THE BEACH GIRL

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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

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