Tag Archives: Van Dyke Parks

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.

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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.

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Rock & Roll Doctor – Little Feat

Popular music is full of songs about medical practitioners. From Cypress Hill’s Dr Greenthumb to Gloria Estefan’s Dr Beat. From Aqua’s Dr Jones to Steely Dan’s Dr Wu. From the Beatles’ Doctor Robert, who helps you to understand, all the way through to Dylan’s ‘best friend my doctor’, who can’t even tell what it is he’s got. There have been Frontier Psychiatrists, Night Nurses and Witch Doctors.

But has any doctor in pop music ever had two degrees in bebop and a PhD in swing? Only Lowell George’s Rock & Roll Doctor.

George was one of the heroes of Laurel Canyon. There were several artists out of LA in the early seventies who were hugely popular with the mainstream audience (Young, Mitchell, CSNY, Taylor, King, Eagles, Ronstadt), and then there were artists who were hugely popular among other artists: John David Souther, Lowell George and Jackson Browne – guys whose songs everyone covered, who pretty much everyone believed were really talented, but who didn’t particularly catch on themselves commercially (Browne of course did later, but his first album took four years to go gold and he was never a major star like Taylor, King or Young). As late as 1975, David Geffen was still trying to make JD Souther a big name by putting him in an instant supergroup with Chris Hillman and Richie Furay. It duly went nowhere, with Furay and Souther openly loathing each other. Hillman, as is his lot in life, was caught in the middle.

Little Feat had a cult audience Souther would have envied, and like Souther, Lowell George could afford all the coke he could snort thanks to covers of his songs by artists such as Linda Ronstadt, but far too few people heard George singing his own songs, backed by his own band, several of whom were in-demand session players, like Richie Hayward – a great drummer who played with Ronstadt, Dylan, Robert Plant, Tom Waits and many more. George himself was known for his slide guitar – and he is one of the very finest, completely himself and instantly recognisable – but he was also a decent singer, much admired by Van Dyke Parks among others,  and at his best a great writer too.

He died in 1979 from a heart attack, 34 years old and weighing over 22 stone (quite a gastronomic achievement for a man who was high on coke almost constantly), leaving behind a wife and young daughter (Inara George), and a reputation that’s still not really spread beyond fans of seventies LA rock. He’s not obscure, exactly, but he’s not a cult artist either. I’ve never met a fan of Little Feat my own age or younger. I’ve never met a fan of Inara George my age either, come to that. His profile might yet be boosted as, say, Judee Sill’s has been in the last five or six years, but it’d take someone to stand up for him and argue the case.

If you find yourself caught up in the groove of this one – and really, you should – check out the live version they played in 1975 on The Old Grey Whistle Test (easily found on YouTube); if anything it cooks even more.

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Lowell George — heavy slide, natural Strat