Category — LETTERS
Beach Boys vs. Beatles:
A Facebook Discussion and Retrospective
By Jeff Katz
My Facebook proposition was simple: “Now that you’ve all had months to hear SMiLE in all its official glory (as opposed to bootlegs and not counting Brian’s solo version), where does it rank? Remember the chronology – Rubber Soul begat Pet Sounds. Revolver followed 3 months later. SMiLE was supposed to be released in Jan 1967; Pepper was released in June of ’67. SMiLE or Pepper? Could be a toss up.”
I know I write too much about The Beatles, but they are still entirely relevant. If Rolling Stone can put the Fabs on the cover every year or so, then your humble ragazine music editor (that’s me) can scribble away. And the actual release towards the end of 2011 of SMiLE, The Beach Boys great missing piece, is certainly au courant.
Sometimes when I posit the terms for a Facebook discussion I request specific opinions. In this instance I did, but got so much more than I bargained for. A brilliant, enlightening panel discussion ensued (if I do say so myself), with over 60 entries. Here were the players:
- Jeff Edstrom – consultant from Chicago who I’ve never met but an interesting guy
- Roger Peltzman – fellow Binghamton alum and wonderful pianist (find him on YouTube)
- Ray St. Denis – fellow Binghamton alum and current chef instructor
- Kelley Duncan – another Bingo alum and former and current Oklahoman
- Eric Scoles – yes, another Binghamton connection and all around insightful dude
- Eric Schafer – Viet Nam by way of Binghamton, a musician with strong opinions
- Joey Katz – youngest son and musical maven
- Michael Lee Smith – Binghamton alum
Edstrom set the table with a great idea – let’s listen to them all in order of release! An excellent thought considering hearing how each work was a reaction to another. Joey began doing so, as did Jeff. While we waited for everyone to finish (if they chose this time consuming path), Ray made his position clear: “I have to go with Pepper for overall songwriting, production quality, breadth of concept, etc. An instant Cultural Signpost. I have to face it, the original SMiLE is just too damn weird, in parts too opaque, ‘in-jokey’ or not serious enough to be anything but a stoned giggle. ‘She’s Going Bald’ or ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow?’ Amateurish if held up to ‘Rita’ or ‘Good Morning.’
Though I countered with the idea that Pepper was a major event in part due to the missing SMiLE, which never was issued (I was later told that on this I was dead wrong), I said, and truly believe, that except for “A Day in the Life,” which stands above all other Beatles tunes, there’s no song on Pepper better than the best of SMiLE. That best includes “Cabinessence,” “Surf’s Up,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Wonderful” and, of course, “Surf’s Up.”
But Ray hit on something quite important. The always safe, seemingly innocent Beach Boys were really fucking strange as the 1960’s progressed. There’s Brian Wilson, already jumping off Sanity Point but the other guys were into meditation, drugs, drink and messed up. Unlike the former Moptops, they didn’t, as a group, have the skill to channel their growing quirks into consistently great work.
Speaking of skill, Rog made a connection between Wilson’s half-fulfilled Smile snippets and Mozart’s Requiem. He felt comparing SMiLE and Pepper was like comparing Edgar Varese to Mahler. I take him at his word. That’s way above my level, a writer who spends his time thinking about The Chocolate Watch Band and old Jerry Lewis records. Didn’t I tell you there’d be enlightenment for all?
I cited an old Lennon line about how Sgt. Pepper worked because The Beatles said it worked. There’s much truth to that. The album contains some weak songs that are surrounded by a powerful aura. But, as Ray pointed out, so does SMiLE. I think Pepper is better but I definitely listened to Smile more in recent months (as did Rog) and that alone makes it a currently larger presence in my mind.
Then Joey chimed in. At 16, Joey is well-versed in music and is a talented musician himself. “Smile is not a great album when it comes to listening to individual tracks, as the whole album is one continuous thread of songs. Sgt. Pepper, on the other hand, is much more well known for the individual songs, while SMiLE is more of thematic piece.” See, he didn’t fall for John’s insistence that Pepper was a “whole.” It’s not. SMiLE is and Joey gets that.
Eric Schafer hurled his first comment in from across the Pacific, hailing Pepper’s production but slamming its “mainly lousy songs.” The thread took a detour into a debate on Beatle quality, with Peltzman defending the Pepper tunes and Ray challenging Eric to list the so-called lousy. Everything after “Lucy” and before “Day” are “clunkers,” he replied, without a quiver of backtracking.
Rog followed with a solid point. “SMiLE is a little like Big Star’s Sister Lovers. Eccentric and the vision of one man. To a lesser degree Ram is like that. They’re cutting edge and exciting.”
You know, he’s dead on and creating that triple-headed hydra was a magical feat. Most listeners hail Brian Wilson’s aborted efforts as mystical genius, while at the same time slamming McCartney’s poorly executed noodlings. No one adds Alex Chilton into the mix. Yet, the three records Roger attaches do have a similar feel, totally quirky and odd but no one I’ve ever read has put those three works together. Well done sir!
Ray wasn’t going to let Eric slip away; he continued jousting over what makes a Beatle standard. Schafer likes A Hard Day’s Night, John and George’s Rubber Soul songs McCartney’s Revolver entries and a few others. Once again, Rog blasted one out of the park, lumping Pepper, Exile, and OK Computer as wholes that are greater than their parts. I have yet to understand that,“Exile is the best Stones album,” or that,“OK Computer is the best album ever,” but they both are excellent and have singular moods.
Eric scored with a quote by Hendrix that Pepper is “the most non-physical album ever made.” Though it was actually Pete Townshend who said it (a fact dug out by Detective Raymond St. Denis), it’s a solid statement marking the point where rock became less about dancing and more about thinking, like the move in jazz from Big Band to Bebop, the latter a thinking man’s exercise.
Michael, in his only entry, brought us back to the original subject, but in an interesting and truthful, way. “I must be the only person who doesn’t like the Beach Boys. Zzzzz.” In side, even the biggest Beach Boys fans know there’s much validity to that. The beatification of Brian Wilson and the elevation of The Beach Boys to artistic equals of the best of their era is a meme that often completely wipes out, like the hero of a surf song. Ray agreed, reflecting on when he thought they were squaresville, until he heard Pet Sounds and Smile bootlegs, as well as specific tracks sure to change a naysayers mind.
“The problem with most Beach Boys songs,” I wrote, “is that they are lyrically stunted. No sophistication at all, though the surf/car stuff has a feel all its own. What makes them great are the tunes, the harmonies and Brian’s voice. As Ray says, check out “Please Let Me Wonder.” It’s an all time great song. I was surprised to find, as I got older, that there were a substantial amount of quality album tracks outside the hits. Lots of shit too. Sort of like The Stones pre-Beggars Banquet.” And after, I’ll now add.
After a few meanderings, Jeff Edstrom reappeared. See, he was the only one who took his own advice and sat and listened! His thoughts:
“I started to listen to the recordings in order. I have not purchased SMiLE. I don’t know which one is the representative album. I went from Rubber Soul to Pet Sounds to Revolver to “Strawberry Fields as a single that stopped Brian Wilson in his tracks. I found myself focusing on the emotions of the songs rather than the engineering and the structure of the songs. What was interesting is that Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds are parallel albums of a sort. There’s a struggle with the theme of love that is going wrong and the response that you have to it. It gave me fresh ears to listen to it. Brian Wilson is caught up in the depressive agony of losing someone, while the Beatles are taking a slightly bitter angry view at it. With Revolver, the Beatles are starting to come out of it and taking more mature view of relationships. The relationships of the band members probably contributed to the albums. The Beatles stopped touring and went to the studio and worked toward the albums together as a group, whereas Brian Wilson stayed at home while the rest of the Beach Boys toured. There’s an insularity of the Beach Boys that you don’t find in the Beatles. Brian Wilson sitting alone in his room trying to deal with the roller coaster of emotions while the Beatles are seemingly talking with each other, each with their own take but moving in the same direction.”
For me, Jeff’s take on the two views of love and relationships was a brand new point of view. I thought it was an excellent analysis and the group’s views of love as refracted through the prism of group dynamics made me think deeper about the albums in question.
Then Jeff had to go and bring up Murry Wilson, Brian, Carl and Dennis’ drunk, abusive piece of shit father. Ray directed us to a YouTube clip of a shitfaced Papa Wilson instructing the band on harmonies and such during a session for “Help Me Rhonda.” It’s painfully uncomfortable, the aural equivalent of waking by as a parent smacks their kid for being grabby in the candy aisle.
“What a cock!” I wrote. “I hate listening or reading about that guy.” Ray admitted he too couldn’t get through the tape. Horrible stuff.
As we plugged along, jumping from topic to topic, Jeff E. gave us all a well-deserved pat on the back. “One of the best threads I’ve seen in a long time.” Now I have to say that Jeff gets into some heated political arguments with the same people he fits in with nicely when it comes to music. Nothing explodes political strife better than a discussion on the relative merits of favorite bands and songs. Ah, the power of music to bridge divides!
The talk returned to SMiLE and how, even if it had been released it would have failed to make the sales impact of Pepper, certainly on the heels of Pet Sounds’ disappointing reception in the States. Though Ray noted that the inclusion of “Good Vibrations” would…well, his words are best left unparsed:
“I agree, Jeff, that SMiLE would certainly have been even less successful than Pet Sounds, and that Pepper would have always captured the zeitgeist. However, with “Good Vibrations” on SMiLE, as was originally considered, you would have an album… that sold, though surely would have confounded people even more than those who bought PS for “Sloop John B”. If Pepper is the English 3 Ring Circus of 67, safe and good vibes-y, SMiLE is an American sideshow; stranger, with pronounced gothic touches. Do You Like Worms? With A Little Help From My Friends! Who ran the I-ron Horse? Would you be free to take some tea with me?”
Kelley’s first salvo brought us to a different level altogether. He’s older than the rest of us 1960’s wannabees who look back as adults to a time when we were in kindergarten. Duncan on the other hand was there, a teenager in 1967. His ability to look at it in hindsight, when he existed in present-sight, is admittedly clouded. We now travelled down a distinctly different road.
The good old days, which now include the 1980’s, had Eric Schafer bemoaning the loss of cultural connectivity, which he saw as disappearing with the transition from album art and ephemera to MP3 and ethereal. Kelley wistfully concurred, citing his first album purchase, The Beach Boys’ Shutdown Vol. II, and his own hero Craig Breedlove, subject of “Spirit of America.” (Duncan hates that tune; I quietly disagree).
Our other Eric S., Mr. Scoles, followed with some of the best writing on any topic I’ve read recently. “As my wife is fond of reminding me, change happens whether we want it to or not. If you’d like the artifacts and think you can get people into them, great but lamenting their passing is really only useful as a nostalgia exercise and it says more or less nothing about art per se.” Schafer rebuffed this trivializing of his big point on social consciousness into a minor quibbling on artifacts, but Scoles continued. I quote him here:
“Maybe, but I’m not sure this has much to do with that. And it’s not as simple as disposable versus permanent. Things have appropriate life cycles and we often have a tendency to try to extend things beyond their appropriate life cycles — it can be as much of a problem as rampant disposability. We end up setting up a war of ‘preservers’ versus ‘progressors.’ People are often quick to cite the persistent artifacts that are used in traditional culture — but they’re not so quick to recognize the disposable artifacts. For every genuinely wonderful chair or wagon or hand-welded trailer hitch, there’s a dozen quick and dirty tools made out of a stick and a pocket knife. For every opera score with detailed production notes, there’s a thousand people showing ten thousand other people how to play a tune without ever writing down lyrics or notes and likely changing it in the process.
As for what’s going to happen to the youth, only they can tell us that. Really, that way of putting it — a shift to disposable culture — has been more or less intact since the early 60s and it goes back probably hundreds of years if you shift your terminology a little. Is it bad? Yeah, probably; it’s certainly not how we would like to see things done if we’re going to be living sustainably on the planet. But it’s a rung bell. If we want a more socially connected culture, we’ve got to make one, and I just don’t see the promotion of arbitrary artifacts (e.g., something that denies the inherent disposability of digital files) as a useful step. It’s like saying ‘You know the critical property of this thing we made for you? That it’s based on data that has no physical reality to it? Well, you can’t use it to actually make anything because that discourages social interaction in some way we’re not eager to define.’
“All that aside and in addition: if we’re relying on the value of the whole artifact as a signal for the quality of the musical component, we’re missing out, big time. The beautiful artifact can have a venal, unhealthy core. Actors give great performances in abhorrent plays and films; musicians play beautifully on meaningless pieces; producers and directors produce magnificent, beautiful, enduring works of cinema that encourage us all to behave in ways that are destructive to society.”
That’s brilliant right? The thread had hit an insightful philosophical endpoint.
I tread a fine line, I know. “My friends are scintillating.” Can that really come across? I hope it does. Maybe it’s like watching someone else’s slide show and wishing you were far away, as they enthusiastically babble on. What Facebook has granted us is another look at people we once knew and now know again, former friends who were and remain so smart, so witty, so deeply thoughtful.
“We drift apart for a/Little bit of a spell/One night I get a call/And I know that you’re well.” Carl Wilson sang that on “Friends.” (You thought I’d quote “With a Little Help from My Friends?” Too easy.). Take this thread as a series of late night calls, from a group of people who have drifted apart over the decades but, through the continued power of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, still find quite a bit to talk about.
June 29, 2012 2 Comments