Yes indeed! Victoria Street. I knew you’d spent some time in Sydney, but I didn’t know you knew the city that well!
I’m actually not a huge fan of Kings Cross — the Eastern Suburbs strike my Inner West self as some kind of bizarro world — but I suppose I could learn to live there.
Ha, well, I spent a week and a half there, but a week and a half is a long time when you have almost no schedule! Plus, I walked everywhere (except to Bondi; I took the bus), and I did stay over in Pott’s Point.
The Rolling Stones: “2,000 Light Years From Home” (Their Satanic Majesties Request, 1967)
The Rolling Stones didn’t understand psychedelia at all. Mostly at the behest of Brian Jones, they’d done plenty of interesting things with arrangements—think the marimba on “Under My Thumb” and the sitar on “Paint It, Black”—but when they tried to make their own psychedelic opus along the lines of Sgt. Pepper, which came out in June, 1967, the result was uneven at best and laughable at worst.
They spent all of 1967 working on that opus, recording from February through October and finally releasing Their Satanic Majesties Request in December. During this period, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones were all tied up in court cases surrounding their drug use. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were the only guys that consistently showed up on time, ready to work, without big entourages. Producer Andrew Loog Oldham was so disgusted with the band’s lack of progress that he quit, leaving them to produce the album themselves.
Wyman expressed his bemusement more constructively by writing a song. “In Another Land,” which features Wyman himself delivering the lead vocal through a thick hazy of Leslie speaker and processing, is basically a parody of psychedelia written to poke fun at the band’s drug-related legal problems. It’s terrible, but I get the impression that Wyman is the Rolling Stone I most would have liked to hang out with.
The rest of the LP is full of moves that feint toward various elements of counterculture without fully embracing them. “Sing This All Together” is both communal sing-along and freakout and isn’t good as either, and there are patched-in horn arrangements and diversions into sound sculpture that sound like no one was really running the show. And with Oldham out of the picture no one was.
As a look at where the Stones could have gone but didn’t, though, it’s a record worth listening to at least once, and it does have its moments. “She’s A Rainbow” is amusing Technicolor pop-psych—not brilliant songwriting, but John Paul Jones’ string arrangement and creative use of Mellotron saves it.
The best song is “2,000 Light Years From Home,” which is unlike anything else the band did. Some of the sonics are datable to their era (though I wouldn’t call them dated, really), but the overall feel of the song and the way the rhythm slips along strike me as very ahead of their time. Rock wasn’t usually about groove during this period, but I think this song is.
Mick Jagger supposedly wrote the lyrics while sitting in prison awaiting word on his appeal of a drug conviction. They make a lot of sense in that context—in prison, you might as well be millions of miles away for all the interaction you get to have with the world.
What I think works best about this song over the others on Their Satanic Majesties, though, is that it doesn’t sound like a band running to catch up with the psychedelic crowd. They’re doing something unique in the context of the moment—even the guitar tones are forward-thinking.
The Stones never even tried to go here again. Instead, they got back to basics and made some classic rock album that I don’t like as much as a lot of other people do, but I credit them for understanding their strengths and returning to them after this experiment.
So here’s my version of SMiLE. It’s set up programmatically, with call-backs to “Heroes & Villains” that occur less frequently as the album progresses to the end. Side four also includes a very brief callback to “Our Prayer” at the end of “In Blue Hawaii.” It of course ends with “Surf’s Up,” followed by a vocal wisp called “You’re Welcome” that I think works pretty nicely to clear the air at the end.
The Beach Boys: “Surf’s Up” (1967; first released on Surf’s Up, 1971)
I’ve been putting off listening to the recently released “official” version of SMiLE, the long-lost Beach Boys opus we’ve been waiting decades to hear.
It’s not that I don’t want to listen to it. I do. It’s just that I’ve become so attached to the version I assembled myself a few years ago that I’m almost afraid I’ll spend my time editing the official version in my head to make it more like my own.
My version of SMiLE came together starting three or four years ago, back when I still used Soulseek (I haven’t been on a peer-to-peer in over three years—I swore them off, and I’ve never engaged with the world of Torrent sites). I found three repositories of SMiLE fragments, downloaded them all, and set about building an album out of a little more than three hours of material. I came up with a track listing that emphasized the experimentalism of the project, though this isn’t really what I set out to do.
I imagine it split over four fairly short sides, and I did go through many other iterations before I arrived at the one I ultimately decided was my favorite.
One thing all my versions had in common, though, and one thing they don’t share with the new official version, is that, like the 1971 LP Surf’s Up, they all led up to “Surf’s Up.” Granted, that LP prefaces it with the brilliant and moving “Til I Die,” which wasn’t around during the SMiLE sessions, and that makes it even more powerful, but it just seems to make sense at the end, summing things up. I can’t figure out the reasoning behind putting it in the middle.
"Surf’s Up" is, for me, the most powerful song in the whole Beach Boys catalog. It’s not just because the song is so striking on its own terms, though. It’s because of how the song comments on everything the Beach Boys were in the public imagination and turns it on its head. The words "surf’s up" have never been uttered more dolefully or reflectively.
The Beach Boys in their early days presented a mythology of Southern California built around the beach and the board, with a healthy infusion of teenage lust and romance, not to mention nods to the burgeoning culture of American suburbia. It’s not a fluke that the girl in “Fun Fun Fun” cruises through a hamburger stand.
In a sense, they were the greatest mid-20th Century explainers of the pull of the West. After World War II, the United States felt it had secured its place in the world. Its Manifest Destiny was fulfilled. With no further west to go, the new destiny seemed to be to perfect a way of life, and we thought we could do it one subdivision and one technological innovation at a time.
We know now that the TV dinners and pre-fab buildings of the Jet Age weren’t the quick ticket to paradise we sought, and we never got the moving sidewalks and floating cars that filled the issues of Popular Mechanics that cluttered the coffee tables of the modernist homes in Hollywood Hills when the Beach Boys were rising in the charts.
If the early 60s in America embodied futurist optimism, by the late 60s, when “Surf’s Up” was recorded, the reality that we were in some ways a broken and fragmented society had sunk in, at least in some quarters. Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks were trying to create a panorama of American history with SMiLE—it’s wrong in my mind to end such a project with anything other than a reflection that acknowledges that things are not perfect, and that there are more complicated realities underlying the myths.
If Pet Sounds introduced new emotional complexity to Wilson’s teenage symphonies, “Surf’s Up” is the moment where they cease to be teenage at all. “Good Vibrations” revisits the West Coast dream in its full glory one last time, and “Surf’s Up” awakens from the dream to dance darkly in the ruins. “Surf’s Up” needs to come after “Good Vibrations.”
The Grateful Dead: “Friend Of The Devil” (American Beauty, 1970)
When I was five, in 1985, I was a Tiger Cub. For those who don’t know, this is a precursor to being a Cub Scout, and ultimately a Boy Scout. You don’t do any camping or crazy knot-tying, but you do get to visit air museums and spend one night a week in someone else’s wood-paneled, wool-carpeted raised ranch basement doing crafts with a bunch of other hyperactive five-year-olds.
The particular wood-paneled basement we had meetings in belonged to the Kaplans. Rory Kaplan and I were friends from school, and his dad was the den leader (they had three kids in all: Faith, Hope and Rory. I suppose if Rory had been a girl, he’d have been either Glory or Charity.).
I remember three things about Mr. Kaplan: 1. His beard. It was a friendly beard, the kind of beard cool dads had in the 80s. My dad had one, too. 2. He had the first personal computer I ever saw. 3. He was a huge Deadhead.
It seems weird to think about today, but we were all enthralled by this computer. It had a black and orange display, and he’d fire up the screen saver, which was a very early version of what would later be referred to as “warp” in a lot of screen saver packages, where a bunch of stars stretch out as you fly through them. it blew our minds.
I think our minds were honestly a lot less blown by the Grateful Dead concert videos he used to show us. We were a little young to understand the band’s improvisatory prowess, though I do vividly recall one video that tickled us quite a bit where the band played behind a fake stage with a bunch of miming plastic skeletons on it. The performance went awry when a dog jumped on stage and stole the tibia of Skeleton Jerry Garcia.
Still, I think it was my first brush with a really passionate music fan, and back home, my father had an old LP copy of American Beauty. I don’t know that I ever really listened to the lyrics of “Friend of the Devil” growing up, though I know I was vaguely weirded out by how casually he espouses kinship with the personification of all evil, but it’s hard for a kid to deny the kind of flowing, bouncy energy that runs through this song.
I remember some time in high school, talking about music in the car with my dad after I’d become very much absorbed in classic rock, and this song was on the radio. As a recently minted music nerd, I wasn’t yet re-sold on the Dead—part of it was the singing, which didn’t impress me. My dad, though, loved the singing—to him, these people just sounded real, and the kind of harmony they sing on “Sugar Magnolia,” where it’s not a studied, four-part harmony so much as guys singing together like you might around a fire, really appealed to him. He’s not a singer, but I think he felt like he could join in any time he wanted.
As happens when you’re in your teens, my opinion changed instantly and irrevocably. I started to hear that humanity in unstudied singing and started to like the Dead and the Band, and though it took a little longer, Dylan, too. I had a lot of moments in my teens where a conversation revealed to me that my worldview was far more limited than I though it was, and that was definitely one of them.
R.E.M.: “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” (Automatic For The People, 1992)
Since R.E.M.’s break-up, I’ve been going through their discography again, not in any systematic way, but more as an occasional drop-in. Their catalog is big and full of interesting asides, but this one always stops me. I love it, always have.
Youssou N’Dour & Etoile de Dakar: “Wadiour” (Volume One, 1982)
Before he was adding his voice to big hit singles by Peter Gabriel and holding down the fort as respected world music royalty, Youssou N’Dour was just one of hundreds of young musicians toiling night after night in the clubs and hotels of Dakar, striving to be heard.
N’Dour and the band he was part of, Etoile de Dakar, were pioneers of mbalax, a style that incorporated local tonal drums into the dance orchestra music that dominated the Senegalese music scene in the 1970s, principally in the guise of Orchestra Baobab. You can hear a bit of that transition to mbalax in this song, though “Wadiour” a little more in debt to Baobab than a lot of Etoile’s other music from the 1980s.
The biggest debt is in the guitar work. That floating wah-wah pattern that defines this song and locks in so well with the horns is one of my favorite lead lines ever. The whole song is built around it—even N’Dour, the voice, seems to sing in reaction to it.
N’Dour’s a guy I haven’t followed much. I like some of his music a lot, especially from early in his career (although Egypt, released a few years ago, is pretty damn great), but he’s also done a lot that didn’t interest me. I think he was better paired with startling talking drum eruptions than Neneh Cherry, I guess. This song, though, is among my favorites, electric, alive, and just a little ragged.
Patricio Manns: “Arriba En La Cordillera” (Entre Mar Y Cordillera, 1966)
Entre Mar Y Cordillera. Between the sea and the mountains. That’s the title of the album that launched singer/poet/novelist/composer/activist Patricio Manns to national fame in his native Chile. It’s also the state of being for nearly everyone in Chile—between the sea and the mountains is where you make your life in this country.
"Arriba En La Cordillera" (Up In The Mountains) was the lead song on the album, and it is one of those spellbinding pieces of music that reaches right through language to pull you into its world. None of the three versions I have sound very good, but I’ve posted the best-sounding one here.
In the 60s, Manns was part of a movement to preserve and modernize Chilean folk music, and in the course of his work he made big contributions to the country’s folk canon himself, including this song. He was a founder of the Pena de Carmen 340, a sort of community activism network that gave life to Nueva Cancion Chilena, a progressive folk music movement that was one of many “nueva cancion” movements to spread through Latin America during the period.
Manns went into exile in 1973, after the September 11th coup that installed Augusto Pinochet as dictator in place of murdered president Salvador Allende. Manns became a major voice for the Chilean opposition during his exile, living first in Cuba, then France and Switzerland. His band Karaxu and his frequent collaborators Inti-Illimani were among the most important artists carrying on the nueva cancion flame in the 70s and 80s.
It wasn’t until 1990, two years after a referendum that set the stage for Pinochet’s exit from the presidency, that Manns was finally able to return to his homeland, performing a few concerts. He moved back for good in 2000 after 27 years abroad. Pinochet was never properly imprisoned for the abuses of his regime, but Manns has outlived him, and ultimately, Manns is the one who will leave the most indelible legacy.