Now in our fifth calendar year|
PCR #241 (Vol. 5, No. 45) This edition is for the week of November 1--7, 2004.
|THE DIGITAL DIVIDE|
How do you begin a review about the greatest lost record never made finally completed 37 years later? With a history of the genius behind it, I suppose. In history books it will say that The Beatles were the alpha and omega of pop music in the '60s and that "their" album's production techniques were revoluntionary and ahead of their time. That wouldn't be lying except that I use "their" in quotations because The Beatles had George Martin. Brian Wilson had no George Martin, and no encouragement from mentor Phil Spector who was growing increasingly jealous. All he had was himself and the sounds he had in his head. Now let's take a trip from the beginning of a small little California band, The Pendletones, to the Beach Boys' heyday of '63 - '66, the fallout and nervous breakdowns of '67 - '69, the short 70s revival, and finally to the complete close in 2004 of what is quite probably one of the greatest albums ever made. After the Payola scam and the arrest of Alan Freed in the late '50s it seemed like some unseen force was ending the short life of rock 'n' roll. Elvis went to war, Chuck Berry was arrested, Jerry Lee Lewis married his 14-year-old cousin, Eddie Cochran died in a car crash, Little Richard became a preacher, and finally the '50s' two greatest talents, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, along with the Big Bopper, lay dead in a cornfield in Iowa. The rebel-rousers were done and finished. They were replaced with Dion and other clean-cut white bread teen idols. Out of this sterile conservatism came the garage bands. The Kingsmen and others played it up to the drunk college crowd with hits like "Louie, Louie". Over in California, perhaps inspired by Duane Eddie and Dick Dale, surf garage bands appeared. One of these, The Pendletones, was led by a young and burgeoning songwriter, Brian Wilson. Wilson was a fragile kid who was deaf in one ear suppsedly due to his father Murray Wilson beating him across the head one day. Murray was a domineering brute of a man who, for all his faults, catapulted his family's band into superstardom. He is the one who badgered Capitol to sign his boys Brian, Carl, Dennis, and cousin Mike Love based on a hit record they had in their hometown, called "Surfin'". By now they were called The Beach Boys. Murray also fought tooth and nail to allow them to let Brian produce the record on his own.
From '61 - '64 the Beach Boys ruled the charts and had amazingly put out 6 LPs in three years. Brian watched and learned from great producer Phil Spector and, of course, easily picked up and dicovered the infamous "Wall of Sound".
In 1964, Beatlemania was upon Brian Wilson and he had no choice but to respond. Perhaps his first truimph came with "In My Room" quite possibly one of the most emotional songs ever to come out of the '60s, but his repsonse to the Beatles must be bigger and better; it was, he responded with "I Get Around", a masterpiece of chord changes and production. Unlike the Beatles' songs Wilson's compositions were not always recognizable as being as complex as they really are. For instance like "Little Honda", "I Get Around" sounds on the surface like a typical homage to '50s doo woop but under the layer you can hear odd chord changes, the way the vocals meld to create an emotion or the way the bass was recorded to echo or sound dissonant was unlike anything anyone else was doing including George Martin and his Liverpool gang of moptops.
Also Wilson was not a throwback to doo wop and 50s rock. He was way ahead of his time in that he was playing the music he loved yet making it intricate, artisitic, progressive, and even classically composed. He was retro before there was such a thing. While his tunes didn't sound modern like "She Loves Me" or "Help", they were modern in a different way in that Wilson realized he was referencing old music and uppping its ante. Which is why the two different age groups of indie rockers and classic rockers revere him equally to this day. The Beatles themselves had heard Wilson's genius and knew that he has on par with them, far ahead and that the Beach Boys were basically their American equivalant, so when "I Get Around" knocked them from the number one spot they needed to make a statement.
Meanwhile Wilson had been experimenting again with complex arrangements and on the album Today! the whole second side was what many now call the proto-Pet Sounds. Wilson used the 2nd side to explore emotions instead of fun in the sun. It was on "When I Grow Up" that hit the Beatles at home; it was to date the most intricately produced song from any popular rock group ever. By their next and 2nd album of 1965 Wilson took a break from the experimeting to offer up what would be the last typical Beach Boys album Summer Days (and Summer Nights). It was one final parting shot for the sound that made them so famous with songs like "Do You Wanna Dance" and "Good To My Baby" but it wasn't a total artistic loss as Wilson melded his new found sounds to match his old beach tunes in the great "Help Me Rhonda", and the magnificent classical opening of their penultimate tune "Califorina Girls". The Beatles retalitated with the album Rubber Soul. Now Brian had his first blow and not one year after his nervous breakdown too.
While the Beach Boys toured Japan, Wilson stayed in the studio to start on what would be his first masterpeice, Pet Sounds. Wilson utilized Spectors "wall of sound" and what he called playing "feelings" to make what amounts to the greatest album ever made in the minds of many musicians. Songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice", and of course "God Only Knows" (which Beatle Paul McCartney called the greatest song ever written) were only icing on the cake for other mini-pocket symphonies like "Don't Talk", "Pet Sounds", and "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times". The lyrics co-written with Tony Asher all formed a theme of love fantasized, realized, and eventually lost, which was best described by the closing track "Caroline, No". George Martin and the Beatles had heard it and came to the realization that it was the best thing they would ever hear and even knocked the Beatles out of winning their own country's favourite vocal group poll. Wilson was now riding the high horse and in command of his arena and was not shaken by the Beatles next release, Revolver. Instead, he graced us with, for my money, the greatest rock song ever recorded, "Good Vibrations".
Next Wilson went into the studio to create what he called his teenage symphony to god called "Dumb Angel", eventually retitled Smile. After hiring avant-garde lyricist Van Dyke Parks he experimeted with recording his odd tribute to Copeland, Stephen Foster, barbershop quartets, Dada, and classical music by having the songs written in certain environments to get the mood. For example "Surfs Up" was written in a giant sand box and the infamous "Fire" was recorded wearing fire helmets. Even McCartney dropped by for some the sessions and was blown away. But it all came to a halt when Wilson was drivng home one night and heard The Bealtes newest song "Strawberry Fields Forever" on the radio. As he put it "they beat me to it". The odd sound effects, the vocal arrangements, and yes, the classical composition was everything that Smile was to be and caused Brian Wilson to have his 2nd breakdown. Meanwhile Mike Love refused to sing Parks' odd lyrics and infamously argued over the lyric "columnated ruins the domino". Smile was stopped dead in the water. Brian gave up and after Sgt. Pepper's was dropped on the public something like 5 months before Smile could be finished, the album was shelved. Its replacement Smiley Smile (1967) is a pale imitation of rerecorded Smile tracks that reflect, disturbingly so, Brians cracked state of mind. So Wilson spent most of the '70s in bed listening to Phil Spector records something like 100 times in one day while the Beach Boys tugged on with hits and misses. Finally Wilson got out of his paranoia and sick state of mind and went solo. Soon after his critically acclaimed Pet Sounds tour in the late '90s he was back on track. Now without the Beach Boys but instead his touring band The Wondermints, who are just as good, if not better, he has decided to give us what we wanted. Smile.
"The Digital Divide" is ©2004 by Terence Nuzum.. Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2004 by Nolan B. Canova.