Last month, on the same date, EMI Music released two fascinating rock albums—one a new recording by a '60s rock band and the other a remastered classic by one of the most influential artists of the '70s. The new one is the Beach Boys' That's Why God Made the Radio, and the remastered CD is David Bowie's masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Startdust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). Both are concept albums—one celebrating the romantic possibilities of an endless summer and the other tracing the decadent undermining of an alien who arrives on earth to offer hope five years before the planet's destruction. [Pictured at top: David Bowie]
While the two albums may seem like polar opposites, they actually share several common threads: romantic drama, experimentation, the leveraging of earlier musical themes and a passion for basic rock and roll. Both also dwell on the aging process, the unpredictability of human nature and the mysterious excitement of sex. [Pictured above: Brian Wilson]
The Beach Boys' new album is loaded with joyous vocal harmony, medium-tempo love songs and easy-to-understand lyrics. Which given today's music scene is probably an alien concept. With its happy-hour spirit and youth-centric themes, the album is a slow Pacific Coast sunset, complete with subtle instrumental references to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" hits, the Young Rascals, Paul McCartney & Wings and others. The album is unabashed over-60 rocker music and features songs you'd want to come through the speakers of a fully restored Corvette while coasting around Newport Beach.
You'll be inclined to compare That's Why God Made the Radio with the group's earlier albums, particularly Pet Sounds and Smile, Brian Wilson's towering works. But trying to rank the new album would be folly. Rather, you'll be better-off enjoying it as a distillation of the Beach Boys' sound as imagined by Brian today and the pop-rock and folk-rock sounds that have excited him most over the years.
Think of this effort as a collage of color photographs from your '60s youth. But you may not get the point on the first listen. It took me three. Your first listen will likely make you think the music is way too simplistic. Your second listen may make you think the songs' messages are sappy. By your third listen, you will start to hear revelations about Brian's constructivist approach to production and songwriting as well as his near-religious adoration of simplicity, harmony and clarity. [Pictured above: The Beach Boys]
While That's Why God Made the Radio is a yearning for pre-digital times—when teens merely obsessed over dating, cars and the beach—David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust is science friction, a gothic interpretation of a pre-ordained future and a helpless, vice-ridden messenger. If you're unfamiliar with Bowie or have never given him a chance because of all the strange stuff on album covers, I urge you to pack all that away. Bowie's brilliance rests with a highly passionate, operatic approach to rock. Lyrics aren't meant to be analyzed as much as experienced.
From Five Years—the opening track that lays out the album's storyline and earth's pending demise—to Rock & Roll Suicide, the closer, Bowie's songwriting and arranging prowess are unrivaled in the '70s. Consider the chorus to Soul Love...
Love is careless in its choosing
Sweeping over cross a baby
Love descends on those defenseless
Idiot love will spark the fusion
Inspirations have I none
Just to touch the flaming dove
All I have is my love of love
And love is not loving
Again, don't let logic ruin the fun. Just absorb the crashing sounds of words and dig how the music rises and falls with tension and despair. Like the Beach Boys new album, Ziggy Stardust is about chasing love. But unlike That's Why God Made the Radio, which is really about the past as a future ideal, Ziggy Stardust takes place at a time when tomorrow no has meaning and love is now and rather icy.
At any rate, both albums will touch you, from different directions. Which is why I've found it rather interesting to listen to them one after the other. They're both heartfelt, richly textured and, above all, honest. [Pictured above: Brian Wilson]
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Beach Boys' That's Why God Made the Radio (Capitol EMI) at Amazon here.
You'll find the 40th Anniversary remastering of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (EMI) at Amazon here. How's the remastering? More true to the LP than earlier Virgin releases, with greater dimensional detail. Earlier releases tended to emphasize the instrumentation over the vocals.
JazzWax clips: Here's From There to Back Again, my favorite track off the Beach Boys' new album, That's Why God Made the Radio...
Here's a live version of Starman, from David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust...