Mind of Brian 2: The Lonely Sea

by Greg Panfile


Continuing the musical journey into the Mind of Brian that I've decided to inflict on you all, we arrive at this extremely interesting piece. Buried on the Surfin' USA album, excluded from all greatest hits and boxed collections I know of, there is this incredible gem.

I first got into this song when a kind fellow netter (Ken Frank) sent me a copy of Girls on the Beach. Brian synchs this song on the beach, surrounded by the rest of the group and some of the cast. All of a sudden I noticed, this song is incredibly good! Another reason to feel frustrated about that movie's stupid obeisance to the Beatles when here is America's greatest songwriter doing three really good tunes (this, the title cut, and Little Honda...). On to the tune...

Introductory Notes

Someone says something like "can you visit her?" that is barely audible. In comes the heavily tremeloed Fender guitar so associated with surf music, arpeggiating through one rip at the basic chord pattern:

C  Bb   Ab   G
In 6/8 time, sort of a fast waltz. This type of descent from the root (C) down to the dominant fifth (G) is pretty typical rock and roll in a sense, evocative of things like Walk Don't Run. But because it's done slowly rather than fast, and in a triplet-based primarily gospel time signature, you get a combination of the surf feel and something more emotionally elemental.

High Tide

The vocal enters, falsetto and treble, plaintive as a wounded seagull. Of course the metaphor is transferred here, it is not the sea that is lonely now is it. The same chord pattern continues over the lyrics: The lonely sea, the lonely sea; it never stops for you or me.

The next interesting event is the entry of the backing vocals. I don't have the time or expertise to deconstruct these to death, but all those Four Freshman tricks and Brian extensions are here in spades. Lots of deep bass notes from the vocals, lots of passing chords created by little vocal touches, and conversely lots of sustained notes across chord changes to create a feeling of stasis amid motion. That indeed is the entire crux and message of this song both lyrically and musically, a tidal feeling of steadiness and mutability intermixed.

The backing vocals really emerge just when Brian pulls one of his favorite tricks, a major/minor chord change with bass emphasis moving from root to third, setting up an excursion to what seems to be the major key of the parallel minor. What did he just say? Well, here is what the chords do:

Gm            F     Eb   Ab   G  
It moves along from day    to day
Coming out of the G finishing the previous verse pattern, the shift to Gm (with emphasis on Bb in the bass) is similar for example to the same trick in Surfer Girl albeit in a different key. Since the parallel minor of our root key C is C minor, and the feel of this passage leans heavily on the Eb chord reached by means of G minor, hence we have what can at least be justified as an excursion to the major key (Eb) of the parallel minor (Cm). Going to a sequence like this is quintessential Brian, and notice how the movement along is echoed in the lyrics. What we have here folks is a fusion of form and content that is extremely well done.

One constant theme, especially of the early masterpieces, that recurs in Brian's compositions is his ability to wrest novelty and freshness out of what might be considered limited or exhausted formal resources. Having spun out from three repetitions of the basic theme into the neat little pattern shown above (note that it has an odd number of chords and interrupts the previous "squareness" of repeated four-chord blocks, along comes a fairly standard pattern used as bridge:

C                      E7     
This pain in my heart  These tears in my eyes
F                      G
Please tell the truth  You're like the lonely
This is a fairly obvious variation on our old friend the 1 6 4 5 pattern: Oh Donna, the basis of Surfer Girl and Girls on the Beach, etc. The substitution of E7 for the Am you'd expect is interesting but not earthshattering; Lennon did things like this for example in No Reply. The feel is a strange combination: the spoken lyrics over the gospel timing and doo-wop chords are very Phil Spector; the E7 brings in a Four Freshmen, barbershop feel; the arpeggiated tremeloed guitar is pure surf. Yeah, that's it, the ultimate description of early Brian: barbershop surf gospel.

What's more interesting is that we're not done yet. While musically it would be quite viable to go back to the standard C Bb Ab G pattern, that just doesn't happen. Instead we get a somewhat standard 2-5 turnaround:

Dm      G
Sea......    Lonely
The effect of this little addon, and the wonderful harmonies that accompany it, is of something that was expected to leave, but lingered awhile, then left anyway. Talk about fitting with the lyrics. And now that we've basically explored all three structural elements (all material from here on in revolves around repetition of the basic theme from the intro and verse), we note that one has four chords, the next five, the third six.

The Ebbing Coda

I just can't say enough about the endmatter/fadeout to this song, though that won't be for lack of trying. The vocal gymnastics, virtual rondos and so forth we'll see so prominently in God Only Knows and Sloop John B appear here; if you turn the volume up on the end of this one you'll be surprised to hear just how much is going on vocally and how good it is. Never mind the beautiful harmonizing, just listen to the timing on the vocal lines, analyze them as percussion and you'll get an idea of just how damn good this guy was. There is some kind of fractal self-similarity thing happening, reminiscent of those Japanese drawings of waves breaking, a grand movement replicated on a middle scale by a similar shape, itself made up of smaller wavelets shaped like it and the grand movement, just unbelievably good.

Looking at those simple four chords again:

C     Bb     Ab     G
There is clearly that descent in the bass, again it doesn't take S. T. Coleridge to notice the resemblance between that motion and a wave receding from a beach. But there are some other things happening too: for example, the ostinato melody in the lead voice that is sung constantly no matter what the chords are:

A    F   G
Lone-ly sea...
The held note is the G on sea; indeed, on some level we have that as a pedal tone throughout. By holding still while the chords change, it moves along from fifth, to sixth, to major seventh, to root tone. And there is this interesting little thing happening if you look at this progression from the point of view of third-pairs revolving around the root tone:

C     Bb    Ab    G

C     Bb    C     B
E     D     Eb    D
See it? A pair of major thirds a step apart on C and Bb, then a pair of minor thirds a half-step apart on C and B. There is something incredibly cool in this, if you just sit and play only those notes it sounds great in its own way. And the theme of stillness in motion, or is it movement without change of location, whatever it is, that central contradiction between the fact of the ocean always being in motion yet always in the same place, is RIGHT THERE.

The Big Picture

Of course in a way the song isn't about the sea at all, now is it. It is about the woman the sea symbolizes, she who never stays, moving to cyclical, waltzing rhythms beyond our comprehension. And the sea isn't lonely, the singer is. Beyond all of that, the unfathomability of the lunar-ruled pool of eternal ethereal femininity, there is even more. The lyric poem, it meant that which was accompanied by the lyre: usually for religious purposes. The troubadors, the true inventors of rock and roll, and William Blake too, they plumbed the same deep for the same purpose in the same way. For the male singer, the woman is the soul, the unreachable essence of wherever we came from, to be sought, evoked, and seduced by song. Everything returns to its origin and we come from woman, from the sea, from the source of souls before all that, and long to return. We'll be lonely till we do, but at least there is music, and love, and the Mind of Brian to keep us company.

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