#118 – Mark Linett – Beach Boys SMiLE part one

It’s the most famous unreleased album in history – the Beach Boys’ SMiLE was supposed to come out way back in 1967, but the project fell apart amidst a cloud of drugs and self-doubt by leader Brian Wilson.  Now, some 45 years later, those legendary tapes are finally seeing the light of day in the SMiLE Sessions, a five-CD boxset containing, for the first time, an estimation of the “finished” would-be album, plus several discs of session highlights, alternate takes, and demos.  Mark Linett, who co-produced the monumental project along with Alan Boyd and Wilson, sits down with Icon Fetch to discuss the unique difficulties in putting this set together, how they settled on five CDs for the deluxe edition, and how this compares to the critically-acclaimed Pet Sounds Sessions box.

We will be posting the second half of our interview with Linett shortly, where he talks about the rumor that Paul McCartney contributed to the “Vega-Tables” session, why the estimated “finished” version of SMiLE on disc one was mixed in mono, and how they found a never-before heard demo of Brian doing “Surf’s Up” from 1967.

 

Here’s a transcript of Mark’s interview:

Tony:  It is the most famous unreleased album in the history of rock and roll.  Smile from the Beach Boys was originally supposed to be the follow up to their critically-acclaimed Pet Sounds album and was supposed to come out way back in 1967.  But for a variety of reasons, it was never completed and the tapes have sat in the archives ever since.  Now it’s been heavily bootlegged through the years and little bits and pieces have snuck out on various collections, but there has never been an entire collection solely devoted to the Smile project.

Well that is going to change on November 1st when Capitol and EMI release the Smile Sessions in a two -disc standard edition and a five-disc deluxe edition which also includes a vinyl two-disc LP as well.  Now this includes highlights of the sessions of Smile, outtakes, demos and on disc one, an estimation of the Smile album for the first time, pieced together to the best of their abilities with the recordings that were done back in ‘66 and ‘67.  Now co-produced by Mark Linett, Alan Boyd and Brian Wilson, we just so happen to have one of the guys that helped put it together –   co-producer, Mark Linett, who has worked with the Beach Boys in a variety of projects through the years –  he’s worked on the Beach Boys Two-Fers, the Pet Sounds sessions box and Brian Wilson’s solo material as well.  We want to welcome to the program Mark Linett.  How are you Mark?

 

Mark:  I’m doing great thank you.

T:  Do we have to pinch you here?  This has got to be an exciting time for you.

M: Well it’s 23 years since I first dipped my toe into the project, and 45 years since the project began so it’s quite an occasion to finally have it being released first of November.

T:  Right – It’s interesting because I know when you worked on the Pet Sounds sessions box — we’re talking mid-90’s here, there was talk that Smile would come out then.  Why has it taken so long?  It just seems crazy that it’s 15 years later.

M:  Well I think the main reason is that until 2004 when Brian re-visited the project and performed it live and recorded his version – a solo version  of it – there was nothing assembled.  All we had were a bunch of bits and pieces — a few songs that were more or less completed later.  And without some kind of a sequence from the artist, it would have just sort of been a jumble of sessions. And I think frankly until Brian felt comfortable with after all that time, he was able to finish what he started, there really wasn’t anything to seriously talk about.

T:  Right. Exactly.  The Brian Wilson Smile collection – that’s where he got with his band and re-recorded all of the Smile songs and put it in a cohesive order for the first time, you were involved with that project as well.  How much of that was used as a blueprint for the new Smile Sessions?

M:  It certainly was the basis for the album session version that is presented on disc one. There are some changes – Brian made a few changes for this release and then of course, there are arrangement changes between the way we did it in 2004 and the way it was done in ’66. But as I said, the version from 2004 is the way that Brian completed the project. What is important to understand is that when it was abandoned in early 1967, there was no sequence, much less a finished album.  This isn’t a project where an album was completed  and  just shelved for one reason or another and we’re bringing it back after all this time.  It was largely unfinished and unsequenced. And it certainly wouldn’t have been what it became in 2004.  For one thing, the album runs about 48 minutes, and there’s no indication that a 3-sided album was ever contemplated in ’66-’67. So you can assume that probably 20 minutes of what had been recorded during that period probably would not have made the final album had it been completed in ’67. Having all that to draw on in 2004, however, Brian used everything he thought made sense and I can’t really speak to whether – I know that what he used was what he always felt should have been part of the project but probably realistically couldn’t all have been part of Smile, had it been released in ’67.

T: Right. No absolutely, because in 1967 that’s before the White Album, I think then that’s before Blonde on Blonde — who had put out double albums at that point?

M: Yeah. We were drifting to that – I mean the first Mothers of Invention album – Freakout is a double album. This sort of presented another interesting problem is that it really is 3 sides, not four – we’ve taken advantage of that and filled the fourth side with alternate mixes and demos. One thing we’ve done on this set is that – even at 5 CDs and 2 45’s and an extra LP side that is unique to the set, we still had a tough time fitting everything we that wanted into the box.   We could have easily expanded to another CD or two. We’ve covered pretty much everything from this time period with maybe a few small exceptions. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 70-75 individual sessions for the project and they’re all represented in the box. They’re all represented in sort of a fly-on-the-wall fashion so you get a sense of what the creative process was like both vocally and at the tracking sessions. And all five CDs in the box set are over 79 minutes each.

T: Wow.  Now you’ve been involved with the Beach Boys – you said what 24 years?

M:  Ah – Yeah, it’s roughly 24 years. I started working with Brian in ’87 on his first solo album.

T:  Right. Right. Okay. Well you know the interesting thing is that you’ve worked on a lot of projects before where you’re overseeing remastering and that kind of stuff. This has to be a unique situation because you kind of get to be a little more part of the creative process of this ‘cause I mean this really was bits and pieces of songs that are all of sort of strung together.

M: Well that’s true but again looking at how Brian completed the project in 2004, it really gave us something to work with.  Without that — somebody had to decide what the finished order would be.

T:  Right.

M:  And fortunately Brian did finish the project in 2004 and that gave us something to go on – and he’s happy with that. So if he’d wanted to radically change the order for this release, that’s what we would have done.  It’s more about the sheer volume of material and the fact the way a lot of it was recorded in a modular form, which he sort of started doing with “Good Vibrations” that made this a complicated and very time-consuming project . And I might add that had we – you refer back to doing it in ’96 – the other problem with doing it then would have been technical. When we did the Pet Sounds box we only had basically 13-14 sessions to deal with.  We were still having to edit those sessions on analog tape and doing razor-blade edits.

T:  Wow.

M:  And that project – I don’t remember exactly how long that took – but that plus the stereo mix still took a fair amount of time.  This is maybe roughly 10 times as complex and were it not for advances in digital computer editing, both in terms of editing the sessions  and in terms of assembling all the various pieces that comprised some of these songs, this project could have taken a lifetime.

T: Right.

M: Actually I think it’s also one of the reasons that the project was not completed any number of times. I mean in ‘67 when Brian decided to abandon it, and then later his brother Carl thought they would complete it.  I think looking at the complexity of it coupled with the limits of the technology of the day, made it, I won’t say impossible, but made it very very difficult to contemplate finishing the project at that time.  I would like to say that Smile seems to be a project that was begun 20 or 30 years before the needed technology was really available.  Unlike most pop albums, Smile was much more like putting a film together than a conventional recording.  And that’s kind of how the whole the project has gone that we started with this huge amount of material both in terms of the album assembly and in terms of the sessions and slowly had to edit it down to a releasable length.  I think we started out with something like 7 or 8 roughly edited CDs and we’ve been carving it down ever sense.

T:  Well let me clarify here for a minute cause you said that you started with 7 or 8 roughly edited CDs and whittled it down to 5. That might make people think that you guys have left a bunch of stuff off.

M:  No.  It’s interesting – this project was being originally driven to be a 3-CD set, which before we really even started wading in – we knew wasn’t going to work.  And very early on, we were able to get that expanded to 4 CDs.  And then we got seriously to work on trying to assemble everything and we always knew that the bulk of the first CD would be the album sessions shall we say, and that the other CDs would be session highlights, and alternates and master takes and so forth. And what we wound up with without seriously getting into “Good Vibrations,” was already well past that, just in terms of the length of the initial edits of the sessions.  And then when we added “Good Vibrations” I think we were somewhere in the neighborhood of five plus 80 minute CDs of material and the problem became more importantly – well if we’re going to go to 4 CDs, where is the 85-90 minutes of material that we’re going to cut.  And if we had done that, that in fact would have meant removing whole sessions or what have you. And fortunately, sensible heads prevailed and we went to 5 CDs — the fifth being entirely “Good Vibrations” sessions and early edits and so forth, and the only reduction from there was simply to get the sessions – not so much in the shortest possible order – but in the most playable version that we could, still keeping in mind the fact that there was a time limit. We only had 7 hours worth of space that we could fill and we’ve come within – oh – I think probably 5 minutes of doing that.

T:  Yeah and like you said, Capitol’s original idea for the Smile box was 3 CDs, and then you said they expanded it to 4, and then they finally expanded it to 5. So there really shouldn’t be any complaining because this is a lot more than Capitol Records originally intended.

M: No, and I’m not passing blame – the one problem is that almost nobody understood what this project was – the nearest comparison would be the Pet Sounds box, and that’s a lot easier to conceptualize.  You’ve got a 13 song album, and you’ve got a certain number of sessions and a certain number of outtakes and some things we could do with them. But in this case we just had heaps and heaps of sessions and in some cases a whole session that’s just the verse of a song rather than a whole song. It took some educating to get everybody to understand just how unique this project really is.  I remember saying when we did the Pet Sounds sessions that it was pretty unique that we had now dedicated a, if I remember correctly, 3 CDs plus the mono album, that we had dedicated a whole project to that. This is nearly double the amount of material – actually quite a bit more because in those days we couldn’t go to 80 minutes on a CD. I think we were restricted to 72.

T:  Alright,  so to clarify – the people that were worried that there were maybe 2 or 3 CDs left in the archives. That’s just not true, right?

M: No. Not of additional sessions or songs or anything like that.  Somebody’s favorite take 12 of session 20 – I can’t guarantee that that’s all there. And obviously some of the comedy and the spoken word things – are not there. And then of course there’s things that some people think — should Smiley Smile sessions be there, “Can’t Wait Too Long” – we get into a very fuzzy area.

T: Okay good, so we cleared that up.

M: And probably raised a few more questions.

T: I’m sure we probably did. That’s the beauty of it and I think with something like this that was never officially finished until now, Everybody’s got their favorite version of it – everybody wants to hear “George fell into his French Horn” or whatever kind of ridiculous–

M: Well they’re going to hear that, but people want to hear different things in different  places.  The other thing is we’ve provided so much material that the fans and those that want to make their own mixes, can have a wonderful time doing so for years to come.

T:  Right. You’ve got all the pieces and parts right there. Just assemble it away.

M: Yeah. Alan and my attitude is that the album session that starts off the set, is the version completed and approved with changes – this is not exactly what Brian Wilson Presents Smile – it’s that roadmap – it always was going to be. That’s Brian’s version. If you appreciate the artist’s version – which I think everyone should – he is the artist after all. That’s fine and that make the most sense. But if you think the Mona Lisa looks better turned upside down or with a mustache painted on it – well the lovely thing about this technology is that now you can – “roll your own.”

T:  Mark Linett, one of the co-producers of the new Smile Sessions, along with Alan Boyd and Brian Wilson. I appreciate him taking the time to talk to us.  That is part 1 of our interview simply because I talked to Mark for over ½ hour, and I thought it would be a little easier to digest in two segments, instead of one long one.  So, coming up in part 2, which we will be posting very soon, Mark talks about the rumor that Paul McCartney was chomping vegetables on the “Vega-Tables” track.  We also talk specifically about the “Surf’s Up” track and how that was compiled.  And, why the completed version of Smile was mixed in Mono.  And we also ask what is next for his staff of archivists – what’s left to do in the Beach Boys archives. That’s all next in part 2 of our interview with Mark Linett.

—-I hope to transcribe part two soon—