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.
Revised and updated, July 2016.
With great dismay, I learned that at least one critic described In the Court of the Crimson King as “the most influential progressive rock recording in history.”
“Influential” is the ultimate backhanded compliment. It usually means “it’s a shit album but at least one musician worshipped by the music press happened to mention it in a long-forgotten interview.” I have experienced even greater dismay when listening to “influential” albums such as Pet Sounds and Astral Weeks, as both are clearly period pieces that fall into the category of “unlistenable.”
Many influential albums have been labeled as such by the Baby Boomers in control of the music media. Baby Boomers tend to believe that nearly everything they heard post-puberty was the greatest fucking development in human evolution. While I happen to agree that the overall quality of music in the period 1964 to about 1973 was much higher when compared to any other era, The Boomers have applied the “We’re Number One!” ethos far too broadly. We see it in their uncritical depiction of The Beatles, in their elevation of one-hit wonders like Question Mark and the Mysterians to “classic” status and in their over-the-top application of the word “influential.”
For all I know, In the Court of the Crimson King may very well be an influential album, but I think what’s more important is that nearly fifty years after its release, it is a great album with music that sounds as fresh as it must have sounded on first release and with themes that are painfully relevant to a world that seems to be on the verge of chaos. Another feature that distinguishes Crimson King from its progressive progeny is that while it shares the classic progressive tendency towards very long tracks, I don’t hear a single note that is superfluous. The pieces that make up this record are brilliantly designed compositions that keep the listener engaged, attentive and often moved.
Whenever I hear the stunning opener, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” I have to double-check the claim that this record was recorded when they said it was recorded. “Are you sure this was done in nineteen-fucking-sixty-nine?” I ask the empty room, holding onto a tiny bit of skepticism for safety’s sake. I look at the vinyl album cover (a masterpiece in itself) and there it is in print: 19fucking69.
You’ll appreciate that fact even more when you look up the Billboard Top 20 for 1969 and find that the #1 song of the year was “Sugar, Sugar” by a fake band called The Archies who provided the music for a Saturday morning cartoon. I can’t imagine a greater gap between alternate universes than “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Sugar, Sugar.” The one deals with fundamental human alienation and the other is well, “Sugar, Sugar.”
Another aside: I was pissed off when I read that Top 20 list to discover that “I Can’t Get Next to You” by The Temptations was only #7. One of the greatest soul recordings ever made couldn’t outsell “Sugar, Sugar?” No wonder America was falling apart at the time: the Silent Majority consisted of clueless fucking losers.
Where were we? Ah yes, “21st Century Schizoid Man.” What a great song!
Greg Lake kills this vocal, patched voice and all. The words are so prescient, describing 21st Century psychology (if not reality) to a T:
Cat’s foot iron claw
Neurosurgeons scream for more
At paranoia’s poison door.
Twenty first century schizoid man.
Blood rack barbed wire
Politicians’ funeral pyre
Innocents raped with napalm fire
Twenty first century schizoid man.
Death seed, blind man’s greed
Poets starving, children bleed
Nothing he’s got he really needs
Twenty first century schizoid man.
Nearly every word could have been written today: the mass paranoia engulfing the terrorists and terrorized; our narcissistic political leaders leading societies closer and closer to self-destruction; true artists relegated to poverty and anonymity; kids getting shot up in American schools and on the front lines in the Middle East.
But equally impressive is the extended instrumental section, with its shifting electro-mechanical rhythms of precise starts and stops. The chords are not particularly complex, but the collaborative precision is stunning and the painstaking effort that went into it truly breathtaking. Robert Fripp makes quite an entrance as the driving force behind King Crimson: the wail, the bend, the riffs working counter to the scales and back . . . a brilliant piece of musicianship indeed. The rhythm section of Lake and Michael Giles is as tight as possible, creating their own syncopated melodic lines in the context of the neurotic, jumpy rhythms. “21st Century Schizoid Man” is both a brilliant composition and a shining example of full commitment on the part of a marvelous group of musicians.
After the intensity of “Schizoid Man,” the lovely, quiet harmonies and gentle flute of “I Talk to the Wind” is like stepping into a cool shower on a hot day. The lyrical themes of confusion and isolation flow from the themes of “Schizoid Man,” but this is a more personal, existential alienation—the alienation one feels when you realize the separateness that is a severely limiting aspect of the human condition:
I talk to the wind
My words are all carried away
I talk to the wind
The wind does not hear, the wind cannot hear
A dramatic drum roll and cymbal crashes wake us to confront the “Epitaph Including March for No Reason and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” a dramatic suite that continues the theme of alienation with more intensity but even greater doubt. The verses are built on a combination of dichotomies and bleak realizations:
The wall on which the prophets wrote
Is cracking at the seams.
Upon the instruments of death
The sunlight brightly gleams.
When every man is torn apart
With nightmares and with dreams,
Will no one lay the laurel wreath
As silence drowns the screams . . .
The repeated line, “Yes, I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying” may seem bleak, but once you stop trying to avoid reality through whatever your escapist method may be (television, Internet, booze, drugs, video games), you have to accept the face that the human race is in deep shit due to a combination of denial, inhumanity and our willingness to surrender our power to the short-sighted:
Knowledge is a deadly friend
If no one sets the rules.
The fate of all mankind I see
Is in the hands of fools.
Someone simply must create a video with visuals from the Republican presidential debates with audio from “Epitaph Including March for No Reason and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.”
“Moonchild Including The Dream and The Illusion,” with its imagery of “dreaming in the shadows of the willows” features a fascinating musical landscape of random percussive and keyboard sounds with hints of a guitar exploring the possibilities inside and outside the scale; it’s like jazz separated from rhythm . . . more of a musical painting than a musical suite. On the engineering side, the panning separating keyboard and guitar makes for an extraordinarily compelling listening experience. In the Court of the Crimson King is a very well designed record on every level.
The album ends with the title cut, the exquisitely grand “The Court of the Crimson King Including Return of the Fire Witch and Dance of the Puppets.” The weaving together of flute, guitar, crashing drums, mellotron and the powerful chorus of male voices is truly spine tingling. And I am always surprised and delighted when the instrumental segment dissolves into the sound of an organ grinder playing the melodic theme—the stark contrast between grand and human scale is one of the most brilliantly-conceived turns I have ever heard. The song ends with the chorus theme crashing over sounds of “shorting-out” and chimes dissolving as if the music has left this dimension for another. The image-laden lyrics are somewhat opaque, though appropriately so: human beings deliberately design structures where power is wielded to inspire awe and a sense of mystery in the minds and hearts of the insignificant shits who arrive caps-in-hand.
In the Court of the Crimson King was certainly influential in terms of opening the door to what we now label “progressive rock,” but in this case, the original is as good (or better) than anything that followed it. The combination of superb musicianship, exceptional dynamics and memorable motifs lead me to believe that a symphonic version would receive a warm welcome from classical audiences. The musical thought and effort that went into this recording made it not only far, far ahead of its time, but a timeless work of art. Most importantly, its theme of existential alienation transcended the simplistic “love is all and love is everyone” philosophies of the era, forcing the listener to face the endless question, “In a world where one person feels they do not matter, does anyone matter at all?”