Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2008. The “dozen years ago” reference in the second paragraph is now significantly higher.
For those who would say that the golden age of American Popular Song ended with the advent of rock and roll, or disco, or rap, or whatever, there is the occasional musical piece that transcends the artificial timeline and rises above the usual musical fray.
A mere dozen years ago the one-time songwriting team of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks reunited for a stunning masterpiece of classic pop. Borrowing from Burt Bacharach, George & Ira Gershwin, and mostly themselves, these two aged veterans of the music industry created a gem of an album called Orange Crate Art that has been all but forgotten.
Without dwelling too much on the history of Wilson and Parks, we’ll set the background for this album.
Brian Wilson was founder and leader of rock and roll’s Beach Boys. Mixed in with his well-known rockers, Wilson created the occasional tune that fit almost immediately into the great American songbook. “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl” are two examples of his early ballads that transcended common rock and roll. Later songs like “California Girls” flirted between rock and pop. In 1966 he created an album called Pet Sounds that redefined rock recording. A few critics at the time recognized that songs like “God Only Knows” would put Wilson firmly in league with the greats of American popular song.
By 1967 Wilson was seeking a lyricist who could match the complexity of his compositions. He turned to a young, hip artist/musician named Van Dyke Parks, who was trying to pass himself off as a poet. The pair began work on a project called Smile. As critics caught snippets of the music in process, they universally declared it spectacular. But Wilson, an up-and-coming 1960s version of Mozart, was derailed by drugs and personal demons midway through the project.
Parks went on to a successful career as songwriter, producer, arranger, musician and all-around musical guru for the Warner Brothers label. The zenith of his career was his 1968 debut album called Song Cycle, which managed to combine incredible critical acclaim with stunning commercial failure. While earning his keep as a jack-of-all-trades at Warners, Parks continued to make important solo music that impressed critics and cognoscenti, but failed to sell. He explored all sorts of ethnic music and its impact on and place in American music, and added the title of “ethnomusicologist” to his resume. By the 1980s it was understood that the mere presence of Van Dyke Parks was enough to make a musical project relevant and important. It was also a safe bet that sales would be disappointing.
In the mid 1990s Parks determined that “California” would be his next musical study; California as a musical source, and as a concept in general. Specifically, California as it was in 1955. Where Smile was intended to paint a musical picture of life in America, this new effort would concentrate instead on a brief point in the history and culture of California.
It was around this time that Brian Wilson appeared to finally be coming out of decades of drugs, depression, and questionable medication. His talent for creating beautiful music was somehow still intact, but he wasn’t motivated to do much. Parks wanted Wilson to be part of his 1955 California project, so he reached out. The friendship was rekindled, Wilson rediscovered his purpose in life, and work began.
The relationship was a bit different, as Parks composed both the music and lyrics for most of the selections. Another well-known California (via the UK) composer, Michael Hazlewood, contributed one selection and lyrics for a couple of songs. Wilson’s job was to sing the songs, which he did a decent job on, but more importantly to arrange the vocals. The songs covered subjects from San Francisco to Hollywood, from sailing to summers in Monterey.
Musically, the listener is left with the impression that almost every song is important, and some are worthy of recognition as true classics in the tradition of American popular song. Musically, Parks mixes virtually any instrument that was ever played in the Golden State, from steel drums to sweeping string arrangements. Vocally, Wilson layers his voice with Parks and a few other friends — including Danny Hutton from Three Dog Night — to create a rich, full sound. The combination is captivating, a journey through the state in the mid 1950s. The lyrical story ends with a song wistful that the day and the journey is over: “This Town Goes Down at Sunset.” A new recording of George Gershwin’s “Lullaby” is the coda on the album. It provides a quiet interlude, preparing the listener to leave 1955 and return to the present. Or perhaps it’s just a way to end the session before turning off the nightlight.
Like most Van Dyke Parks projects, Orange Crate Art was declared an instant classic, and sales naturally tanked. The recordings remain more or less unheard by the listening public, which is a shame. The upside thus far seems to be that Wilson and Parks began working together again, and a decade later collaborated to finish the legendary Smile album.
But the real impact of Orange Crate Art remains to be seen. It is quite likely that 100 years from now, music professors will speak of this work as one of the most important and influential examples of American popular song from the late 20th Century.