There was an ancient encased clock, all polished brass and varnished wood, that kept time in the foyer outside the main hall at the old Irvine Royal Aademy. Set into the wall, it was part of the very fabric of the school and when I was a pupil there in the mid 80s it looked as old as the school itself, a building erected in 1901 to replace the original school that had become too small for the growing population of the town. The old clock, they said, had been part of that original school and was moved across as the centrepiece for the new school. Bells rang on the hours it chimed. Exams crawled past in the minutes it ticked. The headmaster’s busy footsteps echoed in time through the hall as each second swung past to and fro on the metronomic pendulum. The old school has long-since closed, converted into turn of the century offices for businesses keen to impress, but I’ll bet the old timepiece still determines when meetings start and finish, when deals are concluded and the working day is over.
The clock, they also said, was the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit And The Pendulum, his gothic horror story about a prisoner trapped in his cell during the Spanish Inquisition. The pendulum wipes away the minutes of the prisoner’s life as he tries to come to terms with and then escape from his situation. You should probably read it.
Edgar Allan Poe spent time in Irvine and was around when the original school was opened, so I like to think there’s some truth in the ‘they say’ story. If you’re a local or are familiar with the town, Poe stayed in an upstairs room in the building that is now James Irvine’s solicitor’s office at the Cross. Anyway….
The Pit And The Pendulum also makes an appearance as a line in the Beach Boys’ 1971 under-played classic Surf’s Up. From the album of the same name, the title track is a weird and wonky, dark and dense tour de force. The song’s genesis stretches back to Brian Wilson’s troubled period when he composed on a piano inside a sandpit on his living room floor. With music by Wilson and oblique, stream of consciousness lyrics by Van Dyke Parks (it’s about spiritual awakening, they say), it was to be part of the Smile album, but after that album was shelved, Surf’s Up lay unheard for 5 years before being revived as the titular closing track, a title loaded with inference that the early cars ‘n girls ‘n fun fun fun Beach Boys was very much a thing of the past.
Here’s the Smile demo:
Beach Boys – Surf’s Up (piano demo)
…and here’s the finished version that closed the Surf’s Up album; sleigh bells, percussion that sounds like rattling jewellery and stack after stack of those signature rich, thick Beach Boys’ harmonies in the close-out.
Beach Boys – Surf’s Up
It’s a good album, Surf’s Up. Save the hokey 12 bar blues Student Demonstration Time that closes the first side, it’s packed full of sad melodies, ahead-of-it’s-time eco-friendly messages and home to one of the finest songs in the Beach Boys’ canon, the Bruce Johnston-led Disney Girls (1957).
Beach Boys – Disney Girl’s (1957)
Also worth investiagting if you’ve never heard it before is ‘Til I Die, Brian Wilson’s whimsical, autobiographical address to the state of his health. I’m a cork on the ocean, it goes, floating over the raging sea. How deep is the ocean? I lost my way. It’s soul music, Jim, but not as we know it.
Beach Boys – ‘Til I Die
Here’s Brian in the middle of a Surf’s Up recording session wearing his pyjamas.
2 thoughts on “Canvas The Town And Brush The Backdrop”
The original Smile-session “Surf’s Up” demo was so good that they actually punch it in at various points on the later album version. Check both versions from “The choke of grief heart-hardened I…” that last section (at 2.40 or so) is completely the old “Smile” demo with a few embellishments. They also stick on a sweet coda from “Child Is Father of the Man” (from “Smiley Smile”) at the end of that fattened-up album version. I love that ending.
There is a 6XCD box called “Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys” which is the best compilation of this period of the Beach boys and features Brians “Smile-era” mono mixes and loads of really brilliant stuff. Your run-of-the-mill hits collection it ain’t. I picked up my boxa-treasures in a library CD sale for £2.50. Get a copy if you can.
As for literary connections – there is Burns with “The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne” and “The diamond necklace played the pawn” is a reference to Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace”. It’s also chock-full of daft puns which end in a flourish referencing Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”! “The glass was raised, the tired rose, the fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting, while at port adieu or die.”The combination of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks is still a very heady mix. Rich treasures indeed.
Lovely choices here Craig.
Wow! Thanks for the input. I have that Good Vibrations box set. It’s terrific.
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