Chart Success - Deservedly Yours!
As a long time closet Beach Boys fan, who admired most of their work up to about 1976, but was less impressed by their subsequent efforts, it was with some anxiety that I anticipated their 50 years reunion album-the first new material in over 20 years, with all the surviving members participating. The fear was that they would turn out something quite ghastly-70 year old men trying to recapture their surfboarding days, an unadulterated offering of overproduced cheese.
When The Beach Boys new album came out at last, I was very pleasantly surprised. The songs were attractive, interesting and colourful, and the well loved vocal harmonies were there in all their glory. But most of all, they had produced something new and different. They were not trying to recreate past glories, but were writing from the heart, writing and singing songs that expressed their present condition in the here and now.
Of course, I knew John Lees and his band were about as likely to turn out cheese as a Monty Python Cheese Emporium, but I have to admit to being a little anxious over their new album. Would it live up to the great BJH classics of the past? Even worse, would it be a shaky attempt to recreate that past?
Having listened to JLBJH's new single this week, I feel more than reassured that the band is moving in an exciting and fruitful direction. I imagine like many people I was not expecting the song to hit number one on the Classic Rock downloads chart on Amazon, or the amazing number 157 (the last time I looked) on the All Songs chart (Ed: the single eventually peaked at #79 in the Amazon UK All Songs download chart).
One of the features I have always admired about BJH's work, particularly the songs penned by John Lees, is their rootedness in the English folk song tradition. This is true even of a guitar-rocker like Medicine Man. When you go behind the solos to the basic chord and melodic structure, it is essentially a folk piece. The use of folk style melodies and chords, and the relative rarity of blues elements in much of their music is what makes it sound so very British, maybe even Lancastrian.
The accordion sound of the keyboard opening to the new single, which, on first hearing, recalled some of John's more political songs about mills and martyrs, sets the tone for what is basically a folksy homage to his wife. It is a simple tune, simply harmonized. John has on occasion praised Woolly Wolstenholme for the simplicity and beauty of his writing. This could equally be said of much of John's work.
I think one of the drawbacks of the simple-but-beautiful approach is that the surface simplicity usually hides a deeper richness, which you probably will not pick up the first time you listen. Some BJH songs, I have to admit, left me slightly cold on first hearing, and it was only after repeated listenings that I was able to appreciate them fully. Nonetheless, songs I initially thought were "OK" often finished up on my masterpieces list. I have noticed other BJH fans making similar comments. It takes a while for a John Lees song to sink in fully, but when it does…
I am very happy that the band is writing new material. I disagree slightly with those who class this new single as "classic BJH". I know what they mean: it is, but it also kind of isn't. John has not made the fatal mistake of trying to time warp himself back to the seventies or eighties. He is writing from where he is now. That is why I think this new album will work. Sure, there are lots of familiar elements which remind us of his earlier work. If I had to pick an era, the Face to Face album, for me, has some echoes in the new song. But I don't want to become a butterfly catcher. Let's not forget that the songs are co-written. This is a different band from the original BJH-and the immense contributions of the other three players are a crucial part of that difference.
The most striking difference is the keyboard work from Jez, which sounds very different from Woolly. Jez has a more decorative, almost Baroque approach to his solos, which I think distinguish him from the more monolithic, chordal/ harmonic approach of Woolly. (I generalize, of course…) It is right, surely, for new band members to bring their own styles to enrich the overall group sound. There is a very nice soaring bass line, towards the end of the song, which is a wonderful touch of colour, not overdone, but it gives the song a little emotional lift in just the right place (possibly on a fretless bass?-I am a viola player so I never really believed in frets!) The vocal harmonies sound great, and as many have commented on the forum, that last bridge passage, rising, climbing toward the final chorus, with its great chord sequence, is a lovely bit of icing on the cake, heightening the excitement at exactly the right spot. If I don't mention Kevin Whitehead's contribution, it is because I don't understand drumming enough to comment, but I love what he does anyway.
I look forward to the release of the album in the autumn, reassured that we are in for some very interesting music. I read somewhere that a certain member of Led Zeppelin once remarked to a member of Abba that he was wary of doing reunion gigs, because he didn't want the real Led Zeppelin to sound like a Led Zep tribute band. There is no danger of that happening with JLBJH-they have proved to us all that they are a living, thriving band with much more to give. Let's hope they give it unreservedly.