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Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!)
A snapshot of the ascension of Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson in 1965 was an artist in the middle of one of the most astonishing periods of growth and creativity in music history.
If you listen to the music of the Beach Boys chronologically from ‘Surfin’’ to the sessions for SMiLE, an unbroken curve of growing sophistication of sound, harmony and lyric emerges.
It’s an exhilarating ride to hear Brian on his way to becoming pop music’s Maestro of the 1960s.
Here are a few highlights: the use of the harp in ‘Catch a Wave,’ how the backing vocals in ‘Shut Down’ push the song’s narrative forward, the ecstatic explosion of school spirit in ‘Be True to Your School,’ the incredible vocal chorale that threads through ‘I Get Around,’ the contemplation of the move from teen- to adulthood in ‘When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)’ and the celebration baked into every second of ‘Dance, Dance, Dance.’
We then come to Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), the second album that the Beach Boys released in 1965. For me, it’s a most interesting album to contemplate when thinking about the Beach Boys and about Brian Wilson in particular.
It’s the final studio album (The Beach Boys’ Party notwithstanding) before Pet Sounds. To listen to it is to hear how much Brian’s sophistication in the studio could amplify their odes to summer, cars and California. It also strongly hints at the steps the Beach Boys would take in the coming 24 months. More simply, it’s the sound of The American Band of the Mid-Sixties.
‘Help Me, Rhonda’
The first side closer was the Beach Boys’ second #1 hit. A re-make of the version recorded for The Beach Boys Today!, Brian soups things up: a faster, more driving tempo, an intricate vocal arrangement that powers the chorus, the harmonica-driven interlude in the first version axed in favour of a far more propulsive and interesting one. ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ is a prime example of Brian Wilson as hit-maker, freed from the obligations of touring to concentrate and create within the four walls of the recording studio.
‘Salt Lake City’
If forced to pick my favourite deep cuts by the Beach Boys, ‘Salt Lake City’ would be high up on the list. The lyrics itself are similar to many of the early Beach Boys songs that celebrate teen life in America, but the soundscape Brian created is miles beyond almost all of them. Powered by Hal Blaine’s drums and a middle section that heralds ‘Here Today’ and ‘I Know There’s An Answer’ on Pet Sounds, the song is one of the very few where Brian and Mike Love trade-off on the lead vocal. When I hear it, it’s a chance to forget the bitter rivalry that has calcified between them and concoct an alternate reality where they are joined in song, working together to create music they can jointly be proud of. Another lovely aspect of ‘Salt Lake City’ is the acapella section at the end that is broken by several Blaine snare-drum hits. A measure of his genius is that you know you are listening to him on a record simply by the way he hits the snare. Hal Blaine was that good.
‘Let Him Run Wild’
Undoubtedly, ‘Let Him Run Wild’ is the strongest harbinger of Pet Sounds. The backing track is gloriously sophisticated with vibraphone, reeds and multiple guitar parts that forms a perfect bed for the powerful lyrics that cover the same terrain that ‘I’m Waiting for the Day’ would. The backing vocals bring gorgeous harmony to support Brian’s lead in the second and third verse, and Mike has a tender bass part as the chorus transitions back to the verse.
‘I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man’
The weirdest, strangest track on the album and the closest to a throw-way cut, ‘I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man’ is easy to dismiss and a reminder of how earlier Beach Boys’ albums were similarly padded-out—putting together three to four full-length albums a year was a punishingly tall order. But, one day, I thought about LPs like Smiley Smile and Wild Honey which are chock full of low-fi curiosities and wondered if maybe ‘I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man’ is a foreshadowing of what came after the end of the SMiLE sessions, even if unintentionally. It’s another way to look at the song, at the very least.
The rest of Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) is not to be overlooked, least of which ‘California Girls,’ arguably the finest Brian Wilson production prior to Pet Sounds. And I’d be remiss to not put in a word for ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me,’ a nod to the emerging back-and-forth between the Beach Boys and the Beatles (I see your Rubber Soul and raise you Pet Sounds). There’s an endless summer here to savour and enjoy.
Bob Dylan at 80: I thought about writing some thoughts to mark Dylan’s 80th birthday on May 24, but honestly, what can I say that hasn’t said been before? Not that I don’t feel strongly about Dylan (I do!!!!!) or have my own thoughts about his undisputed importance (a world where Dylan didn’t head to New York in the early-60s and proceed to change the course of music history is inconceivable), but nothing really came together.
Scrolling Twitter on the 24th was a fun way to contemplate Dylan’s legacy and to see how other chose to mark the day. Here are some tweets that caught my eye and seem to sum up the multitudes, contradictions and mysteries of Robert Allen Zimmerman.
The summer of Michael McDonald: My music and podcast listening has included a lot of Michael McDonald recently—it’s felt a little bit like 1980 all over again!
The first single for David Crosby’s upcoming album, For Free (coming out July 23!), was released last week and includes what is a calling card for McDonald: backup vocalist extraordinaire. It’s a supremely enjoyable track for the beginning of summer.
As well, I have tuned into McDonald-themed episodes of two of my favourite music podcasts.
He appears on Questlove’s Questlove Supreme for an almost two-hour conversation that delves deep into all sorts of matters, including a hilarious re-enactment of the Doobie Brothers’ appearance on What’s Happening!!.
I am also a big fan of Heat Rocks hosted by Oliver Wong and Morgan Rhodes. Each episode features a guest from the world of music discussing an album that is special to him or her. The conversation is insightful and an opportunity to re-discover and newly discover great music. Among the episodes I have enjoyed is one on Steely Dan’s Aja with music supervisor Kier Lehman that has a strong Michael McDonald angle through his legendary spot on ‘Peg.’
Both episodes and podcasts are well-worth a listen however you like to catch your podcasts.
Some songs I’ve been enjoying: Here are three songs I have been listening to a lot on Spotify. No commentary here—I’ll let the music speak for itself.
‘Summer Rain’, Johnny Rivers
‘Do It Good’, Bill Withers
‘You Got It In Your Soulness’, Les McCann & Eddie Harris