“Top 23” Review: “Dirty Dancing”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You know you’re iconic when…

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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.

Young BBoys
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

 

 

 

Wool Hat: The Ballad of Mike Nesmith

So many great artists are buried by celebrity. I wrote recently about ‘paying the bills’; the idea that an artist can sometimes get stuck doing what he is popular for as opposed to what he likes to do or can do well. (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/paying-the-bills/) Virtuoso guitarist Glen Campbell gets ‘stuck’ being a country singer. Michael Nesmith found himself in a similar situation at the start of 1967. An earnest songwriter and guitarist, Michael found himself on television playing a quiet country boy hanging out with three goofballs. He also found his name on a record that he said was the worst album in history.

Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas. When he was only four years old, his parents divorced. Bette Nesmith took Michael – an only child – to live near family in Dallas. Bette worked many clerical jobs to support her and her son before ending up at Texas Bank and Trust, eventually reaching the elevated position of executive secretary. Like many secretaries, she was constantly frustrated by the inability to properly correct mistakes made while typing on the typewriters of the day. Bette got an idea. She took some water-based paint with her to work one day and started using it to ‘paint over’ her mistakes. Some bosses gave her static about it but her co-workers used it and loved it and Bette carried on this way for five years. Eventually, she decided to market and sell her correction fluid as “Mistake Out” in 1956. She began a ‘factory’ of sorts in her kitchen and changed the name of her product to “Liquid Paper”. She was boss of her own revolutionary company until 1979 when she sold it to Gillette – for $47.5 million. Mike’s life was off to an interesting start.

Mike was an indifferent student and did not graduate high school before joining the Air Force. Once he got out, he began to focus on writing songs and performing in clubs. He moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and entered in to a publishing deal for the songs he was writing. One day, an associate brought in an ad asking for young men to audition for a television show centered around a fictitious rock band; “The Monkees”.

Wool Hat
Mike as ‘Mike’. And his green wool hat.

Now, I don’t know Michael Nesmith personally but, having been a fan of the Monkees for more than 30 years, I think I can make a few assumptions about his feelings about being involved in this fledgling television show. Maybe the same could be said for how Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork – the other Monkees – felt as well. Mike was a songwriter. He was a singer and guitarist who had been operating in the music business for a while. I will assume that his desire was to be allowed to make records; get a record deal, take his songs into a studio with a band, record them and put out records. But anyone can understand that as you begin to feel your way at the dawn of your career, you will take any opportunity that comes your way.

Mike found himself playing a wool-hat wearing, quirky country boy – a variation on himself – on a weekly television show. The intention of the producers all along had been to put out records under the name “The Monkees”. The original ad for the auditions did stipulate that successful candidates would have musical abilities; songwriting, singing, instrument playing, etc. so obviously the four boys who would make up the group would be utilized somehow when it came to making the records. The Monkees get a bad rap and are referred to as the ‘Pre-fab Four’. They are not considered a real band because they didn’t play their own instruments. But here’s the thing – it was common practice in the music industry at the time for producers to ‘create’ bands and then utilize session musicians to make the records. If you’ve ever heard of the Wrecking Crew than you know that this crack group of L.A. session musicians played on the bulk of the hit records released in the mid-1960’s. Fully functioning bands like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Grass Roots, the Association, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and Paul Revere and the Raiders used these seasoned studio players to create music in the studio. Producers of the time wanted perfect recordings in the shortest amount of time possible – this meant bringing in the pros. It was not uncommon and it was not just the Monkees that employed session musicians. But because it was supposedly so obvious – I mean, it was a TV show, not a ‘real’ band – the Monkees had a stink on them from the get-go.

All this would have rankled a musician like Mike Nesmith. He was in the business to make records – NOT act on TV, playing air guitar to music performed by others. You can see from the outset, from the very first album, that Mike was doing his best to focus on his music as opposed to engaging in the hit-making combine that comprised songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and producer Don Kirshner. This is borne out by taking a look at the first album, “The Monkees”, released in October of 1966.

Monkees
Their first album went to #1 and stayed there for 13 weeks.

Micky Dolenz does NOT get enough love. He had perhaps the perfect voice and vocal delivery for the pop/rock of the day and was called upon to sing lead on the majority of the group’s hit singles. Such was the case with the first 45RPM, the #1 hit “Last Train to Clarksville”, released shortly before the first album. Mike is represented on the first LP by two songs. “Papa Gene’s Blues” perfectly exhibits Mike’s country/rock leanings. “Twangy”, you might say, or “jangly”. “Sweet Young Thing” is more of a rocker with the added touch of fiddle. Mike had been promised by the powers-that-be that he could have a modicum of control over his songs in the studio. What’s interesting is that, although Mike could be considered a neophyte, he was producing sessions featuring the Wrecking Crew, the best studio musicians in the country. Also interesting; his two songs are VERY “Mike” and stand out from the rest of the tracks. In fact, Mike does not participate in any other song on the album. However, on his own compositions, that he produced, he utilizes Micky (vocals) and Peter Tork (guitars). Micky sings harmony with Mike on “Papa Gene” which started a pairing I love. Michael often would call on Micky either to sing lead on a song he had written or to sing some wonderful-sounding harmony with him. This tells me that, from the outset, Michael wanted to make his own music and to use the others in the group whenever possible.

The Monkees’ second album – “More of the Monkees” – was released January 9, 1967. It came as a complete surprise to the boys in the band. Svengali Don Kirshner had rushed the album out to capitalize on the Monkees’ massive success. The album being compiled and released without the band’s knowledge coupled with Kirshner’s liner notes, in which he praises his songwriters and producers before he mentions the Monkees themselves, confirmed Mike’s assertion that the boys were not in control of their own fate and sent a disturbing message to the other three guys. At a meeting in which the boys vented their spleen to the powers-that-be, Mike became so enraged that he punched a hole in a wall, exclaiming to the record company’s lawyer in attendance “that could’ve been your face!”. In the aftermath, Michael’s lobbying was successful and the boys were given artistic control of their next album. Don Kirshner was eventual fired. (He would go on to ‘create’ The Archies)

Mike was quoted in a magazine interview saying that “More of the Monkees” was “probably the worst album in the history of the world”. It’s apparent, though, that it was the state of affairs that made him feel this way about it. The album is better than their debut and fared even better on the charts. “More of the Monkees” displaced “The Monkees” in the #1 slot and the sophomore effort would spend 18 weeks on top. Mike’s contributions are again very “Mike” and very interesting. He sang lead and played steel guitar on “The Kind of Girl I Could Love”. He again produced the Wrecking Crew and the backing vocals feature all four Monkees. “Mary, Mary” is a great song and an example of one that Mike wrote but gave to Micky to sing. Peter plays guitar, joining the Crew in the studio. The song was eventually covered by Run-D.M.C. Again, Mike does not appear in any way on any other track on the album.

Their third album, “Headquarters”, was made by the boys operating as a proper band. Mike plays guitar throughout, bringing his soon-to-be-trademark 12-string electric sound to the fore. He also plays some great organ on “For Pete’s Sake” – co-written by Peter but, again, given to Micky to sing – which was used as the closing credits song during season 2 of the show. Mike wrote and sang the album opener, “You Told Me” and also “Sunny Girlfriend”. “You Just May Be the One” is quintessentially “Mike” and is one of his best songs. It’s another great example of how good Mike and Micky sound singing together, Micky again taking the harmony line. “Headquarters” peaked at #1 but was overtaken the very next week by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. They would be 1 and 2 in the land for the next 11 weeks. “Headquarters” is often cited as the only one of the Monkees’ albums to be considered “essential”.

I would be remiss to not mention what is maybe – with “Sometime in the Morning” – my absolute favourite Monkees song, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”. This song, released as the B side of “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” in March of ’67, is notable as being the first track that the Monkees took charge of themselves. They all played instruments and recorded the track alone in the studio with producer Chip Douglas, who also played bass. Michael wrote the song and took the lead on an early version. Another take was recorded with Micky singing lead and this became the master. It is perfect pop. Perfect pop. I tend to short shrift Peter Tork and his contributions to the band but he lays down some stellar harpsichord on this song. It is a gem.

Mike had a success outside the Monkees in the fall of 1967. A 2-year-old song of his, “Different Drum”, became the first hit of Linda Ronstadt’s career. Her group, the Stone Poneys, took Mike’s tune in to the Top 20. They had been rehearsing the song as a slow ballad but their producer, Nick Venet (credited as producer on the Beach Boys’ first two albums), re-envisioned it as baroque pop with prominent harpsichord. He wanted a specific sound and employed seasoned session musicians to play on the record. In the end, Linda was the only Stone Poney to perform on the recording. Sound familiar? It is interesting to note that this is what happened in the early days of the Monkees and supports the claim that it happened all the time to many different groups.

MOnkees2
The lads – in their “Monkee” shirts – between romps. Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike.

Their fourth album, I think, is just as good if not better than “Headquarters”. “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd.” was released at the end of 1967 and also reached #1. Mike’s lead vocal is featured prominently on this alum and it contains another gem from him although in this case it’s just a vocal and not a composition. Again, the opener goes to Mike although he did not write the song, “Salesman”. One of the best Monkees songs ever, “The Door Into Summer”, was not written by Michael but features his lead with Micky coming in to sing harmony. The two have never sounded better together. Mike and Micky give out with more of the same on the very next track, “Love is Only Sleeping”, written by the formidable team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Maybe the greatest “Mike” song in the Monkees catalog was not written by him but given to him to sing because of it’s country sound. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” is 3 minutes and 9 seconds of bliss taken at a rolling gait accentuated by banjo. Michael wrote the intriguing “Daily Nightly” but again turned the vocals over to Micky. Mike’s lyrics are a veiled commentary on the recent Sunset Strip riots and the song is one of the first rock songs to feature the Moog synthesizer. Micky was the third person to ever own one and he plays it on this track. By contrast, the next cut on the album is “Don’t Call on Me”, written and sang by Mike. It is a gentle track that starts off as a tongue-in-cheek lounge lizard number.

“The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees” was released in April of 1968. By this point, an odd thing had happened. After fighting to work together and alone and doing so on their last two successful albums, the boys decided they wanted to work separately from each other. Yes, they had proven the critics wrong and could do things well themselves – it’s just that they didn’t want to do them together anymore. Michael was still pioneering country/rock and also exploring psychedelia. His contributions to this album included the outstanding – if ridiculously titled – “Auntie’s Municipal Court”. A glorious guitar orchestra opens the track before Mike’s oft-chosen vocalist, Micky, comes in singing the lead. As a rarity, it’s Mike singing the harmony here to Micky’s lead. “Tapioca Tundra” was a far-out excursion on which Mike plays almost all the instruments including some typically stellar 12-string. “Writing Wrongs” is more of the same; only less so. “Magnolia Simms” was more experimentation from Mike, this time emulating a 1920’s sound. The album was very successful for the boys as it included the hits “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” but Peter Tork left during the making of the album and the three remaining were working – as often happens with bands – as three solo artists. Staying together though was somewhat of a necessity. Neither of the three were big enough to make it on their own but they were more than able to ply their individual trades under the umbrella of “The Monkees”. Michael’s songs were beginning to show signs of an eccentricity that would mark his music throughout the rest of his career.

The soundtrack to the Monkees’ movie, “Head”, was released near the end of 1968. The film defies understanding but the soundtrack contains some fine moments (Rolling Stone ranked it the 25th best soundtrack). Mike’s lone contribution was the energetic rocker “Circle Sky” on which he plays some excellent guitar and delivers some of the best grunts in rock history. The “Instant Replay” album is the first output of what could be called the Monkees’ ‘second phase’; the show was now off the air and this was the first record to be made after Peter Tork had left the group. Michael’s songs include “Don’t Wait For Me” which is VERY country and includes prominent steel guitar and was recorded and co-produced in Nashville with Felton Jarvis, who had only recently started working with Elvis Presley. “While I Cry” is absolutely devastating. One of the saddest songs you’ll ever hear, it is another example of Mike’s specific brand of fine guitar playing. The swan song of Mike’s initial period with the Monkees came with the next album, “The Monkees Present”. Released in October of 1969 into a music scene that had long since left the boys behind, it was another patchwork of songs from three individuals. The twelve tracks were divided up evenly, 4 a piece. Mike brought one more great track to the Monkees’ fold with “Listen to the Band”. Here Michael is producing crack session men in Nashville, taking them through a trademark Nesmith country/rock number with steel guitar again prominent. “Listen to the Band” was the last song resembling a hit from the original run of the group, charting at #63. Shortly after the release of this record, Mike announced he was leaving the group to start his own outfit called The First National Band.

Michael had released records before joining the Monkees under the name Michael Blessing. Also, in 1968, he released the hard-to-explain orchestral album “The Wichita Train Whistle Sings”. The instrumental album was made over two sessions in Hollywood with the Wrecking Crew and featured versions of lesser-known Monkees songs. With the First National Band, however, Mike Nesmith was stepping out for the first time as a solo artist with the cache of having been a Monkee and with all the attendant expectations.

FNB
Red Rhodes, John London, John Ware and Mike: The First National Band. Photo courtesy of their Facebook page.

Finally out from under the umbrella of the Monkees – Michael paid out the remainder of his contract – Mike was now free to completely ply his trade as he saw fit. His trade was “country/rock”, a genre that he did not invent but you can certainly count him among it’s pioneers. Mike had built up a back log of songs during his time with the Monkees so much so that his new band was able to release three albums in an 18-month period. Mike teamed with steel guitar player Orville “Red” Rhodes who’s playing defined the sound of the First National Band. The group’s first album, “Magnetic South”, yielded the Top 40 hit “Joanne”, a surprise for the fledgling band. However, country/rock was not commercially viable and Mike was concerned not one bit with writing a “hit song” so after the First (and Second) National Band had petered out, Michael carried on, following his muse and releasing albums that virtually no one heard. Mike struggled to keep his career solvent and had difficulties with the IRS until a sad event helped him out. His mother, Bette, passed away in 1980 and Mike inherited half of her $50 million estate. This freed him up to pursue his next venture.

“The Monkees” television show had been directly inspired by the Beatles’ first film, 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night”. The idea of “The Monkees” was to have the manufactured band live together and get into adventures. But also there was records to be sold and the TV show could pump the music into living rooms every week. And while the record would play – as in “A Hard Day’s Night” – the Monkees would get up to a lot of zany antics: somersaulting through a park, running along the beach, chasing the bad guys around the house, etc. This all sounds like what would eventually become “music videos” and, indeed, Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles’ first two films, is considered a sort of ‘godfather’ of the music video. And rightfully so. But also the producers of “The Monkees” television show should also get recognition as pioneers as they presented these “clips” week in and week out for two years.

No doubt this experience was in Mike’s mind when he decided to make a “clip” to accompany his song “Rio” from his 1977 album “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing”. He began to explore the idea of “music videos” and of releasing his subsequent albums as “video albums”. Problem was that there was nowhere to show these “videos”, except for maybe on a late night talk show that Mike happened to be a guest on. Subsequently, Mike would find a home for his “music videos”. In 1981, he released an hour-long program called “Elephant Parts” which was made available on VHS and LaserDisc and was one of the first new programs made available for home viewing. “Elephant Parts” was a collection of comedy skits, commercial parodies and five full-length music videos for recent recordings of Mike’s. At the Grammys the following year Michael won the first ever award given out for a “music video” and the success of this innovation inspired Mike to take his music video idea further.

Many other artists began to make music videos and Michael came up with the idea for “PopClips”, a show that featured videos by some popular and emerging artists. Early videos shown on “PopClips” were for songs by George Harrison, the Rolling Stones and the Police – but also Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions and Tycoon. “PopClips” ran on Nickelodeon – owned by Time-Warner – for one season. Michael then sold the show to Time Warner, who subsequently redeveloped the show into the “MTV” network.

Through the rest of the ’80’s and the 1990’s, Mike continued to release albums. He also started a production company responsible for music videos by other artists and feature films. He also continued to avoid returning to the Monkees. Mike did not join the boys for the Monkees’ 20th anniversary reunion but the four Monkees did get together in 1996 to release “Justus”, an album that harkened back to “Headquarters” in that it was completely written and performed by the four of them alone. (The lead-off track was a re-recording of “Circle Sky”) Starting in 2012 and continuing after the untimely death of Davy Jones, Nesmith toured with Micky and Peter although he did not join the two other remaining Monkees for the band’s 50th anniversary tour in 2016. Also that year the band released “Good Times!”, a critically acclaimed album that featured one composition from Mike and three vocals.

In early 2018, Mike performed a handful of concerts with a revamped First National Band that included two of his sons and later in the year he hit the road with Micky for a series of shows billed as “The Monkees Present the Mike Nesmith & Micky Dolenz Show”. It seems that now, 52 years after the band’s formation, the death of Davy Jones and the apparent ‘retirement’ of Peter Tork, the Monkees has finally ceased to exist as an entity. Contrary to the perception that Mike Nesmith has ill feelings towards the Monkees and the ‘box’ the band put him in, Mike’s statement in 2012 about the experience wraps things up nicely: “I never really left. It is a part of my youth that is always active in my thoughts and part of my overall work as an artist. It stays in a special place.”

Mike Nesmith’s legacy is an interesting one. In some respects, he never truly has emerged from under the umbrella of the Monkees. But, really, that’s OK. Some artists, as I’ve said, get trapped by celebrity; typecast, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe in the end these artists never get to spread their wings as they may have liked but the one role they played or the one group they were in are cherished by many people. Many people love and adore the Monkees; the show and the group’s music truly ‘mean something’ to many people. That is no small thing.

I think to understand Mike as a solo artist, it helps to look at his perception of his time plying his trade as one of the original country rockers with his First National Band. I have read that Michael “was agonized” when he heard the first album from the Eagles, a band that was recording music in the same vein as the First National Band. He has said that he was “heartbroken”: how are the Eagles moving so many units when my albums are invisible? I understand his pain but I have to say that the Eagles’ first few albums contain a wonderfully accessible sound. “Tequila Sunrise” and “Take It Easy” are infinitely easy to like. The First National Band was much more “country” than the Eagles and the FNB lacked the ability to deliver the gorgeous harmonies that Glenn Frey, Don Henley, et al. could deliver.

In my opinion, Mike’s music in general always seemed to lack that one final ingredient. That elusive something that makes the masses embrace an artist or an album or a song. And his persona was never easy to grasp. His intelligence and dry humour made him a challenge to “get”. If you were browsing the record shops back in the day and came upon an album called “Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash” or “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing” or “Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma” you may have looked askance – it was especially hard to understand that the craziness of the titles was not reconciled to the music; the music on the records was not as crazy or avant-garde as the titles suggested. His was an eccentric talent, he was on his own path and the music he made and the persona he projected simply could not be easily processed by the average young person listening to his radio in his pick-up truck. That’s not to say that Mike was and is not possessed of innate talent and ability as a songwriter and musician. Mike Nesmith belongs in that rare group of artists that are greatly respected by the industry and those who “know” but that are misunderstood by the general, record-buying public: Lee Hazlewood, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and others. These are artists that ‘travel to the beat of a different drum’.

Michael was the true artist of the Monkees. He had the talent to write and record music himself. He didn’t need to join the group but he took the opportunity for the advancement it could provide. He battled for his artistic individuality while with the Monkees and then, when he left, he had a hand in pioneering country/rock. Later, his vision lead him to not create the music video but to become an early proponent of the concept of presenting videos in a regularly recurring format; indeed, the iconic “MTV Network” was based on an idea of his. And before any of this happened, his mother invented a product that virtually everyone in the developed world has used either in school or business. And yet it seems he will always be remembered as “Monkee Mike”, “Wool Hat”. And that’s OK.

Nez
Papa Nez. Monkee Mike. Wool Hat. All of those things. And more.

The Best of Mike Nesmith: The Monkees and Beyond

Honourable Mention: “Different Drum” – the Stone Poneys — lovely song with a sweet vocal from a young Linda Ronstadt.

5. “Joanne” – the First National Band — surprise hit for the fledgling country/rockers. Nice vocal from Nez.

4. “You Just May Be the One” – the Monkees — nice strumming. One of the highlights of the Nesmith/Dolenz vocal tandem.

3. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” – the Monkees — not written by Mike but a very “Mike” sound. An exciting, banjo-laden trip south of the border.

2. “The Door Into Summer” – the Monkees — another one not written by Mike but a joyful jaunt. Micky shines again in his role as Mike’s vocal shadow.

1.  “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” – the Monkees — like I said: perfect pop. Mike was savvy enough to give the lead to Micky. They again sound great together. An absolutely delightful song.

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 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.

fendergraceland
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…

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

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