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285: James Brown, ‘Night Train’ (The T.A.M.I. Show)

Posted by jeff on Jun 22, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

 

James Brown, ‘Out of Sight’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, ‘Prisoner of Love’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, ‘Please, Please, Please’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, ‘Night Train’ (“The T.A.M.I. Show”)

James Brown, all four songs from “The T.A.M.I. Show”

“The T.A.M.I. Show” complete

In December, 1964, a legendary music video was made called “The T.A.M.I. Show”.  It’s notable because there’s a remarkable roster of stars of the day giving career-defining performances which were captured on an early version of hi-definition TV.

And it’s remembered frequently because The Rolling Stones agreed to follow James Brown (and close the show), which both Keith and Mick still good-naturedly rue today as the biggest mistake of their careers.

I admit I’ve never been a big fan of James Brown, even though I’m aware that behind the pro wrestling façade of silly drama and staged emoting, he is a musician’s musician, together with his Famous Flames. As a bandleader and performer, “The Godfather of Soul” is considered the epitome of tightness in all aspects of performance, not to mention being the inventor of funk and the source of what Michael Jackson bleached and diluted with such great success.

But I do admit that the four songs he performs on The T.A.M.I. Show are probably the most intense and exciting performance I’ve ever seen.

James Brown is a better performer than I am a writer, so I’m not even going to try to describe in mere words how energy-charged these performances are. How you’re really admiring The Famous Flames’ moves (in ‘Please, Please, Please), and then you see James stomping his feet like a baby throwing a tantrum, and get that he’s stomping in perfect triple time. Or how he falls to his knees in utter faux counterfeit exhaustion and lands SLAM! on the downbeat.

Seeing is believing. Or in this case, maybe not. It was Edgar Allan Poe (of all people) who wrote “Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” Apparently Edgar had seen The T.A.M.I. Show.

James Brown ‘warms up’ with ‘Out of Sight’ and ‘Prisoner of Love’. ‘Warms up’ is somewhat of a misnomer, since the heat he generates there can compete with that generated by the sun on a Nevada afternoon in mid-July. But even that unlucky old sun can’t compete with ‘Please, Please, Please’ and especially the encore ‘Night Train’.

‘Please, Please, Please’ showcases his dancing and introduces the WWE cape-trick routine. It really does defy the imagination. But wait. Then comes the finale:

‘Night Train’, his encore, includes no less than six false endings, and everyone’s on their feet, screaming for him to come back: the 14-year old black girls, the 14-year old white girls, the band, the three backup singers, and you, and me. All of us. And we really mean it.

Maybe someday I’ll come back and walk you through the entire T.A.M.I. Show (“Teenage Awards Music International” or “Teen Age Music International” if you’re boning up on your trivia):

But today I’d like to take a look at the musical backdrop to The T.A.M.I. Show.

Top 40 radio circa 1964 was brutally white and commercial. For those of you born too late to remember, until the late 1960s, AM radio was segregated–there were (white) Top 40 stations, (black) Rhythm and Blues stations, (rednecked) Country stations, and in the big cities Classical or even Jazz. FM was exclusively the purview of Classical music until the late 1960s.

As a kid, I was a member of the Caucasion persuasion, so I listened to white pop stations. The black music I was exposed to consisted mostly of black music in white face (Johnny Mathis, Nancy Wilson) or black music diluted till it was a very light shade of ebony (The Supremes).

Heaven only knows how WSAI compiled the Top 40 charts which were the maps of my youth. An amalgam of sales, quirky taste and payola, I’d assume. Let’s take the 1964 Top 50 as an example. The mainstays were no surprise: Beatles (five songs), surf music (three), Motown (three), the Four Seasons (two), the early British Invasion (three) —they were indeed what my friends and I listened to.

But there was always a strong presence of impossible white boxer shorts, Republican-voting ‘hits’ that no one I knew had ever willingly sat through, let along purchased:  ‘Hello, Dolly’, Louis Armstrong (#3); ‘Everybody Loves somebody’, Dean Martin (#10); ‘Dominique’ The Singing Nun, (#11); ‘Java’, Al Hirt.

On the far end of the spectrum, you also had the occasional real R&B hits sneaking in: Rufus Thomas’ ‘Walkin’ the Dog’(#41) and Garnett Mimms’ ‘Cry Baby’ (#50).

What’s the difference between those two and the other black artists on the chart? You got your Motowns, ranging from pop-light whitefaced ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, the Supremes (#15); to smooth, commercial but with James Jamerson’s so-cool ‘Canadian Sunset’ bass   on ‘My Guy’, Mary Wells (#7); all the way to ‘Can I Get a Witness’, Marvin Gaye (#34), displaying some real grit.

And then you have an amazing sundry group of ‘others’:

  • Lenny Welch’s ‘Since I Fell for You‘ (#19) (a 1945 R&B hit on its way to becoming an almost-standard)
  • Ray Charles himself with ‘Busted’ (#40), a Johnny Cash cover! That Ray invented crossover.
  • Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions’ ‘It’s All Right’ (#22), that unique precursor of singer-songwriter soul.
  • Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk on By’ (#48) and The Drifters’ ‘Under the Boardwalk’ (#21), both recorded for white record companies specializing in blacks making music written and produced for them by Jews, aimed at merging market of both young blacks and whites. That might sound like an irrelevantly obscure niche—until you take into account that pop music don’t get no better than these two songs, and there are many other indisputable classics cut from exactly the same cloth.
  • And that’s not including Shirley Ellis’s novelty ‘Nitty Gritty’ or Dusty (what’s the opposite of an Oreo?) Springfield’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’”.

So in 1964, the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, radio was still segregated. But look at the audience of The T.A.M.I. Show. Free tickets had been distributed to local Santa Monica high school students. Look at the shots of the audience during James Brown’s set:  white teenie-boppers screaming at black acts together with black teenie-boppers screaming at white acts. That’s what social change looked like in real life. Well, ‘real life’ for those of us for whom the music was the mainstay of our reality.

The pictures here are all in black and white. But in a very short time, everything would be multicolored.

Of course, the late 60s race riots were just around the corner. But already for us in 1964, it was clear that a change was gonna come.

James, a belated tip of the hat.  I just watched ‘Night Train’ for the umpteenth time – and I still only half believe it.

 

 

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269: Brian Wilson, ‘Sandy’/’Sherri She Needs Me’/’She Says That She Needs Me’

Posted by jeff on Aug 18, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

1965, ‘Sandy’

1975, ‘Sherri, She Needs Me’

1998, ‘She Says That She Needs Me’

My neck of the woods isn’t on the main drag of A-level musicians’ tours. We’re a pretty small market. And there are a lot of nasty or misled folks who try to convince artists that this is a black-and-white world, and we’re the bad guys, so they shouldn’t come here to play. So when a legend does make it here, it’s a big deal.

I didn’t go to see Elton John’s performance recently, or Rod Stewart’s. I didn’t go to see Donovan or Leonard Cohen or even Paul Simon or The Stones. I didn’t even go to see Paul McCartney.

“Jeff, you aren’t going to see Paul???”
“I saw him with his original band.”
“You saw Wings in person???”

These old-guy tours, I call them dinosaurs, and I have always studiously avoided dinosaur concerts. I have a theory about Dinosaur Tours. I know why Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger still don their tights and prance around the stage – they don’t want to grow old. Well, I don’t want to grow old either, but I don’t go shaking my tush on a stage with 100,000 people watching. But then again, my opportunities for making such an ass of myself are significantly scarcer than theirs.

The question that grabs me is why young ‘uns run to see these old guys. Clearly, it’s so they can go to their graves saying “I brushed up against greatness” – at least from the $150 bleacher seats about a mile and a half from the stage. Now for me, I just don’t feel a sense of accomplishment in that.

I have plenty of fond memories. I saw The Beatles their holy Selves in 1965, saw The Stones on their first tour of the US in 1964, and saw and interviewed Simon and Garfunkel in 1967. I prefer to remember them in their active, vital prime, making the music that makes them worth remembering.

But when they announced Brian Wilson’s 50th anniversary world tour of “Pet Sounds”, I broke. My heart bought tickets before my head had a chance to set up its defenses.

“Jeff,” I said to myself in that patronizing voice I use when I’m being particularly obtuse, “You’re not going to enjoy the show, you’re not even going to hear Brian. You’re going as an homage.”

Brian had a fine band backing him, one of the best money can buy. The medley of hits, from ‘Surfin’ Safari’ through recent stuff, all held up to one degree or another. In the first half of the show, Brian handled a lot of the vocals (supported and relieved by Al Jardine); but in the second half, as they felt the strain of the decades on their chops, they let Al’s son take over the high notes and eventually entire songs.

But my strongest impression was of an aide leading Brian to his chair, propping him up as this decrepit old guy in a Hawaii shirt went shuffling blindly across the stage. As the show progressed, he sat out entire songs. He could hardly compose coherent sentences (well, nothing new there), and I tried to appreciate it all as an abstract gesture of respect, rather than a pathetic attempt to stay young and relevant – on both our parts.

My respect for Brian is immense. As I’ve often said, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who get Brian and those who don’t.” In purely musical terms, he’s The Genius of our times. I’ve sung his praises repeatedly in these annals (gosh, I’ve always wanted to use that word):
SoTW 004: ‘Kiss Me, Baby’, a masterpiece of fog and enigma and adolescent angst.

SoTW 118: ‘Surf’s Up’, celebrating (with great reservations) the release of the apocryphal, unreleased maybe/maybe not masterpiece.

SoTW 230: The Beach Boys, ‘Here Today’, an homage sans reservations to The Masterpiece of post-war popular music, “Pet Sounds”, including a look at the building of the tracks, based on the “Unsurpassed Masters”, an exhaustive catalog of the Beach Boys’ studio work.

SoTW 158: ‘Surfer Girl’ as sung live by Paul Simon, revealing in his oblique rendering the divine beauty within the brainless shlock.

SoTW 031: ‘Little Saint Nick’. No cracks from the peanut gallery, please.

So if at the concert I felt a bit like a pilgrim who took a wrong turn, and if most of what I’ve written about Brian in the past is unrepentant proselytization, this week we’re going to share with you a set of gems that only we fanatics care about. The rest of you are excused. Try not to make too much noise out in the hallway.

‘Sandy’, 1965, outtake from the “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)” album

If the previous effort, “Today!”, contained the uncut diamonds that would be brought to fruition in “Pet Sounds”, “Summer Days” was a mix of the BB’s admirable but limited Top 40 grist (‘Help Me, Rhonda’), Beatles imitation (‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’), and early experimentation towards “Pet Sounds” (‘Let Him Run Wild’ and especially  the intro to ‘California Girls’ [my ringtone]).

But the Complete “Unsurpassed” Beach Boys set, Volume 9, includes 4 CDs, 74 tracks of studio work on the album, including 8 working tracks of a song called ‘Sandy’. The final, incomplete draft (‘Second Vocal Overdub’) is mostly instrumental, with just a bit of vocal overdubbing (“Sandy, baby, it’s time we said goodbye.”). It’s a teaser, the dance of the seven veils. The instrumentation is a bridge between the best of “Today!” and “Pet Sounds”—synthesizer, a chunky harpsichord-ish keyboard, a prominent bass (all reputedly played by The Wrecking Crew, who went on to make “Pet Sounds” with Brian). A chord progression, melody, and a mood that just won’t let go.

‘Sherri, She Needs Me’, 1975, unreleased track

Ten years later, Brian revised the song, entitling it ‘Sherri, She Needs Me’. It’s a uniquely successful cut from Brian’s long fallow period. The instrumental track is from 1965, a much more finished version than those included in “Unsurpassed”, with 1975 vocals overdubbed by Brian. Russ Titelman, one of the best producers of the times, contributed to the lyrics. Heaven only knows how bad they were before he got his hands on them. If you really must know, this cut was originally released on the “Lei’d in Hawaii” bootleg, then in 2013 on CD6 of the ‘oddities and outtakes’ box “Made in California.” The result is a crazy amalgam of the divine and the brain-dead:

Sherri, she needs me and there’s nothing I can do.
Sherri, she needs me and I think I need her, too.
Sherri, if you start crying it’ll break my heart
So before we both start crying I’ll just walk away. (sic, groan)

Sherri baby, I just can’t stand it, it didn’t work out the way we planned it.
Sherri baby, it’s time we said good-bye.

Sherri believe me, it’s so hard to say we’re through.
Please keep your cool, dear, and I’ll still be friends with you.
Sherri, don’t hate her guts ‘cause she took me away–
And maybe you wanna make friends with her someday.(sic, sick)

‘She Says That She Needs Me’, 1998, the “Imagination” CD

But the song just wouldn’t let go of Brian. He returns to it, 20 years later, with a more polished but somewhat less convincing treatment, admirable, with flashes of brilliance, but overall lacking that Brian Wilson magic. The lyrics were revised by none other than Carole Bayer Sager, Oscar and Grammy-winning lyricist (‘Arthur’s Theme’, ‘That’s What Friends are For’):

‘Sherri, Baby’ has morphed into ‘Sorry, Baby…’, and some of the potholes from the previous lyric set have been smoothed over, but even Ms Sager couldn’t save it:

Baby, if you don’t stop crying I’ll just want to die,
But it’s too late and you know there’s nothing here for you and I.

Still, there’s something about this song. Brian worked on it for over 30 years, and I’ve been listening to it for about that long. Me and at least 30 other misfits around the world. Like all of Brian’s greatest work, it suffers from clunky lyrics, and the sentiments are all too frequently acne-ridden.

She says that she’s sorry and I guess I’m sorry too.
But baby I’m wonderin’ when I was lonely, where were you.

She says that she loves me and I’m not sure that’s really true
Because if she loves me I wouldn’t feel the way I do.

Embarrassing, but true. Somehow, those 16-year old emotions never pass, do they? The pain of your first girlfriend leaving you—that ouch stays with us forever. It’s the template of all the romantic and romanticized tears we’ll shed for the rest of our born days, isn’t it? It has none of the complications and obfuscations of our ‘real’ adult life. ‘I loved her, she left me, and I’m crying.’ Simple and to the point.

Brian Wilson composed 3’30” musical masterpieces that grabbed our hearts and our souls and still, 50 years on, won’t let go.

Watching Brian in concert was one sad experience. I’m sorry I went. I should have stayed In My Room and contemplated the days when I watched those noble giants walk the earth.

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256: The Mamas & The Papas, ‘Once Was a Time I Thought’

Posted by jeff on Feb 10, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

coverOnce Was A Time I Thought

Even If I Could

Trip, Stumble & Fall

Dancing Bear

No Salt On Her Tail

I Saw Her Again Last Night

Look Through My Window

You want The Mamas & The Papas? Ok, I’ll give you The Mamas & The Papas.

Bottom line: they really were a fine group, but not for the reasons you think. Go listen to half a dozen cuts you don’t remember from the second album.

California Dreaming’. Yawn. Yes, it’s a great song. Grammy Hall of Fame, #89 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. “The song became a signpost of the California Myth and the arrival of the nascent counterculture era.” (Did you know that it was originally recorded—using the same backing track!—by Barry ‘Eve of Destruction’ McQuire?)

But from its release in December, 1965 through the end of the decade, I heard the song 34,792 times on AM radio. Who wants to talk about it anymore? One hit does not a Great Group make.

Monday, Monday’, same thing. Heard it 21,436 times during those same years. ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ a mere 16,847 times (but if you really want to, you can add the 3,586 times I heard the Shirelle’s original).

MAMASANDPAPASPAVirginia, if you want gold, you gotta dig beneath the surface. Ok, the aforementioned triptych are gold, but they no longer glitter. The groove has been worn away by the myriad playings.  With your permission, I’m going to take you on a quickie tour of some of the lesser known (but in my ears much fresher) fine songs by that very fine group, the Mamas and the Papas.

Beforehand

January 1964, The Beatles capture America, and in their wake the entire British invasion. But ‘Rock’ was an imported delicacy. America was in the throes of the Folk Movement, and all of the incipient attempts to create native rock came from there. Folk-rock. The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ – April 1965. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – July 1965. ‘Sounds of Silence’ – September 1965. The Lovin’ Spoonful’s first album was released in December 1965. The Mamas & the Papas’, January 1966. Al Kooper’s Blues Project in May 1966.

TMatP were a folk-rock group, based on John Phillips acoustic guitar and often-great songs, always great vocals from Denny and Cass, a finely tuned rock engine provided by the all-star studio musician collective The Wrecking Crew, and chock full of terrific grandiose arrangements under the baton of producer Lou Adler. They were, together with The Byrds and The Spoonful, the first creative American rockish groups of significance.

new journeymenSongwriter/guitarist John Phillips and his cheekboned wife Michelle, together with Denny Doherty, were riding the folk wave as The New Journeymen.

Way back in mid-1964, Denny had teamed with Cass Elliot (formerly Ellen Naomi Cohen) and fellow Canadian Zal Yanovsky in a group called The Mugwumps, which recorded a very cool rock album including The Coasters’ ‘Searchin’ (not coincidentally one of the first songs recorded by The Beatles, 1962; Bo Diddley’s ‘You Can’t Judge a Book’; and ‘Do You Know What I Mean’ by Felix Pappalardi, later founder of The (Young) Rascals. Zal went on to join John Sebastian in The Lovin’ Spoonful.

The three of them hooked up with Cass in the Virgin Islands and became The Mamas & the Papas. This whole saga is recounted in ‘Creeque Alley’.

The First Album

358fd3acc79a362911e1884022886b6fIt’s the one everyone knows. In addition to the two iconic singles, the only song that holds water for me today is the original ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’, a pretty good song with a progressive attitude towards his wife’s legendary philanderings.

The album includes four forgettable Phillips originals (‘Straight Shooter’, ‘Got a Feelin’, ‘Somebody Groovy’, ‘Hey Girl’); three rock ‘oldies’ slowed down and spruced up with sweet harmonies (the Beatles ‘I Call Your Name’, Bobby Freeman’s ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ and Phil Spector/Ben E. King’s ‘Spanish Harlem’); and closes with a couple of other borrowed fillers (‘You Baby’, ‘The In Crowd’).

That, even for most people willing to look beyond those two consecutive #1 hits, is The Mamas & the Papas. For my two scents, they’re barking up the wrong tree.

The Second Album

mp1Even though the album was a commercial success (#4), I’ll bet you don’t remember it. It included their next single, ‘I Saw Her Again Last Night’ (#5), a fine, fine song, all the fresher for not having been played to death. That was followed by ‘Look Through My Window’, an equally affective description of the tempestuous John/Michelle marriage (she had been temporarily expelled from the group following her affair with Papa Denny, but it only charted at #24. ‘Look Through’ for some reason wasn’t put on this album, only on the third. They scored another satisfying hit with ‘Words of Love’ (#5), the first single to feature Cass as lead vocalist rather than Denny.

But, oh, the rest of that album. You probably listened to it a few times 50 years ago and have therefore forgotten it, although the album reached #4, and should have left more of a mark in our minds. Alas. That’s where the gold is. Six knockout John Phillips originals that you don’t remember. But you should.

john-phillips-3-spokeo-foto-No Salt On Her Tail’ – a glorious, epic opener, with an organ solo a la KoopeRoolingStone (by Ray Manzarek of the Doors!). According to folklore, putting salt on the tail of a bird prevented it from taking flight. I guess John tried it on Michelle, to little avail.

Trip, Stumble & Fall’ is TMatP at their peak – lyrics, composition, arrangement, performance. This is the gold in them thar hills.

Dancing Bear’ is an ancient Russian folk tale penned by this LA hippie. The song is beautiful. The arrangement is stunning, years ahead of its time.

cae9dedd05e187bb3daffefab201dd04Bones Howe (engineer) and Lou Adler (producer) deserve so much of the credit for TMatP’s artistic (and commercial) success. Much like contemporaries Simon & Garfunkel with their engineer Roy Hallee, Howe/Adler/Phillips weren’t just recording ‘songs’, they were creating ‘records’, each cut with its distinctive sound palette, its unique taste and character.

I Saw Her Again Last Night’ – okay, you have a fine song, great singers, and The Wrecking Crew providing the drive. But check out those strings! Where else do you find an orchestra serving a rock context so well? In 1965, yet? Kudos, guys.

Strange Young Girls’ featuring Michelle, for a change, a portrait of lost hippiettes. For my money, it’s affective and effective.

20083ac6c3575c94c42ff847b1f8d91bI don’t have perfect pitch, but I’ve got a pretty sharply honed ear. Does no one else notice the sour tonal near-misses so prevalent in TMatP?

Even If I Could‘ – Ahhhh.  The strings, the shifting tempi, the major/minor switches, all serving the gestalt of the bittersweet song. Okay, I understand why it never conquered the charts. But what a great example of how a great a great B-side can be.

And our SoTW, a long-time favorite of mine, ‘Once Was a Time I Thought’, an almost a cappella ditty. Lots and lots of syllables that even kind of make sense. Sung in unison until the last three jazz-inflected chords. 1:02 of sweet, lovely music.

‘My Heart Stood Still’ is a 1927 Rogers and Heart tune. If not a standout, it’s respectable. The same could be said for ‘Dancing in the Street’. Okay, Cass ain’t Martha Reeves, but who is? It’s fun. Hey, I like ‘fun’. As long as you don’t overdo it.

The album also includes two Phillips fillers, ‘I Can’t Wait’ and ‘That Kind of Girl’. Well, no one’s perfect. I won’t mention ‘Think for Yourself’ and ‘The Word’ for fear of incurring the wrath of The Beatle police.

Give the album a listen. Tell me what you think. Ain’t that some great music?

The Rest

Mamas-and-Papas-bb13-coda-2016-billboard-650-1548The third album “Deliver” was a commercial success (#5), buoyed by aforementioned hits ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’, ‘Creeque Alley’ and ‘Look Through My Window’. Other than that? Don’t bother.

Which holds even truer in their last two albums, both made to fulfill contractual obligations after the group had in essence broken up.

A few years ago I trolled John Phillips solo efforts. They should have been packaged together with most of “Deliver” and all the subsequent recordings and sold as “Fool’s Gold”. Trust me, save your money and your time.

But that second album?

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230: The Beach Boys, ‘Here Today’ (“Pet Sounds” Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 14)

Posted by jeff on Jan 22, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Beach Boys — ‘Here Today’

CVpqcGYWsAAOe5GI’ve been perfecting my procrastination skills since I was bar mitzvahed. Well, even before—how well I remember avoiding practicing reading the torah portion before I pedaled off to meet the rabbi.

I’ve been listening to “Pet Sounds” regularly for 45 years now, and I’ve successfully put off writing about it. Because it’s too damned daunting. Because my respect for the album is so great that I know I don’t have a snowball’s chance in heck of doing it justice.

Brian+Wilson+Pet+Sounds+Era+BrianBut if Mom shouted long enough and loud enough and persistently enough, I would finally pick up at least a couple of layers of dirty underwear from my floor. And so, I guess, the day of reckoning has arrived.

There are two kinds of people in the world – those who get “Pet Sounds” and those who don’t. If you’re one of those who say: “Oh, right, The Beach Boys. “Fun, Fun, Fun”. The stupid acned, hackneyed lyrics. The strident nasal vocals. Those painful striped shirts.”– I can only say, yeah, you’re right. (Except have you ever taken half a dozen fine singers and tried to sing “Fun, Fun, Fun”? Good luck.)

But if you’re one of those, you’re missing the transcendental melodies, the stunning internal harmonies, the genius of the orchestration, the utter beauty of the composition. You’re depriving yourself of what I think is – in strictly musical terms – the pinnacle of post-WWII popular music.

Brian-Wilson+Paul-McCartneyI call the first witness, Sir Paul McCartney: “I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life—I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album.” (Paul’s extensive commentary on “Pet Sounds”)

I call the second witness, Sir George Martin: “Without ‘Pet Sounds,’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ never would have happened. ‘Pepper’ was an attempt to equal ‘Pet Sounds.'” (I highly recommend this clip of George and Brian listening together to the master recording of ‘God Only Knows’.)

I call the third witness, Brian Wilson himself: “After the Beatles heard Pet Sounds, they wanted to make a greater album, so they did Shargen Peppersh Lowly Harsh Cluband. And it was a very, very, very great album. Right up there with Pet Sounds, And it was, like, really good.”

brianinstudioIn case you just moved to earth from Planet 9: 1964 – in the plane setting out on yet another Beach Boys tour, 22-year old band leader Brian Wilson has a panic attack. He sends his brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike, buddy Al, and replacement Bruce out on the road without him. “I’m going to stay in the studio and work, and when you guys get back, I’ll have lots of new material.” But unbeknownst to them, he called in The Wrecking Crew, LA’s premiere studio musicians to record the tracks (whom he’d met when observing Phil Spector sessions). The boys added the vocals upon their return.

1crew0916

The Wrecking Crew recording Pet Sounds, Carol Kaye seated foreground.

Rid of his abusive father and transported into other spheres by LSD, Brian felt liberated enough from the pressures of The Hit Machine to make his album. It was The Beach Boys’ first commercial failure.

I’ve watched films about The Wrecking Crew and The Making of Pet Sounds and The Art of Pet Sounds, listened to podcasts and read books and endless on-line accounts and analyses. I don’t remember a tenth of it, so I’m not going to try to write the definitive summary of all that is “Pet Sounds”. If you’re not already, I fervently hope you’ll be affected and infected enough to pursue it on your own.

20582.007If I have anything to contribute to the corpus of adulation, it’s from my subjective experiences from the literally thousands of times I’ve listened to the album. ‘My’ “Pet Sounds” consists of 10 of the 13 songs. I’ve always felt that ‘Sloop John B’ is an unfortunate implant, and that the instrumentals ‘Let’s Go Away for a While’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ don’t carry their weight. ‘Good Vibrations’, the original work for which was done during the “Pet Sounds” recordings, was wisely reserved for the next project (“Smile”).

(UK OUT) LOS ANGELES - 1966: Music producer Phil Spector with "Beach Boys" Brian Wilson (on left), Mike Love (in hat), and "Righteous Brother" Bobby Hatfield (right) in 1965 at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ray Avery/Getty Images)

Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Righteous Brother Bobby

Every one of these ten cuts is a world of beauty unto itself, to be relished and cherished and touched by. They are collectively as beautiful as music can be.

The heartwrenching slow pieces: ‘You Still Believe In Me’, ‘Don’t Talk’, ‘Caroline, No’.

The mid-tempo cuts, masterpieces each: ‘God Only Knows’, ‘I Know There’s An Answer’, ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’.

The upbeat works: ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘That’s Not Me’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Day’, and our SoTW, ‘Here Today’.

brian-wilsonA few basic facts before we start – “Pet Sounds” was originally released in mono. In 1997 it was remixed for stereo under Brian’s supervision. Since then, there have been several rerereremasters and rerererereleases. Purists will go for the original, muddy mono. I go for the newer stereo remastered version – it lets me crawl inside the music, hear as many as possible of the bass harmonicas, ukuleles, bicycle horns, vibraphones, timpani, finger cymbals, Coke cans, accordions, modified twelve-string mandolins, and water jugs.

I do feel humbled, attempting to add my few sense to this magnum opus. But a person’s got to do what a person’s got to do. So today we’re going to pick one of the masterpiece cuts—‘Here Today’, a favorite among favorites – and walk through the recording process via “The Unsurpassed Masters”, a 21-volume, ~50-CD bootleg compendium of Beach Boys studio tracks in process, 1962-67.

photo_7225_0-3I admit I haven’t listened to all the outtakes from “Beach Boys Party”. But I have listened to most of the “Pet Sounds” recordings, many of them numerous times. So here we go, 23-year old Brian, the finest studio musicians LA has to offer at his disposal, for the first time in his life in complete creative control. The Beach Boys Complete Unsurpassed Masters, Volume 14 (The Alternate “Pet Sounds”, Disc 2.

Takes 1 – 3 – Engineer: “I don’t have a title, Take 1”. Organ pumping on the beat, Carol Kaye’s bass introducing a stunning melodic counterpoint to the (yet unheard) main melody line (inspiring Paul’s lead bass on “Sgt Pepper”), then joined by the low drum ornament and the low brass and then the higher brass providing yet another counterpoint.

Takes 4 – 6 – Brian coaches the harpsichord(?) on the nuance he’s seeking.

Take 7, Takes 8 – 10 – We know what the full track will sound like, so we can hear the ghost interplay between the heard backing track being compiled and polished, and the unheard future vocals.

1965-brianwilsonInsert Takes 1 – 4, 11 – 20 – Fine-tuning and tightening the glorious C-part, the instrumental break after the second chorus. Listen to Brian’s perfectionism, explaining to the musicians so precisely the sounds he’s looking for. I can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s saying that the actual filming was just technical work and rather boring—the creative process had occurred at home at his desk. Bruce Johnston has said “this is the break that Brian told me was influenced by Bach – and if you’ve heard any Bach at all, you’ll know what he’s talking about.”

1st Vocal Overdub (Brian solo), 2nd Vocal Overdub (Brian double-tracked) – Brian singing a guide track for cousin Mike for the lead vocal.

1st Vocal Overdub by the band Mike (“Don’t fuck with the formula”) Love’s initial attempts at singing the lead, mostly solo, backing vocals in the background.

2nd Vocal Overdub by the band Mike double-tracked, with prominent backing vocals, The Beach Boys at their Four Freshman/Hi-Lo’s best. Worth the price of admission.

MTMwNjgzODIwNTg3MzYyOTQ3Brian, 1990: ‘Here Today’ was a work of art in my opinion. It was assertive track with utilization of basses played up higher. The trombones gave it that masculine touch…”
Brian, 1996: “‘Here Today’ was probably one of the mystery songs on the album. I don’t really know what it’s about. I liked it, but yet I didn’t. I don’t really identify with that song like I do with ‘You Still Believe In Me’, or ‘Caroline, No.’ It was just one of those songs in there, one little song.”

I get what Brian’s saying. ‘Here Today’ isn’t the most emotionally affective cut on ‘Pet Sounds’. But it is indeed unsurpassed in terms of technical brilliance. In each of the 10 cuts, Brian creates a complete sonic universe of unique beauty.

William Butler Yeats wrote in ‘Long-Legged Fly’:

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

‘Quiet! Genius at work’ was never more applicable than here. Brian’s life after Pet Sounds was marred and scarred by drugs, emotional fragility and manipulative sycophants. In these tapes we can witness the process of Brian ‘reclining on the scaffolding’ in the Los Angeles studio. But still, it all remains ultimately a mystery. God only knows how genius creates such beauty.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

142: Kat Edmonson, ‘Champagne’ (including her lovely cover of ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’)

158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

118: Brian Wilson, ‘Surf’s Up’ (“SMiLE”)

004: The Beach Boys, ‘Kiss Me Baby’

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