Search Results for: Shelved

Shelved: The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s “Brain Opera”

Michael Putland / Getty, Photo Illustration by Homestead Studio

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | September 2019 | 18 minutes (3,497 words)

 

In 1993, interviewers from the psychedelic music magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope stood on Viv Stanshall’s stoop, wondering if he would answer the doorbell. Stanshall’s friend, who set up the meeting, was just beginning to apologize when she turned and gasped: A frail and obviously drunk Stanshall, according to the article, “staggering down the road clutching a carved stick and a white plastic carrier bag containing a freshly purchased bottle of Mr. Smirnoff’s elixir,” lurched toward the house.

“Vivian, you look awful!” the friend said. “Where’s your shoes?”

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Shelved: Van Morrison’s Contractual Obligation Album

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Tom Maxwell | Longreads | August 2019 | 12 minutes (2,134 words)

 

Sometime between the massive success of his first single “Brown-Eyed Girl” and the extraordinary musical statement of Astral Weeks, Van Morrison walked into a New York studio and recorded thirty-one of his worst songs.

To be fair, he was terrible on purpose. What became known as Morrison’s “revenge” or Contractual Obligation album is perhaps the most distinguished of many record label f-yous. Comprised of over thirty songs supposedly recorded in an afternoon, with titles such as “The Big Royalty Check” and “Blow In Your Nose,” the work was, understandably, shelved. Apparently that was the point: Morrison wanted to get out of his contract with Bang Records and make a new home with Warner Brothers, and the Contractual Obligation songs were supposedly central to that transition. Morrison’s Bang Records contract stipulated quantity, not quality. The truth, about all of it, is a lot more interesting.

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Shelved: Jimi Hendrix’s Black Gold Suite

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Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2019 | 20 minutes (3,275 words)

 

On a blustery winter day in February 1970, Rolling Stone managing editor John Burks entered a New York apartment on East 37th street. “Inside his manager’s neo-turn-of-the-century apartment, on a sofa near the radiant fireplace, sat Jimi Hendrix, in a gentle, almost reticent frame of mind,” Burks wrote. “The light snow had begun to fall. You could see that through the narrow slits where the curtain allowed the merest sliver of daylight and streetscene to penetrate into the gloomy dark room.”

Burks was brought in to provide the centerpiece for a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign: a feature story about the reforming of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. The group, consisting of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Mitch Mitchell (both of whom were white) had disbanded the previous autumn. Since then, the rock ‘n’ roll guitar virtuoso had busied himself by befriending other African Americans: Trumpeter Miles Davis, jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and (according to Burks) “living and jamming with an all-purpose crew of musicians — everything from older black gentlemen from the South who played blues guitar, to a band of avant garde jazz/space musicians under the general leadership of a flute player named Juma — and talking about coming up with something new.”

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Shelved: Lee Hazlewood’s Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | June 2019 | 20 minutes (2,599 words)

 

Discouraged by the British Invasion, producer and songwriter Lee Hazlewood was planning to retire in 1964. The 35-year-old had certainly earned enough money to do it. Then Hazlewood’s next-door neighbor asked if he wanted to produce Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank.

“I’m not interested in producing second-generation artists,” Hazlewood said flatly — he’d already done that with Dean Martin’s son’s band — but then he agreed to a meeting.

“Everybody knows I drink Chivas,” Hazlewood remembered about that night. “When I walked in their house to meet with Nancy (she was living with her mom then), all along the walls, cleverly displayed, were all these bottles of Chivas lined up. And a bunch of my friends were there. It was Bobby Darin, a bunch more, and I’m thinkin’, ‘Wait a minute, what is this? I haven’t seen these people in months.’ … Halfway through the evening her dad comes through the door and meets me. They go in the kitchen and they’re talking. He comes out, shakes my hand, and says ‘I’m glad you kids are going to be working together’ and then walks out the door. I had only said that I’d come over and meet her!”

Having accepted an offer he couldn’t really refuse, Hazlewood set about updating Nancy’s image. “You’ve been married and now you’re divorced, and people know that,” Nancy said he told her. “So, let’s lose this virgin image. Let’s get rid of it.He had Sinatra sing in a lower register. “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” his original song that she agreed to record, became a No. 1 hit. The lyrics caused a bit of a stir.

“The controversy was [the word] ‘mess,’” Hazlewood, who grew up in the South, said. “‘Mess,’ down here where I live, in those days, was ‘fuck.’ If somebody said, ‘What did you do last night?’ ‘I was out messin’.’ I thought it was that way all over the world. But it wasn’t that way in Chicago, New York, or L.A.”

And that is the story of Lee Hazlewood’s most famous song and collaboration. Not as well-known are Hazlewood’s many other songwriting credits, his groundbreaking production techniques, or his foundational work creating a voice for the electric lead guitar. Then there’s the previously unreleased surf music record that Hazlewood wrote and produced.

“What I was struck with right off the top,” Hazlewood friend and collaborator Marty Cooper said about Cruisin’ for Surf Bunnies, “it sounds to me, because it’s got 12 songs on it, and the albums in those days had 12 songs on them, this is an album in search of a band, in the sense that it doesn’t actually sound like a band, but it’s too complete to not have been submitted as … ‘find a band.’ Maybe even like the Monkees or find the successors to the Beach Boys over on Capitol. I got that impression. There are certain things about it — the fact that Lee did not write all of [the songs]. It’s very meticulous.”

No one knows exactly why Cruisin’ for Surf Bunnies by Lee Hazlewood’s Woodchucks (a catch all name for his studio band) was shelved. When it was issued in September 2018, 11 years after his death, it seemed an odd postscript to an already iconoclastic career. Instead of an outlier, it’s further proof that, as a sculptor of sound, Hazlewood’s life as a songwriter and producer ranged more widely than most of his successful peers.

Born in Oklahoma in 1929, Hazlewood and his family moved with his itinerant oilfield father’s jobs through Louisiana and Arkansas, and finally wound up in Texas. He studied medicine before leaving university to serve in the Korean War. “My mom liked pop music and my dad liked bluegrass,” Lee once said. “So she complained always about his liking bluegrass — which, by the way, was a ‘love’ complaint — I grew up kinda all mixed up. I mean with music. And then I fell in love with Stan Kenton and the blues ’cause blues comes from this part of the world. So everything’s all mixed up.”

Instead of an outlier, Cruisin’ for Surf Bunnies is further proof that, as a sculptor of sound, Hazlewood’s life as a songwriter and producer ranged more widely than most of his successful peers.

By 1955, Hazlewood found himself working as a radio DJ and the owner of his own small record label in Phoenix, Arizona. He was also writing new material. Borrowing a riff from Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, he wrote and produced the song “The Fool” for rockabilly singer Sanford Clark in 1956 — Hazlewood’s third single — a hit later covered by Elvis. Hazlewood also developed a new sound for local session guitarist Al Casey, who played on “The Fool.”

“I had to have an echo,” Hazlewood explained years later. “We just went out driving around, ’cause there’s a lot of places around Phoenix with small grain elevators. So we just went out and yelled in ’em all day. I yelled and yelled and yelled ’til I found one. … So we set it up outside the studio and put a little microphone at one end and a little speaker at the other. It worked very nice. …The only problem that we ever had with it is that birds would sit and chirp on it. It wasn’t a problem on the heavy stuff, but on the ballads, the quiet things, the birds would like to sing along. So we had to have someone out there to shoo the birds away.”

The grain silo echo effect proved popular with Hazlewood’s other collaborator, twangy instrumental guitarist Duane Eddy. Eddy’s 1958 anthem “Rebel-‘Rouser” — another Hazlewood composition — began a streak of big sellers. Hazlewood helped create a new lead guitar sound in the process.

“When I was in high school, there was a piano player I admired with slicked-back oily hair from New York called Eddy Duchin,” Hazlewood said, “and he played the melody way down there. I always thought that it would be nice if a guitarist did the same thing. When I first met Duane, I told him that I wanted to make a record with those low notes and he said, ‘I can do that.’ … We sold 25 million records over four years, which wasn’t bad.”

Hazlewood released his first solo record in 1963, a concept album called Trouble Is a Lonesome Town.

You won’t find it on any map

But take a step in any direction and

You’re in Trouble

It’s at once wry, hokey, and perceptive. Hazlewood has the vocal authority of Johnny Cash, the melodic sense of Roger Miller, and the just-this-side-of-parody folksiness of Tom T. Hall. He introduces songs on Trouble Is a Lonesome Town with extended spoken-word character sketches and cowboy poems. The instrumentation is acoustic and spare, and the touch of reverb transforms the songs into a dreamscape. Musically and thematically, Trouble Is a Lonesome Town is entirely self-contained and uniquely Lee Hazlewood. “That was a demo,” Hazlewood revealed in 2000. “I didn’t know it was a concept album. I wrote a complete story of a make-believe town.”

It says a lot that Hazlewood could put so much effort into a project he would later dismiss as only a demo. His success gave him the luxury to tinker in the studio, regardless of expense, in the same year when the Beatles recorded their first album in less than ten hours.

With this understanding, it’s easy to see how Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies came into being. Surf music, popular since 1962, was largely instrumental and featured a typically reverb-laden lead guitar. In other words, whether its practitioners knew it or not, surf owed much of its expression to Lee Hazlewood. Working with Duane Eddy and using his grain silo reverb, he’d helped develop the technique. He had the producer’s savvy to take advantage of America’s latest musical craze. Now living in Los Angeles, Hazlewood had the connections to assemble the best studio band available — one that would famously become known as the Wrecking Crew.

“I didn’t call em the Wrecking Crew,” Hazlewood recalled. “That wasn’t my name. I brought Al Casey with me from Phoenix. I used a rhythm guitarist that nobody else used, a guy named Donnie Owens. [Drummer] Hal Blaine worked for me before he worked for anybody. He was working for Patti Page, then he worked for me, then of course we all spread the word about Hal and all the rest of the guys. Over here they were called the Wrecking Team, but when they worked for Sinatra they were called the B Team. I just called them my rhythm section ’cause I started a lot of them. Not started, but I got a lot of them a lot of work. And sometimes I couldn’t get ’em, and that really broke my heart. A year earlier you could call Hal and get him anytime.”

The reason for this is that Blaine and the rest of the Crew had become the most in-demand session players in the business, backing Jan and Dean, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees, Herb Alpert, and Sonny and Cher, among others. They became the Beach Boys’ house band at the time of Brian Wilson’s greatest musical achievements, and were often employed by “wall of sound” producer Phil Spector, who began his career working for Lee Hazlewood.

“Phil had just started to make records and he came over to Phoenix a few times,” Hazlewood once said plainly. “I liked Phil. He was more Lester Sills’s protégé than mine. Although Phil asked a lot of questions, and I answered as many as I could.”

In other words, whether its practitioners knew it or not, surf music owed much of its expression to Lee Hazlewood.

“I told him on a number of occasions that I reckoned Spector had stolen his ideas: You only have to listen to Lee’s early work and then compare it to Spector’s to suspect that they may well be connected,” Hazlewood biographer Wyndham Wallace once said. “But Lee would dismiss this suggestion with a wave of the hand.”

As would be expected, when the prolific Hazlewood died, he left a cache of reel-to-reel tapes of both finished and unfinished recordings in his studio vaults. Matt Sullivan, music lover and entrepreneur, gained access to Hazlewood’s vault, and Sullivan’s Light in the Attic record label began releasing material as part of their Hazlewood archive series. “Deep in the LHI tape archive,” the label wrote on their website, “hid a mysterious tape marked ‘Woodchucks.’” When you write and record as much as Hazlewood, you leave a trail of tapes in your wake that others get tasked with sifting through. Only a talent who could dismiss a fully realized record as a demo could so casually shelve a session as complete as Surf Bunnies. Unfortunately, Hazlewood didn’t leave many details about the writing or recording of the record.

Some version of the Wrecking Crew assembled to cut Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies on October 26, 1964, in Studio E at United Records studios in Los Angeles. “I’m not sure everybody that played on it,” Hazlewood collaborator Marty Cooper said after hearing the tapes, “but I can tell you that I can’t imagine anybody but Al Casey being the guitarist on that. If you go back to [Casey’s] ‘Surfin’ Hootenanny,’ which was on that label out of Chicago that Lee got a bunch of money for … there again, he could depend on Al to give him these various sounds. That’s my first impression.”

Cooper was interviewed by Hunter Lea, who wrote the liner notes for the album when Light in the Attic Records issued Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies in 2018. Cooper had his own surf music credentials, having written “The Lonely Surfer,” a hit for Jack Nitzsche in 1963.

“It’s got every gimmick on it that you can have,” Cooper continued. “The other thing that makes me feel like it was a project as opposed to demos: it’s so assiduously non–Duane Eddy. One of the tracks has a little bit of tremolo, but there’s no tremolo guitar, there’s no lonely surfer guitar, there’s no Duane Eddy Fender tremolo. It’s just not there. That’s what makes me think [Lee] must’ve had a grand plan for [the project] that didn’t work out.”

Only one single from the project, “Angry Generation,” was released at the time, after being “sweetened,” in Lea’s words, “with overdubs.” Later covered by surf music architect Dick Dale, it communicates an incandescent menace.

Dale wasn’t the only artist to help himself to this musical buffet. Other Surf Bunnies songs were covered by the Astronauts, Jack Nitzsche, the Ventures, and the Surfaris — as well as John Paul Jones, later to become Led Zeppelin’s bassist. The Duane Eddy low-note lead guitar is present and correct on Jones’s version of “Baja.”

The next year Hazlewood would consider retirement, then enjoy the career catapult of “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” Hazlewood and Sinatra would also duet with great success, most notably with 1967’s lush “Some Velvet Morning.”

“Some velvet morning when I’m straight,” Hazlewood sings without fear of censorship, “I’m gonna open up your gate.”

“I write songs with double and triple meanings,” Hazlewood told writer Spencer Leigh in 2004. “I know that my songs are a little different and I would say that I am the best writer of Lee Hazlewood songs.”

Another Hazlewood/Sinatra production, the Les Paul–inflected bonbon “Sugar Town” was actually about drugs.  

As would be expected, when the prolific Hazlewood died, he left a cache of reel-to-reel tapes of both finished and unfinished recordings in his studio vaults.

“In those days they were taking sugar cubes and putting acid on ’em,” he told rock ‘n’ roll archivist and collector Billy Miller. “And of course that would be ‘Sugar Town,’ wouldn’t it? You had to make the lyric dingy enough where the kids knew what you were talking about — and they did. Double entendre. But not much more if you wanted to get it played on the radio. We used to have lots of trouble with lyrics, but I think it’s fun to keep it hidden a little bit.”

Hazlewood continued releasing solo albums, as well as duetting with actress and singer Ann Margret. He founded a new record label, Lee Hazlewood Industries, which signed country rock pioneer Gram Parsons’s first group, the International Submarine Band. When Parsons later joined the Byrds, his vocals on Sweetheart of the Rodeo had to be erased because of a contractual dispute with LHI. (“We had some problems there,” Hazlewood remembered, “but we straightened them out. [Parsons] had to pay back all his royalties and everything. But he had to pay back through earnings, and I knew he never would.”)

After moving to Sweden in 1970, Hazlewood kept a low profile, releasing albums in a fitfull manner. In the late ’90s, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley began reissuing Hazlewood records to a receptive crowd that included Beck and Jarvis Cocker. Lee’s final album, 2006’s Cake or Death, contains his epitaph, the string-laden “T.O.M. (The Old Man)”:

Have you seen the mountains? They still hug the snow

And have you seen the old man? He’s ready to go

And his tongue — his tongue tastes forever, and his mind wonders what forever will bring

In this place they call forever, will there be any songs to sing?

Hazlewood died of renal cancer the following year. “I’ve been around long enough now,” he told the New York Times shortly before his death. “I’ve lived a pretty interesting life — not too much sadness, a lot of happiness, lots of fun. And I didn’t do much of anything I didn’t want to do.”

“He was a master — there’s no question about it,” Marty Cooper noted. “He invented sounds that no one was doing.” When genres like surf music employed some of those sounds, Hazlewood played with those expressions too. Then he moved on.

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Sam Schuyler

Shelved: Tupac and MC Hammer’s Promising Collaboration

Illustration by Homestead

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2019 | 14 minutes (2,898 words)

 

In 1990, rapper Stanley “MC Hammer” Burrell stood at the pinnacle of popular culture. His stage show featured 32 musicians and dancers, all of whom attended a rigorous boot camp. According to an Ebony magazine article from that year, the boot camp consisted of “four miles of jogging, weight training, and at least six hours of dancing daily.” “Hammer Time” cultural saturation included demonstrations of his athletic “Hammer Dance” on Oprah and appearances in commercials for British Knights athletic shoes and Pepsi. Hammer owned 2,000 pairs of baggy “Arabian pants,” which, along with gold lamé vests, made up his distinctive stage image.

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Shelved: Brian Wilson’s Adult/Child

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Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (3,519 words)

 

One day in 1976, Brian Wilson sat down at the piano in his Los Angeles home, turned on a tape recorder, and began to play. There’s a density to the introductory chords, like the air of an approaching storm. “Time for supper now,” he sings on the demo recording, the first verse so banal as to be almost exotic.

Day’s been hard and I’m so tired

I feel like eating now

Smell the kitchen now

Hear the maid whistle a tune

My thoughts are fleeting now

“Still I dream of it,” Wilson continues, his gutted voice not quite hitting the high note, “of that happy day when I can say I’ve fallen in love. And it haunts me so, like a dream that’s somehow linked to all the stars above.”

The extraordinary chord progression, intricate melody, and anguished bridge all demonstrate “Still I Dream of It” to be a song written by a master songsmith, although one in decline. The confident tenor and soaring falsetto of Wilson’s youth are gone, and yet the song is somehow better for the ragged vulnerability. If you know about the life of the man leading up to this moment, the poignancy of this performance is almost unbearable.

“Still I Dream of It” was intended for inclusion on Adult/Child, a Beach Boys album that was immediately shelved upon recording. A bewildering mix of sublime and terrible songs, and a hodgepodge of arrangement approaches from big band to minimoog, Adult/Child is a bookend to the Beach Boys’ famously postponed 1967 opus, Smile. The first project documented a visionary at the height of his musical powers, unmoored by drugs and set adrift by overambition and a general lack of support; the second project is one of the final blows of that artist’s losing battle with his former self. What is most conspicuous about the period in between is Wilson’s absence.

Wilson showed an idiosyncratic musical genius from the start. “Brian took accordion lessons, on one of those little baby accordions, for six weeks,” his mother Audree told Rolling Stone in 1976. “And the teacher said, ‘I don’t think he’s reading. He just hears it once and plays the whole thing through perfectly.’” As a teenager, Wilson learned the complicated harmony parts of the Four Freshmen, teaching them to his younger brothers Carl and Dennis. The three formed a band called the Pendletones with cousin Mike Love and classmate Al Jardine. At Dennis’s suggestion, Wilson wrote songs about surfing and surf culture. Their first single, 1961’s “Surfin’,” and their ensuing demo, was popular enough to eventually get the band, now called the Beach Boys, a seven-year contract with Capitol Records.

Their first album, Surfin’ Safari, owed more to Chuck Berry than Dick Dale, whose reverb-soaked aggressive guitar instrumentals defined the surf music form. (“I wrote ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.,” Wilson recently said, “because of [Berry’s] ‘Sweet Little Sixteen.’”) But the Beach Boys would not only go on to redefine surf music, they would fix the idea of Southern California in the national consciousness. Their music mapped this mythic place, fusing elements of early rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, doo-wop, and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Much of this music originated in New York; Wilson’s early genius was to synthesize these musical elements and make a home for them on the other side of the country.

Beginning in 1963, two things happened in succession to solidify Wilson’s career path. The first was the release of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Perhaps more than the song, Wilson was blown away by producer Phil Spector’s orchestrative approach. “That was when I started to design the experience to be a record rather than just a song,” Wilson remembered.  

The second momentous event in young Wilson’s life was the British Invasion, which pretty much killed off all other forms of popular music, including surf. To make things worse, the Beach Boys and the Beatles shared an American record label, who turned its attention from the former to the latter. Wilson wrote his last surf song in 1964, although Capitol Records continued to bill the band as “America’s Top Surfin’ Group.” By 1965, Wilson had produced and mostly composed 16 singles and nine albums for the Beach Boys.

Wilson stopped touring in 1965, concentrating on songwriting and producing. After hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, he was inspired to make his own “complete statement.” While the band toured, he worked for months on a project, using session musicians from collectively known as “the Wrecking Crew,” whose all-star players previously worked with Phil Spector. The resulting album, Pet Sounds, was released in 1966. Paul McCartney described one of its songs, “God Only Knows,” as the best ever written. “If you could just write maybe the bridge to ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ — that would be an accomplishment for most writers for a lifetime,” Al Jardine once reflected about another Pet Sounds track. “Just the bridge.”

Now considered a masterwork, Pet Sounds was not entirely well received by the band or their label. Mike Love, who once called it “Brian’s ego music,” found some of the lyrics “nauseating.” Capitol Records, alarmed at the $70,000 price tag — about $550,000 today — and realizing there weren’t any obvious singles on the record to help them recoup, stopped the recording and considered shelving the album. Wilson showed up at a tense record label meeting with a tape player. Instead of answering label questions, he instead played recordings of his own voice saying, “That’s a great idea,” “No, let’s not do that,” or “I think we should think about that. Rather than embracing the band’s new approach, the label put the record out in May 1966, then quickly compiled Best of the Beach Boys, releasing it less than two months later. The best-of easily outsold the new album. Brian Wilson was already in competition with nostalgia for an earlier version of his own band. He was 24.

Meanwhile, John Lennon and Paul McCartney liked Pet Sounds so much they made Beach Boy Bruce Johnston play it for them twice on a trip to London to promote the album. “I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence,” McCartney said years later. “If records had a director within a band, I sort of directed [Sergeant Pepper]. And my influence was basically the Pet Sounds album. John was influenced by it, perhaps not as much as me.” (Wilson remembers Lennon calling him after hearing Pet Sounds and telling him it was “the greatest album ever made.”)

Already on a steady diet of amphetamines, marijuana, and hashish, Wilson began dropping LSD. “At first, my creativity increased more than I could believe,” he told The Guardian in 2011. “On the downside, it fucked my brain.”

Although hurt by the way Pet Sounds was treated, Wilson continued to evolve his production and recording process. Central to this approach was topping his previous effort. The result was one song recorded between February and September 1966 — a song that used more than 90 hours of tape and cost, in Wilson’s estimation, as much as the entire Pet Sounds project: “Good Vibrations.” In addition to arranging for cello, a theremin, and a bass harmonica, Wilson consciously used the recording studio as an instrument.

“‘Good Vibrations’ took six months to make,” Wilson told Rolling Stone. “We recorded the very first part of it at Gold Star Recording Studio, then we took it to a place called Western, then we went to Sunset Sound, then we went to Columbia. … Because we wanted to experiment with combining studio sounds. Every studio has its own marked sound. Using four different studios had a lot to do with the way the final record sounded.

“My mother used to tell me about vibrations,” Wilson continued. “I didn’t really understand too much of what that meant when I was just a boy. It scared me, the word ‘vibrations.’ To think that invisible feelings, invisible vibrations existed, scared me to death. But she told about dogs that would bark at people and then not bark at others, that a dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can’t see, but you can feel. And the same existed with people. … Because we wanted to explain that concept, plus we wanted to do something that was R&B but had a taste of modern, avant-garde R&B to it. ‘Good Vibrations’ was advanced rhythm and blues music.”

The song, and the ensuing record Smile, was written in pieces. “I had a lot of unfinished ideas, fragments of music I called ‘feels,’” Wilson said of this time. “Each feel represented a mood or an emotion I’d felt, and I planned to fit them together like a mosaic.”

Although “Good Vibrations” topped the charts, Smile was never finished. Even in its incomplete state (a compilation of the dozens of sessions was issued in 2011), the project is monumental. At the time, Wilson said the result was going to be “a teenage symphony to God.” Already suffering from panic attacks, and now hearing voices in his head, Wilson had a nervous breakdown in the middle of the sessions. He began self-medicating with cocaine and heroin, ultimately being diagnosed as schizoaffective with mild manic depression. An almost complete lack of support from the band completed the bleak picture; Smile was abandoned in May 1967. “I had to destroy it before it destroyed me,” Wilson later said.

What followed for Wilson was a period of increasing indulgence and withdrawal. In the coming decade, he turned production duties over to his brother Carl, contributed fewer original songs to the band, and became known as a difficult recluse. He gained weight and increased his abuse of cigarettes and alcohol. The band toured and made records without him.

Wilson became completely withdrawn after the death of his father, Murry, in 1973. Theirs was a complicated, abusive relationship: Murry beat his children (purportedly causing Brian to go deaf in one ear), initially managed the band, and sold off much of his son’s publishing rights in 1969. “The story of my dad is the big can of worms,” Wilson wrote, “because it’s connected to everything else.” Wilson sequestered himself in the chauffeur’s quarters of his mansion and commenced a two-year period of orgiastic self-destruction.

Capitol Records released Endless Summer, another Beach Boys greatest hits compilation, in 1974. It went to Number 1. The Beach Boys, or at least the earlier, sunnier version of them, remained in demand, especially in the dark days of the Watergate era.

By now, Wilson’s reputation as the band’s guiding light had caught up with him. A 1969 contract with Reprise Records stipulated his involvement in every album. Now, without access to much of their former publishing revenue, the band needed a hit. The problem was that, by this time, Wilson was almost incapable of even getting out of bed. His wife and family hired radical therapist and former record PR man Eugene Landy in 1975.

Landy’s regiment was absolute: Wilson was surrounded by bodyguards in his own home, preventing him from doing drugs or overeating. Landy would dole out hamburgers or joints if Wilson was productive.

“Brian wanted to be left alone, but there was too much at stake,” the band’s manager, and Mike Love’s brother, Stephen Love once said. “If you’ve got an oil well, you don’t want it to wander off and become someone else’s oil well.” The label conceived of a new PR campaign, called “Brian’s Back” — Love even wrote a song with this title — which brought Wilson back on the road with the band for the first time since 1964.

 15 Big Ones, the first Beach Boys album to be solely produced by Brian Wilson since Wild Honey in 1967, was comprised mostly of covers. (Wilson blamed writer’s block, but he was working on a solo project of new material, tentatively called Brian Loves You.) The band’s version of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” gave them their first Top 10 since “Good Vibrations.” Critics rejected it. “The Beach Boys,” wrote one, “only succeed in jumping several steps sideways and 10 years back.”

Rolling Stone featured Wilson on the cover in 1976. The first interview, which took place in June, didn’t produce any useful material. “Brian was ready to talk, all right,” wrote correspondent David Felton, “just as he was ready to walk or ready to start dressing himself; but there could be no definitive Brian Wilson interview because Brian Wilson was not yet definitively himself.”

On the Rolling Stone cover, Wilson stood in the sand on a beach, surfboard in hand. Barefoot and wearing only a blue bathrobe, he appeared for all the world like an Old Testament prophet. The feature was called “The Healing of Brother Brian.”

Photographer Annie Leibovitz took the picture on Wilson’s 34th birthday. It took place during the filming of a clip for an upcoming TV special, called The Beach Boys: It’s OK, produced by Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. In the skit, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd appear as “Surf Police” who force Wilson out of bed and onto the beach. Pounded by waves and, in one shot, using his board backwards, Wilson (who had never surfed before) was frightened by the ocean. In his bathrobe pocket was a folded piece of paper on which was written, “You will not drown. You will live. Signed, Dr. Landy.” (When Wilson made public appearances during this time, Landy would stand offstage, holding up cardboard signs reading “POSITIVE” and “SMILE” — the latter apparently written without irony.)

“He was not happy about it,” Michaels later remembered about the surfing scene. “It was almost a baptism.”

Though Wilson wrote and recorded the record mostly by himself, Brian Loves You was retitled The Beach Boys Love You and released in April 1977. Despite his desire to leave the group and go solo, Wilson realized he couldn’t. “Sometimes,” he said, “I feel like a commodity in a stock market.”

“Once you’ve established yourself as an artist, a producer — somebody who has a style to say, something to say with a definite profound effect, you feel obligated to fulfill commitments,” he awkwardly told a BBC interviewer in 1976. “In other words, it’s an artist’s obligation to continue his, uh, constructive work — you know, his work. Any artist that you find has that feeling — he feels the need to please, you know. And it’s a very personal thing and it’s something that, uh, that you work on it. It’s something that comes … it’s natural. It’s a natural thing.”

Shortly after finishing the mixes for The Beach Boys Love You, Wilson began work on what would become Adult/Child. “[That] was Dr. Landy’s title,” Wilson wrote in I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir. “He meant that there were always two parts of a personality, always an adult who wants to be in charge and a child who wants to be cared for, always an adult who things he knows the rules and a child who is learning and testing the rules. I also thought about it in terms of family. I thought about my dad and me, and all the things he did that were good and bad, all the things that I can talk about easily and all the things I can’t talk about at all.”

“Still I Dream of It” was written for Frank Sinatra. “He didn’t say yes to the song,” Wilson wrote, “and that bothered me. It was a beautiful song about loneliness and hope.”

It’s strange to hear the 34-year-old Wilson sing from a teenager’s perspective. “When I was younger, mother told me Jesus loves the world,” Wilson sings in the bridge.

And if that’s true, then

Why hasn’t he helped me to find a girl?

Or find my world?

Till then I’m just a dreamer

Though jarring, this is the viewpoint Wilson returned to, as if the previous 15 years never happened. “We’ll make sweet lovin’ when the sun goes down,” Wilson sings in “Roller Skating Child” from The Beach Boys Love You. Hey Little Tomboy,” another track slated for inclusion on Adult/Child, extends this idea further, creating something that band biographer Peter Ames Carlin described as what “may be the most unsettling moment in the entire recorded history of the Beach Boys.”

Wilson called in arranger Dick Reynolds to help with Adult/Child. Reynolds originally worked with the Four Freshmen and collaborated with Sinatra in 1964, the same year he arranged The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. Though Wilson claimed to want “a similar feel” as those classic Sinatra albums, the big band arrangements on Adult/Child are peculiarly lifeless. “Life is for the living,” Wilson sings with strangled enthusiasm over a high kick horn arrangement on the opening track.

I thought you wanted to see

How it could be

When you’re in shape and your head plugs into

Life

His last vocalization of “life!” is a harrowing shriek. Reportedly when Mike Love heard the album in the studio, he turned to Wilson and hissed, “What the fuck are you doing?” Love and Jardine’s vocals on the album were culled exclusively from earlier sessions; Wilson did most of the work alone, or with his brothers.

Adult/Child was shelved, by nearly unanimous consent. The band was nearing the end of their record contract with Warner/Reprise — who didn’t think the album had commercial potential anyway — and might have wanted to save some of the material for a major upcoming deal with CBS. Oddly, the only track from Adult/Child to be formally issued was “Hey Little Tomboy,” on the largely despised M.I.U., released in late 1978. “That album is an embarrassment to my life,” Dennis Wilson said tartly. “It should self-destruct.”

But it was his brother Brian who self-destructed more successfully. The voices in his head would multiply in the coming years, sounding by turns like his domineering father Murry, Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, and others he doesn’t recognize. What they tell him is almost universally negative. Landy was fired in December 1976, but returned in the early 1980s after Wilson, 340 pounds and hooked on cocaine, overdosed. Landy ultimately began writing lyrics and, under their shared company Brains and Genius, claimed a 50 percent take of Wilson’s earnings. He “produced” Wilson’s 1988 solo record and is widely thought to have directed his first ghost-written autobiography — one which loudly sang Landy’s praises. Landy voluntarily surrendered his license in 1989, after being accused by the family of gross negligence.

The Beach Boys broke up for two weeks in late 1977. During a September meeting at Brian’s house, a settlement was negotiated which gave Mike Love control of Brian’s vote, allowing him and Al Jardine to outvote the other two Wilson brothers. The commercial, nostalgia-driven faction of the band advanced, while the experimental, vulnerable side receded.

Dennis Wilson, deeply addicted to alcohol, drowned in 1983. His 1976 solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, outsold the contemporary Beach Boys albums. “Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys,” he once said. “He is the band. We’re his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We’re nothing. He’s everything.”

And this was true, at least for the few years until Brian Wilson became incapable and unwilling to fill the role. For a little while, at least, he was able to be John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Beatles’ producer George Martin at once: a gifted melodicist with a knack for hooks; an arranger of enormous sensitivities; and a producer able to employ even the studio as an instrument. It didn’t last because it couldn’t last: Every fire goes out after consuming all that sustains it. Especially those that burn brightest.

***

Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker:  Samantha Schuyler

Shelved: Sonny Rollins Live at Carnegie Hall

Bob Parent / Hulton Archives / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | February 2019 | 16 minutes (3,055 words)

 

Sonny Rollins was busy in 1957. The tenor saxophonist was present for about sixteen recording sessions, some private, most released, with his own bands as well as with groups led by Miles Davis, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Dorham. His landmark A Night At The Village Vanguard, a live recording of two sets, one in the afternoon and one in the evening performed on November 3rd at New York’s legendary jazz club, became a standard by which other improvisers are judged. In addition, Rollins debuted at Carnegie Hall and headlined the first Monterey Jazz Festival the following year.

“When I look back, people say, ‘Oh, you did a lot of records in 1957…’ Well, I mean, I had to be told about it,” Rollins recently told an interviewer. “So, I guess it was more or less of a norm, you know.”

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Shelved: Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine

Paul R. Giunta / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | January 2019 | 17 minutes (3,315 words)

 

The remarkable thing about Fiona Apple’s album Extraordinary Machine is that it’s actually two albums. Each has its own fans and critics; each was reviewed in the mainstream press; each is available to the casual listener.

Upon closer inspection, the story of Extraordinary Machine becomes a room made of mirrors: The album was shelved, perhaps by Apple’s label, or, according to her own admission, by Apple herself. That version of the album, produced by longtime collaborator Jon Brion, was leaked to the internet. It’s called the “Jon Brion version,” but in actuality is a pastiche of original sessions and new material. The official release was mixed without the presence of either of its two producers. The first version was shelved in part because Apple didn’t feel the songs were fully her own, and partly because her label didn’t believe it had commercial potential; the released version proved them right, at least by yielding no hit singles.

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Shelved: The Lady of Rage’s Eargasm

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Tom Maxwell | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (2,118 words)

 

Robin Allen started writing rap lyrics in the 6th grade. By her senior year, she needed an MC name. When a classmate jokingly referred to her as the Lady of Rage, she thought the moniker good enough to tag on the wall of the high school bathroom.

A singular rapper in her own right, Rage would go on to become known as a collaborator, appearing on Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s extraordinarily successful debut albums. Her 1994 hit single “Afro Puffs” perhaps illustrates her artistic potential as much as what she was eventually able to achieve: Rage’s first solo album, Eargasm, was shelved and never completed. Named by Dre, who would have also co-written and produced it, the album would have been made at the height of the rapper’s powers and released during Death Row Records’ incredible winning streak. That Eargasm never came to fruition kept Rage’s career dependent on men — in the form of collaborators and label bosses — rather than resolutely her own.

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Shelved: Jimmy Scott’s Falling In Love Is Wonderful

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By 1962, Ray Charles had fully crossed over. It started with his 1959 Top 10 hit “What’d I Say,” continued with the Grammy-winning “Georgia On My Mind” and “Hit the Road, Jack,” and culminated in two smash country music albums, yielding the number one single “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Proficient at bebop, fluent in country, and having practically invented soul, it seemed there was no style of popular music Ray Charles couldn’t master. Beyond his prodigious songwriting and piano playing abilities, Charles was most famously a vocal interpreter. With his newfound wealth, he founded Tangerine Records in 1962. The first thing he did was produce and release a record by one of his favorite singers, Jimmy Scott.

Jimmy Scott had been recording since the late 1940s and made several notable if unprofitable albums with Savoy Records in the 1950s. His work was almost universally loved by the most influential vocalists of the era, a group that included Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown, and Billie Holiday. Ray Charles implicitly understood the singer’s potential and believed he had the key to Scott’s elusive success.

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