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 #36 : Penny Lane – The Beatles

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Penny Lane   –   The Beatles

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway

Possibly the finest lyric from the 1960s or any other time, Paul McCartney is reminiscing about growing up in Liverpool.   This was a monster single when it came out in early 1967 on a double-A-side with John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, also a psychedelic childhood impressionistic work.   They were the first two songs (along with When I’m 64) to be recorded for their new LP Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but EMI wanted a spring single and producer George Martin offered them these, thus both songs were subsequently not included on that LP.   This double-A side of masterpiece pop theatre – surely one of the peaks of the entire genre of 7″ vinyl – was the first Beatles single since their debut Love Me Do in 1962 (unfeasibly only 5 long years earlier) to fail to reach the Number One position in the charts, being kept stubbornly in the Number Two position by Engelbert Humperdinck’s schmaltzy  “Release Me”.   It presaged the end of The Beatles as a completely dominant cultural force, although the single did reach Number One in the US and they would of course continue to make extraordinary music for the next three years together.

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Those are the facts.   Psycho-geographers and groove-diviners could probably find a mystical mid-way point between the two real locations of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields in Liverpool which would mark the actual centre of the pop universe.   It still thrills me to listen to it, the soaring harmonies, the bright blue suburban brass in the chorus, the English-pop confidence of the characters in & around the barbershop and the Goon-esque BBC comedy line “very strange” at the end of each verse.   Every time I go for a haircut I sing the opening line to myself  : “In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known”.    We meet the banker – clearly a lower-middle class figure of fun – was this a dim memory even in 1966? – the patriotic fireman with a portrait of The Queen in his pocket (more Englishness) and the nurse selling poppies (not real poppies, we somehow know this refers to Nov 11th Armistice Day and the wearing of poppies in remembrance of the war dead).   We get the illicit sexual behind-the-bus-shelter line “a four of fish and finger pies” which doesn’t refer to frozen food, and the fireman’s bell ringing a clear F sharp to herald in the simply magnificent piccolo trumpet solo, played on the session by David Mason, inspired by Paul watching him play it in Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto on the telly a few nights earlier.   Brilliantly engineered as ever by Geoff Emerick the result is a perfect encapsulation of childhood memory become pop art.

I’ve taken the trip down Penny Lane, been to Paul’s old house at 20 Forthlin Road where the teenage Beatles taught each other Little Richard and Chuck Berry songs, I’ve been to John’s Aunt Mimi’s house at 251 Menlove Avenue, (when John was “in my tree” in the back garden he could see Strawberry Fields) and then along to Strawberry Fields’ gate round the corner, seen a gig at the new Cavern and patronised other Beatles-related tourism in Liverpool.   All highly recommended, very well curated, and makes for a magical mystery tour of a day.  Or a week.

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I’ve bought the T-shirts, seen the tribute bands and even bought the road sign.   It hangs from my vibraphone, currently on loan to Charlotte Glasson from The Brighton Beach Boys, a band I played in for 10 years in Brighton.    I add hastily I wasn’t very good on the vibes, but really loved playing them.

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After being together for five years and mastering most of the Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats we moved on to Pet Sounds – the whole LP, then with an heroic attempt at the impossible decided to try Sgt Pepper.  Some bright spark (Neil Hayward of the Robin Hood pub in Brighton) suggested we play both LPs live back to back to settle the old baby-boomer argument about which was better. And so it was that for eight years consecutively we used to play all of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper live with a string quartet and brass & woodwinds in the Brighton Festival each spring.   These evenings remain as some of the very brightest moments in my life.

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We’d end the show and bring the house down with the final chord of A Day In The Life (it’s an E major popfans) and take the applause – then the first encore just had to be Penny Lane.  I played the alto line in the chorus.  Such joy.   Stephen Wrigley arranged the strings and brass.   Heroic work was undertaken by Dominic Nunns on the French Horn as he would play the piccolo trumpet solo and somehow hit that top note to a burst of applause mid song.  And lead vocal duties were delivered with uncanny accuracy by Glen Richardson who has a crush on St Paul anyway (and is also in a play, but has never sold poppies).

My knee jerk response to that impossible question “what is your favourite Beatles song?” is “Penny Lane” 90% of the time, when I’m not being a smart-arse, or just wallowing in some indulgence.  I love Strawberry Fields too of course, and playing that song live made me appreciate its brilliance even more.  I can’t compare the two songs, they are two sides of the same shiny acid-drenched musical coin, from my favourite musical era, the post-LSD 1960s when for about 2 years all the great songwriters and singers added harpsichords and bells, trumpets and brightly-coloured imagery to their work – Itchycoo Park, Autumn Almanac, I Can See For Miles, Sunshine Superman, See Emily Play.  But there is a purity to this song that eclipses all those great great songs – and it’s there, for me, in the simple, bright blinding light of the chorus:

“…Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes…”

My Pop Life #16 : The Art Teacher – Rufus Wainwright

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The Art Teacher   –   Rufus Wainwright

…we looked at the Rubens and Rembrandts, I liked the John Singer Sargents…

He told me he liked Turner…and never have I turned since then…

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Have you ever “done a song”?  Kind of impossible but for some songs you can have a go.  You can do an LP cover – go to the very place and take the same shot yourself.  OR you can find yourself in a location, or a city or on a river, or in a story.  We decided to do The Art Teacher today.  Incredible song, for so many reasons.  I was late to Rufus Wainwright, no shame there, we’re all early to some and late to others.  Long as we get there eventually.  I was listening to Radcliffe & Maconie in 2010 discussing “the best songs of the 21st Century” and suddenly there it was.  Astonishing piece of work. Immediate impact, loved it ever since.

So – the song itself.  First of all:  “there I was in uniform, looking at the art teacher”.   Fair enough it’s a childhood song you think, perhaps a coming-of-age.  Quite unusual even so.  But then: “I was just a girl then, and never have I loved since then…”  OK – so it’s from the POV of a schoolgirl.  Very unusual, from a man…   She’s Leaving Home.  I Don’t Like Mondays.  So back to the art teacher : “He was not that much older than I was, he had taken our class to the Metropolitan Museum.”  Fair enough – he’s the art teacher right?  That’s exactly where he should be taking his class.  But :  “He asked us what our favourite work of art was….and never could I tell him….it was him.  No never could I tell him….oh I wish I could have told him.”   This schoolgirl then is in the Metropolitan Museum, having a crush on her art teacher, who swooningly introduces her to Turner, with the result that she confesses:  “never have I turned for any other man”…   After a brief and beautiful French horn and clarinet interlude the 3rd verse finds her “all grown up” and married to an executive company head, with a Turner painting hanging on her wall, but still, tragically, in love with the art teacher.

All this is done with just voice and piano (apart from the short instrumental verse) and Rufus crosses the bar line and stretches and shrinks phrases to seven and nine bars – very unusual, very effective, but then as the song finishes and applause rings out you realise that you’ve been listening to a concert rendition.  Rufus Wainwright is a very fine songwriter and singer, with at least two utterly classic LPs under his belt : Want One and Want Two which both came out in 2004.  Superbly crafted emotionally profound music.  As I say I was late to him as an artist, but I bought the lot after hearing Want One.  Sometimes he holds a note too long, his confidence occasionally drifts into a longeur, but the craft, melodies and lyrics are of the highest quality. And on this song, he is completely reigned-in and focused.

So today, March 23rd, Jenny and I met in the Café Sabarsky for bratwurst and sauerkraut and made our way to The Metropolitan Museum to live the song.  The art teacher takes his class and they look at the Rubens and Rembrandts, John Singer Sargents and Turners.   We walk up the huge staircase and there is a lady information desk.  Hello I say.  We’d like to see Rubens, Rembrandt, John Singer Sargent and Turner. I think she enjoyed showing us how we would go about doing this – and it wasn’t going to be straightforward.  So :  through the first door and bang, we’re into European Paintings 1250-1800.  Are you kidding me ? Turn left past altar pieces and swiftly into the Dutch masters without stopping because there are 47 rooms in this one section of the Met.  Did I mention how vast this museum is?  Like the British Museum PLUS the National Gallery PLUS the Tate, PLUS the Louvre.  It’s huge.  You don’t stop at every painting unless you’ve got a spare month.  So we’re steaming past Ruisdael, Hals, Memling, endless landscapes and there! is the first Rembrandt, unmistakeable portraits, faces, real people wearing real clothes, and even one of the celebrated self-portraits, as an older man.  Brilliant.  A quick look at Vermeer, Van Dyck whizzes by, through to Rubens.  Lots of flesh. Pink. Classical scenes, groups of figures, sensual vistas.  A horribly-composed wolf-hunt.  And then quickly, through the Titians, Raphaels, Velazquez – quick stop for Goya YES – there’s a picture of our three cats looking at a pet magpie on a string !  Roxy, Mimi and Boy with big eyes !

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Fransisco Goya   –   The Tame Magpie    (1708)

And past a sculpture garden into the American Wing.  Another 27 rooms.                    And there are the John Singer Sargents.

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Portraits -society people,  glamour.   Beautiful, elegant,  langourous.  Dressed in chiffon and gauze  and satin.  The famous Madame X originally had a shoulder strap hanging off and he re-painted it. And there is Singer Sargent’s art teacher himself too.  Of course Rufus Wainwright, camp as a nine-bob note, would like him.  But it’s a schoolgirl POV in the song though?  Hmmmmm.  She likes him too then, that’s OK.

We hover over some Singer Sargent landscapes – impressionist works, from an American brush, a great discovery.  He did spend time with Monet after all.

Then we explore – Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, and suddenly we’re in a room with vast epic paintings, and I mean paintings that take up a whole wall : one called…

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Emanuel Gotlieb Leutze   –   Washington Crossing The Delaware  (1851)

This is a famous picture, a propaganda piece which reminds us both of the epic scale and subject of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading The People” or Ingrés “Raft Of The Medusa” from the Louvre.  This one depicts a famous scene from the Revolution, which of course being English I know nothing about.  Although, having been cast as Washington’s British counterpart General Sir Henry Clinton in the AMC TV series “TURN” last year, I have done a little catching up on my historical gaps.  Plenty of those!  The American Revolution is a completely fascinating period needless to say, once you get past the propaganda (all the Brits are gay) and after all, they did abolish the monarchy AND the aristocracy here over 200 years ago.  Respect and hats off indeed.  In this same epic-scale room are other huge landscape pictures by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church, both luminaries of the Hudson River School who were the first landscape artists in America, obsessed with light, natural rock formations, trees and vast canvases.

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Thomas Cole   –   The Ox-Bow (detail)  1836

These are truly impressive paintings, and new to us both.  Next room contains a collection of Civil War paintings – again of interest because Jenny has just been doing a civil war play here called Father Comes Home From The Wars parts 1, 2 & 3 at the Public Theatre – a war between the southern states who wanted to retain slavery, and the north who’d abolished it.   I silently thanked Rufus Wainwright for being my art teacher, and taking us into the American Wing and our own new world of art.  And now for Turner.

We walked back through Watteau, Chardon, Caravaggio and Canaletto without stopping once.  Surgical strike !  Across the hallway, up the corridor and past the over-exposed Impressionists (there’s a Manet ! there’s a Monet ! there’s a Manet & Monet next to each other !) towards the English room.  Which is roped off.  “Sorry” says the guard, “that room is closed today.”  What ?  says Jenny, “What do you mean?”  Our staff member waves toward Constable and Turner.  “We don’t have enough staff today.  Closed.  You can come back tomorrow.”