‘I’м not easily shocked but the Twist shocked me . . . half Negroid, half Manhattan and, when you see it on its native heath, wholly frightening ... I can’t believe that London will ever go to quite these extremes. . . the essence of the Twist, the curious perverted heart of it, is that you dance it alone.’ Spot the mystery voice? Right first time: Beverley Nichols reporting from New York in January 1962.
It’s strange the way the Twist got so fussed about. Realistically, it was the least sexual dance craze in forty years. With old faithfuls like the jitterbug and the jive, after all, the girls spun like tops and everyone got fast flashes of knicker. With the Twist, you got nothing. Just Chubby Checker telling you to imagine that you’d had a bath and were towelling your back. Approximately as carnal as cornflakes.
Well, pop was now sunk neck-deep in pigshit and it needed something violent, something quick to pull it out again. Never mind if it be real or phoney, straight or hyped, just so long as it could hit. And it happened that there wasn’t anything real available at the time, so hyped it had to be.
And the Twist was lying around. Most often it would have been a scraped grade-C fad, maximum span of six months. Another hula hoop. But 1961 was parched, was really desperate. So first Chubby Checker had a hit record. Second, New York smart society decided that the Twist was cute and started to hang out in the Peppermint Lounge. Third, the gossip columnists jumped aboard. Fourth, the whole industry started hyping. And fifth, madness set in.
At this point, enter something like Beverley Nichols on a white horse and suddenly you get visions of kids copulating on dance floors, mass national debauch and the breakdown of all known moral standards, the collapse of Western civilization. Strong stuff: that’s the way the money grows. So now you finally have a story, a phenomenon. All right, so nobody really gives a damn and nobody ever will. That isn’t quite the point.
The Twist wasn’t even new. Hank Ballard, who had been around on the R&B scene ever since the early fifties, wrote the original song in 1958 and had a specialized hit with it. Dance-craze records have always been a stable part of the Negro market and nobody paid much attention.
Two years on, Chubby Checker re-recorded it and got himself a national breakout. Checker was Ernest Evans from Philadelphia and had been a chicken- plucker. He looked something like a young Fats Domino and he played it up, he even bowdlerized the fat man’s name (Fats Domino = Chubby Checker: do you dig it ?). Truthfully, he wasn’t much talented but he was shrewd, he found himself with a hit on his hands and he hammered it. He twisted like a maniac. Demonstrated it on television, diagrammed it in the papers. Lost thirty-five pounds in a year just pretending to towel his back. So the Twist seemed almost fun and it caught on. Journalists satirized it gently, how ludicrous and freak it was. The Peppermint Lounge, just off Times Square, hired a group called Joey Dee and the Starliters and they played Twist all night every night. Chubby Checker cut Let’s Twist Again. Even Elvis had a twist song, Rock-A-Hula-Baby. This was all getting to mean big business.
Here’s where something odd happened. New York socialites, truly smart people, started to haunt the Peppermint Lounge. Elsa Maxwell and Greta Garbo and Judy Garland, Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams, the Duke of Bedford. Everyone, as they say, who was anyone. All of them twisting like there was no tomorrow and looking very foolish indeed. Inside weeks, you had to spray twenty- dollar bills like confetti even to catch a glimpse of the dance floor.
This was only odd because no jetsetter had ever shown any remote interest in pop before. Not a flicker. In the fifties, it had seemed hip to like the more refined end of modern jazz - Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, even Thelonious Monk. But not rock and roll music. Anything but that. The thing to be was cool and there was nothing cool in pop. Certainly not in fat Negro chicken-pluckers from Philadelphia.
But the sixties were something different and it was suddenly fashionable to be frantic again. It was like the twenties, the Scott Fitzgerald thing, the Charleston, all that dazzle and fevered decadence. So pop was permissible. Amusing. Jackie Kennedy was rumoured to twist. In London, Margot Fonteyn shook it down in public. In Paris, so did Jean Cocteau.
This is where it started, the hysterical adulation of pop singers by the rich and trendy all over the world. It became hip to know Joey Dee, hipper to know Checker. Huge status to be publicly snubbed by Phil Spector. A bit later it was paradise to be entirely ignored by the Beatles. And by 1966, Mick Jagger was the most wanted guest in the world, the final face, the ultimate. For one pout of his red lips, any millionaire hostess would have promised away her life.
Why pop ? Because the yen was all for youth and beauty and, if nothing else, pop was always young, always beautiful. Because pop made its money for itself. Because it spoke so coarse (‘common as dirt, darlings, isn’t he divine ?’). Because it was what’s happening, babydoll. What more reason does anyone need ?
Out of this arose a whole new superclass and how did you qualify? You only had to be a face. And what was a face? Roughly, it was when you walked into any snob restaurant anywhere and everyone sensed you come in behind them and automatically turned round. You were young, flash, international. Vogue said you were Now. Exactly, you were the beautiful people. Names: Terence Stamp and David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton and Terry Donovan, Rudolf Nureyev or Margot Fonteyn, Andy Warhol, Baby Jane Holzer, Justin de Villeneuve, Twiggy.
Not Truman Capote or Norman Mailer or Elsa Maxwell or even Marlon Brando. But definitely not. This was a most exclusive league. Muhammed Ali was its patron saint. Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong- Jones were its recognized monarchs. Most super of all superstars.
Anyhow, once the faces had showed at the Peppermint Lounge, the Twist ballooned almost instantaneously from a fad into an industry. The papers pissed themselves. Big money got invested. Very quickly, there were Chubby Checker T- shirts and jeans and ties. Chubby Checker dolls. Or Twist skirts and Twist raincoats and Twist nighties. Conveyor-belt Twist movies. Ballrooms had their biggest boom in decades. Everyone cleaned up. And the insanity was that, even now, nobody really cared. Try finding one truly hooked twister and you’d have had quite some search. No competition, the Twist was the most total hype ever.
The one thing remotely interesting about it, as Beverley Nichols noted, was that you danced it alone. Suddenly, dancing wasn’t anything to do with romance any more, nothing to do with fun or companionship or any stuff like that. Instead, it became pure exhibitionism, a free platform for sexual display and, down among the teenybops, that passed for kicks.
Certainly, the Twist’s appeal was nothing to do with its music, which was always drab as hell - its cuteness was simply that it allowed kids to do something that would have got their faces slapped for them in any earlier generation, namely to stand up in public and promote their ass. And all right, so it looked foolish, but it felt illicit - that was the full equation.
It didn’t last long. Well, it wasn’t really meant to. In any case, it was replaced by other dances, other campaigns and the same people went on making money. In the absence of any dominant individuals, dance-crazes bossed pop right up until the Beatles broke. There was the Hully Gully, the Madison, the Fly, the Pony, the Popeye, the Mashed Potato, the Dog, the Monkey. A bit later, the Slop and the Waddle and the Frug. The Jerk and the Block. Right on into these last years and the Boogaloo, the Philly Skate, the Sanctification, the Beulah Wig. The inspired Funky Broadway. That’s not all. Endless and interchangeable steps. Go to a club one week, go back the next and everyone is moving differently. There are kids who devote all their lives from sixteen to twenty-one in mastering dances that nobody else is up to yet. It’s a full-time career. More than a career - an art almost. At the least, a vocation.
Dancing was a focus. So was radio. Between them, they made up the hard centre of early sixties American teen romance. They bossed.
Millions of kids up in front of their bedroom mirrors, getting hip to the Pony with the Good Guys on Station WMCA. Or out in the park on the Hully Gully from the All-Americans on WABC. Or sipping coke through Murray the K’s Monkey on 1010 WINS. That’s the way the fantasy went. It was a self-contained cycle, twenty-four hours each day, DJ’s spieling like maniacs all across the nation and music splintering and feet shuffling, butts twitching by the megaton. It didn’t ever have to end, it needed no improving. It was perfection.
Radio was a big surprise comeback. Television had completely taken over in the forties and fifties, but now steam was huge all over again. Not to be listened to, not like before TV, but as an endless burble background for teenage daydream. It was all music, no speech and no interruptions allowed - kids didn’t like talk, they flipped dials fast to another station. So the only way a deejay could survive was to develop a spiel so fast, so smooth that it became music on its own. No message, no sense to impart. It was pure noise: ‘So hit me one time, that’s a groove, that’s nice, baby, ooh mammy-o, lay it down, sock it to me, John, George, Paul and Ringo, Fab Four, babydoll, it’s what’s happening, baby and bam bam bam - ’ starting as a rumble and rising gradually to an unending Hitlerian scream. It was like electricity, it was like glass. It was just there.
Murray the К was king jockey. Of all DJ’s ever made, he spieled hardest, fastest, loudest and longest. Hustled the biggest deals and pulled the biggest strokes. In his hysteria and unflagging speed, he entirely epitomized the phase.
He was an American Jimmy Saville, meaning that he wasn’t hip or heroic in the least but that he won out on brashness alone. He was in his late thirties, a sturdily-built businessman, and he wore Stingy Brim straw hats, tight pants, lurid shirts. He could have been a successful insurance salesman from Ohio going berserk on Hawaiian vacation. But still he talked blind streaks and never ran out of wind.
His catch phrase was ‘It’s what’s happening’, he used it all the time. And he rocked in his seat, he roared and hollered, pounded, went purple in the face, but he never once stumbled in his spiel. Never ever. He was surrounded by tapes: commercials, one-shot interviews, trains, cavalry charges, explosions, weirdbeard laughs, end of the world screams. In between, he even played records. Everything was impetus. Murray the K, wham bam thankyou mam. Interminable shows like rollercoaster rides: he’s what’s happening.
He outstayed all rivals, beat them blind when it came to cunning. In the very early sixties, he was unchallenged top dog and then naturally, because American DJ’s hardly ever last, he began to flag. By early 1964, he was definitely on the slide.
Right then the Beatles flew in for their first American tour. At this moment, they were at their utmost peak, they had the top five records on the American charts and they were the hottest properties ever. And when they touched down at Kennedy Airport, they went straight into press conference, there to be interviewed by the cream of the nation’s journalists. And, strangely, by Murray the K.
It wasn’t ever a fair contest. The journalists huddled together and fired questions. But Murray the К somehow wriggled through their legs and got right to the Beatles’ feet, crouched there and just about crawled up them. Stingy Brim hat, maniac leer and his stick mike pushing upwards, ever upwards. His mouth shooting questions all the time. And he stole it, he broke it up. He turned a formal occasion into farce. So Paul McCartney looked down at him. ‘Murray the K,’ said Paul. ‘Cut out the crap.’
Immortality: the nation’s pressmen got routine, Murray the К got exclusives. ‘Cut out the crap.’ That’s all. Nirvana. Quite possibly, it was the scoop of the century.
From there, he hounded the Beatles like Charlie Chan. He roomed with George Harrison and taped his thoughts just before going to sleep, just after waking. Dubbed himself the Fifth Beatle and got away with it because who could resist such nerve, who could fail to be secretly impressed? So Murray came back to New York with a mountain of exclusive tapes and played them endlessly. Sample:
Murray the K: ‘What’s happening, baby?’
Ringo Starr: ‘You’re what’s happening, baby.’
Murray the K: ‘You’re happening, too, baby.’
Ringo Starr: ‘O.K., we’re both happening, baby.’
By the end of the tour, Murray was right back on top again and stayed that way. He made one hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. Sold Murray the К T-shirts and hosted albums of Murray the K’s Golden Gassers. And his resourcefulness is such that he might never end. He summed it up himself. ‘I’m not riding the Beatles’ coat tails,’ he told Tom Wolfe once. ‘If they go, I’m going to be ready for the next person that comes along.’*
Crude stuff maybe but it was something, at least it was action. It wasn’t i960 and blackness. Everyone was up and running again. We were back to pop.
*Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe (Jonathan Cape, London 1966).
10 Spectorsound (page 93)
So Phil Spector is in some plush nightclub and he’s dancing with his wife and he’s doing no harm to anyone. He’s around twenty-two years old and he is five foot seven, nine stone, and he has long ratty hair hanging all down his shoulders and he has a high-pitched mincing voice and he’s wearing totally outrageous clothes. At this time, in the early sixties, he is a freak. But he has made about twenty straight hit records and earned two million dollars and he’s the hottest thing in the whole of pop. And he dances with his wife and minds his own business.
Suddenly he feels something tugging his hair from behind and he turns round and there is this large man. The man starts calling him filthy names, terrible dirt, right in front of Spector’s wife. The man is an animal and he keeps tugging Spector’s hair. Spector stops him. ‘I’m going to tell you this one time, that’s all,’ says Spector. ‘Don’t ever try that again.’ And he fixes the man with terrible eyes, he burns him, assassinates him with one look.
So what happens? So the man reaches out and knocks Spector halfway across the room.
‘I mean, I’ve studied karate for years,’ said Spector later. ‘I could literally kill a guy like that.’
Spector was born in the Bronx and his father died when he was nine. So his mother took him out west to California, teen paradise, and he grew up small, runtish, with bad hair and unhealthy skin. But he was clever, he was really talented and he had imagination. So when he was about seventeen, he wrote a song called To Know Him Is To Love Him and formed a group called the Teddy Bears and the record sold around two and a half million copies across the world.
The title? Spector remembered it off his father’s tombstone: To Know Him Was To Love Him.’ That was very typical.
This was in 1958 and two years later he was a major producer at Atlantic Records and very soon afterwards he had his own label, Philles Records, and was cutting huge hit records every time he walked into the studio. He’s A Rebel and Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me by the Crystals, Be My Baby and Baby, I Love You by the Ronettes, Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah by Bob B. Soxx and the Bluejeans - every one a beautiful noise and every one a monster smash.
He was a real breakthrough. Before him, it might have been allowed for kids to turn into stars and get their names in the papers but they never managed, produced or hyped, they were never in control. Pop was still overwhelmingly a middle-aged industry. Then Spector came through and knocked all that down.
He was a tycoon: he gave orders, made things happen, was responsible to nobody but himself. What’s more, he was disgustingly successful. On nothing but energy and knowledge of what records were about. At one throw, he destroyed forever the concept that pop took experience, that you had to be a long-time businessman. And he showed up the business as slow and flabby and hopeless, an industrial joke. For this revelation, the middlemen - distributors and pluggers and hypers and publishers - never forgave him.
But he was more important than that. What he really spelled was huge good news for losers. There he was, seventeen years old. He wasn’t tough and butch and boorish, he wasn’t one of the boys. He thought that most Americans were animals and he became agonized at the very first hint that he was being crowded. Simply, he wasn’t equipped.
So he went into pop and became a millionaire. Just like that. From start to finish in five years. Insulated himself against everything that he loathed. Grew his hair long and wore fancy dress and adopted a falsetto. Was outrageous in every way possible. Then not only did he get away with it but he even became famous for it, he was celebrated. So all right, he was talented, very talented indeed. Just the same, he’d done something extraordinary.
Except, of course, that he was dancing in a night-club once and a large man knocked him halfway across the room. It’s not so easy, that’s America. Then he had to hire bodyguards. Even with two million dollars, he still couldn’t get left in peace.
Anyhow, Phil Spector was the first man to see pop as the new natural refuge of the outsider. The place you could make money and cut yourself off from filth and also express whatever you wanted without having to waste half your lifetime looking for breaks. The way he saw things, America was sick and pop was healthy. It was uncharted territory and its potential was endless. It was teenage property. In all these ways, he was an important signpost for the hippies that followed him.
Otherwise, though, he wasn’t so much in any dada-beat-hippie tradition as a pop bowdlerization of Oscar Wilde. Meaning that he was sharp and bitchy, fastidious, vulnerable, and that he was a culture snob, that he had great style and that you always felt he was doomed. He even looked rather like Wilde, he had exactly that kind of ostentation.
His most persistent image of himself was paranoid - creative Phil Spector hemmed in by cigar-chewing fatties, beautiful Phil among the uglies, groovy Phil versus hair-tugging America. His records were his best revenge.
They were dirty great explosions, guerrilla grenades. They were the loudest pop records ever made.
Spector himself was a prodigy, knew more about the actual mechanics of recording than any other producer before or since. Most producers say what they want and their engineers provide it but Spector ran it all, understood every last insignificant dial or switch in his control box and bossed it. So what he did, simply, was to assemble all of the noise in the world and then ride it.
He was demoniac. He’d take one good song and add one good group and then he’d blow it all up sky-high into a huge mock-symphony, bloated and bombasted into Wagnerian proportions. Magnificent, chaotic din: he’d import maybe three pianos, five percussion, entire battalions of strings. Drums and bass underneath like volcanoes exploding. Tambourines by the hundredweight. And he looked down from his box and hurled thunderbolts. Added noise upon noise, explosion on top of explosion. Until it wasn’t the song that counted, the voices, nothing like that but only the sound, Spectorsound, and the impetus. Momentum, lurching and crushing and bursting, and it couldn’t possibly be stopped.
That’s my image of him: he’s up and burning in his box, his long hair wet, his face collapsing and, under him, there’s impossible sound but he drives it, he keeps adding to it and still he can’t ever make it finally loud enough. So when you bought Phil Spector records, you were buying no throwaways but huge frantic outpourings of spite and paranoia, rage and frustration and visioned apocalypse. And if you were teenage, you probably felt exactly the same way and you loved it. That’s how Spector came to make two million clear at the age of twenty-two.
At any rate, everything was good to him for a time but then he wasn’t cut out for serenity, it wasn’t his style and he couldn’t hold. For one, he’d made it, he’d achieved everything possible and what in hell did he do next? For two, the Beades came along, early 1964.
Spector had been number one pop phenomenon in America and now the Beatles replaced him. He wasn’t the youngest, the newest, the wildest any more. He was definitely last year’s model. Life was drooping. Stung, he made his best throw yet, You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling by the Righteous Brothers, and it was also a world monster. It was also endlessly brilliant.
Still, he wasn’t made happier. He was more capricious all the time. He was afraid and had premonitions. (There’s a famous story about how he stopped a plane just before take-off and wouldn’t fly in it because he felt something creepy about it. Something wiggy.) And he always been hooked on image but now he was getting quite obsessive: he plunged his whole office into darkness and, when anyone went to do business with him, all they could see was his shape in the gloom, all they heard was his voice squeaking out of nothing.
Early in 1966, he made his best cut, River Deep - Mountain High by Ike and Tina Turner, and it failed in America. Very possibly, it was the best pop record of all.
It was total brainstorm - Spector was louder, wilder, more murderous than he’d ever been and Tina Turner matched him, big earth woman, one scream of infinite force. At one time, there’s an instrumental chorus and everything thunders, crashes, gets ready for final dissolution. Tina snarls and wails in the background. Then she screams once, short and half-strangled, and everything goes bang. That’s the way the world ends.
In England, it made number two but what’s England ? In America, it bombed, got nowhere. Spector was destroyed. He wrote off American record-buyers as finally moronic and stomped off into the California desert to make art movies. Nothing much came of this. After about a year, rumours came filtering through
that he was about to make a comeback. He made one more record with Ike and Tina, I’ll Never Need More Than This, and it duly bombed. After that, nothing.
What else can he do ? He has made money but he has spent a lot. He hasn’t taken root in movies, right now he’s making records again but he’s been through all that already. Most of all, he’s only approaching his late twenties and he has his life to fill in.
It’s been quite a melancholy little story. Poor little rich boy perhaps but still a sad saga. After all, he has real talent, he is one of those very few who’ve genuinely had what it takes. Spector and Elvis and Charlie Rich. Mick Jagger and Pete Townshend. P. J. Proby. Then who ?
His big stumbling-block has been the problem that every major pop success faces and hardly anyone solves: when you’ve made your million, when you’ve cut your monsters, when your peak has just been passed, what happens next? What about the fifty years before you die ?
Footnote: In 1970, Spector emerged from his retreat. First he made a few tracks with a black Soul group called the Checkmates, more or less in his previous style, loud and exciting without breaking fresh ground; and then he became producer to the Beatles, and to George Harrison and John Lennon in particular. This brought him back into fashion and gave him something to do, some flesh for his ego to feed on. But, essentially, my earlier comments still held true. When you met him, he seemed flat and weary. ‘Have my best days gone?’ he said. Truthfully, I have to answer Yes.’
11 California (page 99)
California is teen heaven. It is the place that pop was created for. Chuck Berry did a song about it called The Promised Land and, like always, he knew what he was talking about.
This California is hugely enlarged reality, verges on complete fantasy. In pop, it is the joob-joob land far beyond the sea, where age is suspended at twenty-five and school is outlawed and coke flows free from public fountains and the perfect cosmic wave unfurls endlessly at Malibu. The home of the lotus eaters. And it has been made like this when kids live in grey cities, tenement blocks and it keeps raining and they know this can’t be right, there must be something better. California is the something better.
No drag lives there but only sun, sun, sun. Surf in the morning, hotrod later and maybe a barbecue at night - isn’t that the way that life should be ? Surf City, two girls for every boy. Drive-ins and Muscle Beach Party. California dreaming: that’s what Chuck Berry meant.
To fit these fantasies, California pop has always been like comic strips, continuing images of sand and sea and sun, everything drawn bright and clean and simple.
It hasn’t ever properly grown out of highschool. As late as the middle sixties, West Coast heroes were still pictured sitting in class all term, passing sly notes to the school iceberg. At night, they went to drive-ins and necked. At weekends, they bombed up and down the coastline in their hotrods. Eddie Cochran would have understood it perfectly. And when summer came and school was out, they went down on the beaches, surfed, barbecued steaks and danced barefoot in the sand. That’s when they also fell in love, happily or unhappily, and they stayed that way till fall. Then they went back to school and started all over again.
It was a tightly limited world, very compact, very secure, and there are people around who see it as a vision of hell but I’m not one of them.
Anyhow, it was a storyline that never seemed to run out of steam and, from 1960 on, which was about the time that California developed a specific pop identity, separate from all other highschool, it was variously used by the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Hondas and the Ripchords and the Riving-tons, Ronnie and the Daytonas, Dick Dale and umpteen others. The market was inexhaustible. All you had to do was throw in the right dream words, wipe-out and woody and custom machine, and you were home. Californians bought you out of patriotism and everyone else bought you for escape. The more golden your visions, the more sun-tanned your sound, the better you sold. It was almost that simple.
Musically, as well as emotionally, it was all up-dated highschool, big bass voice at the bottom and careening falsetto up above. All that was new was the efficiency with which it was done.
Because California pop tended to be competent. Sometimes it even used quite complex arrangements, lines interweaving, voices unexpectedly juxtaposed, even a bit of counterpoint. More, nearly everyone sang in tune. As pop, it was light and flexible and fast. Vastly attractive. And it was perfected by the Beach Boys.
In the first place, the Beach Boys were three brothers, Brian and Dennis and Carl Wilson, and one cousin, Mike Love. Rounded out by a local boy soprano called David Marks. All five of them lived in Hawthorne, California, and went to school and surfed.
This was the beginning of the sixties and surfing was everything, it was the maximum West Coast cult. It had been a major world sea-sport ever since the war, a bottomless box of myths and remembered afternoon heroics, but it had been mostly post-teen, mostly the property of hairy athletes in their mid-twenties. Now, by the early sixties, schoolboys had finally got wise to it and they were altogether hooked.
It was understable hysteria - imagine yourself riding waves, everyone watching you, girls gawking, and you have this one small board under your feet, that’s all, but still you swoop and soar, fly free and nothing can bring you down. You walk the water. And so fast, what speed, what poise, what godlike splendour. No wonder bikinis pop. No wonder your classmates turn their heads away (boy, were their faces ever red ?! ?). And at the end, you tuck your surfboard under your arm like some briefcase and walk up the beach so cool and easy, not looking to left nor right, not even caring. Still the greatest. Then you lay down in the sand and starlets queue to feel your muscles. That’s surf fantasy. No more peacock sport was ever invented.
Anyway, the Wilsons surfed like everyone else and Dennis, who was a light golden colour, who was good-looking and fit and always made out with girls, was very smart at it. But Carl and Brian were overweight and weren’t so hot. Carl was the youngest and even-tempered by nature and he didn’t mind too much. But Brian was the eldest, the most intelligent, the most talented and he didn’t like fatness one bit.
Around 1962, the Wilsons formed themselves into a group - their father was a long-time song-writer and it was almost inevitable that they’d get involved with pop - and Brian, being the cleverest, became their writer. What he wrote about was surf.
Amazingly, this was the first time that any specifically surf music had been written, the first time that California was given its own pop identity. Out of nowhere, though, Wilson wrote songs with titles like Noble Surfer, Surfin’ Safari and The Lonely Sea, and they were wild.
He worked out a loose-limbed group sound and added his own falsetto. Then he stuck in some lazy twang guitar and rounded it all out with jumped-up Four Freshmen harmonies. No sweat, he’d created a bona fide surf music out of nothing. More, he had invented California.
He adapted Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen and called it Surfin’ U.S.A. This was the great surf anthem, the clincher: a hymn of unlimited praise. Next, in 1963, he did Surf City for Jan and Dean and it was a national number one. So surf was suddenly American big business and Brian Wilson ruled it.
It made sense. Maybe he did have flab problems, maybe he wasn’t Mister Surfing Universe but he wrote the songs, did the real work and Dennis just sat at the back playing drums. Other kids surfed better but gremlin Brian Wilson articulated it all, made pop poetry from it, got rich off it. Inside very few years, he could afford to hide his belly inside a Rolls-Royce he’d bought from Brian Epstein.
Very quickly, he expanded from surf to hotrod, the other major West Coast obsession, and then further into generalized pop. He handled things well, kept progressing all the time. By the time that any fad burned out, the Beach Boys were inevitably long long gone.
His car songs were beautiful. Hotrods brought out a huge sentimental streak in him and he wrote real flowerpots. When his cars won, he celebrated them like monster heroes and, when they broke down, he mourned them like dying lovers. His great maudlin’ falsetto quavered and ached, the harmonies behind him went dirge-like.
There was no subject too soap-opera for him to take on. He churned out A Young Man Is Gone, an ode to the departed James Dean, and Spirit of America and Be True To Your School. At the same time, he did some fine rejoicings, full of energy and imagination - Shut Down, 409, Little Deuce Coupe. Fine rock and roll music but brought up to date, kept moving and not to left to atrophy. Best of all was / Get Around.
What Brian Wilson was doing now was making genuine pop art. No camp word-plays on pop but the real thing. He was taking the potential heroics that surrounded him and, not being arty, not being coy in the least, turning them into live music. Simply, he’d taken highschool and raised it to completely new levels, he’d turned it into myth. As far as I’m concerned, this was his best period.
By now, he had established the Beach Boys as the most successful group going and he was tired. He had all the songs to write, all the decisions to make and, at the same time, he was on the road, travelling and losing sleep, huddling in cockroach dressing-rooms. Generally hustling himself half to death. Then, from late 1964, he was under pressure from Beatlemania and the Beach Boys went through a bad patch, their records sold less. So he thought he needed time to reflect, space to stretch in and he decided he’d stop touring, leaving the rest of the group to keep on gigging without him. He’d stay home in California and write masterworks instead.
Since that time, he has been increasingly withdrawn, brooding, hermitic. He has developed strong mystic traits, runs in no gangs. And occasionally, he is to be seen in the back of some limousine, cruising round Hollywood, bleary and unshaven, huddled way tight into himself.
Musically, meanwhile, he has travelled a long way, most of it backwards. As he has become more and more of a recluse, so he has got increasingly hooked on the concept of Wilson as creative artist. No more surfboards and hotrods, no more amateur myth-making. Instead, he has emerged as a full-blown solemn romantic, tinning out successions of near tone-poems, fragile pools of sound, very limpid. Small choirs running through mock-fugues and rambling boy sopranos. Sad songs about loneliness and heartache. Sad songs even about happiness. Sometimes it works and then it’s exquisite - Caroline No, Here Today, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder). More often, it’s just sloppy.
On Heroes and Villains, for instance he worked nine months and came up with a product lasting for a couple of hours or so. The record company took one small snippet from it and released it as a single. Net result: a medium hit, a medium record, not bad by any means, but certainly not in the same class as the stuff he’d once knocked out on a lazy afternoon.
It wasn’t so hard to understand what had gone wrong. When the Beach Boys first started out, pop wasn’t too complicated, it was mostly a knack, a certain game to be mastered. Either you could do the trick or you couldn’t. Brian Wilson could do it perfectly. The way he wrote car songs, so simple and obvious but still so improbable, it was something like the way Muhammed Ali fights, Elvis moves, Brigitte Bardot looks sexy. That’s rating him too high but it isn’t grotesque. By any standards, he had instincts, strange talents and you couldn’t explain them.
Later on though, after he stopped touring, he wasn’t doing tricks any more, he was playing no inspired games. He was being an artist.
This was fine: it was good that he should progress, that he should attempt outside his depth. But he took himself too solemnly, he was mildly megalomaniac about it all. Almost, he was ashamed of pop. He got snob. Running so fast and precious, his hat got away from his head.
(This wasn’t his only problem. His other trouble was that, like all talented and intelligent pop writers, he found himself stuck in an entirely phoney position. Understandably, writers want to grow up and progress. But their crucial audience, the people who finally buy their records, are maybe sixteen years old and by no means hooked on experiment. Pop is always teen music. People in their twenties may be interested, may think it smart to namedrop but, basically, they aren’t consumers. They don’t spend. So you have stalemate: the writers aren’t allowed to go forward, don’t want to stand still, can’t go back. They’re wedged from all sides. Their big failing is only that they’re too intelligent. If they were robots, things would be forever simple.
Given all this, how can pop ever move? How can it be adult and still sell ? How can it make itself understood to teenagers and not be stagnant? Probably, it’s the most urgent dilemma in the industry and I’m not very sure that there’s any real answer).
Brian Wilson is hardly a loser. He still writes big hit records and the Beach Boys still go out for fortunes. But that’s not the whole object: he has real talent going and it isn’t working itself out right. The pace has gone off him and, offhand, I’d lay money that / Get Around will be the best record he’ll ever make. Partly that’s his fault, partly it’s pop’s, partly it’s nobody’s. Whatever, it’s a waste.
Californian pop, in general, happened mostly in Los Angeles and Hollywood (San Francisco, at this time, still thought that pop was maybe vulgar), and a whole new breed of young West Coast hustlers was emerging, managers and artists and producers, and they were sharp, they took California over.
These weren’t the beautiful people. They were hard nuts one and all, and they got very rich very quick. Hardly lovable, but they did understand pop, they made good records and they made things happen. No time wasted, they turned California into the most hip centre in world pop.
Almost invariably, they were obsessed by image. They spent the most part of their lives competing for cool, racking up points in some undefined but desperate struggle for gloss. How did they sit and how did they move and how did they speak ? How did they pull ? Who did they sleep with ? How did they look when Phil Spector walked in ? How was their high? Did they sweat? Was the TV in their car black-and-white or colour? The battlegrounds were endless and the competition deadly. Blow your cool just once and you were gone.
You can’t really play image unless you’re well surrounded at all times, stooged and bodyguarded, set off like some precious stone, things arranged and the people sit and light cigarettes for you. You must do nothing yourself. Just sit there and project. Just ooze out cool. And because of this, the West Coast produced hangers-on even more abject, more agonized than other places. It was the bottom.
Hollywood is always like that. Losers by their thousands: once they’d have been around movies and now they used pop, the true Pat Hobbys of their time. Promotion men, all toupee and seersucker suit. Publicists and pushers and just bodies. The Rolling Stones got them quite right: ‘I’m sitting here thinking just how sharp I am - I'm an under-assistant West Coast promo man. '*
*Words of West Coast Promotion Man by permission of Mirage Music Ltd, London.
Most of these aforesaid hustlers were pretty boring but not Nick Venet. He had managed the Beach Boys once but hadn’t quite kept it, had made definitely erratic progress from there on in. Still, he always kept going. He made some surfing records, did records with Timi Yuro. Produced and directed a documentary on Mississippi peace marches. Really, he was an amazing stayer, the kind of man who’s always around, never beaten.
Dark and florid and flash inside camel-hair coats, he looked the eternal operator, a В-feature heavy, and he talked entirely in declamations, slogans, odd little sayings. I had lunch with him once. ‘I’m known as the Gutsy Greek,’ he told me. ‘I got where I am by hustle, bustle and elbow-grease.’ Everything he said was ornate, an attempted proverb. ‘Even stopped clocks are right two times a day’ or The music is the maestro’ or ‘When the Gutsy Greek strikes, he never miss.’ I was most impressed, liked him enormously. ‘Baby,’ he said. ‘Unto thine own self be true.’ With advice like that, how could I possibly miss ?
The centre of Californian hip was Lou Adler. He managed Johnny Rivers and Jan and Dean (later he also discovered Barry McGuire, P. F. Sloan and the Mamas and the Papas but they belong in another chapter). He owned Dunhill Records, too, the most astronomic of all independent West Coast labels. And he was a millionaire.
Jan and Dean had a streak of surf and hotrod hits, mostly written by Brian Wilson, and acted as something like Adler’s lieutenants, his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They weren’t notably talented but they were pure California, all clean and golden, and they were given hit songs to record.
Johnny Rivers was a small roughneck from Louisiana and he was America’s first major discotheque star. Discos were an early sixties development, an improvement on big impersonal concert halls. The idea was that you had an intimate nightclub atmosphere and played mostly records, with only occasional live acts. First and last, discotheque records had to be dancing records and that’s just what Rivers turned out.
He played Hollywood’s Whisky A Go-Go and laid down a most solid beat, nothing fancy, just four-square all the way. Sang old classic rockers like Chuck Berry’s Maybelline and Willie Dixon’s The Seventh Son. Chalked up hit after hit. Never smiled once.
He epitomized the Hollywood cool. Slouching and shrugging and looking mean, he gave me the toughest interview I ever did in my life. Every question I asked, he answered by grunting. High grunt for Yes, low grunt for No. And all the time I was there, he looked straight past me at Lou Adler and Adler looked back at him, both of them expressionless. This wasn’t being moronic, this was being cool. This was image.
After some time, he left the room and came back with shades on. Nothing changed much, nothing improved. When I left, he did shake hands with me and moved his mouth. Tm Johnny Rivers,’ he said. ‘Who are you ?’
Adler himself was a very successful man and a very tough one. Tough and cool and clever. From the whole Californian image race, he emerged as the runaway winner, a walkover. If you were a would-be face and you got accepted on his team, you were making out fine.
The nucleus of this team was his contracted product - Jan, Dean and Johnny Rivers. Brian Wilson, whenever he came out of hiding, tended to string along. Then a few lesser lights to make up the numbers.
They were perfectionists. They were the most rigid of all possible societies. Every last detail was studied, checked and rechecked. No clumsiness, no fractional uncool allowed. Mistakes simply didn’t happen. No one laughed out loud, no one waved his arms, nobody ever made fools of themselves. Everyone was watchful. The etiquette was crippling.
I have a photograph of the Adler team in London. They have tried to get into a hotel restaurant and have been told that they can’t sit down without ties. So they’re all sitting around a corner table - Adler, Johnny Rivers and assorted flunkies and girls - and the men are wearing T-shirts, flash jackets and so forth but they’re wearing completely incongruous ties, old school models supplied by the restaurant. They look quite ridiculous. But they’re not smiling, they’re deadpan. They see nothing remotely funny. Well, that’s California cool entirely summed up.
Obviously, this was all a long way from the original i960 dream. Wasn’t innocent or highschool whatever. Just the same, California has remained the great pop Utopia: let’s all go to San Francisco.
The semi-illusion still survives that West Coast life is somehow essentially freer than anywhere else. If I ever get there, the dream goes, I’ll live in a penthouse and drive Cadillacs and spend my money without thinking. More, I’ll develop perfect flashing teeth and my body will go a light golden colour. I’ll become oddly fascinating. And I’ll even be able to adopt slouching Brando cool without being ludicrous.
The California promise, then, is that you won’t be a person any more, not just a slow and boring human being like all other humans, but you’ll be somehow magnificent. Overnight, you’ll be transformed into something heroic.