After 1967, Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson went their own ways, musically. Brian Wilson’s mental health continued to deteriorate, and his presence on Beach Boys albums became less and less. However, for the next seven years this wasn’t too much of a problem, musically. Brian would come up with a couple of great songs for every album, the rest of the band would dig up and finish off some Smile-era fragments, and the other band members would write a song or two each (Brian’s brother Dennis became a particularly strong songwriter at this time). The result was that the run of albums from 1967’s Smiley Smile through 1974’s The Beach Boys In Concert is as good a collection of music as you could hope to find – beautiful Brian Wilson songs like Sail On Sailor (actually his one collaboration with Van Dyke Parks in this period) Surf’s Up, ‘Til I Die or Busy Doin’ Nothing alongside non-Brian songs like All This Is That, Cuddle Up, The Trader and Disney Girls (1957).
However, while this period was an artistic success, it was a commercial disaster for the band. While these albums are without exception wonderful, they are almost unknown except among the hard-core fanbase of the band. Meanwhile, a compilation of their early surf-cars-and-girls hits, Endless Summer sold approximately a quintillion copies, leading to a lot of people turning up to a Beach Boys gig expecting to hear Be True To Your School and instead getting a lot of men with very long beards singing about transcendental meditation with jazz flute solos.
Clearly this could not last, and quickly the band turned into the nostalgia party band it became for the next thirty years – Hawaiian shirts, God Bless America and we’ll have fun fun fun til daddy takes the lawyers away. And part of that was, roughly every two years between 1975 and 1992, to declare “Brian is back!”, and wheeling out a quarter-baked album of songs by someone who obviously had neither the ability nor the interest to write a competent song any more. At worst, they would also drag the poor man (who had horrible stage-fright, as well as his other mental problems) on stage, where he would stare vacantly and pound random keys on his piano. During this time, the Beach Boys produced one good album – LA (Light Album) without Brian’s active involvement, more or less by accident, while Brian himself created two worthwhile albums – 1977’s The Beach Boys Love You (a solo album in all but name, and an absolute masterpiece – it sounds like Tom Waits singing Jonathan Richman songs, accompanied by J.S. Bach playing a Moog set on ‘fart sounds’) and 1988’s solo Brian Wilson (an album dominated by synths and terrible lyrics by Wilson’s abusive then-‘therapist’, but with a few moments that make it worthwhile).
While this was going on, Van Dyke Parks’ career was going in a very different direction. While working as an executive for Warner Brothers for much of the early 1970s, he also pursued his own musical career. Over the 40 years since Smile, he’s worked with a staggering number of great musicians as a sideman or arranger – co-producing Randy Newman’s first album, playing keyboards for Ry Cooder, arranging for Joanna Newsom, and also working in the same capacity for everyone from Kinky Friedman’s Texas Jewboys to U2 by way of Little Feat and Harry Nilsson. He’s also been in demand as a soundtrack composer (often for kids’ films – he wrote the music for The Brave Little Toaster and The Barney Movie (though he apparently asked for his name to be taken off the soundtrack for that) as well as arranging Nilsson’s songs for Popeye).
But most importantly, he was making a series of strange, beautiful albums entirely unlike anything else in popular music. Starting with Song Cycle – essentially an attempt to do Smile on his own, Parks made a series of semi-concept albums, combining his own songs with those of people as diverse as Randy Newman, The Mighty Sparrow, Louis Gottschaulk and ‘Uncle Dave’ Macon, to create what I can only describe as an ‘internationalist Americana’.
Parks’ albums usually deal with some aspects of America or its culture, but often as seen from the outside – Tokyo Rose, for example, starts with an arrangement of My Country ‘Tis Of Thee (rassmfrassm mercns stealinouranthems harrumph) arranged for Japanese instruments. Jump is a reworking of the Bre’er Rabbit stories, while Discover America is actually almost all calypso music. Parks wears his influences on his sleeve – he’s very clearly an American composer, and his music mixes pre-rock popular music of the most ‘unsophisticated’ manner ( hillbilly, ragtime and acoustic blues) with the vocal style of an American Noel Coward and an arrangement sensibility that’s equal parts Golden Age Hollywood and mid-20th Century US art music (Gershwin and Ives are huge influences).
In 1995 Parks was working on a new album, to be titled Orange Crate Art, and this one was themed around California. So he got back in touch with Brian Wilson, and asked him to sing some vocals on the album.
Parks later admitted to essentially tricking Brian into recording the album (I’m afraid I can’t remember where I got this quote from, you’ll just have to trust me), getting him to record vocals one song at a time for Van Dyke’s new album, until half-way through the project “Brian asked me ‘whose album is this?’ and I said ‘It’s our album, Brian'”.
Although no-one knew at the time, this time Brian really *was* back. He was simultaneously working on I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, essentially an ‘Unplugged’ album, done as the soundtrack to Don Was’ documentary of the same name, and that’s a worthy album, but Orange Crate Art is a great one.
Brian’s vocals on the album take a lot of getting used to – and I didn’t really grow to love Orange Crate Art until I heard Van Dyke Parks perform some of the songs live, and later purchased Parks’ wonderful Moonlighting: Live At The Ash Grove, because Wilson’s vocals initially put me off – but the songs are just sublime, perfectly crafted gems, the kind of song that sounds like the kind they don’t write any more, except that they never did.
Orange Crate Art is a grown-up album, an album full of nostalgia, but from the perspective of a man who’s fundamentally content with his life. It’s playful, and joyous, but its emotions are civilised, restrained ones. It’s a mature album, a kind one.
(Parenthetically, it seems like the kind of album Evelyn Smythe would like , to reference my Doctor Who post from a couple of weeks back).
The album looks back to an imaginary Golden Age California – a California of orange groves and childhood holidays in Monterey. Parks’ music often feels rooted to me in Roosevelt-era New Deal liberalism and optimism, and this album seems to hearken back to the late 1930s, just before Wilson and Parks themselves were born:
Wasn’t so long ago
That every year your family would rent a house from June to Labor Day
Summer In Monterey
None of us wore no clothes
In Monterey our feet were bare, our shorts were all we’d ever wear
And I would jump for joy that you were there
It’s set in a Golden Age, and like all Golden Ages it’s not anything like any real place or time that ever existed. But this mythical California (which owes more to Steinbeck than to Frankie and Annette) is the kind of place that deserves celebration – from the songs the Garden Of Eden must be somewhere on the US west coast – somewhere between Monterey and San Francisco.
I’m not going to examine the album in greater detail, because it’s so much of a piece, and what I have to say about it is far more about the emotions it arouses in me than about the clever things Parks does with the violin line or whatever. But it’s an album which I adore, and which I can listen to at any time and feel good about life.
The album ends with an instrumental version of a lullaby by Gershwin, and that’s a fitting conclusion to this piece too – because the next post in this series (in a day or two) will look at the next time Wilson and Parks collaborated, on an album about childhood and America and California, an album that had Gershwin as a primary touchstone.