The Beach Boys, Good Vibrations (1966)

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Artist: The Beach Boys
Title: Good Vibrations
Description: single; album track, Smiley Smile
Label: Capitol
Release date: 1966; 1967
First heard: circa 1970

Ooh, bop, bop

I cannot tell a lie. I saw the split-level Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy and it inspired me to reinvest. In the film, directed by Bill Polhad, Wilson is deftly and affectionately dramatised in studio-tanned situ amid all the oneupmanship, invention, pretention, fastidiousness, excitation, pep and beauty of the making of Pet Sounds, on which this stellar “pocket symphony” isn’t found. Good Vibrations is, in that respect, like the subsequent Strawberry Fields by that other band: a standalone single that exists in permanent danger of eclipsing the standalone LP constructed around it, but upon which it does not appear. It’s so good, you always forget and assume it’s on Pet Sounds. But it isn’t. (Where would it go? ) It came out as a single six months after the album, and wasn’t rehomed until September the following year, on Smiley Smile. It’s essentially a stray.

It’s tempting to attempt to describe the way this piece unfolds. (To call it a “song” seems impertinent.) But there’s too much going on at so many levels – including molecular – it would be a fruitless exercise without a degree in musicology. Indeed, musicologists seem to lay down their textbooks and gawp in non-academic awe at Good Vibrations, vouchsafing that the usual rules don’t apply. But it’s fine, I think, to pick out its greatest bits. The luminescent Hammond line that bounces the song into life. Those spare, almost counterintuitive slaps on the snare, delivered by Hal Blaine of the Wrecking Crew, a platoon of “first call” sessioneers every bit as legendary as the Funk Brothers or the MGs to my ears. The spooky theremin, which jellies in during the chorus, over the boot-deep tones of Mike Love, subsequently pedestalled by Carl and Brian Wilson’s harmonies. These ascending Filo layers turn even the first chorus into a crescendo and we haven’t hit the minute mark yet.

The verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure is a decoy. It genuflects to R&B convention with its repetitions and toe-tapping potential, but then, at approximately 01.42, the clanky pub piano signals a twist. Biographer Jon Stebbins wrote that the section which follows the second chorus “might be called a bridge under normal circumstances, but the song’s structure takes such an abstract route that traditional labels don’t really apply.”

I don’t know where but she sends me there ...

Suspicions from the squares at Capital that Good Vibrations might in some way nod to psychedelic drug use are clearly unfounded. These elations and sensations are self-evidently rooted in good, clean, honest fun. “She goes with me to a blossom world”? It’s a walk in the park. (Brian said he’d written it on dope and not acid anyway, so not to worry.)

You can read elsewhere about how “radical disjunctions in key, texture, instrumentation and mood” make the track what it is. But let us not forget the way it makes you want to sing along and nod your head and, in my case, attempt to air-drum along with Blaine. (Good luck with that.) This is feelgood music with enough content to launch a thousand essays. You can think along with it. The sleigh bells ought to have been a kitchen sink too many (less sleigh bell!), especially for a song recorded between February and September 1966 in the Golden State, but if Brian Wilson wants to borrow Christmas, he can. And everybody loves the bit where it almost runs silent, just the harmonica and hi-hat, then:

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

And we’re back in the room. With locomotive cello this time, perhaps the song’s greatest contribution to popular music, rewarded with a key role in the fadeout.

I’m not the world’s most qualified Beach Boys professor – I didn’t even own Pet Sounds until the early 90s – but subsequent immersions tells me that when they were good, they were very, very good, and there’s little to touch the period between Brian’s panic attack in December 1964 and when Dennis met Manson in spring 1968. Although on certain wistful occasions I prefer the instrumental Let’s Go Away For A While or the harpsichord-assisted autobiography I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, in a pointless throwdown between Good Vibrations and God Only Knows, the former edges it for sheer operational bravado.

 

 

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The Beatles, Blackbird (1968)

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Artist: The Beatles
Title: Blackbird
Description: album track, The Beatles
Label: Apple
Release date: 1968
First heard: 1988

Alright, I know what you’re thinking. This is a Paul McCartney song. He wrote it. He plays it. He sings it. No other Beatle was involved in the making of this song at EMI Studios on November 11, 1968, unless you count George Martin as the fifth Beatle. McCartney even taps out the rhythm himself with his shoe. It’s a solo record in almost every sense, except the sense that it was recorded for a Beatles album called The Beatles and is credited to the Beatles.

You might also be thinking that it’s willfully perverse to consider the 200+ songs the Beatles recorded between 1962 and 1970, many of which altered the direction of popular music, many more of which are lodged in the global imagination for all time as modern standards, some of which are as barnstorming and unforgettable as A Day In The Life or Strawberry Fields or She’s Leaving Home or The Fool On The Hill or All You Need Is Love or Tomorrow Never Knows, and to pick fucking Blackbird.

But Blackbird it is.

Purism whispers in my ear and tells me that actually, what I really like listening to is the sound of a blackbird. Maybe so. But it was Paul McCartney who started thinking about the civil rights struggle in the southern states of America while he was up in Scotland and worked those thoughts into a folksy ditty that awkwardly pivots on the fact that “bird” is – or was – swinging slang for a “girl”. I’m quite partial to the sound of a blackbird singing, whether it’s in the dead of night, or the light of the afternoon, but I also appreciate the sentiment that McCartney is heralding the black population’s arrival at its “moment to be free”. It is both a delightful hymn to the natural order of things, and a stirring nod to racial emancipation (and indeed, a return to the natural order of things).

Sandwiched between the literal I’m So Tired, an India-penned Lennon tune, and Harrison’s Baroque but barely listenable Piggies – both played by the whole band – Blackbird is a blessed relief from the padded-walls insania of the bulk of The White Album and a welcome burst of melody on the largely tune-deficient Side Two, which has a certain bestiality to it, with a certain raccoon also on the slate.

A simply picked tune on a Martin D 28 acoustic (you know I looked that up), recorded outside, there is on the millpond surface so little to it, musically, although archaeology reveals roots in a tune for lute by JS Bach, Bourrée in E Minor, and that rather suggests, shockingly, that Paul McCartney knows what he’s doing when he sits down to write. None of this is news. But I do love the context of the song. The Beatles is a rollercoaster of highs both foot-tapping and head-pounding, and lows both minor and major. Blackbird is like a little, two-minute, sitdown chillout about a third of the way through.

Not sure why I’m making apologies for one of my all-time favourites. It was number 38 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Beatles Songs.

I was lent the vinyl album in the late 80s by my more classically schooled friend Chris. (He also brought me up to speed with Lennon’s solo albums and Peter Gabriel’s, for which I remain eternally grateful.) I later splashed out on the CD, which was, of course, a disappointment in physical packaging terms, with its tiny inlays and its frightfully ugly white plastic spine. It doesn’t matter, in the end. It’s still my favourite Beatles album.

So, we’ve done it. We’ve added the Beatles band to The 143. It feels good to bring them into the fold, even if George and Ringo were literally on holiday while the song was recorded (and John was in another studio doing Revolution 9); the Beatles are in. And so is birdsong.

Should I have gone for Dear Prudence?

George Harrison, Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll) (1970)

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Artist: George Harrison
Title: Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)
Description: album track, All Things Must Pass
Label: Apple
Release date: 1970
First heard: 1999

I have the parlous state of modern music during the dog days of the 20th century to thank for one of the richest periods of musical archeology of my adult life. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me, as I found much to get animated about in the early 21st century, but circa 1999-2000 I found myself increasingly underwhelmed by the new. Neither of these two bands is to blame, but it was the era of Travis and Coldplay, The Man Who and Parachutes. Both albums have merit both musical and technical, but neither exactly set my world on fire. They were fine. Put it this way, OK Computer and Fat Of The Land suddenly felt as if they were a lo-o-o-ong time ago.

I recall going on holiday to Ireland in ’99 and forgetting to take any CDs for the hire car; we went into a record shop in Galway and could only find Play by Moby that looked like it might provide any sonic pleasure around Ireland’s west coast, plus, we took a flyer on the Toploader album on the strength of catchy hit Dancing In The Moonlight (I think we played it through once). I don’t even mind Play – it is, to use Douglas Adams’ withering phrase, “mostly harmless”, and, for driving, it had a good beat – but the fact that it was essentially advert music sums up the period’s wretchedness.

To compensate, we turned to filling gaps in our CD collection and the end of the century turned into an orgy of classic old music, mostly – let’s be honest – from the 70s, and often with a view to completing the incomplete works of … Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Wings, John Lennon (you’re sensing a picture emerging) and George Harrison. I’d been aware of All Things Must Pass, and My Sweet Lord was ubiquitous on the radio when I was a child, but my scholarly knowledge of George’s solo work was thin up until When We Was Fab. When it arrived in the post, I didn’t know what to expect, but the sheer thickness of the CD box made it seem important. You could stand a potted plant on it, but wouldn’t.

I so wish I’d been old enough to have purchased the triple-album box set in 1970, by which I would have learned to divide it up into six sides. On CD it’s two discs, with the Apple Jam sessions joined to the end of side four. But hey, that’s the compact disc age for you; sides no longer count. Either way, my favourite track (and my favourite track for all time, I suspect) comes 12 tracks in, borne on the most beautiful, plangent, layered guitar line from steelman Pete Drake and counted in by Alan White’s brushes – abject proof, were it needed, of producer Phil Spector’s delicacy.

I had no idea then, at the end of the Millennium, when this album captured my soul and refused to come out of the CD drawer, who Sir Frankie Crisp was, but I’m with the programme now: Frank Crisp was the eccentric microscopist and horticulturalist who had Harrison’s neo-Gothic homestead Friar Park in Henley-on-Thames built, where Spector first heard his “backlog” of amazing spare songs, and which used to be a nunnery. Recorded at Abbey Road, Trident and Apple, it is through Ballad Of that the eccentric, 33-acre, Hare Krishna-renovated spirit of Friar Park is burned into the grooves, the lyric an affectionate tribute to Crisp and, in the words of one biographer, “a tour round the house and grounds”, and in particular its folly-like detailing (“Fools, illusions everywhere/Joan and Molly sweep the stairs” – love the unreconstructed Liverpudlian way he pronounces “sturs“). There aren’t many “ditties” (George’s word) about rich men who had houses built and designed their gardens, grottos and follies, full stop, but I doubt there’s one that channels its subject like this one. Each time I hear it, to borrow Liz Lemon’s phrase, “I want to go to there.”

Like most of the solo Beatle albums, it features a musicianly cast of thousands, including other Beatles and satellites, herewith: Ringo, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Billy Preston, Mal Evans, Ginger Baker, Ray Cooper. It’s a solo record, and yet it’s full of people, reflecting George’s perhaps over-hospitable generosity. (I understand Patti got pretty fed up with all the Hare Krishnas doing the garden!) Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp is just the loveliest moment among tons: Apple Scruffs, the Dylan tune If Not For You (which I rate higher than the Dylan recording: “if not for you, the winter would have no spring/I couldn’t hear the robin sing”), Wah-Wah, Isn’t It A Pity, the epic title track …

Around this time, I bought the drily exhaustive hardback tome The Beatles: After The Break-Up and became obsessive about the Fabs’ movements after 1970. I remain convinced to this day, during moments of personal madness, that individually they made better music than collectively. It’s certainly true of George. Now that’s a really big “discuss …”