Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Brian Wilson at 70!

On this day 70 years ago Brian Douglas Wilson was born in California. Happy Birthday Brian!. I will spare you from a skinny recap of The Beach Boys history due to the fact that their recent release (their 29th Studio release no less) ‘That’s Why God Made The Radio’ will call to arms every hack and journalist in every music publication and website to churn out bio’s and opinions running up to the release date and instead just cut to the meat of the matter. The songs.

Here are my Top 10 Brain Wilson moments for you to listen to, dig out and SMiLE along to…

01) Time To Get Alone

This album track from the groups 1969 release ‘20/20’ has always been a personal favourite for many reasons. One being that it’s completely solo in it’s writing credits, which for an artists like Brian Wilson shows that it’s conception wasn’t creatively trapped within any guidelines or formula that may have been put on him when faced with a collaboration. The second reason is the glorious production, the layering, the echo chamber being used on certain lines and phrases let alone the harmonies. Happy to see the song make an appearance in his live set when I saw him.

02) Till I Die

From the ‘Surfs Up’ album this track has always been a very popular Brian Wilson piece as it shows that even throughout his darkest periods mentally he is able to conjure up classic beauty and feelings without ever creeping over to depressing or self indulgent music. Written after Brian in one of his introspective moods pictured himself in the grand scheme of things describing himself as a 'cork on the ocean', a 'leaf on a windy day', a 'rock in a landslide'. He wondered about his life as a whole i.e. was he in control of his own life? Was he ever? Record producer Don Was once commented in an interview that Brian told him that he wrote the music by just making different shapes with his fingers on the piano and messing around making different versions of that and suddenly a melody appeared. Whether that’s true or not it shows the kind of child like willingness to explore his imagination that Wilson prefers over the typical song writer with pen in his hand and metronome on his desk that some of his contemporaries chose.

03) God Only Knows

What can be said about this song that hasn’t already been said a thousand times and much better. Paul McCartney calls this ‘Pet Sounds’ track ‘the greatest song of all time’ and who are we to argue? Especially the harmony vocal build up at the end accompanied by snare fills. Perfection.

04) Caroline No

Also from the ‘Pet Sounds’ album and strangely enough the only track that was released as a one off Brian Wilson ‘solo’ single. It was never a hit song and in my opinion it never had the sort of pop sensibility to ever be one. Written in collaboration with lyricist Tony Asher the song was originally entitled ‘Carol I Know’ although mis-heard by the partially deaf Wilson while composing the music he sang “CAROLine No” and it stuck.

05) In My Room

Often described as the point in the Beach Boys catalogue when Brian pushed away from the surf and sunshine image and instead started his personal journey inwards. Written in tandem with Gary Usher this melancholy ballad shows a side of Wilson that needed his own hiding place and artistic freedom from the pop rollercoaster even in the early days of the group. So unclassifiable in it’s presentation and true meaning the accompanying footage of the group singing the song had them sitting in a library in suits!

06) Still I Dream of It

This choice is one I originally heard on the groups ‘Good Vibrations’ box-set. An un-released track that was supposed to be part of the still un-available ‘Adult/Child’ project Brian was creating in 1977. He later commented that he was trying to write more adult songs that would lend themselves to more Sinatra types of performances and productions. This song was later included in demo form on the retrospective documentary ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ although this version is best to be avoided as it’s rough, scratchy and nowhere near the quality of the full version discussed here.

07) Please Let Me Wonder

‘Please Let Me Wonder’ is more of a typical Beach Boys song from their early period pre-‘Pet Sounds’ era although you can definitely see a thread of change evolving through the melodic and production tricks being used by Wilson. Influenced by Phil Spector just as much as the Four Freshman and Chuck Berry this track could have been a standard doo-wop style song if it wasn’t for the almost jazz like chord movements and extensions which Wilson was casually using regularly and confidently. It these sophisticated song-writing choices and tricks that were blowing a lot of minds across the pond, especially in Abbey Road studios.

08) Kiss Me Baby

Another early choice cut from the same cloth as a lot of other early singles, this track was selected as much for the instrumentation layering involved in the production as for the vocals. A master class in depth, space and the ability to ‘play the studio’ as an instrument itself.

09) Surfs Up

Originally written during the sessions for what would be the aborted ‘SMiLe’ project. With lyrics from esoteric writer Van Dyke Parks and combined with a wonderful music cradle including 10 chords in just the verse alone with multiple key changes and subtle shifts in pace this is the work of a man on top of his game and peaking musically. Jimi Hendrix famously sang “you’ve never hear surf music again” although after listening to ‘Surfs Up’ the gauntlet was laid down to everyone who doubted the importance of the group or Wilson himself as a prime creative force in pop music. Later included on the ‘Surfs Up’ album spliced between a live solo version and the groups own studio accompaniment.

10) Surfer Girl

The first song Brian Wilson every wrote for the group (and in fact the first release where he was officially credited as the producer). Inspired by the Disney song ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ this song created the image and feel of the group from then on. Although played at every concert since this has been one that hasn’t lost it’s identity and still sounds as full and fresh today as it did when it was first released in 1963.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Paul McCartney at 70!

It was 70 years ago today…

Paul McCartney, James Paul McCartney, Macca!, the pretty Beatle is 70 years old today and as he tucks into his veggie birthday cake I have decided that 70 years is a milestone that needs to be celebrated with a quick look back over the solo career of the most successful pop star still alive today. Yes he has made some absolute shockers in his time but he has also wrote some stone cold classics as well. Here a few to remember, dig out and YouTube/Spotify if you don’t have them to hand.

Throughout his 42 year solo career he has only made in my opinion 2 strong full albums and they are ‘Ram’ and ‘Band on the Run’, although he has written many other great songs they have been few and far between and sandwiched between mediocre and generally half arsed work.

The reasons behind this pendulum of gold vs. shit is hard to explain although one would say that the fact that he has had so much success may blinker his vantage point to what should be left in the archives and what should be released as a single (no matter how many copies it might sell by the Beatles faithful). It seems that it just comes too easy to him to create, if you sit him down at a piano or with an acoustic guitar and leave him alone for an hour and you’ll have a song on your hands, it’ll be better than anything most can write but not better than tracks he himself has already written, and that is the crux of the problem, McCartney doesn’t have any internal editing tool in place to say “nah Paul ditch that one”, in short he’s missing a ‘Lennon’, now he has a gaggle of paid sycophants who applaud every twang and tinkle like he’s just created another ‘Sgt Pepper’ which creatively doesn’t help matters. Either that or to put it bluntly, the hobby that became a career has once again become a hobby to a man with no more peaks left to climb musically.

Here are a few gems that need to be extracted from the rotten tooth of ‘Ebony and Ivory’ type schmaltz and 30’s inspired rinky-tinky-tooty wartime ‘McCartney-isms’.

Maybe I’m AmazedMcCartney (1970) – Although the first solo album after the split (‘McCartney’) was patchy at best and not in the league of either George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’ or John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ it did include this track which shows that he was far from over musically, in fact he was just getting started. The stripped down and almost garage rock approach has held up surprisingly and has found a new generation of fans as the years have gone on thanks to the reissues.

Monkberry Moon DelightRAM (1971) – Criminally underrated track from ‘Ram’, showing that when the chips were down McCartney could get weird and heavy with the best of them, ‘Helter Skelter’ manic vocals and Dylan-esque word-play.

Uncle Albert/Admiral HalseyRam (1971)

Back Seat of My CarRam (1971) – Full production, polar opposite to the minimalist arrangements on the ‘McCartney’ album.

Let Me Roll ItBand on The Run (1973) – Using the sun studios slap-back tape echo on his voice that although had been popularised by Elvis and Gene Vincent was mostly recognisable from John Lennon’s use of it. Sparse verse punctuated by twin guitars and Hammond organ.

Band on The RunBand on The Run (1973) - A real showstopper and patchwork of genres from the man that inspired Brian Wilson to create Pet Sounds and the ‘Smile’ song cycle project.

JetBand on The Run (1973)

Coming Up!McCartney II (1980) – Proving that even though The Beatles were no more the relationship between Lennon and McCartney was always one of friendly competition, when Lennon heard this track whilst on holiday in Bermuda he was inspired to start writing the tracks for what would be his last album ‘Double Fantasy’. Apparently Lennon was content in playing house husband while Paul churned out what he would call below par rubbish but when he released good work the competitive side inside Lennon rose like a dormant phoenix and felt inspired to throw down his own gauntlet in retaliation to his old writing partner.

WaterfallsMcCartney II (1980)

Here Today Tug Of War (1982) – His slow tribute to John Lennon after his 1980 assassination.

The World TonightFlaming Pie (1997) – The ‘Flaming Pie’ album was seen as a ‘come back’, perhaps inspired by the recent Beatles ‘Anthologies’ that were released and he managed to write his strongest collection of songs for many a year.

Flaming PieFlaming Pie (1997) – The title song from the album of the same name. The war-time jangle piano starts it but pulling his trusty Epiphone Casino out off mothballs and chugging out a ‘fab’ guitar track saved this from the chopping board.

Shake A Hand Run Devil Run (1999) – Little Richard cover from this ‘oldies’ collection. McCartney always ‘did’ the best Little Richard impression and was in fact taught the trademark scream by the man himself in Hamburg. A nice addition to the album itself and a benchmark of artists ‘rediscovering their roots’ by actually choosing songs they want to record rather than the usual suspects of safe choices i.e. ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’.

Friends To GoChaos and Creation in the Back Yard (2005) – Written as a tribute to George Harrison. McCartney began writing this song just as another track for the album that he was making with Nigel Godrich. Godrich had asked McCartney for some more material as some of the previous attempts had been refused by the ballsy studio wizard as being not good enough. In a move that both shocked and inspired to pull his song writing socks up and present some crackers worthy of his name and legend.