Lost albums, lost boys

SMiLE

I was 17 when Tom from college turned up at my parents’ house with an urgent need to talk about Brian Wilson.

At that point, I knew very little about the Beach Boys, and even less about Tom – an intense boy who had to bow to pass through doorways, who dressed in indie beige and stoner moss, and communicated mostly through Chris Morris quotes. We barely spoke in classes and certainly didn’t hang out after hours.

Who were his friends? The double-barrelled weed kids, I suppose, because they wore the same non-uniform uniform and the same carefully unstyled, uncut haircuts. They slouched around together, forming and disbanding songless bands every five minutes, dopey and aloof at the same time.

As Tom barged through the front door and made his way towards my room, distant and half-smiling, I thought, oh no, this is part of some elaborate mockery that will end up with my social status sinking lower than it already is.

He inspected my very small record collection, mostly stolen from Mum and Dad or bought at Woolworths: best-ofs and B-side compilations of the Kinks, the odd 99p Britpop single, some albums by the Jam on tape, and an embarrassing number of Hancock’s Half Hour tapes.

No comment, and then, eyes locked on, “Do you know about Smile?”

Smile? What was that? A band, maybe? I was too startled to reply.

“Brian Wilson. The Beach Boys. Smile.”

The Beach Boys, as in ‘Surfin’ USA’? As in the scratched LPs my uncle kept alongside the Ventures and Chris Rea in his Hi-Fi cabinet? My Dad, cooler than me then and always, had no time for the Beach Boys at all.

“No,” I said, and off Tom went, delivering the kind of passionate monologue that would end up on YouTube these days but back then had to be directed at people from college you barely knew, face to face, on gloomy Wednesday afternoons.

Brian Wilson, Tom said, was a genius but driven mad by LSD while producing what was to be his masterpiece, the album Smile, scheduled for release in 1967. It was a symphony, impossibly complex, like Pet Sounds but ten times more ambitious. And then Wilson, so Tom told it, scrapped the album, retired to his bedroom, and was never seen again. But, he went on, the tapes had leaked, and it was possible, if you were connected, to hear snippets – glimpses of something magical out of reach, of pop music on another level.

I don’t remember that I said anything – I was warily awaiting the punchline, and so gave the odd noncommittal uh-huh and mmmm.

After a while, Tom left, and we continued at college as if this moment had never occurred.

But Smile lingered.

It became my ‘thing’, in fact, for many years. I woke up to ‘Prayer’ every morning and listened to hour after hour of ‘Heroes & Villains’ sessions, trading tapes with oddball Americans and eccentric Scandinavians.

When Brian Wilson performed a finished version of Smile in London in 2004, I was there, laughing and sighing with delight.

Smile was found, but Tom got lost.

What I’d taken to be ironic detachment turned out to be clinical. I heard stories of his decline – that he’d dropped out and become a ghost, stalking our home town, back and forth from bedroom to record shop, shaggy and strange.

A Brian Wilson of our own, I suppose, without the cushion of songwriting royalties or the warmth of the sun.

The Quality of Beatlesness

Not the Beatles -- playlist cover montage.

Many musicians have tried to sound like the Beatles and most have failed because what makes the Beatles great and enduring is an essential, alchemical quality of Beatlesness.

Before I get into this, here’s my history with the Beatles. I grew up in a family where the Beatles weren’t especially important. My Dad liked them and had most of their records, but he much preferred the Rolling Stones and the Kinks; Mum hated the Beatles, having pledged her allegiance to the Small Faces in 1965; and the other influential baby boomer in my life, Uncle Norman, was all about the Beach Boys and the Ventures. I think I decided for myself, as a teenage swot trying to work out what music was all about, that the Beatles were essentially crap – excessively revered, too sentimental, too self-indulgent. I mean, brass bands?  No thanks.

Then, during my first year at university, I got religion – a sudden conversion, listening to ‘Strawberry Fields’ over and over again during a thunderstorm, in the circle of light from an Anglepoise. By the time I was 24, my obsession had led me to write 30,000 words on the subject of Revolver in a book that got near to being published as a book before the publisher got taken over, and in e-book form elicited kind comments from various quarters including Rolling Stone. That got it out of my system, or at least the bootleg-seeking, mono-is-best part of the madness.


Get my ‘Not the Beatles’ Spotify Playlists


Every now and then, though, I come back to the Beatles and listen to them obsessively for a week or two. Or, as in the most recent resurgence of interest, their imitators.

Pastiche has always intrigued me. You can learn a lot about H.P. Lovecraft or Sherlock Holmes by reading attempts to imitate them which never quite reach the mark but, in failing, tell us something about the original. Exposing yourself to work that makes you say, “Oh, no – Conan Doyle would never do that,” is a particularly effective way of discerning the outlines of what Conan Doyle did.

The Beatles are an especially productive seed for pastiche and ‘Beatlesque’ is a word that can be applied, and has been applied, to almost every artist from ABBA to the Chemical Brothers at one point or another.

That’s partly because in their psychedelic pomp the Beatles were so much about easily borrowed surface decoration. Use a Mellotron, a piccolo trumpet, a megaphone, some backwards loops, or a sitar, and you immediately have a sprinkle of Beatle dust over your song. Reprise the opening track at the end of your album and provide the bare bones of a concept, perhaps a few spoken words to segue from one song to another, and you’re a step closer. So why does a track such as, say, ‘King Midas in Reverse’ by the Hollies, though it ticks the boxes, not sound like the Beatles? The voices, for starters.

John Lennon’s adenoidal Scouse growl and Paul McCartney’s pretty-boy, pouting purr, apart or combined into a super-weapon, don’t sound like anything or anyone else. Though just occasionally, someone else will give it a shot. One of my favourite Beatles pastiches, which I discovered 20 years ago on a compilation called Circus Days, isn’t on Spotify and so I couldn’t include it on the playlist above (Vol. 2: Pretenders) but is on YouTube. Listen to the vocal on this first verse:

For a moment, for a few seconds, that sounds so like McCartney it’s unnerving. Then they had to ruin it by doing something stupid like hiring a child chorus. In general, the most effective Beatles pasticheurs are either those blessed with a soundalike, or shameless enough simply to do an impression which, even when it sounds daft, still triggers a response in the pleasure centres. Neil Innes’s John Lennon impression is broad but basically accurate, which is a good part of why it’s possible to use Rutles songs, “do a poo poo” and all, as a kind of methadone for Beatles addiction.

The other problem for would-be imitators is that the Beatles weren’t formulaic, or at least the formula mutated so quickly from one record to the next that its shape is hard to discern. Anybody can pick a Beatles song and copy it but they’ll just have that one song, not the key to the entire sound. There are, though, certain techniques and tricks that immediately summon the spirit of the Beatles, such as what Andy Partridge of XTC has called ‘banana fingers piano’ – that insistent, rudimentary thumping that McCartney used time and again. The ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ drum beat is almost the basis of its own sub-genre; and the same might be said for the ‘Taxman’ bassline, and bubbling McCartney notice-me bass more generally.

Production, the sonic texture of the recordings, is important too. Even in an age when you can buy sample libraries of every keyboard at Abbey Road and play them through painstaking digital recreations of the original mixing desk and compressors, the sound seems somehow out of reach. Some attempts end up sounding too clean or too cold, while others lean too far the other way and end up lacking sizzle and crispness. The Beatles weren’t muddy, even when they were dense. Again, the word alchemy springs to mind: those people, those instruments, that space, in that moment, created something greater than the sum of the parts.

Finally, there’s something about energy levels. No pop song ever sounds quite as frantically exciting as ‘Twist and Shout’ or ‘It Won’t Be Long’, or as perfectly mellow and distant as ‘A Day in the Life’. Some of that I suspect came from the Beatles’ confidence, later shading into arrogance, and perhaps it’s hard to broadcast confidence when you’re imitating somebody else, because you don’t really believe who you are is good enough.

Of the bands seeking to imitate the early Beatles (see volumes 2 and 4 above) the most successful are those which manage to capture a little of the amphetamine frenzy, the bite of the guitars, and those voices. ‘Jealousy’ by the Poppees’ is a notably convincing attempt that I reckon would fool 80 per cent of non-obsessives. Wannabe Sgt Peppers get closest when they are able to wriggle into that tiny gap between shoddy (a cheap organ parps into a cheap reverb unit in lieu of a brass section; a synthesiser that sounds more like a B&Q doorbell than a Lowrey) and cheesy (Mantovani strings where they should be Bernard Herrmann; excessively harmonious harmonies).

But Beatlesness is so ethereal that it doesn’t look the same to any two people. The message boards and comment threads I read researching my playlists were full of people saying that this band or that sounds exactly like the Beatles when, frankly, they don’t. I cannot hear the Beatles in Crowded House, for example, but the chances are you won’t hear the Beatles in some of my choices, either. Sometimes it’s only there fleetingly or partially anyway.

Your thoughts on Beatlesness are very welcome. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the playlists.

If you want to listen to all the tracks from the four playlists embedded above on shuffle there’s also a master list, ‘Not the Beatles Vol. X: Everything’. I got a lot of ideas from this website in particular — do have a look.