Monday, 12 May 2008

Vieux Chiens

Before I start this post I'd just like to apologise to anyone who's emailed me recently. I've not checked my email regularly for a while - my job requires me to look at a computer all day, and so I'm not so keen to carry on doing so when I get home. I currently have a few hundred emails to get through, so if you need a reply you will get one, but probably not for a few days.

Anyway, I recently discovered that late last year, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band released their first new studio album in 35 years, so obviously I had to get it.

For those of you who don't yet know the joys of the Bonzo Dog Band,they are often described as the missing link between the Beatles and Monty Python, and to a first approximation that description works as well as any. Certainly they had connections with both groups - Paul McCartney produced the band's biggest hit, they appeared in Magical Mystery Tour, George Harrison wrote a song about their drummer, and the band appeared in the pre-Python show Do Not Adjust Your Set, and main songwriter Neil Innes contributed music to Python albums, films and stage shows.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band started out in the mid-sixties as a trad jazz/vaudeville revivalist band - a project of art students poking affectionate fun at the popular music of a generation before by performing once-popular novelty songs like I'm Going To Bring A Watermelon To My Girl Tonight. The original lineup - Vivian Stanshall, Neil Innes, Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater, "Legs" Larry Smith, Sam Spoons, Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell and Bob Kerr made two singles - covers of My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies and Alley-Oop, before Kerr left (in acrimonious circumstances) to join The New Vaudeville Band, taking the band's stage act with him and forcing them to rethink.

Their first album, Gorilla, was an odd mix of trad jazz songs and new originals, but after this they dropped Spoons, Bohay-Nowell, the covers (apart from third album Tadpoles, which included some covers they'd done for TV) and the 'Doo-Dah' from their name, concentrating on original material, both musical and comedic.

The vast bulk of the band's material was written by the band's two leaders, Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes. Stanshall was an eccentric genius, the harder-edged of the two as well as being the more surreal, while Innes was softer and more whimsical but also a better craftsman (think of the Lennon-McCartney dynamic, or Cleese-Chapman/Palin-Jones). Stanshall was also a mesmerising performer, and one of the most versatile vocalists (both as a singer and an actor) I've ever heard.

Stanshall died in 1995, so the idea of the Bonzo Dog Band reuniting was always problematic, in much the same way as the Beatles reuniting without Lennon or Monty Python reuniting without Chapman - the others would certainly be capable of doing good work without him, but there would be an important spark missing.

The band actually did reunite, however, in 2006 - all the surviving members of the original 'Doo-Dah' lineup, including Kerr, for an oddly successful reunion show (available on DVD and CD). Most of the band hadn't kept up with their instruments, so they were augmented by Innes' touring band, freeing the band up to provide horn section, sound effects, and shambolic slapstick. That show was essentially a show of two halves - the first half was the cover versions and novelty songs from the early years, with everyone getting a turn to sing the second half the Innes and Stanshall originals. Innes providing some of the Stanshall vocals and with many guest comedians filling in on odd songs. The guest comedians were sometimes inappropriately blokeish, but it all sort-of worked.

For the tour that followed, the shows were more successful. The vaudeville songs were cut down (though still present), the two guest comedians who toured with them (Adrian Edmondson and Phill Jupitus) were better integrated into the band, and the rather wonderful David Caitlin-Birch (a former Stanshall collaborator and also 'Paul' in The Bootleg Beatles) did a very good job on some of Stanshall's vocals, making the show less of an Innes solo show by any other name.

This touring band, including Jupitus, Edmondson, Caitlin-Birch and also guest Stephen Fry, have now released the first studio Bonzo Dog album since 1972's Let's Make Up And Be Friendly.

Unsurprisingly, given the line-up, it bears most similarity to the band's first album, Gorilla, with much of the album being taken up with cover versions. Innes, who co-produced the album with touring keyboardist Mickey Simmonds, provides a through-line for the album, however, by bringing in a lot of the little sketches and jingles he used in his own Ego Warrior solo shows, giving the album a coherent feel, with repeated jingles for products from 'Fiasco' supermarkets bursting in, such as the one for 'Cock-a-doodle-tato/the really big potato/with a chicken inside', or L'essence d'Hooligan.

Unfortunately, that coherent feel is a slightly grumpy one, and funny as the album is at times, one feels like the album must have had a song written for it but left off the finished version about how the kids today don't show any respect and won't get off my lawn. The jokes about consumerism , while pointed, give a cumulative feel of someone who wishes everything was the way it was when they were young.

I won't go through every song here, as the album is overlong - 28 tracks (though many of these are little one-minute jokes or jingles), and many of the cover versions are clearly only there in order to give every band member a spotlight - the world really didn't need an amateurish cover of Tiptoe Through The Tulips that's too earnest to be funny but not competent enough to be good - and this album would be much better and more interesting at half the length. But I'll touch on the highlights. Before I do, I must point out as well that the cover (a dog's skull made out of whipped cream and penny sweets) is the best album cover art I've seen in decades.

Many of Innes' songs here, incidentally, have already been released either on his last CD, Works In Progress, or as free downloads on his website , but it makes sense for him to re-record them here, with a decent budget and a decent chance to actually have an audience for them.

The album is bookended by Pour L'amour des Chiens/Jean Baudrillard, one of Innes' cod-French trifles. After a vaudeville cover it goes into Hawkeye The Gnu, a reworking by Rodney Slater of Hoots Mon by Lord Rockingham's XI, an excuse for a lot of puns based on Scots/English dialect differences.

Innes' Democracy is the first 'new proper song' on the album, and is pretty good - but it's an Innes solo song, it doesn't really feel like the Bonzo Dog Band and doesn't feature any of the other members noticeably.

I Predict A Riot by 'the old Geezer Chiefs' on the other hand doesn't really work - there have been far too many novelty cover versions recently for one to be at all funny at this point, and this one isn't funny on its own merits. My wife Holly likes this one though, and it's done with enthusiasm. I suspect it'll work better live.

Stadium Love, a parody of big singalong stadium rock cliches, is quite amusing, but is one of several examples on this album of the band gesturing at their own past (they repeat "We are free because we're normal")

Mornington Crescent, by Mickey Simmonds, is a rather fun little collection of puns around underground names ("are you the one who made the kings cross?" "Are you the one who tried to turnham green?") over a trad backing track. Humph would have approved.

Early Morning Train was the best track on Innes' solo Works In Progress, with some really excellent descriptive writing ("the man with the Dan Dare eyebrows"), a gorgeous little ballad. It could do without the synth strings, and again this is essentially a solo track (apart from some spoken interjections from Adrian Edmundson), but this is a song that deserved a wider audience.

My Friend's Outside is a Roger Ruskin Spear song that suggests that Innes isn't the only one digging into his own back catalogue rather than writing new material - it's a parody of Gary Numan and early-80s electro in general. Unfortunately, one of the things it's parodying is their repetitive nature, which it gets over rather too well.

For The Benefit Of Mankind is the highlight of the album - an old Innes attempt at a Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche, the arrangement (and Innes' pseudo-German accent) pitch it weirdly somewhere between G&S, Brecht & Weill and Danny Kaye, and this is the only one of Innes' contributions here that really makes use of the rest of the band.

Beautiful People, Adrian Edmondson's songwriting contribution to the album, is surprisingly good. While the sleeve-notes to the album describe it as 'pure essence d'Bonzo', this is actually far more Pythonesque - specifically it sounds like a Palin/Jones song from the early 80s, somewhere between Every Sperm Is Sacred and Finland. Either way, though, it's one of the better tracks on the album.

Innes' Ego Warriors is the most blatant example of the individualism and anger at today's homogenous culture that Innes threads through the album - a call to arms for 'ego warriors' to thumb their nose at conformity.

Sweet Morning, "Legs" Larry Smith's main contribution to the album, is one of the bigger disappointments - essentially a rewrite of The Bride Stripped Bare By Bachelors but through a haze of nostalgia, to a synth-pop background. Singing about past glories is never a good idea, especially when the music is as plodding, and the rhyme scheme as predictable, as this.

Now You're Asleep is a song Viv Stanshall co-wrote with David Caitlin-Birch before Stanshall's death. Unfortunately, like many Sad Songs by Dead Geniuses that Take On Extra Weight Because They're Dead, it really can't support the associations. It's a pleasant enough song - it sounds a little like Nick Harper, actually, but it's half-formed and not really anything in particular, with some nice ideas, but aimless and structureless. A couple of good lines ("in the eiderdown seas where I swim in my sleep") don't make up for the general 'meh' feeling of the song.

If this album had been half the length - keeping the best of the originals, all the little jokes and jingles (by far the best bits of the album - Stephen Fry reading a recipe for Salmon Proust and Phill Jupitus' Sudoku Forecast being particularly amusing) and ditching almost all the cover versions - it could have been a very good album. Not great - there's nothing here of the quality of Piggybank Love, Sport (The Odd Boy), Equestrian Statue, Look Out There's A Monster Coming, Canyons Of Your Mind, Mr Apollo or I'm The Urban Spaceman - none of the truly great songs that made them one of the greatest bands of the 60s - but there's a good 13-track album struggling to get out of this flabby 28-track one.

Still, the Bonzo Dog Band have more than justified their existence already, and many of us love them dearly. Those of us who do will enjoy even the lesser tracks on this, as letters from old friends. Those who don't have that affection already would probably be best off buying the original albums before this, if they buy this at all. I'll probably rip this to MP3 at some point, and listen only to the better tracks, and it's worth it for those tracks.

The version I have comes with a bonus DVD of live performances - these are not substantially different from the versions on the 40th anniversary concert, but are still quite nice to have.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Mike Love's Beach Boys last night (Manchester Apollo)

I will eventually use this blog to talk about something *other* than the Beach Boys, I promise...
I'd originally not planned to go to see Mike Love's "Beach Boys" last night, even though when I saw them a few years ago they were absolutely excellent, just because I'm very short of money now and couldn't really justify it to myself, especially if they were going to do the same short hits setlist they did in 2001 and 2002, the first couple of times I saw them.

Two things changed that, and made me decide I was definitely going to go. Firstly, I read an interview with Bruce Johnston saying that the band were going to be doing 50+ song setlists in the UK again - Bruce appears to have a much higher opinion of UK than US audiences, and the band played a lot of obscurities last time they were over. The second thing that changed my mind was hearing that Dave Marks was back in the band. For those who don't know, Dave was the original rhythm guitarist for the Beach Boys on their first handful of albums, and I'd never seen him play before.

I think this was one of the best decisions of my life.

Before I get to the review proper, I have to give a bit of exposition, because not everyone is as familiar with the minutiae of the Beach Boys' career as I am. The touring Beach Boys are Mike Love (the nasal voiced one who sang the low lead on a lot of the band's bigger early hits) and Bruce Johnston (who joined the band in 1965. He never took many leads, but his is the distinctive answering voice singing "I wish they all could be California" and "God only knows what I'd be without you). For this UK tour they were joined by Dave Marks, making three Beach Boys on stage. The other five band members are sidemen, and that's all you *need* to know.

However, there were some other lineup changes since I'd last seen the band, and sometimes during the review I'll be comparing this to previous shows, so for those who are interested I'll explain. The rest of you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.

The first couple of times I saw this band, they featured two long-term sidemen, Adrian Baker (falsetto vocals) who'd been with the band off and on (more off than on) since the early 80s, and Mike Kowalski (drums) who'd been with them since the late 60s. Both were appalingly bad. Baker had pitching problems and the wrong timbre for Beach Boys music (having more of a Frankie Valli sound) while Kowalski was frankly the worst drummer I've ever seen in my life. In 2004, the last time I saw them, Baker had 'swapped out' with a singer/guitarist named Randell Kirsch, Kirsch joining the touring Beach Boys while Baker took his job in Papa Doo Run Run (a tribute band made up of musicians who've played with the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean and Brian Wilson). Kirsch improved the band immensely.

Since then there have been more changes. Kowalski was fired, and John Cowsill (of the Cowsills) who had been in the band on keyboards switched to drums, something I was entirely happy about. I was less happy, though, that Chris Farmer, the band's bass player, also left at that time. Farmer is an excellent vocalist, and I thought he would leave a big gap. In his place, Kirsch switched from guitar to bass and Mike Love's son Christian joined on guitar and vocals.

Before I get to the gig proper, something I think I should mention:

Before the gig, I sat outside the pub next door, sometimes chatting to old acquaintances from other gigs and fan events I've been to, but mostly listening to the soundcheck and reading and just enjoying myself. At one point Bruce Johnston came past briefly (with Tim Bonhomme, the band's keyboard player), and lost himself a couple of fans - two people asked him for autographs and he said "no" in such a staggeringly rude tone that they started chatting about what the penalty in law is for punching a Beach Boy. I was a little more forgiving though (though it wasn't me he'd snubbed) - I've seen Bruce go very far out of his way for fans before, and on the two occasions we've spoken he's been very nice to me (though he has a rather odd sense of humour), but when approached this time he was at work - this was the time between the sound check and the performance - and people can get snappy when they're bothered when trying to work.

So I continued to sit outside the pub, and for a while I was talking to a homeless bloke I know - he was there to try to get money off the crowd so he could get a room for the night, but there weren't many people there yet, so he just sat next to me on the bench and we chatted. Every so often he'd get up and go and try to beg off a few people then come back and sit with me some more.

But then he got up and went over to someone I recognised as John Cowsill, who had walked out of the venue, talking to someone on his mobile phone and looking rather concerned. After his phone conversation he sat down alone, looking deep in thought. When my homeless friend went over to speak to him he seemed confused for a second, saying (I heard this bit) "Change? What? ... Oh, you mean like money?" and giving him a handful of change.

But my homeless acquaintance kept talking to him, and after a few minutes, and remembering what I said above about not bothering people at work, I went up to him and said "Look mate, this bloke's in the band, he's at work right now and probably doesn't want to be disturbed."

Cowsill said "I'm in the band?!"
"Aren't you?"
"No..." (looking genuinely confused)
"Well, you look exactly like John Cowsill..."

He played around for a couple of seconds before admitting he was (he seemed at one and the same time to be enjoying joking with me and trying to work out how anyone would know who he was, as he's not the most famous person in the world). He then said "This guy's not bothering me, I live in California! I've been telling him to get as much as he can from the crowd tonight. Go out there and fill your fucking cup to overflowing twice over!"

He chatted with me for a short while, the usual stuff about if I'd seen the band before and so on, but then after I went back to the bench I was sitting on he talked with my homeless acquaintance for (I didn't have a watch so can't be precise) what seemed like *half an hour*. And when talking to me and to him, Cowsill seemed genuinely engaged and happy to be talking. You can't fake that kind of genuine niceness and interest in other people. I don't think anyone has impressed me quite as much in such a short space of time - he just seems like a genuinely lovely bloke.

Anyway, on to the show.

The band consisted of:
Mike Love (vocals)
Bruce Johnston (vocals, keyboards)
David Marks (lead guitar, vocals)

Backing musicians:
Scott Totten (lead guitar, vocals)
Christian Love (rhythm guitar, vocals)
Tim Bonhomme (keyboards)
Randell Kirsch (bass, vocals)
John Cowsill (drums, vocals)

A few notes on the show as a whole before I talk about the setlist:
People in the UK don't wear Hawaiian shirts generally, and the band's clothes had been mocked by the Times reviewer in the 2004 tour. For this show, all the frontline were wearing either tailored black suits or (in the case of Bruce) a dark shirt and jeans - the only Hawaiian shirt in evidence was on Bonhomme. And it must be said they looked *COOL* like this, rather than the dorkiness they projected in 2004. Christian Love actually reminded me a lot of Nick Walusko (of Brian Wilson's band and the Wondermints) in his stage presence.

One thing that does appear to be an issue, though, is that all the frontline (with the exception of Scott Totten) wear baseball caps, putting their faces in shadow when lit from above. When you combine this with the fact that John Cowsill took a number of leads from behind the drums with his hair hanging over his face, some people have not been able to tell who was taking which lead, and I've heard some people even suggest that some of the leads were pre-recorded. This is nonsense - if any pre-recorded material is used at all, which I doubt but I suppose is possible, it's minimal and probably consists of some extra thickening of the harmonies. But they might want to think about changing the lighting slightly.

The lineup changes have been almost entirely beneficial to the band, instrumentally. Cowsill is the best drummer I've ever seen, bar none. I already knew he was decent, and he's been a real asset to the band at every gig I've seen, but switching him to drums has given the band a power and confidence they've not had since the early 70s. He's got a lot of Dennis' stage presence and energy, but he can play as accurately as a Hal Blaine when the song needs it. And moving Kirsch to bass has only been a good move as well. Moving Cowsill from keyboards has also meant that Bruce is actually *playing* the keyboard in front of him now. This band are *TIGHT*.

Instrumentally, I would actually go so far as to say that this band are as good as their counterparts in Brian Wilson's band. The main way in which this band fall down in comparison to Brian's is just their reliance on synthesisers to cover instrumental parts that in Brian's band are covered by multi-instrumentalists. But the core guitar-bass-drums rhythm section are comparable.

Adding Dave Marks for the UK tour is a great move, too. Not only is it nice to see him back with the band, but he really does add to the band instrumentally. He and Scott Totten swapped lead parts all night, Totten taking the thicker, bluesier post-1967 lead parts (usually on a Gibson) while Marks played the earlier, Chuck Berry infused stuff on what sounded like a Fender. But Marks actually played that stuff as *surf guitar*, something the Beach Boys have never really had - he was playing mostly the same notes as on the records, but with an attack and tone that bring the band closer to Dick Dale or at least the Ventures. He and Totten meshed very well, and watching them trade solos made Barbara Ann almost worth listening to.

Vocally, the changes have been more of a mixed bag. Christian Love, while sounding sometimes scarily like Carl Wilson, is a weaker singer than Chris Farmer, meaning the harmonies were thinner in the middle than they used to be (all the parts were still there, but it's just a matter of the relative strength of each voice). But on the other hand, the redistribution of vocal parts has meant that Cowsill got more leads ( a very good thing), and has allowed Scott Totten to shine.

Totten has been in the band since 2001, but never made a huge impression on me at the previous shows, just playing his guitar well and doing competent backing vocals. But now it's apparent that he's an excellent falsetto singer, sounding more like a young Brian Wilson than any of the many falsetto singers the Beach Boys have employed over the years.

The annoying thing for a purist like myself is that this band actually sound far more like the Beach Boys' records than the real Beach Boys did in the last couple of decades of their career. The Beach Boys were a very sloppy live band from the early 80s onwards, replacing complex vocal parts with simpler ones, cutting out difficult bits of the arrangements, strumming full chords rather than playing the single-line parts on the records, and generally simplifying things to make their job as easy as possible. The competition from Brian Wilson's band (and, I suspect, the desire to appear 'authentic' rather than a tribute band) has made them pay serious attention, and now they're playing the parts as written, no matter how difficult (except that Cowsill's drumming on some of the surf songs is more complex than the parts on the record).

I've possibly got the order of the songs here slightly wrong, but this is, as best I can recall, how the set went. If I don't specify a lead vocalist, you can assume that the lead was Mike Love and the falsetto Randell Kirsch.

The band walked on to Wipeout, and then went into an uninterrupted stream of songs. I've heard these called medleys, and technically they are, but that calls to mind Stars On Forty-Five or something - these were the full songs, just played without any break. I remember the first of these as being about 11 songs, but I can only actually remember eight of them. They started with Do It Again, with Mike Love in excellent voice (the last few times I've seen them, he's sounded quite flat on his tenor leads, although he's always done an excellent job on the bass parts, but here he sounded on-key pretty much throughout). The song was slightly marred by what I think was some bleed-through from a click track in the first half, but it still sounded pretty good). The medley then continued with
Don't Back Down - Cowsill's playing on this was *astounding*, sounding almost like Alban 'Snoopy' Pfisterer's playing on 7 & 7 Is by Love. Cowsill plays like a man with at least seven limbs, putting in little tom rolls all over the place and still keeping the beat rock-solid. They just *nailed* this song, always one of my favourites of the early surf songs.
Catch A Wave
Little Honda - Another one that just went over superbly
Surf City - During this Bruce tried to get the audience to sing along, with little success. This was never a hit over here, and the casual fans just won't know it.
Surfin' Safari
Surfin' USA

After this the band went into Surfer Girl, with Bruce (I think) singing the solo bridge. Mike Love generally kept the crass comments to a minimum in this show - he actually at times talked about the *songwriting*, and for once I couldn't actually recite his patter along with him - but one of the few irritating moments was in the introduction to this, when he said "this one is dedicated to the lovely ladies, because we're the Beach Boys, not the Village People".

Good Timin' had lead vocals from Christian Love. He sounded competent enough, but a little husky, and he has a tendency to swoop up to notes that is probably impossible to avoid in this melismatic American Idol generation but which still irritates me. He got better as the show went on - he was actually excellent in the second half - but he was the weak link early on. Having said that, just having him on stage seemed to change the dynamic for the better - Mike obviously seemed to glow with pride, but so did Bruce, who must have known him all his life, after all. I've never been a particular fan of this song, either, though I know I'm in the minority there. But it's still nice to hear the band doing obscurities like this.

When I Grow Up (To Be A Man) went over very well, although Tim Bonhomme's keyboard was too low in the mix.

Good To My Baby has always been a favourite of mine, and the band did it very well.

You're So Good To Me was the first weak song of the night. I've always liked this one, but Christian Love's voice isn't particularly good for it (he's much better suited for ballads - he doesn't have the power for this kind of song). However, the real problem was that they took it too slow - it should be a real uptempo stomper, somewhere between the Four Seasons and Holland-Dozier-Holland. Played even slightly too slowly it just drags.

Forever was sung by David Marks, and he did an incredibly good job. I'd not heard Marks sing a lead before (other than Summertime Blues when he was 14 or so) and had heard that he wasn't allowed to sing on the records because he wasn't any good. If that was the case then, it isn't now - he has a strong, pleasant mid-range tenor, and sold the song very well (and it's a surprisingly difficult song to sing, even though not especially rangey). This was lovely, and I'm glad to see it was David who sang it - like God Only Knows, this should *only* be sung by a 'real' Beach Boy.

Why Do Fools Fall In Love was extremely impressive, and the first time I really took notice of Scott Totten. On the record, Brian Wilson's falsetto lead is double-tracked. Here, Randell Kirsch and Scott Totten took it in unison, and did an incredible job. But what impressed me most was that normally if you're trying to double someone live you'd look at each other in order to keep together. Kirsch and Totten were stood at opposite ends of the stage, facing forward, and managed to double each other perfectly.

Darlin' was John Cowsill's first lead of the day. I know I've gone on a lot about Cowsill here, but he deserves it. He's far and away the best singer in the band, strong and soulful, and the fact that he manages to sing so well while playing the drums as hard as he does amazes me - were I to attempt *either* to play the drums as powerfully as he does, or to sing as strongly, I'd be out of breath after one song.

Warmth Of the Sun was introduced slightly incoherently, but rather touchingly, by Mike. He seems a little lost without his standard patter to fall back on, but he spoke about the process of writing the song. He tried to turn it into a joke at the end, but I actually really liked hearing him talking about the song in an obviously unrehearsed way. I think Randell sang lead on this one.

Wendy was pretty good. I'm pretty sure Bruce sang the solo leads on this one.

Kiss Me Baby was just gorgeous. I always prefer Mike's voice on the slow ballads where he can go lower, and this is one of my two or three favourite Beach Boys songs anyway. Bruce doubled Mike on the 'kiss a little bit, fight a little bit' bass parts in the chorus.

Let Him Run Wild was sung superbly by Scott Totten. As well as being a great song, this one is incredibly difficult to sing, but Scott really impressed me on the choruses. Those shrieked 'let him run!'s are practically impossible - to get them right requires a very difficult balance of precision (to hit the incredibly high notes accurately) and passion (to get the right emotion). I was shocked at how well he did this.

Then I Kissed Her had Christian Love on lead.

I Can Hear Music was another Cowsill lead. Again, he did a great job on this.
The Ballad of Ol' Betsy had Totten on lead. He did a very good job of singing Brian's part, but I actually wish Mike had sung lead on this one. He did a version of this song on an obscure CD given away at petrol stations in the US about ten years ago, and sang it beautifully, and I think it's more suited for Mike's range than for the falsetto range it was done in originally.
Still Cruisin' was a pleasant surprise. I've always had a soft spot for this one, bad as I know it is. I think Christian took Carl's parts, and did a creditable job - his voice was obviously starting to warm up at this point.
Don't Worry Baby had Randell on lead, and was gorgeous.

To end the first half they did a run of car songs - Little Deuce Coupe, 409, Shut Down, I Get Around, which had many of the audience up and dancing. Unfortunately this was when an event that could have really spoiled the gig happened. A few rows in front of me and to the left a man stood up to dance, and the bloke behind him tapped him on the back and (presumably) asked him to sit down. The dancing man refused, so the bloke behind him grabbed hold of him by the shoulders and pulled him backwards over the back of his chair. Thankfully, after a bit of facing off, the dancing man decided it wasn't worth it, because it could otherwise easily have led to a fistfight. I just hope his evening wasn't *too* badly ruined.

During I Get Around Bruce got in front of his keyboard and executed some weird acrobatic leap that looked like it would be difficult for a man half his age.

Now, that first set alone would have been more than satisfying for me, but this was just the intermission. During the break I looked over at the woman sitting next to me, who must have been maybe 25 or so. She was texting "Guess where I am! At the BEACH BOYS! The real 1s not the fake 1s!There so cool!"

The second set opened with Sloop John B, with I think Bruce on lead, though this is one of those songs where often the lead gets doubled (and Mike obviously took his parts).

California Dreamin' came next, sung by Cowsill and Christian Love. Christian's vocals had got much stronger by this point, but Cowsill still had the edge on him. Bruce kept pointing the mic to the crowd to sing the backing vocals.

God Only Knows had Bruce take the lead, although this one got a huge 'ahh' from the crowd at the beginning, and pretty much everyone sang along. This was really lovely, especially since the band can now do the difficult stacatto instrumental break *accurately*. The only problem I had, and it's a minor one, was with Bruce's insistence on singing the second line as "But as long as there are stars above you" rather than "But long as...". The 'as long' is more grammatically correct, but messes up the melody. But that's just me being picky.

Sail On Sailor was *astonishing*. This had always been the song I'd point to anyway as the one where Mike's Beach Boys do better than Brian Wilson's band, because Chris Farmer would put more passion into the vocals. But John Cowsill's rendition of this was literally the best I've ever heard, and I've heard a lot of versions of this song.

You Still Believe In Me was sung beautifully by Randell Kirsch, and was done accurately down to the bicycle horn at the end.

(I'm sure there was another song between these two, but can't remember which one it was - presumably one I've placed elsewhere in the set)

Here Today was astonishing, just listening to the rhythm section. Randell Kirsch playing those incredibly fast bass notes along with John Cowsill's broken drum pattern was quite incredible. Mike took lead on this, except for the "a brand new love affair is such a beautiful thing/But if you're not careful think about the pain it can bring" sections, which Bruce took.

At this point, half the band left the stage and Mike announced they were going to do a few songs 'semi-unplugged'. To start with, he talked about Brian's obsession with the Four Freshmen, and how he'd taught the band to sing the harmony parts (he actually mentioned Al Jardine's name here, which is not something I've seen before - a sign of a possible slight reconciliation?) and then Mike, Bruce, Scott and Randell sang Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring. Now, I've never liked this song, but it's a very, very difficult song to sing, especially a capella, with no kind of safety net, and everyone got their parts exactly.

In My Room followed, with just a few acoustic guitars for backing, and was excellent. The sound quality on this section was extraordinary - I could hear finger noise from the guitars. During this unplugged section, where everything was more exposed and the band were less familliar with the material, I heard a few fluffs (which I'll mention when they come up) - but that shouldn't be taken as criticism of the band in any way. It does, however, prove if proof were needed that these were actual live performances.

After that, Mike announced that the band were going to do a few songs inspired by his experiences with Transcendental Meditation and the Maharishi. After fairly standard anecdotes about being in Rishikesh with the Beatles and Donovan, he introduced Cool Head, Warm Heart by talking about how it had been on the Hallmark compilation a couple of years ago "along with a new song by Brian and one by Al. But since those guys aren't here, we're going to do the one I wrote". This sounded pretty much like the record, with Christian Love in particularly good voice.

Everyone's In Love With You followed, including the extra sections they played when doing it four years ago.

All This Is That came next, with Scott Totten taking the high Carl parts (the 'Jai Guru Dev's) while Christian took the lower Carl parts ("two ways have I") and Mike singing his own lead parts. All did a beautiful job - I've criticised Christian's vocals in the earlier parts of the set, but by this point he sounded spookily like Carl Wilson.

After this came 'Til I Die, introduced by Mike saying how Brian had written it on his own and how it was a very profound song. This was done with an instrumental intro, similar (though shorter) to the one on the Endless Harmony soundtrack, and was beautiful. At one point in the second verse someone in the middle of the harmonies (I wasn't close enough to see who) started singing lines from the third verse before correcting himself, but that's a minor flaw.

Disney Girls came next, again with a couple of minor flaws (Bruce fluffed a couple of lines in the second verse, and Scott Totten came in a couple of beats too early on the first "Love"), but again sounding lovely. Mike Love actually sat this one out - the only song where he didn't sing at all.

Kokomo was next, with the rest of the band having returned at this point. This song was never a hit in the UK, and despite Bruce's continued attempts to get the audience to sing along, it doesn't have the recognition it does in the US. When they used to play it towards the end, in the middle of a run of hits, it would completely deaden the atmosphere, but coming here between the more obscure songs and the big hits it isn't out of place. However, they took this one *far* too slowly, and it turned into a dirge. Christian Love did an excellent job on the choruses, but it wasn't enough to save a plodding performance.

Cottonfields, on the other hand, was just an exhilirating *rush*. This one was a huge hit here in the UK, and the band did a superb job on it, with Cowsill's lead vocals being a big part of that, but the whole band was tight, playing the little country guitar licks and getting the complicated harmonies perfectly.

California Girls was about as you'd expect. Not a favourite of mine, but they did it very well - Scott Totten did a very good job on the intro.

Help Me Rhonda was sung by Cowsill, and by this point pretty much the whole crowd were on their feet.

Dance Dance Dance and Do You Wanna Dance followed, the latter sung by Dave Marks, who again did a very good job on a Dennis lead.

Wouldn't It Be Nice was as glorious as it always is (can't remember who sang lead here - I *think* Bruce and Randell in unison), and Barbara Ann was... well, it was Barbara Ann. Dave and Scott did a really good job on the guitar though.

In the encore, I was astonished by Good Vibrations. While I've said that Christian Love is the weakest link in the current band, he sounded absolutely identical to Carl Wilson here. But what's really interesting is how different this song can sound in different versions. The Beach Boys used to bring out the gentle, uplifting side of this song, and Brian Wilson's band do the same. Here, while still playing the song as close to the record as possible, it becomes a dark, throbbing, psychedelic beast, all sinister undercurrents and spooky theremin.

Fun Fun Fun finished the show, as always, and was good, as always, but was a slight letdown after that version of Good Vibrations.

It's a shame that outside the UK the band won't do these long shows, and you won't be able to see Dave Marks. I'd still recommend anyone who likes their music at all go and see the band - you'll definitely have a great time. But the show I saw was one of the greatest gigs I've ever seen...

Sunday, 30 March 2008

More on That Lucky Old Sun

I've not written anything about music in far too long - other commitments (mostly work, but also my course, the book I'm working on and my comic blogging) have kept me from it. And now, when I'm starting to blog about music again, it's about the same thing I wrote about six months ago, That Lucky Old Sun.

It's strongly rumoured that this album will never be finished, and if it isn't that's one of the biggest crimes I can imagine. Even in the unfinished forms in which we have it, it's a minor masterpiece. The rave reviews I wrote six months ago when the album first came out were a little hyperbolic - I was writing those after only one hearing, and that hearing was at the live premiere of the piece. Given that I'd gone into it merely hoping that it would be OK, hearing it and discovering it was really good was enough to start me raving.

I was going to wait til the actual album release to do a more balanced appraisal of the music, but given that that may never happen, and that I've recently managed to obtain a copy of the demos (no, I'm not sharing these publicly - I don't want to even give the appearance of eroding the market for this) , as well as having had an audience recording of the gig I attended since a couple of days afterwards, I thought I'd do my best to cover the album in the only forms in which it currently exists.

There's been some debate as to how much of the album is Brian Wilson's work. as there was with his 2004 completion of Smile. While I don't claim to be a party to the process by which those things were put together, it's common knowledge that Darian Sahanaja (the Billy Strayhorn to Wilson's Duke Ellington) helped stitch together Smile and that woodwind player Paul Mertens wrote the orchestrations for it. In the same way, keyboardist Scott Bennet (whose contributions I ignored in my earlier review, because he wasn't credited in the publicity I'd seen) wrote at least some of the lyrics for That Lucky Old Sun, as did Van Dyke Parks, Mertens provided the orchestrations, and I would be very surprised if Sahanaja didn't also help pull the pieces together. Many people (usually those who want to believe a myth of Wilson as a brain-damaged vegetable controlled by Machiavellians around him, rather than the doubtless more complicated and nuanced reality) have claimed that Wilson had little or nothing to do with this work.

But at the same time, as with Smile, this sounds to me like a Brian Wilson record, and my guess is it's at least as much his work as any of the Beach Boys albums for which he's famous. He had collaborators then, too - his band, the session musicians, the lyricists with whom he worked. But the thing that convinces me more than anything that it's mostly his work is that, both in the live performances and even more so on the demos, he sounds in better voice than he has in decades.

Since at least the mid-70s, Brian Wilson has been a notoriously patchy vocalist, who can sound flat and unenthused, almost robotic, a lot of the time. He only gives a good performance when he's really enthused by the material, and here he's singing strongly and enthusiastically. It sounds like Brian Wilson.

Having said that, as I go through the songs I'm going to attempt to guess who contributed what. Without any information from the participants themselves, I can only go by my knowledge of their styles, so I'll almost certainly get things comically wrong. In particular I'll almost certainly underrate Scott Bennet's contributions - Brian Wilson is probably my favourite living songwriter, Van Dyke Parks is both a personal favourite of mine and one of the most truly decent people I've ever had the pleasure to have (all-too-brief) contact with, while I'm not really familliar with Bennet's work. But I'll try anyway. If anyone has any actual knowledge (rather than unfounded speculation like my own) please let me know.

In a way, this album infuriates me, in that Brian Wilson has made the album my band, The National Pep, were talking about making last year, except he's done it much better than we could. While the phrase 'rock and roll' comes up over and over again in the course of the album, in fact much of this hearkens back to pre-rock popular music. The big influences here aren't Phil Spector or Chuck Berry, though both show up round the edges, but George Gershwin and Stephen Foster. More than anything, it reminds me of Orange Crate Art, the collection of Van Dyke Parks songs that Wilson sang lead on in 1995, and like that album it's a celebration of California, but not just the sun and girls California of the early Beach Boys music, but the real place. It can really be seen as the third part of a trilogy of which Smile and Orange Crate Art are parts one and two.

Going through this, I'll be referring to the demos and the live performances interchangeably, except where I note one or other specifically. Both are needed, really, to have an idea of how the finished album would sound. The live performances contain sections that were obviously written after the demos were recorded, short extra linking passages or instrumental sections, and have much fuller arrangements (much of the demos are keyboard and vocals only, while the live performances were by a ten piece band and eight-piece string & horn section), but are (at least in the versions I have) poor recording quality, and Brian often mumbles the lyrics. The demos, on the other hand, are much simpler but also much clearer.

The album starts with That Lucky Old Sun. Oddly, this had never really been a song I'd paid attention to prior to this album bringing it to my attention, but it's one that I should have noticed, as I'd heard it enough times - I have versions by Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong and probably half a dozen others. Wilson takes the song apart, completely rewriting the chord sequence and turning it into a rewrite of Ol' Man River. The version here is very abbreviated, just the first verse, before going into a gospel flavoured chorus of 'ooh mama yama glory hallelujah', a phrase which Brian first mentioned wanting to use in a song in an interview in the mid-1970s. All through the album we find little pieces like this - ideas he'd mentioned, or we'd heard in little snippets on demos, brought back and thrown into the mix.

After this we have Morning Beat. Based around the Shortenin' Bread riff Brian has used so many times, this is reminiscent of City Blues from his last album of new material, Gettin' In Over My Head, except it's actually good, sounding something like a non-ironic I Love LA before swerving into a clip-clop country ballad middle sectiom which references Kurt Weill's September Song. It's indicative of the depth of the material here, incidentally, that even this trivial, fluffy opener has by my count four separate melodic ideas (the bluesy verse, the middle section (which is itself as twisty as something like This Whole World), the ooh mow mamas and the short stop-start 'I listen to the morning beat' section). This album is almost fractally detailed, the melodies seeming comfortingly familliar but always going somewhere slightly unexpected.

After a brief narrative section (one of several spoken sections written by Parks, all describing the city of LA), the album goes into Good Kind Of Love,a bouncy pop song with the slightly-swung beat and staccatto piano chords that people think of as characteristic of middle-period Beach Boys but that are actually more like Paul McCartney. Lyrically, it reminds me of Friends Of Mine by The Zombies, a celebration of two other people's love, and once again it has a section that just goes in a completely different direction (the section beginning "the sun keeps on shining" which ties into the main themes of the album and builds up to a thick gospel sound for a couple of lines), but what really stands out here is Paul Mertens' orchestrations.

Mertens has never really been given the credit he deserves for his string and horn parts on Wilson's recent albums, but he's got a very distinct, unique voice as an arranger that makes his charts sound very different from anything else Wilson has done. I suspect part of the reason he's not more admired is that as a performer he's patchy - he does a great King Curtis honk, and his bass harmonica is wonderful, but when given a solo on a ballad he wanders dangerously into the territory of Kenny G or new age - but his arrangements add a totally new tonal colour to Wilson's palette. They sound a lot like Van Dyke Parks' work (when I first heard the completed Smile I assumed it was Parks who had done the strings) but with a more European flavour - I swear I can hear Kurt Weill and Bartok both in there.

Here he outdoes himself. While the arrangement for the band itself (presumably either Wilson or Sahanaja's work, probably the former) is excellent, playing a lot with the colours of different instruments and the dynamics of the band, Mertens combines George Martin-esque strings on the slow sections with skittering Stephane Grappelli-esque violin, big band horns and a simple but effective woodwind countermelody (unfortunately the quality of the audience recordings doesn't let me hear what woodwind Mertens is playing - I think clarinet, but it could be anything in a low register).

The whole song reminds me of You Touched Me from Gettin' In Over My Head, but much better thought out, with much more different sections and better lyrics. It's like an expansion on and refinement of the earlier song, which I enjoyed for itself anyway.

Forever My Surfer Girl is one of the weaker songs, and one where I could believe that someone other than Wilson wrote the bulk of the music - there are three ballads on here that just don't sound very much like Wilson's work, so I'm happy to give Scott Bennet credit for the bulk of the work on those (which is not to say that Wilson didn't contribute - but in any songwriting partnership the initial idea for a song can be brought in by either party, and I suspect those were Bennet's initial ideas). I could be wrong of course, and I certainly wouldn't put money on it, but on the other hand these are definitely Bennet's lyrics, and musically it does sound like some of his solo material.

It's also the first song to explicitly reference Wilson's earlier work and life, not only in the title but in the opening lines ("summer of 61/a goddess became my song") and I may well be less enthused about this song just because those two lines make explicit something I have always found implicit in Wilson's work, and I don't think it needs to be spelled out. There are Wilsonesque touches here and there (the Be My Baby drumbeat), but they sound more like someone trying to sound like WIlson than they do like Wilson himself (although it could be a case of Picasso being able to forge a Picasso as well as anyone). Still, a decent song, and one that fits in with the album as a whole.

After another narrative section (the Narrative Of Venice Beach) we come to Live Let Live. This is just a lovely song, with the unmistakeable lyrics of Van Dyke Parks (and in fact it sounds musically a lot like Parks' work too). A gorgeous little waltz with lyrics that seem to sum up a lot of Wilson's work ("I've got a notion we've come from the ocean and God almighty has his hands on the water), full of playfully dumb internal rhymes and puns that come out the other side of stupid to sound clever and rather touching. While there are things in here that Wilson's done before (the arrangement sounds slightly like Kiss Me Baby and the chorus hook is lifted wholesale from Sail On Sailor), it's a far more mature, crafted song than we would normally expect from Wilson (whose rough edges have sometimes been part of his appeal). While it lifts from Sail On Sailor it's a far more life-affirming song than that one, being a positive 'yes!' rather than merely choosing to struggle on because that's what you do. It's the work of a man whose storms have finally becalmed themselves, at least for the present. It's a sweet, pleasant song with a stunning melody, by far the highlight of the set, and it must get released at some point even if the rest of the album doesn't, although it'll lose out by being out of context.

After a brief instrumental reprise of the That Lucky Old Sun theme, again beautifully orchestrated by Mertens and throwing in plenty of Ol' Man River we go into the upbeat Mexican Girl. This song is in many ways a complete departure for Wilson, sounding authentically Mexican, at least according to my friend Tilt Araiza, who knows more about these things than I do (although my wife Holly, who also knows more about these things than I do, says the Spanish is horribly mangled). The closest reference in Wilson's earlier work is South American, but where that was a joyless pseudo-Kokomo with as much joie de vivre as an office party, feeling like someone saying "now, we all like a bit of fun - I'm a Jimmy Buffet fan myself - but let's be sensible about it", this is a carnival. And like a lot of the songs here it's flat out funny at points - you can hear the tongues in cheeks as the band sing "hey bonita muchacha/let me know that I gotcha".

One thing, though, the main repeated melodic phrase (in for example "your castanet/on the day we met") is incredibly familliar to me but I can't place it. It's from (or sounds like) something from Sweet Insanity or that general period, but I can't think what.

After the Narrative of De Mayo we go into California Role, the only song (at least live) that Wilson doesn't sing solo lead on himself (he sings the middle eight), being sung by Nick Walusko (I think) through a distortion filter made to sound like a megaphone at the beginning and then in unison by several of the band later on. A vaudeville feeling song, sounding like it could have been sung by Rudy Valee, at least at first, the punning lyrics (the title refers not only to the 'rolling round heaven' elsewhere in the album and the 'finding your place' theme of the lyric, but is apparently a type of sushi, or so I am told) which at first seem life-affirming are, on examination, quite callous - "the Hollywood sign bursts through the smog and reawakens your dreams/living under this sun disappointment's not as bad as it seems", "Sometimes you've got to edit your dreams/and find a spotlight behind the scenes", although it's for the listener's own good - you probably won't become a film star, but you can still find a place for yourself if you try.

What amazes me, in this song and in the album as a whole, is the level of invention and inspiration. A lot of these songs don't follow any conventional verse-chorus-middle-eight structure at all, but instead take the listener on a journey, often covering multiple musical styles in the space of a single song, and defying conventional analysis. Most of them do have something that can be labelled a verse and something that can be labelled a chorus, both of which will be repeated at least once, but then they're full of sections that never get repeated. It's a discursive, rambling style that has a confidence, an arrogance to it that I associate with writers much younger than Wilson - people who think they have their whole lives ahead of them and they can throw as many ideas as they want into a song because there's a dozen more where that came from. Something like Autumn Almanac by the Kinks (written when Ray Davies was 22) has a similar structure. The best songs here have that arrogance of youth but coupled with a sense of life experience that can only come from someone of Wilson's age.

After a gospel-tinged contrapuntal 'roll around heaven' singalong and the Narrative Of Between Pictures we come to Oxygen, possibly my favourite song on the album, although not the best. The 'open up open up' opening of the song is one of Wilson's best nursery-rhyme melodies, similar to the intro to Happy Days/tag of On A Holiday. This intro is one of the two or three points in the album (the first line of Live Let Live being another) which causes an actual physical reaction in me - literally heart-stoppingly gorgeous for a few seconds, for reasons I can't explain. The song then becomes (mostly) an upbeat song about seizing the day, from the perspective of someone who has spent far too long 'wasting a lot of years'. It also illustrates the impossibility of knowing just from listening who did what on these songs. The lyric as a whole is pure Brian - it fits in with dozens of songs he's written in the past from H.E.L.P. Is On The Way to Life Is For The Living to He Couldn't Get His Poor Old Body To Move - but the one line "skip the vices verses get to the refrain" sounds like Parks, and I don't think Wilson could have written that line - his mind just doesn't seem to work that way.

Next we have a short section of Been Way Too Long, an old Beach Boys track from 1967 that was left unreleased until 1990. When seeing this live, this was one of the most emotional moments, thanks mostly to the use of footage of the three Wilson brothers together in the overhead projection. Incidentally, I'm firmly of the opinion that the best release of this would be as a DVD - the animations and other film segments created for the show were the best integration of 'multimedia' into a musical performance I've ever seen, and the narrative sections especially benefitted from them enormously.

After this comes Midnight's Another Day. This is one of the other songs that I suspect owes at least as much to Bennet as to Wilson - it does resemble some of Wilson's other songs to an extent, but they're ones, like Cry, that don't sound very Wilsonesque. And I must here admit to a horrible tin ear. The demo for this song was downloadable from prior to the shows, and while everyone else was raving about how good it was I thought it really wasn't very good at all. In part, this was due to some very real flaws in the song. The scansion is all over the place - the stresses sound like bad comic book speech bubbles with random emphasis, and there's a ridiculous overuse of melisma. But these faults blinded me to the song's real strengths. Some of the clunkier lines actually refer back to phrases that have run through the album as a whole, and the whole album has been building up to this. Adding the fuller arrangements and the context of the rest of the album makes the song's flaws seem utterly trivial. The line 'all those people make me feel so alone' is just heartbreaking. The song works, and that's all there is to it. The song ends with a reprise of the Lucky Old Sun theme.

Going Home, which comes next, is a song that dates from (I think) the mid 90s originally, having been demoed for the Beach Boys and widely bootlegged. Much like Morning Beat, this is based around the Shortenin' Bread riff that's always obsessed Brian, and includes the 'rock, roll, rockin' and a rollin'' vocals he's always tried to get into songs (see his unreleased cover of Proud Mary for example), but even in this simple song he suddenly takes a left turn, dropping down to an a capella unison chant of "at twenty-five I turned out the lights/'cos I couldn't handle the pain in my tired eyes/but now I'm back drawing shades on bright blue skies".

The last song, Southern California is another one which sounds like it's more Scott Bennet's work (notably he sings lead on this on the demo), and it has some of the flaws of Midnight's Another Day without that song's strengths. The song only really takes flight on its very last line, when a falsetto countermelody comes in ("oh it's magical that it happened to me"), before tailing off into mama yama glory hallelujahs.

The album is patchy, and sags toward the end, but it's never less than interesting, frequently attains greatness, and it's obviously the work of someone trying to create something that works as a unified whole.

I have probably sold Scott Bennet short in this review, simply because he doesn't have the track record of Wilson or Parks. For all I know he was responsible for all the best moments, but if you heard a song credited to Lennon/McCartney/Smith, I suspect you wouldn't credit Smith with the good bits either. But everyone involved in this deserves an immense amount of credit, and they deserve to see this album released.

I'll be posting about Superman tonight or tomorrow...