In the eyes and ears of many rock cognoscenti, a seminal event occurred two weeks ago – the release of The Beach Boy’s “SMiLE”, 37 years after the project was abandoned. There’s a veritable hagiography about the history, death and resurrection of “SMiLE” written by people who have spent years living the subject, so I doubt that I have much to add on that score. But some friends have been asking me my opinion, so I’m going to make a modest attempt here to provide a Dummie’s overview of the history of the legend and to express some personal opinions about the album’s actual achievement.
I live in the only non-Christian country in the Western world, so things are pretty normal out on the streets (well, ‘normal’ by local standards). It’s quite a shock for people who come from abroad to spend Yuletide here, how conspicuous it is in its absence. And take into account that I live about 85 kilometers (52 miles) from the original manger. That’s easily traversed on camel-back in two days.
As close as it is, it’s a rather foreign event here. But I grew up in a wholly Christian world, so I feel pretty comfortable about the whole thing, just a bit distanced from it. There have been years when I haven’t even noticed its passing beyond a mention or two on the local news. But this year I’ve been more attuned to the holiday season for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that a significant number of SoTW readers abide in The Big World Out There. So I figured it would only be proper to dedicate this week’s posting to the good old red-and-green.
The world would be a poorer place without Christmas music. So much of our Western tradition revolves around it, from Liturgy’s Greatest Hits to Bob Dylan’s recent (some would say ‘bizarre’, others ‘unfortunate’ “Christmas in the Heart”. What is Christmas music for me? Well, of course, it’s Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby. But there’s a lot of my high school Ensemble in there, too. We had a whole repertoire of holiday songs, many of which I can still sing through without blinking, and we’d perform every night in December, it seems.
So with such a wealth of riches, I had no easy task picking our SoTW. I had a harder job than good old King Solomon. He just had to pick between two mothers. I had to pick between three songs.
Just yesterday I received a link from my old friend A.B. I’m not going to discuss theology with him, but I sure do like his taste in music. He sent me “O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen, as performed by the Nordic Chamber Choir. I had never heard of any of the three. It’s a beautiful, spiritual, sacred motet, a cappella. He’s a USC professor and 3-time Grammy nominee. And it turns out that he is currently “the most frequently performed American choral composer”. Well, how about that? Well, I’ve been away for a long time. Give a listen to that Nordic Choir. Just about perfect, I’d say.
But I said, heck, I just heard that today. I’m not going to go running around promoting a piece I just met today.
So then I asked myself, ‘Jeff, what’s the best song you know that talks about Christmas?’ No contest. Joni Mitchell’s ‘River‘. Song of The Week? No way. I’m not going to shoot my wad on Joni with the clock ticking, and I’m not going to choose one of her best-known songs when I do. But mostly, the song’s just so damn depressing, and I didn’t want to be in the position of disseminating non-holiday spirit.
So I ran a quick search through the musty catacombs of my brain, and one old buddy was just sitting there, polished all candy-apple red, grinning, waiting to be retrieved — The Beach Boys “Little Saint Nick“.
I’ve written before about The Beach Boys (SoTW 4, ‘Kiss Me Baby’, SoTW 118, ‘Surf’s Up’), and I was hesitant to repeat myself, especially with a song of theirs that speaks for itself (as opposed to the ones that I so quixotically champion in the face of universal indifference). But what the heck? Who can resist this ebullient hot-rod carol?
Just a little bobsled, we call it old Saint Nick
But she’ll walk a toboggan with a four speed stick
She’s candy apple red with a ski for a wheel
And when Santa hits the gas, man, just watch her peel.
Now that’s holiday spirit.
So to our readers all over the world, from the whole staff of Song of The Week, y’all have a good holiday — everyone, everywhere.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who get the Beach Boys and those who don’t. By ‘The Beach Boys’, I don’t mean Al Jardine and Mike Love and ‘Surfin’ Safari’ or ‘Be True to Your School’; I mean of course Brian Wilson, and the stunning music that he created before his mind went mush.
It’s hard to sell the Beach Boys, even to people with good taste–there are lots of legitimate reasons to dismiss them: years of silly, pandering music (throughout their career); whiny, white-bread voices; the stupidest lyrics this side of Nashville.
But three gazillion fans can’t be wrong, right? And TBB had a string of hits from 1962 to 1966 (and onwards) rivaled among American pop groups only by the Four Seasons and the Motown stable. Then in 1966, right on the heels of their tenth straight hit LP, “The Beach Boys Party! (Live)”–came their first commercial flop. It was called “Pet Sounds”.
Go find a rock critic who doesn’t rank it in the top five greatest rock albums. But what do rock critics know? Paul McCartney said he and John were so blown away by it that “Sgt Pepper” was made as a conscious attempt to go “Pet Sounds” one better.
Brian Wilson (my transcription from a taped interview): After the Beales her Pessounds, they wand make a greyr album, so they id Sharzhin 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. Well, that was obviously well into mush-hood. I belong to the camp that believes that “Sgt Pepper” was ‘overproduced and underwritten’, whereas “Pet Sounds” is one of the most beautiful works of any genre or medium I know. Books and movies and podcasts and probably macramé patterns have been made in tribute to “The Making Of”. So I’ll let you explore that territory on your own.
What I’m offering up this week is a cut from “Beach Boys Today!”, an album that riveted me back in 1965 when it was released, over a year before “Pet Sounds”. Side One contains 4 hit singles (enough to ensure the commercial success of the album): the dumb-out ‘Do You Wanna Dance’, the brilliant pap ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ and ‘Help Me, Rhonda’, and the audacious ‘When I Grow Up’. But there are another seven songs in which Brian was creating music on an entirely new level of complexity, sophistication—and beauty. I feel a bit uncomfortable touting cuts with titles like ‘Don’t Hurt My Little Sister’, ‘I’m So Young’, ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ (the last including the lyric ‘When I look at other girls, it must kill her inside, but it’d be another story if she looked at the guys’). But listen to them. And to the masterpiece of the album, ‘Please Let Me Wonder’. And to this week’s song, ‘Kiss Me, Baby’.
The song intrigued me in 1965, fascinated me for decades afterwards, and continues to haunt me today.
Try, please, I urge you, to filter out the cloying obstacles. I promise you, there are treasures within: unspeakably beautiful, angular, floating melody lines, an instrumental palette of colors and shades that offer deep, wondrous pleasures, and a symphonic tapestry of six or eight simultaneous musical lines bobbing and interweaving, stunning harmonies within the vocals, all of them playing off and with each other.
Several weeks ago I discovered the 58-CD series “The Beach Boys’ Unsurpassed Masters”. Yes, 58 CDs of Brian Wilson in the studio, rehearsing his music, hits and obscurities, layer after layer, first the instrumental track (with studio musicians–TBB might be his brothers and friends, but he wasn’t going to let anyone mess with his music), and only then the vocals (which The Boys did do). Here’s the voices:
Listening to him work in the studio, for me, is akin to watching a video of Michelangelo sketching out and then filling in the Sistine Chapel. The greatest thrill is being able to hear the threads. “Today!” is much influenced by Phil Spector. One big monaural glob of sound, impenetrable, inscrutable and hypnotic. There are those of us who spent many hours scrunching our ears to the hi-fi speaker trying to peek inside, to hear what was going on in there. No way. A wall of sound.
They say Brian is deaf in one ear, which is why he insisted mixing many of his masterpieces in monophonic, so that he could hear the precise sound palette that was being presented to the listener. But apparently in recent years he’s figured out (through the fog of sticky goo that remains of what was once his brain) that there’s gold in them thar archives. He’s allowed himself to be taken back into the studio, and remixed “Pet Sounds” in a beautiful, clear stereo.
Hearing the Unsurpassed Masters of “Kiss Me Baby” was a Rosetta Stone experience for me. Decades of gook removed. You can actually hear that counterpoint line being played by a bass clarinet and ukulele in unison. That’s a real example, I promise you. It’s a miracle dissected:
If I ever win a lottery, I’m going to try to commission the Copenhagen jazz choir Vocal Line to record this song a cappella. I’ve already tried to convince both their director and assistant director to do so, succeeding only in convincing them that I have an acute obsessive disorder. Well, they may be right about that. But that’s another story. And I think this cut really is uncommonly beautiful.