Brian Wilson – Playback – The Brian Wilson Anthology (Rhino)
The guiding force behind the 1960’s Beach Boys, Brian Wilson helped create some of the greatest American rock n’ roll ever recorded. Yet, by the early 1970’s, a combination of drugs and fractured psyche left him a damaged recluse who famously put a sandbox in his living room. Dr. Eugene Landy’s controversial treatment in the mid 80’s could’ve signaled the end of this great artist. Yet, somehow Wilson has managed to pull things together and issue music which, while not as spectacular as his early Beach Boys, certainly contain moments of brilliance. Continue reading Rarely do artists get a second act quite like Brian Wilson→
The Beach Boys are the greatest American Rock n’ Roll Band. Their music is ever-present in our culture. Kids of today are as likely to know the words to “Surfin’ USA,” and “Fun Fun Fun,” as “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” A new collection released by Omnivore Recordings, Becoming the Beach Boys, the Complete Hite and Dorinda Morgan Sessions, gives us the clearest view into the group’s origins. Through demos, rehearsals, multiple takes and studio chatter, you can hear the Beach Boys gelling as a band, both vocally and musically.
We talk with the man that helped put this fantastic package together, the owner of Omnivore Recordings, Brad Rosenberger. We discuss how he acquired these vintage tapes, the cool memorabilia in the accompanying booklet, and some of the oddest tracks in the set.
We continue our follow up conversation with Mark Linett & Alan Boyd, co-producers of the SMiLE Sessions box set. They answer more of the questions that you submitted to Icon Fetch, including why there was no sessionography for disc one of the set, why they included Carl Wilson’s vocal on “Surf’s Up,” if they used all the pieces recorded for “Heroes and Villains,” and what’s next in the Beach Boys’ reissue program.
With over 10,000 sessions to her credit, Carol Kaye is one of the most-recorded musicians in the history of popular music Part of the famous Wrecking Crew, a group of session musicians that backed everyone from Simon & Garfunkel to the Righteous Brothers and the Monkees. But, Kaye is probably best-known as bassist and guitarist on many of the Beach Boys best-loved songs and albums. She was a part of the infamous SMiLE Sessions, and shares her insight into that project, what qualities made up a session run by Brian Wilson, and whether or not she wore a fireman’s hat during the “Fire” session. She also reminisces about the problems that arose during the tracking for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by the Righteous Brothers.
The Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions box is out now. Co-producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd return to Icon Fetch to answer some of the questions you have – including what happened to the background vocals on “Barnyard,” what, if any, songs Brian Wilson nixed from the album, why there isn’t a stereo mix of “Good Vibrations,” and how they assembled “Heroes and Villains part two.” Listen to part one of the interview:
Beach Boys – SMiLE Sessions (Capitol / EMI) CD review
Brian Wilson’s beautiful, fractured mess is finally pieced together with stunning results
You may have heard about the Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions, yet you’re a little confused as to what it’s all about. Don’t worry – even some of the group’s biggest fans never heard of the project. It was abandoned 44 years ago and is just now seeing the light of day. In order to understand SMiLE, we need to put it back in its proper context. It’s difficult to imagine now, but back in the mid Sixties, the Beach Boys rivaled the Beatles in both popularity and influence. Each new release was eagerly anticipated, and leader Brian Wilson was commonly referred to as a “musical genius.”
The band had just released their biggest single ever in “Good Vibrations” – less a traditional song, and more a series of fragments, recorded at multiple studios and then spliced together for the final product. It was a landmark in pop music, taking six months and a staggering $50,000 to complete. When Brian promised an entire album, to be called SMiLE, fashioned in a similar manner, anticipation was at its highest. But if “Good Vibrations” took over a half a year to finish, how could an entire album, done the same way, ever be possible?
Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t possible – the project was scrapped amid record label pressure, and Brian’s own drug-induced paranoia. Yet, make no mistake, this wasn’t a mere flight of fancy – there were over 70 recording sessions tracked, most using the top session musicians of the day, and featuring intricately woven vocals from all six Beach Boys. The unfinished material that remained in the archives was some of the most sophisticated music ever recorded in rock n’ roll. With expectations so high, and so much time and effort invested, abandoning the SMiLE album was a huge blow to the Beach Boys’ career. What further complicated matters, was that because the album was recorded in pieces, there was never a proper running order, or even, in some cases, proper song structures. As time went on, the legend grew; every new year seemed to bring talk of its release. Eventually, the material became widely available on the bootleg market. But, it wasn’t until Brian Wilson, at the urging of his touring band, finally revisited the material in 2004 for Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, a complete re-recording of the old tracks, adding new lyrics and sequencing the songs for the first time, in a cohesive album.
Now that there was an “official” track listing for SMiLE, producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd began scouring the archives to round up all the hundreds of song fragments. Disc one of the SMiLE Sessions is the result of their hard work – an “estimation” of what SMiLE could have been. What distinguishes these recordings from Brian’s in 2004, is that these are the original tracks from 1966-67, featuring the young Beach Boys, at the top of their game, accompanied by the hottest session musicians in the land. No offense to Brian or his band, but compared to the 2004 version, the one on the SMiLE Sessions blows it away. Imagine Paul McCartney going back today and re-recording his most famous Beatles songs with his new band – it would be good, but would it be better than the Beatles? No way. Same goes for these classic Beach Boys’ recordings.
The album is both beautiful and bizarre, innovative and ridiculous, mature and childlike; the fact that it still sounds fresh 44 years after its original slated release is testament to the talent of Brian Wilson, his fellow Beach Boys vocalists, and the session musicians that surrounded them.
SMiLE opens with “Our Prayer,” no instruments, just the six Beach Boy voices, fluidly stretching wordless phrases into a melody that careens up and down – 60-second proof that no one has ever come close to their harmonic intricacy. That’s followed by the ambitious “Heroes and Villains”; driven by a pulsing bass line, the song is a dizzying array of snippets, with frequent tempo changes and background vocals that seem to fall like rain in a thunderstorm. Set in the Old West, there’s even a saloon piano at one point. You can see why Wilson spent so much time working on this incredibly intricate piece of music. The familiar piano melody from the song is used to link the remainder of the tracks on the first third of the album; as it’s played over and over, it begins to take on a maddening quality.
Much of SMiLE’s legacy has stemmed from the wacked-out, drug-fueled oddities that have shown up in bootlegs for years. “Barnyard,” “Do You Like Worms,” and especially “The Elements: Fire” are all among the strangest songs the band ever recorded, with “Fire” being quite possibly the most sinister sounding rock song ever. Yet, somewhat overshadowed by all this experimentation is that SMiLE is also full of wondrous beauty. The harpsichord-led “Wonderful” is gorgeous and could’ve been included on their previous triumph, Pet Sounds, while “Wind Chimes” begins in a subdued manner with a muted Carl Wilson vocal and marimba, before exploding in a mass of near-insane vocals.
The most-impressive piece on SMiLE is also quite possibly the finest song they ever put on tape – “Surf’s Up,” with its dense lyrical wordplay sung over a lush, orchestrated backing track, is hauntingly exquisite The ending, with Wilson’s high falsetto soaring over his solo piano, invokes unbelievable sadness and longing – it’s as if he knows this project is doomed to fail.
The remainder of the SMiLE Sessions features alternate takes and session highlights of each song, showing the incredible amount of care that went into every track. Amazingly, the instrumental versions of the songs could easily stand on their own – there’s just that much going on. You get a whole new appreciation for the Beach Boys as singers as well; several sections feature just their vocals – you realize how focused they had to be to pull these off. The producers have edited and sequenced these highlights in a manner that is surprisingly listenable. Each song is presented in an “in progress” form – shedding light on how Wilson molded each track into its final version. What you also see in these extra discs is, no matter how ill-fated it became, everyone involved seemed to be having a good time. There is a great deal of laughter in the studio.
It’s impossible to know just what impact SMiLE would’ve had if it had been completed in 1967 – it could’ve been a runaway hit or complete flop, deemed too weird for consumption. It’s a good bet it would have changed the course of the Beach Boys’ career, for better or worse. Now, over four decades after its original release was canceled, we can once and for all enjoy the genius that was Brian Wilson. –Tony Peters
Domenic Priore was the first person to release an entire book devoted to the SMiLE project when he compiled Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! in 1995. He followed that up in 2007 with Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece. Now, he’s penned one of the essays in the new SMiLE Sessions box set. Icon Fetch talks to the author, DJ and music historian about SMiLE’s place in rock history and its effect on future generations.
Our Beach Boys coverage continues with Jon Stebbins, author of The Beach Boys FAQ – All That’s Left to Know About America’s Band (Backbeat Books). The comprehensive book includes bios of every member of the Beach Boys (past and present), including who sang on which song, specifics on the musical gear they used, and even their addresses. Plus, he gives a profile of the sidemen who played on their records, and provides a list of Beach Boys’ TV appearances. Of course, he devotes an entire chapter to “Your Favorite Vegetable – The Fantastically Freaky and Sad Legend of Smile.” Stebbins is also the author of Dennis Wilson – The Real Beach Boy, and The Lost Beach Boy – The True Story of David Marks.
Listen to the Icon Fetch interview with Jon Stebbins by clicking below
We continue our exclusive coverage of the long-awaited release of the SMiLE Sessions from the Beach Boys with our interview with another co-producer of the set, Alan Boyd. He talks to us about how they decided which takes of songs to use for the “estimation” of the SMiLE LP on disc one, if it is ever possible to release a stereo mix of “Good Vibrations,” and which song he was the proudest of helping put together. He also describes what specific role he and co-producer Mark Linett had in helping piece together the SMiLE Sessions
Hear part one of our interview with SMiLE Sessions co-producer Mark Linett:
Hear part two of our interview with SMiLE Sessions co-producer Mark Linett:
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.
Missed part one of the interview? Check it out right here–
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?
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.