Tag Archives: Brian Wilson

Hal Blaine RIP

Hal Blaine, one of the most prominent members of the group of LA-based session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, has died of natural causes aged 90.

Blaine’s career was truly remarkable. Like the majority of the Wrecking Crew players, Blaine’s background was in jazz. He got his professional start playing with Tommy Sands, but, adaptable and open-minded enough to move into rock ‘n’ roll, Blaine began playing studio dates, and was soon the go-to guy for Phil Spector. His enormous intro to Be My Baby I’m sure you’re familiar with. OK, sure – it is to drummers what the Smoke on the Water riff is to guitarists, but it got to be that for a reason. Great music is about tension and release. That dropped backbeat on the two and the huge reverberant snap on the four is tension and release. That’s why it worked.

The keen student of Spector’s Wall of Sound that he was, Brian Wilson naturally wanted to hire the same musicians and studios as his idol had used, so before long Blaine was playing for LA’s next boy genius. It’s arguably those Beach Boys songs, particularly the ones on Pet Sounds, where you hear the best of Hal Blaine: his taste, his creativity, his avoidance of orthodoxy.

But if you’re not a Beach Boys fan, you can still hear Hal doing brilliant, innovative things in hundreds of different musical settings. You can hear him on records by Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin, Herb Alpert, Sam Cooke, the Byrds, the Monkees, Simon & Garfunkel, the 5th Dimension, the Carpenters, Glen Campbell, the Mamas & the Papas, John Denver,  Sonny & Cher, the Association, Neil Diamond, Johnny Rivers, Paul Revere & the Raiders and Barbra Streisand. And that list is far, far from exhaustive. It’s tip-of-the-iceberg stuff, just what came to mind.

In interviews, Blaine always came across as a very likeable and humble guy. He spoke highly of the artists he worked with, always making a point of saying how much he learned from them playing with them all.

Farewell, Hal, and thanks.

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Holiday harmonies, part 1: Silent Night – Modern Folk Quartet

Hi there. Merry Christmas. I hope you’re having a great festive period. I’m going to look at some harmony groups over the next week or so, starting today with something appopriate to the season.

Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds. New Edition. Modern Folk Quartet. Bands that are just perhaps more famous for giving a start to the people that passed through them on their way to bigger things than they are for their own accomplishments.

The first three you probably know about, as those groups were all successful in their own right.* Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay (later of Poco) and Jim Messina were all members of the Buffalo Springfield. David Crosby, Gene Clark, Gram Parsons were Byrds veterans. Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Bell Biv Devoe and Ralph Tresvant between them comprise around 50% of the noteworthy new jack swing artists.

The Modern Folk Quartet, though, were not hugely successful in the US or Britain, though they retained a big following in Japan. Its members, though, are all noteworthy for their accomplishments away from the band. Cyrus Faryar went on to make solo records and played on Fred Neil’s magisterial Fred Neil and Sessions albums. Jerry Yester worked as a producer with the Association, the Turtles, Tim Buckley and Tom Waits, also moonlighting as a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful after Zal Yanovsky left. Chip Douglas joined the Turtles on bass, and produced hits for the Monkees, including Pleasant Valley Sunday and Daydream Believer. Henry Diltz became one of the finest photographers in all of rock ‘n’ roll.

The members’ individual achievements, then, are hugely impressive, so much so that they overshadow those of their band. But the Modern Folk Quartet (who became the Modern Folk Quintet when drummer Ediie Hoh joined) deserve to be remembered as one of the great harmony groups.

They sung complex, jazzy four-part, and they have what so few harmony groups can honestly claim: a really excellent voice on the bottom. Cyrus Faryar, whom I’ve written about on this blog before (at a time when I wasn’t familiar with the MFQ), had a gorgeous baritone, deep, rich and agile. He was a lead singer in his own right. They all were.

Singing together, they blended the earnest folk harmonising of the Brothers Four (same instrumental line-up of acoustic guitars, double bass and 5-string banjo, too) with a jazzy sensibility seemingly learned from the Four Freshman, the same vocal group that had a profound influence on the young Brian Wilson.

The Modern Folk Quartet made two albums in its initial early-1960s run, the first slightly heavier on trad. arr., the second leaning more towards contemporary writers including John Stewart, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. They remained very popular in Japan, though, and reformed several times to tour and release records over there. In 1990 they cut an album of Christmas carols, MFQ Christmas. Their vocal arrangements are imaginative and beautifully performed. My favourite is the brief reading of Silent Night that closes the record. The magic happens at the bottom (unmistakably Faryar)  and on the top (Diltz, I think). It’s just gorgeous.

MFQThe Modern Folk Quartet: l-r Jerry Yester, Henry Diltz, Cyrus Faryar, Chip Douglas

*Very successful really, but when was the last time you heard anyone talking about “Neil Young from Buffalo Springfield”?

Water Colors – Janis Ian

Janis Ian achieved national prominence at an incredibly early age. At the age of 13, she wrote Society’s Child, a song about a romance between a white girl and a black boy (and more specifically about the hypocrisy of teachers and parents who put a stop to it without ever quite coming out and saying why, and the narrator’s failed attempt to defy their wishes). Released several times between 1965 and 1967, the song was eventually a substantial hit, despite resistance from radio programmers in many markets. A lot of this had to do with Leonard Bernstein and his producer, who, impressed with the song, featured it in his CBS special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution (the same show that also featured an early version of Brian Wilson’s Surf’s Up).

Society’s Child is an honourable song, impressively written for someone so young, but it pales when set beside the best of her work from the mid-1970s, by which point she was a different songwriter entirely. Between the Lines (1975, 1.9m sold in the US, Billboard #1) was the high point, containing both At Seventeen and the astonishing Water Colors.

As enduringly poignant as At Seventeen is, Water Colors cuts deeper still. Rich with detail, heavy with sadness and regret, and possessed of a centre of completely still self-confidence, this is the work of a singer and songwriter at the top of her game. The arrangement is, likewise, considered and perfectly executed (I like the subtle nods to Bookends-era Simon & Garfunkel: the descending sequence into the first verse echoes the chord sequence to America, the string arrangement in the second verse seems to quote Old Friends and the bridge, with its shift to Cmaj7 (the song is in D) again recalls America.

But while its musically enthralling (with a magnificent performance from double bassist Richard Davis, who played with such diverse jazz players as Charles Mingus, Cal Tjader and Elvin Jones), what’s most striking for me is Ian’s willingness to portray herself as behaving poorly in one of her own songs, but not with any irony towards or distance from her from her creation. Or, if one reads the song as not autobiographical, to do so knowing that’s how it would probably be heard.

In the song, Ian’s lover, aware of his own jealousy and finding it hard to be apart from his famous girlfriend while she tours, tries to end things between them. His words go beyond regretful into reproachful (his allusion to “stagehand lovers” suggests that she’s already strayed, but that may be his own paranoia). Despite his passive agression, the character is not drawn unsympathetically. The narrator, though, escalates things with a melodramatic outburst (“I said, ‘Do you wish me dead’?”) and a mean-spirited questioning of his masculinity, in which he is accused of riding her coattails. However one interprets the events, it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless and it’s a braver portrait of the artist than just about any other songwriter has ever managed, with characters so acutely drawn that I feel like I know these people from one 5-minute song.

Between the Lines, in fairness, doesn’t contain anything else as good as Water Colors, but this is the kind of song that a writer can spend a whole career trying to match without success. It is no crime to achieve perfection only once.

Janis
Janis Ian

*It’s a measure of the lyric’s quality that a different reading is very possible, in which the narrator’s anger is justified by her lover’s passive aggression. Certainly it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless in the episode the song relates.

The author’s new EP, for streaming or pay-what-you-want download:

Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys

Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys’ songwriter, arranger, producer, lead singer, bass player and guiding artistic force) is a fragile soul, a naïve and unworldly man. It doesn’t seem a particularly deep insight to suggest that he was damaged by his relationship with his abusive, domineering father or that rarely was there a psyche less suited to full-scale immersion in the world of hallucinogens and psychotropic drugs.

The leader of a phenomenally successful band yet overawed by Phil Spector’s records from a few years earlier and increasingly envious of the critical and commercial success of the Beatles, Wilson quit touring in 1965 to concentrate on turning the Beach Boys into a genuine artistic force in the studio, while his band (brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love and schoolfriend Al Jardine) went on the road to promote the group’s records. This allowed him to journey deeper inside himself as a writer and arranger. Unfortunately, it also allowed him the time and freedom to ingest industrial quantities of marijuana and LSD.

After Pet Sounds (a record whose melodic grace and complex arrangements have inspired volumes of scholarly analysis) flopped commercially in the US, having already created a rift in the band by “fucking with the formula” (as the always fearlessly artistsic Mike Love put it), Wilson retreated further into drug use and found a new lyricist to work with: Van Dyke Parks. Together the pair began work on what Wilson had alluded to in the press as “a teen symphony to God”, to be called Dumb Angel.

Smile, as the album would be retitled, went unfinished, and the effort (against a backdrop of band in-fighting) nearly finished Wilson, but some of the songs found their way on to other projects: several were packaged together in sketchy demo form on Smiley Smile, which was savaged in 1967 as half-baked and slapdash, but is actually an excellent record with an almost singular atmosphere. Two of Smile’s greatest achievements, Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains, were of course known to the public anyway, having been released as singles. But the unfinished record’s other masterpiece, Surf’s Up, wouldn’t surface until 1971, and then against Wilson’s wishes; he remained scared of the work he’d created four years earlier and wished to keep it all under wraps lest its bad vibes overwhelm him again. The song, meanwhile, had taken on semi-legendary status among fans.

A 3-section suite, Surf’s Up contains some of Parks’s greatest lyrics, a stream of consciousness so pure it’s indistinguishable from surrealism, as well as three remarkable lead vocals: the initial section by Carl (replacing Brian’s 1967 effort, which was for some reason considered lacking), the middle section with Brian’s original vocal (the part that Brian had performed for Leonard Bernstein’s TV programme, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution) and the ‘child is father of the man’ section, lead sung by Al Jardine.

Obscure lyrically but captivating melodically, Surf’s Up cast a long shadow over the music Wilson made afterwards – he never again wrote songs that balanced his experimental urges and his commercial pop sense so successfully. By the late seventies he weighed over 300 pounds and was a psychological cripple. Entrusting him to a controversial (OK, let’s be frank: exploitative and megalomaniacal) psychiatrist named Eugene Landy, the rest of the Beach Boys hit the road to make yet more money off the back of Wilson’s talent, desecrating his legacy as they did so. Kokomo. Sitcom guest spots. Republican conventions. They sunk to unimaginable depths.

Wilson emerged again in the nineties, slimmed down, somewhat vacant but much more together than he had any right to be. Crucially, he was now free of the odious Landy’s malign influence (Landy had appointed himself Wilson’s co-writer and had seemingly programmed Wilson to behave as some sort of servant – ‘a good dog always obeys his master!’ Wilson once told a startled interviewer, evidently not referring to a family pooch) and was now able to begin writing and performing again with sympathetic and patient co-producer Darian Sahanaja and his band the Wondermints, finally finishing and releasing Smile in 2004 to rapturous reviews**.

So the story has a happy ending of sorts. But I’ll never get used to the version on Brian Wilson presents Smile. The mix feels wrong to me. I’m used to Carl’s 1971 vocal rather than Brian’s 1967 take, and the vocal seems to sit on top of the music. The ultimate version of the song remains the 1971 release, cobbled together by Carl from the pieces Brian just couldn’t seem to fit in place in 1967 as his mind came apart.

smile17brianvandat.l
Wilson with Van Dyke Parks, 1967

*Bernstein: “A new song, too complex to get all of first time around. It could come only out of the ferment that characterizes today’s pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys, and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own ‘Surf’s Up.’ Poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity, Surf’s Up is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today. As such, it is a symbol of the change many of these young musicians see in our future”

** I have to admit to more than a few reservations about Brian Wilson presents Smile. Age and substance abuse wrecked Wilson’s voice – I’m sorry, but there is no polite way of putting it – and the joins between the newly recorded music and the original material are all too audible. They have a tendency to jump out at you and prevent you listening to the thing as a whole work. Sahanaja’s work with Wilson was valiant and well-intentioned, but clocks cannot be turned back.

Elliott Smith’s early records: Roman Candle & Elliott Smith

There’s something really strange about Elliott Smith’s early solo records. They’re not like anything else I’ve ever heard. His later albums make all sorts of overt references to the rock canon: some McCartney changes here, some double-tracked Lennon there, a bit of Brian Wilson, a bit of Harry Nilsson, some Paul Simon picking. His early records just sound like himself.

That distinctive vocal delivery from his Heatmiser days is still there – a weird mix of Elvis Costello sneer and Ian MacKaye bellow – but it’s a whispered version of it. The song structures, the melody lines, the guitar playing, though – it’s a thing that Elliott Smith did that didn’t copy anything else and hasn’t been copied since. “Soft and gritty at the same time,” as Slim Moon (owner of the record label Kill Rock Stars) put it. Indeed, Smith is still occasionally playing the role of tough guy on these songs. About 16 years since I first heard it, 21 since it came out, I still don’t know whether his delivery of the verses of No Name #2 is awesome or unintentionally comic.

Concrete hands picked up the telephone ring
Do you know who you’re talking to?
No, and I don’t care who.
She whispered quiet terror news.
He didn’t give a hoot,
Said do what you have to do.

There’s a context to all this, of course. These records were made during the alternative rock boom that followed the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, a period where a lot of music got on the radio – a lot of music got taken to people’s hearts – that was unapologetically loud, ugly and fierce. An acoustic guitar was a signifier of something other. For a guy like Elliott Smith, who came out of a punk rocky, collegey milieu in Portland, Oregon, to pick up an acoustic guitar and play hushed, intimate songs broke with the orthodoxy of the day, at least in the Pacific Northwest; maybe it’d have been different if he’d come up as a New England coffeehouse guy. But Smith probably felt that his songs couldn’t be too pretty, at least not at first. And they weren’t – pretty, that is – except in short passages. His music wouldn’t acquire conventional prettiness until around the time of Either/Or, when an upgrade in the recording technology available to him was accompanied by the emergence of his 1960s and ’70s singer-songwriter influences.

Reviewers and fans have often compared Smith to Nick Drake: the early death, the sad music, the acoustic guitars… Actually, it’s a stretch. Tonally, the work of the two writers could scarcely be further apart. Drake was diffident, likely to underplay his emotions, even at the end. Smith’s music was always angry, always accusatory, from the first Heatmiser record through to the last song on From a Basement on the Hill. His solo debut, the 4-track Portastudio-recorded Roman Candle (particularly the title track, Last Call and Drive all over Town) is furious. When the torrid Last Call is followed by the instrumental Kiwi Maddog 20/20*, with its electric guitar overdubs and surprisingly fleshed-out drums, it’s a rare respite from all the anger. But it’s the calm of someone who’s raged at the world merely to the point of exhaustion, not to the point where anything’s been resolved. The darkness still hangs overhead.

His lyrics are parables and observations. The biggest mistake people make is assuming his songs are all confessional. It’s his own life, but it’s a lot of allegory. You see recurring characters in his songs.

Larry Crane, for Pitchfork‘s Keep the Things You Found oral history

That’s as maybe. Larry Crane knew Elliott Smith and we didn’t. Yet Crane has an interest in trying to correct Smith’s reputation as the downer king of 1990s indie rock. But this reputation isn’t founded on the lyrics alone. It’s the mood, the tone, the imagery and, of course, Smith’s own life events. It’s everything. And a lot of people are very invested in it.

And the thing is, they’re not wrong to hear it in the music, particularly the early records, and Elliott Smith is the one from which much of the “Elliott Smith” myth is derived. To address Crane’s point, whether the drug stories of Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town, The White Lady Loves You More or Single File were things that Smith had experienced himself at that point in his life or witnessed at close quarters or simply imagined isn’t that relevant; the point is that he was clearly fascinated by dope (the ritual of it as much as anything else), choosing to write about it again and again, and one way or another ended up using it. There’s never been any dispute about that.

Yet listening to Elliott Smith is not the gigantic bummer that listening to From a Basement on the Hill is (in full disclosure, I wish I’d never heard From a Basement, wish it hadn’t been released. There are three or four beautiful songs on there, but it’s not enough to stop me feeling thoroughly dirty each time I listen to it, and incredibly sad that someone as talented as Smith was reduced to junk like Strung Out Again). Elliott Smith burns with such fierce creative energy it’s actually a life-affirming experience to hear it. Every song sees Smith discover something new about his craft. Whatever his personal life was or wasn’t like at that time, as a writer he was in a state of grace that few ever achieve. This is what people continue to hear in Elliott Smith, why it’s still such a strong fan favourite.

He’d go on to balance the strengths of his early work with his deepening writing and record-making craft on Either/Or. But while he did become a stronger songwriter, he did become a slightly less unique one. Never sinking to the level of a mere pasticheur, nevertheless it became easier to find people to compare him to. The raw and intimate early records are essential for the fan because they’re so unadorned, so concentrated, so completely themselves.

smith

*For readers outside the US who aren’t sure what the song’s title signifies, imagine a beatific instrumental named after Buckfast Tonic Wine or Scotsmac.

The author’s own lo-fi one-take vocal-&-guitar doings:

Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – the widening of musical tastes in the MP3 era

Way early on in the life of this blog I wrote about the idea of a canon of pop music and the unintended effects that the propagation of this canon by music media might have. The only real beef I have with a Mojo-style pop music canon is that it tends to construct its narrative around a smallish group – Sinatra, Presley, Beatles, Stones, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Smiths, etc. – and forget the rest a little bit. But the rest constitute 99% of all the artists who have ever made records, and to convince yourself that none of them ever managed to release any really amazing music because they didn’t do it at album length, repeatedly, well, that’s looking at pop all wrong. One of pop music’s chief pleasures is the song you really love by an artist you otherwise have no real use for. Pop is a democratic form, probably the most democratic art form. Even workaday talents might pull three minutes of spectacular out of the bag in a way that just couldn’t happen amongst novelists (for example). Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – something that makes you change your mind about an artist you’d previously dismissed entirely – used to be a rare pleasure. If you’re anything like me, nowadays that can happen all the time.

This is old news for many fans, I know, but in case some of you haven’t quite put this all together in your head, it happened because of changes in technology, principally the MP3 and later technologies like Bittorrent, Limewire and Soulseek, which allowed people to download almost anything, by anyone, within a minute or two. You could now see whether you liked something without having to hear it first on the radio or part with money for it. So a generation of serious, deep-listening fans grew up, then, without inheriting the traditional (rockist) assumptions about what old music was worthwhile and what wasn’t, which were useful to my generation (I’m 32) principally as a filter. These kids grew up trying a bit of everything. The rockism-versus-poptimism argument that dominated critical circles in the early noughties has long been settled in pop’s favour. It’s resulted in a generation of music-makers who think about and consume music the same way the vast majority of music fans always have, without their tastes and aesthetics being circumscribed by ideology.

When I was a teenager, I relied heavily on received notions of what music was worthwhile and was much more ideological about what I listened to. How else would I know what to part with money for? Over time I’ve come to a position far closer to the poptimist one. My own listening on a daily basis is full of one-shot great songs by artists I have only one song by. My iPod playlists – which I play on my journey to work, more or less daily – are built around the likes of What You Won’t Do For Love by Bobby Caldwell, Guilty by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, Know by Now by Robert Palmer (such unexpected key changes!), More Than This by Roxy Music, Just Be Good to Me by SOS Band, Forget Me Nots by Patrice Rushen (that bass line!), Merrimack River by Mandy Moore (who would have seen that coming?) and Night Walker by Yumi Matsutoya. Some of which I’ve written about here before, others I no doubt will in future. Highlighting some of this stuff for people who don’t normally listen to pop/soul/disco/folk (delete as appropriate) is a major part of the point of this blog. I hope I’m doing it tolerably well.

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The SOS Band – makers of the apocalyptic Just Be Good To Me, written and produced by Jam & Lewis