I sometimes think Paul McCartney can’t win. One of the big complaints I’d read from reviewers after the previous shows on this tour was “He’s doing too many hits. Why doesn’t he do some more obscure stuff? It’s just the obvious set.”
And yes, of the thirty-six songs in the set, twenty-five are the absolutely obvious choices that everyone would expect. But then, if you were Paul McCartney, you’d put Can’t Buy Me Love, Michelle, Penny Lane, My Love, Mull Of Kintyre, We Can Work It Out, Silly Love Songs, Coming Up, Let ‘Em In, Another Day, Drive My Car, Here, There And Everywhere, Love Me Do, Things We Said Today, I’m Down, I’ve Just Seen a Face, I Saw Her Standing There and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the set, wouldn’t you?
And that’s the problem, of course. Paul McCartney is the most commercially successful songwriter in the history of the world, and has as good a claim as any to be the most artistically successful. So much so that he didn’t have space to fit *any* of those songs in last night. Nor did he do Mary Had A Little Lamb, Hi Hi Hi, Listen To What The Man Said, With A Little Luck, Goodnight Tonight, Waterfalls, Ebony And Ivory, The Girl Is Mine, Say Say Say, Pipes Of Peace, No More Lonely Nights, We All Stand Together or Once Upon A Long Ago, all of which went top ten. Yet he’s *still* apparently doing too many of his hits!
What he did do was a perfect mix of songs – weighted, yes, towards the Beatles years (and frankly I’d have loved him to have dropped at least three of those songs for solo songs, as he did Ob-la-Di, Ob-la-Da, Let It Be and The Long And Winding Road, none of which I have any time for) but with a good mix of solo material – both hits like Jet and Band On The Run and more obscure tracks like Mrs Vanderbilt and Ram On. He even did Sing The Changes, from the third Fireman album. And while there’s no such thing as an obscure Beatles song, choices like The Night Before or The Word are as close as it gets, and it was wonderful to hear them live.
McCartney is a stunning live performer – I can hardly even believe he’s human, frankly. His voice is *very* slightly gone at the very top end, but the set was chosen well enough that this was not noticeable, and in the mid and low ranges he sounds a good forty years younger than he is, and he can still scream with the best of them. He also got through the whole two-and-a-half hour show without as much as a sip of water, which given the amount of dry ice and the vocal gymnastics he was having to do is nothing short of miraculous. This is, remember, someone who was at school with my grandfather, yet there’s no way I could perform even half this show without taking a break.
The only thing that showed McCartney’s age at all was that he’s taking less strenuous instrumental parts these days, playing rhythm guitar or second keyboard for the most part. While he plays bass on a few songs, he leaves the complex stuff like Paperback Writer to his guitarists, and his few lead guitar spots are mediocre. But if he can no longer play complex counterpoints to his lead vocals the way he could when he was twenty-three, the fact that he can still sing those vocals at all is more than enough for me.
It was one of those shows that are all highlights from start to finish – whether the expected sort,like the mass crowd singalong to Hey Jude or the fireworks in Live And Let Die, or the unexpected, like Sing The Changes, a rather arty track on record, turning out to be a wonderful chantalong arena-rock song in a live setting (sounding spookily like a cousin of Stay Positive by The Hold Steady actually). Even Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da wasn’t too horrible, thanks to some ska keyboards from Wix Wickens. But a few of the standout moments:
Dance Tonight, with drummer Abe Laborio Jr dancing with his hands. When McCartney put on his mandolin, someone in the audience shouted “Petrushka!” which McCartney misheard as “Red Rooster”. (Oddly, this didn’t look like a scripted bit).
Ram On – just beautiful, one of those lovely little fragments that McCartney does so well.
Junior’s Farm – a brave choice for second song, and it worked very well.
A Day In The Life – the orchestral build works surprisingly well as a garage-psych rock section, though it was truncated to only 16 bars. Wonderful to hear the man who co-wrote this perform it live. Instead of the last verse and orchestral build, they went from the end of the “woke up” section into Give Peace A Chance.
Something – not performed solo like on the Back In The World tour, but instead done as he did it at the tribute to George, starting as a solo ukulele performance, but the full band coming in for the solo and finishing the song in the same style as the record.
But there were two moments that for me made the gig, and rose above the slick professionalism of the show to something approaching great art. The first was Here Today, performed solo on acoustic guitar. I’ve always loved this song, McCartney’s 1981 tribute to John Lennon, because even though the latter half is too generic by far, the first verse is as good a tribute to the loss of a particular kind of friend as I could imagine (“And if I said I really knew you well, what would your answer be/if you were here today?/Well knowing you, you’d probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart…”). I don’t mind saying I cried.
The other real highlight was Come And Get It, the song McCartney wrote for Badfinger in the late 60s. With McCartney banging away at the piano, for a moment he seemed to transform into the man he was when he wrote the song – a cocksure lad in his mid-twenties, able to turn out classic pop songs without even thinking about it, discovering the song as it came out of his fingers and mouth, and grinning a stupid grin at his own cleverness.
I really can’t recommend McCartney’s show highly enough. While I’ve seen better gigs, and certainly cheaper ones, he really is astonishingly good, and given that he’s nearly 70 and has had heart trouble in the past, I can’t imagine he’ll tour too many more times, so go and see him while you can.
If nothing else, when else are you going to get a chance to see the late lamented Liberal MP Clement Freud projected on a screen the size of several houses? (During Band On The Run they show footage from the album cover shooting, featuring Freud, Michael Parkinson, Christopher Lee and others).
There are only two complaints I could make about the show. The first, which McCartney couldn’t really do anything about, is the Everton supporter who was sat next to me. He confirmed my opinion of footballists (which some would call a low opinion – I prefer the term ‘accurate’) by deciding that what delicate, thoughtful ballads like Eleanor Rigby really need is a drunk moron bellowing along to them with no attempt to either keep his voice down or have any idea of the tune or the words. He even managed to sing the wrong words to the ‘na na na nanana na’ section of Hey Jude, which is impressive. Luckily, he also didn’t seem to know anything that wasn’t on the Beatles’ red and blue albums.
What McCartney *could* do though is augment his band. Wix Wickens is a fine keyboard player, but when you’re playing to 21,000-seater arenas, with audiences paying up to a hundred and fifty quid a ticket (not mine, I was in the nosebleed seats), there is no possible excuse for not having real strings and horns. If Brian Wilson or The Monkees can do it playing theatre venues with lower ticket prices, there’s no reason to skimp on the musical side of things. Leave Wix to play the piano and organ parts, but get some real cello and violin players for Eleanor Rigby, and real horns for Got To Get You Into My Life. Those songs deserve better than tinny synth patches.
Magical Mystery Tour
All My Loving
Got To Get You Into My Life
Sing The Changes
The Night Before
Let Me Roll It/Foxy Lady
The Long And Winding Road
Come And Get It
Nineteen Hundred And Eight-Five
Maybe I’m Amazed
I’m Looking Through You
And I Love Her
Band On The Run
Back In The USSR
I’ve Got A Feeling
A Day In The Life/Give Peace A Chance
Let It Be
Live And Let Die
The Word / All You Need Is Love
Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End
Today is the 45th anniversary of the debut of the Monkees’ TV show, so I saved this piece on their masterpiece, which I was originally going to post on Saturday, til today. Which is quite handy, as I’ve been off ill with a migraine today and wouldn’t have been able to write a proper post.
Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.
The second and last of the albums where the Monkees provided the bulk of the instrumentation is their absolute masterpiece. While Dolenz was no longer playing much on the records, the band were still working as a unit in the studio, albeit an augmented one, and all four members were contributing creatively.
The result is one of the great mid-60s albums, that easily stands up with Revolver, Absolutely Free, Forever Changes, Smiley Smile and so on as a serious piece of work. The fact that this was recorded by a band who were being dismissed as pre-teen pabulum (and who were having to work on a TV show full time at the same time) is nothing short of extraordinary.
If you want a sense of what was possible in popular music as 1967 drew to a close, you could do far, far worse than Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd, where influences as diverse as Frank Zappa, the Beatles, bluegrass, Mose Allison and Robert A Heinlein collide, and the result is something unlike anything else in popular music.
All tracks produced by Chip Douglas.
Writer: Craig Smith
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz & Davy Jones (percussion and backing vocals), Peter Tork (possible guitar).
One can see from the very first song on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd that this is something very different from the earlier Monkees albums. For the first time ever, Nesmith is taking a lead vocal on a song he didn’t write. In fact, Nesmith dominates this album vocally, after previously having taken no more than three leads per album, here he takes five, of which he only wrote one.
This song was written by Nesmith’s friend Craig Smith, of the psych-pop band The Penny Arkade. Smith later changed his name to Satya Sai Maitreya Kali and recorded his own version of this with Mike Love of the Beach Boys singing lead.
The recording is loosely modelled on She’s About A Mover by The Sir Douglas Quintet (which was itself based on She’s A Woman by the Beatles), which Nesmith liked for its “Tex-Mex oompah”, and like both those earlier records is driven by a prominent bass-line with stabbing guitars on the off-beat.
This song caused some controversy for the drug references (more blatant in the extended mix, which features a monologue by Nesmith about different cigarette-rolling machines), with NBC not wishing to feature it on the TV show. Actually, the song is at least moderately anti-drug, or at least anti-dealer, with its portrayal of a salesman selling ‘every pot’ and ‘sailing so high’ but who has a ‘short life span’.
On many of the band’s other albums, this would have been a highlight, but on an album where nearly every song is a minor masterpiece, this is ‘just’ an album track.
While the Monkees were no longer playing together as a band in-studio, this album does feature a band of sorts, with Nesmith on guitar, Tork on guitar and keyboards, Chip Douglas on bass and Eddie Hoh on drums on almost every track. In this case it’s unsure whether Tork played on the track, but this studio unit would feature on nine of the thirteen tracks on the album.
She Hangs Out
Writers: Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich
Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: Michael Nesmith (electric guitar), Peter Tork (organ), Micky Dolenz (backing vocals)
Pisces, Aquarius almost alternates between two very different types of song. The first type is either sung or written by Nesmith, and is a country-psych-pop track with oblique lyrics. Salesman, the opening track, is an example of this type.
The other type features Jones on vocals and is at least mildly misogynist. This great pop track is an example of the second type. One could write an entire thesis on the attitude towards women displayed on Jones’ tracks on this album, which is all the more bizarre when one considers that they were all written by different outside songwriters, and two of them were co-written by women.
Either way, this is one of the less offensive of these tracks, and the catchiest, being based around a warning – “How old you say your sister was? You know you’d better keep an eye on her” – about a young girl ‘hanging out’ with an older crowd, but its lascivious attitude (“I know you taught your sister to boogaloo…well, she could teach you a thing or two”).
This had originally been released as a quickly-withdrawn B-side to A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You, in a version featuring only Jones and produced by Jeff Barry. This version, re-recorded with the Nesmith/Tork/Douglas/Hoh backing band, keeps the best bits of that arrangement (the answering vocals and ‘doo da ron day ron day’s) while expanding the organ part (which in Barry’s version had been very similar to those in I’m A Believer or his later hit Sugar Sugar), getting rid of the incongruous fuzz guitar and adding a horn section. The result is a great, and for the Monkees quite funky, dance record, with Jones’ sleazy, strained vocals working perfectly in this context.
The Door Into Summer
Writers: Chip Douglas and Bill Martin
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (backing vocals, additional drums), Peter Tork (keyboards)
One of only two songs on this album to feature Dolenz on drums (he plays one of the two drum parts audible on the record, with Hoh playing the other), this song by the band’s friend Bill Martin seems musically to have been inspired by some of Love’s music at the time – the acoustic guitar intro sounding very like many of the acoustic parts on the Forever Changes and Da Capo albums.
Lyrically, the inspiration is more obvious – the title of the song comes from the Robert A. Heinlein novel of the same name. In the first half of the book, before it descends into the usual late-Heinlein sexual creepiness (though for a change it’s paedophilia, not incest, that Heinlein advocates in this one), the protagonist makes a lot of money from sales of stock in a company he founded, before going into cryogenic suspension and waking up in the future.
Douglas and Martin seem to have taken elements of this basic idea and used them as a metaphor for a businessman giving up most of his life and constantly postponing doing what he wants to advance his career for no real reason.
Easily one of the best tracks the band ever did, everything on this track works well, from Dolenz and Nesmith’s harmonies on the chorus, to the interplay between the banjo (played by Doug Dillard) and Tork’s keyboard, to the wonderful pseudo-Indian melismatic wailing on the end (by Dolenz, possibly with Harry Nilsson adding some extra vocals) in imitation of the Beatles’ Rain.
Love is Only Sleeping
Writers: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (backing vocals), Davy Jones (percussion, backing vocals), Peter Tork (keyboards)
Another Nesmith-sung psych-pop track, this one seems to be modelled on some of John Lennon’s songs on Revolver, with their odd time signatures (the verse for this is in 7/4) and driving guitar riffs. One of the slighter actual songs here, this becomes a worthwhile track thanks to the production tricks, and to one of Nesmith’s very best vocal performances.
Nesmith here really shows off his versatility, from the low, speak-sung, “once I loved but love was dead” to the near-falsetto ‘sleeping’ at the end of the middle eight, he sings in a number of different voices, each one chosen perfectly for the section of the song in question. Dolenz – rightly – gets a lot of acclaim for his actorly phrasing, but Nesmith is at least as sensitive a vocalist here.
Writer: Harry Nilsson
Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (drums and backing vocals), Peter Tork (piano), Michael Nesmith (guitar)
The last Monkees studio track to feature Dolenz on drums for nearly thirty years, this song was brought to them by their new ‘discovery’ Harry Nilsson.
Nilsson had been working as a bank clerk while submitting songs to various people for several years, writing songs like the Lovin’ Spoonful rip-off This Could Be The Night for Phil Spector. (That song was given to The Modern Folk Quartet , who had featured both Chip Douglas and sometime Monkees studio bass player Jerry Yester).
But at a time when the Monkees were drifting apart musically as a band, Nilsson’s astonishing talents were something they could all agree on, appealing as they did both to Nesmith’s desire to expand his musical palette (both Nesmith and Nilsson were equally influenced by both pre-rock popular music and by the Beatles’ contemporary work) and to Jones’ desire to make ‘Broadway rock’ his father’s generation could enjoy.
Not that Jones’ father’s generation would approve of the lyrics – or at least one would hope not. This song has been variously described as being about various sordid practices up to and including gang rape, but in fact seems pretty clearly to ‘only’ be someone callously dumping a girl after taking her virginity – “You’re not the only cherry delight that was left in the night and gave up without a fight”, “I never told you that I loved no other, you must have dreamed it in your sleep.”
Not quite as callous a performance as Nilsson’s own recording (which includes tossed-off ‘sob sob’ asides), this song still works because of the way the jaunty, upbeat, vaudeville style music, and Jones’ cheerful performance (doubled almost all the way through by Dolenz) contrast with the vicious psychopathy of the lyrics.
Very, very far from a pleasant song, but still a great one.
Writers: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork
Other Monkees present: Michael Nesmith (guitar), Davy Jones (percussion)
One of the few occasions on which Tork actually plays bass on record, this track, which closes side one, was originally recorded during the More Of The Monkees sessions with Boyce and Hart producing and the Candy Store Prophets backing, before being remade during these sessions.
There are very few differences between the two performances – the original has some extra lead guitar, a small bit of backwards recording, and has a flute part rather than Tork’s hammond organ solo, but otherwise the two tracks are almost identical, even down to the chimes that can be heard faintly (going across the stereo spectrum in the stereo mix).
Starting with a verse that stays on one minor chord for the whole verse, Dolenz and Tork overlap vocal lines (Tork’s only vocal leads on a Boyce and Hart song), in a moody downbeat manner, before Dolenz becomes sole lead vocalist for the bridge (which by the time this came out would have sounded like it was based on Heroes & Villains by the Beach Boys, having the same bass riff as that song, but which was probably, like the Beach Boys’ track, inspired by the version of Save The Last Dance For Me that Phil Spector had recently produced for Tina Turner).
The chorus is one of Boyce & Hart’s garage-psych classics – a two-chord riff played for four bars, then repeated a tone up, with a bassline that’s playing a variation on a boogie line (going constantly up instead of up then down), and is just ridiculously exciting.
This became the B-side to Pleasant Valley Sunday and charted in its own right at number 11.
Hard to Believe
Writers: David Jones, Kim Capli, Eddie Brick and Charlie Rockett
Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: none
Side two of the album opens with the song that marks the end of the Monkees as a recording group. The first song Jones ever co-wrote with anyone outside the band, this was written with two members of the band’s tour support band The Sundowners, plus Rockett, their roadie, while on tour.
A bossa nova-lite track that fits in with the ‘Broadway rock’ idea Jones had been discussing in interviews for a while, this is the only proper song on the album to feature no Monkee involvement other than the lead vocalist. Instead Kim Capli plays the whole rhythm track, building up from the (excellent) drum and percussion parts.
Actually quite a catchy song (and the heavy breathing in the tag sounds like it may have inspired the similar effect in Time Of The Season by The Zombies), this could easily have been a hit for Tom Jones or Dusty Springfield at the time. But a faultline was appearing in popular music by this point, with Vegas-style singers like those on one side, and rock music on the other, and Jones was trying firmly to ensconce himself on one side of that line, while his bandmates were all on the other.
Possibly because it was the only song to feature none of the rest of the band, this is the only song from the album never to be featured in the TV show. But it points the way to the future of the band – by their next album they would be working independently of each other more often than not, and solo tracks like this would become the norm.
What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?
Writers: “Travis Lewis and Boomer Clark” (Michael Martin Murphey and Owens Castleman)
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones (backing vocals)
In its own way, this track also shows the way the band were falling apart as a recording unit. While the track features Nesmith on guitar, Douglas on bass and Hoh on drums, the standard rhythm section for this album, the banjo is supplied not by Tork (who had played the banjo on Headquarters) but by bluegrass legend Doug Dillard.
While it sounds like a fairly standard country song, this is far more harmonically sophisticated than was normal in country music at that time. Nesmith points out (in an interview quoted in Andrew Sandoval’s liner notes to the deluxe edition of this album) the I7-vi7 change in the bridge as a particularly ‘uncountry’ element, but the song plays with key ambiguity quite a bit, not being able to decide whether it’s in C or F (in a mirror of its protagonist’s own self-questioning), and going to a Db in the chorus (at the start of the line “I should be ridin’ on that train to San Anton’”) which belongs to neither key.
Nesmith provides one of his very best vocals here, going from the resigned “boy I sure missed mine” to the almost howled last chorus.
While this has precursors in some of Nesmith’s own earlier work, and on some tracks on the Beatles albums Beatles For Sale and Help!, this song was, at the time, probably the most successful ever example of country-rock, managing to combine the emotional sophistication and musicianship of the former genre with the energy of the latter without sacrificing either.
This song has become a recent highlight of the Monkees’ (Nesmith-less) reunion tours, where Tork takes the lead vocal. As has the next track…
Peter Percival Patterson’s Pet Pig Porky
Writer: Peter Tork
Lead Vocalist: Peter Tork
Other Monkees present: None
A tongue-twister credited to Tork as arranger, this twenty-seven second spoken word track is just a bit of fun, with Tork showing how much fun plosives can be when you don’t use a pop-shield.
Pleasant Valley Sunday
Writers: Gerry Goffin and Carole King
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz
Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (piano), Michael Nesmith (guitar and backing vocals), Davy Jones (backing vocals and percussion)
If ever proof were needed that the Monkees were capable of producing great pop records without the involvement of Don Kirshner, this is it. With an instrumental track by Tork, Nesmith, Douglas and Hoh (with additional acoustic guitar by Bill Chadwick and possibly Dolenz), this shows that the band could, when left to their own devices, create spectacular pop singles.
Every band member gets to shine here – Dolenz of course takes the lead vocal, and does his usual superb job, Nesmith plays the Day Tripper-esque guitar riff (composed by Chip Douglas) and adds harmonies (and the Dolenz/Nesmith harmony blend, while underutilised, is one of the band’s most thrilling elements), Tork adds the piano part under the middle eight (which otherwise would have seemed woefully poor, having as it does only a single chord), and Jones gives the vocal performance of his life, on the nasal, sarcastic ‘ta ta ta ta’ section.
Given that the song itself is relatively weak, being just an example of the mid-60s tendency to cruelly mock people for daring to want a comfortable life (see for example every song George Harrison ever wrote), the power of the track must be attributed entirely to the performance, production and arrangement. And every element here is spot-on (as can be heard on the ‘karaoke’ version made available on a Japanese best-of CD, where every detail of the backing track can be heard).
It’s not the song itself that made this a hit, but Douglas’ riff and the understanding of dynamics. This track builds from a relatively sedate beginning towards an almost orgasmic peak, with the riff and Nesmith and Dolenz’s wailing being lost in a wall of reverb that it turn gets fed back on itself. The ending wouldn’t be out of place on a Led Zeppelin record, but because it’s been contextualised as part of a piece of simple pop music, no-one blinked an eye.
Quite rightly, this is a favourite of the band members – Peter Tork recorded a truly odd remake of it with his band The New Monks in 1980, for example – because of all their classic singles, it’s the only one which allowed them all to shine as a group.
Writer: Michael Nesmith
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz
Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (keyboards), Michael Nesmith (guitar)
Oddly, for an album so dominated vocally by Nesmith, his first songwriting contribution to the album is one of the handful of Dolenz lead vocals.
This song, in fact, shows the new songwriting style Nesmith would be trying out for the next few albums. While it’s harmonically simple (only three chords), the lyrics, which began life as an impressionistic poem about the Sunset Strip riots, give up on standard ideas of sense in order to play with language:
Startled eyes that sometimes see phantasmagoric splendour
Pirouette down palsied paths with pennies for the vendor
Salvation’s yours for just the time it takes to pay the dancer.
Meanwhile Dolenz turns in the performance of his life, not just on vocal, but on Moog. Dolenz had only bought the Moog (one of a handful in existence at the time) the previous weekend, and this was its first use on a pop record. Dolenz here just twiddles knobs and makes interesting sounds, but in so doing he manages to do pretty much everything worthwhile that there is to do with a Moog.
The whole thing has a dense, brooding feel, and is in a sonic world completely different from anything else on the album. Tork’s Hammond organ and Douglas’ bass are very much of their time – the basic backing track could be by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger And The Trinity or Jefferson Airplane – but adding Dolenz’s vocals and the Moog’s siren-like wails makes this something very special.
Don’t Call On Me
Writers: Michael Nesmith and John London
Lead Vocalist: Michael Nesmith
Other Monkees present: Peter Tork (keyboards), Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones (intro chatter)
And from a pointer to Nesmith’s songwriting future, we look to his past, with this song he’d written four years earlier.
This lounge-flavoured song was originally written as an exercise in learning how to use major 7ths (which are what give it its lush feeling), and an acoustic demo exists of it from the early 60s in an almost McCartney-esque style, but it probably came back to its composer’s mind after hearing America Drinks And Goes Home by the Mothers Of Invention.
Frank Zappa, the Mothers’ leader, had become a big influence on the Monkees, especially Nesmith, and would appear in the second series of the TV show and make a cameo appearance in the band’s film Head, and America Drinks And Goes Home is both harmonically and lyrically similar to this song, though Zappa plays it entirely for laughs, while Nesmith takes the song perfectly straight (though like the Mothers’ record, the track opens and ends with fake-drunk audience chatter and lounge piano).
This is actually a lovely ballad, with Nesmith singing right at the top of his range, sounding utterly unlike his normal baritone, and would be a stand-out track were it not for the fact that nearly every track on this album is a stand-out track.
Writer: Gerry Goffin and Carole King
Lead Vocalist: Davy Jones
Other Monkees present: Micky Dolenz (backing vocals), Peter Tork (keyboards), Michael Nesmith (guitar)
Well, we’ve not had any Jones misogyny for a little while, so why not close the album with it? This rather nasty Goffin/King song about groupies (last line of the chorus “how can I love her when I just don’t respect her?”) is catchy, but after some of the wonderful music we’ve had it’s a shallow, heartless song to end on, although it’s easy to see why it was chosen as the closer, having as it does an extended Moog jam to fade on which would be difficult to follow. (The Moog here is played by session player Paul Beaver, far less inventively than Dolenz’s performance on Daily Nightly).
On any other Monkees album this would be a decent slightly-below-average track with an interesting ending. Here it’s easily the least interesting track.
Lead Vocalist: Peter Tork
Other Monkees present: None
This is a little spoken-word joke, with Tork imitating the voice of Robert Keith Morrison, who introduced the reference tones for Ampex alignment tapes (used by sound engineers to calibrate equipment), introducing tones at various levels, the last of which is inaudible – but we hear a dog barking instead. This was originally intended as the opening track of the album.
It’s been suggested that this was a joke about the ‘silent’ track at the end of Sgt Pepper, which could only be heard by dogs, but a few weeks prior to this recording, the album Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band had been released. That album, which had been recorded in the same RCA studio as this album, and with Hank Cicalo (the Monkees’ regular engineer at this time) engineering, opened on side two with the track Kandy Korn, which starts with producer Richard Perry doing a near-identical Morrison imitation. For that reason, The Captain Beefheart Radar Station [FOOTNOTE http://www.beefheart.com/zigzag/books/barnescompanswers2.htm ] (from which I got some of the details here) calls this track ‘the first ever Beefheart cover version’.
Writers: Diane Hildebrand, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and David Jones
Lead Vocalist: Micky Dolenz
Other Monkees present: Davy Jones (percussion), Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith (guitar)
This track developed from a jam on the Mose Allison classic Parchman Farm (which it resembles closely enough that it’s amazing Allison didn’t sue – it still has almost an identical melody). Nesmith liked the results, but didn’t see why the band should pay Allison royalties when they could just put a new vocal line on top, and so Diane Hildebrand (co-writer of Early Morning Blues And Greens and Your Auntie Grizelda) was asked to write a new lyric.
The result is stunning – Hildebrand’s lyrics turns this into a patter song or talking blues, with lyrics and internal rhymes tumbling out of Dolenz’s mouth in a flow that would shame most modern rappers. The lyrics themselves are hilarious – the thoughts of someone drunkenly attempting suicide by drowning in the Mississippi, regretting it, and eventually deciding to go with the flow, quite literally. Between Dolenz’s frenetic performance and the squealing saxophone, this is as exciting a record as it gets, and was released as the B-side of Daydream Believer.
Lead Vocalist: all four Monkees
And we finish with a stunning piece of vocal harmony, with the four Monkees singing a traditional Spanish Christmas carol.
I’ve got friends who believe that because Boyce and Hart provided the backing vocals on many of the early hits, that the Monkees themselves couldn’t sing in harmony. This track should prove them wrong – an a capella performance of a complicated arrangement that’s every bit as good as any of the harmony work pulled off by the Beach Boys, the Zombies or the Beatles.
In fact, there’s an even better version of this song on the Missing Links vol 2 CD – the version on here is taken from a TV performance, while the Missing Links vol 2 version is a full studio recording, properly EQd with reverb added. That version also features Chip Douglas, rather than Jones, taking the fourth harmony part. Both versions are absolutely lovely, though.
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.