Posts from June 1999
HEY BROTHER, POUR THE WINE
I wanted to write something about crooning and the figure of the crooner, the great crooners being the true dinosaurs of the rock era: old, cold-blooded, and powerful. Through one lens, the songs sung by Dino or Frankie or Sammy or Bing are more adult than the usurper pop that came after them, but I don’t hear (for instance) the reservoirs of emotion others detect in Sinatra’s voice. What I hear is an endless detachment, a clipped range of feeling which starts at amused mock-surprise and ends at resigned ruefulness. This isn’t a criticism: the seductive, wry professionalism Sinatra exudes throughout his note-perfect Riddle-arranged albums is what draws me back to them, and to ‘crooning’ in general. It’s the opposite of soul – a stiff-backed abjuration of passion, a denial which lures where the sweatily emotive bellowings of rock’n’soul sometimes repel despite themselves. The very blankness of the canvas gives more space for the listener to paint something of themselves into the song.
You could, I suppose, call it ‘cool’: that’s certainly the sign under which a whole generation of men’s magazine editors have revived the crooners. But what concerns them isn’t anything so mundane as the music – it’s the suits and cigars and the gaming tables and the connections, and if Sinatra hit a couple of dolls or ordered someone’s legs broken, well wouldn’t we all have if we were him? Like any music, crooning died as a style and was frozen into an image, a corrupted dream of sharpness, always deployed (but ironically, of course) as yet another signifier of Living: of that unpleasant, vicarious magazine-fuelled Real Living that’s invariably at someone elses expense (the poor, the unhip, the old, the lonely, the eccentric, the opposite sex).
The only genuine irony is that poverty, aging, loneliness, and most of all unfashionability are the other half of the crooner’s double-image. In the (very good) film Little Voice, Michael Caine’s embittered showbiz agent washout’s finest and final scene comes when he breaks into a splenetic version of Orbision’s It’s Over. This is the dark side of crooning: pelted off to the margins, reduced to petty acts of vaudeville tyranny in peeling Northern theatres, debasing yourself looking for the comeback that never comes. It’s a mood captured in The All Seeing I’s splendid one-off of a single, Walk Like A Panther, sung by Tony Christie with lyrics by Jarvis Cocker (himself a man who looks set to embrace the golden opportunity of charting a decline into semi-celebrity, year by gruesome year).
In the sniggering press interviews surrounding the single, The All Seeing I delighted in detailing Christie’s shock reactions to their looped and loopy backing track and studied student-techno zaniness: he was worried, apparently, about a loss of dignity. The best thing about the single is that pride, though – the chorus may be silly kitsch, but when Christie snarls in the opening couplet “A halfwit in a leotard stands on my stage”, it’s like Scott Walker with gritted teeth, and you begin to wonder who the joke’s really on.
It’s all a far cry from the golden years, as a quick listen to Dean Martin’s The Capitol Years best-of reminds you. Every Martin song is a shot of tipsy, sentimental bonhomie, dating from pop’s long innocence, before any of this stuff was ever taken seriously. Martin rarely got the very best arrangers and almost never the top songs: most of these tracks are from films, the titles of which tell their own story. “Artists And Models”, “Bells Are Ringing”, “All In A Night’s Work”, and most gloriously “Ten Thousand Bedrooms” – cheap soundtracks to cheap forgotten entertainment, but with an optimism and verve that it sometimes feels like we’ve forgotten. (The only recent equivalent is the way hair-metal bands would save their schlockiest and hookiest songs for blockbuster end-credits, otherwise it’s all overcooked Celine goop). Nobody could call “The Naughty Lady Of Shady Lane” witty or sophisticated or adult, but while it’s playing there’s a rogueish lilt to it that makes the last fifty years of pop music seem mostly blustery and pretentious.
LOOKING FOR LOVE IN A LOOKING-GLASS WORLD
Back in the early 70s, of course, crooning was some distance beyond irrelevant in a post-revolutionary culture dominated by the much-rehearsed opposition between clever album rock and dumb stompy bubbleglam. So what could a poor boy do except ignore the whole wretched 60s mess and head straight back to the 50s, hell, back to the 30s in search of an edge? That Bryan Ferry myth is indeed a myth (Roxy’s albums are mostly very much of their time) but it’s one I like a lot: it sets Ferry up as the first star to use rock music as rock criticism, like Lester Bangs in reverse I suppose – Roxy and Ferry records, more than almost any contemporary ones, feel like arguments and positionings in some grand debate about What Pop Is.(In some ways it’s a surprise the Roxy myth has transmitted so well – as a crooner, Ferry makes a good rock star. His froggy croak tends to be an uneasy pastiche of the lounge singer’s smooth patina, a confused and halting reconstruction of those half-forgotten codes of singing which were shattered by rock’s arrival.)
Image first, naturally: my favourite Ferry image is the cover of The Bride Stripped Bare – Bryan in a raincoat in the dark, gloomy and haunted, a 1978 photograph anticipating the whole post-punk look and simultaneously sniffing out the tenderness hiding in its apparent austerity. My favourite Ferry song is Mother Of Pearl, Roxy’s romantic manifesto from 1973’s Stranded. After the kind of tight glam-thrash opening that the band could probably churn out comatose, the band hits a slow, small-hours groove, and Ferry comes in as an existential Casanova, weary but still questing for some elusive soulmate. As a pen-portrait of an ideal woman, the song’s charming and inspiring, but the impeccably narcissistic Ferry also understands the truth at the heart of crooning: that its love songs are only ever sung to the singer themselves. Love and romance seem to be at the centre of the crooner’s worldview, but with Sinatra as with Ferry the object of affection remains misty and evanescent, described airily enough to be projected onto any real or looked-for lover the listener requires.
If he had been born in any pop era, Brian Wilson would’ve flourished at least to some degree with those mad skills of his. He wrote and co-wrote cunning songs about surfing, hotrods and teenage autonomy without any firsthand experience; doubtlessly he could’ve come up with good murder ballads or novelty hits for racoon-fur-wearing college students if the need came up. But Brian’s genius (and greatest influence, probably) came from his production work:
“In his own milieu, on his own terms, Brian Wilson sought to subvert the system by which his music was funneled to the outside world…Brian demanded total production authority on the third Beach Boys album. He wanted no staff A&R men vetoing songs, hiring sidemen, and meddling with arrangements; no go-betweens of any kind except Western Studios’ chief engineering Chuck Britz who would toil for him…For the first time in the history of rock and roll the artist himself had absolute studio authority over his album-length output.” (Timothy White, The Nearest Faraway Place)
I really don’t have much of an introduction for this essay, and I use the term loosely. I just had my initial listening to the album as Dominic Priore believes, to the best of his knowledge, it would’ve appeared, and my mind became inundated with ideas and concepts. It truly takes an amazing piece of art to have this sort of effect on the listener, and Smile is such an album. In this essay, I’d like to talk about two main concepts, as well as giving general impressions of the tracks and the album itself.
Immediately following my listening, I was struck by one thought: the album, as we have all listened to it, is not nearly incomplete as people make it out to be. Perhaps, it’s relatively unfinished in Brian’s eyes (and ears), but to mine, a little tinkering here and there and he would’ve cemented his reputation in the critics’ eyes as perhaps the greatest single pop mind the world has known. I won’t get into public perception as, by the introduction I’ve read, Mike will touch upon that. In short, if Capitol thought that Pet Sounds was a commercial flop, imagine them trying to market a single called “Vega-Tables.”
Part of the attraction of Smile to the journalistic and maybe the ‘alternative’ mind is its encapsulation of writerly failure – the deadlines that quietly slip away, the fragmented masterpieces kept in shoeboxes, the way some people can live for years off rumours until the rumours might as well be true. Brian Wilson’s reputation would certainly not be higher if Smile had been released: in fact it’s the very non-existence of the record that makes us take it, and him, to ourselves. Alternative music, alternative listening is about keeping secrets, about not joining the party, and Smile becomes alternative in this way despite its being recorded at the height of the sixties by America’s most wholesome young band.
The circumstances of Smile’s conception and collapse give it a special rock-historic resonance, as it sits right in the nexus of two or three of the great Pop Myths – the rivalry between the Beatles and the Beach Boys foreshadows and reflects every other pop music feud and race; the lostness of Smile puts it with The Basement Tapes at the birth of the shadowy parallel universe of bootlegs and secret music; and Smile’s mis-appearance gives rock romantics like Prieure an ideal point at which to locate the ‘death’ of the sixties and the idea of rock’s inevitable progress onwards and upwards to the status of Art.
Feuds and rivalries aren’t unique to pop, but there’s something quixotically heroic and fascinating about a ‘battle of the bands’ which is lacking when you oppose authors, say, or film directors. One thing I find so charming about the Beach Boys/Beatles rivalry is that there’s no reason at all why any pop fan shouldn’t have listened to both, and in fact I’m sure most did. This is unusual: with Blur and Oasis, say, the faultlines between the two (mostly awful) acts ran parallel not only to their musical divisions but to wider differences in British society itself: to what extent could ‘laddism’ overcome the familiarly ironic, observational mode that bourgeois English popcult tends to settle into, for example? Most pop feuds are like this, entertainingly arbitrary but at the same time rawly exposing the assumptions underlying music discourse: with Spice Girls and All Saints, it was the difference between populism and a smooth black-inflected ‘classiness’ that was being explored, and perhaps predictably almost every critic ended up plumping for the latter.
What was at stake when the Beach Boys won ‘Best Group’ in the 1966 NME poll, when the word got out that their desire was to release a masterwork that would top ‘Revolver’? Looking back, it’s perhaps the oldest pop debate of all: between the ‘real’ and the ‘shallow’. Pop, or at least the sort of pop that gets written about, exists in a state of permanent yearning to be more than it is. It speaks to the infatuated so well because it is itself infatuated – with the street or with the academy, it makes no difference. Preposterous to think now that the Beatles ever seemed raw or real (to these ears they always come across as narcissistic craftsmen) but in 1966 Lennon’s quoting the Tibetan Book of the Dead and McCartney’s borrowing of kitchen-sink drama tropes probably did seem like a blow for Art and realism in pop.
If so, it was a gauntlet Brian Wilson was desperately ill-equipped to pick up, which possibly accounts (if, of course, you believe that Wilson was desperate for that kind of respect) for the unsteadily exhibitionist quality of much of Smile. For a record about laughter and play, it often sounds deeply unrelaxed as it swings and vamps through its virtuoso instrumental pieces. There’s a joy in “Look”, for example, but to me it’s a slightly forced joy, like the chiming of an ice-cream van. The onrushing shadow of progression surely also accounts for the unwieldy conceptual sectioning of the record (i.e. the ‘Elements Suite’) and for the involvement of Van Dyke Parks.
Parks’ participation in Smile is a mixed curse. Put simply, he’s too clever by half – on his own records, his rococo wordplay gets the intellectualized backdrops to match, but on Smile his logophilia can sit oddly with the innocently exploratory music. Others find “Wonderful”’s lyrics beautiful, for example; I think they’re queasy and almost bogus. Phrases and words poke effectively through “Surf’s Up”s dreamish swirl but the immense power of that song comes from its elegiac melody and singing. And yet….the same thing that makes Parks’ Discover America such a rarefied wonder, the man’s freewheeling joy in history (musical or otherwise), is there too in Smile, and that comes to count for a lot.
Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic explicitly links Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes to Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music. But a pro-Situ guy like Marcus out to realise that Dylan’s field recordings of himself are a cop-out, an explicit retreat away from the pressures and possibilities of pop stardom back into homely authenticity: Dylan was privileged enough to have become fictional, and from this selfish fan’s point of view, he blew it. That’s no parallel to Harry Smith’s work, which went in the opposite direction, hoovering up cultural detritus both populist and arcane and turning it esoteric by sheer force of will (and terrific packaging). In Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles there’s a giddying scene where the young hero uses the Top Of The Pops logo as a magic word, unlocking the weirdness of the everyday, and that’s what the Anthology does too.
Smile is the other great lost album of 1967, of course, and for my money would have made a better comparison point to Smith’s Anthology. Parks’ gnomic lyrics and historical concerns give Smile the same kind of hallucinated-America feel that Marcus so evocatively claims for Smith’s compilation. Wilson rises to the challenge with a crazed melange of found-sounds and musical imagism – “Cabinessence” and “Do You Like Worms?” especially evoke a sense of intense distance, the sudden opening of the American frontier parallelling the sudden opening of the mind under the musical and psychological influence of acid. But more than this, Smile shares with the Anthology the sense of a hidden strangeness within popular music, something that Mike Love of the Beach Boys (for example) felt too, and reacted against, dismissing Wilson’s innovations and questings as arty rubbish. This makes Smile’s non-release particularly effective, of course, since one of the great purposes of bootlegging is to carve out an underground, subcultural space (usually in the name of the ‘real fans’ who want to hear bad-quality live shows, but oh well) in even the sunniest regions of mass culture.
All analysis of Smile comes back to this non-appearance, the record’s ghost aura of lostness. Fred’s piece points out, and I agree, that Smile works best as a perpetually unfinished work, an evolving, ‘modular’, compilation tape. But the lostness of Smile has deeper implications. Prieure saw it as a tragedy, the end of rock’s forward march and the beginning of its slide, fitting him into a coterie of sixties critical doomsayers including Nik Cohn and Richard Meltzer. But Smile was due to be released just before rock’s headlong embrace of the meaningful and the conceptual. Had it come out, it would have fitted nicely into the music’s forced march into the artistic uplands and it would now occupy a cosy place in the canon, to be liked despite itself and with a subconscious grudge.
But as it is, Smile plays a special role in rock history. The collapse of the Smile project sets up a great, unanswerable ‘what if…?’ at the centre of that history; the album’s twilight existence challenges the legitimacy of that legend of rock which puts Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at its summit. It’s not that Smile is better than the Beatles’ record (though it is): the reason Smile is so attractive is because it’s the tangible evidence of an alternative rock history which turned out differently (and maybe less hegemonic). And once you’ve stepped into that history, building up your own gets a little bit easier. Forever unfixed, Smile is a sweet grenade in the middle of the canon, and that’s why I love it.
None of which would matter a damn if the record was boring. It isn’t. Smile isn’t the best album ever, and possibly isn’t the best ever Beach Boys album, but it’s astoundingly original, not in its painstaking approach to studio craft, not even in its numinous sense of wonder (the opening “Our Prayer” is an unfailingly jawdropping experience), but in its optimistic, un-rock themes. The very idea of basing an album around laughter and good health seems cracked, naive and baffling, but that’s what Smile allegedly is: a humour record. And given that every year the angst, contrariness and cynicism of rock’n’roll culture gets more tedious, more oppressive, maybe even more dangerous, the more people exposed to Wilson’s damaged but beautiful humanism the better. The real question about this childish carnival record isn’t what would have happened if it came out then, but what would happen if it came out now.