The Infinite Jukebox: The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’

‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ was the opening track on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, an album that, by any objective standards, must be regarded as one of the five most perfect albums ever made. In Britain, it was released as the b-side to ‘God Only Knows’ but in America, where they were stupidly conflicted over the use of the word God in a pop-song title, it was the a-side and it reached no. 8.
I heard of it before I heard it, in a piece about Pet Sounds, that spoke, as anyone who considers the album seriously must do, of its relationship to the closing track, ‘Caroline No’, as the journey from innocence to experience, from the youthful buoyancy of not knowing, to what knowing brings in terms of the end of hope.
And ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ is Innocence personified, from the moment that perfectly poised, perfectly enacted intro bubbles out of the speakers, sounding of summer and sun and sand and sea, like all Beach Boys songs were supposed to do, the California lifestyle at its most free and careless. But this isn’t going to be about surfing, or hot-rodding. This is a whole new level of Innocence. This is going to be about two people, a boy and a girl, who are in love.
What makes that any different from ninety-five percent plus of pop music? How is this naivete to be distinguished from all the other naïve lovers wrapped up in themselves, whose love is a world of its own? Because this pair of young lovers are readying themselves for what is to come, for what they imagine to be the adventure of life together, the joy of finally getting to have sex under the protective shield of marriage, for these are good and dutiful young American boys and girls who know there are boundaries and respect these instinctively.
Wouldn’t it be nice? are the first worlds to come out in Brian Wilson’s high range vocals, but unlike Roger Daltrey, the thing that would be nice is to be older. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, and we wouldn’t have to wait so long? And wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong? Because these are model citizens, you and Is, the suburban youth who joyously await the time when they know it’s going to make it that much better when they can say goodnight and stay together.
If you’ve got this far without being touched by the beauty, the purity of their confidence in themselves, you should register yourself for medical examination. Ok, they’d be eaten alive in 2022, but in 1966 this kind of innocence was both natural and perfect. They are so sure in themselves that everything must be so much better when they don’t have to be apart. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up in the morning when the day is new, and after having spent the day together hold each other close the whole night through? What they have gives them strength in each other and gives them delight, and all they can imagine is that the chance of being together twenty-four hours a day must be even better.
The happy times together we’ve been spending, I wish that every kiss was never-ending. Love and growing up just means more of it, all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice?
And if you’ve got this far without thinking to yourself, sadly, that it isn’t like that, that they are going to have a lot of things to learn when they do grow up, you may be just a fourteen year old boy in mid-Sixties California, But you will still want it to be like this for them for as long as possible, for lessons not to be learned until they absolutely have to be.
There they are, straining against themselves to want it to be so. Maybe if they think and wish and hope and pray, maybe if miracles do happen, it’ll all come true. Grown, adult, independent, free to do everything they could do. They could be married (and the band agree in chorus), and then we’d be happy… And your heart aches for them, thinking that marriage is the answer to all, the all-day, all-night guarantee of happiness, and the passport to that thing they’ve been thinking of but not doing or even speaking about.
And you know what they’re going to find out about marriage.
Still, they remain innocent. It only makes it worse to imagine the time when all their longings can be fulfilled, when the kisses can indeed be never-ending, the thought that makes those longings and urgings so much more present and intense that it hurts. But let’s talk about it is Wilson’s final statement. Let’s play with fire. Oh wouldn’t it be nice?
But for now, good night. Sleep tight baby, and the implication is that in their dreams they will meet when in real life it’s separate beds, separate houses, separate streets. Sleep tight, baby, and dream of when it won’t be like this any more.
The odd thing about this song is that it sprang from somewhat impure motives, being Brian Wilson’s confused attraction to his sister-in-law, his wife’s sister, who had an innocent aura that he wanted to capture in music. The song was one of only two on the album where Wilson completed the music before bringing in Tony Asher to write the lyrics, drawing on this innocence for its theme. Wherever it came from, the music was pure, and joyous, the perfect opening into an album of meditation on what it was like to just be in that world.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Beach Boys’ ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’

Of course I knew about The Beach Boys. Radio 1’s Golden Oldies policy made free with their work so that I had heard practically every hit single they’d had in Britain many times before I took advantage of K-Tel Records – a mail order label who advertised on TV and weren’t available in record shops – to buy their 20 Golden Greats.
And of course I knew about the legendary album, Pet Sounds, if only from Nick Kent’s tremendous three part series on Brian Wilson in the NME in 1975. I just didn’t consider getting hold of it and hearing it for myself.
Not that I was totally unfamiliar with the album. Weren’t ‘Sloop John B.’ and ‘God Only Knows’ big hit singles from it? Not that you would necessarily take the former to be an advertisement for a whole album’s worth of that.
No, for some reason, it just never struck me to listen to Pet Sounds.
Part of that is one of my lifelong failings that I hope I’ve now grown out of, but I didn’t go much for other people’s recommendations. Paradoxically, for someone whose self-confidence was as uncertain as mine, I was possessed of something that was part-stubbornness and part-arrogance. I was the loner, I was the outsider, I was the oddball whose tastes veered away from the conventional to the obscure and the unknown. I was used to finding things by myself and the concomitant of that, which should never have been, was that if I hadn’t found it, it wasn’t worth it. I couldn’t follow other people’s tastes because mine veered so distantly from them.
See what I mean about arrogance? Even the popular bands I was into, I got into them my own way, without any prompting. And so it had to be.
I remember it as being a Sunday afternoon, a request programme, and taping a track, a Beach Boys track that I knew I’d never heard before. If it was a request programme then surely it had to be Annie Nightingale, but the timing was completely out. I’d stopped listening to Radio 1 at all in the mid-Eighties and her Request Show didn’t outlast the Seventies, and besides, once I’d absorbed this previously unheard song, which was nothing like any Beach Boys track I already knew, I sought it out on CD, which means the Nineties…
The album was of course Pet Sounds, and the song was ‘I just wasn’t made for these times’.
It’s the album’s penultimate track, coming just before the aching ‘Caroline, No’, the end of the journey that the album takes from the wide-eyed innocence of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ and the lovers’ imaginings that all that is necessary to be happy is to marry and be together all the time, to the wistful air of disappointment that, on the contrary, lovers and girls change and there is no such thing as emotional perpetuity.
I’d never heard such a Beach Boys track before. There was none of the cheeriness, the sun and surf gaiety, the big choruses with those wonderful harmonies. Instead, the song was slow, its instrumentation a world from the Chuck Berry-influenced rock the Wilson family sprung from. It came from an entirely different level of sophistication that almost negated in one moment everything the band had been for me before now.
For once, I’m not going to say that it was a song that I responded to, although elements of its lyrics were pertinent to me. Most people regard it as the most personal song on Pet Sounds, a recounting of just how isolated and alone Brian Wilson felt, which, given his relationship with his bandmates during the recording of this album, is certainly true. Whether it’s Brian or not, it’s the introspection of someone who, for all his intelligence, can find nothing in life to attach himself to and to bring people along to. Whatever he gets into, he cannot find those to join in with him.
In the end, his conclusion, sadder in its way than even the realisation buried in ‘Caroline No’, is that he is out of step with everyone and everything around him, and damned to be so: I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.
But like I said, it wasn’t the words that spoke to me but the beauty of the music, its layered effect, its difference from not just the ‘California Girls’ and ‘Darlin”s, but from everything else. It was slow, it was strong, it was smooth. Even the vocals were not quite the same, because they were Brian Wilson on his own, aptly, building up harmony after harmony.
And ‘I just wasn’t made for these times’ was the song to make me go out and buy Pet Sounds, at long last. It was my doorway, my route of access, my stepping stone to listen to one of the most perfect albums ever recorded. How stupid I had been to resist other people’s opinions, because, yes mother, it was every bit as good as everyone had always told me it was, and even better than that, and what’s more in all those years that I could have been listening to it, it hadn’t aged a second, it was as bright and fresh and imaginative as it had been on the day it was first released.
And the times that Brian Wilson thought he wasn’t right for turned out to be forever, because even in 2022, this is one of the measures that music will always have to have to stand up to.
And, do you know what? If Mike Love and Co. hadn’t fucked Brian around so much, Smile might just have been even better. But that’s another story, for another day.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls’

In those long ago, sunlit years of my youth, otherwise known as 1977, I was out of work and broke, broker than I have been since.
It was a year in which I only bought four new albums, and that counts the presents I got for birthday and Xmas, which didn’t involve my money.
Into that economic wasteland came the news that The Beach Boys – The Beach Boys! – had signed up to play a concert in Manchester, and not just a concert, an open-air stadium concert, albeit that it was at the Bitters’ old home, Maine Road.
I wanted to go. I wanted to be able to go but it was out of the question. I just couldn’t afford it, whatever the price, it would not be possible on Supplementary Benefit and walking two miles there and two miles back every Monday morning, at Matthews Lane in Levenshulme because that not only saved two busfares but it took up the entire morning so I had that much less of the week to find something to do.
So I didn’t have the cash (it says a lot about my relationship with my mother that I never even thought of asking her to lend me the money), but there was also the complications of getting there, with no direct bus and, much more pertinently, getting back afterwards, in the dark, from Moss Side, which even then had a reputation. It wasn’t on.
But every time I thought about it I had the same thought, almost a vision. The Beach Boys – the real Beach Boys when their voices would have been the voices of all those great Sixties tracks – at the front of the stage as the sun goes down above the stands, the last light beaming into our eyes like Star Trek lasers. And the piano picks out those notes with a bell-like clarity, the horns pick out their notes and then the song jogs into that organ-based rhythm, and they come together in those harmonies and the sound of ‘California Girls’ echoes around the ground. It would be incredible. Imagine, listening to the Beach Boys singing ‘California Girls’ live and for real.
It wasn’t incredible for me that year, nor anyone else because for some reason they had to cancel. And too many of those voices are gone and those that remain aren’t those voices any more, so I’ll never get to hear ‘California Girls’ with the sky draining of light and the voices filling the air.
Funny isn’t it, but with ‘God Only Knows’ coming as near to perfection as music will ever get, and ‘Good Vibrations’ still astonishing in what it does with a song, it’s ‘California Girls’ that comes first to mind when I think of the Beach Boys singing live. It’s simple, unadorned, musically naïve by the standards of what was to follow, and Lord knows you just couldn’t write something that sexist now, with its treatment of women as just faces and bodies, celebrating only those most superficial of characteristics. Even by the standards of Sixties pop, with its near universal negation of the woman’s viewpoint, this is going beyond every Pale there may be.
But they called the Beach Boys the sound of Summer, and this is the archetypal Beach Boys and it’s the sound of Summer, with its uninhibited, joyous and practically naïve celebration of women, or girls. You’ll notice that the singer hasn’t got a bad word to say for any of them. No matter where they’re from, be it a section of the United States or from far beyond its borders, they’re great and the guy loves them all, but the girls from where he comes from, from nearest to his home and his heart, they’re the best, they’re the ones. There’s no girls like them.
And yes, you know that it’s all about sex in the end, that’s all he’s responding to, the prettiest faces, the sexiest bodies, that indefinable sum of everything that makes you look at a woman and go ‘Wow!’ inside, only he’s saying it out loud, and proud, with such naïve enthusiasm that you can let yourself go with it, and obliviate that urge to remove their clothing and get up close and jiggy with it, and just glory in the fact that this world has such wonderful beings in it.
Yes, it’s sung by Mike Love, and yes, he’s a dick and always was and it’s so visible in those old TV clips that survive on YouTube, you wonder why it took so long for everyone to realise it, but in his voice he’s not being a dick, just a guy in awe of the fact that his home state produces the cutest girls in the world. And you too, no matter where you come from, no matter where your heart lies, you wish they could all be California Girls.
And somewhere, in the Infinite Jukebox, the Beach Boys – Brian, Carl, Dennis, Al and Mike – are out on stage as the sun dips towards an Ocean we cannot see and they’re singing ‘California Girls’ and I am lost in the music that reaches into forever.

Imaginary Albums: Lost 70s Volume 3

Lost 70s Volume 3 consisted of 21 tracks. It differs from all the other albums in the series by being deliberately planned chronologically (slips excluded!). It starts in 1970 and works its way through the decade to 1979, though the middle of the decade is hardly represented. There’s one genuine hit on it, and another that just crept into the top 30. The majority of the tracks on Volume 3 were ones I knew quite well, a lot of airplay but nothing in terms of sales.

This is not the original version of the compilation. After getting very sloppy in curation and including a number of tracks several times on different volumes, not to mention including too many tracks by the same artist that would be better grouped, I re-burnt the entire series, filling in spaces with tracks that had not been available when the original compilation was created.

She lets her hair down (Early in the Morning): The Tokens

There was this spell, at the very beginning, the first few months of 1970, before I started to get any kind of musical appreciation in my head. There were a lot of songs played on Radio 1 that weren’t making the charts, and from which I remembered certain lines, certain sounds, but not the artists. The Tokens were from the early part of the Sixties, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight/Wimoweh’ was their biggie, but they were still going by 1970, and this gentle song of unrequited love, with its twin titles, stuck with me. The girl walks past the guy’s house every morning, early on, her long hair let down. He watches her, he loves her, one day he might have the nerve to speak to her, but for now all he can do is look and dream, in super four part harmony. I got to know the feeling very well over the coming decade (except for the harmonies).

Belfast Boy: Don Fardon

I remember hearing this as a news feature, a novelty idea, a song about United’s mercurial star, Georgie Best, rather than as a song that got Radio 1 airplay. I mean, how uncool, a song about a footballer, a sportsman, even such a hip one. It did sell well enough to reach no 40, but Fardon had to wait until the end of 1970 for his commercial breakthrough, with the flat and drab ‘Indian Reservation’. As for ‘Belfast Boy’, it’s actually quite a good pop song, with a springy bass-line and a roaring chorus that could have been adapted effectively on the Stretford End. The words are straightforward: the subject may be a novelty, but the song itself isn’t. Though it has to be said that the line about ‘You won’t have long in the limelight’ missed the point by a mile. No, this deserved better, and if treated as just a song, I’m sure it would have done better, but ironically the very idea doomed it to obscurity. Georgie, Georgie, they call you the Belfast Boy. Some of us still do.

Tears in the Morning:     The Beach Boys

This, on the other hand, was a song and an artist whom I remembered very well, though I recall it being a Radio Luxemburg song, rather than Radio 1. The turn of the Seventies was a time in which a great many pop stalwarts lost momentum and success, in a more collective manner than seemed ever to happen on the change between other decades. Pop bands went heavy in some form or other, went progressive, or just stopped having hits. The Beach Boys had coasted into 1970 with the old folk song, ‘Cottonfields’, but ‘Tears in the Morning’ was a slow ballad, a deep and mournful sound, full of harmonies that had nevertheless lost all their lightness. It was a song of regrets and loss, and the Beach Boys were never associated with that. It didn’t sell, and with the unworthy exception of ‘Lady Linda’ in the Eighties, they never would again in England. I lost track of it for a long time, but I never had to search for who I remembered.

The Singer: Raymond Froggatt

I listen to this song now, having only caught up with it in recent years, over thirty since it came out in the summer of 1971 and I got hooked on it, and it got played only a handful of times. I listen to this now, and I hear nothing but flaws in it. It’s pompous and sententious, it’s slow and sonorous, the words are pretentious. It’s a particularly turgid form of British country rock, complete with women choirs providing back-ups. There’s every reason for me to write this off as the difference between the teenage and the adult me. Yet when I hear it, it still pushes that fifteen year old’s buttons, in the way it did in 1971, straining through the fuzz that was Radio 1 MW reception in the Lakes, to hear every last note. It still trips something that that kid responded to. It reminds me that some things are frozen inside me and some areas of the past are not past, but still alive and occasionally far too close to the surface. I will sing of fools and kings and you will sing along.

This song cannot be heard on YouTube

Here comes that rainy-day feeling again: The Fortunes

I knew of The Fortunes from their two big 1965 hits that got an awful lot of airplay as oldies on Radio 1. There’d been two smaller hits that I didn’t learn about until buying Simon Frith’s Rock Files, the first of the books to compile chart hits. Obviously, they’d continued to release singles, all in the same smooth, orchestra-lit pop harmony vein, without hitting the charts again in the intervening years. Whether they got airplay or not, I don’t know, but this early 1971 single did. It even got the band back on Top of the Pops. It’s a good, strong-melodied, light track, ideal for my slowly-developing tastes. It still got the band nowhere, but it helped create a new buzz that contributed to their scoring a long-awaited top 10 return later in the year with the execrable ‘Freedom Come, Freedom Go’. This was always tons better.

It never rains in Southern California: Albert Hammond

Though I didn’t know it, I’d already heard a lot of Albert Hammond’s music by 1972. He’d been one of the main writers behind Oliver in the Overworld, the musical serial in the ITV kids programme Little Big Time, a Freddie Garrity vehicle (tapes wiped to general regret). He’d have a minor hit in 1973 but this song got a massive amount of summer airplay without going anywhere. It’s got a gorgeous melody, superb production and, in contrast to the light, airy, near-seamless music, a tale of despair to counteract. They guy’s headed out to California, where it never rains, to break into the Business. He’s failed, he’s busted, he’s broke. The endless sun mocks him. That such a light, almost weightless sound, such pure pop could be a vehicle for such pain was a revelation that might have had something to do with the song flopping. It still has the sun in its face now.

Skyline Pigeon: Elton John

This is included here as a bit of an anomaly. I don’t remember hearing this version at the time, but I was familiar with the cover by a semi-progressive band called Deep Feeling, which got a fair amount of airplay without going anywhere, and which will take its palace elsewhere in this series. It was many years later before I even knew this was an Elton John song, the best part of a year before he broke through, in January 1971, with ‘Your Song’. The original doesn’t carry with it the nostalgia effect, and that allows me to look a bit more dispassionately at the words, which are… strange, to say the least. Elton takes on the persona of, well, a pigeon, and a pretty awful life it is, people making you fly all over the place for them and as for this burning metal ring… In the end, it’s the ‘before-he-was-famous’ element that confirms this track’s place, the gulf between this and what time was very shortly going to bring.

Chicago: Graham Nash

Another track that got a lot of airplay in 1971 without selling. I think I remember more vividly the ones that didn’t make it that year than the ones that did! I knew Nash from C,S,N & Y, and ‘Marrakesh Express’, another much-played oldie (when I say that I learned about Sixties music from Radio 1 in the Seventies, I am not joking). This was a bouncy, up-and-down little song summoning the counterculture to Chicago to change the world. It’s sweet and terribly naïve and the relevance of Chicago in 1971 escapes me, fascinated as I am with contemporary American history. 1968 I could understand, vividly. Then again, Nash’s oblivious earnestness wouldn’t rule this song out as being written that year and refused by The Hollies.

I saw the light: Todd Rundgren

Like Red Herring’s ‘I’m a Gambler’, this was a perfect pop single that the record company threatened to keep on re-releasing until it was a hit, and again the Great British Record Buying Public stolidly refused to play ball. Which only goes to show how bloody stupid and bloody-minded they were in the early Seventies. Much was made of Rundgren playing and singing every part on this track, when rather more should have been made of how ebullient, loving and soaringly delightful it was. Rundgren never made it with the Great British Record Buying Public. Just imagine how better the world could have been if we did make songs this great into massive hits?

No Matter What: Badfinger

A rare but palpable (Top 5) hit. Badfinger were just one of many bands hailed as the new Beatles, especially with Paul McCartney’s backing, but everyone remembers their first and last hits and overlooks this one, in the middle. It’s decidedly Beatle-esque in voice and guitar, the latter a welcome change from the piano-led ‘Come and Get It’ (which time would prove to be a carbon copy of McCartney’s one man demo). Times were changing. The charts in the Sixties were littered with one-hit wonders covering the more commercial tracks off each new Beatles’ album. With the Fab Four gone, the copyists had to come up with their own songs. Badfinger were good enough to do so.

Never Met a Dog (that took to me): Vinegar Joe

A bloody brilliant blues song, one that’s in total control from start to finish, ballsy strut-stuffing. It sounded a natural for big things and the band were sure to make it big. You can tell it just by listening to this track. But Vinegar Joe went nowhere. It broke up when their two lead singers decided to quit and pursue solo careers, at which they proved to be very successful, with music that didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to the raw swagger of the band. I speak of course of Elkie (Pearl’s a Singer) Brooks and Robert (Addicted to Love) Palmer. Who’d a thunk it?

Black Water: The Doobie Brothers

It’s 1974 now, and the Doobie Brothers are getting late night airplay on the new commercial station, Piccadilly Radio: ‘Long Train Running’ and ‘Listen to the Music’. They’re not Radio 1 music, which was irredeemably square in the face of the new stations, Johnnie Walker the only exception and he wasn’t going to be around too much longer. It wasn’t exactly my cup of tea either, to be honest. But ‘Black Water’ was different. It wasn’t a single over here, only in America, so it didn’t get that much airplay, but it was a gentler, looser sound, and slower rhythm and I couldn’t get enough of the bit where the band went a cappella. Thirty years later, I could download it and burn it and listen to it properly.

Seagull: Rainbow Cottage

In 1975, Rainbow Cottage, a long-standing, continually gigging band, like many others working their socks off every night, came as close as they would come to ‘stardom’ with this single. As is the case with so many tracks in this series, it got airplay but no sales. A follow-up got a lot less attention, even from me, and it was back to the road. ‘Seagull’, the second song in this compilation to be about a bird, was way out of step for this year, even this decade. It’s light to the point of insubstantiality, the instrumentation is nondescript and covered up by minimal strings. It doesn’t fit. It’s the inverse of those odd Sixties-recorded songs that feature here because they’re indelibly associated with the Seventies. In some ways, liking it  was an early nostalgia for that period when I was trying to decide just what kind of music I liked.

Shoes: Reparata

Most of us only knew Reparata from the old ‘Captain of your Ship’, with her Delrons. ‘Shoes’ was a hit in the making from the off, all over the air, it’s underlying rhythm and little bouzouki bursts making up for its lack of a chorus, its story of a big, glorious wedding, it’s growing tempo and excitement, it had everything. It got into the top 50, reached no 43, stalled and died. I was used to this by now, finding songs that to my ears sounded like guaranteed smashes, but which  the Great British Record Buying Public ignored, but this time round it didn’t seem to be my eccentric taste, everybody loved it. The answer, I found out, decades later, was a complex legal action over the Reparata name. ‘Shoes’ was sung by Mary O’Leary, the original Reparata, but one of her Delrons was now Reparata with the continuing band and sued… The single was pulled from the shops, the Great British Record Buying Public who wanted to buy it couldn’t. There’s a momentum to these things. The time is right and that’s right now and right now it wasn’t there.

When an old Cricketer leaves the crease: Roy Harper

The vast majority of Lost 70s tracks are singles, because the series is made up out of my memories, created in days when music radio was an endless, addictive companion. Eight minute long, slow acoustic numbers, full of cricket positions and metaphors, and underpinned by the not-yet-quite-fashionable ‘authenticity’ of a brass band do not get released as singles. Roy Harper was a serious musician, and this a serious, wistful, elegiac lament for the loss of something never defined, expressed in terms that are superficially fanciful, but ultimately utterly English. A lament for (better) times lost? Why in these years of the most right-wing doctrinaire incompetent Government should that strike any chord with me?

Dancing the Night Away: The Motors

Roy Harper represented the old Seventies, the ‘Sounds of the Seventies’ Seventies, the kind of lost music that inspires this series of CDs. For the rest of this disc, we shift to the new Seventies, the punk(-inspired) era. Music of energy, pace, drive. Like much of the rest of this set, The Motors don’t belong to the main punch of punk, which was too vivid, too stormy and, for me at least, too memorable to warrant inclusion. The band emerges out of the ashes of Ducks Deluxe, one of the mid-Seventies pub rock bands who laid the groundings for punk. It’s closer to straight rock than punk, a bit clunky, a bit unwieldy, but marking a definite change in musical attitude that I was steadily growing to like throughout 1977. Of course, the follow-up, their biggest hit, ‘Airport’, with its clean lines, its underlying synthesizer, was pure pop, with only the energy of punk to differentiate it, and that was that as far as The Motors’ serious reputation was concerned, but this was a building block in changing my musical tastes for the rest of my life.

California Uber Alles: The Dead Kennedys
Holiday in Cambodia: The Dead Kennedys

Let’s take these two tracks together. The Dead Kennedys were a Californian band who got closer to the heart of British punk in that brief time than anyone else that side of the water. In their extravagant front man, Jello Biafra, they had a great singer and a man fueled by the same rage as the No Future kids of England, but whose rage was attached to a great satirical spirit. ‘California uber Alles’ is full of anger at their home State’s coolness, it’s growing reputation for mellow, it’s seemingly spaced out Governor, Jerry Brown. We are the suede denim Secret Police, we have come for your uncool needs. ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ probably needs no explaining. Biafra was called ‘sick’ at the time for the subjects of his songs, but the vitriol that runs through them, the well-directed sneer that is in no way casual make these two of the most powerful singles ever released in succession. If the band could never match the intensity of this quite again, it’s maybe not surprising.

Eine Symphonie des Grauens: The Monochrome Set

The Monochrome Set were new wave rather than punk. There was a strong experimental element to their music that was art schoolish in many respects, and I was not the only one who, when Franz Ferdinand made it big in the 2000s, saw a direct link. ‘Eine Symphonie des Grauens’ was really the only Monochrome Set track I liked, a bizarre compilation of song fragments strung together with seemingly little care for continuity, but centred upon a chorus that, despite the deliberate constriction of its melody, still riveted my attention. An unforeseen gem.

I wanna destroy you: The Soft Boys

I maybe only heard this a couple of times, enough to be captured by the gleeful title line, and its almost shrieking harmonies, and I didn’t get to know it well until download, many years later. The Soft Boys were an early vehicle for the wilfully eccentric Robin Hitchcock, of whom I have a cassette of live songs with his band The Egyptians, recorded by my old mate John M. Hitchcock is very clever, has an absurdist sense of humour and the deadpan seriousness of the true absurdist, yet capable of creating songs of breathtaking simplicity, beauty and joy, such as ‘Arms of Love’, recorded by R.E.M. ‘I wannna destroy you’ is an embryonic example of Hitchcock’s abilities, an inverted love song that doesn’t quite coalesce but is sustained by the sheer poise of its title line.

Summer Fun:     The Barracudas

To end in not quite serious vein. I never heard anything else by The Barracudas than this energetic pop punk outing, which crept into the bottom of the charts in the late summer of 1979, peaking at no. 27. It was described then as surf-punk, and that’s exactly what it is. It’s a Beach Boys summer song with a punk edge, as threatening as the waves on Southport beach, but overflowing with that classy pop energy that we do so well. Even the silly intro, a spoof on American radio commercials with an announcer who can’t pronounce Barracuda, hasn’t outlived its welcome, but  when you get a song with such perfect ‘ba, ba-ba-ba-ba, ba, ba-ba’s as this, it’s so hard to screw up.

The Infinite Jukebox: God Only Knows

The Infinite Jukebox has a lot of Beach Boys songs on it, and a lot of love songs. The two come together in possibly the purest song of all, Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows”.
This is one of those songs where it’s impossible to believe that it was written by two people, that it’s not the creation of a single mind, a single heart and soul, but it’s true. Brian Wilson was no lyricist so, whilst the melody and the arrangements are his, the words, pure and simple yet equally from the heart, come from his frequent collaborator, Tony Asher. They are an integral part of the whole, and Asher deserves the greatest credit possibly for so thoroughly understanding the music as to match its calm, its pure essence, its ethereality with words that waste no language, that cut so truly to the centre of any relationship between two people that’s called by the name of love.
“God Only Knows” was a massive hit here, a number 2 single, the Beach Boys’ biggest success in Britain to date, though immediately overtaken by their next release, “Good Vibrations”. In America, where the religious sensibilities made a song with God in the title – and one that was not about any deity – so much more questionable, it was restricted to the lower half of a double A-side and barely scraped the Top 30.
There are many many instances in the Sixties of American tastes being considerably better than British: this is a welcome opposite.
The song was Carl Wilson’s first lead vocal with the band. Later in his life, he spoke of the greatest honour he had ever received as being when his brother Brian asked him to sing this song. Though the two brothers’ voices were similar, Brian chose Carl to sing “God Only Knows” because of the additional sweetness of his voice. He’s also the only actual Beach Boy to play on this record, the backing track being recorded by the experienced session musicians always called in to do the studio work.
I don’t have the words to describe the music, but from the moment of that introduction, the song exists in a higher atmosphere than we breath on Earth. Musicologists have linked it to the music of the baroque, and of Handel, and there is a choral texture from the outset that suggests harpsichords, though it’s a regulation piano that first emerges from the horns, violas and cellos, laying a suggestion of rhythm for Carl to come in over.
I may not always love you, he sings, a line of ambivalence for which Asher fought Brian’s reluctance. In a song that’s about love, about an overpowering, soul-deep love, it’s a strange way to begin, when every other line in that first verse exists to deny it, but it’s only a lead-in to what the song says, to what love says: God only knows what I’d be without you.
Because, in words that lack decoration, lack equivocation, that are so straightforward as to almost be brutal, which encompass everything in the shortest possible statement but are simply beautiful, Asher’s lyrics and Wilson’s music recognise that love is about transformation, about becoming something which alone you are not and never can be.
And love transcends. Having contemplated but implicitly dismissed the notion that his love might not be eternal, the singer turns to the thought that her love might not be eternal. If you should ever leave me, Carl sings, though life would still go on, believe me (this is not a song to desecrate with the notion of any kind of death), the world could show nothing to me. For what good would living do me?
Instead of answering, when we all know the answer he would give, he repeats: God only knows what I’d be without you. Though by now we understand the import of that line.
So far, that gorgeous intro excepted, the music has been muted, rhythmic, the voice carrying the melody as the piano, a tambourine and the lightest of taps on the rims of the drums provide a propulsion that is joined by an organ playing a series of single notes.
Then the bridge cuts in, with a roll of drums and a hitherto unexpected melody, and for a brief moment voices chant, a Gregorian element, but still only three voices: Carl, Brian and Bruce Johnston, splitting the range into three parts. No Al Jardine, no Mike Love, no Dennis Wilson. Voices chant and cross, in true Beach Boy harmony, but only for a short space of time, until Carl repeats both his central question and that reinforcing verse that stipulates that, contrary to his opening line, this is eternal. This is love or nothing.
For a moment, the music tallies, reduced to Pete Townsend’s one note, pure and easy, and then the voices return, the same three voices, weaving into and out of each other, variations on that theme, all and part of that line, and it could go on forever and none would mind for the music holds and the voices sustain and there is no end to this melody, only a fade-out.
There are many who liken “God Only Knows” to a spiritual or religious experience, who take the love as being that all-consuming, transcendent love for the God-head, for the spirit. And the music and the sound is holy, even to those of us who have no faith, who believe in no god. This is religious music for all that it is a three minute pop song.
But to me, it is and always will be the love song beyond which there are no love songs, that says all that has to be said, that says to her that you have made me whole and complete, that you have given me something beyond description, that can only be felt, absorbed, lived, that together we are what neither of us could be and nothing could be greater than that.
God Only Knows What I’d Be Without You.

God Only Knows why they’ve done it

Seventeen years ago, the BBC – when it was still an organisation worth supporting instead of a cowardly, lying, shill for the most incompetent and doctrinaire Government ever – promoted itself with a Various Superstars video featuring a couple of dozen prominent musical figures each singing a single ine of the late Lou Reed’s song, ‘Perfect Day’ (b-side to his only UK hit single, ‘Walk on the Wild Side’).

It didn’t matter that the song was about spending the day off your head on heroin (and not about spending the day in a park with your girl, as many would rush to have you believe): the ensemble performance was simultaneously overflowing yet faithful in tone to the deliberately fragile, sparsely arranged original. It got such a reaction that it had to be released as a single,which went directly to no 1, and stayed there for three weeks.

Seventeen years on, the BBC have finally decided to follow up their great smash with a sequel. Same notion: a superstar cast each singing a single line (which means that several of them only get three words), with only the song’s composer getting in twice. The video is in aid of BBC Music, in general, as is intended as another self-promoting gesture, this time in the form of a question,that is intended to make us throw up our hands in horror at the very prospect.

Only this time it doesn’t work. Not by a long chalk.

Because the song is ‘God Only Knows’ and the writer is Brian Wilson. And ‘God Only Knows’ is not an obscure song, known only to Lou Reed’s fans but a Pop classic familiar for almost fifty years. It was a British smash hit, reaching number 2 in 1966, it has been played millions of times, it is Known, and it is loved.

And what’s more, in its original form, by the Beach Boys, lead vocals by Carl Wilson (who once stated that one of the greatest honours of his life was that his brother had asked him to sing this song) it is pretty near fucking perfect. In the purity of Carl’s solo voice, in the simplicity of the band’s harmonies that eschew drawing attention to themselves and serve only the beauty of the melody, in the directness of the arrangement. ‘Good Vibrations’ may be the Beach Boys’ official masterpiece, their gift to music, but there’s a very strong argument that in its direct, heartfelt words, ‘God Only Knows’ is the very best thing that they ever did, indeed one of the very best things that anybody ever did.

Which is why this is such a colossal mistake. The one line only rule break the song into fragments when its gift is its totality, the arrangement is by nature fussy instead of natural, virtually none of the singers are fit to pit themselves against the voices of Carl, Brian, Mike, Al and Dennis, and the one who can stand in that company, Stevie Wonder, is by his voice and the soul of his music completely wrong for this song.

Brian Wilson approves of it and appears on it, and if he is ok with it, who am I to object? But I am anyone who sees a thing of transcendent beauty soiled by a total lack of understanding of what makes that beauty live. This is a mistake. Bury it quickly, but decisively. And instead turn your ears to this: