just three years to the day after the Beach Boys’ first gig, Brian Wilson had a breakdown on a flight to Houston. He’d had mental health problems before, but this breakdown was much, much more serious. He managed to get through that night’s show, but simply couldn’t continue with the tour.

The Beach Boys needed someone to cover for Brian quickly, someone who could join the band the next day and take over Brian’s parts. And there was only one man who fit the bill.

Glen Campbell was a member of the Wrecking Crew. While he couldn’t read music, he was one of the most in-demand session musicians in LA, thanks to his proficiency on guitar and banjo and his ability to play anything from bluegrass to loud rock and roll. The band knew him — he’d played on several sessions for their upcoming album — and he knew the songs, having played on enough Jan and Dean or Gary Usher sessions making remakes and knockoffs of them. Campbell also had a parallel career as an unsuccessful country singer, but his lack of success wasn’t down to a lack of talent — he had a strong tenor voice reminiscent of Roy Orbison (a favourite of the Beach Boys’) and could easily sing the parts.

Campbell flew out, quickly rehearsed, and fit into the band straight away, staying with them for almost five months. But while he was apparently offered the chance to become a full-time Beach Boy, it didn’t appeal to him — Campbell wanted to keep making his own records, and so towards the end of his time in the band, Brian Wilson gave him Guess I’m Dumb to release as a single as a thank-you.

And by God does it work. Head and shoulders over everything else Brian Wilson had done to this point, the track seems equally influenced by Bacharach, Phil Spector, Orbison, and mariachi music, a big, swelling, intense, orchestral pop song, with the Honeys (a vocal group consisting of Wilson’s wife, her sister, and their cousin) adding girl-group backing, Brian and Carl Wilson providing wordless backing vocals that can only be described as a mumbled moan of despair, and Hal Blaine providing a broken drum part that eerily prefigures much of the Beatles’ more interesting drum parts of the next year.

And over this, Campbell delivers an absolutely breathtaking performance, singing at the top of his chest range, with occasional smooth, seamless, moves into falsetto. Hearing him on this material it’s immediately obvious why he was chosen to replace Brian Wilson on the road — both men could move between chest and head voice on the same word without a break, a far rarer gift among vocalists than many would expect, and something that’s absolutely essential to get the right effect on Wilson’s melodies.

One could argue perhaps that there’s less vulnerability or fragility in Campbell’s tone than in Wilson’s, which in general terms is probably a good thing but on this particular track may be a weakness, but that’s just nitpicking — at the end of the track you can faintly hear Brian Wilson telling Campbell “that was outta sight!”, and it is. This is a truly remarkable record.

Unfortunately, the listening public didn’t think so, and the track didn’t even make the top 100. It would be interesting to imagine what would have happened had Campbell stayed with the Beach Boys, rather than gone back, at least for a time, to being a session player. But by the time this track was released, Campbell had already been replaced. Bruce Johnston, who we’ve heard from previously in the Gamblers and the Rip Chords, was now a Beach Boy…

Guess I’m Dumb

Composer: Brian Wilson and Russ Titelman

Line-up: Glen Campbell (vocals, guitar), Brian Wilson (backing vocals, piano), Carl Wilson (backing vocals, guitar), Marilyn Wilson, Diane Rovell, and Ginger Blake (backing vocals), Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Larry Knechtel (bass), Hal Blaine (drums, percussion), Roy Caton and Ollie Mitchell (trumpets), Lou Blackburn and Harry Betts (trombones), Steve Douglas and Jay Migliori (saxophones), Sid Sharp , Leonard Malarsky, Arnold Belnick, and James Getzoff (violins), Alexander Neiman and Darrel Terwilliger (violas), Jesse Ehrlich and Anne Goodman (cellos)

Original release: Guess I’m Dumb/That’s All Right Glen Campbell single, Capitol 5441

Currently available on: Rhinestone Cowboy: The Best of Glen Campbell EMI CD

Why Did Mike Love Sack Brian Wilson From The Beach Boys?

I still, two years after the end of the Beach Boys’ reunion tour, get people coming to my blog looking for an answer to this question. I thought it probably worth laying out the facts for those people.

The simple answer: he didn’t. For the longer answer, read on.

At the end of the Beach Boys’ reunion tour in 2012, there were a lot of news reports claiming that Mike Love “fired” Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys, and that he owned the Beach Boys’ name. This is wholly untrue, but to see why, we have to look at a bit of history.

Mike Love does not own the Beach Boys’ name. The name is owned by Brother Records Incorporated (BRI), who are in turn owned equally by Love, Wilson, Alan Jardine (another former member of the Beach Boys) and the estate of the late Carl Wilson (another former member of the band). BRI in turn license MELECO, a company owned by Love, to put on shows as “the Beach Boys”. That license has various conditions attached — Love must pay a (hefty) fee to BRI, must use only male vocalists, must do shows that feature a lot of fun and sun songs, and so on — in order to make sure that Love’s band don’t damage the value of the Beach Boys brand name, so Love definitely doesn’t own the name.

That license is non-exclusive, but between 1999 and 2012 Love was the only person to have been granted a license. However, in 2012, a second license was issued by BRI, to a company called 50 Big Ones. This company had three owners — Love, Wilson, and an outside producer, Joe Thomas.

Thomas was an integral part of the reunion. He had control of a number of tapes of songs he’d co-written with Wilson which were needed for the reunion album, he had experience putting on live shows for TV specials (which was part of the package), and he’d worked with all the Beach Boys without too much of a problem in the past. But while he was someone who was (at least at the start) acceptable to both Love and Wilson, he was definitely “Brian’s man”, and this meant that Wilson had de facto control over the reunion, although both men had to compromise enormously.

(The other Beach Boys didn’t really get any say over the reunion. David Marks and Bruce Johnston aren’t corporate members, and Al Jardine, while a full corporate member, isn’t part of the family. More to the point, Love is the frontman and Wilson was the one who would make the reunion a big event that would get news coverage and record company interest).

We know that there were things Love didn’t like about the reunion tour — in particular, he complained about the large band (mostly Wilson’s musicians, although two crucial members were from Love’s band), disliked the album (into which he had comparatively little creative input — it was mostly Wilson and Thomas’ work), and didn’t like the experience of working with Brian’s “people”.

On the other hand, he did like the setlists (which were one area where he was in charge), working with Jeff Foskett (Wilson’s right-hand man, who he’s since hired for his own band), the intro music (which he’s kept for his own shows) and the video screens used during the show. He’s also kept some of the changes that were made to arrangements during that tour.

So Love didn’t think it was a wholly positive thing, but nor did he think it was a wholly negative thing. So why did the tour end?

The reason was only recently made public, in a Facebook comment by Love’s daughter, but it’s been obvious to those who have been paying attention since it happened.

The reunion tour was originally meant to last fifty shows only, almost all in North America. But a short while after the tour started, an agreement was made to extend the tour by twenty-something shows and visit Australia, Japan, and the UK.

And when that agreement was reached, an email was sent to Love, by someone in Brian Wilson’s organisation with the power to make statements like this, saying that “these will be absolutely the last shows for Wilson”. This was an open secret among Beach Boys fans a while ago, and was made public in that FB comment. I have spoken to people who’ve seen the email in question, and I know those people to be trustworthy.

Having been told a fixed end date, after which the reunion tour was over, Love booked shows after that date with his MELECO license, for the band he’d been touring with for years.

However, in the last week of the tour, long after contracts had been signed and tickets sold for Love’s band’s shows, it became clear that Brian Wilson and Al Jardine were both quite keen (at least at that moment) to continue with the reunion tour, and Wilson said in a statement “it feels a bit like being fired”. This, and similar statements from Jardine, along with a hell of a lot of jumping to conclusions from reporters, led to reports that Love had sacked Wilson, Jardine, and Marks.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Wilson was not informed of the ultimatum sent out by the person in his organisation. It’s also possible that he forgot it or changed his mind between then and the end of the tour. We can’t say for sure whether Brian Wilson brought the tour to an end and later regretted it, or whether someone in his organisation overstepped themselves and messed things up as a result. But what we can say is that Mike Love didn’t fire him.

It may well, of course, be Love’s choice that there hasn’t been any further reunion activity — I don’t think he was especially unhappy for the reunion to end — but he didn’t set the end date on it. Someone else did.

(An extra note for the hard of thinking — I am NOT saying that Mike Love didn’t do whatever other bad thing you’re about to accuse him of, nor am I calling Brian Wilson a liar, nor am I “taking Love’s side over Brian”. Brian Wilson is responsible for at least 85% of what I like about the Beach Boys, and a vastly more talented artist than Love. If I had to pick a side, I would pick Brian over Mike every time, but I simply don’t think there is any value whatsoever in choosing goodies and baddies and fighting for one side in interpersonal problems between people I don’t know.

Nor am I saying “Brian is being manipulated by people in his organisation”. He might be. Or he might be manipulating the situation. Or there could have been a genuine error. Or any of half a dozen other things.

If you don’t know why I add these caveats, just count yourself lucky — you’ve clearly never been involved in the less salubrious parts of Beach Boys fandom).