54. THE BEACH BOYS – SUNFLOWER (1970)

Greatest Records, Rock Music

Lairs of Harmony

The customary Liner Notes of the 1960s and early 1970s album demonstrated little variation. Usually they were insipid, vain attempts by unfeasibly witless record companies to promote their artists (Check out the US ‘Meet The Beatles’ issue: ‘You’ve read about them in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times. Here’s the big beat sound of the fantastic phenomenal foursome. A year ago the Beatles were known only to patrons of Liverpool pubs. Today there isn’t a Britisher who doesn’t know their names…’) Occasionally some aspired to be more meaningful or poetic, although sometimes pretentiously so. For The Beach Boys ‘Sunflower’ album however, a novel approach. Neither witty nor poetic, they serve a quite different purpose. Forgive me for reprinting them in their entirety:

‘This album was recorded at the studios of Brother Records and utilizes the most advanced recording techniques in the industry today. All original recording was done on a special 3M 16-track tape recorder, supplied by Wally Heider Recording Inc., of Hollywood, using 2-in wide tape. Microphones used include: Neumann U67, U87, KM-85, RCA DX77, DX44, EV 666, and RE-15. A custom-built 30 position mixing console, manufactured by Quad-Eight Corporation, provided extreme flexibility and special effects for this album. Tape to disk transfer was done at Artisan Sound Recorders, Hollywood, using the latest Model Neumann computer controlled mastering lathe, equipped with a Neumann SX-68 helium-cooled, dynamic feedback cutterhead. The songs on this record were recorded in true stereophonic sound; they are not 16 monophonic signals placed somewhere between the right and left speakers blended together with echo, but rather total stereo capturing the ambiance of the room and the sound in perspective as heard naturally by the ear. Although more difficult to perfect, this type of recording is far more satisfying to hear, as will be demonstrated upon playing this album.’

And there we have it. No sanctimonious homage, no empty promise that the record will change your life – instead we have a convoluted itemisation of the sound engineering and recording equipment which will make this ‘a more satisfying’ listening experience. Of course in one sense, these are liner notes to be avoided altogether, but if you, like me, have over time, nurtured a tremendous fondness for this album, you just may find yourself returning to them to contemplate what it is precisely about the music on ‘Sunflower’ that makes it sound so incredibly fresh 45 years on? Perhaps the SX-68 helium-cooled, dynamic feedback cutterhead? Or surely the addition of the KM-85? (Those old KM-84s were useless, everyone knows that) The latest model Neumann computer controlled mastering lathe possibly provided the crucial ingredient. Those Germans are very efficient you know. Your eyes may be drawn to that EV-666 – which certainly sounds suspicious. Could those nice Christian boys have struck a deal with Satan? After all, isn’t he supposed to have all the best tunes? On the other hand, these liner notes could be the best – or at least the most honest – ever written. For ‘Sunflower’ does exactly what it says on the tin.

I have played ‘Sunflower’ with greater frequency than almost any other album I can think of, since I first purchased it second-hand on vinyl from a small, oft-forgotten Glasgow record shop called Rebel Records in the late spring of 1988. I distinctly remember the occasion as I handed over my £1.99 to Stuart Murdoch, later of Belle and Sebastian fame, who was serving at the till that day. The shop, located right at the very top of Renfield Street, was often deserted and didn’t stay in business long. Presumably, he would have had more than adequate time to nurture his budding songwriting skills while spending endless hours gazing around his deserted environs listening to his favourite tunes. Time would be kind to young Stuart, while in 1988 The Beach Boys were not as fashionable as they were to become in the early to mid-1990s, perhaps due to the monster Brianless (nope, no spelling mistake) comeback US chart-topper ‘Kokomo’ from 3 years earlier.

I hadn’t heard of the ‘Sunflower’ album before I spotted it in Rebel Records. I treasured ‘Pet Sounds’ of course and had the ’20 Golden Greats’ compilation – the blue one with the surfer on the cover. I figured that was all anyone needed of The Beach Boys. As I perused the sleeve, interiorly debating the wisdom of a potential purchase, the only date visible that I could see was 1980, although the puzzling back cover portraits (Mike with his Maharishi toga ‘teaching the children’, Al – minus only the obligatory lederhosen – decked out for a Munich beer fest; Bruce in a wedding chauffeur costume) suggested an earlier incarnation of the group. It may have been prudent to exercise caution for, if truth be told, when The Beach Boys recorded ‘Sunflower’, they had more or less been written off as an antiquated relic from a distant past. It turned out the album in my hand was a later reissue – and was in fact from 1970, in some ways a forgotten period of The Beach Boys story. The reason ‘Sunflower’ doesn’t feature very often in The Beach Boys story is not simply because it wasn’t a big seller (it reached only #151 on the Billboard Album Charts) but because it dates from a time when Brian was no longer undisputed director of operations and for many people, Brian Wilson is The Beach Boys. If any of that post-‘Smile’ stuff was worth listening to, it may have led one to the dangerously heterodox conclusion that there was more to the BBs than Mr. Brian Wilson. But while it would be more than a little foolish to question Brian’s pre-eminent position in The Beach Boys, that is a pill too difficult to swallow for some, for whom any acknowledgement of a positive musical contribution from Mike Love is a concession akin to climbing into bed with Beelzebub. I’m by no means the defence counsel for Mike Love, but that pantomime villain stuff is just plain silly.

Like it or not, ‘Sunflower’ is undoubtedly the best whole group album the band recorded. From around ‘The Beach Boys Today’ through to the ‘Smile’ debacle, the other Beach Boys were really worker bees, buzzing around their consecrated and dominant queen. Brian had been touched by genius – he had outmanoeuvred The Beatles, and out-Spector’d Phil, but his walls of sound were about to come tumbling down. Subsequent post-meltdown albums (‘Smiley Smile’, ‘Friends’, ‘Wild Honey’ ’20/20’) were decent if unspectacular, but there is a sense that the slide in the Beach Boys popularity in the late 1960s was less attributable to any significant artistic decline than with changing fashions. A mere three years after being the only other band to be voted NME Readers’ Vocal Group of the Year (1966) during the imperious reign of the Fab Four, they found themselves suddenly unhip, passe, their angelic harmonies incongruous with a world of blues heavy guitar heroes and rampant hippiemania. But it is to their credit that they remained aloof from changing trends and watched as those around them burned themselves out like comets as the furious rapacious progress of pop fashion devoured many a bright new thing and spat them out, yesterday’s heroes.

From the mid-1970s onwards, The Beach Boys did not exactly cover themselves in glory, producing material almost unspeakably corny and banal (don’t go near the Light Album – the vomit-inducing title is enough) but the period between 1970-1973 is truly a golden one for the band; a new label (Reprise/Brother), a marked growth in the songwriting of the other group members, particularly Dennis, and three exceptionally good albums: ‘Sunflower’, ‘Surf’s Up’ and ‘Holland’ (‘So Tough’ credited to Carl & The Passions, doesn’t quite reach the same peaks) – the former two the best back-to-back classic pairing of their career (‘Smile’ wasn’t released, remember?) The secret? Well, the liner notes give us a clue. And then there are those harmonies… If Bruce Johnston’s melodramatic ballads are too saccharine for some tastes, it is important to remember that The Beach Boys career is laced with such moments – even ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ (at least lyrically) is prime Camembert, but that doesn’t inhibit our affection for ‘Pet Sounds’ – in fact, it’s all part of its innocent charm. Brian and psychedelics, despite some intriguing results, was ultimately, an ill-judged marriage. And the lyrics – despite Van Dyke Parks best efforts – were always secondary to the music. It’s the harmonies that lure you in. So, in keeping with the spirit of the album’s Liner Notes, allow me to illustrate some of its harmonic brilliance with a few technical notes of my own.

Hear the boys soar on the opener ‘Slip On Through’ at 0:50 – a rushing flood of airborne voices almost as if, like an unstoppable force of nature, they had burst through the studio doors, a human tsunami. Or consider for example, the incredibly complex construction that is ‘This Whole World’; it has a career’s worth of hooks packed into its sub-two minute duration – it is difficult not to succumb to those layers of litany between 1:18-1:31, and the mesmerising ‘Thiiis Whoooole Woooorld’ group harmony at 1:41. For an even more impressive exposition, give ear to the remarkable ‘All I Wanna Do’, where the densely echoed production between 1:25-1:45 almost beggars belief. The song has been afforded the dubious credit of being a virtual blueprint for the Chillwave genre, but really deserves a greater accolade. I would rate it one of the greatest pure pop songs ever written. Remember too, that it was co-authored with Brian by Mike, who sings lead beautifully. Whatever you think of Mike Love, he deserves great credit for this little gem.

Vocal duties are shared out evenly on the gorgeous ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’, a perfectly structured beaut, showing tremendous love and care (check out the little vocal flourish between 0:31-0:37), but the great harmonising and string accompaniment through 1:14-1:31 makes it a showstopper and Carl’s flawless solo gives way to heavenly hums at 2:15. Carl shines too on the luscious ‘Our Sweet Love’ and takes the lead on Dennis’ driving frenzied ‘It’s About Time’ which closes Side One, showing that the boys could rock with the best of them… Meanwhile, Dennis himself, with newfound confidence, takes centre stage with the raunchy R&B of ‘Got To Know The Woman’, while on the wistful ‘Forever’ he creates one of the band’s most tender and perfectly realised love songs – hear the harmonies build irresistibly from 1:05-1:16. If Bruce’s gorgeous ‘Deirdre’ is really top tier MOR, it has a melting Bacharach chord change at 1:01, while his ‘Tears In The Morning’ with cloves of Gallic accordion, features an exquisite coda on grand piano which sounds like it’s being recorded in the room upstairs. Even on Al’s slighter ‘At My Window’ the harmonies at the end are breathtaking. The finale, ‘Cool Cool Water’, salvaged from the ‘Smile’ sessions is both a breeze across one’s forehead and somehow playfully buoyant, providing the perfect vehicle for showcasing the mastery of chief sound engineer, Stephen Desper, who conjures miracles from the mixing desk throughout the record.

I once read an interview with John Cale, where he was asked if he would rather have been a Beach Boy than a Velvet Undergrounder. With delicate Welsh diplomacy, he sidestepped the question, but confessed to owning a complete set of Beach Boys albums upon which he struggled to heap a sufficient complement of praise. In particular, for Cale, like many others, ‘those harmonies were unbelievable’ and he recalled listening to the albums endlessly when he relocated temporarily to California in the mid-1970s. Well, if those harmonies are given a greater exhibition on any BBs album other than ‘Sunflower’ then I for one have not heard it. And I’m pretty certain I’ve heard the lot. In Jim Miller’s original Rolling Stone review, he praised the album’s flawless production, noting it possessed ‘a warmth, a floating quality to the stereo that far surpasses the mixing on, say, Abbey Road.‘ He was right, and wise to overlook the lyrical deficiencies in favour of a total surrender to the music. If the Beach Boys did not have a lot to say – aside from cars and girls and surfing – they had a whole lot of love to give in their music, and they let it shine as brightly on ‘Sunflower’ as anywhere else. When Carl belts out the sublime cry ‘music is in my soul’ on ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’ I suspect few will remain unconvinced by his impassioned declaration. (JJ)

43. CAPTAIN BEEFHEART & THE MAGIC BAND – LICK MY DECALS OFF BABY (1970)

Avant-Garde, Experimental, Greatest Records, Rock Music

The Art of Beefheart


I imagine my affinity for Beefheart followed a trajectory familiar to many. It began with a bizarrely alluring earful on John Peel; leading next to the perusal of a few rock encyclopaedias and the NME and Sounds Greatest Albums lists of the time (1985); followed subsequently by the purchase of Trout Mask Replica; then swiftly by the indignant return of said item to the record store. Even as I handed my tenner over to the hippy at the HMV till, his derisive expression let me know in no uncertain terms that he fully expected me back within 24 hours. He was of course correct. My virgin ears felt like they had been defiled and my brain pillaged by this artless racket, created by people who clearly had not taken the trouble to learn how to play their instruments. I was inclined to steer clear of Beefheart for some considerable time afterwards, but as I became ever more conscious of Trout Mask’s conspicuously lofty critical approval rating, my frustration began to grow. Was I missing something? Perhaps I was the victim of some cruel hoax? I resolved to find another way to appreciate the Captain’s art, if indeed this really was ‘art’ at all?

Art. Don Van Vliet always had a fascination with art, demonstrated most visibly in his own primitively  idiosyncratic paintings, but extending also to his music, the prime expressions of which are the two albums he made for the Straight label in 1969 and 1970, Trout Mask Replica and Lick My Decals Off Baby. Every Beefheart aficionado has their favourite album and I am no different. In fact, not selecting Trout Mask Replica for TNPC feels in some ways tantamount to a betrayal, but it is a record which has been extensively discussed, written about and salivated over elsewhere, and whilst undoubtedly amongst my own Top 3 Albums of All-Time, I fear there is nothing much else to add to what is a well-worn story. Those who find ‘TMR’ too arduous a listen [I had to strengthen my constitution with the solid meat of the early Fall albums before I persevered and eventually succumbed] tend to plump instead for the crisper cleaner Clear Spot, the warmer more colourful Shiny Beast or more commonly, as in the estimation of the authors of The Perfect Collection, the classic 1967 debut, Safe As Milk, which memorably showcased Ry Cooder’s stunning slide guitar work. While these albums served as friendly pathways to a reappraisal of TMR, my way in to Beefheart actually came with the purchase of Lick My Decals Off Baby. Those who treasure TMR may feel that it’s slick sibling sequel gives it a run for its money as The Magic Band’s greatest moment, despite it having lived forever in the shadow of its illustrious predecessor.

Indeed, there are some who swear that Decals actually eclipses ‘TMR’ as Beefheart’s finest hour, but be as well comparing Ulysses to Finnegan’s Wake. Nevertheless, those will point to the following: Decals – unlike TMR, which bore the imprint of Zappa – was produced by Don himself and is therefore incontestably his own creation; secondly, where TMR is a sprawling mess, Decals by comparison is both streamlined (all killer, no filler) and strangely symmetrical (both sides have overtly lascivious openers, anarchic hornfests to end, and in the centre, two baroque math-folk instrumentals, Bill Harkelrod – aka Zoot Horn Rollo – conjuring that almost medieval lute-ish sound from his guitar); thirdly there is a greater refinement of song composition and structure – where TMR sounds like a bizarre experiment, the playing on Decals sounds more controlled, sophisticated even (visually implicit in the contrasting choice of band costumes for the album sleeves); fourthly, the polished marimba of Art Tripp brings another dimension to the sound, working a similar effect to Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone on Eric Dolphy’s classic Out To Lunch. These for some give Decals the edge.

However, the rubbery booglarized guitar sound, which contrasts sharply with the scratch and bite of the guitars on TMR polarises opinion. Additionally, the explicitly carnal lyrical onslaught may not be to everyone’s taste: at times Don sounds almost predatory like a rhinoceros on heat (“Rather than I wanna hold your hand/I wanna swallow you whole/’n’ I wanna lick you everywhere it’s pink/’n’ everywhere you think/Whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle ‘n’ the kitchen sink…”), albeit a rhino with a darkly mischievous sense of humour (check out the even more hilarious ‘I Want To Find A Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe ‘Til I Have To Go’) and a wild poetic gift…

Yes, the poetry. The lyrics are not all as bawdy but are staggeringly brilliant, full of free association surrealistic impulse (“Glasses look out on the pale hell bent /Moon milk run / O’ lady go home / Lord they done cookin’ done / Black lady, Black leather lady / Done had a white, white, white poor son”) and humane ecological concern (“If the dinosaur cries with blood in his eyes/’n’ eats our babies for our lies/Belches fire in our skies/Maybe I’ll die but he’ll be rumblin’ through/Your petrified forest.”)

If the words are wonderful, then the music is a match for them. The album’s most famous song – covered by The Buzzcocks/Magazine – is ‘I Love You, You Big Dummy’ (‘nobody has love/love has nobody/I love ya y’ big dummy/quit askin’ why!’), a rhythmically straightforward thrash enlivened by Don’s wild harp (it sounds like he’s blown it to pieces), which could be a demented cast-off from Strictly Personal and anticipates the unabashed blues growl of his next studio album The Spotlight Kid, while ‘Woe is Uh Me Bop’ – which ‘crinkles along mechanically like walking Tinkertoys’ (copyright Lester Bangs – I can’t beat that folks) is a virtual blueprint for the triple salvo of Tom Waits Franks Wild Years period, the most obvious comparison being ‘Clap Hands’ from Rain Dogs. The marimba here adds little strokes of light which de-intensify the urgency of the rhythm. Conversely, on ‘The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or The Big Dig)’ the sudden change of tempo, with the marimba and guitar scattering in opposite directions, unseats a vibrant footstomper, yet showcases the band at their most viscerally spontaneous and intuitive. Again there is a delightful play on words (“It sure looks funny for a new dinosaur/To be in an old Dinosaur’s shoes/Dinah Shore’s shoes/Dinosaur shoes”). There are other delights and surprises along the way, not least the interval in the closing ‘Flash Gordon’s Ape’ (great title) where the orgiastic cacophony is halted for a marimba solo.

No-one else in rock music has innovated on the same scale as Don Van Vliet. Oh, The Beatles and The Velvets  could stake a claim, and were undoubtedly even more influential. But with his music, Beefheart invented an entirely new art form. I can’t pretend to be an art connoisseur, and  I’ve never really understood the Jackson Pollock analogy – I’ve always imagined each splash and stroke of his work to be something of an accident. Nor – though I appreciate the visual image it conjures – can I fully agree with Andy Partridge’s contention that Beefheart’s music “sounds like a piece of the Somme, lifted up and put in an art gallery.” Another fairly unsatisfactory comparison would be that of a collection of jigsaw pieces fitted randomly together, as this presupposes a final abstract image without a recognisable pattern or design. Instead, when considering a Beefheart composition from this period, I prefer to visualise four or five light aircraft taking off together which also land simultaneously: but while airborne, the planes might fly at different altitudes; some are faster than others, each creating its own unique flight path, until at certain points, as if jerked by some centrifugal force, their zig-zag wanderings cease and they line up with Red Arrows precision. Again, they may fly off suddenly in wildly different directions before this telepathic convergence repeats itself. From one journey the planes may return to the ground at awkward angles, from the next they arrive in neat lines. This sound has been imitated by many performers of good will – aesthetes, punks and outsiders, but each has been too indebted for true greatness. Beefheart’s innovations are unique in rock history and alongside its big brother TMR, Lick My Decals Off Baby deserves to take its place as a uniquely esteemed example of American art primitivism.

[If there has been noticeable mainstream infiltration by some of today’s more left field artists, it is worth remembering that ‘Decals’ stayed eleven weeks on the UK album chart, peaking at no.20. Sitting imperiously at the summit was Andy Williams’ Greatest Hits] (JJ)

23. CRAZY RHYTHMS – THE FEELIES (1980)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk, Uncategorized
CRAZY RHYTHMS – THE FEELIES (1980)
Any record which features sandpaper, coat rack and shoes among its instrumental credits has emphatically earned the right to be called Crazy Rhythms. The rhythms, and the songs they inhabit, aren’t ostentatiously barmy – for which thanks – so much as markedly unorthodox, squatting in a territory somewhere on the road from skiffle to funk without remotely resembling either.
Taking their name from an undemanding, multi-sensory form of film in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,  the Feelies appeared most likely to side with the Gamma, Delta and Epsilon classes of the book, with their unassuming – for want of a better word – preppy image and palpably un-rock ‘n’ roll demeanour, fitting with the most superficially obvious comparison of Jonathan Richman.
 A crude precis of Crazy Rhythms could be that it outlines how the Modern Lovers might have developed if Richman had continued to expand the Velvet Underground template of their first album, instead of proceeding to draw more heavily on rockabilly and doo-wop influences. This also puts them in proximity with the commotion of Josef K and even the early Go-Betweens, while on the Bolt-worthy sprint of Fa Ce La, they provide a blueprint for the sound of the Woodentops.
Repeatedly on Crazy Rhythms, the Feelies prove themselves to be masters of the slow build and slower burn. Many of the songs are one or two minutes down the line before vocals or hooks arrive, meaning that many self-proclaimed cutting edge radio stations
would play them – not that this would ever actually happen – in a severely truncated form, but this would be like skipping all that business with the apes  in 2001: A Space Odyssey and going straight to HAL’s breakdown. The full picture is needed for full power. Funny how this doesn’t seem to apply when the song in question is Stairway To Heaven or Champagne Supernova.
All of this is most explicit on opener The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness, where hesitant-sounding claves and/or woodblock are spied on by a ticking guitar, which finally springs upon them when goaded by the tom-tom roll of future avant-garde voyager Anton Fier. What follows is a sketch of a silent recluse who either has depths too hidden to be traceable or is just completely withdrawn – a Boo Radley who’s never been allowed anywhere near scissors or a Sheldon Cooper plotting his world domination? Unclear – the Feelies put as little flesh on the bones of their lyrics as their music.
But don’t let this sparsity underestimate their capacity to scorch, particularly with Glenn Mercer and Bill Million proving to be the most quietly potent guitar duo of their era, Verlaine and Lloyd with silencers attached . The solo midway through the similarly elongated intro to Loveless Love – which they’re seen performing in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild – would have the jocks meekly handing THEIR dinner money over, while another on Forces At Work – seven minutes, practically all one chord – is a proud descendant of Run, Run, run and All Tomorrow’s Parties. The abum’s sweetest melody is on Raised Eyebrows, where it almost feels like a copout for them to introduce lyrics, particularly when they’re so terse, and you feel that they should have had the courage of their convictions and gone for an instrumental. But it ends up structured like a 1930s dance band tune, which gives it a charm of its own.
There’s even a Beatles cover. Their interpretation of Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey is less drastic an overhaul than Devo’s version of Satisfaction but is conceived in a similar spirit – seemingly ambivalent towards its weighty source material but plainly a product of an utterly different time and culture.
It’s apt that ‘rhythms’ is close to being the longest vowelless word in the English language, as Crazy Rhythms withdraws what might be essential elements to some – big production, deep bass, bravado – and is vastly inventive with what’s left. French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles once likened the record to a UFO – it may come in peace but has little interest in being taken to your leader, as it would much rather take you on a path of its own (PG).