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Posts tagged ‘Brian Wilson’

Glen Campbell 1936-2017

Quite rightly, the majority of the eulogies for Glen Campbell — like this excellent one from Michael Hann in today’s Guardian — concentrate on the great trilogy of place-name songs written by Jimmy Webb: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”. The record I’ll remember him for came from the time before he started his run of hits: a song called “Guess I’m Dumb”, written by Brian Wilson and Russ Titelman and produced by Wilson in 1965.

Recorded at the same time as the Beach Boys Today album, it’s a prototype of what we were going to hear on Pet Sounds the following year: a carefully wrought song of tortured self-examination set to an imaginative adaptation of the techniques originated by Phil Spector, sung on this occasion by a member of the Wrecking Crew who, while trying to kick-start his own solo career, had stepped forward to take Brian’s place in the Beach Boys for a few weeks of live shows at the end of 1964.

“Guess I’m Dumb” opens with flat-toned tom-toms, a conga, a bass guitar and several strummed acoustic guitars layering the baion rhythm. And then: “The way I act don’t seem like me / I’m not on top like I used to be / I’ll give in when I know I should be strong / I’ll still give in even though I know it’s wrong / I guess I’m dumb, but I don’t care…” Campbell sings the beautiful ascending melody with perfect clarity, like an older Wilson brother might do, as the arrangement builds up: anxious bowed cellos and double basses, a thick brass-and-reeds chorale, humming male voices, sweeping violins answered by staccato trumpets in the instrumental interlude, sleighbells doubling the eighth-note rhythm, and female singers chanting the chorus against a trademark Hal Blaine drum fusillade on the fade.

The mono mix is a masterpiece. I’ve described the individual elements separately, but you’re supposed to hear them as a one giant instrument, as if recorded by a single microphone. It doesn’t have the steamroller impact of a vintage Spector 45, but Wilson and his friend Titelman were after a subtler and more complex portrayal of teenage uncertainties, and the result belongs up there with “Caroline, No”, “I Know There’s an Answer” and “I Wasn’t Made For These Times”. I’m still amazed that, in the greatest of all years for pure pop music, it wasn’t even a tiny hit.

* You can find “Guess I’m Dumb” on Ace Records’ Pet Projects, a 23-track compilation of Brian Wilson productions released in 2003.

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Beach Boys: After ‘Smile’

Wild HoneyIf you wanted to isolate an individual moment that summed up the curious position of the Beach Boys vis à vis the changing modes of youth culture in 1967, you might come up with the one in “Darlin'”, a single released in that pivotal year, when Carl Wilson sings a phrase written by Mike Love which lands precisely in the space between a letterman’s sweater and a paisley kaftan, between the disappearing culture and the emerging one: “You’re so doggone outtasight…”

After reading his autobiography — Good Vibrations: My Life As a Beach Boy — last year, I had quite a lot more sympathy for Love, although I’m still not sure that I’d want to be in a band with him. While disclaiming responsibility for torpedoing the Smile project, he made an interesting point: “Brian … had tried to take the modular format that he used for ‘Good Vibrations’ and apply it to an entire album, creating a nearly infinite number of ways that it could be assembled. Everything was interchangeable with everything else…”

That was part of the appeal for those of us who were excited by the rapid evolution the Beach Boys underwent in 1965-67. Brian Wilson seemed to be rewriting the rules of pop songwriting, moving away from the standard AABA and 12- or 32-bar forms. There’s plenty of evidence on 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow, a new 2CD compilation of material centred around Wild Honey, the album released that year as a kind of recovery project from the controversy surrounding Smile and Smiley Smile, the latter being the album that emerged from the ashes of the former.

Intended as a kind of palate-cleanser for the band and their fans, Wild Honey was inspired by soul music. Most of the lead singing was done by Carl Wilson, whose voice turned out to have a kind of ardent purity that suited the material — particularly the two great singles: the title track and the wonderful “Darlin'”. The source of the inspiration is most clearly expressed in a better than respectable version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”.

The compilation opens with a new stereo mix of the complete album by Mark Linett and Alan Boyd. The original stereo vinyl release was one of those fake affairs so common in the days when the mono version was the one that got priority and the stereo was an afterthought (the same thing happened with Sgt Pepper, of course).  The Wild Honey remix is interesting but, like hearing stereo remasters of Motown recordings, it isolates elements that were originally intended to be merged. “Darlin'” is a particularly good example: we were never supposed to hear the horn parts so clearly, and the track loses something of its focus and drive as a result.

Still, it’s great to be reminded of the sheer originality of tracks like the whimsical “I’d Love Just Once to See You” (with its brilliantly funny and unexpected pay-off), the dark, driving “Here Comes the Night” and the gorgeous “Country Air”. And there’s a lavish helping of out-takes and session fragments from all of the tracks, plus the odd reject, all of which illuminate Brian’s working method. “Darlin'” has always been a great track to sing along to, and here’s an exposed rhythm track so that you, too, can be the Beach Boys’ lead singer. There are also some Smiley Smile fragments and out-takes, including an alternative mix of “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter”, the loveliest of Brian’s miniature tone poems.

Most of the rest of the album consists of live recordings — including 14 tracks cut at Wally Heider’s Hollywood studio. The idea was to add canned audience applause before releasing the result under the title Lei’d in Hawaii, before someone thought better of it. Of course it’s interesting to hear them running through the hits and the covers of “The Game of Love”, “The Letter”  and “With a Little Help from My Friends” in such a setting, with live vocals and no overdubs. There are also three tracks from an actual concert in Honolulu, with Brian replacing Bruce Johnston, who had been recruited when he came off the road, and a terrifically impressive rehearsal take of “Heroes and Villains”, plus three tracks from their US tour later in the year, with Johnston restored and Brian out. (“If you have anything for nostalgia, you’d better take it now,” Love advises a Washington DC audience before they launch into the ineffably gloopy “Graduation Day”.)

The whole thing ends with two total treats. The first is a voice-and-piano recording of “Surf’s Up” made in November 1967, during the final Wild Honey sessions, with restarts and adjustments, lasting just over five minutes. It also exposes the special sound of the doctored grand piano in Brian and Marilyn Wilson’s house at 10452 Bellagio Road in Bel Air, where most of these tracks were recorded: a 9ft instrument made by the Chickering company of Boston, Massachusetts, which Brian had detuned in order to make it “ring more”. It’s the characteristic sound of all the Beach Boys’ 1967 music, which is virtually devoid of electric guitars but full of swimmy organs and that strangely resonant, half-submerged piano. And Brian sings beautifully, as he does on the final track, an acappella version of “Surfer Girl”. Who could ask for more?

Girl on the beach

Marilyn & Brian Wilson

It’s 26 years since a few dozen people in a humble church hall in an unfavoured West London suburb — the readers of Beach Boys Stomp, a British fanzine, assembled for their annual convention — were given the biggest and best surprise of their lives when Brian Wilson himself stepped on to the stage and sat down at an electric keyboard. This was 1988, and Brian had been in semi-seclusion for years. He was in the process of re-emerging with his first solo album, but his extreme nervousness was apparent that afternoon, even in front of probably the smallest audience he had faced since the Beach Boys turned professional.

To his listeners’ astonishment and delight, Brian performed three songs: “Night Time” and “Love and Mercy”, from the new album, and “Surfer Girl”, which would have been high on any true fan’s list of requests. Moved by the warmth of the response, he signed autographs for practically everyone before taking his leave. The triumphant Pet Sounds tour of 2000, the Queen’s golden jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 and the amazing premiere of Smile in 2004 lay far ahead in an unimaginable future.

Marilyn Rovell was the girl whom he was dating when “Surfer Girl” was still a brand-new song, and who was with him when he wrote all the rest of the great stuff. They started going out in 1962 and married two years later. She and her sister Diane and their cousin Ginger Blake became the Honeys, then Spring (without Ginger); both groups were produced by Brian. She kept the famous house on Bellagio Road in Bel-Air, where a sandbox surrounded the piano on which her husband created his masterpieces. They were divorced in 1979, but their daughters, Carnie and Wendy, had hits with their group Wilson Phillips, in which they were joined by Chynna Phillips, the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips; they sold eight million copies of their debut album in 1990.

Marilyn remarried 15 years ago and still lives in Los Angeles, where she works part-time selling real estate. Yesterday she and her second husband, Daniel Rutherford, arrived at the parish hall of Our Lady of the Visitation in Greenford, Middlesex, as the guests of honour at Beach Boys Stomp‘s’s 35th annual convention. Marilyn answered questions, signed autographs, posed for photographs, and made sure she said hello to every single one of those present.

This was her second visit to the convention (the first was in 2005) and it was apparent that she keeps her memories of the time she spent with Brian in clear perspective. Most of those memories, of course, are warm. “Everything was always exciting,” she said when talking about the pre-Pet Sounds era. “He’d wake up every morning with a new idea of what to do next. He was a remarkable man — inspired and inspiring.”

She loved singing backgrounds on some of the Beach Boys’ later records, particularly Carl Wilson’s songs, such as “Feel Flows” and “The Trader”. She also mentioned “Funky Pretty”, which was written by Brian with Mike Love and Jack Rieley . “It wasn’t because I was great or anything,” she said. “It would be when they needed a part.”

But she doesn’t try to pretend that those years were one long beach party. When she talked about Spring’s 1973 United Artists album (here is its best and strangest track, Brian’s “Sweet Mountain”, and here is its sweetest, Marilyn singing lead on Carole King’s “Now That Everything’s Been Said”), the mention of its co-producer, David Sandler, a friend of Brian’s, hinted at the problems she confronted in her day-to-day life with a troubled genius. “I liked David a lot,” she said, “because I didn’t have to worry about him giving drugs to Brian.”

I hadn’t seen Marilyn since the spring of 1973, when she invited me to the Bel-Air house to spend an afternoon with Brian. The sandbox had gone by then and he wasn’t in great shape (there was a large dollop of what I recall as being raspberry Reddi-whip on his tea-time ice cream), but he sat down at the piano and sang the full version of “Heroes and Villains”, which was a revelation, and a funky arrangement of the semi-traditional “Shortnin’ Bread”. That song turned up a few years later on the group’s L.A. (Light Album) but the version Brian recorded for the unreleased Adult Child project (it’s here) is closer to the sound I remember from that day. And, of course, he wanted to talk about Phil Spector, and to make sure I heard “Be My Baby” a few times before I left.

Marilyn was invited to be become involved in Love and Mercy, the new biopic starring Paul Dano as the young BW and John Cusack as the older version, which recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. She declined, as she declines most such requests. Not because she’s hoarding her memories for her own purposes — although there might be a book one day — but because experience tells her that these projects tend to deliver 50 per cent of what really happened and 50 per cent of what some outsider wants to think happened.

“Who knows what’s real and what’s not real?” she said. “I know.”

* The photograph of Marilyn and Brian Wilson in 1965 is from the cover of the Beach Boys Party! album.

Far from dumb

Russ TitelmanGerry Goffin, whose death was announced yesterday, didn’t just write songs with Carole King. Even during their most successful and prolific time together in the mid-’60s he was collaborating with other writers, as I point out here, in my tribute to his lyric-writing genius for the Guardian’s music blog. The one that comes most readily to my mind is Russ Titelman (pictured above), later a staff producer for Warner Brothers and now best known for his work in the studio with Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Steve Winwood and others.

Goffin and Titelman wrote two wonderful songs together. First, in 1964, came “I Never Dreamed” for the Cookies, a fabulous girl-group record which they produced together, with King providing the arrangement. Goodness knows how it didn’t follow the group’s other songs into the charts. A year later they wrote “What Am I Gonna Do With You (Hey Baby)“, recorded by the Chiffons, Skeeter Davis, Lesley Gore and finally, in 1967, by the Inspirations on the obscure Black Pearl label. Each of these versions has its fans, but mine is the last of them, in which the echo-heavy production and the lead singer’s delivery mirror the plaintive mood of Goffin’s lyric.

Titelman was born in Los Angeles in 1944. I’m indebted to an interview in Harvey Kubernik’s Turn Up the Radio! for the information that his older sister, Susan (later to marry Cooder), was the girlfriend of Marshall Lieb, a member of the Teddy Bears, who rehearsed in the Titelmans’ lounge on their way to stardom. Phil Spector, their leader, was going out with Susan’s best friend, and young Russ fell under his spell: “He was so smart, and so funny, and so charming, and so incredibly charismatic, and so you were sort of charmed by it all. Then there was the other side of him, which was this dark, murky, scary person, you know, who made shit up.”

He went to work as a songwriter for Lou Adler and Don Kirshner at Screen Gems-Columbia Music, in whose LA offices he met Brian Wilson. Together they wrote “Guess I’m Dumb”, which would have made a great track for Pet Sounds but was instead recorded by Glen Campbell, a future Beach Boy. Wilson is credited as the arranger, conductor and producer of what remains one of his very finest efforts.

Titelman’s early adventures in the LA pop business also included collaborations with the young David Gates (later the founder of Bread), who produced Margaret Mandolph’s utterly sublime version of a Titelman co-composition (with Cynthia Weil) called “I Wanna Make You Happy”. The Titelman/Gates partnership was also responsible for Suzy Wallis’s delightful “Little Things Like That”

On all these records, Titelman’s involvement seemed to guarantee that they would somehow capture the very essence of teenage pop music. They have great hooks and an understanding of how a simple chord change can sell a song. Eventually, of course, he had to grow up, as did his friends and accomplices, including Goffin and Gates. But the stuff they left us from that time continues to give undiminished pleasure decades after its supposed expiry date.