Sweet Insanity

A friend suggested on Twitter a few days ago (when I started writing this, which was several weeks back due to a spot of ill health) that I should write a blog post looking at the unreleased Brian Wilson solo album Sweet Insanity, and thinking about it this actually makes a lot of sense. My books on the Beach Boys didn’t cover the unreleased material, as most of the interesting material that used to be only available on bootlegs has become legally available over the last decade or so, but there are still four major Brian Wilson projects that remain unreleased and thus not covered in those books — the 1977 album Adult Child, his mid-eighties sessions with his old sixties collaborator Gary Usher, the 1990s sessions with Andy Paley that have been bootlegged and released under the titles “The Paley Sessions” and “Lanydlocked” (not to be confused with “Landlocked”, a different bootleg of much earlier material), and this, a completed solo album rejected twice (in two different track lineups) by the record company in 1990/91.

Sweet Insanity has something of an undeserved bad reputation. At the time of its recording, people still expected that Brian Wilson was capable of producing music of the quality of Pet Sounds and Smile on a regular basis, but was being held back by the other Beach Boys. Since his 1977 masterpiece The Beach Boys Love You he’d only had control (arguably) of one album project — the 1988 solo album Brian Wilson, which isn’t Pet Sounds or Love You good, but which is a very strong album. People saw that as a comeback effort, and expected the next album to build on it — instead it’s something of a downward step. It’s only a minor step down — it’s still a decent record, all things considered (especially in the second version, which is what I’ll mostly be looking at here), but it’s just not The Great Brian Wilson which people were expecting.

However, with twenty-eight years’ hindsight, we can see a bit better what Brian Wilson’s *actual* capabilities at the time were, and what they have been since. In that time, he’s been responsible for five albums of new material (not counting the unreleased Paley material). Only one of those — 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun — is a bona fide masterpiece. Of the rest, Gettin’ In Over My Head splits opinion (with me thinking it’s pretty good and everyone else thinking it’s godawful), as does No Pier Pressure (which *genuinely* splits opinion — I’m in the roughly fifty percent of listeners who loathe it, while the other fifty percent love it), everyone seems agreed the 2012 Beach Boys reunion album That’s Why God Made The Radio is quite good, and Imagination is pretty much universally panned.

With that context, we can see that post-1977 Brian Wilson is actually in pretty much the same position as most of his peers — you could put his solo work against, say, Paul McCartney or Neil Young’s last half-dozen solo albums and see the same ratio of great and awful.

Looked at in that context, rather than in the context of breathless expectation of a new Smile, Sweet Insanity comes into focus as, actually, a listenable enough album.

There are, however, a couple of other points about the record which have counted against it, and which need to be addressed. One of those is the presence of the song “Smart Girls”, which we’ll get to when we look at that song, but the other is more serious. At this point, Brian Wilson was largely under the control of the supposed psychiatrist/actual abusive monster “Dr” Eugene Landy, who among many other things tried to insert himself and his girlfriend into the songwriting and production process — Landy had songwriting credits on almost all of Wilson’s eighties output, though most of those credits have later been removed.

There is some evidence that Landy had more input in Sweet Insanity than he did with Wilson’s other work — in particular the lyrics to the song “Brian” are essentially an attempt at justification of Landy’s treatment of Wilson, and it’s entirely possible that those were written by Landy and/or his girlfriend Alexandra Morgan.

And given the extent of Landy’s abuse (his “treatment” caused far more damage to Wilson than Wilson’s original mental illness and drug addictions were causing) many people, understandably, regard the Sweet Insanity material as uniquely tainted. This, in turn, causes them to under-rate the album musically.

As with much of Wilson’s solo material, it’s also difficult to attribute authorship — more so here than most. Wilson is a uniquely collaborative artist, and some of this material dates from his 1980s collaborations with Gary Usher, other material was worked on with Andy Paley (who is one of the few collaborators to work with Wilson who can write both lyrics and music, and who can write in Wilson’s style), and Landy and Morgan stuck their grubby little fingers in as well.

The songs from Sweet Insanity that were later rerecorded for Wilson’s Gettin’ In Over My Head album all had Wilson solo writing credits on that album, so in the absence of better information I’m going to assume that all songs were written by Wilson alone unless I know something to contradict it, but in places I will probably mention when something sounds like a Paley-ism. My ears are not infallible in this matter, though, as we shall see.

There were two versions of Sweet Insanity completed, and both have been bootlegged. I’m here dealing with the second version of the album, which I think is far superior (and is also available in higher sound quality) but I’ll also look at the end at the songs that were included on the first version of the record but not on the second.

The particular bootleg release I’m using to source all of this is the “Brian Wilson Sessions vols 1 & 2” release, which has the second album lineup as its first twelve tracks, and which also features the tracks from the first version and a large number of other tracks.


Concert Tonight/Someone To Love

The album opens with a few seconds of a capella multi-tracked Brians singing “concert, concert tonight, doo doo”, which is an excerpt from what was, on the first version of the album, a much longer song (see below). After this it goes into “Someone to Love”, an uptempo pop/rock song.

And here we see exactly what kind of record Sweet Insanity is going to be, both the good and bad. It starts with some of the worst examples of eighties “sonic power” drums I’ve ever heard, before going into a backing track which is almost entirely layered keyboards and high-frequency digital percussion (with baritone sax honking in the chorus). And here we see the paradox of the production on this album — for the most part, this sounds *exactly* like everything that Brian Wilson has done in the last forty years when given complete control of the production or when working with a collaborator who allows him to take the lead in the production — he tends to avoid the lush, layered productions of the sixties (where he’s returned to that sound it’s generally been because he’s been working with his current backing band, who will often do a lot of the filling-in of details for him — he seems to be too eager to move on to the next thing to want to do all the work himself), but also to avoid traditional rock instrumentation.

When you listen to The Beach Boys Love You, or the unreleased Adult Child (other than the orchestral tracks on that album), his tracks with Gary Usher in the eighties, his fist solo album, his work with Andy Paley in the nineties, or the demos of That Lucky Old Sun before Paul von Mertens added the orchestration, there’s a consistent thread there — all of them feature almost no guitar or bass, tons of layered keyboard (often including synth bass), a mixture of drum machines and hand percussion but little in the way of conventional rock drum kit playing, and often the addition of a baritone sax to fill out the lower end of what is otherwise a very high-frequency arrangement.

By contrast, it’s easy to see a pattern in the music where, whatever the credits may say, Wilson has not been given control. It tends to feature far more conventional instrumentation, and in particular to feature much more use of the drum kit. In particular, Wilson has basically *never*, in his nearly-sixty-year career, used cymbals or hi-hat on record. That’s a slight exaggeration — one can find examples of both here and there — but given the choice, one thing that Wilson has always done, and one of the very few consistent characteristics of his productions in all stages, is to take the parts that in a traditional rock song would be played on cymbals or hi-hat and to assign them to tambourines, shakers, sleighbells, and other hand percussion. If you hear a cymbal on a Brian Wilson track, nine times out of ten that’s a sign that someone else had their hands in the arrangement or final mix.

(This started primarily as a limitation of the way recordings were made in the 1960s — cymbals would cause too much leakage into other mics when recorded in a live room with the other instruments, while quieter hand percussion would allow more fine-grained control of the sound — but it’s a limitation that Wilson turned into a hallmark of his work. There’s also very little of the standard kick-snare rock backbeat in his drum parts).

And so here, what we have is something that sounds exactly like a latter-day Brian Wilson production, until the chorus, when a terrible eighties drum sound comes in, and plays an absolutely bog-standard eighties rock drum part, which has no parallel in any of Wilson’s earlier music.

This is probably, overall, the best of the uptempo tracks on the album, but it’s still not great. It is, however, catchy and hooky, and shows Wilson singing enthusiastically (if not especially melodically).


Water Builds Up

One of the earlier songs written for the album, this was originally presented to Gary Usher during the mid-eighties sessions that became known later as “the Wilson Project”. Usher had liked the verse of the song, but not the rest, and so had created a Frankenstein track, “Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car”, which combined a totally unrelated chorus and lyrics by Usher that were… unpleasant. (“I only know it’s time for body contact/I’ll never be satisfied touching you with my eyes”).

This version reverts to Wilson’s original idea — a song about how when you’re stressed the pressure can build up inside you until you feel like you’re going to explode — and also to Wilson’s original song structure, dropping the terrible chorus to “Let’s Go To Heaven in My Car” and restoring a chorus that has a melodic and rhythmic relationship with the verse.

Some have cited this as an example of the Landyfication of Wilson’s lyrics at this point, but I can’t agree. The fact that Wilson had famously been having mental health problems for more than twenty-five years at this point would make it inevitable that he would occasionally deal with them in his songs, and even if this is a little more on-the-nose than, say, “Til I Die” or “Breakaway” (and, to be clear, it’s nowhere near as good as those two — this is mid-quality Wilson, which is still pretty good, but nowhere near the level of his best work like that), it’s still perfectly reasonable that he’d be writing about his stresses.

Indeed given that Landy’s propaganda was based around the idea that Wilson was completely better thanks to him, it seems unlikely that Landy would have suggested writing a song about how Wilson was still suffering.

This is moderately good for Wilson, but we have to remember what that means. His first solo album, Brian Wilson, had also been full of “moderately good for Wilson” material, but other than that the last time we’d had more than a track or two of decent (released) Brian Wilson songs was 1977. In that context, this is a continuation of the 1988 comeback.


Don’t Let Her Know She’s An Angel

This is far and away the best song on the album, and is one of those chosen to rerecord for Gettin’ In Over My Head in 2004. However, while it’s a great song, it’s not one that has ever been done in a definitive version. The song was apparently written in 1981, and has been through many different recordings, each of them with slightly (or sometimes substantially) different lyrics and arrangements — there were two different studio versions recorded for Sweet Insanity, plus a piano demo (far and away the best of the multiple versions), and the remake from 2004 has its good points as well.

But all of these seem to be grasping at a Platonic ideal version that is outside of Wilson’s grasp, and all are deeply flawed. In the case of the Sweet Insanity studio versions, they seem to be trying to make it into an eighties style power ballad, a style which simply doesn’t fit the song at all. The dynamics of the chord changes and melody suggest something soft and gentle, but the production keeps trying to pull it up into something soaring and grandiose.

Leaving that aside, though, the song itself is one of many, many, songs Wilson wrote over the years which deal with the theme of an unattainable woman who for some reason the singer has attained, and who doesn’t realise how much better she is than him. “Don’t let her know she’s an angel/Don’t let her know that you see/Don’t let her know that she’s touching me/I’m scared that she’ll want to leave me”.

There are variants of the lyric, and here I prefer “want to leave me” to “want to go free”, despite “go free” sounding better with the melody, because the masculine insecurity that Wilson deals with here (and in other songs) can very easily become a toxic, controlling, one. It’s easy to read lyrics like “I know I’ve fooled and deceived her/tricked her in love with me” as being about a romantic version of impostor syndrome — and this is clearly the intention of the song as a whole, in its multiple versions — but it’s also entirely too easy to read them as a simple admission from a manipulative control freak. Depending on which set of lyrics one looks at for different lines, and how one chooses to interpret them, this is either a desperately vulnerable admission of awe at the singer’s own good fortune, or a quite horrifying confession of psychopathic levels of manipulation.

(One could possibly build a whole hypothesis around these lyrical variants, the input of “Doctor” Landy, and who may have written what. There may be some validity to that. I think what’s more likely, though, is that the various lyrical variants were mostly down to trying different lines for rhythm and sound purposes, and that other than the chorus Wilson wasn’t paying much attention to the meaning of the lyrics except in the vaguest way. I think the basic thrust of the lyric is honest, and is heartfelt vulnerability, and that the other meanings one can find are because Wilson is not a particularly verbal man and does not find expressing himself with words particularly easy)

But while the recording is not the Platonic ideal version of it, it’s still, in any version, far and away Wilson’s best song of the eighties, and a song that in itself made Sweet Insanity a worthwhile project.


Do You Have Any Regrets?

A very pleasant, if unexceptional, Latin-flavoured uptempo pop track, which for a while was one of the better known songs, if not performances, on the album, as Darian Sahanaja (of the Wondermints and later of Brian Wilson’s backing band) recorded a solo version of the song as a solo single in the 1990s.

The line “my guts are aching and my eyes are red/I reach for you in my empty bed” made a semi-reappearance in the later song “My Mary Anne” (which is to my ears a predominantly Paley song), where the line “my ears are ringing and my eyes are red/lonely tears and an empty bed” has a similar melody as well as the obvious lyrical similarity, and so one might imagine that this was a Paley co-composition, but I’ve never seen that suggested, and Paley has never been credited with contributing to the song, so we can probably take that as a valuable pointer to the fact that only the writers of a song know who did what (and sometimes not even them) and a reminder that my guesses as to authorship are just guesses.
This is a song that, I think, would benefit from a less fussy production. Sahanaja’s cover version is an improvement, but it’s a bit too ersatz-Pet Sounds, which I don’t think fits the song either. But while the eighties sonic power overpowers the track a bit, there’s definitely a good, if not great, song there.


Brian (Thank You)

This song is one of the most controversial on the whole album. It’s also one where the influence of Landy is most obvious. The lyrics talk about Wilson’s history of mental illness, and how “no-one cared/not my mother, not my brother”, and how now he’s doing better thanks to Landy “my cousins say I ain’t the same/criticise I’ve changed my game/They’re not happy ‘cos I’m different/more creative, independent”.

Very few people believe that it’s a coincidence that the mother, brother, and cousins in question were all, to varying degrees, trying to get Wilson out of Landy’s “care” through the courts at the time. Rather, it’s assumed that either Landy wrote these lyrics himself (entirely possible, as he did *try* to contribute lyrics to Wilson’s songs in the eighties, and it’s not like these show any particular inspiration) or was controlling Wilson enough that the lyrics Wilson was writing reflected Landy’s views.

Musically, the song is…adequate. It’s a perfectly competent piece of music, but not one that’s so great it’s worth listening to those particular lyrics, which are unequivocally the record of a man who is being coerced into praising his abuser. It’s also unlike most of the songs here in that it’s a straight verse/chorus song, with no middle eight or complicated bridges or anything like that. It certainly could still be all Brian’s work — musically there’s a slight resemblance here to the similarly simplistic “Cry” from his 1998 album Imagination — but one gets the impression that the music is as rudimentary as it is because he was writing at Landy’s direction.

This is one of those Beach Boys related songs (“Never Learn Not To Love” is another obvious example) where the circumstances of its creation cast such a shadow that it’s impossible to judge it purely on its musical merits, but I do think that it’s just… a song. Not as bad musically as some, not as good as many more.

Hotter

More than any other song on the album, I’m convinced by the evidence of my ears that Andy Paley had a hand in writing this. The whole structure of the chorus, in particular, is so perfectly Paley that I can’t imagine him not having written this. The line “when I look into your eyes, my temperature starts to rise” sounds *exactly* like a lot of the material Paley recorded with his brother in the 70s.

Lyrically, the song is one of several on the album with slightly dodgy sexual politics (a theme that runs through Wilson’s eighties work, especially where Landy had a hand in things — see, for example, the Wilson/Love/supposedly-also-Landy “Male Ego”), with lines like “the chicks dig my vanity/thought it was your lucky night you’d won a chance with me”, and while the lyrics to the chorus are supposedly “you’re making me hotter”, the way Wilson pronounces the latter word makes it sound suspiciously like he’s actually singing “you’re making me harder”. And certainly the song is about sexual desire, which is an unusual subject for Wilson.

As with the rest of the album, this is another indicator that Wilson and his collaborators were at this point much better at creating ballads than uptempo rockers. But it’s also, as with the other uptempo songs we’ve heard so far, perfectly pleasant and competent. Not every song has to be a masterpiece, and this isn’t even trying to be, but it does what it’s intended to do and does so amiably.

The Spirit of Rock & Roll

Another track which originally dated from the Usher sessions, this was co-written by Tom Kelly, who also co-wrote “Like a Virgin”, “True Colors”, and “Eternal Flame”. This is another of the many songs that prove the adage that any song with “rock and roll” in its title written after about 1960 will have nothing to do with actual rock and roll. This is, instead, one of those horrific pieces of Boomer nostalgia which polluted the airwaves for much of the eighties, as a generation realised it was becoming middle-aged and went through a collective mid-life crisis.

This is an “all star” recording, with Bob Dylan singing two lines of the lyric, and with Belinda Carlisle and Paula Abdul (among others) on backing vocals, but the backing track is substantially identical to an earlier version which had been used for a TV special celebrating the Beach Boys’ twenty-fifth anniversary together. That version had been produced by Usher, and it’s likely that the same backing track was used here.

The all-star backing gimmick doesn’t really work, as none of the singers other than Dylan are identifiable, and Dylan himself was at a period where he sounded more like a bad impersonator copying him than he did anything else.

Brian Wilson rerecorded this as a solo track for the 2005 Beach Boys collection Songs From Here And Back, again coming up with something that sounded almost identical to this version (except without Dylan).

The song itself is one of a couple of real stinkers on the album — oddly so, since it was the one that had been worked on the longest, and had at several points been considered as a possible hit single. But there’s just nothing there — an unpleasant melody, nasty-sounding synth production, and Wilson straining for notes he can no longer hit.


Rainbow Eyes

Another track which was reused on Gettin’ In Over My Head, in a version that was largely similar to this one — the main difference was that on the remake, the line “you thrill me with your sweet insanity” was changed to “you thrill me with your sweet conspiracy”, and the line “my psychedelic muse” to “my ever-lasting muse”. Whether this was to excise lyrical contributions by Landy, or to remove references which Wilson himself found painful (obviously to mental illness, but Wilson also attributes his mental illness to his drug use, so he may well not be happy with the term “psychedelic”), has not been made clear.

As a song, this is (other than “Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel”) probably the strongest thing on the album — a gorgeous little ballad with a nursery rhyme feel to it, especially on the fade out, where “rainbow eyes/I love you” sounds almost like a lullaby. It’s also a song which shows no sign of having been constructed to fit a commercial niche — this sounds like a Brian Wilson song, not like someone trying to sound like a Brian Wilson song, or like Brian Wilson trying to fit into a late-eighties pop scene which had no room for him.
The production on the bridges (“pretty rainbow eyes when you look my way”) is, like much of the album, a little too harsh, and the stop-time choruses are a little bombastic, but that’s just an artefact of the time period. If you can cope with that, then it’s an extremely pretty song, and along with “Water Builds Up” and “Don’t Let Her Know She’s An Angel” the emotional core of the album.

Love Ya

Another uptempo track, but this one is more fun than many of the uptempo tracks here have been. In this case, the song is a not-especially-disguised rewrite of “Heart and Soul”, the old Hoagy Carmichael song. Wilson clearly liked the idea of reworking that melody, as he also did it with another song, “Sweetie”, around this time. Other than the rudimentary middle eight, this song is a direct musical lift from Carmichael’s classic, but it bounces along enjoyably enough, though it’s hardly a masterpiece. And lyrically it’s one of the simplest things Wilson (not a complex lyricist at the best of times) ever wrote — “Love ya/Pretty baby I love ya/There’s no-one above ya/We’re gonna fall in love”.

It does, however, have one of the more enthused vocals on here. Which is not necessarily to say it’s one of the *better* vocals — but here Brian’s shouting jovially in much the same way as he did on The Beach Boys Love You (his eighties vocals are both less raspy, as he had given up smoking, and more pressured, presumably the effect of the stimulant drugs Landy was dosing him with, but here at least he’s very recognisable as the same man from those earlier recordings).

It’s far more enjoyable than it has any right to be, and is by far my favourite of the uptempo tracks on the album. Unfortunately this is the point at which the quality of the album takes a massive nosedive, and you don’t need to listen past this point.

Make A Wish

Another song that was chosen to be reworked for Gettin’ In Over My Head, this is a song where I can’t do much better than my description in the essay for that album:
“A song dating back to the Sweet Insanity sessions, and apparently inspired by the Make A Wish Foundation, this is a perfect example of the generic feelgood protest-generally-bad-things songs that were inexplicably popular for a few minutes in the late 80s. Apparently racial peace, equality, cures for all diseases, enough food for everyone, and love replacing hate would all be good.

Fair enough, one doesn’t look to Brian Wilson to provide coherent analysis of the structural inequalities that prevent those things happening, any more than one looks to Noam Chomsky to write catchy pop songs. But frankly Chomsky could probably come up with a better melody than this one.”

It’s dreadful, musically and lyrically, and the performance reflects that.

Smart Girls

And this track, more than any other, is the reason that the album has the reputation it does. This is quite simply a track that is indefensible on any level.

To start with, it’s Brian Wilson attempting to rap. This is not something that should ever have seemed like a good idea to anyone, as it’s not as if hip-hop is a musical form with which Wilson has any affinity whatsoever (his attitude to it was summed up best, I think, by an interview about his 2015 solo album No Pier Pressure, where he talked about why Frank Ocean, who had been announced as a guest on the album, didn’t end up on it — “He didn’t want to sing. He wanted to do rap. He surprised us. We didn’t know. He wanted to talk a rap talk on the track.”)

In this case, though, the mere fact of Wilson’s lack of affinity with the genre is the least of the track’s myriad problems. For a start, there’s the subject matter, which is how “all the songs I used to write/talk about girls who weren’t too bright… but now I’m older I’ve seen the light/Intelligent chicks are dynamite”, and which goes on to use lines like “wouldn’t it be nice if PhDs were stroking me with hypotheses” and “big brains are awesome dude!”

Then there’s the melody, which is very similar to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme, but less catchy. And then there’s the samples. The samples are taken from earlier Beach Boys records, and dropped in without any concern for key or tempo, so on the line “wouldn’t it be nice if PhDs…” we just get the opening line of “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” dropped in, and similarly for lines like “God only knows what I’d be without smart girls, hip-hop and poetry” and “smart girls are my inspiration, bringing me good vibrations”.

It’s a mess on every conceivable level — aesthetically, musically, culturally, politically — and the fact that it’s not actually the worst thing any of the Beach Boys has ever done musically says far more about the low quality of the band members’ worst work than it does about this particular excrescence.

There are some people who will try to defend this as Brian being “wacky” and his sense of humour, but while there’s some evidence of that — he does a variety of silly voices during the song, and does seem genuinely to be enjoying himself — it doesn’t seem likely to have been instigated by him. He’s not someone who was paying attention to the existence of hip-hop, and nor has he ever otherwise commented on his earlier songs being sexist — and, indeed, they’re not particularly, for the most part — some were objectifying, but really remarkably few compared to the Beach Boys’ peers, and certainly there’s no suggestion in any of the songs that the girls being talked about were less intelligent or capable than the men (rather the opposite in cases of songs like “Car Crazy Cutie” or “Fun Fun Fun”, which while hardly feminist masterpieces at least give their female protagonists a reasonable amount of agency).

This is the closing track of the album proper, and that fact as much as anything else may have doomed it in listeners’ minds.

Country Feelin’s

Not technically part of the album, this was instead a non-album track that was included on a Disney charity album For Our Children, and was stuck at the end of some promo cassette copies of Sweet Insanity.

It’s another of Wilson’s occasional forays into songs about the countryside (see for example “Back Home” and “Barnyard”), and it’s fine for what it is — a pleasant but inconsequential banjo-and-synths track. It’s a nice little uptempo thing, better than “Make a Wish” or “The Spirit of Rock and Roll”, but not an especially memorable track.

The following three songs only appeared on Sweet Insanity version one, and are included here for completeness’ sake. None of them are very good at all.

Save The Day

This is another song that was reworked for Gettin’ In Over My Head, with completely different, better, lyrics about a fairy tale. Indeed the song had been reworked once before that, as “Is There a Chance?” by Linda Thompson (the ex-wife of Caitlyn Jenner, not the singer formerly married to Richard Thompson)

The lyrics here are quite astonishingly abominable, fatuous boomer nostalgia that would seem out of place even on a MIke Love solo album — back-patting about how the sixties generation are the greatest ever and marched for peace and blah blah weren’t the sixties great and idealistic? — along with a call to that generation to carry on doing what they had been doing. “Don’t let your youthful dreams and visions fade away/Dust off your wild ideals and come on out to play/The power of love still can help us save the day”. It’s especially odd because of all the bands of their generation, the Beach Boys were the one who seemed to pay the least attention to the wider cultural and political changes of that decade (they seemed to finally notice that the sixties had happened in 1972).

And even worse than the backpatting message, the lyrics don’t scan with the melody at all. And the melody itself is pretty dire. There’s just nothing good here, and the most adequate parts of it were reused for the later, better, version.

Concert Tonight

The full version of the song which was excerpted for the intro to the album, this is a good example of the meaning of “less is more”. The song itself seems to be stitched together from bits of other ideas, thrown together more or less at random, and is in a tired eighties rock style. It seems to be an attempt at doing something similar to Wings’ “Rock Show”, but without that song’s structural integrity or sense of fun. Of the three songs dropped for the second version of the album, it’s the strongest, but that’s not saying very much.

This is another one which sounds like Paley might have collaborated on it — the “there’s gonna be a concert tonight/we’re doing it in stereo tonight” section sounds something like his work, though again not definitively so (it also sounds a little like some of Wilson’s other work, for example the “hey baby turn up the radio” section in the Spring version of “Good Time” has something of the same flavour to it).


Let’s Stick Together

And another song which was reworked for Gettin’ In Over My Head, the reworked version of this (“The Waltz”) came in for some criticism from people who expected Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics to sound like they did when he was in his early twenties, but was infinitely superior to this — if nothing else because “Back in that high school cotillion/Chances were one in a million” has the right number of syllables for the notes it corresponds to, while “You make me feel like a ma-an/Doing the best that I ca-an” doesn’t, and the latter is far, far, more banal.

Musically, the most notable thing about this is that it features a prominent accordion part played by “Weird” Al Yankovic. Wilson once claimed it was “the first rock and roll waltz”, which is true if you discount the thousands of earlier rock and roll waltzes, many of them written by Wilson. It actually has quite a nice melody, but that melody works far better on the Gettin’ in Over My Head remake, where Parks’ gently witty lyrics and Paul von Mertens’ mitteleuropean strings give it a much stronger context.

So overall, Sweet Insanity isn’t a great album. But it’s arguably as good as anything any of Wilson’s peers were putting out at the time. Paul McCartney, Neil Young, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and the rest were all putting out albums which were quite pleasant if a bit patchy and with some weak tracks on it. If it had been released at the time, Sweet Insanity would, I believe, seem like one of those. It’s only the fact of its non-release, combined with the awful personal circumstances Wilson was in, that led to a critical consensus that it was the worst thing he’d ever done.

Looking back with nearly thirty years’ hindsight, though — and with the full knowledge of all the horrific aesthetic crimes that were committed by various Beach Boys between 1978 and the present day — it seems a lot more reasonable. It’s quite nice. No more, no less.

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On Realising I’m Disabled

[Trigger warnings: all sorts of things, but mostly suicidal ideation]

I came to a realisation in the last couple of days — I’m disabled.

I don’t mean that I just realised that the label “disabled” fit me — I’ve been using it about myself for a couple of years — but that it actually describes me. I’ve felt for a while like I was in the category “disabled” for various reasons, but that I’m not *actually* disabled, not properly disabled like some of my friends.

But then in the last few days I’ve been thinking about how some of the normal knocks of a freelancer’s life affect me disproportionately, so much so that after a couple of rejections I’ve spent most of the week contemplating suicide (not going to act on it because I don’t want to upset my wife or parents, don’t worry), and I realised for the first time, in my gut, that things just *actually are* harder for me because of my disabilities and chronic conditions. Most of them on their own don’t seem like they’re much, but put together, they really do cause a lot of problems.

I’m autistic, which I’ve mentioned before. I also have psoriasis, which means my skin is often uncomfortable. I *also* have psoriatic arthritis, which as well as meaning I’m often in pain and can rarely stand unaided for even a couple of minutes also means I’m pretty much permanently fatigued and brain-fogged. And I’m dyspraxic. I have depression and anxiety, and hypertension (the latter mostly controlled by medicine, except when I’m stressed, which I always am). I almost certainly have delayed sleep-phase syndrome (a condition which is untreatable so for which I’ve never secured diagnosis, but which makes fitting into normal diurnal cycles near-impossible), and I *do* have sleep apnoea (which is controlled by my CPAP machine, but not completely). I have asthma (mostly under control) and insulin resistance. I have weird immune-system stuff which means I have to avoid all sorts of foods and also get all sorts of diseases.

And that’s not even counting all the weird stuff which is just stuff-my-body-does, like the way my feet are both permanently numb but *also* excruciatingly sensitive to the slightest touch (no, I don’t know how that can be the case either. It seems like something that should be logically impossible. Nevertheless).

I’m basically broken, both physically and mentally, and have been since at least 2011 or so — that was the point where the constant pressure to try to cope despite the stuff I had then (like autism and delayed sleep phase syndrome) triggered a whole bunch of the other stuff (like the hypertension and the arthritis) which has since never gone away.

But I still think of myself as basically baseline-normal. I just tend to assume that *everyone* is so completely unsuited to primate pack hierarchies that just talking to an authority figure makes their blood pressure get into imminent-stroke range, and that everyone in a day job is staggering in to work after two hours’ sleep because they couldn’t get to sleep til 6AM the night before, and that when they’re typing their hands are in agony, and…

And it’s only really this week that I’ve grokked, properly, that this is not the case. Like, I’ve known it intellectually, but I’m still used to instinctually assuming that things are about as difficult for everyone else as they are for me (or even assuming that when it comes to most things, they’re easier for me — before the arthritis I was a very, *very* fast thinker, and I’m also an allocishet white man, so in that way at least I always had a tremendous advantage over other people when it comes to things like getting jobs). And it’s only now I’m really realising that just because there’s not a single obvious thing I can point to like being in a wheelchair or having no sight, it doesn’t mean that I’m not struggling more than most people.

But… in a major way, whether I’m disabled or not *doesn’t matter*. Because I still have to do all the things that everyone else has to do. I still have to earn a living, pay a mortgage, walk the dog, and it doesn’t really matter that sometimes — a lot of the time — those things are so difficult for me that death honestly seems like an infinitely preferable option. And I still have to do all the things that I feel obliged to do — the political activism and so on.

But what that’s meant is that for the last seven years, my horizons have been getting narrower and narrower, and that’s been showing in this blog. I’ve been less able to focus, I’ve been less able to seek out new things, I’ve not socialised *at all*. I basically don’t leave the house. I go to a games night at some friends’ house one night a month, except it’s really only about one night in every three months, and other than that I just don’t see people. In the last month, the *only* in-person interactions I’ve had with anyone have been at the shop when buying food, games night (which I did attend this month), lending some musical instruments to a friend, and two trips to the comic shop. That’s a total of maybe five or six hours in a month spent with another human who isn’t my wife. And this has been a busier-than-normal month for me, a tiring, hectic, merry-go-round of a social whirl.

Yet I’ve still refused to see myself as “really” disabled, still had the disability equivalent of impostor syndrome, still convinced I’m faking it as I lie on the couch crying because I can never, no matter how I push myself, never do enough work to make myself and my wife financially secure for anything more than a month or so in advance, never have the social skills to do the self-publicist thing you need to do to have any kind of freelance career, but even more than that I can never do the stuff that’s needed for a day job (had I not switched to freelancing two years ago, I would be dead now without a hint of exaggeration).

I don’t know what to do with this revelation. There’s not even much I *can* do with it. It’s not like I can *stop* working and money will magically appear because I’m disabled, it’s not like I’ll suddenly be able to walk twenty miles at a session again like I could when I was in my early thirties before the arthritis hit. It’s not like anything at all has changed in any way.

But I thought it probably worth mentioning here. It might help explain why there have been fewer of the extended flights of imagination here in recent years (though I’m still going to post many more Good Posts, for example — there’s another six thousand words of them sat in a directory waiting to be uploaded here), but mostly, I think it just worth saying these things.

So anyway, that’s it, I’m disabled. I realise that now.

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The Lib Dem Immigration Policy Paper is Not Fit For Purpose

The proposed Lib Dem immigration policy is simply not fit for purpose. I knew this as soon as I saw the consultation questions, which were all on the theme of “immigration: threat or menace?” and “how much should we punish immigrants? A lot, or more than that?”

These questions were later, after much internal arguing, supplemented by another set of questions which were more balanced. The responses to that second set of questions, however, seem to have been ignored. Huge chunks of the policy paper being presented to conference seem to have been copy-pasted from the original questions, with things like “should we” changed to “we should” (not an actual example, but the kind of thing we’re seeing here), and the working group who put this together clearly had its conclusions decided before the consultation even started.

That said, there is evidence that they have tried to change those conclusions slightly — mostly because between the consultation and the publication of the paper, the whole Windrush scandal happened, and so even the people running the consultation realised that public opinion was shifting in favour of immigrants again.

Now, the motion itself that’s being put forward for conference to vote for is weak sauce, for reasons Caron explains here — and I particularly dislike the “don’t let’s be beastly to the racists” section which would actually make it Lib Dem policy that we shouldn’t call racists racist just because they’re racist — but it’s the policy paper which the motion endorses which is the real problem. A lot of the worst parts of it are not specifically mentioned in the motion, but if conference votes for the motion, the whole thing will have become policy.

Before I start, I should make clear that this policy is still better than the current immigration policy, which is a precompromised excrescence that was put to conference in 2014 anticipation of a second coalition term that never happened (I voted against that paper because I found it quite horrific in all sorts of ways). But “better than the current policy” is not the same thing as good, and just because something’s an improvement doesn’t mean it should be voted for as policy — we have the option of making policy that’s actually good, if we give the job to people who aren’t more concerned with being apologists for racism than with getting the policy right. I’ll only be talking here about the real and significant problems with the paper, and not the good stuff, because this is basically a shit sandwich, and if you’re forced to eat a shit sandwich you don’t really care if the bread is good.

The problems with the paper start with section 1.1.2 which, after acknowledging that the party constitution clearly and unambiguously states that we support free movement, says:

However, migration today is not the peaceful, equitable, ordered guarantor of durable security that our constitution envisages. Fuelled by the failure of governments to spread economic prosperity widely, some people feel that their concerns about employment, housing, and social and welfare resources are somehow linked to immigration. There has been an alarming rise in hostility to all immigrants, including some British people settled here for a generation or more.

Now, let’s unpick that. It says that “migration today” is not what our constitution wants, but then it says that the reason for this is that people *think* it isn’t, because of bad government policy in other areas. It goes on to say that people think that immigration is bad because of the hostile rhetoric and policies from governments past and present — but that precisely because of this we must continue with hostile policies rather than doing what is right.

People think immigrants are bad because the government says they’re bad, so in order to convince the public that immigrants aren’t bad we must continue treating them badly.

This is the kind of logic that only makes sense in centristland, the land of the SPADs who think that it was a great win for the Lib Dems that our leaders got the plastic bag levy imposed in return for hurting benefits claimants.

Now, personally, I think the whole premise of trying to appease what the paper terms “immigration sceptics” (because calling racists racist is worse than being a racist, in this view) is fundamentally flawed, for the reasons Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave when talking about convincing supporters of the Nazis:

But at this point it is quite clear, too, that folly can be overcome, not by instruction, but only by an act of liberation; and so we have
come to terms with the fact that in the great majority of cases inward liberation must be preceded by outward liberation, and that until that has taken place, we may as well abandon all attempts to convince the fool. In this state of affairs we have to realize why it is no use our trying to find out what “the people” really think, and why the question is so superfluous for the person who thinks and acts responsibly

(This is also, incidentally, a good argument against the “people’s vote” which our Parliamentarians seem so keen on).

This is something that informs the whole paper, and which is fundamentally misguided. It takes as its top priority appeasing the fears of the racist seventy-five percent (going from the paper’s own numbers) of the population, rather than creating an actually humane system. It tries (or claims to try) to create a more humane system within those racist-appeasing boundaries, but the first priority is always making life more difficult for immigrants in order to win over the UKIP vote, rather than being liberal.

I’m by no means an expert on immigration, but I have a lot of experience of *parts* of that system. In particular, I am married to an immigrant from a non-EEA country, and so I know from very personal experience that the system around family immigration is more a form of torture than a coherent set of policies. So here I’m going to look at the bits of this paper that I have some experience or knowledge of — but I assume that there are similar hidden traps in all the other sections.

The paper says of the pre-2012 immigration system — under which my wife came over here:

“Liberal Democrats argued that the then-system was already one of the toughest in the world, not open to abuse and, if anything, already damaging to family life for some people.” (italics mine)

The paper then goes on to say:

“The Liberal Democrats would return the Immigration Rules for settlement visas for spouses/partners to the pre-July 2012 position with regard to income”

So, rather than go for a *good* system, the paper wishes to go for “one of the toughest in the world… damaging to family life”. Those are the words of the paper itself. The system it wants to go for is damaging.

It then goes on to say “There would continue to be restrictions on extra recourse to public funds until the migrant reaches indefinite leave to remain (permanent residence) after five years.”

To be clear, that is *not* the pre-July 2012 system. That is *worse* than the pre-July 2012 system, as up to July 2012 indefinite leave to remain was granted after *two* years.

To say it as plainly as possible:

The paper says that the pre-July 2012 system was “damaging to family life” — and I can attest to this. That was the system under which my wife moved to the UK, and the system as it stood then was so harmful to immigrants, and so punishing to those whose income became unstable (as mine did — I lost my job shortly after she moved here, and because of the “no recourse to public funds” rule which this paper thinks is such a fucking fantastic idea we had to survive with literally no income, pushing us into debt it took nearly a decade to get out of) that it caused my wife to suffer PTSD and put a strain on my own mental health so bad that neither of us have fully recovered twelve years on.

It then claims it’s going to restore this “harmful to family life” position.

It then goes on to contradict itself, and say that it will make things *worse* for immigrants than the pre-July 2012 position, though it never admits that this is what it’s doing.

And it calls this “more humane and efficient”!

Now, frankly, I’d argue that the paper should be voted down just for the fact that it deliberately attempts to mislead anyone reading it. It claims that what it’s proposing is the situation as of 2012, when in fact it’s not, and I would suggest that deliberately lying to Conference should be reason enough in itself to reject the paper.

But even if you disagree with that… who, exactly, is this policy meant to be *for*? The fact is, no-one actually knows the rules for family members coming to the UK except those who’ve been through the process. Without exception, *every single person* I’ve ever spoken to about what we actually went through to get Holly over here said “I thought you got citizenship just from marrying a British person!” — with the exception of a very small number of people who are also married to non-EEA citizens, most of whom just nodded, sadly, sharing an unspoken acknowedgement of a shared trauma.

The fact is, no changes to family immigration policy will actually get through to people anyway unless and until they try to marry someone from outside the UK. The policy everyone thinks is already in place is the liberal one, so we might as well just make our policy that one anyway — marry someone from outside the UK, they get citizenship automatically if they want it. Anything less than that is an ineffective attempt at appeasing racists — I’m sorry, “people with legitimate concerns that some people might actually be able to marry the person they love and live together, which they are right to be legitimately concerned about because it’s a legitimate concern because people like Andrew’s wife put pressure on public services with their *checks notes* years of working for the NHS and voluntary work improving services in the community”. It’s ineffective because they won’t believe it’s the policy anyway — racists don’t make their decisions based on facts, but on hatred, and on pushing at the limits of acceptable discourse. We need to push back, not believe that if we give in to them they’ll give up.

Also, and separately, the “no recourse to public funds” rule which this paper thinks is so fucking kind and generous is *massively* discriminatory — I can say from experience that it discriminates against disabled people like myself and my wife, who have more difficulty getting and keeping jobs than abled people and who also have additional expenses which the government acknowledges should be paid for — for everyone except people who had the absolute temerity to be born somewhere other than the UK (not that being born in the UK is any help — we don’t have birthright citizenship here, and the Windrush scandal has seen people born in Britain, to parents who at the time had British citizenship, threatened with deportation to countries they’ve never been to before). I’m sure that it also discriminates against other protected classes, but the authors of this policy paper would clearly rather shit on disabled people than ever tell a racist — I’m sorry, “person who has absolutely legitimate reasons to think that the trauma Holly and Andrew went through for daring to fall in love should be worsened, legitimately” — that they’re in the wrong.

Onto some other areas:

Liberal Democrats agree that illegal immigration must be properly dealt with, otherwise support for legal immigration and even asylum seekers will also be questioned.

I don’t agree with this. Partly because it sounds like a threat (turn over the illegal immigrant or the asylum seeker gets it), partly because I don’t think the aim of a policy in one area should be to stop people from questioning another policy in a related area — I have a crazy belief that policy effects should be an end in themselves, not distorted in order to shape public opinion on other policies — and mostly because, again, I don’t believe that immigration policy actually has any effect on public perception whatsoever.

And that’s because I don’t believe anti-immigrant bigotry is a rational opinion based on well-founded beliefs. It’s based on knee-jerk prejudices.

Liberal Democrats would end the “hostile environment” and create new fairer employer checks that will involve employers checking employment status of workers with Immigration Enforcement and an assumption of a right to work until they direct otherwise.

Another example of the policy paper saying it will do one thing and then immediately contradicting itself and saying it’ll do something worse. Employer checks are literally part of the hostile environment, and this proposal still makes every single employer in the country responsible for being an unpaid immigration officer. An assumption of a right to work is no good if employers are still forced to check that right.

To combat illegal entry at Britain’s borders, Liberal Democrats would invest heavily in more Border Force officers, additional training and enhanced technology.

Just to be clear about this, the Border Force is the agency which, in the UK, has much the same powers and responsibilities as ICE (and which takes a similar attitude towards anyone who they think they can safely abuse). This proposal is to expand the UK version of ICE. The Border Force is a branch of the Home Office set up by Theresa May, whose wannabe-Gestapo thugs (almost all ex-military — the ex-military criterion for them in job ads was only dropped earlier this year in Northern Ireland, and I believe it’s still in effect when advertising the jobs in the rest of the UK) take a sadistic pleasure in making life hell for anyone who “looks a bit foreign”.

The authors of this paper really need to read the room. While the rallying cry for progressives in the USA recently has been “abolish ICE” — to the point where I’ve now seen people say “abolish ICE is the centrist position, and prosecute ICE is the leftist one”, these people are claiming to be liberal while saying “Make UK-ICE Great Again!”

They want to give *at least* an extra hundred million pounds to Theresa May’s pet agency (the amount they say will be saved elsewhere, which they say will go to UK-ICE — they’ll also give an unspecified amount more on top of that), while keeping it in the Home Office (an organisation which is itself institutionally hostile and abusive to immigrants in a way which no-one without personal experience of them can believe) so they can carry on abusing immigrants but with even more weapons and body armour than at present.

Personally I think a liberal policy should *at a minimum* abolish unaccountable paramilitary organisations under the direct control of the Home Secretary whose primary role is hositilty to immigrants, but what would I know? I am, after all, only someone who has been repeatedly on the receiving end of their hostility for daring to have a black curly beard that might make me look like a Muslim. My concerns — that I should be able to travel without threat of physical violence for daring to have a beard — are not as legitimate as those of people who once went to the big city and got scared because they saw a Polski Sklep.

These are the two areas — border enforcement and family immigration — which I have personal experience of. I don’t know as much about other aspects of immigration, but I can’t imagine that the other sections of the paper are any better — as a general rule of thumb, where all the bits of something I know about are vile, the bits I don’t know about will turn out to be vile too.

And this is precisely what I’d expect from a working group led by a Clegg-era SPAD who thinks that the most important thing about immigration policy is that we must not, under any circumstances, ever say that a racist is racist (the paper does not even refer to the hard-core 25% of people it claims want significantly more hostility to immigrants as racist — rather it calls them “migration sceptics”, this being the use of the word “sceptic” that has recently become popular, which means “gullible and impervious to reason” rather than the more usual meaning of someone who interrogates the basis for their own beliefs).

This whole thing reeks of the centrist managerialism which pervades the party at the moment, which is also shown in things like the pusillanimous attitude of Brian Paddick towards trans people, the recent statements by both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable that they want a “brake on free movement from Europe” — going against our party constitution and policy and sabotaging our flagship campaigns just because they are so pathologically determined that they can win the votes of people who hate them, or indeed the whole second referendum policy the leadership love so much that they’re now trying to drag us into a referendum with no deal at all as an option (which *will* lead to “no deal” winning and *will* lead to people dying in significant numbers).

In all these cases the managerial centrists’ response to the rise of fascism has been to believe that there *must* be some compromise between the fascists and their victims — “YOU just want to be able to live in the same country as your husband, or to be able to use a public toilet, while YOU want to gas all the Muslims and trans people. You’re both sensible people, I’m sure we can work something out that will make you BOTH happy”. Except it’s worse than that — in the case of immigration, because the victims can’t vote and the bullies and bigots can, the starting point is that any policy must make the bullies happy *first*, and then making the victims happy as well would be a nice-to-have optional extra.

It’s fucking asinine. The West is currently in a culture war between freedom and fascism, and fascism is winning by default because the parties that are supposed to defend freedom *refuse to pick a fucking side*. And so we end up with policies like “Make UK-ICE Great Again” and “let’s do something we state ourselves is damaging to family life”, while still patting ourselves on the back for how fucking generous we’re being to those poor immigrants. It’s sickening, and it’s everything the Lib Dems’ opponents accuse us of being.

If the Lib Dems are really on the side of freedom, as we like to think, we’ll throw this out, go back to the drawing board, and come back with something whose starting point is not appeasing racists, but standing up for liberal principles.

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New Novella: The Ghost in the Machine

I’ve just published a new novella. It’s the first in the series, so I’m afraid it’s something of an origin story with a bit of a cliffhangery ending, but it’s only 99 cents and the second novella in the series will be out in a month.

When Dr. Evelyn Hope hears the voice of a dead MP in her head, she thinks she may be hallucinating, But when she’s arrested for the murder, she stumbles into a world she never believed possible, in which magical forces are locked into a deadly war. This novella is the compelling start of an ongoing epic series, The Noosphere Wars.

The book can be bought for ninety-nine cents through this page, which will take you to your favourite online bookstore. Patreon backers can find their copy here.

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The Rolling Stones

There’s a gap in my musical knowledge that many people will find very surprising. I only own two Rolling Stones albums, in total. These are The Story of the Stones, a K-Tel compilation of their early hits which I picked up second hand for 50p when I was eighteen, and Stripped, their mid-nineties pseudo-unplugged album recorded with Don Was. I listen to neither very often, and in fact it may well be twenty years since I’ve played Stripped.

There’s a very good reason for that — I consider the Stones to be far and away the most overrated band in history. I enjoy some of the early singles, in the way you enjoy stuff when it comes on the radio, but have no great love for any of them, and I find everything I’ve heard from after Brian Jones’ death tedious in the extreme. At best, the later Stones stuff is overlong boring pub rock, while at worst it’s overlong racist misogynist pub rock.

Given this, and given that the band members seem like thoroughly unpleasant people, I’ve never delved any further into the band’s back catalogue, reasoning that a hits collection is more than enough for me, and there’s more than enough music out there that I absolutely love without wasting my time on mediocrity.

But… it’s also the case that at this point the Stones are the *only* important sixties band I don’t own multiple albums by. I own and listen to more records by the Swinging Blue Jeans or Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas than I do the Stones, and so I thought I should give them a fair shot at least, if not for my own musical pleasure then to fill a gap in my knowledge (I am planning on writing a *big* book on rock music history soon, and you need to be able to more than fake it when talking about the Stones if you’re doing that kind of thing). And if I’m doing that, I might as well blog about it here.

So, I’ve made a decision — I’m going to listen to The Rolling Stones In Mono, a box set containing the mono versions of all their sixties albums, in both the US and UK versions, plus a bunch of non-album tracks. And I’m going to blog my thoughts here as I do so. This will be more or less a liveblog, although I’ll be doing this in multiple sessions as the box set is nine hours in total, and I won’t be posting it until after I’ve written the whole thing up. At the end of this, I’ll have heard everything the Rolling Stones put out between 1963 and 1969 at least once, and most of it twice (not counting the many times I’ve already heard the obvious singles, of course), and I’ll be able to say to my own satisfaction (if not necessarily to anyone else’s) whether I’ve been right to dismiss this band as thoroughly as I have.

One point to make before I start — I’m listening to this on Spotify, and judging from the early tracks playing as I write this, either Spotify’s rip of this box set is dodgy or my Internet connection is playing up a bit. There’s a lot of swirling and compression artefacts here, which I certainly hope aren’t on the physical media [Edited to add, this only applied to the first disc when I listened to that]. But given the choice between listening to it this way or paying the hundred-plus quid it costs to buy the box set, I think I’ll go for this one. The sound quality isn’t so bad that it would disguise a truly great (or truly awful) performance or song, but it might make me miss the odd nuance here or there (though having said that I’m not under the impression that the Rolling Stones are the most nuanced of bands).

It’s probably an idea before I start to say exactly what I think of the Rolling Stones’ sixties work, so my prejudices are shown up front. My impression has always been that they were a very competent R&B band, for British R&B of the sixties, who also had a bit of a knack with catchy hit singles until they started believing their own hype and stopped bothering with tunes. If I were to rank them on the scale of their peers, they’d be below the Animals, Small Faces, Move or Zombies, about equal with Manfred Mann and just ahead of The Who (yes, I think the Who are worse than Manfred Mann, fight me). They’d be so far behind the Kinks it’s laughable, and the idea of “the Beatles or the Stones?” being a fair comparison would be even more laughable than the “Beatles or Oasis?” question that people asked for a brief while in the mid-nineties.

I’ve never really understood what, if anything, about their music (as opposed to their publicity campaigns) was so appealing to people. Maybe I’ll understand after more investigation.

The first album, The Rolling Stones (known in the US as England’s Latest Hitmakers, with a very slightly different tracklisting there), doesn’t do much to change my perceptions. It’s an album of cover versions, mostly of songs originally recorded by Chess blues artists, along with two unimaginative blues “originals” (there are not enough scare quotes in the world for how derivative these are) and one Jagger/Richards pop song (“Tell Me”) which shows a *very* strong influence from Gene Pitney (who guested on piano on one of the other tracks on the album). “Tell Me” is actually quite good, at least in the verse (the bridge is sloppily double-tracked, and the chorus is just a mess), but as for the rest of the album… there’s no reason for it to exist. The songs they choose are all great — “Can I Get A Witness”, “Carol”, “Mona”, “I’m A King Bee” — but as Jagger himself said later “What’s the point in listening to us doing ‘I’m a King Bee’ when you can hear Slim Harpo do it?”

I already own records by Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Bo Diddley, Slim Harpo, Willie Dixon, and the rest of the people the Stones chose to cover here. Those records have better playing, better singing, and better production, and if I wanted to hear those songs I’d listen to those records. Here the Stones’ interpretations basically consist of playing identical arrangements to the originals, with what few changes are made (such as slowing down “Mona”) almost all being for the worse. Fundamentally, the only reason to own this album would be if you were a Stones completist based on their other material, or if for some reason every cheap Chess and Motown compilation in the world suddenly disappeared, never to be available again. It’s the blues equivalent of those Top Of The Pops albums that you used to be able to get in the 70s where some session musicians would pretend to be Leo Sayer and Abba.

The second album on the set, 12×5, is marginally better, although very much in the same vein. In this case, the album was
not originally intended as an album — this is the US release of what was, in Britain, the EP 5×5, to which were added seven tracks — the A and B sides of two recent UK singles, and three tracks which would appear on the band’s next UK album.

Like the first album, the majority of the tracks here are cover versions of US blues and R&B tracks, although the number of originals (either by Jagger/Richards or by the group pseudonym Nanker Phelge) has increased to five of the twelve. But the cover versions include at least a few more interesting tracks — admittedly it’s hard to imagine more obvious choices for cover versions than “Under the Boardwalk” and “Suzie Q”, both of which must be among the most often covered songs around (and the Stones’ version of “Under the Boardwalk” is absolutely dire — it simply doesn’t suit Jagger’s voice even slightly), but “Time Is On My Side” was a cover of an Irma Thomas B-side (though the version here isn’t the version that the Stones later released as a single, and in fact is sloppy as hell), while “It’s All Over Now” had only got to number 94 in the US in its original version. These were relatively obscure songs, and ones that suited the sound the band was developing, one which had a lot less to do with the blues and a lot more to do with pop music.

That wasn’t the case for their originals, though — “Good Times, Bad Times” for example (not the same song as the Led Zeppelin one of that title) is a laid-back country blues which owes a *lot* to “It Hurts Me Too” by Tampa Red (and because of this sounds eerily premonitory of Bob Dylan’s later “Pledging My Time”, which was also… influenced…. by that song). But when they were covering other people, they were starting to go for catchy melodies that could be reworked into something more suited for the pop charts.

But there’s still a sloppiness here — a lot of the guitar playing is plain *bad*, and not in an exciting punk rock way as much as a not really sure what they wanted to play way. The only time the album really comes alive is with “It’s All Over Now”, which is a genuinely great pop single, and which takes the chugging country-blues of Bobby Womack’s original and turns it into something far catchier without losing the power of the original.

At this point, two albums in, the Rolling Stones are roughly comparable to the Kinks’ first couple of albums, except that those early Kinks albums had a handful of absolutely stunning originals — there’s no “You Really Got Me”, “Tired of Waiting” or “Stop Your Sobbing” here. Two albums in, my assessment of the Stones is largely unchanged — they were a bar band that got lucky.

(One point I should probably make here, given that what I reveal of my tastes here mostly goes towards my love of melodic pop music — I have a genuine, real, love of the music that the Stones were listening to and covering on these albums. It’s not because of a dislike for the blues that I am rating these albums as low as I am. I grew up listening to Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Elmore James, Jimmie Reed, Slim Harpo, and the rest of the musicians the Stones were trying to emulate here. The problem is that what the Stones were doing was copying the surface aspects of those musicians’ performances, without having a true understanding of the music or why it was the way it was. That kind of thing can work when the aspects the foreign copier picks up on are non-obvious ones — one only has to look at the way the comic industry was revolutionised in the 80s by people like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison who were British but grew up reading American comics — but in this case what you have is just a bunch of white LSE students putting on fake Southern US accents and singing words they don’t understand.)

The third album on the set, The Rolling Stones No. 2, shares three tracks (“Grown Up Wrong”, “Under The Boardwalk”, and “Suzie Q”) with 12×5, as well as having a different version of “Time Is On My Side” (the version that became a hit single). Again, this is almost all covers (nine of the twelve tracks on the album are cover versions) but there seems to be a slow transition away from the blues and towards R&B and soul (although this is still only a partial transition — there’s still a Muddy Waters cover version here).

It opens with an overlong cover version of Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love”, which lasts over five minutes with relatively little dynamic variation. At a time when the Beatles barely ever topped the three minute mark and basically never went over three minutes thirty, opening the album with a five minute track (and following it with one that lasts four minutes thirteen and another which lasts three minutes forty) was a strange decision — these tracks were *long* for the time period (when the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” was released as a single, there was actually a false time printed on the label, so that DJs would play it, as four minutes thirty was seen as far too long for a single).

Overall this is better than the first album, but still basically pointless — nobody needs to hear Mick Jagger singing “You Can’t Catch Me” when they can get Chuck Berry singing it, and there’s no imagination at all put in to the arrangements or into the writing of the originals (although one of the originals, “What A Shame”, did at least provide the basis for a much better song when Arthur Lee rewrote it as “Can’t Explain”, stripping out the Elmore James-isms).

And again, it’s not the fact that the album is made up primarily of cover versions that makes it pointless — *all* albums by anyone at this point were largely cover versions — it’s that the band add nothing to the cover versions, and that there’s so great a stylistic homogeneity there. This is a band who are regularly compared to the Beatles, but where the Beatles would cover old standards, girl-group R&B, and current hits, would radically rearrange them in their own style, and would write staggeringly good originals, the Stones are covering a very, very, narrow range of material, in versions that are fingerprint-identical to the originals, while their own originals are basically old Willie Dixon riffs with slightly different lyrics on top.

The Rolling Stones, Now!
is basically a US repackaging of The Rolling Stones No. 2, with a few tracks cut, the version of “Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” edited to a more reasonable three minutes, and the addition of a couple of singles and their B-sides. One of those singles, “Heart of Stone”, is, three albums into their career, the first actual good Jagger/Richards song. It’s not a great song, mind, and the lyrics are mildly unpleasant, but it’s catchy, it isn’t a direct rip-off of any one other song (although it follows a very standard blues-ballad formula), and it is at least as solid an effort at songwriting as, say, Gerry and the Pacemakers were doing at the same time.

The other single is a cover version of the old Howlin’ Wolf song “Little Red Rooster”, with the lyrics slightly changed — where Howlin’ Wolf sang that he *had* a little red rooster, Jagger sings that he *is* a cock (sorry, rooster, this is definitely not a song about a penis, honestly).

The US version of Out Of Our Heads is the first actual good album in this set. By this point, other than a single Bo Diddley cover (taken from a live EP, and shockingly out of place here), the cover versions have become less blues-oriented and far more soul-based — songs by Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Marvin Gaye, and Sam Cooke — and this forces the Stones to actually rethink the arrangements, as these records mostly featured horn sections and singers with far more mellifluous voices than Jagger’s. The cover versions are mostly worse than the originals, but they do at least bring something new to the table, and four albums or so into their career they’ve finally developed their own sound.

On the other hand, the production here is very, very, poor — tinny, reverby, and muddy.

But it’s the originals where the band finally start to shine. Of course “The Last Time” is still a very unoriginal original — it was a rip-off of a Staples Singers gospel song, with the verse slightly changed (and made unpleasantly aggressive, as was the Stones’ wont) — but it’s still a genuinely excellent single. And of course “Satisfaction” is one of the very best singles of the sixties. As a song, it’s not actually up to all that much, but it’s got such a great *sound* to it (largely because of the decision, with which Richards disagreed, to release the single with Richards’ fuzz guitar rather than the horn section he wanted to play that line) and it still sounds exciting more than fifty years later. “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” is dull, as is “One More Try”, but “Play With Fire” is musically interesting (though yet again, like almost every Stones original of this period, is threatening towards the female subject of the song — one thing that listening to all this music in sequence shows is just how deeply, deeply, misogynist the Stones’ music is) and “Spider and the Fly” is one of their better blues originals.

But the US Out Of Our Heads is, five discs in, the first of these albums I could imagine myself choosing to listen to again at some point.

The UK version of Out Of Our Heads
is much weaker, dropping most of the good originals in favour of tedious cover versions of songs like “She Said Yeah” and “Talking About You”. It does have “I’m Free”, which is the Stones trying to sound like LA folk-rockers and doing a reasonable job (and ripping off “Eight Days A Week” in the process), but which is also an incredibly sloppy performance.

And it may seem like I’m being overly critical, but this is from 1965. Compare the Stones’ contemporaries — the Kinks were releasing “Well Respected Man” and “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”, the Beatles were just about to release Rubber Soul and had just put out Help!, and the Beach Boys had recently released Today! and Summer Days and were in the early stages of recording Pet Sounds. And in the middle of all this, while the rest of the music world was zooming ahead into uncharted territory, the Stones had basically stuck to doing what they’d been doing all along, although their originals were getting slightly better.

December’s Children (And Everybody’s)
is… more of the same. A US album which mixes the stuff from the UK Out Of Our Heads which wasn’t on the US version, some live tracks which had originally been issued on a UK live EP, their cover of Arthur Alexander’s “You’d Better Move On” from a year earlier which had been on a different UK EP (and which like all their covers up to this point is utterly pointless — it’s yet again just a direct note-for-note copy of Alexander’s original, except that Jagger isn’t a thousandth of the singer Alexander was) — and their latest single, the rather good “Get Off of My Cloud”. There are a couple of decent new originals there — “As Tears Go By”, the song Jagger, Richards, and their manager Andrew Loog Oldham wrote for Marianne Faithful, and “Blue Turns to Grey”. But at this point it’s become a real slog to get through this. Album after album after album of the same thing.

So the UK version of Aftermath is a pleasant change, so long as you don’t listen to the lyrics. It’s their first album consisting only of originals, and it shows a great leap forward in the band’s sound. They’re still far, far, less inventive than their rivals — this was released a month before Pet Sounds, and while the Beatles were in the middle of recording Revolver — but at least it seems like they’re trying. Or at least, that Brian Jones was trying — while all the songs are by Jagger/Richards, all the inventive musical ideas here are from the instruments Jones was playing (as well as guitar, Jones plays sitar, dulcimer, marimbas, koto, harmonica, and bells).

And Keith Richards holds up his end of the songwriting well for the most part. The opening run of four songs — “Mother’s Little Helper”, “Stupid Girl”, “Lady Jane”, and “Under My Thumb” — is a genuinely impressive set of songs, musically. Up to this point Jagger and Richards had turned in maybe one really catchy song per album, and here they open with four in a row. And while the hooks come from Jones in several of those cases, they’re all melodically strong.

But lyrically… this is misogyny on a level which reminds you that Dave Sim included Mick & Keith as characters in Cerebus. “Mother’s Little Helper” on its own is merely callous — the kind of “social comment” song that could turn into nastiness even in the hands of better songwriters like Ray Davies — but even there it’s notable that Jagger chooses to mock the way middle-aged women self-medicated, rather than, say, the way that almost every middle-aged professional-class man is a functioning alcoholic, or the way that most of his peers were getting by on a mixture of amphetamines and cannabis. But then you get “Stupid Girl”, which is pretty much summed up by its title, and “Under My Thumb” which celebrates having a woman under your control. These songs are deeply, deeply, *deeply* abusive, and no number of retroactive claims of irony can change that.

“Lady Jane” at first seems to be different, and to be a rather sweet pseudo-mediaeval ballad. It seems that way, at least, until you remember that in Lady Chatterly’s Lover “lady Jane” is used as a euphemism for a woman’s genitalia.

So four songs in we’ve got a run of immensely catchy, hook-filled, songs that between them give the cumulative impression that the writers think that women are stupid and need to be controlled, are only worth celebrating for their genitals, and that when in response to a society that thinks of them that way they turn to antidepressants to help them cope, they should be mocked mercilessly.

Nice. Sir Mick really deserves that knighthood, eh?

And sadly after that opening run, the quality of the music falls off a cliff, though at least they stop singing about how much they hate women. Or at least, I think they do, as the next few songs are so dull that it’s impossible to pay attention to what’s going on in them. Track five, “Don’tcha Bother Me” is a bog-standard Elmore James-alike, “Going Home” is an eleven-minute (!!!) long blues jam which nearly has a whole thirty seconds of actual musical or lyrical material, repeated for half an album side. “Flight 505” is a reminder that writing Chuck Berry songs was a lot harder than Berry made it look, and “High and Dry” is some jug-band nonsense that might have been fun in the hands of the Lovin’ Spoonful, or another band who had more of a sense of fun.

“Out Of Time” is a return to form, but even there it’s not as good as the version Jagger produced as a single for Chris Farlowe, and it’s hard to listen to it without wishing one was listening to that track instead — and this version is far too long, coming in at five minutes nineteen (the Farlowe version is three minutes fourteen). At this point the Stones desperately, desperately needed a producer who would get them to tighten up their ideas and not just repeat the same things over and over.

And after that we have a bunch of genre exercises, none of them terrible but none particularly great either — “It’s Not Easy”, a sloppy chugging boogie that sounds only half-written, “I Am Waiting”, which sounds like a rewrite of the Kinks’ “See My Friends” (and which is actually very listenable indeed with an interesting sense of dynamics), “Take It Or Leave It”, which is a pleasant-enough pastiche of songs like “Save the Last Dance” and “Spanish Harlem”, “Think”, which is a straight Stax lift, and “What To Do”, which sounds like the Stones doing the Beach Boys doing Dion, right down to the “bow bow bows”.

The US version of Aftermath
is a slightly better listening experience, mostly because it cuts out several of the mediocre tracks (“Out of Time”, “Take It or Leave It”, “What to Do”), though unfortunately it also cuts “Mother’s Little Helper”, one of the better songs, and *doesn’t* cut “Going Home” — but at least it moves it to the end of the album. In place of the four tracks it cuts, it adds “Paint It, Black”, which is of course an absolutely magnificent single.

And then we have Between The Buttons (the UK version only). This is an actual interesting album! A second album, ten discs in, that I could see myself listening to all the way through in the future with some kind of pleasure. Surprisingly so, since on all the previous albums the songs I’ve most enjoyed have been those which were hit singles (the conclusion I’m coming to more and more is that the Stones in the sixties were a singles band more than anything else) and this has none of those on it. What it does have, finally, is an eclecticism to it. There’s a stylistic variation here that isn’t present on any of the earlier albums, except a little on the first few tracks on Aftermath before that album runs out of steam. There’s baroque pop here, and Dylan pastiche (“Who’s Been Sleeping Here?”) and vaudeville-throwback material that could almost be the Kinks or the Small Faces (“Something Happened to Me Yesterday”).

None of the songs make much of an impression on an initial listen, but that’s also to say that none of them make a *negative* impression. Nothing jumps out as being sloppy, lazy, or half-arsed — there’s a sense of basic craft here. And again there’s some instrumental variety courtesy Brian Jones, who here only plays guitar (his original principal instrument) on one track, but who plays organ, recorder, vibraphone, piano, banjo, kazoo, harmonica, trombone, saxophone and clarinet.

But that’s also a worrying sign for the future — Jones is the principal source of musical interest on the album, but he’s also missing altogether from three tracks, which have Richards playing all the guitar parts, where previously Jones would have played some. Indeed, on two of those tracks Richards also plays the bass, cutting out bass player Bill Wyman. The Rolling Stones were fast becoming the Mick & Keith show, with the others sidelined, even as Jones, the band’s original leader, was doing more than anyone else to make the records actually listenable.

Flowers, which follows, is a US-only odds-and-sods compilation including a few songs from Aftermath (including a cut-down version of “Out of Time” which is better than the original extended version), a couple of tracks from Between The Buttons, a cover of the Temptations song “My Girl”, a couple of previously-unreleased outtakes, and (as the first three songs) three massive hit singles — “Ruby Tuesday”, “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing In The Shadow” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together”.

Those three singles are, of course, well known, and I’d actually forgotten what an extraordinary record “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing In The Shadow” is — it’s a really fantastic little single. “Ruby Tuesday” is OK, but the chorus melody is clearly pinched from the Kinks’ “Ring the Bells” (a *lot* of these Stones “originals” have more than a little evidence of just being other people’s songs with the serial numbers filed off), while “Let’s Spend the Night Together” is a little dull. But Flowers is, I think, a better record than Aftermath — it has the better tracks from that album, minus the more obvious misogyny (though I don’t think it’s possible to have a Stones album without any misogyny at all, listening to these records) and with the aforementioned singles.

Their Satanic Majesties Request
is… interesting, but not good. Sonically, it’s my favourite of these albums by quite a long way — it’s full of mellotrons and tuned percussion and dulcimers and so on (again, almost all contributed by Jones). I have a *lot* of time for bandwagon-jumping attempts at psychedelia, and this is very much in the tradition of Jan and Dean’s Carnival of Sound or the Four Seasons’ Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, at least in terms of overall sound and arrangement. Unfortunately, where those albums used their sonic gimmickry over solid songwriting, here the Stones forgot to bring any actual songs with them — the album is all sitar and no steak. There’s been a lot of critical disagreement about this album over the years, with some people saying it’s a mess, others saying it’s an underrated masterpiece, and yet others saying it’s a satirical riposte to Sgt Pepper, sending up the whole idea of psychedelia. It’s none of those things — it’s a lazier, less-interesting version of Chad & Jeremy’s Of Cabbages and Kings. Pleasant sounding, so long as you don’t try to listen to it.

And then the last two albums, Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed, are very much of a piece of each other, and here, finally, as the sixties end and the band completely edge out their interesting member, we get the Stones actually becoming the Rolling Stones as they’ve spent the last fifty years being. These are the albums where they finally find their own voice — or at least, where they find Ry Cooder’s voice and decide to stick with it. Except where Cooder is possibly the least arch musician in the history of the world, the Rolling Stones are all archness.

And as their own style comes into view, I realise that that’s my fundamental problem with them. These records are mostly what is now called “Americana”, an attempt at merging country blues (rather than the Chicago electric blues they’d imitated early on), country music, and swamp rock into one riffy, slide-guitar-and-piano boogie whole. The problem is that those musical forms — all of which I love — rely for the most part on earnest, sincere, expression of intense emotions, and this is something the Stones never, ever, do. Everything with them is a pose, an attitude to put on, and at no point in the entire fifteen discs of this compilation (counting the bonus disc of non-album tracks) did I hear anything that wasn’t clearly knowing, winking at the audience, letting them in on the band’s own knowledge of their own preposterousness.

But the problem with that kind of knowing irony is that it doesn’t work well with simple, blues-based music, because that music is music of the heart and loins, not of the head. The only way you can square the circle is if, like Leiber and Stoller or Chuck Berry, you’re actually very, very funny, so you can apply a knowing wit to the lyrics. But Jagger’s lyrics are mostly rudimentary, going for sound rather than meaning. Where they’re not rudimentary, they’re often thuggishly misogynistic, and in the few cases (such as “Sympathy for the Devil”) where neither is true they’re still not actually witty.

So what we have with the Stones is a band who were, at least in the mid sixties, capable of pop singles at least as good as most of their peers, but who have no real depth of catalogue, at least in their sixties work — there was not one track on this entire fifteen-disc set which I didn’t know but which jumped out at me as an underappreciated hidden gem. There’s not the quality in depth here even of middle-ranking bands like the Turtles — over their sixties career there’s a handful of great singles (actually, to be fair, maybe as many as fifteen genuinely great tracks), a lot of pointless soundalike cover versions, and a hell of a lot of generic unmemorable pub-rock sludge. They fall between the stools of, on the one hand, earnest revivalists like Ry Cooder and, on the other, witty camp ironists like David Bowie or Ray Davies, and manage to embody the worst of both.

At least, that’s my opinion after listening to all this music, and it is, I think, a more nuanced one than my opinion going in (which was still that they had done a few great pop singles and a lot of dull pub-rockery, but without the understanding of where that contradiction comes from).

Yet this is, whether I like them or not, a band who are seriously considered one of the true greats of rock music history — a band who are genuinely adored by tens of millions. The fact that, on listening to these albums, I can’t hear anything which would put them above the Animals or Manfred Mann or the Searchers in my personal ratings must speak to some deficiency in me. I should, as someone who regularly writes about and analyses popular music, be able at least to see what it is that other people get out of this, but I just don’t. There are plenty of things which strike me as not to my taste but where I can see the appeal. But this… it’s not even as if it’s bad. For the most part this just strikes me as aggressively mediocre, and I simply can’t imagine what people are getting from this. It’s as if millions of people were asked what their favourite biscuit was and they all chose rich tea, if rich tea biscuits had “women are all stupid sluts” written on them.

Unless *all* their appeal is based on purely non-musical factors like Jagger’s stage persona or the band’s appearance, or on that handful of very good singles, I just don’t get it. So I’ll probably try this again at some point, just to see if something clicks. But as it is I’ve come to the very depressing conclusion that I understand people even less well than I thought.

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Hugo Blogging: Best Related Work

I’m trying desperately to get all my reviews posted before the deadline for voting on July 31. As always, I won’t manage this — if nothing else, the reading this year is somewhat unbalanced, as almost all the novellas are long enough that I would really consider them novels, while the novels themselves are mostly just provided as excerpts in the Hugo Packet. But I can, at least, post what I can.

To start with, here’s my ranking for Best Related Work. I’m judging these mostly by the excerpts in the Hugo Packet rather than the full works, as many of them are not on subjects which are particularly interesting to me (which is not the same as saying they’re not good books — and with nonfiction works like these it is, I think, far easier to judge objective quality than it is to do so with fiction, where a good story on a topic or in a genre that isn’t interesting is one that it’s almost impossible to appreciate, at least for me) and so I haven’t bought the full works.

Which is not to say that these books won’t appeal to their target audiences. I’m only ranking one of them below “no award”, and I still believe that the people who that book is aimed at will get a lot out of it. It’s just that these reflect the full diversity of the SF field, and most of us are only interested in what we’re interested in.

Ranking these from best to worst:

No Time To Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin is, sadly, accurately titled — the book was published last year, and Le Guin died in January of this year. On paper, this should be a trifle — it’s a collection of her intermittently-posted blog posts from the last decade or so of her life, and while some of them (such as her thoughts on storytelling and her comparison of The Help with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) are both substantial and thought-provoking, many more are, in content, the kind of thing that nowadays makes for social media posts — thoughts on aging, descriptions of the process of adopting a new cat, and other discussions of the quotidian experiences that make up the life of an elderly writer.

However, this is, as one might expect from Le Guin, *astonishingly* well written. I’m not actually a massive fan of Le Guin’s work — I’ve read some of it, of course, and found it very impressive, but with the exception of her marvellous Philip K Dick pastiche The Lathe of Heaven (which is, honestly, the book that Dick would have written if he was consistently as good a writer as he could be in flashes) the work of hers I’ve read has been slightly outside my own tastes (I have very narrow tastes, which masquerade as broad ones, because the things I look for cut across normal categorisations of style and genre).

But even though she’s not an author who meant as much to me as she did to most SFF fans (and, to be clear, the only authors who have anything like a claim to be her equal in importance to the field during her career are Octavia Butler and Samuel R Delany) it’s impossible to deny that she was a writer’s writer, and this shows in all these little fragments. This is, put simply, one of the most *readable* things I’ve ever read, and it’s all the more remarkable given that (one presumes) she didn’t put the same effort into crafting her blog posts as her fiction and poetry. It’s impossible to read these posts, whether they be her talking about her cat, Pard, or about the conflict between fundamentalism and fantasy, without just being drawn along from one sentence to the next. It’s not the kind of writing that looks impressive — there are no flashy turns of phrase here that I could isolate and say “see? Look at this!” — but it’s the kind of writing that *is* impressive, and that can only be done by someone who has been one of the best at her craft for fifty years.

There’s little here that rises to the level of “important statement”, but that doesn’t really matter. This is a demonstration by example of how to be a writer and is, to my mind, far and away the best thing here.

Zoë Quinn’s Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, And How We Can Win The Fight Against Online Hate is a book whose importance will be obvious to some of my readers and completely opaque to others. For those who don’t know, Gamergate is a fascist hate movement — one that particularly targets women and LGBT+ people, and which is one of the streams that feeds into the broader “alt right”. They are hateful misogynist harassers who deserve nothing but absolute contempt from anyone who has a shred of decency in them.

And the grit around which this pearl of shit formed was “the Zoe post”, a venomous blog post about previously-little-known game developer Zoë Quinn, written by her harassing, stalking, ex-boyfriend. As Quinn says in the introduction to this book “Most relationships end in a breakup. Sometimes that breakup is so crazy that it becomes a horror story you tell your friends, family, and therapist. For the past three years, I’ve watched my breakup story told and retold by everyone from the writers on Law and Order: SVU to President Trump’s chief strategist. It has a Wikipedia page. It spawned in-jokes and internet slang and has dedicated community hubs. It has a cartoon mascot. My breakup required the intervention of the United Nations.”

Quinn’s ex alleged, among many other vicious statements of the kind that abusive exes make after a breakup, that Quinn had had sex with a games reviewer in order to get a good review of one of her games (that reviewer had not, in fact, reviewed her game). This became the basis of a call for “ethics in games journalism” which, in reality, meant far-right harassers attacking women, especially trans women, women of colour, and anyone vaguely left-leaning or liberal, first within the videogame community but then anywhere else as well. The Gamergate mob made up much of the “Sad Puppies” who tried to pervert the Hugo Awards into an award for white supremacist hate-screeds, they are now the “comicsgate” people who are harassing comic creators of colour, and they also make up a big chunk of Donald Trump’s online supporter base. They’re not the most important part of Trump’s base of course, but they are quite possibly the main reason his “message” has been so successful on the Internet.

The 105 pages of Quinn’s book available in the Hugo Packet are a mixture of autobiography and a history of the way that the fascist harassers have weaponised the Internet. Quinn talks about the disgusting harassment to which she has been subjected, and also very strongly and repeatedly makes the point that while she was the most prominent victim of this particular hate campaign, trans women of colour got the worst of it, as they do in all these situations, and she gives space in the book to some of the more marginalised victims.

Much of what Quinn has to say will be obvious to those of us who have spent a lot of the last few years seeing exactly how the white cis het male part of the geek subculture has been radicalised by Nazis, and will be utterly shocking and horrific to those who don’t know about this subculture. The book (at least in this section) doesn’t have any direct relevance to SFF, but it *does* have relevance to the Hugos themselves, as precisely the same currents that Quinn identifies were major factors in the Hugo awards in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

It’s hard to judge Quinn’s book, because a lot of this is telling me stuff I already know, but she writes engagingly enough. I suspect this would be a very important book for anyone who hadn’t already spent too much time thinking about these things, but it’s hard to tell for me.

Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E Butler is not the kind of thing I find particularly interesting or edifying, but it’s a very good example of its type. It’s a collection of *a lot* of personal essays by different people, each talking about what Butler’s work meant to them. The collection contains work by many of the most important names in SF writing and scholarship right now — Nisi Shawl, Gerry Canavan, Rachel Swirsky, Bogi Takács, Nnedi Okorafor, K. Tempest Bradford, and dozens more. Many of these describe their personal interactions with Butler, while others talk about what she meant to them as a writer — and in particular as the first black woman to make a living out of SF writing (and many of the writers in this book are black female SF writers). I don’t have the same depth of feeling for Butler as many of the people here (I couldn’t — one thing that keeps coming up is the way black women have felt reading a book by and about people like them, a feeling I’ve obviously never had when reading Butler’s work), but she was absolutely one of the most important writers in the genre of the last half century, and this book is an honest, and often very well-written, expression of that. That I’m personally no fan of the “dozens of short personal essays” format should not count against it.

Sleeping With Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy by Liz Bourke is a collection of Bourke’s columns, which have previously appeared on various sites, mostly Strange Horizons and tor.com. The Hugo Packet contains the first two parts of what appears to be a much longer work, but of course with this writing having previously appeared online it’s easy to find the rest of it. Each of the pieces included in the book is a short essay looking at a single work of science fiction or fantasy, often an unjustly-obscure work which Bourke wants to bring to the reader’s attention. In many ways it’s similar to Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, which is a similar collection of previously-published essays, but Walton had a somewhat narrower focus than Bourke, as she was examining only what she likes about books while Bourke is very willing to talk about works she finds distasteful if there is something interesting to say about them.

(In another way, Bourke might be considered to have a narrower focus than Walton, in that she is only dealing with books written by women here, but that’s only a fair criticism if you consider fifty percent of the Earth’s population to be an insufficiently diverse group. Also, it’s painful to have to say this but given the current climate I must specify that Bourke is the kind of feminist who actually supports women’s rights, rather than the kind of self-described feminist whose principal hobby is hating trans women).

Bourke is a perceptive critic, but rather limited by the form — these pieces are far too short to go in depth into any of these books, and she’s clearly straining at the arbitrary word count boundaries. At times the essays feel like they desperately need just an extra few sentences to sum up their thesis, and just end rather than come to a conclusion, but this is the fault of the form rather than of Bourke.

I can’t rank this higher given the problems with the form, but I’d still definitely recommend anyone interested in SFF read Bourke’s criticism, because unless you have an absolutely encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre you will become aware of books that had never come to your attention, and Bourke does a great job of explaining exactly why they’re important and what it is that she finds interesting about them, as well as pinpointing any major flaws in them.

Iain M Banks by Paul Kincaid is represented in the packet by chapter two, a relatively short excerpt. However, the excerpt didn’t really make me want to read more — it was written in a dry style, with comparatively little insight or humour. Maybe the rest of the book is better. It did contain one piece of information which I hadn’t known and which tickled me — apparently Banks originally wanted his *non*-genre work to be put out as Iain M. Banks, but the M. was dropped in fear that it would make people think of Rosie M. Banks from the Jeeves stories.

There’s nothing wrong with this, I hasten to add. It’s just… dry. Like trying to eat four or five dry cream crackers in a row.

No Award

A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff may well win. The reason it may well win is that Ellison died late last month, and was a much-loved figure in the SF community. He was a truly great writer and editor who did a great deal to advance the genre.

He was also, though, a miserable excuse for a human being, and this book is more interested in encouraging his self-mythologising than critiquing that. To take an example, from the foreword by David Gerrold (someone for whom I had more respect before reading this sentence) “And yes, Harlan has occasionally stumbled over other people’s boundaries — that’s part of his charm. (Or whatever you want to call it.) It’s usually an expression of Performance Harlan, not Authentic Harlan — but again, you’d have to know the man as a person to know the difference.”

To be clear, for those who don’t know what Gerrold is referring to there, Ellison’s “charming” “stumbling over boundaries” includes things like sexually assaulting Connie Willis in public, at an awards ceremony. It includes repeated occasions on which he started very Gamergate-like harassment campaigns against other people, over tiny or imagined slights. According to one story Ellison told of himself, which may or may not be true (he was a near-pathological liar even though he also fiercely defended his own integrity) but which is repeated as fact in this book (according to reviews I’ve read of the full book — this part was not included in the preview), he once attacked Adrian Samish, a TV producer, for changing a script he’d written without Ellison’s permission, and broke Samish’s pelvis. Whether that’s true or not, it’s the image Ellison wanted people to have of him, and it’s in character with many of the stories about him which have more evidence behind them.

Ellison wanted us to think he was the kind of person who would break someone’s pelvis over a creative disagreement, and wanted to be judged on that basis. He *was* the kind of person who would grope a colleague’s breast when supposedly presenting her with an award, in full view of an audience and on video, in the knowledge that he had too much power to suffer any consequences from it, and he should be judged on that basis.

These things are not charming. These things are not excusable. And to the extent that this book finds them charming or excusable (which is far too great an extent) the book does not deserve an award.

Much of the book is Ellison’s own words, talking about himself, and to that extent it’s almost an autohagiography. And while Ellison the writer is worth discussing, Ellison the man very much isn’t. On top of that, I have a general rule with non-fiction that if I spot an error that is obvious to me and which could be corrected with three seconds’ googling, then there will be at least a dozen more that I didn’t spot. In this case, in the excerpt provided there’s a mention of “writers Gene Wolfe, Peter David, Patrick Rothfuss, and Sophie Aldred” attending a science fiction convention. Aldred is, of course, an actor.

So, this comes under No Award. It’s a well enough written book, but it’s a well-written book that (at best) glosses over and (at worst) glorifies the worst kind of toxic masculinity. The SF field, more than most, is one that will excuse a particular kind of aggressive, toxic, behaviour as the price that must be paid for genius. This excuse is, however, horseshit. To take two examples from further up this post, there are no stories of Ursula Le Guin breaking someone’s pelvis, and Octavia Butler never sexually assaulted someone in public and had it laughed off as “just Octavia being Octavia”. I’m happy to call Ellison a truly great writer and editor, and to say that despite his personal behaviour I’m still glad we have his work (though I wonder who else we’d have work equally as good from, if we weren’t living in a society that prized people like Ellison over other, less white, less male voices — although one of Ellison’s undoubted good points was that he did act as a mentor for several people like that, including Butler from what I’ve read. No-one is all good or all bad).

But to the extent it’s impossible to separate the man from the work, the man’s behaviour is a reason to have less respect for the work rather than the work’s existence being a reason to approve of the man’s behaviour. And if Ellison was as honest and principled as he so often liked to claim, he would have admitted as much himself.

Right now, in 2018, the very last thing the world needs is any more glorification of entitled white men who “stumble over people’s boundaries”. And so I can’t in all conscience vote a book that does that over No Award.

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Son of Schmilsson

Son of Schmilsson is the first Nilsson album which everyone, almost without exception, agrees is a step down from the album before. It is, in fact, generally considered to be the album that killed Nilsson’s career.

Partly that reputation comes from Rick Perry, the album’s producer. While Perry had essentially been given carte blanche over Nilsson Schmilsson, getting the final say over the production and song choices, here Nilsson starts to reassert control. The songs here still have the simplistic rock sound of the material on Nilsson Schmilsson, but here there’s an almost punklike aggression to some of the lyrics, and where the lyrics aren’t full of anger they’re rather juvenile jokes.

On top of this, the sessions for the album were chaotic, with Nilsson hugely upping his intake of alcohol and cocaine, and encouraging the other musicians to do the same. Perry was left trying desperately to bring some kind of order to the proceedings, and to try to make something semi-commercial out of what he considered a mess. He thought of the album as a throwaway, something that Nilsson had to get off his chest before making the next *real* album. And as a result, Perry has never spoken very highly of the album.

And it’s easy to see why. If Nilsson Schmilsson was Rick Perry sanding slightly too many of the edges off Nilsson, Son of Schmilsson is basically nothing but edges — it’s a deeply strange record, one which seems to be almost wilful self-sabotage in places, as Nilsson gives up on ideas of commercialism altogether, and sings songs with choruses like “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed” and “you’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you”. Nilsson was having a bad time in his personal life at the time, going through a particularly painful divorce and drinking very heavily, and this shows in the music — Nilsson’s life was starting to fall apart at the seams, and this is a record that seems like it’s not even trying to keep it together.

The fact that the same sort of high-profile, slick, session players were working on this material, and that it’s arranged in the same manner, just adds to the record’s strangeness. We have backing tracks that sound like everything else on the radio in the early 1970s, the kind of sound that dominated Nilsson Schmilsson — it even features two Beatles making appearances on guitar and drums (in fact “Ritchie Snare” provided nearly all the drums on the album) . Sonically, it’s entirely mainstream — it’s harder to find a better example of the early 70s mainstream rock sound than this, with George & Ringo, Peter Frampton, Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voorman, and Lowell George all active participants.

But then over that, there’s the chaos of Nilsson’s writing at the time — material that almost sounds like outsider art — except that again it’s being sung in that beautiful voice — although the voice was starting to show some slight signs of deterioration here. It’s only noticeable in retrospect, after hearing the albums after Pussy Cats, but this is the first album on which any imperfections are audible at all.

The juxtaposition of material, production, and performance, makes for a record that is much more idiosyncratic than most give it credit for. It seems a piece of wilful self-sabotage, but one into which an immense amount of effort has been poured. It’s quite unlike anything else that anyone has ever released. Depending on one’s view of the material, it’s either the greatest piece of turd-polishing ever achieved, making a sloppy drunken mess sound almost exactly like proper commercial pop music, or it’s a wonderful record of an artist reacting against the constraints of commercial success while also documenting the ongoing breakdown of his personal life.

I tend towards the latter view, and I tend to prefer this album to its predecessor as a result, but there are probably very few listeners who would deny that there’s an element of both in here.

Unsurprisingly, the album failed to repeat its predecessor’s success. It did reach number twelve on the US album charts and get certified gold, largely on the back of the momentum from the earlier album, but sales never matched expectations, and the album became a perennial of the second-hand racks, with many getting rid of their copies in confusion.

Perry continued to hope that he and Nilsson could work together again, and make the album he wanted to make, but Nilsson moved on to other ideas, and the two never worked together again — and Nilsson never had another hit again.

Take 54
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

The album opens with this, which is very much a statement of intent for the album — a heavy, horn-driven riffer which is very different in feel from anything Nilsson did prior to Nilsson Schmilsson, and not all that similar even to much of that. By this point Nilsson has completely embraced his identity as a rock performer rather than as a musician in the same style as Van Dyke Parks or Randy Newman, both of whom were contemporaries, friends, and colleagues of his who were working in a parallel musical world, separate from the one being embraced in the charts at the time.

Where the advertising for Nilsson Schmilsson had emphasised that “Nilsson’s done a rock album!” as a major, new, thing for him, in truth it hadn’t been that rocky, as opposed to simply fitting into the genre. This is — it starts with a screaming horn riff, and has squealing electric guitars — and, just as important, no non-rock instrumentation. And with lyrics like “I sang my balls off for you baby”, the song shows, early on, that the album is not just going to be a collection of gentle “Without You” style ballads.

Sonically, this is close to Lennon’s Rock and Roll album and similar 70s attempts at recreating the 50s — this is music that is clearly inspired by New Orleans R&B music like that of Fats Domino or Little Richard, but equally it’s music that could only have been made in the early 1970s.

Lyrically, the song (about a woman who walks out after the singer spends too much time in the studio) takes a slight shot at Richard Perry, who was known for wanting many, many, takes of everything (there’s video footage of him in the studio at a Nilsson session asking to use take forty-nine, so “take fifty-four” is far from an exaggeration). It’s also, sadly, sexist in the way that early-70s rock could so often be.

There’s also one worrying fact here — Nilsson’s voice sounds hoarser than it ever had before. That’s the kind of thing that could easily be dismissed as a stylistic choice, if we didn’t have the evidence of Nilsson’s later albums to tell us what was going on here. Nilsson was, at this point, using heroin and cocaine and drinking massive amounts, and the damage to his voice was starting to have an effect. The husky vocals are not bad at all, but it’s already hard to believe this is the same person who had made those earlier albums.

All that said, this is not quite as raucous as this description might make it sound — the playing is tight, and this would have fit perfectly on the charts at the time with bands like Wizzard who were doing similar 70s updates of 50s rock.

And the track ends on a joke — a spooky dialogue with a sepulchral voice announcing the album’s title, being asked “where did you get all those sound effects?” and answering “RCA Records and Tapes”

Remember (Christmas)
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

This is just about the only song on the album that was likely to appeal to Nilsson’s new audience of people who’d bought Nilsson Schmilsson on the strength of “Without You” — and indeed, it sounds at first like an attempt to copy the earlier track, although that’s because both songs were based around Nilsson’s piano demos, and Nilsson had a very limited piano style. (In the radio commercials for Nilsson Schmilsson, Perry points out that Nilsson was not a very good player, although he claims that Nilsson was still a “funky” player).

One of Nilsson’s best ballads, this is very much in the same vein as late-Beatles McCartney material like “Let It Be” or “The Long And Winding Road”, but much better than those tracks in that it isn’t quite as emotionally manipulative in its chord changes. It also has one of the best arrangements on the album, with a string part that includes some nice countermelodies and has a sparseness and austerity to it that suits the song much better than the syruppy overorchestrated mush one normally gets with tracks of this nature.

Nilsson also sings this very, very well. I’ve noted in some of this essay the way that Nilsson’s voice was starting to show signs of the strain that would eventually destroy his voice, but here he sounds absolutely gorgeous, with no noticeable degradation from his earlier voice, except that this is sung in a lower register than one would have expected from Nilsson earlier.

The song itself is a fairly sentimental one, and while the “Christmas” in the title is unexplained, it somehow fits anyway. The harmonic material is very simple — for most of the song it just alternates between I-Imaj7-I6 and V-Vmaj7-V6, with only the intro and outro really departing from those chords. The outro, indeed, is probably where the “Christmas” comes from, as the long piano outro section, with its fragmented melody, at times seems almost to be quoting “Carol of the Bells” for a phrase or two. (Though it should be noted that the outro was largely improvised by pianist Nicky Hopkins, who played several different versions of this — in the documentary film about the making of this album, you can see Hopkins try different ideas out for the ending).

But this is the last example on record of Nilsson, in perfect voice, singing a ballad he wrote himself with no irony or joke element to it, just a straight, beautiful, song, and it’s very hard to imagine anyone who likes Nilsson’s work at all not enjoying this one, whatever they think of the rest of the album.

Joy
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

And here we get back to the material that would make the newer fans despair. Not only is this a country song, it’s a comedy country song, most of which is spoken by Nilsson in an attempt at a southern US accent.

In the alternate versions of this song, Nilsson sings the whole song, and it’s an actual song, but this is something like a parody of “Wanderin’ Star”, but one which doesn’t actually have any humour — the jokes of the song are mostly around puns on the name “Joy” being the same as the word “Joy”.

What is interesting is that both the spoken and sung voices bear more than a slight resemblance to Nilsson’s friend Michael Nesmith, and it almost sounds like this track is taking a specific dig at him, and his then-recent albums of country-rock music (a feeling that is given additional credence by the fact that it features Red Rhodes, the pedal steel player who played on all Nesmith’s solo work until Rhodes’ death). However, if that’s the case, the parody being so much worse than the music it’s parodying doesn’t make the criticism seem particularly stinging.

Assuming for the moment though that there is no intentional ex-Monkee baiting going on here, what we have here instead is a mildly funny pastiche of country music, and not much else.

Turn on Your Radio
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

This is almost a return to the style of Harry, in songwriting and performance if not in arrangement (though even there, there’s a welcome return of the brass countermelodies that were a regular feature of the Tipton years), and the contrast with much of the rest of the album is just astounding. This is a really quite, quite, lovely little song.

This is one of the shortest songs on the album, but it manages to pack a lot more than one would expect into its short length. Alternating between a brief instrumental section and a vocal verse based on simple triads over a descending bass, it manages to have two very stylistically different feels within a unified whole. The instrumental section, on guitar and piano, shows some more of the blues/jazz influence that had been slowly seeping into Nilsson’s work over the last few albums, while the vocal verses have something of the meditative feel of “Think About Your Troubles” or “The Moonbeam Song”, yet they fit perfectly together.

Nilsson’s vocal here is once again splendid. For whatever reason, his voice sounds much stronger and more impressive on the ballads here, while the uptempo material tends to cause more strain and leave him sounding thinner. Again, this is in a notably lower register than similar songs had been in the past, but this is Nilsson at his most McCartneyesque and his sweetest.

You’re Breakin’ My Heart
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

According to Marc Hudson (in the documentary Who is Harry Nilsson and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), at Nilsson’s funeral, George Harrison asked other mourners what their favourite Nilsson song was, and then responded to them, “fuck you”.
He wasn’t telling the mourners to fuck themselves, but was rather talking about his own favourite song, which they then sang around the grave, because the chorus to this song is brutally honest — “you’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you”.

This is a sentiment with which many will be able to empathise, though it may be that it wasn’t the best idea to put it out on a single, even as a B-side (to “Spaceman”).

Interestingly, Alyn Shipton seems to think that the song might be about Ringo Starr, and that the two men (who were to remain the best of friends for the rest of Nilsson’s life) might have had a brief falling-out. There are a couple of lines of lyric which might suggest this reading (notably the reference to “boogaloo”ing, a word which was a favourite term of Starr’s), but on the whole I think that’s a little bit of a stretch, especially since Nilsson and Starr had a famously close relationship. Given that Nilsson was going through a particularly messy divorce from his second wife at the time, it seems far more likely that the song is about what it seems to be about.

(It might, however, be worth noting that while this is the song on which George Harrison appears, it’s also the only track on the album to feature drums not by Starr. Everything else either features no drum kit at all, with its place being taken by various percussion instruments, or has Starr, but here the kit is played by session player Barry Morgan (Although I have seen some sources saying that Morgan played on “Joy”). This might lend some slight credence to Shipton’s claims.)

Musically, this is another song in the style of “Take 54”, the sort of shiny, slick, retro-50s sound that a lot of musicians, especially Lennon, were going for at the time. Again, it’s driven by horns and riffy guitars, with some great honking baritone sax, and Nilsson’s vocals are superb. There’s little of the sophistication of the earlier albums here, but then, “fuck you” is not exactly the most sophisticated of sentiments, and the track certainly communicates that particular emotion more than adequately.

Nilsson later complained that people had been offended by the lyrics, but that he thought they were necessary to get across the feeling he wanted to describe. And the song certainly makes that feeling abundantly clear.

Spaceman
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

Space was a much more current topic in the early 1970s than it is today, with the Apollo project still ongoing at the time Nilsson made this record and with records like Elton John’s “Rocket Man” or David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” having chart success. Nilsson’s record is very much in the vein of those songs, which like this deal with a certain feeling of hopelessness and disillusionment experienced by people in space. In Nilsson’s case, being a spaceman seems like it might be a metaphor for his own wish for stardom — “I wanted to be a spaceman, that’s what I wanted to be/But now that I am a spaceman, nobody cares about me” — although the lyrics for the song are rudimentary enough that it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try to read much of anything into them.

This is one of the times where the CD (and download and streaming) era has caused a track to seem less impressive than it did originally. In its original context, this was the opening of side two, and opening a side with a bombastic track like this made sense, as did closing the other side with a similarly bombastic track. However, when heard back to back with “You’re Breaking My Heart”, with no pause between them to turn the record over, it sounds like more of the same. The combination of the two, heard right after each other, causes the album to sag a little under its own weight here.

And “Spaceman” is a much less impressive song than “You’re Breaking My Heart”. It’s not bad as such — there’s very little actually bad material on this album — but it just sits there. The most interesting thing about the track is actually the intro — the “bang bang shoot ’em up destiny” section — which shows signs of having been separately conceived (although it’s fairly similar to the rest of the song). A lot of the songs on this album seem to show the joins a little more than Nilsson’s other material — as if they had been conceived in the way that Perry described for Nilsson Schmilsson, with the different sections being conceived separately and only later joined together — but on most of the album that works rather better than it does here, with the “bang bang shoot em up” being relegated to a very short section, rather than alternating with the less interesting, more overpowering, main section of the track.

The Lottery Song
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

This is another of the songs on the album that hark back to the style of Nilsson Schmilsson — a genial, pleasant, ballad about taking chances — “loo loo loo loo loo loo/Life is just a gamble/gamble if you want to win”. If the entire album had been like this song or “Remember (Christmas)” it would undoubtedly have been much more commercially successful, and would have given the millions who bought Nilsson Schmilsson the followup they wanted. But it would also have been a much less interesting, much less honest record.

This one is all acoustic guitars and McCartneyesque pleasantness, and it’s clearly from the same musical mind that brought us Harry. This, along with “Turn on the Radio” and “Remember (Christmas)”, shows that even when he was deliberately making a confrontational, aggressive, album, he was capable of writing absolutely gentle, pleasant, music And this is very, very lovely, even if there’s a certain amount of joking here that isn’t in those other songs — the singer has very low ambitions, most of which seem to revolve around visiting Las Vegas rather than anything more impressive (although the Vegas obsession also works well with the “life is just a gamble” theme of the chorus).

Of the ballads on the album, this is the one that most shows the hoarseness of Nilsson’s voice — here he has a scary resemblance to Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys’ later vocals, not only in the huskiness and thinness of the multi-tracked vocals, but also in the relative sloppiness of the enunciation and tracking. But again, this is only really noticeable when you see this album as part of a continuum with the sound of Pussy Cats coming up in a couple of albums’ time — Nilsson is still using his voice beautifully here.


At My Front Door
Songwriters:
Ewart B. Abner and John C. Moore
And this is another example of Nilsson’s thinner vocals, this time on an uptempo cover version.

The song itself is an example of the 1950s R&B that was so strongly influencing the rest of the album. Originally a 1957 hit for the doo-wop group the El Doradoes, it’s a fairly straightforward twelve-bar blues, influenced by people like Louis Jordan, but with extremely rudimentary lyrics. Nilsson’s version picks up on this, and makes the whole track be about the energy, rather than anything more sophisticated.

It starts with the intro to “Remember (Christmas)”, which gets as far as “long ago, far away”, before Nilsson burps and stops that song, replacing it with this one, immediately going from the gentle piano ballad into uptempo fuzz rock guitar and boogie piano.

To start with, Nilsson’s vocal is fairly unemotional (and also curiously back in the mix, which is unusually poor, with everything seeming quieter than everything else, which doesn’t really work for riffy rock music like this), and he doesn’t really start emoting until the middle of the song, with the “you got a little mama” line. The track is dominated by the saxophone and guitar solos, but passes quickly enough that nothing has a chance to make the song seem overlong.

This whole track, with its sloppy arrangement and hoarse vocals, would fit perfectly on Pussy Cats, where again a number of the tracks were covers of this kind of 50s material (although by that time Nilsson would not have been able to do the Frankie Valli style falsetto parts that he does on this track).

Ambush
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

Easily the least interesting song on the album, this is one of those tracks that leaves almost no impression. I’ve listened to this album dozens upon dozens of times, and from the titles alone I can hear every other song in my head. But when I came to write this I couldn’t remember the song at all. And when listening to it, it became apparent why. This is an overlong, plodding, song which once again features Nilsson in less than perfect voice. It starts off something like a rewrite of “City Life” from the Harry album, but it doesn’t have the musical interest of that song, having almost no chord changes and relying mostly on simple dynamics, with instruments slowly being added and then dropping down (so half way through the song, when Nilsson shouts “now this time through we want everyone to listen to the punchline”, the instruments are down to just the drums).

An anti-war song, the lyrics describe a platoon singing to themselves as they travel, before the enemy opens fire on all of them and kills them. The main point of the lyrics seems to have been a pun on the word bridge (“we sang until we reached the bridge” coming just before the bridge of the song, but also describing them crossing a bridge in the physical world).

Much of the musical interest here comes from the horn section, with Jim Price playing and arranging all the horns. There are some very clever moments — for example a flurry of notes on the line “the enemy opened fire”, evoking machine gun fire (and also sounding more than a little like the incidental music to the 1966 Batman TV series). But the whole thing, as a complete piece, doesn’t really register very strongly at all.

I’d Rather Be Dead
Songwriters:
Harry Nilsson and Richard Perry

Another song that seems to be something of a sick joke, the chorus here (“I’d rather be dead than wet my bed”) would be in bad enough taste, but getting a chorus of extremely elderly people to sing along with it, as Nilsson does, takes it into another level which might as well be considered genius as sick.

The elderly people involved clearly loved singing lines like “I’d rather keep my health and dress myself, but you’re better off dead than sitting on a shelf” (although apparently one of them had a wooden leg which caused problems for the engineers, as its squeaking kept getting picked up by the microphones), and the exuberance of the performers absolutely shines through, as they sing over the accordion-led polka-band backing.

The song is not particularly worthy of analysis (although, like the next song, it does point forward somewhat to A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night and that way that Nilsson was increasingly enamoured of the pre-rock styles he had temporarily discarded), but this is a wonderfully enjoyable, poignant, hilarious track, and one which perfectly sums up the sound of Son of Schmilsson.

As a bonus track on the CD reissue, there’s a piano run through of this which also features Nilsson singing the alternate lyrics to “It Had To Be You” which would feature on the next album.

The Most Beautiful World in the World
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

And the album finishes with another song which seems to be two very different pieces of music shoved together — there’s the comedy-latin music of the first two minutes, which transitions rather abruptly into the orchestral section (“I love you for your snow, your deserts down below/I love the way you wear your trees”). While these two sections have a clear melodic connection, they don’t sound anything alike — but whether they were conceived separately or together, they do work well together. Here the Schmilsson technique of shaping fragments into songs really comes into its own.

The Latin part of the song is one of the less effective things on the album, especially with Nilsson’s “comedy” foreign accent (which doesn’t seem to be an attempt at any particular accent, just a generic foreign which floats between Mexican and Italian, sometimes mid-vowel) and “ay-yi-yi”s. On the other hand, the orchestral section (which is deliberately overorchestrated in much the same manner as the Beatles’ “Goodnight”) works really well musically, even though the lyrics, which sexualise the Earth in weird ways, are not among Nilsson’s best.

And the album ends with “Goodbye Harry” “See you next album, Richard” — but of course Perry would not be involved in the next album…

Bonus tracks

Campo de Encino
Songwriter:
Jimmy Webb

This song was written by Nilsson’s friend Webb, apparently in response to Nilsson asking him why he never wrote any funny songs (Nilsson was known to claim that there were only four songwriters whose songs could regularly make him laugh — himself, Randy Newman, John Lennon, and Frank Zappa). And it is, indeed, a much funnier song than Webb’s material usually is, mocking a particular kind of super-rich hippie (and indeed mocking Webb himself) with the kind of idealism that includes both wanting to be vegetarian and learn primal scream therapy, but also wanting a sports car and “a waterfall bar that revolves around my swimming pool” and “where your nose always glows”.

That said, the line “I’ll make love to you if your mom and dad will let you stay”… yeah, that seems a lot less funny than it may have done to 1970s male rock stars like Nilsson and Webb.

This track was apparently recorded with far more instruments than make the final mix, all of them played by Nilsson himself, and most of them played badly. When the tape was auditioned in 2002 for the early-2000s CD reissue programme, it was dismissed by everyone except archivist and musician Alan Boyd, who stripped away all the instrumentation except Nilsson’s piano (played in the very distinctive , and revealed that while the finished track had been too sloppy to release, the core piano-and-vocal performance at the centre of it was remarkably solid.

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