Friday, December 26, 2014

Keep An Eye On Summer - The Beach Boys Sessions 1964 Track by Track by Peter Reum

Keep An Eye On Summer - The Beach Boys Sessions 1964  Track by Track

Cover Art for The Beach Boys New Copyright Extension Collection

The second year of Beach Boys' music issued for copyright protection by Capitol/Universal is a collection of almost 3 and a half hours of music cut by The Beach Boys with a only a few minor exceptions. The first roughly two hours are covered here in this article. My article here is indebted to the notes contributed by the producers, Alan Boyd and Mark Linett for reference, and to the sessionography prepared by Craig Slowinski, whose dedication to accurate research on the sessions work of The Beach Boys is without peer.

Fun Fun Fun

The selections on Keep An Eye On Summer kick off with a session for Fun Fun Fun.  With some selected members of The Wrecking Crew on the date, the musicians begin by playing a stroll that sounds suspiciously like Sleepwalk by Santo and Johnny.  The tracking tape shows off Brian's use of rhythm piano to offset the drums, which according to Alan Boyd are played by Dennis Wilson and Hal Blaine. The baritone saxes also sound like they fill out the overall instrumental combination contributing the the Spectorish production sound. Brian and Murry are producing, with Murry being fairly directive in his "Surge, boys..." sort of  manner.  The bass guitar plays a basic stroll line as well.

Original US Fun Fun Fun Single Picture Sleeve - 1964

The vocals only mix of Fun Fun Fun is very tight, unlike the more open way the Beach Boys played it live in 1964. The falsetto and high harmony lines are simply breathtaking.  The stereo mix of Fun Fun Fun which follows the vocals only version is a full mix, not as treble sounding as the usual Beach Boy mixes. This may be due to me having my bass highly mixed on phones. What I take away from the version here is how remarkably tight the rhythm section and guitar were in their playing together. 

Why Do Fools Fall In Love

The session tape here begins with Take 5, heavy on rhythm, and cut at Gold Star. Brian's experimentation with the Gold Star echo chamber is in full form. Saxes play a repetitive four note crescendo, and  a repetitive rhythm guitar pattern morphs into a full blown production as the track progresses. The producers and assemblers of this music release, Alan Boyd and Mark Linett, also have included the unusual piano introduction which was appended to the tune a few years ago. The stereo mix included here is new, according to Alan and Mark. On the stereo mix, Brian may be heard adopting a Holland-Dozier-Holland production approach, adding instruments every 4 bars of music. The stacked vocals add to the Spector feel, along with the odd percussion that marks a Spector type of sound. At 1:10 in, the Wall of Sound drops out briefly and turns into a Wall of Vocals. The song went top 10 in several countries and US cities. Here is the Frankie Lymon original: Frankie Lymon & Teenagers Why Do Fools Fall In Love 1956

Don't Worry Baby

What is so powerful about this ballad, is a combination of emotional vulnerability expressed in Brian's lead vocal nonverbally, the lyrics themselves by Roger Christian, and the bass line/backing vocal patterns which rise at the times Brian sounds most worried on the lead vocal. The mantra "Don't Worry Baby" is repeated as the backing vocals rise along with the bass line. As early as Spring of 1964, Brian was composing off the bass root of the song, using it as the main melody. The Don't Worry Baby mantra is sung first by Brian, is answered by the backing vocalists, and then Brian comes back answering "everything will be alright."  Again, the potency of the Beach Boys' singles is on display here, and Don't Worry Baby outperformed I Get Around in some markets around the country and went top 10 in local charts.

Original 1964 Beach Boys Don't Worry Baby/I Get Around Single Picture Sleeve

In the Parking Lot

Once again, this song draws the main melody from the bass line, with Alan and Mark pointing out the unusual extended introduction, which finally breaks at second 17 into the main melody. The track is cleanly produced, with a nice solo from Carl. The witty repartee before the vocals includes a Murry joke, with Dennis and then Mike telling everyone to "treble up."  Later Dennis says that it is time to screw around because Murry is finally gone.  The background vocal refrain 'doo ronday ronday, doo ronday ron' is borrowed from Brian's Gonna Hustle You composition.

The Warmth of the Sun

The track here has a pathos about it that is at once striking yet hopeful as well. The opening has some similarities to the Surfer Girl intro. The rhythm guitar here strums along with Carl playing a repetitive round of quarter notes that at times sounds melancholic, yet just before the glockenspiel trill goes up. Mike Love's bass vocal here is a revelation, and is a key to the track's overall sound. It goes in counterpoint to the guitar Carl is playing. What sounds like wood blocks play on the second and fourth beats of each measure, probably done by Hal Blaine.  The song is sung in a solemn manner, and almost sounds like an Anglican hymn. 

1964 Original US Capitol Records Warmth of the Sun Single Label

Pom Pom Playgirl

This tune is noted by Alan and Mark as being completely played by the Beach Boys themselves. The rhythm piano, presumably played by Brian is dynamite. Mike's baritone sax is surprising,adding almost a Boots Randolph feel on the bottom. The sax plays alternating notes over the first three measures,then hits the sweet 4 notes that are on the Da Doo Ron Ron saxophone part on the fourth measure. The sax and rhythm guitar add a nice bottom, with the bass guitar moving up and down over repeating four note parts every other measure. Carl's lead vocal is a little down in the mix. It almost sounds like Dennis hitting a tympani drum at the end of the tune.

Denny's Drums

This track has some added bass and guitar that cannot be heard on the finished master. Dennis maintains a steady beat on the bass drum with accenting beats on the floor tom and snare. That Dennis was an underrated drummer is unquestionable. At times, he sounds a bit like Gene Krupa  when he played with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Take a listen to Gene on Sing Sing Sing, then listen to Dennys Drums. Here's Gene: Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman Sing Sing Sing   What do you think?

Original Album Cover Art Work for Capitol Beach Boys Shut Down Volume 2 - 1964

Keep An Eye On Summer

This many be one of the least known but delightful ballads Brian wrote. Of particular note here is some beautiful bass singing by Mike Love along with a nice solo on the bridge of the song, and wistful background vocals from Brian, Alan, and Carl. Dennis is also noticeable doubling on the chorus. This version offers a nice opportunity to listen closely to the background harmonies with Brian's prominent lead vocal muted in the mix offered by Alan and Mark on this set.

Endless Sleep

This is a previously officially unreleased Brian Wilson production from 1964 performed by a gentleman named Denton who did not like  Brian's perfectionistic production tendencies and kept asking Brian if he was done with singing on the session.  The original  version on Demon 226 from 1958 was cut with a little more reverb,  although that version sounds suspiciously like the Goldstar echo chamber. It may be heard here: Endless Sleep1958 by Marty Wilde Brian's version is more uptempo and is not as haunting or foreboding as Wilde's version.

I Get Around

There is so much about this song that could be said. The song was Brian's first Billboard Number 1 record, and that happened in the middle of first wave of The British Invasion. There is an unusual percussive sound that almost sounds like a sped up click track, but more likely is Hal Blaine. There is a rhythmic harpsichord keyboard sound that is just radical, and is being used as a percussion emphasis. The track has some interesting stops and starts that are covered by vocals in the finished version. Once again, Dennis is on drums, and Hal Blaine is most likely on percussion. There is another Murry "treble up" joke from Mike which is directed at Al on the session tape. The vocals only version presented here illustrates the incredibly tight arrangement Brian did with vocals. Alan and Mark mention in their production notes that the 3 track version of the vocals is lost. We can hope that it will be found one of these days.

1964 Original US Capitol Records I Get Around Single Label

All Summer Long

This tracking session is one of the more revealing of these early tracking sessions, as Brian went through some 40 takes with the vibes before he got the entire sequence of notes correct. Brian jokingly titles the track "I Hate It" after 23 takes. There is some cool guitar and bass playing shadowing the vibes here. While Brian is not Lionel Hampton, he gets through the track to finish what is one of the most distinct tracks of the early years instrumentally. There is a clarinet, flute, piccolo, and alto sax which play in the background, adding some festive sounds to the track.  The vocals only track here sparkles, as only The Beach Boys' vocals can. I would say that this is one the few vocals that is truly a group lead. Dennis is quite prominent in the mix here. Anyone who might think that he was not needed in the overall Beach Boys vocal blend should recant after hearing this track.

Original Cover Art Work for Capitol Beach Boys All Summer Long Album


From the All Summer Long album, the version of Hushabye presented is instruments plus backing vocals. This tune was released on an EP in the USA, and charted briefly.There is some very lovely piano here which is mostly played in the bass end of things. The strumming guitar is also lower than the usual notes Carl plays on most songs. The sound is quite close to a Phil Spector production feel.  The original tune by The Mystics on Laurie is classic Brooklyn doo wop,  and is a standard of that genre. It may be heard here: The Mystics doing Hushabye  Because the tune is a Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman composition, the original track has a Latin feel that many of the Pomus/Shuman compositions have.

Girls On the Beach

The notes from the producers/compilers, Alan and Mark, indicate that the first few minutes of this selection are from a separate version of this song prepared for the movie of the same name. As with some sessions, things were not clicking, and the engineers were left to compile a usable version. The second part of this selection sounds to these ears to be the original vocals only version of the tune. The good old handle of the drum kit can be heard in the background, telling me this version is the released version. As an aside, the little part that Dennis contributes at the midpoint of the song reminds me of his marriage to Karen Lamm Wilson.


Wendy is one of those songs my grandmother would have called a "woulda, coulda, shoulda" song. All of us have had a relationship that we thought was the one that would last "forever" blow up for reasons we don't really understand. The intro is a classic Brian "cul de sac" intro, with the last minute right turn that brings in the main melody and harmony from God knows where. Once again, the instruments drop out, and the group's vocals carry the song, even on the version with instruments mixed in. This song was also featured on the American EP that was entitled 4 by The Beach Boys. 

Cover Art for the Capitol US Four By The Beach Boys EP

Don't Back Down

The closing track to the All Summer Long lp in another version, this version has its stereo premiere according to Alan and Mark on this release. This song in its released version was also on the 4 by The Beach Boys EP. The version here sounds somewhat disjointed with some backing vocals that stick out like a sore thumb, and an almost forced phrasing that sounds stilted. Knowing Brian, he most likely heard this version, realized it sounded herky jerky,  and cut the released version which production wise sounds smoother and cleaner.

Little Saint Nick

This version, which uses the track from the All Summer Long tune entitled Drive-In, has a full bore Spector feel to it, which probably was a little more of an obvious emulation than Brian wanted to make it. The final mix of the Little Saint Nick single had a sound that was a little more original, with vibe overlays and a more subdued Spector sound. This unusual version his been in circulation for several years, making its debut as a bonus track on one of the cd releases of The 1964 Christmas album. Alan and Mark's Production notes indicate that the Ronettes were present at this session, and Mike does a "bass man" vocal that sound very R&B, along with Brian doing an odd granny voice near the end of the song.

Untitled Jam and Let's Live Before We Die

This selection is one of those that has a degree of mystery about it. The session is a tracking session. The count-off title is Let's Live, but the track has some primitive chord similarities to Girls on the Beach. 

Little Honda (Alternate Version)

This version has appeared as a bonus track on a prior release, but is mixed in stereo here. The track has a depth that is awesome. The Beach Boys hum on the verses and simulate an engine. At the beginning, Mike Love does a soliloquy on how vocals are transmitted through the mixing board to the tape.  Dennis's drumming here is very tasteful.

Little Honda (Unreleased Single Mix)

The thing that has impressed me so much about these various sessions is how much bass guitar that Alan Jardine played, and the rhythm piano or other keyboard instruments that Brian Wilson played on tracking sessions that are buried in the mix when you hear the released records, and are more obvious on these sessions tapes. The other thing is the use of just enough reverb on the guitars to offer a more punchy and rhythmic sound like instrumental surf music.  Check out Brian on organ on this selection in the last 45 seconds of the tune.

She Knows Me Too Well

The first selection heard under this title is a tracking session with backing vocals intact. Brian's patented left hand may be heard playing a bass pattern echoing the vocal part Mike Love sings on this track. Russ Titelman knocks a screwdriver against a mike stand for percussive coloration here. Alan Jardine's bass guitar is elegant here and tasteful, offering a depth that reinforces the composing off the bass root that Brian did throughout the Beach Boys' recording in the first half of the Sixties. The ensemble singing on the vocals only version of the song is extremely tight, with Brian singing a very complex lead part against the backing vocals which add depth and emotive color to the finished song.  This is Brian Wilson entering the mature phase of his production career, pouring his feelings on to vinyl.

Original Sea of Tunes Sheet Music for She Knows Me Too Well

Don't Hurt My Little Sister

This tune is deceptively simple sounding, but this vocals only version really shows off the lead vocal interplay between Mike Love and Brian. They pass the lead back and forth, with Mike singing an an aggressive vocal warning not to hurt his little sister, and Brian asking why the sister's boyfriend doesn't "love her, kiss her, and tell her you miss her."  The lyrical content has entered the relationship phase, with the content slowly moving away from dating and into long-term relationships.

Christmas Eve (Instrumental)

This track is mood music, and would probably fit on any elevator or in any department store. It is a curiosity in the sense that it has some piano parts similar to Autumn Leaves by Roger Williams, but is otherwise forgettable. A search of ASCAP and BMI for a composition with this title by Brian or Murry Wilson, and for Richard or Dick Reynolds did not yield any results.

Original Album Cover Art Work for Capitol Beach Boys Christmas Album - 1964

Jingle Bells (Instrumental)

This arrangement of the Christmas standard is suitably seasonal, with a nice swinging feel, brass accentuation, and string coloration. It would have been a fun addition to the somber side of the Beach Boys Christmas Album, and I would have enjoyed it in that context. This is a Dick Reynolds arrangement, as is Christmas Eve, and you either like Dick's work or you don't. I like a big band arrangement that swings, and this fits the bill.

When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)

This vocals only version sparkles with a tight vocal arrangement that is complex and intricate. Once again, Mike Love's bass vocals are superb, and Brian's high vocals add an innocence that is palpable. The song lyrically offers a young man's questions about life later on, with Brian's trademark naivety audible in the music and his own vocals. The leap from this tune to 1977's Still I Dream of It and It's Over Now in terms of the emotions expressed reveal a middle aged Brian Wilson, who, to use an old Montana saying was "rode hard and hung up wet."

Original Capitol Art Work for When I Grow Up (To Be a Man) Single Picture Cover

Fun Fun Fun (Live in Western Studio)

This release's producers, Mark Linett and Alan Boyd, in their production notes for this selection and the next one, I Get Around, explain that these two recordings were recorded because Brian did not feel the audio quality of the two concerts from Sacramento was good enough to be released. While Beach Boys Concert may not be the first live concert album doctored in the studio, it may be one of the live albums that was most radically revised in the studio for the era it was cut and released. The obvious problem plaguing The Beach Boys and also The Beatles on their Live at the Hollywood Bowl lp was the screaming of young teenyboppers at such a constant and shrill volume that the music was not clearly heard.

Original Album Cover Art Work for Capitol Beach Boys Concert Album - 1964

I Get Around (Live at Western Studio)

This version has lots of cajones  behind it, and could be released were it not for the obvious fact that NO audience is heard, and that makes the song sound live in the studio instead of in front of an audience. Overdubbed audience sounds are not usually believable (reference the Thirteenth Floor Elevators Live on IA). 

I'm So Young (Alternate Version)

This recording is indicated by the producers to be a tracking session and a stereo mix of the first version of the song, which is mixed  a little differently than the version on The Beach Boys Today! The version done by The Ronettes as produced by Phil Spector  has a sensuality that only can be captured by Ronnie Spector. The string chart on Spector's version and the overall arrangement by Jack Nietzche is music to make out by. It can be heard here: The Ronettes-I'm So Young  The original recording, by a doo wop group called The Students, appeared in 1958, with lead singer LeRoy King providing somewhat of an androgynous sound, on which Ronnie Spector may have based her version of the song from 1963. The Student's version may be heard here: I'm So Young by The Students

All Dressed Up For School

This version is in glorious stereo, and I would pay the price I paid for all 3 and a half hours of music just for this track. The producers remark in their notes that the scales the Beach Boys do in this tune show up later several times in subsequent compositions. This tune is one that could have at least been a flip side of a single, or perhaps even an 'A' side. Ok, it sounds a bit lecherous, but we both know that seniors love sophomores.....

Dance Dance Dance (Nashville)

The sketch of Dance Dance Dance done at Nashville showed lots of promise, but suffered from some mildly clumsy lead vocal singing at one point, and the vocals being mixed a little low over and against the instruments.  The song seems perhaps slightly slower than the released single version, and the sound Brian got at RCA in LA jumped out of the speakers.

Original Capitol Art Work for Beach Boys Dance Dance Dance Single Picture Cover

Dance Dance Dance (Los Angeles)

The tracking session at RCA in Los Angeles featured some of Wrecking Crew's finest. Right at the top of the tape, Glen Campbell can heard asking for the song's key. His guitar is high in the mix if you know his style of playing. The percussion and saxes are also Wrecking Crew. Dennis Wilson is on drums and kills, playing in an understated but very effective manner. Hal Blaine can be heard on castanets, tambourine, bell tree, sleigh bells, and possibly triangle. The vocals only version from LA is energetic compared with Nashville, and Mike Love's lead vocal is excellent. Brian's falsetto in the vocal mix highlights the choruses. It is hard to see how this record was not a number one single.

The Beach Boys at The Beeb

The Beach Boys (and Earl Leaf) toured Europe in 1964 in November, and several songs were recorded and thought lost until a British fan provided a well recorded aircheck tape. As the producers indicate, 3 of those tunes were already released on the Made In California 6 cd set. Here we have a lovely version of Graduation Day, which is the peak of the session for me. There are also very fine versions of Surfin' USA,  The Little Old Lady From Pasadena, and I Get Around.

Overall....this is a collector's set of music. That Capitol/Universal has seen fit to release it shows that there are people in the Beach Boys camp and at Capitol/Universal who value collectors and archivists, and also that there is a commitment toward those individuals as well as casual fans who buy collections of hits. Thanks to Alan Boyd, Mark Linett, and Craig Slowinski for their dedication in getting these releases done well and with such attention to details.

Text copyright 2014 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved
Original artwork for Beach Boys singles and albums are copyrighted by Capitol Records


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Personal Favorites #5-Dust Bowl Ballads by Woody Guthrie by Peter Reum

The short list of influential activists who are also musicians from the 20th Century must begin with two men, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. These men were from entirely different backgrounds, yet somehow moved generations of Americans to see the need for justice, equality, and balance in a country with lofty ideals enshrined in its founding documents. The disparity between ideals and actual reality in the United States has been a central bone of contention between moneyed and impoverished American citizens from the beginning of the republic to the present day.  The dialogue between the haves and the poverty stricken has never ceased, and today is perhaps the most burning issue in contemporary America. The issues can be framed in numerous ways, but in music, the emphasis has been focused on the plight of average working class men and women. Their daily lives have been struck by economic exploitation and the accompanying misfortunes that living on the edge of homelessness and in poverty bring.

The death of Pete Seeger silenced a generation whose members were first hand witnesses to the Great Depression and the horrible impact it had on families, especially children alive at that time. Woody Guthrie was a progenitor of the music that brought awareness of poverty's impact on the Nation. Born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912, Woody Guthrie's family was hit between the eyes by The Great Depression, with a series of  tragedies besetting the family, and causing the disintegration of their tenuous economic health before the Depression was even a year old.

The drought that hit the American Prairie in the Thirties was devastating to a generation of Midwestern Plains dirtfarmers, partially due to subsistence farming methods being used on land probably not fit for farming, and also due to the extended drought that made huge dust storms become the scourge of any farmer and his family that lived in the Great Plains. The term which was employed to describe this horrible condition was The Dust Bowl. Woody Guthrie's family had a farm which was leveled by the drought, and he joined the mass migration of Midwesterners who left The Great Plains for California from 1931 through 1940. California became the Promised Land for these families, and many of them slept on the beaches of California while waiting for some sort of break in their misfortune that would help them find a job. Some Californians were unfriendly to the migrants. The New Deal brought public works projects to California and the West, and many young men joined the Civilian Conservation Corps to improve the infrastructure of The United States.

My own father and mother migrated from Michigan to a top secret town that officially did not exist during World War II in North Central New Mexico. My father was fortunate to find a steady job, and my mother became a substitute teacher in this town, named after the Los Alamos Preparatory School which existed there prior to the second World War. The Hill, as it was called during the War, was a huge boost to the poverty stricken area of Northern New Mexico.  The projects across the United States that The New Deal generated employed hundreds of thousands of victims of the Dust Bowl, and it is no coincidence that Woody Guthrie's songs from the late Thirties and early Forties are often about the Dust Bowl and The New Deal.

Of the some 2000+ songs that Woody Guthrie wrote in his brief but prolific career before Huntingtons Chorea took his health away, my favorites are in a collection entitled Dust Bowl Ballads. Originally released in 1940 on Victor, the album is comprised of 14 of Guthrie's most famous songs. A concept album issued 25 years before anyone coined the term, the songs on Dust Bowl Ballads strike a balance between songs that hit you in the gut and songs that hit you in the brain. Woody Guthrie was the consummate story teller, and each song is a story in itself. The entire album appears to be a song cycle about a family named Joad, who parallel the experiences that John Steinbeck chronicled in his The Grapes of Wrath.

Cover Art for the 1964 Folkways Dust Bowl Ballads Reissue

Woody's masterpiece begins with a song called The Great Dust Storm (Dust Bowl Disaster). As with all of the tunes on Dust Bowl Ballads, Woody's presentation is simple, accompanying himself on his guitar. The tune is written in waltz time, and the scope of the tragedy unravels in just over three minutes. In somewhat of a geographical manner, Woody describes the area that was impacted while simultaneously sharing how Dust Bowl victims felt. He sings "we thought it was our judgement, we thought it was our doom." The storms covered their farms with dust, forcing them to pile into their cars and jalopies, and leave their dreams, never returning.

I Ain't Got No Home In This World Anymore is a reflection on the aftermath of the dust storms. The topic of being dispossessed of his dreams and nest egg by the "rich man" is broached for the first time. He reflects on being homeless, picking up spot jobs wherever he can, and describes his wife dying on the floor of their cabin before they left. Whatever meager worth their farm had was taken by the bank, the lien holder of the farm. This iconic song has as much meaning today as it did in 1940, with people with mental illness roaming the streets of this country today, cutting their lives short, living the brutal lifestyle of homelessness. 

Homelessness in America 2014

Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues recalls the life of a man who trades his farm for a truck in which he hauls whatever he can pick up. The migration to the West Coast is described with reflections on the state of the family riding in the back of the truck, traveling much the way immigrants from Latin America are brought to this country stuffed in hot trucks like sardines in a tin can. Guthrie describes his family being hungry, and his wife cooking up a "potato stew" with potatoes borrowed from other migrants, He closes by saying he hopes his kids will eat the stew. He ends the tune taking a shot at the "fatcat" politicians who he says would have taken away the stew if they could.

Track 4, Vigilante Man,  asks just who is a vigilante man....the song describes the insanity of wanton violence, using the struggle of finding a warm place to sleep when homeless only to be chased out of that warm place to illustrate the random violence homeless migrant people encounter. In reflecting on what a vigilante man is, Woody uses actions to define the term. In each scenario Woody sings about, violence and the haves and have nots are used to shine a light on the disregard of the plight of a homeless person by those who have a warm place to sleep and a job. Dust Cain't Kill Me, the next song, uses the dust storm to show the resilience of a person who will not surrender his hope to the numerous misfortunes he and his family have experienced. Guthrie's own resilience is shown in the powerful conclusion to the song, in which he reflects on losing his farm, and other aspects of what was once a sheltered family life.

Track 6, Dust Pneumonia Blues, describes "dust pneumony" and shows the manner in which many miners' health was disregarded by the coal companies of the 20th Century. The physician the song's protagonist sees tells the miner "you ain't got long."  Woody shares that "if you want to get a woman, you sing a California song." Pretty Boy Floyd, the next song, tells a story about a criminal who was known as a latter day Robin Hood, committing crimes and sharing his loot with poor farmers and other people who needed help that was not forthcoming from the respectable people with money. The song describes the good turns Mr. Floyd did for the working people of Oklahoma, destroying mortgage documents, paying off debts, and feeding the destitute. Known as the "Robin Hood of the Clarkson Hills," Floyd was protected from arrest by Oklahomans grateful for his generosity. His grisly death at the hands of the FBI is sung about in this song, with Woody reflecting that "some men rob you with a gun, and others with a pen."

The US Post Office Wanted Poster for Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd

Track 8, Blowin' Down This Road (I Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way), reflects the resilience Dust Bowl veterans had, with Guthrie labeling himself as a "Dust Bowl Refugee"  The anger this man sings about in his song is reflected in the refrain "I Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way." He sings that his kids need three square meals a day, and that his own feet need $10 shoes because "$2 shoes don't fit." The name Tom Joad is best known to the Rock Music generation as part of an album title by Bruce Springsteen. The two part ballad by Woody Guthrie is a powerful reflection on the migration of a family from Oklahoma to California after the family farm fails. They honor the family patriarch by burying him on the side of the road on the farm, but bury his wife, the matriarch, on the "California side" of the road. The Joads piled in the back of a truck and went to California. Tom Joad has to leave his family, due to killing a vigilante man who shot the preacher who accompanied the Joads to California. The saga is a story of injustice and intolerance of the Joads and fellow Dust Bowl families who migrated West. The song concludes in a manner similar to many working man songs, with Joad telling his elderly mother that he will be wherever poor people and starving children are in the world.

Track 11, Dust Bowl Refugee, is a reflection on the migrant workers who service the large farms in the California Central Valley. The interesting aspect to this song is that Woody makes the Mexican Farm Workers and the Dust Bowl people who came to California a combined force.  The protagonist of the song wonders if he will always be a Dust Bowl Refugee. It is easy to see how Cesar Chavez would be inspired by the tunes of Woody Guthrie on this album.  Track 12, Do Re Mi, is one of Woody Guthrie's best known songs, and chronicles the warning of a dejected migrant to the Joad family that California is not what everyone believes it to be, and urges the Joad family to turn around and go back to where they came from. The migrants from a variety of states are warned in the song to return to where they began their trip to The Promised Land.  Do Re Mi is also notable for the double guitar parts that Woody recorded for the song, which complement each other, establishing the conflicted nature and setting of the song's lyrics. 

The album closes with two powerful tracks, Dust Bowl Blues and Dusty Old Dust (So Long Its Been Good to Know Yah). Track 13, Dust Bowl Blues,  seems to chronicle the experiences of the song's singer in somewhat of a reflective manner, looking back on the horrible experiences the family went through when they were living in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years. From that standpoint, the listener is left wondering what the state of the family named Joad is in the years following the migration to California.  Dusty Old Dust (So Long Its Been Good to Know Yah) presents a look back to the initial part of the story by the singer, who on his deathbed is remembering what brought him West, and is recorded in waltz time, similar to the album's opening track. The story concludes with a complex double viewpoint, recalling the family saying goodbye to their neighbors in the mid Thirties, and the singer whose story the album tells wishing the listener farewell from his deathbed.

Very few video tapes/films exist of Woody Guthrie performing live. This short snippet of Guthrie singing a song called Rangers Command, is a cool chance to see his guitar playing, which was extraordinary for the time. The clip dates from 1945. Rare Woody Guthrie clip from 1945

In what turned out to be a shortened career due to Huntington's Chorea, Woody Guthrie established a benchmark which spawned a generation's interest in folk music and Americana. The Folk Movement of the late Fifties and early Sixties owes its existence to Woody, Pete Seeger, and the field recordings done by the Lomaxes. His prolific songwriting led to a number of his songs remaining unrecorded by Guthrie himself. The website maintained by Guthrie's family is a tremendous resource for learning about this most American of balladeers. This is the site's link: Official Woody Guthrie website  

In reviewing Woody Guthrie's recorded works, Dust Bowl Ballads retains a truthfulness that is at once universal and autobiographical simultaneously. The hardships that the Guthrie family overcame in the Twenties and Thirties remain unknown to most listeners. His sister died and his mother was institutionalized with what was later determined to be Huntington's Chorea when Guthrie was still a teenager.  The Guthrie family's experience in the Dust Bowl years in Oklahoma mirrors the experiences the Joad family had on this album. The Great Depression left an indelible mark on people my father and mother's age, young people who were raised through this time of suffering and hardship.  Today, it is almost inconceivable to the average American, but with large banks being willing to toy with mortgages, investments, and other measures of middle class prosperity, it is entirely possible that despite the best intentions of people in regulatory roles, that the United States could experience another Great Depression, with another prophet like Woody Guthrie speaking the truth as Woody did in the Thirties and Forties. We can hope that more sensible heads will prevail.

Text copyright 2014 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Band's Twilight by Peter Reum

The four Canadians and Arkansan that made up one of rock music's most celebrated combos have had a history of musical accomplishment that brings a sense of wonder to this listener, and yet, there is a nagging feeling that there could have been so much more. The phrase "if only" enters my mind when I think about these men. Rarely has a band had so much amazing talent, accomplished musicianship, and the writing ability to release one juggernaut after another, only to wheeze out as the Seventies churned toward the new millennium.

As time passed, some of the various members struggled with substances, cancer, mental health issues, and finding a direction. I have spent the last few weeks reading through several books on The Band, and they all chronicle a group that needed some direction. The latest book I am finishing is simply entitled The Band, and is written by Craig Harris. Mr. Harris chooses to steer a careful course through the various controversies that plagued The Band after The Last Waltz. The period of the group's major work, from 1967 through 1976, is full of unrivaled musicianship, yet at times, the group sounds somewhat robotic.  I have never enjoyed an entire Band album except for their second album, a true classic.

The Band's eponymous classic second album

Several of the books and articles I have digested to try to comprehend the complex dynamics in The Band have mentioned the resumption of touring after The Band's second album and the income from record sales and touring as being a possible cause for the deterioration of relationships within the group by the time Stage Fright was released.  In particular, there was some degree of resentment that songwriting royalties were not distributed in a manner reflecting the perceived group members' contributions to the credits on various compositions. To be fair to Robbie Robertson, there is also the cited growing infatuation with various substances that some group members had, with almost unrestricted access to drugs and alcohol due to the money pouring into their bank accounts. This use of mood altering chemicals seems to have diverted members' attention away from music and toward good times. The level of group involvement around writing and recording seems to have diminished during the Stage Fright sessions even further than the time from Music From Big Pink to The Band.

1970's Stage Fright Album 

There is a shadow over the next few albums, with a reaction of disbelieving shock from The Band to the wild praise and adulation their recordings and performances received. The cognitive dissonance of such a glowing reception after years of playing bars and small clubs in the South and in Canada was certainly a factor in the group's disbelief of their own accomplishments. Rick Danko is quoted by Craig Harris as saying that the change from poverty to having a million dollars pouring into his bank account was too much to assimilate. Still, the music poured out of the group, with Robbie Robertson becoming somewhat of a latter day Brian Wilson, working to write the tunes the group would record with occasional input from other group members.  It is this input, and the debate over the amount of it that deserved a co-credit that tore apart the relationships between Robertson and some of the other group members over an extended period of time. Unspoken resentment and anger seeped out from both sides of the predicament and slowly poisoned the group's rapport.

Being a  therapist myself, the obvious question that arises is why would a group that was so talented slowly destroy itself ?  The years of  hard living and knocking around playing bars and clubs for drinking money certainly reinforced a frustration that these guys must have had with knowing they were good, yet earning a subsistence living. When they were asked to tour with Bob Dylan, the reception was even worse on the 1966 tour than they had in the old clubs and bars they played. Records from the first half of the Sixties that they cut are in some cases remarkable and in some cases forgettable. The listener is referred to the 2005 A Musical History boxed set for a chance to hear these recordings. The chops they had developed playing live served them well with the chimerical person that was Bob Dylan in his 1966 tour. Like many artists for whom success came late, the contrast with bars and clubs must have been dazzling.

The key moments that gave the group a chance to evolve are now available for the world to hear with the release of The Basement Tapes. It is simply stunning to hear these guys and Bob Dylan work through so many diverse tunes. The relationship that they had was truly symbiotic. I have always enjoyed the Basement Tapes, and their legend approximates Brian Wilson's work on Smile for being unreleased officially for such a long time.  Had Dylan continued to work with The Band as a co-writer, the dynamics in The Band would have had less possibility of imploding like they did.  The group leader was Levon Helm in the early days, and his return to Woodstock and being mostly shut out of the writing credits  for Music From Big Pink and The Band undoubtedly caused him to have some heartburn. The question of what constitutes co-writing a song is a matter for courts to decide.  

By 1971, Richard Manuel's alcohol dependence, as disclosed in Craig Harris's book, had entered a into a severe stage, with corresponding mental and physical deterioration following. Levon Helm also disclosed that Manuel's use of stimulants had become a problem.  Rick Danko had difficulties with prescribed painkillers after a terrible auto accident in the early Seventies.  The Cahoots album, an uneven effort, has high peaks and deep valleys. It appeared, based upon subsequent interviews with Robbie Robertson, that his fatigue and frustration with the group dynamics as a whole brought on a relocation back to Canada and a need for some distance emotionally from the whole mess. 

The Band's 1971 Cahoots album

The  Band's dishevelment began to impact their wallets, according to Harris, when Capitol Records began wondering where the new album was following Cahoots. The live Rock of Ages album showed the group in a favorable light, and the double set is one of the best live sets in the history of Rock. The group continued to have lucrative dates playing live, but there were times when they sounded a bit frayed. The group did not spend time together writing, and Robbie Robertson drifted into experimentation with avant garde music that defied any use by The Band.  The group continued as a performing unit, but Moondog Matinee, 1973's oldies album, did not have a single tune composed by any of the group members.

Mobile Fidelity High Fidelity release of Rock of Ages

1973's Moondog Matinee album

As for Moondog Matinee...It was an opportunity for Richard Manuel to step out and shine. His vocals and playing on this album bring out his musical drive and spirit. The group as a whole may have recorded this oldies album to avoid the whole songwriting argument and just be a group playing together like the early days. For whatever reason, this album is unique in The Band's catalog, and it seemed to quiet down the dysfunction for a short time. There was a long and protracted dry spell for any new Band material for almost 24 months. Again, the group seemed to avert the simmering discontent by agreeing to record Planet Waves with Bob Dylan, followed by the release of the Before the Flood double live set in 1974. Their busy schedule did not totally preclude writing new material, but clearly, the time spent with Bob Dylan may have given The Band a chance to work together with another songwriter who was outside the royalties mess that plagued The Band themselves. Robbie Robertson spent part of 1975 assembling a somewhat Frankenstein version of the Basement Tapes. The good news was that the resulting double set had diverse songwriting credits with Richard Manuel's songwriting from 1967 having ample representation.

The 1975 Northern Lights-Southern Cross album

The group seemed to have a period of balance during the recording of Northern Lights-Southern Cross. All writing credits go to Robbie Robertson, and the songs here are some of his best ever. The vocals are shared by Helm, Danko, and Manuel.  All three men sing the hearts out on this album. Sales were disappointing, this may have been taken as a message by Robbie Robertson and the rest of the group that their best effort was not enough for sales success, and it was time to leave Capitol. According to Craig Harris, the release of The Best of the Band was a signal that Capitol thought the group was running on fumes sales wise and the contract with the group was best allowed to be run out after the final album due. A highlight of the Best of the Band was an outtake from Northern Lights-Southern Cross, Robbie's Twilight. On one level, Twilight is a song about growing old and being left behind by family members. On another level, it could be seen as a song of realization that the group's time together was coming to a creative end.

1976 brought The Band to their own studio, Shangri-La, an old bordello. The old camaraderie of Big Pink was replaced by group members coming in and recording ideas that were less directed than in the past. These musical sketches were available for other group members to add their ideas, but that did not happen as often as might be imagined.  When the whole idea of The Last Waltz was floated, due to Robbie's reluctance to tour any longer, the group went along with the idea, thinking that things would continue in the studio after the San Francisco Thanksgiving 1976 show. The final recordings that comprised the last Capitol album, Islands, happened during the rehearsals and after the Last Waltz was over. The record was released in 1977, with somewhat of a feeling of being a last wheeze. The highlights are few, and the album is played smoothly but seems to lack any spirit.  The album's artwork was fairly slight, and probably did not help sales.  To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, The Band went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Band's final Capitol effort-1977's Islands

1977 also brought two important reasons for there being no further recordings by the group with Robbie Robertson. Rick Danko released an excellent self-titled album on Arista, and Levon Helm signed a solo contract with ABC Records with his first effort, Levon Helm with the RCO Allstars also an excellent effort. Interviews from later in the Eighties and Nineties with Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson reveal a fundamental disagreement about The Band's direction which festered and which was not ended until shortly before Helm's death from cancer. Both men were angry about their disagreements, and an ongoing gunfight was conducted in the music press for over 30 years. What is clear is that when Robbie Robertson began producing soundtracks for film director Martin Scorcese, there was little need to write for The Band or for a Robertson solo album as well.

In 1978, The Last Waltz was released, with the accompanying soundtrack being a one off album for Warner Brothers Records. Had the group been motivated to do so, there was interest at Warner to release more Band music. With Danko and Helm's solo work out, their interest was more focused on their solo careers. Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson did not record albums, but Hudson had a busy studio and road career playing sessions and concerts. Perhaps the person that was left behind for a number of years was Manuel, whose struggle with substances made him a pariah as far as a solo recording contract with a major label went. Sadly, the state of the art in substance dependence treatment was primitive at best in those years after The Band went on hiatus in 1977. As was the case with Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, Manuel's health deteriorated, leading to a state of deep and lasting sadness and isolation.  Taken in context, and based on accounts from Band members, Richard Manuel's 1986 death by suicide appeared to be an impulsive act which he performed to rid himself of the deep emotional agony he felt. His loss to the Band and to the Rock Music world is incalculable. The songs he wrote and a life of incredible singing and playing on records and in live performance is a body of work any musician would be proud to claim. 

In the Eighties, members of The Band toured, gradually developing a set list that slowly excised most of Robbie Robertson's songs from their repertoire. Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson were deeply saddened by the loss of Richard Manuel, but not enough to bury the hatchet. As time went on, Craig Harris's book describes the remaining members of The Band sans Robbie struggling to make a living and adding new group members, whose presence waxed and waned, depending upon how well the group was compensated by tour promoters.  The Band sans Robertson recorded three albums from 1993 to 1998, Jericho, High On the Hog, and Jubilation. These efforts had excellent musicianship that a listener would expect from The Band, but the songs were not always up to par. Despite Robertson and Richard Manuel being missing, with the exception of some tracks on Jericho being left over from Manuel's work with Levon Helm being included, many of the songs were written by songwriters outside of The Band. After trying to kick his prescribed painkiller or opioid habit for many years with several attempts at substance dependency treatment, Rick Danko died of heart failure in late 1999. His recorded work outside of The Band was considered to be especially strong, with several collaborative efforts gaining very high praise.

The Band-Jericho from 1993

The Band-High On the Hog from 1996

The Band-Jubilation from 1998

Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, and Robbie Robertson began the new Millennium with a number of albums that were highly praised and very well received. The Band as a group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Robertson/Helm silence precluded members from playing at the induction ceremony. Levon Helm's incredible struggle with cancer led to him holding concerts in his barn/studio that were instrumental in cementing his legacy as both a musician and a live performer, with musicians from the cream of the music world making the trip to play with Levon, his daughter Amy, and other amazing musicians. Levon became the man who everyone wanted to play with. His small and intimate setting led to some of the best music any of the members of The Band ever made. Robbie Robertson continued to work with Martin Scorcese, and  released several excellent solo albums in the Nineties and first Millennium decade, including two outstanding albums of Indigenous Music which helped him to allow people to see the Native side of his heritage that was unknown for most of his career. Garth Hudson released several albums of solo music, including a double album set with his wife Maud singing vocals. His keyboard ability shined brightly, as his eclectic style of playing finally became the center of his music, finally unhindered and unmasked. 

Somehow Garth's stoic and taciturn nature allowed him to be the member of The Band who stayed above the disagreements and rancor that the others experienced. That all of the surviving members were deeply in grief about Danko and Manuel's deaths was never in question. The way their grief came out was quite different. Helm lashed out at Robertson, blaming Robbie leaving as being a prime cause of the two mens' deaths. Robbie Robertson's grief was more contained, with short and sympathetic feelings expressed to the surviving family members of both men. Garth Hudson communicated privately with the two men's families, staying out of the public spotlight.

Finally, in 2012, Levon Helm sadly was pronounced as terminal due to a return of the throat cancer that he fought so valiantly. When Robbie Robertson heard about Helm's cancer and prognosis, he came to Helm's hospital bed and both men had the heart to heart conversation that had taken thirty plus years to happen. The anger in books, interviews, and press was set aside. Today, as Robertson and Hudson are the two surviving members of The Band, their body of work has been treated with the respect Capitol needed to give it much earlier. Thanks to Cheryl Pawelski, Rob Bowman, and others, The Band's work at Capitol has been reissued with excellent liner notes and a comprehensive six cd boxed set has collected gems from their career that add perspective to their career. 

The Band-A Musical History 2005 Boxed Set
(would that every group's body of work be treated with as much respect)

What's to make of the drama that followed this highly accomplished rock group? In the end, all that will  matter is that rush a listener gets upon hearing The Band's best work for the first time. Were they passionate, rancorous, irrational, insane? I will not label them. These are men who loved each other as one would love a brother. The parable of the Prodigal Son comes to mind. The brother who stayed with his father was angered by his father's reaction when his younger son came home after years on the edge of dying in a foreign land. His father threw a banquet, remarking to his loyal and angry son that his inheritance was secure, but the joy of seeing a son who was thought dead was too wonderful to be ignored. The father forgave his prodigal son, as Levon and Robbie forgave each other on Levon's deathbed. The power of unifying brotherly love overcame whatever anger had kept them apart. 

Text copyright 2014 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved
Artwork is copyrighted by Capitol Records

The author recommends books on The Band by Craig Harris and Barney Hoskyns
Levon Helm's autobiography with Stephen Davis This Wheel's On Fire is an essential read to comprehend his differences with Robbie Robertson that led to mutual shunning for so long