THE BEACH GIRL
Setting the record straight with the woman who broke into rock’s boys’ club, played on a generation’s greatest hits and then, mostly, went quiet. By
Early in 2015’s Love & Mercy, a film based on the life of Brian Wilson, a foxy blonde in cat’s-eye sunglasses addresses the Beach Boys leader. “Hey, Brian? I think you might have screwed up here,” she says, gesturing to the sheet music with her pencil. “You’ve got Lyle playing in D and the rest of us are in A major. How does that work? Two bass lines in two different keys?”
As she often was in real life, that blonde bassist Carol Kaye is the lone woman in the studio, and the only female member of an informal, unheralded line-up of talent — drummers, guitarists, percussionists, piano and horn players — that you hear on the Beach Boys’ legendary Pet Sounds. She’s also on a jukebox worth of hit songs from the 1950s and 60s: Ritchie Valens’s La Bamba, Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots are Made for Walkin, Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair, to name a few.
Mostly, these musicians were jazz players brought in from Los Angeles’s teeming nightclub scene to lend their chops to the recordings of rock bands, some of whom (like the Monkees) rarely touched an instrument inside a studio. So, dramatic liberties aside, it’s unlikely that “How does that work?” was a phrase uttered by the now 81-year-old Kaye, whom Wilson and Quincy Jones have called the greatest bassist in the world. Yet, because so few people know her name, it’s all too easy to fictionalise a woman who made such a big and influential noise while working in the shadows, and in a nearly allmale world.
Kaye never exactly expected to be remembered. Most session musicians thought they were creating ephemeral pop hits, not lasting touchstones. “Music up to that time had a life span of about 10 years,” says the chatty, greyhaired Kaye, speaking from the sofa in the living room of her home on a warm day in early April, her white poodle mix Rusty beside her. “We’re shocked those songs lived on.”
Legacies are complicated affairs. As anyone who shares success with other people knows, collaboration and dispute tend to go together. For instance, session drummer Hal Blaine claims he, Kaye and their colleagues were known as the Wrecking Crew, a sobriquet he came up with after older studio hacks expressed a concern that these firebrands would “wreck” the music industry with their faddish rock. As nicknames go, the group’s is pretty badass — except, according to Kaye, it’s an ex post facto bit of mythmaking from Blaine. “We were never called that,” she says bluntly, and it bugs her that the term has stuck.
Not in dispute, though, are Kaye’s bona fides. “Carol’s genius was to look at extremely basic songs and figure out a way to make them interesting,” says Michael Molenda, chief at Amer- Pet Sounds ica’s Bass Player magazine. “She’d listen to the musicians and just find that hooky, memorable bass line to drive the song forward. She could show up at a session for Sonny & Cher’s The Beat Goes On and rescue the tune with a bouncy lick in F, or improvise, on a lark, a zippy bass solo on Mel Torme’s classic Games People Play that makes the song.”
Kaye doesn’t record much any more but she gives lessons via Skype, and if you order any of her 40 or so educational books and DVDs you may receive some cool memorabilia, like a photocopy of her cheque for playing on the Mission: Impossible theme song ($70). Two years after moving into her one-storey house here on the edge of the Mojave in Antelope Valley, Califor- nia, and she still hasn’t finished unpacking decades’ worth of stuff, but her instruments are resting prominently in the living room.
“We liked (rock) because it was so easy, see,” she says of sessions that typically lasted a few hours and yielded five or six songs. “That meant we could do a whole album in six hours.” Assuming that album wasn’t for fellow bassist Wilson, that is. Pet Sounds, which turns 50 next month, took more than a year to finish, with upwards of 30 takes on tracks such as Wouldn’t It Be Nice and Kaye’s favourite, Sloop John B. Wilson was heavily influenced by Phil Spector’s symphonic productions for the Ronettes and the Crystals, and Kaye worked for that notoriously difficult producer, too. Once, when a preg-
The Beach Boys in their prime in the 1960s with Brian Wilson (far right); Carol Kaye, top right, who played bass on the group’s album