Good Vibrations

vibrations

I think I remember, presumably around the end of 1966, watching The Beach Boys play Good Vibrations on BBC TV’s pop music programme, Top of the Pops. I liked the song partly because it was quite unlike any other pop record I’d heard. This wasn’t a beat group with two guitars, bass and drums, nor was it a vocalist backed by a small orchestra. From the opening rhythmic organ and bouncy bass through to the complex vocal harmonies and the otherworldly glissando of the electro-theremin every sound was different. The song had an unusual structure, too. It had several distinct sections with different instrumentation which were pieced together like a mosaic; Brian Wilson, who wrote the song, subsequently described it as a “pocket symphony”. But it was still very much a pop song: a tune for the charts and for singing along to.

When Top of the Pops first aired in 1964 artists would mime to their records. Sometimes this was obvious and the faulty lip-sync was mildly distracting but most of the time it worked pretty well. The Musician’s Union, however, objected to this policy and in 1966 miming on TOTP was banned. From then on Crotchety Junior assumed that instruments and vocals were truly live; what we saw and heard on the TV was what was happening in the studio at that very moment. I was often puzzled, though, by the programme’s uncanny knack of reproducing exactly the same mix, tone and phrasing as on the record.

Wikipedia has a lot to say about Good Vibrations (about a dozen screenfuls on a good-sized computer monitor). On that page you can read about its use of innovative recording techniques, how long it took to cut the track, how much it cost, the impact it had at the time and its lasting legacy. By the time Crotchety Junior was able to watch a performance on the TV it had already been described as a song that, because of its complexity and special effects, couldn’t be performed outside a recording studio. So, how, I wondered could The Beach Boys play it ‘live’ on Top of the Pops?

Staring intently at the black and white pictures and listening with pricked up ears Crotchety Junior tried hard to solve the puzzle. It sounded like the record and it looked as though it was being played live. On the other hand we could have been watching a pre-recorded promotional video; there were none of the usual shots of the TOTP audience or any other indication that the band were in a BBC TV studio. Somewhat disappointed, Junior concluded that the broadcasters had cheated, although he wasn’t sure how. One thing was clear, though: Good Vibrations could certainly be played live by a 5-piece band without losing anything essential.

the boys

I was never a big fan of the Beach Boys. They made a few excellent singles (Sloop John B, God Only Knows and, of course, Good Vibrations) but their signature surfing songs always seemed to lack depth and substance. I’d happily listen to the current Beach Boys single on the radio, especially on a bright sunny day, but I’d never consider buying any of their albums. There’s something special about Good Vibrations, though. How else could a “pocket symphony” get to be number one on both the US and the UK charts?

Crotchety Man’s memory is, like a treasured pair of jeans, old and faded. Looking back 50 years, as I do here, the scenes that were once fresh and vibrant now shift and shimmer like ghostly black ink blots. It’s easy to see whatever my imagination can conjure up. I can find no evidence that The Beach Boys performed Good Vibrations on Top of the Pops, in 1966 or at any other time. And yet, the puzzle of the song that couldn’t be played live is clearly visible in the swirling fog of recollections, solid and undeniable.

Perhaps the scenes I can recall are false memories constructed from later broadcasts or wholly fabricated by random ripples of thought in a muddled mind. Who knows? Wherever they came from they look and sound uncannily like the YouTube clip above. And that’s good enough for me.

No Reason

It’s a bright, but frosty morning here in the East Midlands region of the UK – a day in which the rising sun should be welcomed by peeping out from the bedclothes with a sleepy smile and snuggling down for another twenty minutes while the central heating chases away the overnight chill. It’s Sunday. There’s no reason to get up early.

No Reason is an ease-into-the-day track from Bonobo‘s latest album, Migration, which was only released earlier this month. The track and the album are, of course, new to Crotchety Man. The artist is new to me, too. In fact, even the words for the genres associated with Bonobo‘s music are new to me. I have tagged No Reason as ‘ambient’, ‘chillwave’, ‘electronic’ and ‘trip hop’ because those terms are all associated with the artist and they seem to fit the song. But I may be using them inappropriately.

bonobo, live

Bonobo is the stage name of Simon Green, a Brit now living in Los Angeles and most often described as a DJ. He seems to have emerged from the electronica and dance scene of the 80s and 90s, first as a DJ and then as a musician and producer.

Now, back in the dim dark days of Crotchety Man’s youth a DJ was just a guy who played records, usually 45 rpm singles, and his only creative input was in his announcements of the song title and artist. When some idiots started deliberately scratching the discs and driving the turntables with their fingers Crotchety Man turned his ears the other way. Yes, it did allow the DJs greater scope for artistic expression but their creations were poison to the sacred art of music making. To me, the sound of a diamond-tipped needle scraping over the much softer grooves of a vinyl record constitutes cruel and degrading behaviour and, as such, is banned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It damages the records and it tortures the listener.

My antagonism towards those first ‘creative’ DJs meant that I have been almost oblivious to the way the role of the DJ has evolved. Until very recently I was only dimly aware of DJ consoles: the specialist equipment that allows a DJ to mix music from vinyl discs, CDs and computers, to change the speed of one track to match the beat of another, and to add electronic effects. Over the years DJs have become more and more like producers and their work has, finally, become a truly creative art. It is no longer an insult for me to label someone a DJ.

There was another reason the Crotchety ears were deaf to the work of the early DJs. Their habitat was the clubs and the discos where young people went to dance, the girls to look pretty and the boys to impress. In those dimly lit halls a strong beat was essential and the DJs knew it. The trouble was they took it too far. When all you can hear is booming bass, thudding drumbeats and pulsing electronics you lose the music. I like to hear a tune as well as a rhythm, harmonies as well as a beat. Dance music has its place, I suppose, but there’s no place for it in the Crotchety collection.

Bonobo, though, is not a boom and thud merchant. There is neither ‘DnB’ nor ‘dance’ in the tag list. His music sits comfortably at the beat end of ‘ambient’. No Reason is a good example of Bonobo‘s general style but it’s atypical in that it features a guest vocalist (Nick Murphy, fka Chet Faker), who does a rather good job on this track. At the end of a long day it works on the brain the way a massage works on the body, easing away the stiffness and gently untangling the Gordian knots of frustrated ambition. And it works equally well at daybreak, too, to shake off the fog of sleep and prepare us for another day.

Postscript

No Reason is available as a free download here. Migration is currently at number 5 on the UK album charts.

Rekt

dunno on bandcamp

Crotchety Man doesn’t make New Year resolutions. But this year I want to write more about recent releases. So, this week I’ve been sifting through my Release Radar, a playlist automatically created by Spotify every Friday based on my listening history. Only new releases appear on the Radar and although my taste is relatively broad I am expecting Spotify’s selection algorithm to have a tough time finding tunes that are both new and to my taste. This time, though, the solid state brains have exceeded my wildest dreams. Among the 30 songs on the playlist there were two excellent candidates for Track of the Week, rather more than twice as many as I’d expected.

Of course that left me with a dilemma. Should I choose Chill Kingdom by American Dollar or Rekt by Owane? Obviously, I chose the latter but it was a close call. Chill Kingdom, as you may have guessed, is ambient New Age music for the chill-out room; Rekt is refreshing guitar-led prog rock. Choose Chill Kingdom when you’re wrecked, Rekt when the morning sun opens your eyes, invigorates the mind and floods your limbs with energy. Today, Crotchety Man is wide awake and ready for action, so Rekt has to be the right choice.

Having chosen the track the next question was “who is Owane?”. There’s not much about him on the ‘Net. He does have a Facebook page and a YouTube channel on which he describes himself simply as a musician. He’s also on Bandcamp where we see that his first release was an EP called Greatest Hits (which shows an acute sense of irony and humour) and he has one full album entitled Dunno. There’s rather more information about the man and his music in this review of the Greatest Hits EP. Øyvind Owane is a young Norwegian guitarist, keyboard player and composer. He tags his music experimental, fusion, jazz, rock, pop.

If you check the Crotchety Man tags you will find that I have dropped the ‘experimental’ and ‘pop’ from Owane’s list. His compositions are certainly not chart material and ‘experimental’ suggests rather more weirdness than we hear. I would describe all of Owane’s material as jazz/rock fusion with heavy prog rock influences – lots of fuzzed guitar, plenty of piano and synth, fast runs. But above all there’s a light touch and a joyful feel that reminds me of the effervescent exuberance on Return To Forever‘s album Romantic Warrior. Owane’s guitar sings and its song says “it’s good to be alive”.

Rekt is the first track of the Dunno album, which is available in its entirety on YouTube.

The rest of the album is quite similar. If you like Rekt as much as I do the album is a great way to get the new year off to a flying start.

The Curse of Blondie

I think I’m slowly getting the hang of this Internet thing. It seems to have all the information you could ever want (and a lot more besides) but to find what you’re looking for you have to know where to look. I’ve searched for Blondie’s eighth album, The Curse of Blondie, on streaming sites in the past and drawn a blank but my more advanced search technique has finally come up trumps. Here it is on YouTube.

Well, actually, this compilation has the right tracks, in the right order, but track 2, Good Boys, is blocked in the UK and track 8 is a live version of End to End. Why most of Blondie’s recordings are available on Spotify (and elsewhere, I assume) but not this particular album is a mystery to me. I guess it’s cursed.

Let’s see if we can lift the spell.

The Curse of Blondie got mixed reviews when it came out in 2003 and on first listen that’s understandable. There are two tracks on The Curse that would work really well on any of Blondie‘s early albums; they are: Good Boys (the only single), and End To End, which has already featured on the Crotchety Man blog. Some of the other songs are also in the  typical Blondie pop/rock style (Undone, Golden Rod, for example) and those, too, are likely to go down well with Blondie album collectors. Then there are several tracks that explore rather different territory: rap-style vocals in Shakedown, a reggae Background Melody, the electronica/dance tracks Hello Joe and The Tingler. Although Blondie had used these styles before some of their fans didn’t appreciate it.

And then The Curse has some real surprises. Songs of Love is a romantic ballad embellished with some saxophone licks. Magic (Asadoya Yunta) is a traditional Japanese folk song. And most unsettling of all, Desire Brings Me Back mainly consists of honking saxophones over thudding tribal drums. None of those is exactly guaranteed to appeal to the average pop/rock enthusiast and even dyed-in-the-wool Blondie devotees might struggle with them.

Blondie, 1977

Blondie, 1977

The Curse is an album on which the band deliberately ventures off the charts, to places where mythical creatures live and the maps say only, “here be dragons”. But baby dragons are such cute animals and, trained right, they can make wonderful pets. You just need to get to know them.

So, lets spin the album again.

It’s true that Shakedown has rap-style vocals but the basic track has all the hallmarks of classic Blondie singles. It may not be a top ten song but it’s eminently listenable and I’m sure it would go down well in the clubs. The reggae beat of Background Melody actually lifts the song from mediocre to pretty good; well worth its place on the album. Even the two tracks I labelled electronica/dance sound more like classic Blondie tracks given a DJ mix than something spawned in the dark shadows of gangland America.

Blondie 2011

Blondie, 2011

The Curse is a Blondie album with rather more variety than fans and critics were used to and Crotchety Man applauds them for that. There is one dud track – the honking saxes on Desire Brings Me Back are just an awful noise – but everything else works extremely well. Of course, the album doesn’t have as many chart hits as Parallel Lines or Eat To The Beat but it’s a very worthy addition to the Blondie canon which seems to have been forgotten by record stores and streaming sites. Or does the Crotchety Man’s online search technique still need to be improved?

Jessica

We started the year in quiet contemplation here on the Crotchety Man blog but now it’s time to shake off the torpor of the holiday season and get moving. And, you know, nothing says “let’s get this show on the road” better than Jessica by The Allman Brothers Band.

Jessica is an instrumental from the Brothers and Sisters album released in 1973. It was written mostly by Dickey Betts, the lead guitarist. He had the germ of an idea but was unable to develop it until his baby daughter, Jessica, came in and started bouncing to the music. Taking his cue from little Jessica’s antics Betts nailed the carefree rhythm and playful tune that makes this track so irresistible. It needed a bit more work before it could be performed and recorded, though, and that led to a certain amount of controversy and bitterness.

The story goes that Betts invited session guitarist Les Dudek over for dinner and they played the unfinished song together. While Betts was checking on the steaks Dudek came up with a bridge that Betts felt was exactly the right missing piece to complete the song. The whole band then worked on the track in the studio. In the final arrangement Dudek played acoustic rhythm guitar which provides a nice intro but is largely overshadowed by Greg Allman’s organ and session musician Chuck Leavell’s electric piano, not to mention Dickey Betts’ wonderful lead guitar.

Dudek, who felt he had written an essential part of the song and had worked out guitar harmonies with Betts, was somewhat miffed. What rankled him the most was that he wasn’t credited as a co-writer but, as he was only drafted in as a session musician, there was nothing he could do about that. As spats among rock musicians go this was a minor tremor compared with some of the more earth-shaking bust-ups we read about from time to time but it clearly left Dudek quite resentful.

painting

The Allman Brothers Band ca. 1971

Jessica is the finest example of Southern Rock known to Crotchety Man. It marries the boundless energy of a toddler with the clean-living country air of the Georgian farmstead where it was written. And it bounces along like a seven month old baby grooving to her daddy’s guitar, which is, of course, exactly what Dickey Betts was trying to achieve. The Allman Brothers Band made plenty of really good records but, for me, Jessica is far and away the best thing they ever did.

In the UK, at least, Jessica is familiar to millions of motoring enthusiasts as the theme from the BBC TV programme Top Gear. Until fairly recently the programme was hosted by Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May who entertained viewers with silly stunts and amusing reviews of the latest cars. Jeremy Clarkson, especially, could be dismissive or downright insulting in his comments. (There are several pages dedicated to Jeremy Clarkson quotes on the Internet.)

I didn’t watch Top Gear but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if, after the theme tune and a few words of introduction, Clarkson used to call out to his co-presenters, “let’s get this show on the road”. And I’m sure little Jessica Betts would gurgle her whole-hearted approval.

Finding His Voice

open mic

The Crotchety Man blog is now two years old and, as you can see, the boy is beginning to find his voice. According to mumsnet.com, a two year old will be “behaving increasingly like adults do”. That site goes on to say, “About one in five children of this age has at least one tantrum a day”. (Why does that remind me of a certain Donald J. Trump?) Of more relevance, though, is the milestone listed on bounty.com that a two year old will be constructing sentences of three words or more. I hope you are ready for the quantum leap in literary prowess that this new ability will surely bring in 2017.

But, first, let’s look back on the posts of 2016.

To my shame I find that there were only two posts in the Band/Artist category last year: those on Bob Dylan and The Kinks. I had intended to make Simon and Garfunkel my band of the year for 1966 but writing about that duo proved too daunting a prospect and that item remains in the section of the calendar labelled “someday soon”. Appropriately, though, Sound of Silence did feature as a Track of the Week.

Partially making up for the dearth of band/artist posts I seem to have written 13 posts about albums in 2016: 12 were tagged Album of the Month and there was a bonus item on Kate Tempest’s live performance of her Let Them Eat Chaos album.

With the Track of the Week I hit the bull’s eye: 52 posts over the year covering a motley collection of songs and instrumentals.

I added two new categories this year: Gig (one post) and Playlist (also one post). There were also a few uncategorised posts including: an announcement of the dedicated Internet domain for the blog, a teaser for my most exciting discovery of the year (the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra) and last year’s summary of 2015 on Crotchety Man. That’s 72 posts all together, slightly down on the 76 for the year before.

Before I provide the summary tables I’d like to give a special mention to a few tracks and artists that were new to me. The following individual tracks stood out:

Radiohead produced a terrific video for their Burn the Witch single.

And I particularly enjoyed being introduced to The Pineapple Thief (Magnolia, Fend For Yourself), Kate Tempest (Let Them Eat Chaos) and Hidden Orchestra (Archipelago).

Finally, the summary tables for 2016 can be found here as a PDF document (with all the links).

Peace of Mind

Let’s start 2017 with a sweet, gentle instrumental – something to soothe away the excesses of the New Year’s Eve party and ease the conflict and bitterness that was the hallmark of the year just gone. This is a track called Peace of Mind from the Natural Elements album by Shakti.

Shakti was an east-west fusion band that combined John McLaughlin’s jazz-influenced guitar with elements of Indian music supplied by Lakshminarayana Shankar (viola, violin, vocals), Zakir Hussain (bongos, dholak, percussion, tabla, timbales, triangle, vocals), Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam, kanjeera, percussion, vocals) and Ramnad Raghavan (mridangam). If, like me, you’ve never heard of many of those instruments there’s a glossary at the end of this post. For now, though, you can just lump the ones you don’t know under the general heading of ‘percussion’.

Peace of Mind sounds very familiar to those of us brought up on western classical and popular music. There is none of the wailing sitar, quarter tones or chanting voices that characterise the traditional music of the Indian sub-continent. Instead we have a contemplative acoustic guitar reminiscent of John Williams and a violin that slips and slides through a simple, haunting melody. Nothing I know says “peace be with you” as eloquently as this and nothing reaches across cultural divides more successfully.

yoga

If 2017 is going to be better than the anno horibilis of the last 12 months we will need something like Peace of Mind in our lives to provide an antidote to the selfish isolationism that is taking Britain out of the EU and has elected Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. We will need peace and forgiveness to stop the wars caused by religious fundamentalism and to heal the physical and psychological wounds they will leave behind. We will need men (and women) of peace, men who reach out to others across the globe, spiritual men like Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

I’ve been on this Earth too long to believe the world’s ills can be solved in a single year but there is always the hope that things will get better. Here’s to a more rational, more peaceful, more humane society in 2017.

Glossary

  • dholak – a two-headed hand drum
  • ghatam – a large, narrow-mouthed earthenware water pot used as a percussion instrument
  • kanjeera – an Indian version of the tambourine
  • mridangam – another two-headed drum
  • tabla – a pair of small hand drums
  • timbales – shallow single-headed drums with a metal casing played with sticks