Strange Vibrations

 

If you think Brian Wilson is strange, come and meet Van Dyke Parks, his long time co-writer. A former child actor (he was in The Swan with Alec Guinness) who went on to write and arrange songs for Disney soundtracks (including The Bare Necessities from The Jungle Book) the man has touched base with a bewildering array of other musicians, writers and film-makers: he has produced Randy Newman, arranged U2, written a film soundtrack for Jack Nicholson and acted in Twin Peaks. There's also the small matter of him being the co-writer (with Wilson) of the greatest album never released: the mythological Beach Boys album, Smile. And if that's not enough, you could make a genuine case for him writing and recording the first ever "world music" album - but more of that later.

Given the eclectic nature of his work and his background in the Californian 1960s, you'd be forgiven for thinking he was some sort of hippy idiot savant, addled by psychedelia and "elevated to a higher state of consciousness" by some Zen Buddhist tract. Not so: if you dig a bit deeper than the surface flower-power nonsense, you'll find a truly inspired and utterly idiosyncratic musician - a sort of saner version of Syd Barrett or a more together version of Captain Beefheart's Don Van Vliet.

A protege of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy leader favoured him because he felt Parks was one of the few people who could do justice to his increasingly complex melodic arrangements. By the time Smile was recorded in 1967, Wilson had long since tired of the banal "fun in the sun" lyrics proffered by Mike Love and had killed off the surfer image with Pet Sounds a few years earlier. The Parks/Wilson work on Smile, from Heroes And Villains to Surf's Up is quite simply stunning, but Parks found himself quickly isolated by the rest of the band on the grounds that he was "too weird" - which is a bit rich coming from a Beach Boy, but there you go.

Parks' first solo album, the 1968 Song Cycle, is a vastly ambitious work that should, in retrospect, be considered as significant as Velvet Undergound And Nico or Trout Mask Replica. A big baroque beast of an album, it is best described as orchestral pop, combining as it does fairly straightforward song lines with some very spacey arrangements. It was reviewed at the time as "like nothing that you have ever heard before"; and things haven't really changed since.

A definite music historian, Parks's album was a clever pastiche of everything musical, with classical samples played over barber-shop style vocal arrangements - the sort of thing that, if it was released today, would be nominated for a Mercury Music Prize and gushed over as an "aural art exhibit". He followed that up with Discover America in 1972 which was, at its core, a Caribbean steel band album (hence the "world music" connection) but Parks being Parks, it also included a very peculiar ode to Jack Palance, along with a ballad about J. Edgar Hoover and a warped orchestral version of a Little Feat song. Most strange. Things calmed down a bit, but not much, on Clang Of The Yankee Reaper (1975); the Caribbean feel was still there but it was leavened with all sorts of funk rhythms and dribs and drabs of full-on disco. It seemed, though, he was only warming up: a subsequent "concept" album dealt with the state of American-Japanese post-war relations.

He was re-united with Brian Wilson a couple of years ago on the oddly splendid Orange Crate Art album, and there always remains the hope that the two of them can sit down with the legions of lawyers, publishers and record company bosses to sift through the Smile sessions - even though about 40 per cent of the album surfaced on the later Smiley Smile.

The bottom line on Van Dyke Parks is, if he's good enough for Brian Wilson, he's good enough for me. Song Cycle, Discover America and Clang Of The Yankee Reaper have all just been re-released on the Rykodisc label and are well worth a listen, particularly if you've already heard (and liked) Scott Walker's Tilt. If not, stay well away.