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Marc Ribot's Review, full length

 

I’ll confess: Although the Beach Boys were part of my early teenage pop musical landscape I never identified with them. They were simply there: like the Post Office or the glistening gasoline slicks on the branch of the Rahway River trickling through my hometown. 

My own moments of musical revelation began with Keith Richards et al… were soon displaced to the objects of their love/theft…and fixated there happily ever after (with occasional infidelities, regressions, and a trick or two).

So I never regarded my indifference to the Beach Boys as something in need of confession or explanation; let alone apology.

On the other hand, I've admired Smucker’s smart, funny, and passionate writing on pop music since his Village Voice days. And so I found myself running back, half a century later, to re-listen...and damned if Smucker isn't right! There’s something in the Beach Boy’s music that’s simply amazing, and fully deserving of the critical attention it’s received. 

Smucker's mix of unabashed fanboy enthusiasm with razor sharp analysis makes him the perfect teller of this story, which is not only the story of the Boys, but also of the great dry beach of American suburbia on which their popularity surfed. Smucker’s telling intertwines (his own) personal narrative with that of the music/ musicians; and traces their mutual trajectory through our collective political/cultural body. 

In doing so, Smucker pulls off something which is rarer than one might imagine, even in the supposedly enlightened precincts of NYC rock crit: the sympathetic telling of a white story— stripped of the myths of supremacy. 

 


The crash of the music industry due to silicon valley exploitation will certainly prevent any new acts being able to afford studio time on anything like the scale that enabled the Beach Boys to experiment and create their sound. 

I’ve recorded in some of the LA studios where Brian Wilson worked…many now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy after a decade and a half of Silicon Valley’s “disruption”. The industry crashed by over 60%— estimated at 7 billion annually. 

There has been a slight influx of bread in the last 2 years (we’re now supposedly up to a 5% collapse): but whether this is a real trend or simply market manipulation designed to lift Spotify’s IPO value (so the majors can cash out their equity and write their officers golden parachute retirement packages) is very much up in the air. 

The recording economy which granted Wilson the time and space to interact with great studio musicians and technicians in a state of the art studio is gone for all but a very few. 

Not only did Brian Wilson get the studio: he got a room full of extremely qualified musicians and technicians who helped him realize his ideas. A room full of people getting union scale +: week after week. 

A few star artists who invested their pre-digital $ in record studio and company infrastructure can still afford at least the studio part.. Very few new artists who aren’t independently wealthy can. 

Working class or lower middle class genius' like Brian Wilson who approach majors now are being forced to sign ‘360 wrap around deals” that would deprive them of the economic and artistic freedom Wilson enjoyed. 

Those approaching indies are being asked, in addition to paying ALL production costs, to pay 3-7000 to “share the risk”. Could the early Beach Boys have worked under those conditions?

The Wrecking Crew didn’t exist in isolation: they were the best out of a large field of hundreds of studio musicians who worked EVERY DAY. I knew some of them: Larry Knechtel, Jerry Scheff, both of whom worked often with Hal Blaine et al. They recorded 3 finished records a DAY for years on end. The field has shrunk exponentially.

Although the benefits of sequencing technology for those who work exclusively through sampled/sequenced sounds are clear: its worth noting that that isn’t how Brian Wilson worked. 

This is in no way a dis to those who do work primarily through digital processes: but there is a lot of auteur theory hype going on around those productions too. A lot more trad studio time put in than often acknowledged. And a lot more money spent on production than is often acknowledged. 

Few hits are simply produced on "a laptop” (although this is often self mythology on the part of artists): virtually all pop needs mic pre’s, compressors, good quality A to D converters, Mastering studio, art work, publicists. 

And most supposedly “viral” hits that “just happened” have the fingerprints of skilled digital publicists (7-12,000 per cd). 

Part of the reason Smucker's book was poignant for me is that Wilson’s life is coterminous with a golden age of US studio production.  Its an art form that is literally being driven out of the economy. With the coming full rationalization of streaming (see MMA bill, see the strong-arming of the last streaming holdouts like ECM), I suspect that the shutdown of the industry that began post Napster is going to be made irreversible. 

There is still some possibility for reforms that would change that (see section 512 DMCA). But its a long shot, and sanguine conclusions aren’t justified at this point.

 — Marc Ribot


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