My Pop Life #154 : Within You Without You – The Beatles

Within You Without You   –   The Beatles

try to realise it’s all within yourself no one else can make you change 

and to see you’re really only very small and life flows on within you and without you


when you see beyond yourself then you will find peace of mind is waiting there

and the time will come when you see we’re all one + life flows on within you and without you


Track 1, side 2 of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  A song written by George Harrison inspired by his love of Ravi Shankar‘s records and his newly-found spiritual awakening to Indian philosophy and religion.   After the pop glories of Lovely Rita and Getting Better and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds have become over-familiar, Within You Without You retains its mystical glowing power after many repeated listens and starts to become the warm central heartbeat of the LP.  Often claimed to be the greatest LP of all time, (though more usually placed way down a list of great Beatles albums), Sgt Pepper was a cultural phenomenon that even I was aware of at the age of 9 on June 1st 1967 when it was released.   It was played on Radio Luxembourg all day, and John Peel played it on his eclectic late night show The Perfumed Garden on Radio London without interruption.  Artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa all fell under its strange English spell, and despite years of claim and counter-claim –  ‘holy grail‘ versus ‘not very good really‘ criticism, it still towers over most of pop’s major records as a Legendary Thing, combining the first concept LP (despite the concept not holding up for more than three songs), the pop-art sleeve by Peter Blake, and the music itself, a rather eccentric combination of psychedelic rock, end-of-the-pier Edwardian recital, classical Indian music, and pure pop.  The first two songs recorded for the LP were Penny Lane (see My Pop Life #36) and Strawberry Fields Forever, but they were released as an extraordinary double-A sided single in April by a zealous EMI.  It’s a testament to the depth of the Beatles’ songwriting that this commercial decision didn’t sink the subsequent LP.

George was always third in the Beatles.  John, Paul…..and George.  And Ringo.  It was simple – he was youngest.  Ringo was last because he was last in, and because he was the drummer.  And our family has a similar shape.   Ralph, Paul…..and Andrew.  And Becky.   George traditionally got one song per album if he was lucky, but by the end of the 1960s his songwriting was so strong that Abbey Road had to include Here Comes The Sun AND Something, the finest song on the LP.

Roger McGuinn & David Crosby in the early days of The Byrds

It was The Byrds‘ guitarist and legendary stoner David Crosby who first showed George a sitar in California in 1965 at an LSD-drenched party in the hills, although Roger McGuinn later insisted that he had shown George the instrument.  I can’t imagine any of them actually remember the details, but George then played one on Norwegian Wood in October of that year.  The following April Harrison went full Indian on Love You To, which is on the LP Revolver.  The accompanying musicians were uncredited but came from the Asian Music Circle,  an organisation founded in Finchley in 1946 by Ayana Angadi and his wife Patrica Fell-Clarke, and where Harrison had been taking sitar lessons.

Ravi Shankar was guest of honour at the Finchley house in June 1966 when he first met George, who thereupon humbly asked him if he could become his pupil.  Ravi accepted.  They became firm friends and the most rewarding fruit of their work is Within You Without You, also recorded with uncredited members of the Asian Music Circle on the Indian instruments tamboura, swarmandel, dilruba and tabla.

Unknown musician, George Harrison & Ravi Shankar in 1967

With a string section arranged by producer George Martin and George Harrison, none of the other Beatles are on the track.  George plays the sitar, much improved from his first attempt.  The effect is mesmerising, musically adventurous and unembarrassingly spiritual.    He was determined to master the instrument, but after a conversation with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix (!) Harrison realised that he had started his lessons fifteen years too late, and that he would never achieve true mastery.   He put the sitar down, and went back to electric guitar, playing some astonishing pieces after the Beatles’ split, including How Do You Sleep? on the Imagine LP, and some beautiful slide guitar on My Sweet Lord and Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) among others.

George Harrison & Ravi Shankar

When the Brighton Beach Boys decided to tackle Sgt. Pepper, we sat around and threw our names into the hat for lead vocals.  Within You Without You was my first choice.  Clearly the angelic and profoundly moving voice of Glen Richardson would sing most of the McCartney vocals – She’s Leaving Home, Fixing A Hole, When I’m 64 etc.  Tom and Stephen tussled over Paul’s opening screamer.  That left John,  George & Ringo among the remaining five singers.  I got Ringo’s A Little Help From My Friends and the John part of A Day In The Life and this amazing song.  Rehearsing it was odd, because we couldn’t really play it without the strings.  So I sang it at home on my own to the record and tried to hold my nerve.

Very rough Sgt Pepper live event in The Robin Hood pub, 2005.  From the top : Stephen Wrigley, me, Adrian Marshall, Tom Arnold

In May 2005 we had a very rough run-through of Pet Sounds v Sgt Pepper in the Robin Hood pub in Brighton one Sunday afternoon in front of a few customers and friends.  Landlord Neil Hayward had come up with the idea so it was his fault.  We’d already done Pet Sounds at Komedia on May 7th – the first time.  I simply cannot remember how we did WYWY, perhaps we didn’t, or perhaps we had an electric tamboura by then (plug-in, switch on, choose key = instant spangly drone and lots of “mine’s a chicken korma” jokes) and Charlotte played the string part solo.  Or perhaps not.

Soundcheck for Within You Without You in the church.  Steve is playing harmonium (on the vibraphone!)

But history (and Tom Arnold) does record that the first time we played this gig was at the Brighton Festival, May 21st 2006.  We had a tabla player just for this one song which we later considered to be a luxury, and since then Tom Arnold has played a variety of tabla and djembe and other percussion in the song.  Rory Cameron played the sitar part on a Danelectro sparkling blue guitar belonging to Stephen Wrigley.  Later he would learn the part on an actual sitar which of course is visually rather marvellous.  Rory has now left the band.  Glen found a swarmandel sound on his synthesiser – like a zither or metallic harp.   And Steve also scored the string quartet.  For this gig we added a string quartet and an extra flute and sax, and percussion, bringing the total to 16 players, and called the ensemble The Psychedelic Love Orchestra.  Stringers being expensive people who insist (with complete justification) on being paid for rehearsal, I think we may have had just the one rehearsal with them.  (We didn’t have any rehearsals with the stringers this year!)  We then rehearsed during the sound-check, always a nerve-wracking experience.  No pressure.  It kept breaking down in the call-and-answer section between the first violin and the sitar, and the timing was controversial too – was it in 2/5 ??  For my part I had simply listened to the track ENDLESSLY and knew every twitch and sigh, so when I heard my cue, in I droned with the opening line:

 “We were talking . . . about the space between us all…”

St George’s Church, Kemp Town with full Psychedelic Love Orchestra

That night the space between us all was a packed Georgian church – St George’s  in Kemp Town, Brighton.  We were set up on the altar thanks to a groovy priest who no longer runs the place – as a result the altar is now out of bounds, and we can’t fit into the space left.  So those six or seven church gigs were unique and special, in a beautiful wooden structure with wonderful acoustics and an intimate setting.  We lit  incense as the tamboura warmed up, Stephen played the harmonium I think, and it was there, singing live in front of people that I discovered the soul of the piece, how heartfelt and warm it was, how true.  How it was a miracle that somehow we got to the end without breaking down as we had in almost every single run-through.  How I made the pranam prayer Hindu shape with my hands and bowed into the applause, and how we then slid effortlessly (apparently) into the soft shoe shuffle of When I’m 64, such is the clever sequencing of the LP.   How proud I was that we had, collectively, scaled an Everest of a song in English pop culture, inspired by another tradition many miles away.  How I could never count the bars, but always had to rely on instinct, which is much scarier.  We’ve done the show ten times now, and it is always for me the scariest section of the show, and the part I look forward to the most.  A bit like a ghost train.

Practise makes fantactiss

When we moved to New York City in 2014, my great sacrifice was seeing the godchildren growing up – Delilah Rose, who is eight years old, and Skye who is almost two. Uncle Ralph flies back as often as he can to see these precious little people.  The other sacrifice was the band.  It was touch-and-go for a few years whether it would continue at all – not just my absence, but Rory moved to Bury St Edmunds, Charlotte had a baby boy Cosmo, and Tom joined the endless tour of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.   A chance visit in December 2015 found me in Brighton on the same night as a gig at The Brunswick with the rock’n’roll version of the Brighton Beach Boys complete with legend Chris Spedding on the guitar.  I played on that gig (from memory, almost forgetting a key chord in Good Vibrations) and then said that if they booked the Pet Sounds/Pepper gig, I would fly back for it from Brooklyn.

May 28th 2016, Pet Sounds v Sgt Pepper live

Thus it was that almost exactly three years to the day since we last tackled these two pop landmarks The Brighton Beach Boys were reunited at The Haunt, in Pool Valley Brighton on Saturday May 28th 2016.  No Spedding this time, but a lovely guitarist and singer called Jono Harrison.  The band had had two rehearsals, but the woodwinds and strings hadn’t been there.  The same four key players : Nicky and Brian on violins, Sarah on cello and Rob on viola joined us for the soundcheck on Saturday afternoon and we had a quick run-through of Within You Without You.  As usual it was rubbish, well, not rubbish, but covered in errors and hesitations and poor timings, mainly from me.  As usual when we performed it live it was fine.  Some enthusiastic audience members even insisted that it was great.

Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away on 11 December 2012.  George Harrison left us on 29 November 2001.  They remained great friends.

Now and again I tiptoe towards the wisdom embraced by the song – seeing both within myself to change the sadness, and seeing beyond myself to find – sometimes – that peace of mind is waiting there.  I hope I can grow old gracefully.  At the moment the tempest shows no signs of abating.  But life.   Life flows on within you, and without you.



My Pop Life #144 : Flowers In The Window – Travis

Flowers In The Window   –   Travis

It’s yet another song with seagull noises in it.  I’m collecting them.  One of the great things about living in Brighton is the quality of live music there.  The Brighton Beach Boys were formed after many a joyful Monday night in The Dragon in St George’s Road watching Stephen Wrigley and Adrian Marshall play 90 minutes of pop music, inviting punters to come to the mic and sing.  Drink + music = joy.  Once the band was up and running, gigging, rehearsing regularly I had the impertinent hubris to feel as if I could play in the pub too.

So I got a regular, or perhaps irregular Monday night gig in The Robin Hood on the border of Hove, a charity pub (Britain’s first!) with a benign and knowledgeable landlord in the form of Neil Hayward, brother to Paul, sports writer and Albion fan.  The BBBs had the residency and we took it in turns to play two-handers.  I played with Adrian Marshall himself on the bass and bvs, and when we went to look at a set-list there were a list of my favourite things I could already play :  Golden Lady, The Man With The Child In His Eyes, Julia, Sunny Afternoon and then a bunch of newer songs – it’s good to stay contemporary in the pub rock game.  So we chose this song by Travis, and Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful because I wanted to appear open-minded (and because I secretly loved it) and some Ben Folds and Todd Rundgren too.  In the end you’re just plonking away while people drink and chat, the living background music, but it is an honourable profession and I felt like I needed to do it for some inner compulsive reason.  I took to it pretty well, the amp broke down on the first gig and Ade took about 20 minutes fixing it.  I had no sustain pedal, and David Keys (thanks David) mentioned that it might be a good idea to get one.  Despite these handicaps I still enjoyed the gig in a nerve-wracked kind of way.   Flowers in the Window stayed in the set and we played it every gig, people loved it.  It was from the third LP by Travis, effortless pop brilliance from a Scottish four-piece gathered about the person of Fran Healy, songwriter and lead vocalist.

I’d bought the 2nd album The Man Who in 1999 with its gracious songwriting and harmonised easy pop  – Driftwood, Turn and the inescapable Why Does It Always Rain On Me?  There is a sweet jangly flow to their songs which sounds easy, but is rare in music, because it’s not as easy to write as it is to listen to.

The third album The Invisible Band came out in late 2001, with lead single Sing, but Flowers In The Window was in the charts as a single in April 2002.  I was playing it in the pub late in 2002 into early 2003.

Around this time we had a place in Los Feliz in LA, and went back and forth.    We’d found it through a contact of Gwen Wynne‘s.  It was the top floor of a rambling mansion at the bottom of beautiful Griffith Park, right on the corner of Western Avenue and Los Feliz Boulevard.  We were in the treetops, with squirrels, birds and magnificent butterflies as company.  Old school Los Angeles, wooden floors, tiled bathrooms, overgrown back garden that stretched back up the hill.  We could walk to the shops but we never did.  Our landlords, a lovely old Hollywood couple called Patrick and Alma Sexton, lived below us.  Patrick had Parkinsons Disease which caused mini-earthquakes to his left arm from time to time.  He also had a thin Clark Gable-esque white moustache on his top lip and a twinkle in his eye. He was the most charming cultured man.  Alma his wife was a naturalised Mexican, but you’d never know from superficial contact, only after she’d told us their story, and she was just a dear. We would walk down the stairs and hang out and talk with them from time to time, go out for meals now and again.  They would leave us a bottle of wine if we’d been away for a few weeks.  It was a dream house, expensive yes, but beautiful.  We had close friends Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading just down the road from us.  Convivial.  At that point we were essentially commuting between Brighton and LA.

Then early in 2003 Catherine Wearing‘s dad Michael asked me if I wanted to take a look at a rewrite on a project he was involved with producing.  Catherine was our friend from London days – us in Archway Rd, she in Finsbury Park and we stayed in touch regularly – she would come down to our Brighton parties, we would go up to hers for screenings of things she was producing for the BBC.  Michael Wearing had been a top producer at the Beeb since the late 70s and made his name with Edge Of Darkness and Boys From The Blackstuff, and carried on as Head of Series at the Beeb and Our Friends In The North.   He needed a writer, and bless her cotton socks, Catherine had suggested me.  I wasn’t brand new (don’t forget) – this was two years after New Year’s Day (see My Pop Life #75) was finally released (and seven years after it was written) and I’d also just finished writing a commissioned film about Howard Marks called High Times which despite being the finest screenplay I’ve ever created remains unmade.  And unpaid.  Another story.  So.  Michael and I had a meeting in London and he handed me a mess of a screenplay entitled Red Light Runners.  At its core was a brilliant film idea – but the script delivered nowt but cliches, risible dialogue and non-sequiturs.  I said I’d take a look.

The Groucho Club, 45 Dean St, London

A few weeks later I was sitting in a room at The Groucho Club pitching my version of the story to the producers: Michael, Nigel Warren-Green, Marcus Vinton and Mark O’Sullivan, and the director Nick Egan.  I was confident and, in retrospect, at 46 years old, at the top of my game.  Flowers In The Window.  I think it may have been peak Brown to be honest.  April 2003.  I had been a member of Groucho since 1989.  I’d just done a film in Morocco and Rome with Paul Schrader, my own band were learning Pet Sounds after being inspired by the Brian Wilson resurgence, my nephew Thomas Jules had just been in the charts with his pop band 3rd Edge.  Supergrass and Cate Blanchett lived down the road.   The music of 2002 had been all positive (no it wasn’t said Skippy) – Groove Armada, Justin Timberlake, Queens Of The Stone Age, Norah Jones, Flaming Lips, Electric Soft Parade, Common, N.E.R.D.   Live LPs from Ben Folds and Brian Wilson, the latter almost a miracle moment.  And I’d done my first TV show in Los Angeles in 2002 – The Agency for CBS, only one episode, but I felt that I existed on many planes of existence and that all was well.   Not all – that’s impossible, because I have bipolar disturbance which means that anxiety goes up and down, anger rages around then turns to depression, regardless of pubs and other distractions.  But if I’m working, I don’t usually have time to be depressed.  Futile perhaps, but not usually the full darkness.  This was as good as it gets.


I felt the meeting had gone well.  I’d come up with a decent new plot involving an ex-CIA gay Fagin-esque priest in London, a manhunt, and yardie gangs all circulating what was essentially a heist in the British Museum.  A phone call from Michael confirmed I was to rewrite the screenplay.  We agreed a fee and I was flown down to Cannes that May to meet Michael Madsen complete with black cowboy boots and cultivated ‘cousin-of-elvis’ image.  He was already cast as Killian.  And Michael Casey – the money.  The hype had started.  Talk of sponsors, money, meals, champagne, everything was free.  To those who can afford it of course.

Michael, Nick and I sat down and thrashed out some wrinkles together in Cannes and in London, and then it was down to me to produce something.

Looking down Western Avenue from Los Feliz Boulevard

Later that May Jenny and I flew to Los Angeles and I sat down in the Los Feliz treetops at the desk we had just bought and I wrote my version of Red Light Runners.  This often meant lighting up a spliff at 8 in the morning with my coffee – because I write best in the morning.  And in those days, I wrote best on spliff.  The spliff undoes knots in the plot, speeds things up a bit.  Unblocks the stupid fucking brain.  There was usually a sag, a dip, a plunge, a decline in the mid-afternoon, which is organic and natural, so we’d go out shopping or something, or sit on the sun terrace in the treetops then I’d get back on it at 6pm through to sundown or later.  On a fucking roll.  Such a great feeling when the top of your head becomes a huge funnel into which the universe is pouring itself, everything now and ever is grist to your particular subjective all-encompassing mill.  I’ve felt it about a dozen times in my life so far, and it is thrilling, fulfilling and magical.  WRITING.  I don’t actually know why I’ve carried on acting when the writing is so Right, but perhaps it will become clear.   At some point we had dinner on Sunset Strip with Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais the British writing team who created The Likely Lads and Porridge among other gems.  They were introduced to us by Neil Morrissey who was in LA with his new girlfriend Emma Killick, talking to Dick and Ian about writing a film called Baker Street.   Dick Clement in particular was charming and twinkly, and shared this nugget with me, and he was serious : “Never tell the producers how long it takes you to rewrite a scene“.  I agreed with him.  We remembered (although neither of us were there) the old writing rooms in the Hollywood Studios in the 1940s when the writers had to sit at their desks from 9-5 every day churning it out.  So I won’t tell you how long it took me to write Red Light Runners.  And I won’t tell you how much I got as an advance either.  But I delivered the screenplay later that spring.  And it was, within months, greenlit. We were up and running.

And although my special talent in life is to find the worst in any situation, to be in-un-endingly half-empty, to seek out the meaningless darkness behind a beautiful sunset, I will resist that instinct for once and allow that moment to be perfect.   I think Flowers In The Window is probably the happiest song I know.   It’s so hard to be happy isn’t it ?

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:  


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…