Friday, August 04, 2006

Capitol (Finally) Has A Good Beach Boys Web Site

By Michael deMartin

After years of indifference and outdated websites, the folks at Capitol have actually put up a site worthy of the Beach Boys. Nice photo of the Pet Sounds box set showing the whole package and vinyl and CDs et. I'm not sure of the significance of the felt green case on the CD, but it looks pretty cool. A good timeline too (although a little cumbersome). Photos are great - I wish these guys would release a coffee table book with everything they have from the vault... Check out the buddy icons - they're nice as well as a few screensavers, although the group shots without Brian are odd...

Best thing of all?: They have a link to this site. Now that's a good idea. Here's the story: I put up this blog site because I felt news about the Beach Boys were lacking on the web. Plus, knowing and working with Brian might get me in the door to put some things up that fans might actually like. Well, before you know it, I'm at Capitol Records with Joe Vella (interactive and web pioneer, guru and all-around good guy) and we sell the guys on a podcast series to help get the Pet Sounds 40th Anniversary project out there to the fans - as well as to the kids who don't buy CDs anymore because they buy everything at iTunes.

The Capitol guys were great and they told us to run with it. Our concept was to produce a series of podcasts starting with an overview of Pet Sounds, 13 podcasts where each track is discussed, and a bonus episode for "Good Vibrations." We went over to Brian's house one afternoon to hang out with him and talk about Pet Sounds. You can read my blog about Brian below. Brian was great and we had a blast. Then, I talked with Mike and Bruce and they were cool too - you can read my blogs about them as well below. Capitol sent us a CD with a new interview from Al, so he'll be included as well. Right now, we're finishing up the work - and there's been a lot of it. Each interview had to be edited and then Joe had the (fun and laborous) task of putting the four guys together and (brilliantly) weaving the music in and out.

The podcasts sound fantastic and I think fans are gonna love them. The first two should be up front and center in iTunes in a few weeks and the rest will be rolled out weekly. Actually I think this is the first time the surviving Beach Boys have ever gone on (audio) record talking about Pet Sounds and each track specifically. Without blowing mine and Joe's horn, I think we're the first ones to produce such an extensive podcast series of this nature. There was a Springsteen podcast series for Born To Run earlier this year, but that was re-purposed from the DVD. This podcast series is totally original and we're very proud of it.

He Wrote the Song: Talking with Bruce Johnston

By Michael deMartin

Bruce Johnston is a guy I've wanted to talk with for awhile and I had the opportunity to do so recently. Bruce is a big fan of Brian's - and a humble guy considering he's written a lot of good songs over the years. He won a Grammy of "Song of the Year" I think in 1976 that Barry Manilow turned into a #1 smash hit, so that's saying something. Bruce also wrote a Beach Boys' favorite, "Disney Girls," a paeon to youth that's about as sublime as songs get. In any case, he told me right away "I'm really only a first violin - it's really Brian."

We talked about contemporary music, and while Bruce is current with things, he said while this generation has grooves and beats, "there's not much too sing." He mentioned "Killing Me Softly" by the Fugees as being a cool song, but of course that was written over 30 years ago.

He talked about "the world of Brian Wilson's melodies" and how Brian evolved so quickly before he got to Pet Sounds. Throughout our interview, Bruce was very carefully to include Mike Love when he talked about the Beach Boys songs. In part I guess because he feels Mike has been overlooked as a lyricist to some of the Beach Boys biggest hits, but also (I'm sure) because he performs every night with Mike as "The Beach Boys."

Bruce said Brian's songs still sound great because of primarily the songwriting, but also the arrangements, production and singing. When I asked Bruce what he thought were the greatest albums of all-time, he said "Pet Sounds IS the greatest album of all-time and it has nothing to do with Rock 'n Roll. It's just Brian being Debussy or Rachmaninoff in the mid-sixties. It's just a classic album that doesn't fit into the rock 'n roll genre to me - it's just so far above it."

Bruce said composers in the future will be inspired by Brian's melodies and arrangements and listen to how he put it all together separately from the songs. Bruce said he took Pet Sounds to England before its release and played it for Lennon and McCartney twice one night and they were both blown away. As the story goes, the Beatles knew that they had been topped and it inspired them to new heights with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band, released in 1967.

We started talking about the Pet Sounds tracks and Bruce said "You Still Believe in Me" was "heartwrenching" for him to listen to Brian sing it - most of us would have to agree. "That's Not Me" didn't knock him out; "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)" had an "amazing string arrangement" and recalled it having six strings on it. Bruce said "Let's Go Away For Awhile" "did nothing for me" which surprised me quite a bit. In my opinion, it may be Brian's very best instrumental ever.

Bruce loved "Sloop John B." but said flatly it didn't belong on the album "Wrong move by EMI. Right move by EMI to drive the album, but it does not fit on it." Interesting, because Brian made it very clear that he did want it on the album. I suppose after 40 years, memories fade a little bit.

Bruce said "Brian Wilson would be more of a God than he already is" if he had put "Good Vibrations" on the album and left out "Sloop John B." Interesting: could a perfect album be even more perfect? Bruce talked about "God Only Knows" and how Brian originally had a big chorus at the end including Terry Melcher (this alternate track can be heard on the Pet Sounds box set). After Carl sang the lead, he was tired and went home. So the beautiful, circular trio of voices you hear at the end are Brian singing two of the voices and Bruce one. Bruce then declared it "the most remarkable song on the album."

He called "I Know There's An Answer" pleasant at best, and talked about Mike not wanting to sing the original set of lyrics called "Hand On To Your Ego" because of it's drug implications. The story goes that when people were dropping acid in the sixties they had to "hang on to their egos." In the end - in my opinion - they did the right thing. Pet Sounds is a classic for the ages and having a song called "Hang On To Your Ego" sounds very dated to say the least.

With "Here Today" Bruce said that Brian is "redefining the word brilliant." He talked about the "unusual" break in the middle which he called perfection. This is the break that Brian told me was influenced by Bach - and if you've heard any Bach at all, you'll know what he's talking about. Bruce said he "wouldn't be surprised if every great musical talent of all-time is spinning around in Brian Wilson's great blender."

"I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" had a great lyric and track. This seems to be the one track Brian, Mike, Al and Bruce really love most and not the more obvious choices. Surprisingly he called the instrumental "Pet Sounds" cute, and that was it. Interestingly, both Mike and Bruce's least favorites on the album were the instrumentals. Perhaps because they on didn't sing them.

Bruce called "Caroline, No" "unbelievably hearbreaking ... brilliant" but he wished that it could have been left at its original speed. He explained that Brian's dad, Murray, had the song speed up a key so that Brian would song younger, and thus is would appeal to a young audience. Again a good move commercially, I suppose, but not a great artistic one. Interestingly, Bruce said Murray did it on others (not on Pet Sounds) and I wonder which ones?

Bruce said he did not like the new "Good Vibrations" CD single just released with its alternative versions, but the one "Brian Wilson signed off on."

Bruce couldn't answer some things about the recording of Pet Sounds because he said, bluntly, that he was out surfing and chasing girls. He said it was only after he did attend a tracking session for "God Only Knows" that he realized something special was going on. He said he just assumed that Mike wrote the lyrics and then found out afterwards that Tony Asher wrote them. After Pet Sounds, Bruce said he could've gotten out of the music business because nothing could be better than Pet Sounds. Bruce called himself "Oscar Levant to Brian's George Gershwin."s

After Pet Sounds, Bruce talked about some general things and said that "Disney Girls" was the only "cool" song he had written in his life, but he's just being humble. He's a cool guy and it was great finally getting to talk with him.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Looking Back With (Mike) Love

By Michael DeMartin

Having read most of the Brian and Beach Boys books, there is always the heroes and villains angle, which I guess makes for a good drama. True, the Beach Boys have had their problems with each other over the years, but I have to believe they will always have a bond after having been through so much. It was nice to see Brian, Mike, Al and Bruce last month on top of the Capitol building accepting their latest platinum records and bantering about. In fact, Brian didn’t discount rumors about the guys maybe doing something together in the near future – perhaps a live performance when Brian accepts a major award in London this coming November?

Mike Love has long been presented as the villain in many tales, so I have to admit I had a little trepidation when I had the opportunity to talk with him at length a few weeks ago. Here’s how it went:

Mike asked me what my last name was and I told him DeMartin. I was taken aback a little when he asked if it had an “o” at the end of it originally, and I told him it actually had an “i” at the end of it. I told him my Italian grandfather changed it so he could get a job. Immediately, Mike started singing “Get A Job.” Mike then asked me what I did for a living and I told him I owned a small design firm and we did a good amount of work for recording artists and labels. Mike asked me who I would recommend to do the album cover for his next project, and before you know it, I was invited to see him after his “Good Morning America” appearance the following day in New York City. He then asked me how much it would cost.

Mike’s new album is called “Mike Love (Not War)” which I have to admit is a clever title, but Mike has always been good with words. He told me the new album “rocks like a mother------” so we’ll have to see what’s up with that.

Talking about Pet Sounds, Mike said his 10-year old daughter’s favorite song is “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” which shows “the immortal, everlasting appeal of that song” and truer words have never been spoken. Mike was given a co-writer’s credit about ten years ago, along with Brian and Tony Asher and I asked him if it was because of his “Good Night, Baby/Sleep Tight Baby” refrain at the end of the song. He said actually he had a hand in writing the bridge of the song, which certainly is a classic. Mike talked about the “fabulous” intro and couldn’t compliment Brian enough during our talk. He did moan a little bit about the “27 passes” at singing the harmonies for "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and it was at that time that he started calling Brian “Dog Ears” because Brian heard every little thing. Mike said that it went beyond being perfect and that Brian was looking for “abstract, mystical overtones or something” and you can hear it in the “fantastically executed harmonies.” Mike’s a talkative guy and his explanation about the Beach Boys harmonies was quite insightful – in fact you'll be hearing it for yourself one of these days ... soon.

We talked about Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album, which Mike loves, but when I asked him to name his favorite albums, he refused. He said there were so few albums where every song was great, and that he was a singles' type of guy. He said he was partial to singles, because he and Brian wrote most of the Beach Boys hits together and he had “an emotional investment” in them. He said he didn’t get credit for them for many years due to Uncle Murray and it’s given people a “disproportionate idea of what was going on with the Beach Boys creatively.” Regardless, Mike continued to be most complimentary of Brian. Mike did say he wished the Beach Boys songs had more guitar on them since he loves Rock ‘n Roll, and Jimmy Hendrix, for instance.

Mike called Chuck Berry his “lyrical mentor” and Chuck influenced Mike's writing tremendously and he cited “Fun Fun Fun” and “Be True To Your School” as examples and talked about alliteration in their lyrics. I never thought about it before, but I can see the influence. And, as much as some people might want to knock Mike, let’s face it, he did have a hand in writing some of the great American popular songs of our time – as well as singing on them. Mike talked about some of Chuck’s “lyrical vinettes” and I told him that he did the same with many of the Beach Boys songs. As great as the music was, the lyrics did create a visual image of the song and Mike loudly exclaimed “THAT'S THE IDEA!,” like a college professor lecturing a student.

Mike talked about Pet Sounds in general and each track specifically. It was more than interesting because I’ve never heard MIke talk about the album in such detail. In fact, many think Mike didn’t like the album at all in 1966, and I’ll get to that a little later. After Pet Sounds, Mike said, there was a poll in and England newspaper that had the Beach Boys ahead of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Mike’s voice boomed “TAKE THAT PAUL AND MICK!” like it just happened yesterday. I was waiting for a reprise of Mike’s Hall of Fame speech, but fortunately, it wasn’t forthcoming. He said he was proud of that poll because there was “nobody more creative and prolific than the Beatles." Period.

Mike talked about “Good Vibrations” and said it would last a thousand years because it was so unique and there was nothing quite like it. Can’t argue with that. Mike said the music will last forever because it was “ a contribution to life.” He talked in detail about “The Warmth Of The Sun” and how he and Brian wrote it. He talked about Brian’s "haunting melody and the melancholy harmonies". The story was about a love that’s not reciprocated. “The Love of my life/She left me one day/I cried when she said/I don’t feel the same way.” Even if you’re not a Mike Love fan, you’ve got to admit the lyric to this song is damned good. A perfect marriage of words and music.

Mike talked about being positive with his work and we talked about Stevie Wonder being a positive force, despite being born in poverty and losing his vision as a baby as the result of a hospital mishap. He said “music made our lives, maybe saved our lives.”

Mike spoke about his love for “You Still Believe In Me" and its “aspect of forgiveness.” He said everyone deserved forgiveness and it almost sounded as if he was talking about himself, and he seemed to choke up a little bit. Mike couldn’t say enough about the lyric and the arrangement. He talked about the Pet Sounds songs in general being moody (but "in a good way") and Brian outdoing himself. Mike talked about Pet Sounds being about feelings and dealing with them and how the album was such a stretch from the surfing and girls themes they had sung about previously. Mike couldn’t say enough about Carl singing “God Only Knows” - a “stellar performance.” He would have liked to have heard Luther Vandross sing it, but was glad Neil Diamond did.

“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” was “so Brian Wilson and should probably be his theme song.” Then, Mike talked about how he came up with the name for the album Pet Sounds and its double-entendre. He said everything was great about the album except for the cover. He said the Beach Boys were not as savvy as the Beatles about actually caring about their album covers - certainly not like Paul McCartney "masterminding" the “Sgt. Peppers” cover.

Everything was going great and Mike was terrific, but I had to ask THE question. I told him that there were a lot of fans who saw him as the villain in the Pet Sounds story and that the word was he was less than thrilled with the new direction of the music and that he didn't want to "f--- with the formula." I could hear his blood pressure rise and see his cap pop off his head through the phone and he got, well, kind of angry to say the least. He interrupted me to tell me “that is a bunch of crap that I didn’t like Pet Sounds.” He said he’s never said anything negative about the album and the only thing he could criticize about the album was it's shlocky artwork.

Mike said he was into meditation while hangers-on were into drugs and it created a “them versus us” situation and that the people around Brian resented Mike. He said stories about him not liking Pet Sounds were “so untrue, so unkind, so petty and so malicious.” I would have to think this was true: anyone with half a musical brain has got to know what a work of art Pet Sounds is. Also, people talk about Pet Sounds being such a commercial disappointment, but I think most groups would dearly love to have a Top 10 album and three hit singles off of it. But, that’s just my feeling. Mike compared his and Brian’s situation to Lennon and McCartney’s and how McCartney often doesn’t get the credit he deserves because he’s not the cool one. He said people’s opinions are not always correct and he knows what he’s done and nobody can take that away from him.

Mike blamed Capitol Records for their lack of enthusiasm for promoting the album and that it took about 30 years for it to finally go platinum. He said it will “sell more from now on than it did from now backwards.” Mike said that if he had anything negative to say, it was probably about SMiLE, because he was not a fan of the lyrics and the shenangans that were going on at the time. He thought some of the lyrics by Van Dyke Parks were “brilliant ... I call them acid alliterations” but that he liked “words that make sense.” He said he’d ask Van Dyke what the words meant ("Over and over/The crow flies over the cornfield" for instance) and whether they would “connect with anyone out there.” Mike had a whole lot more to say about this subject – words hardcore fans would salivate over – but I’ll leave it at that.

In the end, Mike said Pet Sounds was a “collaboration, a group effort – we all slaved away in the studio and we came up with something great.” Can’t argue with that: Pet Sounds is one of the great musical achievements of our time and that cannot be denied – even by Mike Love.