Saturday, 6 March 2010

News, Views and Music Issue 55 (Intro)

March 6:

♫ Hello, hiya, howdy and watcher, it’s time for issue 55 of everybody’s favourite spice girls-baiting rotten music hating AAA-pulsating monkeynuts newsletter. Not much news to tell you this week except that we’re now approaching the 700 visitors mark, so thankyou to everyone whose dropped in for a visit and a quick look round our (non-photo) albums. We’ll be back a bit later than normal next issue but seeing as we’ve been a bit early posting the last two hopefully that shouldn’t matter too much. Anyway, till then happy reading!


CSNY News/Jefferson Airplane News: There were no less than two AAA-related answers on last week’s under-rated ‘Only Connect’ quiz (BBC3 Monday 8.30pm) which would have got me a whopping seven points if I’d been on the show (though, as normal, I can’t say I got many of the other rounds that week). For those who don’t know the show is about connections between four seemingly random people/places/objects and on the CSNY round contestants had to guess the fourth name in the sequence after being provided with (Bing) Crosby, (whisky) Stills, (Kate) Nash (the result, of course, was (Jimmy) Young). I’m pleased to see its the only round where I’ve ever guessed the answer from the beginning (or are ever likely to!) As if that wasn’t enough round four was all about ‘famous Graces’, naturally including Mrs Slick from the Jefferson Airplane. Full marks to host Victoria Coren for calling the latter group ‘that wonderful band...’ although perhaps not her ‘bird competition’ joke which changed CSNY into Crowsby, Starling, Natterjack and Yearling! Yeah, OK, so that’s not really very newsworthy but I have to fill this column up somehow!


ANNIVERSARIES: Our birthday boys this week (February 28th-March 6th) are Brian Jones (multi-instrumentalist with The Rolling Stones 1962-68) who would have been 68 on February 28th, Roger Daltrey (singer with The Who 1964-82 and various re-unions) who turns 66 on March 1st and David Gilmour (guitarist with Pink Floyd 1968-94) who turns 63 on March 6th. Anniversaries of events include: John and Paul write ‘From Me To You’ in the back of a tour bus after reading the quote in that week’s letter column of the NME (February 28th 1963); The Cavern Club closes its doors for the final time after raking up debts of £70,000 (February 28th 1966); The Beatles start filming for their first film ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – amazingly the film will premiere in the summer of the same year (March 2nd 1964); Stephen Stills takes part in the fondly if hazily remembered ‘Havana Jam’ festival, an event held to strengthen American-Cuban relations (March 2nd 1979); John Lennon’s quote about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus first appears in print in the Evening Standard where it doesn’t even make a headline – it won’t be till American journalists get hold of the story a few months later that it becomes front page news (March 4th 1966); The Rolling Stones record their ‘Love You Live’ album at Toronto’s low capacity and intimate El Macombo Club – with Keith Richards’ latest drug bust hanging over the band (see last week’s column) there are fears that this will be the last record the bad will ever do (March 4th 1977); The Rolling Stones and The Hollies begin a tour together, creating a friendship that lasts throughout most of the 1960s (March 5th 1965 – and contrary to most books on the subject they are joint headliners, generally switching billing depending on the venue); The Rolling Stones also record their first live album – Got Live If You Want It – during a gig in Liverpool on March 6th 1965 and finally, The Beatles release their last ever single in the UK with ‘Let It Be’ on March 6th 1970, over a year after it’s recording.

And for week two (March 7th-13th) its birthday celebrations for Micky Dolenz (drummer and actor with The Monkees 1966-70) who turns 65 on March 8th. Anniversaries of events include: the first time British stars fill up the whole of the UK top 10 (including AAA members The Searchers at no 5 with ‘Needles and Pins’ and The Rolling Stones at no 6 with ‘Not Fade Away’) (March 7th 1964); The Beatles appear on the radio for the first time singing ‘Dream Baby’ on ‘Teenagers Turn’ a full seven months before their first single release (March 8th 1962); The legendary Fillmore East venue - or ‘Fillmore Esat’ as they famously mis-spelled it on their advertising banner – opens in San Francisco and will become home to the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane among others (March 8th 1968); Pigpen aka Ron McKernan, organist and founder of The Grateful Dead, dies of liver failure on March 8th 1973; The Beatles release their last ever EP after breaking every EP record in the book over the past four years (‘Yesterday’, which never was a single in the UK, is released on March 10th 1966); The Blue Jays – Moody Blues members Justin Hayward and John Lodge – perform their first gig at the Albert Hall (March 10th 1975); Paul Simon gets a gold record for his best-selling solo single ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ (March 11th 1976); Paul and Linda McCartney tie the knot at Marleybone Registry Office (March 12th 1969); John Lennon gets evicted from Los Angeles’ Troubadour Club after heckling the Smothers Brothers, an act that makes him question the wisdom of continuing his ‘lost weekend’ (March 12th 1974) and finally, Stephen Stills’ biggest solo hit ‘Love The One You’re With’ reaches its peak in the UK charts (March 13th 1971).     

News, Views and Music Issue 55 (Top Five): The Worst AAA Albums

And now for our latest top five. Following on from last week’s glimpse of the world’s worst music, we’ve chosen to remind ourselves that even our beloved AAA groups are human (although the jury’s still out for the human league!) and study the five worst AAA-related albums to date. Now as ever opinions are always going to be divided over an artist’s best work, but as we’ve decided to give you our examples of the greatest music ever made we thought it only fair to tell you which music you should avoid – and remember, like everything to do with music, its only a personal opinion and not everyone’s going to agree (we bet somebody out there somewhere still likes the Spice Girls!) Now, it goes without saying that even the worst of these albums are miles better than the horrors we told you about last week but by AAA standards it’s fair to say each of these albums are a disappointment. There are lots of candidates for the worst AAA album of course – all together the AAA crowd must have released just under half a million albums, more if you include spin-off solo LPs – and there are lots more dodgy albums than we’ve included in our list. But perhaps the most startling thing about the list is that, actually, none of these albums are that bad on their own (its just that, compared to the heights we know these groups are capable of, these lows are very low indeed...)  

5) The Monkees “JustUs” (1996). We’d waited 27 years for all four Monkees to get back together. And say what you like about the three-way ‘Pool It!’ in 1986, it might not have been the best Monkees album but it at least showed the seeds of how good the Monkees could have sounded when their ‘garage sound’ was updated (three good tracks out of 12 isn’t much but I’ve heard far worse odds than that, see below). And the band’s concert performances that year were pretty good, forget what the critics said (I still can’t believe the Daily Mail attended the same Birmingham show I did that year with their talk of ‘monkee business earning pensions’ – did they send their deaf music columnist to review it or something?!) And this Mike Nesmith-produced album, with the band playing their own instruments for the first time since the early sessions for ‘Pisces Aquarius’ in 1967, seemed to tie in nicely with the late grunge period feel. Best of all every single song was to be written by the band – something that had never happened before. Ever. But oh what a disappointment – Nesmith only gets one ‘new’ song (along with a terrible re-recording of ‘Circle Sky’) and it’s diabolical; Peter Tork only gets two and they’re also diabolical. Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, never the most prolific of writers, carve up the album between them and they’re...disinterested. What this album adds up to is 12 slices of noisy uninspired pop (even the ballads) from a band who – according to the stories that leaked out in the press later – hated each other by the end of the sessions every bit as much as they did in the late 60s. Such a shame, such a missed opportunity that doesn’t seem likely to come round again (not that this album ever seemed likely to happen either at the time...) Worst moment: That ‘Circle Sky’ re-recording; the original is a cleverly poised word association rocker about media lies and repeating yourself. This ‘new’ version is a leaden, lumpy nonsense song that sounds like its being sung by Brian Blessed on acid (although its nowhere near as exciting as that sounds). Redeeming feature: the fact that it happened at all, although Micky’s ‘Regional Girl’ is a passable pop song (albeit one that doesn’t sound like The Monkees one iota) and Peter’s ‘I Believe You’ might be a song built all on one note but at least it’s a nice note.   

4)The Moody Blues “Keys Of The Kingdom” (1991). This album does have its saving graces, sort of: you get to hear Justin Hayward whistling his way through a chorus of ‘Is This Heaven?’ while drummer Graeme Edge tap dances chaotically behind him and the album’s single ‘Say It With Love’ is a fairly convincing attempt to sum up the group’s history and philosophy in three minutes. But play this album back to back with even the weakest of the band’s classic albums (and even their late 70s reunions) and you realise that listening to a drummer tap dance and a funky but largely one-note single highlights aren’t even in the same universe as past glories. And as for the rest of the album, all we seem to get are The Moodies reduced to their clichéd templates: Justin and John Lodge each get a syrupy ballad (‘Bless The Wings’ is a candidate for the Moodies’ worst single and ‘Lean On Me’ isn’t far behind), Justin attempts a rocker and then gives up partway through and worst of all Ray Thomas is almost absent from the whole record, with his much awaited collaboration with Justin on ‘Never Blame The Rainbows For The Rain’ a candidate for the worst individual Moodies track of all (and his solo ‘Celtic Sonant’ probably is the worst individual Moodies track of all). So far so uninspired, but add in an insipid production spread across several sessions and four different groups of producers (including the usually reliable Tony Visconti on a really off day) and you end up with the most impersonal, least Moodies-ish album of all. I’d got used to not hearing mellotrons by1991 but surely the band could have used something other than that darned synth noise on every track? Worst moment: The best Moodies moments are weird, off-the-wall and ambitious, the sort of things less confident bands would never dare to attempt. Sadly Celtic Sonant is why: weird, off-the-wall, ambitious and hopelessly unlistenable. Even ‘Bless The Wings’ sounds kind of OK next to this. Redeeming feature: ‘Say It With Love’, as mentioned, is a sweet little single and ‘Say What You Mean’ is quite a cute rocker (although the reprise with the Vincent Price-ish voice gets a bit weird and a bit too close to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ for my taste). 

3) The Beach Boys “Still Crusin’” (1989). Most fans reckon that follow-up ‘Summer In Paradise’ is the Beach Boys’ absolute nadir, but bad as that album is this one is even worse. Let’s just take a look at the things working against this album: 1) Brian Wilson is at his poorliest, having been pulled back from the brink once and then left to slip under the prodding gaze of manager/psychologist Eugene Landy who takes a co-credit for every single one of Brian’s songs in this period. 2) Dennis Wilson has died, leaving the whole Wilson-Love/Jardine fight for control in disarray, with Carl hardly present in favour of Mike and Al at their most irritating. 3) This ridiculously short album concludes with two Beach Boys classics – no, not re-recorded versions of classics but the original 60s releases note-for-note. Established fans already had these songs millions of times over while the few new fans who came the Beach Boys’ way via film soundtracks simply laughed at how old and bored the band sounded on their newer material by comparison. And at least ‘Paradise’ had a stunning cover and a more active role by ‘sixth Beach Boy’ Bruce Johnstone – here its just Brian Wilson at his unhappiest and Mike Love at his strongest, which is not a pretty combination. Worst moment: It’s a toss up between hearing an out-of-control Brian reducing his creative genius to writing a clichéd song about driving in his car and that sinking feeling you get when you hear the first notes of million seller ‘Kokomo’ and think ‘did this song really click with American fans enough to make #1?!’ Redeeming feature: ‘Somewhere In Japan’, co-written by Love, Jardine and the Mamas and Papas’ John Phillips, isn’t exactly a hidden treasure but it is head and shoulders above everything else here.

2) Paul McCartney “Chaos and Creation In The BackYard” (2001). This album bizarrely restored faith in McCartney in the eyes of the press but I have not the foggiest idea why – its the laziest, most boring bunch of undescriptive nothingness that McCartney has yet put together. Now, we mentioned in our review for ‘Venus And Mars’ (see review no 64) that every McCartney has one cringe-inducing song that gets it so wrong you wonder how on earth the rest of the album manages to be so wonderful. Well, this is a whole album’s worth of mistakes that all sound the same on first hearing and then all sort terrible when you get to know them better. The song English Tea must also rank as a strong contender for the most awful song of Paul’s career – its chorus line ‘how twee, how me’ sum up the album perfectly. When we heard that follow-up ‘Memory Almost Full’ was made up of outtakes from this album (!) we ran for the hills – but as bad as that album is (especially the dire single ‘Dance Tonight’) at least that set is rescued by a couple of touched of McCartney magic. This is the one solo McCartney album that doesn’t have one good song. Worst moment: English Tea. My God how I hate that song! Redeeming feature: A lovely front cover featuring a young Paul in the back yard of the McCartney family home, shortly before Hamburg, Epstein and the fame that’s followed him ever since, as snapped by brother Mike. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by it’s cover!   

1) Hollies “Staying Power” (2005). From the opening ‘wo-o-o-o-ah’ you know something is up. The sort of banal cliché the Hollies did so well avoiding for over 40 years is suddenly all over this album, with new vocalist Peter Howarth over-egging everything and treating the album like a bad karoke night. My hopes were high for this album – sure only Tony Hicks and Bobby Elliott were left from the original group but The Hollies had been through more changes than most during their 40 year odyssey and usually managed to come up trumps somehow. And this was the first Hollies album since way back in 1983 and the Graham Nash reunion album ‘What Comes Around’ – given all the pretty darn good single-only releases in the interim surely we could expect something amazing now that The Hollies had a full album to themselves? I was never that big a fan of Carl Wayne when he took over the vocal spot but even his tracks (heard on the Hollies box set ‘Long Road Home’) have a certain power and poise about them. Not to mention the fact that in 40 years of trying the Hollies had never actually put out a bad album before? (some are weaker than others, of course, but none of them are actually bad). Well, the trouble is this album just sounds nothing like The Hollies – there’s nothing to connect it to the mid-90s line-up (with Allan Clarke and the under-rated Alan Coates) never mind the mid-60s line-up. And its not just vocalist Peter Howarth’s fault either: Tony Hicks’ strong songwriting, which he continued right up until the late 90s, has been passed over for a series of anonymous songwriting teams; the human pathos and social understanding that has been a longstanding Hollies theme has been passed over for a series of tired analogies about love that have been hundreds of times before, Bobby Elliott’s groundbreaking drumming seems to have been uploaded from a computer and worst of all those glorious soaring Hollies harmonies are hardly present at all. I’m all for groups trying to update their sound (it’s what gave us Paul McCartney’s ‘Fireman’ albums and the best of Ray Davies and Brian Wilson’s solo work after all), but this is throwing out the baby, the bath water and everything in the bathroom including the sink out the door just to sound ‘modern’ (and anonymous). The word is The Hollies are busy at work on another, more traditional sounding album so let’s not write them off just yet and hope that they’ve learnt their lesson from this rather odd piece of work. Worst moment: the single, ‘So Damn Beautiful’ – everything goes double for ending the unsurpassable run of wonderful singles The Hollies have had in their career. Even the cringeworthy ‘Sorry Suzanne’, the band’s only weak original single, wasn’t this bad! Redeeming feature: Err, there really isn’t one. Even the cover manages to cover Tony Hicks’ profile – the only recognisable one among the band these days its been that long since the last album cover with their faces on it – with a blinding flash of sunlight.  

So that’s it for another issue: from the sublime to the ridiculous, we cover everything here at the AAA! Till the next issue, keep rocking, keep reading and we’ll see you soon!

Brian Wilson "That Lucky Old Sun" (2008) (News, Views and Music 55)

1) Beach Boys - Advertising Horde by Alan Pattinson

Click Here To Buy All Our Beach Boys Articles In One Book!

“Even when the sun and I head off to sleep there’s an unspoken promise that we keep, we’ll pilot our light into another day and keep a golden glow warming LA” “Summer ’61 a Goddess became my song” “You broke your hand punching the clock” “Open up open up open your eyes its time its time its time to rise, OK take it slow – you’ve got no place to go, I cried a million tears, I wasted a lot of years, life was so dim, life was so dim” “When there’s no ‘morning’ without ‘u’, There’s only darkness the whole day through, took the diamond from my soul and turned it back into coal” “At 25 I turned off the lights because I couldn’t handle the glare in my tired eyes”

Brian Wilson “That Lucky Old Sun” (2008)

That Lucky Old Sun/Morning Beat/Room With A View/Good Kind Of Love/Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl/Venice Beach/Live Let Live-That Lucky Old Sun (Reprise)/Mexican Girl/Cinco De Mayo-California Role-Reprise/Between Pictures/Oxygen To The Brain/Can’t Wait Too Long/Midnight’s Another Day/Reprise/Going Home/Southern California.

I’ve been playing ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ a lot recently despite the fact that I only played it a handful of times before filing it away after buying it and haven’t quite got round to exploring it again since. That’s unusual for me. Usually I know on first playing whether an album is going to be an ever present companion that’s rarely far from my subconscious, an occasional playmate I visit whenever I’m getting bored with my subconscious or a stranger I liaise with once in a blue moon when my subconscious goes haywire and that very rarely changes – certainly not the extent of mind changing that’s going on here (when this album has been elevated from Brian’s worst solo to one of his best after ‘Smile’). The public and press seem similarly confused – hailed as a masterpiece on its release it seemed to suddenly jump from being in the charts despite a whopping £22 price tag to ending up in the £1 bin at poundland. To be honest and despite my own changing opinion of it, this is an album that lies very much in the middle of those two extremes: if you’re a fan of Brian Wilson’s solo music (and, surprisingly, not every Beach Boys fan is despite the fact that Brian was always very much the driving force in the band whether in full flow in the recording studio or shouting out advice from his bed) you’ll be quite intrigued but if you dislike the Beach Boys altogether you’ll hate this record.

You see, on the surface ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ is a sprawling typically 60s typically Brian Wilson-y concept opera based around the classic Gallespie and Smith song, which spreads its rays throughout practically every song on the album. The long awaited reunion between Brian and Van Dyke Parks (lyricist on the sublime ‘Smile’) also adds some typically eccentric monologues linking many of the album’s tracks, which make this album sound like a cross between an old musical and an old drama – not the sort of thing that’s likely to appeal to most casual fans.

But oh the other half: this is Brian Wilson at the most personal and autobiographical he’s ever been (well, since Pet Sounds and Smile perhaps), offering us snapshots of his career and reminisces about the muse who inspired his very first song ‘Surfer Girl’ in 1961, the horrendous loss of confidence and vitality that ended up leaving the elder Wilson brother a bed-bound wreck at the age of 25 and a tribute to how Brian’s whole way of thinking changed once he met his backing band ‘The Wondermints’, got back on the road and started getting the whole hearted love from audiences he’s been denied since turning his back on touring in 1965 ( a whole year before The Beatles). Perhaps all this is because Brian turns full circle on this record, signing with Capitol Records for the first time since the glory days of 1969, recording this album in the same studios he used to work in as an unknown and with many of the same staff still on hand to help out (rumour has it they even dug out an old 1960s mixing board for this album too!) Brian’s never been totally against the personal in his songs of course – his first solo ‘Brian Wilson’ (1988) is similarly full of memories and glimpses at his soul and Brian’s own history has inspired many of the best tracks on follow-up albums ‘Imagination’ (1998) and ‘Gettin’ In Over My Head’ (2004). But its hard for a natural born composer (as opposed to a natural born composer and lyricist) to write about himself in every song he writes and they were just glimpses of Brian’s story - this album is Brian’s life on paper, more or less. The fact that its taken me so long to work that out shows a) what a cloth pair of ears your reviewer has sometimes and b) just what a complex, complicated life Brian has led.

For the styles on this album vary considerably: we get early 60s surfin’ pop, early 60s ballads, rock and roll, boogie woogie, multi-layered orchestral epics and even – for the first time ever on a Beach Boys-related record – a Mexican cha cha. Sometimes we get all of these in the same song. To be honest I’d spent too long trying to work out this album based on the ‘Lucky Old Sun’ refrain and monologues that keep cropping up, but I realise now that the ‘Sun’ passage here is just representative of the music that first inspired Brian to try his hand at writing his own and could easily have been one of his other loves (like Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ or anything by the four Freshman). Brian is going back to the source, in other words, trying to trace his talent back to the music and events that first inspired it, giving us a few updates about what happened to him since along the way. The monologues of course could mean anything we want them to and more (they are by Van Dyke Parks after all!) but for me they sound like Brian tracing back his past by tying it in with other people and what his generation went through at particular times (a key lyric for this album, which appears as late as the last track in true Brian Wilson style, is a celebration of California and the lines “When you wake up here you wake up everywhere”. We even get the first ‘true’ appearance of the recorded-in-1967, released-in-1990s ‘Can’t Wait Too Long’, one of the best unreleased tracks by anyone anywhere at any time, even if it is a frustratingly short fragment. Of course the other key lines of the album also wait until the last minute of this last track: “Fell asleep in the bandroom, woke up in history” – its as if the love and respect of both Brian’s band and his fans have put him in a good place at last, one where the missing 40 years between Smile and 2007 never happened, just a nightmare that should never have happened.   

Brian could never have written this album without conquering ‘Smile’, possibly the hardest album any musician ever had to make (I urge to listen to that album a hundred times and then read review no 101 for the full story – hopefully if I’ve done my job right you’ll then be gasping as to how this album ever made it into the shops at all, even if it was 37 years late). There’s something about hearing an artist conquering their demons that always seems to leave them free to embrace the muse that started them in the first place, before creativity and making art gave way to deadlines, pressure and breakdowns. A large percentage of Brian’s new found confidence, enabling him to conquer both ‘Smile’ and this optimistically (in both senses of the word) complex album, comes from his new found band and his new found wife. The Wondermints (plus various members they picked along the way) were an American band specialising in 1960s songs and Beach Boys cover versions when they met Brian and tentatively agreed to back him for a series of low-key rehearsals that resulted in a triumphant 2002 tour (you can hear the first gig at the impressive ‘Live At The Roxy’ show). It must have seemed light years apart from the tortuous Beach Boys shows of the 60s for Brian: he no longer had to share the spotlight with brothers, cousins and friends all trying to get in on the act (all of whom proved themselves worthy of the spotlight in the post-Brian wilderness years but wouldn’t have known it at the time) and was instead surrounded by admirers. The same must have happened when he first stood on the stage: of course the music press are a law unto themselves (especially at gigs) but the pressure was off Brian somewhat – he didn’t have to compete directly with all the other wonderful 60s acts we talk about on this website and by and large people were just glad to have him back; however excellent he was was just a bonus. From there grew the belief that ‘Smile’ was worth digging out (it helped, too, that most of the Wondermints are multi-instrumentalists, able to cover far more instruments than the Beach Boys did even if their talents were pretty impressive) and Brian got the courage to look back at his past with a deal of fondness as well as fear (they could have done a whole show without ever crossing the Brian-in-bed era and they’d still have had more hit songs in their repertoire than any other group out touring that year). 

Talking of the music press being a law unto themselves, last month I read a review of Brian’s latest tour in 2009, one which claimed that – wonderful as it had been to have him back and tackling new projects – Brian had run out of new projects to do and had fallen back on surf and car songs again. For a while I was fooled by that review, as well as my first handful of cursory listening to this album which, yes, does indeed seem to offer all the sort of Beach Boys sound alike songs from different eras you might expect. But now I truly ‘get’ what Brain was doing with this complex album: he’s revisiting all the many sections of his past from his current perspective, in a how-did-I-ever-get-through-that-and-wow-I-understand-it-all-so-much-better-now way of thinking. Brian isn’t being lazy revisiting his past triumphs, he’s being brave because he actively wants to go back to where he postponed his art and he’s never actually been back there before for any length of time because it scared him too much (or did pre-2004 or so). And no I’m not one of those unkind critics who fail to see what all the fuss was about – if I’d’ve been under all that pressure from fans, family, friends and peers for five straight years I would have cracked up and been too scared to go there too. But for all of its worried elements and occasional glimpses of the darkness that’s plagues Brian for so long, perhaps the best thing is that this is Brian’s happiest album since, well, ever.     

One of the reasons I failed to notice quite how many autobiographical messages there were is that they don’t actually start till a while into the album. The opener, ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, is a straightforward rendition of the old Gillespie classic, sung in the same straight-but-different way that Brian handled ‘You Are My Sunshine’ on ‘Smile’. It’s the longest extract we get for this supposedly key song on the whole album and its only a minute or so long. Watch out for those opening killer harmonies from The Wondermints, though: a fabulous a capella opening which sounds like ‘Our Prayer’ crossed with the forthcoming ‘Can’t Wait Too Long’. No wonder I was confused when I first hear it, though – this tale of a lazy sun rolling round playfully in the sky while the narrator looks on enviously has nothing to do with Brain’s life or the rest of the album (as I said before, I think its just here as a representative of Brian’s early influences – hearing these tight, jazzy, harmonically complicated chords is pretty reminiscent of Brain’s work circa 1966).

‘Morning Beat’ is a Brian Wilson song but it’s a more general one than the rest on this album; this time its a ‘lucky old sun’ that shines on the narrator as he jumps out of bed with a mock gospel chorus, desperate to get on with his wonderful day. It’s one of those typically early Beach Boys-y songs about sunshine and happiness that appeal to everybody (and recall Brian’s own early past in true Beach Boys style – just listen to the very Beach Boysy harmonies and the chorus/keyboard riff which is lifted straight from Brian’s last back-to-basics-song ‘Do It Again’ in 1968). Typically Brian, though, we get a middle eight that travels in a completely different direction, with clodding horseshoes and an orchestral arrangement which is pure ‘Smile’. Lyrically this is the tale of a confident young man who has the whole world at his feet, feeling the power of the sun (and of life and creativity) surging through his veins, desperate to get his talents out there and who knows that, even when he sleeps and the sun goes out, his ‘pilot light’ (a wonderful pun that, suggesting both an inner guiding system and a boiler-like pilot light that burns constantly) will always revive his abilities the next morning. Brian never felt as alive as he did in these early days, he seems to be telling us, and it’s all so thrilling that he chooses to round the album off with this track’s mock religious chorus (Maumamayama Glory Hallelujah), suggesting that in the present day Brian is back to where he used to be.

‘Room With A View’ is a typically misleading Van Dyke Parks narrative, held together by two crashing chords and a Mellotron riff that sounds like an outtake from ‘Who’s Next’. Already there are dark clouds on the horizon: on a ‘dark bay...suspicions are in play’ and Van Dyke kindly writes to Brian ‘Just now I was thinkin’ bout another perfect day and wishing it would come again your way’. The second half of the track loses me somewhat (hooting owls and coyotes living on LA – I would suggest Mike Love for the role but I’d only get a hoot of protest about it) and like many other linking narratives on other albums this is hardly a track made for repeated listening, but if you think of this as Van Dyke writing the Smile follow-up he’d postponed for 40 odd years as an open letter to Brian it’s pretty sweet.  

‘Good Kind Of Love’ is the passage of Brian’s life when he began to get adventurous: this track shares the same kind of orchestral-come-pop ballad feel as ‘California Girls’ and the same mix of complex/profound and catchy singalong as that track did way back in 1965. This is also the history of Brian’s first marriage to Marilyn and the many hopes and fears of the couple last heard in depth on ‘Pet Sounds’ (especially God Only Knows and Caroline, No). Taylor Mills gets her first ‘proper’ duet with Brian after about six years now of faithfully singing background harmonies and its odd to hear a voice on a Beach Boys/Brian Wilson album even higher than Brian’s! For all the doubts creeping in on the couple, though, ‘The sun keeps on shining’ the chorus tells us and ‘a little bit of loving and a kissing and a hugging’ goes a long way in maintaining Brian’s faith in himself and enables his talents to keep flowing. ‘Good Kind Of Love’ might not be the best song Brian ever wrote and it’s less successful than the others at representing both his past and a Brian Wilson-ish song you can hear out of context, but he can still write a good melody and his band are as faithful to his ambitions as ever.

‘Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl’ is Brian’s first song to his original love Wendy since 1963! Going back to a time before Marilyn, this is Brian’s memory of his first love and the girl who inspired the imagined ideal that crops up in all the early Beach Boys songs (as well as inspiring his first ever song ‘Surfer Girl, written to the same music as ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ from the Disney Pinocchio film – she also seems to share something of her personality with the kindly fairy who sings the song in the film if Brain’s descriptions of her in this and other songs are to be believed). There are oodles of Brian Wilson references in this song, from the ‘ocean eyes’ to her offering the gift of ‘timeless melody’, all wrapped up in a generic tale of first love which Brian sighs along with knowingly. The fairly trite melody by Brain’s standards is all part of the atmosphere of early, innocent times and while you’d never listen to this song out of context either, its well arranged and affecting when you know the story behind it.

‘Venice Beach’ is another of those Van Dyke linking pieces, less successful than the last, which simply serves to underline how even the most bizarre and unusual everyday practices in the wider world become normal when you do them often enough (shades of Brain’s behaviour to come) and the threatening image of the homeless beatnik on the horizon, a person who sacrificed the easy life to follow the dreams that caught his ear. Brian’s young narrator is too busy experiencing life to take much notice of him yet, though, or know how closely his narrative will soon be mirroring the stranger’s.

‘Live Let Live’ is perhaps the weakest track on the album – a series of weak rhymes and an even more simplistic boogie woogie piano riff might mimic the narrator’s still-undiluted hope and optimism well, but its a bit irritating all the same. This is a return to the message of that ‘lucky old sun’ giving light, but this time its the ocean giving us life: watery, ever changing emotions that help us experience life in all its shades but all too often knocks us back when things go wrong, just like the surfers who crash helplessly under each heavy wave despite their apparent strength and stamina. Despite all these worthy links with Brian’s life, however, this song and the next don’t really fit into this album: this is the only ‘song’ as opposed to ‘narrative’ that Van Dyke co-wrote on this album with Brian and for once his clever wordplay gets in the way of the story rather than enhancing it and letting it fly in several directions at once. Brian’s tune isn’t one of his best either.

‘Mexican Girl’ is back to being written by Brian with the fabulous Scott Bennett (of The Wondermints) but unlike all the other songs on the album written by the pair, this one doesn’t really fir either. A simple (perhaps too simple) of an attempted seduction on the part of the narrator, I suppose you could see first wife Marilyn as being of Mexican blood if you squint quite a lot but the confident senorita you hear here is nothing like the pair’s real life encounter (when Marilyn offered Brian a sip of her drink while he was coming off stage and he accidentally knocked it all over her!) It’s nice to hear Brian tackling a Mexican cha cha though, something he’d never done before despite his fascination with music from other cultures outside California (especially English and Hawaiian sounds) and it’s a pretty tune, one that’s so typically Brian Wilson-ish it sounds as if it’s been around for at least century despite the fact that it doesn’t sound like any other song ever written. The arrangement of the song is clever too, with the usual Beach Boysy harmonies embellished by castanets, flamenco guitar parts and trumpets.

‘Cinco De Mayo’ is Van Dyke back again with another narrative, switching gears between Mexico and LA with aplomb, linking the two with a Beach Boysy drag race between the two countries. The idea, I think (and as its a Van Dyke Parks piece you’re never quite sure) is that the two places are only different on the surface: dig underneath all that flamboyant dancing in both places and you’ll soon find that all youngsters seem to want to do the whole world over is talk about the other sex and enjoy being young. Which is a sentiment we haven’t heard from Brian since at least 1965!

‘California Role’ is another of the album’s weaker songs, one that tells us about the role California itself played in Brain’s early years. Jeffrey Foskett sings half the song, as if to distance Brian from his own autobiography, and his tales of punching the clock and trying to find a role in a busy neighbourhood only really make sense if you treat them as describing the life of the average American (like, say, Mike Love). Brian was always going to have a career in music however far up the tree he got and as we’ve already heard on this album his was never a normal upbringing (interestingly, there are no songs about his troubled relationship with his dad Murray or his wayward brother Dennis always getting him into trouble by stirring up family tensions). Listen out for the line ‘living out under the sun, disappointment is never as bad as it seems’ – Brian is still so full of his creativity, he’s not going to let the odd mistake put him off. Listen out too for the line ‘every girl’s the next Marilyn’ – in context this is a treatise on Hollywood and Marilyn Monroe, but the way Brian sings it here – with a sad shrug of his shoulders – it’s clear that he’s only got a different Marilyn on his mind.

‘Between Pictures’  is that now terribly familiar narrative linking piece acting like a halfway interval in the album, summing up Brain’s life before stardom, on the cusp of greatness but already used to heartbreak, playing the party of an all American surfing kid singing songs the average American (and Human) could identify with whilst being as far from normal a teenager as it was possible to get? For are we not all actors? Well, we are according to Brian and Van Dye anyway.     

‘Oxygen To The Brain’ (or Brian as my spell check wants aptly to call it!) is a pulsating rush of adrenalin, one of those songs that seems to almost trip over its feet in its hurry to lurch from section to section. This is, of course, the pressure Brian was under as chief writer, singer, producer and bassist with the most successful American group of the early 60s. We’ve mentioned on this site before about the ridiculous output record label Capitol expected from the band in  this period: five albums a year (that’s one every two months or so) which would have crushed anybody. The Beatles found it hard enough to release two – and they had two songwriters in the band. There are, of course, lots of filler songs and covers on these early Beach Boys classics, but also plenty of classic songs written at speed; no wonder by the end of the song Brian is worn out and will never be the same again. Interestingly the ‘cried a lot of tears, wasted a lot of years’ lyric pulled out for quotation above comes not from a later breakdown-era song but here, right at the heart of Brian’s creativity (could it be that working so hard drains Brian of his talent to the point where he doesn’t want to use it any more and gets sick of it?) Listen out too for the beginning: its no longer a pleasure to get out of bed, Brian’s getting up because he has to. ‘Let yourself float, don’t carry that weight’ his heart tells him – but his head tells him he’s got to get going and prove himself and his band all over again. As a song ‘Oxygen To The Brain’ is a mildly irritating stop-start song that never sits still long enough for us to work out what’s happening. But as an insight into Brian’s mindset this track is a crucial, critical breakthrough in Brian’s song-writing, putting us right in the eye of a hurricane that’s blowing all around us and trying to calmly carry on. And oh that middle eight, ‘How could I have gotten so low?’, its so mournful, so powerful so...Brian Wilsonish!

‘Can’t Wait Too Long’, a 1967 outtake that some say is from the carefully prepared ‘Smile’, some from the hurried hashed remake ‘Smiley Smile’; whatever its source its one of the greatest Brian Wilson pieces of them all. Stringing together several disparate structures until they finally right themselves into one of the most urgent, insistent, overwhelming riffs of all time, it’s quite rightly been hailed as the long lost classic among all the myriad Beach Boys re-issues and outtakes sets released over the years. This new re-recording is, alas, only an extract, a short glimpse into the insistent, overwhelming tug of emotion heard in the original and it’s the worst decision on the record: to hear the original six-minute song whole or nearly whole would have underlined just how badly Brian felt the pressure in this period and how badly he wanted a breather from it (the can’t wait too long, been too long chorus lines must surely be about Brian’s tired body telling him to quit rather than the love song the very last verse wants to make it, and oh boy does my tired body identify with that – as well as Brian’s need to go on, hence the fact that somewhere round here is the 20,000th word I’ve written inside a fortnight when I keep being told to rest). But even in short form this is a classy song, superbly sung and moving as only Brian Wilson at his year-long late 1966-early 1967 peak can be.

‘Midnight’s Another Day’ is as close as we’re going to get to an equally brilliant song from the modern Brian Wilson. And in truth it’s not much further behind: a terrific melancholy song that addresses Brian’s Breakdown head on for the first time since the suicide note ‘Til I Die’ in 1971. Midnight is, of course, the time when the sun is furthest from our thoughts  and from the sky and Brian is lost, confused and mortified by the idea that his unrelenting creativity has left him, leaving him just another average human being (who couldn’t even perform average human being things too well). The lyrics, by Brian and Scott Bennett, are among the cleverest on any Beach Boys-related album where the narrator is ‘swept away in a brainstorm, chapters missing, pages torn’, unable to add anything to the ongoing story in his life until finally turning the corner at the start of the 21st century. The melody too is one of Brain’s greatest, mirroring his ‘other’ love of Gershwin but better, in my opinion. As songs about losing confidence and falling apart go, this is up there with the best of them and, like much of the ‘Smile’ and ‘Sun’ projects, its a very brave statement to make. Listen out for the ending too: it’s no longer the sun that ‘rolls around heaven all day’ without anything to do but Brian – and suddenly having nothing to do after all that activity sounds like the worst thing that could ever have happened.

After a quick reprise of ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, just to ram the point home, we get the album’s other highlight ‘Goin’ Home’. When Brian came ‘back’ the first time in 1976 (wrongly as it turned out, the band just needed him to help sell another record that turned out to be the hideous ’15 Big Ones’) the only moment it sounded like he was genuinely back was on a simplistic boogie woogie romp called ‘Back Home’. Sung round the piano with just his brothers for company, it was a badly sung but tremendously affecting account of how Brian was going to get back to his roots and start again. ‘Goin’ Home’ is the long awaited sequel, with a truly Brian-is-back message this time, with the narrator telling us he’s ‘found peace of mind one piece at a time’. It’s great to hear after all these years and even if Brian’s voice is an octave lower than it was even in 1976, there’s no doubting the glee in his vocals. The knockout part of this song is the middle eight though: ‘At 25 I turned out the light because I couldn’t handle the glare in my tired eyes...’ That theme of light and the sun as life force/creativity keeps on cropping up all over the place but it never hits you in the stomach anywhere else quite as much as here: hearing it for the first time, unexpectedly, when this pretty but bouncy song simply drops away to let the sound through, it’s enough to make you cry.

After these two classic songs – the best Brian’s written, as opposed to re-written and tidied up for some years – anything would be something of an anti-climax and sadly ‘Southern California’ isn’t the sort of farewell this album so desperately needs. It’s a glimpse of Brain’s past up to the present day, trying to fit his whole life story and album story into a single song, but without a strong tune to carry it it can’t even measure up to ‘sixth Beach Boy’ Bruce Johnstone’s take on the same subject with ‘Endless Harmony’. It’s still lovely to hear, though, especially the penultimate verse which for once on this site I’ll quote in full: ‘Oh Its magical, I’m glad it happened to me, fell asleep in the band room and woke up in history’. And that’s it: the ‘surfer silhouette’ falls into the sea and Brian continues where he left off by going to see a movie with his girl (clearly a reference to second wife Melinda, who along with the band has clearly done wonders for Brian’s confidence; let’s just hope its a drive-in like old times!) and time started moving slow again, just like it did pre-1962 when The Beach Boys became big and Brian felt like he had all the time in the world.

Rarely can I have reversed my opinions of a record as drastically as this one – far from being Brain’s weakest solo effort with only two decent additions to Brain’s canon I now realise it’s a late-period masterpiece and a record that could only have been written with the passage of time. Full marks to The Wondermints, Van Dyke Parks and especially its chief creators Scott Bennett and Brian Wilson for turning a modern day rock folk myth into a full bloodied emotional story that truly tugs at the heart strings. Not every song is a classic and there are many songs you might have to re-think about when you hear them out of context, but treat this album as a concept album – even better as the concept album that sounds like ‘Smile’ – and you shouldn’t be disappointed. Well, not once you realise what it’s all about anyway! Anyway, suffice to say that if its Smile perfection and eccentricity you’re after you might still be disappointed despite this album’s many plusses, but if it’s a modern ‘Smile’, crossed with the best of ‘Pet Sounds’ without that album’s faults as recorded by a man in his 60s rather than his 20s then you can’t go far wrong. And – to go back full circle to where I came in – you might not want to pay £22 for it but if it’s still around at £1 in certain stores you might just have come across the best bargain you’re ever likely to find.  

Other Beach Boys related articles from this website you might be interested in reading:

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965)

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo) (1977)

'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased) (1977)

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo) (2008)

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

'That's Why God Made The Radio' (2012)

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

A Complete (ish) Guide To The Beach Boys' Surviving TV Clips

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One 1962-86

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two 1988-2014

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

Essay: The Beach Boys and The American Dream
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions