By John Cody
• Better Than the Beatles: A Tribute to the Shaggs, Animal World Recordings, 2002.
• Making God Smile: An Artists’ Tribute to Brian Wilson, Silent Planet, 2002.
FORTY YEARS ago, a Hawthorne, California father took his three sons into a recording studio. Seven years later, in 1969, a Fremont, New Hampshire father arranged to have three of his teenage daughters recorded in another studio. Each group received almost obsessive encouragement, to the point of interference. The boys, who would go on to worldwide fame as the Beach Boys, eventually fired their dad; whereas the sisters, who performed as the Shaggs, chose to endure their father’s questionable guidance (tellingly, they disbanded the day he died in 1975).
While the Beach Boys sold millions of records, the Shaggs’ debut, the self-financed Philosophy of the World, has been described as the worst record ever made.
Years earlier, the girls’ grandmother had read her son’s palm and made three predictions: he would marry a strawberry blonde; father two boys that she would not live to see; and her granddaughters would play music. Upon the fulfilment of the first two prophecies, he was determined that the third would come to pass. To that end, he pulled them out of public school to concentrate fully on music making. They practiced morning, noon and night, with breaks for calisthenics and church on Sundays.
The music — which is absolutely sincere — is astoundingly bad, yet in it’s pureness manages to move the listener in a way contrived, more ‘professional’ performers could never equal.
Simple sentiments express their worldview: “I often sit and wonder / Why people do the things they do / And I can’t understand, no I can’t understand / Why they don’t have faith in the Lord, like I do” (‘We Have a Savior’); “We must remember / Parents are the ones who will always understand / Parents are the ones who really care.” (‘Who are Parents’).
One thousand copies of the record were pressed — 900 of which disappeared before delivery — and that should have been the end of the story. But it was just the beginning. Tapes began circulating, impressing the likes of Frank Zappa, Jonathan Richman and Bonnie Raitt. In 1980, longtime fans NRBQ arranged for a reissue of the album, and the trio found a whole new audience. The LA Weekly raved; “If we can judge music on the basis of its honesty, originality and impact, then the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World is the greatest record ever recorded in the history of the universe.” It placed on Rolling Stone’s list of the ’50 Most Significant Indie Records.’
Now comes the inevitable tribute album. The disc’s title, Better Than the Beatles — Zappa’s description — is entirely fitting. In the world of outsider music, the Shaggs occupy an esteemed position similar to that held by the Fab Four.
Danielson Famile are the best known act on the CD; fittingly, they cover ‘Who are Parents.’ Other key groups include Optiganally Yours and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282.
Ironically, a few tracks are reminiscent of Brian Wilson. Bauer’s take on ‘We Have a Savior’ comes across as heavily influenced by seminal Wilson works like ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Smiley Smile.’ Like most tributes, it will never replace the originals; but it certainly presents the material in a respectful manner.
Silent Planet has assembled a disc highlighting Brian Wilson’s songwriting. All tracks were recorded specifically for this project. The line-up includes Sixpence None the Richer, Brooks Williams, Randy Stonehill and Terry Taylor.
As Amilia K Spicer writes on the daunting task of reinterpreting Wilson’s music: “How can I do anything cooler?” While this is absolutely true, the disc offers several excellent performances, and is by far the most satisfying Wilson tribute yet released. The success rests in no small part on the fact that the producers chose to highlight the spiritual aspects of Wilson’s music.
In a 24-page booklet, each artist writes about Wilson’s influence. Phil Madeira comments: “When I became an adult I discovered Brian’s real gift wasn’t about fun fun fun; it was about structure, harmony, invention and sound.” He proves the point with an instrumental of ‘Heroes and Villains’ that showcases the brilliance of the composition by casting it in an entirely new light. Kevin Max (dc Talk) and Jimmy A’s reworking of ‘Help Me Rhonda’ — sounding like U2 taking on the Beach Boys — likewise demonstrates how well these songs work in a variety of settings.
Some stick close to the originals — The Lost Dogs’ take on ‘With Me Tonight’ in particular. Mike Roe wrote ‘Jesus Loves You Brian Wilson’ for the Dogs as well as ‘Smile’ and ‘Smiley Smile’ on his own solo discs; all are first-rate tributes.
Phil Keaggy’s ‘Good Vibrations’ manages to infuse personality without offering a radical reinterpretation; it contrasts favourably with Todd Rundgren’s almost note-for-note copy of the song (from Faithful), which demonstrated just how close one can come to capturing the sound while missing the heart.
© John Cody 2002