Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Welcome to summer.  One of my all-time favorite albums is All Summer Long by the Beach Boys.  It always gets moved into my playpile in June and stays right near the top for a few months.  Last year while I was working on the book I started to pay close attention to the instrumental Carl's Big Chance.  It's sort of a throwaway guitar instrumental on side two but I listened to it more closely knowing that Carl Wilson would be teaching Alex Chilton how to play the guitar not when the Box Tops toured with the Beach Boys not that long after the record was made.  Some people have speculated as to how much influence Carl had on Alex and two overriding concepts came to mind.  The first is that Carl was a lead guitarist who didn't see himself as a soloist working within band but rather a band member who played an instrument whose solo capabilities could be used to build a great band track.  They came up with parts that fit the particular song and didn't focus on the particular part of the song where they could grab the solo spotlight.  Neither Carl nor Alex seemed to feel a need to be the archetypal lead guitarist – an extended show-off guitar solo from either of them would seem as out of character as a Levon Helm drum solo.  The second influence that Carl might have had on Alex is in the area of tone.  Clean, articulate, without effects.  Alex would eventually use all sorts of guitars and amps but the guitar sound of Radio City is largely the sound of a Fender Strat through a Fender Twin (or Hi-Watt) with no pedals.  Alex undoubtedly heard other guitarists who employed the same simple approach but has expressed his greatest admiration for Carl Wilson.  

Last night I was reading Inside the Music of Brian Wilson by Philip Lambert (also published by Continuum) and learned this little tidbit: the original working title of Carl's Big Chance was Memphis Beach!  Although likely inspired by the chunka-chunka guitar rhythm from the Chuck Berry tune (a recent hit for Johnny Rivers at the time), it's also an eery sign of the future friendship between a kid from California and a kid from Memphis.  

I came across an outtake of the Beach Boys doing an impromptu version of The Letter sometime in the late 60s.  Knowing of Alex's affection for the Beach Boys, I asked him over the phone if he'd ever heard it.  His reply, "I think so."  



Larry said...

I have to confess that I've never been a huge Beach Boys fan (powerpop sacrilege, I know)- perhaps it has something to do with growing up in the belly of that particular sun&surf&sand beast. I do hear echoes of Carl W. in Alex's guitar, but I also hear lotsa Steve Cropper (and his forebears) in both. Alex obviously absorbed those influences plus the McGuinn/Byrds thing and turned them (inside out) into something entirely his own.

Bruce Eaton said...

Thanks for the comment Larry! I actually was just about to work in Cropper to the comment and then decided to leave it focused on Carl. But you're absolutely right - that clean Memphis guitar sound was a big influence and Cropper would be at the top of the list. Imagine all those great guitar players in your own city! Cropper. Scotty Moore. The crew at American Studios.