Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Brian Wilson, Western Recorders, Los Angeles, California...the solar system, the universe, the mind of God: The Beach Boys: "God Only Knows"

"Listen to 'God Only Knows' - as beautiful as anything ever recorded, and Brian Wilson starts a love song with "I may not always love you" - that's nerve."

Martin Skidmore, March 6, 2002, ILM

Part One: Five Men in a Room

There are five men in one room; they are all sitting down, perhaps some more comfortably than others. They are about to listen to an album, an advanced copy of it no less, and there is a certain tension in the air, of excitement and uncertainty. The album title is odd, for starters. The eldest of the five puts the album on the turntable and the needle on the starting groove...

They look at each other with some nods and smiles at first; yes, this is exactly what we expected, but, is as if there are new colors and textures emerging at any given moment and the effect is of strangeness, more than anything else. This is like a flower opening, a bird flying; amazing and fragile and utterly natural, all at the same time. The eldest listens very carefully; one of the others is cool to the sounds, the words, but the effect is building up, until it hits a plateau they have already heard, of course...

...and then the most affected of the five gets up and turns it over, beside himself to hear what comes next. The first song glides into the air, serene as a swan. He covers his face with his hands, knowing that this is it. IT. They all know this is what they will have to equal on their next record or they will have fallen behind, and they cannot possibly do that. Even what they are doing now - which is pretty amazing - is not nearly enough. The room is quiet when the album ends; the eldest takes the record off the turntable and says: "That is our next goal, boys. To equal

Part Two: Pray

"The sheer emotion that comes out of the speakers is TERRIFYING. It is the pause between your declaration of love and her response."

Joseph Cowart, July 9, 2005 ILM

"Carl and I were into prayer. We'd pray together, and we prayed for light and guidance through the album. We kind of made it a religious ceremony."

Brian Wilson on recording Pet Sounds

And so the brothers prayed before recording this song. When you pray you hope, you try to bring something into being, to manifest it in some way. To say what that is precisely or to be too demanding is not needed; just to have that right energy and feel is the thing. Like anything ecstatic, there is no real explanation for what happens. There is almost no describing it. There is a melody, a beat, musicians, instruments. The song unfolds as it should and yet does not settle down. It is pointing towards it (the root chord) without ever saying directly what it is. That is probably because it - what the song is about - is unnameable, impossible to exists, but can only be felt, not heard... digress to the 90s, this is one of my favorite songs, one that wouldn't exist without this one. What is it about? Here are the lyrics; but beyond those is the music, which reminds me at one point of something I don't talk about very much, because music is the only part of it that I can relate to others, and that is my own mystical experience. The chorus of the song (in particular the solo organ, at 1:29 or so) is about the only equivalent I have for the experience*.

"God Only Knows" works the same way for me but on a far more essential basis than even that; it came out when my mom was pregnant with me and as a native Angeleno I cannot help associate it with that important time. Objectivity for me is nearly impossible, therefore, but from what I sense this song either hits people right where they live - uncomfortably, as Cowart and Skidmore remind us - and they either reject it or accept it. There is no dodging the difference in this song - not even Mike Love's part in the break (the low bah-bah-bah-bomp-BAHs) can give much of a connection to anything they have done before.

The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine" was number one at the time: two songs about either being isolated from the rest of humanity or joyously attached; and as an unwitting riposte here were the Beach Boys writing one of the ultimate songs to the Other, with sublime music which circles around the point - the indescribable point - as opposed to the rather blunt Beatles ones. The lovin' vibes that Wilson wanted here are more than apparent, the psychedelic swirl of instruments (accordion, french horn, sleigh bells, string quartet) are homely** and clip-clop delicately, the front room piano is the ground out of which all of this - voices, instruments - rises...and there is the word God, the word which had never been used in a pop song (jazz or patriotic anthems at this point only) before, right there in the title and chorus. The song was easy enough to write, compared to others on Pet Sounds, but it was the one most worried about.

Prayer was not only needed for the singing, but perhaps to get God's OK for the song. If the song took a short time to write, then doing so might count as a mystical experience, one that Wilson and Asher may have been too busy to notice. Brian Wilson was going to sing it but then decided his brother Carl would sound better; and they prayed before singing it. And so it went into the world as a prayer of its own.

Part Three: Influence

Stereolab have already been mentioned here; I should also mention the High Llamas (there are links between the groups, namely Sean O'Hagan). The more immediate influence is all over the place though, including (yes) the Velvet Underground. They may have been led by uber-rocker Lou Reed but John Cale, a Beach Boys fan, snuck in this; (ah irony in the host saying it was the most influential album).

Pet Sounds is notoriously a musician's album, which means it crossed (as thence did this song) into all kinds of ears, from Keith Jarrett to Charles Lloyd (who worked with the Beach Boys because of this), to Carla Bley, who was influenced by Wilson's way of orchestrating and arranging. (This is the full overture to Escalator Over The Hill; when I first heard it I was immediately reminded of downtown Los Angeles - now I know why). Marvin Gaye heard it and it helped to shape how What's Going On sounds - miles away from the regular Motown sound, denser and overlapping, profoundly moving in and of itself. (This may just be a way to say Pet Sounds is a soul album, come to think of it.) And it also fed into how The Carpenters would sound, from melodies to gentle melancholy; Richard Carpenter is also a Frank Zappa fan (oh yeah - us Californians stick together, you see) and some of the musicians here also appear on The Mothers of Invention's Freak Out!, which came out at around the same time and was another album to give The Beatles a pause for thought***.

Those most influenced by it were The Beach Boys themselves; it was Wilson's project to write it as the rest toured Japan, and there were initial mixed feelings about this and the other songs - no cars, no surfing, no girls, no fun; but the band came around to it in the end. At this point work began on Smile, a "teenage symphony to God" (the spiritual mood clearly continuing). No one was more ambitious or having more fun than Wilson at this time, but alas along with that came the gnawing sense that others were out there trying to surpass him, and so they were; we will see how far they got soon enough. Suddenly the stakes are much higher, and that they are centered on a beautiful song makes the attendant ironies that much keener. 1967 is just around the corner...

*That I had yet to hear any Stereolab when I had the experience just makes it all the stranger, plus this song hadn't been recorded yet...

** I mean homely as in old-fashioned but also as uncanny. The song seems familiar even if you've never heard it before, Wilson taking from the Four Freshmen, Lovin' Spoonful, Gershwin, Ravel for all I know...the roots here are deep.

*** I may as well also mention the other groundbreaking band from L.A., The Byrds, who brought everything together in the most stunning and different way - this - breaks the sound barriers, if you will, of what a pop song can be.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tension In Any Language: Los Bravos: "Black Is Black"

It's the summer and everyone's feeling good. That goodness is in the air, a positivity that spread out and flared up into a kind of manic glee. Men wear tight suits, women have miniskirts, asymmetrical haircuts and everyone says "wow" and "far out" a lot. Though it's not a 60s term, this song is a club banger of the old school, loud and in-your-face and defying normal conversation.

Such songs either work or they don't, either making the club-goer dance or remain in his/her seat; what happens is based on a hundred things, the words usually being pretty low on that list. I once assumed (wrongly) that Spain's own Los Bravos wrote this color-based song, but they didn't; Michelle Grainger, Tony Hayes and Steve Wadey did. (Did they ever write anything else? Not sure.) The song's simplicity - it's like a nursery rhyme, really - meant that it could and indeed was translated easily into Italian, French, Finnish, Croatian...the main thing is the beat, the club/garage crossover that is just this side of out-and-out cheesy, pounding away as the the singer (who sounds remarkably like Gene Pitney though he isn't - and like he's from Spain even though he's German) blares out like a living siren about his helpless state. It is an anxious song, never resting, pacing up and down like someone who has lost something and, even though he knows it's gone, cannot stop himself from looking anyway. There is only tension, but thee is joy in that tension, in expressing it; thus the dancer has to dance and the singer smiles. It is a happy kind of sadness, or a sad kind of happiness that resolves into a good feeling, for a moment.

What is needed is a song of another kind that does more than compel a release of tension; but in the club the songs pound on, the dancers rejoice in England winning the World Cup - (itself a tense game that found release at last) - all seems right in the world, London is swinging and the party goes on, fuelled by drink and drugs, the search for the right 'bird'...

...meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, something quite different is going on. How different? So different that it will, in effect, change everything.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Turning Point: Gene Pitney: "No One Needs Your Love"

There is a quiet revolution happening at this time in music, quiet because those participating cannot, so to speak, be heard. There is a division - and to a certain extent there always will be - between those who write the songs and those who record them; between those who sit at pianos in tiny rooms pounding away writing songs (such as in the Brill Building) and those who have to puzzle over how to sing those songs best to do themselves and the songwriters justice. As things have been going it is the upstart rock groups who are writing their own songs, while everyone else is still dependent to a certain extent on the (mostly) men who write lyrics and melodies. There were a few performers - such as Gene Pitney - who wrote songs as well (oddly enough he didn't record his own songs), but by and large singers did the singing.

This is how things stood in '66, so if you were a young man who wrote songs who, perhaps, didn't consider yourself (or maybe the labels didn't) teen-idol material, you just ploughed away writing songs for others. Eventually, if your talent was appreciated and understood, you would go on to some regard and even fame, of a kind. But that would be in the 70s; for now, you hone your craft and hopefully have some hits.

If you listen to this, you might be able to guess who wrote the song. It is the lovelorn ballad taken to the extreme - he cannot live without her and questions her continuously as to why she has changed - it suits Pitney's astringent quality with its own ruthlessness. He is part lover here and part interrogator, and this could be an incredibly annoying song...and yet it isn't, and that's due to the music. It is hopeful, the chorus rising to a word-on-every-note precision that is proud and vulnerable at the same time, as if he knows he is being a pain and is trying to make up for it the best he can.

Yes, '66 is a turning point for music in that musicians were soon to split into two camps: those who wrote for others and those who wrote for themselves, and as the market for songwriters dried up in the US (much less so in the UK), songwriters such as this one - Randy Newman - would slowly begin to take to the studio and stage themselves for their own reasons*, while singers like Pitney would slowly fall out of the charts (though Pitney was always able to pack 'em in live). Newman found his voice in having his own to sing his songs(such as this** one), writing about subjects that were far off the usual Top 40 map, but in this song his solid skills in building a mood and having hooks galore are already evident.

We will soon be returning to L.A. for heart-tugging of a different sort, but next we go back to Europe...

*As Greil Marcus explains Newman's: "He made a lot...but since he didn't much like the way other people did his stuff, he began recording it himself." (Mystery Train, pg. 99)

** "This peaceful, quiet song is more outrageous than anything the Rolling Stones have ever done..." (ibid, pg. 108)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

One Take's Enough: The Troggs: "Wild Thing"

Following the explosion of '64, everyone but everyone wanted to be in a band, and if they didn't have the songwriting chops well then (as we have seen) there was always someone somewhere writing songs in the hopes that their version of what rock should/could/oughta be would take off. Chip Taylor wrote this, born-in-'64 band The Troggs - from southern England and given to much arguing, as later tapes* would show - recorded it, played it on a tv show called Thank Your Lucky Stars (not, as it sounds, a talent show but one where all the big groups of the day would come on and mime songs; it ended not long after The Troggs appeared because the no-fun Musicians' Union didn't approve of it). And thus it was a huge hit. If I seem to be downplaying its importance - which I am, kind of - it's only to highlight that ye olde garage rock had already been going for some time in the US, and that this song coincided with its apex - there is a multi-volume series of cds that are nothing but garage rock/punk from '66, stupefying in its intensity and determination to be different and maybe even successful, if only regionally. (As an example, here's "Love at Psychedelic Velocity" by the L.A. band The Human Expression**.)

While "Wild Thing" is raw and so laissez-faire it has an ocarinasolo (the only one in pop I know of), it is also about as subtle as a 345 bus in a rush going over a speed bump and about as pleasant. What can I say? I want songs to use the word 'groovy' in an, um, groovier way, and the guy is obviously just bossing his girl around...sorry to be so picky but if she makes his heart sing, why does she have to do anything else? I know garage rock is supposed to be stoopid in a good way...but this is, to borrow from another garage rock classic, just pushin' too hard on me. It needs more...something to make it really work for me; something like, oh, this.

*Warning: lots of swearing here. These tapes are beloved in rock by the way, because every rock band bickers and argues over dumb stuff...fairy dust though? Hee.

*"Wild Thing" sounds feral and direct and plain compared to a lot of the garage rock that came before and after; I tend to think it has lasted because it's relatively simple to play and if you don't have an ocarina handy you can just whistle, as was originally intended. In a chart that included "Paint It Black," "Shotgun Wedding" and "Over Under Sideways Down" The Troggs found themselves in good company, but it was fast company as well; how fast we will see soon enough.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The New World: The Beach Boys: "Sloop John B"

If you look at a globe you will see the world, but if you are from California you will see the world mostly as either this or that - land or sea. The Pacific Ocean is the largest and most mind-boggling thing on the Earth, and if you look at a globe in a certain position it is literally all you can see. To live on the edge of it in what the rest of your country considers to be a paradise is a profound experience; as an Angeleno myself I can't say I spent a lot of time at the beach, but knowing it was there made everything seem...different. It was a tangible cold wash of infinity right there, not stormy like the Atlantic but deep and peaceful, hypnotizing, even....and growing up in Canada with the perpetual roll-down map of the world for geography lessons (an old map, showing all countries with UK ties as red), the Pacific itself stretched and went on in a way that almost laughed at the idea of humans ever really truly taking over the planet. Empires come and go; the vast remains...

We've had The Big Four already in this blog, but now comes the US band that leapt up from being merely another surf band to giving voice to that land/sea division, out of which blossoms everything from fun and more fun to a growing appreciation of what actually matters in life.

The Beach Boys were the band - the only one, I'd argue - who could do this, as it was they who sang so loudly and rocked so hard about cars and girls and the majesty of California itself in the first place. With them, life in California made life anywhere else sound boring and routine; it made surfing a national right and having the right car the key to happiness itself. Perpetual recess sounds like a good idea, but on those foggy, rainy (the song is wrong - it does rain in southern California) days a man can get to wondering if there is more to life...

...and if you are Brian Wilson, steeped in American music from Stephen Foster to George Gershwin, you are going to want to do something big. Something that can bring the California sublime to a point and then present it and give it dimensions and richness. It was a huge project, but he had to start somewhere. In July 1965 he was at the piano when Al Jardine, a folk music fan, sat down next to him and presented him with this song. Wilson wasn't much for folk and Jardine had to then show him how it could be done in the Beach Boys style.

Wilson still didn't seem all that enthused, but what did Jardine find the next day but all the musicians, from Carol Kaye and Hal Blaine on down, there in the studio ready to play, Wilson building on Jardine's arrangement and slightly changing the lyrics to suit the band (Wilson sings the first and third verses, Mike Love the second; of course Jardine wanted to sing it but Wilson was boss).

Something mythic in the song - its sadness balanced with hope (surely the captain will let them go home) must have called out to him; and the tension between the misery of being at sea to the joy of being back on land is there too...though the song just fades out, with no resolution. It's the worst trip, and yet it continues...and yet the song (compared to this, much closer to the original calypso) is almost by definition cheery because of the music - glockenspiel, baritone saxophone and flutes will give something extra to the song, wider dimensions, a feeling that all will be well...

...that Wilson did this amidst doing more 'standard' Beach Boys music (for Beach Boys' Party!) shows that his ambitions were rising - let's do some Beatles songs and then - boom! - he heard Rubber Soul and vowed he would make the greatest album of all time. He was just 23, but had been working like crazy for years writing songs, and now he was inspired...

...and "Sloop John B" got caught up in the madness, coming out as a single as the band were still working on their new album, and put on that album as that is what happened to singles - they just got stuck on whatever album was coming out next. Wilson must have known this and realized he had to be at least this good in order to be cohesive; but then everything he did was of a piece, so incredibly focused he was, bringing the rest of the band along to make music that wasn't just unlike anything they had done before, but unlike anything anyone had done before. The one-off folk song became a template, the music itself at one point stopping...

...for the voices.

Oh, the voices!

At this point the harmonies were well known, but in this song they come to the fore, from high to low, as if they are all on that damn ship, somehow tethered to the song just enough to keep with it, but also flying high above it*. There is so much going on in just a few seconds that - though of course all their songs have harmonies - that in the context of this blog, a new standard has been set, the Pacific has been reached and oh, what are other groups going to do now.

There is rippling brightness and terrible fights, loneliness and gorgeousness, rock sweeping up folk and its history and making the old new, by bringing new and old together. Foster and Gershwin were next, but there would be a lot of praying beforehand.

*I tend to think of the The Beach Boys' harmonies as a stunning Californian scenery like Yosemite or Big Sur - of course it was a product of a lot of luck and hard work, but it epitomizes the overwhelmingness of Californian life, at once ordinary and extraordinary, normal and abnormal. Brian Wilson learned from The Four Freshmen as much as from Chuck Berry, but was after here. He more than got it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Folk Explosion No. 2: The Lovin' Spoonful: "Daydream"

And now we are in New York City with its folk rock heroes, The Lovin' Spoonful. There is something utterly American about this - the slackerly speed, the whistling, the idea that if you want to just zone out on somebody's lawn, hey, go ahead - you'll either be with someone you love or dreaming about him/her, and the experience may lead to you dreaming "for a thousand years". Time itself becomes flexible in this song, incidental really, as the dreaming takes hold...yes there are dues to pay, but that is for tomorrow, man. What matters is now.

I don't know if this is the first 'drug' song I've written about here, but it certainly points to that state of mind drugs create, that warm safe feeling that nothing bad can happen and what do you know, maybe something will happen - something in fact that only could happen to you in an altered state. The anguish of "Bang Bang" - a distressed lasagna of a song - is far away, as this is more an amble down to a peaceful spot, even if it's your neighbor's backyard. It's a beautiful day...why not?

I remember such a day in Kingston, Ontario in the late summer of '93 and walking right by Chez Piggy, which was Zal Yanovsky's restaurant - he who was the Lovin' Spoonful's co-founder along with John Sebastian. He was caught in a marijuana possession dilemma in '67 about either being deported back to Canada (he was born in Toronto) or ratting out his dealer...and since he ratted out his dealer, that made him MOST uncool and he ended up going back to Canada anyway. Considering some foods are practically drugs in and of themselves, this makes perfect sense; the sweet sensuality of this song can from a contented stomach as much as a elevated mind, after all.

The next entry here is the other side of joy, folk taken to another level altogether - the intensity of the Sixties comes to its next peak, unexpectedly.

Folk Explosion No. 1: Cher: "Bang Bang"

This is the next in this blog's irregular look at NME-only #2s. The folk rock boom in the mid-60s was a genuine thing for some, for others it was a way in - Sonny Bono was a fast learner in the studio and he wrote and produced Cher's songs before she even went by her own name; they both learned how to do drama from Spector and Cher, in effect, was Sonny's one-woman girl group. (The girl group era, as such, was starting to fade just a bit at this time, at least on the Spectorish side of things.)

There is an uneasiness to this song that comes out of the fact that while it was recorded in dear sunny Los Angeles, it comes straight out of the kitschy Italian folk song tradition, which treads a mighty fine line indeed between letting it all hang out and making the audience feel as if something vaguely sinister is happening, or has happened, and most likely they will never find out what it is. Which is to say if it is sung in another language (and it has been - Italian of course, French too) it might actually sound even better*. There's kids playing; there's young love; there's a frenzied section wherein a wedding happens ( and then he dumps her for no apparent reason - I suppose in a folk song there would be some kind of denouement wherein she goes after him in some way, but not here. She's on the ground again, her only consolation being maybe she will now know not to go out with a guy who was mean to her and didn't even play fair in the first place (he always shot her down - wow, what a guy).

This also treads a line - an uneasy one - between being a kind of folk rock and being just plain showbiz, exactly the kind of thing regular radio would play, and exactly what would do well in Las Vegas, too. I can well imagine real folkies scoffing at this, even as their parents enjoyed it. Sonny was betting the army of girls who loved Cher would buy this as well, and they did. Cher was their homegirl, in effect, not perfect but somehow more real because of that, and from this point on they would stay by her, the girl who would suffer much (in real life and in her songs) and somehow survive. This song set her up as tough, vulnerable and her later songs of woe and vengeance start with this one, wherein she dies and dies again, always coming back no matter what.

*Of course there are some people who think everything sounds better in another language; amazingly I don't get to France for a long time and then...well, you'll see, dear readers.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Chivalrous Shout: The Hollies: "I Can't Let Go"

The men of flashing brilliance are back; no one is ever going to argue that The Hollies were great - they aren't in the Big Four (Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks) in terms of capital-I Importance. But as it happens that may not matter as much as you might think. Just as Baroque pop gets going at this time, so does power pop, which is all about high harmonies, key changes and a cheery determination about love, no matter the odds. In the original this song* is slow and soulful, done by the underrated Evie Sands; there it is a song wherein she almost cannot let go of him physically because she wants him so much, it is as if her soul is stuck to him. (One incongruity of the Sixties is that this rather painful condition is backed by go-go dancers.)

Sands' version properly should have been the hit, but she was dogged by bad luck and in swooped The Hollies to cover it, polishing it up and thus transforming it from a song of visceral attachment to one of bright and shining chivalry. He's tried and tried and has given up and is simply going to wait; it is like an anthem sung in a queue. Allan Clarke sings this smiling, the voices leap and tackle the lyrics as if they were flying fish, and any pain in the song is forgotten in the sheer sonic rush.

When people look back at the Sixties and think merely of turbulence, they should also remember that there was a lot of exuberance and thrills involved too, intense attachments that could simply take people over...and groups which may not have gone way out there (I can't imagine them doing a concept album, for instance) but were steady presences in a time when having a group that was reliable was a relief in itself. Anyone who says The Hollies are their favorite group (or who says they are majorly influenced by them) values power pop, or perhaps makes it themselves, such as Canada's own Sloan (who covered it on their Recorded Live at a Sloan Party! album). Power pop may not have survived in the UK, but it flourished in North America, thus proving that The Hollies were more important than even they thought; and as you might expect I am far from done with them. Indeed by the time I am, they will have helped invent another kind of musical style altogether.

*Written by Chip Taylor; we will get back to him, dear readers, with a very different song quite shortly.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hip Aristocrats: The Mindbenders: "A Groovy Kind of Love"

There are certain songs, their writers will say, that more or less write themselves; get a good melody, a song title, and the rest will flow from there. This song was written in about twenty minutes by Toni Wine and Carol Sager (making this, importantly, the first song here written solely by women), who took liberally from Clementi's Sontatina in G major and the new slang word 'groovy' and went from there. So if there is something stately and Romantic to the music, that's why - and the lyrics follow suit, the world boiling down to two people and their utter togetherness, the joy of being close. The music too circles and enshrines their love, the Mindbenders make it sound rather martial (the drums in particular) but this adds to the old-fashioned origins of the song. It wasn't written for them in particular but was recommended to them - now Wayne Fontana-less - and amidst the frenzy of the bigger groups this was a genteel pause, like a cool clear glass of water on a hot day. Oddly enough this is a rather 'square' song to use the word groovy and thus the BBC and pirates both played it, rare neutral ground in a chart that's at this point still very much pirate-dominated. For now...

The Mindbenders, despite their best efforts, weren't so successful after this as they'd hoped, and went their separate ways in '68; Eric Stewart (who was the impish one in "The Game of Love" and who sings this) and Graham Gouldman even wrote a concept album before anyone else called With Woman in Mind, but it was perhaps too much too soon. I will get to their next group in the fullness of time, but also note that the world of pop was going into its baroque phase at this time, which will become evident soon (indeed some might call this song Baroque, come to think of it).

Friday, August 12, 2011

Here They Come: The Rolling Stones: "19th Nervous Breakdown"

By this time you may be wondering when they will show up. The bad kids from out of town; the ones who are supposed to be such great rivals to the ones from up north. Girls love bad boys and so they scream at them; but I wonder if the screaming here isn't more complex than, oh, the "he's so CUTE" variety, which is more suited to lovable mutts at the local home for wayward dogs.

Before I even get to this song, I have to say that the whole "Beatles vs. Stones" thing may well have existed in some peoples' minds in the Sixties, but growing up much later I have found that this particular construct, if it was ever real, has gotten quite stale. Indeed, there's more genuine conflict between those who love John vs. those who love Paul than there ever was between the two groups per se. Whether people take sides with The Rolling Stones I don't know - certainly within the group there have been enough struggles to make any public grievances redundant, particularly Mick vs. Keith, who are quite a different dynamic to John and Paul. I think the groups respected each other and complemented each other, in that this song - about a woman who is technically rich but in many ways poor - gets its answer a few months later in "Eleanor Rigby."

"19th Nervous Breakdown" is about a girl who is "insane*" - raised with all mod cons and more but unhappy, prone to talking too loud and saying nothing, she is an emotional vacuum cleaner that the singer (who might call himself "Our Hero" - there's always so much drama in Rolling Stones songs) tries and fails to change her, in fact leaves (hence her next breakdown) because he's afraid she's deranging him. Why this man would be at "dismal" parties I don't know, unless he's just the kind to either be invited to parties or maybe he crashes them? Not sure. Her parents don't care that she's a basket case and she was taught to be unkind by some cold-hearted wretch while at school, and there we are.

But why are the girls screaming? Is it just because that's what you do when you're at a Stones concert? It is as if the sad disdain that Mick has for the girl is somehow being applauded, in a starry-eyed "oh I'm the girl for you Mick not HER" way, or maybe the words don't really mean anything or are even decipherable above all the screaming. The guitar and bass say as much as the words to the tough luck she's going to have, the bass sounding as if you can hear her crashing down the stairs now, screaming and wailing worse than Marianne Dashwood.

Others might say that this is a class song, the middle vs. the upper, the modern vs. the old-fashioned (this must be the only song to mention "sealing wax"). It may well be a swipe against a certain girl Mick actually knew, or a take on someone he observed. The music and lyrics go together perfectly, coming out of Bo Diddley on one side and the Angry Young Men on the other. The Stones were that gang and their followers wanted to be - if they weren't already - on the side of the badasses who had had enough; the apolitical types who maybe in essence didn't want change but sure could point out what is screwed up in the world, starting with all the weird chicks they know.

And still the girls scream and pee themselves silly, loving the group and their music and ignoring this critique which could well be leveled at them. At some point all this will change, but compared to the Beatles' recognition of loneliness, this is a song that dumps not just one young woman but the whole society that produced her. I cannot help but think there are some deep ironies here, including the fact that Mick wanted in on this scene, as opposed to Keith who couldn't be bothered** - and that the Stones, as far as I can tell, are the rock band of the ruling class that is disdained in this song. Are they biting the hand that feeds them? Or is this just good business? In the end I am more sympathetic with the girl here, as clearly Mick will go to other parties while her life dries up. And still the girls scream.

*As opposed to another song where a girl is called "stupid" - Mick is so picky when it comes to women, ne c'est pas?

**You might wonder which one has been happiest in the long run. Upon all evidence Mick still hasn't found the right woman, and Keith has. (If that is your definition of happiness.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On Guard For Thee: Crispian St. Peters: "You Were On My Mind"

"...a country with a rich heritage of identity crises and inferiority complexes, enough open space for everyone to co-exist in a state of complete aloneness, cold and snow and long winters to ensure cyclical depression for up to ten months a year, an endless supply of trees that could be cut down and fashioned into acoustic instruments of many varieties, and a shared sense of what it's like to grow up under the influence of The Tommy Hunter Show, Don Messer's Jubilee, The Friendly Giant and other TV fare with strong singer-songwriter content..."

Phil Dellio & Scott Woods, I Wanna Be Sedated

It is rare to have a look-in on Canada in this blog, and as you might expect whenever this does happen, there's an awful lot behind just the one song. As Phil & Scott write, there's a lot of time, space and wood in Canada, which adds up to a ton of music, sometimes cheery, sometimes, not. "You Were On My Mind" is as ambivalent a song as has been written about in this blog, in that - no matter who sings it - here it's St. Peters - just what is preying on the mind of the singer is never made clear. Is it the Other, who has dumped him/her? Or is it something more sinister?

In the world of folk (which is undoubtedly where we are - St. Peters is out in a field miming in a way that suggests he is lost in thought and the words are near-emanating from his heart) it can be both; "you" is somehow inescapable, maybe even a sign of something bigger that is hopeful and yet - that word again - ambivalent. I don't know if Sylvia Tyson wrote this about the end of a relationship or not, but the blues in her shoes and her worries seem to be competing with the persistence of this Other, and to me this Other seems to be winning out. Or could it be that no matter what her worries are, the Other is on her mind anyway and there hasn't been a break-up at all, just relationship difficulties?

As usual it's hard to listen to this and point to what is specifically Canadian about it, but that it's a far more complex song than usual, and it has an openness that strays into solitude...a normal condition, but here the Other is part of that large space that is in the back of all Canadian imaginations (certainly Glenn Gould will tackle this in his own way in his Solitude Trilogy) in that it is ALWAYS there, representing whatever freedom or aloneness means to the person beholding it. This may seem a big claim, but Canadian music differs from American at this point - "Four Strong Winds" (which was voted the top Canadian song of all time by CBC listeners) is full of romantic longing, grounded in the brutal realities of the profoundly Canadian. St. Peters does a cool version of it, getting its urgency, the ambiguity that makes it as haunting as it is, but I cannot help but prefer the acidity of Tyson's voice. The aching emotions of '66 begin right here, teetering between wanting to forget and holding on to the memory in defence of something else even bigger...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Far From Mechanical: Cliff Richard: "Wind Me Up (Let Me Go)"

And now 1965 draws to a close; a tradition begins here as Cliff performs a song I thought at first was from a pantomime (he and The Shadows did Aladdin in '64), but is actually from his show Cliff Richard's Christmas Cheer. Yes, Richard was at this time so big and established that he could host his own show, cementing his 'all-around-entertainer' status. So far, so normal; but what tugs here is something more profound. (Ah, if only I wrote about superficial songs with no meaning - but songs do not become hits without having some import.)

It is the singing toy, the object that becomes real and has feelings because the boy/girl gives it a life. I am not sure how important this is psychologically as a stage, but whenever anything inanimate is given life, a name, a history, it is alive. (Thus the pathos of the song, which Richard handles very well.)

To others it is a thing, but not to the kid who loves it. And here we have the pathos of an unloved toy, a tin soldier, who would rather be alone than belong to someone who didn't care for him. The leap to a man who loves unrequitedly isn't a big one, so the song applies to adults as well as kids, but it's still a bit odd to think of Richard singing this as an adult (he was 25). In a weird parallel to The Who, this is also a song of someone who wants to be left alone, and is in a way more sympathetic as he is admitting to wanting to cry and obviously as a soldier is being nobly brave through his near-tears. This song is not that far off from this one, save that Richard demands to be let go instead of being forgotten about - which is healthier in a way, though I still feel it strange to be writing about a singing toy. But that is where things stand; Richard sings a ballad for Christmas, it's a hit...but the singing tin soldier angle makes me think something different is going to happen soon, beyond this cozy season. Coming up next: a welcome trip to Canada.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Feed-Back, Metal, Sound, Wire, Wood: The Who: "My Generation"

"The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!"
Mikhail Bakunin, 1842

"The amplified sound of the auto-destructive process can be an element of the total conception."
Gustav Metzger, 1959

First, here is man destroying something inanimate. The man is Gustav Metzger, and he is an artist.

And now this; it's art too; art which in part wouldn't be possible without the above example. Nor would it be really possible without this artist, either.

Gustav Metzger wrote his manifesto Auto-Destructive Art in 1959; a few years later it would become a lecture that turned into a 'happening.' That year was 1964, when The Who formed, drummer Keith Moon asking to join and being accepted when he accidentally smashed up the drum kit during his audition. Townshend famously first destroyed a guitar accidentally as well, but since this got them some renown immediately (could you imagine the Stones or Yardbirds doing such a thing?), the band continued to auto-destruct, drums as well as guitar, for some time. That Townshend would go on to link it to Metzger's manifesto is no pose, as Townshend was an art school grad who knew very well what it meant, politically as well as artistically, to smash up instruments onstage.

But there is another collage here, one that we haven't heard explicitly before - and that is the influence of jazz on UK rock, specifically in drumming. There is no getting away from the fact that Elvin Jones' drumming was IT for Keith Moon (who also loved surf music, which also has a fast and relentless beat). Those who were in theory allergic to the idea of jazz and rock being mixed up together (which reminds me of this old ad, of course) had that notion demolished by this song - which in construction is just as much jazz as it is rock. (Yes, one of the most totemic of rock songs comes out of jazz.) The utter freedom of jazz - to take a simple melody and then just TAKE OFF with it - is just what was needed here, particularly by the Mods, who were fans of modernist jazz (as opposed to trad) and would have understood immediately that it was for them musically as well as lyrically.

That The Who are a precarious balance of elements is obvious with this song - Moon's explosion at the end balanced out by Entwistle's droll bass solo before it, just as Daltrey's nearly-swearing stuttering sneer balances out Townshend's straight-ahead playing, which is, as the song 'ends', literally detuned and then fuzzed up while huge chords bashed out between strings being grated like cheese - this is not a normal band. The Who are taking the idea of a pop band and altering that idea to the point where 'normal' and 'regular' are suddenly quaint notions. Whether the audience thought this was just a good song they could dance to or performance art hiding within a pop tune I don't know. As a song it has persisted way beyond what Townshend's aim was - to give voice to those who didn't fit in to naff, boring society they found themselves in, the kids who liked to go and have FUN, gathering their buds in May instead of sitting around politely, "barely daring to breathe or Achoo*."

The generation gap erupts again and again, but the gap is never between those who are older and younger but those who get it and those who don't. It wasn't a big hit at first in the US, but musicians & their audiences there have taken it as their own, from Patti Smith (who in one much later live version berates her own generation for having produced George W. Bush) to Green Day. In the UK everyone has done it from Iron Maiden to Oasis and The Sweet.

Destruction as art, transforming negative into positive energy, beauty in ugliness; not only are musical styles being mixed up here, but it as if art itself is being remade before our ears and eyes, that pop is symbolically and literally destroying itself in order to continue. The guitar has to be played because it is his instrument, but then it too seems not enough, music itself is not enough. Pop music carried on as usual, only some noticing the violence and different feeling in the air**. This is defence as attack, a "big sensation" which claims to be an ordinary night out, a concrete slab through the window of pop. Mod couldn't last long after this, commercialized and demonized as it was, but The Who made the point of performing this at Monterey, astonishing an audience that had thought it had seen everything. 1966 will prove that 'everything' is a relative concept.

*I should add here that poetry was reaching an apex of sorts in the mid-Sixties, as it also was now a forum for free speech (for those on both sides of the Cold War) and was a way of saying what ordinarily would be almost inexpressible. Ariel by Sylvia Plath (1965) was just as sensational at the time as The Who, making its own lasting impact. That Pete Townshend would later work with Ted Hughes makes me wonder if he read it at the time...

** The Beatles listened to and absorbed what The Who were doing, 'accidentally' putting feedback on their '64 Christmas hit "I Feel Fine" and then a year later doing a Mod-speed-rush on "Day Tripper" - one of their toughest songs yet.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

With Eyes Closed: Andy Williams: "Almost There"

The sudden upsurge in all things 'retro' in the mid-to-late 90s was due to many things; one, I'm guessing, is sheer nostalgia for what once was and could never be again, a kind of relaxed gentility that evokes cocktails, shag rugs, people using 'swell' as an adjective and lots of sleek furniture and witty repartee. A more innocent time? If you were maybe four and remember it as such, well then yes. But there is hardly an innocent character in I'd Rather Be Rich and while it may be a remake of It Started With Eve, it really reminds me of A Room With A View, with Maurice Chevalier as the wise man who tells Sandra Dee she must decide and face up to her real love.

The song comes in just as Williams and Dee are thinking they are going to get away with it - he with marrying her, she with her whole scheme (involving Andy's rival, Robert Goulet). As such he is like a Zeus figure, carrying her away towards Heavenly Haven; her face betrays a sense of unease, though, even as she sincerely likes Andy and wants him to be she happy?

This is yet another song of waiting, anticipation, Williams' voice smooth and calming as if there can be no other way of living but this - swooping down and scooping up a pretty blonde as part of his genteel, but not innocent, life. I can imagine many a housewife settling down and gliding off to this with or without chemical enhancement - Williams' singing is an audible teddy bear here, urging the listeners to close their eyes and wait, not for too long, because what is going to happen will be soon, and will be better than even this. It is this spaced-out reassurance that many obviously needed, and the tenderness of it distracts the audience from the fact that next door, all hell is breaking loose. That hell will be in the next entry...

Now Is The Time: Manfred Mann: "If You Gotta Go Go Now"

There has been a man stalking the charts all this year; sometimes he is there himself, sometimes it's others covering his songs or being inspired to sing or write songs like him. If there is a simple divide - state vs. pirate radio - then there is another one - those who know and dig Bob Dylan, and those who don't. He isn't now (and I'm guessing wasn't then) to everyone's liking, but those who embraced his casual twangy sound and sharp lyrics could not help wanting to be him; even Lennon succumbed for a while, inspired by the sheer exuberant noise of his songs, not to mention the fact that he was usually saying something - something complex, never simple.

The Manfreds were the first UK band to cover Dylan and get him near to the top (they would get a number one with "The Mighty Quinn" a few years from now) and they have just the right blend of roughness and odd tenderness to make this work. He wants her, but not if it's going to put her off her stride; she's got to make up her mind, not him. He is happy no matter what. And that is the undercurrent here - happiness. He's poor, it's late, he's tired - but there is no Stonesy condescension or smugness, nor is he going to miss her and whine about it next day to his friends. There is - can I say this? - an American plain-speaking here that is quite refreshing and the candid way Dylan had in all songs of saying what needed to be said must have hit all UK bands and songwriters quite hard (not to mention his dress sense and general gnomic nonchalance).

I don't know if the Manfreds were the first UK band to record a Dylan song, but they were the right group to do so. Dylan's work is certainly a challenge to The Beatles (whom he has already met); they start to go more acoustic and self-reflective just as he takes up the electric mantle. This is a crossroads in pop to be sure, one that not every singer or band could step into, but once again the line has been drawn between us and them, in attitude as well as style. That attitude would soon explode, but for now all remains quiet...

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

In The Same Boat: The Fortunes: "You've Got Your Troubles"

This is an odd shrug of a song, suggesting two men in a bar or party who have both recently been dumped but the one singing has no interest in hearing the other's story, in part because he is too numbly sad to really feel another guy's pain at this time, and anyway his story is much likely the same one. Musically it flows much as the lyrics do, blending sadness and helplessness with the bland knowledge that this happens all the time; Rod Allen's voice is almost pre-rock. It is a smooth song that hints at the coming split of rock and pop, the pop here being cool (but coming off as blase, even cold) while rock was getting hotter and more frenzied all the time. (It was kept off by "Help!" which is the opposite of this song, for instance.)

The real fortune here (if I can put it that way) was for Roger Cook & Roger Greenaway, who wrote this song and thence many others, including one for The Fortunes again - a song I have heard on a dreaded workplace cd compilation* (unlike "You've Got Your Troubles"). The two Rogers went on to fame and renown with songs including "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" and The Fortunes still tour with a typically ever-evolving line-up & with songs like these - amiable, modest, simple - they could just go on forever. That their manager was killed in a pirate radio showdown a year later is about the most 'rock' thing about them, but that is 1966, when anything could happen, as opposed to 1965, when everyone is desperately trying to keep their cool.

*The workplace was dreaded, not the cd. There must be a thousand songs that are partially heard with involuntary shudders every day because of this same situation, and it's never the song's fault. Feel free to mention yours, if you wish.