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BOOK REVIEW — BEATLES BOOK: Can’t Buy Me Love

In celebrity, literature, music on August 1, 2009 at 12:54 am

Can’t Buy Me Love by Jonathan Gould (Piatkus, 2007) is one of those religious books about the Beatles that starts from a standpoint of unquestioning admiration for the Liverpool pop group and ends in total devotion, as in devout worship of a single entity, monotheism. And they were a single entity, as proven by their desultory solo careers in the post-Beatle era, when none of them could foot it for creativity and cohesive output without Brian Epstein to push them along and producer/arranger George Martin to fill in the many gaps in their songs and make each one into a finished product.

In this 400-page love letter to an act, nay, an industry easy to endorse — Didn’t they sell the most records? — Gould doesn’t let tweaking of facts and half-truths stand in the way of a good myth that rates in commercial potency with Harrypottermania and Lord of the Rings, and matches them too in fictional blarney. My question is, Why even bother to write such a book when the Beatle legend has already been so insidiously planted and firmly cemented in people’s minds over the past forty years as the be-all-and-end-all of the Sixties?

The Beatles, mid 1964: The Beach Boys had already proven themselves far and away ahead of The Fab Four by self-producing the single 'I Get Around'/'Don't Worry Baby', released in May.

The Beatles, mid 1964: The Beach Boys had already proven themselves far and away ahead of The Fab Four by self-producing the single 'I Get Around'/'Don't Worry Baby', released in May.

Gould’s total lack of imagination or enterprise in even choosing a relevant title — after all, he doesn’t spend much time covering the Beatles’ Hamburg sojourn when the Beatles did buy themselves ‘love’ from the Reeperbahn prostitutes — reminds me of the pathetic titles chosen by Television New Zealand whenever it wanted to screen a retrospective on the Sixties in general: All You Need is Love, Hello — Goodbye … All done because everyone knows a Beatle title will sell more product.

Among the many fictitious assertions made by Gould in a superficial book are several I have selected in relation to the Beach Boys, the acknowledged Sixties mainstream rivals to the Beatles. I explore these since the American group is one I have studied in depth: see my book Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music.

Assertion 1) — “Brian Wilson accounted for nine tenths of the talent of the Beach Boys”–Gould contrasting them with the supposedly uniformly, mega-talented Beatles.

This is bizarre. Has Gould heard nothing of the immense composing, producing and blues-singing talent of Dennis Wilson? The singing, composing and producing of Carl Wilson? The culturally-relevant lyric-writing and universally-admired bass voice of Mike Love? Al Jardine had measurably more creative and performing talent than Ringo, whose ‘singing’ of lead vocals has been a politely overlooked though glaring debit in the Beatles column.

Assertion 2) — Brian Wilson’s voice wasn’t in the same class as Paul McCartney’s.

McCartney was adept at imitating a rock’n’roll screech — as taught to him by Little Richard. He had a sweet but bland voice on ballads. As for expressiveness and purity, and genuine versatility in turning his voice to any mood, Wilson takes the nod hands down.

Assertion 3) — Brian Wilson’s songs were characterised by “cloying sentimentality.”

Gould doesn’t know the difference between pure emotion expressed in music, in which Brian Wilson is surpassed by no one in mainstream music, and the Beatles’ cloyingly sentimental ‘luv’ cliches regurgitated from Music Hall. McCartney cites his father, a music hall musician, as his major formative influence.

and maybe the most ludicrous statement of all:

Assertion 4) — By 1966 the Beach Boys’ level of production, arrangements and group singing had almost caught up with “the innovations of the Beatles.”

This one sentence contains at least five blatant untruths that I can name and refute:

a) The Beach Boys produced their own recordings from early 1962 on — therefore were ahead of the Beatles in production from the start. This was readily apparent by the time of Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl and Be True to Your School/In My Room in 1963 and became bleedin’ obvious the following year with I Get Around/Don’t Worry Baby and Little Honda/Wendy. According to the people who recorded the Beatles, including George Martin and Norman Smith, the Beatles continually clamored for the recording technicians to get more of an American sound, i.e. similar to the Beach Boys, Motown, etc–not the other way round. b) The Beatles didn’t produce their records — George Martin did. According to Parlophone/EMI recording engineer Norman “Hurricane” Smith the Beatles barely listened to their own recordings — didn’t even wear earphones in the recording booth. c) The Beatles didn’t arrange their songs — George Martin did, and according to Martin they knew almost nothing about non-rock’n’roll instruments. d) This is laughable. When did the Beatles ever dare to expose their ‘group singing’ via a-cappella? — as the Beach Boys did on occasions from the start. e) What innovations did the Beatles themselves introduce, except watering down rock’n’roll, country music, Eurocafe ballads, etc, etc, and turning around the rock direction of Motown, Atlantic, Vee-Jay, Philles, the Beach Boys, to bring back songs from musicals like ‘Til There Was You’, ‘A Taste of Honey’.? By the end of 1966 their music was more and more electronic, deserted by George Martin to leave a novice electronics wiz in charge of their recording.

ROCK MUSIC — Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: SURFIN’ US/K

In celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music, politics, television on February 10, 2008 at 1:04 am

Excerpt #2 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Musicby 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


In 1965 the world was looking scary — and not only because the most inane warblings of the British Invasion looked like they were here to stay. Twenty years after the end of WWII it turned out that old tensions and seething enmities between cultures had only been swapped for new ones. The USSR, China, and satellites Eastern Europe, Cuba, North Korea and North Vietnam lined up against The West. In January, Britain’s Winston Churchill, savior of western democracy and hawk of the Cold War, died. Khruschev of the USSR had been deposed for not bringing the West to heel though his USA opposite number John F Kennedy was dead a year. In little more than twelve months the three potent figures of the post-War world were gone.

In February and March two events denied all the brief Kennedy Era stood for. Malcolm X, Black Muslim and leader in the civil rights movement, was murdered, spurring race riots in the Watts district of LA. And President Lyndon B Johnson (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”) committed the first combat troops to Vietnam, an undeclared war plaguing the American psyche long past its ten-year duration.

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, Carl Wilson, leader Brian Wilson, middle brother Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, little brother Carl Wilson (lead guitar, vocals), big brother and leader Brian Wilson (bass guitar, keyboards, falsetto harmony and lead vocals), middle brother Dennis Wilson (drums, vocals), cousin Mike Love (lead vocals, occasional saxophone), and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine (rhythm guitar, occasional lead vocals)

The Beach Boys, victims of their idealism, were about to be trapped in a time warp, objects to be vivisected by the fashion police. For a year pop commentators had questioned the reason for being of these stubborn squares who seemed naïvely unaware of all Beatledom had to offer. The Byrds, switching to folk rock and Dylan, still made the effort to look and sound like Beatles; everyone knew they were “America’s answer” to them. It was “in” and “far out” to conform to the new ‘Counterculture’.

Dennis had gone some way toward beatlesque, hair-wise, in summer ’64; a year later the others were looking fluffier too, if not longer, yet. Mike grew a neatly trimmed beard to distract from his thinning hair, lending a ‘Peter, Paul & Mary’ professorial look to the frontman of a group already up against it with ever younger record-buyers. In November 1966 for their Good Vibrations tour of the UK the eldest Beach Boy — months younger than Ringo Starr and John Lennon — would go the whole hog for the Oxford don look, posing for group publicity stills dressed eccentrically in British tweed, country gentleman’s cap and holding a pipe. Brian (to be replaced in spring 1965 by the lean and handsome, if bland, Bruce Johnston for touring) and Carl were unfashionably chubby — and still clean-shaven unlike the bulky turned-on musos of San Francisco psychedelia just emerging, who knew where it was at and let it all hang out: Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Bob Hite of Canned Heat…. It was all a clear snub to populism: the Beach Boys would go their own way, in their own time.

FEBRUARY 15TH 1965 BROUGHT A REALISATION THAT irreplaceable figures had died in the past two months: Sam Cooke, murdered; Alan Freed of a failing spirit; now Nat King Cole of lung cancer. For the Beach Boys the year opened with their first ever shows in Canada — good for a dozen big hits so far, their second expedition into the foreign territory of the British Commonwealth (following Australasia a year before). First came a date at Vancouver, the French city of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Brian, hungry for new experiences, plays all but the last, replaced by Glen Campbell. They will take in the same round of cities again in September, with Bruce Johnston and supported by new stars Sonny & Cher.

BBstoday On vinyl, from the completed Beach Boys Today, a new 45 is lifted that fatal February day. On top of a wall of sound but in a flourish of driving, modernized rock, is their rebirth of ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ both spirited and lush — so maybe too American. Dennis’s sole solo hit, it’s the top debut in the Nashville top 40; streaks fifteen places into the St Louis ten to quench a nine-month drought there; L C Cooke, brother of Sam, rushes out an alternative version that hits the St Louis r&b chart. In the Midwest’s Chicagoland, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, Cincinnati, the Southwest’s Dallas, Phoenix, Tulsa and the Eastern Seaboard’s Washington DC, Baltimore, New England, Newark, Hartford, it is top five with West Coast markets Seattle, Portland, San Jose, San Diego — though here sales are split with its B-side (haunting ballad ‘Please let Me Wonder’); #6 in the South’s St Louis, Memphis, Norfolk, Richmond; lower top ten Montreal, San Francisco, Vancouver, Kansas City. Taking off the gloss are below par receptions just outside in Philadelphia, New York (best at WINS, #12-13, its level in the major national hit parades), Miami and Toronto; and languishing lower top 20 on the playlists at influential stations in Detroit, Houston, Pittsburgh and hometown LA (where it nonetheless peeks in at #6 at local stations in Van Nuys and San Bernardino). Elevated to no.5 in the ShowTime chart distributed to newspapers nationwide, additionally no.8 by United Press International, and no.9 by Gilbert’s youth survey for the Associated Press, mainstream in the leading trade papers (Billboard, Cash Box, Variety) it is no threat to Herman’s Hermits and Freddie & the Dreamers with their red carpet treatment from the media and squatting pampered in the Brit penthouse hosted by the Yanks. The current WABC-New York sales survey, covering the USA’s biggest market, lists Brit acts taking 11 of the top 16 tunes.

In the UK it wasn’t released (‘All Summer Long’ was — later celebrated by George Lucas at the end credits of his American Graffiti but a joke in terms of the hard tack Brits expected from groups at the time), maybe because EMI feared it could take long-term sales from its Cliff Richard & the Shadows’ 45. Following as it did their recent European tour, ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ should have reinstated them on the Continent, which had given the previous two singles the silent treatment. While it was bought in loyal Scandinavia and played in Italy, it was invisible in Germany, France, Holland and now Australia too, preoccupied with all things Fab.

‘Please Let Me Wonder’ went to #1 as the chosen ‘A’ in San Jose and San Bernardino; #3 in Chicago, Seattle and upstate New York; similarly top five in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Sacramento; top ten Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, San Diego, Milwaukee, Columbus, Hartford, Fresno; Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami, San Antonio, Denver, Vancouver, Buffalo the twenty. It drove to no.9 separately in the Associated Press chart a week before its designated A-side but stalled halfway up the two big charts’ top hundreds, though rising to no.32 in Variety. It is a favorite on compilation albums and retrospective videos.

April 21st they played both sides on Shindig, ‘Help Me Rhonda’ just released and pocket jams of ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and ‘Long Tall Texan’, demolishing English guests Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders and Cilla Black, producer Jack Good still plugging his countrymen and women though as many would come unstuck as stick; no.1 Italian songstress Rita Pavone also ran. They met up too on set with the Shangri-Las and the Ikettes—from that first bill over three years before.

Both hits were — happily — out of sync with prevailing (lack of) taste, which saw what was already a year-long lapse accelerate into a headlong dive. The public was forcefed the silliest pop ditties yet, Top 40 stations now programmed via remote control by bosses in the biggest cities at network h.q.s, even star DJs straightjacketed from injecting local content or personal favorites. Songs masticated into the new chew for a few weeks, losing what bland flavor they had. Previously this trend was signalled by the Beatles’ superior ‘And I Love Her’ and somewhat lesser ‘If I Fell’, both lapped up by sentimental moviegoers. The Dave Clark Five jumped at the Beatles’ lead, and made them utterly sickening: ‘Because’, ‘Everybody Knows’ — two glutinous-syrupy ballads vying with Brian Poole & the Tremeloes’ ‘Someone, Someone’ for most nauseating weepie of the era.

The Beach Boys sustained their fun-loving, exuberant image, seen in a stocktake-of-things-that-matter Carl wrote for Tiger Beat:

Brian: a Cadillac Eldorado and Mustang

Dennis: a Ferrari and Cobra

Mike, the real collector: a Pontiac MG, Jaguar and Classic MG

Carl: an Aston Martin (James Bond style), Triumph 500 motorbike

Al, ever sensible: a lone T-Bird, as featured in ‘Fun Fun Fun’

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

By now the three Wilson brothers had bought their own homes on the outskirts of Hollywood. Mike and Al stayed close to home at Manhattan Beach. A roll call of Dennis’s pets told much of the elemental Beach Boy: two (wild, freedom-loving) horses, an otter (at home in water), a parakeet named after mother Audree, a power-dog German Shepherd and ever-present underdog for Dennis to look after — a lost puppy run over outside his house, with a broken leg needing healing. Always a mass of contradictions, supposedly least talented when the group started, he was turning himself into a multi-instrumentalist. The most Beach Boy — runner-up in a Hawaiian surfing tourney, an accomplished danger-skier on hair-raising Rocky Mountain slopes — he was also the most un-Beach Boy, developing a husky, cracked blues voice.

It was Dennis in full flight who pulled as much mob appeal as a Beatle. Fans would breach the carefully mounted barricades at concerts, and all of the boys had their clothes torn and were taught tactics to escape girls’ clutches — rolling out of the tackle grid-iron style. Dennis, though, sometimes surrounded despite the best game strategies, had several times been literally k.o.’ed by love. In Louisville, Kentucky, coincidentally the home of Muhammed Ali, he required three stitches to his head. When audience reaction was deemed out of hand local police forces used their ultimate power of censorship, cutting the feed to amplifiers or yanking down the stage curtain mid-performance, much to the group’s disgust. In l.p. liner notes Mike remarked on the Cincinnati fans as champion “cop-dodgers” and “Then there’s the helpless feeling of seeing a girl, who maybe spent her last dollar to see us, crying or something, ’cause the cops wouldn’t let her stay and get a Beach Boys autograph.” Unlike the Beatles, the group never had sealed, womblike limos to duck into to separate them from their public, and for less hysterical crowds would often stay behind for hours to sign autographs and chat.

UNLIKE THEIR HERMETICALLY PROTECTED RIVALS the Beach Boys no doubt felt themselves in the full swim of the Swinging Sixties. Carl named his favorite acts as the Beatles, Four Seasons, Supremes, Manfred Mann and the Animals—in preference over the Rolling Stones. The Stones, he said, showing considerable prescience, would be around as long as they made hits. Brian, in a 1996 interview, said that he and Carl “liked John [Lennon] a lot” — and that he wrote ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ as “a kind of tribute to John.” Said at one time to have been intended for the Beatles to record, it was one of Brian’s favorite songs, written on vacation in Hawaii without a piano or guitar: “And it’s the only song I wrote that way.” He had penned ‘Kiss Me Baby’ months before in a Copenhagen hotel room, also without much in the way of composing aids.

Certain other revelations Brian has made about his lifestyle at this time have shed light on his creative processes: Put simply, take marijuana and sit down at the piano. For The Beach Boys Today!he was experimenting: “The whole second side had been written and arranged while I was high. Compared to previous Beach Boys albums the music was slower, more plaintive, and emotional. The chord patterns were more complex, the production denser, richer in sound, and my thinking in regard to making records was different. Able to break down songs to precise little increments, I began to deal with each instrument individually, stacking sounds one at a time” (BrianWilson.com).

Three months later in April he took a quantum leap into the drug world with his first experience of LSD. He at first justified this by the fact that it led instantly to the composing of ‘California Girls’. Later, he noticed that it was the beginning of auditory hallucinations—voices talking to him, often threatening ones — and an everworsening fragility of mind. It was about this time too he wrote and recorded its flipside ‘Let Him Run Wild’ in hommage to Burt Bacharach’s renowned chord progressions — and that’s as far as any resemblance goes.

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