Today was the fourth time I’ve seen Neil Innes live, and you never know what to expect. He’s one of the true greats of both comedy and music, but precisely because of that he’s hard to fit into a neat category.
The first time I saw him was in a smallish theatre, with a two-man backing band playing songs from throughout his career and telling stories in between them. The second time was for the Bonzo Dog Band reunion, where there were about twenty people on stage including all the surviving Bonzos, Phill Jupitus, Adrian Edmondson, and the bloke who plays Paul McCartney in the Bootleg Beatles. And then last year I saw him play in a small pub in Chester to an audience of no more than fifty people, solo, playing mostly stuff from his recent Works In Progress and Recollections CDs.
But this show was unpredictable in more ways than normal. I’d seen it advertised as at three different venues, on two different days, and as “The Rutles”, “Neil Innes with Legs Larry Smith” and “Neil Innes and Friends”, with various people mentioned as being involved.
The reason for the confusion was mostly because this wasn’t really a show aimed at the general public, but at Beatles fans.
I’ve never really understood Beatles fandom. That’s not to say I don’t understand loving the Beatles — I have multiple copies of all their albums, tons of bootlegs, almost all their solo work, and twenty or so books on them (I even wrote one myself…). But… fandom as I understand it is as much about group membership, making friends and so on as anything else. And liking the Beatles, even liking the Beatles a lot, doesn’t seem to me to really be enough of a shared interest.
“I like the most popular band in the whole history of music!”
“Really, me too! So do these billion other people!”
I don’t know, it just seems a bit like being a fan of chocolate or sex or something — things that definitely make the world a much better place, but which are so ubiquitously loved that they don’t really count as a shared interest. (This should not be taken as IN ANY WAY being a knock on Beatles fandom though — it’s a group of people including many of my friends, and which has bonded around a shared love of my favourite band. I’m not going to knock that, ever.)
But anyway, Beatles fans-qua-fans do indeed exist, and Liverpool in the last week of August is the home to thousands of them, who come for Beatleweek, a week-long holiday where they get taken round all the Beatles-related tourist sites, see more Beatles tribute bands than one could have reasonably imagined existed (including The Bertils, The Beatelles, Let It Beatles, and Classic Stone, who just don’t seem to be trying), and also see performances by people connected in some way with the band. This year’s special guests included Joey Molland of Badfinger, Joe Brown (a minor British 50s rock star who was a close friend of George Harrison), Mark Hudson (of the Hudson Brothers, and Ringo Starr’s musical director for his solo tours for twenty years)… and this show.
It turned out that we weren’t going to get “Legs” Larry Smith, as advertised, but what we did get was more than enough.
The show openers were John Gorman and Mike “McGear” McCartney, two thirds of the Scaffold (Roger McGough is now a well-known poet and doesn’t perform very often). The two have worked with Innes many times over the years — they were the G and M in Innes’ post-Bonzos band GRIMMS — but they’re also locals, and most importantly to this crowd Mike McCartney has a rather well-known brother.
They opened with an a capella performance of Long Strong Black Pudding, their classic B-side, with the lyric changed to “A long strong black pudding up David Cameron”, which got a huge amount of applause from the front, which seemed to be mostly people who knew what they were getting themselves into, and utter bemusement from the bulk of the crowd.
The two Scaffold members, incidentally, were backed by a band calling themselves The Spiritualists (or something like that), but which contained Roddy and Rhino from The Muffin Men, the world’s best Frank Zappa tribute band, also from Liverpool.
After Long Strong Black Pudding, we got two of John Gorman’s songs from Tiswas, originally released as by “The Four Bucketeers” (described by Wikipedia as “an ad-hoc music/water-throwing group”) — Bucket Of Water Song (actually a top thirty hit), which involved Gorman throwing buckets of water onto the audience, and Raspberry Rock, an audience participation number which involved the audience blowing raspberries.
As you’d expect from someone with such a long pedigree in comedy, Gorman is an achingly funny performer, but Mike McCartney (who now looks like a camp cross between his brother, Alan Bennett, and Laurence Payne) is an equally good straight man. Most of their comedy routines were fairly standard stuff — reading out two diary entries, alternating phrase by phrase, so that innocuous phrases became doubles entendres, singing “Ten bottles of whisky hanging on the wall” and drinking each bottle as it falls, becoming progressively more drunk, the sort of thing one gets on a sub-standard episode of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue — but the performances were exquisite, master-classes in comedy and timing.
The people at the back were leaving in droves, saying “what is this shit?” (and to be fair, a bunch of American and Japanese tourists who are mostly interested in Beatles tribute bands would probably not be the audience Gorman and McCartney would have chosen either), but anyone who had some idea of what they were in for — which was the few hundred people at the front — was loving every second. It was a lovely, lovely performance.
We got all the hits — 2 Days Monday, Thank U Very Much, Liverpool Lou and Lily the Pink, and the crowd sang along with all of them. At the end, my sister, who’d come along with me but didn’t know anything about the Scaffold, said “Paul McCartney’s brother’s far better than Paul, isn’t he?”
She wasn’t far wrong.
As soon as they finished, half the remaining audience (who were presumably just there for the novelty factor of seeing a Beatle Brother) left, leaving a hard core of a couple of hundred people.
After a short interval, The Rutles came out, or at least two of them (the last couple of months seem to be “seeing two members of a band time” for me, what with seeing Two Beach Boys last month, and now seeing Two Of The Scaffold, Two Muffin Men and Two Rutles all in the same day).
This version of the band had Neil “Ron Nasty” Innes and John “Barry Wom” Halsey, along with a three-piece backing band whose names I didn’t catch (although I know the keyboard player also did some work with the Bonzos on their reunion album). As for the rest of the Rutles, Ricky Fataar is currently busy touring as Bonnie Raitt’s drummer, and Eric Idle never really performed on the music (and apparently has also badly fallen out with Innes as well). Ollie Halsall, who sang the “Dirk McQuickly” parts that Idle mimed to, sadly died around twenty years ago.
From the moment they came out and opened with Number One everyone was singing along with stupid grins on their faces. It’s not until you hear these songs live, with an audience that knows them and sings along, that you really realise how well they work as songs, divorced from any satirical context. They’re just bloody good songs, some of them very funny, which happen to sound quite a lot like some other, also good songs.
As my sister, who again wasn’t at all familiar with the Rutles songs (though she loves the Bonzos) said — “they’re so catchy you can sing along with them after the first verse even if you’ve never heard them before”.
Pretty much everything in the twenty-one-song set was a highlight, from hearing the crowd all singing along to “shoot me down in flames if I should tell a lie, cross my heart I promise that it’s true, I’ve been in love so many times before, but never with a girl like you” — there’s nothing quite like being in a crowd of people all singing along to a favourite song that almost no-one knows — to the reaction to the backing vocal argument in Rendezvous (most of the audience seemed less familiar with Archaeology, and so had a fresher reaction to it).
There were only two flaws with the show, neither enough to spoil it, and neither the fault of the musicians. The first was the amount of dry ice flooding onto the stage, which by about forty minutes in was having a clear effect on Innes’ voice (he said at one point “I’m what musicians call pony — a little hoarse”).
The other problem was that, as so often with what is nominally a comedy show (though this was the most music-focussed of the shows I’ve seen Innes do by far), a few idiots in the audience thought the show was about them, and shouted ‘hilarious’ responses to things he said — usually treading on a prepared punchline. Innes tolerated this with good grace, but it was easy to see his patience wearing a little thin when three of them started singing Raggy Dolls (the theme from a children’s cartoon that Innes did in the 1980s) while he was talking.
But these were minor flaws in what was an astonishingly good performance. Oddly, though, the best point came when Innes got out a ukulele and started playing All Things Must Pass, the only non-Rutle song of the evening. It was a lovely, touching arrangement, and brought out far more beauty in the song than the rather heavy-handed rock arrangement on George Harrison’s original.
The setlist concentrated on the first Rutles album, but with a smattering of tracks from Archaeology. I can’t reproduce it exactly, but it was something like:
It’s Looking Good
With A Girl Like You
Major Happy’s Up And Coming Once Upon A Good Time Band
Hold My Hand
Good Times Roll
Cheese And Onions
Living In Hope
Eine Kleine Middle Klasse Musik
Piggy In The Middle
All Things Must Pass
Get Up And Go
Back In 64
The songs are all right, and the first few and last few are in the right order, but the middle is possibly mixed up quite a bit.
For those who don’t know Innes’ work, he has a *lot* of music available for free download here. Go and listen to it — and then go and buy the stuff you have to pay for, and go to his shows. He’s one of the true greats, and deserves a much wider audience than he has.
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…