I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was the summer of 1998 and my parents and I were standing in line at Euston Station to buy tickets for the train to Liverpool. My father had promised me a pilgrimage to Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields and The Cavern Club for a straight-A academic performance, and I had achieved that goal by overcoming the astonishing power of a Chemistry textbook to lull me into a sound sleep. We had spent a few days in London seeing other relevant historical sites like Carnaby Street, Abbey Road and Denmark Street, and our next step in the plan was to head north for an excursion that would include Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester (I was still in love with Liam Gallagher at the time).
Anyway, we’d finally made it to the head of the queue when two figures in rumpled suits carrying briefcases in their hands and fags in their mouths approached the line with harried, frantic looks on their faces. They looked towards the end of the queue, which was about ten transactions deep, looked at their watches and expelled a few expletives.
“You seem in a hurry,” I remarked. “Would you like to go ahead of us? We’ve got the time.”
“Oh, thank YOU!” said the taller, good-looking one. As luck would have it, a window became available immediately and the good-looking one rushed towards it, leaving me with his companion, who resembled a red-haired version of Marty Feldman.
“Train leaves in five minutes,” he explained, his eyes rolling every which way.
Our chat was interrupted by a sudden outburst of frustration from his companion. Apparently he’d run into a snag, but he used a phrase I had never heard before, one of such obvious power and expressive impact that it shook me to the core of my soul.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
From that moment forward, I adopted that phrase as my own, saving it only for very special occasions when I needed something to express complete and utter disbelief at the stupidity of the human species.
Fast forward to the end of 1999. Amidst the predictions of Y2K doom and gloom, every media outlet was publishing their “best of the century” lists, covering best books, best movies, best set of tits . . . and of course, best albums. I was in one of the libraries scattered around the Claremont Colleges, finishing research on one of my first college papers (I think it was an analysis of how Byron’s club foot affected the meter of Don Juan). Because the stability of the Internet connection in the dorms was a jump ball proposition at best, I decided to hang around and use a more reliable access point to find out what was going on in the music world. As was my habit at the time, I began with the New Musical Express, or NME. Right there on the front page was the news: NME had named Pet Sounds the best album of the 20th century.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I exclaimed, with great intensity and volume, crashing silence and library taboos as if a two-ton bomb had ripped through the roof. Everyone looked at me in surprise, some glaring, some smiling, but I had given them a moment they would remember all their lives, just as the harried traveler in Euston Station had given me.
There’s no question that Pet Sounds would definitely find a spot on my top albums list—the list of the most overrated albums of all time. The praise and attention that has been heaped on this record has elevated it to near-sacred status, a development I find completely unfathomable. I’ve listened to the album in mono and stereo, I’ve read all the reviews, I’ve read essays justifying its lofty position as the best rock album ever made, I’ve looked at the sheet music . . . and I can only conclude that this is a textbook example of what Hitler called “The Big Lie.” If you tell the masses a lie that is so extravagant that no one could possibly believe that anyone could make it up, they will believe the lie.
Christ, even Brian Wilson said it wasn’t as good as Rubber Soul, and Rubber Soul isn’t even The Beatles’ best. In my opinion, it’s not even The Beach Boys’ best. Pet Sounds was an album that took a few liberties with sound and instrumentation that other musicians claimed influenced their efforts. Influential? Yes, I suppose. Listenable? Barely. Enjoyable? That depends on personal taste, but when my dad and I talked about the inflation of Pet Sounds to iconic status, he made a very interesting comment. “Now that you mention it, I’ve heard a lot of people tell me how great it is and how influential it is, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say they actually liked it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of my friends play it, and I can’t remember the last time I played it.”
If anything, Pet Sounds reveals inherent deficiencies in The Beach Boys that they were never able to overcome. They never had to pay their dues, having lived a comfortable white middle class existence in a typically dysfunctional family in the Southern California Dream World of the 1960’s. Their earliest musical influences were clean white male trios and quartets like The Four Freshmen, and though much is made about how Carl turned Brian on to Johnny Otis’ radio program, The Beach Boys never immersed themselves in the blues, soul or R&B to the extent that The Beatles, Stones and Kinks did. As such, their attempts at finding the groove may have been mathematically correct but lacked feel. Beach Boys songs may make you tap your toes but they were completely devoid of the sexual tension present in truly great rock and roll. They produced clean, white bread rock and roll with emphasis on the harmonies, not the groove.
Another fundamental flaw in the band that comes through loud and clear on Pet Sounds is that they never developed a social consciousness (their later attempts like “Student Demonstration Time,” are simply pathetic). The lyrics on Pet Sounds forever trapped in the amber of Wally and Beaver’s room: songs that nice, clean, white high school kids can play at their weekend swim parties. Eight of the eleven vocal songs on Pet Sounds are adolescent love songs with lyrics dripping with teenage naiveté, traditional middle class values and blatant sexism. They describe a world where girls are things that guys pass around; that the worst thing a girl can do is change and grow; and where young couples never engage in pre-marital sex. The two attempts to deal with personal growth or the meaning of life, “I Know There’s an Answer” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” contain awkwardly expressed, unfinished thoughts that add up to little more than mental stammering. An outsider named Tony Asher may have written most of the lyrics, but Brian Wilson thought they were wonderful and The Beach Boys recorded them. In 1966, Ray Davies did Face to Face, John Lennon wrote “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde and even McCartney got into the act with “Eleanor Rigby.” Ignoring a world where change was exploding all around them, The Beach Boys were still singing lyrics suitable for The Ozzie & Harriet Show.
And because of Pet Sounds, they call Brian Wilson a genius? Before I deal with this topic, let me explain that I don’t think any human being who has ever lived qualifies as a genius: not DaVinci, not Steve Jobs, not Einstein, not Mozart. It’s much more accurate to say that people have moments of genius; no one is a genius 24/7, 365 for an entire life. Every so-called genius has produced mountains of crap, theories that didn’t pan out or ideas that were flat-out bizarre. There have also been millions of genius moments of which we will never be aware, because the person who had the insight didn’t have the combination of connections and luck that could have rescued the genius moment from obscurity. Brian Wilson certainly had genius moments, but your won’t find them on this album—you’ll hear them on “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations.” Some of the songs on Pet Sounds, like “Caroline No” and “God Only Knows” have lovely melodies and fascinating chord patterns, but the lyrics are so childish that the songs cannot possibly qualify as genius moments.
I can understand the influential aspect of Pet Sounds. In addition to the complex chord structures in some of the songs (although the minor sixths and sevenths do begin to get tiresome), the sudden shifts in key and tempo, the out-of-sync drum attacks, the use of alternative instruments and the harmonic complexity point the way to new possibilities. I don’t know if the animal sounds led to the ending of “Good Morning, Good Morning,” but they were another message that boundaries were there for the breaking. But in one sense, Pet Sounds marks a regression rather than a progression, for despite the complexity of the arrangements, Brian Wilson’s production style was still grounded in Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” approach. This is a major flaw in Pet Sounds, for there are many times when the mix fails to adequately distinguish the instruments. In contrast to Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds has an astonishingly small sound field, making many of the arrangements come across as terribly crowded. While part of this may have to do with Brian Wilson’s deafness in one ear that led him to do his final mixes in mono, the end result is less than satisfactory.
I don’t know how an album with a muddled mix and piss-poor lyrics can be called the greatest rock album ever, but then again, what do I know? I have similarly low opinions of other allegedly great albums, from Astral Weeks to Exile on Main Street to Abbey Road. The one thing that I will say in defense of my position is that it is my creation and has not been influenced by music industry propaganda . . . and those guys are better than Goebbels at making people believe in things that have no basis in reality—like the belief that Coldplay or Lana del Rey actually have talent.
Pet Sounds is Phil Spector on acid, nothing more, nothing less.
Elton John spoke at Dusty Springfield’s posthumous induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and said, “”I’m biased but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been.”
What a dick.
I’m not blind to racial differences and the cultural differences that have arisen from them, but really, why does the color of her skin doesn’t fucking matter? There is no question that African-Americans invented jazz and blues music. There is no argument against the notion that white Europeans invented what we call classical music. Neither invention arose from the color of their skin but from cultures influenced by racial segregation. I would never think of calling Miles Davis a black trumpeter any more than I would think of calling Dave Brubeck a white piano player. Having read several Miles Davis bios, I am deeply aware of the pain and anger that burned itself into Miles’ soul that came from being a black man in a racist society; however, when he went to France in 1949, nobody gave a shit what color he was—they just wanted to hear him play. The problem is one of culture, not skin color, and to make it anything else is profoundly disrespectful to the artists and their music.
If I were to refer to Duke Ellington as the greatest black American composer, I would essentially be dissing him by implying, “Well, he was pretty good . . . for a black guy.” So, why dis Dusty because she had the misfortune of having a soulful voice emerge from a white body? I think Elton was trying to pander to African-Americans by implying, “Oh, but of course, she’s no Aretha Frankin or Diana Ross.” I repeat: what a dick. He probably feels loads of guilt for spending his entire life trying to sound like a black guy, but that’s his fucking problem. At least he can afford the therapy.
Look. Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Charlie Musselwhite and others proved conclusively that white guys could do blues. Benny Goodman, Brubeck and Bill Evans proved that white guys could do jazz. Charley Pride proved that black guys could do country, for fuck’s sake. Cultural oppression and racism remain realities today . . . but your race doesn’t determine your musical ability or interests . . . that’s in your spirit, not your skin.
Okay, I’m done. How about a review?
Let me begin by saying I have a great deal of respect and empathy for Dusty Springfield, in part for her musical talents and in part because of our shared bi-sexuality. My read of her history tells me she was more on the lesbian side of the continuum, where I’m more in the middle despite the current absence of a steady penis in my life. I fully understand that it was much harder for her to express or feel comfortable about her attraction to women during her era because homophobia was a sacred and universal cultural norm. You can see the effects in the emotional oscillation found in this snippet from an early 70’s interview in the LA Free Press (Source: Wikipedia):
I mean, people say that I’m gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. I’m not anything. I’m just … People are people . . . I basically want to be straight . . . I go from men to women; I don’t give a shit. The catchphrase is: I can’t love a man. Now, that’s my hang-up. To love, to go to bed, fantastic; but to love a man is my prime ambition . . . They frighten me.
Even with uncertainty raging through her bloodstream, her work brims with sexual desire and the desire for real love. On the leather-and-lace continuum, Dusty is definitely more on the lace side, while I’m very happy on the leather end of the scale (unless it’s August in France). You’re not going to hear the no-bullshit, let’s get down to business approach of a Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde, for Dusty is softer and gentler, more prone to a tongue in your ear than grabbing a fistful of cock or tit, as the case may be.
As much as I admire her, Dusty in Memphis is a problematical album to review. In the first place, the title is somewhat misleading, for a couple of reasons. The liner notes state, in parentheses, “(Dusty Springfield’s final vocals recorded in New York),” not a particularly rousing endorsement of Memphis as the place to go if you want to capture a certain feel in your music. The second disappointment comes from a lack of familiarity with micro-genres. When most people think Memphis, they think of three words: Elvis, blues and rockabilly. Unfortunately, if you’re expecting to hear an album heavily influenced by Dusty’s experiences on Beale Street or something that sounds like it emanated from the Sun Records studio, you will be sorely disappointed. What the producers claim on the cover is that this album is Dusty’s “first recording with the Memphis Sound,” a micro-genre categorizing a slicker, funkier version of soul. You get hints of that in some of the arrangements, but if you’re expecting grooves like you hear in Otis Redding’s or Wilson Pickett’s Stax records, once again you will find yourself pretty much out of luck. This is more late-Stax in the style of Isaac Hayes, but just barely.
One reason you hear relatively little of Memphis in this album is simple: it’s one of the worst produced and engineered records I have ever heard. Dusty’s sensual and expressive vocals are consistently buried under an avalanche of cheesy string arrangements set to maximum volume. The engineers frequently bury the groove as well, so it often sounds like Dusty and the core band are fighting to be heard. The CD reissue does nothing to correct these obvious flaws; if anything, the reissue makes things worse by adding a cold dash of digital sound. What we really need is a Dusty in Memphis: Naked version similar to what the Abbey Road engineers did when they eradicated the cancer of Phil Spector’s production from Let It Be.
The album opens with “Just a Little Lovin’,” a Mann-Weill composition about sex in the morning. I wholeheartedly embrace the message that the world would be a better place if we got a little action before we started the day, as long as both parties first brush their teeth or keep a tin of mints on the nightstand. I used to love waking up next to a guy and finding a ready-made erection all nice and available for me! I’d climb on top before he even knew what hit him and earn a beautiful smile in return. Ignore the ridiculous string arrangement and focus on Dusty’s delivery, alternating between slightly smoky and soaring but always full of soulful passion. Her phrasing is marvelous, emphasizing the right words at the right time through subtle changes in her voicing and pronunciation.
Sticking with established songwriters, Dusty goes with the Brill Building Goffin-King team for “So Much Love.” Sung at the top of her register, you never hear her straining; in fact, she seems to get an energy rush when she goes for the higher notes. Once again overcoming poor taste in musical arrangement and an engineer with an unsteady hand on the gain slider, Dusty gives a knockout performance that thrills me to the core every time I hear it. I’ve rarely heard a singer express the desire for love so completely. This is a very romantic song, suitable for vanilla sex foreplay.
We finally arrive in Memphis for the album’s hit song, “Son of a Preacher Man.” Opening with a soft funk groove, Dusty delivers a remarkably subtle performance in the first two verses as if she’s having a private conversation with a girlfriend about a life-changing spiritual experience. A great fuck will do that to you! Once she gets to the bridge, she becomes a bible-thumping preacher for the new religion of sweet, secretive sex. The arrangement is one of the better efforts on the album, and the The Sweet Inspirations give a first-class performance on the backing vocals. The exposition of religious hypocrisy is an added bonus: the dirty little secret of the South isn’t really that much of a secret, but it’s nice to hear it celebrated instead of buried in hokum.
Randy Newman penned our next song, the slow ballad “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore.” The string arrangement on this song is particularly pompous (with a horrid touch of pizzicato) and buries Dusty alive for most of the track except for a brief stop-time moment at the end. It’s followed by another Goffin-King number, “Don’t Forget About Me.” This is an up-tempo number where the guitarist overdoes the counterpoint a bit and the horns come in a bit too loud, but Dusty comes through with a suitably strong vocal to pull this one out of the fire. You have to forgive the core band here; it’s one of the few times on the album where you actually get a chance to hear them, so their exuberance is understandable.
Dusty just can’t seem to get out of bed on this album, bless her soul. “Breakfast in Bed” is not another sex song, though (bummer!), but a comfort song. The music starts very quietly with a warm-laid back feel before the producers wreck the mood with strings and excessively loud horns. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that is most damaged by the ham-handed engineering team, and it’s very frustrating because in the din you can tell that Dusty found just the right feel for this piece. Damn! It’s followed by another Randy Newman number, “Just One Smile” where Dusty can be heard more clearly, much to the song’s benefit. It’s not a particularly great song, but Dusty sounds so deeply sincere in trying to save a relationship damaged by misunderstanding that it recalls the wisdom, “it’s the singer, not the song.”
There’s nothing she can do to save “The Windmills of Your Mind,” the most over-recorded piece of shit in the history of the human race and no, you don’t have to remind me that the music was composed by a Frenchman. Why this turkey was chosen for a Memphis Sound album is beyond me. It’s followed by the equally horrid and ill-fitting “In the Land of Make Believe,” which tells you how much I think of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. This one opens with a sitar, one of the least Memphis-sounding instruments on the planet. Two very strange detours indeed.
We thankfully get back to something a bit more soulful with “No Easy Way Down.” This is a relatively weak Goffin-King number saved by Dusty’s performance, which is one of the clearest and strongest on the album. What’s amazing about this piece is how her vocal remains strong and in focus even as she alternates between voiced and near-voiceless phrasing, sometimes switching in mid-phrase. Although the subject matter is hardly romantic (the lyrics deal with failure in life and love), this is a great slow dance number. Forget the words and just let Dusty’s voice guide you with your body pressed ever so close to your lover.
Dusty in Memphis ends with yet another Goffin-King song (that makes three), “I Can’t Make It Alone,” where the theme of seeking forgiveness is too reminiscent of the theme of “Just One Smile” to make it stand out. Not having listened to this album for a long time, I was kind of hoping for something more funky and less maudlin to end an album allegedly flavored with the so-called Memphis Sound.
Dusty in Memphis has been consistently overrated by the critics, some of whom were no doubt motivated by a weird desire to find a white female soul singer who could measure up to the great female voices on Motown and Atlantic. Dusty ranks right up there with the best of them, but that doesn’t give the critics permission to ignore the botched recording or the syrupy arrangements that dampen the groove on over half the tracks. It’s frustrating because there was really no excuse or the poor recording: Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, released a year before on the same Atlantic label with the same Jerry Wexler as lead producer, featured some beautiful and complementary string arrangements that did not overwhelm the singer or the band. Give me a stripped-down version where it’s just Dusty, The Sweet Inspirations and the funk combo paired with an engineer without a hearing problem and I would probably rate the album much higher. Dusty Springfield was a great singer and she deserved higher quality support than she received in either Memphis or New York.