Archive for September, 2011

20/20 was the record that started my Smile obsession. Had I not gotten this, and through the circuitous route it came my way – had I heard Smiley Smile first, for instance – I’m sure I wouldn’t now be counting down the days in anticipation of the forthcoming Smile Sessions box :

After Good Vibrations‘ worldwide success in 1966, and Heroes and Villains‘ relative flop, followup singles Wild Honey and Darlin’ reached the US top 40, but these mediocre efforts made the band few new friends. The same fate fell upon the inadvertantly-ironic title track of their 1968 album (‘we’ve been friends now for so many years…we drifted apart for a little bit of a spell‘…etc. I guess these are Mike Love lyrics…).

20/20 was The Beach Boys’ twentieth album (including compilations, and hence its title) – eleven of these were all pretty much written, arranged and produced by Brian Wilson – and all within an 8 year period. As the band’s third post-Brian, group-produced effort, 20/20‘s main function was to help fulfill a contractual obligation to Capitol Records; and, while attempting to renegotiate their Capitol contract, they also shopped around for a new label. Of course a hit album would have been useful, as well as accompanying hit singles…

The Beach Boys’ finances were in a pretty dire state, due to the complexities of their contract, a withholding of royalties (especially for production, which Brian had taken sole responsibility for until 1967), and including outdated deductions for ‘breakages’ that related to the shipping of shellac discs to shops (imagine a Beach Boys 78! Oh, hang on…). And there are, of course, also the costs and demands of a pop-group lifestyle…

In late 1969, as a partial solution, and with the band’s hit-making career seemingly over, Brian Wilson’s father, ex-manager, and sole owner of their Sea Of Tunes publishing catalogue,

witnessing the group’s poor sales record…thinks they have run their course and decides to cash in, selling the copyrights for all Brian and Mike’s classic songs to…the publishing division of A&M Records, for the grand sum of $700,000…Murry allegedly tells Brian that the songs will never amount to anything…Brian is inconsolable and spends several days in dark isolation…[these] songs are his babies. They represent years of blood, sweat and tears. And suddenly they are gone.

Had I known any of this in the mid-80s, I’m sure I couldn’t have cared less – I wasn’t aware of Smile, wasn’t interested in Pet Sounds, never mind all that ‘surfing shit’. I’d assumed that any appreciation of The Beach Boys beyond the sixties was surely pure kitsch – and secondhand copies of their early 70s albums (and especially Surf’s Up) looked like desperate, failed attempts to ‘get hip’ by a long-gone and essentially-dead franchise…

REM’s 1985 Reconstruction Of The Fables Of The album was produced by Joe Boyd, as a deliberate choice by Peter Buck, and because of the producer’s previous Witchseason work (Fotheringay, Fairport Convention, Incredible String Band, Nick Drake etc.). I knew of Joe Boyd mainly because of Bryter Layter – but REM’s alternate choice (according to an NME interview) was Van Dyke Parks, in part because of his work with The Beach Boys.

All of this pre-internet join-the-dots was through a combination of weekly close-readings of the UK music press (essentially the NME and Sounds – the latter for ‘balance’; we rarely bothered with Melody Maker, too many conversations about ‘this new guitar we like’, and band ads for ‘musicians wanted’) – plus a scrutiny of sleevenotes in secondhand record shops. The REM interview mentioned Smile in passing…

I was also going through a (fleeting) fascination with Charles Manson, via TG, the Re:Search books, and then Always Is Always on Psychic TV’s Dreams Less Sweet. It would seem that, bizarrely, The Beach Boys had also recorded a Manson cover, a version of Cease to Exist (from LIE) – and I found a cheap Beach Boys album with the latter (as Never Learn Not To Love), and a track with a ‘VD Parks’ co-credit – so two birds, and for two quid.

The Manson fascination passed not too long after Psychic TV themselves ceased to exist (being the moment Peter Christopherson left to form Coil, taking with him PTV’s imagination, ambition and Hipgnosis design-aesthetic). While Manson might have been the only convicted mass-murderer who had also recorded an album, this was a personal curiosity that wore out kinda quick. Steven Gaines’ Heroes and Villains book covers all of this in enough depth that I need not elaborate any further here, and most everyone knows about Manson anyway.

Having quickly exhausted the perverse appeal of Cease To Resist (as a Dennis Wilson track it’s not much cop; in light of Manson’s later notoriety, declaring its release an ‘error of judgement’ might be something of an understatement), one day I decided to let the album run on – and was distracted and enchanted by Our Prayer, which was very pretty indeed.

Next came 20/20‘s last track, the ‘B. Wilson/V.D. Parks’ collaboration, Cabinessence.

20/20 is a baffling compendium of hits, misses and outtakes – the ‘hits’ being: Brian and Mike’s Do It Again (wherein Mike is ‘looking back with love’ at an era where ‘suntanned bodies and waves of sunshine/the California girls and a beautiful coastline‘ made so much more sense than ‘columnated ruins domino‘); Al’s Cottonfields (a perfunctory cover of the Leadbelly tune – big hit in Europe, dead loss in the US); and Carl’s I Can Hear Music (a Spector cover with a lovely lead vocal, but then it kind of falls apart at 1:50 as its vocal arrangement audibly flounders – you can almost sense them wondering ‘but what would Brian do here?’).

The ‘misses’ are Bruce Johnston’s Bluebirds Over The Mountains cover (awful and pointless, and with bonus risibility in its Rarities version), and his Nearest Faraway Place instrumental (which so wishes it were Let’s Go Away For A While Part 2, but actually has more in common with the sad little theme that accompanies Dr. David Banner as he leaves yet another town the TV Hulk has smashed up).

Dennis’ Be With Me is nice, like a dry run for Pacific Ocean Blue…but then he follows it with All I Want to Do, a sexless chugging rock’n’roll tune about fucking (‘You ain’t got time for diamonds/And you pay no mind to gold/You gave up everything you had/But there’s one thing I want you to holdI just wanna do it with you/All night long‘). No woman could have ever been charmed by this. Surely.

There is also Brian’s flop single Time To Get Alone, but I’ll save this (along with Gettin’ Hungry, the Smiley Smile single no one bought) for a later post. Brian’s other original contribution to the album is 1 minute and 36 seconds long, a song called I Went To Sleep. Here is Brian, hidden (and hiding) inside the album’s gatefold :

Without Brian, The Beach Boys kept working and gigging – even without hits, playing live still paid. It must, however, take a very special kind of humility to regard venues like Leeds General Infirmary Nurses Home, their gig on 8th June ’69, as in any way ‘prestigious’…but, had they all slit their own throats in despair and self-disgust afterwards, they could at least have gotten immediate medical attention (“is there a doctor in the house?“).

The 1968/9 Beach Boys, as a recording unit, could barely be considered a band, and 20/20 is a collection of so-so solo tracks that (like its Warner Brothers successors) doesn’t add up to an album. With all of the above as the best they could do, The Beach Boys’ realised just how deeply their barrel needed scraping. Nothing of the original Smile sessions were worthy of inclusion on Smiley Smile in 1967, and while a brief insert (Mama Says) from the Smile version of Vega-Tables was rerecorded to end (and to no end) 1967’s Wild Honey album, nothing of the actual Smile session recordings had yet been released.

The decision to overdub new vocals onto Smile’s Prayer and Cabin-Essence masters, and then stick them together sequentially as the last two tracks of their last Capitol studio album has all the pathos and irony of the poorest of any TV movie rock biopic. But unbelievably, this was what happened. That these two tracks were the last recorded for 20/20 could be seen as an acknowledgement of the dedication needed to do justice to the complexity of the music, and out of a belated respect for Brian’s achievements with the Smile sessions. But the truth was that neither Prayer nor Cabin-Essence had been released in any form, whereas most of the rest of the planned 12 track Smile had either been pissed away on Smiley Smile, involved work only Brian could complete, or was just too weird to fit.

20th November 1968 :

For the second time in a week, and again to provide urgently needed material for 20/20, The Beach Boys revisit the abandoned Smile tapes [additional vocals were added to Our Prayer on the 17th]. Today they record additional vocals onto existing takes of ‘Cabinessence’. This version for 20/20 is compiled from three 1968 Smile-era pieces, ‘Home On The Range’, ‘Who Ran The Iron Horse’ and ‘The Grand Coulee Dam’.

22nd November :

A further mix session…for ‘Cabinessence’ is held today, with work concentrating on the song’s tag section and second chorus. With that, work on the next album, 20/20, is complete

The ‘tag section’ features that other lyric Mike Love refused to entertain during the Smile recordings, and which indirectly contributed to the album’s abandonment. But he’s singing it on this version…curious.

All of this work was, alas, to no avail; released in January 1969, 20/20 went the same way as its predecessors, a #68 album chart smash in the US. UK audiences bought enough copies to get it to Number Three, but almost certainly due to the inclusion of Do It Again (which topped the UK Hit Parade) rather than, finally, the release of some genuine Smile music.

Smile‘s moment had passed, and 20/20 became the unknown and unloved ‘end of an era’ it remained when, fifteen or so years later, while following the trails of a psychopathic hippy and a polymath record producer, I found a copy in Manchester’s Paramount Book Exchange.

Album fucking changed my life.

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Everything and anything you might ever need to know about Smile is online – and, after November the 1st, I’m sure all the official audio will also be a mere touchpad-tap away, at megaupload, mediafire, torrent sites et al. If you’ve come here via a Google search for ‘smile sessions mp3’ (and some people have), BE PATIENT! I’ve been waiting a quarter of a century – but pity this poor soldier (in a diary entry from April 1967) :

Smile‘s wikipedia entry now includes full tracklists for the upcoming Smile Sessions; you can also go wayback in internet-time (amazing how a decade somehow seems like a century) here or here or here or via here – and it was dialup internet and fan sites like these (hosted at Angelfire, Tripod & Geocities) that have helped put Smile into this 21st century public domain.

Obviously, at one time, there was precious little known about The Beach Boys unreleased recordings circa 66/67. The band themselves were often (and quite deliberately) the least reliable source of accurate information, and in interviews throughout the 1970s and 80s they reiterate ad nauseum a collective dismissal of this historical ‘blip’. Brian Wilson himself could often be the most contradictory, curtailed (presumably) by a loyalty to his family. It thus took fans and enthusiasts to uncover the specifics about Smile.

People like David Leaf, Brad Elliott, Peter Reum and Byron Preiss (in the US), and Mike Grant and Kingsley Abbott (in the UK) collated their discoveries via fanzines such as Endless Summer Quarterly and Beach Boys Stomp – and ultimately all of this has coalesced into the full documentation of the Smile Sessions release.

Domenic Priore, as Smile‘s current historical custodian (and the author of the 60-page book that accompanies the 2011 release) deserves to get coronated or knighted or given some such similar fucking honour for compiling this :

being Dumb Angel Gazette #2: Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! (Surfin Colors; I traded in my 1988 edition for this Last Gasp revised & expanded version in the late 90s, as its binding was collapsing through overuse)

It’s a densely-packed 300 page ‘scrapbook’ of contemporary journalism, graphics and adverts (its title and cover art was an advertisement for Smile when it was still forthcoming), plus session photos and log sheets, Capitol Records in-house memos (and a little bit of original, and possibly-spurious speculation…)…so much stuff. It’s also the source of the diary entry above, as well as the NME Poll graphic used here. Of course it’s absolutely essential. Seems it’s also not too cheap to pick up these days, but you can fuck off borrowing mine, I’m lending it to Chris down the street first.

Much less essential however is this :

(Sanctuary, 2005), which is a kind of handy ‘pocket guide’, but should have been authoritative and isn’t (and especially after Priore was considered for a knighthood for services rendered)…a review on Amazon from someone with an opinion:

Priore’s 20-odd pages devoted to post-Smile fandom (Chapter 15, An Underground Train) was extraordinarily informative, to me anyway, especially in contextualising Darian Sahanaja’s path from Smile fan to the live Smile‘s ‘musical secretary’. I’m gonna go on about this some more in a later post.

I’ve read and reread this way too many times :

(Backbeat, 2004), because a reliable Beach Boys timeline is crucial in understanding Smile, and exactly how and why Brian Wilson lost his way over the years. The ‘on stage’/’in the studio’ dichotomy clarifies a whole bunch of otherwise inexplicable occurences – and the book ’rounds up’ most everything post-1976, because The Beach Boys stopped being interesting, began their ‘endless summer’, and cultivated their Reaganite/Morlock fan base. This is a book for the Eloi…

I got this from Newcastle’s Pet Sounds shop in the mid-90s, and it reprints in facsimile (ie. it’s a poorly-bound collection of photocopies) pretty much all of the useful and informative press about the band from the mid-70s up to the Capitol CD reissues in the early ’90s. So there are all three parts of The Last Beach Movie by Nick Kent (from the NME in ’75), Tom Nolan’s The Healing of Brother Brian from Rolling Stone in 76, and a Goldmine magazine overview of the entire Beach Boys catalogue (1990), as well as a whole bunch of Beach Boys™-sponsored ‘Brian Is Back’ bullshit…some of this is truly horrifying reading. I would imagine that this and its companion volumes were the basis for Abbott’s Back To The Beach, but I’ve yet to find a copy secondhand.

The Pet Sounds shoppie seemed thrilled to take my payment for this, maybe due to its monstrously-unattractive cover (though I do like the teeny-tiny Bruce Johnston..).

Wouldn’t It Be Nice – My Own Story appears to be written by someone called Todd Gold (‘coauthor of Little Girl Lost – The Drew Barrymore Story’) – it sure as hell wasn’t written by Brian Wilson. Various people attempted to sue Brian for defamation of character, as well as plagarism when this weird book was first published. If Brian’s own authorised autobiography has to steal from scurrilous and unauthorised hackjobs, and is prefaced with the caveat that, ‘to the best of my abilities, this book is how I remember my life up until this point’, one must exercise caution about any firsthand reportage. However there are a few useful details within (even if they’re nicked from other people).

Surf’s Up! – The Beach Boys On Record, 1961-1981 by Brad Elliott (Pieran Press, 1982) was at one time the motherlode of Beach Boys data, and contained some of the first accurate Smile-related information between (lovely clothbound) hard covers. These 7 pages (out of 500) might not seem like much now, but without Brad Elliott’s research (and his followup 1988 article The Facts About Smile, as reprinted in Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, pages 144-160), Smile academia would be a far less well-informed discipline.

Heroes and Villains – The True Story of the Beach Boys by Steven Gaines (Macmillan, 1986) is only ‘true’ inasmuch as it covers some of the more unsavoury aspects of the Wilson extended-family saga (Charles Manson, sex, drugs, Mike Love). I bought this when it was first published (an expensive hardback, purchase subsidised with a Housing Benefit cheque), because I couldn’t stop looking at its Smile session pics on the Wilshaw’s bookshop display. Gaines, to his credit, popped up on a Beach Boys messageboard a few years ago and essentially apologised for some of the book’s more egregious claims. Admirable.

The Beach Boys by John Tobler (Hamlyn, 1978) – this is the spine of what we affectionately referred to as ‘The Beach Boys Annual’, a kind of pop music picture book, and from a time when the popular music idiom didn’t get too much academic consideration. I have a companion called West Coast Story which served a similar purpose, but that one still has its dustjacket; The Beach Boys Annual got so pockmarked (cos we used to skin up on it) that its jacket was eventually discarded. John Tobler was always a fan, and while some Smile rumour gets regurgitated here (Fire tapes destroyed etc.), it’s actually quite a respectable history, considering that (with dustjacket) it might easily have made the perfect Christmas gift, alongside that 1978 Whizzer & Chips Annual

Point of all of this? Well certainly not to demonstrate erudition; even this long out-of-date list has books I have neither seen nor read (and especially those by David Leaf and Timothy White). I do, however, plan to make a few join-the-dots observations about Brian and The Beach Boys as this indeterminate series unfolds. And I would rather that some paper-based ‘primary sources’ have been, at the very least, consulted and considered, than write what reads like a rehashed rehash of a Wikipedia rehash.

Everything and anything you might ever need to know about anything is now online; there is no longer any excuse for ignorance. And I wouldn’t want to ever seem this dumb :

September 16, 2011

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s magnum opus. Here’s why it’s better than any of the rest.

Not the White Album. Not Gimme Shelter. Not Are You Experienced. Not even The Fabulous Little Richard. Those albums are all canonical, and surely there are other very important records in the history of rock ‘n’ roll that are contenders. But none of them are Nevermind, the breakout album of a previously little-known trio from the working-class logging town of Aberdeen, Washington.

Other albums might have influenced the sound of music in certain ways, might have been important to rock’s trajectory. But none of them changed the culture at large so vastly, so roughly and so immediately. Even the hippies of the ‘60s counterculture weren’t influenced and changed so distinctly as those of us living in a post-Nirvana world. In a way, the strange epoch we’re stuck with now is both a reflection and a result of the way Nevermind affected us; we are living the chaotic meaninglessness the album prophesied, even more than the shitshow that was the 1990s. If Nevermind was an existential statement, we’ve been blasted into the apocalypse.

I was unaware that the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ was ‘canonical’ – or even existed…but, you know, 1991 was so long ago…

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