Don’t mistake my doing three books at once as some kind of copout: Hickey is one of the best writers on pop music around. And, they are books that in a sense I shouldn’t be reviewing. In my review of Georg Purvis’s Queen: The Complete Works, i stated that there are very few groups that really warrant a complete rundown of each piece of recorded work. Hickey has managed to do two (actually three, but I’ll get to the Kinks at another point, maybe). The Beach Boys are an Important Band. The Monkees less so.
I’ll state at this point that I have a strange ambivalence to the Beach Boys: strange in that I acknowledge that they have produced undoubtedly great songs: ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘God Only Knows’, ‘I get Around’; ‘Surf City’, their cover of ‘Sloop John B’, et cetera. They have one of the best vocal blends of the rock era: rivalled only by The Band, Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles (Queen come later). The story (which Hickey wisely doesn’t retell) is one of great tragedy: A Shakespearean tale of mental illness, drug addiction, greatness, betrayal, cruelty and poignancy. The mix of doo-wop, surf music and just pure pop was pretty unique, leading to undoubtedly great singles like ‘Good Vibrations’: a symphony that on paper, shouldn’t work. But in practice, works sublimely.
And yet… a lot of The Beach Boys leaves me cold. The Great Masterpiece, Pet Sounds, is to me, a disconnected, overproduced mess, with a LOT of filler. I know, I’m wrong. But subjectively, that’s what I feel. After Brian Wilson’s withdrawal from the band, my unease is a bit more explicable, really. One of the triumphs of Hickey’s book is that a disinterested, uninterested, non-fan like myself can find it unputdownable.
Like his earlier book, it’s full of little details that the serious listener can find – coughs, salivates, laughter, instrument spills. I never knew the introduction of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ was a guitar, but when you listen again, it certainly is. He has listened again and again to every track, finding every nuance he can, making a compelling read.
This amazingly keeps up in the second volume, which includes (in Hickey’s estimation), some of the worst drivel ever committed to vinyl. It also contains some of the best. As the band disintegrates, reintegrates, and disintegrates, we get the story of all the recordings. Poor Old Mike Love’s solo album is trashed. I can’t wait for Volume 3, which will have the story of Kokomo (and which will hopefully explain to me why Hickey doesn’t like Terry Melcher, who’s been the villain of nearly all his books). He calls him an ‘incompetent buffoon’ in his Beatles book and continues that theme here. In my (Limited) view, he was competent, if not great, with the Byrds. I know Hickey will expand.
The second volume is harder to justify. One of Bruce Johnston’s solo albums ends every article with ‘Nice Vocals’ or a slight variant: this highlights the bland nature of the album. The later career of the Beach Boys doesn’t really warrant this attention. But Hickey makes it compelling. A first rate read for both books.
This leads me to the Monkees. The story is well known. A manufactured band (much like Glee is not a real choir), they struggled with credibility, clashing with particularly Don Kirshner, but nearly every producer they had. The secret ingredient of course was talent. Two exceptionally talented songwriters, two very good ones, one exceptional vocalist (Mickey Dolenz), and three very good ones. Hickey pays Davy Jones the ultimate compliment, though. Hickey is not enamoured of Jones’ voice, but he states he is never less than professional.
For those of us who grew up on the reruns of the tv show, the Monkees were an extremely good pop band with catchy tunes. Hickey takes us through everything, and at their best, they were astoundingly good, and amazingly experimental: Moog synthesisers (Dolenz bought one of the first ones); tape loops; freak outs; atonal music. The peripatetic intelligence of Mike Nesmith is appreciated, as is the multi-talented Peter Tork.
Read these books. Hickey deserves to be as lauded as people like Elijah Wald and Ted Gioia, as Charles Shaar Murray and Robert Palmer. He is deeply insightful and hilariously funny. Dean Torrance is described as being unable to carry a tune, if that tune was in a bucket, which was in a bucket with special holders and he was being helped by a couple of professional bucket carriers. That’s just one example of his wit.
Hurry up Andrew and finish your next book: I can’t wait.