Posted by jeff on Jan 22, 2016 in Rock
, Song Of the week
The Beach Boys — ‘Here Today’
I’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.
But 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.
I 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.”
In 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.
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.
If 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”).
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’.
A 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.
I 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.
Insert 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.
Brian, 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
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’
Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2014 in Rock and Roll
, Song Of the week
Yes, we’re early, but Song of The Week just couldn’t wait.
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 the great majority 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. Morten is 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’, SoTW 158, Paul Simon singing ‘Surfer Girl‘), 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.
If you enjoyed this posting, you may also like:
106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’
012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’
092: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, ‘Babar’ (“The Melody of Rhythm”)
Posted by jeff on Jan 4, 2013 in A Cappella
, Song Of the week
Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’
Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson
I first heard a piece of music this week that touched me very deeply, Brian Wilson’s ‘Surfer Girl’, as performed solo by Paul Simon in “An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson” from 2001.
I’m guessing we all pretty much agree that the original ‘Surfer Girl’ is a pretty schlocky song. The lyrics couldn’t be more callow. The melody and vocal harmonies are Brian Wilson clawing his way out of the gooey larva of his California pubescence.
It even takes a back seat to ‘In My Room’, the other slow song from the Beach Boys’ third album (1963). And we all know what happens in the back seat of a Little Deuce Coupe.
California pubescents: (clockwise from top right) Mike (Don’t Fuck with the Formula) Love, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, genius Brian Wilson
Brian on the genesis of ‘Surfer Girl’: “Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life. I was nineteen years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl’.”
Thanks for sharing that, Brian. Go to your room.
Ok, so Brian may not be competing with Ludwig Wittgenstein, but I am among those who consider him to be THE musical genius of contemporary popular music. Admittedly, ‘Surfer Girl’ ain’t the one I would choose to have played at his wake. The works of his fully-fledged genius begin to trickle out a year (two albums) later, with ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘Warmth of the Sun’ on “Shut Down, Vol. 2”. And then bloom a year after that (1965) on the legendary Side B of “Beach Boys Today!”: ‘Please Let Me Wonder’, ‘I’m So Young’, ‘Kiss Me Baby’ (see also SoTW 004), ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ and ‘In the Back of My Mind.’). Not to mention, of course, “Pet Sounds” (1966), the musical opus magnum of our generation.
Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks
What the song ‘Surfer Girl’ does offer us musically is an early hint of what I call Brian’s Cubist melody lines. He’s doing an arpeggio on familiar chords (‘Little surfer, little one’), but then it opens up (‘Make my heart’) into a new context, and then follows this beautifully shocking line even further afield (‘come all undone’). If you’re into chords, it goes like this: C Am F G (ok so far), but then Cmaj7 C7 F Fm6! Huh?? WTF? What’s wrong with this kid?
I’m not going to talk here about how much the world wants brilliant reworkings of some of Brian Wilson’s unexplored works of genius. I have enough self-awareness to realize that I get obsessive on the subject and cause people (like the very fine Danish choral arranger/conductor Jens Johansen) to carefully edge away from me to another room.
Brian Wilson Songs
No one (until Paul Simon here) has succeeded in unlocking the Brian Wilson treasure chest to my satisfaction. I won’t even mention the Billy Joels and Ricky Martins from the “All-Star Tribute”. Here’s a pretty typical example of a competent a cappella group, Rockapella, missing the point of how to cover ‘Surfer Girl’. Even some artists I greatly admire have been daunted by the original material. Here are my friends The Real Group, and here are my friends The Swingle Singers, both covering ‘God Only Knows’. I think neither really master the material. It’s hard to blame them. Paul McCartney’s called ‘God Only Knows’ the greatest song ever written. Here’s Paul making a mess of ‘God Only Knows’ with Brian. ”We were doing a benefit together, and at the sound check I lost it, because it’s very emotional, this song. I think ‘Oh my God, I’m singing it with Brian’, it just got me. I couldn’t do it.” I give both TRG and The Swingles credit – they do a better job than Paul and Brian himself. But there’s so much more still to be mined.
Woodie, including back seat
The one and only cover I’d heard before that to my ears really showed how much gold there is in them thar hills is that by a not-yet-fully-appreciated young artist, Kat Edmonson. She’s a knockout songwriter, and does great covers as well. On her 2012 album ‘Way Down Low’, she tackles ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ with taste and intelligence and talent, and comes up with a gem of a gold nugget.
When I talk about covering a work of substance, I believe it should be a piece that deserves to be revisited, that has musical value beyond that which earlier versions have found and which deserve to be explored. The original ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ is great, but would have been better served left alone. All of its value was right there in the original. More is less.
In researching this post, I was tickled to trip over three tributes that I hadn’t been aware of. The ‘All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson’ (2001) is a pretty embarrassingly lowbrow affair, our SoTW itself excluded. More interesting is the 2000 ‘Caroline, Now!’ CD, but the material is obscure, the artists mostly unknown to me, and the results unengaging. Most successful for me is ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, a jazz tribute to Brian Wilson from 1997, even though it takes Brian’s perfected edifices into the playing field of improvisation and thus doesn’t really deal with the essence of the material itself. The exception was a serendipitous discovery, five lovely, short a cappella cuts by ‘The Clark Burroughs Group’, L’Arc. And listen to this folks! Clark Burroughs is the original tenor of the Hi-Lo’s!! And not only that, he wrote the vocal arrangements for The Association’s ‘Windy’ and ‘Never My Love’!!! That connection has my head spinning, and you can bet your booties I’ll be pursuing it. Take a listen to what Mr Burroughs has done:
Surf’s Up – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys
Can’t Wait Too Long – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys
‘Til I Die – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys
Cabinessence – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys
I Went to Sleep – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys
If I have a reservation, it’s that Mr Burroughs chooses material from the ‘Smile’ era, when Brian was in full control of the studio and free of the fetters of Top 40 considerations. That’s not mining, that’s plucking gold from the surface. Still, it’s gold, and I just discovered this. Give me a few thousand more listens to coalesce my opinion.
Angst on the Beach
Brian Wilson’s early masterworks have so much still untapped that it breaks my heart to not hear this treasure appreciated anew. Jens Johansen reworked fully realized jewels such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. How much more fitting that he apply his great talent and that of his marvelous Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line to treat unrefined treasures such as those of Brian Wilson before he had his run of the studio with “Pet Sounds”. Or perhaps Clark Burroughs.
Paul Simon has recorded very few covers of other artists. With Art he did ‘The Times Are A-Changing’ (before he knew any better) and a couple of Everly Brothers just for fun (‘Wake Up, Little Suzie’ and ‘Bye Bye Love’). Much later he did a more respectable job on ‘Here Comes the Sun’, here solo and here with David Crosby and Graham Nash. But neither is really revelatory. More successful is the collaboration with James Taylor and Art Garfunkel on Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’, but that’s really James’ work rather than Paul’s.
Paul Simon is a remarkable artist. He can sing a phrase that’s so poignant and emotionally precise that it will echo in your heart for weeks. He’s also a perfectionist. He gets oodles of credit for his songwriting and even his singing and guitaring, but I think he’s too seldom recognized for his production and arrangement abilities, even from the old days of Simon and Garfunkel.
Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson
For his live performance of ‘Surfer Girl’, he clearly did his homework. The melody line is lovely and just a bit challenging. Paul employs it as a springboard for his own unique, affective talent and thereby both pays due respect and enriches the original. Listen to the beginning of the second verse. He sings ‘I have seen you on the shore’ in falsetto up an octave, and you’re saying ‘Oy, the melody goes up, he’ll never make it!’ But with a feat of inventiveness, ‘the sound of surprise’, he creates a beautiful new descending line, moving seamlessly from the head voice to chest voice.
He looks the line ‘I would drive you in my woodie’ right in the eyes, without flinching, and delivers it with compleat sincerity – neither pandering to the shlockiness nor pretending that it’s anything other than what the song really is: a beautiful, heartfelt ballad of unrequited teenage love, performed impeccably. What more could we ask for?
Little surfer, little one,
Made my heart come all undone.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?
I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the oceans roar.
Do you love me do you surfer girl?
We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow.
In my woody I would take you everywhere I go.
So I say, from me to you
I will make your dreams come true.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
142: Kat Edmonson, ‘Champagne’
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)
047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)
Brian Wilson Songs of The Week
Paul Simon Songs of The Week