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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A Week of Americana. Part Two: Captain Beefheart

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Don Van Vliet (R.I.P.), with his idiosyncracies, individuality and iconoclasm, represents virtually everything that is profoundly beautiful about America both as a concept and actuality. Like his compatriots Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee (to name only two, both of whom figured prominently in the summer of ’67), he was possibly driven to –or past– the point of insanity by…what, exactly? His genius? Reality? The impossibility of adapting, much less conforming, to a society that has rules men like Van Vliet are genetically predisposed to circumvent? Never fully appreciated during his time, it’s painful to contemplate his ongoing legacy in a world of free downloads and celebrity-anointed idols. Captain Beefheart is an original American Idol, and an ideal American: artist, inspiration, human. He bypassed convention by becoming the possibility of what his impossible brain imagined. And we should all be grateful to have had him.

(From my December 2010 tribute O Captain! My Captain!: The Unique Magic of Don Van Vliet)

As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately.”

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would –and did— endorse the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

Now that he’s gone, many folks will—and should—rhapsodize about the album most agree is Beefheart’s defining work (even if they’ve never actually listened to it), Trout Mask Replica. Among its many quirky and/or quixotic charms, this is possibly the first album to be so arty it became anti-art. Deliberately cacophonous, even confrontational, it seems to be searching for magic inside of the discordant chaos. The results will mean different things to different people, but Van Vliet had a method for his madness: perfectly capable musicians playing behind, beside and beneath anything that, on first (or fifteenth) listen seems to make sense. The album could be considered one extended love song to insanity, or a smirking expense report from the other side of reality. It is one of the all-time cult following rites of passage: if you are down with this, you could conceivably be down with anything –for better or worse.

Needless to say, Trout Mask Replica is not easy going or easily recommended, and in fact, one could (should) start just about anywhere else. If anyone reading this is uninitiated, it affords me an excellent opportunity to talk about the most accessible option, which happens to be my favorite Beefheart album, Safe As Milk. It is the first album, and also, in my opinion, the best one. I do not expect that many people share this perspective, but I think everyone in the know would agree this is the ideal point of entry. If there was even a modicum of justice in our plastic factory world, this would be widely considered one of rock music’s most out there yet addictive barbaric yawps.

(Sidenote: was 1967 an all-time year for debut albums or what? In addition to Safe As Milk there were first albums by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. Most people, if they think about Safe As Milk at all, consider it a delightful little lark, a nice enough opening salvo. For my money, it’s more than that; a lot more. And it’s funny, because when we think about the Summer of Love (if we think about the Summer of Love), it’s all about love being all you need and how The Beatles dropped their definitive statement, Sgt. Pepper, which might happen to be the most important album ever, et cetera. Interestingly, two albums that did not get much press at the time, but have certainly found their audiences—however small—in the subsequent decades, seem to best represent the reality of what that seminal year meant, musically and culturally. I’m talking about Safe As Milk as well as Love’s Forever Changes. Maybe the ultimate reason these two albums, aside from their commercial failings, tend to not register in the facile narrative of hippie nostalgia is because both albums saw through the façade then, and in hindsight seem all the more remarkable for their refusal to pay lip service, lyrically and aesthetically, to the up-with-people ethos of the time.)


Look at the band on the back cover. They are characters from a Wes Anderson movie: all wearing coat and tie, one inexplicably sporting leather gloves, one rocking a stylish chapeau (who happens to be named Alex St. Clair Snouffer). Not pictured—and not credited—is young wunderkind Ry Cooder, who lent his considerable slide guitar skills to the proceedings. They look more like stockbrokers than songwriters, which only adds to the mystique since they, as it happened, made some of the more unsettling music on the scene.

How does music like this happen? How is Captain Beefheart even conceivable? Do you believe in magic? Well how about the Magic Band? We know that the world didn’t know what to make of this album, then. What can we make of it, now? Here are a few thoughts: it doesn’t sound of its time, or any time, and it is one of those (very) rare recordings that can be returned to constantly and somehow, someway remains unfettered and invigorating. Each song is a totally complete statement, whimsical, yet always with the air of danger: like a trip about to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never does. The creative energy and offbeat ebullience make this record approachable but indescribable; it’s all in there: blues, doo-wop, psychedelia, faux-pop and a handful of songs that sound utterly unlike anything anyone has ever done.

Listening to “Dropout Boogie” is like watching the rock and roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman. This track works as well as any (from this album, or from his entire oeuvre) in terms of epitomizing Van Vliet’s unvarnished and utterly uncompromised approach. If the Captain should be worshipped for one thing it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency. Considering this album was recorded during the height of the “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” hysteria, a song like “Dropout Boogie” becomes a brave turd in the punch bowl, serving to question the long-term prospects of Timothy Leary’s call to arms. “And what about after that?” he asks, a line that joins Arthur Lee’s “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” (from Forever Changes) as two of the most enduring—and prescient—from ’67.

Then there is a song like “Yellow Brick Road” that could almost make a white guy dance, and then wonder why everyone doesn’t know this and love it.

Safe As Milk was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a (Korn Ring) middle finger in the face of all the lame conformists who scoff at what they can’t understand. It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine, Redux (Revisited)

Talk about better living through chemistry!

Albert Hofmann, the chemist who invented/discovered LSD, has passed away at the dignified, enviable age of 102.

On April 16, 1943, he made history.

On April 19, 1943 he described it.

“In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

More on his life HERE and HERE.

Debate did, and does, rage about the benefits and risks (intelligent and honest debate considers both) of psychedelics in general and LSD in particular. Being a chemical, and being demonstrably more intense, LSD is a bit easier to defame (and criminalize), whereas psilocybin (magic mushrooms) grow in the earth and, like marijuana, resist easy condemnation. Unlike alcohol or cigarettes, the mushrooms and green plants that grow in the ground are, quite literally, natural.

Here’s Bill Hicks, perhaps the most articulate (and convincing) proponent of the possibilities of hallucinogens:

And more:

How many well-meaning, but unwatchable scenes have attempted to capture some aspect of a psychedelic experience? Here’s one of the more powerful ones, from one of the better movies:

Easy to romanticize, easy to ridicule, in reality very complicated, the potential triumph and terror of use/abuse of LSD can be summed up in two words: Syd Barrett (much more on him HERE). A snippet:

So what happened? Theories and stories abound, but all you need to do is look at the pictures. Before, during, and just after the release of their debut, Syd is, quite simply, a specimen. Even if you never heard him play or sing, he had charisma and beauty to burn, and it is easy to understand why so many people attached themselves to him. By the time David Gilmour—whom the frantic bandmates recruited to at first fill in for, and later replace, their increasingly erratic leader—begins turning up in group photos, Barrett has dark trenches under his eyes and is already perfecting the thousand-yard stare Roger Waters would later immortalize (“Now there’s a look in your eyes / Like black holes in the sky”). Was it drugs? Schizophrenia? Probably both, possibly neither, but everyone who was there attests that Barrett went from experimenting to ingesting, and that his intake of LSD went from awe-inspiring to alarming in a matter of months. Certainly the rapid (too rapid?) ascent from paisley underground to Top of the Pops would potentially prove dodgy for any sensitive soul who may have happened to be a genius. Add those drugs and the likelihood of a preexisting condition, and the resulting damage was best, if most starkly, described by Syd himself: “I tattooed my brain all the way…”

The next part is where it gets intriguing, if still unresolved. That Barrett saw his shot at superstardom dissipate into the darkening circles of his bruised brain is more than a little tragic. That we have a soundtrack to some of that dissolution, as both an artistic and human document, is more than a little miraculous. Whatever one thinks of the work he recorded post-Pink Floyd (and opinions, predictably, are all over the place), arguably not since Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Allan Poe have we seen, for posterity, such poignant creative evidence of an aggravated, altered psyche pushed well past endurable limits.

Put another way, here is Barrett, pre-and-post disintegration, a stunning example of the ways he expanded his mind and art, and a horrifying illumination of the damage he did:

His bandmates carried on without him and went on to make history. Along the way they made one of the best sonic explorations of all-things psychedlic, the soundrack to the film More (more on that, and them, HERE and HERE). The single best song concerning what one may see/hear/feel during a trip is, in my opinion, the surreal, shimmering “Quicksilver”. (The unavailable studio version is best, but this is a nice YouTube rarity.)

I’ve always been intrigued (and more than a little haunted) by the sounds and images (the band and especially the crowd) of Country Joe and the Fish playing “Section 43” at Monterey. Definitely some happy hippies caught on film:

For me, the entire story could –and perhaps should– be synthesized (see what I did there?) in a single one-minute scene:

To be cont’d…

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1967 and the Prog-Rock Progenitors* (Revisited)

Progressive rock reached its full potential in the ‘70s, but its roots trace back to the previous decade. While an attempt to determine when and with whom prog-rock formally originated is impossible (not to mention pointless), it is instructive to consider which artists pointed the way.

The official or at least easiest story is that when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be appreciated—and appraised—as Art. Of course there is considerable truth to this account, but there were plenty of other bands, circa 1967, edging things in a direction that was at once more evolved, complicated and unclassifiable.

For starters, The Beatles themselves had already made significant strides: Rubber Soul and especially Revolver showcased a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import) and restlessness with regard to convention. “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this song nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit.

If 1967 characterizes a high point (famously, if a bit unfairly exemplified solely by Sgt. Pepper), it also initiated an explicit realignment of what was possible in rock music—for better or worse. Two albums that, in their way, illustrate where the art form would go are The Who’s The Who Sell Out and Love’s Forever Changes. In fact, if you combine the various concepts and approaches of both, a rough formula can be gleaned, previewing much of what was to come.

Indeed, both Love and The Who (led by Arthur Lee and Pete Townshend, respectively) had already made advancements on previous albums. The Who’s cheeky mini-opera, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” provided a template that Townshend—and many subsequent imitators—would utilize to greater effect. Love is notable for creating, alongside Dylan, Zappa and The Rolling Stones, one of the first songs to fill an entire album side. Love is not extolled nearly enough for the subtle ways they augmented the possibilities of a standard pop song: incorporating strings, flutes and harpsichords are all elements that make Side One of Da Capo a ceaselessly colorful and engaging listening experience.

Neil Young, not long for Buffalo Springfield, employed strings (with Jack Nitzsche’s supervision) for his elaborate miniature epics “Broken Arrow” and “Expecting to Fly”. The Moody Blues took a definitive leap forward, collaborating with Decca’s house orchestra to embellish their conceptual song-cycle Days of Future Passed. The Moody Blues were also one of the first bands to make prominent use of the mellotron (courtesy of Mike Pinder who, incidentally, is credited with turning John Lennon, pre “Strawberry Fields Forever”, onto the instrument), which would become a fixture in the prog-rock sound.

Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” remain ubiquitous psychedelic anthems from 1967, but it was arguably two lesser known and celebrated (at the time) acts that provided crucial direction for more ambitious artists. The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart dropped albums that inspired and influenced the way modern music could connect. By turns surreal and cynical, Lou Reed and Don Van Vliet turned a mordant eye upon society and extended the lyrical possibilities Bob Dylan pioneered. Tracks like “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Drop Out Boogie” and “Electricity” (theremin!) are uncanny blueprints of a kitchen sink sensibility that quickly became commonplace.

Special mention must be made of the inimitable Brian Wilson. Even though his magnum opus SMiLE never saw the light of day (much more on that, here, “The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream”) he can be—and has been, by none other than Paul McCartney—credited with inspiring if not intimidating the Fab Four to raise their game. Although the world would not hear the ideas and innovations Wilson began to assemble in 1966(!), enough material was salvaged to ultimately surface on 1967’s Smiley Smile, and “Heroes and Villains” could be considered the yin to “A Day in the Life’s” yang.

Two other debuts, both released prior to Sgt. Pepper, contain multiple elements that would be mined throughout the ensuing decade. We will never know what direction(s) Jimi Hendrix may have headed in, but the sources of a very different rock sound are sprinkled liberally throughout Are You Experienced?. His virtuosity alone served notice and opened the floodgates of imitation and indulgence; arguably no one has yet caught up to what Hendrix was achieving between 1967 and 1970. Whatever his merits as a lyricist (never mind poet), there is no question that Jim Morrison introduced a modus operandi that was at once more literate and dark than most of the rock albums that preceded The Doors.

Morrison’s two extended album closers, “The End” and “When The Music’s Over” (from Strange Days, also released in 1967) brought a dramatic, cathartic aspect to songwriting that translated to more theatric live performances: every arena act learned a trick or two from the Lizard King. However effectively (or farcically, depending upon your preference) the organ and guitar solos on “Light My Fire” approximate jazz improvisation, Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek did the near-impossible (or unthinkable, depending upon your preference) on the song that helped define the Summer of Love: they turned attention from the singer’s looks (and vocals) to the band mates’ sounds, if even for a few minutes.

Finally, enough can never be said (and much more will be said, before long) about Pink Floyd. Another 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded at the same time in the same studio as Sgt. Pepper, is a fully realized burst of sui generis psychedelic perfection. Lyrically, it ranges from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, revealing the unique and astonishing mind of a 21-year-old Syd Barrett.

Captivating as Barrett’s words (and voice) is throughout; the real revelation is his songwriting. The tunes, with one notable exception (“Interstellar Overdrive”), are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Eccentric, erudite and ebullient, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a happy explosion of creative potential, a template Floyd would expand upon in a stretch of possibly unrivaled masterpieces throughout the ‘70s.

By 1968 it was apparent many artists were paying attention, and a trio of songs signifies some of the ways the prog-rock aesthetic was already in full effect. Perhaps most notoriously, Iron Butterfly went all in, crafting a side-long song that strained for profundity, intensity and inscrutability. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (In The Garden of Eden?) super-sized the instrumental passages from “Light My Fire” (including a drum solo!), and incorporated earnest if overbearing explorations that drew from Country Joe and the Fish’s acid-drenched “Section 43”: over the course of 18 minutes it is psychedelia unbound or pretentious noodling personified (perhaps both).

Eric Burdon, who had found fame mining blues motifs with The Animals, threw his hat into the ring and crafted one of the more successful anti-war ballads, “Sky Pilot”. The band is focused and at just over seven minutes the song still seems just right: neither noodling (musically) or preaching (lyrically), the inclusion of sound effects and bagpipes are novel strategies, albeit ones that would become familiar—and somewhat stale in the next decade.

Lastly, another overlooked artist who deserves more, Arthur Brown, reached incisively into the recent past and did much to predict the future. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown is an early concept album, incorporating mythology, religion and astute sociological insight. Best known for the one-and-done hit single “Fire”, the rest of Brown’s debut holds up well even as it’s unmistakably of its time.

His flair for the dramatic (bounding onto the stage with his metal helmet aflame) and painted face anticipated acts as diverse as Kiss, Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel. The remarkable “Spontaneous Apple Creation”, which sounds like a mash-up of Sun Ra and Ennio Morricone, with vocals (and lyrics) that undeniably influenced Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, remains a signpost of how far rock music had come in only a couple of years.

*Second installment of new monthly PopMatters column, “The Amazing Pudding” (First installment HERE).

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They’ll Never Put Me in Their Bag: The Continuing Story of Syd Barrett

(REVISITED FROM 11/10):

When he died in 2006, after decades of cult-figure status and willful anonymity, Syd Barrett was arguably better known as the person who inspired one of Pink Floyd’s best albums, and not the man who once led and named them. Certainly, the fact that he put out two albums, even after (and/or during the continuation of) his epic—and archetypal—drug-induced disintegration has always seemed more of an afterthought than fans in the know find acceptable.

Perhaps the release of An Introduction to Syd Barrett, a generous sampler of selections from those two albums, along with highlights from Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and a handful of singles from 1967, will signal a long overdue reappraisal. When it comes to Barrett, it’s not so much a matter of whether the time is right. Syd was infamously unfashionable by 1970 (when both of his solo albums were released), and that music has always been difficult to attach to a particular time or place. While this fact ensured that the albums were marginalized and misunderstood then, they remain, as much as any pop music made four decades ago, timeless.

This collection begins, appropriately, with the single “Arnold Layne”, a song sufficiently original and compelling to land Pink Floyd (then called “The” Pink Floyd, and named by Barrett after semi-obscure blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council) an offer from EMI. The single—which hit number 20 in the UK—concerning a cross-dressing clothesline thief, still astonishes with its wit, poetry (“doors bang / chain gang”) and brazen finger in the eye of buttoned-down British sensibilities (“takes two to know”). It signaled the arrival of a significant and utterly unique talent. That promise was realized on the follow-up single “See Emily Play”, which, with its shifting tempos, sped-up pianos, backward taping, and Technicolor trippiness, provides an authentic English counterpoint to the hippier and dippier Flower Power singles being cranked out across the sea in 1967.

With considerable confidence, Pink Floyd entered Abbey Road studios to record the debut. Across the hall, the Beatles were busy tinkering with the album that remains the most talked about work from the Summer of Love, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The results, remarkable in and of themselves, assume an added layer of relevance when considered as primarily the result of one man’s singular vision (as opposed to the Four Fabs, or five if you count George Martin—and you should). The three selections, “Chapter 24”, “Bike”, and a remix of “Matilda Mother” (an early version with different lyrics) are an adequate overview, but anyone who wants to more fully understand Pink Floyd, 1967, psychedelic rock, and one of the more consistently satisfying debut albums ever is obliged to acquire The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Oh, by the way, this one’s Pink. With due respect to Waters, Wright, and Mason, the band’s first effort was Barrett’s baby. His lyrics, ranging from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, reveal an erudite and eccentric wordsmith, more light than dark, more ebullient than enigmatic. Piper, in short, is a happy explosion of creative potential, producing fruit that flourishes more than 40 years on. And intriguing as Barrett’s words and voice are throughout, the real revelation is his songwriting. The compositions, with the notable exception of the extended space-rock jam “Interstellar Overdrive”, are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Barrett’s clever if unconventional use of a Zippo lighter as a makeshift slide gave him the ability to play fast while conjuring a shrill metallic shriek from his guitar. Those glistening cries are in full effect on the single “Apples and Oranges”, adding just enough quirky edge to give it the signature Floyd sound (that, and the “quack quack” after the line “feeding ducks in the afternoon tide”—a classic Barrett embellishment).

Considering Piper and the handful of singles and outtakes, one could make a reasonable case that Barrett’s diamond shined as bright as any artist’s in 1967. (And beyond: Although not included in this set, consider the fey, teasing vocal performance on “Candy and a Currant Bun”—formerly “Let’s Roll Another One”, a title the band was obliged to change for obvious reasons—which is worth noting for the template it provided the young David Bowie.) The world had every reason to think that Pink Floyd was going to make game-changing music and be around for a long, long time. As we know, they did, and were; albeit without their front man, who was asked to leave the band less than a year after Piper was released. It was unbelievable then, and remains difficult to completely comprehend now.

So what happened? Theories and stories abound, but all you need to do is look at the pictures. Before, during, and just after the release of their debut, Syd is, quite simply, a specimen. Even if you never heard him play or sing, he had charisma and beauty to burn, and it is easy to understand why so many people attached themselves to him. By the time David Gilmour—whom the frantic bandmates recruited to at first fill in for, and later replace, their increasingly erratic leader—begins turning up in group photos, Barrett has dark trenches under his eyes and is already perfecting the thousand-yard stare Roger Waters would later immortalize (“Now there’s a look in your eyes / Like black holes in the sky”). Was it drugs? Schizophrenia? Probably both, possibly neither, but everyone who was there attests that Barrett went from experimenting to ingesting, and that his intake of LSD went from awe-inspiring to alarming in a matter of months. Certainly the rapid (too rapid?) ascent from paisley underground to Top of the Pops would potentially prove dodgy for any sensitive soul who may have happened to be a genius. Add those drugs and the likelihood of a preexisting condition, and the resulting damage was best, if most starkly, described by Syd himself: “I tattooed my brain all the way…”

The next part is where it gets intriguing, if still unresolved. That Barrett saw his shot at superstardom dissipate into the darkening circles of his bruised brain is more than a little tragic. That we have a soundtrack to some of that dissolution, as both an artistic and human document, is more than a little miraculous. Whatever one thinks of the work he recorded post-Pink Floyd (and opinions, predictably, are all over the place), arguably not since Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Allan Poe have we seen, for posterity, such poignant creative evidence of an aggravated, altered psyche pushed well past endurable limits.

With this in mind, listening to “Jugband Blues” (the only Barrett track to make it onto Floyd’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets) and the way the song shifts from buoyant to desolate could almost be considered a case study of psychosis as it was happening. But it is, of course, more than that: It is also a tape recorder running while a brilliant, fragile musician screamed his last scream. And even in those moments the case for Barrett’s madcap acumen is powerful. On “Jugband Blues”, he made the puzzling decision to bring a Salvation Army band into the studio. What ensues is at once hilarious and harrowing, and by the time the din dies down and it’s just an acoustic guitar and Syd’s somber voice (“And what exactly is a dream? / And what exactly is a joke?”), you wonder how he made it work even as your heart breaks.

Considering he was the one who benefited most (artistically and financially) from Barrett’s exodus, it is at once fitting and touching that David Gilmour probably did the most to help his old Cambridge mate. After his songs “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” (both widely bootlegged, but never available for official release, and presumably unavailable—due to legal or copyright issues—for this collection, though they would both be welcome and essential additions) were rejected by the band during the A Saucerful of Secrets sessions, Syd was mostly absent from recording studios and the public eye for the better part of a year. After some aborted sessions in ’68, Barrett resumed work on a collection of songs that eventually became The Madcap Laughs (released in January, 1970). Jerry Shirley (drummer from Humble Pie) was recruited, along with members of the Soft Machine. Toward the end, with the proceedings in danger of falling apart, Waters and Gilmour stepped in to help finish (playing bass, producing, and, one imagines, prodding).

It is unlikely that anyone hearing these songs (or the songs from the follow-up, Barrett, released later in 1970) for the first time will know what to make of them, particularly with Piper as the presumable point of reference. Obviously, that was the comparison listeners would have made, by necessity, when these albums arrived, and the differences between what Barrett achieved in ’67 and what he created in 1970 are universes apart. That said, this is, for a variety of obvious reasons, challenging, unusual music that requires an investment of time and patience. Once it is received on its own terms (and this simply may not be possible for some people), a flow reveals itself and most of the material makes quite a bit of sense in its own uncanny way. The songs range from the gorgeous and hypnotic “Terrapin”, which features only an acoustic guitar and Syd’s inimitable croon, to the almost unbearably raw “If It’s in You” (the latter likely to be either majestic or nails on a chalkboard, with little chance of middle ground). The upbeat “Love You” comes close to capturing the ’67 whimsy, and “She Took a Long Cool Look” picks up where “Jugband Blues” left off, the plaintive yearning replaced by a frosty resignation.

The two highlights remain “Dark Globe” and “Octopus”, and both warrant further scrutiny. The latter might be described as a deceptively sanguine jaunt into the mouth (or mind?) of madness. Non sequiturs and stream of consciousness combine with the upbeat music to take the listener on a guided tour of Barrett’s tattooed brain, where “the madcap laughed at the man on the border”. Two couplets in particular leave little to the imagination, and one realizes that, at least when he wanted to or could be, Syd was in complete control of his fac, his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s:

Isn’t it good to be lost in the wood
Isn’t it bad so quiet there, in the wood meant even less to me than I thought…

The winds they blew and the leaves did wag
They’ll never put me in their bag.

“Dark Globe” is like a man singing an epitaph for the person he’d been and who he had become. It is a remarkable achievement and remains unbearably poignant: “Please lift a hand / I’m only a person” and “Wouldn’t you miss me at all?” As difficult as it is to hear those words today, one wonders what it was like for Waters and Gilmour that day in the studio.

On balance, the songs from The Madcap Laughs are neither as formless nor disconsolate as one might expect. Likewise, the collection of songs on Barrett contain some head-scratchers and a few moments that are as sublime as anything he—or anyone—ever did. Exhibit A, “Baby Lemonade”: featuring brilliant imagery (“In the sad town / Cold iron hands clap the party of clowns outside”), the welcome presence of Rick Wright’s organ, and a cleaner overall sound (the drums are clear and Gilmour’s bass gives the sound a palpable bottom), this song actually could be said to transcend even Barrett’s best previous work. Two of Syd’s most well-known songs, “Gigolo Aunt” and “Effervescing Elephant”, indicate that the wordplay and humor were still intact and affective. Consider the hilarious “Bob Dylan Blues”, wherein Barrett takes the piss out of Dylan by (gently?) mocking his too-easy-by-half rhyme schemes and streak of self righteousness: “Cuz I’m a poet, don’t you know it? / And the wind, you can blow it!”). Finally, there is “Dominoes” (check out David Gilmour’s hear-it-to-believe-it story of how Barrett envisioned and pulled off his guitar solo). If “Dark Globe” told us where Syd had been and where he was, “Dominoes” previews where he may have been headed, if the subsequent silence and unwillingness to engage with his past or the world is any indication:

It’s an idea, someday
In my tears, my dreams
Don’t you want to see her proof?
Life that comes of no harm
You and I, you and I and dominoes, the day goes by…

And here’s the rub: real Pink Floyd fans have little choice but to thank the heavens for this complicated chain of events. Put plainly (if coldly), no Barrett breakdown, no Gilmour. The sound that Floyd subsequently perfected was a combination of accident and inevitability, while the collection of increasingly confident transitional albums is a prog-rock treasure trove. Which brings us to Dark Side of the Moon, the first album to directly invoke Barrett (“Brain Damage/Eclipse”). And of course, we literally wouldn’t have Wish You Were Here, Waters’s meditation on madness and mourning inspired by and dedicated to his old friend. Finally, the story, which has to be apocryphal except for the fact that it isn’t, and is enough to make you concede that forces greater than us may indeed have the controls set for the heart of the sun. The band, busy completing the final mix of the album (allegedly working on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”), did not notice the bigger, bald stranger who had wandered into the room; only after several moments did anyone recognize their former leader. At one moment jumping up and down to brush his teeth with his fingers (a pitiful sight that reduced Waters to tears), the next Barrett was offering to add his guitar parts to completed work. Upon having his services politely declined, he walked out of the studio and no one in the band ever saw him again.

There was so much more for Syd to achieve… or was there? Do we dare ask for or expect more from any artist who gave so much? Is it both selfish and short-sighted to wonder what he may have achieved in the ‘70s and beyond when we consider what he’d already done? Did Syd pay the ultimate price for fame and artistic immortality? Or did he contentedly turn his back on the machine that once welcomed him? By most accounts, his final decades (spent mostly with his mother at the house he grew up in) were without turmoil. Certainly, the strain he put on his system had permanent psychological effects, and perhaps we’ll never know if his voracious consumption of chemicals accelerated the onset of a profound condition. In the end, the most pertinent, if unanswerable question is, does it matter?

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/132183-syd-barrett-an-introduction-to-syd-barrett/

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

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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A Week of Americana. Part Two: Captain Beefheart

Don Van Vliet (R.I.P.), with his idiosyncracies, individuality and iconoclasm, represents virtually everything that is profoundly beautiful about America both as a concept and actuality. Like his compatriots Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee (to name only two, both of whom figured prominently in the summer of ’67), he was possibly driven to –or past– the point of insanity by…what, exactly? His genius? Reality? The impossibility of adapting, much less conforming, to a society that has rules men like Van Vliet are genetically predisposed to circumvent? Never fully appreciated during his time, it’s painful to contemplate his ongoing legacy in a world of free downloads and celebrity-anointed idols. Captain Beefheart is an original American Idol, and an ideal American: artist, inspiration, human. He bypassed convention by becoming the possibility of what his impossible brain imagined. And we should all be grateful to have had him.

(From my December 2010 tribute O Captain! My Captain!: The Unique Magic of Don Van Vliet)

As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately.”

And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would –and did— endorse the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.

To say Don Van Vliet was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that. (Calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants.)

So, sui generis? For sure, but even that won’t suffice. You almost have to make up words, so I will. Don Van Vliet was Chop Suey Generis. You need not hear a single note to be smitten; just consider some of the song titles: “Grown So Ugly”, “She’s Too Much For My Mirror”, “Steal Softly Thru Snow”, “Grow Fins”, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”, “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles”, “Woe-is-uh-Me-Bop”, “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (not Whiskey or Rye)”, “Cardboard Cutout Sundown”, and, of course, “Zig Zag Wanderer”.

But then there is the music. And that voice. When doing his gruff, evil blues, he sounded more than a little like Howlin’ Wolf, but he wasn’t mimicking so much as channeling him (yeah, I know…), and it came out through his soul sounding like a narcotized sci-fi monster with an ashtray heart of gold. Add the lyrics (they range from simple to impenetrable but are always original and clever to the point of being intimidating) and you have a result that, love it or loathe it, could not in a billion years be imitated or even approximated by anyone. “High voltage man kisses night to bring the light to those who need to hide their shadow-deed” he wails on “Electricity” –a song that anticipates punk as much as it exhausts the possibilities of the avant-garde. Speaking of Howlin’ Wolf, this sounds like the great Chester Arthur Burnett cloned as a machine, doused in Lysergic acid and forced to stick its finger in a light socket.

Now that he’s gone, many folks will—and should—rhapsodize about the album most agree is Beefheart’s defining work (even if they’ve never actually listened to it), Trout Mask Replica. Among its many quirky and/or quixotic charms, this is possibly the first album to be so arty it became anti-art. Deliberately cacophonous, even confrontational, it seems to be searching for magic inside of the discordant chaos. The results will mean different things to different people, but Van Vliet had a method for his madness: perfectly capable musicians playing behind, beside and beneath anything that, on first (or fifteenth) listen seems to make sense. The album could be considered one extended love song to insanity, or a smirking expense report from the other side of reality. It is one of the all-time cult following rites of passage: if you are down with this, you could conceivably be down with anything –for better or worse.

Needless to say, Trout Mask Replica is not easy going or easily recommended, and in fact, one could (should) start just about anywhere else. If anyone reading this is uninitiated, it affords me an excellent opportunity to talk about the most accessible option, which happens to be my favorite Beefheart album, Safe As Milk. It is the first album, and also, in my opinion, the best one. I do not expect that many people share this perspective, but I think everyone in the know would agree this is the ideal point of entry. If there was even a modicum of justice in our plastic factory world, this would be widely considered one of rock music’s most out there yet addictive barbaric yawps.

(Sidenote: was 1967 an all-time year for debut albums or what? In addition to Safe As Milk there were first albums by The Doors, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. Most people, if they think about Safe As Milk at all, consider it a delightful little lark, a nice enough opening salvo. For my money, it’s more than that; a lot more. And it’s funny, because when we think about the Summer of Love (if we think about the Summer of Love), it’s all about love being all you need and how The Beatles dropped their definitive statement, Sgt. Pepper, which might happen to be the most important album ever, et cetera. Interestingly, two albums that did not get much press at the time, but have certainly found their audiences—however small—in the subsequent decades, seem to best represent the reality of what that seminal year meant, musically and culturally. I’m talking about Safe As Milk as well as Love’s Forever Changes. Maybe the ultimate reason these two albums, aside from their commercial failings, tend to not register in the facile narrative of hippie nostalgia is because both albums saw through the façade then, and in hindsight seem all the more remarkable for their refusal to pay lip service, lyrically and aesthetically, to the up-with-people ethos of the time.)


Look at the band on the back cover. They are characters from a Wes Anderson movie: all wearing coat and tie, one inexplicably sporting leather gloves, one rocking a stylish chapeau (who happens to be named Alex St. Clair Snouffer). Not pictured—and not credited—is young wunderkind Ry Cooder, who lent his considerable slide guitar skills to the proceedings. They look more like stockbrokers than songwriters, which only adds to the mystique since they, as it happened, made some of the more unsettling music on the scene.

How does music like this happen? How is Captain Beefheart even conceivable? Do you believe in magic? Well how about the Magic Band? We know that the world didn’t know what to make of this album, then. What can we make of it, now? Here are a few thoughts: it doesn’t sound of its time, or any time, and it is one of those (very) rare recordings that can be returned to constantly and somehow, someway remains unfettered and invigorating. Each song is a totally complete statement, whimsical, yet always with the air of danger: like a trip about to take a serious turn for the worse, but it never does. The creative energy and offbeat ebullience make this record approachable but indescribable; it’s all in there: blues, doo-wop, psychedelia, faux-pop and a handful of songs that sound utterly unlike anything anyone has ever done.

Listening to “Dropout Boogie” is like watching the rock and roll version of Clark Kent coming out of the phone booth for the first time: this quiet, weird dude you laughed at in gym class suddenly soaring in the air above you. You’ve never heard him speak but as soon as he opens his mouth he’s Superman. This track works as well as any (from this album, or from his entire oeuvre) in terms of epitomizing Van Vliet’s unvarnished and utterly uncompromised approach. If the Captain should be worshipped for one thing it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency. Considering this album was recorded during the height of the “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out” hysteria, a song like “Dropout Boogie” becomes a brave turd in the punch bowl, serving to question the long-term prospects of Timothy Leary’s call to arms. “And what about after that?” he asks, a line that joins Arthur Lee’s “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow” (from Forever Changes) as two of the most enduring—and prescient—from ’67.

Then there is a song like “Yellow Brick Road” that could almost make a white guy dance, and then wonder why everyone doesn’t know this and love it.

Safe As Milk was the one that introduced Don Van Vliet to the world and it remains a (Korn Ring) middle finger in the face of all the lame conformists who scoff at what they can’t understand. It’s not especially sad that this album did not find a widely receptive audience; its obscurity tends to confirm many things we know about the way art is created and received, especially in America. If music like this was successful it would almost cause us to question the calibration of our planet. Besides, Beefheart had as much of a chance at being understood as Jesus Christ at the trading floor on Wall Street. The message was sent, and it’s still out there for anyone who cares to hear it. The biggest blessing is that we can listen to this magical music and be reminded that it’s real, it happened. He happened, and some of us will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out how we managed to get so lucky.

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Pink Floyd: The Prog Rock Archetype

It isn’t that Pink Floyd made some of the best albums of the ‘70s (they did), or that Pink Floyd moved the art form forward (they did); it’s that Pink Floyd did the impossible: they made music that can’t be marginalized, and more than any other band, brought progressive rock into the mainstream. This, along with the unparalleled streak of top tier albums they created, elevates them above all others as the prototypical and most significant prog band.

As much praise as the group rightly receives, they may not be fully appreciated for the ways they changed the future of music. The Dark Side of the Moon did for progressive music what Sgt. Pepper did for rock ‘n’ roll: elevating it from pop to art, and through one indelible and irrevocable triumph, granted authenticity—for all time—to an entire genre. It simply cannot be overstated how meaningful it was, and remains, that one of the best-selling and influential albums in history happens to be the apotheosis of prog rock’s canon. In short, Pink Floyd made it not only possible, but inevitable that other bands would attract more—and more serious—scrutiny, however much many of them suffered by comparison. (My album-by-album analysis of the band’s output can be found at “All Things Reconsidered: Why Not Pink Floyd?”, PopMatters, 11 November 2011.)

Needless to say, The Dark Side of the Moon did not arrive as an abrupt burst of brilliance (great art seldom does) so much as the end result of a long and at times excruciating process, a sort of prog rock apprenticeship. Casual fans may be unaware that Pink Floyd made as many albums before The Dark Side of the Moon as they did after. Even more casual fans may be unaware that Pink Floyd made any albums before The Dark Side of the Moon. Of course, before there was prog rock, there was psychedelic rock. Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) was, in its way, a Sgt. Pepper for the underground, and it remains the most fully realized expression of lysergic-laced pop whimsy: deeply surreal songs you can sing along with.

The initial high from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proved short-lived as the band’s principal songwriter, troubled genius Syd Barrett, suffered a drug-induced breakdown. (Much more on Syd HERE.) His mate David Gilmour was hastily recruited and, at least at first, did his best Barrett impression. Suffice it to say, no one could—or would—have predicted Pink Floyd’s eventual breakthrough based on their early struggles. As a result of Barrett’s departure two crucial changes occurred: Waters gradually assumed chief lyrical responsibilities and Gilmour became the primary vocalist.

Getting from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn to The Dark Side of the Moon required several years and several albums, none of which sounded especially alike—a fact that seems more remarkable with the benefit of hindsight. Each release, however, had one particular track, often an extended instrumental, that served as a centerpiece that at once set it apart and connected the sonic dots that burst through the prism in 1973: “Interstellar Overdrive” (from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” (from A Saucerful of Secrets), “Quicksilver” (from More), “The Narrow Way” (from Ummagumma), “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother) and “Echoes” (from Meddle).

Perhaps the single-most important song Floyd produced during the earliest stages of their extended transitional period is the title track from their second album. The ways in which “A Saucerful of Secrets” expanded and crystallized is documented on the live section from Ummagumma, as well as the definitive version, recorded for their movie Live at Pompeii. Gilmour’s guitar and vocal contributions delineate the ways in which he was asserting himself as a major musical force within the group, forging—along with keyboardist Rick Wright- – an increasingly melodic and ethereal sound.

This performance, recorded just before the sessions for The Dark Side of the Moon commenced, is very much the realization of a sound and style the band had been inching toward, carving away at the stone with each successive effort. The pieces finally came together (or fell apart, if you like) in the form of “Echoes”, the song that officially ended their transition and prepared them to make their masterpiece.

But if “Echoes”, combined with the shorter, snappier (and raw, earthy) tunes from 1972’s Obscured By Clouds provides a blueprint for the sensibility they would sharpen in the service of The Dark Side of the Moon, it’s 1970’s “Atom Heart Mother Suite” that epitomizes the extremes and excesses prog rock would embrace, for better or worse. Where King Crimson can, and should, be credited with creating prog rock’s first unfettered proclamation, In The Court of the Crimson King (1969), Pink Floyd can, and should, be credited—or rebuked—for dropping the first truly progressive side-long “suite” on Atom Heart Mother (1970).

After this one, all bets were off and for the better part of a decade, many bands—including Pink Floyd—attempted to refine and improve upon this opus. Their most ambitious (and uneven/inscrutable/unlistenable, according to seemingly everyone who has written a review) work to that point, clocking in at over 23 minutes, it remains the most blatantly uncommercial track from an album that reached number 1 in the UK.

Making use of a chorus, an orchestra, the band’s growing facility for studio slicing and dicing and an inimitable élan concerning the art of the segue, Pink Floyd created a very odd, endearing and English work. And that’s just the first few minutes. It remains an intriguing question whether or not “Atom Heart Mother” (the suite and the album) would enjoy a better reputation, or at least seem less pretentiously impenetrable for many fans, if the band has stuck with its working title, “The Amazing Pudding”, quite apropos for such a gloppy, sweet, not especially easy to digest jumble.

It’s not just that Pink Floyd did everything first, it’s just that they often did things bigger, and more convincingly. However much Emerson, Lake and Palmer was admired/eviscerated for their audacity, typified by the insufferably titled Works, wherein each player had his own “solo” side, Pink Floyd did the same thing (sort of) on Ummagumma. They were not the first, and certainly not the last band to lie down tracks occupying entire album sides, but they made it acceptable, even inevitable.

Back when Pink Floyd was the first band in space, they remained mysterious, and cool, by keeping invisible. For being one of the biggest rock groups in the world all through the ‘70s, the average fan would not have recognized any of them in an airport. With few exceptions, their faces weren’t on the album covers, and as the resulting records prove, they always put the music first.

Although they became hugely successful, Pink Floyd championed a type of integrity that seems uniquely associated with progressive rock: they never imitated anyone else or copied their own previous efforts. For Pink Floyd it was always about feeling and the evocation of a particular mood (the altered states in sound of “Quicksilver”; the solidarity of human voices, literally via the chanting football crowd in “Fearless”; the frenzy of modern travel/life  in “On the Run”; the almost inexpressible sorrow of loss and remembrance in “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”).

It’s interesting: although a “faceless” band celebrated for their inimitable blend of complexity and precision, Pink Floyd endures as one of the more soulful bands of the ‘70s. For this we can thank Roger Waters, whose development as a lyricist is responsible for a body of work that holds its own against anyone else’s. With the possible exception of Peter Gabriel (with and without Genesis) no songwriter composed more sensitive yet compelling statements concerning the human condition.

From “If” to “Echoes”, then “Free Four” to everything through The Final Cut, Waters was rock music’s consummate psychologist, turning a keen (and increasingly wary) eye on Western culture. His calling card became a series of trenchant takes on the intersection between the personal and the political as they relate to a society turned sideways. His insights on the forces governing our affairs, be they corporate, military, nationalistic or religious, were fodder for some of the most engaging artistic reflections of our time.

Perhaps, when measuring the true scope of their import, it’s most instructive to consider the way Pink Floyd handled their post-The Dark Side of the Moon career. With the exception of “Money” there were no obvious or intentional attempts at a crossover song that might receive airplay. As phenomenal as they remain, it seems certain that “Wish You Were Here”, “Have a Cigar” and “Welcome to the Machine” all became classic rock staples once Pink Floyd was already Pink Floyd. Or, these were the last three songs until The Wall sufficiently short to even get played on the radio.

Beginning with The Dark Side of the Moon and stretching through The Wall, Pink Floyd at once exemplified prog rock while transcending it. Every album was a perfect calculation; from the album art to the sequence of the songs, each entirely convincing on its own but an irreplaceable part of the whole. Again, considerable credit must be given to Waters who, through a tense combination of talent, ego and will, claimed ultimate control of the band’s direction. His acerbic personality and control freak tendencies took their toll, inexorably leading to his departure and one of rock music’s most bitter, protracted soap operas. But attention must be paid: his drive and vision demanded indelible work that may otherwise have been merely excellent.

A well-documented instance would be the two songs that served as prototypes for later masterpieces. “Raving and Drooling” and “You Gotta Be Crazy” were road-tested contenders for inclusion on The Dark Side of the Moon‘s follow-up. If the rest of the band had had their way, they would have comprised one side of the new album while “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” would have run, uninterrupted, on the other. Waters was not satisfied and, judging from the fascinating but far from flawless live versions, he was correct.

As a result, he busied himself on a set of new songs that became “Welcome to the Machine”, “Have a Cigar” and “Wish You Were Here”—a triptych of disenchantment, alienation and bereavement that are crown jewels in the Pink Floyd canon. As important, the temporarily sidelined songs were refined and reworked into Waters’ most cohesive concept album, Animals. With major contributions from Wright and Gilmour, “Sheep” and especially “Dogs” represent some of the best work the band ever did.

It’s not, in sum, that Pink Floyd became the most visible and best band to carry the progressive rock banner (they were). It’s not that they sold the most albums (they did) and had the best album art (they did—R.I.P. Storm Thorgerson!). It’s that they provided cover, through their influence and example, for smaller, equally brave bands who sought to push past the tedious Top 40 boundaries. By the time 1977 rolled around, space rock seemed as prehistoric as hippies and Johnny Rotten became the punk rock poet laureate, insolently scribbling “I Hate” above his Pink Floyd t-shirt. How much street cred would he have had sporting similar sentiment on a Gentle Giant or Jethro Tull t-shirt?

To this day any band, whether it’s The Flaming Lips, Bjork or Radiohead, who emphasize sound and feeling over accessibility, are in some way emulating the standard Pink Floyd set. The key to understanding Pink Floyd’s magnitude is that they made consistently challenging, progressive music, and still found an audience. Indeed, they did not find an audience so much as their audience found them. Pink Floyd was the first truly underground band to cultivate a sound too remarkable to remain obscured by clouds. They willed themselves to be consequential, and their eminence is undiminished today.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/171044-pink-floyd-the-prog-rock-archetype/

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Albert Hofmann, R.I.P.

Talk about better living through chemistry!

Albert Hofmann, the chemist who invented/discovered LSD, has passed away at the dignified, enviable age of 102.

On April 16, 1943, he made history.

On April 19, 1943 he described it.

“In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

More on his life HERE and HERE.

Debate did, and does, rage about the benefits and risks (intelligent and honest debate considers both) of psychedelics in general and LSD in particular. Being a chemical, and being demonstrably more intense, LSD is a bit easier to defame (and criminalize), whereas psilocybin (magic mushrooms) grow in the earth and, like marijuana, resist easy condemnation. Unlike alcohol or cigarettes, the mushrooms and green plants that grow in the ground are, quite literally, natural.

Here’s Bill Hicks, perhaps the most articulate (and convincing) proponent of the possibilities of hallucinogens:

And more:

How many well-meaning, but unwatchable scenes have attempted to capture some aspect of a psychedelic experience? Here’s one of the more powerful ones, from one of the better movies:

Easy to romanticize, easy to ridicule, in reality very complicated, the potential triumph and terror of use/abuse of LSD can be summed up in two words: Syd Barrett (much more on him HERE). A snippet:

So what happened? Theories and stories abound, but all you need to do is look at the pictures. Before, during, and just after the release of their debut, Syd is, quite simply, a specimen. Even if you never heard him play or sing, he had charisma and beauty to burn, and it is easy to understand why so many people attached themselves to him. By the time David Gilmour—whom the frantic bandmates recruited to at first fill in for, and later replace, their increasingly erratic leader—begins turning up in group photos, Barrett has dark trenches under his eyes and is already perfecting the thousand-yard stare Roger Waters would later immortalize (“Now there’s a look in your eyes / Like black holes in the sky”). Was it drugs? Schizophrenia? Probably both, possibly neither, but everyone who was there attests that Barrett went from experimenting to ingesting, and that his intake of LSD went from awe-inspiring to alarming in a matter of months. Certainly the rapid (too rapid?) ascent from paisley underground to Top of the Pops would potentially prove dodgy for any sensitive soul who may have happened to be a genius. Add those drugs and the likelihood of a preexisting condition, and the resulting damage was best, if most starkly, described by Syd himself: “I tattooed my brain all the way…”

The next part is where it gets intriguing, if still unresolved. That Barrett saw his shot at superstardom dissipate into the darkening circles of his bruised brain is more than a little tragic. That we have a soundtrack to some of that dissolution, as both an artistic and human document, is more than a little miraculous. Whatever one thinks of the work he recorded post-Pink Floyd (and opinions, predictably, are all over the place), arguably not since Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Allan Poe have we seen, for posterity, such poignant creative evidence of an aggravated, altered psyche pushed well past endurable limits.

Put another way, here is Barrett, pre-and-post disintegration, a stunning example of the ways he expanded his mind and art, and a horrifying illumination of the damage he did:

His bandmates carried on without him and went on to make history. Along the way they made one of the best sonic explorations of all-things psychedlic, the soundrack to the film More (more on that, and them, HERE and HERE). The single best song concerning what one may see/hear/feel during a trip is, in my opinion, the surreal, shimmering “Quicksilver”.

I’ve always been intrigued (and more than a little haunted) by the sounds and images (the band and especially the crowd) of Country Joe and the Fish playing “Section 43” at Monterey. Definitely some happy hippies caught on film:

For me, the entire story could –and perhaps should– be synthesized (see what I did there?) in a single one-minute scene:

To be cont’d…

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Ten Songs From 1967 That Shaped Prog-Rock

1. “Heroes and Villains”, The Beach Boys

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia (of the infamously aborted SMiLE sessions) 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.

2. “The End”, The Doors

If not The Doors’ best song, it’s definitely among their most cherished and controversial. “The End” is the Doors’ “Stairway To Heaven”, the song that is the Dead Sea Scrolls for adolescent seekers: it entices and disorients not unlike the narcotic, agitating effect that Edgar Allan Poe’s stories initially have on young readers. Morrison’s stream of consciousness Götterdämmerung will incite debates until the sacred cows come home, but there can be no quarrel with the music. Manzarek and Krieger do some of their finest—if understated—work here, but it is Densmore’s passive-aggressive percussion that represents, certainly at the time of its recording, an apotheosis of sorts. It is scarcely conceivable how many psychedelic adventures this song has provided a soundtrack for, which is entirely appropriate considering that, according to legend, Morrison laid down his vocals (in two takes) while reeling from a particularly intense acid trip. Whatever else it may signify, “The End” is an ideal, inevitable coda, and one of the best closing songs on one of the very best rock albums.

3. “Nights in White Satin”, The Moody Blues

Strings! Poetry! Pretension! All of the above, and above all, the glorious vocals from Justin Hayward. There is such a uniquely British sensibility to this, something that still sounds like it should be heard over the radio. The Moody Blues would come to epitomize some of the worst excesses of the prog era (mellotron overload, mediocre poetry recitations on each album, a preciousness at times rivaled by an overbearing strain for profundity) but at their best –and for my money, there are at least one or two essential songs on each subsequent album– they pushed rock music in a more positive, enduring direction.

4. “Whiter Shade of Pale”, Procol Harum

This, like so many other classics of its era, has been overplayed on radio and overused in movies to the point where it’s lost much of its import. But it must be acknowledged for what it is: a brilliant, brooding masterwork of mood and economy. (The epic drum fills were game-changing.) And between the Bach references and the Chaucher name-checks, this has many ingredients that future prog-rockers would utilize, sometimes to excess.

5. “The Red Telephone”, Love

“The Red Telephone,” which ends side one of Forever Changes, is the album’s centerpiece; its brooding, apocalyptic imagery captures that three-month moment of 1967, while remaining possibly more applicable to the here and now: “They’re locking them up today; they’re throwing away the key, / I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?” Those creepy chanted lines were prophetic, not only when you consider that Lee, who lived to be neither wealthy nor white, ended up imprisoned in the mid 1990s as a result of his own recklessness as well as California’s controversial third-strike laws. The lyrics anticipate the aftermath awaiting Timothy Leary’s disciples, those that ingested and distributed the chemical vehicles to Valhalla, who would end up pulling harder time than our white-collar charlatans face for fleecing employees and the country out of millions of dollars. The lines are also a commentary on Americans acting un-American, looking back to the internments of Japanese citizens and forecasting the so-called enemy combatants rotting behind bars without formal charges or legal counsel. I read the news today, oh boy. As Lee sings in the same song, “Sometimes I deal with numbers, / And if you want to count me: Count me out.”

6. “Section 43”, Country Joe and the Fish

This as much as any single song, distilled the whole LSD-in-a-bottle (or blotter) extended moment of ’67. It eschews saccharine, feel-good sentiment; indeed, it avoids lyrics altogether. It does not need them, it extends its vision of dread and release: a trip that could go bad or end up being the best thing that ever happened and, like too many acid trips to count, it is probably more than a bit of both.

7. “Interstellar Overdrive”, Pink Floyd

Syd Barrett’s clever if unconventional use of a Zippo lighter as a makeshift slide gave him the ability to play fast while conjuring a shrill metallic shriek from his guitar. Those glistening cries are in full effect on this extended jam (which would get twice as long, or longer, played live). This song, like several others on this list, is utterly of its time, but it still sounds fresh and vital: it really is the essence of psychedelic exploration (and whimsy) summarized in under ten minutes, and serves as a very hip, across-the-pond companion to the Summer of Love soundtrack. Speaking of soundtracks, this one (and “Lucifer Sam”) could almost be used as incidental music for a James Bond flick, assuming it was a stirred, not shaken 007.

8. “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, Cream

Now we’re talking. Allusions to Greek literature, the lysergic swirl of Ginger Baker’s  patented drum rolls, some of Jack Bruce’s more impassioned vocals and, of course, the apotheosis of Eric Clapton’s wah-wah pedal pyrotechnics. There is no doubt that bands like Yes, Genesis and ELP were paying careful attention: “Tales of Brave Ulysses” is, in a sense, the blueprint, succinctly rendered, for the more ambitious (and/or pretentious and long-winded) progressive epics that would follow.

9. “Broken Arrow”, Buffalo Springfield

Neil Young would, of course, go in entirely different directions (ranging from the folk-rock of his solo debut to garage-band glory with Crazy Horse to the acoustic stylings of After The Gold Rush and the perfection, if not invention, of country-rock on Harvest, and then into the proverbial ditch for a string of albums that may represent his best work), but his contribution to the prog-rock ethos is undeniable. Unbelievably ambitious, painstakingly assembled and full of sociopolitical import (an unblinking look at our treatment of Native Americans –a theme that would resurface in his later work– juxtaposed with an increasingly out-of-control contemporary world), “Broken Arrow” is, in its way, an inimitable document of what rock music could do (in ’67, or ever).

10. “Waterloo Sunset”, The Kinks

It’s impossible to overstate how important this song was, for both Ray Davies as a songwriter, and the many disciples who followed him. Of course, this song, and The Kinks, were/are much less popular and appreciated in the states, which is at once typical, sad and expected. The Kinks were not just a British band, they were the British band. More, they were Britain, and no single band has composed as many songs celebrating, explaining, lamenting, and personifying all-things UK. This is their charm and it also goes a long way toward explaining why so many lesser acts connected in the U.S.A. while The Kinks have always been (at best) a second-tier band, commercially and otherwise.

Everyone from Peter Gabriel to Pete Townshend was influenced by the formula Davies perfected here: local color relayed by an everyman, albeit a wistful, lonely and exceedingly sensitive fellow. This is, perhaps more than the better known “A Day in the Life”, a true reflection of a typical day, an eyewitness account laced with melancholy, hope and acceptance. It manages to invoke the past, fear (or at least resist) the future and immortalize the present, however quietly or unintentionally. Lyrically and conceptually, you can take Davies’ strategy and anticipate the ways Genesis and Jethro Tull (to name two of the more successful) would expand on the autobiographical possibilities to create sprawling, literate and emotional works (think Selling England By The Pound and Thick As A Brick).

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