Monthly Archives: June 2016

Rock/folk: album review – Ashley Hutchings ‘From Psychedelia to Sonnets’

My review originally appeared on the Bright Young Folk website here

Ashley Hutchings has been one of the most influential, not to say prolific, musicians in British folk over the past half century. He has also written some charming prose, and over the years has proved to be master of an engaging and entertaining delivery of the spoken word. After publishing a book “Words, Words, Words” in 2014, which collated some of his writings for the very first time, an obvious next step was putting this all together into some kind of touring show. That is exactly what we have here on this album.

Recorded at a single performance at Wigan Parish Church in February 2016, From Psychedelia to Sonnets brings together songs, poetry and spoken passages from both Hutchings’ own previous work and other works that he’s had a close involvement with.

It’s all linked with a string of anecdotes, reflections and observations from his life and musical career. The musical parts feature the talents of Becky Mills on vocals and acoustic guitar and Ruth Angell on vocals, violin, pump harmonium and piano.

Of the spoken word sections, Hutchings’ contributions include a reading of the sleevenotes he produced for the 2003 reissue of the very first album of the band he founded: Fairport Convention. To the uninitiated, the thought of someone reading out old album sleevenotes to a public audience could appear a deathly dull proposition, bordering on psychological torture. But this is no ordinary album and no ordinary man. In this case we have possibly some of the most evocative sleeve notes ever written: “What we wore, Pollock-style paint-splattered shirts, fringed jackets, scarves various, dark velvet, boots with the heels worn down, voluminous hair…”

Listeners do get to hear far more than just sleevenotes, though. Poems written by Hutchings, such as The Complete Angler and You Are What You Eat, form part of the set alongside a variety of other readings. The spoken-word parts are then interspersed with a number of songs throughout the album.

In spite of Hutchings being a wonderful bass-player and hugely influential band leader few would argue that that this was on account of his singing abilities. He has, however, always had a knack for seeking out some enormously talented vocalists to work with over the years. This album continues in that tradition. Musical highlights include one of two songs on the album that originated through Hutchings’ work on the Lark Rise to Candleford theatre productions: ’Til The Time We Meet Again, sung beautifully by Mills. A Song of Two Bridges, where Angell and Mills alternate the lead vocals and each adopts the persona of a world-famous bridge in conversation with one another is another highlight.

For anyone wanting an introductory overview of Ashley Hutchings’ recorded work this album is not an obvious place to start. There are various compilations that do a much better job of that. However, for those who maintain a keen interest in Hutchings’ never less than fascinating career, or for those who have recently seen one of these shows live and are looking for a suitable memento to relive the event, then this CD is well worth a purchase.

Released: April 2016

http://ashleyhutchings.com/

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Review: Sun Studio tour, Memphis

In the history of rock ‘n’ roll there can’t be many more important places on the planet than this modestly-sized building on the outskirts of Memphis. 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee is the home of Sun Studio, where Sam Phillips established his Memphis Recording Service back in 1950 with the aim of giving a recording outlet to black blues musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and BB King; where Ike Turner and others recorded what is now commonly held up to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record: ‘Rocket 88’ in 1951; where a young Elvis Presley walked in to cut a one-off disc, supposedly for his mother; where Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash all recorded their early singles; and the place which indisputably can proudly claim to be the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.

Sam Phillips moved the Sun operation to a larger nearby facility in 1959, which somehow never quite managed to repeat the pioneering and magical success of the original, and by the 1970s 706 Union Avenue was being used as a hairdressers. In 1987, though, the building, along with the next- door diner, was reopened as a studio and tourist attraction and is now listed as a historic national landmark.

Sun studio run daily tours and a free shuttle bus service can ferry you between downtown Memphis, Elvis Presley’s Graceland and Sun Studio. The old diner is now a gift shop-cum-cafe and the tour first takes you upstairs to a compact but magical display of period artefacts; including studio equipment, instruments and other historic memorabilia. A tour guide talks you through the history and plays snatches of music, including that very first Elvis recording: ‘My Happiness’.

And then it’s down to the actual studio, first passing the reception area, once staffed by Sam Phillips’ assistant, Marion Keisker: a pivotal figure in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and the one who first spotted Elvis’s talent. But like too many women in the music business, one who’s name often doesn’t not get the recognition it deserves.

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The studio, itself, has been recreated using authentic equipment and instruments from the era and, in spite of it’s post-Sun uses as a hairdressing salon and everything else, the original studio soundproofing that Phillips and Keisker applied by hand is still there to this day.

sudio tour

The tour guide ends the tour by bringing out an original studio microphone from the control room, one that Elvis and Jerry Lee and Johnny had all sung into at the start of their careers. He tells us it was donated by Sam Phillips on condition that it wasn’t just locked away in a glass case but that visitors could pose and have their photographs taken with it. You can’t get a better photo-opportunity than that and it’s a great end to a magical tour of a historic site.

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Related review: Jerry Lee Lewis at London Palladium

Rock/folk: album review – Sandy Denny ‘I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny’

My review originally appeared on the Bright Young Folk website here

Arguably, the finest female singer songwriter Britain has ever produced, it’s perhaps only been in recent years that Sandy Denny’s legacy has begun to start getting the due recognition it deserves. Yet on the other hand can there be too many attempts at repackaging? One Sandy Denny collection after another has been released in recent years so it is prudent to explore the purpose behind this latest one.

Indisputably, Denny appeared on some of the most iconic folk-rock albums the genre has ever produced. British popular music would certainly be much poorer had she never made albums like What We Did On Our Holidays and Liege and Lief with Fairport Convention or Fotheringay, with her own short-lived band of the same name.

At the same time, it is also not unreasonable to argue that a voice as unique and as precious as Denny’s also deserves the chance to be appreciated on its own terms: to be heard “pure, unadulterated and most untouchable” as the sleeve notes to this album boldly state, not merely as a singer in a band, however brilliant that band may be.

Even during her later solo career, which could perhaps have provided opportunities for the pure unadulterated Denny to come to the fore, her solo albums failed to remedy this for one reason or another. Each of her solo albums thus contained a plethora of guest musicians and elaborate arrangements, to the extent that they still receive very mixed reviews even today. Many a reviewer has argued that in spite of her outstanding prowess as a vocalist Sandy Denny never managed to make a truly outstanding solo album. So this is where this new collection comes in. Indeed, the extensive sleeve-notes for this CD cheekily subtitle it “The Best album Sandy Denny never made.”

So what it doesn’t try to do is attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of her entire recording career (as the 2010 Sandy Denny boxed set sought to do), nor does it simply collect together some of the best-known versions of her best-known songs (as other compilations have done). What it does do is bring together acoustic versions of forty songs from each stage of her career. Archives have been mined for demos, alternate takes, live recordings and BBC sessions.

While only a handful of these tracks have been previously unreleased, according to the sleeve-notes, that is arguably missing the point of this collection. It’s not really about unearthing new material or trying to gather together everything Denny has ever recorded. Rather it’s an attempt to bring some coherence to her recorded output and present her songs in a way that showcases her unique vocal talent with modest and simple, though still very beautiful, acoustic accompaniment.

Amongst the two CDs worth of track, the collection includes the beautifully understated acoustic version of Who Knows Where The Time Goes that Denny sang with the Strawbs, a guitar and vocals acoustic master of Fairport Convention’s She Moves Through The Fair, a brilliantly powerful piano and vocals version of Solo and a stunning live version of Blackwaterside, both from her solo career.

In an era where we can all get rather tired of the endless repackaging of classic artists and the endless attempts by record companies to find new ways of making money from the same old recordings, I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn – The Acoustic Sandy Denny is a project with a purpose, a logic and a coherence and as such it does Sandy Denny’s legacy proud.

Released: April 2016

http://www.sandydennyofficial.com/

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Rocking the EU Vote: Could Brexit screw British rock bands?

A guest article from me on Peter Cook’s Human Dynamics blog.

The Music of Business

A Guest Post from Darren Johnson

Rock Fanatic and former Chair of the London Assembly for the Green Party

Darren Johnson and another Johnson ... not related Darren Johnson, Rock Fanatic with Queen and another Johnson … not related

Younger voters have been overwhelmingly pro-EU. And in spite of concerns that younger people are less likely to vote, less likely to be registered or be at Glastonbury for the referendum and failed to apply for a postal vote, it seems that younger music fans are pretty much like the rest of their generation when it comes to recognising the benefits of Britain’s membership of the EU. But what of older rock fans? I’ve both heard some pretty alarming sentiments expressed amongst fellow music fans of our generation. In some ways that’s not surprising. Opinion polls are showing that while there is a massive lead for remaining in the EU amongst the 18-39 age group, when it gets to…

View original post 1,162 more words

The Blockheads at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings 19/6/16

Ian Dury’s days as frontman may have been tragically cut short by cancer back in 2000, but the band he helped form lives on. Still featuring original members, Chas Jankel, Norman Watt-Roy, Micky Gallagher and John Turnbull, vocals these days are handled by Dury’s former driver-cum-minder, Derek “The Draw” Hussey. Hussey’s striking appearance (long white hair, pin-striped jacket, silk scarves and small round specs with the peace sign emblazoned on each lens..) initially suggests a stage presence more charismatic than it really is. But his sardonic, laid-back delivery kind of works. The totally unique and utterly irreplaceable Ian Dury was always going to be one very hard act to follow but musically the band are as hot as ever. That trademark blend of rock ‘n’ roll, new wave, funk and music hall is there as much as ever.

We get the big hits of course: What A Waste, Billericay Dickie, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Reasons To Be Cheerful and, of course, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. But we also get songs like Express Yourself from their most recent album: “Same Horse, Different Jockey” from 2013. Musically and lyrically these channel a similar vibe to the Ian Drury days, even if they are never going to be as memorable.

With many bands it’s the lead guitarist who is leaping around on stage and drenched from head to toe in sweat by the end of the evening. With The Blockheads, however, it’s bass supremo, Norman Watt-Roy, who has this honour. This is testimony to what a superbly energetic bass player he is but also to how integral his playing is to the band’s overall sound. Also noteworthy are the keyboard skills of Mick Gallagher and Chas Jankel, especially when the two play together. This is a band that may have been tragically robbed of its original lead singer but musically they have not lost a thing.

A word, too, on the venue. Hastings is blessed with a fantastic selection of live venues. However, for those who regularly pass by this one, perched high in front of West Hill on the seafront, but have yet to venture inside, St Mary in the Castle is well worth a visit. The nineteenth century church was deconsecrated in the 1950s, saved and eventually restored as an arts venue in the 1990s and now has a good varied programme of live music and other events. It makes for a quite spectacular setting for gigs.

http://www.theblockheads.com/

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Ronnie Spector at The Stables, Milton Keynes 13/6/16

Ronnie Spector, the golden voice of the fabulous Ronettes (along with her late sister Estelle and cousin Nedra) is currently on a solo tour of Britain in support of her new album. The album, English Heart, gives a classic New York-born Ronnie Spector makeover to a number of British 60s beat-era staples.

It’s a complete show tonight, more than just a performance: personal reflections from Ronnie, excerpts from vintage video clips and interviews and songs, of course, performed by Ronnie (still in great voice) with fabulous-sounding backing singers and a fabulous-sounding band.

Taking to the stage in the Stables after her backing band and female backing singers get everyone geared up with a frenetic cover of ‘Rebel Rebel’, Ronnie Spector kicks things off with a sumptuous ‘Baby I Love You’. It’s followed up by songs from different stages from her long career. The Ronette’s ‘Walking In The Rain’, a version of life-long admirer, Brian’s Wilson’s ‘I Can Hear Music’, and songs like ‘Because’ (a Dave Clark Five cover) and ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ (a Beatles cover) from her new album. After an unforgettable ‘Be My Baby’ she’s back on stage for an encore, paying tribute to Amy Winehouse (who was another devoted Ronnie Spector admirer) with a heartfelt cover of Winehouse’s own ‘Back To Black’.

The show is a happy, joyous celebration of Ronnie Spector’s life and career in music. She mentions obliquely at one point about spending “seven tough years” in California and having to come back to New York to start all over again. But what she doesn’t reveal on stage was that this was at the hands of her talented, but troubled, abusive and ultimately (much later) murderous ex-husband, Phil Spector, who kept her prisoner in her own home, prevented her from singing in public and denied her any access to the music she loved. She doesn’t dignify him by mentioning him by name tonight but her first-hand account is available for all who want to hear it. Knowing all this, and being incredibly moved by it, meant that for me tonight was always about more than just the music, wonderful though that is.

Septuagenarian Ronnie Spector, shimmying around the stage in lipstick and high heels with her enormous, enormous back-combed hair singing words like ‘baby I love you’ and ‘be my baby’. A feminist icon? You bet she is. She retook control of her life, retook control of her career and, several decades on, she is still on stage doing what she loves, exactly where she belongs. Meanwhile, her abusive, bullying, murderous ex-husband is behind bars, exactly where he belongs. Ronnie Spector we love you.

http://www.ronniespector.com/

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Review: Mott The Hoople Fan Convention 11/6/16

Hereford: the place where it all started for Mott The Hoople back in the 60s and the venue for the 2016 Mott The Hoople Fan Convention. For a band I’d been following since my teenage years back in the 80s (although they’d already long packed up by then) this was something I decided I just couldn’t afford to miss. There’s music, of course, but there’s also Q and A sessions with key figures associated with the band, there’s a fundraising charity auction of Mott memorabilia (proceeds to the Alzheimer’s Society), there’s film screenings and there’s lots (and lots) of opportunities for fans to mingle and chat with both each other and with MTH personnel, both band members and crew. Apart from the time the musicians were actually up on stage, there’s a complete and very refreshing absence of any ‘them and us’ attitudes. And so it wasn’t just in the Q and A sessions you could get first-hand insights into life on the road with Mott The Hoople, you could also get plenty of those just sitting in the bar and chatting, too.

But the music of course, was what brought people together in the first place and the music this weekend had some pretty special moments. First up is local punk band Terminal Rage. There was always a ‘punk-before-punk’ side to Mott anyway, particularly in the early days. But of special interest to Mott fans is that this band features the younger brother of Dale Griffin (MTH drummer who tragically died from Alzheimer’s this year) following in his brother’s footsteps at the drum-stool. Griffin leaves his kit and takes centre stage for one song to sing Bowie’s Starman as a moving tribute to his two musical heroes who died within a week of week of each other this year: David Bowie and his brother Dale.

Fellow Hastings resident, Mick Bolton, who toured as part of Mott The Hoople for a period in the early 70s, is next up on stage for an eclectic mix of numbers, including some pounding rock’n’roll boogie-woogie piano, to Jupiter – from Holst’s The Planets suite, to  a self-composed song originally written as possible material for Mott The Hoople in mind. Circumstances intervened and it was never used by the band but it does capture the vibe of mid-70s Mott the Hoople very nicely and it’s great to hear it performed.

Bolton is then joined on stage by guitarist Luther Grosvenor (who, of course, went by the gloriously rock’n’roll pseudonym of Ariel Bender during his period in MTH) and an ad-hoc band assembled for the occasion. Grosvenor is marking his retirement from live gigging with a special performance tonight. This is the first time that Grosvenor and Bolton have performed on stage together since 1974 and we get a short but explosive set, revisiting key songs from Grosvenor’s long career. Simon Savage (who will return to the stage later in the evening as front-man for the tribute act, Wott The Hoople) provides some great vocals and interacts well with Grosvenor on stage. Notable song highlights include Spooky Tooth’s Better By You Better By Me (the original version of the track that saw Judas Priest up in court on that ludicrous charge where they were accused of encouraging their fans to kill themselves) and a glorious, wonderful, celebratory version of The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll. A point that was touched on earlier in the day during the Q & A was how Mott The Hoople’s first guitarist, Mick Ralphs, and his replacement, Ariel Bender (AKA Luther Grosvenor) were at opposite ends of the spectrum in their style of guitar playing and in their on-stage personality. Both the modest, unassuming but technically brilliant Ralphs and the explosively bonkers Bender were an essential part of Mott The Hoople’s history. Although sadly, and I would say unjustly, left out of the 2009 and 2013 reunion shows it’s wonderful to have the latter’s contribution celebrated here tonight. Grosvenor gives a heartfelt, emotional thank you to everyone who’s supported him over the years but I do wonder what he’s going to do in retirement. I can’t quite see him digging an allotment. So if he can be persuaded to do the odd bit of gigging here and there I think it would be glorious to see him back on stage with Simon Savage again.

Next up is Herefordshire-based The Troy Redfern Band. His brand of melodic blues rock is normally just the thing I’d be lapping up. But as I indicated earlier, the weekend was always about far more than just watching bands. So I took time out in the bar area: chatting to fellow Hoople fans (one of whom I discovered also shared my love of Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny) chatting to Bob Griffin about having Dale as both an older brother and a musical mentor, chatting to original keyboard player, Verden Allen (who wasn’t performing but still came along to be part of it all) about his experiences of the two reunion shows, chatting to Luther Grosvenor and joining the impromptu lobby to encourage him not to make his retirement quite so final, chatting to Mick Bolton about making the move from Lancashire to London as a young man (something we both did) and many similar conversations besides (as well as a plethora of the inevitable selfies, of course).

It was then back to the front of the stage for the tribute act Wott The Hoople to take part in a joyful, if slightly drunken celebration (certainly on my part by this stage) of Mott The Hoople’s music. A nice touch was getting Stan Tippins up (the original band’s vocalist from the pre-Ian Hunter days, turned MTH tour manager and occasional backing vocalist). They encored with Tippins singing the harmonies on a spectacular All The Young Dudes. A fantastic end to a fantastic day.

Forty-two years after their original demise Mott The Hoople is still a band that’s loved, celebrated and cherished by its many fans – and rightly so.

Thanks to Phil John and everyone else who worked to make this such a memorable event.

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Related reviews:
Ian Hunter at Shepherd’s Bush 2014
Ian Hunter at Minehead 2016
Mick Ralphs at Minehead 2015
Mick Ralphs at Minehead 2016
Mick Bolton at Hastings 2016

AC/DC at The Olympic Stadium, London 4/6/16

After successfully purchasing two tickets for this AC/DC gig the minute they went on sale last December I was gutted to later learn that a number of dates were being pulled because of Brian Johnson’s hearing problems, but also mystified to read in the announcement that they hoped to resume the tour “likely with a guest vocalist.” Just how was that going to work out?

A huge amount of controversy ensued about the way Brian Johnson had been treated, about whether the band was right to carry on and if (in the light of also losing founder, Malcolm Young, and drummer, Phil Rudd) the dignified thing was to call it a day once and for all and put the AC/DC name to rest. The subsequent rumours and then confirmation that it was to be Axl Rose replacing Johnson for the remainder of this tour merely stoked the controversy even further.

And now, as I’m standing in the Olympic Stadium watching the Axl Rose-fronted AC/DC, I’m reminded of something that my dad said to me at the time of Bon Scott’s death when I was just 13: “They might find another singer but no-one is ever going to sound as dirty as Bon Scott.” That’s not to berate Brian Johnson, who was a hugely powerful vocalist who delivered some brilliant rock anthems and who embodied the spirit of AC/DC for well over three decades. But he had a different style of vocal delivery to his predecessor and as I’m listening to Axl Rose belting out the likes of Hell Ain’t A Bad Place To Be, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and High Voltage I can’t help feeling he’s absolutely nailing those old Bon Scott tunes and bringing back some of that elusive “dirtiness” that my dad was always looking for. Perhaps, especially given I’d seen a brilliant AC/DC set at Wembley Stadium last year with Brian Johnson still at the helm, I’d probably have liked a few more Scott era classics in the set-list but that’s a minor quibble. Rose handles both the Scott and Johnson material with aplomb.

Musically, the band are as together as ever: blinding solos from Angus Young, crunching rhythm from Stevie Young (Malcolm’s successor), ever reliable bass-lines from Cliff Williams and powerhouse drumming from Chris Slade. The effects are all present and correct, too: the over the top lighting show, the crazy video shorts, the clanging bell, the firing cannons…

I’m genuinely pleased that I approached this gig in a spirit of optimism and open-mindedness. Axl Rose would certainly never have been my immediate thought for a replacement frontman for AC/DC. But he and the rest of the band gave us a night to remember. A credible band with a credible lead singer delivering a truly astonishing show. Long live AC/DC.

Setlist:
Rock or Bust
Shoot to Thrill
Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be
Back in Black
Got Some Rock & Roll Thunder
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
Rock ‘n’ Roll Damnation
Thunderstruck
High Voltage
Rock ‘n’ Roll Train
Hells Bells
Given the Dog a Bone
If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)
Sin City
You Shook Me All Night Long
Shot Down in Flames
Have a Drink on Me
T.N.T.
Whole Lotta Rosie
Let There Be Rock
Highway to Hell
Riff Raff
For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)

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http://www.acdc.com/

Previous review: AC/DC at Wembley

Brian Wilson at The London Palladium 20/5/16

The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds remains one of the most iconic records of all time and demonstrated just how far the rock’n’roll sounds of the early 60s beat era groups could evolve in such a short space of time. It celebrates it’s 50th anniversary since its release this month so what better way to celebrate my own 50th birthday than going to to see Brian Wilson perform Pet Sounds in full.

The first half of the show sees Wilson, his touring band and special guests run through a whole slew of Beach Boys classics: Heroes and Villains, California Girls, I Get Around, Surfer Girl, Wild Honey and many more. The sound is lush and full. Original Beach Boy, Al Jardine, demonstrates what amazing shape his voice is still in more than half a century after first appearing on Beach Boys records. Former Beach Boys touring guitarist, Blondie Chaplin, also provides some nifty lead guitar work.

The charismatic stage presence of some performers dominates every moment of their live show, regardless of who happens to be sharing the stage with them. For the introspective and softly spoken, Brian Wilson, however, you certainly don’t get that. Although billed as a solo tour it’s very much a band performance and he’s clearly happy to let a number of his colleagues share the limelight. But as he sits at his grand piano you do get a real sense of Wilson’s presence being the creative glue that holds the whole thing together.

After a short break the second set resumes with the band performing the whole of the Pet Sounds album in full. Pet Sounds contains some of the most memorable songs of the slower, more reflective side of the Beach Boys (as opposed to the “girls and cars” side): Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Sloop John B, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, Caroline No… The album is rightly celebrated for its lush soundscapes and its hugely ambitious range of instrumentation and musical textures. And I’m struck tonight by just how much love and attention has gone into replicating those sounds of fifty years ago here on stage tonight: the horns, the percussion, the glockenspiel.

For the encore Brian and the band return to the stage for a magnificent Good Vibrations, followed by an energetic and hugely enjoyable run-through of party hits like Help Me Rhonda, Barbara Ann and Surfin’ USA.

For that most American of musicians from that most American of bands, Britain has always had a soft spot Brian Wilson. Indeed, when Pet Sounds first came out it was much better received over here than in the States. And for all his natural awkwardness on stage it’s clear that Wilson does have a special love for performing to London audiences and that mutual love is on display, once again, tonight.

Setlist:

Our Prayer
Heroes and Villains
California Girls
Dance, Dance, Dance
I Get Around
Shut Down
Little Deuce Coupe
Little Honda
In My Room
Surfer Girl
Don’t Worry Baby
Wake the World
Add Some Music to Your Day
Do It Again
One Kind of Love
Wild Honey
Funky Pretty
Sail On, Sailor
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
You Still Believe in Me
That’s Not Me
Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder
I’m Waiting for the Day
Let’s Go Away for Awhile
Sloop John B
God Only Knows
I Know There’s an Answer
Here Today
I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
Pet Sounds
Caroline, No
Good Vibrations
All Summer Long
Help Me, Rhonda
Barbara Ann
Surfin’ U.S.A.
Fun, Fun, Fun
Love and Mercy

http://www.brianwilson.com/

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