It might have seemed in 1964 that Brian Wilson was on top of the world. Not only had the Beach Boys managed to withstand Beatlemania, despite the British band being on the same record label as them, but unlike almost every other American group they’d actually become more successful, having their first number one hit with I Get Around. Brian’s songs were still becoming hits for Jan and Dean, as well, and being covered by bands like the Hondells. He was a massive pop star at the point when pop music seemed like the most important thing in the world, and he was engaged to be married.
But there was an increasing pressure on Wilson, who had by the end of 1964 been responsible for writing, producing, and performing on eight Beach Boys albums, as well as working on other people’s records. He was trying to become a more mature artist at the same time, writing instrumental arrangements of increasing sophistication, which required him to augment his band in the studio with more and more members of the Wrecking Crew. Meanwhile his original strategy to take the pressure off — retiring from touring — had had to end after David Marks had quit, so he was back on the road as well.
And the signs of the stress were showing — while there had always been a melancholy edge to the Beach Boys’ ballads, their uptempo songs had generally been cocky and full of confidence, but now there was a restlessness, an anxiousness, an insecurity to the songs. “I’m getting bugged driving up and down the same old strip”, “you’ve got to be a little nuts, but show them you’ve got guts, don’t back down from that wave”.
Nowhere was that insecurity more obvious than in Guess I’m Dumb, one of two songs Wilson wrote with Screen Gems staff writer Russ Titelman in mid-1964. Here the bragadoccio is totally gone, and for the first time we see the themes of male insecurity that would haunt Wilson’s music from here on, without even the fig leaf of a car race to mask it. The song opens with “The way I act don’t seem like me/I’m not on top like I used to be”, and while it ends with a statement of hope that “this time girl it’s gonna be for ever more”, the protagonist isn’t fooling anyone — the constant tug to the minor fifth in the chord sequence is telling us this is a dark, depressing, mood, not a hopeful one.
The backing track was recorded in October, and then set aside for vocals to be recorded after Brian returned from touring — the Beach Boys spent the next two months on the road.
But on the 23rd of December, 1964, just three years to the day after the Beach Boys’ first gig, Brian Wilson had a breakdown on a flight to Houston. He’d had mental health problems before, but this breakdown was much, much more serious. He managed to get through that night’s show, but simply couldn’t continue with the tour.
The Beach Boys needed someone to cover for Brian quickly, someone who could join the band the next day and take over Brian’s parts. And there was only one man who fit the bill.
Glen Campbell was a member of the Wrecking Crew. While he couldn’t read music, he was one of the most in-demand session musicians in LA, thanks to his proficiency on guitar and banjo and his ability to play anything from bluegrass to loud rock and roll. The band knew him — he’d played on several sessions for their upcoming album — and he knew the songs, having played on enough Jan and Dean or Gary Usher sessions making remakes and knockoffs of them. Campbell also had a parallel career as an unsuccessful country singer, but his lack of success wasn’t down to a lack of talent — he had a strong tenor voice reminiscent of Roy Orbison (a favourite of the Beach Boys’) and could easily sing the parts.
Campbell flew out, quickly rehearsed, and fit into the band straight away, staying with them for almost five months. But while he was apparently offered the chance to become a full-time Beach Boy, it didn’t appeal to him — Campbell wanted to keep making his own records, and so towards the end of his time in the band, Brian Wilson gave him Guess I’m Dumb to release as a single as a thank-you.
And by God does it work. Head and shoulders over everything else Brian Wilson had done to this point, the track seems equally influenced by Bacharach, Phil Spector, Orbison, and mariachi music, a big, swelling, intense, orchestral pop song, with the Honeys (a vocal group consisting of Wilson’s wife, her sister, and their cousin) adding girl-group backing, Brian and Carl Wilson providing wordless backing vocals that can only be described as a mumbled moan of despair, and Hal Blaine providing a broken drum part that eerily prefigures much of the Beatles’ more interesting drum parts of the next year.
And over this, Campbell delivers an absolutely breathtaking performance, singing at the top of his chest range, with occasional smooth, seamless, moves into falsetto. Hearing him on this material it’s immediately obvious why he was chosen to replace Brian Wilson on the road — both men could move between chest and head voice on the same word without a break, a far rarer gift among vocalists than many would expect, and something that’s absolutely essential to get the right effect on Wilson’s melodies.
One could argue perhaps that there’s less vulnerability or fragility in Campbell’s tone than in Wilson’s, which in general terms is probably a good thing but on this particular track may be a weakness, but that’s just nitpicking — at the end of the track you can faintly hear Brian Wilson telling Campbell “that was outta sight!”, and it is. This is a truly remarkable record.
Unfortunately, the listening public didn’t think so, and the track didn’t even make the top 100. It would be interesting to imagine what would have happened had Campbell stayed with the Beach Boys, rather than gone back, at least for a time, to being a session player. But by the time this track was released, Campbell had already been replaced. Bruce Johnston, who we’ve heard from previously in the Gamblers and the Rip Chords, was now a Beach Boy…
Guess I’m Dumb
Composer: Brian Wilson and Russ Titelman
Line-up: Glen Campbell (vocals, guitar), Brian Wilson (backing vocals, piano), Carl Wilson (backing vocals, guitar), Marilyn Wilson, Diane Rovell, and Ginger Blake (backing vocals), Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Larry Knechtel (bass), Hal Blaine (drums, percussion), Roy Caton and Ollie Mitchell (trumpets), Lou Blackburn and Harry Betts (trombones), Steve Douglas and Jay Migliori (saxophones), Sid Sharp , Leonard Malarsky, Arnold Belnick, and James Getzoff (violins), Alexander Neiman and Darrel Terwilliger (violas), Jesse Ehrlich and Anne Goodman (cellos)
Original release: Guess I’m Dumb/That’s All Right Glen Campbell single, Capitol 5441
Currently available on: Rhinestone Cowboy: The Best of Glen Campbell EMI CD
One of my favorite songs, and a spectacular production. I love the sophistication of the changes and arrangement coupled with the teenage-sounding words “Guess I’m dumb.” I’ve always thought “Bacharach,” but not “Orbison.” Thanks for that.
A musical detail: listen to “I’ll give in when I know I should be strong, I still give in even though I know it’s wrong.” Then listen to “Had to Phone Ya”: “I visualize that you’re looking fine, feels so good when you come on the line.” Beautiful stuff, repurposed.
Wow, I must have heard both those songs about a thousand times each (they’re two of my very favourites of Wilson’s songs) and I’d never noticed that connection before. It’s amazing how many new things there are to find in his best work, isn’t it?
I’ve actually never liked this song, but that’s probably because I first heard it after already being familiar with Glen Campbell’s many country/rock hits. “Guess I’m Dumb” just sounded wrong to my ears…..the wrong song for Glen Campbell to sing. And in retrospect it was…..his artistic path (and success) lay in a different direction. “Guess I’m Dumb” is a signpost on a road not travelled down further.
Thanks. An excellent and affectionate analysis which I really enjoyed reading. I’ll be back for more. Regards from Thom (Hickey!) at the immortal jukebox (drop a nickel).