Albums That Made Me - 20 Golden Greats
In this series of blogs, I will document a selection of albums that were pivotal in shaping my musical journey. I will focus on what made these albums special to me, as opposed to what makes them special in music, cultural or any other terms. Of course, every album I discuss can be considered as recommended listening, however, please keep in mind that whilst these albums are special to me, that doesn't mean they're particularly special and/or unique in their own right (although in most cases, I would argue that they are!).
Artist: The Beach Boys
Album: 20 Golden Greats
Release: 1963-69 (released 1973)
My Dad had this compilation album on cassette when I was a kid. It lived in the car and from the age of four, I used to regularly demand this cassette got played, to the extend that it wore out and broke by the time I was a teenager.
I loved everything about the songs on this cassette, long before I knew or understood anything about music. It gripped me in a way that I could happily listen to it on repeat for hours. I would lose myself in the sounds, the layers, the moods, and the stories. The songs on this compilation album made me yearn to be a teenager and fall in love with a pretty girl, even though at five years of age I had no idea what any of that actually meant!
I was about six years old when I put this cassette in my Dad's Walkman and realised that Stereo was a thing (I'd only ever listened to it on the car stereo up until that point and hadn't appreciated the stereo imaging). Some of the tracks on this compilation fall victim to the early stereo technique of simply hard-panning instruments left or right without much consideration for balancing the stereo picture. Whilst this is a practice that was quickly knocked on the head, once engineers figured out the merits of as balanced stereo imaging, in this instance, it helped teach me about harmony.
I straight away focused on listening to just one earpiece at a time as this allowed me hear individual parts in closer detail. I was amazed at how different instruments and voices would play/sing different note to create the overall sound (i.e. I was realising harmony was a thing). The logical part of my brain was hard at work deconstructing what I was hearing and making sense of it (at least, in the best way my six-year old brain could manage). I felt as though I was peaking behind the curtain, or learning the magician's secrets. It felt revelatory, and in some respects, planted the seeds of the musical intuition that I was able to take advantage of in later years.
I don't know if this is where my fascination with harmony began, but it certainly cemented it, and would no doubt have been at the back of my mind when I started picking out melodies on the piano and attempting to accompany them with other, lower notes (to make chords), to explore what kinds of moods and feelings I could create.
Listening to one ear piece at a time also switched me on the finer details in the arrangements. I remember thinking to myself "I like that voice and what it's singing" in amongst a harmonic vocal blend, or focusing on particular keyboard or guitar lines and realising that it was responsible for giving that passage of music a particular feel.
Of course, I had no musical training and didn't understand what I was hearing in conventional terms. However, this compilation tape had planted in me some green shoots from which would eventually grow an understanding of the principles harmony and collaborative musicianship; owed entirely to a curious mind and clumsy stereo panning.
In later years, I would digest a lot of Beach Boys; focusing on the output from the latter half of the 1960s (the more experimental stuff spearheaded by Wilson). I'm always bowled over by the harmonic and arrangement work. Brian Wilson's use of harmony and unconventional instrumentation has left a huge mark on me. I love the way he crafts tension, with unconventional bass notes, lush and thickly arranged chord voicing, and so on. I've listened to his work countless times in my life, yet it remains a delight to both listen to, and play on the piano. I also think I've borrowed the odd, unusual chord change or two from him over the years as well. I truly believe that Brian Wilson is one of the greatest minds of 20th Century pop/rock.