My Pop Life #131 : Santa Claus Is Coming To Town – The Crystals

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town   –   The Crystals

Jimmy, I just came back from a lovely trip along the milky way
I stopped off at the North Pole to spend the holiday
I called on old, dear Santa Claus to see what I could see
He took me to his workshop and told his plans to me
Now Santa is a busy man, he has no time for play
He’s got millions of stockings to fill come Christmas day
You better write your letter now and mail it right away
Because he’s getting ready, his reindeers and his sleigh…

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you why….                                  Santa Claus Is Coming To Town…

I expect most of us raised as christians can remember the day when we discovered that Santa Claus would Not in fact Be Coming To Town.  For the simple reason that he didn’t actually exist.  A moment of private devastation.  But we carried on telling each other the story, spinning the yarn.

I was eight years old at the little flint-walled village school in Selmeston in East Sussex, in the shadow of the South Downs.  My holy ground now, filled with echoes and ghosts.  Then, it was filled with wonder and nature.   Seasons changing.   Discovery.  One December day a small group of us were discussing Santa Claus before the teacher arrived.  One child, which one I simply cannot recall, ventured the terrible truth to a sceptical audience of believers that Santa Claus didn’t actually exist.  Like an anvil dropping through the floor this news broke each and every one of us.  Something which perhaps we’d suspected but secretly hoped wasn’t true.  Now it seemed confirmed, announced, solid news to sulk over.  Would Christmas still happen ?  Of course it would.  The stocking was filled by Mum and Dad when we were asleep.  I decided to stay awake all night on Christmas Eve and catch them doing it.  Like probably millions of other small children around the world.  Did I then proceed to break the news to my brother Paul who was a two two innocent years younger than I ?  Memory does not supply the answer but perhaps I needed company in my newly-found Christmas loneliness.  Or perhaps I locked the secret away.

The Crystals in 1963

I never did see my parents or my Mum when she was single fill my stocking, or indeed deliver it unto my bed.  I never did feel it either.  It remains the greatest single thrill available to my memory of Christmas, to wake up on Christmas morning and feel a bulging mysterious generously-filled football sock stuffed with surprises, fruit, nuts, PRESENTS !  God it was exciting, whether Santa did it or not.  At some point (12 – 13-14?) the sock was over, and I felt suddenly grown-up.

My wife Jenny was raised Catholic in North London and has a much more scarring tale of Santa Claus Not Coming To Town.  Her brother Jon, older, and Jenny herself at five, had been bothering their mother, Esther, about writing to Santa Claus, when would he be coming, what would he bring, would they meet him, could they see him, how was he going to get in, there wasn’t a chimney.  “Be quiet both of you !!” Esther suddenly screamed : “Father Christmas is dead !!!”  There was a shocked silence.  Esther decided to explain, I imagine their little faces were as shocked as it is possible to witness.  “He died over 300 years ago his real name is Saint Nicholas, so stop asking me about him it is just a story !!!”  What Esther perhaps hadn’t calculated was that Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St Nick and their avatars are a useful tool for keeping young children in line in December, perhaps earlier.  As the lyrics of the song go : “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…

There were two younger sisters in the Christmasses following, Mandy and Lucy, and to protect them against a similar fate, Jon and Jenny kept up the Santa Claus myth, colluded in the cover story and even helped to fill the stockings on Christmas Eve.  But Jenny told me, today, that she never did have a stocking on Christmas morning, ever.  I have to confess that I felt sorry for her, and vowed that I would create that experience for her at some future date.  Next Christmas !

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town was written by Tin Pan Alley partners John Frederick Coots (who also wrote Love Letters In The Sand) and Haven Gillespie (who also wrote You Go To My Head)  and it was performed live on the radio in November 1934.  The morning after the Eddie Cantor show there were over 10,000 requests for the sheet music, and it remains one of the biggest hits in popular music.  Covers include Perry Como in 1951, Four Seasons in 1963, The Jackson Five in 1970 and Bruce Springsteen in 1975 (1985 release), as well as Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, Bing Crosby, The Pointer Sisters, Justin Beiber and Mariah Carey among many many others.

I’ve chosen The Crystals version which appears on the famous LP  Phil Spector : A Christmas Gift For You simply because, like so many tracks on that glorious album, it is the best version to my ears, both in arrangement, feeling and enjoyability.  The LP was put together in Los Angeles with Spector’s own artists Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals and Bobb B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans backed by the world-famous “Wrecking Crew” in a production arrangement that mirrored the Detroit scene at Tamla Motown.

Jack Nitzsche, Darlene Love, Phil Spector recording The Christmas album in 1963

The Wrecking Crew (whose moniker is disputed by bassist Carol Kaye who claims it was invented in the 1990s by drummer Hal Blaine) were young session musicians at the beginning of an illustrious career which would see them backing Nancy Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, The Mamas & The Papas, The 5th Dimension, The Carpenters and Simon & Garfunkel among others.   Here under the direction of Spector and Jack Nitzsche they were creating what would become known as “The Wall Of Sound” where everything including the kitchen sink was thrown into the mix and the resulting songs changed pop history, such as Be My Baby by The Ronettes (July 1963) which epitomises the effect, and on this LP,   the magnificent Sleigh Ride – an auditory and musical marvel of a piece of work, alongside The Crystals wonderful re-working of the standard Santa Claus Is coming To Town.

The Crystals

The Crystals were signed as teenage talent in 1961 from Central Commercial High School at E33rd St in New York City, and famously, Myrna Giraud, Barbara Alston and Mary Thomas recorded their first single There’s No Other (Like My Baby) in their prom dresses having been driven to the studio directly from their High School Prom in 1961.

They went on to cut three of the best singles of all time : Da Do Ron Ron, He’s A Rebel and Then He Kissed Me, all on Phil Spector’s Philles label, but their line-up changed constantly and Spector would sometimes put out records with The Crystals name on it and other singers such as Darlene Love or The Ronettes singing the song.  This tended to strain the relationship, if you can call svengali/teenage girl  “a relationship”.

Same Crystals line-up in their civvies

Eventually the group left for United Artists in 1964, but ironically all their best work was with the manipulative and oppressive pop genius Spector and his partner Jack Nitzsche.  The one constant in the constantly-changing group line-up was Dolores Dee Dee Kenniebrew who was also present at that famous first recording in Manhattan and she still sings with The Crystals today.

Dee Dee Kenniebrew

Their version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, recorded in 1963, was the first to change the chorus to take the first note off the one-beat, onto the off-beat giving it the drum break and the excitement we hear in the Motown versions, Springsteen‘s live take, The Beach Boys and all others since that date – more or less making earlier versions seem plodding and square.   Do we have to credit Spector with that ?  Or Nitzche ?

After The Brighton Beach Boys had been together for a few years the idea of performing a Christmas gig became irresistible, and after we’d worked out Brian Wilson’s  Little Saint Nick (itself a homage to Phil Spector like much of The Beach Boys early work) we looked at other songs from The Beach Boys Christmas Album, and this one leaped out and demanded an outing.   We’d been booked to play The Pavilion Theatre (poster above by Rory Cameron) which was as close as we ever got to cultural establishment respectability and we wanted to make an effort.  For that particular show I found an amazing triptych mural which my friend Jan Gage had painted for our  wedding reception – a three-part giant homage to Hokusai’s The Wave on which we had printed our invitations.  It felt appropriate to Catch A Wave and so it hung behind the drum kit.  Rather amazingly Jan Gage and her boyfriend Vince came down to Brighton for this show and it remained the only time a) that she saw the band and b) that we used that triptych because Jenny, rightly, said she wanted it preserved for all eternity rather than have it driven around to gigs in the back of a van.

Hokusai : The Wave

As for the song in question, we ended up doing a slightly star-spangled version arranged by Stephen Wrigley  which started like The Beach Boys with close vocal acapella, styled like The Jackson 5 with their underpinned harmony and finished with Springsteen – a Clemons-style raging baritone saxophone solo courtesy of Charlotte Glasson, in-between sounding absolutely nothing like The Crystals, but owing them a debt of arrangement.  I sing the bass on this song, from deep F to even deeper Bb.  We stole Clarence Clemons‘ baritone aside “You better be good for goodness sake” from the Springsteen version because we are frankly shameless musically, especially at Christmas.

Clarence Clemons & Bruce Springsteen

So Santa Claus Is Coming To Town this week (it is December the 21st 2015) and …he also isn’t.  We like to tell each other these stories.  We prefer stories to The Truth.  Obvious reasons.  Stories are better, good guys win, we live happily ever, we learn life lessons etc etc, all that.  Santa Claus is pretty harmless though isn’t he?  She ? Is he black ?  Malaysian ?  We are all Santa Claus aren’t we ?  Coming to Town.  Driving Home For Christmas.  Are you hanging up your stocking on the wall ?

Barbara, Dee Dee, La La and Fran

Enjoy your holiday, wherever you may be.

just for fun we nicked the harmonies from The Jackson 5:  

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My Pop Life #116: Left Bank Two (Vision On : Gallery Theme) – The Noveltones

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Left Bank Two   –   The Noveltones

(Vision On :  The Gallery theme)

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Tony Hart

Unmistakable, gentle, playful vibraphone jazz shuffle which evokes immediate memories for my generation of a BBCtv show called Vision On which ran from 1964 to 1976 thus neatly encapsulating my entire life in East Sussex as a youth.  My family moved from Portsmouth in 1964 when I was just seven, Dad having scored a teaching job at Falmer School just outside of Brighton.  We moved into a semi-detached house in Selmeston, a small village of some 200 people, bordered by a railway line at one end and the A27 at the other.

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Selmeston Church

That one-mile stretch of road was my universe until the age of eleven by which time my dad and mum had divorced, mum had spent nine months in a mental hospital and I’d passed my eleven-plus exam and would take a bus into Lewes every day.   Two years later we would all be separated as a family as the landlords – horsey toffs from Sherrington Manor – made us homeless and wiped our debt to them at one stroke.  For the remainder of the 1970s we were in a council house in Hailsham, although I left for Laughton Lodge in 1975, and London in 1976.

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Pat Keysell, Tony Hart

Throughout this period Vision On was on BBC TV.  It was a programme for deaf children, and had almost no spoken words.  It was watched by all children.   Filled with speech bubbles and mime it was largely a visual show.  Presented by Tony Hart and Pat Keysell, who spoke in sign language and spoke, with Tony spening much of the show (so it seemed to me) drawing things.  Encouraging children to create.  Awakening our latent interest in expression.  The centrepiece of each show was The Gallery where the camera lingered over pictures that viewers – ie children – had sent in, with their name and age displayed, and a notice explaining and apologising that pictures could not be returned but that a prize would be given for those shown.  What that prize was we never found out.  We never sent one in, but were transfixed, at least partly by the music.  For this section of the programme was played out to a piece of music which, with its dreamy melody and nimble simplicity appeared to come from another planet.  In fact it came from Holland.

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Left Bank Two was a piece of Library Music originally.   Library Music is licensed differently than other music and is often used for TV shows.  It is much cheaper for producers to use, as the broadcaster in general will pay the royalties, maybe a dollar each time it is played.  If it is a long-running series, over the years this can add up.  If it is a commercial, you could be, as composer, quids in.  I found out a little about Library Music when I was directing an aborted documentary (called Red Light Fever) on British Session Musicians in 2012, inspired by the great doc ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Motown‘.  I’m still learning.  But all of the people I interviewed – singer and composer Barbara Moore, guitarist Chris Spedding, bass players Herbie Flowers and Les Hurdle, drummer Clem Cattini, singer Madeline Bell – all of them great session musicians, arrangers, songwriters, all exceptional musicians as session players have to be – (deep breath it’s a long sentence) – all of them have played Library Music on a regular basis.   How to explain it?  There are some production houses which specialise in this kind of music.  De Wolfe Music is the big one, started in 1927 to provide cheap music for the talkies.

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 They hire a composer to write : seascapes, exciting car chase, a creepy scene, ghostly atmospheres, romantic swoons, mood music of various types.   The Composer will hire a group of session musicians to come and read the dots and they will be paid a session fee.  The pieces of music will be grouped together and issued to TV production companies who can use a short piece – eg Grange Hill written by Alan Hawkshaw – and the broadcaster will cover the royalties.  All the musicians who played on the piece will get a cut, unless they signed that percentage away, in the deal – a “buy-out”.  And if you’re a session musician you never know which piece will suddenly get picked up.  Indeed these days when hip-hop producers and DJs are constantly looking for new samples, obscure beats and licks that other producers haven’t used yet, Library Music is now being plundered like every other form of music.   Barbara Moore provided the marvellous wordless vocal on the theme tune to The Saint.  Les Hurdle ended up playing with Giorgio Moroder‘s band in Munich when Donna Summer turned up and disco was born.   And this particular piece – called Left Bank Two – was an afterthought on one of those De Wolfe sessions in 1963, at the end of the day with half an hour still on the clock – I love these stories, this one reminiscent of Otis Redding’s big break – “has anyone got anything we can play here?”

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It was young vibes player Wayne Hill who offered ‘a thing he’d been playing around with’.   The group of Dutch musicians with whom he was playing (who called themselves The Noveltones) quickly learned it and recorded the vibraphone-led piece.  Carefully listening musos will hear the guitarist having a slight crisis over chords towards the end, the only clue to the tune’s end-of-session nativity.  TV viewers would never get to hear that anyway since The Gallery would only last a minute usually.  Seemed longer though didn’t it ?  A minute is a long time on television…

I bought a vibraphone in 2004 once The Brighton Beach Boys had decided to perform “Pet Sounds” live.  There is one tune on that LP which requires vibes, and although my keyboard has a good vibes sample, the visual of seeing someone strike the keys with beaters as Darian Sahanaja had done with the Brian Wilson Band earlier that year had stuck with me.  I want to be him, I thought.  I wanted to play vibes on “Let’s Go Away For A While“.  I’ll save it for another post.  But the first tune I attempted to play, once I’d set it up and worked out how to use the foot-pedal, was the Vision On Gallery Theme.  Of course !  And wheeling it into rehearsal with the Brighton Beach Boys, everyone wanted a go, and I think almost everyone wanted to play that tune.  Maybe it was just me ;-0

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Live in St George’s – my Penny Lane vibes – concentration is key !

My vibraphone currently resides in the Charlotte Glasson Musical Museum of Earthly Recollections in Brighton’s sexy Surrey Street, being carefully nurtured and oiled.

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Morph

Tony Hart is a children’s TV legend.  An early (ie before my time) Blue Peter presenter, he designed the logo for the Blue Peter badge, and took a buy-out rather than the requested 1d per badge.  After Vision On was discontinued in 1976 would go on to use Left Bank Two as the theme music for his next show Take Hart, and John Williams‘ Deer Hunter Theme Cavatina would take over as the Gallery Music.  He often appeared alongside Aardman Animations creation Morph in the late 70s and 80s until he retired with two Baftas in 2001.  Tony Hart died in 2006, his reputation unbesmirched like others of his generation.

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Left Bank Two – the Vision On Gallery Theme – is often referred to as ‘easy-listening music’ or even ‘elevator music’.   It’s library music.   It’s TV theme music.  And – yes – it’s jazz.

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…