Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Some thoughts on the amazing music of Brian Wilson
There are three types of person that misunderstand the Beach Boys. The first are latter day employees of their record label and management, who purposefully market their career as one long four-decade celebration of surfing, summer, and the fun to be had on hot days (especially where girls and various makes of car are concerned).
This in turn gives rise to the other two categories of Beach Boys misunderstand-er. The first are those who fall for the “summer fun” image and myth. They can be found buying the latest repackaging of the obvious hit singles as "Endless Summer Dreams III" whenever they are told to by television adverts, sing along to “Be True To Your School” as if its sentiments ever held any kind of weight among the cool cats, and regard “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes And Villains” as "the bit when they went all flower power." In their universe there is nothing beyond the well known hit singles, but that isn't necessarily any reason to hold them in snobbish contempt, as musical elitists also tend to be guilty of the exact same blindered misunderstandings for the exact same reasons.
Cooler-than-thou types will yak for ages and ages about how they hate The Beach Boys, their folkie harmonies and their clean cut “All American Boy” image (which in itself is a misconception, as proved when you look at any early photos of them — how could any of the band that started out as the “Pendeltones” and wore the signature Oregon wool shirts possibly have been considered to fit into that category?), and regard their music as an irritating triviality that gets in their way in a world where people could be spending more productive use of their time listening to Led Zeppelin and Nirvana. Needless to say, all of these people are wrong.
For starters, there's nothing about their early material that warrants such gratuitous trivialization. Maybe some of it does fall perilously close to the wrong side of bubble gum and unlistenable, but for every “I Get Around” there's a “Warmth of the Sun”, an “In My Room” and a “California Girls.” More to the point, the concentration on this aspect of their career deliberately masks — very conveniently for all parties — some other aspects that are decidedly at odds with the manner in which they would seem to prefer us to regard The Beach Boys.
For example, there's the incident from the late 1960s when Carl Wilson was drafted to fight in Vietnam and refused to go. He was then ordered to do community service, which he also refused to do. Eventually a compromise was reached, but by then the band had so upset polite society in America that for a couple of years, their popularity went into a decline that saw them return from filling stadiums in the UK to playing small concert halls in their homeland. Talk about The Doors and John Lennon until you're blue in the face if you like, but you won't find a more startling example of an artist taking on the establishment for the sake of staying true to his principles in the entire history of 1960s pop music. Then there's the band's very successful flirtation with the progressive rock movement in the early 1970s — of which more later — and a surprisingly far from embarrassing attempt to go disco in the latter part of the decade. And then there's the mid-1960s.
As mentioned earlier, the compilations love to paint a picture of the early Beach Boys as clean-cut, flag-saluting, fun-loving All American boys with a tried and tested formula of dated hip jargon, “Four Freshmen” folkie harmonies (an actual early influence!) and rudimentary musical backings. You'll find nothing difficult or complicated here, the subtext appears to be. Come on in — surf's up, and the water's fine. Yet even among all of that nonsense about being bugged with driving down the same old strip, there was something remarkable going on. Brian Wilson had started his musical career as a bass player, occasional vocalist and unstoppable songwriting machine who could turn out dozens of cookie cutter compositions each month.
Since being let loose among the developing technologies and possibilities of the recording studio, however, he had started to develop pretentions towards something more elaborate and artsy. Increasingly responsible for the band's arrangements and production, he had started to craft symphonic backings for songs like “In The Back Of My Mind,” and his songwriting was also beginning to display more innovative touches with the atypical and unexpected chord changes in “The Warmth Of The Sun” and the famously inventive intro to “California Girls.” Surprisingly, given the phenomenal output of the band in the first half of the 1960s, most of the songs were written and recorded in brief bursts between near non-stop rounds of touring, and then as the early albums progress chronologically there is a definite sense that Brian Wilson would have created something far more substantial if he had the time and in late 1965, he finally did get the time.
Hardly the least sensitive or most stable of souls, Brian Wilson had been badly affected by the band's relentless work-rate, and the incessant touring had such a detrimental effect on him, both mentally and physically, that he was advised to sit out the next couple of tours on medical grounds. The others recruited Bruce Johnston to fill his position in the live line-up, and Brian was left with plenty of free time in which to perfect his songwriting. With the aid of The Wrecking Crew, an elite team of session musicians (including Hal Blaine and Glen Campbell) who played on most of the biggest American pop hits of the decade and whose versatility and dexterity allowed Brian to overcome the limitations of using his band mates to supply the instrumental parts, he was encouraged to work away at backing tracks in the studio while The Beach Boys were “officially” out on the road. While enjoying his extended break of rest and relaxation, Brian was introduced to two influences that would chance his approach to music forever. The first was of an “herbal” nature and came wrapped inside a suspiciously thick cigarette.
The second was The Beatles' pivotal album "Rubber Soul," which saw them break from the constraints of their established “Mersey Sound” to experiment with dense musical textures and atypical, downbeat lyrics. Brian was so taken with both of these new experiences, possibly both encountered at the same time, that he made it his stated intention to produce something where "a whole album becomes a gas." Prior to this time, most albums were made up of a hit single or two bundled with a bunch of 3rd or 4th rate "filler" songs. Certainly previous Beatles albums were filled with good music, but that was more an indication of the high quality of ALL Beatles songs. He meant a “gas” in the sense that those who were given to supporting “flower power” understood it, and set about writing and recording something that represented, to all intents and purposes, his personal equivalent to "Rubber Soul." The album in question, which could indeed be rightfully described as a “gas” if you are given to using such beatnik slang, arrived in 1966 and was named "Pet Sounds." (Ironically, the Beatles cite "Pet Sounds" as an inspiration to their following "Sgt. Peppers" album!) ((Funny how talent can inspire talent and music matures and prospers due to these kinds of cross pollinations.))
Although Brian's reminiscences about this period of intense creativity have tended to revolve around an interminable and confused anecdote about watching a tapestry bird fly around the room for hours on end, the truth of the matter is that he spent hundreds of hours in the studio working on adventurous new compositions, and the tapes still exist to prove this (and have in fact seen release as the box set "The Pet Sounds Sessions," which contains some interesting pieces although it would be a brave listener who could actually claim to listen to the whole set in its entirety). Armed with only a skillful team of musicians and his own seemingly limitless imagination, he painstakingly rehearsed and perfected musical ideas until they coalesced into dense sonic tapestries, augmenting “traditional” Beach Boys arrangement and instrumentation with layer upon layer of banjos, sleigh bells, delicate keyboard sounds and lush orchestration. The resultant backing tracks were far in advance of anything that the Beach Boys had produced previously, and while they were still identifiable as being broadly characteristic of their established sound, they were far removed from the glory days of “Surfin' USA” and “Help Me Rhonda” in terms of structure and melody as well as instrumentation.
Not surprisingly, Brian decided that these sophisticated new compositions would require lyrics to match. Previously, Brian had furnished his compositions with lyrics written by his cousin and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love, who was adept at conjuring up the sort of catchy alliterative phrases heard on their most famous early hits. For this new project, he wanted to say something deeper, and so brought in advertising man Tony Asher to translate the emotions he intended each backing track to convey into words. At a time when the popular music industry was geared almost exclusively towards churning out radio-friendly hit singles at as frantic a pace as was physically possible, and before the majority of people had started to regard pop as anything more than lightweight and ephemeral, this method of working was radical and experimental, and with the obvious exception of "Rubber Soul" was totally without precedent, and the results were little short of breathtaking.
At the time, though, not everyone agreed with that sentiment. The other Beach Boys had been on tour for virtually the entirety of the sessions, and were understandably somewhat startled by the sudden change of direction. When recording session began for the vocal tracks, several members of the band voiced concerns about how such a move into uncharted musical waters could have a detrimental — and possibly irreversible — effect on their sales figures, and even the normally placid Al Jardine was heard to remark with some unease that this was "a whole new thing." Before long, there were serious disagreements about the nature of some of the material, and Mike Love succeeded in forcing a rewrite of the overtly drug-influenced “Hang On To Your Ego,” which became “I Know There's An Answer.”
In the end, all that was changed were a few scattered words and the two-line chorus, and the released version had the exact same vocal arrangement and backing track as “Hang On To Your Ego” had done — so next time you hear some clever individual opining how they don't like “I Know There's An Answer” but adore “Hang On To Your Ego,” treat their groundless and smug attempts at appearing intellectual with the contempt that they deserve. By the time that the vocals were being recorded, the projected release date was looming so close that there was barely any time left to mix the album.
Finally, the entire finished album was mixed in one frantic day long session, with the result that a bit of studio chatter accidentally found its way onto “Here Today” (incidentally, although rumors have long persisted that the barely-audible muttering is some kind of coded message to Charles Manson or something, it actually features nothing more satanic than the band discussing cameras and Brian asking the engineer to rewind the tape), and there was no time to overdub the vocal track on to “Let's Go Away For A While,” which ended up as an instrumental.
Even after the various Beach Boys had been placated and a master tape had been hastily cobbled together, there was still the pertinent question of exactly how Capitol Records would be able to market the album. There were no obvious hit singles contained on the album (they eventually settled on “Wouldn't It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B,” both more downbeat and introspective than any previous Beach Boys single), and after years of pushing the band as the ultimate purveyors of good time surf pop, it was going to require an enormous rethink in marketing strategy to successfully present them as serious musicians.
In any case, Capitol didn't manage to successfully present The Beach Boys as serious musicians. In the days before the advent of album bands and alternative music, dominating radio and making the top twenty were seen as the be all and end all of a record's success, and "Pet Sounds" was simply too complex to achieve either at that point in time. Reviewers, radio programmers and listeners alike were all confused by the new sounds, and sales were correspondingly disappointing.
Or at least they were in America. Over in Britain, where the Beatles' ever-lengthening studio experiments were the subject of frequent front-page coverage and bands like The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Pink Floyd were generating excitement on the live circuit, "Pet Sounds" was hailed as a masterpiece and sold in healthy quantities. (Recall that Pink Floyd worked for years, and finally abandoned an album that was to only contain sounds like cars and jackhammers somehow fit into musical scores. “Atom Heart Mother” was the much more traditional result.)
As the band had only enjoyed moderate and sporadic success in the UK up to that point, it was enough to convince the band and Capitol that it was worth persevering with Brian's vision in the hope that, before long, America would catch on too.
"Pet Sounds" may not really have caught on at the time of release, but in subsequent years it has come to be rightfully recognized as one of the best albums ever made. Quite aside from the intricate beauty of Brian's songs (notably “That's Not Me,” “Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder),” the widely-loved “God Only Knows,” the tellingly autobiographical and startlingly prophetic “I Just Wasn't Made For These Times,” and the instrumental title track, that sounds like surf music would if the composer was catching a wave somewhere on Mars), the musical backdrop is one of fascinating depth and clarity, using over amped bass guitars, french horn arrangements and even early electronic instruments like the theremin at a time when most other major artists thought it was the height of experimentation to use a trumpeter.
The album has been praised by musicians as diverse as Paul McCartney and John Cale, and remains one that anyone with even the vaguest interest in music ought to hear. “I Just Wasn't Made For These Times” may have been describing Wilson's own insecurity about himself and his abilities, but its sentiments could also be seen as the perfect encapsulation of the story of the album itself; greeted with initial confusion as though the world wasn't quite ready for the scope of its invention and originality, but later recognized for its true power and strength, it was a record that can genuinely lay claim to having been ahead of its time.
As it happened, by the time that "Pet Sounds" was released to a disappointingly mixed reception, Brian was already busy in the studio and working on a single that he hoped would mirror all of the achievements of the album in under three minutes. Endless musical variations were worked out on the basic musical idea of “Good Vibrations” before Brian edited the best ones into a three minute single, and the result still sounds startling even today. “Good Vibrations” moves seamlessly through a succession of changes in mood and tempo and seemingly unrelated musical segments, but succeeds in sounding like a song that had been purposefully written from start to finish as a pop single. The masterstroke of production was the fact that the final chorus and inspired fade-out had been recorded in a completely different studio to the rest of the track, the subtle sonic changes making it sound as though it comes crashing in from another dimension when it arrives after a couple of seconds of well-judged silence.
Although “Good Vibrations” was the product of similar experimentation to that which had created "Pet Sounds," it differed in that it boasted an infectious and upbeat melody reminiscent of their earlier singles, waves of cascading vocals on the chorus, and strong lyrics by Mike Love that married his earlier simplistic style with the evocative aspirations of Brian's recent work. What's more, it was ideally suited to radio play, and “Good Vibrations” rocketed to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
In America, the success of the single was enough to restore confidence in the band's abilities, while in Britain; the Beach Boys achieved the previously unimaginable feat of toppling the Beatles in the music press end of year polls. Buoyed by this success, Brian announced he was starting work on an even more ambitious project — a projected album that he described, with excitement at the possibilities rather than any sense of arrogance or egotism — as "a teenage symphony to God."
Behind the scenes, however, all was not quite as well as the success of “Good Vibrations” might have made it appear. While the other Beach Boys had been pleased with the success of the single, they still hadn't forgotten the relative failure of "Pet Sounds" and were resenting the stranglehold that Brian now seemed to have over the group — not to mention finding it difficult to slot his more complicated new material comfortably in amongst their earlier work in their live set. Meanwhile, Tony Asher had stormed off describing Brian as "a genius musician, but an amateur human being" in an ominous foretaste of what lay ahead. As Mike Love was out on the road and wouldn't have been particularly keen on writing any more lyrics for “Brian's ego music” anyway, classically trained composer Van Dyke Parks was brought on board as a new lyricist. Together the two began work on a project that they described as an “American gothic trip” blending Brian's increasingly adventurous and evocative compositions with equally evocative and decidedly elliptical lyrics from Van Dyke.
Odd rumors about what they and the Wrecking Crew had been up to in the studio began to filter out to the music press (who, ironically, probably knew more about the intended album at that point than the other Beach Boys did), but little was known for certain until Brian was invited to perform on a serious television documentary presented by Leonard Bernstein, and entitled "Inside Pop." For the broadcast, he chose to perform a new song called “Surf's Up” alone at the piano. Although its title may well be reminiscent of the songs for which The Beach Boys are better known, the song itself could not be further removed from that style. Even in this rough and unadorned early incarnation, it is recognizable as a composition of remarkable and incredible depth, and in retrospect it's hardly surprising that such an air of anticipation and expectation grew up around the album, initially known as "Dumb Angel" and then later renamed "Surf's Up," that this performance was acting as a trailer for.
"Smile" was originally intended for release early in 1967; Capitol assigned it a release date and printed not only an elaborate full color cover (stored for years in a warehouse and finally destroyed), but also a lavish illustrated lyric booklet, and fully expected it to be delivered and released on time. However, when the other Beach Boys returned from touring to record their vocals, the future of "Smile" suddenly started to look a lot less certain. Brian had opted for the tactic of recording the album in small individual musical segments to be joined up at a later date rather than as complete takes of individual songs, and this left them without any tangible compositions to use as a frame of reference.
More significantly, however, they were puzzled and frustrated by the impenetrable meaningless of Van Dyke's lyrics. Unease grew as they ran through their vocal parts, culminating in a furious row that saw Mike Love screaming "what do these lyrics mean?" when called on to add lead vocals to a song called “Cabin Essence.” Fearing that he might become the cause of a rift between the Wilson brothers, Van Dyke immediately quit the project, leaving Brian without any vocal supporters.
Hardly the most strong-willed of individuals, he reacted to the stance adopted by the rest of the band by retreating further into his hallucinogenic habit, and unofficially abandoning "Smile." With insecurity clouding his creative abilities and his psyche further imbalanced by his mammoth chemical intake (not long before, he had run from a movie theatre in terror after a character in a film addressed another as "Mr. Wilson"), this was the start of a mental decline that would haunt him for many years.
"Smile" was to have been preceded by “Heroes And Villains,” a seven minute song spread across two sides of a single. As the second part had not been assembled from Brian's fragmentary recordings, a new and heavily truncated version was hurriedly recorded and put out some months later as an A-side (the B-side was “You're Welcome,” a catchy vocal chant that itself had been intended for "Smile"). Unsurprisingly, the single failed to replicate the success of “Good Vibrations,” and public excitement over "Smile" began to dissipate.
However, there was no "Smile," at least not in a releasable state, and Capitol was putting the band under immense pressure to come up with a new album. In one day-long session, they recorded rushed, badly arranged and at times near unlistenable versions of some of the songs that had been intended for the album, added the single versions of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes And Villains” for good measure, and put it out as "Smiley Smile." During a summer that was dominated by The Beatles' acclaimed "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band," the lackluster offering was barely noticed.
The rest of the band quickly went back into the studio and knocked together the “back to basics” set "Wild Honey" and the impressive single “Do It Again,” which re-established them as the successful Beach Boys that they had been before "Pet Sounds," and it looked as though "Smile" had been quietly and conveniently forgotten about.
However, in the long term the record proved to be very difficult to forget about, and material that was intended for the abandoned album had a habit of leaking out in various places. Longtime Beach Boys associates Jan and Dean released a cover version of “Vegetables,” and both “Our Prayer” and “Cabin Essence” turned up on the otherwise straightforward Beach Boys album "20/20" in 1968. Even “Do It Again” ended with a couple of seconds of sounds of hammering and sawing wood, which originated from one of Brian's more adventurous "Smile" sessions.
In the early 1970s, The Beach Boys found new favor with the progressive rock audience, who recognized parallels between Brian Wilson's mid-1960s work and the sophisticated progressive rock that had followed in its wake. Inevitably the subject of "Smile" arose again, with the result that both “Cool Cool Water” (which had originally formed part of an intended “Elements Suite” on "Smile," where it was known as “I Love To Say Da-Da”) and “Surf's Up” were dragged out and touched up for release, the latter becoming the title track of the band's 1971 album.
Throughout the following years there were continual hints that "Smile" was due for imminent release in some form, but all of these came to nothing until the unissued “Heroes And Villains Part One” turned up as a bonus track on a CD issue of "Smiley Smile" in 1990, and most of the tracks were included on the "Good Vibrations" box in 1993.
Needless to say, there have been countless theories proposed on how the world might have been different if "Smile" had been released, ranging from the predictable and thoroughly unrealistic deification of Brian Wilson and the supposition that its release might have prevented wars and pioneered nuclear fusion, to the rather more realistic possibility that it would have met with an even more baffled and unenthusiastic response than "Pet Sounds" had done, and would have forced the Beach Boys into a panic-stricken return to their original style and image, with the rest of the story running pretty much as it did in reality.
Needless to say, most of the speculation was based on the fact that "Smile" was to all intents and purposes unfinished, and that the world had been left with the merest tantalizing glimpse of a legendary project to fuel their imaginations. Yet the album was completed in the late 1980s, when Brian Wilson returned to the Capitol tape archive under the guidance of his long-term psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy, and assembled the tapes into some semblance of the album as he had originally intended back in 1966.
With the official release of much of the material and the availability of much of the rest on bootleg, it has become possible for listeners to piece together their own complete version of "Smile" too. So how does the legendary album really sound? Well, it certainly puts a new perspective on many of the mythologies that have built up around its making and contents.
Tapes, including the aforementioned “woodchopping session” and another that features the band making animal noises, that had baffled bootleggers for years and led to all manner of speculation about Brian's mental state at the time, are presented in their proper musical context and suddenly seem to make a lot more sense. Although already familiar, “Our Prayer,” “You're Welcome,” “Surf's Up,” and “Cabin Essence” still sound amazing (the latter being one of the best songs recorded during the 1960s, and about as far removed from the stereotypical view of the Beach Boys' music as you can get), as do the breezy “Wind Chimes” and the hilarious “I Wanna Be Around Friday Night.” The two-part “Heroes And Villains” is certainly more interesting and adventurous than the better-known single version, but it starts to drag towards the end, and many of the segments feel like they've just been tagged on for the sake of it rather than for any valid musical reason. Similarly, even though Paul McCartney can reputedly be heard somewhere in the backing track, “Vegetables” just seems a bit silly (not least the oddly "do-it-yourself" -like sentiments of the verse where the listener is asked to write in and tell the band the name of their favorite vegetable!).
On the other hand, some standalone fragmentary pieces like “The Old Master Painter” work perfectly, and the continued back-references to recurring musical motifs (in particular, hints of “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations” show up at regular intervals) lend the album a symphonic and thematic feel. Although made up of seemingly unconnected fragments, the “Elements Suite” is highly effective, and succeeds in evoking each of the elements in its component pieces; the jubilant “Look!,” the sparkling “I Love To Say Dada,” the tribal feel of “Earth Chant” and the notorious “Mrs. O'Leary's Cow.” The latter track was recorded during a session where the musicians were asked to wear fire service uniforms and small bonfires were lit in the studio. This succeeded in helping create the right sort of surging, powerful feel for the track, but also had the unfortunate side effect of further heightening Brian's paranoia when they learned that a nearby building had burnt down at the same time as the session had been held. Believing his music to be responsible, he reputedly destroyed the master tapes by burning them — although this quite obviously did not actually happen!
The highlight of the album is without question “Wonderful,” a beautiful and mysterious love song with a delicate arrangement that fits between the fragments “He Gives Speeches” and “Child Is Father To The Man” in near-ethereal fashion. Overall, it isn't quite the musical holy grail that popular mythology has built it up to be, and it certainly would not have found favor with a mass audience in 1967, but it's certainly a challenging and adventurous work that would have been hailed as a masterpiece many times by now.
The Beach Boys and their marketing advisers might well prefer the public to remember them as the neatly turned out young men who sang “Help Me Rhonda” and posed on hot rods on their album sleeves, but their true musical legacy remains "Pet Sounds," "Smile," and “Good Vibrations.” All are well worth hearing, not merely because they still sound fascinating and breathtaking adventurous even all this time later, but because they're extremely useful for disproving misconceptions about The Beach Boys.
If you're short of something to do, why not try playing “Mrs. O'Leary's Cow” to someone who thinks the band was only ever responsible for lightweight insubstantial pop fluff, and asking them what they think of it. Or better still, why not play “Cabin Essence” to someone who likes them because they believe that the band were only responsible for lightweight 1960s pop fluff. Let's see them do their ironic sixties dance to that...