US - California - Full Moon 233 - 08/29/15
From head to heart
Brian Wilson's I Just Wasn't Made for These Times
Following our retroscope series going on for several years, here we go again. Yes, for one more year! Here's
Speakers' corner's cousin; From head to heart. Luna Kafé's
focused eye on great events, fantastic happenings, absolute milestones, or other curious incidents from the historic shelves'n'vaults of pop'n'rock. Blowing our ears and our head, punching
our chest and shaking our heart, or simply tapping our shoulder. Making us go sentimental, but not slaphappy. This moonth we present a 20-year-old platter, made by a then 53-year-old. It was
his second solo album, but he'd already recorded hundreds of songs, and released numerous records. The man has been hailed as a pop genius. At times maybe a madcap genius, due to good/bad/ugly
trips and nervous breakdowns/meltdowns. He once claimed that he was "writing a teenage symphony to God." Maybe that's why God made the radio, just to quote his band's (reunited) latest studio
The man duelled The Beatles in the prime of the 60s, and he's said to have stated: "I met Paul in 1967, Ringo in 1985, and I saw George Harrison in a nightclub somewhere in L.A.
I never met John." He also stated, years after his bad days: "At first, my creativity increased more than I could believe...[pause]...On the downside, it fucked my brain."
Sweet (and sad) insanity makes sweet (and sad) music.
All my life I've been runnin' scared
Feelin' shut out, no one cared
Not my mother, not my brother
Crazy beatings by my father
Music's been my saving grace
Been my ticket to a better place
Brought me riches, brought me fame
Many people know my name
My old friends who knew me when
Say "Brian you've come a long, long way"
Thank you, thank you wo wo-o-o-oh....
- from "Thank You" (a.k.a. "Brian")
I Just Wasn't Made for These Times
I discovered the genius of Brian Wilson at a much later time in my life than I ought to.
1966: I think I remember hearing The Beatles' pop-ditty "Yellow Submarine" soon after it was released in August 1966, but have no memory from my childhood of the pop-symphony "Good
Vibrations" by The Beach Boys released two moonths later. When I was triggered by pop music a little later, no one was bigger than The Beatles and at one point there was only The Beatles for
me. Of course I heard some of the biggest hits by The Beach Boys during the late 1960s and early 1970s, like "Surfin' USA" and "California Girls" but didn't like them. Too much bubble-gum
American for my liking at the time.
1976: By then my tastes in music had broadened beyond the 1960s and contemporary pop and rock was the ting. Still, I had heard rumours that The Beach Boys used to be the American
counterpart to The Fab Four and for a couple of years competed with them to produce the best singles and albums around. Eventually I decided to give the Wilson brothers and co. a chance.
Ordering albums from England was quite cheap at the time, so the investment was moderate. I didn't know a lot about the Boys and wondered if I should go for the fresh compilation 20
Golden Greats or the brand new studio album 15 Big Ones. The former had a surfer on the front cover and included the two dreaded hits mentioned above. I went for the second with
the members pictured with long hair, hipster beard and all, that somehow fitted a bit better with the sign of the times of the pre-punk era. Well, I guess I only played the album once or
twice. It was some of the worst music I'd ever heard, soft Californian vocal-based adult oriented pop including a dreadful version of Chuck Berry's "Rock And Roll Music" that The Beatles
had turned into a veritable firework on the Beatles For Sale album 12 years prior. I thought I was lucky when I finally managed to sell the LP. If I had bought 20 Golden Greats
instead and at least had listened to the ten great tracks on side 2 of that LP with songs from the second half of the 1960s, my belief in the Boys would've been a completely different one.
But I didn't know...
1986: I had kept The Beach Boys at several arms' lengths in the meantime. When I by chance got to listen to songs off the albums released in the intervening years on the radio or something, I was reassured this was not meant for me. Among other musical pleasures, I had been interested in left-field experimental stuff and was a faithful supporter of Recommended Records, set up by Chris Cutler, drummer of the legendary experimental collective Henry Cow in the 1970s, as an outlet for releases by his contemporary bands Art Bears, Cassiber, News From Babel etc. and albums he had guested on or others recorded by likeminded musicians from the Rock In Opposition camp. The Recommended mail-order lists also included a selection of albums of Chris' personal taste. Mainly avant-garde or experimental stuff, but stuck in between albums by the Sun Ra Arkestra and several others out there was Smiley Smile by The Beach Boys. I couldn't understand that the hard-core left winged Cutler wanted anything to do with a cheesy pop group from the well-fed end of sunny California, that even keenly supported the Republican party I later learned. But in the lists received from Recommended, Chris insisted something like this was a highly original and interesting album. Eventually I was so curious I had to order Smiley Smile from him to find out what he was so intrigued by. It turned out to be a grand eye-opener. Apart from the two singles that had been released from the aborted Smile sessions, the album had been recorded in a hurry in Brian Wilson's new and at the time not very well equipped home studio shortly after the Smile project had been abandoned. It included a few more songs from Smile re-recorded, I much later found out, and the rest were new ones. It was something close to a low-fi recording, certainly minimalistically arranged in parts, focussing on some fabulous and playful vocal harmonies and often only accompanied by a single organ. Some of the vocals were recorded in Brian's dry swimming pool outside the house to get the right reverb, some even in the shower the saying goes. The pop melody lines were great and there were even a few avant-garde excesses with tape speed manipulation and vocal experiments here & there. Instantly I understood what the vocals by 10cc had been inspired by when they were my favourite pop group at the time when I ordered 15 Big Ones. Only The Beach Boys of 1967 were more skilled, playful and intuitive.
By now I had learned that Pet Sounds, released the year prior to Smiley Smile, was supposed to be the band's grand studio opus, and I bought that one in addition. It was
also a revelation, especially the studio trickery with all those instruments that he turned into a unique and perfect amalgam inspired by Phil Spector's wall of sound. To accompany some fantastic mainly melancholic pop songs. The album included only two songs that reminded of the ones I had dreaded a decade earlier, "Sloop John B" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice", somehow the most frequently played on the radio and live by the band from this album... One reason or other I never got to explore The Beach Boys' discography further than these two albums for the next ten years. Maybe due to those dreaded hits from the first half of the 1960s, that soft AOR-stuff from the mid-1970s onwards and not least the hit "Kokomo" from 1988, one of the worst pop songs I can think of. (Even worse than 10cc's "Dreadlock Holiday", another merry calypso flavoured hit, ten years prior...) I probably thought The Beach Boys' creativity only bloomed for a short time around 1966-67, when Brian was fucking with the formula, as the saying goes, and that the band feverishly tried to reinvent the hit formula again afterwards.
1995: Brian Wilson's second solo album I Just Wasn't Made for These Times was released twenty years ago today, in August 1995. I found my copy in a second-hand shop, probably a year or two later. It was the third Beach Boys related album I ever bought and kept in my collection. I'm not sure why I picked this one in particular. It was probably cheap and I might have been intrigued by the album title, taken from one of the greatest songs on Pet Sounds. But this song was not included on the new album. The tracks chosen don't focus on Brian's hit history. Instead it's filled with mainly melancholic and sad songs that reveal Brian's vulnerable sides. Which means Brian the songwriter at his very best. Of the three more uplifting songs here, two are of the sincere kind that work fine with me, which leaves only "Do It Again" of the Beach-Boys-do-their-surfin'-twist-on-Chuck-Berry-kind, that I really can do without. The album is the soundtrack from the film of the same name directed and produced by Don Was who also produced the audio album along with Brian. It's a black and white movie about the ups and downs of the life of Brian. He is interviewed along with the ones who stood near him at the time, other musicians of his generation who praise his genius and interspersed with the recordings of the songs of the album. As with Smiley Smile the recordings are fairly minimalistically arranged, maybe another reason why it appealed so much to me in the first place.
One week-end when my girlfriend was away, I was out on town and got quite drunk Friday night. The following two days I only sat at home and listened to I Just Wasn't Made for These Times over and over again. And Brian's tenderness slowly crept under my skin. The songs are mainly soft, but sincere. They hold something seldom in music. An artist who manages to put his personality with all its flaws, defects and doubts into short pop songs. I had to play Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile as well and concluded that the new version "Caroline, No", maybe the best, saddest and most tender off Pet Sounds, almost matched the exquisite original despite a too long flute solo at the end. And the new "Wonderful" was even more wonderful than its Smiley Smile somewhat casually recorded counterpart. At the time I had no idea there existed an even more wonderful version of the song recorded a few months prior to the Smiley Smile version...
The main bulk of songs on I Just Wasn't Made for These Times are taken from the Beach Boys albums released between 1966 and 1971, one from each album of that period. The arrangements are not very different from the originals, they mainly sound a little better and more cohesive since Brian is main vocalist throughout. In addition there are the tender "The Warmth Of The Sun" from the 1964 album Shut Down Vol. 2, two of the best songs from Brian's self-titled debut solo album from 1988, "Love And Mercy" and "Melt Away", that also rank among his better thoughtful ones. Finally there's the odd home demo "Still I Dream Of It" recorded in 1977. The sound quality of the latter is quite inferior compared to the other songs of the album, with distorted vocals and piano, but it still fits remarkably with the set. The vulnerability and melancholia shine through. There's also the heart-breaking little ballad "'Til I Die" off the 1971 album Surf's Up (with one of the greatest front covers in rock history):
I'm a cork on the ocean
Floating over the raging sea
How deep is the ocean?
How deep is the ocean?
I lost my way
"Let the Wind Blow" from the late 1967-album Wild Honey and "This Whole World" off 1970's Sunflower are other goodies with great harmony vocals as with all songs included here. At one point, I couldn't have enough of these songs, though still apart from the lightweight and merrier "Do It Again" that threatened to upset the feeling of the remaining album. The songs made me realize Brian had written and recorded great songs after the 1966-67 era, too. That 1964 ballad "The Warmth Of The Sun", maybe the gentlest of them all, was perhaps the greatest eye-opener, written by Brian and cousin Mike Love in their early twenties. It fits even better sung by a mature main vocalist one octave lower:
The love of my life
She left me one day
I cried when she said
'I don't feel the same way'
Still I have the warmth of the sun
(Warmth of the sun)
Within me tonight
(Within me tonight)
Anyhow, this triggered to dig deeper into the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson back-catalogue, history and myths. I bought albums released immediately before and after the 1966-67 albums, a bit of a rollercoaster ride, but the best songs were great. And the greatest of them were written by Brian Wilson. I got to learn about brother Dennis Wilson's collaboration with Charles Manson in 1968, i.e. before his gang started their slaughtering the next year. (Allegedly Charles threatened to kill Dennis after Dennis had reworked the Manson song "Cease To Exist" and released it as his own composition with the title "Never Learn Not To Love" on a Beach Boys single B-side in late 1968.) There's also the stories concerning Brian's breakdowns, drug abuse, retiring to bed for several years and the inactivity in the 1980s under the strict supervision, spell and medication of Dr. Eugene Landy. And of course the legendary and aborted Smile sessions recorded between Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile soon came to my attention. I had to buy the Beach Boys five CD compilation box Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys from 1993 that opened the lid to the treasure chest with half a CD devoted to previously unreleased Smile recordings among well-known singles, album tracks and other previously unissued recordings. Listening to "California Girls" again, I even had to admit that the intro of the song had something to it...
Well then, thanks to I Just Wasn't Made for These Times I went through one of my most profound obsessions in pop music since I discovered The Beatles for real in my youth. It
included obtaining most of the early Beach Boys albums, compilations with previously unreleased stuff from the 1960s/early 1970s, Brian's other solo albums and his collaboration album
Orange Crate Art with Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks. It also included searches on the net to unearth unreleased Smile recordings, putting together my own version of the Smile album.
2004: The Smile addiction culminated with Brian's decision to bring the album on the road with his big band in 2004. I was there when he performed it live in Oslo in August, one of the greatest concert moments in my life... Though the other songs performed that evening, before and after the Smile suite, was another rollercoaster ride. The album was recorded anew in between tour commitments and released in September that year as Brian Wilson Presents Smile. It was great but the release of the massive Smile Sessions box in 2011 with the official release of original recordings from 1966-67 was the ultimate highlight of the recorded works from the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson cannon. In my opinion The Beach Boys have written and recorded some of the most awesome and some of the most awful songs of popular music, ever. The most awesome ones are written and mostly produced by Brian Wilson. Some of the most awful ones, not least "Kokomo", were penned and recorded by the band when Brian wasn't capable or didn't want to participate.
2015: Listening again to the 1976 album 15 Big Ones today, for about the second time in 39 years, I find the characteristic Beach Boys vocal harmonies pretty, eeehr,
characteristic, but mainly a little sweeter than the band at their best. That may have to do with the songs. They, still, pretty much suck. Though maybe not the most obvious candidate,
I Just Wasn't Made for These Times on the other hand clearly prove that Brian Wilson is a pop musical genius. At least it paved the way for me to come to that conclusion. Incidentally
the Pet Sounds track of loss and sadness included there, "Caroline, No" was originally released as the very first Brian Wilson solo single in March 1966, a couple of moonths prior to
the album release. The B-side of the single was the instrumental "Summer Means New Love" from Beach Boys' second 1965-album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). This brings us back to 2015 as Brian revisited this track almost 50 years later, added lyrics and included it anew as "Somewhere Quiet" on the Deluxe version of his latest solo album No Pier Pressure released last April.
Copyright © 2015 JP