Van Dyke Parks’ big break had broken. The album on which he had been collaborating with Brian Wilson, Smile, had fallen apart, and Heroes & Villains, the single that was originally to be the basis for the album, had been a comparative flop. Parks had little to show for many months’ work, other than being involved in “the greatest unreleased album of all time” — an album that would act as an albatross around the neck of everyone involved in it, dominating all discussions of their later careers. The recording sessions had become so tense and unproductive that Parks felt he had no choice but to leave the project before it was completed; he believed that some members of the band, notably Mike Love, were so unsympathetic to his work that it was impossible to work with them, however great the financial rewards might have been. The project itself collapsed soon after Parks left, although it had been clear for some time before that it was in trouble.
But Parks, luckily, had kept many irons in the fire while working with the Beach Boys, and had been working with almost every up-and-coming musician in LA, either as a session musician, an arranger, or just as someone to bounce ideas off. In particular, Parks had been working with Lenny Waronker.
Lenny Waronker was a young staff producer at Warner Brothers records, who had got his job largely through family connections — his father, Si Waronker, had been head of Liberty Records, and Lenny had gone from working for his father to working at Warners. Waronker was responsible to the label for the Mojo Men, the Beau Brummels, and a band called the Tikis (who he got Van Dyke Parks to produce; parks renamed them Harper’s Bizarre), and had built around himself a small team of musicians, including Waronker’s childhood friend Randy Newman. Parks was part of this group, which quickly started making some of the most interesting — if not always the most commercially successful — music coming out of Hollywood.
As a result of this work, Waronker soon offered Parks the chance to make a solo album with Waronker producing, and Parks eagerly accepted. Provisionally titled Looney Tunes, his album would be a continuation of Parks’ (as opposed to Wilson’s) artistic vision for Smile – a unified piece, with allusive lyrics, a tribute to America and Americana, and to the pre-rock popular song.
To test the waters, a single was recorded and released, under the pseudonym George Washington Brown. Donovan’s Colours took the simple folk song Colours by “British Dylan” Donovan, and turned it into an instrumental (apart from one single line of vocal on the single mix, absent from the album), with Dixieland clarinet, multiple overdubbed ragtime pianos, clanking percussion and complex but joyful orchestration, sounding somewhere between the music Carl Stalling wrote for Warner Bros cartoons, the original, jazzier, version of Rhapsody In Blue, and the piano-roll experiments of Conlon Nancarrow.
While this was, obviously, not a commercial success, it generated enough interest that an album was a definite possibility. Donovan’s Colours was included on the album, of course, as was a small section of Nearer My God To Thee (retitled Van Dyke Parks and credited to Public Domain — another track on the album was titled Public Domain and credited to Van Dyke Parks), but with one exception the songs on the album, now titled Song Cycle, were all Parks’ work — intelligent, complex, music that required multiple listens to grasp, and which eschewed rock instrumentation almost completely in favour of tuned percussion, chromatic harmonica, balalaika, accordion, woodwinds, strings, and tack piano. It’s an album that has a unique sonic fingerprint — a bar or two from the album is enough to identify it absolutely, and not just because of Parks’ arrangements, but also the treatment of his vocal, which is reverbed and processed by engineers Lee Herschberg and Bruce and Doug Botnick so it sounds distant, as if coming in on a radio signal from some other plane of existence.
There are only two exceptions to this on the album — two tracks where you can hear Van Dyke Parks singing as himself, undistorted, without effects. One is the last song, the gorgeous Pot Pourri, where only Parks’ vocal and piano are used, and where the piano is so far up in the mix it’s almost impossible to make out the voice at all. The other is Vine Street, the opening track, and the only new song on the album not written by Parks.
Vine Street, though, was completely of a piece with the rest of the album. Written by Randy Newman with Parks in mind, the track starts with what sounds like a field recording, before the song proper comes in — “that’s the tape that we made, but I’m sad to say it never made the grade/That was me, third guitar, I wonder where the others are…” (Newman knew that Parks had been third guitar in a folk band with Steve Young and Steve Stills), before introducing two of the major themes of the album — nostalgia, and the landscape and geography of LA and Southern California.
Newman was, by this time, a successful songwriter for hire, and in Vine Street he managed to encapsulate the feel of the album, but in a slightly more accessible way than Parks’ own songs. Musically, Newman’s arrangement contains references not only to other songs on the album but to Parks’ influences — there’s a snatch of Rhapsody In Blue, a couple of bars of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Parks had earlier recorded a jangle-pop version of the Ode To Joy from the Ninth and released it as a single under the title of Number Nine), and a string figure, suggested by Parks, coming in just before the first mention of the title, designed to mimic the sound of the train in the distance at the end of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album — despite stopping work on Smile, Parks still had enormous admiration for Brian Wilson as a composer and producer.
Parks did make one change to Newman’s original song, though. Newman originally intended the intro to the song to be a performance of a cheesy pop song he’d written called Anita [FOOTNOTE: Newman’s original intended opening can be heard on Harry Nillson’s gorgeous cover version on the Nilsson Sings Newman album, one of the best things either man ever did.], but Parks instead replaced this with a recording of an old folk song, sung by his old friend the country singer Steve Young (who was himself the subject of another of the songs on the album, The All-Golden). The song chosen was Black Jack Davey, a variant of a very old traditional song sometimes also known as The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, about someone who forsakes the comfort and reliability of life as a rich person to run off and live on the fringes of society. Possibly Parks, who had given up writing for what was still at the time the most successful band in the USA in order to write a collection of oblique art songs, saw a parallel with his own life?
Sadly, Song Cycle was not to find the commercial success it deserved — Warners’ head, Joe Smith, was unwilling to release the album at all until Jac Holzman, the head of rival company Elektra, offered to buy it off him. Warners did then put it out, but with a bizarre advertising campaign that Parks believes killed what commercial potential the album had.
Song Cycle would go on to be regarded as a classic, and has as good a claim as any to be the best album of the 60s, but Parks, Newman, and Waronker were already all thinking about future projects together…
Composer: Randy Newman
Line-up: Van Dyke Parks (vocals), Randy Newman (piano), plus some or all of Ron Elliott and Dick Rosmini (guitar), Carl Fortina (accordion) Nicolai Bolin, Vasil Crienica, William Nadel, Alan Reuss, Leon Stewart, and Thomas Tedesco (balalaika). Donald Bagley, Gregory Bemko, Charles Berghofer, Harry Bluestone, Samuel Boghossian, Dennis Budimer, Joseph Ditullio, Jesse Erlich, Nathan Gershman, Philip Goldberg, Armand Kaproff, William Kurasch, Leonard Malarsky, Jerome Reisler, Orville Rhodes, Trefoni Rizzi, Lyle Ritz, Misha Goodatieff, Joseph Saxon, Virginia Majewski, Ralph Schaffer, Leonard Selic, Frederick Seykora, Darrel Terwilliger, and Robert West (strings), Gayle Levant (harp), Norman Benno, Arthur Briegleb, Vincent De Rosa, George Fields, William Green, James Horn, Richard Hyde, Jay Migliori, Thomas Morgan, Ted Nash, Richard Perissi, Thomas Scott, and Thomas Shepard (woodwinds), Hal Blaine, Gary Coleman, James Gordon, and Earl Palmer (percussion), Steve Young (guitar and vocals on Black Jack Davey)
Original release: Song Cycle, Van Dyke Parks, Warners WS 1727
Currently available on: Song Cycle, Bella Union CD
Seeing Van Dyke Parks live is a fascinating experience.
I believe I’ve seen him at every solo show he’s done in the UK (I’ve not seen the appearances he’s made on multi-artist bills or at the Meltdown and All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals), and they’re a marvellous example of how to marry spontaneity and an almost ritualistic precision.
The setlists Parks performs are near-identical every time — last year’s show included a few extra songs from Song Cycle, but otherwise they all follow the pattern of his Moonlighting: Live At The Ash Grove album from 1998. So while this show was ostensibly to promote his new album Songs Cycled (actually a compilation of the six vinyl-only singles he self-released two years ago), the only songs from that album he included were the two remakes, Hold Back Time (originally from his collaboration with Brian Wilson, Orange Crate Art) and The All-Golden (originally from Song Cycle).
In fact, to the best of my memory, Hold Back Time is one of only three songs in Sunday’s set that he didn’t play last year or in 2011, the other two being a version of Gottschalk’s Night In The Tropics and a quick solo stride piano busk through of Anything Goes at the end. And similarly only three songs from the 2011 set (his Beach Boys collaboration Heroes And Villains , new song Black Gold, and the madrigal The Silver Swan) didn’t make the set this time.
But what a setlist it is. Parks is one of the great songwriters of the last century, worthy of comparison with names like Gershwin, Porter, McCartney, Wilson or Ellington, and he shows it with the originals here, drawn mostly from the Orange Crate Art album, which are about as good as songwriting gets. But he is also a generous musician, who wants to introduce the music he loves to a wider audience, whether that’s the music of his friends like Harry Nilsson or Lowell George, or of musicians from previous generations, such as Gottschalk or the calypsonian Attila The Hun, and so their songs are incorporated in the set as well. It’s a tribute to Parks both as performer and as composer that these pieces fit in so well with his own.
But while the setlists remain the same, every Van Dyke Parks show is a new and different experience, because he constantly varies the arrangements. The first time I saw him was with guitar and bass supporting his piano, the second time had indie-pop group Clare And The Reasons providing backup on a variety of instruments, last year he had the whole Britten Sinfonia, and this time he had a four-piece backing band providing drums, double bass, cello and harp.
(It was also the first time I’ve seen Parks playing an electric keyboard rather than a full-size piano — the Borderline is very unlike his usual venues, being an underground, standing, sweaty rock club with a small, cramped stage).
This line-up sounded a little off on the first couple of songs — I suspect that Parks is used to the bands he works with taking their tempo from his fluid piano playing, while the band here were taking the time from the drummer — but quickly settled in and gave excellent performances all round, and once again hearing these familiar (though never over-familiar) songs played in a new arrangement gave me a fresh set of ears with which to listen to them.
The other thing that is never the same from one Parks performance to another is his stage patter. Parks speaks naturally in an elegant, elliptical style that most of us couldn’t achieve after months of honing our prose, and I suspect he would be incapable of introducing a song the same way twice. This time he was in an elegaic mood, seemingly prompted by his realisation that he is now seventy years old, and spoke a lot about the past. This was most notable when talking about dead friends such as Nilsson, George or John Hartford (the writer of Delta Queen Waltz), but even when telling a recent anecdote about working with Bob Dylan, he looks to the past, saying that the previous time they had met was in 1964, in Phil Ochs’ flat, when they’d had a row about the use of electric instruments in folk music.
The audience were clearly mostly unfamiliar with Parks’ work, other than maybe Smile and Song Cycle — every Parks show is mostly to people who’ve heard of him, rather than heard him, but he always wins them round very quickly. Their unfamiliarity showed when he spoke about Gottschalk (the great 19th century pianist and composer who influenced him perhaps more than any other) — when he mentioned that Mac Rebbenack is a fan of Gottschalk, Rebbenack’s name got more recognition than Gottschalk’s did. But the number of people walking out with CDs and vinyl — many of them asking each other “Did *you* know he was that good?” — showed just how well he can get a crowd onto his side.
After the first time I saw Parks, I thought I’d never see him live again, and it took twelve years until the next time. Now I’ve seen him three times in less than three years, and each time has required a round trip of over four hundred miles, and I’d still gladly make the same trip, to see him singing the same songs, every time it was on offer. Because every Van Dyke Parks show is a unique, life-affirming experience. One of the main themes of Parks’ introductions this time was homogenisation and commodification of music, the way “wherever I travel in the world, someone will play me a Ry Cooder lick” (he made a couple of exceptions to this rule, his “favourite living songwriter”, Loudon Wainwright III, who was in the audience, and the folk guitarist Martin Carthy). His own music points to a road not taken, incorporating folk, Gershwin, Gottschalk, ragtime, R & B, calypso and vaudeville in a gentle, civilised, *human* blend that has absolutely nothing to do with rock and roll but everything to do with what’s good in humanity.
You can stream Parks’ latest album here, but it’s definitely worth buying a physical copy, for the cover art for the singles (including work by people like Art Spiegelman and Frank Holmes) and the essays for each song by both songwriter and painter.
Setlist (from memory, so possibly inaccurate)
Opportunity For Two
Orange Crate Art
Hold Back Time
Wings Of A Dove
Delta Queen Waltz
Night In The Tropics
FDR In Trinidad
He Needs Me (with Gaby Moreno)
Sailin’ Shoes (with Gaby Moreno)
I have a feeling I’ve missed at least two songs out there, but I can’t think what they were.
Holland is, in many ways, the last gasp for the Beach Boys as an artistic group. They would produce good work again, both as a band or as individuals, but in future their work would be driven by one or two members of the band at a time rather than being a true group effort.
For the recording of the bulk of the album, the band decamped to Baambrugge in the Netherlands, and had their recording studio shipped over as well (which caused a huge amount of delay). This was at the instigation of Jack Rieley, and many reasons have been given over the years for the move, including tax issues, the idea that a change of scenery would inspire Brian Wilson, and even the laughable claim that it would be harder for those band members with drug problems (especially Brian Wilson) to obtain drugs in Holland than the USA. The fact that Rieley opted to remain in the Netherlands (and, for a while, attempted to continue managing the band’s career from a distance) may say more about the reasons than anything else.
The trip abroad did inspire Brian Wilson, but not in the way that the band had hoped or expected. Instead of coming up with any new conventional songs, his main piece of work during the trip to the Netherlands was a short story with musical accompaniment, Mount Vernon And Fairway (A Fairy Tale), that was initially included with the album as a bonus 45 and is now included at the end of the CD release.
The resulting album was considered too weak to release by Warner/Reprise, until Van Dyke Parks suggested that the song Sail On Sailor, initially not part of the album’s line-up, would make a good single. This replaced the Chaplin/Fataar/Love track We Got Love (which was accidentally included on some early German pressings of the album) and the resulting album got some of the best reviews of the band’s career, though it was less commercially successful, scraping into the top forty in the US, but doing slightly better in the UK where it made the top twenty.
The album is actually one of the most cohesive the band had done, with an ongoing theme of travel, especially by sea, and of a homesick longing for America. It’s also the most collaborative of the Beach Boys’ albums, with many different combinations of band members writing together in ways they otherwise never did.
This cohesion helps overcome what is actually a fairly weak set of material — there’s nothing here on the level of an All This Is That or Make It Good, let alone Til I Die or Surf’s Up, but the album is nonetheless one of the more worthwhile listening experiences of the band’s later years.
Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar
Sail On Sailor
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Ray Kennedy, Tandyn Almer and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin
The opening song has a history which has been the subject of much recent debate. The generally-accepted story until recently was as follows: the Beach Boys turned in the Holland album but it had no obvious single on it. At this point Van Dyke Parks remembered a cassette he had in his possession of a song being written by himself and Brian Wilson, which had single potential. Various hands brushed up the song, at which point Carl Wilson took various backing band members into the studio and cut a backing track, with Brian supervising over the telephone. Dennis Wilson attempted a lead vocal, but gave up after a couple of takes, and Blondie Chaplin took over.
However, Steve Desper, who had been the band’s engineer for much of the late 60s and early 70s, but had stopped working for the band just before the trip to Holland, claims that the backing track dates back much earlier, and is a track that Brian Wilson had been working on for a long time. He also claims that the song originally had Carl Wilson on lead vocals, and that Chaplin is imitating Wilson’s phrasing exactly (a reasonable claim — Chaplin sounds spookily like Wilson here).
Whatever the truth of this (and I am inclined to believe Desper here), there is also the question of who exactly wrote what. A press release at the time claimed it was “a Brian Wilson-Jack Rieley song with writer credits suggesting informal assistance from a wide range of characters, among them Van Dyke Parks”. Steve Desper, on the other hand, has claimed that the lyrics are entirely Parks’ work, and Parks has claimed in the past that not only did he write all the lyrics but also the chord changes in the chorus and the start of the middle section. If this is the case, then Brian Wilson’s contribution to the song is reduced to coming up with the verse riff (a 12/8 shuffle between I and IV, actually quite similar to a gospel take on Imagine) and possibly the melody.
One might possibly get an idea of what actually happened by listening to a version of the song recorded by KGB, a band featuring Ray Kennedy. This version is credited only to Wilson/Kennedy, and has fairly incoherent lyrics about cocaine and trying to get out of the ghetto. One suspects that Wilson brought his initial idea to several different collaborators, at different times, without necessarily thinking to mention to them that he was working with other people. My own guess (given the reliability of the various parties involved) is that Parks’ account is largely correct — not only is Parks the most scrupulously honest person involved, with an excellent memory, but the song just sounds like a Van Dyke Parks song rather than a Brian Wilson song.
Whatever the process involved though, the end result is the most convincing attempt at R&B that the Beach Boys ever did, with a strong lead vocal from Chaplin, excellent group backing vocals (apparently only featuring Carl Wilson, Chaplin and Fataar from the Beach Boys, along with backing band member Billy Hinsche, session steel guitar player Tony Martin, and Gerry Beckley from the band America, though some have claimed that the other Beach Boys later overdubbed additional vocals), and in its VIb-VIIb-I chorus changes a hook so powerful that the band reused it (a tone up and in 4/4 time) for their 1985 hit Getcha Back.
The song was released twice as a single, hitting number 79 on the charts in 1973, and number 49 in 1975. Despite this relative lack of chart success, it was popular on the radio at the time and has remained a fixture in the setlists of the Beach Boys and their various solo shows.
Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson
The second track on the album continues the sailing theme, here with a typically-inscrutable Rieley lyric about steamboat travel. The lyrics are pretty and evocative, but make very little sense on any kind of literal level — lines like “The stream is a timepiece of children bridged with crystal haze” defy any normal interpretation. On the other hand, the lyric is slightly more comprehensible in the USA than elsewhere, as the “Mr Fulton” referred to, Robert Fulton, is considered a major historical figure in the US for his development of the first successful steamboat. He doesn’t, however, have the same “as every schoolchild knows…” status elsewhere.
Musically, the song is built around simple I-V7 changes for the most part (with a V7-VI7-II7 change at the end of the verse which is actually similar in its effect to the more outrageous chorus progression in Sail On Sailor), until the tag when the V7 changes into a VIb7, with mechanical-sounding drums perfectly evoking the feel of a paddle-wheel turning in the water and the hiss of steam.
The effect is possibly a little too dragged out — the combination of Carl Wilson’s lazy-sounding vocals, however, lovely, and the slow, mechanical pace of the song, tends to drag long before the four minutes and thirty-six seconds of the song is up — but it’s a worthwhile track, and a sign of the stylistic evolution that was bringing Dennis Wilson to the more confident style of his later work on Pacific Ocean Blue.
California Saga: Big Sur
Songwriter: Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love
The centrepiece of Holland, covering the bulk of side two, was a thematically-linked suite of songs by Love and Jardine called California Saga. Possibly the most artistically-ambitious thing either man ever did, this was in part inspired by their homesickness for California while living in Holland, but also tied into the themes of the environment and of travel that suffuse the band’s music at this point.
California Saga is unusual in the Beach Boys’ work in that rather than celebrating Southern California, and in particular Los Angeles, as most of their California-centred work did, it instead focuses on Central and Northern California, especially the less-populated areas.
The first of the three songs is this, the first song released by the band to have Love as the sole credited writer, and a surprisingly pleasant song. Starting with the ascending/descending Cm arpeggios that make up the bulk of the next song, we then go into a pleasant country-folk waltz, mostly based on a single C major chord with a scalar bassline that goes up and down much as the arpeggios at the beginning.
The song only really contains four chords, and is the kind of thing that could be written by someone with rudimentary or non-existent instrumental skills, but it has a catchy enough melody, and shows that Love was at least a competent songwriter in his own right. The instrumentation is equally primitive, mostly acoustic guitar and harmonica, evoking a campfire singalong, along with piano, drums and steel guitar.
The whole track is surprisingly pleasant, for a first solo songwriting attempt, but it could have been better — the song was first recorded three years earlier, and that version (unreleased but widely bootlegged) is in 4/4 rather than waltz time. Once one has heard this earlier version, the version on Holland sounds slightly ungainly in comparison, with the stresses falling less gracefully than on the original.
California Saga: The Beaks Of Eagles
Songwriter: Al Jardine, Lynda Jardine and Robinson Jeffers
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love
The second part of the California Saga is unique in the Beach Boys’ catalogue, though it points the way stylistically towards some of Jardine’s later work.
It’s almost two separate songs in itself, in fact. In what, for want of a better term, we can call the verses, we have the ascending/descending C-minor piano arpeggios (with a descending bass) that started Big Sur, along with some Morricone-esque flute from Charles Lloyd. Over this, Love recites, in three sections, The Beaks Of Eagles, a poem by far-right-wing environmentalist poet Robinson Jeffers, about how in the lifetime of one eagle human civilisation could change utterly, and how yet ultimately humans are constrained by their natures just as much as the eagles are.
The choruses, meanwhile, are in C major, built around yet another ascending/descending bassline, and feature Jardine, singing new lyrics to a conventional melody, over a guitar/bass/piano/drums/flute backing.
The thing that most people listening to this will notice now is that it is the first time Jardine uses a style which he uses consistently in his later songs, of having someone speak or recite poetry over part or all of a song (see especially the Tidepool Interlude on his solo album A Postcard From California , but also California Energy Blues and Santa Ana Winds), and it’s interesting to see this as a step towards that style from Jardine, probably inspired by the artistic success he’d had using The Road Not Taken for All This Is That (Robert Frost, the author of The Road Not Taken, was a contemporary of Jeffers and wrote on similar themes).
But what’s more interesting is to compare the poem that inspired this piece, and which Love recites verbatim, with the interpolated material by the Jardines. Jeffers referred to himself as an ‘inhumanist’, and claimed that humanity was fundamentally unimportant to him, that he preferred nature to humanity. His poem, therefore, like much of his work, is an attempt to see things on an inhuman scale, to apply a perspective that one might call either realistic or misanthropic depending on one’s own sympathies.
The chorus material, though, is all on the human scale — about death, and rebirth coming from it. The lyricist here (either Al or Mary Ann Jardine) is also writing about natural cycles, as Jeffers is, but on a human scale, and based in human needs and concerns. And despite the rather hippyish conclusion, there’s a real sense here of how the need to acquire mineral wealth can destroy people’s lives (the image of the dead mariners, shipwrecked while transporting limestone ore, ties in nicely both with the first two songs, but also with The Trader).
Fundamentally, while Jardine may have been inspired by Jeffers’ poetry, their worldviews are incompatible. The writer of those chorus sections cares about human beings in a way that Jeffers doesn’t, and while one may argue that in the grand scheme of things Jeffers’ worldview is more correct, the worldview of the choruses is much more caring and decent.
California Saga: California
Songwriter: Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine
The second single off Holland was this song, the last part of California Saga, and with good reason. Easily the most commercial thing Jardine has ever written on his own, this is an updating of California Girls for the 1970s country-rock era, keeping Love’s nasal voice and the Tumbling Tumbleweeds bass-line (here played on Moog), but using acoustic guitar, harmonica (apparently played by Brian Wilson) and banjo rather than a Wall Of Sound orchestra.
Musically, it’s a simple song, just using the chords C, F and G, but it communicates a feeling of relaxed joy in nature that really does seem like a more mature version of the youthful ecstasy of California Girls. Out of the larger context of the California Saga, this is an unpretentious and unambitious song, but all the better for it.
Despite its relative lack of commercial success (barely scraping the top 100 in the US, though reaching the lower reaches of the top forty in the UK), this has remained a fan favourite, and was the only solo Jardine composition (and, other than All This Is That, the only one for which he was primary songwriter) to appear on the career-spanning Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set. Jardine returned to the song on his 2010 solo album A Postcard From California, remaking it with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young providing harmony vocals, and the song also became a regular in the setlists of the Beach Boys’ 2012 reunion tour.
Songwriter: Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson (with Justyn Wilson saying “Hi”)
The Trader is Carl Wilson’s primary songwriting contribution to the Holland album, and the last new song he would bring to the band until LA (Light Album) in 1979, so it’s a good job that it’s a good one.
The song breaks into two halves, with little connection between them, either musically or lyrically. The first half is possibly the most overtly political thing the Beach Boys ever recorded (albeit it is a condemnation of acts carried out by people who were long-dead). Over a piano-led rock background, Wilson sings about the colonisation of the Americas, the genocide of their native population, and the way the land had been ‘civilised’. It’s Rieley’s most straightforward lyric, and also his best. It also manages to tie in with the themes of sea travel, America, and nature in opposition to industrial civilisation that permeate the whole of the album.
But then, almost exactly half-way through the song, the key changes from G to C, the prominent piano drops out to be replaced by sighing backing vocals and tinkling Moog, and the lyric goes from concrete to utterly abstract, as the song turns into something closer to Carl Wilson’s songs from Surf’s Up. Instead of “Trader found the jeweled land was occupied before he came/By humans of a second look who couldn’t even write their names”, the lyrics suddenly become “Embracing together, like the merging streams, crying dreams”.
Frankly, it shouldn’t work — this song sounds exactly like something that’s been bolted together from two different ideas, with no real thought as to how the two sections actually interact. Yet it does work, mostly through sheer chutzpah, but also through an absolutely remarkable vocal performance from Carl Wilson, who goes from a strained, pained vocal near the top of his range in the rock section to a softer, gentler, reassuring vocal for the second, mellow section. Somehow, the result is actually better than the sum of the parts, though there’s no earthly reason why it should be. It works because Wilson and Rieley say it works, and because they both had enough talent at this point to do something as ambitious as this.
The song became a regular in the band’s setlist for much of the rest of the 1970s, even as the rest of the set became increasingly dominated by hits, and was a favourite with crowds, again thanks largely to Carl Wilson’s vocal performance.
Leaving This Town
Songwriter: Carl Wilson, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin
A tedious song that unfortunately merges the worst aspects of both Carl Wilson’s and the Flame team’s writing, this plods along based on slow, steady piano chords in much the same style as Feel Flows, and has a simple chord sequence (alternating between I, V, i and v in two keys a tone apart) with little of interest about it. Then the melody over the top stays, like all the Chaplin/Fataar material, in a narrow range, and consists mostly of long, held notes.
Once the song gets to the two minute long Moog solo, it takes a great deal of effort for the listener to keep awake, and the lyrics are enough of a formless mess (a case of too many cooks, one suspects) that there is no emotional hook there to encourage one to listen for much longer. Easily the least interesting thing that Chaplin and Fataar had a hand in during their time with the Beach Boys, and the most pointless thing on the album (Beaks Of Eagles is worse, but it’s an ambitious failure, while this seems to have been made with no greater ambition than filling six minutes of vinyl).
Only With You
Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson
In an unfortunate piece of sequencing, Leaving This Town is followed by another sedate, mellow song at a near-identical tempo, and the momentum of the album is killed stone dead. It’s a shame because, unlike the previous song, this one really is worthwhile.
While Love and Dennis Wilson had a legendarily fractious relationship, their few songwriting collaborations (of which this is the only one to end up on a Beach Boys album rather than a solo release) show a deeper mutual sympathy, and Love’s lyrics and Wilson’s music here complement each other perfectly.
Musically, this is one of the simplest things Dennis Wilson had composed to this point, possibly because it wasn’t written in collaboration with the more musically-sophisticated Daryl Dragon, and the only really interesting change is the one from Em/G to E7/G# (in a section that feels like it’s in G, but which is in fact in the same key of D as the rest of the song) under the phrase “love had always had its ups and downs”. However, the song’s simplicity is its key — a direct lyric combined with simple changes gives this song a formal grace that is very different from the primal howl of many of Dennis’ songs.
While Carl Wilson’s vocal on this track has been almost universally praised, it doesn’t quite work as well for me as for many others — while his vocal on the quieter verses is exemplary, he is a little mannered on the middle eight and tag (something that would become increasingly true of his vocals over later years). It’s a very good performance, yes, but one is left wishing that Dennis had sung his own song, with his less technically perfect but more expressive voice.A version of the song with Dennis Wilson on vocals was released in 2008, on the Pacific Ocean Blue CD reissue, and will be discussed in the chapter on that album.
While it’s not as perfect a song as Forever or God Only Knows, two songs it is clearly an attempt to emulate, it’s still extremely good, and one of the best things on the album, and it makes one wish that Love and Dennis Wilson had been able to work together more often.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin. Ricky Fataar and Mike Love
The only song, other than Sail On Sailor, contributed by Brian Wilson to the Holland project proper was this track on which he contributed nearly all the instruments (Carl Wilson added some guitar, and Fataar some percussion, but Brian played the drums as well as probably playing all the keyboard parts).
Musically, the song is not all that interesting as a song, but is fascinating as a pointer to Brian Wilson’s musical direction at the time and for the next few years. The entire track is based around Moog, with Moog parts in three ranges (a squelchy, fuzzy bass part, a mid-range part in the same range as the piano, and a high counter-melody), with only the most rudimentary drum part and no real connection to conventional rock music at all.
While the song’s title sums up the feel very well (the vocals have a great, soulful feel, while there’s an ethereal beauty to the Moog parts), the lyrics as a whole are fairly pointless, combining the worst of both Rieley (pointless prettiness without any sense) and Love (an obsession with astrology, a long list of place names, and a slightly lecherous tone). The vocals, though, are extraordinary. For those playing along at home, Carl Wilson takes the verses (and the verse backing vocals), Jardine takes over on “where’s my spark in the dark?”, Fataar “Glow glow glow come on glow”, Chaplin on “the funky pretty flame in my heart” and Love “me and my Pisces lady are apart.”
On the second chorus, Chaplin sings “Cos it’s a silent night in the sea”, Jardine “and if you’re cosmically conscious you’ll see”, Fataar “why she’s a princess imparted to me” and Love “daughter of Neptune, the ruler of the sea”. Carl Wilson takes the middle section with the listing of place names, and Chaplin takes the fade. The fade-out would be the perfect end for the album, but then we have…
Mt Vernon And Fairway (A Fairy Tale)
Songwriter: Brian Wilson (with Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley)
Lead vocalist: Jack Rieley (with Brian and Carl Wilson)
Possibly the most controversial thing the Beach Boys ever released, this is, depending on who you talk to, either one of Brian Wilson’s greatest masterpieces or a sad record of a once-great talent’s decline.
When the Holland album was being recorded, Brian Wilson was at a low ebb, mentally and creatively, and wanted little or nothing to do with the recording process. Instead, he found himself listening over and over to Sail Away by Randy Newman [FOOTNOTE:An absolutely wonderful album, which anyone who likes good songwriting should check out.].
He discovered that while he was listening to this, he was able to get into a creative mood, and wrote a fairytale, about a young prince who lived at Mount Vernon And Fairway (the address where Mike Love had grown up) and who, while alone in his bedroom, discovered a magic transistor radio, which normally played the music of Bach, but sometimes was possessed by “the Pied Piper from the faraway land of night”, whose music was unlike anything the prince had ever heard.
Unsurprisingly, when he presented this fairytale to the other band members and suggested it go on the album, their reaction was not hugely enthusiastic, and Brian was apparently so discouraged that he didn’t finish the story (Jack Rieley apparently supplied the rather abrupt ending, as a result). Nonetheless it was agreed to package the result as a 7 inch single with the album (it appears as a bonus track on CD releases), and the finished piece is one of the most interesting, ambitious, and beautiful things Wilson has ever created.
Rieley narrates the story, which is clearly the work of someone who is not especially articulate, but which makes up for in emotional honesty what it lacks in craft, while under it we have electronic sound effects, piano music, and snatches of vocal music, mostly repeated lines (“Pied Piper, I’d better get back in bed,” “I’m the Pied Piper in the radio”, “Dom dom King dom”). The effect is somewhere between Peter And The Wolf and Nilsson’s The Point, with tiny moments of beauty that are never developed into full songs, but drift away like someone tuning the radio to another station.
The music itself has had more appreciation since it was released, without the spoken narration and sound effects, as Fairy Tale Music on the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set, but while the story is not the work of someone with any great skill in language, it’s still joyful and perfectly conveys the wonder of a lonely teenager, sat in his room listening to the radio, hit from out of the blue with music only he can hear, more wonderful and exciting even than Bach.
Van Dyke Parks, who turns 70 today, is one of the very greatest songwriters alive today, as well as being a great arranger and producer. He’s best known for his work as a lyricist on the Beach Boys’ Smile, and a handful of other tracks for them (he also played accordion on Kokomo, a slightly less artistically satisfying role for him), and he’s also had a Zelig-like role in musical history. No matter what style of music you like, you’ve heard his work — he’s worked with everyone from Ringo Starr to Skrillex, by way of Disney cartoons (his first work as a musician was as arranger on The Bare Necessities on The Jungle Book), U2, Ry Cooder, Joanna Newsom, Silverchair, Randy Newman, Rufus Wainwright and The Barney Movie (though he asked for his name to be taken off that one).
But his best work has always been on his own albums, which he puts out every five to ten years and which are wonderful confections of distinctly American music, influenced equally by Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Little Feat, classic Calypsonians like The Mighty Sparrow and singer-songwriters like his friends and collaborators Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson. A Parks song or arrangement is distinctive from the very first note, and always a pleasure.
He’s also a true gentleman, too. I’ve had very occasional email correspondence with him. About once every five years I’ll send him an email asking him a question — the first one, when I was a teenager, was basically “your songs are dead good and stuff, how can I write dead good songs like what you write?” — and his replies are always far longer, politer and infinitely more generous than the questions deserved. I simply cannot speak highly enough of him from our brief contacts, even though he’s no more likely to remember them than I am to remember the name of the woman who served me in Starbucks last month.
That said, here’s some YouTube footage to celebrate the career of this remarkable man. First, here’s Heroes & Villains, the hit he co-wrote with Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys, as he rearranged it for the show I saw him do last year with the Britten Sinfonia
And here, from the documentary I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times he accompanies Brian Wilson on Parks’ song Orange Crate Art
And finally, here’s a full concert from 1992, with a full orchestra:
The word genius is so overused as to have become meaningless, but if it has a meaning, it must encompass this man.
Shortly after the release of Sunflower, the Beach Boys hired former journalist and DJ Jack Rieley as their manager. Outside of the band members themselves, Rieley rapidly became the most important figure in the band’s story for the next few years.
Rieley was not just a manager in the traditional sense, he was also an advisor on how to relate to the counterculture that had been ignoring the band for the previous few years, as well as being a collaborator in their songwriting. Rieley encouraged the band to focus on more political subjects, particularly the environment and the treatment of Native Americans, at the expense of the love songs that had dominated Sunflower. He also tried to recapture the mystique of the unreleased Smile album, encouraging the band to finish Surf’s Up, the masterpiece that had been intended as the centre of that album, as well as writing his own lyrics in a style pastiching that of Van Dyke Parks (Rieley’s lyrics are far closer to the ‘acid alliteration’ tag Mike Love applies to Parks’ work than the Smile lyrics are).
The difference is apparent even from comparing the cover of this album to that of its precursor. While Sunflower‘s cover features the Beach Boys and their children sat around near some blossoming trees, the cover of Surf’s Up is a murky painting, in dark blues, based on the sculpture End Of The Trail, showing a Native American, head bowed in defeat.
Rieley’s tactics were successful — within a short time the band would be hugely popular with college audiences and magazines like Rolling Stone, paving the way for their commercial resurgence in the mid-70s — but they divided the band. Rieley claims that Love, Johnston and Jardine were more-or-less hostile to his aims for the band, while the Wilson brothers were more enthusiastic.
Inter-band disagreements made this album less than it could be — arguments about sequencing led to two tracks by Dennis Wilson being pulled from the album, in favour of lesser works by Love and Jardine (Dennis Wilson also contributed little to the album instrumentally, having injured his hand part-way through recording and being unable to play drums for a while). Nonetheless, this is still a significant artistic improvement over Sunflower, with the differences of opinion within the band leading to a real stylistic diversity, rather than the bland softness of much of the earlier album.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to listen to the album as it was intended to be heard at the time. Steve Desper, the band’s principal engineer in the late 60s and early 70s, mixed the album in a stereo-compatible quadrophonic system, which allowed it to be played on a normal turntable but ‘decoded’ by a special piece of equipment called a Stereo-4 decoder, sort of the audio equivalent of wearing 3D glasses. These decoders are, of course, long-obsolete, and while apparently there are technological ways of extracting the extra pseudo-channels from the stereo sound, it is unlikely that these will be used by even one percent of those who listen to the album.
Even so, and even given its patchy nature, this is still in the very top tier of Beach Boys albums.
Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston
Don’t Go Near The Water
Songwriter: Mike Love and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Al Jardine
The opening track is one of the most radical, brilliant things the Beach Boys ever did, production-wise.
No, seriously. I’m not joking.
This track is (rightly) regarded as a bit of a joke among Beach Boys fans, because the serious intent of the song — a plea to end pollution of the world’s water, a reasonable enough environmental message in itself — is completely undermined by the ludicrous nature of the lyrics, culminating in a strong contender for the most risible line in a released Beach Boys song. After Al Jardine sings “toothpaste and soap will make our water a bubble-bath/so let’s avoid an ecological aftermath”, any hope of taking the song at all seriously evaporates.
But under those lyrics, the arrangement is finally pulling together all the different pieces of ideas that the band had been using for some time, and making something totally different from anything anyone’s done before or since, but which would be the dominant mode of the band’s studio output for the next few years.
This track has almost no electric guitars or drums on it. Instead, there are multiple layers of Moog sounds, but coupled with acoustic, folk instrumentation — acoustic guitars, banjo and harmonica. This seems to have been a sound arrived at by compromising different people’s artistic visions — Brian and Carl Wilson, especially, seemed in love with the Moog for much of the 70s, while Jardine has always been a folkie at heart (and his 2010 solo album A Postcard From California sounds much like these early-70s albums would if you stripped the Moogs off). This combination of progression and futurism with tradition is in spirit (if not in execution — the song itself is still relatively poor) very much a return to the ideas the band had abandoned with Smile.
Long Promised Road
Songwriter: Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson
The first actual song Carl Wilson ever wrote (as opposed to contributing ideas to other people’s songs, or ‘writing’ generic surf instrumentals), this is based around a simple but effective chord sequence, playing with the chords of Cmaj7 and F. The slow, meditative verses cycle through Cmaj7, Em (the same chord without the root note) and F (with a brief stop at Dm at one point, the relative minor of the F chord), while the choruses are a straight uptempo C – F rock chorus, ending with an ecstatic climbing bass scale which turns the penultimate F into a Dm. Meanwhile the Moog-dominated middle eight plays with inversions of these chords, adding in an Am7 (whose notes overlap those of F and C) and a Dm6.
This harmonic unity helps hold together a song whose different sections otherwise have very different moods. The verses are straightforward piano-based ballad sections, featuring just piano, bass and some light percussion, while the choruses feature a full drum kit, answering backing vocals, Moog, and horns, and the solo (over the chorus changes) also features rock guitar. All this instrumentation is played by Carl Wilson on what is essentially a solo track.
It doesn’t entirely work, partly because Rieley’s lyrics are new age platitudes about fighting back against adversity, but couched in overly-complex words for such banal thoughts. But as a first effort at songwriting, this is superb.
Take A Load Off Your Feet
Songwriter: Al Jardine, Brian Wilson and Gary Winfrey
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
This, on the other hand, is practically the definition of filler. Written primarily by Jardine, the lyrics to this are a self-consciously ‘quirky’ guide to good foot hygiene. While this sort of thing has sometimes worked for the band, normally there has been something interesting in the arrangement or chord sequences to latch on to. But this song is, for the most part, just cycling between two common chords, and the arrangement seems perfunctory — like a sketchy half-improvisation rather than something more thought out. Various production tricks don’t seem to hide the less-than-stellar nature of the composition.
Disney Girls (1957)
Songwriter: Bruce Johnston
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston
Johnston’s sole songwriting contribution to the album, and his last until 1980, may well be his masterpiece.
One of the most complex pieces of composition on the album, the verses to this song of wistful longing start out in G flat before descending a tone into E, returning to the home key on the words “I’m coming back” at the end of each verse — a wonderful unity of lyric and music.
Lyrically, the song seems completely out of step with the concerns of the rest of the album. While the other band members are singing about the environment, civil unrest and political upheaval, Johnston is singing the praises of Patti Page, and saying of a girl “she’s really swell, ‘cos she likes church, bingo chances and old-time dances”.
This is, of course, the point though — the song works precisely because it’s a song of nostalgia in a time of unrest. Taken out of the context of the rest of the album, it can sound slightly cloying, and even here it teeters precariously right on the point of descent into Hallmark card territory (an area where Johnston would spend much of the rest of his songwriting career, in some cases very lucratively — he would go on to write I Write The Songs during his hiatus from the band).
But here, surrounded by songs about death, depression and environmental destruction, one can more than sympathise with the desire to go back to what was (at least for a rich white man like Johnston) a happier, simpler time, even if it’s a desire most of us won’t share.
This song remains a staple of the Beach Boys’ live performances to this day, one of the only songs from this period that has remained regularly in their repertoire. Johnston’s songwriting contributions to the band were patchy, but when, as here, he hit on something good, he could deliver.
Student Demonstration Time
Songwriter: Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (new lyrics Mike Love)
Lead vocalist: Mike Love
This, meanwhile, has no redeeming features whatsoever. Love’s attempt to be ‘relevant’ involves singing about student demonstrations to the tune of a 1950s hit, Riot In Cell Block Number Nine. This, however, has none of the earlier song’s subtlety or humour, and is not helped by the fact that Love, a right-winger, is trying desperately to sit on the fence here, attempting to appeal to the demonstrating students who made up the audience they were trying to court, but without ever actually saying anything to endorse their cause.
Musically, it’s an embarrassing attempt to ‘rock out’, featuring a clodhopping, lumbering drum beat, squealing distorted guitar, and a processed vocal from Love which is intended to sound like he’s singing through a bullhorn. The whole thing is a mess, best forgotten.
Songwriter: Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson
Carl Wilson’s second song for the album has, in recent years, become one of the most popular songs that the band has done without Brian Wilson, thanks largely to its inclusion in the soundtrack of the film Almost Famous.
In feel, this is very similar to the verses of Long Promised Road, and is based around a simple four-chord sequence (opened up a little by a descending scalar bassline on the alliterative words-starting-with-w sections), with a brief key change on the chorus lines.
The recording is in large part a solo performance by Carl Wilson, who played the piano (doubled but recorded slightly out of phase), organ (which was added to the track both clean and put through a Moog), bass, guitar and Moog, as well as adding some of the percussion. The only other instrumental contributions are by percussionist Woody Thews and flautist Charles Lloyd (a semi-regular collaborator with the band in the 70s, and a well-known jazz musician in his own right).
Some have claimed that Carl Wilson provided all the backing vocals as well, but while all the original Beach Boys could sound very like each other, Johnston’s distinctive voice is in the mix, and I believe I can hear the other band members (Johnston and Jardine are credited on the AFM papers for the session, but the logs for this period are unreliable). Much of the track (but most notably Wilson’s lead vocal) is slathered in reversed echo.
Lyrically, this has variously been described as about either ejaculation or being on cocaine (the backing vocal line “white puff glistening shadowy flows”), but frankly the lyrics don’t make any kind of sense on a literal level, and they’re not meant to. They’re pretty mouth-noises, and they do a good job of being that.
A much more successful song than Long Promised Road, and a declaration that now there was a third Wilson brother capable of producing great work.
Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)
Songwriter: Al Jardine and Gary Winfrey
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine
Jardine’s main solo song for the album was this acoustic folk song. Accompanied by only multiple acoustic guitars and a cymbal (until the very last line, when a keyboard also enters), a heavily-processed Jardine sings about being unable to find a good job, but still having hope for the future.
Jardine has never been the most talented or original of songwriters, but this works very well, in part because Jardine takes inspiration from the folk tradition. The melody of this is largely taken from The Wanderer, a hit for the Kingston Trio (a favourite band of Jardine’s). That song, in turn, is based on the American folk song 900 Miles, which in turn is based on the bluegrass song Reuben’s Train. Jardine makes up for his lack of songwriting inspiration by making himself a link in a longer chain, and the result is a nice, if slight, melody.
Lyrically, this is perhaps a little naive — it’s the work of a man who had never himself been out of work, or had to hold down the kind of menial job he sings about here, and it shows — but it’s well-intentioned enough. Unlike the cynicism of Student Demonstration Time, this song has its heart in the right place.
This song was briefly added to the band’s live set around this time, where rather astonishingly it was rearranged to have an almost proto-trip-hop feel, quite unlike anything else the band ever did, and decades ahead of its time.
A Day In The Life Of A Tree
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Jack Rieley
The most controversial song of the band’s career up to this point, to this day people still ask whether this was intended as a joke, or whether it’s entirely serious. The answer, of course, is “yes”.
Over a pump-organ backing, with a pedal note held throughout the verses, Jack Rieley sings in a broken, off-key, quavering voice that sounds spookily like Brian Wilson’s voice would a few years later, singing from the point of view of a tree that has been damaged by pollution and wants nothing more than to die.
While this sounds a ridiculous premise for a song, the actual sound of it is heartbreaking, if nothing else because the central idea of the tree, once tall, brought down into depression, is a pretty good metaphor for the state of Brian Wilson’s own life at the time.
And then we get to the tag, where over cascading barbershop ‘bom bom’ vocals by the group, spread all over the stereo spectrum, Van Dyke Parks starts singing “trees like me weren’t meant to live, if all this world can give is pollution” while Al Jardine responds “Oh Lord I lay me down, my branches to the ground, there’s nothing left for me.”
The whole thing is heartbreaking, if not exactly easy on the ears, and is an absolutely beautiful piece of work. Unfortunately, the effect is slightly undercut by the sequencing of the album, which places all three Brian Wilson songs at the end. All three songs have a similar tempo, and all end with vocal rounds, and the two songs that immediately follow this are two of the best songs ever written, so this one, which is merely very good, suffers in comparison. It’s probably the worst piece of sequencing on any Beach Boys album.
‘Til I Die
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson
And so, after eight songs which have rarely risen above the level of quite nice, we get to an absolute masterpiece, and what may be the finest song Brian Wilson has ever written on his own.
Wilson has said to Don Was that the original inspiration for this song came from sitting at the piano, playing a chord, then trying to make the most interesting-looking chords he could with his fingers, while keeping the top and bottom notes the same.
If this is the case, this didn’t survive until the final version of the song, but the chord sequence here is cramped and obsessive, using the smallest possible finger movements to make the biggest possible changes.
These changes, which swell up and sink down like waves but sink inexorably down from a key of A flat at the start of the verse to the key of G at the end, are reinforced by the vibraphone arpeggios going up and down over the organ, bass, and mechanical drums, as the band sing the haiku-like lyrics in block harmony:
I’m a cork on the ocean
Floating over the raging sea
How deep is the ocean?
How deep is the ocean?
And then Brian takes a solo line, and your heart breaks:
I’ve lost my way, hey hey hey
It’s the “hey hey hey” that does it. The sense of almost cheerful resignation to fate. Brian is being buffeted by forces that he can’t understand, that he has no hope of controlling, and which will eventually destroy him. And he’s fully aware of that, but that’s just how things are. So it goes.
And then, if your heart hasn’t been shattered enough, he does it again at the end of the next verse — “It kills my soul, hey hey hey!”
There is no possible combination of words that can express the feelings that this evokes, and it’s when dealing with songs like this that one realises most the powerlessness of music criticism. How to describe the empathy that these words, sung like this, evoke? Words of the deepest despair, tossed off lightly, almost childishly, in the voice of an ancient child. See? It just turns one to pretension. There is no language that can cope with this.
If Brian Wilson had only ever written this song he would still be regarded as one of the great songwriters of all time. The Beach Boys’ reputation could rest on this track alone.
But they also recorded the next track…
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Surf’s Up was to have been the centrepiece of the aborted Smile album (FOOTNOTE For more on Smile see volume 3, out later this year, where I will discuss the Smile Sessions box set and Brian Wilson’s 2004 completed solo version of the album), and had become legendary among pop music fans after the 1967 TV broadcast Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution showed Brian Wilson playing a solo version of the song. However, when the Smile project was scrapped, the song had not yet been completely recorded.
During the recording of this album, Van Dyke Parks, the song’s lyricist, who was at that point an executive for Warner Brothers (their record label), suggested they rerecord the song, as it was felt that they didn’t have enough new strong material. Brian Wilson vehemently opposed this, as he had bad memories of the Smile period, and it has been argued by many that the disagreement over this song’s inclusion was one of the principal reasons for Brian Wilson’s decreased participation over the next few years.
While the band attempted to record a totally new version of the song, they eventually ended up piecing together something that contained both 1967 and 1971 components. The backing track for the first half is the original Smile era backing track, but all the vocals are new, including a new lead vocal by Carl Wilson, and there are a couple of overdubs. Then the second half (for which a backing track was never recorded in 1971) is a piano/vocal demo by Brian Wilson dating from 1966, with some subtle synthesiser overdubs, and the tag is the ending of Brian’s demo, looped, with the band singing and some hand percussion added.
It shouldn’t work. But in fact it’s one of the most magnificent recordings of all time.
The song, of course, is the key thing. One of the first things written for Smile, it’s as good — and ambitious — as any song of the 60s.
The verses are, musically, almost the opposite of those for Til I Die. They start very simply, alternating between Gm7/D and Dm7/G, before rising from the Gm starting key through the key of F to land in D, a major fifth above the original key, before the verse ends and it starts again.
This is then varied for the second, piano, section, and as it starts with Fm7/A flat alternating with E flat/B flat, the opening chords to Caroline, No, we realise that the whole thing is an elaboration of, and expansion of, the musical ideas of that song.
But where Caroline, No was about the loss of a single woman’s youth, Surf’s Up is about the loss of far more — the loss of an entire civilisation. In Van Dyke Parks’ elliptical, pun-filled lyrics, we see a concert-goer falling asleep to the sound of the rattling jewellery of the rich people in the other seats and the classical music being played, and dreaming of the collapse of an entire civilisation — “columnated ruins domino”, buildings and structures falling down, climaxing with the piano going silent as Brian sings “a broken man too tough to cry”.
But then there is the realisation — “Surf’s up aboard a tidal wave”. The wave that destroys is also a renewer, and for new things to be built, old ones must be swept away. “I heard the word, wonderful thing, a children’s song”. And over the chorus of “Child is father of the man” the song fades as Al Jardine sings “A children’s song, have you listened as they played?/Their song is love, and the children know the way”.
In the context of Smile there’s much, much more to say about this, how it ties together the musical and lyrical themes of that album, but I shall leave that for the discussions of that album in volume three. For now I’ll just say that this track is the crowning moment of the Beach Boys’ artistic career. It’s all downhill from here, though to start with the slope is pretty gentle.