The 2nd Dillard & Clark Album

I'm a sucker for that rootsy blend of country, bluegrass, folk and rock that was LA “Country Rock” circa 1968-69… but I've always had a nagging doubt about those early years, and that doubt has grown over time due to throw-away lines in reviews, biographies and documentaries.

The thing is, LA Country Rock (like so much of rock, really) seems to be a boys-only club. More worryingly, some of that attitude seems to have passed down through the ages where it still continues to effect how some albums are appreciated.

Take the 2nd Dillard & Clark Album for example…

dillard-clark-2You may or may not have heard of Dillard & Clark. You may have heard hip references to their genre defining first album “The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark”.

Quite recently Robert Plant & Alison Krauss found critical and commercial success when they covered a couple of Dillard & Clark songs. You may even have read a passing mention about a disappointing second album and the hasty end of the group.

Second Album

“Through the Morning, Through the Night” was that second and last album from the group… I want to take a few minutes to redress the dismissal of that album and perhaps shine a light on what I think could be Country Rocks' larger “boys-club” biographical problem.

Dillard & Clark were the quintessential late 60's pioneering country rock 'n bluegrass group formed by Gene Clark (2 years after leaving The Byrds for first time… a few months after his second 3 week stint!) and Doug Dillard, a crack banjo player from The Dillards. The group initially featured erstwhile future Eagle, Bernie Leadon on guitar along with bass player Dave Jackson and mandolin player Don Beck.

For the second album the band was joined by fiddle player Byron Berline (who had worked with Dillard on a couple “The Dillards” LPs) so the lineup was Gene Clark (vocals/guitar/harmonica), Doug Dillard (banjo/fiddle/guitar/vocals), Donna Washburn (guitar/vocals), Byron Berline (fiddle) David Jackson (bass/piano) and John Corneal (drums).

Better

To me, the second album actually means more to me than the first. After years of listening to both albums (and as I have grown older), my love for the second album has grown too.

Everything still seems authentically “rootsy” but it is also less tragically hip than what went before. It is missing that holistic acoustic vision of the first album but it IS a more human record. It doesn't remain in some 60's fantasy world like that first album.

Crucially, the introduction of Donna Washburn, (a female harmony vocalist and girlfriend of Doug) takes the whole album to a different level. Some of the duets and harmony lines are simply joyous, others are utterly heartbreaking. They still sound fresh and distinctive to these ears because they aren't 100% authentic or “try-hard” (they also pre-empt the Gram Parson and Emmylou Harris harmonies by 2 or so years).

Also… it does have the better songs. These include the stand out original versions of the two Plant & Krauss covers, “Polly” and “Through the morning, through the night”. These beautiful slow country ballads were inexplicably slowed down even more by Plant & Krauss (in that mid 2000's trend for taking a dirge and putting the breaks on). It's safe to say that the originals are best.

This wonderful second album also has what may be my all time favorite cover of a Beatles song, plus a truly wonderful reading of “So Sad” …and I even like the straight-out bluegrass interludes and the Ringo-esque Dillard lead vocal!

So, all-in-all, the second album IS a fractured mess… but this makes it all the more fascinating. It feels more fun, more authentic, more human and yet more contemporary (even today) than that lauded first album or almost everything else that other proto-country rockers were doing at the time.

So yes, I love the second Dillard & Clark album. But (and here is my real point) over the years so many people are happy to quickly pass over it. Why?

Dismissed

At first, I too was a second album denier. “Where is the hip cosmic-bluegrass music from the first album?”, “This sounds all together like straight country music to me.” and “Is that… a GIRL singing?”. But then I listened to the music… grew up… and listened again. And now I love the second Dillard & Clark album to bits.

So why is this 2nd album so quickly dismissed among the country rock Illuminati? Was it purely because it was the last album and didn't live up to the high expectation of the first?

Not exactly! Barely anyone listened to any any of these albums at the time. Recognition only came years later when biographers and students of the genre were looking back for some sort of Country Rock genesis.

Was it because the Gene Clark hated the album and wanted to move on?

Possibly. In late 60's LA groups were splintering and forming every 5 seconds… But the fact that the visionary (and somewhat troubled) leader left the group after an album or two should not detract from what is on record. The fact that some people involved in a project were not entirely happy with the end result should also not cloud our views. Everyone is human. Everyone has some axes! Biographies putting words in Clarks eternal mouth saying he was “not interested” in the new less-rootsy, less-acoustic sound are also not entirely helpful. We all change our minds or spout off from time to time.

Wisdom

Sometimes rock biographies do everyone a disservice. Sometimes you have to follow the music and not the personalities. Is the music actually any good? (Remember that even your heroes can be full of crap! I'm looking at you Arthur Lee with your 70 and 80's Forever Changes bashing! …or you, John Lennon, with some of your 70's outbursts!).

The second Dillard & Clark album highlights a certain kind of male-only group dynamic that overlays so much of rock. Group members and die-hard fans display a hostile suspicion towards the evil distracting influences of a WOMAN in the inner sanctum of this all boys club. These women were all very well if they were cheer-leading girlfriend or groupies… but joining the group? Yuck.

Boys Club

This boys-club attitude seems to be accepted by biographers and fans a-like. In fact the whole Dillard & Clark section from “Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life And Legacy Of The Byrds’ Gene Clark by John Einarson” is worth reading and digesting properly. Far from adding to the evidence that the second album was pants, it shines the light squarely on the boys only music club with no comment or self-awareness from the biographer.

The passage begins…

Douglas had hooked up with Donna Washburn, whose father was a prominent executive with the 7-Up soft drink company, and insisted she now join the group as the third voice, a role previously held by Bernie “She was a lovely person, a very attractive blond young woman” recounts Bernie, “but she wanted to sing, too. She and Douglas were sort of an item. So Donna's there all the time and when we start singing she goes to the third part, which was the part I Sing. So I figured I'm suddenly redundant. It was totally over for me, but it was clear it would never be a working band. So I opted out at that point. Donna had a big personality and was ambitious, but it was like if Yoko Ono showed up and started singing the third part and George Harrison's wondering what's going on. We tried it for one day and I just figured it wasn't working, so I left. There were only three parts in the harmonies'

A “lovely person” BUT.SHE.WANTED.TO.SING. Gasp!

A toy-throwing Bernie Leadon had to get the hell out of the group as quickly as possible. “She's taken my harmony part” he sulked. I mean he gave it a whole day…

It continues with the emotionally scarred bass player (who seems to inhabit the brain of a 9 year old)

“Donna sort of placed herself in that situation and Douglas allowed it; muses David. “Douglas allowed his women, all of whom were strong Women, to be a part of his life in a fashion that he really shouldn't have. That's just his nature, just the way he is. I remember thinking there is no reason for this girl to be here. She's a delightful lady, but why is she ingratiating herself into this music that doesn't need this ingratiation? I guess there were some things that were better, some of the harmonies were interesting, but I personally didn't think that was of any great import to the needs of this music.”

See. Strong women NOT ALLOWED in this boys club.

It get's worse (from the producer of the album)…

“Larry Marks agrees. It was divisive in more ways than one. It didn't really work musically, but it wasn't going to go away. She was Doug's lady at that point. But she clearly wasn't out of the same briar patch as Doug or Gene. She always looked like Daisy Mae from Beverly Hills, dressing up in those kinds of clothes to be in the band. It just never quit worked because it wasn't real. Gene kind of lived with it, he accepted it, and everybody tried to make it work.”

So all these men in LA dressed as faux cowboys are THE REAL DEAL… but those women… they are fake cos-play demons! You can almost picture the band and producer scoffing as these glorious but oh-so threatening male / female harmonies went on tape.

Nobody knows

Gene “went along with it”, according to the producer, but we don't really know. Maybe the answers were prompted by the hapless biographer. Maybe not.

Maybe Gene heard what we hear and didn't just “go along with it”? Maybe he really liked the result… but perhaps a bunch of sniping band mates and a lack of success made it difficult to carry on? Gene himself was a somewhat fragile soul who self-medicated his fears away (and was rarely interviewed).

Interestingly, Doug was almost the opposite… a hedonistic country boy who seemed always to have a smile on his face and a constant desire to indulge without any visible consequences. He even carried on with “The Expedition” a little while longer after Gene left. Donna also left eventually to go on tour with Leonard Cohen (and others) as a backing singer.

I think Gene and Donna were glorious trailblazers in the use and positioning of their harmonic blend. It still sounds great to my ears today and many of these songs continue to be some of my all time favorite Gene Clark moments. Why the Donna Washburn harmonies and contribution are still so easily dismissed remains a sad indictment of country rock's “boys club”.

Boys club gathering

I'll end with this great… but suspiciously male picture of the country rock boys-club circa 1969. (That's Doug, Gene, Gram Parsons, Michael Clarke, Richie Furay (sitting), Jon Corneal, Rusty Young, Chris Hillman, “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, Gene Parsons, Clarence White (Picture from Sid Griffin's Gram Parsons – A Music Biography).

Don't worry boys, soon there will be cocaine… and the Eagles.

There is also some more Donna Washburn info here… 1heckofaguy.com.

 

Curt Boettcher, Gary Usher and Brian Wilson

I’ve long wanted to do a post about Curt Boettcher and the tangled web of productions and songs that weaved their way through late 60’s LA and beyond. But I came across a problem that made me question the Wikipedia age of music history.

The problem is this:

Present TenseIn 1997 I got the reissue of “Present Tense” the 1968 album by Sagittarius. This was a Gary Usher created studio hobby / experiment where Curt provided the production chops and most of the musicians (mainly from his mighty but incredibly expensive and commercially unsuccessful “Begin” album by The Millennium).

As with so many 90’s re-issues, this album had a booklet that contained a certain version of the events surrounding the record. There was a lot of good stuff but one passage stuck out…

Curt Boettcher first entered Usher’s consciousness in the spring of 1966.  Their meeting had such a dramatic impact upon Usher that he still remembered it in detail 22 years later.  “I’m over at Studio Three West with Brian Wilson.  We were with (engineer) Chuck Britz, doing something.  I think it was a movie soundtrack.  The (tape) machine was stopped.  All of a sudden, I heard a sound, and the instant I heard it, I froze just like someone had thrown a bowling ball at me.  My ears just perked right up.  And Brian looked at me, I looked at Brian, and we both said simultaneously, ‘What was that?’

“I walked over to the hallway,” Usher continued.  “We put our ears out the door and listened to what was coming down that way.  We went right down the hallway, around a corner, and when we followed the sound, the louder it got.  We were walking and walking and walking up to the point where we were running into this room.  And here’s this little kid with an earring.  That was the first time I met Curt, and it was while he was producing Lee Mallory’s record ‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be.’

“Brian said, ‘What is that?’  That record stunned Brian.  He’s doing little surfer music, and here comes this kid who is light years ahead of him.  I had never seen Brian turn white.  It stunned him.  All he talked about for a week was that song and that kid.  Brian sensed that was where it was at, that’s where it was going.”

Hmm. What seems to be a fascinating insight into the 1966 LA studio scene suddenly shocks us with blatantly wrong information. 1966? Brian? Little surfer music? Movie Soundtrack?

In spring 1966 Brian was well into finishing Pet Sounds and thinking and tinkering with Good Vibrations… and planning the next epoch defining project. (Little surfer music indeed!)

A time and a place

The original Gary Usher quote seems to date from around 1988. This was just a year after the death of Curt Boettcher, so it may have been an attempt by Usher to make people appreciate the work of Boettcher more. It may even be a hint of continuing bitterness from Usher over the Beach Boys forcing him out of their songwriting picture in 1964, and perhaps some more recent shenanigans when he collaborated with Brian again during the 1986-88 Landy years.

As with any historical digging it is important to put the sources into context. Is this potentially good source giving us a certain degree of misinformation?

Warping history, even slightly, does no one any favors. The death of Gary Usher in 1990 made this the last word on any Boettcher, Wilson studio meeting and these lines are repeated again and again as a lone source of proof about Brian and Curt. The takeaway line for any new essay or blog post is that Brian heard ‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be’ and was heavily influenced by it. The above quote is cited… no questions are asked and no analysis is applied.

What IS going on in that 1966 studio?

Let’s look at the evidence before us and work out what probably happened (which I think is actually more interesting!)

‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be’ is a very fine blast of early sunshine pop (both the song itself and the full Lee Mallory album), but it seems to be a little lightweight to compete against Brian’s pinnacles of pop writing and production. Certainly not worth Brian being “stunned” by it… Like many of those Sunshine Pop records, (and quite a few Curt productions), the sound is fantastic but the songwriting and arranging could, shall we say, do with some more work.

So what’s the deal?

Pet Sounds, for all its magnificence, is very much an album full of beautifully recorded and produced sounds. The effects are more to do with the blending and playing of instruments and if the “studio” is used as an “instrument” it is to get the best from those recorded sounds (not to create and significantly alter the sounds themselves).

From early on, Curt Boettcher used the studio slightly differently.

‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be’ features some very interesting studio effects towards the end of the song. The controlled build up of echo, distortion and feedback and the subtle use of some tape loops is exactly the sort of thing that would pique Brian’s interest. (And thanks for that holding picture, YouTube!)

Listen to Curt’s production of Action Unlimited from later in 1966:

Curt is perfecting the use of this studio effect so it becomes a tidal wave of shimmering echo that carries the track along (and again, the song itself is nowhere near as good as the production!)

A few weeks later, Brian was recording things like the Cantina Mix of Heroes and Villains… and, lo-and-behold, from 1:55 you get 10 seconds of that “Curt Boettcher” echo effect!

To me this builds a more reasonable picture of the mid-1966 cross pollination of ideas. You can imagine Curt playing with these effects in the studio and Brian hearing them and wanting to add some of this wizardry to HIS canon of sounds that he can bring to the party. When Brian did use these “found” effects, they were a brief snippet in the overall production, rather than the reason for the production to exist.

Fascinating.

So Usher is both a little right… and also very wrong! Brian may well have heard something in ‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be’ that spurred him to augment his attitude to the studio but that original quote does little to shine any lights on the fervent creativity in those LA studios in 1966 or to give either of these great producers the credit they deserve. Shame.

With so little publicly available information about the life of Curt Boettcher, this half true snippet is echoed, repeated and amplified (much a like a Curt production!) until it’s worth is massively overstated. The “facts” from this questionable anecdote become the only thing we have. History eh?

 

I always found it interesting that in some Beach Boy sessions for the 1966 recordings, you can hear requests for doors to be shut and sounds to be kept secret. I think Brian was well aware of other producers stalking the halls of LA studios looking for inspiration!

 

 

 

Is big data just a big failure for the end user?

There’s a lot of talk about big data and how it will help bring in a new dawn of technology that learns and recognizes our needs before we know them ourselves. Isn’t this the truest form of empowerment that technology can provide us?

We’ll never have to think again. (Or some such nonsense!)

But big data currently has it all backwards. Big data seems hell bent on badgering your profile in to certain profitable actions (for the data company) rather than informing an empowered internet citizen so they can control their own experience.

The way that Google, the main “big data” company, have set about there mission is clouded and obfuscated by both their need to sell adverts against the end results and their desire to micro-manage this humongous flow of data as it sees fit. Search has become a travesty of false options or, even worse, false assumptions that are compared against your perceived big data profile just so the bid data company can continue to harvest and analyze your actions for a “big data sale” (or to sustain a competitive data hording advantage).

In other words, you exist to serve big data. They don’t serve you.

The Search is Over

Long ago, when you carried out a Google search the results would be reliably similar no matter who was searching or how they were logged in. Results were not dependent on any opaque behavioral analysis of previous Google interactions… but in peerless search algorithms and web spidering. It was quite possibly a golden age of web search.

But today Google search is constantly trying to guess what you might want from all the data it’s picked up along the way, like your location (often given away unknowingly in some deep setting), your entire search history, your email, your photos and your profile information (probably obtained in a YouTube slight-of-hand when they steamrollered everyone to sign up to the miserable pinnacle of faceless big-data that is Google+).

Today’s search results attempt to leverage everything they “know” about “you” to give a weird set of quasi-profiled nonsense (and lashings of ads) that make it appear that search is suddenly more targeted than it once was.

Missing the Target

But is it? Just because I’m searching for a particular thing does not mean I want to buy it, eat at it, visit it… right at that moment. Previous searches had a million reasons why they were completely unrelated to a current search… Why does a simple Google search now try to guess the un-guessable and link the un-linkable? To prove a big data point? To impress advertisers? Or simply because they can… so they think they have to?

And why does Google think it needs to remove “search” from the equation? It will eventually just “know” what you want now. There is no need to search.

Sometimes (and I would say MOST of the time) an internet search involves simply wanting to look something up. No strings attached (with no desire to be second guessed or co-opted in to another activity).

The once simple act of “Googling” the web now has so many layers of abstracted monetization that it seems like an out of body experience. The results depend on a haze of perceived big data certainties and profile mining (most of which are quite probably misplaced, or out and out horse-shit).

And to think, we thought spammy SEO was as bad as things could get!

It appears that big data is currently deployed by companies that are not interested in fighting for the end user. They just want to tag and store them for later, when they figure out what they want to do. It could be worse, I suppose.

But it does get worse!

Just the other day, Google announced “Nearby” a straight out attempt to constantly listen, track, record and store your every movement using your phone, microphone, search and location histories. The problem seems to be that Google’s big data store is STILL not providing any useful competitive advantage. So now they are about leverage a billion smartphones to track everyone even more closely… THEN they can finally help all these lost souls that are crying out for big data to tell them exactly where to go and what to do.

Deeply cynical, and deeply creepy. (Which may as well be the strap line for the post Android Google.)

History Repeating

The subjugation of the user experience to the greater commercial good has all happened before. It happened with 90’s Microsoft and the PC. We watched as their main customers (IT and enterprise) saddled products with terrible general user experiences because the end user wasn’t even considered. It was all feature creep and compatibility. A generation of end users were terrified by the thought of using a computer that required training courses and evening classes just to write letters.

Now Google wields the near-monopoly power for it’s own interests (and those of its best customers, the advertisers). Google has far too much invested in collecting lashings of data and promising future attention-candy to their dependents. They simply can’t be trusted to drive and improve the general web experience (let alone to give simple, impartial results!).

It also interests me that Google, just like 90’s Microsoft, has a bunch or pie-in-the-sky future conceptual rubbish that is poorly thought through, impractical and solves the wrong problems… (but makes a good distracting media story from the main moribund monopoly market). Where the 90’s desktop PC Windows experience went before, Google’s desktop web follows now.

I would even say that the reason mobile apps remain so popular stems from a widespread desire for a more satisfying web user experience. App popularity is  not a short term fad destined to pass when the web gets “good-enough” on mobile. It’s people waking up to the twin horrors of Windows PCs and Google’s web… and finding alternatives. Apps are not a stop-gap solution, they are a reaction to the failure of the big data web experience and it’s binary minded, de-humanising master.

Force Feedback

The other problem is this: Big data provides an option. The option is used. The servers are fed a “resounding success” flag and offer up more of the same. At what point does big data stop gathering new information and start an in-glorious feedback loop of options based on nothing more than its previous suggestions? The user becomes a dumb terminal that stopped programming the big data machine months ago and is now simply responding to a smug, self-congratulating  algorithm basking in its previous big data successes.

And god forbid you ever change your mind. What does machine learning make of that?

Unbundling Google

unbundling-googleI used to quite like Google. I used a lot of their services. But not any more.

I spent a large amount of time using all the good googly stuff. Search (obviously), Chrome, Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Drive, Reader (RIP), Picasa, Maps, Earth, YouTube… They all seemed like excellent tools and services that you could use on your own terms with no repercussions. The addition and extension of ads to all the services seemed like a small price to pay.

And they kept saying they would not do anything “evil”. That means something, doesn’t it? It was just lovely free stuff all round. What could possibly go wrong?

But then “Plus” happened.

This hideous faux social network is quite possibly the most ridiculously creepy and “evil” thing that any monopolist has done in their controlling field. I hate it.

Far from being a Facebook knock off without the user numbers or engagement, Google Plus is something different. Something all together more worrying.

Google Plus is comparable to when Microsoft got into so much hot water by making Internet Explorer the default web browser in Windows. Remember all the anti-trust complaints? The outrage? The settlements?

Imagine if Microsoft not just bundled a browser with their OS, but had also demanded a real identity that was used across all the services on the PC… and then imagine if they added countless cross-linking and tracking services that spied on ALL the movements of this real identity and sent the data back to Microsoft. Imagine if Microsoft then sold ads against this information as you used IE (or used “Clippy” to tell you where to eat, what to buy and who to meet). That would be something to complain about!

But that’s the modern Google. It is the 90’s Internet Explorer on Windows… times 1000.

Google is leveraging their massive controlling influence in desktop search to force you to log in to one Google account that rules them all. This tracks your every web search, every location search, every video watched and all your calendar and email entries. And then it collates all that information for it’s own use. At the moment it mainly sells ads against this information (as it’s one means of real income), but in the future, who knows?

See no evil

The problem with saying you are not going to do “evil” and that you are “open”… is that it’s completely dependent on who is defining these terms. Google may be a big ol’ publicly traded company but, by-and-large, it is controlled by just 2 people. Everyone just gets to sit back and enjoy Sergey and Larry’s “ride”.

That’s just two people with half the world’s data at their fingertips, making far-reaching decisions based on their whims and privilege. Are they benign tyrants leading us to the sunlit uplands of tech? Or are they just another pair of pampered egos that have the power to massively mess up the world?

It also seems that currently, no one has a higher opinion of Google than Google itself. Employees are eager to “correct” any misnomer that may challenge the myth that Google is anything but humanities only hope for the future of data and technology.

Google failure leads to danger

Even with all their big data, Google has arrived late to a number of recent popular trends (possibly due to it’s near-group-thinking, self congratulatory Silicon Valley cocoon). This can lead to bigger, badder decisions… particularly where the Google hierarchy are keen to “think bigger” about every idea that comes their way. “Scan some books? Why not scan ALL books… Damn the consequences”.

So, somehow, Google missed the start of social and then mobile as mass market platforms. Unfortunately, this oversight seemingly caused them to panic, and pivot almost all their services. They decided to effectively unify their already popular and generally well-regarded products in a battle against Facebook. They then carpet-bombed the world with “open” and “free” to get their software on the majority of smartphones (in a frenzied mobile catch up battle with Apple and their paranoid desire to stop Microsoft).

Google Plus and its needy personal assistant, Google Now, are the supercharged, think big results of their initial failure in social and mobile. They leveraged all their popular tools and services to get back in the game (or start a completely new game that plays in to their big grabby data hands).

To many onlookers, Google may seem benign compared to “proper” corporations, but when they are out-maneuvered they are willing to throw billions of dollars and use all their existing products (and, by proxy, the end users) to fight their war. The truth is, if you look past their constant disarming “doodles” and oh-so-jolly robots, Google are now as laser focused, competitive, business minded, and yes, as evil as any other global mega-corporation.

Present day Google seem determined to avoid missing any new technological advancements EVER again. They are flailing around buying anything from military robots and home sensor companies to experts in Artificial Intelligence. This would be fun in the days of the cuddly, experimental chocolate factory Google. But today, with the super-scaling-data-whore Google, should we be worried? Very worried?

Google’s long term whimsical goal may be one great big friendly machine learning project to help all humanity… but at what cost to humanity to get there? And what would such a machine actually do?

Trust Us

We have never stared into the jaws of such a frightening technological dystopia with less concern.  The NSA (and all the other secret services) snoop for nation states and political paranoia (like they have always done)… but Google is something new. Google thinks it is leading us to higher state of technological living. Google has turned into a Tomorrows World cult that simply sits and imagines stuff – and then tries to will it into reality without any real understanding of the consequences. And then it sells ads against this technology because it has not worked out any other business model that can feed its insatiable desire to gather, tag and link all of this data.

Log Off

This is why I am “unbundling” Google from my online life. I’m un-linking the services they have forced me to link. I use different accounts for YouTube and search and whatever. I don’t use Gmail or calendar and I have stopped using their browser and phone software. There are alternatives.

I will use Google when I want to use them. I will not be used as a data gathering node to further their future projects – whatever they may be.

Qualified?

qualifiedThe most annoying thing about the iOS design discussion has been the willingness of intelligent, insightful commentators to say that they are “not designers”. They think their opinion on a design can’t be as valid as actual fancy-pants designers in the “design community”.

Unfortunately, some designers revel in this attention and will gladly comment on things, as if they are the grand arbiters of taste and only THEY know why this or that is “wrong”. Only they can put it right…

Bullshit!

It kills me to hear designers who are so full of themselves. So sure of their own opinions and taste that they can deride designs and call them “wrong” (just because they don’t agree with a style or colour choice).

As a designer, I know that designers should be CONSTANTLY questioning their own opinions, choices and world view.

We should NEVER be confident in the work or choices we have made just because WE like it. We are designing for other people, not ourselves (or our community of like minded hipsters) and we should never forget that.

Designers who are not involved in a particular project should, at the very least, be able to appreciate many different scenarios for that project’s design. We, more than anyone, should be able to understand that something may not be perfect for our pet scenario, but it may work in a whole bunch of other ways we haven’t considered.

If a design seems superficially “wrong” to us BUT there are a multitude of reasons why it is like it is, (AND people can use and enjoy it) is the designer right to still cry out that it’s “wrong” or “so, so bad” because they don’t like it? Just because THEY are a designer too and have a more valid opinion, don’t you know?

And then there are our own designs. Which we like to show off to other people in “the design community”.

Showing off is the stink surrounding modern graphic design. We have so many relatively easy-to-use programs readily available to us, and this makes some designers feel they need to push their skills TO THE MAX, making something with ALL the bells and whistles.

Why? To make sure they are still heralded as PROPER designers?

It’s got to stop.

Simplicity and the unexpected are not things to fear. Us designers just need to THINK more and simplify rather than adding complexity to justify our skill set. Think about the actual job a design is doing. Think about the user. Think about the usage scenarios. Don’t just impress your community of design friends with your taste and Illustrator skills.

So if you are an intelligent, thoughtful human being, YOU are just as qualified (if not more so) to examine and criticise and understand a design as we designers are!

 

Iconic

ios7The more I look at those new iOS7 icons, the better they become.

They may look “odd” to some (and downright confusing or juvenile to a few of the more superficial commentators), but they are extremely clever and do a number of design “jobs-to-be-done” very well.

Firstly, they have a playful colour palette that makes them leap from the screen. It’s a modern, fresh and vibrant set of colours that sets iOS7 apart from the overtly “skinned” techno-isms of Android and the “flattened consistency… above all else” of Windows 8. iOS7 has colours bursting from the screen… and is all the better for it!

Secondly, the icons are all deliberately “different”. They refuse to conform to what is expected from icon sets in this day and age. Commentators have seen this as hasty incompetence and a failure to use the right “unifying theme”… but I see it differently. The varying shapes and lines of the iOS7 icons are an effort to re-balance and roll-back the touch device icon towards fulfilling the actual job it needs to do.

Jobs to be done

What is an icon supposed to do? At the very simplest level, it needs to instantly stand out and identify the app to the user. 

I believe that the new spacing and updated shapes of the iOS7 icons are a clever exercise by Apple in forcing the brain to do a double take when scanning the icons. To me, these new icons add deliberate visual “snags” or imperfections within the designs that catch the eye as you pass over them.

To this end, I think each of this beta set of icons is very good at standing out against each other (with a few little exceptions). They use the colours and shapes in jarring (but carefully designed) ways to make individual icon recognition quicker and easier. They are perhaps closer to becoming the true digital road signs for the 21st century… crisp; approachable; informative; designed to stand out to a fast moving user… but not with a primary goal of being attractive.

I think Apple has been very brave in trying an approach that deliberately creates seemingly “ugly” icons that jar and clash with our expectations in order to further the ultimate purpose of the icon – to stand out quickly and get pressed!

There is also an “Icon-is-as-app-does” feel to the designs. The settings icon is intricate because settings is a complex beast; Game centre SCREAMS juicy casual gaming fun; Stocks is a bit… dull; Photos is vibrant and full of movement; The camera is simply a camera. Instantly recognisable (unlike the fancy lens rendering of iOS6).

It’s a lesson in design semantics… Just because an icon is designed to within an inch of its life (or is part of a perfectly unified and consistent theme) doesn’t mean it’s a good icon. Leave the showing off, the monolithic themes and the forced consistency to cydia theme packs (and Winamp in 1998). THESE icons have a job to do.

Old and New

ios-icons

Look at the old icons on the right. See how each old icon shouts “look at how intricate I am, and how much work went into making me”. The old icons are anchored down with textures and excessive details that clock up those fancy design man-hours… but actually they confuse a glancing user.

For the purpose of quickly identifying an App, the old icons are not so great (and they clash with both the background and each other). This old intricate glossy icon style led to countless copycat app icons that pushed the boundaries of “prog-design” to new extremes (meaning you basically had to read the text under the prog-icon to know what it was. Fail!)

Now look at the new icons. They do their job and they do it well. The jarring simplicity of design makes them instantly recognisable – for better or for worse.

These new icons also work far better AS ICONS in the very situations that are likely to occur with a mobile device. Just see how much easier they are to identify quickly on the move (and, crucially, in bright sunlight). The old icons are TERRIBLE in these situations. They all seemed to have gradually moved towards a strange design language that was more about showing-off (rather than the primary purpose of identifying the app). There may be branding or other reasons and arguments for this, but it doesn’t make it right!

The Bad and the Ugly

Let’s compare with the much hailed competition. Look at Windows 8 from the perspective of quickly identifying an an app. Ugh. The designers have allowed the goals of themed consistency and user customisation to create a bit of a mess. It’s a design theme demonstaration that ran out of ideas (and purpose) once it was applied to the real world.

windows-8

And Android is just terrible…

android-jelly

An unlovable, po-faced mess of kidnapped desktop icons with no purpose or goal.

Thank goodness for iOS7! I’m really glad there is someone left in design willing to sacrifice superficial forms and legacy constraints for a fun but functional relevance.

There will be plenty of design tweaks and changes as the final release nears (you KNOW some of these icons are still placeholders!). No doubt there will also be innumerable complaints from commentators before and after the release (the technology community seems to love their rigid design rules and safe paradigms), but what a refreshing change the new iOS design is.

Fun, different, challenging, un-afraid… iOS7 is going to be great!

 

An Apple TV Cabinet

Following on from the thought of an Apple TV App (instead of a piece of hardware), I thought I would mock-up a very quick idea of how a news-stand type TV app grouping could work.

The whole concept of an “Apple TV app” is that Apple does not care about trying to unify the on-screen TV controls and experience (that is left to the providers). Apple wants to do all the selection and control from the “second screen” device. TV is for watching, the iPad does the selection.

We start with a icon that launches the Apple TV “cabinet” (in the familiar iOS adapted folder style). 

apple tv app

This would be a collection of TV apps that, just like News-stand apps, have special powers!

You would have an “instant remote” control (in the folder itself) for quick access to changing channels. The icons could have a system of “one-tap” to bring up remote, “two-taps” to watch the channel (by controlling the wifi box and TV). The channel being watched has a red ring.

You could imagine individual channels having apps that you can add for a fuller experience of “The Discovery Channel” or “Disney” etc. Each app would be intelligently mapped to control a TV and set-top box to switch the channel (perhaps a box appears to ask which box or TV you want, depending on the app?)

Note the search box (with added Siri). This is the route to the magic back-end “Apple TV app”, a unified search and control system that “just works” for all your media. The “Apple TV app” itself would be a very clever mix of genius channels, iTunes streaming and integration with certain cable and satellite services… but that’s for another day!

Next we have more fully featured App like Sky+

apple tv app2

You get the “instant remote” for favourites and your recordings, but you can also click the icon in the remote to launch the main app. Remember, we’re looking at a long and messy transition in TV watching, not an instant fix – this app will play nicely with what we are doing now.

When you launch a supported TV app it all looks basically the same

apple tv app3

TV providers are free to control their own apps (as they do now) , but I could also see the addition of an Audiobus style background services system for television and media.

apple tv app4

Click on the Apple TV icon and you get your main TV services so you switch channels and launch Apps etc. (Apple would be more likely to put this in the double-click multitasking tray, but I like the Audiobus system so much that I had to include it!)

This all has a tremendous amount of rough edges, but I hope you get the idea of where I THINK Apple could go with an App based ecosystem for television.

TV and Apple: The case for un-disruption

So, Apple and TV. Let’s see what everyone seems to think will happen…

  • A physical television set
  • A fancy and unknown new control mechanism (mysterious)
  • Apps on AppleTV
  • Apple delivering TV content

If Apple manufactured a television set, they would be competing directly with TV manufacturers. If Apple bought TV content to deliver to viewers, they would compete directly with tv distributors – cable companies, broadcasters, etc.

TV sets are a low margin business, and Apple hardware has high margins. Would Apple choose to compete in this market? If they did, they would have to (somehow) completely disrupt the market like they did with the iPhone and iPad.

What is actually being delivered in the space at the moment?

  • Lots and lots of boxes with HDMI
  • … each of these boxes has its own remote, so lots and lots of remotes
  • Universal infrared remotes or infrared blaster solutions. (note – an infrared blaster is a device that emulates a remote control handset – used to allow one device to control another, or to extend the range of an infrared remote)
  • lots of streaming video services
  • lots and lots of separate tablet and phone apps to control all those boxes and TVs
  • Airplay for some iOS apps
  • Boxes with video passthrough, overlay, IR blaster and kitchen sink (Hello Xbox One!)
  • TV with 3D glasses
  • TV with voice, hand, body controls
  • TV with face recognition
  • 4K resolution TV in the near future

So… there’s no sign of a simple, unified TV system (beyond geeky rig-ups and feature stuffed demos)

What the consumer very likely wants…

The user wants to easily control, find, watch and record their TV content (and all their media) in one place. The picture quality has to be great, which means HD. 3D doesn’t matter as much as TV firms would like to think, and I’d say 4K isn’t necessary (or a disruptive force), at least not right now.

The user wants to deal with only one remote at most. Regular folk complain about the number of remotes they accrue just from owning a TV, a cable or satellite box and a DVD player. Regular folk complain about having to switch the TV from the Sky box channel to the DVD box channel to the TV’s built-in digital tuner channels. “How do I change channel on this thing?”

The user doesn’t really want social media on the main TV screen.  TV manufacturers offer this kind of thing in their top of the range products, but it just feels gimmicky and misguided. People watch the TV, often in family groups, and do their social media on handheld devices. Nobody wants to sit on the sofa and watch someone else faffing about on Facebook.

Some other rumours for good measure

  • Recording TV and video in the cloud rather than locally
  • An Apple internet radio service which we’re calling iRadio for now, expected to be unveiled next week at WWDC 2013.

Apple are going to do SOMETHING with TV, of that we can be sure

Steve Jobs, in an interview with his biographer  Walter Isaacson said, re TV “I finally cracked it” and “it will have the simplest user interface you could imagine”.

Tim Cook said in a December 2012 interview with NBC with that Apple had an “intense interest” in the TV space.

“When I go into my living room and turn on the TV, I feel like I have gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years,” Cook told Williams. “It’s an area of intense interest. I can’t say more than that.”

At the May 2013 D11 conference, Tim Cook kept reiterating that TV as it is today feels outdated, but wouldn’t give many hints as to what Apple might do beyond the current Apple TV product

I don’t want to go any further on this because I don’t want to give anybody any ideas. There is a very grand vision.

This time, Cook said TV was an “incredible”  area of interest for Apple.

What Apple COULD do…

I couldn’t for the life of me see how Apple could unify the tangled mess of TV, media companies and their bespoke delivery systems and boxes… in a new box or TV.

But then I thought, “I already control the TV, Sky+ box and iTunes library from a single device. The iPad!”

The coming of age of the second screen

apple-tvSo why not expand the ability of the iPad (or iPhone or iPod touch) with an “Apple TV” app for controlling as many devices and services as it can? An App that controls your wifi enabled home entertainment equipment… and adds search, discovery and loads more to the equation?

It would have to be good – it’d have to blow the socks off every competing box, app and smart TV solution by thinking “outside the box” quite literally. Yes there would be APIs to create Apps for the Apple TV box, but the main push would be to unite TV selection and discovery in a single place where you could seamlessly control your existing TV sets, decoder boxes and streaming services. The user interface would, of course, be incredibly simple and would integrate future proofed cloud services (for streaming and storing content) with the cable and satellite TV experience we have at the moment (and for a few years to come).

Apple would need to strike a lot of deals… it would take a lot of time and a lot of cajoling. But the deals would be only to get an app to control your box, work with your existing TV service and search your programs. NOT take over the living room with an über box, and not to steal the whole value chain of TV distribution and broadcasting!

Hmm. That sounds more plausible.

More about what this hypothetical app (or app grouping) might entail; how it would affect (but NOT disrupt, per se) the TV market; and why, if it is going to happen, it’s taken a while to get here; in the next post.

A song a year: The Beach Boys (pt3)

I believe we’re up to 1965. Now it gets quite a bit more difficult to select a single song without upsetting legions of complex, luscious harmony infused pop classic productions. But let’s try.

1965: You’re So Good To Me

Photo of Brian Wilson“What, are you crazy?” you say… “what about all the hits? What about that stuff on side 2 of Today and Little Girl and, and…bar,bar,bar god-damn BARBARA ANNA”

But I love this song. It’s a low-key yet joyous and life-affirming ode to a relationship with that infectious chorus screaming, erm, well… La la la!

“You’re So Good to Me” epitomises the personal, unadorned, almost throw away lyrics that Brian tended to employ when not trying too hard (who knows which bits Mike came up with? I like to think it was some shit rhymes).

Listen to the basic track of “You’re So Good to Me” (recorded at Western Studios in early May, 1965). It’s one of the simplest productions to come out of the mid-sixties Brian canon. Chorused guitars and organ to the fore and a simple, steady beat make it stand out against all that artier, introspection that was bubbling to the surface elsewhere (perhaps competing with the Four Seasons competing with Motown?). Vocally it’s classic Beach Boys; not overdone or over-produced, just layers of voices that are “just right”.

But perhaps the main reason for loving this song is because it caused the Beatles to sneak in “Tit,tit,tit” in their song Girl later that year (I’m thinking it also had a lot to do with the “La,La,La’s” in Nowhere Man and You Won’t See Me too!)

The Beach Boys had a song out where they’d done ‘la la la la’ and we loved the innocence of that and wanted to copy it, but not use the same phrase. So we were looking around for another phrase, so it was ‘dit dit dit dit’, which we decided to change in our waggishness to ‘tit tit tit tit’, which is virtually indistinguishable from ‘dit dit dit dit’. And it gave us a laugh.

Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

I love the fact that “Your So Good to Me” helped form 3 of my favourite Beatles songs. I mean Rubber soul may just be a joyous exercise in trying to make “You’re So Good To Me” hip!

As a bonus: Here is a fantastic picture from 1965 (gathered from t’web) showing Brian, complete with funny hat and jacket, looking at Phil Spector like he KNOWS that someday this dude will shoot and kill someone. Also Mike, the original hipster tit (considering borrowing Phil’s wig?); and a Righteous Brother.

brian-phil-tit-brother

 

 

Falling Apples

doomedApple is DOOMED, DOOMED, I tells you. Or perhaps not, if you have a modicum of sense…

But I do think I’ve finally understood the last 18 months of Apple and how a company with such a tremendous level of revenue and profits can fall foul of bizarre expectations for growth and behaviour.

You would think a company with such a peerless brand, an era-defining line-up of profitable products and strong retail, media and app stores would get a bit of an easy ride. So why does anyone and everyone question the future of this company and demand the CEO stands down NOW?

My theory has nothing do with Samsung, a lack of innovation, Tim Cook or any of the crazy two bit theories peddled by combinations of analysts (often working for competing firms), tech journalists (who stretch the definition of both those words) and stock manipulators.

My theory is really to do with Steve Jobs. But NOT how you might think.

Since the launch of the iPhone and the iPad, Apple’s performance should, by all accounts, have set a consistent course for outer space. And it kind of did, for a while, but not when it should!

Taking Stock

Look at the stock price over 5 years.

apple-shares

WOW. Look at that growth and decline. But wait!

Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011. (I’ve shaded in the period after that date). During the heady days of the launches of era-defining iPhone and iPads, and with the visionary Jobs at the helm, Apple saw a steady but unspectacular rise in the share price (after the 2008 financial crisis). Then TC takes over and BOOM. 

Forgetful

But we seem to selectively remember and warp our technology history. “Apple released the iPhone, released the iPad and then took off… And then fell to the ground after Tim Cook’s tenure took hold”. Or so we’re led to believe.

People forget the Steve Jobs era slow iPhone start; the modest targets; the iPad “disappointment“; the long delays, the staggered regional roll outs; the carrier lock-ins. But there is a “tipping point” event that may have confused onlookers. Look at Apple’s revenue and profits up until the 2012 holiday quarter (from The NextWeb)

apple-revenue

Apple has always had plenty of seasonality (since the coming of the iPod) but Q1 2012 (that’s Oct-Dec 2011) looks different. Yikes… It pretty much doubled the revenue and profits from the previous holiday quarter. The publishing in January 2012 of these results is really when Apple shares took off.

Standby for Launch

The iPhone 4S was launched on the 4th October 2011. Look at the iPhone launch weekend sales (thanks to Macstories)

iphone-launches

Yep, it was the iPhone 4S took Apple to the moon in the 2011 holiday quarter!

The iPhone 5 managed to just about beat the 4S figures a year later, but not by much (4.5m sales) and they had to pull out ALL the stops to get the phone out worldwide in that launch quarter (including the vital Chinese market) in order to surpass the 4S.

Let’s take a closer look. The 4S was a strange beast. An internal rebuild to an existing shell that was released nearly 18 months after the iPhone 4 (the longest period ever seen between iPhone launches). It benefited from a tremendous level of pent-up demand and Apple, for perhaps the first time with an iPhone, were actually ready to meet that demand. They launched the new phone into more markets and channels than ever before and managed to reduce delays in ordering the device (compared with severely restrained supply of previous iPhones). I would suggest that Apple spent the 18 months between the 4 and 4S doing a LOT of supply chain building to meet iPhone demand (and they STILL get the media-tastic queues at Apple stores to get the phones despite the ramp up in supply!)

The 4S was going to have a bumper launch whatever happened, but the other key part of the puzzle is that it was launched the day before Steve Jobs died.

The traditional disappointment about a new Apple product and perpetual sniping about the 4S only had one day to take hold before everything pretty much stopped to respect the death of Steve. This was obviously a genuinely sad moment for everyone that was involved in the industry, or used technology, and the anecdotes and praise flowed for many weeks after his death.

Zeitgeist

I can’t say for sure, but it felt at the time like the level of main-stream appreciation for Jobs’ achievements (and the just launched iPhone) was never higher.


This grasping of the Zeitgeist alongside the significant supply chain improvements sustained a near launch-weekend pace over an entire quarter (despite Apple respecting Jobs’ passing by not fully marketing the device for several days after his death).

But then the genie was out of the bottle.

The iBubble

When the holiday quarter results were released (in Jan 2012), they were basically misread as a massive shift towards Apple dominating the smartphone market, with more exceptional growth to come…

Awash with cash and desperate for a good return, all those institutional investors and flighty hedge-funds joined the Apple party for 6 crazy months. Analysts who seemed only able to join the last 2 dots on a chart said Apple was destined for $1000/share $1300… PILE in EVERYONE.

Then the fever suddenly ended with the launch of the iPhone 5. (The best phone Apple have ever released and so much better than the 4S that it’s almost embarrassing!)

Why did the market stop then? Who knows! The iPhone 5 is an outstanding product and sold better than the 4S. But I believe it was just the end of a mini bubble based on a mis-reading of Apple’s past performance.

Apple had more or less perfected their supply chain with the 4S. (It may not actually be possible to ramp up and supply more top-range high technology products than Apple has managed! What other market has a premium product that outsells every other single model?). As a creature of habit, Apple usually looks to get something as good as it can be before making small iterative improvements (until the next major changes are needed). They did it with products and then they did it with supply chains!

Just as they had significantly improved their supply, a one off event happened.

No one expected the appreciation and love that was shown towards Apple after the passing of Steve Jobs would push that 4S launch quarter far beyond what even Apple had prepared for. The success of the 4S launch quarter took everyone by surprise and to keep up that level of growth (that a deluded Wall St. now expected) Apple had to pull out every imaginable stop to match the 2011 holiday sales. Apple achieved this but it took an entire new line-up of products.

The fact Apple are not aggressively increasing the iPhone’s addressable market shows they aren’t too bothered about maximising iPhone sales… just yet. It looks like they are happy to sell to the markets they have (with China and the US being THE focus), take the profits and build the ecosystem. There will be no race to the bottom for market share until they are ready (and perhaps never, as the carriers make the phone market nothing like an iPod or PC market).

So that’s the Apple bubble. A perfection of supply to meet a huge demand, backed with an outpouring of appreciation after Steve Jobs died. No crazier an explanation than many other theories!

 

Time To Get Alone

slopesOut of all the songs that Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys have produced, it’s odd that this one particular song has always struck such a chord with me.

Why? I’m not all together sure. The wintry sentiment coupled with the charmingly personal lyrics are all very endearing. And, if you pay attention, the production will blow you away.

Dig deeper and you’ll find classic Brian innocence and heartfelt yearning for escape, with more nods to that earth-mother-goddess character we’ve spoken about before.

The lyrics may be idealised escapism, but the story around the production of the song is somewhat tragic, starting with hope and ending in emotional manipulation.

The song was eventually released on 1969’s 20/20 Album, where it was sandwiched among a rag bag of left overs to fulfil a recording contract. All very “Beach Boys”.

Listen, listen, listen

But let’s start with the song.

Brian has said (in the Friends / 20/20 Liner Notes)

“Time To Get Alone” was another waltz. The intimacy of the lyrics, such as “I looked in your eyes and what did I see, I saw love in your eyes,” coupled with the moving instrumental track and Carl’s voice and our voices made for a spectacular record.

And it is a spectacular, shining record. Listen to how the waltz background is constructed. Instead of a single instrument playing a straight 3 hits of the chord we find a staccato pattern created by different instruments merged and intertwined with each other. Piano, Harpsichord, Harmonium. Fantastic stuff and classic Brian.

Out of the two Beach Boys versions available, you really must seek out the the alternate version on the “Hawthorne CA” collection. This adds something very special to the middle eight. (More of which, later).

The harmonies and production are all glorious, but something doesn’t quite sound right in the 1969 context. Something is wrong. What can it be?

Waiting for the day

The initial track for “Time to Get Alone” was actually created in 1967. There then followed various attempts at overdubbed backing vocals (instigated mainly by Carl) before the record was rolled out to the world in 1969.

The details form the Hawthorne Liner notes state this:

Basic Track 10/14, 10/15/67; Lead vocals 11/67, Backing vocals 10/68 
Lead: Carl and Brian

This timing falls slap bang in the middle of a very interesting time for Brian and the Beach Boys. Scholars of Beach Boys history will know that SMiLE was abandoned in April ’67. The consensus seems to have Brian as a burned out drug casualty overcome by the magnum opus that was Sgt Pepper. Or Capitol playing funny games with the nascent Brother Records. Or Mike just being a penis.

“Smiley Smile” was sent out as the proverbial “bunt instead of a home run” (as Carl said at the time). A rag bag SMiLE replacement of “acid casualty doo wop” that is used to prove the point of an ailing Brian. Yet “Time to Get Alone” (along with other pop bombshells) was being recorded at this very time, between SMiLE and Wild Honey. Huh?

Now to the first shock of the day.

Not Meant for You

See my friends (no Beach Boys need apply)“Time to Get Alone” is NOT a Beach Boys song.

Nope, it was not originally for the Mike-ster and company. For the original recording of “Time to Get Alone” Brian teamed up with his good friend Danny Hutton (far left of this photo from early 1967 when Brian called up all his friends to greet him at LA Airport in an effort to rally the troops for an ailing SMiLE project).

The group was called “Redwood” and Brian spent a great deal of time and energy recording this and other tracks in the summer of ’67. (Redwood would become Three Dog Night, the very popular late sixties pop-rock-blue-eyed-soul outfit).

Redwood recorded two or more tracks with Brian in mid-1967. Darlin’ (the eventual Beach Boys hit) and Time to Get Alone. The original Redwood multi-track tapes were recorded in Summer 1967, with drums, bass, strings and trumpets and Redwood’s vocals. Audio experts have all but confirmed that the Beach Boys track (as released and the alternate version) have the exact same basic track as this Redwood version.

Hmm. So the Beach Boys version is not a re-recording but a re-using of the original Redwood tapes with a convoluted set of overdubs added first by Brian and then by Carl. (Oddly, a 1968/9 Beach Boys re-record does actually exist, but is unreleased. Also, do you want to see more on the recording, mixing? Oh, not that much. Oh well.)

Listening to the production and musical interplay you can really see how Time to Get Alone is the “natural artistic descendant” of Heroes and Villains. So what happened?

The Beginnings of a SMiLE

“Time to Get Alone” has always mysteriously and intriguingly been linked with SMiLE. How so? It was recorded much later (well a couple of months, which is like 20 years in 60s popular culture time) and never appears on any of the bootlegs or final released version of SMiLE, so why? To explain this we are probably best starting with the beginnings of the SMiLE idea itself.

Many people have argued long and hard about the SMiLE sessions. But let’s skip all the conjecture, ignore the baggage and go with the gut feeling you get from the music itself. What you have is an expansive, light, breathy, almost rustic sound that is juxtaposed with an instrumental deftness of touch and, of course, the fantastical lyrical meanderings.

So why did a twenty-something from LA suddenly grasp on to the idea of this rustic, layered, natural setting for SMiLE?

Lake Arrowhead Home

11981808Brian was in the Lake Arrowhead area of California in early 1966 to record the Pet Sounds promo videos. Bill Tobelman presents a fascinating theory about how this led to the idea of SMiLE. And it’s one that resonates with me more than any of the “they took lots of drugs and did crazy stuff” tales (repeated ad-nauseam by that curious band of Mike Love apologists ever since).

Tobelman points out all the fascinating details that would come to form the ideas and visions of SMiLE. He explains how Brian’s “trip” at Lake Arrowhead was an “enlightening spiritual experience in the conceiving of the Beach Boys’ next album and single.”

And all the ideas are there. Lamps, halls, towers, dams, railways, Indians. Take your pick!

It’s no coincidence that Brian moved back to live at Lake Arrowhead circa 2000… just as he set about completing SMiLE.

Lets go away for a while

It seems to me that “Time to Get Alone” encapsulates that personal escape that lake Arrowhead provided to Brian. The big ideas were for the grand spiritual and historic journey that became the SMiLE adventure… but “Time to Get Alone” is the personal side of that escape.

The middle eight in the alternate version (and the Redwood version) of Time To Get Alone clearly alludes to what we knew as the “Look” segment of SMiLE (what became “Song for Children” in the new SMiLE).  The suddenly expansive horns and joyful whistling echo a half forgotten melody that the protagonist may remember from earlier times. Perhaps it is a child like wish to escape, or perhaps a knowing nod to previous loftier ambitions. Or both.

To me, “Time to Get Alone” feels like an idealised adventure in the pine scented, snow clad hills around Lake Arrowhead, without the artistic weight of SMiLE and the beast it would become.

It is also interesting to note that in 2004 when Brian finished SMiLE and played it live, he chose to open the first set (after the acapella section) with “Time to Get Alone”. Nice.

But back to 1967…

Time to Get Alone

No PressureImagine for a moment an increasingly exasperated, but still very creatively active Brian in 1967. (I mean, cripes, he released Smiley, Wild Honey and had his Redwood experiment all in a matter of months). Imagine a Brian who is fed up of the baggage and manipulation that comes with the Beach Boys. Imagine the frustration with all the second guessing of his creative leanings. Imagine what a miserable place the studio would be when the boys show up.

This quote from Brian in 1968 (found in Look, Listen, Vibrate, SMiLE) kind of sums up the confused situation in Brian’s mind.

“Early 1967, I had planned to make an album entitled SMILE. I was working with a guy named Van Dyke Parks, who was collaborating with me on the tunes, and in the process we came up with a song called ‘Surf’s Up,’ and I performed that with just a piano on a documentary show made on rock music.

The song ‘Surf’s Up’ that I sang for that documentary never came out on an album, and it was supposed to come out on the SMILE album, and that and a couple of other songs were junked … because I didn’t feel that they … I don’t know why, I just didn’t, for some reason, didn’t want to put them on the album … and the group nearly broke up, actually split up for good over that, that one … the decision of mine not to put a lot of the things that we’d cut for the album SMILEY SMILE on the album, and so for like almost a year, we’re just now kind of getting back together … because I didn’t think that the songs really were right for the public at the time, and I didn’t have a feeling, a commercial feeling, about some of these songs that we’ve never released, and … maybe I … some people like to hang onto certain things and … just as their own little songs that they’ve written almost for themselves.

And a lot of times, you know, a person will write and will realize later that they’re … it’s not commercial, you know, but what they’ve written is nice for them, but a lot of people just don’t like it.” -Brian Wilson, 1968

I’ve always found it almost too obvious… “I’ll give you SMiLE then. Here you go: Smiley Smile…” (then blowing a raspberry… mainly to his band-mates, maybe to himself, maybe to the world in general?). Brian didn’t WANT to give SMiLE to “some” people. That’s the crux. At the same time Brian is recording a song about escaping the city and all the “people”. Time to Get Alone indeed.

Now this passive aggressive behaviour may not be all together adult and civilised but we ARE talking about the Beach Boys. What do we expect? The tragic thing is that it didn’t work. Chuck Negron (from Redwood/Three Dog Night) puts it like this:

“It all came to a head…when Mike Love, Carl Wilson and Al Jardine came to the studio and heard our version of ‘Time To Get Alone’…They manoeuvred Brian into the control booth and reduced him to tears. It was a cruel and pathetic scene. Danny, Cory and I were in the studio and could see it all happening through the control-booth window. It was as if Brian had turned into a little boy. The conversation appeared quiet and calm, but we could tell it was emotional and intense.

The others were doing most of the talking, like overbearing, controlling parents. Brian would move away, and they would block his escape. We couldn’t hear what was being said, but I think a good lip-reader would have picked up something like, ‘We don’t give a shit about these guys, and we want those songs for us.’

We could actually feel Brian crumbling, and when he came out of the booth, a tear dropped down his cheek. His head was lowered and his shoulders sagged. It was the body language of a child who had just been scolded and punished. And this brilliant musical icon – whose songs defined one generation and influenced another – weepingly told us, ‘We can’t do this. I have to give the songs to them. They’re family and I have to take care of my family. They want the songs. I’ll give you any amount of money you want to finish an album, but I can’t produce it. They won’t let me.”

(Priore, Domenic (2007). Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece. p. 129)

This says it all. It is the tragedy of the Beach Boys and Brian. A mentally fragile Brian can’t escape this extended family of people grown so use to living off his talent.

No Break Away

Brian’s uplifting, personal, escapist statement is appropriated by the commercial wing of the family as they see a vague opportunity for a hit song. “You can give away your money, but your songs belong to us…”

All very healthy.

Can you then imagine this controlling “family” deciding to move a studio in to your own house so they can make it easy for the creative force behind the group to spend all their time providing the family with more songs? All he has to do is come downstairs and start recording with the Mike-ster.

You’d stay in bed too, wouldn’t you? (and it must have contributed to the full scale breakdown that happened in the following months). Very sad.

But that doesn’t detract from the song itself. It bristles with hope and joy and escape and I love it despite the sadness… or maybe because of it.

Call me crazy, but I have always somehow linked “Time to Get Alone” with the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye”.

That too was a heady pop swan-song to the creativity of 1967. One last shot at the stars before the back-to-basics movement took hold in 1968… A movement almost accidentally started by Brian in a sort of passive aggressive way in 1967. Ha!