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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

 

 

 

 

The Warmth of the Sun: Your Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys

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 some of their lesser known songs in a 3-part series. So, let’s go surfin’ now!

Brian Wilson and I go way back. My earliest recollection of hearing music is my mother’s Elvis Presley records. (And “Maneater” and “Stray Cat Strut”) I connected with Presley early and became not just a “lifelong fan” but a sort of student; of his music, his personality and his impact on society. However, I think I can safely say that the first music that I discovered for myself was the music of the Beach Boys. I was 12 years old and my Aunt Lori gave me some records, among them the Beach Boys’ iconic greatest hits package, 1974’s “Endless Summer”.

I listened to this record throughout the summer of 1985, the summer I was 12. At the end of that summer, my family was moving away from the city I had grown up in to a small town. Perhaps the impending separation from my friends and from the life I had known caused me to gravitate to the Beach Boys’ songs; songs of joy, songs of love, songs of longing. The music spoke to my imagination. It gave me a “place to go”.

I’m going to try very hard to be concise throughout this 3-part series. I intend it to be a set of articles for those only slightly familiar with this music that will highlight some of the lesser known gems in the Beach Boys canon – and not a dissertation on the career of the group and their cultural impact; although their story is so rife with fascinating episodes that I would like to tackle such a series one day. They are often misunderstood and underappreciated and a multi-part series on them would go a long way to clearing that up.

But – like I’ve done with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Nat Cole (search for them on my blog to read the articles) – I’d like these articles to direct your attention to the music; which has also been somewhat misunderstood and underappreciated. I plan on going a little deeper than their more recognizable hits as most of us are more-than-familiar with iconic Beach Boys music. We could call this the best of the “2nd tier”. Of course, the Beach Boys catalogue is so deep that we could carry on to highlight a 3rd and 4th tier; the hidden gems.

One can’t talk about the music of the Beach Boys without talking about Brian Wilson. Brian was born the oldest of three boys to Murry and Audree in 1942 in Hawthorne, California. The late Rolling Stone writer Timothy White wrote a book of such staggeringly thorough research that I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is called “The Nearest Faraway Place” and it deals not only with Brian and the Beach Boys but it also gets in-depth about what White calls the “Southern California Experience”. White’s book begins with a long history of Brian’s forebears. The story White relates goes a long way towards explaining the person of Murry Wilson. The generational issues that plagued previous Wilson men landed heavily on Murry – and he in turn “landed heavily” on Brian.

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The most thoroughly researched book I’ve ever read. This fascinating read has become an essential book in my collection. Photo Credit: Henry Holt and Co.

Brian was a gentle child who was subjected to brutal treatment at the hands of his father. It’s so hard to abbreviate this aspect of Brian’s journey but suffice it to say that Brian turned to music not only as a companion and an outlet but also as a means to communicate with and satisfy the demands and expectations of Murry. Murry himself had been a songwriter; somehow restraining his demons long enough to compose pleasant little ditties in the hopes of having them published and perhaps even recorded and performed by a big name. He was successful once when Lawrence Welk performed Murry’s “Two-Step Side Step” on the radio.

Brian was intrigued by the intricate harmonies of the vocal group the Four Freshmen. He became obsessed with mastering these harmonies by breaking them down – separating them and teaching them to his two younger brothers, Carl and Dennis. Carl was keen on Chuck Berry and rhythm and blues music and Brian absorbed that as well. Dennis was a rebel, for lack of a better word. He would go toe-to-toe with Murry and then take off into the streets and down to the beach. It was surfing, girls and beach life that Dennis was most interested in and it was these pursuits that he talked about around the house and in the music room that Murry had set up for the boys.

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An absolutely priceless picture of Carl, Dennis and Brian Wilson (foreground) horsing around on their front lawn in Hawthorne.

The Wilson boys had an older cousin named Mike Love. Mike was into doo-wop and when the two families would get together, Mike and the three Wilson boys would talk music and listen to the radio and sing songs themselves, Mike taking the bass parts. The four young men began to entertain the idea of forming a group. With the addition of high school friend Al Jardine, they did just that, filling the music room of the Wilson home with their fledgling sounds. This caught the attention of father Murry who quickly put himself in charge of the boys’ progress. He did, after all, have some connections in the music business and he was possessed of the belligerence needed to operate in that arena.

But first, Murry needed a holiday. He and Audree were going to Mexico. Brian, the oldest, was left in charge of the house and of the $500 ’emergency money’ Murry had left behind. No sooner had the Wilson parents left the driveway than the boys took the $500 and rented instruments so that they could work on a song. Dennis had come back from the beach raving about the scene there and suggesting that Brian write a song about surfing. It was this song the group worked on while Murry and Audree were away.

When Murry returned and saw all the instruments and learned to what use the emergency money had went, he blew his stack, focusing his physical rage on Brian. Once Murry had the situation explained to him, and their song, “Surfin'”, played for him, he calmed down and went into business mode. The song was eventually released on the tiny Candix label and became a minor hit for the newly christened “Beach Boys”. Capitol Records became interested and the boys soon found themselves in the studio recording their first album.

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Teenagers. Working out the harmonies while recording their debut LP, “Surfin’ Safari” (1961). Mike, Brian, Carl, Dennis and David Marks. Photo Credit: Capitol Records.

Whew! Seems wrong to compress this story like that! The main purpose here, though, is to talk about the music that the Beach Boys made in this first era of their legendary run as “America’s Band”. During the years 1961 to 1965, Brian Wilson and his group did no less than put their stamp on history; music history and cultural history. And Brian Wilson did it almost single-handedly. Although he would much rather have followed Phil Spector’s lead and been a producer with a stable of artists, Brian found himself “paying the bills” as the bassist of a surf band. The songs that went over with the public in this era dealt with surfing, cars and girls; what Mike Love would later infamously label “The Formula”. The songs come across as so simple that, to the general listener, they are just fun songs. But Brian began to create compositions that were vocally and harmonically intricate if you knew what to listen for. I’ll concede though that the classic songs from this era are still cherished today because they depict and celebrate the sheer joy of living; not necessarily because of Brian’s tonal shifts or chord changes. The great songs from this era are songs we all know and love so well that they have become embedded in the fabric of life itself; you want to depict fun, happiness and the release that warm weather provides, play a Beach Boys song: “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “409”, “Little Deuce Coupe”, “Shut Down”, “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “I Get Around”. Don’t let your familiarity with these songs rob you of your enjoyment of them. They represent a remarkably successful string of records that are sophisticated creations while at the same time being infinitely accessible. You may have heard “Surfin’ U.S.A.” a thousand times and you take it for granted. Try to listen to it again for the first time; there are few records from this era more exhilarating.

OK, so, you know all those songs but what else was going on? Glad you asked. Got a list right here.

10. “Catch a Wave” (1963 – from “Surfer Girl”) — Some of the songs I will present on these lists may seem to be pedestrian or common in the Beach Boys catalogue. Most times the reason for their inclusion is that they are perfect examples of what the group did so well. Some songs are simply great representations of their ‘sound’. “Catch a Wave” may be one of these songs. Written by Brian and Mike, it is a rare time when all the boys played on a recording with no session musicians. Even Al Jardine AND David Marks play on “Catch a Wave”; Marks would leave the group less than 6 months after this was recorded. Mike Love’s sister, Maureen, cameos on harp. Never released as a single, it’s appeal may come in part from it’s inclusion on “Endless Summer”. It appears early on that compilation – track 3 – and helps to create the mood of that album. It is an integral piece, one of many parts, but, taken on it’s own, it has a good, mid-tempo groove with some solid drumming from Dennis and a great solo from Brian on organ. Features some of Mike’s better wordplay. It’s one of many of their songs that sounds like a summer sunset, the end of a fun day spent outdoors. A year later, Jan & Dean gave this song new lyrics about skateboarding and took “Sidewalk Surfin'” to #25.

9. “In the Parkin’ Lot” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Maybe the most hidden gem on this list, Brian took this little ditty and sent it skyward by tacking on four bars of gorgeous vocals to the beginning and the end of this song from this very good album with the silly name. Earlier in the year, Capitol had released a compilation of instrumental hot rod songs and called it “Shut Down”. I suppose the Beach Boys could’ve called their album something else – but it was likely Capitol that named both. “In the Parkin’ Lot” is most notable for Brian’s arrangement of the boys’ sumptuous voices but it also shines due to it’s ‘slice-of-life’ vocal imagery, brought to you by Roger Christian. Christian was a disc jockey in Los Angeles in the ‘golden era’ and spent some time at the famous KFWB near Hollywood and Vine where he was introduced to Brian Wilson. The two would go for milkshakes and write songs. Christian – a disc jockey, mind you – was great with word imagery and he knew cars. If you look him up, you’ll see that he wrote the words to many great songs by the Beach Boys and – more impressively – he wrote the lyrics to the majority of the best songs of Jan and Dean. If you close your eyes and listen to “In the Parkin’ Lot”, you’ll hear a cute tale of a guy and a girl waiting until the last minute to get out of the car in the morning and get to class on time. But it’s the stunning display of  vocals that bookend this song that set it apart.

8. “All Summer Long” (1964 – from “All Summer Long”) —  A lot of you may say that this enduring title track from ’64 is, indeed, one of the better known Beach Boys songs and not a “2nd tier” song. I won’t argue with that – I may even agree – but I will stand by the assertion that it may not be one of the first 10 or 15 songs a casual fan will mention. Again I will use this song as an example of what the Beach Boys did best in this era. The song is an absolute delight written by Brian and Mike. Brian has crafted another perfect pop song – both with his composition and his production – and Mike again nails the ethos of what the Beach Boys were about. Mike’s lyrics depict a perfect idyll of summer activities with personal touches we all can relate to. He takes the lead vocal here and sings of sitting in the car with a coke, miniature golf, Hondas, horseback rides and randomly hearing your favourite song on the radio. These images provide for us today delightful pangs of nostalgia for a bygone era. Again, all the boys were present in the studio and I was delightfully surprised to learn that it is Brian himself playing the distinctive marimba on this track. This song ascended to rarefied air in 1973 thanks to George Lucas’ seminal coming-of-age film “American Graffiti”. Lucas’ film is a significant paean to the pivot point in the lives of young people but also paints a portrait of the major shifts experienced in American society in the early-to-mid ’60’s. Not only did Lucas give his stamp of approval to the 42 songs he used to exemplify the aura of the time but he was savvy enough to know that this Beach Boys song – in not only the lyrics but the tone of the song – speaks of the end of something; summer, yes, but Lucas also heard in it the “sundown” of the innocence of the era that ended with the death of JFK and the coming of the Beatles. He felt strongly enough to use it over the closing credits even though it was released 2 years after the year in which his film is set.

7. “Kiss Me, Baby” (1965 – from “The Beach Boys Today!”) — This album represented a major leap for the Beach Boys and a turning point in their career and in Brian Wilson’s life. Brian and the boys had been going non-stop for 4 years, releasing some of the most iconic music in American history. Consider that all this time Brian had been doing most of the heavy lifting: composing the music, arranging the songs, arranging the vocals, playing bass and various keyboards, singing and performing and touring. He was doing all this while battling psychological issues of immense proportions that I won’t get into. A week after recording the backing track for “Kiss Me, Baby” with the famed Wrecking Crew (plus Carl on guitar; himself on piano), Brian had a significant anxiety attack and nervous breakdown and announced he was retiring from touring and staying home to focus on making music. “The Beach Boys Today!” is significant as the album that indicated that things were pivoting. Gone were songs of surf and cars and goofy teenage love. This album was filled with serious statements on mature love and life. I single out “Kiss Me, Baby” because it is sublime. Written by Brian and Mike – who also take the leads – it begins with dreamy vocals and dramatic piano (Leon Russell is also credited on piano here). Mike’s lyrics tell of the aftermath of an argument – and there is a sense that what the couple is fighting over is no longer just ‘kid stuff’. Excellent percussion from the legend Hal Blaine leads us to one of those ‘cliffs’ I love in a song – the vocals seem to hang in midair for a second and then we drop into the chorus: “We both had a broken heart…oh, baby…kiss me, baby, love to hold you….” Beautiful vocals from all five Boys. A gorgeous song.

6. “Wendy” (1964 – from “All Summer Long”) — I’ve always thought that there was something significant about the second half of “Endless Summer”. The songs always seemed a bit more serious while still feeling like sunshine and warm air. Maybe the first half is the glow of midday; full bore fun in the sun. And the second half is late afternoon, approaching sunset; exhaling, afterglow, driving back home, tired but exhilarated. “Wendy” fits that ‘second half’ vibe for me perfectly. Another song written by Brian and Mike and featuring all five Beach Boys playing and singing. There’s just something about the sound of the guitars and the vocal arrangement. Brian lays down a nice organ solo and when the voices come back in – “Wendy, I wouldn’t hurt you like that…” – it is one of a thousand examples of how good their voices sounded together. This song may be looked at as one of those simple, little ditties but there is more going on here. There is certainly emotional content, yes, but if you look it up, you’ll find that there is a surprising amount going on with the composition, as well: “The song begins with a minor i chord in the key of D minor, moves to a major IV…then modulates to the key of F major (the relative major of D minor) through a substituted plagal cadence…” I don’t know what any of that means but I do know that it substantiates the claim that the genius of Brian Wilson was hiding in plain sight; you may not have understood it but it was there. As I say, “Wendy” has a unique quality to it and it made me a major fan of that feminine appellation.

5. “The Warmth of the Sun” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Here is an earlier example of that “Wendy” vibe I just mentioned. “Shut Down Volume 2” is an interesting album. It contains what could be considered ‘filler’ like “Shut Down, Part II”, “Louie, Louie” and “Denny’s Drums” but it also contains the iconic up-tempo “Fun, Fun, Fun” and ballads like “Keep an Eye on Summer” and “The Warmth of the Sun”. A dramatic ballad, the song begins – as many of their songs do – with soaring harmonies featuring Brian’s lovely falsetto. Mike has written some fine lyrics here which immediately seem different from other sentiments from his pen. The words express a confusion about life, wondering what is the value in the things that I do? It is fitting that this conundrum is solved when Brian sings that it’s all good “for I have the warmth of the sun within me at night”. It’s a manifesto of sorts from the Beach Boys that says that while things may not always be great, things like sunshine and the freedom and joy it can afford will help – if not save – you in the end. There is an emotion inherent in this song owing to the day it was written; November 22, 1963. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated was a turning point for American society and elicited feelings in the entire nation. Brian and Mike were not immune to this and both were inspired to create this beautiful statement from a tragic event. This song is often mentioned when discussing Brian’s inventive chord changes in his earlier compositions. Beach Boy dad, Murry Wilson, did an instrumental version of this song on his lone album, the surprisingly enjoyable “The Many Moods of Murry Wilson” on Capitol (1967).

4. “Car Crazy Cutie” (1963 – from “Little Deuce Coupe”) — “Run, a-run, a-do run run. Oh, oh, run…” Annnd, I’m done. But seriously: I love Capitol Records but…in the summer of ’63, the label put out an album of hot rod songs called “Shut Down” which featured the song of the same name and “409” by the Beach Boys. This was done without their participation or knowledge. So, Brian quickly finished up some songs he had been working on and hustled the boys back into the studio to record their own album of car songs. They released the “Little Deuce Coupe” album only one month after their previous album, “Surfer Girl”. The Boys flying through the recording of this album with the speed of a ’32 Ford can be seen in the fact that half the songs are under two minutes in length and the whole album runs about 20 minutes. Nevertheless, this is looked on as one of the earliest “concept” albums. The longest song on the album? The one that LEAST sounds like it was a rush job, “Car Crazy Cutie”, written by Brian and Roger Christian. Brian constructed a very cool vocal arrangement that puts one in mind of the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron”, which was recorded around the same time as this tune. Once again, the song begins with a distinctive vocal intro and the tune drops in to a great mid-tempo guitar-driven groove. Again, the band features Al Jardine and David Marks, who would not play on another Beach Boys record until 2012. Roger’s car-savvy lyrics tell of a gal who’s a real “rodder’s dream gal” who’s “hip to everything, man, from customs to rails” and when he “takes her to the drags, man, everyone flips”. I love this song and – like “In the Parkin’ Lot” – it’s the vocal bookends that make it stand out.

3. “Do You Wanna Dance?” (1965 – from “The Beach Boys Today!”) — Beautiful harmonies, strikingly complex arrangements. These are the things we often think of when thinking of the Beach Boys. But here is an example of them exhibiting sheer energy in a driving remake of Bobby Freeman’s classic song. This is the only song on this list that was a domestic A-side single. I wish I knew musical terminology to describe to you what Brian has done here with the arrangement. Utilizing Freeman’s pounding piano chords to build the song up with crescendos, Brian has maximized the dramatic import of the composition. Although he used the Wrecking Crew on this one, the instruments that stand out the most are the pounding piano played by Brian himself and the guitar (that doubles with the piano) played by Carl, who also takes the solo. Brian has replaced Freeman’s unique percussion sound in the breaks with Carl’s boss guitar. But again it’s the vocals that really stand out. The lead is taken by Dennis and this is significant. The highest charting Beach Boys song to feature Denny on lead, “Do You Wanna Dance?” benefits from his masculine voice. Indeed, the energy inherent here is due in large part to his reading of the lyric. I love how his voice starts things off here, popping out of the gates. The times when the group comes in to sing “oh, do ya, do ya, do ya, do ya wanna dance?” are exhilarating! Particularly heading for the outro; listen for Brian’s falsetto wail at the final crescendo. Add Hal Blaine’s drums and this thing rolls. Consider that this track features organ and two mandolins. Not easy to hear them but they contribute to the overall sound. Makes me think that actual video footage of Dennis Wilson, at this point in his life, recording this song would be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

2. “Don’t Worry, Baby” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Here’s where we can begin debating the definition of “2nd tier” Beach Boys songs. I’ll allow that the general public is aware of this beautiful song but it also fits the criteria presented here as in it is not immediately indicative of the Beach Boys’ sound in this era. The fact that this is on the same album as “Pom Pom Playgirl”, “Shut Down, Part 2” and “Louie, Louie” shows the strides Brian was making as a composer. Brian wrote “Don’t Worry, Baby” as an homage to Phil Spector and Brian’s favourite record, “Be My Baby”. Roger Christian provided the lyrics which depicted a young man’s apprehension regarding an upcoming drag race. Thing is, Brian had spoken at length with Roger about his frustrations with his father, Murry, and his own vulnerabilities where girls were concerned. Roger – to his credit – seems to have taken these talks with Brian and turned them into a lyric about a drag race – that’s not really about a drag race. Here, too, we can also begin to collectively shake our heads and struggle to accurately describe such a work of art. Dennis starts things off with a gentle snare and those glorious vocals come in followed by some nice piano from Brian. And, again, there is just that sound to this song. It has that dreamy sunset sound to it. Maybe I shouldn’t be so amazed that all the Boys play on this recording but I am. They all contribute to an amazingly smooth recording. I have read that Brian was unsure about singing a falsetto lead on a single – although this was technically not a single as it was released as the B side of “I Get Around”, the Beach Boys’ first #1 song. “Don’t Worry, Baby” charted in it’s own right and peaked at #24. It is one of the few Beach Boys songs to have been covered extensively, having been essayed by the likes of Bryan Ferry, the Bay City Rollers and Billy Joel. Keith Moon did a brutal version on his terrible solo album that reportedly made Brian break down crying. B.J. Thomas took it to #17 in 1977 and the Everly Brothers do a fine version – featuring the Beach Boys – on the soundtrack of “Tequila Sunrise”. The vocal arrangement is one of Brian’s finest and if someone asks you what is so good about the Beach Boys, play them this song.

1. “Let Him Run Wild” (1965 – from “Summer Days [And Summer Nights!!]”) —  I see now that I have given myself a ridiculously difficult task – trying to describe not only “Don’t Worry, Baby” but now also “Let Him Run Wild”. Appearing on a fun and somewhat underrated album, “Let Him Run Wild” was written by Brian and Mike. Brian’s composition is a nod to the song stylings of the great Burt Bacharach and is notable as being the first song that Brian wrote under the influence of marijuana. It was also the first song that made Carl and Dennis realize that Brian was starting to move into another realm and it is a significant signpost on the way to “Pet Sounds”. Vocally, this is another 6-Beach Boy performance with Bruce Johnston putting in some of his first shifts. Several star members of the famed Wrecking Crew are on hand and the track starts with Frank Capp’s vibraphone followed by Brian’s lead. Some dreamy guitar work by Carl (or Howard Roberts) and a nifty bass line from Carol Kaye carry the tune along gently. We drift into the chorus – “Let him run wild, he don’t care…” – and are neatly lead back to the verse: “I guess you know I waited for you…”. I dunno – I’m out of things to say about this gorgeous track. It was the b-side of “California Girls”.

Next Up… 1966 – 1973: Brian pivots and leaves everyone behind

 

 

 

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 5

I have a family friend, a lady who was a teenager during Elvis Presley’s ascendancy in the late ’50’s-early ’60’s. She knew I was an Elvis guy and would often talk about how much she loved him. She was one of those people of a certain age who claim Elvis as their own and say things like “I have all his records”. I always have a feeling with people like this that they love Elvis the Superstar, Elvis the Icon. They collect the cheesiest Elvis artifacts and souvenirs. In a way, it’s similar to the way Britons loved American blues and rhythm and blues in the 1960’s perhaps even more than Americans did. The thinking being that – in the UK – they were observing things from a distance and therefore could see the glory in the music that much better. People born in the same era as Elvis – people that grew up with him – definitely see him in a different way and love him for different reasons. Those of us born, say, in the early 1970’s perhaps look at him from a more historical standpoint. Our generation is maybe more apt to dig beneath the surface and to study a performer like Elvis Presley the same way we might research the Vietnam war – digging in and wanting to know the origins and the significance. Those of us who begin to grasp the importance of the King do the research, look into all his recordings from all the eras and collect it all because we want to know it all. Back to my family friend and her generation. When the 45s came out in the ’50’s, they bought them – they bought them all until they themselves got married and had kids and life took over. Therefore, they say “I have all his records” when really they’ve never even heard 80% of what he recorded. And they don’t look at Elvis or GRASP him in the same way. A perfect example is the time when this lady family friend brought me her Elvis cassette. She said I would appreciate it and I could have it. I looked at it and actually it was interesting. It was his “Gold Records Vol. 4” album. Cool, I’m thinking, that’s different. I open it and take the cassette out. Oddly, the songs listed on the tape are “Kentucky Rain” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” and others from that era. This was not the same album the cover showed! I looked at the tape more closely: “As Sung By Ronnie McDowell”, it said. I was dumbfounded. I carried on with my thank you’s but I was floored. It got me thinking: this woman was there when it was happening. She should be a bigger fan than me. Yet one of her prized possessions was an album of songs sung NOT by Elvis but by the world’s premier Elvis sound-alike. But here’s the thing: she was happy. She loved Elvis. He made her feel good. He was a part of her fondest memories of life. I thought she was crazy but she got just as much out of Elvis as I – the ‘Elvis scholar’ – did. And that’s The Thing About the King. People LOVE him. The people that think Ronnie McDowell is Elvis and have never heard “Just Pretend” and wear the airbrushed jackets and t-shirts from the flea market with Elvis riding on the clouds or something, they love him. And the people that research his time spent at Crown Electric or dig into his relationship with his step-brothers or try to figure out if Toby Kwimper is really the predecessor of Forrest Gump, they love him, too. Us scholars may scoff at these older fans but, look at them, they’re happy. They love Elvis, too. The only thing I would say, though, is those people could be so much happier if they really dug in to Elvis World. They love the tip of the iceberg. I think the other 80% would be exciting for them to learn about, too.

And that goes for music fans in general. I don’t know if any iconic superstar suffers more from being not fully understood than Elvis Presley. The image, as the man himself once said, is one thing. The man is another. People that reject the suggestion that Elvis may be more significant than Bruce Springsteen don’t really know the whole story. It’s a shame to think that the coming generation sees Elvis only as the black and white rebel with the curled lip, or the Hollywood victim being neutered by endless ‘playful romp’ films or the bombastic jump-suited ’70’s prince from another planet. They may love “Don’t Be Cruel” and that’s great. But if you want a real treat, look into Elvis Presley. Dig a bit deeper. I guarantee you you’ll be glad you did. His is essentially a sad story but it’s riveting.

Wow. Sorry. I don’t think I intended to get so deep. After all, we’re here to celebrate the 83rd anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley by trying to figure out what his best songs are. We’ve been through the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s and also looked at the movie music. And don’t forget; he also recorded some stellar Christmas music and some truly stirring gospel, the music he maybe connected with most. I need to thank you all for reading these posts. It’s fun for me to write them but it’s always better when someone reads them. I hope I’ve made some sense – I don’t always! In the end, these posts were read by over 600 people in 23 countries; “Elvis World”, indeed! Once again, thank you. Thank you very much.

Finally, I’ve submitted for your approval The Ten Greatest Recordings of Elvis Presley. Let the debating – and the listening – begin!

10. “What a Wonderful Life” (1961) — Movie song from “Follow That Dream”. The lyrics reflect the freedom depicted in the movies.

9. “Separate Ways” (1972) — The saddest song I ever heard. An absolutely heartbreaking commentary on the break-up of Elvis and Priscilla written by Red West.

8. “I Got Lucky” (1961) — A sublime pop vocal. Like a personal family heirloom to me. A cherished gem.

7. “Rubberneckin'” (1969) — The King struts through this balls-out rocker recorded back home in Memphis.

6. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (1957) — A stunning, savage vocal on the greatest Christmas rock ‘n’ roll song ever recorded.

5. “Burning Love” (1972) — Polished sound. Ringing guitar. Full-throttle, crowd-pleasing iconic rocker.

4. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) — One of his two or three best vocal performances ever. Fan favourite and the title track from one of his two or three best movies ever.

3. “Promised Land” (1973) — Maybe the single most energetic song I’ve ever heard. And probably the coolest. An absolute freight train.

2. “A Little Less Conversation” (1968) — Probably my favourite Elvis song. A thrilling late-’60’s rock ‘n’ roll song from maybe his greatest soundtrack. Just a delight to listen to – and sing along to.

1. “Suspicious Minds” (1969) — And here we are. The King’s “masterpiece”. A shining moment from some unbelievable sessions and the second-most significant set of recording dates of his career. Of history, maybe. The most confident, assured and vibrant rock vocals you could ever ask to hear.

I can’t thank you enough for reading. I’ve had a blast sharing my thoughts with you. Happy Birthday, EP! And thanks.

Me and My Man

**the image used in this post I actually own!**

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 4

Let’s get this out of the way: you cannot dismiss all the movie songs as garbage. Really, you can’t call them garbage at all. Here’s the thing: the bulk of the songs that appear in the movies are less songs and more plot devices, used simply to advance the story or comment on the action on the screen. Some examples are “Song of the Shrimp” from 1962’s excellent “Girls! Girls! Girls!”. This song’s lyrics are about a shrimp that reads an article in a shrimp newspaper and leaves his parents to see the world starting in New Orleans. Like…really? From the same film, we have “Thanks to the Rolling Sea” – “Abalone steaks and tuna fish cakes taste so heavenly” – and “We’re Coming in Loaded” – “The fishing was great. We’re coming in loaded ’cause we’re all out of bait”. All three of these songs are actually perfectly acceptable in the context of a bunch of men who work together on a shrimping boat. They probably have lots of songs they sing together as they work. In the ‘lullabies and songs sung to children’ category, we’ve got “Big Boots” from “G.I. Blues” and “Cotton Candy Land” from “It Happened at the World’s Fair”. If the action calls for you to interact with a baby or a young child, sure, you may sing them a goofy little song to get them to go to sleep or to quiet their fears. And then – I hate to even bring it up – there’s “Dominick”, sung to a bull in “Stay Away, Joe”. When a bull won’t breed you sing to it. Don’t you? The problem I have is not necessarily with the songs themselves. Tunes from this ‘lower’ level, like “You’re Time Hasn’t Come Yet, Baby” from “Speedway” or “Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce” from “Girl Happy”, are great songs I actually like. The problem lies in the fact that this is ELVIS PRESLEY – the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll – and no matter how many movie tickets you want to sell or how many records you want to sell you DO NOT put “No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car” on an album and release it to the public under Elvis Presley’s name! Elvis is constantly slagged for making bad records in the ’60’s but it wasn’t his fault. “Ito Eats” from “Blue Hawaii” is cute because the gang is at a luau and they are heckling Ito for eating too much and being fat. Fine, OK, but don’t put it out and call it the latest release from Elvis Presley!!  Within the borders of the films, these cute songs advance the plot – sometimes quite charmingly – but that’s where they should have stayed.

Whew. OK. Now that that’s out of way, let’s look at The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley: the Movie Songs.

10. “Hard Luck” (from “Frankie and Johnny”, 1966) — The movie? I dunno…Elvis as a riverboat gambler in period dress? It’s not terrible but because it is a period piece the songs are turn-of-the-last-century in flavour. However, when Johnny (Elvis) hits the skids, he wanders the streets at night singing this stellar blues number. It features stand-out harmonica playing from Charlie McCoy. McCoy is a full-on legend who has played on records by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn.

9. “So Close, Yet So Far (from Paradise)” (from “Harum Scarum”, 1965) — I often call this the most hidden of all the hidden gems. After all, it’s in “Harum Scarum”, King’s romp through the Middle East with a turban on his head. There is not much to recommend the film except this powerful song. Johnny (Elvis – Johnny again!) lands in the slammer and is separated from his lady love and puts in a great performance with this stirring number. It builds to a wonderful climax accompanied ably by the Jordanaires. “Here am I, waiting for you. Here am I, praying for you…” When the material was half-decent, he could still fill a song with emotional intensity, no matter what the setting. Written by Joy Byers who wrote many songs for the movies including “C’mon Everybody”, “Goin’ Home”, “Hey, Hey, Hey” and “Stop, Look and Listen”.

8. “Shoppin’ Around” (from “G.I. Blues”, 1960) — The first movies I ever remember seeing in my life were “Enter the Dragon”, “Smokey and the Bandit” and “G.I. Blues”. I’ve loved this Elvis film and the music from it for many, many years. This is one of his films in which he plays a musician so this performance takes place in front of a band in a nightclub. One of Tulsa’s (Elvis) pals wants Tulsa to be a hit with Lili (Juliet Prowse) so he volunteers Tulsa to sing this excellent rocker. Fantastic, beefy guitar from Scotty Moore and a great, fun vocal: “I’m gon’ stop…….shoppin’ around”. I always thought this was the ‘opposite song’ to the Miracles’ “Shop Around”.

7. “Roustabout” (from “Roustabout”, 1964) — I love this song, yes, but here’s the thing: the appeal of Elvis’ films and the joy that you can get from them – what makes them enjoyable – is encapsulated in this film and the title track. Try to explain King’s movie career in a sentence or two and you will likely be describing “Roustabout”. Elvis plays Charlie Rogers, a free-spirited and sometimes surly drifter who loves him some kicks. He has a way with a song and with the ladies. This basic synopsis of “Roustabout” could apply to basically all his films. The lyrics reflect this: “‘Til I find my place there’s no doubt I’ll be a roving roustabout” – I mean, that is King Movies in a nutshell. Sung over the opening credits. The soundtrack album went to #1.

6. “Let Yourself Go” (from “Speedway”, 1968) — By 1968, even the soundtracks were featuring more meaty material. Another tune by Joy Byers, this track could also be heard in the “’68 Comeback Special”. Steve (Elvis) is called upon to sing at the local club “The Hangout” – a cool place where instead of at tables you sit in cars. Here’s the thing: Elvis looks spectacular. And he’s wearing ‘the Speedway jacket’ – which I tried on at a Graceland shop but wouldn’t pay the freight. This tune is sexy: “Oh, baby, I’m gonna teach you what love’s all about tonight…kiss me nice and easy, take your time. Baby, I’m the only one a-here in line. All you gotta do is just-a…..”

5. “Young Dreams” (from “King Creole”, 1958) — Another song sung by King in a reasonable setting in a movie. EP plays Danny, a nightclub singer. “King Creole” is Elvis’ finest dramatic film and was directed by the great Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”). Curtiz knew about composition and – along with his cinematographer – would’ve known the best settings in which to shoot King, in terms of lighting, etc. Danny sits and sings this excellent song and it is visually thrilling as well. I listened to this song recently after 30+ years of hearing it and I still shake my head. It’s wonderful. And King plays a bit of ‘shoulder’, too.

4. “Spinout” (from “Spinout”, 1966) — It’s so hard to pick which songs to share links to. Do yourself a favour and look all these up on whatever service you use. This tune contains one of my favourite King vocals and some absolutely amazing drumming. King plays Mike, a stock car racer with a way with a song. He sings this at a shindig at the pad he’s borrowing. The guitar sound to start the tune is unique and is played by a legend – it’s either Scotty Moore or Tommy Tedesco. And it’s a fantastic vocal, the highlight of which is the “prove” in “Don’t you know she’s out to prove she can really score”. When someone says to you “all the movie songs are lame”, play them “Spinout”. “A-let me tell ya, Spinout…”

3. “Almost in Love” (from “Live a Little, Love a Little”, 1968) — OK, y’wanna fight? Listen to this: Elvis’ best soundtrack is the one for the film “Live a Little, Love a Little”. Annnnd tell me I’m crazy. I can defend this bold statement but I won’t do it here. Suffice it to say that “Almost in Love” is one of the smoothest songs he ever recorded featuring one of his most subdued and sensual vocals. The tune is gorgeous with it’s idyllic strings and gentle trombone solo. As a big fan of bossa nova, I can appreciate the fact that this tune is based on a song from Brazilian legend Luiz Bonfa. The thing about this tune and two others from this film is that they are just the type of song that other singers of the time were singing. They would have fit perfectly on any of Dean Martin’s or Frank Sinatra’s later albums for Reprise Records. Because this is Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, they’re dismissed or even disparaged. That’s wrong. This recording is celestial.

2. “What a Wonderful Life” (from “Follow That Dream”, 1962) — We’ve arrived at the top two and I have a confession to make. Part of what makes these two songs rank so highly is my strong personal connection to them. This film was made when there was still some care going into providing quality vehicles for King. In this film, King plays Toby Kwimper and EP displays some of his finest comedic acting. This tune is played over the opening credits. Like “Roustabout”, the lyrics depict the very heart of all of Elvis’ movies: “It’s a wonderful road, this road I’m travelin’…it may go straight or it may detour…don’t know where I’m goin’, don’t care where I’m goin’, like the four winds blowin’ I go on. Laughin’ the day away, lovin’ the night away, ’til the moon is gone. It’s a wonderful life…”. You see what I’m saying? The reason I love his movies is described in these lyrics. It’s a delightful song. I love it.

1. “I Got Lucky” (from “Kid Galahad”, 1962) — Absolutely, the finest song from Elvis’ movies – out of all the songs that do not have a life outside of the movies. This was the title track of a budget Camden release LP in 1971, other than that it was, strictly speaking, a ‘movie song’, unlike, say, “Teddy Bear” or “Return to Sender”, both of which ‘lived’ outside the films they were performed in. Make sense? “Kid Galahad” is one of Elvis Presley’s very best films. Elvis plays boxing nice guy Walter “Kid Galahad” Gulick and he sings this at a 4th of July picnic. His voice, his voice, his voice. The sound his voice makes on this track. He’s not shouting “Jailhouse Rock” but the key he’s in here makes his voice sound so…I dunno. Just perfect. His tone. The wonderful Boots Randolph plays sax on this track and the Jordanaires also do stand-out work. “So, won’t you tell me that you love me, hurry up and name the day” – listen to him sing that line. THAT is what is so magnificent about his voice. Seriously, this song can make me emotional. Not just because I think it’s gorgeous but also because it means the world to me. I had the “I Got Lucky” album on cassette when I was a teenager. I would drive around in my 1983 Ford Escort and listen to this song and “What a Wonderful Life” and I would be transported. Couple things: this is a great clip. Elvis sings to Joan Blackman who was also in “Blue Hawaii”. And did you notice Charles Bronson? And this song was co-written by Dolores Fuller, who had a hand in writing other songs for the movies. Dee Fuller was a girlfriend of filmmaker Ed Wood. She is portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker in the film “Ed Wood”.

Up next: we try to bring it all together! What are the Top Ten Elvis Presley Songs of All-Time?!

Kid Galahad WP

**the images and media used in this post are not mine**

 

 

 

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 3

I remember the day I bought the “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” boxed set. I was so happy thinking that now I had ALL of the songs Elvis Presley recorded in the 1970’s. Then I read the book that came with the boxed set. Seems that King recorded so many songs in the ’70’s that they wouldn’t fit on one boxed set. This was a real revelation to me and it also excited me. I was excited because now I knew that there was MUCH more Elvis music for me to discover. Even if you only own say, six or seven Elvis albums or compilations, he is the rare type of artist that can keep you interested even if you are only listening to the same 70-80 songs over and over. But learning that there was still some King songs that I could hear for the first time was thrilling. 

In time, I collected all of his recordings from the 1970’s and discovered many gorgeous performances. There were times I wondered how a song had flown under the radar all these years: “Pieces of My Life”, “For Ol’ Times Sake”, “If You Talk in Your Sleep”, “It’s Midnight”, “I’m Leavin'” and, y’know what, the list literally goes on. So many fantastic tunes that were new to me. This Top Ten list, however, is made up of songs I grew up with. Maybe a stunning song like “Pieces of My Life” just hasn’t traveled with me as long as, say, “Separate Ways” has. This just proves my point that, while the following ten songs may indeed be his best of the ’70s, you could easily come up with an alternate list that I couldn’t argue with.

It became harder for Elvis to have successful and comfortable recording sessions as he got older and his health failed him but there are still many great recordings from later in his life: “Hurt”, “It’s Only Love”, “Way Down”, “She Thinks I Still Care”, etc. You really should look these songs up to add some variety to your Elvis listening experience. As I’ve said in the two previous posts in this series, I’m focusing on the popular material King recorded through the years. In the ’70’s, Elvis recorded his second Christmas album that features excellent original songs. “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day” is no less than one of his very best recordings. “Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas” (1971) also features Red’s “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees” and a stellar arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful”. 1972 saw Elvis release his last and best gospel album, “He Touched Me”. Our boy is in great voice here and the title track and “Reach Out to Jesus” are both moving and magnificent. “Bosom of Abraham” and “I, John” give us the kind of singing Elvis would do for hours ’round the piano with the fellas. Some of you sharp-eyed King fans will look through this list and realize that the bulk of the songs are from 1970’s “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is”, the soundtrack to his concert film of the same name. While this album may be lesser known to casual fans, I think it is his very best LP. His voice is the best it ever was and the material is contemporary, fresh and exciting. It was hard for me to leave any of the songs on this album off this list. Anyways, let’s run down The Top Ten Elvis Presley Songs: the ’70’s.

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He may never have looked cooler. In rehearsal, Las Vegas, 1970.

10. “Always on My Mind” (1972) — A chart hit for King in the winter of 1972-73. Significant in Elvis World due to the fact that it was recorded only weeks after Elvis and Priscilla separated. Of course, the lyric speaks of regret, of losing something the value of which you only fully appreciate after the fact. It may or not have been intended to be biographical but the fact remains that this recording is heartbreaking. There is video from the recording session that is interesting to watch as it shows solemnity in the studio as opposed to the usual lighthearted atmosphere of an Elvis session. Sad, sad song co-written by the man who gave us “Suspicious Minds”, Mark James. Willie Nelson did a great version in 1982 that was a huge hit for him. ITV television network in England conducted a poll in 2013 and it resulted in this song being voted Elvis’ best. Interesting. See? SO MANY different songs could qualify as his best.

9. “An American Trilogy” (1973) — The version referred to here is from the “Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite” concert and album. I taped this concert of off TV when it was broadcast for the tenth anniversary of Elvis’ death in 1987. I don’t have the words, really, except to say that this concert is like an old friend. Or more like part of my family. Literally. This concert represents the last triumph for Elvis Presley. This was the last time he was operating at the peak of his powers and it ended a 4-year run of staggering artistic proportions. There are one or two other moments from this concert I could have picked. “Steamroller Blues”, “What Now, My Love”, “It’s Over”. “An American Trilogy” is notable because it is the perfect example of a ‘showpiece’. Maybe not the final song of a concert but definitely a show stopper midway through a performance. The song itself is stunning and perfectly suited for Elvis in the ’70’s. Written by Mickey Newbury, it is a medley of traditional 19th century songs: “Dixie”, an anthem of the South, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, the marching song of the Union Army during the Civil War and “All My Trials”, a spiritual that traces it’s roots to the West Indies. When you think about it, it is an ‘American’ trilogy: the North and the South are both represented as is the black cultural contribution.  Sociology aside, this is a performance of staggering emotional intensity. If you know anything about Presley’s story, it is devastating to see this man sing “all my trials, Lord, will soon be over”. Presley tweaked the original version recorded by Newbury to heighten the intensity. You see him calling to the brass section. You see him looking back at the band as the timpanis begin to roll and you see him gesture to the Stamps to start singing. He comes in and rides the song out to an incredible climax. The note he hits at the end is magnificent.

8. “I Just Can’t Help Believin'” (1970) — The opening track of Elvis Presley’s greatest LP. The “That’s the Way It Is” concert film features this song being rehearsed ahead of a Vegas engagement. We get to see Elvis struggling to remember the words to this lovely song that was written by the legendary team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil that was a Top Ten hit for B.J. Thomas the same year. It’s just a gorgeous recording that showcases Presley in smooth voice.

7. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (1976) — A country and western song written in 1947 and recorded by Hank Williams, Sr. The song reached iconic status in 1975 when Willie Nelson recorded the song for his “Red-Headed Stranger” album. Both the song and the album played a big part in Willie’s ascendancy in the country music world. Elvis recorded it in the den (the ‘Jungle Room’) at Graceland in 1976 and it appeared on his “From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee” album. Here is another example of his melding country and R&B. The song itself is pure country but Elvis’ delivery is a slow groove. The band is tight and keyboardist David Briggs particularly shines. Listen for his left hand running ascending lines and for his sparkling Fender Rhodes fills. And the four notes David and bassist Jerry Scheff play in unison before Elvis sings the title. It is notable as the last song Elvis was ever known to have sung. The day he died, he sat at the piano in the lounge area of his racquetball court and played and sang it. Every time I go to Graceland, I take a long look at that piano.

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The cover art and album titles were bland. The music on the records was sublime.

6. “How the Web Was Woven” (1970) — This song feels like it’s all mine. How does this gorgeous song remain so hidden? Why was it recorded and released on “That’s the Way It Is” and then that’s it? This is a transcendent recording with a passionate delivery from our boy. The song originally came out of England and has an interesting, Beatles-related history. It is a love song with a dark, dramatic theme that Presley nevertheless renders with a delicate touch. It has been called “perfectly pleasant”. Here’s a brief but interesting clip of King rehearsing it. (You may have to turn up the volume)

5. “Separate Ways” (1972) — Red West wrote better songs than many of Elvis’ regular contributors. This song was released as a single in ’72 and was a sort of emotional companion to “Always on My Mind”, which was on the B side – making it one sad 45. Red’s lyrics directly comment on the break up of Elvis and Priscilla. The tune starts with some gentle piano leading to Elvis singing what are literally some of the saddest words ever sung. “All that’s left between us are the memories we shared and times we thought we cared for each other. There’s nothing left to do but go our separate ways and pick up all the pieces left behind us. And maybe someday, somewhere along the way, another love will find us”. It is an absolutely heartrending song that finishes with some piano work that sounds as sad as the lyrics, piano that sounds like a man broken, taking his first steps down the road alone. Piano that sounds like closing credits after a devastating final scene.

4. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” (1970) — This is the premier example in Elvis’ canon of him making a song his own. The “That’s the Way It Is” album was one of the first two or three Elvis albums I ever owned. At the time, I was also heavily into “oldies radio” and was very familiar with all the big pop hits of the ’60’s, including Phil Spector’s sparkling Wall of Sound gem, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by the Righteous Brothers. When I heard Elvis’ version, I was thrown. It didn’t sound anything like the original. But I soon learned that that is what he did – he could put his stamp on anybody’s song and make it unique. (He didn’t always make the song better. Not even the King could improve on Little Richard’s seminal 1950’s recordings) In concert in Las Vegas, he would start this song with his back to the crowd and just a spot on his head. The eruption of the “Baby!!”‘s in this song are thunderous. He bites off the words of the title – “You’ve lost – that – lovin’ – feelin’!” – and breaks down into a stone groove for the bridge – “Baby, baby, I’d get down on my knees for you – if this suit wasn’t too tight!” – and the Sweet Inspirations behind him – “that’s how much I love you, sweet baby”. This is his wheel house. He takes the Righteous Brothers polished gem down into the earth, the soil, and adds heaping helpings of soul and gospel and heart. There are several different live recordings of Elvis’ version of this song out there. He never did it in the studio.

3. “Burning Love” (1972) — This tune is in a very small group of Elvis songs. Along with “Hound Dog”, it may be his most iconic recording. Unfortunately, people often equate “a-hunk a-hunk a-burnin’ love” with the worst of the Elvis Impersonators – sorry: Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs). But, fact is – again, like “Hound Dog” – if you can possibly listen to this song again and try to forget all that you think you know about King, you’ll hear an excellent, high energy, early-’70’s-style rock song. It starts off with some ringing guitar that has become for me an actually spell-binding sound that runs throughout the song. This guitar was played by the author of the song, Dennis Linde. Some pumping piano comes in and we’re off. There seems to be an echo to EP’s vocal that makes for an interesting sound. The song went to #2 and was his last Top Ten hit. Another great song from the fertile year of 1972, reinforcing the idea that 1969-1972 was indeed a stellar period in King’s career.

2. “Stranger in the Crowd” (1970) — And the casual Elvis fans are scratching their heads. Again I say that it is amazing to me that a song like this is so undervalued even in Elvis World. The prime example of what makes the songs from “That’s the Way It Is” so good, this song is captivating mostly because of it’s contemporary, middle-of-the-road pop sound. Yes, King’s wheelhouse, as we’ve seen, is rock ‘n’ roll or more accurately his unique blend of gospel, R&B and country. But I feel like had he pursued this sound further in the early ’70’s it may have lead to another domination of the pop charts and even a run of Grammy Awards. Tune starts off with some great strumming from John Wilkinson and gets in to a nice groove with a really smooth vocal from our boy and a beauty guitar solo from James Burton. And check out Ronnie Tutt on the drums near the end. This tune is just delightful and so terribly unique among Elvis recordings. “Stranger” leaves me feeling good. Here’s a clip of Elvis rehearsing the song. You should listen to the master of the song as it was released, too, as it is, obviously, more polished.

1. “Promised Land” (1975) — “Aw, get on it!” And with that we are off on maybe the most thrilling ride Elvis Presley ever took us on. The song was written in 1964 by Chuck Berry while he was in prison. The lyric is pure Berry. It’s the story of “the poor boy” who starts off in the backwoods and slowly makes his way to ‘the promised land’: the big time, Los Angeles. You can imagine an incarcerated Berry dreaming of the day of his release when he could get back to his career. Once again, in the hands of Elvis Presley, a song goes to another level. Presley’s version is an aggressive, driving, sonic juggernaut. One of my favourite instruments is the clavinet. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” starts off with the very best playing you’ll ever hear of this funky, percussive-sounding keyboard. King employed this instrument throughout the ’70’s and it gets things off to a flying start on “Promised Land”. EP then exclaims “aww, get on it!” and his drummer – the most underrated rock drummer in history – Ronnie Tutt, fires up the Greyhound and propels things down the interstate. Tutt is definitely ‘driving the bus’ on this tune that also features guitarist James Burton putting on a clinic. “Los Angeles gimme Norfolk, Virginia Tidewater four-ten-oh-nine…” Presley’s obviously enjoying himself and it is infectious. Recorded at the famous Stax Studios in Memphis, the song went to #14 on the pop charts. This is one of the 3 or 4 songs you play when you are trying to convince someone that Elvis is “cool”. Gotta hand it to Barry Sonnenfeld, director of “Men in Black”. When the script of that film mentions Elvis and depicts a car going incredible speeds he puts “Promised Land” on the soundtrack. Natch.

Up next: sometimes you really have to dig but there are some great songs in Elvis Movies!

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The King laying it down during his historic “Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite” concert. January 14, 1973.

**the images and media used in this post are not mine**

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 2

Our boy returned from the Army in early 1960 and the evil lord Colonel Parker put his plan into motion. Make no mistake, the Colonel’s plan to clean Elvis up in the studio and present him in family-friendly musical comedies was motivated by extreme avarice. However, his machinations and maneuvers when Elvis returned to the entertainment business resulted in EP being able to maintain his presence in the public eye with the movies while the music business changed around him. As I’ve stated in previous posts (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/elvis-week-2017-day-5-hollywood/) Elvis and the Colonel didn’t have the apparatus in place to compete in the changing landscape of rock music. Bands wrote and performed their own material – Colonel employed songwriters who’s sole attribute was their willingness to give up publishing rights to the Colonel’s business arm. Presley’s focus on films allowed him to bide his time until the landscape changed.

As early as 1965, Elvis began to bristle at his imprisonment in the Hollywood system and longed to find songs with more teeth to record. Some quality songs began to leak out and were placed on soundtracks when RCA were short on tracks to fill out the albums. Eventually, Elvis was able to maneuver himself back into a healthy studio environment when he ended up recording songs back in Memphis at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio. The house band at this studio was a crack group of young Southern boys who had recently backed other singers on successful recordings and were at the top of their game. Elvis and this band all instinctively knew each other and the songs they recorded there in January and February 1969 are nothing short of sublime. They contained a contemporary, Southern soul sound that perfectly showcased Elvis at his best. On display with these tracks is the quintessential and prototypical ‘Elvis Presley sound’, that unique blend of country, gospel and R&B. If you listen to them alongside a lot of mainstream music that was on the charts at the time there is no denying how distinct the sound is. 1969 began a three year run that – along with 1956-57 – represents the absolute pinnacle of the power, artistry and enduring style and charismatic vocalizing of Elvis Presley.

Elvis Presley’s recordings of the 1960’s were largely made up of movie soundtracks and they will be addressed in a later post. There were also two gospel albums; 1960’s “His Hand in Mine” and 1967’s Grammy-winning “How Great Thou Art”. The title track of the latter is legendary in “Elvis World” and the album also contains the stellar “In the Garden”, “Run On” and the incredibly moving and powerful “Without Him”. And recorded just after the sessions for “How Great Thou Art” was Red West’s stellar “If Every Day Was Like Christmas”. For this list, though, I’ve focused on the ‘pop’ music. Generally speaking, you can say that he recorded hit songs, great non-movie music, for a couple of years at the beginning of the ’60’s and then not again until the last few years of the decade. It’s from these years that I’ve built this list – The Top Ten Elvis Presley Songs: the ’60’s.

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Elvis poses with a Fender Bass in his living room at Graceland, mid 1960’s.

10. “If I’m a Fool (For Loving You)” (1969) — I see that six of these ten songs are from the sessions at American Sound. Truth be told, the songs from those dates are among his very best. This track is a bit of a sleeper. Never released as a single, it only ever appeared on the “Let’s Be Friends” LP from 1970. While I concede that it may only be a personal favourite, I will defend this song’s inclusion here. A lovely soft country arrangement and a delicate, personal and emotive vocal from the King.

9. “Power of My Love” (1969) — A true hidden gem. Another from American that may be the grittiest of all his recordings. This is a great tune to play to the uninitiated if you wanted to surprise them and show them how incredibly cool Elvis could sound. There really is no other song that he recorded that sounds like this one. It is fantastic. Ballsy.

8. “Gentle on My Mind” (1969) — In the wake of the death of Glen Campbell last year, we all became reacquainted with Jim Hartford’s wonderful composition. I love this song in all it’s versions: Glen, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin. I’ve always said, though, that Presley was the only singer that plumbed the depths of the sentiment in the lyric. As he did throughout his career, he took this song that had been done many times and added another dimension, one of soul and emotion. This is a great example of what he did so well – blending the emotion of a country/rural lyric with a blue-eyed soul vocal delivery.

7. “Little Sister” (1961) — Great guitar on this track by Hank Garland who was a crack Nashville session guitarist that played on most of Elvis’ hits between ’58 and ’61. This is just a great-sounding rock track that sounds like it was recorded later in the decade – that big-sounding guitar stands out so much. EP revisited this track early in his Las Vegas appearances, quite often performing it in a medley with the Beatles’ “Get Back”.

6. “I’m Movin’ On” (1969) — Most everybody knows that at the core of the art of Elvis Presley is his ability to blend the best elements of country and western music with rhythm and blues. There is no greater or more obvious example of this than in his version of Canadian Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”. Recorded during his fertile and much-heralded stay at American Sound in Memphis, this track begins with some good-ol’-boy chicken-pickin’ guitar playing as Elvis runs through the first verse. Then, as Elvis declares “move on, son”, the band breaks down into Wilson Pickett territory with down and dirty funky southern soul music. Add some bold and strong female voices and you’ve got what we call a ‘stone groove’.

5. “Big Boss Man” (1967) — Written by the legendary blues man Jimmy Reed, “Big Boss Man” is a spirited blues work-out from Elvis and the boys that was a Top 40 hit for the King in late 1967. It is a significant recording in that it signaled a change in the material that Elvis was now determined to record. This track was the first indication that a change was coming and was followed by gritty readings of “Guitar Man”, “Hi-Heeled Sneakers” and “U.S. Male”. It’s great to hear what is still really Elvis’ “mid-’60’s voice” wrassle his unreasonable employer to the ground. “…you won’t let Big El stop”.

4. “Rubberneckin'” (1969) — Another gem from American Sound. Two minutes of full-throttle rock ‘n’ roll. Everything about this track is exciting from the dirt road lyrics to the excellent guitar, the honking horns, the vocal interplay between Elvis and the girls backing him up. And Elvis himself sings with all the virility his voice had at it’s most commanding moments. Definitely a high point of his recording career. EP ran through this on-screen in his last dramatic movie, “Change of Habit”. On an episode of “Miami Vice”, Elvis fan Det. Stan Switek catches this film on the late show, much to his delight. Paul Oakenfold’s 2003 remix of this song was a hit throughout Europe.

3. “Stuck On You” (1960) — Here is King at his most polished. Yes, his late ’60’s recordings are Southern blue-eyed soul gems but here, fresh back from the Army, he gives us a smooth, piano-driven pop gem. It hit #1 on the pop charts in late April, went to #6 on the R&B charts and #3 in the UK. A fan favourite, this is a fantastic song with a great vocal and it is one of the first Elvis songs I ever remember hearing.

2. “A Little Less Conversation” (1968) — This is my favourite Elvis song. At least I can say that I don’t think there is any of his songs that I like more than this one. The song represents a shining moment in the career of legendary session drummer, Hal Blaine. His drum fill that starts off this track is one of the most satisfying things I have ever heard in my life. Presley’s vocals and the lyrics themselves are the very epitome of “cool”. Written by Mac Davis and Billy Strange, the song appeared in the excellent Elvis film “Live a Little, Love a Little”. An historic remake was done in 2002 by Junkie XL. This version – get this – went to #1 on 14 different charts in various countries worldwide. It was Top Ten on 22 different charts. King’s original version of this song is near and dear to my heart and goes back to my earliest days as a fan. On top of that, I just think it’s outstanding.

1. “Suspicious Minds” (1969) — Speaking of outstanding. Maybe the classiest, most polished, stylish and contemporary sound in all of Elvis Presley’s catalog is this excellent recording of a Mark James song that Elvis almost wasn’t “allowed” to sing. When the song was brought to Elvis, his music publishers did their usual “stick ’em up!” routine and informed James that he would have to give up half of the royalties on the song. James, of course, bristled and things came to a stand still. Cooler heads prevailed and Elvis laid down this gorgeous song that would be his first #1 song in 7 years and the last chart-topper of his lifetime. Listen particularly to the interesting time signatures and the silky smooth guitar of Reggie Young. Rolling Stone Magazine calls it Presley’s “masterpiece” and ranks it at #91 on it’s list of the greatest songs ever.

Next: King’s most prolific and unsung decade of recording, the 1970’s…

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Elvis Presley on stage in Las Vegas. August, 1969.

(**the images and media used in this post are not mine**)