A salute to Van Dyke Parks

I've been meaning to put down a few thoughts for quite a while about Van Dyke Parks. He's one of these Zelig-like characters, appearing at many crucial junctures in pop music history. This much I knew. I knew he played keyboards on the title track of The Byrds' 1966 album 5-D (I can hear that sunburst organ on the playout now - actually so can you, here).

I knew about his association with Brian Wilson, co-writing several songs with him for the lost Smile album. Including this absolute classic, Heroes and villains.

What a great lyric -

I'm fit with the stuff
To ride in the rough
And sunny down snuff I'm alright

He was also involved in plenty of other Beach Boys compositions, co-writing with Brian mostly, not always with the approval of the other 'Boys (Mike Love in particular, I think). And I notice he crops up on backing vocals on one of my all-time favourite Beach Boys songs, A day in the life of a tree from Surf's up, 1971. Mmmm.

He returned to work with Brian Wilson for 1995's Orange crate art, another beautiful album (foreshadowing Wilson's recent Gershwin tribute, in some ways). Here's some footage from a documentary about the project made that year.

And of course he released his own solo material, starting with the deliriously freewheeling montage of American music, although with a melancholy undertone, that is Song cycle (1968). Check the stunning arrangement on Donovan's Colours, which calls to mind everything from Gram Parsons to silent film soundtracks to John Philip Sousa (Parks' father was a member of Sousa's Sixty Silver Trumpets).

Discover America (1972) was also subversive, in terms of political comment (the hilarious G-Man Hoover, for example) but also in its combination of calypso sounds with musical theatre arrangements. In lesser hands that could have turned ugly. Nothing ugly though about this tribute to gold-plated crooner Bing Crosby. (It also features whistling, always good.)

Just a few years ago I came across another beguiling album he made with Inara George (she's a daughter of Lowell George - who VDP also worked with - one half of duo The Bird and the Bee and possessor of a gorgeous, smoky voice), called An Introduction, a brilliant narrative suite of musical showtunes.

And of course his name has come back into vogue somewhat since his arranging work for Joanna Newsom on her album Ys in 2006. You can hear his fingerprints (yes, you can hear fingerprints) all over this fantastic arrangement from that album.

However, nothing had prepared me for the ridiculously long and varied list of collaborators/artists whose work he has contributed to, meticulously compiled on his official website - www.vandykeparks.com. Like The Chills' Soft bomb. Jesus. (I love that album - now I know why...) Also producing Randy Newman's debut album, working with Frank Black, T-Bone Burnett, Ry Cooder, Arlo Guthrie, Harry Nilsson, Tim Buckley, The Everly Brothers, Nathalie Merchant, The Scissor Sisters, Kinky Friedman, Rufus Wainwright and on and on. And among a load of soundtrack work over the years (Popeye, Scrooged, Geronimo, for example), this treasure from Sesame Street: Follow that bird (he wrote the score).

I'd hazard a guess he's the only person to feature on both the Nuggets: Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968 compilation (playing keyboards on a track by The Mojo Men, among other roles) and Melrose Place: The Music (OST). No musical snobbery about the man, just a broad, open-armed, even attitude to music in all its styles and possibilities.

Plus he once auditioned for a part in The Monkees TV show. What a man.

Here's a great clip of him talking about some of his early musical influences.

I had the privilege of seeing him play at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona in 2010, with a chamber group made up of most of Clare & the Reasons, a group he's been touring on and off with for the last couple of years. Here's some (occasionally shaky) footage of that gig, in the Parc del Forum Auditorium.

Here's what I thought of that gig at the time.

Clare & the Reasons/Van Dyke Parks - Primavera 2010

Family-less on the final day, I decide to begin with an entire gig from start to finish, in the shape of Brooklyn's Clare & the Reasons in the auditorium. I've been looking forward to this very much, You getting me from their last album having got completely under my skin in the last few weeks. And it shapes up in fantastic chamber pop style, with cello, violin, trombones, tuba (or was it flugelhorn?) and pristine multi-part harmonies. However, despite the gorgeous arrangements, the overall effect is a little twee for my taste (I must say though their cover of Genesis' That's all is genius, and elsewhere the moment with all the kazoos is very, very charming). They need something more playful to break the slightly staid atmosphere, I'm thinking. As if on cue, and to prove the point, the venerable Van Dyke Parks joins them on piano for their last song. Immediately proceedings are lifted. Coming back on for his own set, joined by three of the Reasons, he is magic, successfully managing to suggest Gershwin, The Beach Boys and Randy Newman, while retaining his own unique style. When he introduces the pieces he wrote for his children, music set to the Brer Rabbit tales, as "stories of black people in white America, of survival", I don't know whether to laugh or cry. What a legend. Even three of his songs amounted to a priceless experience.

It was also fitting that Grizzly Bear were on the same bill that weekend, a band that often echo VDP in their arrangements and song structures.

This is from a very interesting recent interview with Siobhán Kane for Thumped.

"...music should not be static or formulaic, it is so ho-hum when that happens, better that music be an arena for great imagining and reinvention. It wouldn't be the case if it were the munitions industry, you can take a chemistry set into the attic and blow off the roof if you are a careless adolescent experimenter, and in the hands of adults, bombs do the same thing, you can make huge mistakes, but the mistakes you make in music are fairly modest. I don't think people should be condemned for experimenting in music, I hold to that."

He's only 68 (and hopefully around for another while yet) but that last sentence reads a bit like an epitaph for the man. Never afraid of taking a risk or swimming against the tide, a true innovator. Inventor of chamber pop. And in an age when the word legend is bandied about, a proper legend.

P.S. This link on the official VDP website is an excellent biographical account of the man's life and work, up to 1985, when he brought out the Jump album, written by Timothy White.


This superb quote from the article reads like a mission statement for anyone invlved in music and is an optimistic note to end on.

I’m still reeling with this challenge,” he says, “to keep my hopes pinned to music which feels like it has aspirations, which feels like it has tensile strength, is on the cutting edge, does have something incisive to offer. I want to ensure that it is discerning, that it is anxious, that it flies nervously and not with its grip on the joystick of preordained method. That it remains excited, driven by passion, does not become an oligarchic swill of self-insistence, that it nourishes and flatters our personal dimension and all that’s gone into it."

P.P.S. And I should mention that VDP is releasing new material in 2011, all on 7 inch vinyl no less. Some background on this Tiny Mix Tapes link - http://www.tinymixtapes.com/news/van-dyke-parks-yes-one-who-hasnt-released-any-new-music-over-15-years-launches-7-inch-series - and full sleevework and purchase details on his label website, Bananastan.


  1. Great post. Going mad I missed him a few weeks ago in Dublin. Timothy White also wrote a lot of the liner notes on the Beach Boys reissues. The bit about his first Irish gig in Siobhan Kane's interview is unreal.

  2. i know yeah, mad. sure it turns out he arranged the strings on all i want is you, hence bono being there i suppose. i think leagues said he interviewed him that time in dublin too.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Go-Betweens - 1978-1990 (Beggars Banquet)

Playlist 513 - Best of 2020

Playlist 510: Aug 2020, New Music