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Dipping into the Drug Album Stash

By William B. Higgins and Chris A. Kukstis, THE DOPPELGANGERS? DUELs

CHRIS: Bill, if the name of our game is greatest all-time drug album, and Dark Side of the Moon, simply for argumentative reasons, has been struck from the equation, I find that only one candidate remains. See, my well-coiffed friend, I think that often when folks consider the breadth of great drug albums, they tend to stick strictly to albums that stand as a result of certain drugs. Sure, psychedelics make for some fantastic rock, but what about the other means of getting messed up out there? For my pick, I reach back to April of 1990, a time when England, at least to the American listener, began drawing away from the glammy, androgynous danceclubs of the 1980s and into drug-filled warehouses filled with a bizarre mix of hipsters and ne’er-do-wells. The Happy Mondays, who got their name from a term for the tranquil E come-down the day after a rave, had popularized the scene the year before with their top-40 hit EP Madchester Rave On, but their next full-length Pills ’n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, my pick for all-time greatest drug album, blew it open as Britain seemed to slowly turn into one non-stop party. Though soon the party ended—frontman Shaun Rider’s heroin problems finally caused their 1993 breakup—the musical document they leave is a rich testament to the chemical glories and corresponding dementias of the rave scene. “God rains the Es down on me,” Ryder declares in “God’s Cop,” but you know, Bill, it doesn’t take explicit reference to prove how much this album owes to MDMA; it comes off just as forcefully in the lush sound. Bouncy dance beats, sneering guitars and Ryder’s atonal sing-speak mingle in a chaotic and perplexing stew. On the surface is nothing but the smooth veneer of glorious production and funky beats, but just underneath is chaotic and threatening matter, a reflection of the dichotomy between the grimmer actualities of the band’s milieu and their perception of it. The pills ’n’ thrills never lack their corresponding bellyaches, and beneath the beats, the album’s a desperate document of addicts in need. The album’s dark undertones back the legitimacy of the band’s obsession with drugs. While the ’60s and ’70s may have been the heyday for drug rock, we cannot forget that drugs were still destroying bands through the ’80s.

BILL: To me, Chris, a drug album isn’t the best album to listen to while using drugs, but rather the singular monument to the cocktail of pills, smokables, intravenous supplements and various other curiously strong concoctions that always seem to lubricate the gears of musical creativity—the album that best delineates the impact of these substances on artistic ambitions. Of course there are just so many worthy candidates—for instance, anything breathed on by Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett before he tripped off the face of the planet. I’ve chosen to narrow my focus to an album that never quite made it, and a man who was psychologically destroyed in the process, joining Mr. Barrett as poster boys for 60s burnouts. My choice is the Beach Boys’ Smile, Brian Wilson’s long-deferred masterpiece, intended to top the sublime Pet Sounds and to render the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper obsolete before it hit the shelves. This album’s failure to appear reflects almost too perfectly the abortive and tragically naïve vision of 1960s drug culture and makes it the saddest and most romantic all-time drug album.

In 1966, Brian Wilson was rich, famous, supremely talented and 23 years old. He already had crafted ten successful albums. Pet Sounds had broken new ground in pop songwriting and production and stunned Paul McCartney, who has since called it the greatest album of all time. The Beach Boys’ first million-selling single, “Good Vibrations,” followed, a song whose innovative recording technique and fresh sound threatened to knock the Beatles from the pinnacle of the rock scene. The wild response to “Good Vibrations” propelled Wilson into his newest project, a self-described “teenage symphony to God.” Meanwhile, Lennon-McCartney marshaled their creative resources for a showdown with the upstart, entering the studio to begin Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Both groups sought to make pop into art, and jumped on any advantage they could find: animal, vegetable, or chemical. Like the Beatles and other contemporaries, Wilson had begun to dabble in LSD and found that its influence unleashed new possibilities for his music. His burgeoning sense of competition with the Beatles led to an escalating acid arms race. At the very height of his powers, Wilson partnered with intimidating quantities of hashish and a gifted young lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, and began to record what was very publicly billed as the greatest pop album of all time. That is, until he very publicly collapsed.

There’s much more, my friend, though I’ll first let you rebut. But asking you to compete with the drama of those untouchable late-’60s just doesn’t seem fair.

CHRIS: Bill, you’ve picked a fine album but a difficult case. Sure, Wilson was a total freak at the time, but the songs are just absurd—the Mondays’ drug-depths do more than just dabble with abstraction. Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches opens with the romping “Kinky Afro” without bothering with any introduction. “Son, I’m thirty / I only went with your mother cause she’s dirty,” Shaun Ryder enters, immediately launching listeners into the Mondays’ bent, polluted world, where joyous “Yippee-yippee-yi-yi-yay!”s stolen from Patti LaBelle are followed by “I had to crucify some brother today!” Properly indoctrinated, we progress through a surreal encounter with the police (“God’s Cop”) a tribute to a ’60s icon (“Donovan”) and a family tragedy (“Grandbag’s Funeral”) before “Loose Fit,” a grooving tribute to the rave movement as fitting as any hedonistic hippie anthem. Over a repeated synth line and low, jazzy percussion, Ryder maps out the loose-fit aesthetic and the ethos of the accompanying rave scene as the album shifts to depictions of the loosely-fit’s high life, with the buoyancy of stand-out “Dennis and Lois” countered by the sultry cool of “Bob’s Yer Uncle.”

This suite culminates in the album’s pop piece de resistance, the alt-rock hit “Step On,” which breaks out with ultra-catchy piano and the shimmering backing vocals of Rowetta, whose feminine presence gives universality to the pills’ apparent take-over. The album closes with its darkest moments and an uplifting dénouement. “Holiday” enters with the sound of a plane flying overhead, but the holiday of the title is no global jaunt. In his most affected sneer, Ryder describes a drug binge under belted-out celebratory cries of “Holiday!” Sounds of airport announcements and seagulls squawking violently lurk in the background while he claims, “We’re here to harass you / we want your pills and grass, you.”

The Mondays’ holiday is one of such threats, masqueraded as exultation by the jubilant sound. Without a break, “Harmony” follows. The beat slips into languor as once again the band inverts the familiar, this time plying a Coca-Cola jingle onto their own terms: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony / cut it up into little bits and give it away for free.” Harmony, it seems, cannot be attained without the presence of favored chemicals. The blend of familiar and friends with drugged-out and dangerous is a hallmark of Pills ’n’ Thrills, and the perversion is a musical statement of drugs’ effect on the band: all mundane aspects of everyday life become amplified to levels of great excitement, but tainted by an air of suspicious artificiality. No other drug album as honestly deals in music with narcotics’ dual nature, and as such no other album could be my pick.

BILL: Well, Chris, you’ve surely stumbled upon a fantastic tribute to drugs, a fully realized study and celebration of self-medication. Smile can’t respond to that sort of cohesive vision; for more than thirty years it existed only unfinished as fragments tucked away on obscure bootlegs. But in truth I like Smile not in spite of its failure, but rather because of it. The hype was justified, the music was that good, and yet it crashed and burned and it’s all very tragic and still wonderful. In Sept. 1966, Brian Wilson, with Parks, began in earnest to work on the concept of Dumb Angel, which they soon renamed Smile. They churned out “Heroes and Villains,” a tribute to the Old West intended to be a single; “Wonderful,” a gentle harpsichord piece with a gorgeous, intricate melody; and “Surf’s Up,” the album’s transcendent centerpiece, called by Leonard Bernstein “an important contribution to 20th-century American music.” They also wrote songs with titles like “Vega-Tables” and “Do You Like Worms” and “I Love to Say Dada.” Journalists visited Wilson at work in the studio and left singing the praises of this young—yes, they began to say it—genius. The Beach Boys’ capable public relations staff latched onto this talk and deftly crafted an image of a quiet musical force writing symphonies from his sandbox.

And oh, the sandbox. Brian had one installed under his home’s piano, so he could dig his toes into the sand while composing. He installed a tent in his study for smoking and relaxing; the only source of light inside was a small bulb that required a continual diet of coins to stay lit. He had his bandmates sing vocal parts while lying at the bottom of an empty swimming pool, “just to get that sound.” It was all very innocent and charming, and the music was brilliant.

Cue the classic anecdotes of Brian Wilson’s move from eccentricity to paranoia. Maybe it was the drug abuse, maybe the pressure of his bandmate and cousin Mike Love to stick to the commercially-proven formula of cars and surf, or maybe it was the added stress of a prolonged contract lawsuit, but Wilson’s behavior became stranger. Fearing his house was bugged, he held business meetings in his swimming pool. He suspected that he was being frightened by Phil Spector-hired “mind gangsters.” Studio musicians donned plastic fire hats while recording a section predictably called “Fire”—and he set a small blaze in the studio to create the smell of smoke. When he learned later that there had been a fire near the studio and a small outbreak of fires in the area, he immediately stopped work on the song, believing that his music was responsible.

Deadlines passed; pressure mounted for marketable product; impatience festered within the band. Wilson abandoned and disowned the album, retreating to his bed for the better part of the next decade, where he became a mess of drug addiction and obesity. The Beach Boys stumbled out with Smiley Smile, a watered-down and vastly quieter echo of Smile’s original vision. The Beatles’ release of Sgt. Pepper became a landmark event, and their status atop the rock world was secure. The Beach Boys, lost without their creative force, slipped into artistic irrelevance and nostalgia tours.

The following decades saw most of the Smile sessions leaked from studio vaults to expensive bootleg collections. And the songs were fantastic: an organic sound, dense but airy, layered with intensely complicated but immediately ingratiating vocal arrangements and Parks’ beautiful, obscure lyrics. Some songs were finished; others were short, orphaned segments; some never made it past the demo stage. A small but growing core of diehard fans kept the flame burning. The advent of the internet meant easy propagation of the material. Finally Wilson himself, rehabilitated, married and finally receiving proper medical treatment, broke his decades of silence about the album and this past year pieced the fragments of Smile into a workable order and rerecorded the album from scratch. The resulting product is brilliant, and its very existence borders on the miraculous—who would have guessed Brian would be the last surviving Wilson brother?—but nothing can touch the ambience of anxiety, mania, and rapidly imploding self-confidence that makes the original recordings so hauntingly incredible. For the music and for the story behind it, the unfinished Smile recordings of 1966 and 1967 are my choice as singular monument to both the promise and disappointment of drug culture and the Greatest Drug Album of All Time.

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