1) Brian Wilson wrote California Girls during his first LSD trip
California is one of those places that I’ve always felt I visited without ever actually doing so. I can only attribute this to the numerous times its colorful and sunny atmosphere has been captured and immortalized; be it on record, film or paper. There’s the classic, summer-of-love flavored California Dreamin’. Woody Allen’s portrayal of it in opposition with the coldness and neuroticism of New York in Annie Hall. Heck, there’s a seemingly endless list of the songs written about it over the years presented on Wikipedia. But I still feel there is no better place to get that feeling than The Beach Boys’ early discography. The themes on those songs vary from surfing, to beaches, to cars or to girls; but what unites them all is the feeling that they all happen in the same physical area. They all come together in forming a land that feels care-free and where having a good time is guaranteed.
California Girls is definitely a product of that Beach Boys era, written before the heartbreak and angst started to replace the fun. But it was also conceived after Brian Wilson’s decision to quit touring, making it a “studio product” with eclectic instrumentation and meticulous construction. In fact, my favorite part is neither the anthemic chorus nor the Mike Love-sung verses leading to it, but the orchestrated intro. It seems to be taking the listener on a short journey to a fantasy land and when it’s over, you open your eyes to find that California was that destination all along. I was not surprised to learn that Brian wrote that opening during his first ever LSD trip: “I was thinking about the music from cowboy movies. And I sat down and started playing it, bum-buhdeeda, bum-buhdeeda. I did that for about an hour. I got these chords going. Then I got this melody, it came pretty fast after that. And the rest was history, right?” Say what you will about drugs, but clearly they had a hand in helping Brian write this song as well as future masterpiece, a hand in opening the gates of creativity to even broader horizons.
2) Comfortably Numb was inspired by Roger Waters being sedated
Yet another drug-inspired song. But this time around the experience was not recreational as much as medical – Roger Waters was sick with stomach cramps from an undiagnosed case of hepatitis before a show to the point where he wasn’t able to go on stage. A doctor came to the rescue with a shot of tranquilizers that according to Roger would’ve killed a fucking elephant, hence the lyric “That’ll keep you going through the show”. In fact, it’s not just that single lyric. Everything that the character Pink is portrayed feeling in the song mirrors Waters’ real-life experience: both become numb to the pain at first, then start hallucinating and recalling childhood memories, and finally are able to go on stage. Now I know what you’re gonna say – their paths split next with Pink either becoming or imagining himself become a full-blown fascist dictator in The Wall’s plot-twist, whereas Waters only went on to perform the planned concert (a bad one apparently, because he wasn’t able to properly play the bass, but the fans didn’t care anyway).
But that only goes to show how rooted in reality The Wall really is, at least up to this song. And I know I’ve said this before, but Pink Floyd always had a way of resonating with the listener that most prog rock bands of the time lacked. Comfortably Numb is indeed great musically with its suitable dreamy and hazy atmosphere and Gilmour’s guitar solos that many have written about, but re-listening to it now made me appreciate just how well the story is told. That attention to detail can only come from having been in that situation yourself.
Categories: Stories Behind Classic Songs