Tuesday, 28 June 2011

God Only Knows

For the past few days, following the publication of an interview with Brian Wilson in The Guardian, I've been obsessed with "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys, long considered to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I first heard Pet Sounds in 2006 when, having been long aware of its reputation, I copied a friend's CD to my iTunes library. The version I recently starred on Spotify contains both the mono and stereo edits, and it is in the latter form that my idea of music has been transformed.

The liturgical quality of the harpsichord and French horn intro is newly aired through with space. The moment the strings drop must be the most exquisite in all of pop and surely informed the first song I ever bought, Oasis' "Wonderwall". And yet, this was 1965/6, before even Sgt. Pepper, the album more often credited with revolutionsing pop.

When I suggested to a friend, a classical musician and disciple of the great J.S. Bach, that were his hero to have lived in the 20th century and become a pop musician, "God Only Knows" would be the sort of song he would have written, he laughed heartily and replied: 'I had not been aware of any genius within The Beach Boys. What did they sing again? Surfin' California? Fun Fun Fun?'

That comment was made at a dinner table for five, including three classical musicians - the eldest a violinist in his sixties - and yet I was the only one to give Pet Sounds the memory it deserves. It is an album with an abundance of beautiful chord sequences, melodies and harmonies, and for me, "God Only Knows" is the mortal man's "Air On a G String" just as "Wonderwall" is the common man's "God Only Knows". Brian Wilson hasn't made music to worship to at Easter, but the very perfection of some of his works must encourage listeners to at least remember their spirituality for a moment, in these more secular times. And far from the universal acclaim bestowed upon him in death, Bach himself was largely ignored in his lifetime.

Could it be imagined what would happen if a studio expert with 21st-century technology to hand, such as Timbaland, reworked "God Only Knows" for today's ears? The result would be the ultimate mating of music and sound, for the two are now seemingly separate causes. The fact that, despite all the studio wizardry possible in one's own bedroom available at a fraction of what Pet Sounds cost to record, no comparable music is being made to what Brian Wilson was able to achieve through sheer passion, piety and genius (and LSD), is as solemn an indictment on the decline of the art form as anything yet written. Music is dying; sound waits for its accession. Is there really no one out there who can put the two together in an original recording?

Monday, 13 June 2011

12-Pages Issue 7: Radicals Cover and Introduction

Introduction by Paul Mendez

A group of artists, writers, musicians and thinkers in the early nineteenth century, among them the British notables Mary Wollstonecraft, Lord Byron, Thomas Paine, William Blake and Mary Shelley, became known as the Romantics. Priding intuition and imagination over reason and empiricism, their original thought and free speech was a radical departure from Enlightenment rationalism, yielding a cannon of seminal works, such as Paine's Rights of Man and Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, whose legacies are enduring.

It has become a topic of contention as to what the term 'radical' means today, such is its ever-changing context. Arguably, since the events of September 11, 2001, pejorative connotations have been dominant. Radical Islam and the threat of terror hang over the globe like the Armageddon of Revelation, precipitating a war between the secular and pious that has prattled on bloodily for a decade. Indeed, the 'radicalisation' page on Wikipedia focuses almost solely on the path to jihadisation and subsequent commitment to the performance of terrorist acts. It can thus be argued that, paradoxically, radicalisation today serves to create something conventional: a homogenous army of self-destructive followers as opposed to the individual, free-thinking, independent agent for positive change that each of the Romantics is remembered as being.

Indeed, worryingly, the gloved hand of the state, fearing the might of the people as demonstrated in the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, is frequently creeping round to silence such independent voices, even in the second decade of the 21st century. Following Ai Weiwei's arrest and detention by the Chinese government, the Booker-Prize-winning Indian novelist Arundhati Roy told The Guardian of the increasing persecution she has received as she continues to polemicise about the problems of the Indian state, its stance on Kashmir, its scant regard for the environment in favour of rapid development and its record on corruption.

Two hundred years after the Romantics paved the way for independent minds to help change the world for the better, and in a world where each individual has the capacity to express and propagate their opinions via free blogging software and microblogging sites such as Facebook and Twitter, it seems inevitable that governments will stymie the potential for anarchy these technological and social developments can engender, for better or worse. Individuals become more radical as societies homogenise. Something must break.