It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: Celebrating Sgt. Pepper

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It was fifty years ago today…

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

To get a proper handle on how revolutionary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was, it’s imperative to appreciate how far pop music came in such a remarkably brief span of time. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s also undeniable that after June 1, 1967, nothing was ever the same again. Needless to say, this is a very good thing.

(Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend starting crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut. And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s.)

Part of rock ‘n’ roll’s infectious (and mostly innocuous) appeal is the no-brainer element of its intellectual import. From its earliest days when rock lyrics were mostly an unimaginative contest to see who could say I love you without saying the words I love you (of course The Beatles broke the mold here, shamelessly cutting out all pretense and wallowing in the very shallow depths of the literal, from “She Loves You” to “Love Me Do” to “All My Loving” to… you get the picture).

Around the same time, and across the pond, The Beach Boys were busy crafting best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Seemingly out of nowhere, and driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—front man, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge with Revolver (showcasing a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import and restlessness regarding convention). “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit, accordingly.

But before The Beatles helped define the Summer of Love and introduce the mixed blessing also known as the concept album, they released what’s arguably the most transcendent single of all time. Not only did “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” signify (yet another) giant step for the band, it crystallized the principle strengths of its primary songwriters. Lennon agonized over the acoustic-based (!) snapshot of youth seen through the glass surreally that “Strawberry Fields Forever” mutated into (with considerable assistance from the ever-underrated George Martin). McCartney, as always, makes it sound easy. “Penny Lane”, while being neither as oblique nor unsettling as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, is disarmingly rich in detail and the product of a songwriter firing on all cylinders. In a move that reveals McCartney’s inspired and indefatigable mind, he asked George Martin to approximate the piccolo trumpet featured in a movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, granting his whimsical reminiscence an almost regal air.

So, full of confidence, bristling with ambition and, make no mistake about it, eyes staring straight into the sun, the Fab Four did the Icarus routine. Suffice it to say, they not only survived, they transcended. Or something. And for the millionth time, it’s not necessarily how great the album is (and track by track, it’s arguably aged less well than ones that came before and after it, like many other efforts from 1967), it’s the not-so-simple fact that The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be and appraised as art.

And while a song-by-song reassessment would seem superfluous (even this modest essay practically answers its own inevitably rhetorical question: do we really need more words written about Sgt. Pepper?), it seems necessary to remember that, as overplayed and overanalyzed as certain songs have been, some of the boys’ best work is nevertheless represented. Imagine hearing “With A Little Help From My Friends” for the first time, today. Or, even if you’ve listened to it too many times to count, savor the loping basslines McCartney uses to anchor “Getting Better”. Or, if Lennon was coasting a bit on “Good Morning Good Morning”, with “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” he gave the uninitiated a soundscape for psychedelia before most of the world knew what was soon to hit it. Even the unfairly maligned “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” should be noted—in addition to being a clever tone poem invoking other times and places—providing a showcase for the way the studio could (and, subsequently, would) be utilized, combining technology and ingenuity to literally create new sounds.

Or how “Fixing A Hole” somehow seems to slip under the radar, or be dismissed as a lightweight effort. For me, in addition to being yet another short burst of pop virtuosity (ho hum), it’s an extremely laid-back and convincing statement of individuality—kind of a bookend to Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping”. Macca, establishing himself in the driver’s seat during these sessions, may have embraced the countercultural energy of the era, but he was his own man. He didn’t name names or slag off any institutions and he didn’t need to. In one of the seminal years in rock ‘n’ roll history, McCartney did not surf the wave that crested during the Summer of Love: he was the wind that helped create the wave. If “Lovely Rita” and the insufferable “When I’m 64” wore out their collective welcome many years (decades) ago, we must still marvel at the economical, emotional devastation of “She’s Leaving Home”, a composition that manages to be in front of women’s lib and anticipates the generational pushback the Hippie years would engender. And while the sitar sounds at once calculated and quaint today, let us never sleep on the role George Harrison played in bringing world music to the fore: like just about everything the group did, their work helped enlarge and expand how we understand (and hear) music.

And, for this writer, five decades has only cemented speculation that “A Day In The Life” endures as perhaps the most perfect (not to mention important) song in rock history.

The Beatles, with Sgt. Pepper, did not just issue their own indelible statement of purpose, but provided a spotlight, and credibility, for other acts, not to mention inspiring countless others to rally behind the trail they blazed. Getting to a place, inconceivable only years before, where rock music might be acknowledged as art-with-a-capital-A, is not something The Beatles did all by themselves; they were simply the biggest, loudest and most successful spokesmen for the cause. They didn’t make what happened next possible so much as they made it inevitable.

For that, we must always appreciate them, and celebrate Sgt. Pepper. A splendid time, lest we forget, was guaranteed for all.

 

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The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream (Revisited)

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Icarus soars too close to the sun. Othello, vulnerable and halfway crazy, mistakenly trusts the evil Iago. The product of a celebrated cultural era sets out to fictionalize some of the forces that made his ascent—and disintegration—possible (hint: he is the same author who opined there are no second acts in American lives). The captain of a sinking ship, obsessed unto madness by a malevolent mammal, takes his crew with him under the water into oblivion. A small man, armed only with a sling-shot, takes aim and slays the giant. The underdog gets off the mat to dethrone the champion, the nerd flies out of a phone booth, the orphan slides a magic slipper on her foot, a kid who would be king pulls the sword from the stone…

Get the picture? All of these elements are, to varying extents, contained within this epic Tragedy that detours into Comedy and ends up as Romance. And the rest is History: the construction, dissolution and redemption of one man’s very American Dream.

Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years—and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox—Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.

For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called The Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Sounds was not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.

When “Good Vibrations” dominated the charts in late ’66, it was a gauntlet thrown as much as a premonition of greater things to come. The Beatles got there first and Sgt. Pepper became the undisputed artistic and cultural event of 1967. SMiLE, initially—and tellingly—entitled Dumb Angel, was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ counterpunch. Impossible as it might be to imagine, Brian Wilson was poised to share the stage with Lennon/McCartney. It doesn’t compute to contemporary minds because decades of blank space and unfulfilled promise did what history always does: vindicate the winners. But Wilson, as much as his peers across the pond, was edging the idiom toward the avant-garde, and the arresting results of “Good Vibrations” could be seen as an opening salvo. SMiLE, then, was going to be the band’s masterpiece, and possibly the crown jewel of the Summer of Love. It very well might have put The Beach Boys, not The Beatles, on the top shelf critically as well as commercially.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Wilson lost first the goodwill and support of his brethren and then, his mind. (Not unlike the other sad casualty of ’67, Syd Barrett: it was an escalating intake of drugs—especially the LSD he credited with unlocking the doors and assisting the great visions— that accelerated his southward spiral.) And so, the work in progress was mostly scrapped and the shell-shocked group cobbled together the odd, occasionally sublime—if ultimately underwhelming—replacement, Smiley Smile. In the ensuing decades those aborted sessions—the strange fruits of Wilson’s measureless mind—became rock music’s Holy Grail. The material simply could not find the light of day; Wilson was too far gone and the results allegedly too impenetrable for public release.

And now, in a real-life Deus ex machina, rock’s scariest horror story has been transformed into pop music’s Dead Sea Scrolls. Salvaged from oblivion with the blessing—and assistance—of the man who made them, in late 2011 we received the opportunity to hear them, in full (or as full as we can reasonably hope) for the first time. The results must be considered as close to an unvarnished approximation as possible of Wilson’s original vision, and they are miraculous. Like a bombed and burned-out cathedral, there is dirt and dust aplenty, and the stained glass is, in places, broken and filled with cobwebs and strange empty spaces. This dirty authenticity only adds layers of meaning to the overall impact.

First reaction: it’s difficult, bordering on unreasonable to believe the current incarnation of SMiLE—modeled as it is after Wilson’s crucial but now less significant Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE from 2004—is comprised mostly of uncompleted drafts, bits and pieces. It sounds that great; it feels that complete.

Second reaction: I kept finding myself thinking much less of Sgt. Pepper and more of two later Beatles works, The Beatles (White Album) and Abbey Road. It’s all in here, and where The White Album is a glorious, murky mess, these SMiLE sessions are more like wave after wave crashing onto soft sand. There are moments that conjure the acoustic bliss of “Julia” and “Mother Nature’s Son”, the surreal parlor music of “Martha My Dear” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, the baroque touches of “Long, Long, Long” and “Good Night” and the kitchen sink chaos of “Wild Honey Pie” and (of course) “Revolution 9”. And where Lennon/McCartney got some wonderfully satirical licks on topical—and enduring—American history via “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Rocky Raccoon”, Wilson was clearly attempting to tackle the whole mythical cycle of westward expansion. As such, SMiLE might be best understood, or appreciated as a psychedelic tour of forward motion, incorporating sounds and sights (and smells and tastes) invoking myriad aspects of Americana. We are treated to chanting, cowboy movie theme music, field studies ranging from Indian to Hawaiian, cool-ish jazz, tone poems with classical elements, cartoonish sound effects, Musique concrete and a yodel thrown in for good measure. And most of all, tons and tons of the best harmonizing you’ve (never) heard, until now.

To me, and I’ve written about it (http://bullmurph.com/2010/10/05/love-is-old-love-is-new-another-appreciation-of-abbey-road/), the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes” (of which more, shortly).

One can—and should—recognize that, beginning with Revolver, The Beatles had the inclination, and money, to spend as much time in the studio as they saw fit, tinkering and tailoring until they were satisfied. They also, for understandable and well-documented reasons, had collectively grown weary of touring. Wilson too, had no stomach for the hustle and grind, even in the better days, but of course his band mates did (and still do). For the undeniable advancements of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, Lennon and McCartney enjoyed a mutual focus and solidarity, not to mention the quite capable services of Harrison, Starr and the invaluable George Martin. Wilson, by comparison, was trying to hit a grand slam with no one else on base—or on board (and he just about knocked it out of the ballpark before a Tempest blew in and suspended play for almost a half-century). Needless to say, unlike the environment in the Beatles’ camp, the SMiLE sessions comprised the inevitable tension of a band following the unsteady lead of its eccentric yet brilliant conductor, with one eye on The Road and all this entailed: adoring crowds, fat wallets and the safety of hit singles.

“Don’t fuck with the formula,” Mike Love supposedly complained as the material grew too complicated—and unconventional—for his liking. Love’s words, and the attitude that prompted them, serve not only as a succinct summary of the internal forces Wilson found himself confronting (even in an increasingly fragile state of mind he was still the de-facto leader and resident visionary, something Syd Barrett abruptly ceased to be well before his eventual ouster), but also represents the rapacious imperatives of any commercial enterprise: keep it simple, appeal to as many people as possible and above all, never leave any opportunity for money on the table.

That Wilson lost this battle, ostensibly a victim of his own excesses and weakness, says a great deal about the ugly side of the unbridled ‘60s. Like Syd Barrett and too many anonymous psychedelic foot soldiers to count, LSD was a major incentive for creativity and expansion, but it carried a cost. By Wilson’s own reckoning, acid played an essential role in his stylistic and compositional progression, but it also hastened some of the off-kilter internal mechanisms that preyed on his confidence, if not his ability to cope. The already controversial and clownish Mike Love comes off worse than ever the more one thinks about these circumstances and what was at stake in late ’66 and early ’67. Shouting not-so-sweet nothings in Wilson’s ear would be unfortunate enough coming from a record company executive; coming from a fellow band mate, especially one who had gained a great deal more fame and wealth than he ever could have done on his own, is unforgivable.

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia is that Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.

So where does that leave us? Assuming that SMiLE is superior, ultimately, to Pet Sounds, how profoundly does its belated release shift of perceptions of the ‘60s; of rock and roll history? First, in what ways does it alter our well-ingrained admiration of Pet Sounds? It shouldn’t, necessarily. Put simply, just as everyone is, correctly, comfortable with The Beatles having several albums represented in what we acknowledge as the upper echelon (think Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road, which typically land in the Top 20, if not Top 10, of critical lists), SMiLE must correspondingly assume its overdue but welcome place in the pantheon.

Now, the fun begins. Where does it go? Is it better than Pet Sounds? In terms of ambition, scope and execution, this writer has no problem putting it at the top of the heap. And, the unthinkable: is it better than Sgt. Pepper? Yes. More influential? Obviously not. More popular? Not even close. More important to the band’s development? Hardly, since unlike The Beatles, The Beach Boys retreated, getting back to where they once belonged. But taking it on a song-by-song basis, is it superior? Unquestionably.

Now, the real fun: not much can stand alongside “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “A Day in the Life”. You can even throw in “She’s Leaving Home” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” if you must. Can even those four stand comfortably alongside “Heroes and Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Cabin Essence” and—take your pick—“Do You Like Worms” or “Vega-Tables”? We can leave aside “Good Vibrations” to accompany “Strawberry Fields Forever”, both released as singles in ’66. It could even be conceded that, based on the above, The Beatles best songs edge out whichever ones we can throw up against them. But, as is the case with most classic albums, it’s the odds and sods that make the ultimate case for greatness. Consider the opening salvo of “Our Prayer”, and remember Wilson remarked that his desire was to write a “teenage symphony to God”. The creepy acid-washed “You Are My Sunshine”; the gorgeous segue of “Look (Song for Children)” into “Child is the Father of the Man”; the quirky, Zappa-esque romp of “Holidays”; the pre-Abbey Road majesty of “Wonderful”; the Beatles-meet-Beefheart “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”; the presciently prog-rock “Love To Say Dada”.

And, above all, the dark gem of the lot, “Wind Chimes”. This, more than anything else The Beach Boys did (and only Love and The Doors came close, or tried), seems to provide the until-now unheard and definitive counterpunch to the phoned-in feel-good anthem that did dominate the summer of ’67, “All You Need is Love”. Calculated if not entirely cynical, “All You Need is Love” is LSD-Lite, the calm before the White Album aftermath. As a complete and consistent artistic statement, only Love’s Forever Changes (similarly embellished as it is with horns, strings, and harpsichord, with harmonies and a sense of dread lurking around every other note, occasionally threatening to move in and suffocate everything) presages the ugliness around the corner like “Wind Chimes” does—and it does so with a feeling and lack of self-consciousness that seems all the more remarkable, today. Perhaps Syd Barrett’s “Jugband Blues” delineates the harrowing descent, breaking down in real time, better than anything else. “Wind Chimes” splits the difference, and does so with the benefit of Wilson’s inimitable combination of innocence, wonder and frailty.

What results is a product that defies anything any hipster or detractor—of any generation—can credibly dismiss. SMiLE is earnest, it is honest and it is almost entirely unique. Its arrival explodes, or at least expands, the already rich narrative of 1967. It is at once the story of what was and what could have been. The question could be asked: does it represent what should have been? Probably not. Maybe the world would not have been ready for this. Maybe SMiLE would have come out and been laughed off the shelves. Maybe music would not have changed (for better, for worse) if this enigmatic masterpiece had been able to go toe-to-toe, a musical rumble in the jungle, with Sgt. Pepper. The only answer is that we can never know.

There is undeniably a cognitive dissonance listening to this, trying to make sense of it, all these years later. As awkward, or uncomfortable, or awe-inspiring as it is to hear 1966 with today’s ears, it cannot be overlooked—attention must be paid. Assessing SMiLE and giving it its deferred due need not detract from everything The Beatles are worshipped for doing. This is, nevertheless, paradigm-shattering stuff, and most welcome to honest and open minds. How often does an artifact come along that radically disrupts, and reconfigures, an established understanding of history? How exceedingly seldom does this happen, if it ever does? It has happened here and everyone has reason to be very happy it did.

In the final analysis, the vision that sustained SMiLE was undeniable; delicate yet capable of withstanding an uninterested world—which is pretty much precisely what happened. The music, this beauty, bears witness to a dream—at times dark yet always unadulterated—and it remains Wilson’s, and our, triumph.

*Originally published in PopMatters, 8/26/2012. It is featured in the new collection Murphy’s Law, Vol One.

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Life in the Key of Song: Strawberry Fields Forever (Revisited)

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Living is easy with eyes closed/Misunderstanding all you see,

It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out/It doesn’t matter much to me.

Those aren’t just defining lines from a defining song by the defining band of all time. They are lines written by the closest thing we humans get to a super hero, at the top of his game, having just shouted down from the mountain top on one of the most innovative, shape-shifting songs of all time, “Tomorrow Never Knows”.

(Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the color of your dreams):

If some people, understandably, think the everything-plus-kitchen-sink approach on the subsequent Sgt. Pepper was in places a tad too haphazard and indulgent, no such concerns can apply here: Lennon knew what he wanted, telling MVP producer George Martin he wanted his vocals to sound like “a hundred chanting Tibetan monks.” No worries, right? Martin, with appreciable assistance from an always-game McCartney, sliced, diced, looped and spliced, and second by painstaking second, reel-to-reel tape transported the magic from Lennon’s mind. To say that this song set the tone for experimentation and was influential across multiple genres, including –or especially– ones that didn’t even exist yet, scarcely does it justice.

Revolver, whether or not it is the “best” album in rock history (who can authoritatively claim this, and more importantly, who cares?), is probably the most important. It inspired Pet Sounds which in turn inspired Sgt. Pepper which in turn inspired everything else: the good, bad and ugly that followed; tomorrow never knew what hit it. It is also perfect. If you disagree, it’s not the album, it’s you. And that’s fine. But move along, because you’re wrong. But (she said, she said) “What about Yellow Submarine?” How can an album that is not filled with perfect songs be perfect? Because.

Lennon, despite the perfectly legitimate and understandable lionizing he was subject to during –and especially after– his life, was, arguably, the most human Beatle. Ringo and Harrison were more down to earth (partly because their abilities, frankly speaking, kept them more firmly grounded), and McCartney has always seemed a genuinely friendly fella (his long and by all accounts happy relationship with wife Linda until her death speaks eloquently of the superficial Sun-King entitlements he was able to avoid or eschew, to his considerable credit). But Lennon, ever inscrutable, bigger than life –and Jesus–(he said, he said) and impossible to pigeon-hole, must be, in the final analysis, the most easy to understand, on human and artistic levels.

It is, therefore, revealing that “Strawberry Fields Forever”, a song that now stands out among (if not above) all others as the most singular Lennon composition (yes, taking into account “In My Life”, “I Am The Walrus”, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, “Dear Prudence”, “Come Together” and “Across The Universe” –just to name the true heavy hitters in the Beatles canon and not even taking into account his ten years of solo work) had such humble origins. Listen to the evolution of a masterpiece:

In late 1995 (15 years ago, already?) when The Beatles Anthology series came out, the assorted demo cuts and false starts were something beyond revelatory. Aside from bootlegs (and pre-digital files or the ubiquity of Internet content) this was the first opportunity many people had to peak behind the golden curtain and listen to the best band ever struggling to assemble the songs we learn and sing. The Beatles were sufficiently god-like that we not only never saw them sweat: literally after ’66 as they did not appear live, figuratively in the sense that they were operating at a level approximated by few collectives before or since, dropping new Songs in the Key of Life every other month.

Put another way, The White Album was released three years after Rubber Soul. Three years. Actually stop and think about that for a second. It is—or at least was—tempting to imagine that these albums were dreamed into life through a combination of drugs, meditation, competition and the inexplicable forces of Fate decreeing that these four lads from Liverpool would be the Oracles of our era. In actuality, we now know these magicians sometimes struggled to conjure their spells and in some cases it required a patience and faith we mere mortals are quite accustomed to. Put less pretentiously, making some of the best rock music of all time was hard work. Rather than diminishing the import of these songs, this concession augments it.

Hearing a frustrated Lennon sigh “Canna do it, I canna do it” less than thirty seconds into the first take reveals a Lennon most of us are not accustomed to, or comfortable hearing. He sounds almost defeated and entirely human. That he stuck with it and saw it through is illuminating as it is inspiring. It is also intriguing to hear one of the ultimate psychedelic dreamscapes in its formative stages as a simple acoustic song. While it is always insightful to see the scribbled notes of a poem or story in process, hearing the development of a song so indelibly enshrined in our collective consciousness is arresting, and invaluable. It still doesn’t mean we can comprehend how exactly this song (these songs!) came to be, but it helps us understand and appreciate. One more time, for the first time, forever.

Everyone knows what happened next. Just before Sgt. Pepper helped define the Summer of Love and introduce the mixed blessing also known as the concept album, The Beatles released what is arguably the most transcendent single of all time. McCartney (as always, making it sound easy), contributed “Penny Lane”, which is neither as oblique nor unsettling as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but is disarmingly rich in detail and the product of a songwriter firing on all cylinders. Lennon, of course, had agonized over his snapshot of youth seen through the glass hazily, and with the final touches –as was often the case circa ’67– of the visionary George Martin, saw his simple reminiscence mutate into the surreal sound-bomb it remains today.

Nothing is real. And nothing to get hung about.

Strawberry Fields Forever.

Cranberry sauce.

What he said.

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The Day The Music Died, Redux (Revisited)

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(12/9/2010)

It was thirty years ago today…

Where were you?

I was in my mother’s bedroom, kissing her goodbye before I caught the school bus, and I heard the horrible news on the clock radio (incidentally, I was in this same room when news of Len Bias — the other devastating death of the decade– flashed across the bottom of the TV screen). As a burgeoning Beatles fan (fanatic), this hurt. And I was old enough to know that this was a major blow: on an artistic, social, human scale.

John Lennon’s death, not too many people would debate, was our generation’s JFK. I think people my age might more easily remember where they were when the Challenger blew up on that frigid day in 1986 (or the aforementioned Len Bias tragedy, which still manages to shock, in June of the same year). But the murder of Lennon (like JFK), by gunfire, was the same brutal, irrevocable blow that never really registers. We do our best to make sense of what we’re left with, but the act itself is never really reconcilable or, in many regards, believable. I still can’t quite believe John Lennon was killed, right outside his home, a few weeks before Christmas (and less than a month after the release of what turned out to be his last proper album, the remarkable return-to-form Double Fantasy).

What else is there to say?

There’s probably been more written about Lennon’s death than any other public figure from the 20th Century (except, possibly, JFK), and there is nothing anyone can say to make his premature passing sensible or acceptable. Certainly, his legacy was –and remains– quite secure and as PopMatters recently proved, it seems impossible to say too much about The Beatles. I’ve said it before and I’m obliged to say it again: where the younger fan might ask “What kind of God would take a person like this?” the older fan should answer “The same one who gave him to us”. That’s not good enough, not by a long shot, but Lennon blessed us with as much remarkable music (and joy, and inspiration) as any artist we’ve seen or heard, so it is childish to begrudge what we didn’t get: we ought to celebrate what we did get.

I’m not going to invoke “Imagine” or “A Day In The Life” or “In My Life” or (insert appropriate, but entirely-too-obvious Lennon song here). I was thinking about which songs resonated with me, and were distinctly John Lennon songs. Necessarily, these were post-Pepper compositions as that was when the band began increasingly going their own way. I could think of other examples, so could anyone else, but for me –for now– these five seem to sum up everything great about John Lennon, the artist.

“Across The Universe”

“Dear Prudence”

“Julia”

“Revolution (1)”

“Don’t Let Me Down”

McCartney’s shell-shocked, refreshingly curt response (everyone wanted to hear what he would say, and the reporters were, I reckon, only doing what they get paid to do…but one watches this now and appreciates the guarded and honest reaction: no camera-friendly crocodile tears or mawkish speechifying; this was one-half of Lennon/McCartney coping with the staggering news that his artistic soul mate (sorry Linda, sorry Yoko) had been killed: in many regards, the day that Lennon died was the first day of the rest of Paul’s life).

I couldn’t deny that this phenomenon was not in play while The Beatles were still a working band, but there is no question that Lennon’s posthumous lionization seemed to separate fans into facile camps of “Lennon people” versus “McCartney people”. You know the drill: if you like “Hey Jude” and “Penny Lane” you are a PM person; if you prefer “I Am The Walrus” and “Come Together” you are a JL person (if you prefer “Revolution 9” you are a weird person…just kidding –sort of). The implication, of course, is that Lennon was the more seriousBeatle, the more witty and acerbic and, therefore, worthwhile Beatle. This whole formula is idiotic, insulting and should really be retired as soon as possible. (Put another way, if you have ever said anything along the lines of “Lennon was the only Beatle that mattered” then you are a poser and quite possibly a hipster, neither of which are anything to be proud of.)

To me, real Beatles fans have always looked at that question the way they would if asked who their favorite parent was. Do you have to decide? And why should you? The bottom line is: as claustrophobic as it got in the Beatles universe post-Ono, it is understandable that Genius of that magnitude would eventually bristle at the compromises required to keep the machine running. Not to mention, quiet genius #3, the increasingly confident George Harrison, resented having his artistic wings clipped and understandably bristled as his (increasingly superb) songs got left on the cutting room floor.

It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.

Of course, as the ‘70s showed, ( not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

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In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).

Check this out: “Hey Bulldog” (a rare YouTube instance of archival video that consists of actual footage from the recording session and not clever cut and pasting: this was one of the unfortunately rare instances when the band filmed themselves in the studio). This, above all, is a near miraculous moment in time captured for posterity: it is priceless because it affords a brief but beautiful window into this other world, the laboratory where the magic got made. And this is most definitely magical; it is also exceedingly bittersweet. This track was cut as the group was beginning to put together the puzzle pieces that ultimately comprised The Beatles (White Album) and things had begun to unravel. This, then, is not merely an illustration –albeit a wonderful one– of the organic process of inspiration and improvisation, but a document of the Lennon/McCartney engine powering along at full steam. Watching the interaction (look at Mac’s ebullient body language at the 2.50 mark!) removes any doubt that at their best, these two amigos required ingredients that were always lacking once they went their separate ways.

If you’re lonely you can talk to me…

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The Whiteness of the Whale: Remembering The White Album (Revisited)

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Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.

–Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 – The Whiteness of The Whale)

Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate–figuratively speaking–because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.

It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of THE BEATLES: every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many fans (and/or critics–but who cares what they think?) would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper (let me stand up and be counted here).

In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis. What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (“Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”); which ones have never ceased to astonish–even after a thousand listens? (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The songs themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obssessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.

That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased–and listened to–actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped. All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”–or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?

Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1” opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?

I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9” was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as well. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.

Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ’68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9” (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ’67 and ’69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.

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The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Icarus soars too close to the sun. Othello, vulnerable and halfway crazy, mistakenly trusts the evil Iago. The product of a celebrated cultural era sets out to fictionalize some of the forces that made his ascent—and disintegration—possible (hint: he is the same author who opined there are no second acts in American lives). The captain of a sinking ship, obsessed unto madness by a malevolent mammal, takes his crew with him under the water into oblivion. A small man, armed only with a sling-shot, takes aim and slays the giant. The underdog gets off the mat to dethrone the champion, the nerd flies out of a phone booth, the orphan slides a magic slipper on her foot, a kid who would be king pulls the sword from the stone…

Get the picture? All of these elements are, to varying extents, contained within this epic Tragedy that detours into Comedy and ends up as Romance. And the rest is History: the construction, dissolution and redemption of one man’s very American Dream.

Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years—and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox—Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.

For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called The Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Sounds was not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.

When “Good Vibrations” dominated the charts in late ’66, it was a gauntlet thrown as much as a premonition of greater things to come. The Beatles got there first and Sgt. Pepper became the undisputed artistic and cultural event of 1967. SMiLE, initially—and tellingly—entitled Dumb Angel, was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ counterpunch. Impossible as it might be to imagine, Brian Wilson was poised to share the stage with Lennon/McCartney. It doesn’t compute to contemporary minds because decades of blank space and unfulfilled promise did what history always does: vindicate the winners. But Wilson, as much as his peers across the pond, was edging the idiom toward the avant-garde, and the arresting results of “Good Vibrations” could be seen as an opening salvo. SMiLE, then, was going to be the band’s masterpiece, and possibly the crown jewel of the Summer of Love. It very well might have put The Beach Boys, not The Beatles, on the top shelf critically as well as commercially.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Wilson lost first the goodwill and support of his brethren and then, his mind. (Not unlike the other sad casualty of ’67, Syd Barrett: it was an escalating intake of drugs—especially the LSD he credited with unlocking the doors and assisting the great visions— that accelerated his southward spiral.) And so, the work in progress was mostly scrapped and the shell-shocked group cobbled together the odd, occasionally sublime—if ultimately underwhelming—replacement, Smiley Smile. In the ensuing decades those aborted sessions—the strange fruits of Wilson’s measureless mind—became rock music’s Holy Grail. The material simply could not find the light of day; Wilson was too far gone and the results allegedly too impenetrable for public release.

And now, in a real-life Deus ex machina, rock’s scariest horror story has been transformed into pop music’s Dead Sea Scrolls. Salvaged from oblivion with the blessing—and assistance—of the man who made them, in late 2011 we received the opportunity to hear them, in full (or as full as we can reasonably hope) for the first time. The results must be considered as close to an unvarnished approximation as possible of Wilson’s original vision, and they are miraculous. Like a bombed and burned-out cathedral, there is dirt and dust aplenty, and the stained glass is, in places, broken and filled with cobwebs and strange empty spaces. This dirty authenticity only adds layers of meaning to the overall impact.

First reaction: it’s difficult, bordering on unreasonable to believe the current incarnation of SMiLE—modeled as it is after Wilson’s crucial but now less significant Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE from 2004—is comprised mostly of uncompleted drafts, bits and pieces. It sounds that great; it feels that complete.

Second reaction: I kept finding myself thinking much less of Sgt. Pepper and more of two later Beatles works, The Beatles (White Album) and Abbey Road. It’s all in here, and where The White Album is a glorious, murky mess, these SMiLE sessions are more like wave after wave crashing onto soft sand. There are moments that conjure the acoustic bliss of “Julia” and “Mother Nature’s Son”, the surreal parlor music of “Martha My Dear” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, the baroque touches of “Long, Long, Long” and “Good Night” and the kitchen sink chaos of “Wild Honey Pie” and (of course) “Revolution 9”. And where Lennon/McCartney got some wonderfully satirical licks on topical—and enduring—American history via “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Rocky Raccoon”, Wilson was clearly attempting to tackle the whole mythical cycle of westward expansion. As such, SMiLE might be best understood, or appreciated as a psychedelic tour of forward motion, incorporating sounds and sights (and smells and tastes) invoking myriad aspects of Americana. We are treated to chanting, cowboy movie theme music, field studies ranging from Indian to Hawaiian, cool-ish jazz, tone poems with classical elements, cartoonish sound effects, Musique concrete and a yodel thrown in for good measure. And most of all, tons and tons of the best harmonizing you’ve (never) heard, until now.

To me, and I’ve written about it (http://bullmurph.com/2010/10/05/love-is-old-love-is-new-another-appreciation-of-abbey-road/), the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes” (of which more, shortly).

One can—and should—recognize that, beginning with Revolver, The Beatles had the inclination, and money, to spend as much time in the studio as they saw fit, tinkering and tailoring until they were satisfied. They also, for understandable and well-documented reasons, had collectively grown weary of touring. Wilson too, had no stomach for the hustle and grind, even in the better days, but of course his band mates did (and still do). For the undeniable advancements of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, Lennon and McCartney enjoyed a mutual focus and solidarity, not to mention the quite capable services of Harrison, Starr and the invaluable George Martin. Wilson, by comparison, was trying to hit a grand slam with no one else on base—or on board (and he just about knocked it out of the ballpark before a Tempest blew in and suspended play for almost a half-century). Needless to say, unlike the environment in the Beatles’ camp, the SMiLE sessions comprised the inevitable tension of a band following the unsteady lead of its eccentric yet brilliant conductor, with one eye on The Road and all this entailed: adoring crowds, fat wallets and the safety of hit singles.

“Don’t fuck with the formula,” Mike Love supposedly complained as the material grew too complicated—and unconventional—for his liking. Love’s words, and the attitude that prompted them, serve not only as a succinct summary of the internal forces Wilson found himself confronting (even in an increasingly fragile state of mind he was still the de-facto leader and resident visionary, something Syd Barrett abruptly ceased to be well before his eventual ouster), but also represents the rapacious imperatives of any commercial enterprise: keep it simple, appeal to as many people as possible and above all, never leave any opportunity for money on the table.

That Wilson lost this battle, ostensibly a victim of his own excesses and weakness, says a great deal about the ugly side of the unbridled ‘60s. Like Syd Barrett and too many anonymous psychedelic foot soldiers to count, LSD was a major incentive for creativity and expansion, but it carried a cost. By Wilson’s own reckoning, acid played an essential role in his stylistic and compositional progression, but it also hastened some of the off-kilter internal mechanisms that preyed on his confidence, if not his ability to cope. The already controversial and clownish Mike Love comes off worse than ever the more one thinks about these circumstances and what was at stake in late ’66 and early ’67. Shouting not-so-sweet nothings in Wilson’s ear would be unfortunate enough coming from a record company executive; coming from a fellow band mate, especially one who had gained a great deal more fame and wealth than he ever could have done on his own, is unforgivable.

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia is that Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.

So where does that leave us? Assuming that SMiLE is superior, ultimately, to Pet Sounds, how profoundly does its belated release shift of perceptions of the ‘60s; of rock and roll history? First, in what ways does it alter our well-ingrained admiration of Pet Sounds? It shouldn’t, necessarily. Put simply, just as everyone is, correctly, comfortable with The Beatles having several albums represented in what we acknowledge as the upper echelon (think Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road, which typically land in the Top 20, if not Top 10, of critical lists), SMiLE must correspondingly assume its overdue but welcome place in the pantheon.

Now, the fun begins. Where does it go? Is it better than Pet Sounds? In terms of ambition, scope and execution, this writer has no problem putting it at the top of the heap. And, the unthinkable: is it better than Sgt. Pepper? Yes. More influential? Obviously not. More popular? Not even close. More important to the band’s development? Hardly, since unlike The Beatles, The Beach Boys retreated, getting back to where they once belonged. But taking it on a song-by-song basis, is it superior? Unquestionably.

Now, the real fun: not much can stand alongside “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “A Day in the Life”. You can even throw in “She’s Leaving Home” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” if you must. Can even those four stand comfortably alongside “Heroes and Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Cabin Essence” and—take your pick—“Do You Like Worms” or “Vega-Tables”? We can leave aside “Good Vibrations” to accompany “Strawberry Fields Forever”, both released as singles in ’66. It could even be conceded that, based on the above, The Beatles best songs edge out whichever ones we can throw up against them. But, as is the case with most classic albums, it’s the odds and sods that make the ultimate case for greatness. Consider the opening salvo of “Our Prayer”, and remember Wilson remarked that his desire was to write a “teenage symphony to God”. The creepy acid-washed “You Are My Sunshine”; the gorgeous segue of “Look (Song for Children)” into “Child is the Father of the Man”; the quirky, Zappa-esque romp of “Holidays”; the pre-Abbey Road majesty of “Wonderful”; the Beatles-meet-Beefheart “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”; the presciently prog-rock “Love To Say Dada”.

And, above all, the dark gem of the lot, “Wind Chimes”. This, more than anything else The Beach Boys did (and only Love and The Doors came close, or tried), seems to provide the until-now unheard and definitive counterpunch to the phoned-in feel-good anthem that did dominate the summer of ’67, “All You Need is Love”. Calculated if not entirely cynical, “All You Need is Love” is LSD-Lite, the calm before the White Album aftermath. As a complete and consistent artistic statement, only Love’s Forever Changes (similarly embellished as it is with horns, strings, and harpsichord, with harmonies and a sense of dread lurking around every other note, occasionally threatening to move in and suffocate everything) presages the ugliness around the corner like “Wind Chimes” does—and it does so with a feeling and lack of self-consciousness that seems all the more remarkable, today. Perhaps Syd Barrett’s “Jugband Blues” delineates the harrowing descent, breaking down in real time, better than anything else. “Wind Chimes” splits the difference, and does so with the benefit of Wilson’s inimitable combination of innocence, wonder and frailty.

What results is a product that defies anything any hipster or detractor—of any generation—can credibly dismiss. SMiLE is earnest, it is honest and it is almost entirely unique. Its arrival explodes, or at least expands, the already rich narrative of 1967. It is at once the story of what was and what could have been. The question could be asked: does it represent what should have been? Probably not. Maybe the world would not have been ready for this. Maybe SMiLE would have come out and been laughed off the shelves. Maybe music would not have changed (for better, for worse) if this enigmatic masterpiece had been able to go toe-to-toe, a musical rumble in the jungle, with Sgt. Pepper. The only answer is that we can never know.

There is undeniably a cognitive dissonance listening to this, trying to make sense of it, all these years later. As awkward, or uncomfortable, or awe-inspiring as it is to hear 1966 with today’s ears, it cannot be overlooked—attention must be paid. Assessing SMiLE and giving it its deferred due need not detract from everything The Beatles are worshipped for doing. This is, nevertheless, paradigm-shattering stuff, and most welcome to honest and open minds. How often does an artifact come along that radically disrupts, and reconfigures, an established understanding of history? How exceedingly seldom does this happen, if it ever does? It has happened here and everyone has reason to be very happy it did.

In the final analysis, the vision that sustained SMiLE was undeniable; delicate yet capable of withstanding an uninterested world—which is pretty much precisely what happened. The music, this beauty, bears witness to a dream—at times dark yet always unadulterated—and it remains Wilson’s, and our, triumph.

*Originally published in PopMatters, 8/26/2012.

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The Day The Music Died, Redux (Revisited)

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(12/9/2010)

It was thirty years ago today…

Where were you?

I was in my mother’s bedroom, kissing her goodbye before I caught the school bus, and I heard the horrible news on the clock radio (incidentally, I was in this same room when news of Len Bias — the other devastating death of the decade– flashed across the bottom of the TV screen). As a burgeoning Beatles fan (fanatic), this hurt. And I was old enough to know that this was a major blow: on an artistic, social, human scale.

John Lennon’s death, not too many people would debate, was our generation’s JFK. I think people my age might more easily remember where they were when the Challenger blew up on that frigid day in 1986 (or the aforementioned Len Bias tragedy, which still manages to shock, in June of the same year). But the murder of Lennon (like JFK), by gunfire, was the same brutal, irrevocable blow that never really registers. We do our best to make sense of what we’re left with, but the act itself is never really reconcilable or, in many regards, believable. I still can’t quite believe John Lennon was killed, right outside his home, a few weeks before Christmas (and less than a month after the release of what turned out to be his last proper album, the remarkable return-to-form Double Fantasy).

What else is there to say?

There’s probably been more written about Lennon’s death than any other public figure from the 20th Century (except, possibly, JFK), and there is nothing anyone can say to make his premature passing sensible or acceptable. Certainly, his legacy was –and remains– quite secure and as PopMatters recently proved, it seems impossible to say too much about The Beatles. I’ve said it before and I’m obliged to say it again: where the younger fan might ask “What kind of God would take a person like this?” the older fan should answer “The same one who gave him to us”. That’s not good enough, not by a long shot, but Lennon blessed us with as much remarkable music (and joy, and inspiration) as any artist we’ve seen or heard, so it is childish to begrudge what we didn’t get: we ought to celebrate what we did get.

I’m not going to invoke “Imagine” or “A Day In The Life” or “In My Life” or (insert appropriate, but entirely-too-obvious Lennon song here). I was thinking about which songs resonated with me, and were distinctly John Lennon songs. Necessarily, these were post-Pepper compositions as that was when the band began increasingly going their own way. I could think of other examples, so could anyone else, but for me –for now– these five seem to sum up everything great about John Lennon, the artist.

“Across The Universe”

“Dear Prudence”

“Julia”

“Revolution (1)”

“Don’t Let Me Down”

McCartney’s shell-shocked, refreshingly curt response (everyone wanted to hear what he would say, and the reporters were, I reckon, only doing what they get paid to do…but one watches this now and appreciates the guarded and honest reaction: no camera-friendly crocodile tears or mawkish speechifying; this was one-half of Lennon/McCartney coping with the staggering news that his artistic soul mate (sorry Linda, sorry Yoko) had been killed: in many regards, the day that Lennon died was the first day of the rest of Paul’s life).

I couldn’t deny that this phenomenon was not in play while The Beatles were still a working band, but there is no question that Lennon’s posthumous lionization seemed to separate fans into facile camps of “Lennon people” versus “McCartney people”. You know the drill: if you like “Hey Jude” and “Penny Lane” you are a PM person; if you prefer “I Am The Walrus” and “Come Together” you are a JL person (if you prefer “Revolution 9” you are a weird person…just kidding –sort of). The implication, of course, is that Lennon was the more seriousBeatle, the more witty and acerbic and, therefore, worthwhile Beatle. This whole formula is idiotic, insulting and should really be retired as soon as possible. (Put another way, if you have ever said anything along the lines of “Lennon was the only Beatle that mattered” then you are a poser and quite possibly a hipster, neither of which are anything to be proud of.)

To me, real Beatles fans have always looked at that question the way they would if asked who their favorite parent was. Do you have to decide? And why should you? The bottom line is: as claustrophobic as it got in the Beatles universe post-Ono, it is understandable that Genius of that magnitude would eventually bristle at the compromises required to keep the machine running. Not to mention, quiet genius #3, the increasingly confident George Harrison, resented having his artistic wings clipped and understandably bristled as his (increasingly superb) songs got left on the cutting room floor.

It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.

Of course, as the ‘70s showed, ( not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

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In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).

Check this out: “Hey Bulldog” (a rare YouTube instance of archival video that consists of actual footage from the recording session and not clever cut and pasting: this was one of the unfortunately rare instances when the band filmed themselves in the studio). This, above all, is a near miraculous moment in time captured for posterity: it is priceless because it affords a brief but beautiful window into this other world, the laboratory where the magic got made. And this is most definitely magical; it is also exceedingly bittersweet. This track was cut as the group was beginning to put together the puzzle pieces that ultimately comprised The Beatles (White Album) and things had begun to unravel. This, then, is not merely an illustration –albeit a wonderful one– of the organic process of inspiration and improvisation, but a document of the Lennon/McCartney engine powering along at full steam. Watching the interaction (look at Mac’s ebullient body language at the 2.50 mark!) removes any doubt that at their best, these two amigos required ingredients that were always lacking once they went their separate ways.

If you’re lonely you can talk to me…

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The Whiteness of the Whale: Remembering The White Album (Revisited)

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Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.

–Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 – The Whiteness of The Whale)

Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate–figuratively speaking–because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.

It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of THE BEATLES: every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many fans (and/or critics–but who cares what they think?) would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper (let me stand up and be counted here).

In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis. What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (“Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”); which ones have never ceased to astonish–even after a thousand listens? (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The songs themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obssessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.

That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased–and listened to–actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped. All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”–or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?

Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1” opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?

I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9” was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as well. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.

Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ’68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9” (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ’67 and ’69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.

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Love Is Old, Love Is New: Another Appreciation of ‘Abbey Road’ (Revisited, “New Shit” Edition)

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“New shit,” as the Dude said, “has come to light.”

I was unaware of this, but have now seen the light. Let it shine until tomorrow. Let it be.

I don’t even have a question, but here is the answer:

Whenever I listen to Abbey Road, I find myself feeling grateful that the collective world of musicians did not, upon hearing it for the first time, throw up their hands and get day jobs. Why bother? they did not ask, allowing us to remain thankful for everything that keeps filling our ears, all these years later. But what must it have sounded like, to mortals simply trying to occupy the same planet, when this one originally dropped?

Abbey Road is not Revolver, or Sgt. Pepper or even The White Album;it is merely The Beatles’ best album. Ironically, it’s not a perfect album (if such a thing could even be said to exist — a fun debate for another time, although the dicey proposition has been discussed in brief here); like I said, it’s not Revolver. It does what the rarest of artistic creations can do: it is more than that. How, for instance, could any album containing “Octopus’s Garden” possibly, under any circumstances be appraised as perfect? (Well, for starters, two words: “Yellow Submarine”, also, of course, sung by our beloved Ringo.) The point is, an album with such an overabundance of riches (Question: is such a thing possible? Answer: yes) does not only compensate for the sore spots, it overwhelms them with its sheer force of being. You could drop a teardrop in a river and nobody will taste the salt.

And, for the record, I not only unashamedly endorse the much-despised “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, I relish it (It’s a sing-along song about a serial killer for Christ’s sake; could anyone pull this off with such aplomb? And if Paul was a tad too sentimental and sappy at times, it helped cut the self-righteous solipsism that Lennon was more than a little guilty of, albeit often in the service of stunning art; consider some of the best and worst tracks from The White Album for examples of each). So suck on this, haters:

Of course, even this album is not without controversy. Even within the band, Lennon (who, let’s not kid ourselves, had a more than moderate envy of Macca’s prodigious and, circa 1969, unfathomable compositional facility) could scarcely stomach the second side (the extended “suite” which certain fans –like this one– consider a towering achievement in any music, ever). It’s hard to quibble with Lennon’s work on “Come Together” and the hopped-up anguish of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which bookend the first side(and it’s worth noting the latter features astounding bass lines throughout courtesy of The Walrus).

Just as Lennon possibly edges out his mate, song for song, on Revolver and The White Album, Mac is the prime mover on Abbey Road (as he was on Sgt. Pepper). One somewhat overlooked track that continues to intrigue me (aside from the obvious fact that it rules) is “Oh! Darling”. Lennon allegedly was salty that Mac opted to sing lead vocals on this one, since the style of the song was, ostensibly, more suited to Lennon’s skill-set. Well….Paul could scream with the best of them, and while I would love to hear a version of this song with Lennon taking a crack at lead vocals, I think this remains one of Mac’s enduring performances (the entire tune is a tour de force). And, not to mince words, I don’t think even Lennon could have pulled off the last line (I’ll never dooooooooo you no haaarm!!) as indelibly as his partner in crime did.

Oh, you want more?

So why, in the midst of discussing one of the great albums, am I falling into the trap of even entertaining the whole Lennon/McCartney thing?

Well…with the (unimaginable) prospect of Lennon’s death approaching its 30th anniversary (seriously, how is this possible?), get ready for some overly earnest, over-the-top and mostly well-intended attempts to elevate him even higher (is that possible?) into the artistic and human pantheon. I will mostly welcome such endeavors, but some of us will be obliged to inject some perspective on the whole JOHN WAS THE BEATLES! hysteria.

I had a bit to say about this last year, on the occasion of anniversary #29:

I couldn’t deny that this phenomenon was not in play while The Beatles were still a working band, but there is no question that Lennon’s posthumous lionization seemed to separate fans into facile camps of “Lennon people” versus “McCartney people”. You know the drill: if you like “Hey Jude” and “Penny Lane” you are a PM person; if you prefer “I Am The Walrus” and “Come Together” you are a JL person (if you prefer “Revolution 9″ you are a weird person…just kidding –sort of). The implication, of course, is that Lennon was the more seriousBeatle, the more witty and acerbic and, therefore, worthwhile Beatle. This whole formula is idiotic, insulting and should really be retired as soon as possible. (Put another way, if you have ever said anything along the lines of “Lennon was the only Beatle that mattered” then you are a poser and quite possibly a hipster, neither of which are anything to be proud of.)

To me, real Beatles fans have always looked at that question the way they would if asked who their favorite parent was. Do you have to decide? And why should you? The bottom line is: as claustrophobic as it got in the Beatles universe post-Ono, it is understandable that Genius of that magnitude would eventually bristle at the compromises required to keep the machine running. Not to mention, quiet genius #3, the increasingly confident George Harrison, resented having his artistic wings clipped and understandably bristled as his (increasingly superb) songs got left on the cutting room floor.

It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going.

Of course, as the ‘70s showed, (not unlike Cream before them, or Pink Floyd after them) no one amongst the Fab Four came close to making music on their own equal to the work they did together. (The people who think Imagine and Plastic Ono Band are superior to any proper Beatles albums, aside from outing themselves as “John people” — not that there’s anything wrong with that — are arguably not true Beatles fanatics. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that).

In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument to the contrary — and I say that as someone who accepts the fact that the break-up was probably inevitable, in the grand scheme of things. Mourning what could or should have been seems churlish, like wishing Shakespeare had lived a bit longer and written another half-dozen plays. With an embarrassment of riches like this, it’s insane to quibble (and, in a confession that marks me, for better or worse, as a Beatles fanatic, I find much to enjoy in all of the solo albums: as always, Ringo is best in small doses and each other member indulges a tad too much in their obsessions for my liking. In closing, they needed each other, perhaps more than they ever realized).

This band is like the mafia was to Michael Corleone; every time I think I’ve said all I can (should) say, they pull me back in. And if I’m going to be pulled back, I’d better Get Back.

More (too much more?) on The Beatles, here and here.

To be continued, I’m sure…

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The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Icarus soars too close to the sun. Othello, vulnerable and halfway crazy, mistakenly trusts the evil Iago. The product of a celebrated cultural era sets out to fictionalize some of the forces that made his ascent—and disintegration—possible (hint: he is the same author who opined there are no second acts in American lives). The captain of a sinking ship, obsessed unto madness by a malevolent mammal, takes his crew with him under the water into oblivion. A small man, armed only with a sling-shot, takes aim and slays the giant. The underdog gets off the mat to dethrone the champion, the nerd flies out of a phone booth, the orphan slides a magic slipper on her foot, a kid who would be king pulls the sword from the stone…

Get the picture? All of these elements are, to varying extents, contained within this epic Tragedy that detours into Comedy and ends up as Romance. And the rest is History: the construction, dissolution and redemption of one man’s very American Dream.

Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years—and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox—Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.

For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called The Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Sounds was not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.

When “Good Vibrations” dominated the charts in late ’66, it was a gauntlet thrown as much as a premonition of greater things to come. The Beatles got there first and Sgt. Pepper became the undisputed artistic and cultural event of 1967. SMiLE, initially—and tellingly—entitled Dumb Angel, was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ counterpunch. Impossible as it might be to imagine, Brian Wilson was poised to share the stage with Lennon/McCartney. It doesn’t compute to contemporary minds because decades of blank space and unfulfilled promise did what history always does: vindicate the winners. But Wilson, as much as his peers across the pond, was edging the idiom toward the avant-garde, and the arresting results of “Good Vibrations” could be seen as an opening salvo. SMiLE, then, was going to be the band’s masterpiece, and possibly the crown jewel of the Summer of Love. It very well might have put The Beach Boys, not The Beatles, on the top shelf critically as well as commercially.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Wilson lost first the goodwill and support of his brethren and then, his mind. (Not unlike the other sad casualty of ’67, Syd Barrett: it was an escalating intake of drugs—especially the LSD he credited with unlocking the doors and assisting the great visions— that accelerated his southward spiral.) And so, the work in progress was mostly scrapped and the shell-shocked group cobbled together the odd, occasionally sublime—if ultimately underwhelming—replacement, Smiley Smile. In the ensuing decades those aborted sessions—the strange fruits of Wilson’s measureless mind—became rock music’s Holy Grail. The material simply could not find the light of day; Wilson was too far gone and the results allegedly too impenetrable for public release.

And now, in a real-life Deus ex machina, rock’s scariest horror story has been transformed into pop music’s Dead Sea Scrolls. Salvaged from oblivion with the blessing—and assistance—of the man who made them, in late 2011 we received the opportunity to hear them, in full (or as full as we can reasonably hope) for the first time. The results must be considered as close to an unvarnished approximation as possible of Wilson’s original vision, and they are miraculous. Like a bombed and burned-out cathedral, there is dirt and dust aplenty, and the stained glass is, in places, broken and filled with cobwebs and strange empty spaces. This dirty authenticity only adds layers of meaning to the overall impact.

First reaction: it’s difficult, bordering on unreasonable to believe the current incarnation of SMiLE—modeled as it is after Wilson’s crucial but now less significant Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE from 2004—is comprised mostly of uncompleted drafts, bits and pieces. It sounds that great; it feels that complete.

Second reaction: I kept finding myself thinking much less of Sgt. Pepper and more of two later Beatles works, The Beatles (White Album) and Abbey Road. It’s all in here, and where The White Album is a glorious, murky mess, these SMiLE sessions are more like wave after wave crashing onto soft sand. There are moments that conjure the acoustic bliss of “Julia” and “Mother Nature’s Son”, the surreal parlor music of “Martha My Dear” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, the baroque touches of “Long, Long, Long” and “Good Night” and the kitchen sink chaos of “Wild Honey Pie” and (of course) “Revolution 9”. And where Lennon/McCartney got some wonderfully satirical licks on topical—and enduring—American history via “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Rocky Raccoon”, Wilson was clearly attempting to tackle the whole mythical cycle of westward expansion. As such, SMiLE might be best understood, or appreciated as a psychedelic tour of forward motion, incorporating sounds and sights (and smells and tastes) invoking myriad aspects of Americana. We are treated to chanting, cowboy movie theme music, field studies ranging from Indian to Hawaiian, cool-ish jazz, tone poems with classical elements, cartoonish sound effects, Musique concrete and a yodel thrown in for good measure. And most of all, tons and tons of the best harmonizing you’ve (never) heard, until now.

To me, and I’ve written about it (http://bullmurph.com/2010/10/05/love-is-old-love-is-new-another-appreciation-of-abbey-road/), the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes” (of which more, shortly).

One can—and should—recognize that, beginning with Revolver, The Beatles had the inclination, and money, to spend as much time in the studio as they saw fit, tinkering and tailoring until they were satisfied. They also, for understandable and well-documented reasons, had collectively grown weary of touring. Wilson too, had no stomach for the hustle and grind, even in the better days, but of course his band mates did (and still do). For the undeniable advancements of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, Lennon and McCartney enjoyed a mutual focus and solidarity, not to mention the quite capable services of Harrison, Starr and the invaluable George Martin. Wilson, by comparison, was trying to hit a grand slam with no one else on base—or on board (and he just about knocked it out of the ballpark before a Tempest blew in and suspended play for almost a half-century). Needless to say, unlike the environment in the Beatles’ camp, the SMiLE sessions comprised the inevitable tension of a band following the unsteady lead of its eccentric yet brilliant conductor, with one eye on The Road and all this entailed: adoring crowds, fat wallets and the safety of hit singles.

“Don’t fuck with the formula,” Mike Love supposedly complained as the material grew too complicated—and unconventional—for his liking. Love’s words, and the attitude that prompted them, serve not only as a succinct summary of the internal forces Wilson found himself confronting (even in an increasingly fragile state of mind he was still the de-facto leader and resident visionary, something Syd Barrett abruptly ceased to be well before his eventual ouster), but also represents the rapacious imperatives of any commercial enterprise: keep it simple, appeal to as many people as possible and above all, never leave any opportunity for money on the table.

That Wilson lost this battle, ostensibly a victim of his own excesses and weakness, says a great deal about the ugly side of the unbridled ‘60s. Like Syd Barrett and too many anonymous psychedelic foot soldiers to count, LSD was a major incentive for creativity and expansion, but it carried a cost. By Wilson’s own reckoning, acid played an essential role in his stylistic and compositional progression, but it also hastened some of the off-kilter internal mechanisms that preyed on his confidence, if not his ability to cope. The already controversial and clownish Mike Love comes off worse than ever the more one thinks about these circumstances and what was at stake in late ’66 and early ’67. Shouting not-so-sweet nothings in Wilson’s ear would be unfortunate enough coming from a record company executive; coming from a fellow band mate, especially one who had gained a great deal more fame and wealth than he ever could have done on his own, is unforgivable.

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia is that Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.

So where does that leave us? Assuming that SMiLE is superior, ultimately, to Pet Sounds, how profoundly does its belated release shift of perceptions of the ‘60s; of rock and roll history? First, in what ways does it alter our well-ingrained admiration of Pet Sounds? It shouldn’t, necessarily. Put simply, just as everyone is, correctly, comfortable with The Beatles having several albums represented in what we acknowledge as the upper echelon (think Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road, which typically land in the Top 20, if not Top 10, of critical lists), SMiLE must correspondingly assume its overdue but welcome place in the pantheon.

Now, the fun begins. Where does it go? Is it better than Pet Sounds? In terms of ambition, scope and execution, this writer has no problem putting it at the top of the heap. And, the unthinkable: is it better than Sgt. Pepper? Yes. More influential? Obviously not. More popular? Not even close. More important to the band’s development? Hardly, since unlike The Beatles, The Beach Boys retreated, getting back to where they once belonged. But taking it on a song-by-song basis, is it superior? Unquestionably.

Now, the real fun: not much can stand alongside “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “A Day in the Life”. You can even throw in “She’s Leaving Home” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” if you must. Can even those four stand comfortably alongside “Heroes and Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Cabin Essence” and—take your pick—“Do You Like Worms” or “Vega-Tables”? We can leave aside “Good Vibrations” to accompany “Strawberry Fields Forever”, both released as singles in ’66. It could even be conceded that, based on the above, The Beatles best songs edge out whichever ones we can throw up against them. But, as is the case with most classic albums, it’s the odds and sods that make the ultimate case for greatness. Consider the opening salvo of “Our Prayer”, and remember Wilson remarked that his desire was to write a “teenage symphony to God”. The creepy acid-washed “You Are My Sunshine”; the gorgeous segue of “Look (Song for Children)” into “Child is the Father of the Man”; the quirky, Zappa-esque romp of “Holidays”; the pre-Abbey Road majesty of “Wonderful”; the Beatles-meet-Beefheart “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”; the presciently prog-rock “Love To Say Dada”.

And, above all, the dark gem of the lot, “Wind Chimes”. This, more than anything else The Beach Boys did (and only Love and The Doors came close, or tried), seems to provide the until-now unheard and definitive counterpunch to the phoned-in feel-good anthem that did dominate the summer of ’67, “All You Need is Love”. Calculated if not entirely cynical, “All You Need is Love” is LSD-Lite, the calm before the White Album aftermath. As a complete and consistent artistic statement, only Love’s Forever Changes (similarly embellished as it is with horns, strings, and harpsichord, with harmonies and a sense of dread lurking around every other note, occasionally threatening to move in and suffocate everything) presages the ugliness around the corner like “Wind Chimes” does—and it does so with a feeling and lack of self-consciousness that seems all the more remarkable, today. Perhaps Syd Barrett’s “Jugband Blues” delineates the harrowing descent, breaking down in real time, better than anything else. “Wind Chimes” splits the difference, and does so with the benefit of Wilson’s inimitable combination of innocence, wonder and frailty.

What results is a product that defies anything any hipster or detractor—of any generation—can credibly dismiss. SMiLE is earnest, it is honest and it is almost entirely unique. Its arrival explodes, or at least expands, the already rich narrative of 1967. It is at once the story of what was and what could have been. The question could be asked: does it represent what should have been? Probably not. Maybe the world would not have been ready for this. Maybe SMiLE would have come out and been laughed off the shelves. Maybe music would not have changed (for better, for worse) if this enigmatic masterpiece had been able to go toe-to-toe, a musical rumble in the jungle, with Sgt. Pepper. The only answer is that we can never know.

There is undeniably a cognitive dissonance listening to this, trying to make sense of it, all these years later. As awkward, or uncomfortable, or awe-inspiring as it is to hear 1966 with today’s ears, it cannot be overlooked—attention must be paid. Assessing SMiLE and giving it its deferred due need not detract from everything The Beatles are worshipped for doing. This is, nevertheless, paradigm-shattering stuff, and most welcome to honest and open minds. How often does an artifact come along that radically disrupts, and reconfigures, an established understanding of history? How exceedingly seldom does this happen, if it ever does? It has happened here and everyone has reason to be very happy it did.

In the final analysis, the vision that sustained SMiLE was undeniable; delicate yet capable of withstanding an uninterested world—which is pretty much precisely what happened. The music, this beauty, bears witness to a dream—at times dark yet always unadulterated—and it remains Wilson’s, and our, triumph.

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