In Defense of Joe Thomas

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The most striking – and maybe telling – quote in Jason Fine’s wonderful piece on Brian Wilson in the new Rolling Stone is this:

“Sometimes, Wilson wanders upstairs to his music room, but he gets easily discouraged. “I can’t write a song to save my life,” he says. “I sit at the piano and try, but all I want to do is rewrite ‘California Girls.’ How am I gonna do something better than that? It’s a fucked-up trip.” “

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He does not write songs anymore. Period. I’ve suspected as much since all the hype leading up to the Beach Boys’ That’s Why God Made The Radio came out three years ago. At that time, it was reported in several places that all the songs were revived from writing sessions Brian had done with then-producer Joe Thomas in the late-90s. I now suspect, given Brian’s own assessment/confession, that the songs on No Pier Pressure (his new solo album), were also all written years ago, when he was still able to flex that creative muscle.

imagesWhich brings me to Joe Thomas, Brian’s co-writer and co-producer. I’ve asked commenters on the community board at BrianWilson.com, why there is so much resentment for him? Most people just like to dismiss him as “The Wrestler,” (a previous occupation, I’m told) or “Auto-Tune Joe,” or – derogatorily –  “he’s a very good manager.” Is there some major expose on Thomas that I’ve missed? Why is he treated like the second coming of Dr. Eugene Landy (the antagonist in the Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy) to Brian’s career?

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Eugene Landy during Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Eugene Landy Sighting at Elaine's Restaurant at Elaine's Resturant in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Eugene Landy during Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Eugene Landy Sighting at Elaine’s Restaurant at Elaine’s Resturant in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

I recall reading long ago that Thomas, when working with Brian in the 90s, would keep the tapes rolling the ENTIRE TIME Brian was recording, or even working through ideas in the studio. Then at the end of the day, those tapes would be spliced up, to save the better bits for future consideration; the audio version of mining for gold, if you will.static1.squarespaceI think one could make the argument – and I’m making it here – that without Thomas’s friendship and attention to Brian’s creative process in the studio, we would not have That’s Why God Made The Radio or No Pier Pressure today. He saved and mined those musical bits into the now-fleshed-out songs we have today.

In my mind, Thomas in an enabler of the best kind. Like a Renaissance patron of the arts, who enabled Michelangelo to create his art, Joe has enabled Brian to continue to make “new” music.

And for those who endlessly bash Thomas for heavy-handed production and supposed-artistic manipulation, consider the alternative: no Thomas, no Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary reunion album and no new solo album. Again, period!

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For the sheer joy those albums have brought all of us, I welcome Joe Thomas! I only hope he has even more musical nuggets stashed away, so that this beloved artist we all cherish, can continue to make records despite the fact that, as he says, “I can’t write a song to save my life.”

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David Bash – International Pop Fan

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This was originally written in November 2006, when I was attending Syracuse University. We were asked to write a day-in-the-life story about someone interesting. Given that the assignment coincided with our Flashcubes date in Boston at that year’s International Pop Overthrow Festival, it was an natural fit to write about the event’s founder.

David Bash is a man on a mission. Well, two actually. As the founder of the International Pop Overthrow festival he is on a mission to spread the word about pop music that he loves.

But in the more immediate sense, he is late for the second night of his own festival in Boston and can’t afford to be deterred. When I run into Bash on the street at 7 p.m., he blurts out a quick apology and says “Sorry, I can’t talk now, I’m later than I want to be, but I’ll talk to you at the club.” Without another word, he walks quickly away towards the Paradise Lounge, where the first band is set to kick off the evening at 8 p.m.

To say that David Bash is a pop music fan is only the beginning of his story. As a lifelong fan, but never a musician, Bash has created a niche for himself and the music he loves as a music writer for numerous magazines, and with the International Pop Overthrow.

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IPO, as it is affectionately called, is now in its ninth year with no signs of slowing down. Presently Bash stages nine festivals a year that vary in length from one to two weeks, depending on the strength of the local scene and the availability of the club. He presently stages festivals in major cities throughout the U.S. and, for the past four years, in Liverpool, England, the birthplace of the Beatles.  His mission is turning the world on to all the great underground pop bands that he loves, a task, he admits, that is an uphill struggle.

“It’s always a battle trying to present to people a festival where 90 percent of the acts, and maybe more, are gonna be ones that they have never heard of,” says Bash. “And you’re trying to tell them to come out and see this music. People have so many other options today and you’re trying to sell them on something that – at least on the surface – would appear to be the least desirable option. So you’ve got to present it in a way where they say, ‘umm, y’know? this sounds like it could be pretty cool.’ ”

Friday night in Boston, Bash is hoping to attract enough of those people to stage a successful evening of music for the audience, and for the bands he has invited to perform.

At 7:50, the activity around the stage is hectic. Bash provides back line – amps and drums – for the bands to use, but every act has different requirements: keyboards, an extra guitar amp or vocal microphone, and everything has to be in place for the show to begin. As the band members and the sound crew hustle to get the stage together, Bash paces nervously from side to side in front of the stage. Dressed in green slacks, black shirt, colorful tie and his ever-present black three-cornered hat, he looks slightly ill at ease. He says that all the preparation in the world cannot guarantee that everything will always go smoothly. It just gives you a better chance.

But eight minutes later, Bash hops on stage, positions himself at one of the microphones and begins addressing the crowd. He not only finds the bands, books the clubs, and schedules every show of every event, he also acts as the event’s emcee. It is a job he clearly relishes, for it’s his moment in the spotlight.

Onstage, Bash is part host and part cheerleader. He knows he’s responsible for keeping the night on schedule so he keeps his introductions brief, while always making sure to plug the bands’ recordings, (“available at our merch table”), and the following nights’ performances (“don’t forget we’re here ’til Monday night”).  He is always gracious, thanking everyone for coming and thanking the club for having him and his festival, which he always refers to as a unit (“thanks for having us,” “this is our fourth year in Boston,” etc). He only singles himself out when praising each band in his introductions, ie: “I’ve always been a fan of this band,” or “I was totally impressed with their performance at last year’s IPO.”

As a music writer, Bash says, he was always loathe to submit reviews to magazines for CD’s that he did not like. He is clearly more comfortable heaping on the praise for each of his acts.

“This first band has beautiful stuff…just great power pop; laid-back power pop. And if that sounds like an oxymoron, it really isn’t. When you hear these guys you’ll know what I’m talking about. They have two CD’s for sale, including the latest, which is called “Sunshine Girl.” Check it out. They’ve come up from Connecticut and we’re glad they did. Will you please give a huge welcome to the Naomi Star.”

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The band jumps right into the first song. Having driven over three hours from their home in New Haven, Connecticut, they are eager to make the most of their allotted 20-minute slot.

IPO’s strength, for the audience, is seeing eight bands in just four hours. Bash achieves this by limiting each band to just 20 minutes. That means that most bands will only perform five or six songs, depending on the length. There are no encores, as that would cut into the 10-minute changeover time between acts, which is already frantic.

While Naomi Star performs, Bash is at the door greeting late-arriving musicians with handshakes and eager slaps on the back. Throughout most of the evening there will be a constant flow of people passing in and out of the door. Because there are so many different acts, some audience members come to see only their favorite band, and leave when they are done, a practice Bash tries to discourage in his exhortations from the stage. As each set ends, he is quick to grab the microphone and, while asking for “one more round of applause,” urges the audience to stick around for these next bands: “you won’t want to miss them!”

The next two bands, Silver Lining and Temper are on and off in good speed and Bash’s night is humming along nicely. There is a slight commotion at the door with several people seemingly entering and leaving at the same time. What is really happening is the appearance of a small party of industry people, just arriving from New York City, who have ties to the undisputed kings of the power pop scene, Eric Carmen and the Raspberries. Carmen and his band were prominent in the early 70’s and pioneered the sound Bash’s festival now strives to celebrate with such seminal hits as “Go All The Way,” “I Wanna Be With You,” “Tonight” and “Overnight Sensation.”

Dennis Ferrante was the recording studio engineer for those hits and Bernie Hogya maintains the web site for the band who, while long defunct, is still very influential. They have come to Boston to see a rare live appearance by my band, The Flashcubes (one of eight bands on tonight’s bill). They are longtime friends with our drummer, Tommy Allen, but Bash has met them both before and is clearly excited to greet this semblance of power pop royalty-by-association at his event.

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At 9:35, Bash is back onstage, waiting to introduce the next act. He has grown more confident with each appearance. Maybe it’s the luminaries in the crowd, maybe it’s the obvious success of the event – the club is filled to near-capacity – or maybe it’s satisfaction that with the fourth act of the evening, they are only running five minutes behind. Given the chaos taking place behind him, as guitars are plugged in and a piano is moved into place, that is impressive.

“This next band has now played Boston for the second year in a row. Great band. I was totally impressed last year. Totally blown away and I’m glad to have them back. An extraordinary indie pop band. They’re on the Stop, Drop & Roll label, very cool. Please welcome the Rooftop Suicide Club.”

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More than any other time in the evening, Bash’s hype matches the band. While their appearance (t-shirts and jeans) wouldn’t necessarily indicate as much, these guys could be stars. Almost every musician in the audience – and there are many of them – has stopped to take them in. Their music builds in slow patterns, with soaring melodies, explosive rhythms and hook after hook of just great, memorable song writing. They are one of several real highlights in a consistently-strong evening of music.

As the band finishes and begins to break down their equipment, Bash hovers near the stage, eager to move things along.  He’d like to pitch in, but that’s not really his job. The bands change over at their own pace. Surrounded by musicians, he seems to stand alone, his hands at his side, fingers snapping, as if it might speed things up. When the next band finally signals that they’re ready, Bash keeps his intro short.

“We’re very glad to have this band back after a fantastic set last year. They are a great, great rock band from right here in Boston. Please give it up for The Luxury.”

With five down and three to go, it is now 10:55 p.m. The show is now nearly a half-hour behind schedule, but Bash takes his time with our intro. Either because of the industry people who’ve come so far to see us, or because of his own early connection to us, he gives the Flashcubes the longest intro of the night.

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“I’ve been a huge fan of this next band since 1978, when I was at Syracuse University and bought a 45 RPM record of theirs called “Christi Girl,” which absolutely blew me away. It’s been an honor to have this band play our festival in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and now their fourth year in Boston. They are Power Pop!  And you’re gonna find that out in just a minute. They’ve got CD’s for sale out there, the latest one called “Brilliant,” on Northside Records. Please give a huge welcome to The Flashcubes.”

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We are the oldest band on the bill, and the only band with roots that stretch back to the 70’s, Power Pop’s golden age, when the Raspberries, Badfinger (England) and Big Star (Memphis) defined the genre. We are the only band that ‘dresses up,’ with suit jackets and skinny ties, and our presentation is decidedly old school, with no space between songs and a premium put on visual presentation. We roar through six songs and are greeted with a standing ovation.  David Bash quickly commands the microphone and gives us the only encore of the night. We respond with a rousing cover of the Eddie & the Hot Rods UK punk classic, “Do Anything You Wanna Do.”

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It is clear, as the stage is reset for the seventh time, that the majority of the audience has come to the Paradise this evening to see Rooftop Suicide Club, The Luxury and The Flashcubes. The bar, which was four-deep with customers just a moment ago, is now quickly emptying.

At 11:40, and faced with a dwindling crowd, Bash remains upbeat. If he’s discouraged by the nearly-mass exodus, it doesn’t show. Possibly, he has done so many of these events that he knows that it’s just part of the normal flow of the evening and accepts it as such.

“OK, two more to go tonight. I was so impressed when I heard this next band’s application to International Pop Overthrow. They totally rock. Modern rock with great melodies and awesome vocals. I’m really glad they’re here and you will be too. Please welcome My Little Radio.”

As they, and the last band – Minky Starshine & the New Cardinals – finish up the night, Bash finally sits down. He has been a flurry of activity all night, but now seems to have earned his rest. He sits at the merchandise table in the back of the dimly-lit club, with his face illuminated by the light of his laptop computer. He sit quietly, checking his e-mail, to make sure that everything is in place for the next night’s show.

For nine festivals each year, on nearly a hundred evenings like this one, David Bash does everything he can to present a successful event for the audience, and for the bands. Although his travels have taken him all over the country and abroad, he seems to thrive on the pace.

“The travel isn’t too much of a headache,” he says, “and it’s exciting; it really keeps your adrenaline flowing.”

Bash addresses the challenge of maintaining his enthusiasm for IPO, year after year.

“Well, there are always new bands, and I try to add new cities every now and then to keep it fresh. There’s also getting to see my old friends, and some of the old bands that bring back great memories from past IPO’s. Just being a music fan and loving it…it’s always exciting and it always brings a new set of memories. I hope to never get tired of going out there and presenting great music.”

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Brian Wilson – Today

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We’ve all felt that sensation, where hearing an old song can transport you back in time. And for those of us of a certain age, there is the larger, deeper, version where listening to new music from an artist we’ve followed since we were young, can touch a special place in our souls, and resonate more greatly than almost anything else. For some it might be new music by Paul McCartney or the Stones, or a long-awaited new CD by Ray Davies, David Crosby, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell or numerous other legacy artists still making new music.

For me, it’s Brian Wilson, the legendary Beach Boys’ songwriter and producer. Whether it’s his countless sun-drenched hit singles or the visionary albums like Pet Sounds, Smile, Sunflower & That Lucky Old Sun, his work has always touched the deepest part of me. And at 72, he’s still releasing new music.

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The fact that Wilson is even still alive, given his past history of drug abuse and mental illness, seems miraculous. In fact, anyone who thought Brian Wilson would outlive his younger brothers Dennis & Carl – who died respectively in 1983 and 1998 – might’ve also put money on Jerry Lee Lewis outliving his Million Dollar Quartet bandmates, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash & Carl Perkins. Some things just defy reason.

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And yet, Brian Wilson is still here, and experiencing one of the most productive years of his career with a film of his life, Love & Mercy, (set to premiere next month), a new autobiography, “I Am Brian Wilson,” (slated for a fall release) and a brand new studio album, No Pier Pressure, out now, with a tour to follow this summer.

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How can a man with such a troubled past do all this, you might ask? I believe that despite all of his well-documented past problems, Brian Wilson has an inner strength and a drive to succeed that few others of his generation possess. He must have! And he still has that competitive fire, not only, to release new music, but to avidly follow the charts to see how his new music fares against modern competition young enough to be his grandchildren.

When it was announced last year that Wilson would be working with several younger artists on his new album, I feared the worst. It’s almost become standard boilerplate for older artists, trying to sustain a career with live albums, cover albums and Christmas albums, to also do a duets album, with young, “hip” artists: think Elton John, Smokey Robinson, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Van Morrison and numerous others. But rather than a retread of his older hits, with him sharing the mic with much younger stars, Wilson did something entirely unexpected. He wrote new songs, sometimes with the guests, and sometimes for the guests. 

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If you think back to the 60s heyday of the Beach Boys, Brian wrote, arranged and produced all the songs, and he also chose who in the band would sing each song, whether it be Mike Love, Al Jardine, or either of his gifted brothers, Carl and Dennis. And of course, he would always sing a few, too. But the point is that casting each song to the right singer was one of his many talents, and that’s exactly what he is doing again on this new album. He is joined by former Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, who both shine on several lead vocals, and by younger stars like Zooey Deschanel, Kacey Musgrave,  Sebu Simian (Capital Cities), Peter Hollens and Nate Ruess (Fun.). And they all add something very special to Wilson’s songs.

Brian Wilson – Behind The Scenes – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPHPYULAS1k

It’s been said that Wilson thinks in five-part harmony. And while his harmony writing and arranging is such a large part of his musical identity, sometimes his actual songwriting gets overlooked. The late-classical composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein once referred to the distinctive sound of a composer’s music as his “musical voice,” implying that the way a composer combined the elements of melody, chords and rhythm, were as distinctive as one’s speaking voice. I’ve always felt that concept could be applied to Rock’s great writers, as well, whether it be Paul McCartney, Ray Davies, Todd Rundgren, Brian Wilson or any number of talented others. Regardless of whether they are singing the song or not, you can just tell that it’s one of their songs.

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And that’s the beautiful thing about this new Brian Wilson album. It sounds like him, in all the best ways possible. The soaring melodies, the surprising chord changes, the exuberant rhythms, and those achingly-beautiful harmonies; all elements intact. It is easily his best solo album, short of Smile, which was written in the 60s. To be able to say that about a 72-year-old artist is truly remarkable. I could list favorite songs, but at this early date, I seem to have a different favorite every day. The music of Brian Wilson has been a constant in my life for nearly 50 years now, and I’m happy to report that his is the musical gift that keeps on giving.

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Beatles albums – Rated

This was written as a response to an email from my son Rob a few years ago. He had been discovering the Beatles’ music, partly on his own, and partly due to the release at that time of Beatles RockBand, an interactive videogame he and his friends were obsessed with. His question was posed innocently, without any sense of how seriously I take things like this. Although, growing up in our house, he should have known better!

On Oct 16, 2009, at 5:11 AM, Robert Frenay wrote:

Out of curiosity, since I know all of them pretty well now – which is your favorite Beatles album?

Rob

Do you have any idea how hard that is for me to answer? If you don’t remember, or if you never heard me tell it, my intro to the Beatles was this.

They landed in America on my 11th birthday, February 7, 1964. They were coming to play live on the Ed Sullivan Show and their landing at the airport in NYC was covered on the evening news. It was a really big deal. AM radio had been playing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” non-stop on the radio for weeks and every kid I knew was way primed to actually see them live on TV. 

I got Meet The Beatles for my birthday that day and played it non-stop while waiting for Sunday night to come. I’ve talked with so many musicians who are roughly my age, and have similar stories about how seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan changed the course of their lives, and I definitely share that. After I saw them on TV, I was hooked. After two weeks of constant pestering, my Mom borrowed a guitar from a family friend and I started guitar lessons. By the following fall, at age 12, I was already good enough on guitar to appear at a school assembly singing “Eight Days A Week” live in front of the entire school body, wearing a Beatle wig, no less. The die was cast. I was always the kid with the guitar. If you look at my high school yearbook from ’71 – 7 years later – nearly everyone who signed my yearbook mentioned my guitar and music. Much like you, with film, and Nick, with his trumpet, I found my calling very early on, and it all started with the Beatles.  And because the albums were coming out as I was growing up, from age 11 to 17, each one hit me at a different stage in my young life, and as I was changing, they were, too. So, it’s very difficult for me to be really objective about the records. But with a 40+ year distance from when I first heard and loved them, I’ll try.

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Please Please Me – This was actually the second album I heard. First Meet The Beatles, then this, although it was called Introducing The Beatles on Vee Jay Records. This was essentially their live act at the time, recorded all in one day, with Lennon’s throat-tearing rendition of Twist & Shout saved for last. These songs were all huge to me at the time and I didn’t really differentiate between the originals and the covers. Now I look back and see that only eight of the songs were their own, but still love the album. It still sounds fresh, years later, and utterly charming. (rating 8)

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With The Beatles – Most of this was on Meet The Beatles, with the rest of it being saved for The Beatles Second Album in the US. Meet The Beatles, also had the US single of I Want To Hold Your Hand b/w I Saw Her Standing There, and b-side This Boy added to it, and I like that better than this. Again, only 8 songs of their own, but a bit more time in the studio than the last one, so the sound is a little more fleshed out. That said, of the two, Please Please Me, still gets the nod over this. (rating 7)

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A Hard Day’s Night – Soundtrack to the legendary film and their first all-original album. This, more than any other, is the definitive Beatles album of my youth. While the film perfectly crystallizes their early appeal, the album is their best from the period (1962 – 1965) when they were still a touring band. In the US, we only got 8 of these songs, mixed with some George Martin soundtrack songs that were instrumental versions of some of the same songs. This is just great from beginning to end, the quintessential early-Beatle record. (rating 9)

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Beatles For Sale –  This was their third album of 1964. Think about that. What band, in 2009, could do that? They were on the road non-stop, and this was squeezed in between commitments, thus the only Beatles LP with more covers, than originals, 8 to 6.  The recording is more mature and textured, with acoustic guitars and pianos now being featured as much as their usual electric sound, but still, it seems a bit rushed in retrospect.  The highlights are John’s I’m A Loser and No Reply (with their greatest-ever bridge!), and Paul’s I’ll Follow The Sun, which he reportedly wrote years earlier, when he was 15. The covers are all good, but only six originals brings this one down. I DO think that McCartney’s vocal on Kansas City, is maybe the greatest rock & roll vocal ever! Really. (rating 6)

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Help! –  A substandard film and a substandard album. Just not as many really great songs on this. Of course, the version I grew up with, had five soundtrack instrumentals mixed in, so it was a very different album. The addition of McCartney’s most famous song, Yesterday, is certainly notable, but, maybe because the movie seems pretty lame to me now (see my review at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/paul-mccartney-we-believe-in-yesterday/), these songs just don’t hold up as well as the songs on A Hard Day’s Night. (rating 7)

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Rubber Soul – This is at the top of a lot of people’s lists as favorite Beatles album. There’s something so perfect about it. It’s more acoustic in nature, and the writing is more mature and thoughtful, but the production has yet to go in the experimental direction they would pursue on Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and the rest. Lennon is still the strongest songwriter here, as he is on most of the early records, with some of his greatest songs; Norwegian Wood, In My Life, Nowhere Man and Girl.  I love 12 of the 14 songs (excepting What Goes On & The Word) and still perform nearly all of these songs. A near-perfect record. (rating 9.5)

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Revolver – This is also often rated as their greatest album, and certainly a case can be made for that. It’s definitely Harrison’s strongest record yet, with three songs, and the lead track with Taxman. McCartney has called Here, There & Everywhere, his favorite Beatles song, and with Got To Get You Into My Life, Eleanor Rigby, For No One & Good Day Sunshine, this could be the first record where you could honestly say that he outshines Lennon. A lot is made of the experimental nature of Tomorrow Never Knows, but I never liked it. Not really big on She Said, She Said, either. This is much more of a McCartney record for me, with some of my very favorite songs of his. (rating 9)

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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – For decades afterwards, people would refer to great records as “the Sgt. Pepper of the 70’s”….or 80’s, or whatever. It was the loftiest praise possible, because it was largely considered to be the greatest album by rock’s greatest band. It was the benchmark everything else was measured against. It blew me away when I was a kid. I was 14 when Uncle Bob brought this home from college in the summer of ’67. It was – believe it or not – the first album to have the lyrics printed on the jacket and I can still remember sitting with the album in my hands at Grandma’s house, reading the lyrics as I listened to the songs for the first time. The orchestration, the sounds, the arrangement, even the topics of the songs, were just light years beyond anything else at the time that it was truly groundbreaking. In MOJO Magazine’s issue that surveyed for the 100 greatest Beatles songs among other musicians and experts, A Day In The Life was #1. But 40 years on, this album hasn’t aged as well with me. I think, other than A Day In The Life, John’s contributions aren’t so strong, Paul’s songs on Revolver were better, although I do love She’s Leaving Home, and the best song might be the Ringo track. Pepper was an amazing step in the band’s growth and evolution, but I don’t think it’s their greatest record anymore. (rating 9)

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Magical Mystery Tour –  This isn’t really a fair comparison, because when this came out in England, in the wake of disastrous reviews of the film, it wasn’t even an album; it was a fold out package of two 7-inch singles (EP’s, actually) with just the 6 songs from the movie on it. In the US, they added three singles (and their b-sides) to fill out the second side and make it an album. That said, the album takes on the nature of a mini-greatest hits album. For a band that had stopped including their singles on their albums after Help!, this one had four big hits!  So, bad film, really good album. (rating 8.5)

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The White Album – It’s always said that if you made this a single album, it would’ve been their greatest record, but I don’t really buy that. Certainly there is more waste on this than any other two Beatles albums combined, but that’s not the real problem. They were so fractured as a band during these sessions, that most tracks were treated like solo recordings – with the song’s writer calling all the shots on how to produce and finish the track – and the fighting grew so intense that long-time engineer Geoff Emerick quit, rather than endure any more of the bickering. Stylistically, it’s all over the place, with no real sense of concept or cohesion. That said, of course there are many highlights, especially the acoustic ballads, I Will, Blackbird, Julia & Mother Nature’s Son. Lennon seems content to contribute mostly novelty songs and ragged blues numbers (excepting Cry Baby Cry, Sexy Sadie & Dear Prudence, all of which I love), while McCartney is left to try to give some commercial voice to the proceedings with Martha, Ob-La-Di, Birthday & Back In The USSR. How odd is it that  the two most enduring highlights of an album with 30 songs, are George’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Ringo’s lovely Goodnight? I loved it at the time, but this one really hasn’t worn as well with me over the years. (rating 8)

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Yellow Submarine – With only four new Beatles’ songs and and an entire side of orchestral soundtrack music, this is easily the weakest album in their catalog. Hey Bulldog is a great Lennon track, maybe his last great Beatles rocker, but the rest are forgettable. I always liked the George Martin tracks, especially Pepperland, and I love the film, but a better bet for an audio version of that film is the 1999 Songtrack that was released along with the DVD version of the film. That album wisely features all of the songs featured in the film, like Nowhere Man, Eleanor Rigby, Sgt. Pepper and Lucy In The Sky, and makes for a better listen, even though it does feel like somewhat of a retread. (rating 5)

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Let It Be – The concept was a good one. The Beatles hadn’t toured in years, they were barely speaking anymore and clearly needed direction. McCartney’s idea to “Get Back” to being a band like they were in the early days was good on paper, but failed miserably in execution. Choosing to rehearse and record in a large, cold film studio (Twickenham) with camera’s rolling and Yoko constantly at John’s side, the project was more or less doomed from the start. It was only when they retreated to their own studio and brought in session piano player Billy Preston, they were able to salvage anything out of the whole experience. McCartney’s songs, Let It Be, Get Back, Two Of Us, and the gorgeous Long & Winding Road are clearly the heart of the album with Lennon’s only contributions being the disjointed – and incomprehensible – I Dig A Pony, and Across The Universe which was a leftover track from two years before. By the time they’d played the last note of the legendary rooftop concert (that is the hands-down highlight of an ultimately depressing film), no one wanted anything to do with the tracks.  So….they were handed over to Phil Spector, one-time producer/auteur whose only shot at producing the Beatles was trying to polish up tracks they had abandoned. The results were not good, with Spector smearing orchestras, choirs and odd percussion around at will, and only succeeding in smoothing over all of the raw edges that McCartney had wanted, as their way back to being a viable band again. The best way to experience these tracks is with Let It Be…Naked, the 2003 remix of the original. All signs of Phil Spector have been removed and Lennon’s plaintive Don’t Let Me Down has been added. The sound is astoundingly better and it seems like much more of a serious record. Let It Be (rating 6)  Let It Be…Naked (rating 7.5)

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Abbey Road –  By this time, they knew they were done, but wanted to go out on a high note after the sour taste left in everyone’s mouth by the whole Let It Be/Get Back fiasco. Longtime producer George Martin, who had washed his hands of the band after the Get Back project, agreed to produce on the condition that they do it the old way, at Abbey Road studio, with him producing and arranging. By all accounts, they were all on their best behavior throughout, and the results are strikingly different from the previous three albums. Abbey Road was a landmark album when it came out. We didn’t know it was the end at that time, but what a way to go out!  Remember that albums, unlike CD’s, were two sided, and the second side of Abbey Road was long considered the greatest side of music every recorded. Assembled by McCartney after Lennon had more or less signed off of the album, side 2 features only 3 “finished” songs (the first three), then combines 8 unfinished songs into one long medley to close out the side, and their career, ultimately, with The End. It’s a magnum opus, and a perfect ending. Too bad, then, that Let It Be actually came out after Abbey Road, and was thought for years to be the last word. I still love side 2, but have soured somewhat on side 1. I think George has the two greatest songs on the album with Something & Here Comes The Sun, but I’ve gradually grown less fond of Maxwell, Oh Darling and – especially – I Want You/She’s So Heavy. So, great side 2, great career ending, but not my favorite album anymore. (rating 8.5)

Final ratings

Rubber Soul 9.5

A Hard Day’s Night 9

Revolver 9

Sgt. Pepper 9

Abbey Road 8.5

Magical Mystery Tour 8.5

White Album   8

Please Please Me   8

Let It Be…Naked 7.5

Help! 7

With The Beatles 7

Beatles For Sale 6

Yellow Submarine 5

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The other thing to consider is the Past Masters collection(s), that gather all of the singles that didn’t end up on albums. For years, they treated albums and singles as separate entities. When you see that some of their greatest songs, She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, I Feel Fine, Paperback Writer/Rain, Lady Madonna & Hey Jude, aren’t on any album, it really blows your mind. Most bands go an entire career without songs that good, and The Beatles did them all, on top of all those classic albums. An embarrassment of riches? You bet! 

I’m really psyched to see your interest in all of this. While I’ve always felt that they were the greatest band, I know I’m biased because they were of my time. I never really expect later generations to feel the same way, but am thrilled that their albums keep finding new life. I think the RockBand thing helps, but is only part of it. There’s something so universal about their music that seems to keep resonating over each successive decade. Pretty amazing, really. 

Beach Boys – Today

Against my own better judgement, but acknowledging that these guys aren’t gonna be around forever, I plunked down good money this week ($80+) and went to the Turning Stone Casino in Oneida, NY to see the “Mike & Bruce” Beach Boys.

I’m well-known among my Beach Boys’ friends as a Mike Love detractor, if not full-on hater. It’s hard to forget, much less forgive his Hall of Fame speech, and his comment to the press in ’88 about “who has the #1 song in the country,” (comparing Kokomo to Brian’s then-newly-issued first solo album). And I’ve always held him personally responsible (post-Endless Summer) for his ham-fisted direction of the band as essentially an oldies act, spewing the same surf/sun/car mantra year after year while eschewing the more creative side of the band that had flowered in the early-70s.

Other than the 50th anniversary tour in 2012, I had not seen a Mike-led Beach Boys show since the 70’s. And I had no intention of doing so (I HAVE, however, seen Brian & his band 5 times since 2000, with tickets now in hand for my sixth, July 2 in Boston). But again, I’m painfully aware that there will be a day when we won’t be able to see ANY of these guys anymore, and that made me look at things in a different way. I also must admit that, being the big indie pop fan that I am (I’m a founding member of the power pop band, The Flashcubes), I was psyched to see Jeff Foskett and John Cowsill, not to mention Randell Kirsch, all of whom I own CDs by, sharing the stage.

There’s a Gin Blossoms’ song that says, “If you don’t expect too much of me, you might not be let down.” And maybe that’s why I liked this show so much. I went with very few expectations. I had seen plenty of YouTube videos of Mike & Bruce, and was generally underwhelmed with their presentation and execution. But then, of course, that was before Jeff Foskett entered the picture. The band I saw two nights ago, was top-notch in every way. One hit after another, performed flawlessly, with every harmony in place.

Mike kept the stage patter to a minimum (only one geriatric-toned quip about needing a nap), and let the music do the talking. The vocals were spread around, with Jeff nailing Darlin,’ Don’t Worry Baby and every Brian-falsetto part; John soaring on Help Me Rhonda; new member Brian Eichenberger (replacing Kirsch) doing a beautiful version of Then I Kissed Her; and Bruce Johnston sounding positively ageless on Disney Girls, Wendy and Do You Wanna Dance. Mike, of course handled the rest. And he was in very good voice throughout.

Instrumentally, this band doesn’t have the range of Brian’s band (who features real horns, woodwinds, strings, vibes, harmonica and creative percussion), but keyboardist Tim Bonhomme did a great job of approximating most of the sounds on all the Beach Boys’ great singles. And John Cowsill alone is worth the price of admission: a sensational drummer who drives the band with fire and power you just don’t expect to see in a band led by two septuagenarians.

The set was, of course, nothing but the early hits. In fact, the only two songs that were NOT pre-1965, and did not in some way evoke Mike’s surf/sun/car oldies-ethos (Kokomo, Rock & Roll Music, Goin’ To The Beach & Getcha Back ALL most certainly do) were Darlin’ (a real highlight) & Mike’s George Harrison tribute, Pisces Brothers (which I could’ve done without). I have seen online that recent sets have included Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring and Wild Honey (I would LOVE to have heard either or both), but I think those only appear at two-set theater shows, not the one long 35-song set that I saw.

But at this point in time, it would be hard to argue with Mike’s choice of repertoire. His is not the hipster crowd that finds and falls in love with Brian’s music (let’s call us Brian’s True Believers), generation after generation. This is John & Jane Walmart from Anytown, USA, and they come for the hits. And the Beach Boys have more than anyone.

So I really enjoyed the show, and found a new measured respect for Mike & Bruce. And when, during the penultimate romp through Barbara Ann, they came out front and danced in lockstep across the the stage like two old vaudevillians, I smiled. Like Statler & Waldorf – those two wisecracking Muppet curmudgeons – they seemed genuinely likable.

They are “keeping the summer alive” as the song said, and on a cold, dreary Tuesday night in upstate NY, a sold-out Casino crowd of 800 people left, warmed and fulfilled.

Hello friends!

I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. After going back to school in my 50’s, and earning a degree in magazine journalism (with honors!) from Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University,  I have craved a place to share my stories and long-term musings on music, film and life. As I progress with this, I’ll add new pieces, and feature older ones that have never had a home online. I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you, and hearing what you think.

Gary Frenay   Syracuse, NY (April 2015)