It’s wrong to ascribe monetary value to a cultural experience. I once went to a Van Morrison concert and paid £75. Nowadays, he charges much more. I quite enjoyed the concert, I’ve seen him more animated but I’ve also seen him more disinterested. It was a 3 Star experience. I wouldn’t have given it 5 Stars if I’d paid £30 or 1 Star if I’d paid £150. I bought the Bob Dylan Bootleg series Volume 13 (“Trouble No More”) a couple of years ago and it cost over £120. The huge cost doesn’t affect my enjoyment of it when I listen to it. The amount of money I spent on buying an album or going to a gig is not correlated to the amount of pleasure I derive from it.
Consider “Blonde On Blonde” by Bob Dylan. It’s a double record and lasts just under 73 minutes. Now consider “Time Out Of Mind” by Bob Dylan which I have as a single CD. It is 7 second shorter than “Blonde On Blonde”. I never considered that this was a double record until I saw it for sale on Amazon. The advent of CDs has changed the way I think about a long album. A double record can become a single CD.
To try and reconcile those two paragraphs, I don’t listen to music and wonder if I’m getting value for money. On the other hand, I am interested in how long an album is. I finally relented and bought “Unravelling” by The Drive By Truckers – it’s 42 minutes long. The first Drive By Truckers CD I bought was “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” and that is 75 minutes long. That’s nearly twice as long. The length of an album can vary enormously. But more isn’t necessarily better. Quality trumps quantity every time. The Beatles first seven UK albums were all between 30 and 35 minutes long.
I always assumed that around 20 minutes per side of a record was optimum. I believe that there’s a technical reason for the time limit of one side of vinyl. Sitting and listening to music for 20 minutes and then getting out of your seat to turn the record over has always seemed like the best way to listen to music. I don’t think I’ve ever sat and listened to a whole album for 75 minutes.
Bon Iver have released 4 records and they are all between 35 and 40 minutes. That’s good. Justin Vernon is the epitome of cool.
Which leads us on to The Beach Boys. When I was 14, I went to see my friend Andrew and we went to the park to play French cricket with his friends. One of his friends turned up late and when he started to play, he threw the tennis ball really hard so that if it hit your legs, it really hurt. This was Alex, my good and dear friend Alex, who I miss very much. I forgave him his enthusiasm and for many years I went to spend Saturday or Sunday afternoons. He played me some fantastic music. The Association, The Mamas And Papas and later Crosby, Stills And Nash. Harmonies were one of the many things Alex loved about music. Some of my best memories of my teenage years: balmy summer days listening to great music in Alex’s bedroom, eating a delicious tea provided by his Mum, playing high ball catch in the fields at the back of his house and then walking down the lane to catch a bus back to Tunbridge Wells.
So it was Alex who played me his Beach Boys albums. I knew all the singles of course but the real discovery for me was those albums from 1966 – 1971: “Pet Sounds”, “Smiley Smile”, “Wild Honey”, “20/20”, “Sunflower”, “Surfs Up” and, especially, “Friends”.
“Friends” is 25 minutes long. Side one has six songs and is just over 11 minutes long. The first nine songs on the record last a total of 17 minutes. “Wild Honey” is even shorter at under 24 minutes. But I’d rather listen to “Friends” twice than “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel” (nearly 52 minutes) by Wilco once. Actually I’d rather listen to “Friends” 1000 times than “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel” once.
The first track on side one is “Meant For You.” It’s very gentle with a piano and vocal. “As I sit and close my eyes/There’s peace in my mind/And I’m hoping that you’ll find it too/And these feelings in my heart/I know are meant for you.” For about 20 years, whenever I made a compilation (“mix”) tape for someone, I would put this song at the start.
The title track follows and it is over two and a half minutes long. Swooping harmonies, soulful vocals, a snatch of electric guitar and saxophone and humorous lyrics. “You told me when my girl was untrue/I loaned you money when the funds weren’t too cool/I talked your folks out of making you cut off your hair.” Sublime.
In 1968 I was in the back of my parents car driving round a country lane near Tunbridge Wells and the radio was on. George Melly was enthusing wildly about the third song on side one: “Wake The World”. A similar slow start to the first track but suddenly it explodes: “Wake the world with a brand new morning/Say hello to another fine morning/Got my face in the running water/Making my life so much brighter”. It just sounds like the sun coming up at the start of a beautiful sunny day. More glorious harmonies, a touch of bassoon, the scape of a bow across a cello and all in 90 seconds. Incredible.
Three more songs on side one, including an instrumental (“Passing By”) to end one of those perfect sides of music that the advent of the CD has made redundant.
There were three brothers in The Beach Boys. The genius (Brian), the quiet one with the amazing voice (Carl) and the wild one, the only surfer, the drummer (Dennis). It was a huge surprise then that Dennis’ first compositions for The Beach Boys should be two such lovely, gentle, compassionate songs as the second and third songs on side two: “Little Bird” and “Be Still”. The former of these, especially is definitely a masterpiece, consisting of several sections that flow together seamlessly with haunting, fragile, soulful vocals from Dennis. More beautiful harmonies all wrapped up in exactly two minutes.
“Busy Doin’ Nothing” is written by Brian Wilson. It’s very odd and is three minutes long. Wikipedia describes it as “a flirtation with bossa nova, one of several autobiographic slice-of-life songs written by Brian during this era, and one of the only tracks on the album where he exclusively used session musicians.” Helpfully, the song describes how to get to Brian’s house: “Drive for a couple miles/You’ll see a sign and turn left/For a couple blocks/Next is mine, you’ll turn left on a little road/It’s a bumpy one/You’ll see a white fence/Move the gate and drive through on the left side/Come right in/And you’ll find me in my house somewhere/Keeping busy while I wait.” Unfortunately, he omits to tell us where to start from.
This is a brilliant record. It’s been described as “sunshine” pop; this seems to me to be a pretty exact description. Value for money means nothing when confronted with such optimism, sunshine and loveliness.