Day Forty-Six: Cream – Wheels of Fire

RSO Records ■ RS-2-3802

Released August, 1968
Produced by Felix Pappalardi

In the Studio
Engineered by Tom Dowd and Adrian Barber

Side One: Side Two:
  1. White Room
  2. Sitting on Top of the World
  3. Passing Time
  4. As You Said
  1. Pressed Rat and Warthog
  2. Politician
  3. Those Were the Days
  4. Born Under a Bad Sign
  5. Deserted Cities of the Heart

I’ve traded records only a few times, and on occasion had some passed along from friends for similar reasons to trades, but without the actual “trading” portion of it. My good friend Kyle–with whom I once lived, alongside my friend John–dropped a few records (and some CDs) on me when he was in the midst of moving some time ago, as well as a few when I moved out of the apartment the three of us shared. As he doesn’t have the more technical expertise John has poured into equipment (as the one of us who has owned a turntable longest), he has had a turntable with a useless belt, pre-amp issues and various other things that precluded actual vinyl listening for some time. Between that, the move, and the fact that he planned to sell most of them, he gave me dibs on those records as a consequence of our friendship. Most of them reflected the variance in our tastes–John edged toward the truly weird and the normal-but-less-popular-classics as far as vinyl, Kyle edged toward progressive and improvisational classic rock, and I edged toward a weird mix of pop and post rock when we all lived together–and so I didn’t know the albums as well as I might have (and, to some minds of course, “should” have).

Most of the records I gathered from him over the years have sprawl as a hefty component–a natural side effect of the kinds of bands involved, I suppose. Of all the Cream albums to have, it almost makes sense that it was Wheels of Fire, but it could be coincidental, considering it’s also one that contains some solid tracks to the less interested in musicianship, too. I never got as far into Cream as he did, or really as much as any of my friends did. As I’ve mentioned before, my introduction to Clapton was through his solo material, and mostly the recordings that came much, much later. I did eventually pick up Fresh Cream and Disraeli Gears on CD for myself, though I’ve given them cursory listens at best–enough to get a feel for their sound, but not to really burn any of their work into my brain’s repertoire.

To be totally honest, when he asked me if I wanted Wheels of Fire (going through the titles he was planning to sell one by one, asking about each), I thought, “Sure, I’ve always liked Cream songs, and I should listen to them–plus I know that one has at least a single or two that I know,” and had no earthly idea this was a formatting relative of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, the Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach and a handful of others: a studio LP paired with a live one. Knowing this wouldn’t have dissuaded me, but it likely would have had some effect on my nonchalance or mild enthusiasm. If there’s a Pink Floyd album I can’t sit through, it’s that one, whatever that may or may not say about me.

The collective inference you may or may not have made but I will now spell out is this: I’m not a musician, have never really aspired to be, and generally appreciate rather than enjoy extended improvisational music. I’m not a jam band person, either, largely–it’s possible for extended live workouts to appeal to me, even strongly, but largely they fall on at least semi-deaf ears with me. I’m not, as a result, going to get too far into the live portion, and it may leave this with the most negative comments I may ever write in this blog about the music to which I’m listening–which doesn’t necessarily make them negative, as I’m quite positive in general, just significantly less positive in this case.

If there’s a song I identify first with Cream, or at least the one I did most when the name was just a band name to attach to songs (as opposed to even the other simplistic assignments–“early power trio”, “supergroup”, “a band Eric Clapton was in”, et al.), it was “White Room”, without a doubt. “Sunshine of Your Love” may (quite reasonably) come first for many people, but “White Room” is it for me. The dramatic fall of the introduction–which I long thought was a vocal recording of multiple “Ooh-ooh, ahh-ahh”s (apparently live, it sometimes was) over Ginger Baker’s timpani, but is actually a strange recording of Clapton’s guitar, one string bent as far as he could (the others apparently removed to allow for this), and then overdubbed in a few different recordings–lends a good bit of drama to it as both a single and an album opener, though the framework of the song’s primary portion is, in a general sense, a recognizable “rock song”. Jack Bruce’s voice has just the right tenor–the kind he used for “Tales of Brave Ulysses” (which more musically inclined folks say is also musically similar), the kind that tells a story, but in this case given just a bit more melodiousness and “oomph”. Ginger’s drums are given their full space with their stretch between the left and right channels, sharp, clear and powerful from the playing alone, not just the recording and production. Clapton, of course, works in some wonderfully vocal and responsive wah-wah leads, which rarely occupy the same rhythms or melodies. The song was also one of my first introductions to the idea that a song could be named for words in the song that aren’t the chorus–an early lesson, of course, but a peculiar one. Speaking of the chorus, though, the way Bruce takes the power out of his voice and goes to such a gentle falsetto is brilliant for the strange, somewhat esoteric lyrics and the dramatic, psychedelic tone of the song itself.

While Baker and Bruce each co-wrote a chunk of the album’s studio songs (a roughly equivalent number), Clapton’s contribution was the selection of two songs to cover, both unsurprisingly coming from the blues. The first, “Sitting on Top of the World”, eases pretty slowly into being, but comes to life when Eric works in his first lead, fuzzy and felt, a little pause in the middle giving it the snap of its own flavour. Bruce and Baker really step back to let Eric (and his multiple overdubbed selves) shine on the instrumental portions of the track. Jack’s vocals are some of his most actually bluesy, which is not a style he often goes for, being more completely invested in performance (betraying, I suppose, his jazz background) than feeling. His bass is more able to insinuate itself into the feel, though, even as it is clearly relegated to supportive role by even the rhythm portions of Eric’s playing, though those function only to fill out the song itself. His leads drive it, with no question, and somehow manage, despite their intensity and regularity, to work as a part of it, rather than a display of prowess. Baker does have a wonderful faltering beat toward the end of the song that melds right into the stop-start nature of the main rhythm riff. This is, of course, Howlin’ Wolf’s arrangement of the song, though it was written and first recorded by the Mississippi Sheiks’ Walter Vinson and Lonnie Chatman.

Leaving Eric’s love of the blues behind, “Passing the Time” is one of the most acutely psychedelic tracks on the album, in the sense of bizarre, spacey instrumentation (Bruce mans a calliope, producer Pappalardi takes on organ pedals, and probably viola, though no one is credited for strings on the track, and co-writer Baker plays glockenspiel) and a sound that seems most appropriate for a serene introduction to a cultish animated movie. There’s an introduction that implies something else, haunting vocals over pounding drums from Baker–but they cross-fade into this strange fluffy but sort of quietly odd song. “Passing the time/Passing the time/Everything fine” the song suddenly pumps itself upward to guitar driven, rapidly-moving and harder material, Jack and Ginger seeming to compete for speed and control of the song, until they cross-fade again into the calliope and glockenspiel oddity of the song’s earlier portion. It’s strange, but actually kind of appealing.

Credited in all parts (except “high hat”, which goes to Ginger Baker of course) to Jack Bruce, “As You Said” is a rather pretty track, a mix of acoustic guitar and cello, alongside Bruce’s voice. It continues a bit of the psychedelic vein of “Passing the Time”, but reflects more on the artists that would record such music in acoustic and simple fashions, the odd studio trick the only concession to true weirdness (his vocals are occasionally modulated). The big downward slope of the cello is affectingly beautiful, though the whole song slides along without its clear rhythm: the hi-hat blends into the acoustic guitar’s strums nicely, giving the song its actual rhythm and a bit of extra sound without making itself explicit. It reminds me a bit of the way psychedelia could manifest itself with the Beatles–unable to escape the hooks and the prettiness, despite the unusual musical choices.

You would think “Pressed Rat and Warthog” would at least be an extremely strange song–and it is, but not as strange as the title might suggest. I thought perhaps an instrumental of a kind (there are a large number of those with very weird titles, because instrumental sounds could mean various things to various people, of course!). Instead, though, it’s Ginger Baker telling a story–to be fair, a weird one that fits the title (which names the two main characters, in fact), and is obscure enough to warrant that weird title, and its place on an album with such a psychedelic cover. Pappalardi actually controls a lot of the actual music’s sound, contributing trumpet that sounds like a respectful tribute to our “heroes”, with the backing for Baker’s actual recitation being backed by his own complicated drumming, very deliberate guitar chords and largely to-the-point basswork from Bruce. Out of nowhere at the end, just after Pappalardi’s last blow of the trumpet, Baker begins to work the drums into a frenzy and a wild and intense guitar solo comes flying out of Clapton, as if phased in from another recording, only to be faded out with the rest.

“Politician” is built on a slow, burning groove of a riff from Clapton, which almost steals the low-end away from Jack as he sings lyrics that merge a sleazy come-on line with the sleaziness of politics. The shmoozing attempts to court voters or women, showing no real allegiance to either, and even claiming one lean in place of another–the song is filthy on multiple levels, including that guitar riff in particular. Clapton does lay some leads over it, but they are icing and decoration (the appreciable and tasty kinds) over the steady, deliberate beat and the ride Baker nails it all down with. Jack works just the right kind of tone into his calls of “Hey, baby, get into my big black car…” to match the very sense of the lyrics and their unpleasantness.

With vocals that seem to be dragged around by the song rather than worked to accompany it, “Those Were the Days” brings to mind “Tales of Brave Ulyesses” in a slightly different way from “White Room”, as it matches more closely the style Bruce sang that previous track in. Musically, the song is interesting because it goes from a nicely complicated, signature Baker beat and a reasonably heavy guitar riff to the peculiar introduction of marimba and particularly tubular bells from Baker and Swiss hand bells from Pappalardi. While Bruce and Eric sing the chorus together, Baker begins to take the opportunity to work out, and leads the way for a scorching solo from Clapton that fades away with Baker’s relent to the regular beat (though it is not, in general, a completely “regular beat”) and the familiar verse and chorus melodies.

Clapton’s taste returns with “Born Under a Bad Sign”, the Booker T. Jones/William Bell song made famous by Albert King via Stax (remember how I said John’s taste ran to the less-popular-but-classic? That album was one of the reissues I remember him picking up–one of his first blues records). Unfortunately, this time it shows a bit that this is Clapton’s choice–Baker’s drums are good, they are well-played, as is Bruce’s bass, and his vocals are good too, but they don’t have the fire of the blues. Clapton recorded it later as a solo artist, and he got the kind of feel that blues vocals are based on: deep downs dredged up and forced out, while Bruce feels more like his focus is on the singing than the feeling. Clapton is alone in really feeling out the groove of the song, even if it is Baker laying down the beat to establish it. It’s not a bad performance–far from it, these are all expert musicians, but Baker and Bruce have technical skill attempting to mesh with pure feeling, and it just doesn’t quite gel as well as it should. Were it not a cover of such a classic, or even instrumental–it’s largely Bruce’s voice that feels wildly out of place–I could have no complaints.

The studio album closes with “Desert Cities of the Heart”, which pounds forth from wildly strummed acoustics (courtesy of Bruce, who again appears as vocalist), a mostly frenetic drum beat from Baker that is punctuated quite emphatically with four very concrete beats. The sudden introduction of strings (primarily Pappalardi’s viola, though Bruce also contributes cello again) slows the song for a moment, Bruce dropping his energetic bass to a steady monotone, and Baker keeping his drums back to allow the strings their space. Clapton’s solo is of a different stripe than his prior ones, actually seeming to sound more like a ribbon of sound than the squealing high tones of his bluesiest work, quavering just slightly. It’s a no-questions-asked winner for the album, and this may also be Baker’s best studio drum work on here, ending with the crash of all instruments in unified style, but with a scattered end of toms that puts the proper grace note on the studio work.

Live at the Fillmore¹
Engineered by Bill Halverson
Mixed by Adrian Barber
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Crossroads
  2. Spoonful
  1. Traintime
  2. Toad

In general, I tend to be inclined toward the views of many who can pass on live albums. It varies from group to group of course, and is often at least partly dependent on the material, performances, venues, time frame and numerous other factors in determining whether the recording interests me personally–while I’d like to be able to treat the entirety of my writing here as a means of evangelism and advocacy, I am like anyone else and do not like everything I hear. That Cream had not previously recorded a studio version of Clapton’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” makes it a worthwhile inclusion for certain, as it is one of the most wonderful and blistering excursions into classic blues the group ever put together. It’s followed, though, by the extremely extended recording of “Spoonful”, another blues classic they recorded, but this one previously appearing in studio form on Fresh Cream (in the U.K., at least–yep, one of those again!). The live album is primarily intended as a showcase for the musicianship of the group’s members, with Side Three devoted to a focus on Clapton’s guitarwork, but the sixteen minutes and forty-three seconds of it is a bit much. “Traintime” is to show off Bruce’s harmonica work, and does the job, but also begins to falter on the “enjoyment vs. appreciation” test, which redlines on “Toad”, a showing for Ginger Baker’s drumming.

I like Baker’s drumming–a lot. I like a lot of drummers–I often surprise myself here with how often it’s the drumming that stands out to me. But drum solos are something I think tends toward the interest of drummers and drummers almost to the exclusion of everyone else, in terms of enjoyment. Appreciation can transform into enjoyment when you appreciate what’s occurring and the skill involved more directly, but that enjoyment can falter without that kind of appreciation. “Toad” I even found myself cursing when I thought it had returned back to the melody it carried in its original incarnation (also on Fresh Cream), only to be subverted again by more of Baker in isolation. The group improvises well on both of these extended tracks (though there’s a bit of a disconnect toward the latter half of “Spoonful” that grates a bit, where a few directions were attempted at once, but quickly reassembled), but it’s just exhausting. Perhaps another mood might change my stance, but this has often been my reaction to extremely extended versions of previously lengthy-but-reasonable (6:30 and 5:11 respectively) tracks.

■ ■ ■ 

The studio album surprised me a bit in its psychedelic excursions–not because it had them, but because they were so willfully experimental. The notion of Cream as a power trio, as a hard rock originator, as a tight and steady band influenced heavily by the introduction of the blues–this kind of coloured my perception of what to expect from even psychedelic portions–thinking more in the veins of “White Room” than anything else, while the peculiarities of “Passing the Time” and “Pressed Rat and Warthog” were something else entirely. Perhaps that’s an indication of Baker’s aesthetic, but Bruce did contribute “As You Said”, which was unusually acoustic in instrumentation.

After listening, I think I appreciate the record more in general, but remain more pleased to have it as an extra branch of my collection–one I am glad to have, but not overtly passionate about–more than as a personal pleasure. These things do, however, often age well, and it may be that pulling it out at a later date will cause me to reconsider–maybe even the live album.

But I rather doubt that one.

  • Next Up: Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

¹3/4 of these tracks were actually recorded at the Winterland Ballroom, not the Fillmore. It’s just the title given for those two sides. The Winterland was owned by the same promoter (Bill Graham) and did eventually become the locations of both The Band‘s Last Waltz and the Sex Pistols’ final concert.


Day Twenty-Seven: David Bowie – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

RCA Victor ■ LSP-4702

Released June 6, 1972
Produced by Ken Scott and David Bowie

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Five Years
  2. Soul Love
  3. Moonage Daydream
  4. Starman
  5. It Ain’t Easy
  1. Lady Stardust
  2. Star
  3. Hang on to Yourself
  4. Ziggy Stardust
  5. Suffragette City
  6. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

While my new records tend to be kept in quite good shape (including the sleeves, though a little seam-splitting from shipped sealed ones is occasionally an issue–but I’m not overly picky most of the time), I have bought some real clunkers, condition-wise, in my used travels. As we go on through my collection, you will eventually start to see black “X”s in the top right corner of sleeves in permanent marker. This may horrify some, but it was really just the “dump stock” for a record store I frequented in high school–mostly a metal/industrial/punk store, so when I was buying some of the stuff I buy, it wasn’t really for their market, and went into that bin. I do recall, actually, my good friend John (see all references to “best friend in high school and college”) picking up a truly dilapidated copy of Who’s Next from those bins (noticeably scratched) becuase it was only $1. This record, I honestly don’t remember where I got. You can see the thing’s been sellotaped (why do none of us have a non-brand-based term for this tape in wide general use? At least this one isn’t pejorative…) around two sides, is suffering some extreme ringwear, and generally just looks well-used. The inner sleeve with lyrics (this particular edition was originally pressed with one–it’s actually the first U.S. press from ’72) is long gone, replaced with a plain white sleeve that has also been taped up, albeit with masking tape.

I do sort of like the used look for an album that I buy almost more because I feel–personally–as though I should have it. Sort of like Abbey Road or Pet Sounds–or most things that show up on almost every “best albums of all time lists”. I’m more likely to listen to it in various expanded, cleaned up forms, as these albums tend to be respected when remastered, and I never was exposed to them as full-length album recordings on vinyl long enough in my youth to get used to the sound. And I’d never replicate my dad’s favourite purchase of all time–speakers that were previously display models, acquired on the cheap and moved around for the last few decades. They do sound pretty fantastic too, for the–uh–record.

As I said, I don’t listen to this album on vinyl much. Actually, truth be told, I don’t listen to this album much. I, like many people I know who have any taste in the “weirder” sides of music, prefer the “Berlin Trilogy” era of Bowie, his “triptych” of albums (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger) created with Brian Eno in the late ’70s–and I grew up more with the Let’s Dance-ish Bowie, for the nostalgia end of things. It’s not that I don’t like Ziggy (or Hunky Dory, or The Man Who Sold the World, or Aladdin Sane…), I just tend to gravitate toward Low and Station to Station first.

The acknowledged inspiration for this blog, though, is the attempt by a non-music-person (self-described as such) attempting to run through the entirety of the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, leaving semi-daily commentary on each throughout. I say “inspiration”, in that a lot of the writing leaves something to be desired. The writing on this album, for instance, basically accuses the album of failing to be “interesting” or “experimental”, while another blog in the same vein writes it off as “boring” (though at least, rather reasonably, comparing it to Hunky Dory, which was lost in the shuffle at its time of release, to some extent).  Curiously, one also accuses it of not being mainstream–something its #5 chart placement in the U.K. and #10 single (“Starman”) would seemingly have cause to argue with.

And all of that doesn’t really have anything to do with–well, anything but personal expectation. In most regards, this isn’t an “experimental” album: Bowie had redefined himself a few times since he began recording in 1964, having to drop his given family name as a bow to the rising popularity of the Monkees’ own Davey Jones. “Space Oddity” gave him his first hit in ’69, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World had him in a dress on the cover (at least, in the U.K.–the U.S. beat his homeland to the punch and released it a few months earlier with a weird drawing instead) and is often considered the point at which his albums should be attended to, and of course in 1971, Hunky Dory was released, with songs like “Changes” really marking the start of Bowie as we understand his importance today. So his musical ideas, his willingness to change, his flirtations with androgyny–all established. And, external to Bowie, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had long since established (however loosely) the popular acceptance of “concept albums”.

What Ziggy does establish, however, is Bowie’s intermittent affectation of “alternate identities”: while his look changed often in the preceding years, it was the character of Ziggy Stardust himself that Bowie chose to inhabit and create that changed this from aesthetics to something more. But even that’s secondary: what The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars does is not oversell itself as experimental (in fairness, if you have no reckoning of the title, it sounds more bizarre–but Ziggy is a rockstar, and the Spiders are his band, so it’s actually a pretty normal and to-the-point title), it just comfortably, confidently sells itself as music.

While my copy crackles with the best of them, it actually lacks any locked grooves or major skips (a few prior albums did have some of these, but I’m not trying to be that specific in reviewing my collection), it is most apparent as the album opens: “Five Years” is a quiet track at open, Mick Woodmansey slowly fades in on drums, with a solid and firm but relatively quiet beat, eventually punctuated by a simultaneous chord from guitar and piano (I’d bet on Bowie and Mick Ronson respectively, though I’m not proficient enough to know for sure with studio recordings being what they are). Trevor Bolder’s bass is similarly punctuative, with Ronson’s piano eventually building a more complete melody, as Bowie sings of the coming death of Earth, five years away now. His first slowly comes to the fore, beginning as distant and exaggerated, some lines echoed back to emphasize the space of the track. Strings (arranged by Ronson) eventually add to the song’s growing power and strength. “Smiling and waving and looking so fine/Don’t think you knew you were in this song/And it was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor/And I thought of Ma and I wanted to get back there/Your face, your race, the way that you talk/I kiss you, you’re beautiful, the way that you talk” he sings, his voice growing in passion as the song finally crescendos, Ronson echoing his vocals with the title of the song, professional to Bowie’s growing hysteria, as the strings begin to swirl and the song becomes more chaotic, Bowie eventually screaming the title as he repeats it–and then it shuts down, and we’re left with only a few measures of Woodmansey’s gentle drumming.

“Soul Love” is almost like a new opener after the prologue of “Five Years” (which has been established, in the “story” of the album as effectively a description of just what it claims–the time limit set on the existence of earth, the rest being the story of an attempt to reconcile the world with that fact via Ziggy himself). It’s largely a gentle song, acoustic and building quietly, some bongos and other midrange percussion, hesitant, shy saxophones, until the buildup to the chorus: suddenly we’re faced with the distorted guitar that had hidden in the background, sparkling out for a few quiet notes here and there. Bowie’s voice and the guitar build to a drum fill and then the chorus–“Inspirations have I none/Just to touch the flaming dove/All I have is my love of love/But love is not loving”. All the song’s energy is exerted seemingly at once, and then spent, it relaxes with a brief saxophone solo from Bowie before it restarts the process–but chooses, instead, to follow with a guitar solo that mirrors that sax solo the second time.

The album is basically loaded with songs that will catch your ear, though some might be weird as actual singles–the progression of “Five Years”, for instance. “Moonage Daydream”, however, is a happy fit as a single–which it was. The distorted, dramatic crunch of the opening is only brief, as it backs away to an acoustic that blends into a piano. “Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah”, Bowie suddenly sings, to more of that initial riffing and a pattering tom fill from Woodmansey. Ronson doesn’t quite give in to the acoustic this time though, but keeps his playing a little less apparent than it is for that final choral line. The second time ’round, though, sax another woodwind I couldn’t identify if I tried follow it for an amusing little melodic line that gives way to the far more somber inclusion of another string arrangement. Ronson gets to work in a real guitar solo eventually, introduced by the deliberate echo effect placed on Bowie’s voice. The solo eventually begins to wash out and reverberate back over itself, echoing as if in a cave, giving it a huge sound, though it is overtaken in the outro by strange whistling electronic noises.

The biggest hit for the album, “Starman”, was apparently taken by some as a sequel to “Space Oddity”, which is understandable, as the thrumming low-end of the acoustic strumming of the opening echoes the sound used for that earlier hit. But when Woodmansey bumps the song in, the strength of Bolder’s bassline, alongside the earnest relaxed tone Bowie takes for the verse keeps it in different territory. The pounding piano line that leads to the string-backed chorus and the increased passion of Bowie’s vocal furthers the distance from the somber tonality of “Space Oddity”. When it gives way to an electric lead from Ronson that keeps the strings, it’s even more cheerful–as it should be, the “Starman” of the title is the possible saviour of the world before its end. When Bowie sings that chorus, it’s almost as if he’s got an arm around the listener, and is pointing up at the sky, conveying a sense of awe and camaraderie as he warmly informs us of this hope.

There’s one song on the album not written by Bowie, and it’s “It Ain’t Easy”, which closes Side One. It was written by Ron Davies (not to be confused with Ray Davies of the Kinks). It gives Bowie a chance to pull out the harpsichord (how on earth do I seem to have so many albums with harpsichords? Or was I just not paying any bloody attention and they’re near ubiquitous?) and play along to nothing but the rhythm section–until that huge chorus: the harpsichord drops, an acoustic begins strumming aggressively, a wailing guitar lead, pounding drum beat, and a huge vocal from Bowie. It ends on a pair of leads, one on a slide–all of a kind that isn’t inappropriate for a man who came out of a country family in Tennessee (Davies, that is, of course).

I always look at the tracklist for the latter half of Ziggy and wonder at these songs that occupy Side Two. I can’t seem to imprint those titles in my head. I know they’ll be familiar when I hear them, but can never place them from titles alone. As the piano introduction to “Lady Stardust” began, I knew I’d heard it and felt relaxed. When the drums and Bowie’s vocal starts, with its theatrical bent, holding notes on a light vibrato, his voice opened up, I know I’ve heard it, but then the hint comes: Oh, yes. I know this chorus. I even find it in my head on occasion. In keeping with its actual words (“And he was all right/The band was all together/Yes he was all right/The song went on forever/Yes he was all right/And he was up all night/Really quite paradise/And he sang all night/All night long”) there’s the sense of an eased, discussion of someone at neither a climactic peak nor a downfall, just a moment of established comfort. There are people to watch Ziggy, but there’s not the pressure to maintain a building momentum, just to stay with things in place. And Bowie and the boys sound like this as well, like the moment where a ballad comes out in a show, the kind that eventually was marked by waving lighters.

“Star” also tends to throw me (indeed, as I typed the tracklisting–and yes, I type those, I don’t paste them–I was sure I’d misread/remembered, or someone else had goofed and some tracks were garbled. I sincerely couldn’t remember there was a song named “Star”). Rollicking piano and moving beat define the song–sounds I recognized as soon as I heard them. Bowie and the backing vocals moving to that insistent beat, the pounding piano; they all sound like a call back to a certain period of the prior decade, though the distorted guitar riffing that enters midway through the song keeps it placed firmly in its actual time. Interestingly the guitar lead that marks the brief instrumental passage before the second verse pushes it backward in time just a bit again, though not quite as far–perhaps the late 1960s. And it makes sense again–Ziggy is an established star now, and by the end of the song, a sort of complacency arrives musically, with a more contemporary guitar lead than the previous one.

I was gathering all my usual resources (mostly to avoid making really stupid, avoidable mistakes, if I can) and saw “Hang on to Yourself” described as proto punk and thought this was absurd, but it suddenly clicked. While the handclaps and the subdued vocal of the chorus don’t fit too well with this notion, the semi-surf, rolling riff that opens and permeates the song is actually rather punk-like. Think more Ramones than anything else–the more “bubblegum” end of punk, and it’s actually quite reasonable. The solo is another light one, though a good one. By now Ziggy is being asked by the Spiders to keep a grasp on himself–and stay grounded–for them to keep going, which is hinted by the motion of the song and the final repetitions of “Come on, come on” that slowly fade the song out.

I’m not even going to guess where people place the semi-title track (which is just “Ziggy Stardust”). I was convinced that Hunky Dory had started to outstrip this album with major critics (the kind who reflexively list Sgt. Pepper as the best album ever), but apparently I was deluding myself. I’d think this song is not the most well-regarded of the album (partly because it was not initially released as a single, nor at any point in the album’s life). But that opening guitar lick! I remember being hugely into this song (as well as Hunky Dory‘s “Life on Mars?”) when I first met my aforementioned friend John. He was into punk, and I was getting into Bowie via his singles (though I’d always liked bits and pieces). I was in my horrific moments of “learning” guitar (never really successfully) and this lick always appealed to me, a simple acoustic guitar strumming chords and a heavily riffing electric that turns to a back and forth, higher pitched see-saw then starts backing down to start over–sheer brilliance. Bowie practically eulogizes Ziggy in the song over the more basic rock sound of the song (though in the background Ronson occasionally peels off for wandering noises and guitar harmonics, though quietly). Bowie’s voice suddenly shifts into a creepy tone and moves to the front–both sides of the stereo mix–and Ronson’s electric riffing takes the forefront. It’s not quite heavy in the metal sense, but maybe in the far more metaphorical interpretation from which the sense originated: emotionally weighty. The drum fills that lead into these sections set them up perfectly. And when Ziggy is finally lost to his own messianic self-image, Bowie sings out “When the kids had killed the man, I had to break up the band” passionately, a bit resigned, a bit angry, a bit sad–and we’re back to that opening riff, which eventually is let ring, and we’re left with Bowie’s final words for the song: “Ziggy played guitar…”

One of the more famed songs on the album, often used for its driving riff and its most famous line, “Suffragette City” is probably the heaviest (now in the “metal” sense) song on the album, from the way the guitars roll in, a synth briefly filling out and strengthening the riffs, it doesn’t really stop for a moment. The head-shaking, “Don’t even think about it,” way that Bowie sings the chorus, the words almost slurring together, with big riffs and synth chords behind it gives it a real strength. After the second, it turns to one of the longer solos from Ronson, followed by another repetition of the chorus, piano pounding loudly in the back. “Suffragette city!” Bowie repeats, a nice downward keyboard line answering him and seeming to round the song to a start when everything starts hammering down at the same moment and leads to that moment of brilliant release: “Awwww, wam, bam, thank you ma’am!”

Ending much as it began, with a quiet acoustic, Ziggy‘s final track is “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. Bowie’s voice is deliberately restrained, even when the acoustic drops and just a thumping kick from Woodmansey leads him through the title of the song: “You’re a rock ‘n’ roll suicide.” After the second occurrence, the rest of the band fully joins in after a nice drum fill, though a quiet one. Horns announce the beginning of Bowie’s second verse. Partway through it, Bowie becomes more passionate, his words becoming less aligned to the beat, taking their own emotional course, using a string arrangement to increase their drama. “You’re not alone!” he begins to yell, and the backing vocals begin to answer him, the horns increasing in frequency, the horns more prominent and consistent, a guitar lead from Ronson entering–and then the strings play one short note for a good beat, and the album ends.

I am often reminded when I start this album that it has an unusual production style, as compared to my memory and understanding of it. It’s very understated and intimate. It’s not quite like a band playing in a small club, it’s too clear and distinct for that. But it’s all mid-range–the drums are never, ever overpowering, though Woodmansey has and plays a clear role, and does it well. Bolder never aggressively steals the show either. Heck, Bowie’s guitars and pianos and Ronson’s often don’t either. It means that even the quieter, more relaxed riffing of “Suffragette City” or “Ziggy Stardust” (as compared to other artists who had long since released plenty of louder music) stand out that much more without having to increase anything. Now, the album did originally say (as does my copy) “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.” As it happens, my immediate next door neighbor on the side my music room is on is the best friend of a coworker (by complete coincidence). I kept the volume at half for my stereo and left it at that–I don’t need to earn any enemies. Still, the production is largely spare and quiet, without being overly spacious or acutely limited in instrumentation or sound. It’s sparse, yet full; distant, yet intimate. I always appreciate settling in to the album for this reason, though there’s always a jarring moment of confusion, as I expect something…bigger from it. Yet, instead, it creates that “size” from its music, from the performances themselves, rather than the volume or aggression of those performances.

As with Sgt. Pepper, I’m not overly inclined to suggest a downgrade of the album–not by any stretch. It still won’t push itself in as my favourite Bowie album, but I think it’s placement in music history is largely justified. Of course, part of that is the influence of “Starman” and Bowie’s performance of it on Top of the Pops, which inspired at least one artist to appear later in my own collection, nevermind the ones I myself am not familiar with.

On a final, relatively silly note, the crackle was simultaneously pleasingly indicative of a well-loved album and distracting. When the needle lifted on side one, it was oppressively quiet suddenly.

  • Next Up: Bronski Beat – The Age of Consent

Day Twenty: The Beatles – Abbey Road

Capitol Records ■ SO-383

Released September 26, 1969
Produced by George Martin
Recorded by Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald
Assistant Engineering by Alan Parsons

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Come Together
  2. Something
  3. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
  4. Oh! Darling
  5. Octopus’s Garden
  6. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
  1. Here Comes the Sun
  2. Because
  3. You Never Give Me Your Money
  4. Sun King
  5. Mean Mr. Mustard
  6. Polythene Pam
  7. She Came in Through the Bathroom Window¹
  8. Golden Slumbers
  9. Carry That Weight
  10. The End²
  11. Her Majesty³
 ¹Tracks 3 (“You Never Give Me Your Money”) through 7 (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”) are often thought of as a medley
²Somewhat unbeknownst to me, 8 (“Golden Slumbers”) through 10 (“The End”) are also thought of as a medley. It does make sense, though.
³Unlisted on original issue. This pressing does not include it on the outer sleeve, but does list it on the label.
Yesterday, I was tasked–by either the gushing overconvidence in me or sadism practiced upon me by friends and family–with discussing the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I’m not sure it turned out all that well, but I felt a bit out of place with it–many people seem to see me as quite knowledgeable musically, but I don’t think that piece of writing bore that out. It tends to make patently obvious my limitations in the music theory sense. The iconic nature of the cover above–along with the overall reputation of the music within it–is not something encouraging insofar as escaping that same trap on this immediately following day. However, it occupies an odd place. The most iconic Beatles album remains Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I would definitely feel about it the way I felt about Pet Sounds: a need to correctly place it in pop history and acknowledge that monolithic and kneejerk placement of it. It’s the sort of thing that’s generally no longer defended–it just is the greatest album of all time, or whatever. Whether it is or isn’t doesn’t get addressed in a lengthy way most of the time anymore: it’s mostly the brainwashed kind of “Oh, Sgt. Pepper,” or the “I refuse to be brainwashed” response of “Anything but Sgt. Pepper.” As a result, despite being voted the best Beatles album with some regularity by both aggregated response and individual judgment on many occasions, Abbey Road often appears behind Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, and Rubber Soul in many a list of more general selections (the 1960s, all time, so on). That it is also my own personal favourite Beatles album does me no harm in my comfort.
However, the Beatles have been dissected more widely and thoroughly as a music group (and people) than the Beach Boys ever were, or likely ever will be. The very copy I own of this album has an insert for the Compleat Beatles book, and there’s the career-long Anthology set, the Anthology film set, the Compleat Beatles movie, and whole books that break down any and all recording sessions down to the take. The original liner notes for Past Masters, the non-album singles collections, actually talk about which take and which edits were used for final release, amongst other things. There are a few other bands who experience somewhat similar treatments (obviously, Pet Sounds has had some similar treatment, but much of the rest of the Beach Boys career has not, and the Kinks’ ’60s material has ended up similarly, but the pursuit has languished in the material that was released in the two decades following). The information is widely disseminated, and that the Beatles have a reputation even with those who don’t like them–and not just one for “surf songs”, but for being the best of this, that, or the other for all time.
It doesn’t leave me nervous and wary, but it does leave me to wonder: what information do you include in a self-contained piece on this? Silly trivia that’s old hat to people who look at music trivia, like the fact that this was recorded after Let It Be, despite the fact that Let It Be was released later, or that it was one of the only two Beatles albums officially released only in stereo? All of the nuanced commentary and ultra-specific recording history from Emerick, Martin and the Fab Four themselves? Context, with Yoko Ono and the strain on the band and all the changes and phases and moments that led to this? I’m not inclined to include a lot of that; where it seems appropriate, relevant trivia seems like a reasonable but not necessary thought. Describing the music–as I’m wont to do–seems like a waste of your time (and thus mine), unless it’s to clarify or elaborate on a more abstract or general point.
The album’s opener was part of a double A-side release with the track that follows it (“Something”). It is an extremely recognizable song, one of Lennon’s efforts (though, as always, credited to “Lennon-McCartney”, as was their practice) and in the vein of “Revolution” (the b-side of “Hey Jude”, not “Revolution 1” from The White Album), being rather rough, using distorted guitars and rather spare instrumental backing (though the guitar in “Revolution” is quite loud and constant, it seems to stand out by itself with how it is mixed). While much ado is made about Ringo’s “bad” (or at least banal) drumming, this is one of the tracks that really lets you understand the kind of feel that defined him, as well as letting him branch out into a more unusual beat. 
There are three parts that have always stuck out in the song to me: John’s voice (and he uses the “wilder” one, which emphasizes the connection to “Revolution”, for my ears), Paul’s bass riff, and Ringo’s hissing hi-hat venting of that riff. And that’s really what it feels like: the bass riff moves the song, but its weight needs a bit of a valve to let the rest of the music have some space, and that hiss is that valve–even sounding like one. In talking of Pet Sounds, I mentioned my normal approach of hearing music as a whole cloth, and that is emphatically true with music I’ve heard my entire life, which includes any and all Beatles hits, and many non-hits. The advantage of sitting and listening as this demands means I get to hear things like the wonderful trip across the toms that Ringo takes after that hiss, which is one of my favourite drum sounds in general when used properly. The simple beat he uses under the verses is just that, but the hits are just the right kind to fit the restrained aggression and chilly “cool” of the song. When John sings the last line of the verse and Ringo moves to that heartbeat bass kick, I realize that I really do like his style, however much or little skill it took.
And, of course, Paul’s bass, if you follow it through the song, is actually quite stunning. Driving the song with it in a way that never registered as being all bass to my young ears and just seemed like part of how songs were made–and, in general, it isn’t–is one thing, but the way it rides under the verses, the same riff, smoothed out but still powerful, that is something special.
It’s not much of a secret that, if pressed, I’d have to name George as my favourite Beatle (despite the empathic animated Ringo from Yellow Submarine defining my preference for many years–who of course had only a tenuous link to the real one, though he’s often been called the nicest, most humble and in general the “heart” of the actual Beatles). That means that the general feel of “Something” is one I’ve always found attractive–the fragmented guitar parts that seem to fade in only momentarily in the majority of the song, but that come out so noticeably after the chorus are just brilliantly tasteful. As a lead guitarist he rarely comes off as showy (and it was never his style, even in the years following), and even his solo here is neither the overly technical kind of impressive, nor the more jaw-droppingly soulful kind of solo that comes from the best of the blues: it’s just mood, and the tone and style he relied on–enough that he’s recognizable in his contributed solo on Badfinger’s “Day After Day”. The subtle descent in from Ringo, and the way Paul’s bass trades off and accentuates the song without controlling it–well, rhythm sections were never my strong point in listening, unless I concentrate. I’m realizing what a shame this is as time goes on.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Well, I can’t discuss this–can’t even begin to–without noting that it was the song that apparently broke my friend John on the Beatles. That is, broke him into them. It’s kind of funny, as, name indicating, he’s more of a “John” (as in Lennon) kind of person, taste-wise, and John quite hated the song and thought it was stupid “Granny music”, but John (the one I know myself) liked that the Beatles could be so cheerful about murder. And so they are: it’s not unfair of Lennon to declare this about the song (ever the mediator, Ringo elaborated that it may indeed be “Granny music”, but that this was necessary to help the album be listenable), but the subject matter is a bit odd for a pop musician known for his pop stylings but not known for that kind of ironic tone (at the least, up to this point). The song just bounces along merrily, even the anvil that represents the hammer (played by Ringo on the recorded version, though road manager/assistant Mal Evans can be seen in video playing it on another take) seeming more merry than menacing. The Moog bits, too–I’d never noticed those. Paul plays a short solo after the first chorus on it that wouldn’t be out of place in many a synth-defined album, though he matches it with a piano instead at the second entrance.
“Oh! Darling” is emphatically reminiscent of earlier rock (and preceding genre) music–my thought was more of the music that inspired and was covered by the Beatles themselves, but others have suggested Fats Domino-style R&B, which I think is perfectly reasonable. Still, Paul throws in a “Woo!” that it’s hard not to think of as influenced by Little Richard, of whom they were known to be fans. Paul uses his own “wild” voice, quite deliberately, on the song, and it helps that feeling of rougher, more soulful music that the song inspires. Oddly, Lennon thought Paul sang it poorly–but I’ve always felt his vocal performance was exactly in line with his intention to record “as though [he’d] been performing it on stage all week.”
In terms of songwriting credits, Lennon and McCartney were notoriously dominant in those credits, with Harrison rarely exceeding two credits on an album, though his songs were rarely thought of poorly. Ringo, however, has only two full credits. The first is on The White Album, which should come as no surprise for a sprawling double album that covers absurd amounts of ground. While he actually sang more songs for the Beatles than this (“Yellow Submarine”, “Good Night”, “Boys”, etc), he never got much further with songs he wrote. The second (the one on The White Album is “Don’t Pass Me By”) is actually the next: “Octopus’s Garden”. He wrote the song while away from the others, frustrated with their arguing and general tense mood. It’s very much in keeping with the notions of Ringo as a person and as a songwriter: it’s a bit goofy, as it describes a silly world where he and friends visit an octopus in the garden it builds from found objects, but it’s very warm and cheerful, too. He gives it a nice beat, but a much nicer piano performance on his part. The amusing studio activities of the rest gave it the little “underwater” touches that crop up, like the sound of bubbles, or altered voices.  In some respects, it makes for a nice break from the rest of the album, as Ringo himself apparently did in general: it’s a pleasant sounding song that doesn’t carry the weight of the serious tone in even the other positive songs. It also has some nice guitar from George and John, which never hurts.
I often reference “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as a strong indicator of the talent of the Beatles. Fourteen words across nearly eight minutes–and it never gets boring or overly repetitive (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t repeat elements, of course–just that they don’t feel tired). Lennon actually plays the rather tasty lead that follows his own vocal, though George did contribute other guitars, and it only furthers the extremely emotive nature of the track–apparently written to/about Yoko. The desire in Lennon’s voice (and playing) is bare and naked. When the song shifts to the “She’s So Heavy” portion, the guitars are slowed, deliberate and heavy as all hell, the pick seeming to pull at each string with all the energy of desire focused–as much as such a thing can be focused–into each pick of a string, spaced out with the intense restraint needed to keep that focus. And let’s not forget that ending: it’s a shock as John intended, even as it comes out of the wash of the white noise machine, and somehow a brilliant end to Side One, despite its unexpected and sudden nature.
Let’s be honest for a moment: when I decided to name a favourite Beatles album for the first time, it was driven by my love for “Here Comes the Sun”. I’ve already noted my love for George’s songs, his guitar style and sound–though my favourites of his, and indeed favourite Beatles songs were neither singles nor normal album tracks. Still, that defining lick, and the way it seems to sit off in a corner, tiny and quiet but so pretty at the start, and then to seem almost shy in the way he plays it under his vocal, notes almost lost, only to come out clean and clear in the chorus and following it is just…affecting. It’s absolute beauty, and I remember deliberately pulling out the record as one of the few I played on the same turntable and stereo I use now to listen to before a day of high school, lo those many years ago–particularly one morning before school. Harrison even brings the Moog back (which, again, I had not noticed), too, and uses it in a fashion I think one might call a bit more normal–a bit more like an organ or standard electronic keyboard, perhaps, for the most part, though there are some unusual bits here and there. The very subtle orchestral inclusion avoids being overbearing or intrusive, too–which I suppose we can thank Martin for.
“Because” opens with Martin on a harpsichord, playing a melody that always reminds me of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, but quickly becomes much lighter, with the full harmonies the boys use (overdubbed to a full nine “voices”, 3 each from Paul, John and George). Those harmonies are really the focal point of the song: it keeps the whole thing in the air (as does the absence of anything  more than a rather quiet, simple bass from Paul in the rhythm section).
The “Abbey Road Medley” consisting of “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “Sun King”, “Mean Mr. Mustard”, “Polythene Pam”, and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” I always forget is a medley myself–and, in truth, that’s something I fear we might lose as we move toward this digital formatting of music. It’s not an issue at all with isolated tracks, or collections of songs meant to be played in an order–but correct transitioning between otherwise delineated tracks is something that can be easily lost or treated poorly, either with non-master crossfades, or with variances in how software chooses to separate tracks. Still, it is a medley, and a listen on vinyl makes that far more abundantly clear. The piano and bass that Paul opens the track with (both are his performances) are an exquisite sound, a kind of sadness in the initial piano bit that is brought up to something more like bittersweet by the bassline. The harmonies on this intro are also wonderful, and create a space for the bass to gain volume and pull the song into its transition, announced by Ringo. And then we get to hear one of my favourite Paul vocal styles, the kind he also uses on “Lady Madonna”–it’s pushed down and sort of strangled into a seeming parody of being straightlaced–or, at least, that’s the impression it always gives me: I always see him pushing his chin down and tucking it in slightly when he sings this way. It makes a kind of sense–there’s a certain musical synergy between the two songs otherwise in some ways. It’s actually a heavily varied song in-and-of itself, with the wind chimes and tape loops Paul includes at various points. If you aren’t familiar, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a huge chunk of the medley, rather than a single song that is part of it.
The movement to “Sun King” is forced for reasons I will get into later, but you wouldn’t know it had to be hacked together for listening, as quiet natural sounds are used to help the overlap. The opening is, interestingly, somewhat tonally similar to “Here Comes the Sun” (that it was originally titled “Here Comes the Sun King” and still includes this phrase doesn’t help), not in a way that feels like a repeat of any kind, but just like a coincidental mirroring. It’s very relaxed, and feels as if it might play over a cartoon vacation in some islands with palm trees, a kind of lilting sway to the guitars.
When it suddenly turns into “Mean Mr. Mustard”, it is simultaneously natural and strange: the tempo shifts so completely, yet so organically, you almost wouldn’t notice, as there’s only a small drum fill from Ringo that carries it, but it’s done at a natural point in the song–you think there’s more of “Sun King” coming, and another song starts playing, and whether the first reaction is “Ah, okay” or “What?” is a toss up.
It’s less disparate, the difference between “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam”, as the tempo is up at a similar rate, though it has a very unusual, very wild, primal drumbeat from Ringo. John is back to his more “distant” style of vocals (a la “Revolution”).
It shows that “Polythene Pam” led directly to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” even as performed, with that pounding drum from Ringo seamlessly transforming into a more typical balance of bass and snare than tom-focused drumming. Paul brings back his “self-harmonizing” approach, which has a very unique and particular sound in the way it seems to create a weird expansion and funnel to his voice that hones in on it for “Didn’t anybody see?”, though the backing vocals of John and George give it that particular twist indicative of their overall unified vocal sound.
“Golden Slumbers” announces the final transitions of the album, with a string-enhanced piano melody, and gentle singing from Paul. It gives the feeling of descent from the album’s climax, and when he turns on the energy, it tells us that things may be winding down, but it isn’t without some energy still behind them. The second moment it seems it will go this way, we’re instead led to “Carry That Weight”, which manages to jump from “Hey Judge”-style chorus and repetition to a piercing horn sting of a bridge to an excellent and intimate–though “big”–solo from George. It’s enough that “Golden Slumbers” was recorded as leading directly into “Carry That Weight”, but after that solo it also calls back to “You Never Give Me Your Money”, which ties the two medleys of songs together. When the horns return again to bring the song back to its own identity, its as if the effect of that horn interruption is doubled.
“The End” is an exciting bit: while it is a clear transition from “Carry That Weight”, it manages to include a pounding opener from Ringo that is answered by a brief guitar riff, leads to another fill from him, one line sung by Paul and then a really, really great solo from Ringo, despite his distaste for them (ever the one to bow to group needs). The song comes back, and then we get a real treat: the three guitarists trade licks. Paul starts off with the sharp points and bends of a more “normal” guitar solo, George follows with the sliding tones he is known for, and John follows with a chunkier, more distorted blast, and they repeat the process. It feels like a trade off, too, which avoids the frustration (for some, at least) of solos designed purely for the purposes of showing off–it feels too much like them playing off each other. There’s a choral, string-backed, dramatic, ending point then: the point at which “The End” feels like The End, with George slipping in one last solo.
But there’s a brief pause, and we get a sudden chord–but it only leads to Paul and a finger picked guitar, singing for just a very brief time and cut off at the end. And that’s it–in some sense, the chronological end of the Beatles, even if Let It Be was yet to be released.
It’s actually very difficult to name a favourite Beatles album. There are no real clunkers (naysayers about the early years, at one point including myself, just need to listen more), but there’s definitely still a greater magic to the albums from about Rubber Soul onward, where more varied instrumentation and ideas were put into play. I’ve always chosen Abbey Road because there’s nothing off-putting (“Revolution 9”, I’m looking at you, and only you–and possibly “All Together Now”). A lot of the great songs weren’t on albums originally in the UK (“Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Rain”, “Revolution”, etc). Each album has some truly excellent songs, too, so there’s not even that feeling of “Okay, but it doesn’t have anything that great…” Other than my admitted cop-out (that I base the decision almost exclusively on “Here Comes the Sun”, which is no way to do this), there’s just a nice variety here, and one that doesn’t go on too long, that has some new and interesting elements, without letting those control everything. It’s a weak explanation, but does it really matter? The point is you can’t narrow it down to one album anyway. Picking one is just a waste of time, as you’d have to watch so much great stuff fall away as you drew it away from the others, you’d start fretting and place it back, and try to repair your little garden of Beatles–don’t really want anything missing, want it all in nice, neat shape with everything in place.
Is that a cheat? Maybe. But it’s the actual truth–it’s like when you ask me my favourite colour. If I’m bored or distracted, I will tell you orange (which apparently makes me weird; it seems that is oft-considered an ugly or terrible colour, I’ve slowly gathered). If I’m feeling sarcastic or overly honest, I just cheat. Indeed, I’ll often tell you my favourite colour is “iridescent”, which isn’t a colour at all. But, if you get something iridescent (often the aim of “favourite colour” questions), you end up with something that displays all the colours in some fashion. So, it’s a cheat, but a sort of honest one–as it gets to the reality of it: it’s a “puppet” favourite. There isn’t a real one in place, at least, not one with the kind of “power” a favourite really has. I feel as though I should make some snarky comment tying that thought into the ending–“Her Majesty”–but I can’t place one. Feel free to create your own.
■ ■ ■ 
Oh, and if you’re curious, those two favourite Beatles/George songs are “It’s All Too Much” and “Only a Northern Song”. They only appeared on the Yellow Submarine songtrack. I’d blame that movie–which I absolutely love–for this, but those are not segments I like most at all. Indeed, I have a bad habit of wandering away from the ending where “It’s All Too Much” appears. There’s just something about, more than anything, that wailing distortion and that organ riff, and my love for organs is no secret. Which, for those familiar, should make “Only a Northern Song” no kind of surprise, actually.

Day Nineteen: The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Brother Records/Reprise Records ■  2MS 2083

Released May 16, 1966
[This release: 1972]
Produced by Brian Wilson

“This recording is pressed in monophonic sound, the way Brian cut it.”

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
  2. You Still Believe in Me
  3. That’s Not Me
  4. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)
  5. I’m Waiting for the Day
  6. Let’s Go Away for a While
  7. Sloop John B
  1. God Only Knows
  2. I Know There’s an Answer
  3. Here Today
  4. I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
  5. Pet Sounds
  6. Caroline, No

When I initially put the selection of Beach Boys records I own up to a vote(on vinyl, though the CD set is actually not much different), I debated listing this one as it physically presents itself. Those familiar with the album may notice (probably immediately) that the cover looks a bit strange. Truth is, this is actually a compiled double album, paired with Carl & the Passions – So Tough. It’s a weird looking thing, and one I own as yet another of the doubled (in the case of Pet Sounds, I think tripled or more, really) records my dad let me take. I’d call it the “crown jewel” of that set, but there are albums I like more personally (including my other Beach Boys record, Surf’s Up), but as something to blurt out at others it sounds more like it validates my taste and knowledge.

That said, this is probably the one classic album I own on vinyl that I’m in a bad position to write on. The poll that is still running on the Beatles as of writing indicates my limited selection of their material on vinyl–certainly, it includes their oft-considered best by those who stop and measure (rather than responding by reflex), but it doesn’t include the iconic, name-drop title (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), so there’s a certain measure less pressure. More to the point, that alleged best is also my favourite, so, much along the lines of Pink Floyd, I’m a bit more at ease dealing with it (the equivalent there, if you’re wondering, is Wish You Were Here–less an icon, more a qualified work. Depending on who you ask, of course). Here, I’m in territory I regard similarly to Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: albums whose reputations precede them, and who have been so automatically doled out to responses to “What is the best album…” that the question doesn’t even need to be finished. For those bands? For rock music? Some people just list those because it’s “the answer”, some because they sincerely believe it and can explain it, and a handful reject it out of hand primarily because some people do the first.

I don’t much like dealing with albums like these publicly: it puts me in the position of having to establish a clear opinion–which means detangling and cropping off the influence of reputation and the opinion bluffs of those who feel the need to automatically bring the public impression of their taste to the same level, and finally that of those who emphatically feel the need to reject it simply to prove the “honesty” of their opinions. I make a show of acting nervous or intimidated by writing about something written about a million times before, but I’m not writing this for money, so it isn’t as if I need to justify the cost to those who paid. More than anything, I don’t like the segment of that which means I have to tell you something that isn’t obvious. I have a lot of leeway with obscure or semi-obscure items, as the unfamiliar will have nothing to attach to it anyway, and the familiar will be looking for the familiar to find common ground (or to argue against it).

In this case, I’m also left with the opinions of Sir Paul McCartney, of Sir George Martin, in attempting to address an album widely considered one of the most ground-breaking and influential of all time. A response to Rubber Soul and the inspiration for the album I just mentioned three times above: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Thought in some ways to have been handed by the torch from Rubber Soul–itself given an infusion by the work of Bob Dylan–to carry the music industry out of the 45rpm single market and into the embrace of the 33 1/3 album approach. Those are some long shadows.

But that’s the reason I poll when I can: it means I don’t get to just dodge this, it means I don’t get to run off and happily talk about Surf’s Up and never have to nail down and clarify any thoughts I had, have, or will have about Pet Sounds. Or, it means everyone’s tired of hearing about Pet Sounds and I shouldn’t–if I weren’t directed–try to challenge myself. I know some people aimed for Surf’s Up (it was relatively close!) out of a personal affection, and some because it’s “not Pet Sounds“, in effect. So that’s where we ended up: more wanted to hear my thoughts–or torture me, perhaps–on Pet Sounds. I will do my best to live up, not to the reputation of the album or writing around it, but to be clear and as thoughtful as I can. I have notes (which I only occasionally take) as well as the information I have lingering around already–the Pet Sounds Sessions box set (with liner notes) and the 40th Anniversary stereo/mono dual release (in effect, I own about  6-7 versions of the album, counting the instrumental and vocal-only tracks on the box). Not so that I can just regurgitate Brian’s commentary or that of paid writers who got there first, but so that I can be most accurate regarding instrumentation and techniques involved in creating sounds, moods, tones, and atmospheres that I identify.

Beginning an album with a song that would become a single (though it started as a B-side to “God Only Knows”) was not an uncommon thing in the 1960s, but the totality of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, particularly its intro, is still a sort of odd move. The sound of that opening (which apparently no one can confirm the instrumental identity of) that sounds rather like a harp is distinct and recognizable, but suggests nothing of the sounds one expects from the Beach Boys, the song that follows it, or the genre as a whole. Hal Blaine’s lone drum hit shifts the song entirely, and lets the intro fade quickly away, with Brian immediately launching into the chorus with his voice at full power, and the whole band (of session musicians–many with tens of thousands of credits under their belts at this point, and I mean individually) backs him for the rest, with Al, Dennis, Carl, and Mike assisting primarily with Mike taking over for the bridge. It’s a full, powerful song, using accordions, saxophones, mandolins, piano, organ and a variety of more expected instruments to chug along with a kind of energy that does not represent a large chunk of the album. It slows partway through, for just a brief time, which is quite unusual for an earlier pop album, at least in so distinct and constructed a way.

The energy that keeps “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” moving at such a quick clip (a lot if it driven by the accordions) is left behind almost entirely for “You Still Believe in Me”, though the intro is somewhat reminiscent of that song’s own introduction–even down to the bizarre methodology used to achieve the singular instrumental backing for a humming vocalization that seems to reverberate just slightly, but ethereally: album co-writer Tony Asher says one of them was left to crawl into a piano to pluck the strings, while another sat at it to let the notes ring.  As the song proper starts, we’re at a much slower pace than “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and Brian’s vocal is given a great deal more space: the song is more intimate, more personal. The backing is no less complex, with timpani and harpsichord accompanying the far more expected bass guitar. Backing vocals primarily define the repetition of the song’s title alone, which is useful as it allows for Brian’s “I wanna cry” to take its looping shape as an isolated voice. There are strange touches that hint at its place in psychedelia in this track, too: bike horns and bells seem to drop in from nowhere in particular–not incongruous, yet startlingly odd at the same time.

Brian abstains from lead vocal only a few times on the album, but the first is on “That’s Not Me”, where his cousin Mike Love takes over, the tempo fittingly speeding up (as Mike Love is generally more aligned with the lighter surf songs of the group, which are generally uptempo in line with their “fun” nature). Brian Wilson’s opening on the organ eventually becomes notes that are just held for long periods of time, creating a hum in the background. Tambourines set the half-shuffling beat, strangely filling the middle ground of the song, which is primarily percussive and low end behind Mike’s voice. The song is one of the more drug-like and odd, despite being, in some respects, more conventional. The absent middle space, in particular, gives it a slightly weird feeling.

It’s almost like we have “You Still Believe in Me” Part 2 when “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” comes following in, as Brian returns to lead vocals. The song is slower, sadder, and has the first appearance of strong strings. It’s sweetly sad, though: obviously Brian is addressing someone in pain, but is offering consolation and hope. He asks the listener to listen to his heart beat–and for just a moment, the bass emulates a heartbeat. The bass thrums underneath it all even outside that moment, but the song has a comfortable embrace: it’s spacious, but not cold and filled with empty parts.

Giving the impression of alternating tones, “I’m Waiting for the Day” brings the tempo back up, with the curious choice of a percussive intro, though the use of timpanis gives a bit of variation in pitch, snare hits tweaking the sound just enough to kickstart the song, as if they are the turns of a key to start an engine. And when that engine starts, it’s with an organ’s keys slid across and then hit lightly but rapidly, the melody actually briefly introduced by flutes, but then taken over by violins as Brian begins to sing the verses–acknowledging the hurt of someone abandoned that he is attempting to bring solace to. “I’m waiting for the day that you can love again”, he sings, and the song jumps upward, as does his voice, which takes on a slightly harder edge, though an edge denoting determination rather than threat. The backing vocals–all Brian–move around each other for another of the drums’ moments of not only emphasis, but actual appearance: most of the track is absent the drum kit, though the timpanis do have a relatively strong presence through much of it. A last hushed lead up to “..when you can love again”, gives us a pretty string outro, but the drums don’t seem to want this to happen, and bring the organ, the backing Brians and timpanis back for him to repeat, “You didn’t think/That I could sit around and let you go”, which has that determined, self-confident edge as it fades out.

There are two instrumental tracks on the record, and the first is “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”, which would be the end of side one, were it not for the decision to include a studio-unrelated recording (“Sloop John B”). Julius Wechter mans the vibraphones and defines the majority of the track as a result, which builds on a sound only they can provide: both percussive and gentle, melodic and curved but distinct. There are numerous instruments layered behind them, especially a piano that gradually takes over and brings horns with it, a drum fill bringing the song back down to a hush, but one that cannot keep down the string section, which builds the song back to horns, which only build more, to a seemingly unified note, then isolate themselves. A brief appearance from what I believe are temple blocks–echoing in the background behind the vibraphone, the overdubbed strings only gently drawn in the background, but a faux-steel guitar (apparently a Coke bottle on the strings) gives a bit of a rounding to the edges of the song, with more familiar guitars given their place, too. The intermittent drumming that crops up on the album appears again, marking separations in the piece to great effect–the absence of the drums previously is emphasized, yet so is the actual appearance. It’s really a great piece–no surprise Brian is most proud of this one.

The only cover on the album, “Sloop John B” was recorded long before the primary Pet Sounds Sessions, but doesn’t feel as out of place as rumours that it was jammed in suggest (evidence suggests this was actually not the case). The song was a traditional folk one, an arena with which Al Jardine (the only non-family in the original Beach Boys) was most familiar. A metronomic tapping and glockenspiel descends into Brian’s vocal, and slowly other instruments join up, a guitar, a bass, drums briefly, and then more steadily, another voice (Mike Love’s) comes in for the bridge and the chorus, after which, the backing vocals appear briefly in non-verbal form, and by the next chorus, the drums are regular and consistent, all the voices are joined in, enough that the instrumentation disappears entirely for a brief a cappella moment. The drums finally make up for lost time and pound every beat as the song fades, along with Side One.

A huge single for the group, “God Only Knows” opens the second side with French horns and keys, with a bass line linking it to the first verse, where we get to hear Brian’s brother Carl sing lead for the first time on the album. A simpler, wood block/temple block rhythm backs the verses, though a deeper rhythm transitions it to the next verse. When Carl gets to the title of the song, there’s a curious moment as the rhythm is broken and chopped from the steady beat it used previously, quite staccato but for a brief fill on the drums. Backing vocals that flit around each other converge and pitch upward to Carl’s repetition of the title that leads to the second verse. Later the voices of Brian and Mike are recognizable in alternating vocalizations of the title that start a beat off from each other and begin to spiral together, emphasizing the sentiment of the song in general: it’s a bit sad, but with a warmth and brightness at the core–who knows what the singer would be without the addressee, but they are both there right now.

At one point, we might have had “Hang on to Your Ego” next, but the title was changed and we’re instead left with “I Know There’s an Answer”. It’s centered around an intro of mutliple key instruments that lean into their parts, but a buzzing of baritone and tenor saxophones hovers in the background, with the rhythm defined by a tambourine. Any attempt to listen closely only reveals that it’s nearly impossible to pick through all the layers. The choice of baritone saxophone for the solo, backed by banjo is beyond peculiar, and slants the song in a way that a number of songs on the album turn: somewhere that is, on the surface, comforting pop, but something else alongside it.

“It starts with just a little glance now/Right away you’re thinking about romance now” begins “Here Today”, keys pounding rhythm and slowly transitioning melody under Mike Love’s voice, drums and tambourine pounding down each beat as the song moves in, his voice rising slightly and getting somewhat faster paced, until it all falls back down, and the pounding heart of new love is brought back to reality with the reminder: “You’ve got to keep in mind/Love is here today/And it’s gone tomorrow”.

I will forever associate the next song with my best friend in high school and college, who was getting into 1960s music when we lived together, and spent a while with the Beach Boys before I ever did–I could name at least a handful of peculiar injokes we ended up with, but few would make sense to anyone else. Still, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is a track that I think of him referencing the phrase a few times, and so the part that sticks strongest remains the title’s appearance in the lyrics. It’s odd, as it seemed that my friend meant the phrase in the reverse–being born too late, not early–and that moment is out of character, tonally, for the rest of the song. The song is light and airy at first, but there’s an odd temple block construction, and a backing of “Oohs” that seems almost as if it’s mocking or out of step (or rather, pitch) with Brian’s vocal. They even get to share the spotlight without any backing for a moment–it’s hard to tell what feels (quite deliberately) mismatched there: are the backing vocals sadder? Are they just significantly lower? Not harmonized? And then you hear a higher, modulating voice–but it’s not, and that rapidly becomes apparent: it’s the infamous theremin that Brian later made such famous usage of in “Good Vibrations”.

As a title track, “Pet Sounds” is weird. As a track on this album, despite the matching titles, “Pet Sounds” is weird. Ratcheting percussion launches it, hints of guitar that are distorted as if some force has knocked them silly appear, before a lightly wavering guitar line takes control of the piece, horns subtly building it up, but all of them stopped short for a moment. When it returns, the horns push again, seeming to attempt to take control away from the rather “castaway” guitar sound, bongos and tons of other instruments wandering in and out, until one baritone saxophone bleats out the noise that introduces the first large crescendo that comes to define the latter half of the piece.

“Caroline, No” is not necessarily the expected favourite, but it is indeed Brian’s favourite track from the album. A very dry tambourine defines the beat of the song, but is fleshed out with an organ line and Brian’s double-tracked vocals. A lone drum beat echoes at the start of each measure, as Brian pines for a girl who broke his heart. Woodwinds (primarily bass flutes) repeat the melody after Brian’s last vocalization of it, with light accents from the vibraphone we thought we’d heard the last of, until it all fades away. And then it fades back in, but not with the music we know: it’s the ringing bell and whistle of an oncoming train, dogs barking and finally that train passing, rattling the tracks and heading off into the distance amid the last barks of those dogs.

I find it no less difficult now to talk about this album: I found nooks and crannies I’d not heard, I gathered a lot of the elements that bring it lasting respect that I had taken for granted previously, but I’m still left with a central dilemma: how do you recognize brilliance after it is already labelled as such? Can you? Is there some element of self-fulfillment or expectation nascent in any attempt to explore or discuss a work so well-regarded? Can you really give it proper context once its context as brilliant has been determined, affirmed and re-affirmed?

I don’t have answers to any of that. I’ve always enjoyed this album, so it’s not exactly the kind of stretch for me that it is to listen to some albums where I have to take time and understand why anyone likes them in the first place. There’s a production sensibility Brian brought to this that I always found unusual, which is the sort of gauzy haze layered over a lot of it. Maybe it’s the way the vocals are mixed, maybe it’s the way they’re recorded–it’s definitely something around the vocals in general. I listened harder this time and was still left wondering. I found new respect–a lot of it–for the instrumental pieces (which might easily be my favourite parts of this album), as well as reaffirmation of my love for Carl Wilson’s voice over the rest. I found new appreciation for the absurdly brilliant craft and layering of the album. That point, that was brought home. The way that each and every part seems to live and last only for the moments it is to be heard, for where it brings the whole of a song to a conclusion, or a feeling–that is something that almost defines the differing listening styles I know best.

My aforementioned best friend, John (inevitably, at least a few people make repeated appearances if I talk about music) has always heard music “separated”, while I’ve always heard it as a whole cloth. If you do either, it’s difficult not to respect this work. Taken as a whole, an astonishing variety of sounds–recognizably different even without detailed listening–never seem to cause any conflict or confusion about the sound or feeling of any song, other than the kind that is inherent to the subject matter present. If you take the same piece and start to dissect it, you suddenly realize just how complicated that generally delightful sound actually is. Some parts fade shortly after others come in, without ever openly advertising that fact. Some are mixed low or off to the side and serve only to lock into their places and smooth out the whole of it all. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, in terms of the way this record is put together, its reputation is undoubtedly deserved. It’s full and lush and varied, yet measured and economic, and all the parts both fit and mesh without exception.

Pet Sounds manages, in some way, to simultaneously run into the realms of psychedlia, art rock, even classical music, and simple pop: lyrically, it’s very innocent and sweet, occasionally even naïve, but never uncomfortably so, as it’s supported by the music so artfully. It’s catchy and bright and nice, and sad in the right parts, but it’s also dense and complicated and experimental and unique. It doesn’t show off the latter at all though: experimentation and complication are used in service of the final pop product. That’s not a common thing: usually you end up with something more like I Robot or Tarot Suite where those other elements make themselves known, perhaps even boast of their presence. It’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing in those instances–at least not intrinsically–but it’s something amazing to witness those things folded in so neatly there are no seams left.

If you don’t respect this album–and I do say “respect”, as opposed to “like”–you would be well advised, if you intend on expressing a stance on it, or music in many senses, to explore and dissect it anyway, to try to see what makes it tick. While occasionally that metaphor is used to emphasize the idea that you might dissect a living animal and be left with none of the soul or life that drives you to find the driving force in the first place, this is more like a watch or a clock: find the parts and separate them out to understand it, but put them back together, wind it up and watch it go–it won’t miss a beat.

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