J Mascis Takes a Run at the Sun

Allison Anders’ 1996 fictional film, Grace of My Heart – a clever and heartfelt tribute to the great sounds of the 1960s and early 70s – features original songs that take their inspiration from Brill Building & girl group pop, as well as Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” British Invasion beat groups, and confessional singer-songwriter balladry that later set the stage for “adult contemporary” pop.  The soundtrack’s effectiveness is due, in part, to the fact that a number of songs were written by veteran songwriters of the classic pop era in collaboration with more contemporary artists, as in the case of “God Give Me Strength,” which was written by Burt Bacharach with Elvis Costello.

“Take a Run at the Sun” – a deft blend of surf and theremin that is one of the soundtrack’s highlights – was written and performed by J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and is notable for sounding nothing like the gargantuan guitar roar for which the 90s “alternative” rock trio is famous:

The following year saw the release of a Dinosaur Jr. 3-song single (in the UK and Australia only) which featured “Take a Run at the Sun” as the A-side with “Don’t You Think It’s Time” and “The Pickle Song” on the flip side.

Take a Run at the Sun 45 - Dinosaur Jr

Paul Tanner: Musician-of-All-Trades & Oddball Instrumentalist

Paul Tanner, who just recently passed, lived to the ripe old age of 95.  I was delighted to learn that this one-time trombonist for the Glenn Miller Orchestra went on to play the pivotal theremin part on the Beach Boys’ worldwide 1966 hit, “Good Vibrations” – as well as on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” from 1965’s Pet Sounds plus the title track from 1967’s Wild Honey.

According to Bruce Weber, Tanner went to California in the early 1950s to do film soundtracks, as well as live musical performances on ABC TV, and it was during this period in which he “became something of a musician-of-all-trades, taking up a variety of oddball instruments and performing on them when a quirky score called for them.”

Tanner became interested in the theremin – Leon Theremin’s self-named futuristic 1920s electronic musical instrument – as a result of having witnessed its effective implementation in the soundtracks of such 1950s science fiction films as The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing (From Another World) click here to hear a theremin recording session for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Tanner, after noticing theremin performers struggling with the instrument to obtain correct intonation and dynamics, contracted with a TV repair shop owner and friend, Bob Whitsell, to construct for him an instrument that would replicate the sound of a theremin but include manual levers that would allow the player to have greater control over volume and pitch.  Thus was born the “electro-theremin” (also known as the Tannerin) and first employed on Tanner’s 1958 “ambient” album, Music for Heavenly Bodies.

Heavenly Bodies - Paul Tanner

Here is an early work-up of “Good Vibrations” that features Paul Tanner’s electro-theremin part more prominently in the mix than the 45 version released in October 1966:

Alternate Vibrations – The Beach Boys

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear Paul Tanner’s electro-theremin featured in an early mix of “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys.]

Incredibly, Tanner donated/sold his one-and-only prototype of the electro-theremin in the late 60s “to a hospital to use for audiology work, because he believed that newer keyboard synthesizers made it obsolete.”

Extra Credit:  memorize the chart listings for “Good Vibrations” for various countries outside the United States.

National Chart (1966–67)            Peak Position
Australian Singles Chart                  2
Belgian Singles Chart                     6
Canadian Singles Chart                    2
Dutch Singles Chart                       4
German Singles Chart                      8
Italian Singles Chart                    12
Malaysian Singles Chart                   1
New Zealand Singles Chart                 1
Norwegian Singles Chart                   2
Rhodesian Singles Chart                   1
UK Singles Chart                          1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100                    1