Thursday, April 14, 2011

California Music Part One: Requiem for Vitality

Compilation (various artist)

Hey! I know what you're probably saying to yourself-- This guy doesn't update his blog for three months, and now he's hammering us over the head with more new crap than we have time to listen to. C'mon, I totally know you just said that right now.

Well enjoy it now, people! The good times won't last forever, and you know why that is? Because I'm OLD. Hella old. Thirty-six to be precise. I'm at the point in my life where even such rote past-times as maintaining a music blog are considered childish wastes of my valuable time, which according to too many people I know should be spent "doing something productive". PRO-DUC-TIVE (adj.). Yes gang, here are some of the exciting, productive things on my agenda, in no particular order:

Get garage door fixed (and pray it doesn't take the local schmoes more than an hour to do so at their rates!)

Go to traffic court to resolve ticket. (Seriously, what the hell is the deal with these cameras at intersections? I miss the old days when you actually had to, you know, get busted by a cop or something in order to get a ticket.)

Get a haircut. (Overt resemblance to ca. 1971 Brian Wilson getting to be a bit much.)

Send assertive e-mail to lackadaisical eBay merchant who refuses to ship me my NM- Papa Doo Ron Ron LP, which probably isn't anywhere close to a NM-, but fuck it I gotta have it anyway. (Yep.)

Yes, good times on the old homestead. Hey I'm just livin' the Cali lifestyle, yo. Now pass me the granola and WATCH OUT FOR THAT BEACH BALL!

(Sigh.) The previous diatribe is what we call in the writing game an "introduction", wherein I use a gripping personal saga to sucker you into whatever it is I'm really trying to sell you on. Are you with me still? Holy shit, you actually are, aren't you? Pfft! For real? I mean, like, seriously? Okaaayyy...

So. You now know this much about me: I'm old and I live in California. As such, while I try to keep up with the latest in all things pop culture, it's become soberingly apparent to me over the last two years or so that I just totally do not give a shit about your Ke$has and your T-Pains and whatever other eight track rock 'n' roll records the youngsters are boppin' to these days. What can I say? I'm not proud of it or anything. But it's just like a great man once said: "I'm old I tell ya! Why my social security card is a rock with a fraction on it!"

Yep, transitioning into your mid-thirties can be a stone drag, even here in the Golden State. And if you don't believe me, why not ask these guys?

I mean if you look up the word ennui in the dictionary, this photo would probably accompany it, amirite? (Wait do dictionaries have pictures? Do they even make dictionaries anymore?) But yeah, here's five seriously burned-out looking cats, with an average age of, iunno, thirty-five? And their music of the time reflected this fatigue! I mean with the exception of that scary looking dude on the right, it's possible none of them even knew what a Sex Pistol was, let alone what one would do with such an item. Maybe you've heard of a book by Dave Rimmer called Like Punk Never Happened? Well here's your answer, folks.

But here's the rub. The Beach Boys continued to put out some killer music during this, their wilderness era. We've focused on Dennis and Brian's output in this blog already, but what about the rest of these dudes, and their buddy Mr. Bruce Johnston? They didn't exactly crawl up under a rock and die, did they? Nosirreevinniebarbarino, they kept on making music. Good music. California Music.

Huh? No, I did not make that last bit up. There really is a genre called California Music, as in-- not music from California, but California Music. And yes the italics are absolutely necessary! (Okay no they're not.)

Yes, you the reader may be amazed to know that this genre was first coined in an article that appeared in Phonograph Record Magazine titled “A California Saga: The Revival of Coastal Consciousness,” by Gene Sculatti, Ken Barnes, and Greg Shaw. (Vol. 3, No. 10, May 1973). I will not quote you anything directly from this article, seeing as I am too cheap to cough up some money for the fine folks over at Rock's Backpages, but from what I remember of it, the jist of the article was that, by 1973, the California music scene was beginning to morph yet again. Out was country rock, singer songwriters, metal and glam. In was Holland, American Spring and Jan & Dean. I shit you not, I am not making this up. My ears do have the tendency to perk up whenever I hear about individuals digging on the same obscuro shit I listen to during my humdrum daily existence. And yes, the writers actually make the point that numerous young swarthy-types were heard driving around SoCal "bumpin'" (in the vernacular of today's yutes) the 45 mix of "California Saga".

Take a moment and let that sink in. I mean, talk about the time and the place. (Ooh! Moby Grape!) The article goes on to list some impossible-to-find singles by The Legendary Masked Surfers and Jan Berry that were, believe it or not, getting heavy play from folks who were "dialed in" that lived on the best coast at the time. (See what I did there?)

How could such a thing happen? Because PEOPLE WERE GETTING OLD, MAN!! (Say that last bit just like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, and you'll get where I'm coming from.) I mean, Spirit and Vanilla Fudge were groovy back in the day and everything, but lately that shit just gives me a headache. But this pussy-ass James Taylor crap, I can't abide by that either. And don't get me started on all these queers from the U.K., with their "androgony" and their "originality". Who needs that shit? Not me! Hey you know who was cool though? JAN AND FUCKIN' DEAN.

Or at least that's how I visualize what this guy would have had to say about it!

Sooo... Somewhere around 1974, Bruce Johnston decides, having left the Beach Boys, that he and his pal Terry Somebody-Or-Other are going to start a record label called Equinox. I picture the conversation going a little like this:

BRUCE: Hey Terry, have you noticed that there really seems to be no outlets these days for musicians like me who want to specialize in generic, middle-of-the-road schlock?

TERRY: (Ignoring Bruce.) Oh man, it says here that Manson may actually be eligible for parole next year! (Twiddles thumbs with a look of consternation on his face.)

The upshot being, the Equinox label is sprung into action and Bruce quickly assembles a group of session pros known as The Roadhouse Band, led by guitarist Bill House and featuring vocalists Gloria Grinel and Kenny Hinkle, as well as other musicians with names that sound made up but really aren't. Before quickly going into debt over Terry Melcher's two solo albums (average cost, just slightly less than the Spruce Goose) they unfurl this minor masterpiece from the pen of some unknown songwriter:

Good thing they changed those stupid lyrics about a car or whatever, right?!

No, seriously, this song is the shit. It's the shit, and if you don't agree with me then TURN AWAY NOW! It's only going to get smoother, and soon you're going to be faced with even more sax solos.

Now if I may inject a bit of levity into this otherwise serious essay, I would like to point out that Bruce and company actually did a rather nice job of modernizing this Beach Boys classic for, ahem, modern listeners. It's not a patch on the original, but the vocals are strong, the new lyrics stay out of the way, and more to the fact, the song latches onto a vibe of some sort that's hard to describe, but let's see if we can do so anyway. Let's see: It's smooth and definitely laid-back -- almost to the point of somnombulance-- but yet it's so fucking pitch perfect and well produced that you'd have to be some kind of monster not to admire its modest charms. It's as though Johnston's production screams at you, "I AM MADE BY A TOP PRODUCER IN A TOP STUDIO USING THE BEST AVAILABLE SESSION MUSICIANS, HOW DARE YOU NOT SUCCUMB MY MODEST CHARMS THANK YOU DRIVE THROUGH." Almost. Except Bruce Johnston would never scream at you. He's far too polite and well heeled to do such a thing.

As stated, Equinox, in partnership with RCA, actually went on to produce other albums-- several with covers such as this:

And, yes, I do actually own this record. I am not proud.

Moving on, Equinox predictably fell apart after selling approximately 734 copies of its combined catalog. Terry Melcher later went on to achieve super-stardom flipping houses in the San Fernando Valley. Bruce Johnston gave up his dreams and went back to work for his dad's insurance company, by which I mean The Beach Boys. Bill House was last seen heading into Da Nang while manning an M-60 in the back of a Bell UH-1 Huey and is currently M.I.A.; his last words reportedly being "eat shit and die, motherfuckers!"

No doubt broken hearted by this tragic turn of events, Johnston handed over the "California Music" moniker to the one man on Earth inspired enough to make even gayer music than Bruce was capable of. (Y'all know where I'm going with this, right?)

When we last saw Curt Boettcher, he was signed to three-album deal with Elektra that he had delivered approximately 1.12548 album's worth of material on before they dropped his ass. The story gets a little harder to follow from there. He was apparently supposed to be part of the big "Sail on Sailor" circle jerk with Brian Wilson, Ray Kennedy, Tandyn Almer and Van Dyke Parks, but missed the boat on that one. (Get it? GET IT!) Then, Curt being Curt, he retreated back to the simple, honest existance of bartender/ club deejay at Barney's Beanery in Hollywood.

Poor Curt. I know Brian Wilson said that he "wasn't made for these times", but if anyone deserved to wear that sable fur, it was this poor lad. I mean, imagine for just one minute being a raging homosexual back in the 1960s, when even loose talk of such an abomination was a mortal sin against the creator. Hell, times were so straight back then even Paul Lynde pretended to dig chicks-- and we're talking about a guy so swingin' that he died with amyl nitrate poppers dislodged in his pooper! (Too soon?) No, when I dwell on what Curt's life must have been during his Goldebriars days, I can only think of one thing. Mad Men.

Kurt: I’m homosexual.
Ken: I don’t think that means what you think it means.
Smitty Smith: Kurt.
Kurt: No. I make love with the man, not the woman.

So yeah, Curt. He did what only he could do. Grabbed the California Music axe and turned that motherfucker up to eleven. "Aiko Aiko"? Yes please! A disco version of the "Banana Boat Song"? Motherfucker, I'm ON that shit!

I kid of course. Curt was the man, will always be the man, never was not the man. If there was a gold standard for record production, it would bear an insignia with him and his lovely little Seventies' white afro. He was the one who took California Music from being something some dudes wrote about in an old magazine article and gave it the breath of life. Because unlike Bruce Johnston, Curt was funky. And gay. Incredibly gay. But it's the gay-ness (DISCLAIMER: "Not that there's anything wrong with that!") that this Jan & Dean-inspired hetero bro-fest was so sorely lacking that was the missing ingredient. All of a sudden, here was a dude who sang like a chick-- better than a chick in fact-- fucking KILLING IT. Don't believe me? Ask Eric Carmen. Curt toured Japan with him in 1980, on Carmen's personal invite. Elton John? Curt is all over Blue Moves. The Beach Boys? Well you know the answer to that shit:

Could things get any more decadent? More than anything, this one track symbolizes the entire California Music movement to a tee. The Beach Boys meet Curt Becher (his spelling, not mine) re-meet Bruce Johnston in a triple collision of post-Sunshine Pop excellence. These guys wanted NO PART of punk. This is music for adults! Sunburned, sexually free, drug addled, thrice-divorced adults, but adults just the same. What cost more? The studio time or the coke? Who knows? WHO CARES?! All bets are off when you're dialed into the sweet, sweet sounds of California Music. There's a party somewhere and Neil Bogart is picking up the bill, so MUSIC MUSIC MUSIC BITCHES!!

Except it all had to come crushing down. You remember that old saying about when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Well Curt Becher, you beautiful, unstoppable flaming force of the hedonistic, discofied Californication lifestyle-- you, sir, have just met your match:

Okay, time to take a poll here: How many of you know that Curt Becher actually produced this little number? Cuz I sure as fuck didn't. At least til I learned who Curt was anyways. Now let me tell you why it's important:

Flat out, it's just this simple. This record doesn't suck. Not remotely. Oh, they'll try to tell you it does. Hell, the cover is enough to turn you off before you even slice the shrink wrap. But have you actually heard it? I mean, as in heard it without scoffing over the songs instead of paying attention to them? Don't believe the hype. Instead, check out the track we sampled for inclusion with this comp, "Runnin' Around the World". There's a fascinating story that goes along with that song concerning Curt and Mike, but I won't get into it now.

It's just that many, many people, particularly those who wrote music reviews for large corporate rock rags in the early Eighties, could not get over their adverse hatred of Mike Love. Which to some point is justified. The guy could be a huge douche, there's no getting around that, and no amount of revisionism can spin it otherwise. But I'm not gonna go there. We all make our mistakes, and it's how we learn from them that determine the real measure of our man- (or woman-) hood. Anyone who really knows about the Beach Boys knows there's no such thing as a Hero or a Villain. Remember what I said about the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object? Shades of grey. Shades of grey.

Anyway, I'm about out of steam. Here's the comp. If you've stuck with me this long then you deserve to hear it. All I ask is that you withhold judgement, and as you listen, try to consider the fact that we all grow older. Let those familiar voices you hear singing resonate, and think about where their heads were at then, and all the life experiences that brought them to where they were by that point. Why did these master musicians decide to abandon the brass ring and settle into the seedier, less noble environs of Hollywood discos and St. Tropez beach resorts? Would you have done the same?

Listen and absorb:

(Dedicated to Ken Barnes, Gene Sculatti and Greg Shaw.)


  1. So if thirty-six makes you old, how do you suppose it feels to be reading this at age forty-nine? I bet you're one of those punks keeping me awake at nights with your wild partying outside my window at the retirement home. And don't think I don't know who's been stealing my false teeth just when I settle in for a nice refreshing bowl of oatmeal! Well, in spite of all that, rest assured this grey-haired senior thoroughly enjoyed this post. I'm looking forward to the next installments, whenever they arrive.

    (And may I say, I wouldn't mind an entry devoted to Dennis and Brian's little brother Carl, who after all composed the likes of Long Promised Road and Feel Flows in addition to his vocal accomplishments. But his solo work is unknown to me.)

  2. Richard, thank you for your post, it made me laugh!

    You caught me mid-essay. There *will* be a link at the end of this rant, guaranteed. And it *will* include Carl's single greatest solo performance.

    As for Dennis, click on the link to the right under "Our Favorite Recording Sessions" that says Dennis Wilson and you can sample a compilation of his work with the Beach Boys.

    Thanks for the post and keep coming back, there's plenty to dig here!

  3. Actually, what I should have said above was "I know you've already looked at Dennis and Brian, so I wouldn't mind the same attention being given to their kid brother Carl…" In fact I've been following this blog ever since you solved one of my longest-held childhood mysteries, as I noted in the comment section of that entry.

    But oh god, I don't know if I can ever recover from the disco version of "Here Comes The Night"…!

  4. Ahh, right! Monkees! Yeah that's so cool that we were able to re-connect you with that lost bit of your childhood. It can be extremely gratifying to get to see something later in life that you only remember a brief glimpse of from your early youth.

    As for Carl, what do you need? I've got CD copies of his two solo albums, and I should still have a copy of Live at the Bottom Line floating around somewhere. Let me know!

  5. Well, I was ripping my CDRs of your Brian Wilson comp to iTunes (finally stepping into 2001) and was honestly surprised to find it's not in Gracenote. So, I came here to find the track listing (which I should have remembered doesn't exist or else I would have already cut&pasted it to notepad and printed it off). Lo and behold, YOU'RE BACK! Welcome! And the links are still working, so I'll just download the thing again to save a lot of track title typing... Enjoying your new posts and can't imagine the amount of time and effort you put into them...especially since I'm already exhausted from writing this comment. I appreciate all you do and love it when an LA Gemstones track pops up on the shuffle. Wait, I got the UNI Records Story from your blog too didn't I [opens new tab, googles it, holy shit! 2008!!] Well, I love it when a track from that pops up too. Thanks for kindling an interest in the Beach Boys in me too...I'm 42 and always had a sort of attitude about the Boys, mostly because this douchebag in High School beat Endless Summer to death, but I needed rides places so I dealt, but it halted any appreciation I might have gained for the Beach Boys in it's tracks much like FM radio kills perfectly innocent music. Wow, this became one gushy thank you comment...thanks for everything O Vast Crystal one!
    PS Now that I've stepped into 2001 and ripped my silver CDs I have 95964 songs...with at least that much more coming now that I've started into ripping my CDRs. I read your cover flow post (hate it the idea, doesn't work for my collection) but it got me thinking...there are other options besides iTunes. Duh...fing Gates brainwashed me. What are your suggestions for a music software that can handle a large collection?

  6. Hey thanks shmoopatties! Yeah man, I can dig what you mean about those Beach Boys oldies being overplayed. Personally I find the band's early period to be fantastic from a musical perspective, but there's no getting around being pigeonholed as "America's #1 Surfing Group" hurt them later in their career. I think it's great that people are finally coming around to appreciating some of their later stuff, and anything I can do to promote the Beach Boys on this blog I'm going to do because I love their music. (At least up until the mid-80s or so!)

    As for recommendations for a good media player to manage all your 90,000 songs, if you're running Windows then simply Google "Foobar 2000". It's a free download and I heartily recommend it-- It's like the anti-iTunes! Foobar plays all music formats, uses very little memory and completely customizable to your specs. Try it out and let me know what you think!

  7. Jason, I'm dying to hear this collection, any chance for a re-up? Your essay has me wanting more. Aces!

  8. Re-up? Also I am dying to hear the story about Mike Love and Curt Boettcher.... isn't it time by now??? ;-)