“Top 23” Review: “The Raven” (1935)

The Raven (1935)

Starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Irene Ware, Lester Matthews, Samuel S. Hinds and Ian Wolfe. Directed by Louis Friedlander (Lew Landers). From Universal Pictures.

The Raven
Boris billed with only his last name – like Schwarzenegger – and poor Bela has a new middle name, I guess.

Socialite Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) has been in a car accident and lies unconscious in hospital. Her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), her fiancee, Dr. Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) and a team of doctors are at a loss. Something has impinged on the nerves at the base of Jean’s brain. The imminent Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) is called. Judge Thatcher beseeches him to look into the case but Vollin initially refuses until his ego is appealed to. When Judge Thatcher says that all of the doctors in attendance say that Vollin is the only one who can do anything, Vollin agrees to operate. When he sees the beautiful Jean, he is smitten. The operation is a success and Vollin begins to make his designs on Jean known. Jean gently rebuffs the doctor, saying she is going to marry Jerry. This, combined with Judge Thatcher telling Vollin to forget about Jean, sends Vollin over the edge.

Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) arrives at Dr. Vollin’s home late one night. Bateman is on the lam and wants Vollin to change the way he looks so he can avoid the police. Vollin gets an idea. When Bateman suggests that having an ugly face makes one do ugly things, Vollin manipulates the nerve ends at the base of Bateman’s brain leaving him “hideously ugly”. Vollin says he will fix Bateman’s face if Bateman helps him exact his revenge on the Thatchers. Jean, Jerry and Judge Thatcher are part of a overnight party that Vollin hosts at his stately home. During the night, Vollin will set his evil plan in motion.

Raven2
“Do I look different?”, Bateman asks, hopefully. “Yes”, Dr. Vollin replies.

As always, I’m here to help you people. I get the feeling that no one has seen “The Raven”. Not the 1963 Roger Corman-directed film that starred Boris Karloff with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre and not the more recent film of the same name starring John Cusack. This version of “The Raven” is one of my “Top 23” favourite films of all-time. Made in the mid-’30’s at the height of Universal’s reign as the premiere monster movie studio, it was a rare chance for Lugosi to feature more heavily in a film than his frequent co-star, Karloff. It’s a well-known story that Lugosi was resentful of Karloff. Lugosi had become popular after his immortal portrayal of Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s legendary “Dracula” (1931) but this left him hopelessly typecast. For one thing, his thick, Hungarian accent made him hard to cast and for another thing the jury was out on the quality of his acting. In “The Raven”, Lugosi not only has the meatier role, more screen time and all the best lines but he actually acts and acts well while Karloff is by comparison poor. Karloff’s character, killer Edmond Bateman, is supposed to be your typical, half-literate, vicious American criminal. Karloff’s dulcet tones and British accent, however, make him a hard sell in this role. A bearded Karloff employs some colloquial dialogue in this film that he simply can’t pull off – he’s too erudite to make it work.

Raven5
As Bateman ponders his life, he suggests that a man’s appearance can influence his personality. “You are saying something profound…” says Vollin. He gets a sadistic idea.

I really struggled with how to present this review. The problem is Lugosi. He is very good as Dr. Vollin. I wanted to go into detail describing every scene because of Lugosi and his performance and dialogue. His dense accent seems to add to the luster of the wonderful lines he is provided with. The technique he employs here is perfect for the role of the egotistical fan of Poe who is obsessed with torture and death and he brings exactly what is required to the role. Everything from his accent to his eyebrows to his hair all work together for an excellent characterization. He is simply a joy to watch.

And the dialogue is great. Now, is it so bad that it’s good? I don’t know. It just all works. “The Raven” was written by David Boehm who did nothing, really, of any note besides this film and “A Guy Named Joe”, which Steven Spielberg remade as “Always”. Boehm really threw all of his good stuff into this film. The curator of a local museum visits Vollin wanting to view Vollin’s collection of torture devices. When Vollin says that the raven statue in his study is his talisman, the curator notes that it is a curious talisman, the symbol of death. “Death is my talisman”, declares Vollin. After Jean listens to Vollin play a piece on his pipe organ, she is awed with him. “You’re almost not a man. You’re almost…”. Vollin finishes her thought, revealing his delusions of grandeur: “…a god? A god with the taint of human emotions”. Vollin gives Bateman a tour of his cellar where his torture devices are kept. “They’re very old pieces but, I warn you…ready for use”. Perhaps the finest lines Lugosi is given to speak are delivered after Bateman realizes Vollin has deformed his face. Vollin – with sadistic glee – says “You’re monstrously ugly. Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hate. Good! I can use your hate”. At the height of his madness, when his plans are beginning to be realized, Vollin becomes charismatic and bites of a few great lines with relish: “Do you mind if I smoke?”. “A knife – flashing!”. “Yes, I like to torture”. “Fifteen minutes! There’s the clock. You can see it”. “A humble place. But your love will make it beautiful”. And finally, drunk with the joy his diabolical plans are bringing him, Bela achieves the sublime: “What a torture! What a delicious torture, Bateman! Greater than Poe! Poe only conceived it – I have done it, Bateman. Poe! You are — avenged!!”. These are just a few examples of the film’s stellar dialogue.

Raven3
Homicidal bliss. “Poe! You are — avenged!!”

A review from the New York Times, however, certainly did not share my love of “The Raven”. In a sarcastic piece that appeared on July 5, 1935, the reviewer lambastes the filmmakers mostly for the fact that they have tied this film to Edgar Allan Poe when, it argues, those ties are flimsy at best. The film, showing at the Roxy Theater, was eviscerated thusly: “the Roxy’s current tenant should have no difficulty in gaining the distinction of being the season’s worst horror film. Not even the presence of the screen’s Number One and Two Bogymen, Mr. Karloff and Bela (Dracula) Lugosi, can make the picture anything but a fatal mistake from beginning to end”. Ouch. In a nice, old school touch, the review ends with a few words about the live show that was also featured with the film, including the dance team of Tip, Tap and Toe and the Freddie Mack Orchestra.

The cast is B-movie bland with a couple of interesting participants. Irene Ware was a beauty queen that spent only a few years making movies, one of which was “Chandu The Magician” with Lugosi. She was also in “Six Hours to Live” (1932) with Warner Baxter in which she played “The Prostitute”. Her story is a common one for her era in that she acted for a time and then quit the business to raise a family. A picture on her Wikipedia page is identified as being from “The Raven” but it is from “Chandu”.

ireneware
Irene Ware was a dish; if a generic one

Samuel S. Hinds was always playing judges and doctors except when he was playing Peter Bailey, George’s dad, in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He had been a lawyer for 32 years before becoming an actor in 1933, a year in which he appeared in 22 films. In one year. He went on to have 217 acting credits in 15 years – or almost 14.5 movies a year! Nottingham born Lester Matthews has scores of credits to his name the most notable of which are “Werewolf of London” (1935), “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “Now, Voyager” (1942), “Niagara” (1953), “Mary Poppins” (1964) and “Assault on a Queen” (1966). He was the go-to guy when you needed a British-type on the cheap. Spencer Charters you’ve seen in many films among them “Libeled Lady” (1936), “Remember the Night” (1940) and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942). He committed suicide in January of 1943 by combining sleeping pills and carbon monoxide poisoning. He then appeared posthumously in “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Inez Courtney was another generic B movie actress. As a young hoofer she had the nicknames St. Vitis, Mosquito and Lightning and then eventually married an Italian nobleman earning her the title Marchesa.

Ian Wolfe was a noted character actor with over 300 credits to his name. For me, Wolfe has the distinction of being in two of my “Top 23” favourite films; “The Raven” and “The Falcon’s Adventure”. But more than that the diversity of his credits is astounding. I grew up loving “WKRP in Cincinnati” and enjoyed Wolfe’s portrayal of Mother Carlson’s sarcastic butler. I couldn’t at first reconcile the fact that this was the same man in “The Raven” 40 years earlier. Wolfe always looked like and played an old man. The same year as “The Raven”, Wolfe appeared in “Mutiny on the Bounty”. He later showed up in “You Can’t Take it With You” with Hinds, 2 “Blondie” movies, 3 “Falcon” movies, “Mrs. Miniver”, “Now, Voyager” with Matthews, “Random Harvest”, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”, “A Place in the Sun”, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. He appeared in everything from the film “Zombies on Broadway” in 1945 to two episodes of television’s “Star Trek” in 1968 and ’69. He was in George Lucas’ first film, “THX 1138” in 1971 and episodes of “Cheers”, “Remington Steele” and “The Fall Guy” before wrapping up his career in 1990 at age 93 in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy”. Consider that he made films with Norma Shearer and Madonna. He died of natural causes in 1992, aged 95, leaving behind his wife of 68 years.

4C99BA7F-6BB1-4764-A246-19D12D8E463F
Ian Wolfe has over 300 credits to his name; from 1935’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” to 1990’s “Dick Tracy” (top left) with countless TV appearances, as well.

Director Lew Landers was only in his second year of directing when he helmed “The Raven”, which he directed while still using his given name, Louis Friedlander. Why he changed his name I don’t know but he went on to direct over 100 films at every major studio but most of his work was done on B pictures at smaller studios. He directed two “Boston Blackie” movies before making his final film, “Hot Rod Gang” in 1958 for American International. He lived out his days directing on television and died in 1962.

One thing Universal always got bang on in their horror films was production design. Albert D’Agostino provided the great sets and look for “The Raven” and close to 350 other films, mostly for RKO. Vollin’s home is one of those great, old ‘movie homes’ with lots of wood, lots of curtains, lots of dark colours. A particularly nice touch is Vollin’s sinister organ (he plays Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” while Jean reclines by the fire) and the cool, little alcove it sits in next to the sitting room.

Those of you who love classic films will know what I’m talking about when I say that “The Raven” means something to me. I go way back with the film. When I was in junior high, I would often read books about the classic Universal horror films as I walked to school. It was a case of me knowing of a lot of those films before I had ever seen them. There was a local channel back then that would still present the old “late show”; a usually low quality print of an old film they would run at midnight and later. They presented a series of Universal horror films from the golden era and I taped “The Raven” on a VHS tape. So ever since I was 14 or 15 (a good 30 years ago now) I have revisited this film countless times. I always felt that it was more ‘mine’ than the other, more popular films of the era. “The Raven” is almost an asterisk or a trivia answer; it is a film that Lugosi and Karloff made together that is certainly lesser known. I eventually bought it on VHS and later on the “Bela Lugosi Collection” DVD set. I have, however, held on to that old Polaroid blank VHS tape I originally taped it on. Later in my early 20’s, I would play the film for my friends in my apartment and even these young, hip kids would enjoy watching Dr. Vollin snap his twig. “Do you mind if I smoke?” Man, they loved it. We would laugh and others would think we were laughing AT the film. But we were laughing because it was so deliciously perfect.

Raven4
“Do you mind if I smoke?”

Another aspect of my personal connection with this film involves my family. When my two sons were very young, my wife and I began introducing them to classic film. I would scan our shelves to see which films they could possibly handle or understand. We shared Abbott and Costello with them and Blondie. When Halloween would roll around, I would share the old horror films with them. The old films were creepy and atmospheric without being terrifying, satanic or just plain gross so I’d sit them down and we’d watch. “The Raven” was one of the early ones. Now my boys have a bit of a connection with this film as well.

I hope I’ve achieved what I set out to do; turn you on to a film you may have missed and also to an unsung performance of Bela Lugosi’s. He was never John Barrymore but Bela is forever the Count. And if you want to see him really shining in a role and, for once, outdoing Karloff, check out “The Raven”.

Villians Sometimes Sleep
Villains sometimes sleep.
Advertisements

Film Noir Review: “Fourteen Hours”

“Fourteen Hours” (1951)

Starring Paul Douglas, Richard Basehart, Barbara Bel Geddes, Debra Paget, Agnes Moorehead, Jeffrey Hunter, Grace Kelly, Jeff Corey, Harvey Lembeck, Ossie Davis and Gordon Gebert. Directed by Henry Hathaway. From 20th Century-Fox.

14.1
Not a very cool poster, unfortunately. Later posters – printed after Grace Kelly became famous – featured her prominently.

A waiter delivers room service to a man staying on the 15th floor of a hotel. Before he can hand the man his change, the man is gone. The waiter sees the drapes blowing by an open window. He pokes his head out the window and sees that the man is now standing on the ledge. What follows is fourteen hours of tense negotiation between the mentally disturbed ‘man on the ledge’ (Richard Basehart) and an ordinary beat cop (Paul Stewart).

That is basically all that happens in Henry Hathaway’s “Fourteen Hours” but it translates to a tense 92 minutes filled with psychological case studies, brisk pacing, excellent camerawork and a veritable feast of recognizable faces in almost every role.

To start even before the beginning, “Fourteen Hours” is based on a 1938 magazine article in ‘The New Yorker’ that told the sad tale of John William Warde. On a warm Tuesday afternoon in July, Warde was sitting with his sister and a group of friends on the 17th floor of the Gotham Hotel in Manhattan. Something his sister said set the clinically depressed Warde off and he dashed for an open window and went out on the ledge where he stayed for eleven hours. His sister tried to get him to come in to no avail. Policeman Charles V. Glasco suggested to his sergeant that he could pose as a bellboy and try to convince Warde to come in off the ledge. Glasco had nearly succeeded when a photographer burst into the room. This caused Warde to jump, feet first. He struck the glass marquee of the hotel and then landed, dead, on the sidewalk. As he jumped, the 10,000 people who had gathered around the intersection were heard to say in unison “Here he comes!” before there was silence as he landed on the ground.

14.2
Amazingly, there is more than one picture in existence depicting Warde’s suicide.

Fox purchased the article from ‘The New Yorker’ but changed the title from “The Man on the Ledge” after a request from Warde’s mother. Howard Hawks was asked to direct but refused because of the subject matter. Henry Hathaway took charge of the project. At this point, Hathaway had been directing since the early ’30’s and had been responsible for such films as “Kiss of Death” and “Call Northside 777”. He filmed an ending for “Fourteen Hours” depicting the man’s leap to his death but this was quickly reconsidered. While it would have been in keeping with the bleak endings of films noir of the time, audiences of 1951 would have found it extremely hard to take. In additional, there had been a tragedy close to home that made the studio insist on an alternate ending. On the very day that “Fourteen Hours” previewed, the daughter of the president of Fox, Spyros Skouras, jumped from a building to her death. Skouras then wanted the film shelved but settled for the shooting of a new ending.

Hathaway’s deft touch is all over this film. You’ll notice a great shot of a reflection in a window at about the 36 minute mark and there are various excellent shots and camera angles employed. In some of the process shots of Basehart and Stewart talking at the window, Hathaway shows people hanging out of windows in adjacent buildings watching the two. The film depicts all the sensation of a live news event. The spotlights are used well as they climb up the building and illuminate the principals.

14.2
A reporter in an adjacent building provides listeners with the latest on Dunnigan (Stewart) and Cosick (Basehart) – whom we can see in the window’s reflection. There are many great shots and camera angles in “Fourteen Hours”.

“If I had my M2, I could knock him off from here. Easy.” The cabbies that gather around to watch are an interesting element. First of all, all the actors playing the cabbies are uncredited although you can easily spot Harvey Lembeck, Ossie Davis (points for casting a black man) and Henry Slate. Here we see depicted the post-war man. One of the first things we hear the cabbies say – the jarring quote above – references their shared experiences in the war. You could even go so far as to say that the cabbie who brags on his skill as a sniper is lamenting the fact that here and now he is just a hack but back in the service he possessed deadly and useful skills. They certainly are a group of men jaded by their experiences. The cabbies get a bet going, a pool in which they select the time when the ledge-sitter will take his plunge. It’s interesting to watch the cabbies serve as a sort of Greek chorus and to see them begin to feel guilty about betting on a man’s death. As the hours drag on, they eventually lose their taste for the sport and disperse.

14.3
The cabbies break for lunch and debate the morality of betting on a man’s suicide.

The cast of “Fourteen Hours” is remarkable, really. I love a film that has even small roles played by faces you recognize. There are many to watch out for is this movie. Paul Stewart plays Police Officer Charlie Dunnigan. Stewart was a working class actor who was like a poor man’s Broderick Crawford. Paul had previously appeared on Broadway where he originated the role of Harry Brock in “Born Yesterday” – the role Crawford would play on screen – and in the films “A Letter to Three Wives” and “The Big Lift”. He was married five times – which may have contributed to his death at 52 in 1959. At his passing, he had agreed to take the role of Jeff Sheldrake in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”. The role ultimately went to Fred MacMurray. If you watch the end of “Fourteen Hours” carefully, you will see that Charlie Dunnigan’s son is played by Gordon Gebert who had a much more substantial role two years earlier in the delightful “Holiday Affair” as Janet Leigh’s son. You’ll also notice at the end, when Basehart’s character is safe in bed, Dunnigan gets ready to go home and the other cops look at him admiringly in the hallway. Nice touch. You get a sense that these two principals shared an experience not unlike Officer John McLane and Sgt. Al Powell did in “Die Hard”.

Richard Basehart garnered critical acclaim and the Best Actor award from the National Board of Review for his portrayal of Robert Cosick. It is indeed uncomfortable to watch Basehart as he trembles and sways on the ledge. He draws you in and makes you sympathize with him. While filming “Fourteen Hours”, Basehart’s wife, costume designer Stephanie Klein, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Sadly, she died following surgery while the film was still in production. Soon after his first wife’s death, however, Basehart married Italian actress Valentina Cortese (who is still alive at 95) with whom he had a son, Jackie Basehart. Jackie enjoyed a career as a sought-after actor in Italian cinema before contracting a rare disease that resulted in difficulty swallowing, obesity and several hospitalizations. Valentina Cortese had the unenviable task of burying her son when he died three years ago, aged 63. Richard Basehart had previously been seen in “He Walked By Night” and his work in “Fourteen Hours” was noticed by Frederico Fellini who gave Basehart his best known film role in 1954’s “La Strada”. He went on to roles in “Moby Dick”, “Chato’s Land” and “Being There”. He may be best known for his work on television in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and as the narrator of the 1980’s series “Knight Rider”.

Barbara Bel Geddes has a role as Cosick’s fiancee, Virginia. Bel Geddes is photographed wonderfully in this film and while she may not be a beauty in the Hedy Lamarr tradition, she appears luminous here and plays her part well. The Broadway actress came to Hollywood in 1947 and soon garnered an Academy Award nomination for “I Remember Mama”. She appeared in “Fourteen Hours” and then returned to Broadway where she originated the role of Maggie “the Cat” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” earning the first of her two Tony Award noms. She did not return to Hollywood until 1958 when she took a memorable turn as Midge in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, called by some the greatest film ever made. She ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee for a time but bounced back. Later, she became best known for her portrayal of Miss Ellie Ewing on the long-running prime time soap opera, “Dallas”.

Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter provide a lovely alternate plot line playing two spectators on the street below. Paget catches Hunter’s eye and he approaches her cold, asking if she’d like a mint. In a nice, old school touch, Deb refuses by saying “I don’t believe we are acquainted”. Hunter persists successfully. These two are cute but the characters are not simply their for sweetness. It is these two we see at the end of the film. It’s been an emotional roller coaster for all involved for fourteen long hours. As the two young people begin to walk away, Deb becomes emotional, expressing the thoughts and feelings of many of the participants. Hunter comforts her as they walk away with a cop on horseback dismissing the crowd with a poignant instruction: “Go home and take care of your own kids!”. The music comes up and the ending is unlike most film noir endings and, indeed, unlike the ending of the real life story this is based on.

14.4
Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget are a pleasant distraction from the tense action up on the ledge.

Debra Paget – one of the flat-out prettiest actresses of the era and still with us at age 85 – had appeared in small roles in a few films prior to this one and went on to feature in Elvis Presley’s first film (and playing, technically, his only on-screen wife). She also went on to date Howard Hughes and to appear in small-to-medium-sized roles in films such as “Demetrius and the Gladiators” and “The Ten Commandments” before finishing her relatively short career working in horror films with Roger Corman. Jeffrey Hunter made his film debut in “Fourteen Hours”. He would go on to a sturdy career making such films as “The Searchers” and “King of Kings”. He may be best known for portraying Capt. Christopher Pike, who preceded Capt. James T. Kirk as captain of the USS Enterprise on TV’s “Star Trek”.

Another performer debuted in “Fourteen Hours”. Henry Hathaway had noticed Grace Kelly on television and offered her the small role of Mrs. Louise Ann Fuller, a young wife in conference with her divorce lawyer in a neighbouring building. She is taken by the sorrows of Cosick – sorrows that lead him to the brink of suicide – which lead her to reassess her life and marriage. Kelly comes off fine although she is presented unglamourously. She was noticed on set by Gary Cooper who would recommend her for her next film, “High Noon”, which made her a star.

14.5
Mrs. Fuller (Grace Kelly, in her first film) has been watching Cosick from her divorce lawyer’s office. Hathaway uses great technique throughout the film showing us the action on the ledge from different angles.

As I’ve said, the rest of the cast is notable. Agnes Moorehead and Martin Gabel both received extensive stage training as part of Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theatre”. Moorehead ably portrays Cosick’s harried and guilt-ridden mother. Gabel’s role as one of the two psychiatrists on hand is significant. Gabel’s lines serve to explain the mental issues that Cosick is dealing with. He takes a close look at Cosick’s relationship with his parents. (Robert Keith plays the father) The parents have divorced and there is a lot of ill will. Cosick has been used in the battle between the two. When an hysterical Mrs. Cosick has to be dragged away from talking to Cosick at the window, one of the cops says “No wonder he’s cuckoo!”. This goes a long way to explain the things that can happen to children of divorce and unhappy homes. Gabel’s character, Dr. Strauss, even goes so far as to bring in Oedipus as he explains that “all children – boys – are in love with their mother, romantically”. While most kids get over it, Dr. Strauss explains, Cosick couldn’t and began to hate his father which he knew to be wrong so he started hated himself. This must’ve been pretty heavy stuff for audiences to handle in 1951.

Moorehead, as we know, played the mother of Charles Foster Kane and would go on to countless other screen credits. Gabel would play opposite Frank Sinatra as an unlikely crime boss in 1968’s “Lady in Cement”. Later, he would also feature in Frank’s TV movie, “Contract on Cherry Street” (1977) and then finish his film career opposite Frank again in 1980’s “The First Deadly Sin”.

Howard Da Silva (“The Lost Weekend” and two “The Great Gatsby”‘s) plays Dunnigan’s boss and keep a sharp eye out for many other familiar faces: Frank Faylen (“It’s a Wonderful Life”), Jeff Corey (“Bird on a Wire”), Brad Dexter (“The Magnificent Seven”), Joyce Van Patten (“St. Elmo’s Fire”), John Cassavettes (“The Dirty Dozen”), Brian Keith (TV’s “Family Affair”, son of Robert), Richard Beymer (“West Side Story”), Willard Waterman (radio’s “The Great Gildersleeve”), Janice Rule (“The Ambushers”), Leif Erickson (“Roustabout”) and John Randolph (“National Lampoon’s ‘Christmas Vacation'”).

“Fourteen Hours” is a wonderfully made film with the added bonus of a cast full of faces you’ll recognize. This film is hard to find on DVD but there are a few vendors at Amazon that’ll sell you one but it ain’t cheap.

 

 

Soul Brother Number One: A Brief History of Don Cornelius and “Soul Train”

The other day, I was on YouTube watching a documentary on soul music. It ended and the auto play took me right into another documentary. This one was about the TV show “Soul Train”. Now, it was time for bed when this second doc started but I couldn’t turn it off and ended up staying up all hours and watching the whole thing. It was very educational.

I realized that I didn’t know much about the show and even less about the show’s creator and first host, Don Cornelius. A small time broadcaster who had once worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornelius was working at a small television station in Chicago when he realized that there was virtually no programming geared towards black youths. He decided to create a “black ‘American Bandstand'” and came up with “Soul Train”. Interestingly, his bosses at the station were skeptical about this endeavour and – in a seemingly throwaway gesture – GAVE the show to Cornelius; they made him the owner of it as if to wash their hands of what they thought would be a failure.

He conceived of a show that would combine live music with a house party-type atmosphere. The program launched in 1971 and for the first episode, Don brought in Jerry Butler among others and filled the claustrophobic studio with kids and told them to dance. From this humble, makeshift beginning grew a cultural touchstone and a legendary program that lasted 35 years.

Don3
James Brown talking with the always impeccably dressed Cornelius.

The show moved to Los Angeles – as all shows must – and eventually was picked up by numerous stations all over America making Don Cornelius the first black man to be in charge of his own nationally syndicated television show. He himself became famous as the deep-voiced and superbly dressed host. Over time, guests included every single notable black artist of the era: from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Isaac Hayes to Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Kirk Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Anthony Hamilton and John Legend. Eventually, white artists began appearing. Some appropriately: Hall & Oates, Michael Bolton, Black Eyed Peas. Some inexplicably: Cheech and Chong, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys.

Through the years, imitators arose. One interesting one came from Dick Clark, who’s “American Bandstand” “Soul Train” was a version of. In 1973, Dick Clark Productions came up with “Soul Unlimited” which in turn was a knock-off of “Soul Train”. Cornelius was outraged by what he considered Clark’s attempt to “undermine TV’s only black-owned show”. With the help of old friend Jesse Jackson, Cornelius was able to get ABC to agree to cancel “Soul Unlimited” – which apparently had racial overtones – after only a few episodes. Cornelius and Clark reconciled to the extent that years later they worked together on TV specials that featured R&B and soul music. Interestingly, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark share initials and their company logos are very similar.

One popular aspect of the show drew attention to the group of kids who danced on the program every week. The “Soul Train Line” was a variant of the ’50’s “The Stroll” whereby kids would group on either side of an open space – the “line” – and watch as couples danced their way to the end. The idea here was to stand out with sometimes athletic and sometimes outrageous dance moves and audacious attire. These anonymous dancers began to enjoy a certain fame of their own. Indeed, some parlayed this exposure into careers outside of the show. Those who were featured dancing on “Soul Train” include Rosie Perez, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer and Fred Berry who would go on to play “Rerun” on “What’s Happening!!”. Several of these “anonymous kids” are also credited with creating some legendary dance moves that they first performed on the show. “The Robot” and “The Moonwalk” were both created by “Soul Train” dancers and taken to a worldwide audience by Michael Jackson. Cornelius even branched out into artist management when he chose Jody Watley and two other kids among the dancers to become the R&B group Shalamar.

Don Cornelius was a conservative person and the main goal of his show was to showcase black youth in a positive light. So with the advent of hip-hop and rap in the early 1980’s, Don was faced with a conundrum. He was vocal about his concerns that this tough, urban music with it’s sometimes violent and certainly aggressive lyrics was depicting these young people negatively. He did not hide the fact that this was music that he could not contemplate. Don even said to Kurtis Blow – on the air – that he didn’t understand what Kurtis had just performed. Kurtis has said that he was crushed by this. Don also was concerned by the antics of acts like Public Enemy and all of this lead to him stepping down as the host of “Soul Train” in 1993 after 22 years. He was succeeded by Shemar Moore, among others. The departure of Don as host – he continued to run the show – coupled with Don’s unwillingness to embrace the burgeoning hip hop culture lead to the show ceasing production in March of 2006.

Cornelius had undergone a brain operation 1982. The 21-hour procedure was intended to correct a congenital deformity in his cerebral arteries. Don had said that after this operation he was never quite the same. For 15 years afterwards, unbeknownst to most, Don suffered seizures and extreme pain. Finally, in early 2012, Cornelius said to his son “I don’t know how much longer I can take this”. On the morning of February 1st of that year, Don Cornelius took his own life with a gunshot wound to the head. It was a sad end for this legendary figure in black entertainment.

I find it extremely difficult to accurately describe the enormous impact this show had on the music business. But more than that, “Soul Train” spoke to basically two generations of black America. Finally, here was a program that was made by blacks for blacks. Here was a show that African American youths were influenced by and inspired by. They saw the basic and obvious things like music acts they loved and their parents loved, singers who sang music they could relate to. And they saw the kids who danced on the show and in them recognized their own friends and themselves. Those dancers set fashion trends and kids became aware of what was hip to wear from watching “Soul Train”. And they saw the heavier and more profound things like artists who had risen from nothing to be stars. They saw that kids like themselves could dance on TV and have a moment in the spotlight that could spur them on to bigger things. And they saw Don Cornelius. A handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken, erudite, hip, classy, savvy black man who was in complete control of his own national television show. It must have been truly inspiring to see that it could be done.

AP060306029855
Don Cornelius 1936 – 2012

“Top 23” Review: “Dirty Dancing”

I’ve got 23 favourite films: 10 from when I was a teenager and young adult, 10 from my adult years with a wife and kids and 3 ‘life-changers’ that hover over them all. I know these films inside and out and have lots to say about them. Journey with me as I try to explain why I love these 23 films and why I think they’re so appealing.

“Dirty Dancing” (1987) from Vestron Pictures — Starring Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach and Jack Weston

We had a Jumbo Video where I lived. I had a membership. There was a time in my teenage years when I would rent movies from Jumbo; a lot of movies. For a time, I kept the receipts. I’ve always been a romantic. I think I can pinpoint part of the reason for this but its pretty heavy and pointless to get into. Suffice it to say that I have always been drawn to stories that depict a guy, a girl and love. I also love me a ‘shoot-em-up’, don’t get me wrong, but I have always been able to see the appeal in romantic films. Now, do I still seek them out? Absolutely not. As a happily married man, the goofy and heart-touching ups and downs of romance are far removed from where I’m at now so the ‘rom-coms’ and love stories of the last 20+ years appeal to me not one bit. But when I was young and single, I was fascinated by the stories about the many ways to fall in love.

I don’t remember exactly the first time I saw “Dirty Dancing”. If it came out in the theaters in 1987, then we can assume it was released on home video maybe 2-3 years later. Using this math, I must’ve rented it around, say, 1990, when I was 18. I immediately fell in love with it and, as soon as I was able, I added the VHS version to my growing movie collection. I’m sure you all know what it’s about 30+ years down the line but let’s run it down anyways.

DDposter
An iconic poster. Baby, Johnny and the “font”.

In the summer of 1963, sheltered Daddy’s Girl, “Baby” Houseman, vacations with her family in the Catskills at Kellerman’s resort. Her father, Dr. Jake Houseman, goes way back with resort owner Max Kellerman, who sets up his grandson, Neil, with Baby. While Baby is dancing with Neil on the first night, she spies ‘the dance people’; Penny and the handsome Johnny Castle. Baby befriends resort employee and Johnny’s cousin, Billy, who takes Baby to the off-limits-to-guests employees quarters where she observes the ‘dirty dancing’ of the title. Johnny expresses concern that a guest is among their number but playfully takes Baby in hand to teach her a few steps.

Meanwhile, Baby’s sister, Lisa, has caught the eye of Ivy League waiter and pre-med student, Robbie. Baby learns, however, that Penny – who is more like a sister to Johnny – is pregnant by Robbie. Penny wants to ‘deal with’ the situation but money is certainly an issue so Baby asks her dad for a loan, not telling him what it’s for. Billy explains that they can get a ‘doctor’ for Penny but the only appointment they can get conflicts with Johnny and Penny’s commitment to do their mambo number at neighbouring hotel, The Sheldrake. Baby, “Miss Fix-It”, suggests solutions, none that are acceptable. In the end, Baby is recruited to fill in and she and Johnny rigorously prepare to dance together and the number comes off OK.

Returning from The Sheldrake, Baby and Johnny begin to make eyes at each other but are interrupted by Billy, who says that the ‘doctor’ – more a butcher – has been and gone and Penny is in a bad way. Baby’s instinct kicks in and she runs to get her dad who attends to Penny but sees that Baby is somewhat involved with Johnny. Sizing up the situation, Dr. Houseman is disappointed in the apparent change in his girl and forbids her to associate with ‘those people’. Baby goes to see Johnny to apologize for the way Dr. Houseman treated him and she stays the night.

DD.2
Baby is cool. She is always in control. She takes the lead in Johnny’s cabin.

The next morning, a morose Jake tells his family he wants to leave but he is convinced to stay through the end of Labour Day to be involved in the end-of-season show. Jake engages with Lisa, much to her delight as she had been second to Baby in the past. Deceptively, Baby continues her relationship with Johnny, who reveals himself to be tenderhearted and tired of the divorcee guests using him for sex. Baby encourages him to change and to stand up for himself but Johnny gets upset when he and Baby have to hide from Dr. Houseman, who has been seen taking walks with Lisa and Robbie.

Baby overhears Johnny refusing one of his usual ‘customers’, Vivian Pressman, and is happy. Vivian, however, is not. She shacks up with Robbie and the two are discovered by Lisa. In the morning, Vivian sees Baby leaving Johnny’s cabin and frames Johnny for stealing her husband’s wallet. Baby defends Johnny to Max Kellerman in front of her family, saying Johnny could not have stolen the wallet at the assumed time because, at that time – the middle of the night – she was with Johnny in his cabin. Dr. Houseman is saddened by this news but Baby explains to him that she is sad, too, because her father has revealed his shortcomings in the form of a somewhat condescending attitude towards people who are not ‘like him’.

Johnny tells Baby that he has been cleared of the wallet theft but fired anyways for fraternizing with a guest. They share a tender goodbye and Baby is consoled by her sister. At the end-of-season show, Johnny returns. He interrupts the proceedings and tells the crowd that – as he has always done – he will end the season with a dance in a style favoured by him and his friends – his way. Jake realizes Robbie is a rat and Johnny is an OK guy and he fixes things with both young men. Baby and Johnny dance and the guests at Kellerman’s end the summer in thrilling fashion.

DD.3
In obvious symbolism, Baby succeeds at the end. She has navigated the waters and is now free to soar.

Some people have one movie in them, one story. Such is the case with Eleanor Bergstein. “Dirty Dancing” is mostly autobiographical. Bergstein grew up vacationing in the Catskills with her mother, her doctor father and her older sister. While her folks played golf, Bergstein was dancing, however in this respect she was more “Johnny” than “Baby”. She was a ‘mambo queen’ and entered ‘dirty dancing’ contests. Here’s where my eyebrows go up a bit. Being a mid-century guy, I have a familiarity with not only the films and music of the ’50’s and ’60’s but also cultural and societal things and, in my travels, I have never run across the mention of ‘dirty dancing’. I have no doubt that such dancing existed and was referred to as such it’s just that I haven’t heard of this from any other source.

During university, Bergstein was a dance instructor at Arthur Murray studios and then she married and turned to writing. A novel (“Advancing Paul Newman”) and a screenplay (“It’s My Turn”) were poorly received. During production of “It’s My Turn” – which starred Michael Douglas – producers cut a provocative dance number from her story which inspired her to document the dancing she remembered so fondly. She began to write her ‘personal story’, the story of her youth and she started with the music she loved as a teenager. Another of my “Top 23” films is George Lucas’ “American Graffiti”, which is also a personal story of youth. Bergstein wrote her screenplay the same way Lucas did – with a stack of 45’s at her side, the songs forming the skeleton of the scenes she was creating.

Like so many other legendary films, Bergstein’s script for “Dirty Dancing” was rejected by several studios until it landed at the tiny Vestron Pictures, who’s major interest was home video distribution. The project eventually got green-lighted and Bergstein and her producing partner, Linda Gottleib, began assembling their team. For a director they chose Emile Ardolino who had won an Academy Award for a documentary but had never directed a feature film. Another key piece was choreographer Kenny Ortega. Ortega got his start working with Gene Kelly on “Xanadu” (1980) and gained career momentum choreographing for films such as “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985) and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) and directing music videos. Ortega choreographed Billy Squier’s video for “Rock Me Tonite” (1984), a video that has been cited as one of the worst in history and one that is considered to have ended Squier’s career. Kenny also directed the video for Styx’s polarizing “Mr. Roboto”, a video that some fans claim “killed Styx”. These two blemishes aside, Ortega is a choreographer of note in Hollywood and has worked on multiple Michael Jackson tours, Super Bowls and Academy Awards telecasts. He also directed and choreographed the “High School Musical” trilogy.

Filming took place in two locations – neither of which was the Catskills. The “Borscht Belt”, the colloquial name given to the string of hotels in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York catering to Jews from New York City, is no more so stand-ins had to be found. Lake Lure, North Carolina has one of the most beautiful man-made lakes in the world and was used for scenes depicting the staff’s cabins, the “log” scene and the famous “water lift” scene. To this day, Lake Lure hosts an annual “Dirty Dancing Festival” which features dance lessons, watermelon carrying and a lake lift competition. Other scenes were shot in Virginia at Mountain Lake. Here we see the beach, the Houseman family’s cabin and the Mountain Lake Hotel Resort that stood in for Kellerman’s. Mountain Lake turns itself into “Kellerman’s” four weekends a year for “Dirty Dancing-themed Weekends”.

dirty-dancing-festival-movie
One of the highlights of the “Dirty Dancing Festival” in Lake Lure, NC is the Friday night outdoor screening of the film.
babys-cottage-mountain-lake-lodge0616
Travel to the Mountain Lake Hotel Resort in Virginia where you can see the hotel that stood in for Kellerman’s and the cabin where Baby and her family stayed.

Cast as 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman was 26-year-old Jennifer Grey. Grey is the daughter of Academy Award-winner Joel Grey who was initially chosen for a role in “Dirty Dancing”. Jennifer had previously appeared in “Red Dawn”, “The Cotton Club” for Francis Ford Coppola and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Jennifer was a trained dancer who possessed a sweetness that was essential for portraying the innocent Baby. Grey was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her role and her career is defined by it. While Billy Zane had tested for the role of Johnny Castle, 34-year-old Patrick Swayze was ultimately chosen. In screen tests interacting with Grey, Bergstein was blown away by their amazing chemistry. Previously, Swayze had made notable turns in “The Outsiders” and “Red Dawn”, also featuring Grey. The role of Penny Johnson, Johnny’s dancing partner, went to Cynthia Rhodes. Rhodes was much more a dancer than actress who had previously danced in “Xanadu”, “Flashdance” and “Staying Alive”. After “Dirty Dancing”, Rhodes gave up acting to concentrate on her family, husband Richard Marx and their three boys.

Tony Award-winner Jerry Orbach portrayed Baby’s father, Dr. Jake Houseman. Orbach had been a Broadway actor and singer of some note. He was the first performer to sing the standard “Try to Remember” and had released an album in 1963. Orbach would go on to achieve international fame and admiration for portraying Det. Lennie Brisco for 12 years on television’s “Law & Order”. Jack Weston played hotelier Max Kellerman, an amalgam of the type of regal hotel owner prevalent in the Catskills at this time. Weston brought with him hundreds of credits and a Golden Globe nomination. He appeared in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, “Palm Springs Weekend”, “The Cincinnati Kid”, “Wait Until Dark” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” among many other credits including a notable “The Twilight Zone” episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. And watch for Wayne Knight who, in his first credited film appearance, has a few scenes as “Stan”. (Significantly for me, his only previous film appearance was playing an uncredited waiter in 1979’s “The Wanderers” – another film in my “Top 23”)

The coming together of the cast and crew to create this legendary film was truly serendipitous. The team that was assembled – behind the camera as well as in front of it – created magic this one time. Most of the principles were never able to recreate their success here. Patrick Swayze, as we all know, became a star of the highest magnitude. His star turns in “Road House”, “Ghost”, “Point Break” and other films endeared him to fans the world over. Perhaps more importantly, he was, by all accounts, a pretty good guy as well. Sadly, he died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, aged 57. Jerry Orbach, as we’ve seen, went on to greater fame as Lennie Brisco. However, most of the principles involved with the film were not able to capitalize on the movie’s success.

Eleanor Bergstein had just the one story to tell; her own. The creator of “Dirty Dancing” has not worked again on an entity that isn’t related to this story based in part on her life. Director Emile Ardolino went on to direct only minor films like “Three Men and a Little Lady” and “Sister Act” and sadly died of complications from AIDS in 1993. Everybody loves Jennifer Grey. We always will. Truth be told, though, she was not able to turn her Golden Globe-nominated turn as Baby into a productive Hollywood career. A few weeks before the release of “Dirty Dancing”, she was in a car accident. Her boyfriend, Matthew Broderick, was at the wheel and the mother and daughter in the other car were killed instantly. Grey has said that her physical injuries coupled with her ‘survivors guilt’ made it difficult for her to enjoy her success. She famously underwent two rhinoplasty procedures that rendered her unrecognizable and all but ended her career. Max Cantor played skunk Robbie Gould. He made one more film before turning to journalism. While researching addicts in New York City, Cantor freebased cocaine and became a heroin addict. He died of an overdose in 1991, aged 32. Cynthia Rhodes, Jane Brucker (“Lisa Houseman”) and Lonny Price (“Neil Kellerman”) never really acted again but research shows that as basically a choice of theirs; they went on to other things. Neal Jones, who I thought was cool as “Billy”, guested on random television shows and was invisible in a dozen movies – albeit 4 with Al Pacino (?!) – before dropping off the face. Jack Weston and Charles “Honi” Coles (“Tito Suarez”) both passed away, although aged 71 and 81, respectively.

Jennifer-Grey
“I’m not sure who you are anymore”, Baby’s father once said to her. Imagine if he’d seen her after her rhinoplasty.

Music can account for a great deal of a movie’s charm and appeal. An effective score, yes, can be an asset to a picture but a period piece like “Dirty Dancing” relies heavily on carefully selected songs from the past. I mentioned earlier that Eleanor Bergstein wrote this film from her personal experiences and used her old 45s as a starting point. I mentioned that George Lucas wrote “American Graffiti” the same way and it bears repeating. Lucas invented the idea of loading a film with old songs, something that became commonplace and with his “memoir film” it is fitting. We all have memories of significant times in our lives. Oftentimes, these memories can be triggered when we hear a particular song. Certainly, music has the ability to transport us directly back to a certain time and place and if you’re writing a story about the past then music is invariably going to play a huge part. This is definitely the case with “Dirty Dancing”; after all, the essential elements for dancing are at least one human body – and music.

Bergstein has made a point of separating the songs of her youth into two categories; ‘dirty dancing’ songs and ‘clean teen’ songs. For example, the film starts with the iconic Phil Spector “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. Bergstein states that, in her youth, this was the type of song that the kids would save to listen to when they were alone with people their own age. To this type of song, they could dance the way they wanted to. Next up as the film begins is “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by the Four Seasons. Here was ‘cleaner’ (‘whiter’?) music that you could listen to in the car with your parents. I suppose a third category would be the Latin mambo and merengue music that was danced to in the Catskills of the era and that is featured in the film.

The “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack – two volumes, actually – sold incredibly well. The initial album sold 32 million copies and spent an incredible 18 weeks at #1. It is one of the five best-selling soundtracks of all-time. Jimmy Ienner was placed in charge of selecting the music; he took on the role of “music supervisor”, the job that George Lucas had created – and did himself – with “American Graffiti”. The soundtrack helped spark a renewed interest in “oldies” but, in what was a brilliant part of it’s mass appeal, contained new music that became iconic. The main theme to come out of the film was “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, a song that went to #1 on many charts and in many countries. Upon initial release in the UK, the song went to #6. Four years later, when the film was played on television in that country, it re-entered the charts and went to #8! The song, sung by Bill Medley – one half of the Righteous Brothers – and Jennifer Warnes, won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Grammy.

Dirty Dancing
The fifth biggest-selling soundtrack of all-time. Only outsold by heavy hitters like “Purple Rain” and “The Bodyguard”.

The song has it’s origins in an obscure ’80’s band called Franke and the Knockouts. Lead singer and songwriter, Franke Previte, was approached by Jimmy Ienner to write music for “Dirty Dancing”. Previte was hesitant as he was still trying to make it as a performer. He finally acquiesced and wrote “Time of My Life” with two other writers. Bill Medley was approached repeatedly to record the song but Medley was awaiting the birth of a child and didn’t want to commit. Warnes was approached and said she would only do it with Bill. Medley and Warnes were able to get together after the birth of Medley’s child. It has become one of the best-loved motion picture songs and is one of the songs most often played on the radio. The song is the perfect companion to the emotional ending of the film.

Patrick Swayze really could do it all. Act, dance, fight, rip your throat out and not only write songs but sing them, too. He contributed a three-year-old song he had co-written called “She’s Like the Wind” which was recorded with singer Wendy Fraser and included on the soundtrack. Startlingly when you think about it, the song reached #3 on the charts, #1 Adult Contemporary. Patrick Swayze has charted a song as high as #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That is higher than any song charted by the likes of Van Morrison, Eddie Money, Alice Cooper or Chris De Burgh.

Eric Carmen was given “Hungry Eyes” to sing. Once again, here was a song that Franke Previte had written and recorded with his band in 1984. Ienner had worked with Carmen when Carmen was lead singer of the Raspberries and called on him to lend his vocal talents. Carmen was hesitant but eventually recorded the song. It became another popular song from the soundtrack and peaked at #4. Two other songs from the soundtrack are personal favourites of mine. “Overload” is a great late-’80’s pop/rock song from Alfie Zappacosta. How a song from an obscure Canadian singer ever ended up on this soundtrack I’ll never know. “Where Are You Tonight?” is a nice tune performed in the style of early ’60’s R&B. It took me awhile to confirm that it was actually Tom Johnston from the Doobie Brothers that sang it. It doesn’t sound like him to me and I was skeptical that it was the same Tom Johnston but it is.

The “oldies” on the soundtrack also add greatly to the charm of the film. And in turn a much deserved light was shone on this music and a lot of the songs re-entered the public consciousness. “Be My Baby” has long been heralded as one of the finest songs from the era and has become iconic. “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs is what I call one of the “pillars” of this era. A number one song in it’s time, it is the shortest song to ever reach the top of the charts. “Hey! Baby” by Bruce Channel is the perfect lighthearted back drop to Baby and Johnny dancing on that log. It was this song that inspired John Lennon to learn the harmonica. “Love is Strange”, “Love Man” and “Cry to Me” had prominent positions in the film. “Do You Love Me” is an early Motown classic written by the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, Jr. It was a Top 10 hit when originally released in 1962. Amazingly, owing to it’s use in “Dirty Dancing”, it re-entered the charts 25 years later and reached #11! It is one the few songs from the classic era to perform well on the charts again years after it’s release.

“Dirty Dancing” has something in common with other legendary films. When the film was finished shooting and was edited together, no one liked it. Because Vestron, the company that made the film, was primarily concerned with home video, it was initially thought that after a brief run in the theaters it would go straight to home video. One producer even suggested burning the negative and collecting the insurance (there were those who suggested burning the negative of “Citizen Kane”, as well). Promotion of the film floundered as well as a corporate sponsor that would put it’s money and it’s product to work promoting the film could not be found. The acne product Clearasil was on board for a time until they found out that abortion was a plot point and they pulled out. Bergstein’s partner, producer Gottleib, began to wonder if the film would be released as opposed to when. Of course, it was eventually released to theaters and gradually, through word-of-mouth and a few positive reviews, it gained momentum and became a huge success. It won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe but more than that it became a true fan favourite, adored by millions. Many ‘bit players’ were able to dine out on it for years as part of touring companies singing songs from the soundtrack and dancing to them. Stage shows, a ridiculous and pointless ‘prequel’ and a live television event followed. Catch phrases from the film entered the popular lexicon: “I carried a watermelon”, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”. Poor Vestron, though. They thought they could recreate this success but released flop after flop and went bankrupt only two years later. The film itself, though, has grossed well over $214 million and has the distinction of being the first film to sell a million copies on home video. I know I had it on VHS.

2015-10-dirty-dancing-t-shirt
You know you’re iconic when…

I think I’ve made a good point that there is a lot of “story” to “Dirty Dancing” and it is no accident that this story takes place in August of 1963. The opening narration even makes the point that this is a time of innocence; not just in Baby’s life but in all of American society. I have always insisted that ‘the fall’ began in September of ’63 when “Leave It to Beaver” was cancelled. That show was the epitome of (the ideal of) family life of the era. Then, it’s yanked off the air and two months later, JFK is shot and then three months after that, the Beatles land in America and nothing would ever be the same.

When you consider what happened to Frances Houseman – and to Johnny Castle – that summer it takes on mythic proportions. The story of ‘coming-of-age’ – transitioning from childhood to adulthood – is a dramatic story, one that is ripe with plot points. Baby comes of age before our eyes and it is tender and beautiful. And she has been in control of her pivot and has navigated it with her moral compass. Her entree into adulthood has been successful and this will inform the rest of her life. Comparatively, we see that Johnny has already had his pivot point and it was corrupt and has lead him down a destructive path.

Baby has been courageous. She has stayed true to herself. She has suffered, yes. She has fallen in her father’s eyes but his failings have been revealed to her, as well. But she accepts these revelations about her father and deals swiftly with any illusions she had about him. She has also brought about great change in Johnny’s life. Through Baby, Johnny has encountered fortitude, optimism and integrity. Meeting Baby has set him on a new path. But let’s face reality; there is no way that Baby and Johnny stay together. They are two different people going in different directions. Each will remember the other always. Each will look back on this summer and remember that this was the time that everything changed – and each will recall the other as a true catalyst of that change in their lives. Knowing that they do not stay together does not diminish your appreciation for the film. In fact, your appreciation grows once you accept and understand that this is not the ‘origin story’ of their relationship. This is their relationship in it’s entirety.

Scholars have found in “Dirty Dancing” comparisons to some of the world’s greatest literature. This film, they suggest, contains the same idea of ‘the journey’ that lies at the heart of “The Odyssey”, for example. Baby – and she does start out as a baby – goes on a journey, a journey we all take, that from childhood to adulthood. Her story contains a lot of the tropes of the epic journey; she starts in innocence but acknowledges the need to progress, she journeys to a mountain where she encounters a ‘castle’, she crosses a bridge to a forbidden place and she suffers which is, of course, the only way to gain wisdom.

But all this heaviness aside, I think the film’s biggest appeal lies in it’s glorious intangibles; those wonderful things that are hard to define but simply make you feel good. I’ve always felt it was significant that the lyric is “I’ve had the time of my life”. Colloquially, it is saying ‘this has been fun’. But philosophically; this has been the moment that will define who I am for the rest of my life.

 

 

 

 

The Ping Girl: The Story of Carole Landis

“Moon Over Miami” is one of my favourite films. Many years ago, I decided that I wanted to collect as many classic films as I could. In Canada, our version of the television channel Bravo would often show old movies and I would tape them. Y’know? With my VCR? One of these movies I taped was “Moon Over Miami”. A Technicolor musical from 20th Century-Fox in 1941, it starred Robert Cummings, Betty Grable, Don Ameche and Carole Landis. I fell in love with the film although I realized, much to my surprise, that I could not, for the life of me, see what was so appealing about Betty Grable. I loved the movie for Robert Cummings, mostly, and his interesting interaction with the charismatic Don Ameche. Also, I adore these old ‘travelogue’ movies of the ’40’s. They celebrate the places they go in a wonderful way and you get a great ‘moving postcard’ look at these places in the classic era.

Carole Landis was the second female lead in “Moon Over Miami” and, because of my repeated viewings of the film, I got to ‘know’ her well. Then, this spring, I saw her in “Behind Green Lights”, a film noir from 20th Century-Fox in 1946. I have what I call “Seasonal Interest Syndrome”; I gravitate towards certain films/genres at certain times of year. Springtime always finds me watching film noir. I searched YouTube and found “Behind Green Lights” and noticed that Carole was in it although I really didn’t recognize any other of the performers. Carole is top billed and the male lead is played by William Gargan. Gargan was a movie, radio and television actor who eventually developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed. He died in 1979, aged 73, on a flight from New York to San Diego.

CaroleBGL
Carole had stated that making “Behind Green Lights” for Fox in ’46 was her least favourite experience making a film.

“Behind Green Lights” is a fine film but what really struck me was how Carole looked. She didn’t look like she did in “Moon Over Miami”, 5 years earlier. So, I looked her up. What I found was fascinating.

Carole was born Frances Lillian Mary Ridste in 1919 in Wisconsin. The family moved to San Bernardino when Carole was 4. Coming from a broken home, Frances changed her name – an homage to her favourite actress, Carole Lombard – and, at the age of 15, dropped out of school and set her sights on a career in Hollywood. By all accounts, she was a star-struck youngster.

She appeared as an extra in the original “A Star is Born” and made several B westerns. Her shapely figure opened doors in the modelling world and she appeared in numerous cheesecake photographs. Her appearance in “One Million BC” in 1940 made her a star. She appeared as cave girl Loana in the Hal Roach film that was remade in 1966 as “One Million Years BC”. In that version, Raquel Welch took her iconic turn as Loana. Carole’s scantily-clad performance prompted one press agent to dub her “The Ping Girl” because “she makes you purr”.

Her success in “One Million BC” lead to many other second lead roles in successful films – including “Moon Over Miami” – and also brought her to the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck was a film mogul of the first order. He began writing scripts for silent films before going to work for Jack Warner at Warner Brothers. In 1933, he left Warner Brothers and started 20th Century-Fox. Carole was signed to Fox and during 1940 and ’41, began a sexual relationship with Zanuck, who was known in Hollywood for his conquests almost as much as his film making. Indeed, the married Zanuck had something of a system in place for his canoodling. Every day at 4:00PM, business was put aside and an aspiring starlet appeared in his office through a series of clandestine tunnels. This ‘secret’ arrangement was known to everyone in Hollywood. It has been said that, to Zanuck, the numerous young girls were simply a diversion in a hectic day; “(they were) like polo, lunch and practical jokes”. The term “casting couch” was coined by Variety in 1937 to describe the type of abuse of power that Zanuck and others were engaged in.

CaroleDFZ
You really should read up on Darryl F. Zanuck. There is SO much story to his life.

This was the man Carole fell for. As an up-and-coming star of 21, who felt that happiness was beautiful clothes, fine dining and the attentions of a powerful man, her relationship with Zanuck must have seemed to her like the attainment of all her dreams. Little did she know that Zanuck was never serious about any woman and, as he went off to serve in the Army Signal Corps at the end of 1941, he forgot Carole completely. Not surprisingly, at the same time the quality of the roles offered to her declined as did her career.

Carole, however, had been around the block a few times by the time she had her fling with Zanuck. By 1940, when her affair with the mogul commenced, she had been married 3 times, the first of which occurring when she was 15 years old. Carole was 14 and Irving Wheeler was 20 when they started dating. No doubt that this is an early example of Carole’s grasping for happiness and she welcomed the romantic nature of a relationship with an older man. The two eloped two weeks after Carole’s 15th birthday. Carole had lied about her age and did not have her parents consent so when her mother found out about the marriage it was quickly annulled. But it must’ve been the ‘real thing’ because as spring that year turned to summer, the two lovers married again, this time with Carole’s father’s consent. This second go-round actually lasted longer than the first; Carole walked out on her husband – they “had an argument” – after three weeks. Irving Wheeler changed his name to Jack Robbins and wound up in Hollywood. He ended up with only two infinitesimal acting roles – however, one was in “Citizen Kane” (“newsreel man”).

Caroledish
In many ways, Carole Landis was the quintessential Hollywood “dish”. She enjoyed the “starlet” lifestyle.

In June of 1939, choreographer and director Busby Berkeley proposed to Carole but the two did not marry. Husband number two (or three) was yacht salesman Willis Hunt. Hunt proposed two weeks after they met and in the summer of 1940, the two eloped – three marriages, still no wedding. Hunt soon became abusive, however, and Carole walked out after two months of marriage. Carole said of their brief union that she had been “so happy, so ecstatic, so delirious” until Willis had revealed his true nature. Oddly, the two remained friends. Sadly, Willis Hunt was stabbed to death in 1969 by his wife who claimed self-defense as Willis was being abusive towards her. The last Mrs. Hunt was found not guilty.

The amazing Mr. Gene Markey appears in Carole’s story here in 1941 when Gene and Carole became engaged. Mr. Markey had been married to Hedy Lamarr, one of the most beautiful women to ever live. Carole and Gene were never wed and Mr. Markey would go on to marry Myrna Loy. Hedy, Carole and Myrna? Who was this Mr. Gene Markey and what power did he have over the most beautiful women in old Hollywood?

CaroleGene
Plain, ol’ Gene Markey. What was it that kept this man in the good graces of the most desirable women in Hollywood?

In September of 1942, Carole embarked on an extensive tour with the USO. Joining with Kay Francis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair, Carole travelled to England, Bermuda, Africa and Ireland entertaining the troops. During their time spent together, bisexual Kay Francis developed a crush on Carole. Carole was approached by Random House and asked if she would care to turn her experiences with the USO into a book. Carole agreed and proceeded to add author to her resume. Months before her book was even published, “Four Jills in a Jeep” was turned into a film musical for Fox. The four girls played themselves and Dick Haymes made his film debut. Carole was ultimately upset that the film was a mostly fictionalized account of their USO tours.

Four days after her 24th birthday, Carole married an American pilot in the Royal Air Force’s American Squadron, Capt. Thomas Wallace. True to form, this relationship fit in with Carole’s pursuit of storybook romance. Wallace proposed to her on their first date and they were married less than two months after meeting. With the Catholic ceremony held at a church in England, Carole finally got her proper wedding with Kay Francis among those in attendance. Also true to form, though, the marriage got off to a rough start. The newlyweds were denied a honeymoon as Capt. Wallace was stationed overseas. Poor Carole was quoted as saying that she wanted “a wonderful marriage and children” but the two were at odds over Carole’s career. Wallace “hated” her Hollywood lifestyle and wanted her to give it up and become a housewife. Their marriage began to fall apart and Carole attempted suicide. Although Carole always considered Tommy the love of her life, they divorced after roughly 22 months of marriage. Tommy remarried but would take his own life in 1968.

With the lack of success achieved by “Four Jills and a Jeep”, Carole’s film carer was on the wane. As is often the case in these situations, Carole turned to Broadway, appearing in a musical called “A Lady Says Yes” which featured two numbers from Carole singing songs from the score written by Gershwin sibling Arthur. Her co-star in this show was future novelist Jacqueline Susann, who would go on, in 1966, to write the scandalous novel “Valley of the Dolls”. Susann based the character of Jennifer North on Carole. When the novel was turned into the sensational film, Sharon Tate would portray Jennifer. While they appeared together in the short-lived “A Lady Says Yes”, Carole and Jacqueline had a romantic relationship.

CaroleHorace
On paper, Carole’s marriage to Horace Schmidlapp may not have made sense. Think Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

Carole and Capt. Wallace were divorced in 1945. Later that year, Carole went to the altar again; it was her fourth husband, fifth wedding in 11 years. This time it was William Horace Schmidlapp from a wealthy Cincinnati family. Jacqueline Susann introduced the two in the spring of ’45, perhaps before Carole’s divorce from Capt. Wallace was final. A mere 8 months later, the two were married. Again, Carole was romantically optimistic and hopeful, stating that in Schmidlapp she had found “the ideal husband”. The newlyweds built a nursery in their Pacific Palisades mansion but soon found that Carole could not conceive. As somewhat of an additional sadness in her pursuit of perfect family and marital bliss, Carole suffered from endometriosis. Carole was faced with her sister having four healthy children and was also stricken every time she saw a woman with a baby. The glamourous Hollywood actress wished often that she could trade lives with ordinary housewives.

It was around this time, 1946, that Carole made the film noir I mentioned at the outset, “Behind Green Lights”. I also mentioned that the whole genesis for this article was the fact that Carole looked so different in “Green Lights” compared to the way she looked in “Miami”. I wondered if she’d had cosmetic surgery or a car accident or something. Well, the mystery persists because I learned that, yes, Carole DID have a nose job – but she had it in 1940, six years before “Green Lights”. So – and this is poor reporting, I know – I still have no idea why Carole doesn’t look like Carole to me in “Behind Green Lights”.

E7D3F9FE-BF84-4375-9FF8-883F0BF12DCC
On the left is “Moon Over Miami” (1941). On the right, “Behind Green Lights” (1946). I dunno, is it her eyes? She just looks different to me.

At the outset of her marriage to Schmidlapp, Carole was quoted as saying that now, finally, she had everything she wanted, including “the feeling of deep security which will ensure a permanent future”. She said she was planning an additional home in the east from which she would commute for her film assignments. And still she mentioned children; three, she hoped. But it seems contentment was not to be for Carole Landis. Despite the grand pronouncements of her happiness, after a mere 18 months she became disillusioned with her marriage and began an affair with actor Rex Harrison. She finally filed for divorce in March of ’48.

By the summer of 1947, Rex Harrison had been seen in “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” and “Anna and the King of Siam”. He was a popular and successful 39-year-old actor from Lancashire, England who had been married to German actress Lilli Palmer for four years. It was during her separation from Horace Schmidlapp that Carole fell hard for Rex. He was erudite, urbane and a gentleman. As was Carole’s wont, she began to envision an idyllic life with Rex. She decided that he was her new ideal.

CaroleRex
Rex exemplified Carole’s ideal: older, classy and a part of the film industry scene Carole loved.

It is the summer of ’48 and for the past year, their affair is an open secret in Hollywood. They are together often and Carole has hosted many parties at her Pacific Palisades home at 1465 Capri Dr. that Rex has attended. Carole had a love for holidays and the 4th of July was no exception. Carole threw a pool party on that day for a dozen friends. She announces to her guests, however, that they will have to leave early as she is having dinner alone with Rex; it is the seventh consecutive evening they spend together. Carole and Rex enjoy cocktails and then a light dinner. It is surmised that the two engage in yet another discussion of when or, indeed, if, Harrison will leave his wife and marry Carole. Apparently, Harrison refuses to end his marriage, he and Carole argue and their relationship is ended.

Harrison says later that he leaves Carole’s home at 9PM, though others say he leaves much later. Rex Harrison is the last person to see Carole alive. He goes to his friend, Roland Culver’s house nearby while Carole continues drinking to ease her pain. One can easily assume that, by this point in her life, she is more than heartbroken; she is broken. From a young age, she had always been a dreamer, a romantic. She had always dreamed of the perfect man, the perfect marriage, the perfect love. She began early and had pursued that ideal with a much older man when she herself was just 14 years old. She eloped twice by the time she was 21. She had affairs with older, influential and powerful men who easily discarded her, further crushing her dreams. She longed for children, to be a mother but even that was not to be. Her brief career in Hollywood flamed brightly only to diminish in the glare of many other young starlets with similar attributes and appeal. Rex Harrison, another distinguished, older, married man that Carole fell in love with, denies her in the end.

Carole, alone now in her lavish home, calls her friend, Marguerite Haymes, the mother of singer, Dick Haymes. Haymes is not home and Carole leaves a message. Marguerite will get the message later that night but assumes it is too late to call. Between 1AM and 3AM on the morning of the 5th, Carole gathers up many photos and mementoes from her relationship with Harrison and packs them in a suitcase. Carole takes them over to Culver’s house and leaves the suitcase in the driveway. She also leaves a note saying that she is going to kill herself. The suitcase and note are not discovered until the following evening. When Roland Culver finds these things in his driveway, he burns everything – including the suicide note. Back in her home, Carole writes two final letters; one to Harrison, one to her mother. At approximately 3AM, Carole takes an envelope of Seconal from her medicine cabinet. She takes 40 Seconal tablets with water and lays down in her bed. At 3:30, no doubt feeling the effects of her overdose, Carole gets up out of bed and goes into her bathroom. She will die on the bathroom floor. Five times the amount of Seconal needed to cause death made this third suicide attempt successful.

Caroleindeath
Carole Landis in death.

Throughout the next morning, Rex calls Carole’s house repeatedly. He is told by the maid that Carole must still be asleep. Rex goes to Carole’s house, walks in the door and curiously says to the maid “Well, I think she’s dead”. Together they go to the bathroom and discover Carole. “Oh, no, my darling. Why did you do it?”, Rex exclaims. He feels Carole’s wrist and detects a slight pulse. Like any proper philanderer in old Hollywood, instead of calling for an ambulance, he goes home and calls a studio head. The maid calls the police and Carole’s best friend. Rex returns to the house and, when questioned by the police, claims that he and Carole were just good friends. The police find the note Carole left for her mother but there is conflicting reports about what happened to a second note that Carole apparently left for Rex. Lilli Palmer will later admit that she and Rex paid the police officer who found the note $500 to destroy it.

CaroleNote
“Dearest Mommie – I’m sorry, really sorry, to put you through this but there is no way to avoid it – I love you darling you have been the most wonderful mom ever And that applies to all our family. I love each and every one of them dearly – Everything goes to you – Look in the files and there is a will which decrees everything – Good bye, my angel – Pray for me – Your Baby”

In the aftermath, Carole and Rex were linked in newspaper reports that hinted at scandal. This did not stop Rex and his wife, Lilli, from attending Carole’s funeral, also attended by friends Van Johnson, Pat O’Brien and Cesar Romero, who served as a pallbearer. Rex’s career was damaged but he carried on and later enjoyed successes in “Cleopatra”, “My Fair Lady” and “Doctor Doolittle”. He and Lilli Palmer were divorced in 1957. He left as a legacy two sons when he died in 1990, aged 82. Carole’s mother and sister were disconsolate. Carole died with $412 in the bank and extensive debt. Her family sold her house and auctioned off Carole’s belongings, weeping every time a personal item was sold to a stranger. The family contested – as they do to this day – that Rex Harrison was culpable in Carole’s death which they insist was not suicide. In the ensuing years, reports of new evidence would pop up but would quickly vanish resulting in no new investigations.

I have to make special mention of the website that Carole’s family maintains. Never have I seen a site so devoted to it’s subject and so loaded with detail and peppered with appropriate links. I highly suggest you visit the site at http://carolelandisofficial.blogspot.com/. Far be it for me, a stranger to the participants in this sad tale and 70+ years removed from the events, to disagree with the family’s assertions. However, looking at Carole’s life, albeit from this distance, things seem clear.

I think of a young girl 14 years old, a girl who had supposedly been sexually molested. I think of this young girl receiving (somewhat inappropriate) attentions from a 20-year-old man. It’s not difficult for me to think of this young girl as one who would grasp at the chance to accept such attentions. I can imagine this girl would have been romantically intoxicated with this situation. As soon as she reached 15, she eloped with this man. Her mother, of course, had it annulled but Carole was insistent and remarried him. After an argument – and argument – she caved and left him, her romantic dream shattered.

Modelling and Hollywood beckoned. This would feed her ideas of a glamourous life. She may not have reached the super stardom she dreamed of and she engaged in trysts with older, married men who treated her poorly. Marriages ensued. Each time Carole seemed to feel that she is finally attaining the perfect life she’d been seeking. After very short periods of time, perhaps when unglamourous effort or realistic thoughts are called for, she bailed, always in search of elusive perfection. Consider that Carole, in a 14-year span, got married 5 times to 4 different men. All 5 of her marriages only resulted in roughly 3 years and 8 months of wedded bliss. None of her marriages lasted two years. She couldn’t have children. Dreams of home life and motherhood were shattered. And then, one final straw. Another older married man denied her. At 29 years old, I can easily imagine that Carole thought she would never attain happiness, either through her work or her love life. There may indeed be some mystery surrounding her death but the circumstances leading to it also seem very familiar in the film industry of the era. The way starlets were treated by moguls like Darryl Zanuck. The way film careers were killed by “scandal” or simply by the failure of the most recent film. I have a saying that I sometimes apply to the victims of the studio system and the “golden age” of Hollywood. The phrase can certainly apply in this case: “I love old Hollywood. And then I think of what it did to Carole Landis”.

Carole Goodnight
Good night, Carole.

A Cork on the Ocean: Your Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys Part 3

Sirius XM has launched a Beach Boys channel for the summer! Listening to the music of Brian Wilson, et al. randomly has inspired me to highlight these timeless songs in a 3-part series. So, let’s go surfin’ now!

The Beach Boys broke new ground in 1974. They ventured into a new stratum that pleased the masses no end. But for the group itself, it must’ve felt like something of a denouement. By the early ’70’s, the Beach Boys had fallen out of favour with the record buying public. 1973’s “Holland” peaked Stateside at #36 with it’s highest charting single, “Sail On, Sailor”, reaching #79. Prior to that, “Carl and the Passions – So Tough” had confused the public and stalled at #50 with “Marcella” performing poorly as a single, peaking at #110. The Boys were under a new record deal with Warner Brothers who apparently had so little confidence in “So Tough” that it was initially released as a set with “Pet Sounds”. Their stock in the industry was at an all-time low. There are many factors that contributed to the state the Beach Boys found themselves in at this point.

Then in 1973 George Lucas released his seminal coming-of-age film, “American Graffiti”, which I touched on in Part One. Lucas’ ode to his teenage years contained wall-to-wall music – the first film to do so – as 1963 was depicted as not only the golden age of youth but also as an era when pop music was every kid’s friend and the radio was a constant companion. It is telling that Lucas chose Beach Boys songs as part of this tableau. It is even more significant that he chose the melancholy “All Summer Long” to play over the closing credits as a bittersweet coda to the pleasures and simplicity of youth. Lucas’ film was the original sleeper hit, the soundtrack was landmark in it’s conception and rock ‘n’ roll of this golden era was embraced again. That’s when Capitol Records stepped in.

When the venerable record company thought that Brian had misstepped with “Pet Sounds”, it’s reaction was to celebrate the past by releasing the first Beach Boys compilation, “The Best of the Beach Boys”. Then when Brian announced he was shelving “SMiLE”, Capitol looked back again and issued a “Volume 2”. When 1968’s “Friends” album sold poorly, Capitol again mined the vault and released “Volume 3”. And again in 1974, when perhaps Capitol figured that the Beach Boys’ best days were behind them and also wanting to capitalize on the spotlight George Lucas had just shone on them, they looked to the past again. They gathered up 20 Beach Boys favourites and issued a double LP in the summer of ’74. “Endless Summer” seemed to confirm Lucas’ assertion that the Beach Boys belonged in a past era. It seems that every time the band tried to step outside the box and take a contemporary direction with their music, if it didn’t catch like wildfire, Capitol dusted off the oldies.

EndlessSummerBBCover
Along with the Eagles first compilation, “Endless Summer” is a legendary anthology that has sold millions of copies.

“Endless Summer” became one of the most pivotal albums in the band’s career. It came at a low ebb for the band’s record sales, chart success and group unity. The compilation sold three million copies and performed incredibly well on the charts peaking at #1 (only their second US#1 album) and spending 155 weeks on the charts. That’s basically three years. And consider this: the next 3 “Beach Boys” albums released in the following 2 years were greatest hits packages. So, how did the group feel about this? Remember this is a band comprised of men who are only in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Men who still had new music in them, men who were still writing new songs and still had something to say.

Mike Love was over the moon. He was vindicated. Not being able to write by himself and not having Brian around to write with, Mike was more than happy to strut around the concert stage in one of his 10,000 hats singing “Fun, Fun, Fun” while the crowd cheered and sang along. But for Carl and Dennis, for example, they were just beginning to have their own music heard. They were just beginning to drag the band – and themselves – out from Brian’s shadow and cut a trail of their own. What? Were they just supposed to give all that up and become an “oldies act”?

I’ve mentioned Kent Crowley’s biography of Carl, “Long Promised Road”. I think the best thing I got from that book, the thing I hadn’t really considered in 30+ years of loving the Beach Boys, is that they were the very first “oldies act”. Because of the enormous success their back catalogue was experiencing, they became a hot concert draw again. And when the kids bought tickets for the show, do you think they were pumped to hear the tracks from the latest album? Or were they anticipating a wonderful trip back in time to the summer of ’63? You guessed it. The crowds that now flocked to their shows were maybe even unaware that the Beach Boys had even released “Holland”, a pretty good album. All they wanted was “I Get Around”. Funny when you think that the “oldies circuit” is such a huge thing nowadays and has been for awhile. So many bands that haven’t released new material in years can tour non-stop, hitting all the casinos and state fairs they can handle. And even if these bands have released a new album, nobody in the crowd wants to hear those new songs. Here again the Beach Boys were the innovators. Although this time it wasn’t exactly in a good way.

b07-79-019a
During the second half of the 1970’s, the Beach Boys’ stock as a live attraction skyrocketed.

The Beach Boys were, though, for better or for worse, a much more visible act now. However, there was still one thing missing. Or one person. After issuing four albums of old material in two years, the band figured maybe it was time for some new music. Maybe Brian Wilson could be coaxed out of ‘retirement’. The “Brian’s Back” campaign included a song of the same name and a comedy sketch on “Saturday Night Live” which featured Brian getting dragged out of bed by Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi dressed as cops and forced to go surfing. Something short of comedy, I don’t think I ever felt sorrier for Brian than I did when I first watched the sketch. The “Brian’s Back” campaign – which has been described as “arguably exploitative” – culminated in the first album of new material in three years, “15 Big Ones”. Brian had been coerced again, this time to the studio, where he created a very good album comprised mostly of oldies and featuring the hit single, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” (#5).

Brian was indeed back for the next album released a year after “15 Big Ones”. “The Beach Boys Love You” was originally supposed to be a Brian Wilson solo album but the rest of the band sent up a familiar cry: “what about us?”. Brian basically wrote and performed the entire album himself. So, here’s two consecutive, well made albums created by a man who’s mental and physical health is greatly deteriorated. As I’ve said before; Brian Wilson’s B-game was yards better than many other artists’ A-game.

The “comeback” was short-lived and record companies were looking at the Beach Boys askance now. Whenever the band needed a new contract, the label always specified that Brian must be involved. It always amazes me when I read that the guys would be in negotiations with a prospective label. The execs would sometimes specify an exact percentage of work that had to come from Brian. The guys would assure the label that Brian would be involved – even though they knew that Brian was flat on his back, 300 pounds and in another land. The group also began now to really fight with each other. Like, fist fight. The late 1970’s and early ’80’s saw them persevere and release albums, some OK, some terrible. Carl, Dennis and Mike Love all released solo albums, Dennis surprising many by releasing the extraordinary “Pacific Ocean Blue”. By the time Dennis passed away in 1983, the group had all but abandoned the idea of making new music. They would release only four more albums in the next 30 years; the ambitious “The Beach Boys” in 1985, the pointless “Still Cruisin'” in ’89, the horrific “Summer in Paradise” in 1992 and the polished “Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys” record “That’s Why God Made the Radio” in 2012, which was made only because it was to mark their 50th anniversary.

mainBEACHB1988
Eventually, Brian (center, natch) pursued his solo career. Then when Carl (bottom left) died, “The Beach Boys” were basically over. Mike (top right) took over and brought Bruce (top left) with him. Mike ‘fired’ Al (bottom right) and Al began to tour with Brian.

How to sum up the Beach Boys from a musical standpoint? I guess, maybe, it’s not as hard as I think. It comes down to Brian Wilson. It really does. As a young adult, he had music in him and it flowed out of him. Unfortunately, he suffered from an undiagnosed or an improperly diagnosed mental condition that eventually made it impossible for him to function, not just as a composer and producer but also as a human being. He made beautiful music – music that literally affected history – while the circumstances permitted. And then when circumstances changed, he couldn’t. The band that was left was loaded with talent but Brian’s departure combined with the changing musical landscape of the late 1960’s made them incapable of carrying on successfully. Add to this the fact that the industry and the public had a certain perception of the group – and their name was “The Beach Boys”, after all – and it was nearly impossible for them to produce anything other than what was expected of them.

The Beach Boys were the first band in history for which it became commercially and financially viable to live on what they had done in the past. After 1974, they continued to release new material sporadically but it simply didn’t matter. The fans wanted the oldies. They still made some good music and even had some hits. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” and “Getcha Back” were moderate successes and 1988’s “Kokomo”, from the soundtrack to the film “Cocktail”, became the Beach Boys’ biggest selling single and their fourth #1 song. With it’s theme of fun in the sun, though, it further cemented the Beach Boys’ rep as purveyors of sunshine. I have not included any tunes from “That’s Why God Made the Radio” in this list of the best songs of this era, although the “second side” is excellent. Thing is, that record can almost be considered a “Brian Wilson” album. The album is good as a whole; the last couple of tracks are particularly striking and serve as a fitting coda for The Beach Boys. “Summer’s Gone”, indeed. Anyways, here’s some really hidden gems, some great songs they released that no one ever heard. Consider that 6 of these 10 songs are from 2 albums which illustrates the fact that good songs from the Beach Boys in this era were few and far between. And I’ve kind of abandoned the “hidden gems” idea for this era – they were all hidden at this time. The Beach Boys themselves were hidden at this time. Anyways…

10. “Strange Things Happen” (1992 – from “Summer in Paradise”) — The success of “Kokomo” was a vindication for Mike Love. See? All the public wants from us is ‘fun in the sun’. Don’t f#$% with the ‘formula’. This resurgence encouraged him to drag the Beach Boys back into the studio to record this atrocity. It is a soulless, plastic-sounding album that is the only one in the Beach Boys catalogue to feature zero contributions from Brian. The album is all Mike and producer Terry Melcher and is an adult travelogue of tropical episodes. Thing is, I like some of the record. See, I love a wide range of musical styles because I listen with my imagination. If I “get something” from a song or if it takes me to a certain time or place then it’s OK with me, even though I may realize it’s terrible. This is exactly how I feel about “Summer in Paradise”. There are several vomit-inducing moments but there are a few delightful ones. “Lahaina Aloha”, especially Carl’s voice on the chorus, “Island Fever” and “Strange Things Happen”. Written by Mike and Terry, “Strange Things Happen” stands out partly because the lyric actually does not specifically refer to ‘fun in the sun’. If it was recorded by anybody else on any other album and with organic instrumentation you’d be able to herald this track without the asterisk. It’s hard to highlight individual musician performances here because there really aren’t any – the album was basically made with a computer. Mike delivers an OK vocal with his suspiciously auto-tuned-sounding ’90’s voice but Al Jardine particularly shines when he comes in for the chorus: “Every time I touch my baby…”. The fact that the song is relevantly long seems to add to it’s quality. It’s pretty good and I thought I needed to include a track from this album as, like I say, I do ‘get something’ from it.

9. “Mona” (1977 – from “The Beach Boys Love You”) — “Love You” followed on the heels of the successful “15 Big Ones” the year previous. The whole “Brian’s Back” campaign – while perhaps premature – was still trending throughout the industry and with the record buying public. Brian really took the reins with “Love You”, basically making the record himself. I sound like a broken record but I can’t stress enough how amazing I think it is that, although his life was in tatters, his mind ravaged by mental illness, he still was able to make music better than most artists in the business. “Mona” is a fun song and a favourite of mine from the album. The track – written by Brian – jumps out of the gates with the Moog synthesizer sound that permeates the album. Dennis takes the lead and moves through descending chord changes singing the praises of Mona using the childhood lingo and playful banter Brian favoured all his life: “…won’t it, won’t it, won’t it be groovy…can’tcha can’tcha can’tch just hear it, rock ‘n’ rock ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll music…” Of course the payoff – especially for Beach Boys fans well aware of Brian’s feelings towards Phil Spector – comes at the end: “Come on, listen to “Da Doo Ron Ron” now. Listen to “Be My Baby”. I know you’re gonna love Phil Spector”. Perhaps he’s not using two dozen musicians, but Brian does employ a Spector-ish “wall of sound” production technique on this record and this track in particular. Perhaps 40 years later, the wall-to-wall Moog of this album gives it a bit of a synthetic feeling which may make it polarizing for fans; they either love it or hate it. But this is a fun track for all that is going on in it.

8. “Lady Lynda” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — Here’s an album I’d like to devote a post to. On the surface, it is strangely wrong, from the odd name of the album to the instrumentation to the “10-minute disco version”. I stumbled on this record fairly early in my exploration of the Beach Boys’ music on cassette at a second hand store. I was captivated from the start. The album could use some trimming; it would’ve made a great EP. There are tracks so embarrassing, ridiculous and pointless that the entire affair can be disregarded as a nadir. However, there are songs on this album that are truly transporting; they take you away to a wonderful place. It’s an adult place. A place of leisure but of longing. A gentle, dreamlike land. You like to sail but you don’t get out as much as you’d like. Mostly you sit on the boat as it gently bobs at it’s mooring in the harbour in south Florida (the album was recorded in Miami). You exchange pleasantries with the nieghbouring boats anchored close on either side of yours but mostly you keep to yourself. Your loved one is far enough away that you aren’t together as much or as often as you’d like to be. Things are in the works to bring you closer together but for now it’s mostly waiting, anticipating, yearning. Then there are the times when you are together and those times are pure bliss. It’s night. Dark, warm, quiet. This to me is what my edited version of “L.A. (Light Album)” is all about . “Lady Lynda” staggered me when I first heard it. Then I found out that Bach had a hand in it but I was still impressed. I feel it is the finest contribution Al Jardine made to the Beach Boys. Indeed, it is the only truly great contribution he made. It was released as a single and hit #6 in the UK and #39 on the adult contemporary chart Stateside. It features lovely harpsichord and Al and Dennis collaborated on the excellent string arrangement. The gorgeous background vocals are especially notable at the 2:30 mark when the song goes up a key. The payoff, though, is the last minute-and-change. Mike starts things off with “come along with me…” and then the group voices fly off into that celestial place where only the Beach Boys can go. It’s a transcendent final 60 seconds. “Darling, you know you make my heart sing…darling, your love is like the breath of spring”.

7. “Angel Come Home” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — When it was released, “L.A. (Light Album)” was cruelly described by noted rock critic Dave Marsh thusly: “(The album) is worse than awful. It is irrelevant”. I’ll concede that it is greatly inaccessible and hard to understand. But to dismiss it is to miss out on some great music from Carl and Dennis Wilson. Of the ten songs on the record, Carl and Dennis had a hand in writing and singing lead on all the tracks but two; Al and Mike contributed a song each. (Carl and Dennis are therefore responsible for 6 of the 7 good songs on the album) Both Wilson brothers wrote with American lyricist Geoffrey Cushing-Murray and Dennis contributed two songs from his second solo album that was never released. I say “contributed” but as I noted before if the band needed material – and they often did at this point – than your solo record or your side projects took a backseat. “Angel Come Home” was written by Carl and Cushing-Murray and given to Dennis to sing. The song inches out of the gates with keyboards and Carl’s “oooh” backgrounds. Dennis’ hoarse whisper appears accompanied by prominent snare. The interaction of Dennis’ lead and Carl’s back-ups; the juxtaposition of the harsh and the smooth. Their interplay particularly on the chorus is perfect. “Angel Come Home” contains that quiet, benign beauty that I described earlier and it is definitive of the character of this album.

6. “Love Surrounds Me” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — “Love Surrounds Me” is a companion piece to “Angel Come Home” and the former follows the latter on Side One. Here’s Dennis again singing a lyric by Geoffrey Cushing-Murray although this time it’s Dennis’ composition. The song was slated for release on Dennis’ unfinished “Bambu” album which fell apart due to financial shortcomings and the need for all Beach Boys hands to be at the pumps. “L.A. (Light Album)” (gosh, I hate typing that) is the prime example of the depths to which the Beach Boys had fallen in the late 1970’s. Record labels were insisting that Brian Wilson be apart of any Beach Boys product as a condition of the contracts and the band kept promising his participation. I can only assume that those around Brian at the time considered him simply eccentric and to be playing games to avoid making music. It was not generally known or even conjectured that Brian might actually have serious psychological issues. Carl and Dennis completed two of Brian’s older songs for inclusion; “Good Timin'” actually became a Top 40 single and “Shortenin’ Bread”…did not, let’s just say. The band also reached out to former member Bruce Johnston and to the producer of the band Chicago James William Guercio for help completing this record. “Love Surrounds Me” begins even more quietly than “Angel Come Home” and never builds to much more than a velvety stroll. Highlights include crisp instrumentation, strong drum work and Carl again who, at about the 1:50 mark, sings incredibly high for a 33-year-old man before the song drops back to earth with a two note synth lick. Again, this song displays well the mood of the entire record; modern yet somehow distant from anything else coming out at the time. And stealthy. Moving like dark, black molasses. It’s night, this song.

SharedImage-49857
Interesting cover art for an interesting album. “L.A. (Light Album)” (1979) was a low point for the Beach Boys but there are golden sounds to be found on this rarity.

5. “Goin’ On” (1980 – from “Keepin’ the Summer Alive”) — For the follow-up to the admittedly bizarre “L.A. (Light Album)”, the Beach Boys returned to more familiar territory – right down to the title of the record. This album was produdced by Bruce Johnston although he had not officially returned to the band as a member yet. The album also features many appearances by Mike Love and not one appearance by Dennis Wilson. That speaks volumes. Indeed, this is the last Beach Boys album that was released during Dennis’ lifetime as he would drown in 1983. To me, “Keepin’ the Summer Alive” is a funny record (not ‘funny ha-ha’) that comes off as sort of an enigma. Along with 1978’s “MIU Album” (another ridiculous title), this Beach Boys 1980 offering just seems to exist. It was a bad era for the band; they were in disarray. Brian was not really focused on making commercial music, which label execs kept insisting on. Their label, CBS, was treating the band as suspect. Therefore, Bruce was back on hand helping out, the album title contained the word “summer” and there were several songs written by that old tandem of “B. Wilson/M. Love”. And yet it’s just sort of there. I know. Great review, eh? There are a couple of good tracks. Carl throws us all a curve by writing a couple with Canadian rock legend Randy Bachman. But the only song that really sparkles is “Goin’ On”. It’s 1980. The boys are in their mid-to-late 30’s. But on this track, their vocal artistry transcends all the vagaries of age and – in Brian’s case – the limitations inflicted by years of cigarette smoking. Right out of the gates, the wash of voices here are pitch perfect and a joy to hear. Mike, Carl and Brian share the lead and all sound great. Mike takes the verse with Brian contributing “do doo doo”‘s. Carl shines with his part: “I love you, I miss you…”. But the voices blending on the “Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo goin’ on!” is spectacular. With a sax solo and a key change the song scales the heights. A lot of these hidden gems I can understand falling though the cracks. But with “Goin’ On” I have to say – this song should have been eaten up and it should be played now regularly for the public at large. It would go a long way to improving general morale.

4. “It’s OK” (1976 – from “15 Big Ones”) — Fun is in. It’s no sin. I found “15 Big Ones” on cassette on a trip I took to New York state when I was a kid. I was so pleased to find a really different album from the Beach Boys catalogue. I was familiar with the lead off track, the hit single “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”, but what really hit me was the second cut, “It’s OK”. “15 Big Ones” was the end result of the whole “Brian’s Back” campaign. I said earlier that, at this point, the band was in a hole so Brian was dragged out of bed to oversee these sessions. Brian envisioned an underproduced album of oldies. Silly Brian. Don’t you know you can’t do what you want with your band? The group resisted this and his proposed title: “Group Therapy”. In the end, though, the album is made up of mostly cover versions from the classic era. Indeed, Chuck Berry’s classic “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” got the Beach Boys stamp and went to #5 on the charts. But there was some originals and some leftovers used to flesh things out. “It’s OK” was written by Brian and Mike and features a good, old fashioned vocal from Mike. His lyrics here are also a good example of what he does best. The short choppy lines are fun and simple. Got to hand it to Mike; he does know how to verbalize the pursuit of ease and simplicity in life: “In the shade lemonade, in the sun ocean spray…good or bad, glad or sad it’s all gonna pass. So, it’s OK let’s all play and enjoy while it lasts”. So much yes. And the vocal arrangement for the ending is vintage Beach Boys. Dennis’ husky “find a ride” with Mike’s “in the sum-sum-summertime” in the back.

3. “Where I Belong” (1985 – from “The Beach Boys”) — You could say that there are two sides to the Beach Boys; the celebration of hedonism, as displayed in “It’s OK”, and the prayer-like beauty of celestial vocal sound. A perfect example of the latter – from any era – is “Where I Belong” from the self-titled album of 1985. This record is really the only properly polished release from the Beach Boys during this section of their career, perhaps aside from “That’s Why God Made the Radio”. But unlike that final CD, which you could say was simply a Brian-helmed ‘heritage’ album celebrating their 50th anniversary, “The Beach Boys” was an earnest attempt to make a contemporary, modern-sounding album that was specifically aimed at the charts and the masses. I shudder to say this but the boys brought in Englishman Steve Levine who had produced Culture Club. Now, I don’t know how you feel but I always say that there are three things that really creep me out: sunken ships, slivers and Culture Club. But, hey, in 1985 Culture Club was big. They were selling a lot of records and placing them on the charts. Levine came in and brought with him some state-of-the-art digital production techniques to help make the Beach Boys sound hip. Really, I’m OK with this. This was an attempt so showcase the band in the best possible light. They could still sing amazingly well, they were pioneers in many ways so it was legitimate to attempt to present their music this way. In good, ol’ Beach Boys fashion, though, here was a record that featured synthesizers, drum machines and a “synthaxe” (?) while at the same time they had also recorded a version of the classic “At the Hop” which didn’t make the final cut. One foot in the past, one in the present. It could easily have been a very popular record. But it wasn’t. A review of the time said that while it wasn’t artistically brilliant it did showcase what were still the finest vocals in all of pop. Carl contributed three songs, two of which – “It’s Gettin’ Late” and “Maybe I Don’t Know” – bear his blue-eyed soul/soft rock stamp. But “Where I Belong” is from another place altogether. Carl’s voice – he is almost 40 years old here – is just as angelic as it has always been. He wisely employed Al Jardine’s voice on this track and it is one of Al’s great contributions. The track is very synthy but it doesn’t matter. When Carl sings “don’t need to search no more exotic islands…” it is…well, there are no words. The Beach Boys have many great songs. They have many songs that are almost unbearably gentle, sweet and nearly perfect. The quiet beauty of “Forever”, the aural feast of the instrumental “Pet Sounds”. But I would say that none are more distinctly overwhelming than “Where I Belong”. I tell you this in all seriousness; you get yourself a pair of headphones and close your eyes. Particularly if you know something of the Beach Boys and the late Carl Wilson, listening to this song will prove to be truly astounding.

2. “Getcha Back” (1985 – from “The Beach Boys”) — Terry Melcher was an interesting guy. The son of Doris Day, he was a producer of note in the 1960’s and also the supposed target of Charles Manson. He appears at different times in the Beach Boys’ story. A lot of fans maybe are not too down with him because of his collusion with Mike Love on “Kokomo” and the “Summer in Paradise” album. He showed up in 1985 to co-write with Mike “Getcha Back”. This has been somewhat of a standout track for me. I first heard this song way back when I bought the compilation “Made in U.S.A.” on cassette. It was intriguing to me because at that point I was not very familiar with much Beach Boys post 1970’s. The song starts out with some “drumming” – machine-made drumming. One reviewer thought it was appropriate that the first Beach Boys album to be released after the death of drummer Dennis started with “drumming”. Except that Dennis played actual drums. Whatever. “Getcha Back” starts out great – it’s a great sound. Mike sounds good doing his patented “bow bow bow-ooo” while the other voices – notably the rehabilitated falsetto sound of Brian Wilson – come soaring in sounding as good as ever, really. Add to that some honking sax. Mike’s done well with the lyrics again. Indeed, the story he tells draws you into the song. It’s kinda sad. “Our song” comes on the radio and the reminiscing starts. Things have gone bad and now we’re apart. Could we ever get it back? Great vocal arrangements by Brian and just generally a classic Beach Boys feel without sounding like parody. “So, if I leave her and you leave him…”. The chord changes sound like longing. “Getcha Back” was accompanied by a music video (lame) and charted at #26 – #2 adult contemporary – and returned a measure of visibility to the Beach Boys. Great song, worthy to stand with the best of their latter-day recordings.

1. “Baby Blue” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — My three favourite movies are, in order, “Blue Hawaii”, “Diner” and “Swingers”. I often say that I make a point of not watching them too often as I never want them to become commonplace. There are a couple of Beach Boys songs about which I feel the same. “Surf’s Up” is one.”Forever” is another. “Baby Blue” is definitely on this short list. I never want to hear it just in passing. I never want it to be playing in the background. When I listen to this song I must have headphones, I must be alone. Part of the appeal of this song is Dennis. Like I said about “Where I Belong”, when you have a connection with the artist, the feeling you get when you listen to their finest work can be heightened. Dennis Wilson is a unique personage in rock history. Some would say that his artistry was never given full reign and that being a part of the Beach Boys – a group that has more or less been purveyors of their past since 1974 – is also a bittersweet part of his story. In this day and age, I figure a talent like his would have been allowed to grow and he wouldn’t have been pigeonholed. Like Brian did with “Pet Sounds” and “SMiLE”, Dennis had something to say with his music, something vastly different than his image. Although his solo album “Pacific Ocean Blue” was indeed well received by the critics and sold in fairly good numbers, he never really received the credit he was due. And instead of being allowed to complete his sophomore effort “Bambu” he had to surrender some songs to the family business. On top of all this you have his destructive lifestyle and his sad final years culminating with his untimely death in the ocean the Beach Boys had praised in song so often. Virile, weathered, handsome Dennis Wilson, substance abusing Dennis whose songs were never fully understood, Dennis who was never properly respected as an artist partly because of his band and partly because his quiet, reverent music didn’t gel with his public image, did indeed produce a song like “Baby Blue”. It is otherworldly. Quiet and gentle, it is dominated by dramatic piano and brother Carl’s subdued vocal. Dennis sings the bridge which transports you to that boat I spoke of earlier: “Late at night when the whole world’s sleeping, I dream of you…” I’ve always felt that Carl and Dennis had a strong respect for their family history of gorgeous vocals and vocal arrangements. It seems that on songs they’ve crafted themselves, they fully utilize the capabilities of the group voices. The vocals in the second half of “Baby Blue” testify to this. This song is night. This song is longing. This song is the sadness of being apart and the bliss of being together. I wrote a short story in my late teens and realized when I was done that every episode in the story was influenced by “Baby Blue”. Every scene took place with “Baby Blue” playing overhead, as a backdrop. Santa Monica State Beach in the middle of the night. Things aren’t working out the best with us but we’re trying and a resolution seems near. Until we get things settled, I wait for you…….”Baby Blue” plays. “Lie alone in bed at night / feel the pull of a lonely day / thoughts like music start to play / I wonder where you were today”. And the fact that it is brought to you by rugged Dennis Wilson who lived a tough life, suffered in his final years and died young, make it all the more exquisite.

Thank you so much for coming along with me, reading and commenting in the Facebook groups. Your participation made writing these all the more enjoyable for me.

 

Listen to My Heartbeat: Your Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys Part 2

Sirius XM has launched a Beach Boys channel for the summer! Listening to the music of Brian Wilson, et al. randomly has inspired me to highlight these timeless songs in a 3-part series. So, let’s go surfin’ now!

There are few bodies of work in the pop idiom more revered than that of Brian Wilson’s. And the music he made between July 12, 1965 and May 18, 1967 is his crowning achievement. Again, it is SO hard to encapsulate the story of the Beach Boys – particularly this period – in so small a space.

Throughout 1965, Brian had quit touring with the band and stayed home to write music and record it with the best musicians in the business in the best recording studios in Los Angeles. At the beginning of 1966, he began work on “Pet Sounds” – an album and the recording of which deserve it’s own post – an album that has become known as one of the two or three greatest albums ever conceived. The music on “Pet Sounds”, however, was a major move away from anything the Beach Boys had done previously. Earlier I mentioned that Brian Wilson was much better suited to being a producer with a stable of artists. Instead, he was the brains behind a band that the whole world thought of as a lightweight pop vocal group that sang songs about surfing and cars. In the 1960’s, being allowed to break out of the mold the industry had decreed for you was nearly impossible.

Photo of Beach Boys
Bruce Johnston, Terry Melcher and Tony Asher in the studio with Brian during the recording of “Pet Sounds” (1966).

It was these restrictions that inhibited Brian Wilson throughout this golden period of his career. The fact that he was still able to make the music that he did is nothing short of remarkable. Brian created the “Pet Sounds” album with the Wrecking Crew while his band toured Japan. When the boys came home, they all got together to listen to the tracks Brian had created. The simplification of the story is that the band was floored by what they heard. With the exception of Mike Love who felt that Brian had abandoned the “formula” in favour of a Brian Wilson solo record. This was damaging to Brian’s psyche and his confidence. It didn’t help that Capitol tended to agree with Mike – it was a vast departure from the sound that the public had come to expect from the Beach Boys. Brian finished the record after adding the guys’ sumptuous vocals. When the sales for “Pet Sounds” proved sluggish and when it stalled on the charts, peaking at “only” #10, Capitol Records turned it’s back on this landmark album and it’s visionary creator by ceasing promotion of the album and instead issuing “The Best of the Beach Boys”.

From February through September, 1966 – over seven months – Brian was busy constructing “Good Vibrations”. Keep in mind that the time and money spent on this one song was astronomical for the time and shows the respect and leeway Capitol was still granting Brian. The song was their 3rd #1 record and sold incredibly well. This further spurred Brian on to create what he thought would be the greatest record ever made.

The “SMiLE” album has been described as “an American gothic trip” and would have been a sprawling epic, telling the story of the American experience throughout history. Mounting pressure from the record company, his father, Murry, and – yes – from Mike Love was piling up on Brian’s fragile shoulders. His perceived eccentricity was also assumed to be a factor in making it difficult for him to complete his opus. Unfortunately, this “eccentricity” was, in reality, a sometimes crippling mental disorder that often took the form of horrific, threatening voices that Brian would hear in his head. Under the weight of all this, “SMiLE” was abandoned. With it crumbled the Beach Boys reputation. Brian Wilson retreated from the world.

e42372d00f1a25cfe34b214044d19a01
Brian Wilson at home in Bel Air during the “SMiLE” era.

Perhaps the most significant ramification of this retreat was Brian’s turning down an offer to play at the Monterey Pop Festival. The Beach Boys’ absence from this pivotal cultural event was seen as a requiem and the Boys were instantly labelled “un-hip”, which left the group to carry on in some sort of netherworld. The rest of the band knew full well that their cred was made up of about 95% Brian Wilson but they were still a band comprised of many talented pieces so they soldiered on. “Smile” became “Smiley Smile” (“a bunt instead of a grand slam” – Carl) and then “Wild Honey”. These two albums were down home affairs created by the band as a whole. But Brian as an entity had become perhaps even more important to the listening public then the band itself and the Beach Boys seemed out of touch with the rock scene of the late 1960’s. To make matters worse, the record industry began to look at the Beach Boys – without Brian in control – differently, too.

111111111111
The Beach Boys, 1968.

The first part of this era is filled with indelible songs that even the most unversed fan knows and loves: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows”, “Good Vibrations”, “Do It Again” and “Sail On, Sailor”. Also, the mini era post-“Pet Sounds” to pre-“Endless Summer” contains some excellent music. Music that is somehow made more enjoyable to us who ‘know’ because it is different, quieter Beach Boys music, unencumbered by greatness. Here’s the best of the hidden gems from this era.

10. “Little Pad” (1967 – from “Smiley Smile”) — This song was written by Brian Wilson only a short time after he wrote the revolutionary “Good Vibrations”. This in itself is indicative of the change he had gone through. It had just about killed him to follow his muse and strive for the heights, competing with the Beatles (who were basically 5 strong) and changing the face of pop music. After the demise of “SMiLE”, Brian decided to take the low road; no more shooting for the stars. Instead, he wanted to keep things simple. Songs don’t get much simpler than “Little Pad”. Indeed, the albums that were made in the wake of the aborted “SMiLE” album are today considered the origin of “lo-fi”. It is an unknown fact that, while the Beach Boys could rely less and less on Brian to continue charting new territory, they led the way to a more stripped down, casual sound in pop music. “Little Pad” is the “hiddenest” of gems and it is adored by those who know. The song starts with a shouted “Do it!” and a lot of giggling and then gives way to more angelic Beach Boys harmonizing. Carl plays the ukelele and dreams out loud, stating his desire for a little pad in Hawaii. The song is comforting and soothing with lyrics we all can relate to. A personal favourite, when I lived in a tiny bachelor apartment years ago, this was a cherished theme song.

9. “I Was Made to Love Her” (1967 – from “Wild Honey”) — I have a dear friend who’s a guitarist. Once, back in the day, he scoffed while I was playing the Beach Boys and said “don’t the Beach Boys ever use a guitar?!” So I played him “Student Demonstration Time” but I had to concede his point. A case has been made by Kent Crowley in his book on Carl that his guitar playing was influential and I’ll concede that, as well, but we all know that the Beach Boys – despite their garage beginnings as a ‘surf band’ – are not “guitar based”. That’s not to say they can’t rock out. This cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” is a case in point. Interesting to note that here it is Carl who shines but not as a guitarist. Carl Wilson was respected in his day and is revered today for his angelic voice. But the vocal he lays down here is “balls out”. Tapping in to his childhood spent digging rhythm and blues and early rock ‘n’ roll, Carl lays down a great blue-eyed soul vocal here. Right from the outset. Listen to the way he sings “I was born in Little Rock, had a childhood sweetheart…”. The second half of that line is amazing and the song could end then and it would still make this list. The “Wild Honey” album followed on the heels of “Smiley Smile” and is considered the second of a group of three consecutive “chill out” albums that the Beach Boys made themselves, as a self-contained band again. Carl referred to these albums as “music for Brian to cool out by”, referring to the break Brian was taking from his control of the band’s sound. “Wild Honey” is fascinating to listen to owing in part to the fact that it is a straight up soul album, owing greatly to the Stax/Motown sound of the time. “I Was Made to Love Her” features instrumentation that includes great piano and tambourine and it features another great group vocal. The song rolls along and is a stone groove.

8. “The Trader” (1973 – from “Holland”) — Carl Wilson is featured again on this track known only by those of us on the inside. “Holland” is a pretty cool album made at a pivotal point in the Beach Boys history. They had fallen out of favour with the critics and the record buying public so, to try to inject some new life into the proceedings, they made the costly move of transporting themselves and recording equipment to Holland. Also at this time, they had taken on a new manager, Jack Rieley. Jack and Bruce Johnston didn’t see eye to eye so Bruce had left the band. But the Boys had added two members of a South African group that Carl had discovered – The Flame – and Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar made contributions to this album. It’s an excellent record that features great work from all group members. You’d do well to check out all of side two, for example, featuring great writing and vocals from Carl, Ricky, Blondie, Dennis and Mike (not to mention Brian’s contribution, “Mount Vernon and Fairway [A Fairy Tale]”, added to the original album on a 7″ record). But I really dig Carl’s “The Trader”. The song was a statement of sorts from Carl. Jack Rieley was something of a lyricist and he wrote the words to “The Trader”, which tell a tale of colonization and slavery. This was heavy stuff from the Beach Boys but Carl offset this by having his young son, Justyn, greet the listener at the beginning of the song. “Holland” is an interesting album in the Beach Boys canon. It signalled the end of an era.

7. “Forever” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — “Sunflower” is another intriguing album. Historically, it has nothing obvious to recommend it. It even lacks the cache that the previously mentioned trilogy of “chill out” albums enjoy. But it’s sneaky good. Their first album of the 1970’s was also their first album for Reprise Records. The ’70’s were marked as a time when the Beach Boys had trouble maintaining a constant label on which to release material. The cover depicts an older group of fellas posing with their children in a picture taken by Ricci Martin, son of Dean. “Forever” looms large in “Beach Boys World”, the inhabitants of which cherish it’s existence. As stated in Part 1 of this series, Dennis Wilson was a rebel. Coerced to join the band, he ended up venting his pent up frustrations and virile energy behind the drum kit. But by 1970, Dennis was starting to show signs of his submerged musical vision; one of tenderness and quiet beauty. It seems almost cliche – handsome, rough-and-tumble, hard living guy suddenly sits at the piano, of all instruments, and pounds out solemn chords and whispers words of love. But Dennis was not a cliche; he was the prototype. “Forever” is his crowning achievement and the song for which he is best known. (But for my favourite Dennis/Beach Boys song, stay tuned for Part 3) 1968’s “Friends” album had contained Dennis’ initial offerings to the group and those two songs – “Little Bird” and “Be Still” – were surprising in their sensitivity. “20/20”, released the following year, had contained Dennis’ infamous “Never Learn Not to Love”; a song derived from an original composition by one Charles Manson. But with “Forever”, Dennis made his most significant contribution to the band’s catalogue. The strumming guitar, the boisterous vocals on the bridge and Dennis’ heartfelt lead all add up to a simply beautiful track. Brian himself said that “‘Forever’ has to be the most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard”. Heady praise from a man who knows. For me, it’s the simple purity of the lyric and Dennis’ reading: “If every word I said would make you laugh, I’d talk forever”. Only a song of rare beauty could survive what John Stamos and The Beach Boys* did to it in 1992.

6. “This Whole World” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — It’s funny; I’ve been talking about this era when Brian Wilson “checked out” but here he is again contributing a gorgeous song. Think of it this way: if another artist had made the type of music that Brian Wilson made when he was supposedly just chilling out, that artist would be revered today. Brian could make beautiful music in his sleep. It helped that the rest of the band – Carl, in particular – were beginning to perfect using the studio as Brian had in his heyday. Carl’s production work during this era is fantastic and he begins to emerge from his big brother’s shadow and takes over control of the band’s sound. Brian has said that “This Whole World” is “about love in general”, which sums up the positivity of his body of work. He wrote the song, taught the boys all their parts, sang on it himself and played piano. He basically produced the record – recorded in his home studio – although the credit reads “Produced by The Beach Boys”. All in all, not bad from a supposed recluse. Allmusic says that here Brian reestablishes his reputation as a “brilliant melody writer(s) and arranger(s)” and “wipes away three years of artistic cobwebs”. Carl’s guitar starts things off and the song features his great vocal. His voice in this era – he is 24 here – is a delight to hear. Brian created a chant background vocal – “Om dot dit it” – that is accompanied by chimes and gongs. Mike shines with his “I’m thinkin’ ’bout this whole world” after Carl sings “Here comes another day for your love” at about the minute mark. The ending is celestial. Two minutes of pop perfection.

5. “Time to Get Alone” (1969 – from “20/20”) — “20/20” – the Boys 20th album – was released early in 1969. Brian had checked himself into a psychiatric hospital and was absent for the recording. Carl and Dennis cobbled together parts of songs that Brian had been working on recently and finished them for inclusion on the album. It was the last album released during their classic era with Capitol Records. “20/20” went to #3 in the UK and #68 in the US – which is indicative of their reputation at the time. Huge in England, disowned at home. The hit single “Do It Again” starts the album but the second track is one of two almost perfect recordings that grace this record. “Time to Get Alone” was written by Brian – I may need to rethink my assertion that he had checked out at this time! Brian had wanted to give the song to a fledgling group he was working with called Redwood, who would later become Three Dog Night. But the band, at this point, was not about to give up any songs to outsiders; they needed all the help they could get themselves. “Time to Get Alone” is in waltz time and was recorded in Brian’s home studio. Video footage of the recording exists. The song has delightfully pleasant chord changes and typically idyllic vocals on the chorus. This era is by far the time when the Beach Boys’ group vocals were not only the best of their career but the finest sounds ever made by human voices in the pop genre. (“Baby, it’s time…”) Consider that the lyric talks of winter; snow, cold and tobogganing of all things. Times had certainly changed for the Beach Boys. And I’ve heard it said that the “deep and wide” at the 1:42 mark is the greatest single moment in the Beach Boys catalogue. I don’t know about that but “Time to Get Alone” has a staggeringly gentle beauty. Here’s the footage of the recording but you need to check out the master.

4. “Here Today” (1966 – from “Pet Sounds”) — “Pet Sounds” is not about singles. Some of the better known Beach Boys songs are from this landmark album but, almost more than any other pop album in history, that record is about the whole. Truth be told, “Pet Sounds” is a work of such singular artistry that it can seem inaccessible if you don’t approach it in the right frame of mind or with misguided expectations. It makes me almost – almost – sympathize with Mike Love and execs at Capitol. You can imagine their confusion when they first heard that record coming from the purveyors of fun in the sun ditties. I say all this to say that when I first heard “Pet Sounds” (I found it on cassette at A&A Records in Market Square in Kitchener, Ontario in 1992) I really didn’t know how to assess it. All these years later, I am still learning about it’s glorious nuances. But aside from the hits, “Here Today” is perhaps the only unknown song on the LP you can dig on first listen. Brian liked to work with lyricists and for “Pet Sounds” he teamed up with ad man Tony Asher who wrote the words to this uptempo number. Musicologists praise the “bass literature” of this song and Bruce hailed the break in the middle as “perfection” and owing to the work of Bach. If you listen closely to the break – as all Beach Boys fans know – you can hear some studio chatter (about cameras) that was left in the final mix. Listen for Brian’s “Top, please!”. Mike takes the lead and the Wrecking Crew is on hand with the addition of Terry Melcher on tambourine, which is actually pronounced in the mix and greatly adds to the feel of the song. Carol Kaye and Lyle Ritz make significant contributions on bass and Larry Knechtel shines on the organ. An interesting, driving song that sometimes sounds almost sinister with it descending sax honks on the chorus and the organ on the break.

3. “Disney Girls (1957)” (1971 – from “Surf’s Up”) — Bruce Johnston won a Grammy for “I Write the Songs” but this is his standard. Bruce had operated successfully in the music business before joining the Beach Boys and he did so again after he left the Beach Boys in the early 1970’s. This ability to function outside of the fold makes it all the more difficult to understand why it’s him that has stayed with Mike Love all this time. Before he left in 1972, though, he nailed it. When you discuss the most affecting Beach Boys songs with which Brian Wilson had little or nothing to do, “Disney Girls (1957)” is near the top of the list. Bruce has always seemed to me to be a softy so it’s no surprise that his most enduring composition is gentle and nostalgic. Bruce plays most of the instruments and the song is dominated by his gentle piano and a strummed guitar. He also employs a Moog synthesizer, creating a wah-wah sound that fits with the lyrics that speak of escaping reality. And the words are wonderfully pleasant and contain many key phrases that depict a happiness attained later in life that may actually be the manifestation of the dreams of youth. First he lets you know that he likes to check out: “reality, it’s not for me and it makes me laugh”. Then, as he reminisces about “Patti Page and summer days on old Cape Cod”, he realizes he may actually have found his “turned-back world with a local girl in a smaller town”. The payoff comes after a rather awkward bridge which has always been my only beef with the song. After the Beach Boys’ voices drift off into the ether, Bruce’s lead reappears to take us home: “All my life I’ve spent the nights with dreams of you…it’d be a peaceful life with a forever wife and a kid someday”. I mean, the song is gorgeous. It’s been covered many times by the likes of Cass Elliot, Art Garfunkel, Doris Day, Jack Jones, Captain and Tennille and Bruce himself on his 1977 solo album, “Going Public”. In 1975, Barry Manilow would take Bruce’s “I Write the Songs” to the top of the charts and earn Bruce a Grammy award but I will always love Bruce Johnston for “Disney Girls (1957)”.

2. “Our Sweet Love” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — In researching this essay, I stumbled on an astounding fact: there is next to nothing to read on the internet or in my Beach Boy books about the song “Our Sweet Love”. Therefore, this may be the greatest Beach Boys song no one’s ever heard. We are talking “Sunflower” again here; a nondescript album in the canon with nothing remarkable to recommend it. The Beach Boys are on the outs with most everybody and Brian Wilson has virtually abandoned the creative process. Carl Wilson has stepped to the fore and displays great acumen in the recording studio. “Our Sweet Love” was buried on side 2 of the record and it was written by Carl with Brian and contributions from Al Jardine; it may be the only song recorded by the Beach Boys written by those three. The song begins with dreamy guitar and strings and Carl’s angelic voice. It is subdued and prayer-like: “honey, it’s heaven”. At the 1:08 mark, it floats off on Carl’s “sweet love, sweet love…”. It is optimistic and absolutely gorgeous. Listen closely for the sleigh bells at the very end.

1. “I Can Hear Music” (1969 – from “20/20”) — If there is a creation of Carl’s in this era more sublime than “Our Sweet Love”, it is only his “I Can Hear Music”. Written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, it was originally released by the Ronettes in 1966. When you consider that this song is thought to be Carl’s first attempt at taking over for his brother, Brian, and controlling a session, the result is remarkable. The song begins with a wash of divine vocal sound and strummed guitar. Sleigh bells are present throughout. Carl’s lead is on point; as we’ve said earlier this was probably the era in which he sounded best. And I think we’d all have to agree that Carl Wilson possessed the finest voice in this vocal group comprised of fine voices. Indeed, in any of the few times the Beach Boys were enlisted to provide back-ups on the songs of others it is Carl that is dominant. If Carl’s voice was the closest to perfection, it is not too much of a stretch to assume that he would be the one (after Brian, natch) to most ably arrange the Beach Boys’ voices in a way that would showcase them in their finest light and this is the case with “I Can Hear Music”. The a cappella break in this song is beyond description. It’s another example – one of the top two or three – of the segments you play for the uninitiated to back up your claim that they were the best vocal group ever. And Carl’s “ohhhhh…” that brings them back to the chorus is pristine. I like what Kent Crowley says of “I Can Hear Music” in his book on Carl: “Brian’s only involvement in the song was to be astonished when he heard it”. This production of Carl’s was a landmark in this era as it showed the others in the group and the record industry at large that Carl – at 22 years old – was able to take over the musical direction of the Beach Boys. This included not only producing wonderful records in the studio but also the ability to reproduce their sound in a live performance.

Next Up… 1974-1992: The Beach Boys break new ground again, ascend to the heights and embed themselves into the fabric of history…