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ROCK MUSIC — Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: PET SOUNDS rebounds from RUBBER SOUL—gunned down by REVOLVER

In generational/fashion, history, music on February 20, 2008 at 10:28 pm

Excerpt #4 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Music by G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com and available for around $19.95 from Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble or any other of your favorite Internet stops

Sales peak thus far: #23 on Amazon.com’s hot 100 Music History & Criticism books, April 26th 2008

On hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul Brian Wilson was spurred to create an album of songs that “sound like they belong together, like a collection of folk songs”. The Beach Boys had done that with their first album, and each song distinctive. What the Beatles had really done was create an album of mood-related songs with an unvaryingly sombre tone. Wilson’s group would try it, but he was temperamentally incapable of being monotonous.

pet-sounds By the US media and as the legend has gone ever since, Pet Sounds was a flop album. The greatest masterwork of the Beach Boys, America’s greatest-ever band, was said to have failed precisely in the terms that America appreciates best: dollars. Until the year 2000 it had never been awarded an RIAA Gold Disc to confirm a mere 500,000 sale. Then a three-month audit by Capitol, not counting “missing paperwork”, tallied 670,000 copies over the previous 15 years and estimated a lifelong US tally of two million-plus—ranking it well up among their studio albums, all assuming naïvely they didn’t have paperwork problems too. Lyricist Tony Asher’s earnings from it were $60,000 by 1990—his cut of royalties at one quarter of 1%, implying world revenues by then of $24 million just for known sales of the eight songs he contributed lyrics for; therefore $39 million had been earned from the 13-song album. Given that its price ranged around $4 in its heyday this would extrapolate to anything up to ten million units (worldwide) had they sold all at once. With steadily rising prices over succeeding decades, and adding in a couple million sales since 1990, a total of well over six million units by now might be guessed at. Even the boring 4-CD ‘documentary’ Pet Sounds Sessions (1996) quickly went gold in the US.

It took the rock world by storm—the Beach Boy image unrecognisable under a sophisticated veneer—and softened the ground for Revolver three months later. In this new millennium the album that has been most frequently voted the greatest of all, ever, is one that, according to the angle perpetuated by the press, came out of the blue, a fluke—the one (grudgingly) acknowledged work of genius supposedly by an idiot-savant cum schizophrenic. The same consensus of rock critics who hold his band up as America’s most important ever belittles their other work in relation to the Beatles’.

But Brian Wilson had been in direct competition with the cleverly crafted songs of Lennon-McCartney-Martin for more than two years. His highly developed sense of rivalry had finely wrought a style more distinctive and more celebrated than any other in modern pop, apparently without any reference to the Beatles or other contemporaries. Was it enough?

RUBBER SOUL, THAT ‘PROVED’ BEATLE PRIMACY, began recording on October 12th 1965, five days after The Moors Murders were reported to the police by a witness—a graphic shock to Britain with its unfathomably (to Americans) low murder rate: a series of sado-sexual snuffings-out of children on the bleak moorland above Manchester, committed (and recorded for their own enjoyment) by an ordinary young couple.

The day after the Beatles got underway the Beach Boys started work on ‘The Little Girl I Once Knew’, unattached to an album, and Brian was working solo on the first vocals for ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)’—for Pet Sounds, postponed by Capitol’s insistence on new l.p. product by Xmas: hence the stop-gap Party released November 8th.

Brian Wilson in the studio for the Pet Sounds sessions

Brian Wilson in the studio for the Pet Sounds sessions

For two days Brian holds court over a 40-piece orchestra led by Four Freshmen veteran Dick Reynolds. He goes home filled with ideas about how to apply orchestration to modern rock and starts sketching them out.

Rubber Soul accompanied ‘We Can Work It Out’/‘Day Tripper’ in release the first week of December and set a US record of a million sold in a week. In Britain the 45 was their most popular post-1964, but album sales didn’t approach their usual flood. The double and upcoming single ‘Nowhere Man’ were by far the most commercial songs on the (UK) album but with all that—under the direct influence of Bob Dylan—the basis of the group’s critical cred had shifted from their hit-making ability to a consistent general standard. So while ‘If I Needed Someone’ (by George), ‘In My Life’ and ‘Norwegian Wood’ were poignant and ‘Drive My Car’ and ‘Run For Your Life’ deserving as well, non-entities such as ‘I’m Looking Through You’ and ‘What Goes On?’ were deemed quality because, given Beatle magnitude and their songs’ huge exposure, every one found followers. Still, there are three tracks I can’t recall hearing.

A vaunted innovation was the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’—remembering that Shel Talmy had applied a sitar sound on Kinks single ‘See My Friend’. What the Beatles did had to be successful—so the Stones used one on ‘Paint It Black’. Used out of context of Indian music—also on Petula Clark’s ‘Color My World’—it lends a quirky trendiness rather than integrated musicality.

Since ‘Yesterday’ on Help! statisticians had been totting up cover versions of Beatle songs. That one reaped nearly 1,200 and now ‘Michelle’ from Rubber Soul scored half that—still a large tally. The similar ‘Girl’, this time from John, probably did well in the cover department too. They were all that kind of song—simple and memorable, of the kind that café and cabaret singers could take endless stabs at in the pre-karaoke era. Paul McCartney: “‘Michelle’ was a joke really. A French tune that you may hear at a party and you’d parody it to death” (Pritchard & Lysaght).

October 26th the Beatles, minus George Martin, had received their MBE medals from the Queen, recognizing their export value—the next bonanza, Rubber Soul, due for the Xmas market around the world. Interviews of George Martin in Pritchard & Lysaght’s The Beatles: an Oral History show how integral he still was—three years on—to the whole process of creating Beatle music. “If there was a keyboard used it was generally me who played it… I was responsible, generally, for the solos. I don’t mean that I would write George’s solo necessarily, although sometimes that did happen, but I would say, “Right, we need a solo here.” Or “We need a line here. How about this?” For example, in the song ‘In My Life’ I played the harpsichord solo. There was a gap in the song… They went away and had their tea… I wrote something like a Bach invention, and played it, then recorded it… They said, “That’s fantastic. We don’t need more. That’s it.” Later on, when we came to do the middle of ‘Michelle’, I actually wrote that.”

In the works was a Beach Boy album to top the Beatles. Like other rare works of art that also qualify as creations of the soul, the impression looking in at Brian Wilson’s soul is deep and enduring, a claim never really made for Beatle music—as admitted by John Lennon. The Beatles’ recorded music was often exciting and sometimes even brightly toned, but always seemed infused, at its core, with the inhibitions of Englishmen.

ANYONE WITH A REASONABLE KNOWLEDGE OF Beach Boys music sees Pet Sounds, far from a one-off, as a natural development of a thematic tone obvious from the time of Beach Boys Today and apparent in Brian Wilson’s work from starting recording four years before in ‘Surfer Girl’, ‘Lonely Sea’, ‘In My Room’… Now in Pet Sounds he gave his music an orchestral setting—beautiful and moreover lending it a certain snob appeal that impressed culture vultures who wouldn’t have bothered otherwise with such an obviously suburban figure.

In what the world construed as a sudden shift, Brian, left alone in the studio for once, was creating a personal masterpiece, honed to perfection without the pressure of others looking over his shoulder. But the legend that Pet Sounds is the one album on which the Beach Boys played not a single note is not quite right. After the band returned from their Japanese tour they got together on ‘That’s Not Me’ with Carl, Dennis and Brian (organ) all playing. Brian as ever played bandleader and choir master on all tracks. Since summer 1963 he had employed the best musicians available, whether in the group or not. His second group still featured Hal Blaine on drums, Glen Campbell (guitar/banjo), Carol Kaye (bass) and other regulars from LA’s “Wrecking Crew” as well as legendary black saxophonist Plas Johnson. Now symphonic players too were collected for their technical expertise and compliance to Brian’s instructions, not for creativity. He cajoled all into a cohesive ensemble interpreting his most subtle nuances of tone, as the Beach Boys themselves had become used to.

No wonder the touring band was nonplussed. Said UK bible Melody Maker, “It was immediately obvious that Brian had travelled further than anyone in popular music, extended its scope beyond a fantasist’s wildest dreams. Pet Sounds was a massive elaboration on the more interesting aspects of his earlier work; the harmonies were denser, structured in myriad layers, achingly lush, yet pure… It was the arrangements that blew minds. Brian had used a bewildering array of resources, more than Spector and the equally iconoclastic Burt Bacharach combined.” To celebrate it, unselfishly, Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham took out a full-page ad urging people to buy it.

Its perfection is not the studio sanitisation of recent decades, interpreted as ‘technical perfection’ by today’s critics: Brian’s commands to instrumentalists (“Drums!”) are audible in places. While the composition phase has an inevitability about its sequence of notes, as has been said about Beethoven—unlike the Beatles, renowned for their quirky twists—it still fills repeat listeners with surprise and delight. One gets a similar sense about The Who’s sixties hits—maybe related to Pete Townshend’s early affinity with recording technology. It has become a truism about Beach Boys music (and for different reasons the electronic tracks of the Beatles), that much of it is difficult if not impossible for other musicians, no matter how skilled, to reproduce never mind interpret.

The piece de resistance is that exactly the right instruments are chosen for each passage no matter how unconventional, e.g. the Japanese koto. What is played and how it is played is so right. As has been told so often, one can picture Brian going to each musician and showing him or her how to play to elicit just the right strain of emotion; and his vocalists—the Beach Boys—the same. Still, from the bewildering jumble that is the Pet Sounds Sessions it is impossible to see how a coherent work is finally delivered, never mind the unquestioned masterpiece it is. We can only stand back and marvel at the creative process of mind and heart that results in the finished work.

The supreme test of Wilson’s achievement as a pure composer is that the two instrumentals, originally intended to have lyrics, stand as wholly finished works and lack for nothing—a testament to wordless poetry, pure music unadulterated by any other consideration like ‘profundity’ of lyrics. In Q magazine’s September 2004 roundup ‘Pet Sounds’ was judged among the fifty greatest instrumentals of all (‘God Only Knows’ ditto in the ballad section).

From left: Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson

From left: Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson

As has been remarked on by many critics, perhaps coming new to Beach Boys music, the harmonies move in striking counterpoint as on the a capella break in the middle of ‘Sloop John B’, throughout ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ and in the cyclical end of ‘God Only Knows’. But what most appreciators of the new music have found most impressive had always been there—Brian’s own transcendently expressive vocals for ‘Caroline No’, ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’, ‘You Still Believe in Me’…. In Europe it was fully appreciated for its startling emotional/artistic impact as an integrated whole which springs from every track.

RECORDING CONTINUED AT A SANITY-SAPPING PACE that had delivered five album-length projects in a 14-month span. Party was according to some sources their fastest-selling yet but was never awarded Gold. Over that winter the young advertising agency jingle-meister Tony Asher had observed Brian at home every day—the better to devise figure-fitting lyrics for his songs. Not least of Brian’s abilities was in choosing a lyricist to work most perfectly toward his current aim: Gary Usher or Roger Christian for technical-teen appeal; Mike Love for the telling cultural image; on occasions his brothers, frequently himself.

The ‘adult’ lyrics Brian chose from Asher—which superficial observers have hailed as the big advance over Brian’s previous songs—can be put down to the advertising profession wordsmith. Hardly passionate, they are more adult in a certain sense, meaning more of the ‘grown-up’, corporate world, but (mostly) they are non-intimate, even impersonal: They are not the kind of sentences a man would actually say to a lover, at least not one he is close to; rather the politically corrected, gender-sanitised kind from a counselling session or Oprah/Dr Phil tv show:

“I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be/ I’ve been very aware you’ve been patient with me/ Every time we break up you bring back your love to me/ And after all I’ve done to you—how can it be?—You still believe in me…”

Since when has passionless prose been a criterion to judge a work of art? Compare it with Brian’s usual confessional, conversational style, say in ‘Let Him Run Wild’:

Brian’s falsetto:

“When I watched you walk with him tears filled my eyes/
And when I heard you talk with him I couldn’t stand his lies/
And now, before he tries it, I hope you realise it [girl!] /
Let him run wild—he don’t care, Let him run wild—he’ll find out, Let him run wild—he don’t care. Guess you know I…

Mike’s bass voice insert: … waited for you, girl.

Brian’s falsetto resumes:

All the dreams you shared with him you might as well forget/
I know you need a truer love and that’s what you’ll get/
And now that you don’t need him, well he can have his freedom [girl!] Let him run wild…”

Statements on the world in general or personal expression? In this way he did emulate Bob Dylan, and the Beatles, who had recently switched from personal-pronouned—if not exactly personal—to pontificating lyrics (‘We Can Work It Out’, ‘Nowhere Man’). It might be politics but is it art?

For four years so far the street-savvy influence of Mike Love’s lyrics in the Beach Boys’ rock’n’roll had brought out the group’s broad commercial appeal, while the emotional B-sides had come direct from Brian’s soul.

Mike Love, early '66

Mike Love, early '66

Mike drove the group’s hit status; Brian’s overall creative command dictated that he push boundaries, whether the results were saleable to a mass public or not.

Capitol saw it differently. Having just had huge world hits with upbeat treatments of ‘Barbara Ann’ and ‘Sloop John B’—still approaching its sales peak in Europe as Pet Sounds went to the presses—it wasn’t about to go with a downer: an entire album exploring Brian Wilson’s fragile soul, no matter how deep. Here was a man more capable than anyone else in pop music of expressing his emotions directly through music—and “They just didn’t get it” (Bruce Johnston). Even many admirers including this writer had to take a couple of steps back on first hearing the album, such was its advance over everything else in pop. From the Beatles, Capitol had received a nonstop string of tunes everyone could sing along to, and now they were deemed to be important too. Why couldn’t this boy genius produce the same? His avowed philosophy, “I’ve never written one note or one word of music simply because I think it will make money” was hardly in accord with the label’s fiscal ambitions. Repeatedly summoned to Capitol Tower in Hollywood to please explain, at the last meeting Brian attended he refused to utter a word and instead played to the executives prepared tape loops of “Yes”, “No”, “No comment”, “Can you repeat that?” and other potted answers.

They initially flatly refused to release the album, and only relented when Brian threatened never to make another record for them. A compromise was reached—inclusion of the out-of-place ‘Sloop John B’, though its adventurous arrangement and sound meshes in with the original material. Obviously, having zero confidence in the album—an attitude borne out by the execs’ fatally compromised ‘promotion’ of it—Capitol sought to salvage a few sales through the hit at no extra expense. The label committed money to the first of the Best of the Beach Boys series. Capitol’s denial of the new music—misleading the public by highlighting the hit—was a crisis for the group. The Beach Boys’ business partner was effectively sidelining them by refusing to build a wider audience, so favoring the Beatles in their ongoing contest.

Brian acceded against his better judgment, only to be double-crossed by Capitol, pushing heavily the compilation mostly made up of songs from 1963—a planet light-years away from where the group was now. Five weeks after making Billboard, July 2nd, Pet Sounds hit #10. The label issued Best of the Beach Boys three days later and the masterpiece went no further, clinging on two more months top twenty. Five days after the compilation, in accord with its back-to-the-future mentality, Capitol reissued an anachronistic ‘Help Me Rhonda’/‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ double one week ahead of the should-have-been showcased ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’/ ‘God Only Knows’ from the new album. Having put off the real double for so long, this left a yawning gap of two months with no Beach Boy single on the charts, and the favored Best of… inevitably overshadowing the new material left without a single to promote it (and vice versa).

In what would be a coincidence only to a blind optimist, Brian’s third major nervous breakdown struck him soon after release of Pet Sounds, sensing what was in store. The question has to be asked, What was in their corporate mind, if anything? If the label was compos mentis the stakes must have been high to warrant pulling the rug out from such an important act—at potentially a substantial loss of profit. Was it a business write-off as far as Capitol was concerned? Better to stick to promoting the mod quirkiness of the Beatles, reissues of classic fifties Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and early-sixties Beach Boys, with their assured, predictable markets?

Mike Love, in retrospect (1975): “Pet Sounds in 1966 was the climax of our new group awareness of more positive and emotional issues. Capitol wanted Shut Down Vol. 5. They released Pet Sounds but they didn’t promote it very strongly…”. “Mr Positive Thinker” as he called himself had put a ‘positive’ spin on the album.

THE TOURING GROUP BACK IN FEBRUARY, BRIAN placed their vocals: He had done demos of the lead and harmony parts himself, to such an extent that it was looking like a solo album. The completed ‘Caroline No’ track was released as a solo early March. In the circumstances it probably shocked Capitol as a nice little earner, keeping pace in many markets, flopping nationally once caught up by ‘Sloop’, issued two weeks later. One of the album’s key tracks but lacking a recognisable “Beach Boy” sound or label, it deserved better according to record-buyers in Canada, Chicago, Los Angeles, the Central Valley, upper New York, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee and Billings, Montana—all places where it entered top 20; the ten in San Jose, Orlando, Boston-New England, the Ohio River Valley in Cleveland and Louisville, and in Wisconsin, where it was broadcast hundreds of miles from clear channel station WSPT, Stevens Pt. Again New York City—where the song was listed at #57 by WMCA—had the casting vote over what America liked and didn’t like.

Brian’s voice came through too on ‘Sloop’ (reproduced by Al or Carl in concerts); Carl handled ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’, Mike subsidiary verses or the bridge on each. Brian’s original vocal of ‘God Only Knows’ was excellent but Carl made a classic of it. Of the rest, ‘Here Today’ (a UK cover hit, and in San Bernardino), ‘You Still Believe in Me’, and ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’ appeared on compilations, growing familiar to a broader public. The instrumentals and four other tracks by no means suffer for their lack of fame: ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)’, Brian emoting in similar fashion to ‘You Still Believe in Me’ and perhaps not often reissued for that sole reason; his ‘Hang On to Your Ego’ substituted by Al to better effect as ‘I Know There’s an Answer’; dynamic ‘I’m Waiting for the Day’ (Brian again), alternately gentle and commanding with its kettle drums; and ‘That’s Not Me’ (Mike), probably the least commercial song—but with Brian, Carl and Dennis accompanying making it special.

Listened to today the most spectacular rock treatments on the album, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ and ‘Sloop John B’, sound every bit as overtly exciting as Rolling Stones rockers. In fact there is an unmistakable kinship arising from this album. Disregarding the Beach Boys’ harmonies, which anyway sound nothing like their usual Four Freshmen-influenced style (on ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ Brian took six months to get the harmonies to his liking, so exacting had become his aural vision), they and the Stones almost meet in their sheer force of vocal and instrumental drive. Given juxtaposed listening the resemblances seem obvious, posing the likelihood of influence of passages from ‘Here Today’ on ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, or ‘Pet Sounds’ on ‘Honky Tonk Women’. Certainly, the chording and pacing similarity between the later ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’ are striking.

While the Beatles fought it out with the Stones in whipping up fans’ adrenaline they looked elsewhere for their music model—continually. In the early days it had been Lonnie Donegan, Elvis Presley, the Everly Bros; by 1963 Carole King, Motown and unnamed “current Americans” obviously including the Beach Boys and probably (judging from results) Burt Bacharach; the following year Bob Dylan. From spring 1966, when John Lennon and Paul McCartney, at Andrew Oldham’s residence, listened and relistened to the acetate recording of Pet Sounds brought from America by Lou Adler, the most apparent direct influence on them—apart from the ever-present Music Hall tradition—is the Beach Boys. From testimony by Paul McCartney and others who knew the Beatles well, and from internal evidence, they drew on Beach Boy material from 1965, from Pet Sounds and from Wild Honey. In McCartney (1998) Paul’s mid-Sixties associate Barry Miles, confirmed by Beatle producer George Martin, says they saw the Beach Boys as their creative rivals: “The real contender was always Brian Wilson… He had managed to reach the top several times in charts dominated by British Invasion groups but commercial success was not his main interest, though it was for the other Beach Boys.” Miles does not draw the conclusion nearly far enough. McCartney has for forty years called ‘God Only Knows’ the greatest song ever written, and he spent four of those years trying to emulate it.

Brian’s bass guitar roots specifically brought effusive compliments from Pete Townshend and McCartney: “Pet Sounds blew me away. It’s still one of my favorite albums. When I first heard it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the greatest record of all time!’ Brian took the bass into very unusual places. The band would play in C, and Brian would stay in G. That kind of thing. It gave me great ideas. That musical invention of Brian Wilson was eye-opening, I mean, ear-opening” (from Pritchard & Lysaght, 1998). In Miles’ biography, McCartney expresses a kinship with Wilson as a fellow writer of melodic bass lines, and waxes mystical citing him, himself and James Jamerson of Motown as the apex points of a geographical triangle (LA-London-Detroit) of influential bass-players. Father Murry, too, praised his son’s bass lines and betrayed fatherly pride in speaking of Brian’s “beautiful approach to rock’n’roll”, impressed that he had come some way from rock’n’roll to his own preference for “good music”—orchestrated.

McCartney credited Pet Sounds as the inspiration for his Sgt Peppers—by which time the Beach Boys, or at least Brian Wilson, had pulled further ahead. Others who are said to have called it the best album ever range from Elton John to Tom Petty; and citing it as a major influence: New York City’s pioneer of proto-Punk Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, and English favorites Oasis—often called the Nineties’ echo of the Beatles.

Britain was in spring 1966 just catching up on the Beach Boy catalog. Party, with a timely release for once, exited top ten in April as Today (a year late) entered. It is no surprise that, asked a week after Pet Sounds‘ US release in May, British EMI said it had “no plans” for it. It was sheer public pressure that brought the far-advanced, much-feared album into EMI’s plans. On grudging release in early July Pet Sounds, followed into top ten a week later by Summer Days, did all but reach the very top to the company’s shock. It seems the UK headquarters had no more insight into (or interest in) great, truly innovative music than its American subsidiary. Three decades later it was voted by a panel of international critics assembled by The Times of London as the best album of the rock era, heading off Sgt Peppers. Another belated British accolade was an assessment by New Musical Express (October 2nd 1993) as “Greatest Album of All Time”. As a satisfying double, upcoming ‘Good Vibrations’ would be dubbed by Mojo magazine (1997) “Greatest Single of All Time” heading a list of a hundred. But in May ’66 when it counted, British EMI’s belief in the Beach Boys’ new music, if not a negative entity, was close to zero.

The touring group at a Capitol reception, early '66: From left, Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson

The touring group at a Capitol reception, early '66: From left, Carl Wilson, Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson

In the States it was a steady mover, taking a year to sell Gold. Number one featured album at WLS, Chicago’s premier top 40 station, nationally it peaked on average only one or two chart places short of the Beach Boy albums immediately before and after; in Japan, the next biggest market, it did better than them. It was easily their most successful studio album ever in the UK: six months top ten. At the end of the year all the anti propaganda should have been put to bed by Cash Box’s roundup of 1966’s Top 100 Albums: 13th best-selling pop/rock album behind “Best of” compilations from Herman’s Hermits, the Animals and Stones, the Mamas & the Papas, Rubber Soul (5th), the Stones’ Aftermath, Out of Our Heads, December’s Children; four places ahead of Revolver, six ahead of Beach Boys Party and further back to Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, The Young Rascals, the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! and Lovin’ Spoonful’s Daydream. The leading albums of the Supremes, Four Seasons and Sonny & Cher were nowhere. But the story put about of the failure of new Beach Boy music—almost willed by British EMI and Capitol—simplified the choice between them and the two-forked Brit attack.

Capitol would continue to divert attention from the group’s groundbreaking, Beatle-influencing music. In spite of all, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’/‘God Only Knows’ turned out one of the summer’s two premier double-sided hits, outdone commercially by the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’/‘Eleanor Rigby’. Both peaked in late August, the Fabs keeping the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ out of the number one spot in the UK sales chart. The same happened between the two groups’ current albums.

ON APRIL 6TH AS ‘CAROLINE’ AND ‘SLOOP’ MADE strides up local charts the Beatles had begun work on Revolver, the album that continued the public eclipsing of the Beach Boys. The Fabs had unstoppable career momentum and it made sense when George Martin assigned novice engineer Geoff Emerick to take charge of sound. In the direction Beatles Inc was going it took an inexperienced whizzkid coming in fresh who could devise evermore contrived sounds to include on some of their upcoming albums.

George Martin: “With the new sounds on Revolver it was basically an attempt to get more colour into our records. I mean, The Beatles were always looking for new sounds… They didn’t know much about instruments, though, which put pressure on me. They needed someone to translate for them. I was there…”

Donovan Leitch: “That was the breakup really with The Beatles, I think. Because Paul is so creative… Paul needed, at that time, somebody like me, who could sit around and jam with him. The Beatles didn’t jam at that time. They made records” (both quotes from Pritchard & Lysaght).

It was at the end of summer 1966, three weeks after Revolver appeared—with their last concert at Candlestick Park, San Francisco—that the Beatles decided they had just done their last tour. Fourteen dates in eighteen days hardly added up to a demanding schedule, especially given their rather perfunctory 30-minute concerts—the idea was just to see the Beatles and scream your hardest—but they were exhausted and highly stressed by events unrelated to entertainment. The target of death threats from Japanese traditionalists, hounded out of the Philippines for offending ruling family the Marcoses, in America made to publicly answer for John Lennon’s remark that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus: these were among the personal depths they had plumbed in the previous weeks that decided them.

Paradoxically, given the bad press later directed at McCartney for breaking up the Beatles, it was George Harrison who, in his first relaxed moment after the Candlestick concert, declared: “I’m not a Beatle anymore!” According to Beatle publicist Tony Barrow it was Harrison and Lennon who were most vehement against them ever becoming a genuine, performing band again. Brian Epstein, who had made looking after the Beatles his life—and would die within a year of dejection and neglect—knew better than to ever suggest it to them. Such was his state through drugs that he was no longer handling their affairs with his customary aplomb. It was not long, in November, that John and Paul on Mick Jagger’s recommendation were seeking out accountant-to-the-rock-stars Allen Klein, wanting him to renegotiate the measly returns on their EMI contract.

Paul embarked on the first Beatle solo project, writing the soundtrack for a Hayley Mills film, The Family Way; and by the end of 1966 George had made a spiritual pilgrimage to India to meet the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of TM fame and learn sitar from Ravi Shankar; and Lennon met self-described avant garde Paris-based Japanese artist Yoko Ono. It was the beginning of a great deal of free time — extending through the remains of their career — with little of genuinely outstanding quality turning up on vinyl. One well-coordinated group project was to grow Zapata moustaches, seen in recent ‘spaghetti’ Westerns.

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ROCK MUSIC — Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: “WE LOVE YOU BEATLES, OH YES WE DO!”

In celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music on February 9, 2008 at 6:16 am

Excerpt #1 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Music by G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com and available for around $19.95 from Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble or any other of your favorite Internet stops

Sales peak thus far: #23 on Amazon.com’s hot 100 Music History & Criticism books (April 26th 2008)


The Fab Four, mops flourishing by mid 1964

The Fab Four, mops flourishing by mid 1964

To be caught up in Beatlemania ’64 was something as exciting as it was indescribable. Imagine Irish music, Riverdance and leprechaun outfits taking over the world—held aloft for everyone else to aspire to: a crude but apt comparison. The Beatle phenomenon has been uncritically celebrated long past the point of drop-dead kicking-the-corpse boredom, so to this day no one has been able to say convincingly what their music had to do with it. But you had to be there—the pop culture ‘happening’ of the mid-Sixties. It was experienced so deeply by many youths it seemed all that was needed to fix the world was immersion in Beatledom so everything would turn “fab”. Harrypottermania is the only phenomenon to compare with it today.

Tony Barrow, rock journalist and Beatle publicist: “The whole thing changed. The balance of power fell from an average age of 40 to 25 overnight.”

Derek Taylor, Beatle and later Beach Boy publicist: “We saw them in that sense [of being saviors]. People saw them as being some sort of answer to the miseries of the world or in our own little lives. They were the four-headed Santa Claus.”

Astrid Kirchherr, designer of the Beatlehair: “My heart just opens up with pride and joy to know I was so lucky to get to know these wonderful people who deserved all this fame and fortune.”

Astrid Kirchherr: “You could tell Paul really hated [Stuart]” (Salewicz).

Murray Kaufman (Murray the ‘K’), star DJ and self-proclaimed Fifth Beatle: “To this day when you hear [other superstars] you know it. With every album The Beatles gave us a 180-degree change. A completely different change, a different sound, a different attitude. They kept changing with us. The Beatles inspired a lot of the political and social revolution that took place, because from a subliminal standpoint The Beatles represented change. We saw the Beatles change right in front of our eyes.”

This habit of the Beatles being diverted every six months sounds alarmingly like a description of one of the Sixties’ most charming and persuasive fakers, Andrew Loog Oldham, by his friend John Douglas: “… a dilettante: though he’d got natural ability, he didn’t stick long with things, because there was always something new to have a crack at.”

George Martin, who produced all the Beatle records: “In my book The Beatles were the greatest performers and writers ever… They were never satisfied with sticking to one style, one format, one sound… I think I was part of a five-piece group… My particular specialty in the beginning was introductions, endings and solos. The rest of the song was theirs. Later on it [was] the addition of things they hadn’t thought of—all the backward guitar stuff and that kind of thing.”—Excerpts from Pritchard & Lysaght’s The Beatles: an Oral History (1998).

Note that Martin’s “specialty” was composing beginnings, endings and middles of Beatle songs?! “The rest of the song was theirs”, he adds amusingly. For Martin it all came down to how well crafted the song and the variety of ways they were presented. For Murray the K, how mutable the sound and attitude. Changeability was the common theme. So they might rate above Gilbert & Sullivan in adventurousness but below genuine artists in not having a recognisable style. Picasso changing his Blue Period and succeeding phases every four to six months?—the interval between Beatle albums. Novelty, and reading constantly changing trends— Murray the K: “They kept changing with us””—was their real stock in trade.

These four Liverpool lads of Irish descent had no small touch of the blarney in their blood: the pixieish wit; the crude, crying-into-your-beer sentiment and, encouraged by Dylan, self-pitying bitterness in layers; and Celtic “animal magnetism”—as ascribed by Brian Wilson to the Britons in general. If the Irish kissed the Blarney Stone for luck the Beatles and their minders must have ravished it full-frontal. Ritualistic mystique was all there staged in the Beatles—the Parisian styled hair, the Gallic cut suits, the Beatle bow in unison from the waist. Even Paul’s intriguing German-made ‘violin’ bass guitar, like no other. Was he dead?—Only true initiates could read the signs. It all assumed titanic significance, like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter overlapping into real life.

Clean-cut American Beach Boys as they looked on the arrival of the Beatles, February 1964: didn't stand a chance

Clean-cut American Beach Boys as they looked on the arrival of the Beatles, February 1964: didn't stand a chance

They had charm by the bucketful; presence—not the smarm or vacuous additood that passes for it today and is glibly called charisma. To immune observers they were interchangeable mop-tops, but fans knew better: John, the defiant leader with a loose chip on his shoulder, standing at the mike bowlegged gunslinger style; Paul, the smooth, fun-loving pretty boy and the most versatile musically, popping out melodies literally in his sleep—but called “the shrewdest and the toughest” by a teacher who knew them both; George, “the Dark Horse”—only fragments showing above surface, the most “vociferous” at the first meeting with George Martin and the most business minded, but passive-aggressive because dominated by his senior partners, overlooked until his death prompted a gushing media, when his palatial estate showed he had just as massive an ego; Ringo, contributing his personality on drums and off, the best actor in films—seemingly earthbound, living off a suitcase of baked beans on a spiritual exploration of India (the others ate theirs in the studio, scooped from silver service). Starting with no higher ambition than to open a hairdressing salon once the Beatles had struck modest success, ironically he was probably the most spiritual one through his childhood illnesses. But he was painted goofy. Girls liked to mother him for his melancholy. Later, with his head shorn, on his unshaven days he bore an unfortunate resemblance to Yasser Arafat.

At the start they were so… fluffy—and so saleable. While little girls wanted them as cuddly toys who walked, talked, peed and sang, mature females too fantasized about cuddling up to one or other of them. It wasn’t that the marketing strategy was inspired— just that everyone jumped on the bandwagon at once creating an unstoppable momentum, the more venal devotees grabbing fortunes hand over fist. The worldwide money-go-round was carved up continent by continent by seriously monied men, who made Elvis’s Colonel Tom Parker look like a nickel-and-dime grifter. There were Beatle suits and ties, Beatle shoes, Beatle wigs, even Beatle guitars and drum kits. On their first trip to the US, from their tiny cut of the money generated by their own image the group made more from Beatle bubblegum than from performances.

Despite their “Luv, Luv, Luv” mantra, nasty personal politics emerged in breakup as all burst into song unflattering to all—tit for tat attacks in unbounded superstar self-indulgence, abusing their exalted position to demean their art form. Yet because the group died violently in its prime (and resisted all pleas for a rebirth) the Princess Diana Effect mummifies a far-fetched pristine image. There is no question of speaking ill of their legacy, and an objective reappraisal of their value will wait till all media contemporaries in their thrall have retired from the airwaves.

While the Beatles weren’t responsible for every loopy gesture of fandom a finger points at them for hyping it: shaking their hair got their biggest audience reaction, not playing a favorite song—all of their songs were favored. The fans were screaming too loud to care how the music sounded, or if it sounded at all, so that the group at times stopped singing (or substituted bawdy rhymes) unnoticed. Their unbounded, unconditional success has a lot to answer for in foisting a travesty on the musical world, preventing a genuinely new course for modern popular music. They could be accused of corrupting rock in their own way as much as the tame Elvis-lookalikes they allegedly saved rock’n’roll from.

AS AMERICAN POPSTERS PROTESTED AT THE TIME, the Beatles—first called “the English Everly Bros” though Phil & Don weren't thrilled about it—were offering little that Stateside acts hadn't, musically; they had once even called themselves the Four Everlys. Their records were unsophisticated, producer George Martin having no experience in rock, coming from the show tradition of the Goons (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan & Harry Secombe), forerunners of Monty Python. Sound engineer “Hurricane” Smith had to work with primitive UK studio equipment. So it is no wonder to the ears of American industry professionals ‘Please Please Me’ sounded like the Country Pop of the real Everlys. In fact it is very much like ‘That's Old Fashioned’ (1962)—so, an attractive recording but obviously nothing new.

English record producer and former rock journo Charlie Gillett: “For a while in the mid-Sixties, to be an American producer in Britain was to be in a distinct category, as Americans were recognized to have more adventurous production styles [and] played an important part in educating our engineers in American production techniques.” Yanks in the UK included Jimmy Miller helming the Rolling Stones and Spencer Davis Group, Shel Talmy the Kinks and The Who, Bert Berns (a.k.a. Russell) of Don Kirshner/Brill Building pop producing recordings for Them and Lulu, Felix Pappalardi for Cream, and Phil Spector, eventually, for the Beatles themselves. Yet Gillett claims Beach Boy music, from the same mainsprings of rock, was outdated on the arrival of the Beatles— without offering any illustration of his point—and presumably came right on first hearing the Beatles in 1964 (?)! Maybe it is to fit this outlandish statement that Gillett post-dates the commencement of Brian Wilson productions three years to ’65.

While well-bred manager Brian Epstein put his twopenn’th in about what the Beatles should record, the group obviously knew better and were happy leaving to chance Capitol’s doctoring of the master tapes in America—recognising virtually any Americans (and Capitol ‘experts’ fell into that category for rock’n’roll) would improve on Parlophone’s work done with the Beatles’ own input. No surprise that many Beatle records, especially releases outside the US, have a quirky feel of Tin Pan Alley uncomfortably mixed with rockabilly, or an English attempt at it.

Yes, they were different, in their Old World charm that urban Americans had long forgotten. If their charm and humor was Irish via Liverpool, the down-to-earth opportunism—and an awe of all that was flashy in American culture—was pure working-class England. An American equivalent might be experientially deprived hillbilly Jethro Beaudine coming to the big city and aping all he saw—in his fashion. Their presentation, via influences from Bert Kaempfert, Klaus & Astrid & Jurgen, Brian Epstein, came from Continental Europe. Not only appearance: Close your eyes and listen to early Beatle music, and picture everyman’s Liverpool-via-Hamburg group putting out the same: an act that Rory Storm & the Hurricanes could call their equal. People who knew them and their music intimately at the time said it. It was on top of hundreds of years of European traditional music that they attempted to overlay rock’n’roll. Question: Was this rock’n’roll, an advance on rock’n’roll, or a diluted alternative more related to other Euro acts: Edith Piaf, Johnny Halliday, James Last, Kraftwerk?

Lennon & McCartney came up with a perfect combination of show tunes and ersatz rock’n’roll—not a blending of the two but a craft division as in two assembly streams in a song factory. Their rock’n’roll was as straight as they could make it, improving in the late Sixties with ‘Revolution’ and ‘Back in the USSR’; and their Music Hall songs, which by Sgt Peppers they learned to give a rock veneer, were pure sentiment. Everyone could take something from it, and this catchall ‘something for everyone’ approach— that Elvis had turned to in 1960—brought unparalleled success.

It was all over after the music critic of The Times anointed Lennon & McCartney “the greatest composers since Beethoven”— not even Gilbert & Sullivan. Their habit of descending a third from minor to major, then another third back to major (as in ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’—personal communication from Celia Wood-Calvert)—brought comparisons with Schubert but was the sort of thing untutored musicians not hidebound by academic orthodoxies were likely to stumble upon in the normal course of exploring possibilities. It was their good fortune to be hailed for it.

Alan Livingston, Capitol president and inventor of Bozo the Clown, presents the Beach Boys with what be their first RIAA Gold Discs in 1965: they were always albums, and awarded so late because audited belatedly.

Alan Livingston, Capitol president and inventor of Bozo the Clown, presents the Beach Boys with what must be their first RIAA Gold Discs in 1965: they were always albums, never singles, and awarded so late because audited belatedly.

A passage in Gerry Bloustein’s Musical Visions: Selected Conference Proceedings from 6th National Australian/New Zealand IASPM compares Lennon-McCartney songwriting with Brian Wilson’s. “The songwriters who most often utilised blues-based songforms were Brian Wilson and John Lennon-Paul McCartney. Wilson’s surf and hot rod songs… often involve original and creative adaptations of the standard blues form, and in this sense Wilson should be accorded more credit as the songwriter who was best able to create a logical development of 1950s rock, and surf groups should be considered to be updated rock and roll bands.

“Wilson’s use of the blues-based form is deserving of some detailed attention. He rarely used the form for a complete song… Most of Wilson’s songs are verse-chorus forms, while in some songs (such as ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, ‘Little Honda’) the blues form is employed in the verse but not the chorus. In others (like ‘Dance Dance Dance’, ‘Drag City’ and ‘Surf City’) the reverse applies. The other technique employed by Wilson was to vary the standard chord progression over the last four bars of the form, thereby creating a striking hook effect, usually in combination with prominent multi-part vocals and a strong lyric hook. This technique is evident on ‘Shut Down’, ‘Drag City’, ‘Surf City’ and ‘Three Window Coupe’.

“Lennon-McCartney also used (copied?) [Bloustein’s term] this latter technique, most notably in ‘Day Tripper’ and they too created some idiosyncratic adaptations of the form… Like Wilson, Lennon-McCartney rarely employed the form for a complete song. Their nor-mal procedure was to use the blues scheme for the A section of the typical AABA form and to create a strongly contrasting B section by using a progression totally unconnected with the blues idiom, as in songs such as ‘I Feel Fine’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ and ‘She’s a Woman’.”

Bloustein goes on to point out that during 1963-66 no other successful writers but the Motown ones make significant use of the blues-based form. But Beatle use of it was strongly tempered by their AABA scheme, which “had been commonly used by popular songwriters for ‘thousands of Tin Pan Alley tunes… a form totally predictable to mid-century listeners’.”

The AABA songform is four 8-bar sections. Many Beatle songs were dependent on a quirky, not to say cute ‘middle eight’ (B) section that caused traditionalists to prick up their ears in gladness.

The myth of Beatle omnipotence—almost a religious belief in which faith triumphs over facts—was reinforced by the likes of Gillett when he misinformed his readers (1975) that “the Beatles brought the idea of the organic songwriting, singing and instrument-playing unit to the American record business”—a myth perpetuated by Murray Kaufman as late as 1998. It was there in germ form in Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Three; even, mostly, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, Bill Black & D J Fontana; and Buddy Holly & the Crickets. The Beach Boys took it to the ultimate before the Beatles, as such, were ever recorded.

ACCORDING TO THE ROCK HISTORIAN’S BOOK OF Genesis one summer 15-year-old Paul McCartney saw John Lennon, twenty months older, singing with his band for the local Woolton village fete in their home city of Liverpool, the chief north-of-England port that serviced Lancashire’s coal mines and had cargoed cotton from the Confederacy during the American Civil War in defiance of Abraham Lincoln. Equivalent to New York City’s East River dockland but without the prosperity—Great Britain had won the war but “lost the peace”—Liverpool working people were clannish and proud of their scrappy cum entrepreneurial Irish roots. For the Dead End Kids, in the Hollywood B-movies that had informed so many British Empire kids, read John, Paul, George & Ringo. Who can imagine latter-day serene guru George Harrison as the head-butting kid he was, as described by Paul, when he joined the Quarry Men? Lennon, better at lyrics, and McCartney took quirky Scouse humor and added clever wordplay for their songs. Once they started mixing with the fashionable-arty London crowd in 1963 literary pretentions crept in.

It was early 1958 that the three-man core of the Beatles consolidated. This was three years after Lonnie Donegan hit with skiffle, and Bill Haley & His Comets impacted rock’n’roll on Britain with deva-stating results via ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ and ‘Rock Around the Clock’, the theme from gang/rebellion movie Blackboard Jungle. English youths—egged on by violent Teddy Boy subculture—reacted accordingly when Haley & the Comets toured just a few months before, rioting and tearing up seats with flick knives. More than the Teddy Boy image and attire rubbed off on the Quarry Men. Reportedly, the lads themselves were not above a bit of opportunistic rough-housing to get what they wanted from the mean streets of Liverpool or Hamburg.

And it was two years after Elvis Presley. The younger and better looking Elvis had burst from the Tupelo, Mississippi backwoods into throbbing blues center Memphis, Tennessee to mix r&b and country music and take over Teen America. His scintillating, melodramatised performances of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Hound Dog’ were frenetic and frailly breathless, and held to be extraordinary, coming as they did from a white man’s vocal cords. His ‘Jailhouse Rock’ broke a year later at the time Lennon and McCartney were meeting, with Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and ‘Peggy Sue’, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ just as popular.

Though less authentic than Elvis’s earlier Sun recordings of ‘That’s Alright Mama’, ‘Mystery Train’, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ and ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, white rock’n’roll was, after a breach birth, coming out of incubation. Always just a heartbeat and last gasp away from crib death by misadventure, it would soon be rolled on in its slumber by hefty corporate America, rock’n’roll’s domineering stepmother.

Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino had already scored their first hits on the (white) pop charts—‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Maybelline’, ‘Bo Diddley’/‘I’m a Man’, ‘Ain’t That a Shame’. All were remorseless rock’n’rollers, until Richard repented, and were black—so couldn’t be teen icons in the eyes of the music industry of the time. The substitutes who were allowed to make white girls go all gooey were pale-complected, fussily groomed Italo-American boys—Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Freddy Cannon, Bobby Rydell, James Darren, Lou Christie. Ethnics like Tony Orlando, Teddy Randazzo and Steve Alaimo who didn’t ‘regularize’ their names had viable recording careers but were obviously less stellar. The teen idols were promoted by Bandstand and Pat Boone’s series from the 1957-58 tv season, Billboard magazine and its new Hot 100, and a host of other mass media outlets.

The absence of Elvis Presley in the army for two years cleared the way for these ballroom imitations to replace real rock’n’roll.

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