#120 – Mark Linett – Beach Boys SMiLE Sessions part 2

We continue our exclusive conversation with Mark Linett, co-producer of the upcoming SMiLE Sessions box set from the Beach Boys.  In this segment, he talks about the rumor that Paul McCartney contributed to the “Vega-Tables” session, why disc one’s “estimation” of the SMiLE album is presented in mono, and how they stumbled across a never-before heard demo version of Brian Wilson doing “Surf’s Up” from after the SMiLE Sessions were aborted.  Mark has also agreed to return to the show after SMiLE is released.  Leave any questions you might have for him in the comments section below.

Click “read more” to read the transcript of the interview

Let’s get back to part two of our interview with Mark Linett.  He is one of the co-producers of the new Smiles Sessions from the Beach Boys coming out November 1st from Capitol/EMI


T: Now when you look at the track listing for Smile, especially disc one – even the people who are just casual Beach Boys fans will know “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”, but these are the not the versions they know.  These are newly compiled versions where you are taking bits and pieces of other parts of sessions.  How difficult was it to match, fidelity-wise.  Because it’s sounds to me – for instance “Good Vibrations” – starts with the released version of the song, and then you have an ending that has more of the Smile Sessions flown in.   How difficult was that?

M:  Not terribly.  We edited two pieces – the inspiration breakdown near the end of the song; there was a background vocal part that was recorded and not used on the original recording.  Brian put it back in for the 2004 version.  So we edited that back in.   And then the ending on the record always was a very quick fade.  I assume because the record was perceived to be rather long for its day, so we extended that.  It really wasn’t terribly difficult technically.  It was one of the easier things technically on the record, probably.  It was fortunate that we had the pieces to be able do that.  That was fairly easy.  “Heroes and Villains” was more complicated, because that’s really where Brian got into recording a huge number of themes having to do with “Heroes and Villains.”  I’ve heard stories from the day, we have some rough mixes that there was sort of an infinite number of combinations, ways those pieces could be fitted together for that song.  And then some of those pieces wound up going into other songs.  It was a very cinematic approach to record making.  That until Brian settled on an order for the Smile version – obviously he settled on one when they finished “Heroes and Villains” for Smiley Smile – but until he settled on what the order was – and you could still assemble this any number of ways.

T: There’s a lot of legends that surrounded this project.  One was that Paul McCartney was chomping vegetables on the song “Vega-Tables.”  Is there any evidence of that in the session tapes?  Can you hear McCartney?

M:  No, as a matter of fact – if you listen to just the vegetable chomping track from the song.  Unless Paul is being very quiet, there’s no evidence that he’s a part of the chomping.  And there’s quite a lot of discussion going on while that particular track is being recorded.  I think the honest answer seems to be that he may have been at the session, but the talk that he was chomping vegetables may have been something their publicist cooked up or was told.  Paul would be the only one who could really answer that or Brian.

T:  Another legend is – when the project was shelved, and Brian would be constantly asked about it.  He would talk especially about the session for “Fire” and how he destroyed the tapes.  But, there here on the Smile Sessions – so obviously they weren’t destroyed, right?

M:  Yeah, exactly.  Brian says he never destroyed any tapes.  We do know there are tapes, multi track tapes that are missing.  It could be for any number of reasons.  I don’t want to speak for Brian, but I think in his mind, shelved was the same thing as destroyed.  Brian is not somebody who deals with where his tapes are.  He expects other people to handle that for him.   So, I think once he abandoned the project, for him, that was the end of it.

T:  With the sessions here, you really get a chance to hear how things songs are put together.  Brian used the top notch session people available at the time, a lot of members of the Wrecking Crew.  Was there one particular musician, as you’re going back and listening to the stuff that really impressed you?

M:  Well, it’s kind of everybody.  It’s hard to single any one person out.  It’s pretty much the same core group of people – Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon, Lyle Ritz, Carol Kaye, Al DeLory.  What’s most impressive to me, is how fast Brian had a sense of how he wanted to change the arrangement, and with very little discussion or description to the musicians, they seem to know exactly what he’s asking for.  That’s speaks to their ability.  I left out Tommy Morgan, Tommy’s harmonica is all over the record.  I think that speaks to their ability that they could translate very quickly Brian’s ideas into sound.  And the thing you sense listening to the sessions, is just how fast and just how inspired Brian was in creating these arrangements.  As my experience as a recording engineer, it really is important that that comes back at you very quickly, before the mood and the idea is lost.

T:  I wanted to touch on one more song – it seems like a composite of very different versions that I’ve heard before.  “Surf’s Up” – it sounds like there were a lot of different takes of that.  Of course the Beach Boys completed a version years after Smile for the Surf’s Up album with Carl on vocals.  And then there’s a demo version with just Brian on piano, and an instrumental version.  How many bits and pieces, as an example of “Surf’s Up” are used as you put the track that’s available on disc one?

M:  Well Brian recorded part one with a full backing track with a band.  And that’s been used on both versions.  The difference is that we used Brian’s vocal from the piano, demo version, in place of Carl’s.  Which is actually something the Beach Boys tried to do when they finished the song.  We have a reel of tape where they tried to fly that vocal into the backing track, but again not having the kind of technology that we have today, where you can do timing adjustments very easily.  They abandoned that, and when Brian didn’t want to sing it, Carl did it.  The back half is the second half of Brian’s piano vocal demo, with the background vocals the Beach Boys did in (1971) included.  It’s interesting because there’s a session sheet indicating that the second half of “Surf’s Up” – the backing track was recorded. But there’s never been any taped evidence of it, and obviously there was no taped evidence when the Beach Boys went to finish it in the Seventies.  And nobody, including Brian, can confirm that it ever happened.  So it may have been a session that was mislabeled, or a session that got canceled.

We’ve done extensive sessionography for this box, very elaborate, very detailed.  The only problem is that we’re relying on the AFM payment sheets.  And that’s what  they are.  They’re documents designed to get musicians paid.  And while they have spaces for titles, times, and dates, the necessity is that they be turned in on time, not that that information be verified.  So you have to take what those documents say with a slight grain of salt.  In terms of the recordings, Alan Boyd and Craig Slowinski who did the sessionography, have tried very hard to verify what the documentations said by listening to the recordings, where they exist.  And trying to make sure that if it says that Tommy Morgan is on the date, that you can actually hear him playing.  One thing you notice, there are other people on the session sheet, Brian would routinely put his long time engineer Chuck Britz at Western on the session because he wasn’t an AFM member because it was a way to get him an extra $100 a session, which was good money.  Chuck just worked for the studio, he didn’t work for Brian.

T: The SMiLE Sessions “estimated” album on disc one is in mono, why?

M: The original album is in mono mostly because that’s how Brian would’ve released it in the day.  There are some technical reasons – we don’t have multi tracks for some of the sessions.  There are a few songs that could only have been presented in mono, no matter what.  Everything Brian did was designed to be recorded in mono.  Not because he’s deaf in one ear, but because the market was AM mono radio, and Brian realized that with mono, as a producer and arranger and artist, you could present the record exactly the way you wanted the listener to hear it.  There was very little chance that the listener could alter that.  With stereo, there’s so many variables – where speakers are placed, whether they’re in phase.  From Brian’s point of view, that’s the way you made pop records – was in mono.  There isn’t a true stereo Beach Boys album until Friends, which was much more of a group effort.  Even subsequent albums that were released – Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, were all in mono.

T:  This is also available on vinyl.  And, the “estimated” version of SMiLE takes up the first three sides.  I’ve heard word that side four has rarities that are exclusive to the vinyl – is that correct?

M: Yes

T:  Wow, more reason for people to pick that up as well.

I know that the Pet Sounds vinyl album (when it was reissued in the 90’s) was mastered from analog tape.  Have you mastered the SMiLE album from analog as well?

M:  SMiLE was mastered was from high res digital.  Pet Sounds was all analog – it’s that old (laughs).  We experimented with doing a transfer – transferring the digital final master to analog and then cutting from that.  But, the results seemed less fidelic than going with straight digital, obviously, converted back to analog through some high quality converters.

I have to stress that the technology has advanced so far in the last 15 or so years, that it really has changed the playing field.  And, frankly it really made this project possible.  I don’t think it would’ve been creatively or financially possible to do a set like this before now.

T:  One more question – you have worked on the Beach Boys archives as the “keeper of the Beach Boys tapes.”  You’ve put out Pet Sounds Sessions, SMiLE Sessions and a two disc rarities collection, Hawthorne, California.  How much is left in the archives? Have we reached the bottom of the barrel?

M: One thing is – talk about mono/stereo.  There are still a number of albums that have never been released in true stereo.  That’s something that the fans have asked for.   We’ve been doing an archival project for years, and every time we go to archive something, we find something new.  In fact, on this set, we were transferring reels for the Wild Honey album late last year and completely unmarked on the session reel for a song called “Country Air” discovered Brian doing four or five takes of “Surf’s  Up” – just him at the piano from late ’67.  So, we included that on the box.  No explanation for why he did that and it was never taken any farther.  Although I don’t think the intention was to take it any farther because it’s just him singing live and playing piano.

But every time we go through the tapes, we find something.  The band had an interesting habit of working on things and getting things really good, and then moving on to something else sometimes without completing what they started.

T: Well Mark, I appreciate you talking to us.  This is monumental stuff – 45 years in the making – The SMiLE Sessions coming out November 1st.

M:  I’m eagerly anticipating seeing it all in the box.

T: Yep, can’t wait to see it in the stores

M: Good talking to you.