My Pop Life #111 : Heroes & Villains : The Beach Boys

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Heroes & Villains   –   The Beach Boys

I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost & gone & unknown for a long long time…

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This extraordinary creation was one of the songs on The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, one of the handful of LPs in our council house in Sussex in the mid 70s.  The album pulled together all the big singles, and had a couple of interesting choices including this song, which we also had on 45rpm Capitol Records black label 7-inch from 1967 when it was released.  My mum must have bought it – I was 10 years old in ’67.

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Back in those days, The Beach Boys were a chart-pop act for me, even when Simon and I hitch-hiked around the USA in the summer of 1976 the great discovery was their greatest hits LP Endless Summer which contained songs I hadn’t heard before like Be True To Your School and the exquisite jewel Girls On The Beach.   I had no interest or awareness in their LPs until I got to college later in 1976 and my girlfriend Mumtaz had the LP Holland from 1973.  I think Surf’s Up (1971) was the next Beach Boys LP I was aware of, during the LSE days, but they remained a singles band for me apart from those two exceptions.   Pet Sounds you ask ?  Didn’t hear it – in full – until the early 1990s when Jenny and I were living in Los Angeles.    Perhaps it was because they are the quintessential LA band that I bought the box-set Good Vibrations in 1993 in Amoeba Records – an Aladdin’s cave of musical treasure – and played it endlessly due to the immense discoveries thereon – including the Pet Sounds songs.  Featured image

The 1966 LP Pet Sounds is for another post – but for now I’ll simply acknowledge it as an extraordinary piece of music – a deep, rich, carefully arranged and orchestrated work of delicate beauty, terrible sadness & infinite fascination.  It was Beach Boy’s head honcho and songwriter Brian Wilson’s response to hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, an inspirational leap into the studio and the possibilities of playing pop music in a completely different way.   The Beatle’s responded with Sgt Pepper,  itself influenced by Pet Sounds, but while they were recording Pepper, Brian Wilson was working on his own follow-up to the Pet Sounds album.   One of the problems for The Beach Boys was that Pet Sounds hadn’t shifted large numbers of units, and even today it is considered complex and less obvious than most of the music of 1966.

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Brian salvaged his pure pop credentials with the single Good Vibrations in October ’66 which outsold the Beatles and won Single Of The Year in all the polls.  This pop rivalry was pushing the respective songwriters to unheard-of peaks of creativity.  Good Vibrations was recorded at four different studios in Los Angeles and endlessly polished before release – but it is an undoubted masterpiece which was Brian Wilson’s first installment on the Pet Sounds follow-up LP – to be called “Smile”.    The album never came out.   But the second single Heroes & Villains did – and it is another towering slice of baroque harmony pop which goes where no 7″ single has gone before.   Apparently the bigwigs at Capitol Records in Hollywood weren’t impressed with it (??) and the start of Brian’s great mental decline can be measured from this song.   Which kind of makes this a peak moment in 1967.

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I’ve always been obsessed with Heroes & Villains.   Jimi Hendrix called The Beach Boys ‘psychedelic barbershop‘, and some people took that as an insult.   But it applies here.   The vocal arrangement is second-to-none in a pop milieu.   It sounds impossibly complex, but the Beach Boys would happily sing it live.   They had a natural blend – three brothers and a cousin plus one mate – and in a live setting they could pull off the most beautiful layered harmonies either acapella or rockin’ out.  The 1993 Good Vibrations box-set though had something else going on – at least 3 other songs called “Heroes & Villains” with different words, different tempos, different arrangements, little pieces of music using parts of the song like strands of sound, stunning piano shapes, harpsichord modulations, vocal experiments, percussive expressions, doo-wop, strings, animal noises, hand-claps, swoons, cantinas, laughs, a whole universe of sound.  A series of clues.  This was like a suite of songs all with the same title.  It’s just a little bit mental.  The final release of SMiLE in 2011 had over 30 tracks called Heroes & Villains.

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Indulgent ?  LSD ?  Genius  ?  Or just unable to settle – a spasm in D minor which couldn’t be resolved.  Probably all of these.  Brian Wilson was mentally disintegrating as he was writing his greatest work, and the pressure to compete with Sgt Pepper, the lack of support from other band members and the record company, and Brian’s own inability to shape the endlessly brilliant pieces of music he was giving birth to into a coherent whole meant that the SMiLE project was finally ditched in May 1967.   It wouldn’t surface again until 2004 when I saw the Brian Wilson band playing it live onstage at The Royal Festival Hall in London – a world premiere.  I went to see it a further five times that week.  It is clearly a masterwork in the pop medium, but apparently, isn’t as it was originally intended.  Sadly no-one can remember what was originally intended least of all Brian himself.  My own theories are centred on this song, it was clearly a musical thread which was to run throughout the work, but don’t forget that in those days all tape was analog and pieced together one part at a time – not like today’s digital world where we can shuffle pieces of music at the touch of a click and experiment with what sounds best.  Brian had written and recorded a musical puzzle which no-one could put together.  He spent the first few months of 1967 shaping Heroes & Villains into a reasonably regular pop song, and it remains a high water mark of musical joy.

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Original artwork for the aborted SMiLE LP by Frank Holmes

In September 1967 a Beach Boys album called Smiley Smile was released, with Good Vibrations and Heroes & Villains on it, and a few survivors of the abandoned project.   It is an average album, a cobbled-together record-company compromise, not a masterpiece, and not a Pet Sounds 2.   It would be 2011 when Alan Boyd and Mark Linnett would finally put together the box-set The Smile Sessions with the Beach Boys approval.  It is everything I hoped it would be, a fitting companion piece to Pet Sounds, and better in many ways, even more adventurous musically  containing humour, American history (care of lyricist Van Dyke Parks) and the masterpiece Surf’s Up – a kind of choral farewell.  Wilson called SMiLE ‘a teenage symphony to God‘ and I can’t better that LSD-drenched description.

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Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love & Dennis Wilson in 1967

When Stephen Wrigley and I formed The Brighton Beach Boys in early 2002 we started with In My Room, Surfer Girl and Surfin’ USA.   Joined by Glen Richardson, Adrian Marshall, Charlotte Glasson, Rob Breskal, Rory Cameron and Theseus Gerrard we did our first gig later that year, in the Hanbury Ballroom.   Paul Gunter joined on percussion, Rob departed and Tom Arnold arrived.   Andy Doe joined on French Horn, left and was replaced by Dom Nunns.   We started doing some of the more complex songs.  Wouldn’t It Be Nice.  And Your Dream Comes True.   And – yes : Heroes & Villains.   Glen did all of our vocal arrangements and taught us the notes, and week by painstaking yet thrilling week we pieced the song together.   I sang the lead part – it’s right in my range – and it’s the easiest part – and we wheeled it out one night in a live show.   It brought the house down because it sounds so impossibly complex, Glen’s brilliant arrangement giving us each a specific vocal job.   And the song itself is so thrilling, a rush of words and music.   It was an absolute privilege to perform it each time we played live.

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Charlotte, Adrian, Stephen, Stevie, me, Rory, Dom, Glen, Theseus – Herne Bay 26.08.06

Later on the band would be introduced to beat poet and lyricist Stephen J. Kalinich who wrote a number of songs with Dennis Wilson, and later with Brian too.  Stevie was in England for a mini-tour, and he sat in on a BBB rehearsal then travelled to a gig with us in Herne Bay, Kent, which I’ll save for another post.   But I’ve been friends with Stevie ever since and we always spend time together when I am in Los Angeles.  He is a gentle and lyrical soul with a unique sensitivity to life which he expresses in words and poems.  Featured image

Stevie in Los Angeles 2012

Again I will save Stevie for another post (see My Pop Life #169) but he introduced me to Mark Linnett while Stevie was living in his house in Glendale in 2009-2010.    Stevie also introduced me to other members of the wider Beach Boys family including David Marks, guitarist on the first five LPs, Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, Brian’s first wife and her husband Daniel, and also the wonderful Alan Boyd, The Beach Boys’ archivist and the only person that all former and current members actually talk to.   Alan is a beautiful man with a fine collection of vintage celluloid and 1920s pop music and it was he who laboured night and day to put the final 2011 SMiLE Sessions Box-Set together, with Mark Linnett engineering.   He won a totally-deserved Grammy for his pains.   I’ve talked to Alan about the Heroes & Villains conundrum and he agrees that the musical pieces are the cornerstone of SMiLE but the many parts mean that it is impossible to know how to assemble it satisfactorily or otherwise.   Alan has spent more time with this song than anyone since Brian Wilson in 1966-67, and I think it drove him a little bit bonkers trying to piece it all together.   In the end Heroes & Villains takes up a whole side of vinyl on the box-set, its different parts laid out for us to all to hear and make of what we will.   It is astonishing.   Me – I always liked the original single, but Al Jardine always said that the actual original was way better.    I’ll leave you with the Stereo Mix from the 2011 SMiLE Sessions.  It’s a little bit like the one The Brighton Beach Boys used to sing live, and perhaps will again one day…

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My Pop Life #99 : La Tristessa Durera (Scream To A Sigh) – Manic Street Preachers

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La Tristessa Durera (Scream To A Sigh)  –   Manic Street Preachers

…I retreat into self pity…it’s so easy….

 The summer of 1993, West Hollywood.  132 N King’s Road just off the corner of Beverley Boulevard.   About ten blocks from The Beverly Centre.   Breakfast in Jans.   A small circle of friends centred on David Fincher‘s gang – Chip & Carol, Paul Carafotes, Rachel Schadt, Marcie, Ron, David’s girlfriend Donya Fiorentina, and a few Brits : Anita Lewton and Suze Crowley in Venice, Bruce Payne in Beverly Hills and his girlfriend Nina Kraft and a revolving door of visitors that is the lifeblood of Hollywood, or at least some of the blood – British and Irish actors – Jude Law, Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, David Thewlis, Fiona Shaw, others whom I never met.   It’s a strange bubble, hard to find the centre, and the beating heart of LA carries on with or without you.   An indifferent city.   But it is also the centre of the film industry, where people talk about films, go to see films, compare the opening weekends of film openings, where choosing what you’re going to see on a Friday night feels like it actually matters.   I always liked that.   Getting auditions and meetings at Paramount Pictures, at Universal, at Disney.  Having a “drive-on” so you can park your car on the lot.   You never want to take that for granted.    I’d done my first truly Hollywood film in 1992 :  Undercover Blues with Kathleen Turner and Denis Quaid, Fiona Shaw, Obba Babatunde and Stanley Tucci, (all shot in Louisiana while Jenny and I were on honeymoon).

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But I’d had a “drive-on” for costume fittings and read-through at the MGM Studio Lot in Culver City at the time.    By 1993 I was into a routine of regular meetings and auditions all over town.    I can only remember one.   Billy Hopkins, who’d cast Alien3, the very reason why we lived in Los Angeles, had asked me to come in and read for the part of Howard Payne in a new thriller being directed by Jan De Bont.   Howard Payne was the bad guy.    I did one of the best auditions of my stupid life, unpredictable, whispered, snarled, charming, bisexual and deadly.   The following day one of my agents Jim Carnahan rang me to say they’d offered me the role.    Whoop!    My life – our life – turned around.    But the etiquette – indeed the common sense – of show business – means that you do not talk about jobs, work, gigs until you’ve signed the contract.   There are always quite a few days of negociating.   And so we started, the number of days, weeks, the quote (per week), the dates, the costume fittings, the billing, the whole shebang.   It did drag out.    But no more than usual.   Until the day 2 weeks after the audition when Jim rang me and told me that they’d just offered my part to Dennis Hopper.   The film was called Speed.   It also starred Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.   It was an unexpected hit.   I would come across Billy Hopkins again a year later, but that’s another story, even worse than this one.   This one wasn’t my fault.   It was the glass ceiling of Hollywood.

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The Manic Street Preachers had passed me by until their second album Gold Against The Soul, which everyone said wasn’t as good as their first.   We played it a lot.   Probably heard on Radio One whilst in England, but also likely to have been played on KCRW the Santa Monica College Radio Station that everyone in LA listens to.  (All white bourgeouis I mean).   There is a morning show called “Morning Becomes Eclectic” between 9 and 12am where you could hear almost anything white and groovy.  Not much hip hop or Dance music.  A little bit of groovy mexican music.  Loads of English indie.  Otherwise American Radio is totally segmented into genres – ROCK FM, GROOVE FM, COUNTRY FM, CHART FM.  all with tons of commercials of in-un-ending banality.  So KCRW’s gentle white supremacy became the least-worst ear-bashing of a morning.

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James, Richey, Nicky, Sean in 1994

La Tristessa Durera is in an unknown Pyrenean language half-way between French and Spanish.  Le Tristesse Durera means “the sadness continues” in French, and were the last words spoken by Vincent Van Gogh according to a letter written by his brother Theo.  Vincent Van Gogh shot himself with a rifle near one of the cornfields which obsessed him toward the end of his life.   Why Richey James translated Le Tristesse as La Tristessa we shall never know, (I suspect it’s just more poetic?) but there’s a lot we shall never know about Richey James Edwards.  The song itself is lyrically brilliant, one of Richey’s best and concerns a war veteran who describes himself as “a relic, I am just a petrified cry – wheeled out once a year, a cenotaph souvenir…

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That a young writer could put themselves into the shoes of an old war veteran, singing “Life has been unfaithful…and it all promised oh so much” is a huge credit to a compassionate and disturbed individual who seemed to see through everything and everybody and only find the pain and hypocrisy, the torture and ugliness inside.  He suffered from depression and self-harmed on a regular basis, also was reported to have suffered anorexia too.  He wrote and spoke about all these issues with great humility and common sense.   He would go on to write 80% of the lyrics to the next Manics LP “The Holy Bible” (1994) which is a monument to man’s inhumanity to man and a modern rock classic, and the following year in February 1995 Richey would disappear.  Not quite without trace – his car was found near the Severn Bridge, with evidence that he’d been living in it.   The outcry and column inches would last for years.   He was finally pronounced missing presumed dead in 2008.

Richard James Edwards was born in Caerphilly in 1967 and went to school with all the other band members at Oakdale Comprehensive in Blackwood in the 1980s.  He joined the Manic Street Preachers as a roadie in 1990 after securing a 2:1 in Political History at the University Of Wales, Swansea.   His politics and poeticism helped to shape the Manics entire image, Nicky Wire playing bass also wrote lyrics, while James Dean Bradfield, guitarist and singer provided the music.  With Sean Moore on drums they were a formidable live act but I did not get to see them until the late 90s as a three-piece.

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They always had a visceral passion and anger which was grounded in punk rock, a militancy based on being from South Wales, so recently hammered by Thatcher in the miner’s strike (1982) and an intellectual and poetic analysis and understanding which came from Wire and Edwards’ voracious appetite for reading, whether it was Dostoyevsky, Rimbaud, Camus, Orwell or Mishima.  They were my favourite band for a few years in there, they seemed to have their collective finger on my pulse.    These were songs you would sing along with not necessarily understanding the exact meanings of the lines:  “the applause nails down my silence” or my favourite line to spit out “I see liberals – I am just a fashion accessory…”  but of course there he is referring literally to the use of war medals as badges on fashion catwalks.   In the final verse our old soldier admits “I sold my medal – it paid a bill…“.

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All of their songs have this deep disgust at life’s injustices at their core and their huge success is built on being able to articulate the fury of the intelligent left-over people of the world.   Another song from this album “Life Becoming A Landslide” was also instrumental in my screenplay for New Year’s Day (see My Pop Life #75) which would actually begin with an avalanche, and also hopefully bottle some of those powerful feelings of disappointment at how life unfolds for each of us, and all of us…

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Live at Glastonbury ’93 with Richie (turned up!)

My Pop Life #4 : Music & Rhythm – The Mighty Sparrow

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Music & Rhythm   –   The Mighty Sparrow

…music in me ankle, music in me tonsil, music in me shinbone – to produce a quaver and semitone…

From the very first WOMAD LP in 1982, compiled by Peter Gabriel, this extraordinary piece of music from Trinidad sat alongside Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Beat, Peter Hammill, Prince Nico M’Barga and others in a wonderful skewed collection of music from anywhere and everywhere.

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The double LP was called Music & Rhythm and the title track stood out for it’s punchy staccato brass lines, it’s fantastic guitar, and intentionally hilarious lyrics, all relating to the power of music: a lullabye, a symphony, an old-time gramaphone, a rhapsody, Bach & Tchaikovsky all get name-checked.   This was my first serious exposure to calypso and the music of Trinidad & Tobago and I was hooked.  Some ten years later in 1993 we visited the islands for carnival.  Wonderful memories.  Different artists, like Sparrow, Superblue, Machel Montano or Lord Kitchener, compete musically for the road-march tune which will then get adopted by a crew.   Then on the night before Mardi Gras – J’Ouvert Night – this chosen tune is played from giant speakers over & over again from the back of a caravan of trucks slowly making their winding way towards the heart of Port Of Spain, (followed by the crew and any followers they can seduce into joining them) until dawn.   The mayhem in the centre of town as each crew arrives is spectacular.  Felix Cross and I had been shuffling along merrily drinking punch behind one such truck for about 4 hours but when we hit the main square at dawn we joined the mud mas – a group wheeling a giant tub of wet mud through the streets. They approached me with open arms and a slimy muddy embrace followed, perhaps a mud sandwich until I was covered from head to foot dear reader with dark delicious Trini mud. It was around 4.30am and we were drunk as skunks on rum by then.  Thereafter two muddy fellas danced behind the mud-mas truck and tempted total strangers into our muddy embrace as various other mud-covered women and men wined and danced alongside and within and around.

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It was rather tremendous.   Jenny and Felix’s parents saw us on TV in the town square at 7am.  You can’t compete with that, but I have to say that believe it or not, the pan competition is the true highlight.  You can go to the panyards and watch the rehearsals, sit in the bleacher seats with chicken roti and carrot juice while a giant sound unfolds before you.  Rehearsals are a formidable procedure involving hundreds of steel-pan players thundering out an impossible arrangement with impeccable precision – the very definition of joy. Somewhere there will be a steel-band version of this Sparrow tune.  But so far I have found that steel-pan music doesn’t translate hugely well to CD or vinyl – much of the power is lost in transference, although I would love to be proved wrong, if anyone has evidence to the contrary…