A Motown Shoutout to Brian Wilson

When it comes to popular music, there are few stories greater than Motown Records and the incredible songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland.  You know their songs whether you know their names.  Flip over any decent Motown album and if Smokey didn’t write it, it was usually them.  A small sample of highlights:

-“Heat Wave” and “Jimmy Mack” by Martha and the Vandellas

-“Come See About Me,” “Stop! In The Name of Love,” “Baby Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and other hits by The Supremes

-“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” “Bernadette,” “It’s the Same Old Song,” and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” by the Four Tops

-“This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak for You)” by the Isley Brothers

And the list goes on.  Dozier even had a modestly successful solo career after the days of round-the-clock hit-making for other groups.  His main role in the Holland/Dozier/Holland team was musical– he would come up with the bass lines, progressions, and arrangements while the brothers Holland would flesh out melodies and lyrics.  That isn’t to say all the hooks and bridges were his, nor that Dozier didn’t have some valuable input on the words– it was he who, during an argument with his girlfriend, said, “Stop!  In the name of love!”

A pretty good solo album

Even as a Beach Boys devotee, I expected that only white teenagers were really glued to the sounds of Brian Wilson and his band in the 1960’s, so it was much to my surprise when I discovered that Lamont Dozier had name-dropped Brian in an interview on songwriting.

The video is worthwhile on it’s own, but somewhere near the end he says, “Of course we were listening to the Beatles, of course we were listening to Brian Wilson,” and then elaborates that those forces kept Motown on its toes.  Extraordinary!

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Pick-Apart 3: “Shut Down”

This could be called “Spotlight On: Shut Down,” or “Great Hits Examined: Shut Down,” but I’ve already created a pattern with “Pick-Apart,” so I’ll have to go with that.  All this is to say, “What a fantastic song ‘Shut Down’ is, and how glad I am to present it to you!”

It was written in late ’62, presumably, as it was recorded on January 5th, 1963 and released in March of that year as the B-side to “Surfin’ U.S.A.”  It was on the Surfin’ U.S.A. album and later that year it appeared on the Little Deuce Coupe album as well, thanks to the suits at Capitol Records who screw up everything all the time and on purpose.  It was the first song Brian co-wrote with Roger Christian, the L.A. disc jockey who knows everything about cars and dumps as much lingo into his lyrics as possible (see “Cherry, Cherry Coupe,” “No-Go Showboat,” and “Little Deuce Coupe”).  It hit #23 on the charts and boy, is it a cool number!

If you look closely, “Shut Down” is bottom right.

It is similar to “Little Deuce Coupe” in melody and subject matter, but it uses a surf beat instead of a shuffle beat.  Also like “Little Deuce Coupe,” it strays from the typical 12-bar-blues progression that the first part of the verse predicts– a big step from “409” and further evidence that Brian Wilson was different from/better than/not just a lucky part of the fading surf music fad.  The backing vocals progress behind the verse (rev it up, now; movin’ up, now; honkin’ on, now (?)), a momentum-builder they would use again on the mega-hit “Fun, Fun, Fun” that followed it by more than a year.

What really stands out is how well the Boys perform on the track.  The progress they had made since Surfin’ Safari is appreciable, both vocally and instrumentally; nevertheless, this was one of the last recording sessions that didn’t use at least one professional musician, at least until Smiley Smile in 1967.  Notice the plucky bass (Brian) doing the surf scoop to create some major-7 happy tension, and the other bass (?)/low guitar ascending every chance it gets (used to greater effect in “Salt Lake City” two years later).  Dennis keeps the time and throws in roll after roll.  The two-note sax solo (Mike) lays some grit under the cleanest Carl Wilson guitar solo ever recorded.  As the narrator recounts the story, he switches from “It happened on the strip” to “My stingray is light, the slicks are starting to spin”– so caught up in that the action that he slips into that weird past/present tense (so I’m makin’ out with this girl, see, and all of a sudden…”).  The group shows so much restraint (what, no falsetto?!) that you can almost feel the pent-up fury of the two subjects as they burn through a quarter mile, full of adrenaline yet keenly focused.  Before you know it, the song repeats and fades with the funny little minor-key chorus, leaving you wondering how the race turned out.  Listen now!

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Justify Mike Love

I remember the early days of my Beach Boys fanaticism.  I had but one CD– 20 Good Vibrations– because I really liked “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations” and maybe “Dance, Dance, Dance.”  I flipped through the liner notes and found B. Wilson/Love next to almost all of the tracks and began to assume, since Brian Wilson was such a boring name, that this Mike Love was really in charge.  In pictures they all looked the same to me, except the one with the bucket hat, Mike!  He was the less ugly of the little guys in the group, the scrappy type who kept them all in line, taught them all the chords and harmonies and laid down the law, I imagined.  Most of all, he was the only one I could remember singing in any concert video I had seen.  Yep, Mike Love had to be the main force in the Beach Boys!

Brian and Mike in the early days

When I think how wrong I was, I scarce can believe it.  It’s like when I hated “Seinfeld” as a kid and thought the show was about George.  Mike, it turns out, was a problem child without the good looks or carefree nature of Dennis Wilson; the front man who couldn’t dance; the litigious square who said, “Don’t fuck with the formula,” but who has since made millions heavily breathing out both formula and non-formula hits for the last several decades.  Murry Wilson, Mike’s uncle and a real turd himself, could not stand him.  Neither could his cousin, Stan Love, who has taken Brian’s side in various lawsuits between former members of the band.  He was the picture of a non-artist; a crusader for the bottom line; a Judas to Brian’s Jesus.  Just look at the Google search suggestions:

You can browse the “Top 22 Pictures of Mike Love Looking Like A Douche.”

Then peruse, “Why I Hate Mike Love.”

And finally, join the cause on Facebook at the Mike Love is a Douchebag community page.

Who, me?

All of this hate is understandable, even fair.  And it’s often funny.  Eventually, though, it’s just tiresome.  In fact, I got so tired of the narrative that I began thinking positively about Mike.  Since then, I’ve gone from hating Mike to trying to forget him to tolerating him to accepting him. I don’t like him, and probably never will, but I think it’s too easy to pick a villain in a story about a hero.

The positive thinking was difficult.  When I was finished lauding his above average voice with all its terrific bass moments (see “The Little Girl I Once Knew” or “Help Me, Rhonda”), I was suddenly grasping.  Where to turn?  I got into some of the Smile bootlegs and was all like, “How could someone not like this stuff?  It’s Stephen Foster, Gershwin, Berlin, even Tchaikovsky in some parts!  It’s the American answer to the British Invasion– the banjos, the harmonica, the talk of bicycles and pilgrims and Indians and God and water and vegetables.  How strange!  How sublime!  This was the way forward.  This is better than the Beatles, bigger than the Beatles, and this little twerp couldn’t handle it so he had to stop it all?!”  It wasn’t looking good for Mike.

Then I heard a version of “Cabin Essence” (alternately “Cabinessence”) on which Mike sang the tag:

Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield/

Over and over the thresher and hover the wheatfield

That’s not a typo: it’s “the thresher and hover,” not “they thresh and hover” or even “the threshers hover.”  This was the big controversy, the funny line that started the demise of Smile when Mike refused to let these words end up on the record.  The words were written by Van Dyke Parks, a new lyrical collaborator for the new direction the Beach Boys were to take, and one can appreciate how difficult it must have been to jump into the abstract, if not the absurd just months after Pet Sounds gave us “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”  But Mike sang the lines, and he sang them well, and who knows how many times he had to sing them?  Listen to the whole song, and listen especially well on the “Grand Coulee” section at the end, starting around 2:20, when Mike hits those verses.  Hear how every time he sings “-field” it sounds as if molten metal is pouring out of his mouth.  (Sorry, but the embedding process is suddenly a pain in the ass so I gave up and had to hyperlink it like a slob.)

Brian and Van Dyke Parks working on Smile

He seemed to be a part of the team, at least for a little while, and I can believe him when he says in interviews that he wasn’t against experimentation; I mean, he was right there making animal noises with the rest of them on “Barnyard.”  I stopped hating him because of that.  I realized just how very small he was, like a brooding teenager who can’t see the point of household chores.

Suppose he had been neutral or supportive of the album– he wasn’t the only one who wasn’t ready for it.  Just think of Capitol Records and the pressure for a single.  Imagine the tepid reception the American public would have given it in early 1967.  If “God Only Knows” only made it to number 39, what could “Surf’s Up” do?  I imagine it would have made Brian King of the Music World According to Musicians In The Know for about six months, when Sergeant Pepper would have come out and trumped its popularity and acclaim anyway.  Or maybe the Beatles would have put Pepper off a little longer and included “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” on that album, as they had planned to do, and then they couldn’t afford to put much effort behind Magical Mystery Tour and the psychedelic era would have gone on even longer and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, blah blah blah– it doesn’t matter.  The rest can be chalked up to the failure of Brian Wilson to push for his way and stand up to Mike and say, “Mike, damn it, we’re gonna do this!”  Plus maybe lay off the drugs just a little so as not to succumb to wild paranoid fantasies.

Brian and Mike, much more recently

In summary, yes, Mike Love should thank any available god that he is related to Brian Wilson.  Yes, Mike Love would be some sort of mid-level management retiree if not for the Beach Boys.  Yes, Mike Love is a prick and a hack, but acting grateful and giving praise and denying your own immediate self-interest in every moment is exhausting.  And so is blaming and hating and vilifying Mike Love.  So I’m done.

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Rockaway Beach Boys

Today’s post is a little something I caught in the icy depths of about the 16th page of results for “Beach Boys” on Amazon.com.  There was a lot of good stuff on the way down, including a disc of lullaby versions of Beach Boys songs, a string quartet version of Pet Sounds, and this hilarious Time Life cover featuring an airbrushed beefcake version of the Boys in the early days:

You forgot how ripped Carl was for a couple months in 1963

The catch of the day, though, was an album called Rockaway Beach Boys by the Rämouns, a German Ramones tribute band.  On the album, they have turned another corner and have decided to cover a second band as the first band; that is, this album is as close as we’ll ever come to hearing the Ramones cover the Beach Boys, besides, of course the Ramones’ cover of the Beach Boys’ version of Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance?”– phew!

The Ramones/Beach Boys connection may be lost on some tepid fans of either band, but for me, a steaming hot fan of both, I’ve noticed the similarities for a while.  Take “Rockaway Beach” as an example– it’s “Fun, Fun, Fun” on amphetamines; it’s Beach Boys sunny power pop through a buzzsaw filter; it’s so simple you wonder why it wasn’t written twenty years before, but there it is.  Joey and Dee Dee, the main songwriting forces behind the Ramones, time and again pick melodies that sound like “Shut Down” or “Be True To Your School.”  It’s something I’ve been trying to peg down for a while: what is it that makes the three-chord “Little Deuce Coupe” typify the early Beach Boys records?  Why is it that the melody tugs on the chords at certain locations that indicate Brian Wilson was here?  Whatever it is, it’s all over Ramones songs like “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker,” “Oh, Oh, I Love Her So,” and “Cretin Hop.”  Is it third notes, fifth notes, minor sevenths or ninths or some shit?  I don’t know, but I do know the Ramones loved the Phil Spector records– loved them enough to let Phil produce the famous End of the Century album– and they loved surf and early ’60’s girl group stuff just like Brian did.  They didn’t call themselves punks like the Sex Pistols, nor were they openly political like a lot of the British punks, but they were revolutionary nonetheless: they revived the fun and earnest two-minute pop song, rescued music from disco and prog rock (not that there’s anything wrong with those), and revitalized the musical underground, all without much ambition at all.  I salute them for it, the Rämouns salute them, and we all salute the Beach Boys with this one.  Enjoy Rockaway Beach Boys.  [Edit: the shared file is not available anymore.  Please follow the link and create your own youtube party!]

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Brian and Boy George

I am a fan of Boy George.  Culture Club sings some of my favorite songs in pop history, and the videos accompanying those songs are other-worldly (well, Mississippi, 1870 and The Gargoyle Club, Soho, 1936).  His voice reminds me of Smokey Robinson’s, and androgyny is kind of fascinating when it’s a lifelong effort, not just some Dee Snyder gimmick whipped up to cash in on a trend.  So it was to my surprise and delight when I came across an effort involving Brian and Boy George.

Boy George young Brian WilsonThe song flew way under the radar (swam through deep ocean trenches?) back in 2004.  It was a Live-Aid type of thing– a collaboration of disparate artists uniting behind a relief effort (victims of the south Asia tsunami)– but this time, all of the artists are old as dirt and way past their primes and the song slips out of memory as soon as it ends.  It’s really a depressing effort in so many ways, but the good part is that Brian has one of the fullest voices in the song.  Otherwise, it’s padded with old Bee Gees and other Beach Boys squeaking out ugly harmonies with bad lyrics written by a nobody and featuring Cliff Richard, one of those strange English-speaking multimedia megastars who has been knighted in the U.K. but whose name remains basically unknown over here.  Enjoy “Grief Never Grows Old!”

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Endless Bummer 1: “This Car of Mine”

With this entry I begin a recurring series featuring one particularly “skippable” song from the Beach Boys backlog.  It may be a dreaded “bull session” from an early album; it could be one of their many weak covers; and it will likely feature the entirety of the Beach Boys’ Party! album– you know, whatever doesn’t strike me.

The dishonor of first post goes to a track from Shut Down, Volume 2, the same album that wields “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” and “The Warmth of the Sun.”  It finishes out  the first side and features a stuffy, strained vocal by Dennis along with some uninteresting harmonies from the rest.  It’s called “This Car of Mine,” and boy, does it sputter!

Dennis Wilson

Dennis Wilson: Troublemaker

The song has a decent, full track like any Beach Boys offering after Surfin’ Safari, complete with bright piano and chunky bass on top of a shuffle beat like in “Little Deuce Coupe” or “Little Saint Nick,” but everything else falls pretty flat.  There are moments in the song that might as well be dead air.  The middle eight with everyone singing, “This car of mine,” is long enough to cover even the most cavernous yawn.  The “diddly-ho-ho” and half-improvisation by Dennis to see the song out makes you root for the coming silence.  Dennis– who for some reason has fierce devotees who think he was just as talented as Brian– fumbles the double-tracking for the entire duration of the song.  The melody sounds like Brian trying to do another simple song in the Stephen Foster style (see “Farmer’s Daughter” for a successful example), but what he achieves is another forgettable filler track to insulate the really great singles and relegate yet another early Beach Boys album to a 3-out-of-5-stars status.

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Pick-Apart 2: “Pom Pom Play Girl”

“Pom Pom Play Girl” is one of my favorite non-hit Beach Boys tracks.  It was recorded February 20, 1964 for release on March 2.  The song has all the features that make a great Beach Boys song: a distinct, strong melody; a thick wall of backing vocals; a healthy rhythm section; verses split between singers; innuendo-laced lyrics about high school society; modulation (albeit a little clumsy); and even some spoken word.

That’s all great, but what really impresses me is the lead vocal by Carl Wilson, which happens to be his first ever lead vocal, which is surprising considering this song is on their fifth album.  He would sing again, more notably, on “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations,” but I love him here.  He’s a great middle range between Brian and Mike.  The others, of course, could sing in this range and do well, but it’s hard to imagine either doing it better.  Carl was the youngest Beach Boy– just 17 at the time– but proved his voice was just as full as Mike’s, just as smooth as Brian’s, and just plain all-around better than either Dennis “Do You Wanna Dance” Wilson’s or Al “Help Me, Rhonda” Jardine’s.

Musically, the song begins with a Jan-and-Dean-esque kick-start (think “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”) as a sort of announcement: “This song is called ‘Pom Pom Play Girl’ and now we’re going to sing it.”  They had used these little momentum-building breaks to launch several other songs, like “Surfers Rule,” “Catch A Wave,” and “Shut Down.”  With momentum built, Carl starts in while the rest of the group lays on the “ooo” really thick, incorporates some cheerleader sounds (“chu-chu-nom!”), and brings it all back home to “Rah rah pom pom play girl.”

And it’s another song where Mike Love shines, lyrically and vocally.  He takes the end of each verse to new lows– but really new heights— with his God-sent bass vocal, and rounds off the lines just in time for a new kick-start.  The lyrics may not be profound, but just like in “No-Go Showboat,” they sound great.  The song is fast, fun, and full of energy, leaving you begging for more as it fades out in barely 90 seconds over a triple (?) modulation and some dirty sexual stuff.  Please listen!

P.S.– An album’s worth of Beach Boys’ songs built around a high school theme is in the works.  I’ll post it soon, so stay tuned!

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