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Bert Jansch Obituary 1943-2011
On a rare appearance to the UK in 2008,
a group of reporters eagerly asked AAA star Neil Young to name his favourite
guitarist of all time. The troupe of media present expected the great one to
name Jimi Hendrix, perhaps Eric Clapton, certainly Robert Page – maybe even old
partner Stephen Stills. Instead the guitar legend plumped without hesitation for
Bert Jansch, leaving all but the most musically-knowledged reporters to scratch
their heads and make a note to look up this obvious superstar of gargantuan talent
weird-sounding name as soon as they got back to their desks (bear in mind too
that Neil added Bert was the one guitarist he’d be afraid to play on stage with
because he’d be ‘blown off it’). That anecdote would have tickled Bert, who
died of cancer in the early hours of Wednesday, October 5th, aged
67, and remained to the end one of the shyest, humblest, least likely looking
musical legends of our times, a musician in the truest sense, more content
playing to a handful of people down his local than playing stadiums and doing
Top Of The Pops. A hero to anyone who’d ever heard his distinctive expressive
playing and a nobody to anyone who isn’t deeply into the folk scene of the
1960s and 70s, you sense that was the way Bert liked it, content to give his
all– whether solo, with close friend
and asscoiate John Renbourn or together with Pentangle –to whoever was
listening to his art, without the distractions of sales, publicity or TV
appearances getting in his way. In his time Bert re-shaped the way we thought
about music, adding a dose of tradition and rememberance to an exploding 60s
scene that was exciting and brand-spankingly new as well as breaking more rules
in a single solo that most guitarists know how to flaunt in a lifetime and
becoming a founding member of a group who fused more musical styles together
than anyone before or since. You might not be able to find his records in your
local CD hypermarket but keep an eye out for the hopeful collector rummaging
through the ‘P’ or ‘J’ sections of the ‘folk’ racks of our disappearing second
hand shops, the one with misty eyes and hopeful grin still searching in the
hope that he’s found some long lost Jansch rarity – because Bert was very good
at creating rarities. And fans so dedicated to his music that they only lived
from one purchase to the next. Bert would have hated to have been remembered
with a lot of fuss, but to his many fans how coulkd we possibly remember our
hero with anything less?
Glaswegian Bert was arguably the biggest
star of five when he formed Pentangle with a group of close friends he’d met
playing London’s folk groups, an assorted bunch who recognised Jansch’s talent
and experience, playing clubs likeEdinburgh'’s ‘Howff’ from the moment he left
school at 16. Bert wasn’t actually there as a guitarist – he snuck his way in
by signing up to the pub as ‘caretaker’, borrowing guitars off friends to play
between concerts because he couldn’t afford one himself and often spent the
night sleeping on the club’s floor without anywhere else to go. That
fascination with the guitar had gone right back to the start of Bert’s stint at
Ainslie Park Secondary school and even Bert’s oldest friends nearly all have
their memories filled of Bert practising, polishing or playing his guitar or
one he just happened to have ‘borrowed’ from a friend. His interest accelerated
when the teenage Jansch met local singer Archie Fisher at the Howff, who agreed
to teach the self-taught Bert a few extra tips.
Desperate to broaden his horizons,
Jansch set off on a half-organised, half-slumming it trip across Europe,
successfully building up a name for himself before a trip to Tangiers went
badly wrong and Bert fell ill with dysentry. Sent back to London to recuperate,
the musical dream seemed to have gone wrong – but like The Beatles deported
from Hamburg, out of troubled times came a lucky escape. A producer named Bill
Leader came across Jansch, recognised his obvious talents and persuaded him to
record his live set of the day onto a rented tape recorder – even lending his
living room to the guitarist for the day. Leader hawked the tape around record
company offices fgor a while before getting an interest from Transatlantic
Records, Bert’s musical home with and without Pentangle for the next eight
years or so. The record was eventually released asa ‘Bert Jansch’ in 1965, when
the guitarist was 21, and quickly became alegendary album around Briaton’s folk
None of Bert’s solo records had set the
charts alight, but then they weren’t meant to – what they did succeed in doing
was convincing many of the leading guitarists of the day that what this simple,
humble man was playing on guitar just was not possible. There was even a rumour
at the time that Bert and already close friend and comrade in arms John
Renbourn just weren’t human that there was no way any guitarist, let alone
unknowns, should be able to bend the rules and create sounds like they did.
Thankfully someone had the sense to sit the two men down in front of a
microphone, both together and apart, and the results somehow manage to sound
like one of the most fruitful and rounded listening experiences you can have,
despite having just one or two voices and one or two guitars as accompaniment. Already
Bert’s setting out his fashion – or rather non-fashion statements, appearing in
a worn and faded jacket Columbo would have rejected and sporting unkempt yet
unfashionably short hair for the time; Bert cared more for his music than his
appearance throughout this career, something that helped with the ‘honesty’ and
integrity of his records, refusing to play the pop or folk star game even this
early on in his career.
Most of Bert’s early run of albums are
hard to find nowadays – even with a second re-issue on CD for most of them a
couple of years ago – but all are worth seeking out for lovers of the acoustic
guitar and epic folk tunes. Thankfully enough word of mouth has trickled down
for albums like Bert’s debut, ‘Bert Jansch’ (1965), ‘It Don’t Bother Me’ (1965)
and ‘Jack Orion’ (1966) to become celebrated classics. Compare against anything
the folk scene in Britain had to offer in the mid 60s – Peter Paul and Mary,
The Seekers, even Dylan – and the sound is tougher and harsher than anything
else around and far more original to boot. Pentangle will go on to become most
famous for revitalising traditional music for a far more contemporary setting,
making current music sound old and old sound contemprary as we put it in our
review for ‘Basket Of Light’, although it’s Bert’s early originals that are
probably the most famous from these albums, whose highlights include the
endearing ‘The Gardener’, the chilling ‘Blackwater Slide’ (a forgotten
traditiobnal folk song later covered by Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page was another
huge Jansch fan), an early cover that helped to popularise the Davy Graham hit
‘Anji’ (Paul Simon learnt his version from the Jansch recording) and the first
attempt at ‘Jack Orion’, here a three minute folk wonder but later transformed
by Pentangle into a 20 minute jazz-blues-folk-pop-rock-psychedelic epic! The
most famous songs, though, were the Dylanesque protest of ‘Do You Hear Me
Now?’, which became a #1 hit in a much watered-down cover version from Donovan
(today, many fans still think the hippied one wrote it) and the first real
anti-drugs folk song ever written ‘Needle Of Death’, about a friend who died of
a drugs overdose. Both remain among the most chilling songs written by anyone
of the time, while like Dylan Jansch’s work was to get considerably lighter the
older he got.
Personally, however, my favourite Bert
Jansch albums are the ones he made during ‘time off’ from Pentangle, during an
impressive work shcedule that saw the guitarist release three albums with or
without the group for much of the late 60s and early 70s. ‘Birthday Blues’
(1969), released when Bert turned 25, almost never gets talked about in the
same breath as the earlier LPs but it’s the missing link between folk and
flower power, with the song for Bert’s second wife ‘Miss Heather Rosemary
Sewell’ and the poignant ‘I Am Lonely’ two of Bert’s long lost classics. The
two albums recorded either side of ‘Birthday Blues’ aren’t bad either –
‘Nicola’ (1967), Bert’s last album before founding Pentangle is more traditional
and similar to his work with the band whilst 1971’s ‘Rosemary Lane’ takes
Bert’s work to its next logical step, adding a touch of early 70s
singer-songwriter appeal as was the vogue at the time.
It’s for Pentangle, however, that Bert
will always be best remembered. The first real hint of the band comes in the
‘Bert and John’ album of 1966, one that cements the two founding members’
distinctive but complementary styles, weaving together a familiar musical
tapestry although there’s no double-bass, drums or singers to go other the top.
Alas this album too is rarer than a decent Spice Girl single and in desperate
need of a re-issue sometime soon (a tribute one would be nice!) The band really
took off in 1969, however, when Bert and John got together with singer Jacqui
McShee, double-bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox, all five of them
pioneers on their respective instruments and willing to take the oldest
material they could find and re-invent it with the fire and fizzle that only
the 1960s could bring.
In retrospect ‘Pentangle’ is a perfect
name for a group made up of five distinctive ‘stars’, all well regarded in
their chosen fields, coming together to celebrate Britain’s heritage with a
hint of ‘magic’ and ‘mystery’ that made even the biggest folk standard sound
new and enticing. In fact so new and enticing that it took a while for any
record label to touch the band: a well received gig at the Royal Festival Hall
in 1967 helped Pentangle’s stock among their peer group, but it took a further
year shaping their act for the band to sign with Transatlantic Records. The
choice of producer for the first few albums was a strange choice though: Shel
Talmy, a man most famous in AAA circles for being fired by The Kinks and The
Who in quick succession in the mid-60s, was better known for his best-selling
pop records than folk albums and yet the partnership was a successful one, with
Talmy approving of an act who seemed much more ‘professional’ and together with
most he’d work with – and Pentangle approving of a producer who understood them
enough to let them get their live act down on tape without too many
The first record to use the band name is
‘The Pentangle’ (1968), a widely admired fusion of folk and jazz which is quite
unique in their canon because of it’s wild, daring, furious improvising, the
long running time of much of the contents and the amount of instrumentals used.
Whilst folk was always the band’s biggest influence (and the genre they’re most
often filed under in record shops these days), ‘Pentangle’ is their jazziest
album, one that stretches songs as far – and sometimes further – than they will
go. Bert’s darting acoustic guitar, sometimes in partnershiop and sometimes in
competition with John Renbourn’s, drives much of this album forward and charts
yet more unchartered territory for acoutsic guitar players. The follow-up, the
half-live half-studio album ‘Sweet Child’ (1968) was more subdued and less
risky, but still features some terribly daring instrumentals which feature Bert
taking the band out on a limb further than most rock or folk albums dare to go.
Third album ‘Basket Of Light’ (1969, see
review no 31) is where it all came together for most fans, a classic of its
genre – whichever one of its many genres you choose to put it in – and the
band’s best-selling album by some margin, with a toned down instrumental battle
and much more emphasis on Jacqui McShee singing folk songs from the past. It’s
often Bert’s earthy drawl that catches the ear, though, and this album starts a
fine trend of vocal cameos from the guitarist that sound like they’re coming
from a darker, deeper place than Jacqui’s naïve innocent narrator and give
Pentangle a much more sinister edge. You can’t hear that edge on the band’s
most famous moment, though, when the band scored the first of only two charting
singles with ‘Light Flight’, a charming pop rocker driven by Bert’s almost
paranoid flashes on guitar and appeared as the theme to well-regarded 70s
sitcom ‘Take Three Girls’.
Most of the band’s new fans and critics
expected the band to follow up their highly successful record with more of the
same – but the band weren’t yet finished developing their style. ‘Cruel Sister’
(1970) is seen by most fans as an experiemnt too far, including an acapella
track sung by McShee alone and ending with that epic version of ‘Jack Orion’
first purloined By Bert for his solo stage set in 1966. Here this new version,
with Bert very much in control, shows how much the band have developed – all
group members have the space to show off their skills and instead of fusing
hundreds of styles into one instead we get a new style with nearly every verse.
Some fans actively dislike this record and especially ‘Orion’, but the sudden
switch from tin-whistle folk to no-holds-barred rock is one of the most
exciting in Pentangle’s canon, driven by Bert’s voice and restless guitar.
From hereon in most fans seemed to give
up on Pentangle, whose sales were slow from here to their end in 1973 but
that’s a shame because their final two albums, ‘Reflection’ (1971) and
‘Solomon’s Seal’ (1973) contain some of their best loved material.
Transatlantic passed on the band for the last album – but if the band thought
Warners were going to take more interest they were sadly mistaken when the
label actually ‘lost’ their master tape copy of the ‘Seal’ album, making it one
of the rarest AAA albums of all until John Renbourn found a copy of it propping
up an organ in his home studio and it finally appeared on CD for the first time
in 2003. Unsurprisingly, the prolific Jansch is reponsible for much of these
final album’s best material, including the title track of the former LP,
another multi-layered epic based on an early unreleased Jansch guitar piece
‘Joint Control’ that the others added parts and lyrics too. The best loved
Jansch Pentangle tracks though are ‘When I Get Home’ and the fond band farewell
‘People On The Highway’ (see our top five below), the perfect summation of five
very different people going their separate ways almost against their will.
were too gentlemanly to break up the way most bands do, sniping in the press
and vowing never to work together again – instead their split was more the
result of a slow and growing divide between the band that saw them become
progressively less and less interested in recording together. Fractious
recordings in a barely built studio for ‘Reflections’ didn’t help matters much (bassist
Danny Thompson had to listen to playbacks with his ear to the floor in order to
hear whether he’d played his parts correctly or not, the speakers were so bad) and
the band disagreed about what time of day to record, meaning few of the band
were ever together in the same place for long enough to play together live
(Bert was often the last to amble in, often at night, ‘depending how much
alcohol he’d had the night before’ according to onlookers). Matters weren’t
helped too by the fact that Bert’s - and John’s - solo releases had sold less
than even the last Pentangle albums and yet were being held up as masterpieces
by a musica press who for some reason wanted to see the band fail. The band
were also becoming reluctant to tour, especially Jansch, who was losing heart
at trying to play to larger crowds who weren’t as ‘into’ the music as on the
band’s early club dates.
Perhaps the final reason for the band’s
split was that the band just weren’t good enough at playing the political games
needed to stay strong sellers in the charts – and without the publicity and
with a mix of epic and adventurous songs they just didn’t have a regular enough
audience to keep buying their records. That’s a shame because few other bands
had the breadth of past, present and future that Pentangle had at their peak,
that ability to show how timeless certain themes and subjects are across time and
how important it is to us in the present to know where we’ve been before, to
avoid making the same mistakes all over again.At their best Pentangle proved
how amazing the human race can and has been – at their worst they proved to be
as human as the rest of us.
After the split in 1973 Bert moved to
Wales, taking some time off to re-charge his batteries before returning to
making solo records, occasionally with other members of Pentangle guesting. His
first post-band release ‘L A Turnaround’ is generally reckoned to his biggest
crowning glory of all, but even this record is hard to find nowadays (so here
is yet another plea to see Bert’s solo albums put back into the shops on CD!) A
softening approach to touring and a need for money after a split with his second
wife saw Jansch back on the road for most of the 70s, with his first recording
for some years being a collaboration with Martin Jenkins on ‘Avocet’ (1979),
which is a loose concept album about birds (of the ornithology kind!)
Perhaps surprisingly, Bert was one of
only two original members to be involved with Pentangle again in the 1980s.
Along with Jacqui, Bert continued to add his distinctive acoustic playing and
gruff vocals to a series of albums including the under-rated ‘Open The Door’
(1982) which may well be Jacqui McShee’s finest hour, ‘In The Round’ (1988),
‘So Early In The Spring’ (1989), featuring Lindisfarne’s Rod Clements on bass,
‘Think Of Tomorrow’ (1991) and finally ‘One More Road’ (1993). While there’s
little on these albums to compare with the glory days and they do take the
slightly safer road of stright folk without Pentangle’s many other influences,
it would be unfair to write them all off and (less surprisingly) Bert’s
contributions are often among the best they have to offer.
Bert also continued his solo career on
the side, including a warmly received collaboration with Lindisfarne’s Rod
Clements ‘Leather Laundrette’ (1988). Unfortunately, it was while working on
this album that Bert first became seriously ill, to the point where doctors
told the 45-year-old guitarist he was likely to die unless he agreed to give up
alcohol straight away, to ‘give it up or give up’ as he himself recounted the
advice later. It’s to Bert’s credit that he managed to give up what had become
something of an almost life-long prop, despite suffering a further setback with
heart trouble that saw him have a serious operation in the late 1980s. Most
fans generally regard Jansch’s first albums (solo and Pentangle) following this
decision in the late 80s and 90s as the best of Bert’s output in many years and
a timely CD re-issue for Bert’s first few solo albums helped encourage younger
guitarists to check out his music.As a result, for the first time since 1969,
Bert Jansch was ‘hip’ again. A ‘comeback’ album, ‘When The Circus Comes To
Town’ (1995) was his biggest seller in ages and features a moving song
dedicated to the surgeon who saved his life – a 1992 TV documentary ‘Acoustic
Routes’ also did much to further the legend.
The last we heard of Bert solo was a
record called ‘Black Swan’ in 2005 that again turned out to be one of the best
selling and best received of his career, thanks to collaborations with Pete
Docherty (then still in the Babyshambles) and Beth Orton and a final tour
playing as warm-up act to none other than Neil Young on the memorably-titled
‘Twisted Road’ tour. Jansch was also
one of the better award winners of the Radio 2 Folk Awards in recent years,
taking the prize in 2001.
Jacqui McShee reformed Pentangle yet
again – without Bert or indeed any other original members – performing as
McShee’s Pentangle from 1995 onwards. However the whole band did get together
for what turned out to be their final performances with the original line-up in
2009, for a handful of well received gigs that brought the band full circle –
and even had them appearing on BBC Radio Sessions for the first time in nearly
40 years! They might well have done more, finaly ending with a ‘follow-up’ show
at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year some 42 years after their last gig
there, featured on the cover of ‘Basket Of Light’ - but Bert had to have
another heart operation in 2005 and spent the last two years of his life
fighting throat cancer, pulling out of some tours for the first time in his
career and saddneing other fans by having to stop frequently mid-song in those
nhe did perform, due to the pain in his throat. Bert never stopped, though,
right to the end and his death at the age of 67, still with plans for
recordings and tours in mind before fibnallky succumbing to his illness in a
London Hospice last week. The world has lost a trouper, a hero, a superman, a
leading light and a legend – but Bert himself was too humble to think himself
any of these things, shrugging off media attention and fan praise throughout
his prolific career. Only we fans know what a masterful musician this humble
man was and how much the music scene will miss him and his regular, always
reliable output which did so much to change the worlds of folk, jazz, blues,
pop, rock and all sorts of genres in-between that Bert probably invented
somnewhere along the line!
Five Classic Bert Jansch Songs/Arrangements For Pentangle:
5) Jack Orion (‘Cruel Sister’ 1970): This side-long traditional song
– re-discovered and first recorded by Bert in 1965 – is a good example of just
what a range of styles and talents Bert had at his disposal. It starts as pure
whimsical folk with one of Bert’s career best vocals, clear and airy, on a tale
of a fiddler player who ends up in a duel over a lady. There’s a bit of
everything in this piece, as first Terry’s support vocal, then his drums, then
Danny’s bass, then John’s electric guitar and finally Jacqui arrive to flesh
out a tune that builds verse by verse and minute by minute. Evwerything is
thrown into this melting pot and I swear there’s even a bit of psychedelia at
the start of the second half when John’s electric guitar clashes with the
double bass head on. Few folk bands ever played it as dangerous and as bravely
as Pentangle do on this track – and even if ‘Jack Orion’ isn’t a track you want
to hear too often too masny times in a row, you have to applaud it for its
audacity, it’s daring and its belief that the band can keep the audience
interested to the bitter end. Chosen and masterminded by Bert, it’s a typical
Jansch mix of the old and the new, all mangled together to sound like nothing
else ever made.
4) O’er The Lonely Mountain (‘Think Of Tomorrow’ 1991): Not many of
the Pentangle reunion songs were up to old standards and those that were were
often old traditional; folk songs starring Jacqui’s undimmed magical voice. But
this group-written opening track to Bert’s last album with the band uses the
old Pentangle trick of juxtaposing Jacqui’s innocence against Bert’s gruffness
on one of the better ecological songs around, with an urgency and emotion
missing from many of these later tracks. The song is based around a classy
acoustic riff from Jansch that sets the scene for a world that could be so
bright – but mankind keeps getting in the way, with Bert’s vocal pitched just
right between curt dimissal and angry emotion. Peter Kirkley’s electric guitar,
much underused on the reunion albums, soars over the top for an anguished
outpouring of grief and anger that somehow manages to sound old and
then-contemporary all at the same time, in true Pentangle style. A wonderful,
forgotten song in the Pentangle back catalogue.
3) Train Song (‘Basket Of Light’ 1969): Bert doesn’t have much to do
on ‘Basket Of Light’, Pentangle’s best-selling and arguably most consistent
album.His one shining moment of glory comes at the end of side one, with a
noisy lament to the loss of the steam train during Dr Beeching’s cuts to the
rail network. The opening 30 seconds alone features some of the most
extraordinary acoutsic guitar playing on record, with Jansch improvising his
way round a slower inverted version of the song’s main riff before jumping off
a musical cliff and entering a pounding, angular song quite different to
anything else on this largely traditional album. The next section of the song
sounds like a train running off the rails, pushing its luck with how fast it
can go, before a lovely litling reflective and wordless middle section sounds
almost hymnal. The link between this and a repeat of the first section, with
Jansch and Renbourn pushing each other to the limits, is one of the utter
highlights of the Pentangle canon, caught somewhere between misery and
celebration. An eerie overdub ofThompson's double bass, that sounds awfully
like a train screeching off the rails, sets the icing on the cake on a song
that sounds quite unlike anything else ever made by anybody.
2) When I Get Home (‘Reflections’ 1971): Like the next song on our
list, this is a troubled song about needing a rest, dreaming of all the things
to do when the narrator finally gets off tour and wondering what his wife will
say when he finally arrives back home. For the most part this is a laidback
lovely song with plenty of space for the band to stretch out and a typically
Pentangle mix of restful verses and energetic choruses. The chorus finds the
narrator trying to talk himself out of a prior meeting because he needs to be
ready early the next morning – but oh how enticing the offer sounds! Home wins
out over all, though, despite a fiery duel guitar battle between Jansch and
Renbourn that’s the pair’s last great sparking moment in Pentangle before the
split. An impressive song and one quite different to the band’s usual tradition
or folk influences, this is an impressive rumination on what it means to have a
‘home’ – especially given that the narrator spends most of his life living in
hotel rooms in separate cities.
1) People On The Highway (‘Solomon’s Seal’ 1973): Pentangle’s final
album before their split is very much Bert’s album with the band – he gets five
lead vocals and shares a sixth with everyobne else – despite it being Bert’s
bordem with touring that effectively nailed the lid in Pentangle’s coffin. Much
of the album is upbeat, with traditional folk figures finding happiness in love
or realising that they can overcome obstacles, but this most personal song on
the record is a teary farewell to the band that’s among the most moving
autobiographical songs you can hear. The first verse is a grumpy reaction to
the many hangers-on trying to get a piece of the band and the narrator
desperate to escape even if it reluctantly means losing the band, searching for
somewhere to ‘rest my uneasy mind’. The second puts the history of the band in
context, how ‘its better to be going, better to be moving than clinging to your
past’ and that the whole band badly needs a rest after six uncomfortable
rollercoaster years together, needing ‘dreams’ and challenges to face to go
along with the ‘resting’ from pure tiredness. A third verse deals with Bert’s
mariage troubles of the time, with a wife who never sees him because he’s
always on the road and who is no longer impressed by what he’s achieved with
recordings or touring. A fourth verse looks hopefully towards a ‘new task, one
that I understand’ because the Pentangle dream has been so filled with
hangers-on, managers and agents and publicity agents and ‘friends’ so,
movingly, ‘my life won’t be in vain’ and Bert the songwriter can get himself
out of a rut and back to following his muse. A fifth verse deals with
bittersweet status of the band, with Bert ‘mixed up inside’, both proud of the
achievements and fed-up with the restrictions of the band where ‘every day
brings rain’ and the narrator ends everyday ‘alone’. A sixth and final verse
pondering his next move, how to tell the rest of the band when ‘sunny days roll
by’ and ‘time ceases to run’, caught wondering what life would be like without
the band as a millstone around his neck. As moving a song as you can come
across, the whole band loved and identified with this song, turning in the last
great group performance of Pentangle’s career and waving Jansch goodbye with
piognancy and subtelty. If only all band split-ups were this concerned with
what the others are thinking and could end in ways this beautiful.
A Now Complete List Of Pentangle
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♫ Belle and Sebastian News: Stevie Jackson’s wonderfully titled spin-off solo album ‘I Can’t Get No Stevie Jackson’ is out now, containing 12 new tracks recorded with many of the B+S team such as Mick Cooke and Chris Geddes. The songs date back to B+S’ interim period in-between ‘The Life Pursuit’ and ‘Write About Love’ and Stevie is promoting the album with a short tour. See the B+S website for more details!
♫ CSN/HolliesNews: Congratulations Graham Nash! The Salford-born singer has just been granted an honorary doctorate from Salford University for his services to music, with both CSNY and The Hollies. The singer, who was brought up round the corner, actually studied engineering there for a term before his career with The Hollies took off in 1963 and Nash hadn’t been back since. He said ‘it was a shock to go through the same doors into the same rooms where I was more than 50 years ago...’
ANNIVERSARIES: Birthday blessings are in order for AAA musicians born between October 4th and 10th: Kevin Godley (drummer with 10cc 1972-76) who turns 66 on October 7th and two very different Johnlegends John Lennon and John Entwistle (Bassist with The Who 1965-82) who would have been 71 and 67 respectively on October 9th. Anniversaries of events include: The release of the fab four’s first ‘proper’ single ‘Love Me Do’ (October 5th 1962); Jefferson Airplane add a new member, making his debut with a band after time as a solo performer – step forward Papa John Creach, a violinist in his 50s! (October 5th 1970); Art Garfunkel releases his first solo single, the moody ballad ‘All I Know’ (October 6th 1973); the same day Ringo scores his first #1 with the George co-write ‘Photograph’ (October 6th 1973); The Rolling Stones are in trouble again when the Rev Jesse Jackson (close supporter of the late, great Martin Luther King, the most important figure of the 20th century that wasn’t a musician) takes umbridge at lines in the Stones song ‘Some Girls’ (which, to be fair, pick on everybody!) (October 6th 1978); John Lennon wins his ‘green card’ (which, ironically enough, is blue) just in time for his 35th birthday, allowing him to stay in America despite his 1968 drugs bust (October 7th 1975); John and Yoko meet for the first time at the latter’s exhibition at London’s Indica Gallery on John’s 26th birthday (October 9th 1966) and finally, Sean Lennon, John and Yoko’s son, is also born on this date in 1975 – John’s 35th birthday! Bet October 9th was a busy day in that household!
MMM Wild Honey. What taste! As a result, here’s a tie-in quickie for you this week – and just as well because you’re guaranteed to grown at some of these (heh heh heh). There are cookbooks for everything these days, often full of awful puns as names for recipes and boring anecdotes from celebrities that are actually made up by their ghost-writers. So, we’ve been thinking – why not an AAA cookbook? Why there’s even a Dr Who one – although alas its more a collection of recipes by members of the cast than, say silurian sultana cakes or sontaron potatoes. Despite the fact that I know nothing about food (except how to eat it, and even then sometimes I forget – but hey I still have more qualifications than Jamie Oliver and he’s a saint nowadays, apparently) here is our AAA recipe, full of seven mouth-watering dishes (and no, the spice girls might taste nice but I’m still refusing to add them to this list. Just remember to heat them in the oven at10c(c). Any publishers interested? No? Thought not...
The Peach Boys (Wouldn’t this dish be nice, eh? Especially with some Bun Bun Buns! God only knows how you make it though – perhaps with a mixer giving your ingredients some ‘Good Vibrations’!)
Long John Lemon and the Silver Bagels (because ‘The Bagels’ just sounds boring doesn’t it? Sprinkle with liberal helpings of Sgt Pepper and lots of nice Apples. Because I want to hold your hams. Hmm, actually after looking at those ingredients you might want to shout for ‘Help!’)
Crosby, Bangers and Mash (Not sure what a Crosby is but you can’t go wrong with the other ingredients, surely? Erm, perhaps...For Suite: Judy Blue Eggs. Serve with a Marrikesh Expresso. And an Immigration Flan – OK, OK, that last one needed work...)
Dire Cakes (Exactly what it would have said on the tin had we provided you with one to put your ‘dire cakes’ in. Alongside the slogan ‘money for nothing and chips for free!’ Oh and don’t forget to add the sultanas of swing!)
The Grapefruit Dead (A little American Beauty this one, even with A Touch Of Gray around the edges. To finish, try some Cherry Garcia ice cream from Ben and Jerrys!)
The Mouldy Blues (Cheeses that is! You’ll all be riding your ‘cheese’ saws after this – either that or waving your chainsaws I’m not quite sure. After all, they’re just chefs in a butter and roll band aren’t they? Erm, Question: won’t all that taste horrible? Why, yes it would!)
Otis Breadpudding (Respect! What else conjures up Otis the gentle giant than a breadpudding packed with sole! Lemon sole! Oh dear,that sounds horrid actually. All together now: ‘I’ve been cooking you too long for me to stop now...’)
The Rolling Scones (To finish, would sir or madam care for this pudding?, one that’s sure to give Satisfaction! Especially with some Goat’s Head Soup! Why, maybe it’ll even be a Beggar’s Banquet!)
OK, OK, that’s enough now I promise. All complaints to our forum please, I’ll read them later. See you next week (if you’re very forgiving!)
Wild Honey/Aren’t You Glad?/I Was Made To Love Her/Country Air/A Thing Or Two// Darlin’/I’d Love Just Once To See You/Here Comes The Night/Let The Wind Blow/How She Boogalooed It/Mama Says
‘Wild Honey’ is the sort of album that gets overlooked too often amongst Beach Boys fans. Less touchy-feely than Pet Sounds, far less ambitious than ‘Today’ or ‘Sunflower’ never mind ‘Smile’ and less of a ‘surprise’ than the sudden return to form of ‘LA Light Album’ or Dennis’ late 70s solo albums, this is an album by a band trying to re-group after a series of disasters that would have broken lesser men. In fact the disasters of 1967 had broken a great man – the trials and tribulations of ‘Smile’ were too much for Brian Wilson, who stretched music further than it had ever been stretched before and paid the price with a loss of confidence and nerve that saw him confined to bed. In one fell swoop and – along with patch-up contract-filler job ‘Smiley Smile’, a watered down version of what the rest of the band could remember of Brian’s grandiose arrangements – the band had gone from being the darlings of 1966, outshining even The Beatles in ‘best group’ polls in Britain to recording in their boss’ kitchen (with Brian shouting directions from upstairs).
Like the honey at the back of your kitchen cupboards, waiting for you to be in the right mood, you might not want to play this album all the time but when you do its very nutritious and rather sweet and one hell of a lot of work went into making it – so much so that I always get cross at reviewers who dismiss this album for being ‘basic’ or ‘crude’. After all, without Brian’s gifts for directing session musicians, his talent for hearing fully formed arrangements in his head or his genius at getting people from different walks of life with different instruments to combine their talents in a way that was new and astonishing what else could they do? ‘Wild Honey’ is basic when you play it back to back with ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ – but then weren’t large parts of the ‘White Album’ basic when compared to the so-called splendour of Sgt Peppers and Strawberry Fields Forever? (In fact I for one prefer this album to the much-discussed, seldom played ‘Pet Sounds’ just as I prefer much of the White Album and 1968 Beatles singles to ‘Peppers’ – there’s more humanity there, more believability and far less scope for waffling on about nothing). Of course there are other Beach Boys albums that make the simpleness of the album part of the charm – ‘Friends’ being the best example of a record that features barely anything and yet you wouldn’t want to hear it played in any other way. But ‘Wild Honey’ then and now has always sounded as if something’s missing, as if the songs were written to sound big and huge – and because of circumstances ended up sounding small and humble. To find out why that came as such a shock to fans, who made this the worst selling Beach Boys album in their history up to that time (and sales were only going to get worse until the much inferior ‘come back’ album ‘Surf’s Up’ in 1971) we need to go back an album to an even bigger disappointment.
For those of you who don’t own either the finished version of ‘Smile’ or the new sessions box set due to come out later this month or a copy of the fix-job 1967 ‘Smiley Smile’, the effect is like being promised you’re going to see the greatest fireworks display of all time, with sampled pictures of a truly brain-numbing visual experience, only to be handed a sparkler and told to imagine the rest of it. You’d be cross, wouldn’t you? You’d been sold something rubbish that should have been great – exactly the sort of con-trick lesser bands (like The Spice Girls!) resorted to time and time again. But if you knew that the chief organiser and firework creator of the event had fallen ill at the absolute last minute, had left no plans of how to organise the event because they were all in his head and that everyone else carried on as normal so that at least fans would have something to enjoy – well, you’d still feel cross but you might feel a bit of sympathy for the situation too. That’s how it was for the Beach Boys. After six years in the shadow of their leader – and with vocalist Mike Love less than involved – it fell to the band members in the shadows to rise to the occasion. Whether they wanted to or not.
The problem isn’t with the songs on ‘Smiley Smile’ or even particularly the recordings – it’s that five people, one of which actively hated the music they were playing, are being forced to play music that isn’t suited to them. ‘Wonderful’ for instance is a, well, wonderful song, telling a full story in poetic prose that’s as graceful as any piece of music ever composed and as deep and sinister or as playful as you want it to be. It also sounds genuinely inspiringly psychedelic, way ahead of its time and pointing every limb it has towards a bright and braver tomorrow. On ‘Smiley Smile’ this gorgeous song sounds like it’s being sung by a tone-deaf gorilla with stomach-ache and slows down to an agonising crawl. This is a groove that works on parts of the album and ‘Wild Honey’ and would have worked on any lesser material – but it’s all too clear that the band only half-vaguely remember the ‘Smile’ recording, think making it ‘weird’ is enough of a substitute for ‘psychedelic’ and plainly don’t understand the song. I’d love to Brian Wilson if he’s ever heard the band version of one of his best records and how he feels about the position the band were left in, wildly trying to keep the band together while missing the point of what the band had been all about for the past two years.
Like the worst parts of ‘Wild Honey’, this is nobody’s fault. Brian couldn’t help falling ill – he’d given everything to his band for a lot longer than he should have done (there’s a famous saying that says in the Beach Boys equivalent of The Beatles he was John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Martin while the others fought other George H and Ringo) and as we saw in review no 101 for ‘Smile’, after reaching that kind of height virtually unaided there was nowhere to go except right the way down after lyricist Van Dyke Parks had had enough. The band can’t help it either – sure Carl may have been singing on both versions of ‘Wonderful’, but he has no idea of what was in Brian’s head he was just doing as he was told back in 1966 and come 1967 he’s the beginner pupil suddenly turned into trainee teacher. The others, too, are mega-amazing at replicating their records on stage but – Mike Love’s lyrics aside – had never had to shape and craft a song and turn it into a full record by assigning parts to instruments, etc. You only need to hear the extraordinary rambling 20-minute session tape of ‘Good Vibrations’ (included as a bonus track on the CD) that features more instruments in one space than anything else committed to tape back to back with ‘Wild Honey’ to realise what a pickle the Beach Boys were in.
They could have given into the madness and split up. They could have toured the world as an ‘oldies’ band only occasionally venturing into studios to record the same old boring stuff (which is sadly pretty much all they did from 1976 on). They could have forced Brian against his will to work, using his ‘return’ as a flimsy excuse to sell records (which again is sadly pretty much all they did from 1976 on). Instead they recorded ‘Wild Honey’, an album so basic and primitive but with such a funk and r and b feel that it sounds completely unlike any other record made in 1967. Of course the record sounds like that because of circumstances and must have sounded woefully unhip and retro at the time, but it is nevertheless true that ‘Wild Honey’, released in December 1967, successfully showcases the way the rock world was travelling in 1968 with albums like ‘The White Album’, the Stones’ ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ and The Byrds’ ‘Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde’. It has almost nothing in common with other recordsa released the same month, such as The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and The Stones’ ‘Satanic Majesties’. As we’ve said before on this site, many many times, just because a record came out at the wrong time the first time round that doesn’t mean we should ignore it now, sometimes 50 years on and fully back in the context of what each individual group will go on to do. ‘Wild Honey’ may have been a mistake at the time, guaranteed not to sell to a hippie-filled record buying public, but it must have sounded like fortune telling when the harsher sounds of 1968 came around.
Had Brian Wilson finished ‘Smile’ I still think he’d have gone onto make records like this and ‘Friends’, successfully recognising – like his peers – that they’d gone about as far down the flower power road as they possibly could. For years ‘Wild Honey’ has been held up as evidence on how ‘uncool’ The Beach Boys were, six months from pulling out of the Monterey Pop Festival (erm, what else were they meant to do without Brian to guide them? Deliver a set-list of surf songs in striped shirts?) and 18 months on from ‘Good Vibrations’. In actually fact, they were never cooler. Re-modelling yourself, making yourself leaner and hungry and completely changing the way people perceive you is something done by the vainly desperate, the visionary or those who can’t get by any other way. In late 1967 The Beach Boys were a little of all three.
When you think of The Beach Boys’ roots you don’t often think of R and B, which is what a large percentage of this record is. Four Freshman-style harmonies yes, a little Chuck Berry and Beatles references and a large dollop of Dick Dale surf-guitar music. But it is there, lurking, from the exotic angles and throbbing bass of ‘I Get Around’ to the wham-bam chorus structure of ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ and ‘California Girls’. In fact, it’s amazing how smoothly Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Was Made To Love Her’ fits into the album (indeed, for years I thought it was a Beach Boys original, back in the days when I owned this album on LP and the writer’s credits were written so small on the label that only a spider could read them).By and large it’s a successful experiment: Carl’s voice, especially, is born for the swing of the title track and the rest of the band play with gusto and a real groove, sadly missing on most other records after this. What’s curious is that the band also get rid of so many of the trademarks they actually could still use: there’s very few group harmonies, for instance, and even fewer guitar solos. Goodness knows why: the band were actually in the same room together throughout the making of this album (give or take a cameo from Brian) and arguably bonded more during the making of this record than any other. I’m still scratching my head as to why this album’s main team of Carl, Al and Bruce so infrequently sang altogether. It’s this fact, more than the change in direction and lack of overdubs, that puts off Beach Boys collectors and its a fact that could easily have been resolved (just listen to the two rare group vocals on this album, on ‘Country Air’ and ‘Mama Says’, which are among the most dreamy the band ever recorded). Perhaps it was Jimi Hendrix’s unfounded attacks on the band as a ‘psychedelic barbershop quartet’ (great guitarist he may have been but was Jimi just jealous of those vocal arrangements he knew he could never match ?) Or an attempt at something new? Sadly we’ll never know, but the lack of band vocals is a definite downside to the album.
In fact, the dominant sound here is of a Farfisa organ, as if the band are playing in some European nightclub in 1962 with Billy Preston in tow, rather than recording the true follow-ups to ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Heroes and Villains’. When reviewers say that all fans who don’t already know this album start thinking ‘ooh’ and are really disappointed when they hear it, because this album isn’t that ‘heavy’ an album sonically either. It’s a group of friends, brothers and cousins trying to work out what they can play that’s simple, raw and new and they just happened to have an organ leftover in the room and a few R and B records to study on the jukebox. At times, though, this combination works superbly well: the title track especially has a ‘groove’ I wish more Beach Boys records had copied and the mix of R and B with pure Beach Boys folk-rock harmonies on ‘Darlin’ is one of the band’s better loved songs from this period for a reason. What this album does lack is substance, the sort of thing that made you feel, say, Otis Redding was living every word or the feeling that you’ve undergone a learning experience by the end of a record. Alas time has proved that ultimately The Beach Boys are only toying when it comes to this sound too, sounding much more like themselves on the much more thorough if equally flimsy-sounding follow-up ‘Friends’ (see review no 21) which isn’t R and B so much as a few quietly strummed ballads recorded on a warm summer’s day. But at times on this album R and B sounds like the future, not just the past, with a flair and attack that should be applauded, even when it shows up the holes in the Beach Boys’ style.
Hearing ‘Wild Honey’ now, in the context of the albums before and after, there are two things that puzzle me about this album, aside from the lack of group vocal and guitar. What is perhaps odd is that, given the speed of recording and the threat of Capitol Records about breach of contract ringing in their ears over the non-appearance of Smile or its equivalent in late 1966, there is nothing from ‘Smile’ on here bar the middle eight of ‘Vega-Tables’ (turned into a whole song! Well, sort of). Sure the band had used much of it, unsuccessfully, on ‘Smiley Smile’ – but it would have made for such a long album, even without the outtakes, that there are still oodles the band could have used. In fact, they end up re-using old tapes of ‘Our Prayer’ and ‘Cabinessence’ on ‘20/20’ in two album’s time (without Brian’s knowledge, until someone asked him about it in the 1990s!) so they can’t have been adverse to using them. It’s been hinted that Capitol still expected the whole ‘Smile’ saga as the album to be delivered in between ‘Smiley’ and ‘Honey’ so perhaps the band stayed away? Which is a shame, as an R and B groove version of ‘Surf’s Up’ or ‘Plymouth Rock’ would have been fun, if sacrilege (which is more than you can say for the band’s takes on ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Wind Chimes’, which are unfunny and sacrilege). There’s also no excuse for tidying up the unfinished-but-gorgeous outtake ‘Can’t Wait Too Long’, thankfully included on the CD version, which amazingly was recorded in the ‘Wild Honey’ sessions despite possessing the adventurous and pioneering not to say masterful sound of ‘Smile’ (and found Brian on a rare good day in that period). Even in a half-baked, over-sung over-simplified version it would have been genius.
The other is that while most of the songs are credited to Brian and Mike, very much the chief Beach Boys up to this period, the composers themselves only take the lead on one song each. Brian we understand – he was ill in bed, even though his unexpected cameo on ‘I’d Love Just Once To See You’ is a delightful precursor to his ‘doin’ nothin’ singing style and shows more confidence and poise than the songs to come from Brian’s really bad period in 1969-75. But where the hell was Mike? Well, meditating for the most part. Like Roger Daltrey (born the same week) before him Love had changed his image 100%, from the hard-nosed teddy boy of the early 1960s into a peace-and-love promoting convert, at one with the flower power world of the mid-60s, staying with the Maharishi in Rishikesh at the same time as The Beatles (it speaks volumes that the other Beach Boys failed to tag along, as John Paul and Ringo had when George got interested in late 1967). Mike should be applauded for this – his conversion to the ways of the Maharishi and meditation were deadly serious and he still continues to ‘follow’ his teachings today (just as George Harrison did before his death). This also had the additional benefit of bringing out Mike’s ‘softer’ side, just a few months on from giving Brian and Van Duke Parks a grilling over the obscure passages in ‘Smile’ and ridiculing both them and the project, making him come across as a much ‘nicer’ person (even though his fast-driven rant at fellow groups at the first Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, challenging The Beatles and others to a fight, razed this image to the ground somewhat in the 1980s). If this conversion had happened at any other time Love would have been hailed as a Beach Boys hero in the same way that we now feel about Brian, turning his life around at great pains to himself and facing up to things he ran away from decades before in an adult and mature manner. Alas, in late 1967, with Brian gone in all but a spiritual sense, they needed Mike more than ever. And the Wilson’s cousin just wasn’t on the same planet, leaving asecond gaping hole in this album.
Much of this album’s success comes down to Carl Wilson. With Brian in bed, Mike Love off meditating and other brother Dennis off missing for much of this album again (it’s a curious fact that Dennis is either the dominant writer and singer of the band’s records in this era – or he’s nowhere to be seen, depending on what band politics are getting in the way!) this is Carl’s turn to shine, ably supported by Al Jardine and Bruce Johnstone. Astonishingly Carl didn’t get his first lead vocal on a Beach Boys track until 1965’s ‘Summer Days and Summer Nights’, the true predecessor to Pet Sounds (and this from a band so desperately to pad out their four-albums-a-year contract they resort to such gimmicks as a Dennis drum solo, a bunch of phoney outtakes, a band interview and a made-up-on-the-spot band argument). Very much the junior member of the band as well as the youngest Wilson, this is the moment where Carl proves just how much he’s learnt from his brother. In a few years’ time people will be gushing about the arrangements of songs like ‘I Can Hear Music’ and ‘Do It Again’ assuming the ‘Wilson’ production credit is Brian when actually it’s Carl. His voice, such a part of the group to come, sounds so much older than his years, exciting enough to grab the ear and yet full of rich subtlety and sophistication. Brian at his best in the early years is the greatest vocalist any band can ask for – but if I can’t have Brian then give me Carl. This is the closest he ever came to a solo record, even including his two actual ‘solo’ albums most of which is co-written and co-sung, with lead vocals on eight of the eleven tracks here. It helps that Carl’s voice is faintly similar to brother Brian’s, giving short-term fans the idea that the band’s sound hasn’t changed – although actually there’s world of different between Brian’s pure, honest heartfelt fragile falsettos and Carl’s superb acting lessons when you get to know them well.
One other thing that surprises many fans is that, even though Brian barely appears on the record, when he does he sounds like he’s having the time of his life. ‘Aren’t You Glad?’ wouldn’t be many fan’s choice as their favourite Beach Boys song, but as a performance both Mike and Brian are on top form, having fun with their off-beat handclaps and with a giggle in their voices muchmore natural than the ‘stoned’ group giggling on ‘Smiley Smile’. Back in 1967, before the really bad days of 1969-76, Brian could still have good days, when the inspiration hadn’t left him fully and the band was going in a direction he could ‘believe’ in. Carl once offered the famous quote that this album was ‘music for Brian to cool out by’, a slogan I’ve always felt fitted the homespun ‘Friends’ album better – this is actually the leftover products of a brain that had been producing the world’s greatest material in late 1966/early 1967 before the well runs dry – as well as a record for the other Beach Boys to learn their craft by.
If this record has a theme, it’s one of enjoying the short magical moments in life before they’re gone. Track after track seems to be going somewhere nasty, from the son cut off by his family for going out with the wrong kind of girl in the title track to the rather stern parental warning about teeth-brushing (I kid you not!) at the end, via songs about needing escape in the country from the awful city pressure to the pained cry of losing someone dear in ‘Let The Wind Blow’, one of the band’s most overlooked gems. But time and again we pull back from the picture, in an inspired middle eight or chorus or simply a gripping instrumental interlude that tells us that things really are happy if only one can just get over this slight problem and either go back to the way things were or enjoy the new doors that are opening up when the old ones close. Well, apart from ‘Let The Wind Blow’ and even that melancholy track has a middle eight full of such longing about wanting to put things right around the world that you suspect the narrator will a find a way around his problems whatever’s got him down. The key line on this album is on ‘Aren’t You Glad?’, an affirmation of just how fun a partnership can still be, ending triumphantly with the passage ‘don’t you know that there’s so much more to come?’ The Beach Boys seemed over in 1967 but they’re successfully running in some configuration or other today and never did they bond quicker or better than on the recording of this album, all together in one room and trying to remember what made them want to take up music in the first place, long before the court cases, drugs and pressure. And there’s so much more on that story to come.
Nowhere is there a better example of this than Wild Honey’s title track. Brian is missing physically but is very much in the room spiritually, on a track that mixes Pet Sounds’ lyrical difficulties in love with ‘Good Vibrations’ loony instrumentation. A surprisingly juvenile sounding song about wanting parental approval – and the narrator then saying that his girl has changed his life he doesn’t care anyway – its almost an argument in song, with turbulent jabbing basses and an up-and-down riff that sounds like the argument passing hands (although, of course, we never get to hear the parental side of things). What’s lacking in ‘Wild Honey’ as a song is more than made up for by the performance, which plays it all for real rather than laughs and Carl especially is on terrific rocky form, attacking each and every other line as if he really means it. No wonder Brian records in his CD sleeve-notes that ‘Carl was so made up with this track he was laughing and dancing his way round the living room’ – the vibe in the room is infectious on this track. Full marks too to whoever added the organ/mellotron lick to a song that was already heavy with piano backing as, despite being a million miles from most R and B, this loopy sound adds an exotic and daring edge, as if this is the same old generational argument dressed up in the sounds of the day. Like many of Brian’s songs on the album, it could also be about music rather than a lover, as if the elder Wilson is reacting to criticism of his more recent ‘out-there’ sounds by having a battle royale between the R and B roots of the 1950s and the mellotron. In short, this song is the same old dressed up to sound daringly new and sounds wonderfully addictive. Sadly it’s about as R and B as The Beach Boys go on this record or in their career and it would have been nice to hear more songs from like this – but no matter, wild and exciting, this track is one of the best rockers in their catalogue.
‘Aren’t You Glad?’ is one of a number of songs from the Beach Boys in this period that give us simple home-spun charm about simple home-spun pleasures. Telling his new lover that he’s got a hunch they will be together forever because they feel so right for each other, this could easily have become dull but instead is wonderfully inventive, breaking out somewhere new with nearly every line and is breezily happy throughout. Mike Love, best known for songs about teenage angst and rebellion, handles the romantic lyrics with aplomb (his best vocals are nearly all in this period, when meditation brings out a whole new side to his personality) before criss-crossing vocals from Carl and a deliriously happy Brian interrupt, to tell us they even feel their heart beating in happy trepidation at their life together. Musically Brian is on top form, getting Dennis to add a pounding ‘ba-bumm’ after this line each verse, mimicking the lyrics’ nervous energy superbly. Like most songs on this album – and from hereon in until the end of the 60s – there’s one heck of a lot packed into a very short song that could have done with two more verses at least to truly get to the bottom of the story. But no matter, what we have is delightful, with a song and performance that are both as light as a feather and played just right. The contrast between this and the ‘heavier’ songs on ‘Smile’ is a chasm quite frankly: it’s as if Brian has now accepted the critics’ view of the band as a has been and has gone back to making the records he wants to make, without that huge pressure on his shoulders about what he’ll invent next.In a just world this would have been a hit single, just as in a just world ‘Smile’ would be the best-selling ever album made.
‘I Was Made To Love Her’ is unusual for many reasons: the most OTT soul/Motown hybrid on the album, it’s also the first cover on a Beach Boys album in over two years (given ‘Sloop John B’s ‘traditional’ status anyway) and the first not to be from the rock/folk/surf roots of the band. Stevie Wonder wrote the track, back when he was still ‘Little’ so to speak, and it’s an amazingly mature song for a performer of his age for all of its catchy chorus and doey-eyed lyrics. This sort of simplistic profoundness suits an album that finds deepness in every little thing, but the sound of Carl doing a near-straight impersonation of Stevie’s voice and the other Beach Boys sounding like The Supremes is not to everyone’s taste. Most fans hate this song in fact, when actually it’s a lot better than other Beach Boys covers (the banal ‘When I Kissed Her’ and all those awful surf covers they used to do), with a spirit and power even though it sounds misplaced. There’s also a sense of ‘why hear this inferior version of a song when you can hear the original’ – gamely as the band try, especially Carl, a simple backing track of piano, bass and drums can’t substitute for the might of Motown.
‘Country Air’ is one of my favourites on the album, a glowing little pop song that’s an early idea for a song that will shaped by Paul McCartney, Justin Hayward, etc on this list any time soon: that of retreating to the country when the city gets too much. Getting back to nature will be a key theme of just about everybody in 1968, but in 1967 this song must have sounded so wrong: music fans wanted to leave their planet for another galaxy, not take up farming and a simpler way of life. In truth, there’s little to this song other than a sighing chorus saluting the beauty of the country and a world that ‘let’s you sleep’ (gee no wonder I identify with this song – see my introduction!) with only a hummed verse to offer an alternative. But this is a lovely song, so Brian Wilson in the way the simple chords go in a completely unexpected direction and virtually yank your heart in the beautiful melancholy of it all. Even this early on coping without him, the rest of the band have learnt that less is more, letting a slowed-down boogie woogie piano lick drive the song, with just a simple mournful chord played on an organ, some rooster sound effects and some off key double tracked whistling to add to the song. Even with such a simple track, however, there’s so much going on here: the classy criss-crossing band vocals (for the first time on the album, at last!), the way the piano’s minor key heartache meets Carl’s vocal’s upbeat hope; the way the lyrics leave unsaid all the things the narrator is running away from at the same time as the music hints at a sinister past; magical. And those words: ‘mother nature, she fills my eyes while I sleep’ –poetry, but better. Again, could this be Brian singing about, not traditional love but the music that’s been his muse all his life, retiring to bed to ‘sleep’ and vowing to keep things simple in the future because that way his music is more ‘honest’, more ‘him?’ Truly magical, with all of the band on top form.
‘A Thing Or Two’ is less successful, a real return to Merrfseybeat-era rock with R and B twinges and an annoying chorus that keeps chirping ‘do it right!’ every few lyrics. Compared to the last track – and indeed most of the lyrics here – this song is banal and badly dated, a simple song about being in love and all the changes it causes in the narrator, complete with lyrics like ‘outtasite’. The band attempt a groove – and nearly have it too in the middle section, when a guesting Brian adds some ad libbed ‘ahhhhs’ over the top – but whenever it takes off in one direction it soon gets diverted down another path and has to start all over again. Unlike ‘Good Vibrations’, which made musical surprises and suspense into an art form, this song just doesn’t work – there’s no reason for it to chop and change as much as it does and there’s very few sections that reward the listener for paying attention this time around. I’d like to tell ‘A Thing Or Two’ a thing or two, because it spoils what otherwise is a very consistent and flowing album!
‘Darlin’ is the record’s hit single, a surprise return to the charts after nearly a full year away (and ‘Heroes and Villains’ wasn’t exactly a massive hit either). Like ‘Wild Honey’, it’s an infectious groove rather than a song, with some exotic time signatures and chord changes hung together with upbeat lyrics about everything that’s great about the narrator’s girl. There’s shade of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ in the lyrics though, offering the view that the narrator is overwhelmed with gratitude because he feels so inadequate to receive her love. As ever, Carl is perfectly cast for the song, his bouncy joy de vivre also containing enough subtlety to convey how much she really does mean to her and how badly he’d hurt if they were to ever part. ‘Guess it was meant to be’ runs this song’s most intriguing lyric, yet another of Wild Honey’s themes about fate and about things working out the way they were always supposed to. If you can, look out for the Beach Boys ‘Stack-O-Tracks’ album (on a CD two-fer with ‘Beach Boys Party!’) which features the backing track for this song. Shorn of the vocals, both Carl’s lead and the rest of the band’s mesmerising backing, there’s suddenly nothing there – just a few boogie woogie lines and a horn lick buried in the mix. The gap between that version and the finished product here is amazing and shows just how crucial the Beach Boys harmonies are to songs like these. If the song sounds a bit retro, that’s because it was first written in 1963 as another song entirely (‘Thinkin’ Bout You Baby’, a song released by Sharon Marie – Mike’s girlfriend of the time and one of many dozens of extra-curricular Beach Boys projects of the time). The song then ended up in the hands of ‘Redwood’, the late 60s project by Three Dog Night mainman and long-term friend of Brian’s Danny Hutton and apparently sounds stunning, with even more R and B influences than the band version here. Alas for Redwood, they came along at just the wrong time, when the Beach Boys credibility within Capitol Records was nil, and they passed on releasing the band’s first album and it still has yet to be released.
‘I’d Love Just Once To See You’’s gentle acoustic vibe sounds woefully out of place on this album and yet its a bigger pointer towards where the Beach Boys sound will go for the next few years than anything else on the album. Brian singing to his acoustic guitar, plus Carl’s overdubbed lead and Dennis’ drums, this is the first in a series of charming there’s-nothing-much-really-to-write-about-but-I-thought-I-would-anyway songs from Brian which actually reveal more than his grandest, biggest gestures.Brian’s narrator is busy in the kitchen washing dishes, reminiscing on how his marriage used to be, ‘spring cleaning’ mentally as well as physically. For the most part its upbeat but there’s a real sense of loss and nostalgia for the past, here, with Brian wondering why his girl doesn’t bake pies or even help him dry the dishes like she used to. There’s even a fun moment when Brian informs us that he’s making the song up ‘while I’m a working along, no one’s watching me’, as if he can trust his fans to understand his life better than his wife and family. This song is most famous, however, for it’s (by 1967 standards) risqué closing line: after singing the chorus line ‘I’d Love Just Once To See You’ over and over, Brian adds ‘...in the nude’, ending the song on this revelation. Is this meant to be a harmless bit of fun? A reference to his wife’s sterility and the problems for their unease together? The fact that the narrator never actually got close ot her at all? The song ends before we ever find out, making this ambiguous track one of Brian’s most intriguing songs of all. As for me, I think Brian’s just making mischief here, adding a little spice to a song that compared to the other songs here could be considered ‘bare’ or ‘dull’, yet despite the lack of things going on this song is actually one of Wild Honey’s more rewarding efforts, a glorious snapshot into Brian’s life in 1967 after the hullabaloo over ‘Smile’ had died down. Few people can charm like Brian Wilson and on this song he’s charming without ever having to actually try – clever, clever stuff.
‘Here Comes The Night’ is another R and B influenced rocker with Brian on lead but poorly mixed so that he sounds as if he’s singing down a tunnel. Play this song to most casual fans and they’d never guess it was the Beach Boys: growly, gritty, with a riff full of staccato stabbing beats (‘Hold me! Squeeze me! Don’t ever leave me!’) that sounds nothing like anything they’d done before. But I love the fact that The Beach Boys are trying something new and on an album full of half-baked experiments ‘Here Comes The Night’ is one of the more successful. There’s a clever snappy lyric-driven verse and chorus that’s as close to rap As anyone had got in 1967, a primitive chorus that sounds more like The Rolling Stones and yet more pianos in the backing that make this sound more like Thunderclap Newman! It may be going a bit far finding depth in a song that’s just a bit of fun but there does seem to be a theme of loss again here, with verses that seem to have come to terms with the loss of a girlfriend (music again?) and moving on with your life, only to be overcome by an urgent chorus that finds the narrator left alone at night, watching his heart break as all hisa rational arguments in the daytime descend into a sea of agonising doubts and self-pity. Brian sings the line ‘one of these days you know I’m gonnna go crazy’ as if its all a joke – but there’s an urgent, abrasive feel to the chorus that suggests that actually this fear of loss is actually deadly real. Astonishingly, this two and a half minute bit of fun will be pushed way past it’s breaking point to become the 10 minute disco opus of the same name on ‘LA Light Album’ in 1979. I know most fans hate that record with a passion, but I’ve always been a faint admirer of it (while acknowledging that it does go on a bit): the sheer audacity of having nothing more than swirling wordless vocals for three minutes is enticing and the rhythm of the song is a good one to re-make in that style. On this early, much more primitive version you barely notice the rhythm and this original could have done with the later block harmonies to give it direction, but whichever version you prefer this is a successful stab at doing something different and I wish The Beach Boys had used the lessons learnt on this track more.
‘Let The Wind Blow’ is another of the album’s highlights despite being one of the band’s least known songs. Carl and Mike trade lines about loss, with a sleepy verse trying to understand why life and nature still carry on, unmoved by the loss of the narrator, till a burning chorus finally bursts through, with an agonised sigh at how futile everything is when life is all so fragile. There’s an amazing bit in the Beach Boys biopic ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ (which is pretty good if you like that sort of thing and is clearly made by a Beach Boys fan first and foremost, even if some of the dialogue is awful) where a tearful Brian runs back from an argument with his band over ‘Smile’, his record company over finances and his wife for bringing too many ‘hangers-on’ back to the house. Brian’s solution is not to go to bed – not yet, anyway – but to pound his heart out on the piano, writing this song in a fit of pique. That background probably isn’t true, but it seems to fit: Brian’s tried to keep up the optimistic mood on the album for the sake of fans and record company but ‘Let The Wind Blow’ sounds like a real cry from the heart, desperate to right the wrongs of the world but only too aware that he can’t even help himself. The way the rest of the band chime in, sounding like the birds who keep singing and the church bells that keep ringing, overloading the narrator with the scenes that have always looked the same even when he knows the world has changed irreparably, is one of the cleverest bits of arrangement on any Beach Boys record and proof that Brian didn’t need a whole orchestra to show off his skills. ‘Please don’t take her out of my life’ Brian pleads to his creator as he stares out at nature – but nature’s not listening, it’s got bigger things to think about – and it’s that fact that crushes the narrator more than the hurt in the first place. Again, could this song be about music – please keep it a part of my life, as sung by a man who knows he’s heading to darker and more troubled times? As if to demonstrate ‘his’ affinity with the song, Brian keeps popping up everywhere, adding bite here and there, even though that’s not him singing the lead, as if he just can’t contain his true feelings any longer. The other Beach Boys do him proud too – Carl and Mike’s criss-crossing leads are excellent, full of pathos and longing, while the backing track is a treasure trove of delights, from a mournful harmonica to a world-weary piano thud. One of the absolute first class gems of The Beach Boys’ canon, I propose we keep writing to Capitol and tell them to make this song more prominent in their Beach Boys compilations and re-issues. Nearly every other song from this album got re-issued on something, so why not this beautiful gem of a song?
‘How She Boogalooed It’ is not anything like as mature and sensitive, needless to say from it’s title. This song, which features Al doing his best soul impression on lead, simply shows the gulf of the rest of the band to Brian, writing their first song by any of them (bar Mike Love) without the elder Wilson and it’s a far cry from the sort of things they’ll all be writing from here-on in. Sounding like a bad Beatles B-side, it’s a Bo Diddley-Chuck Berry riff played without any real passion, fire or purpose, with a chorus that really does go ‘S-O-C-K-I-T To Me’. Really, there should be no excuse. Except there is: realising that the album as recorded so far has a definite R and B vibe, and worried about their falling leader and wanting to take the weight of having to keep writing him, the rest of the band turn to writing ‘empty’ harmless pop fluff that was only ever meant to fill up space on a record when a deadline was looming. They probably never gave it a thought that this record would still be played in the 21st century – indeed, they probably doubted whether The Beach Boys would ever sell a single record again so badly out of fashion were they at the time – and it could have been a lot lot worse. Unfortunately, all these years on and coming in at the very tail end of Brain’s ‘golden age’ which stretched from 1962-68, it’s presence leaves a lot to be desired. There’s a nice chirpy organ part that offers a fair instrumental break, a chugging Carl Wilson guitar riff that at least tries to rise above the ordinary and Al’s vocal really couldn’t try any harder. But on this album, and after the last track especially, trying hard just isn’t enough and this song ends up feeling hollow, shallow and utterly forgettable. An unfortunate blot on one of the band’s more consistent records.
The album closes with ‘Mama Says’, 90 seconds of Four Freshman crossed with those Government Approved Adverts of the 60s and 70s that try to tell you how to live your life for you, even though they don’t know you. If it all sounds a bit psychedelic compared to everything else here then that’s because it was originally the middle eight of the song ‘Vega-Tables’ off ‘Smile’ – and I really do mean middle eight by the way, as there’s tonnes more going on in ‘Vega-Tables’ than just this bit (and to boot, ‘Vega-Tables’ is probably Smile’s most basic, bare-bones song!) Irritating when heard often, sweet when heard once in a blue moon, ‘Mama Says’ features some stunning group vocals a curious ending that’s meant to sound like a magic trick vanishing into smoke (‘booooiiiinnngggggg.....poof!’) but actually sounds as if the stylus has worn on your record player (even when you play it on CD). Weird, peculiar and surely unique in being the only AAA song about brushing your teeth I can think about, its notable for featuring all the things that Brian won’t be doing from now on (ie exercising, teeth brushing, ‘never being lazy’) as he returns to the safe haven of his bed, chanted here as a sermon that’s both harsh and caring at the same time. Whether meant genuinely as a heartfelt offer of help to fans about how to live their lives (as ‘Vega-Tables’ undoubtedly was) or a bit of a joke (as it sounds here), ‘Mama Says’ is one of the band’s most curious, confusing songs, sounding like it’s been written by a legal firm and sung by a bunch of heavenly angels. What are we meant to make of this song?
In fact, what are we meant to make of ‘Wild Honey’? At just 25 minutes and 11 tracks it feels woefully short and unsubstantial, despite possessing some of Brian Wilson’s greatest songs and some of the band’s greatest performances. When heard together with ‘Smiley Smile’ on CD the effect is doubly confusing: heartfelt, earnest songs delivered as some form of cosmic joke. Certainly, if you come to these twin albums after ‘Pet Sounds’ and the ‘Smile’ sessions set (which if its anything up to the unofficial bootleg copy will be the best music release since...ooh Brian Wilson’s finally finished ‘Smile’ of 2004) they sound bare, raw and unappetising. But they’re not without worth and – when you understand the story behind their creation – you have to applaud The Beach Boys just for refusing to give up and giving it a go. The fact that they also turn in some of their best group performances and better songs of the late 60s is a happy bonus. I’m not surprised they bombed in 1967, when the world was all kaftans and psychedelic swirls rather than naked honesty and raw power. But the great thing about collecting music now some 40 years after it’s release is that we can see an album for it’s real worth rather than how it fits into the ‘trends’ of its day and could it be that Wild Honey is, by accident more than design, just a little ahead of it’s time anyway? It would be easy to dismiss ‘Wild Honey’ today like scholars of the 1960s did then, but that would be to miss just what sort of a hole The Beach Boys were in in late 1967, with a lead writer in bed and a lead vocalist off meditating, leaving the ‘family firm’ to themselves. But my goodness was there an abundance of talent in that band back then; thanks to Brian and Mike’s songs, as sung arranged and perfected by Carl, Al and Bruce, the Beach Boys magic is still in there somewhere. If only Dennis could have joined the party too. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫♫ (6/10). Other Beach Boys relates articles from this website you might be interested in reading: