Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Beach Boys and Kinks 1967-72: Honest Outsiders

Well, well. It's Kinks season. Greys and yellows and leaves gathering on the ground. Tea and sweaters and darker beers. The mindless idealism of summer giving way to a firmer grip on reality. The body and mind slow down just enough. This is the time that poetic realists like Ray Davies, Lou Reed, Paul Simon and others come in handy if the chill is getting you down. They will keep it real and yet whimsical in a way that doesn't mean losing one's grip on every day things. (Granted, this season also goes great with the trippiest of the trippy: Syd Barrett, Incredible String Band, and anything from 1966. In fact, in my mind, 1966=autumn. That's just from a guy who wasn't born yet.)
It's also getting to be, for me anyway, Beach Boys season. I got into the Beach Boys via Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile and Sunflower during my 16th autumn/winter. No cars, bikinis or surfboards on these songs. Instead, a somewhat...no, quite bizarre outlook on things, which really just mirrored the strange reality that The Beach Boys knew.

You know what might be the coolest thing about Jim Morrison? In his official Elektra Records Bio, filled out in 1966 just before the first Doors album was released, he lists his favorite bands as The Beach Boys, The Kinks and Love. Now that is quite cool. He wasn't going to take the easy route of The Beatles/Stones/Animals/Dylan. In 1966, Love was, as we all know, the Coolest Band In California, by far. And probably tied for Coolest Band in the USA (hard to beat the Velvet Underground).

The Beach Boys and The Kinks? In 1966, both were at very interesting points in their respective careers.
  • They had both spent 1964-5 charting huge hit singles and albums, which insured that their faces would be all over the teen magazines and on TV shows, and that their gigs world wide would be filled with screaming girls.
  • They both had siblings in the band, with one (Ray Davies in the Kinks, Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys) handling the lion's share of writing. 
  • Both Ray and Brian were sensitive, thoughtful types who were evolving into young, eccentric geniuses (more on that word later) more and more with every single. 
  • Brian suffered his first nervous breakdown on tour in 1964, and gave up touring--though would do the odd concert with the Boys for the next couple years. Instead, he stayed home and wrote and recorded material that was many levels above the average pop fare. That he tempted fate and added copious amounts of drugs to his already fragile psyche made for an interesting and world-changing catalog of songs for about two years, but this was followed by a long and sad decline. 
  • Ray Davies, following his muse while the accountants, lawyers, family and pop scene were barking orders, also suffered a nervous breakdown, and stayed home for for a period in early 1966. Luckily, as far as I know, he didn't dabble with substances that would have possibly turned him into another young casualty. Instead of a steady decline, Davies began a period of creative and emotional ups and downs that pretty much have lasted his whole career. But the English realist/fighter in him has never completely let others take over his image and thoughts, like Brian Wilson let happen. 
So, 1966. Imagine a bridge with a few different types of young folks standing a few feet from its entrance. You have:
1) those who idolized and screamed at The Beatles 2) folkies who worship every word written by Dylan. 3) the slightly "looser" youth, Stones fans, who were not scared of Mick and Keith and Brian.

Now, this bridge is a bridge to psychedelic adventure, to mind expansion, to "the future" and to a music scene which was going to start changing incredibly fast every 6 months.
What do you do? Are you on the bus or off the bus?
--Some kids went for it. They were ready to go wherever the musical visionaries were going to take them.
--Some Beatles fans decided the Beatles were getting too weird and so got off the bus and maybe got into The Monkees (who themselves were getting weirder by the month--thus, my case for The Monkees being the most subversive act of the 60's.)
--Some Dylan fans wondered: Why the big hair and mod suit and yellow skin and slurred singing and inability to tune an electric guitar and "war" and "poor" becoming "rain" and "pain"? They soon wouldn't have to worry, but these folk purists ditched Dylan and anything with an electric guitar. Maybe they found Leonard Cohen or Pentangle. Maybe they found Donovan (see: Beatles fans turning to the Monkees). Maybe they went back to Woody Guthrie.
--Some Stones fans thought: I can't get down and dirty to "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing In the Shadows", and turned to John Mayall or something.

Watching all this were the few and proud who knew that their boys in The Kinks and Beach Boys weren't about to play this game. They were confident enough in THE POWER OF SONG, REGARDLESS OF FASHION to be second guessing the future.
It's hard to find people who stuck with The Beach Boys and The Kinks through thick and thin, through the psychedelic maelstrom that left each band struggling to sell a fraction of the records they were selling two years previous. In 1967-69, The Beach Boys and The Kinks released SO MUCH good music that was regarded as CRIMINALLY UNHIP.
"Hip", in a lot of cases, meant "LIMITED SHELF LIFE" and "UNLISTENABLE".
Because, you see: Vanilla Fudge and Canned Heat and Jefferson Airplane were hip.
No one worth while that I can think of.
Whereas, WHO HASN'T BEEN INFLUENCED by  PetSoundsSmileVillageGreenWaterlooSunset? Almost no one I know. That's my tiny twee sheltered pop world view. But it's the view I like.

I won't say that the psychedelic/hippie thing totally passed by The Kinks and The Beach Boys.
See for yourself (each band in 1970):

However, by 1970, even some politicians and high school principals and weathermen and baseball players were sporting hair longer than The Beatles in 1964.

Now, there are certain parallels between The Kinks and Beach Boys, but they are more coincidence than pertinent element. But let's go through and sort them out.

The Kinks had Ray and Dave Davies;
The Beach Boys had Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson.

Yes, I use the term "genius" haphazardly. It's subjective, highly abused, and not a scientifically proven term. However, it's a safe bet that these two are something approaching "genius". You can't write "Surf's Up", "Busy Doin' Nothin'" and "Til I Die" and NOT be a "genius". Nor can you write "Waterloo Sunset", "Animal Farm" and "Shangri-La"...

I use "mentally ill" not disparagingly, but as a matter of fact. Brian Wilson is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and manic depressive. Ray Davies is bipolar. Like many many artist/creative types, this is what set them apart and made them appear to so unselfconsciously marching to their own drum.
Too, they both looked to the old greats--their parents' music--for inspiration. Porter, Gershwin, Sinatra etc. Not exactly controversial, edgy stuff. But neither of them were interested in being on the front lines of youth rebellion. Can you imagine Ray or Brian shouting "We Want the World and We Want It Now!" or "Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker!" More like "I want a comfy chair and I want it soon!"

Where they differ is in the areas of self control. Ray Davies is a master at it, and is often portrayed as a neurotically selfish, controlling cunt by his brother Dave (I can use that word when paraphrasing Dave Davies, can't I?). Thus, Ray often reminded everyone that he was the leader of The Kinks. He was the songwriter, singer, arranger, genius, face and voice. He begrudgingly let little brother Dave have a song or two per album, and sometimes mixed the songs behind Dave's back so as to not appear to be as attractive as the other 11 Ray-penned songs on the album. Dave fought back for a while, but as the years went on, he decided to give up and let Ray wage his war with an imagined enemy.
Sure Dave's songs are sometimes the "skip over" song on Kinks albums, but really, one can't deny "Death Of A Clown", "Strangers", "This Man He Weeps Tonight"...
Dave was the party guy. He lived the 60's-70's rock life that Ray never did (or was ever cut out for). In his book KINK, Dave relates having vomited on a groupie's head while she was giving him head.
Now that kind of wins the gold medal for rock lore. He also talks about how too much acid led him to a strange breakdown which led to a long fascination with searching for evidence of extra terrestrials and a whole New Age way of thinking.
Ray, beyond booze and his pills for depression, was not a drug experimenter or a believer in the unknown. He liked his control and didn't want to compromise it. He was a young husband and father who liked being at home and celebrating old British traditions ("roast beef on Sunday's alright!")
With this need for groundedness, he's enjoyed a fairly consistent output of songs for the last 40 years, has always appeared to be a suave, intellectual, slightly eccentric rocker--with only one real public meltdown--but you'd break down too if your wife and kids left you on the eve of a big festival show.
Then again, there's always been a strange facade to Ray Davies that is much more indicative of a writer than a rocker. Only the best writers can make you believe that their life is one way, when really that's just the characters they create. With Ray, it's hard to tell. Sort of like Woody Allen saying "no, I'm not the neurotic, sex crazed, therapy junkie that appear in most of my movies. But I'm very comfortable writing from that point of view". Some would say otherwise. At that point, the casual fan just says "screw it. I like his work and I'm glad he has shared his gift with the world and enriched so many lives and really I don't care if he's really popping Xanax every half hour as he gets into another fight with an ex". (how did we get onto Woody Allen? oh right. neurotic geniuses.)

So, Brian and his brothers. Not so clear cut. Not at all.
Whereas many people will describe Ray Davies as a control freak with a severe lack of compassion for those who have cared for him--except when it's convenient--, it's safe to say that Brian Wilson has let his LACK of control and INABILITY to control his surroundings be his downfall. Thus, his mental illness completely consumed him. Also, he was surrounded by so many people who wanted a piece of his genius, that he just lay down and led the feeding frenzy begin until he emerged a non-productive, obese, shell-shocked, raspy voiced, multi-viced man who bore no resemblance to the guy who could write no wrong from 1962-68.
This has probably been said before: but couldn't one argue that the cocktails of legally prescribed meds that Brian was given in the 80's were what turned him into the somewhat zombified person we see today? I mean, in the Brian Is Back days, sure he was big and raspy and it must have been shocking for those who expected the angelic voice, but also he seemed human. Right? I mean, watch this:

He's got comedic timing, seems confident..much more human than he's seemed since the mid 80's.
I'm not sure what the preliminary stages of his "comeback" were, but in 1976, there wasn't so many psychiatric pills  that no one knew exactly what they'd do after a year or two. I know he was running, eating healthier and, as he told Mike Douglas, when asked "are you off drugs?", responded "well...I'm off cocaine". I believe Dr. Landy, before going WAY overboard with chemical cocktails, allowed Brian to have a hit of weed once in a while. But whatever.
Perhaps it was LSD. Ray Davies knew his mind enough to know that acid would be a huge challenge to his delicate mental state. Brian Wilson was ready to try anything, any time. In 1976, he did sum it up nicely (paraphrase): "Everything I'd ever be or not be, I came to grips with and learned to face (on LSD)".  People have described Brian as a big child, not at all intellectual. He wouldn't read books but rather take a few sentences of some pop-psychology theory he heard and rave about it for hours. Then drop it forever instead of attempting to investigate and learn more. Like a child hearing something an adult says and then repeating it over and over without even knowing what it means.
So, lack of control, lack of self-knowledge...that's the big difference between Brian and Ray.

But what did Brian Wilson have that Ray did not? Unconditional love from his brothers. You never hear of Carl punching out Brian or Brian kicking Dennis in the crotch on stage. All you hear about with Ray and Dave is fighting, bickering, swearing, things breaking...
Brian, Carl and Dennis loved each other and never said anything but the nicest, most complimentary and supportive things about each other, through thick and thin. Probably because they all endured their horrible father's mental and physical abuse together and had an understanding that it messed them all up in various ways.
Now, the other Wilsons...
If we had to stick to this model, I suppose both Dennis and Carl had elements of Dave Davies--just in turns, at different points in their lives. Carl was the lead guitarist, but that's about the strongest point for his case. Oh, and in 1970 he started looking like a total hippie for a couple years.
But Dennis was always the ladies' man, like Dave. He was also the total party animal and was up for whatever, whenever with whoever (including Charles Manson). He also wrote some songs that, in low doses are absolute life-affirming treats (like Dave Davies, Dennis Wilson could come up with one or two absolute gems for a band album, but couldn't really sustain it for a solo album. Yes, I'm saying I don't think Pacific Ocean Blue is as good as everyone says. Not one of the songs is as good as "Be With Me", "Little Bird" or "It's About Time").
I'm getting very off subject, I think. I started this entry 2 weeks ago, got totally hung up and returned about 6 paragraphs ago. What, indeed, was my point?
Oh Yeah.
So during the period in question (1967-72), both bands saw their popularity fall drastically and then build back up as people realized "Jesus...I'd MUCH rather hear what Ray Davies has to say than Jim Morrison. And The Beach Boys sing harmony much better than The Airplane" (though Mike Love was and is and always will be, a CREEPY GUY).

 Unfortunately, it was the BEST of the best that saw the absolute nadir (chart and sales and "hipness"-wise) of both bands. Something Else By The Kinks, Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur sold poorly. As did Wild Honey, Friends, 20/20 and Sunflower.
These albums also coincided, more or less, with each band not really touring as they once had. The Kinks were playing dinner theaters in 1968 and had been banned from playing the US in 1966 (a mysterious union disagreement). The Beach Boys were touring France and Czechoslovakia and the Southeastern US.
Their saving grace came from a select few underground rock journalists who never gave up on the music, could see most psychedelia and heavy rock for the one-dimensional thing that it was, and incessantly raved about each new Kinks and Beach Boys release. Eventually, some readers caught on. By late 1969-70, both bands were hitting the road again, and reacquainting themselves with "the new rock audience". They don't scream. They listen, they dance free form, they smoke pot, they watch light shows, they don't mind if you tune...and they want you to "put out", as some would say.
Each band was...not terribly equipped to the task. They were the old dogs learning new tricks. Of course, The Stones and The Who and John Lennon could pull it off because they could always rely on attitude.

You could check this out, if you like to download bootlegs:
The Kinks Live At The Fillmore West, November 1969
What you'll hear is The Kinks trying to be "Heavy, man". Ray is shouting too much. Dave's guitar is PIERCING and they attempt to "jam" a few times.  Now I know not everyone likes Jerry Garcia's guitar style, but if you take a 3 minute Dave Davies solo vs a 3 minute Garcia solo from November 1969, it's sort of like hearing a 4th grader tell a story, and then a professional writer tell the same story. 
Don't get mad: I'll turn the tables.
Dave Davies could come up with the most exciting 12-second solo in his sleep. His best solos are a kick in the arse. A dose of adrenalin.
Jerry often stumbles a while before getting in the zone. It's rare to hear a blast of sheer adolescent "in and out" playing from Garcia that Davies excels at. Jerry gives you the foreplay, sets the mood, etc.. What? Jesus Christ. Now I'm getting sick. But really, it's an apt metaphor. Check out that show.

Did you think I brought up Garcia for absolutely no reason? No. Because....
The best example of The Beach Boys on the hippie rock stage comes from a show they did in 1971 at the Fillmore East with....The Grateful Dead.
How is it? Much has been written, so I'll be brief.
The Dead are in their second home--NYC. It's their crowd. Bob Dylan was watching. The Beach Boys were in the midst of a come back. Unfortunately, they also did awkward things to try to appear "with it" and it's just not flattering. Whereas the Dead wouldn't bat an eye at some nude dancing happening on stage, or being dosed by surprised, and pretty much react to any adversity with "hey man, be cool", The Beach Boys are kind of painfully nerdy.
On one hand, there's Bruce Johnston (pretty sure), who seems very uncomfortable and out of place. He keeps apologizing for even being there. Apologizes for tuning. Apologizes that The Dead aren't playing. Then he says (in his squarest delivery) "We're grateful there's something called the Grateful Dead, because (voice rising dramatically) THEY'RE ALRIGHT! (then forced "do I sound stoned?" laughter) Yeaahhhhaaalright".
Then there's Mike Love, who, during the "gotta keep those love good vibrations happenin'..." part, rambles a story in his "mellow guy" delivery about being "all stoned and drunk" hanging out with Buffalo Springfield. What? FOR CHRIST SAKE, MIKE. THEY BROKE UP IN 1968!
Plus, we don't want Mike's obnoxious piercing fake theramin during "Riot in Cell Block 9".

But I'm gonna stop being down on this gig. Because Bruce Johnston, scared nerd, pooping his pants at all these hippies around him, meekly asks the audience "how about a car song?". Which is just fucking hilarious. And then The Beach Boys do "I Get Around" and it RUUUUULES!!!!!! And that's the best part of the show.

The other highlights come from the collaboration of the two bands. Both bands sound like they're having a blast on "Searchin'". Pig Pen and Carl Wilson (or Al Jardine...can't tell) duet. What is with this song and strange combos? I also have a version of Doug Sahm, Leon Russell and Jerry Garcia doing it. A good mindless jam, I guess.
Then there's a version of just The Beach Boys with Jerry Garcia doing "Help me Rhonda". The Beach Boys decided to do it "as if it was a new song" and play it "Dead Shuffle"-like (think "Deal" or "Truckin"). Jerry follows along OK, but takes a bit to grasp the Brian Wilson twists in the verse chords.
The finale is also good. Both bands doing "Johnny B Goode". Carl Wilson (I think?) and Bob Weir singing in unison on the verses. Jerry takes the solo, and he could always pull out some good Chuck Berry licks in those days.
And there's this!

If you wanna hear the whole show, I recommend THIS LINK. You gotta get past the first 3/4 (just Dead) of the show. The collaboration starts with "Searchin'" and goes to the end. Unless, of course, you want the whole Dead show. But I don't think it's anything spectacular.

So....here's the real real payoff.
A playlist. On Spotify. 80 songs of soul cleansing, beautiful, under appreciated in its day....
Ladies and Gentleman, The Beach Boys and The Kinks in their Golden Age. Dig.

Kinks/Beach Boys golden age