A Starr at Every Turn: Ringo Remastered!

(Originally published on the buhdge website in 2007)

photographRingo Starr | Photograph, The Very Best of Ringo (Capitol, 2007)

Fab sticksman Richard Starkey M.B.E.’s best sides finally get a first-class remastering with Photograph The Very Best of Ringo Starr, a most welcome release that earns Capitol Records a back-off-boogaloo’s-worth of goodwill from fans.

For one thing, Abbey Road’s Steve Rooke has given this collection a bright-sounding, widescreen, wide-stereo retooling. For another, Capitol has doubled the number of tracks found on the 1976 compilation, Blast From Your Past. And what’s more, the deluxe edition of Photograph comes with a DVD, resplendent with six Ringo videos and a commercial for the Goodnight Vienna album, which features Spaceman Ringo and Harry Nilsson in his bathrobe.

Featuring no less than eight top 10 hits, and Ringo’s spirited duet with Buck Owens on the well-traveled “Act Naturally,” Photograph is a fun listen from start to finish. You get great tunes driven by Ringo’s Ringo-esque vocals and his always stellar drumming. What’s not to love?

In addition to the usual suspects, such as the mondo title track “It Don’t Come Easy,” “You’re Sixteen (You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine),” “Back Off Boogaloo,” and “No-No Song,” you get the audio-verite confessional “Early 1970,” the b-side of “It Don’t Come Easy”; “Weight of the World,” a most Beatlesque tune from the fine 1992 album, Time Takes Time; and the off-kilter, very-uncharacteristic-for-its-writer George Harrison, but wholly-appropriate-for-Ringo song, “Wrack My Brain.”

The collector’s edition of Photograph also nets you the aforementioned DVD. Said DVD might skimp on quantity, but it delivers on the quality front. The videos are fun–“It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo” feature very Beatlesque clowning-around in the manner of Harrison’s video for his “Crackerbox Palace”. The animation technique used for the “You’re Sixteen” film is very nice and imaginative, and probably ahead of its time for its time. And the video for Ringo’s duet with Buck Owens, “Act Naturally,” set on an old western film set, is a humorous gem. Look for guest stars Vic “Alice” Tayback as a bartender, and ex-Saturday Night Live player Brad “Mr. Julia Louis-Dreyfus” Hall. Don’t miss the cheesy spaceship prop in the video for “Only You” and the commercial for Goodnight Vienna–the string from which the ship hangs is clearly visible. Shades of Plan 9 from Outer Space!

So it’s all down-down-down-down-down-down to Goodnight Vienna for your friend and mine, Ringo Starr. This Photograph really sings.

Alan Haber/2007


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Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes

Reviews from the Pages of buhdge: The Association’s Waterbeds in Trinidad (1972)

The Association's Waterbeds in Trinidad

(Originally published on the buhdge website in 2006)

Unfairly categorized as a singles band, the Association did not, as some would have you believe, make bad albums. They also did not become a less-interesting aggregation in the band’s later recording years, as this lone Columbia album proves.

Released a year after the group’s final Warner Brothers release, the eclectic Stop Your Motor, Waterbeds in Trinidad is a solid mix of originals and covers that is as good as any of their eight studio releases (a ninth, double-live set recorded at the University of Utah, was released in 1970). From Terry Kirkman’s sweet midtempo confessional “After the Fall” and the Larry Ramos co-penned paean to a lost love, “Indian Wells Woman,” to a muscular, jazzy cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Snow Queen,” Waterbeds soars. But the album’s fate was foretold: it became the group’s last release until an embarrassing 1995 collection featuring only two original members, Russ Giguere and Ramos, that managed to single-handedly crush memories of the original group–at least for those unlucky listeners who heard it.

Waterbeds in Trinidad was, like most of the Association’s later albums, out of step with the then-current musical times. The group dared to be true to themselves, never succumbing to market pressure and preferring to follow their own muse. They even turned down the chance to record Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park.”

The Association’s stance never varied: Their original songs, and the songs they chose to cover, were fully-realized vocal harmony showcases that emphasized melody above all else. Although the variously six-and-seven man band got a bit heavy on occasion (“heavy” being a relative term), they pretty much stuck to soft pop, providing the template for other groups that followed them into the seventies. Certainly, the Carpenters, whose first album was released in 1969, wouldn’t have been the Carpenters if the Association hadn’t set the earlier standard.

That standard lay at the foundation of Waterbed’s 10 tracks. The well-chosen covers, particularly John Sebastian’s classic “Darling Be Home Soon,” given an emotional reading here by Jim Yester and deep background vocal support, are tremendous examples of the exquisite taste exhibited by the group. The group’s originals are equally fine, even the jazzy, 5th Dimension-esque throwaway “Kicking the Gong Around,” whose many wordless vocal parts sound like they were a blast to wax.

The album closer, John Stewart’s touching ballad “Little Road and a Stone to Roll,” remains a particularly eerie listening experience given that the group’s bassist, Brian Cole, sings it (Cole later died of a drug overdose). It is hard not to get a lump in the throat when Cole sings “Everybody needs a fire inside/Everybody needs a dream to ride/Everybody with a growing soul/Needs a stone to roll.” The song’s reference to a Carole King tune as something that everyone needs always results in a tear or two.

The vocal arrangement on “Little Road and a Stone to Roll” is perhaps closest to the most classic moments the Association achieved during their career. The gentle, soaring harmonies seep into your brain and give you a little chill at every turn, not unlike the bulk of the group’s output.

After a couple of subsequent singles on RCA and Elektra and a mostly disappointing oldies collection released by, of all companies, Radio Shack, the group called it a day, although they did reform in the early 1980s, even appearing on TV’s The Mike Douglas Entertainment Hour, during which they performed “Windy,” “Cherish,” “Along Comes Mary,” and a terrific, still unreleased song entitled “Back Seat of Heaven.” What’s more, the group performed totally live, proving themselves to be a solid band that hardly needed the help of seasoned session musicians who played the parts on their early albums.

This 2006 release corrects the omission of bonus tracks on the 2002 Japanese issue, although most of the added sides are no great shakes; other than the single version of “Kicking the Gong Around,” which runs significantly faster (and thus shorter) than its album counterpart, the other single versions on offer don’t sound very different. Fortunately, the great version of Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood’s “Names, Tags, Numbers and Labels,” released on 45 only, is included. The sound overall is top-notch. Housed in a mini-LP-style cardboard sleeve, the CD is a bit pricey, but worth every penny.

What is little known is that the Association recorded a number of new songs, including the aforementioned “Back Seat of Heaven,” after reforming in the early 1980s. Hopefully those songs will one day be released. And hopefully, one day, the Association will get the respect they deserve. Certainly the Japanese CD reissues of the band’s albums, which now all contain bonus tracks, and the ongoing Collector’s Choice reissue program (which, sadly, does not offer bonuses and, to these ears, sound at least slightly inferior to their Japanese counterparts) will continue to keep this truly original musical legacy alive.

Alan Haber
June 10, 2006


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Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes

Reviews from the Pages of buhdge: Lewis Lapham’s book about Rishikesh, With the Beatles

(The following review of Lewis Lapham’s wonderful book on the Beatles’ journey to Rishikesh to study and meet with the Maharishi first appeared on the old buhdge website. It appears here on the Pure Pop Radio website with but a few tiny changes, and the notation that the book is no longer in print. It is, however, available as a download for the Kindle. With the Beatles is highly recommended.)

Lewis Lapham's wonderful book, With the Beatles, is available as a download for the Kindle.
Lewis Lapham’s wonderful book, With the Beatles, is available as a download for the Kindle.

Lewis Lapham | With the Beatles | Kindle version (2014)

You can hardly pass through the music section of your favorite bookstore without perusing the latest range of offerings concerning the Beatles. I know this, because I’ve seen you. You may think nobody’s watching, but we are.

And for good reason. The latest crop of Fab-centric missives is actually pretty good. Lewis Lapham’s With the Beatles is a shining example–a quick, highly entertaining read that delivers the goods as well as any book twice its physical size (approximately 5″ x 6 1/2″) and three or four times its length (147 pages, with the text starting on page 33 after a sweet selection of photos lensed during the Beatles’ stay in Rishikesh).

Ah, Rishikesh… the mecca for enlightenment within which the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi sought to raise consciousness and the light from within. The Beatles, in February 1968, whisked off to the Maharishi’s camp to practice Transcendental Meditation (TM) and commune with nature. While there, the Fabs studied with the Maharishi and wrote the songs that were to become The Beatles, or, more famously, the White Album. Past the flies, the oppressive heat, the less-than-comfy living quarters, and the less-than-appetizing food, at least the Mop Tops got an album out of their time in India.

Which is to say that the reality of the Beatles’ time in Rishikesh turned out to be less than advertised. Ringo thought he could assume the Lotus position just as well back home, a point Lapham makes in his fine book that details his coverage, for the Saturday Evening Post, of TM and the Beatles’ attraction to it.

Lapham, now editor-in-chief of Harper’s Magazine, covers his brush with the Maharishi and TM from his stateside investigation of the practice to his time in Rishikesh and his trip home. Throughout, he maintains a healthy air of skepticism about the whole enterprise, delineating, with a reporter’s keen eye (and a welcome sense of humor), observations that elevate his story above mere reportage, telling about the woman staying at the Maharishi’s camp who wanted hot water at lunch so she could pour it in some Sanka coffee, the Maharishi’s inner circle and, of course, the Beatles themselves.

About the flies, Lapham writes that Maureen Starkey “hated” them “to the point that if there was only one fly in the room she would know exactly where it was, how it got there, and why it must be destroyed.” When they talked to the Maharishi about the flies, he told them “that for people traveling in the realm of pure consciousness, flies no longer matter very much. ‘Yes,’ Ringo said, ‘but that doesn’t zap the flies, does it?'”

Ringo’s take on things was only fair, as he had gone to study with the Maharishi because it was George’s thing, and the Beatles were a group that supported each other… at least until the flies became the Starr thing.

Mike Love also made the trip to India, as did actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence, among other notables, but the other Beach Boys stayed home. Interviewing the group prior to heading off to Rishikesh, Lapham discovered that Brian Wilson’s mother “had scheduled her own initiation for the next week; his father was considering a trip to India. ‘If my dad goes to India,’ he said, ‘I’ll know that the Maharishi has done his job.'” Murry Wilson never made the pilgrimage.

In the end, at least one of the Beatles became disillusioned with the Maharishi; there were rumors that the guru had sampled the pleasures of the flesh with Mia Farrow’s sister, Prudence, prompting John Lennon to write “Sexy Sadie,” in which he hardly minced words about his feelings for the Maharishi, reducing the guru to a mere charlatan or a feeble con artist, take your pick.

Upon arriving in New Delhi, Lapham hired a taxi to take him to Rishikesh. The driver, in star struck fashion, immediately understood where the writer wanted to go. Lapham: “‘Yes, good,’ he said. ‘We go Beatles.'” With that information in hand, the writer could have chucked the trip to Rishikesh and gone home an enlightened man, leaving the flies to swarm around the inner light.

Alan Haber
April 23, 2006


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Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes

The Warbles: They’re Still Fuzzy

(The following review appeared July 4, 2005 on the buhdge website. It appears here with only a few changes made.)

Andy Partridge's Fuzzy Warbles 5
Andy Partridge’s Fuzzy Warbles 5

With the release in 2002 of the first few volumes of Fuzzy Warbles discs, another cottage industry–that of illicit Andy Partridge demo collecting–was crushed in its tracks. Suddenly, here were great sounding recordings straight from the man himself–everything from demos to songs offered to, and rejected by, other artists; instrumental weirdness; and other groovy musical trinkets. No more trading of ninth generation dubs necessary. Here was the real thing, and lots of it.

Six volumes in, and two more to go to complete the series, Partridge is continuing to come up with collections stuffed to the gills with pearls and diamonds and all manner of heretofore undiscovered treasure. There seems to be no end to the delights being unearthed and passed on, and we are all the better for it.

If you’re a Partridge fan (and, of course, you are), you’ll dig these discs without me having to convince you of their worth. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a few highlights per volume, so here I go:

On Volume 5, “I Defy You Gravity” is the keeper, a hit song if ever there was one. Written for, and rejected by, as Partridge calls her, “disco lite chanteuse” Sophie Ellis-Bextor, this vaguely dance-oriented pop song has one of those XTC-ish melodies that defy classification, other than to say it’s catchy as catchy can. And it includes a lyric line that is typically inventive: “Isaac Newton’s annoyed with me.” Of course he is! A keeper of the highest order.

More Volume 5 highlights: a fine, tambourine-heavy, four-track demo of Skylarking’s “Earn Enough for Us,” the 007-meets-underwater marching chorus instrumental “Aqua Deum” from the film Ocean’s Daughter; and the majestic, previously-unheard “My Land is Burning,” a criticism of government set against a old-folkish melody.

Andy Partridge's Fuzzy Warbles 6
Andy Partridge’s Fuzzy Warbles 6

As good as Volume 5 is, Volume 6 is even better per pound. Try on for size the sprightly song written for, but not used in, the film James and the Giant Peach. “The Stinking Rich Song” finds Partridge in fine child-esque mettle, adopting a variety of voices perfect to communicate the thoughts of those who might be…stinking rich. Very clever and fun to listen to.

Why XTC didn’t record the wonderful, seemingly-effortless pure pop delight “I Can’t Tell What Truth is Anymore” is anyone’s guess. Scribed for the band’s Nonsuch album, it would have fit well there, or on the second Dukes of Stratosphear release. You won’t be able to get this one out of your head. “Tiny Circus of Life” was used as the title for an XTC greatest hits CD in France, and, lo and behold, here it is the title of a lively, previously-unheard song sporting lots of cool changes and a typically offbeat approach.

But wait: There’s more! “In My Hand,” written by illustrator friend Mark Thomas and Martin “Woody” Wood, was recorded by Partridge at the behest of Thomas’ wife for Mark’s birthday. A song that fits snugly in what Partridge calls “masturbators corner,” comprising this and three other demos appearing side by side by side by side here (including Oranges and Lemons’ “Pink Thing”), it’s a well-written, hooky tune with an instantly memorable chorus. You’ll swear Partridge wrote it using a pseudonym. The closing song on Volume 6, “End of the Pier,” yet another orphan from the Nonsuch writing sessions, shines with dance band underpinning and some of Partridge’s best lyrics, and another wish-I’d-written-it melody for the ages.

Once again accompanied by booklets featuring Partridge’s song-by-song commentary and adorned by smartly designed, postage-stamp covers magically created by Andrew Swainson, the Fuzzy Warbles series continues to delight. Partridge says volumes 7 and 8 will put an end to the gravy train. I, for one, hope he decides to let the gravy continue to flow.

Alan Haber
July 4, 2005

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Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes

Gather, SMiLE: The SMiLE Tour; Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE; and SMiLE, 2004

(The following article, about Brian Wilson’s SMiLE, originally published on the buhdge website on October 13, 2004, was written prior to the reissue of the original SMiLE album.)

Gather, SMiLE
The SMiLE Tour; Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE; and SMiLE, 2004
by Alan Haber

Brian Wilson Presents Smile
Brian Wilson Presents Smile

They are 10 minutes late getting to the stage, but not a soul is bothered; rather, the mood is one of great anticipation. Every sound, every supposed pin drop, makes every one of the 1,800 people in Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theater look front and center. Is it time?

Eleven musicians, soon joined by eight more, gather on stage, creeping into their places, picking up their instruments, assembling before their microphones for a loose, around-the-campfire style acoustic set, during which some of the most glorious, most life-affirming harmonies you could ever hope to hear will be sung. There will be much give and take during the next two hours and forty minutes–lots of love going from the stage to the audience and coming back to the stage in kind.

There is a lot of love in this room. The Smile tour has reached the nation’s capital, and it is time to sing. It is time to sing the sweet, intoxicating melodies of our youth. It is time to add that top harmony part that will make the hair stand up on the backs of 1,800 necks. It is time for 1,800 people, united in their love for Brian Wilson, to give back all the love in the world to the man whose music is being celebrated tonight.

It is time to smile.

* * * * * * * * * *

There is a black-and-white still seen in Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE, now playing on the Showtime cable channel, that is, on its face, the definition of photographic verite: a depiction of the genius as a young man with the world at his feet, only his feet are off the ground, caught by the camera’s fast lens in mid-air. The man’s hair is flopping around his head, his fists are barely clenched, and there is a hint of a smile on his face, tempered by a sense of aloofness. The depiction is both exhilarating and defeating, exposing the obvious emotions and hinting at those bottled up inside this adult child named Brian Wilson.

What must it feel like for a man to have traveled through his life to come to be considered a genius–a god, even–a light that lights the world, that exposes both the strengths and frailties of humanity; a man who still has to live with the demons that have haunted him? What must it feel like to want to be so strong yet often feel so beaten? What must it be like to be Brian Wilson? How does he summon the strength to move forward? Because it is all he knows, because he knows there is an answer, and he is so strong, so committed to find it, wherever it may be. His demons may pull him down, but his faith pulls him forward. He is the quintessential survivor.

So he forges on. Every night, he sits center stage and bares his soul. He sings his life’s work, the degrees of emotion he has felt. His voice is sometimes frail, and sometimes flat; sometimes he sings too low or too high, but his vocals are always honest, never less than truthful. It is sometimes hard to watch him sitting there, just raising his arms, pointing up or to the left or right, looking straight ahead or down, seeming so robotic, but his smile is the smile that can and does light the world and warms every heart, and inside he is oh so alive.

* * * * * * * * * *

The childlike innocence that continues to inhabit Brian Wilson is plainly evident and infectious on this most glorious of nights. When Wilson asks the audience to sing along with him on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the only fitting reaction is to smile. You want to put your arm around the person sitting next to you and divide the audience into groups so that the singing becomes a round, and there is nothing, nothing really, that can improve on how joyous a feeling that will bring. When Wilson tells the audience it is time to stop singing, you almost want to ignore him and try the song in another key and go another round.

But there is work to be done here tonight during the Washington, D.C. stop on the Smile tour. It is October 10th, and fall, tempered by summer’s lingering softness, is beginning to creep into the nation’s capital. For two hours and forty minutes, good vibrations–there is no other way to say it–will circle and swirl through the hall; favorite songs and left-field choices, delivered by some of the best musicians working in music today, will bookend the evening’s centerpiece: the 2004 realization of Brian Wilson’s masterwork, Smile.

It is true, during a night of truths, that music evokes feelings and gives one a sense of place in the world, a sense of purpose; on this night, the soundtrack of 1,800 lives will play, and surf and sand and songs about relationships and feelings and Hawaii will come together in an explosion of emotion, and every single living, breathing soul within earshot will be forever changed. For casual fans here in the Warner, the effect may be lessened by the reality that tomorrow morning, they have to go back to work and to school and their lives; for disciples of Brian Wilson, whose lives have been defined by his music, tomorrow will be a day of reflection, work or school be damned–a day that will be unlike the days that came before. For those who have gone beyond the hits and deep album tracks, who have read every article written about the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson and have been forever changed by Wilson’s art, tomorrow will be the start of a new life.

* * * * * * * * * *

What brought me here to the Warner was the realization of a life’s dream–to see Brian Wilson in great shape. I had seen the Beach Boys twice within a single week back in the mid-1970’s–once at the Saratoga Performing Arts Festival in upstate New York, and a few days later at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Brian was at both shows, looking unhealthy in his Adidas track suit, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Seated at an electric piano or playing the bass, he was the definition of lethargic. He was physically there, but it didn’t feel right; his largeness was off putting and the effect was overbearing sadness. Years later, my wife and I, living in Delaware, made the trip to Philadelphia to see the Beach Boys; neither of us can remember if Brian was there that night, but it’s just as well. Those mid-seventies memories still lingered.

Now, in 2004, those memories have forever been erased, thanks to the release of the long time in coming realization of Smile, lovingly packaged and released by Nonesuch. I had listened to the album a dozen or so times before entering the Warner, so I was more than familiar with the current presentation of Wilson’s masterwork. I am of the belief that Smile is indeed the holy grail of popular music; I believe that Smile is indeed the apex of Wilson’s output. I am in love with Pet Sounds, but I am in love with Smile.

I have been in love with Smile since first hearing the few songs that were intended to be part of the original album. My favorite seemed to be”Surf’s Up”; I loved it immediately upon hearing it when it appeared on the same-named album in 1971. I can remember playing the song in a class of mine on a day when show and tell was the activity at hand. I remember being mystified that no one in the class, other than me, was moved by the song, but it spoke to me in wondrous ways.

But so did “Heroes and Villains,” “Vege-Tables” and the other Smile tracks that managed to escape the Beach Boys tape vault. But what spoke to me even more were the mysteries that revolved around Smile: Why didn’t it come out back in the sixties? What was the genesis of the original idea? What was Wilson’s intent? Mind you, I posed these questions more than a few years after Smile was abandoned and Smiley Smile took its place; it wasn’t until the eighties, when my wife and I were married and living in Brooklyn, New York that I caught Smile fever in earnest for the very first time.

When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, my chief source for music was the radio, supplemented by any 45’s or albums that I could save up to buy with my pittance of an allowance or get as presents on my birthday or Chanukah or the odd special occasion. My father, who played the trumpet and loved music–even some of my favorite music–would occasionally spring for a disc. When, as an adolescent, I worked for him during holidays from school and during summers, I would usually spend every penny I made (or thereabouts) on albums, three for five dollars at the Duane Reed drug store across from his office at 32 Broadway in New York City.

There were no Beach Boys albums in the Duane Reed bin; I remember Jethro Tull’s Aqualung being one of my most treasured scores during my weekly trawls. It’s funny looking back on those days now, but when I bought a record, it usually wasn’t something that I was overly familiar with, unless it was by the Beatles; I would go with unfamiliar bands and albums more often than not, in the interest of discovery. The familiar was in my head–up here. I didn’t start collecting my favorite records until I was just about out of high school, and didn’t get heavy into bulk until I was in college. Serving summonses for my father during my first year of college (he was a partner in a law firm), I made five dollars a pop; on a good day, serving 20 or 25 summonses, I could make enough to buy a whole lot of records.

In college, I discovered those cool vinyl Beach Boys two-fers that Capitol had released, pairing such albums as Wild Honey and 20/20 and Friends and Smiley Smile; I would buy them, one by one, and drag them back to my dorm room, where I would confound my more progressive floor mates by indulging in my love of the Beach Boys’ harmonies and melodies, playing those records into the night, much to their dismay and under the blaring of their music which featured–gasp!–loud electric guitars and screaming disguised as singing, oh my.

When I discovered, in the eighties, the variety of Smile bootleg albums available, I moved from obsessive fan to hardcore collector and analyzer. How did the pieces fit? Did they even make sense? What was the true running order? How did they do that? My imagined calls to Brian Wilson, during which I meant to beg for love and mercy, and the answers to these and many other questions, went unanswered.

In the late eighties, I graduated to Smile bootlegs on CD; a particular favorite was a single disc collection that was supposedly pressed in Japan and had the best sound to date (but didn’t they all?). The fine folks at VigOTone records put out a sterling, great sounding, two-disc set that not only included a typically deluxe, information-filled booklet, but also a poster depicting Frank Holmes’ wonderful original, sixties cover artwork, suitable for framing or tacking up on a waiting wall.

All along, from the late sixties on, there were always rumors that Smile would be assembled soon, that it was ready to go and a release date was on the verge of being announced; the rumors and promises always were soon doused, so fans like me had to hang onto their bootlegs and await the day that those discs would be rendered obsolete.

I have spent nearly 20 years listening to Smile fragments and out takes, only to come no closer to understanding what the album was supposed to be like, had it been finished and released when initially promised. Now, I’m not so sure that knowing the answers to all of the questions about the original Smile is necessary, because there is no original Smile album, only a myriad of clues to its track listing, to its intent. So comparing the 2004 version of the album to whatever it might have been in the sixties is really rather pointless; you simply can not compare apples and oranges, or yesterday to today.

Brian Wilson’s current band, assembled around all but one of the fabulous Wondermints (Nick Walusko, Probyn Gregory, and musical secretary Darian Sahanaja) and the indispensable Jeffrey Foskett, is a prime example of a dream come true: multi-instrumentalists and singers blessed with warm insight into the music, they were meant to be spiritual, fellow travelers with a song in their heart and the ability to sing it right every time. And on this night in the nation’s capital, they are at the top of their game. Building on the sound and feel of the abandoned sixties recordings, they recreate Smile in loving homage, while adding their own stamp and making the total work uniquely their own. The great drummer Jim Hines and solid, rock-steady bassist Bob Lizik provide the necessary grounding and underlying beat; they are aided by the multi-talented Scott Bennett, who is about to put out a solo project on the Not Lame label; pretty, soulful Taylor Mills on backup vocals; woodwind-player Paul Mertens, who also conducts the ace Stockholm Strings ‘n’ Horns, who are in love with their parts and whose enthusiasm is infectious, especially when they’re wearing toy fire hats and trying to tame an unwieldy fire hose; and the unbelievable percussionist Nelson Bragg, who is somehow able to keep track of the seemingly millions of noisemakers he bangs, pings and crashes against all apparent odds.

Van Dyke Parks, who is not in the band but might as well be–he should at least be in the audience at every show to take a bow for his lyrics and heart–is, in concert with Wilson, Smile’s main instrument. Together, they have composed a work that fuses elements of rock, symphony, folk, world, Barbershop and God knows what else into a universe wholly its own. Watching Parks react to the closing notes of the London premiere of Smile is something you will not forget (it comes at the end of Beautiful Dreamer); Parks is overtaken with emotion as the lights come up and he is drawn deeply in his seat; on the stage, he rests his head on Wilson’s right shoulder and takes his bows, and that gesture of love lights up the room on a night when lighting up the room is job one.

Although much of Beautiful Dreamer recounts familiar stories and emotions, the overall effect is strong, a mixture of exhilaration and pain in strong measures. It is still hard to listen to Brian tell stories about his father abusing him; it is still hard to fathom a parent who is in competition with his child, who takes out his frustrations in the form of painful beatings and will-defeating verbal assaults. It is profoundly sad to see that these and other memories still haunt the adult child that Brian has become; his fears and uncomfortableness with many elements of everyday life are real, and it is a great shame that he must still contend with both.

David Leaf, who wrote, directed and produced Beautiful Dreamer, does an admirable job telling this latest take on the life of Brian, although he might have laid off on the quotations from famous figures and gotten on-camera testimonies from more relevant testifiers than actor Jeff Bridges and director Rob Reiner, fine entertainers though they may be. And the scene that shows the band conducting vocal rehearsals, during which Brian seems to completely zone out and eventually leaves the room, is too long and painful to watch. I wonder how much of Brian’s pain is necessary to show to evoke a certain response from an audience.

For me, Brian’s inability to completely integrate into his surroundings is demonstrated no more clearly than when Paul McCartney meets up with him backstage before the London show and kisses him on the cheek. “No tongue,” says Paul, the joke completely over the head of Brian, who merely answers, “Okay.” But perhaps Brian doesn’t need to get the joke. Perhaps whatever Brian can give at any given moment is enough, and if it isn’t, it should be.

* * * * *

It is amazing that so few notes on so small a musical scale can be put together in so many permutations and evoke so many different emotions from so many different kinds of people. How the creative mind works, and how creativity is received and processed by people, remains a mystery; that someone like Brian Wilson could ever think on so widescreen a scale–how he could wrangle and twist so few notes to produce such exhilaratingly original work using so broad a canvas is one for the ages.

Tonight, here at the Warner, that canvas, colorful sound images flowing from it, bathing the audience, is golden; the man who drew on it, whose work has touched so many millions of people, caps his show with a soulful take on his inspiring “Love and Mercy,” and he is right, as he is surrounded by his band–love and mercy is what you need tonight. And tomorrow. You also need to eat a lot, drink a lot, and brush them like crazy, but that, along with many other truths, is another story. For now, love and mercy will have to do.

October 13, 2004

Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber's Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes
Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes

Reviews from the Pages of buhdge: Andrew Gold’s Asylum Albums

...from the pages of buhdge
…from the pages of buhdge

Here’s another review from days gone by–February 7, 2005, to be exact, from the pages of buhdge. This is basically as first published. I resisted the temptation to excise a line or two, because I prefer to look at Andrew Gold’s music as an eternally living, breathing thing…

Andrew Gold | Andrew Gold | Collector’s Choice Music (2005)

My friend Rob used to do a show on our college radio station (FM, not carrier current, by the way). He would call me up in my dorm room, knowing I was listening, and tell me about some new album he was particularly taken with. Then, after he got off the air, he’d haul his copy of that album, and often others, up to my room and we’d listen to them. He was just about always right, bringing those albums to me; once, he even offered to reimburse me for a Roy Wood album if I didn’t like it (it was Boulders, and I did and he didn’t have to pay me back). This time around, he was touting the debut album by one Andrew Gold, with whom I was not familiar. “Wait ’till you hear this,” he said, ever so passionately, calling me from the studio.

Andrew Gold
Andrew Gold

I couldn’t wait. As I said, Rob was almost always right about these things; we would spend hours in his room at his house, him playing me record after record, seeing what I liked, what I didn’t, trying to get me to like things he liked and I didn’t, like Zappa’s We’re Only In It for the Money (well, I came to appreciate it eventually). I discovered a lot of cool stuff in that room, stuffed to the gills as it was with musical treasures (I first heard the promo version of “Penny Lane” there–the one with the trumpet ending, a revelation to be sure).

“What is it like?”, I asked Rob on the phone. “What does Andrew Gold sound like?” (Even then, I was playing the “Who Does it Sound Like?” game.) “You’ll like it,” he emphasized, and with that, resting the tone arm on one of the turntables at the station after playing his last record of the night , he put a couple of albums in his bag and took the long walk from the station to my dorm room. “Wait ’till you hear this,” he said, and, my stereo fired up, he set the needle down onto the vinyl to do its business.

I was mesmerized. Gold’s music spoke to me. All the earmarks of the type of music I liked were there, soaking through me: melody, harmony, hooks with superpowers, and that cover shot, the artist performing magic, white balls jumping about in the air around him, his left hand open at the bottom right, ready for the balls to come home. Now that I know, thanks to Gold’s superb liner notes for the 2005 reissue of Andrew Gold (in fact, all four of Gold’s 1970’s Asylum albums have been reissued by Collectors’ Choice Music), that the hand was pasted in from another picture, I’m really convinced there was some kind of magic going on.

I remain convinced 29 years later, remembering that evening so long ago, thankful for my introduction to Andrew Gold from a like-minded friend. Andrew Gold remains a magical release for me, full of surprise and wonder. From the gorgeous opener “That’s Why I Love You,” with its intoxicating melody and glorious harmonies, and the country-rock of the supremely catchy “Heartaches in Heartaches,” to the emotion-filled ballad “Ten Years Behind Me” and the funky bass of the wild and wooly “Hang My Picture Straight,” Andrew Gold is a strong first album, a collection of songs that will last through time.

Andrew Gold's What's Wrong With this Picture
Andrew Gold’s What’s Wrong With this Picture

A year later, when Gold’s second solo album, What’s Wrong With this Picture, was released, I was working at the college radio station too, doing a Saturday afternoon show and playing lots of the kind of stuff I still play today on Pure Pop Radio. The release of this album was accompanied by a contest that asked people to identify the most things “wrong” with the album cover for some prize or other. As part of Gold’s liner notes–as detailed, lengthy and informative as those for his debut–the artist put on his detective hat and laid out 32 items that he had identified. He called this his “official” list, and noted that “You can still win a date with me, but I’ll have to ask my girlfriend.”

The only song from Andrew Gold that charted was “That’s Why I Love You,” which only managed to rise to number 68 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The big song from What’s Wrong With this Picture was a different matter entirely: “Lonely Boy” was a top 10 hit; it made it all the way to number seven and stayed on the chart for 21 weeks. It should have been a number one, though; it’s a textbook example of how to write a hit song. It builds quite nicely throughout; it’s centered around a strong vocal; has a great, hooky chorus; and ends with a hearty, satisfying, dramatic ending.

The rest of the album wasn’t so bad, either. Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game,” re-imagined as a plaintive country ballad complete with mandolin, almost becomes a completely different song, completely soulful. “One of Them is Me,” another one of Gold’s signature ballads, shines with deep emotion, as does his “Firefly,” on which he plays all of the instruments.

Andrew Gold's All This and Heaven Too
Andrew Gold’s All This and Heaven Too

Two years went by before Gold’s next album was released. All This and Heaven Too contains the song “Thank You for Being a Friend,” which became the theme of TV’s The Golden Girls. Amazingly, however, even with all of that exposure, and 15 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, the song only managed to place as high as number 25 on the charts.

In the liner notes to the reissue of Whirlwind, Gold says that All This and Heaven Too got “a fair amount of bad reviews.” This amazes me, as I believe this album to be the best of the ’70s Asylum releases. From the opening, pumping piano of the pure pop song “How Can This Be Love” to the campfire-like singalong, hooky “Never Let Her Slip Away,” to the jazzy, Brazilian-influenced “Genevieve,” this is one classic album.

But the backlash against the softer side of pop got to Gold, prompting him to show that he could rock out with the best of them. Enter Whirlwind, 1980’s proof of the I-can-rock-out-too pudding. A quick look at the lineup of instruments on the songs told the tale: basically guitar, bass and drums. Some keyboards, and only nine songs. No pop-oriented cover shot; instead, a closeup photo of a deep-in-thought Gold, a microphone pointing at his right cheek, was used. This was clearly going to be a different direction for the soft-popper.

Andrew Gold's Whirlwind
Andrew Gold’s Whirlwind

At the time, listening to Whirlwind seemed to back up the “it’s heavier” theory. It is only so many years later, with a healthy dose of hindsight, that it becomes clear that the album really isn’t all that different than Gold’s others; in fact, the opener, “Kiss this One Goodbye,” although heavier than Gold’s usual fare, has a poppy chorus and harmonies. “Sooner or Later” is essentially business-as-was-usual, just dressed up in a bit of a harder edge. “Leave Her Alone” similarly just sounds a bit different. “Nine to Five”‘s light reggae verses lead into poppy choruses, sounding a little like Eric Stewart’s reggae-influenced songs for 10cc. And the album closer, “Make Up Your Mind,” takes its cue from the Paul McCartney playbook as a dash of “Oh Darling!” mixes nicely with other Beatle nods, including a faux George Harrison slide solo. And then there are those trademark Gold harmonies.

It’s hard, in retrospect, to understand what all the fuss was about. The focus should, instead, have been on Whirlwind’s songs, all top notch, and the playing by Gold, drummer Michael Botts, and bassist Bryan Garafolo. Gold says in his liner notes that he “just coasted a bit” post-Whirlwind. He did wind up being the musical guest on the last Saturday Night Live show with the original cast, so coasting seems a bit of an overstatement.

One thing these reissues, lovingly produced by Gold and Cheryl Pawelski, shows is that Gold’s Asylum period stands up well. In fact, these albums remain classics from a classic artist. Each reissue sounds like it was recorded yesterday, with particular gains in separation, crispness, bottom end, and volume over the Japanese reissues that fans have had to make due with for years. The copious liner notes by Gold are in-depth and welcome, full of great stories and honest insight. And each album is stocked with fun bonus tracks–alternate versions, outtakes, jams, live cuts, and the like. These are the best reissues ever put out by Collectors’ Choice Music, outdoing most major label reissues by miles with the care and attention to detail that is absolutely evident.

The best thing about Gold’s Asylum years is that the complete story has yet to be told; Gold continues to release new albums, and has just announced very ambitious release plans for the coming year and beyond, including a covers record, a sequel to The Fraternal Order of the All, and much more. This is great news for fans, and new chances for people unaware of Gold’s continuing output to pick up on the latest creations of one of our greatest musical artists.

Looking back to that day when I was still in college, being exposed to new artists almost on a daily basis, having my first encounter with the music of Andrew Gold, I realize how lucky I am to have experienced his records as a first-generation fan. I’ve been listening to Gold’s music for 29 years, and I await his next release, my ears ready to take in his next glorious sounds.

Alan Haber
February 7, 2005

Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber's Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes
Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes

Reviews from the Pages of buhdge: Pugwash’s Eleven Modern Antiquities

...from the pages of buhdge
…from the pages of buhdge

Back in the mid 2000’s, we started a popular website called buhdge. buhdge, with an accent on the “h,” was designed to support the weekly Pure Pop Radio Show on WEBR in Fairfax, Virginia, and for many years, it did. For various reasons, however, it lay dormant for periods of time–some short, some regrettably long, and in March 2012, it ceased to be updated at all. It sorta, kinda morphed into a dormant, online catalog of melodic pop music reviews, audio interviews and articles. After nearly two years of inactivity, it will be going away forever, having done its time entertaining at least millions.

Because the content on buhdge is worthy of a second, or even a third, look, we have decided to post some of the best of the reviews and such here. The audio interviews will be ported over to our PodOMatic podcast page. This has, in fact, begun and will continue throughout this year.

So, here’s the first of a goodly number of reviews that first appeared on buhdge. First up: our review of Pugwash’s 2008 album, Eleven Modern Antiquities, as fine a record as Thomas Walsh and company have put out. Enjoy the review, and add the album to your collection if, for some odd reason, it doesn’t already claim pride of place.

Pugwash's Eleven Modern Antiquities
Pugwash’s Eleven Modern Antiquities

Pugwash | Eleven Modern Antiquities (1969 Records)

I remember reading a review of Pink Floyd’s The Wall in which the reviewer described the Floyd as a band that never throws an idea away. The idea of a creative force so keenly tuned into their vision being able to use their every idea to bring that vision to life instantly intrigued me. And today, thinking about the idea of using ideas in such a complete way, I thought of Thomas Walsh, the Dublin songwriter whose ideas and vision fuel the musical engine that is Pugwash the band.

I believe, as the reviewer of The Wall believed about Pink Floyd almost 30 years ago, that Walsh is an artist who never throws an idea away, for he knows a good idea when he hears one. Even more, I believe that Walsh couldn’t throw an idea away if he wanted to, because his ideas are that good. Walsh is a pop pundit who fuels his ideas with his deep-seated love of the pop form, whose admiration of the classic pop sound brought forth by bands like the Move and the Electric Light Orchestra and XTC knows no bounds, who lives and breathes what lies at the heart of great pop music and knows how to mix all of that up and create songs steeped in ideas that sing with melodies and harmony and the odd musical quote, and has the good sense, thank God, to share it all with the world.

This fourth Pugwash album, appearing three years on from the richly-defined Jollity, is a high-water mark in a career defined by such milestones. The title of the album, Eleven Modern Antiquities, is ironic, for how can “modern” creations be antiquities, “relics or monuments… of ancient times,” as the word is defined by Merriam-Webster? Walsh suggests that he is a songwriter writing pop songs today, not as if he were plying his trade in, say, the 1960s or 1970s. His is not a retro art, but a modern art that references and is informed by what has come before–a contemporary art, if you will, that is clearly created in the present. If you get a chill up your spine listening to Walsh’s music–if you’re of a certain age or you’re simply wired to swoon under the spell of a clever chord change, sumptuous melody, or a genuinely inspired lyric–you owe it to yourself to become immersed in this absolutely wonderful music. Top of the pops, in fact.

These eleven modern antiquities are really of a piece, so well do they fit together and alongside each other. The first single, “Take Me Away,” a bright and cheery-sounding, straight-ahead pop song of immense charm, is informed musically by Jason Falkner’s expressive, chunky rhythm and otherwise guitars, and bandmates Keith Farrell and Johnny Boyle’s spot-on musicianship, not to mention Walsh’s beautiful voice, an instrument most certainly to treasure.

Treasure, also, Walsh’s particular, knowing way with a lyric. If the catchy and quite appealing music is the yin of “Take Me Away,” the words are the yang. Walsh sings of a person who doesn’t figure the fairness of those “rich in love” coming in last. It’s “…an answer not to be found,” he sings, leading the person to pray for someone to take him away. To the place where questions have answers? Walsh doesn’t venture a guess, but it’s an important question at the heart of a great song.

Taking stock of one’s own self seems to be a recurring theme in Walsh’s writing. A Psychology Today article titled Love Needs, posted on Yahoo! Health, discusses “…the difference between limerance and love.” “Limerance,” the article states, “is the psychological state of deep infatuation.” But it isn’t love. Is it a component of love, or does love transcend limerance? It’s another question for the ages, deftly handled by Walsh in the song “Limerance,” against a hypnotic, dreamy, piano-infused arrangement.

In the epic closer, “Landsdowne Valley,” Walsh recounts a childhood spent playing, sliding on “snow and ice every winter’s day,” only one of the grand adventures that one can look back on when taking stock of one’s growing up. “I played in Landsdowne Valley every single day,” Walsh sings. “I feel those voices are calling me back.” And then, the turn of phrase that so populates Walsh’s work: “My mind’s achilles heel.” The music is sumptuously realized, mellotrons expressing the depth of memory, until the song implodes on itself and finally collapses under a cacophony of sound, the sound of memories colliding in the haze of remembrance. It’s a remarkable song, and a remarkable achievement.

But all is not implosion on Eleven Modern Antiquities. Two songs, co-written with XTC’s Andy Partridge, stand as two of the highlights of an album steeped in them. The jaunty, wildly imaginative “At the Sea” affectionately recounts the imagination of youth at the seaside, the plans formulated that are rained upon for the purpose of spoiling the fun, at which point kids will be “posing with hankies” on their heads, “sipping our tea at the sea.” The sprightly theatricality of the music, complete with whistles and kazoos and a manic acoustic guitar solo by one Mr. Partridge, bring the song to a plateau that is a joy to behold. It’s the kind of catchy tune that, eyes closed, will transport you happily away.

“My Genius,” another Walsh-Partridge co-write, is one of this album’s most affecting treasures. A nostalgia-tinged, supper club pop song with a sweet melody, about a person whose “genius is out of a bottle,” “My Genius” features pretty background vocals by Walsh and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, who also plays keyboards throughout this album, and neat percussion played by the incomparable Nelson Bragg. Dig the instrumental section, which pairs Hannon’s delicate piano lines with a decidedly-sixties, Beatlesque guitar part.

If there is a centerpiece to this collection of modern antiquities, it is the grand, destined-for-a-Broadway-musical ballad, “Here.” Following on the heels of the gorgeous folk-pop number “Cluster Bomb,” featuring the deftly-performed strings of the Section Quartet, arranged by the invaluable Dave Gregory, late of XTC, “Here” is a simply luminous creation, driven by Hannon’s emotional piano, near to Walsh’s heart of hearts. Here, he wrestles with a question similar to that posed in “Take Me Away”: What do you do when what you long for is just out of reach? To wit, the chorus: “Ever wanted someone but your mind is telling you you’ll fail? Ever needed loving but you come up short again… again… again.”

Special mention must be made of Dave Gregory’s genius that shines like the brightest of lights on “Here.” Gregory’s guitar solo and haunting string arrangement, once again brought to lively life by the Section Quartet, reflect Walsh’s love of all things ELO. This nod to what has come before becomes an integral part of the song’s whole and contributes mightily to what will surely be looked upon by those in the know as a standard for the ages.

That’s what you get with these eleven modern miracles, these eleven modern antiquities that so resonate with the human condition. The whole of this album is a remarkable achievement that will be followed by more remarkable achievements from one of contemporary pop music’s most talented artists. That he speaks to the masses, to the hearts of one and all, is an idea whose time has come. And not a moment too soon.

Alan Haber
March 31, 2008

Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber's Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes
Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes