Gary Usher was looking for a creative outlet.
Since the surf and hot-rod fad had died down, Usher had been working as a staff producer for Columbia Records, where he had worked on Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends (uncredited), had produced Chad & Jeremy’s unsuccessful concept album Of Cabbages & Kings, had produced the Byrds’ most recent work, and had discovered The Firesign Theatre.
But Usher was still a songwriter and arranger himself, and he needed to get his own work out. But he had a problem — he didn’t want to be a solo artist and compete with the artists he was producing.
His first move was to put out an album entitled The Astrology Album. This combined instrumental pieces by Usher, with interviews with members of the Byrds, Chad & Jeremy, and the Peanut Butter Conspiracy about astrology. Unsurprisingly it didn’t sell — but something told Usher that astrology was a subject that would have some commercial success anyway. It seemed to be a subject in the air — Usher’s old friend Roger Christian had put out a very similar album entitled Discover Yourself Through Astrology at the same time, and of course The Firesign Theatre were so named because they were all “fire signs”.
But Usher put the astrology concept to one side when a new song came to his attention. My World Fell Down had been a very minor hit in the UK for the Ivy League, one of several Beach Boys-inspired studio bands that had been led by John Carter, the song’s co-writer. The song, in its original form, seemed patterned after Happy Together, with a minor-key string-led verse and a more bouncy chorus, but while it was an inventive track, the musical material basically consisted of two verses and one chorus, beefed up by a brief instrumental break in the style of a baroque string quartet.
Usher knew this could be a hit, so he went into the studio and cut his own track for it, with members of the Wrecking Crew, along with his friends John Merrill of the Peanut Butter Conspiracy and Wayne Edwards of the Hondells. He originally intended the song to be for Chad & Jeremy, but while the duo were desperate for a hit, they didn’t want to record other people’s songs. They told Usher they’d do it if he insisted, but only reluctantly.
Usher decided that he’d prove to them that the song was a hit, and would complete the track himself. He tried taking the lead vocal himself, but couldn’t get it quite right, so asked Glen Campbell, who was in the studio to do a guitar overdub on the track, to take the lead.
At this point, the track was structured more-or-less the same way as the Ivy League’s original, but with extra Beach Boy-esque backing vocals over the instrumental break, courtesy of Usher, Terry Melcher, and Bruce Johnston. Johnston’s vocals — including answering phrases in the style of his vocals on California Girls and God Only Knows, and taking the lead on the chorus tag line — instantly made the song sound just like the Beach Boys’ recent hits, and if he’d stopped at this point Usher might have had a massive hit on his hands.
But Usher wanted to expand the track, and so after the vocal break he inserted a musique concrete collage, sounding very like the work he’d been doing with the Firesign Theatre, a jumble of discordant noises, before dropping down to just Johnston’s voice and an organ for a new section written by Usher — “wish I didn’t feel like winter/cause spring’s a better thing I know…”
Usher later thought that this collage section destroyed the track’s hit potential, and it’s definitely not the most commercial portion of the track, but a comparison of the album version (which misses this section out together) and the single shows that the single is enormously better artistically for Usher’s addition.
Several people have claimed that the result — a gorgeous piece of pop-psych, and one of the finest singles of the 60s — was in some way inspired or (according to some less-generous observers) outright stolen from Brian Wilson’s work on Smile, but comparing the two shows that there’s really very little similarity. This song, with its quiet verses building up to a bouncy, harmony-led, chorus, is far closer to Wilson’s work of 1965 and 66 than to anything he was doing by the time My World Fell Down came out — it’s from the same sonic world as The Little Girl I Once Knew, California Girls, or, at a pinch, Good Vibrations, not Cabinessence or Wonderful.
But nonetheless, there’s a reason it’s been described as “the best single the Beach Boys never made”, and the result stood as Gary Usher’s masterpiece.
But of course, as a staff producer, Gary Usher could hardly put out the track as a solo single — even if he had sung the lead vocals, he’d still have had the problem that he was meant to be producing tracks for other people, not for himself. So inspired by his interest in astrology, he decided to put it out under the band name Sagittarius, and use the Libra instrumental from The Astrology Album as a B-side.
The record was not a hit, but Columbia Records were convinced that Gary Usher’s new group definitely had hit potential, and so suddenly Usher had to find a group to be Sagittarius, much as he’d earlier had to find a Hondells. Enter Curt Boettcher…
My World Fell Down
Composer: John Carter & Geoff Stephens
Line-up: Glen Campbell (vocals, guitar), Bruce Johnston (vocals, keyboard), Gary Usher & Terry Melcher (vocals), James Burton & Dennis Budimer (guitars), Gary Coleman (percussion), Wayne Edwards & Hal Blaine (drums), Jimmy Getzoff, Joseph Stepansky, Albert Steinberg, Allan Harshman, Alvin Dinkin, and Paul Shure (violins), Jacqueline Lustgarten and Frederick Seykora (cello), Jay Migliori (sax), Jim Horn (sax, woodwinds) and Jimmy Bond (upright bass).
Original release: My World Fell Down/Libra Sagittarius, Columbia 4-44163
Currently available on: Present Tense, RevOla/Cherry Red CD