Heroes (Part 7)
Brian Wilson part two
Part two of the story of Brian Wilson's record production, as John Morrish sorts out the genius from the Dumb Angel.
Brian Wilson was not yet 24 when "Pet Sounds" was released. It was more than just "a whole album with all good stuff" as he had hoped. It possessed an almost-perfect unity of tone and arrangement — and it would have been perfect but for the folksy "Sloop John B", included as a sop to commercial pressures within the band and from the record company. "Pet Sounds" marked the beginning of a period when Brian began to make music not so much "with" the rest of the band as "despite" them.
He put the album together while the boys were on tour. He needed them, if at all, for their vocals. And on the exquisite "Caroline No" he did all those himself, and put the record out under his own name. This caused a howl of outrage from the band that never quite died down. Even now, 18 years later, Brian is the only member of the band (except Al Jardine) not to have had his own album.
In the end, "Sloop John B" knocked "Caroline No" off the chart before it made any mark, and pride was salvaged.
The "Pet Sounds" method was an extension of what had happened before, only now on 4-track, which allowed for extra "sweetening". But everything was still recorded in "live" sections. First Brian would bring in the whole rhythm section, which could mean two drummers, two bassists, five guitarists and numerous percussionists. He would teach them all their parts, by playing and singing what he wanted, and they would write it down from that themselves. Sometimes he would do the strings and horns at the same time, but more often he would wait. Ace guitarist Tommy Tedesco once protested vigorously about the part he was asked to play until he heard the finished piece, with the string line on top, when he was silenced.
What made Brian exceptional as a producer, and far in advance of even the most seasoned musicians he employed, was his ability to hear the finished product in his head even as he was putting it together. But he could work on paper too. "A lot of times Brian would sit down and write out the charts for six or eight instruments," said Diane Rovell, Brian's sister-in-law and a backing singer on "Pet Sounds".
The story goes that Brian learned how to orchestrate by listening, once only, to a children's educational record on The Instruments Of The Orchestra. More likely, he learned by listening to the professionally-arranged parts on Phil Spector's records, and by treating the instruments of the orchestra as if they were voices. His vocal arrangements were second to none.
"He'd have four- and five-part chords in his mind and he'd dish them out to all of us. Then he'd take the top, which is the melody... It never ceased to blow my mind that he could know those notes and retain them," said Mike Love, once Brian's closest friend and ally. But "Pet Sounds" was a commercial flop. Brian was hurt, but he moved into his late period which began with a song called "Good Vibrations" and an album called first "Dumb Angel" and later "Smile". Where "Pet Sounds" had been sad, even despairing listening, the new album was to express humour, religious faith and a kind of intelligent patriotism. "A teenage symphony to God," Brian named it.
Brian had found a new collaborator, a man called Van Dyke Parks who fancied himself as a poet, and he found himself a whole range of mind-expanding pharmaceuticals. For a man whose horizons had never stretched much further than the nearest hamburger stand, this was a difficult period. Brian filled his intellectual emptiness with all kinds of half-baked philosophising. "Marshmallow mysticism," his previous collaborator Tony Asher called it, scathingly.
"Good Vibrations" was the first of the new set of songs. Conceiving of acoustics in the same way a painter thinks of light, Brian set off to explore the possibilities of most of Los Angeles's first rank studios. Each gave a slightly different tint to his aural picture. Starting life as a heavy r'n'b number, the song went through 17 sessions and 90 hours of tape, before ending in the 3 min 35 sec edit we know.
Chuck Britz, the man who engineered "Surfer Girl", recorded the first "Vibrations" session and made the final edit. He says there are two joins in the tape. Most people hear about six. Britz said: "To me it was the same as when he finished it... seventeen sessions later." Meanwhile, whole arrangements and vocal harmony sections ended up on the floor.
Strangely, when this most avant-garde of records appeared in late 1966 it became the best-selling thing the group had ever done, temporarily silencing some of the critics closest to home.
It gave Brian a breathing space to get on with the "Smile" project, but now, for the first time, his method had changed. He would create tiny musical vignettes, bursts of chanting, or natural sounds, or string quartet, or drums, with the idea of putting them together later. They were all on acetate discs for ease of handling, but they never were put together.
Instead, Brian made more and more bits and pieces. Some have surfaced. "Heroes & Villains", of course, turned up on the "Smiley Smile" debacle, though it was only a pale shadow of a seven-minute assemblage actually scheduled for January 1967 release.
Two fragments, "Surf's Up" and "The Child is The Father To The Man" became "Surf's Up" on the album of the same name. Similarly "Cabinessence" was put together out of "Cabinessence", "Home On The Range" and "The Grand Coolee Dam".
"Pet Sounds" had boasted a coherent sound, in terms of arrangements and production devices, but the songs were all distinct. But on "Smile", unity was provided by the device of using the same basic melodic material at different points throughout. The "Heroes and villains, just see what you've done" theme is omnipresent. You can just hear it in the piano part of "Wonderful", for instance.
Another idea was the use of "appropriate" production values for each lyrical theme. The banjo and harmonica of "Cabinessence", for example, seem to represent the frontier spirit.
Many songs were, apparently, lost. The most famous must be "Fire" also known as "Mrs O'Leary's Cow" from the Elements suite. For years, this was the Holy Grail for Beach Boys' fans — the story goes that Brian, suddenly paranoid because of the supposedly incendiary nature of his creation, destroyed the tapes by setting fire to them.
Well, he didn't, and copies of the piece are freely available in some circles. "Mrs O'Leary's Cow" is a frightening, sinister, thoroughly nasty piece of work that would have altered everybody's whole image of the Beach Boys if it had been released. There's nothing else remotely like it.
"Smile" was the high point of Brian's attempt to make an intellectual of himself, rather than accepting himself as the supreme innate talent that he was. But by Spring 1967 Van Dyke was gone, driven off by Mike Love, who demanded to know what he meant by "Over and over the crow flies/Uncover the cornfield," in "Cabinessence". The Beatles released "Sgt Pepper's" and cornered the market in rock intellectualism, and Brian became paranoid and withdrawn. He would never be the same again.
Instead of the Brian Wilson-produced masterpiece it was expecting, the world got "Smiley Smile", an unattractively amateurish album bearing the ominous credit "produced by the Beach Boys".
The album was recorded in a fortnight at Brian's house, with Brian's home organ and Carl's guitar the principal instrumentation, and was mixed and edited in a single night. Engineer Jim Lockert took the assorted lengths of 8-track tape he was given and mixed them down to provide an instrumental backing. The group added the most basic of vocals, often on top of the original tape. Sometimes Lockert used the same backing track from a single verse all the way through a song. Who can say what was lost by this hasty method? But at this stage, even Brian didn't care.
Then followed two rootsy, soulful and decidedly unfashionable albums, "Wild Honey" and "Friends" (1968), and they established the pattern of the late phase of the Beach Boys recordings. They were all on multitrack, so the band could work as and when they liked, and when they didn't want to see one another they didn't have to. They often didn't want to see one another.
For Brian multitrack was a disaster, even if he didn't think so. In some ways, the essential "privacy" of the method was much to his taste. He had no-one else to please, and he could work for days on end with just his beloved Moog bass and string synthesiser for company.
But Brian's special ability had always been that he had the whole thing in his head before he started recording.
Now he could start with no such clear idea, and the choices were almost limitless. And by now, Brian's concentration had been almost completely destroyed, by drugs or by emotional problems, depending on whom you believe. Slowly, he stopped recording at all.
But there was a coda. In 1976 and 77, under the guidance of show business psychiatrist Dr Eugene Landy, Brian made a brief come-back, even to the extent of appearing (he didn't do much else) on stage.
The albums produced in those years, "15 Big Ones" and "The Beach Boys Love You", were rough and ready productions made up of oldies and "new" songs dredged up very often from the deep recesses of the Brother tape library or Brian's memory.
Despite the fact that his own natural high voice was still privately intact, Brian opted to sing in a hoarse, cracking growl, believing it more "macho" than the old falsetto. For those immersed in Brian's private psychodramas, these are fascinating records. For everyone else they are pretty unsatisfactory.
Interestingly, Brian handed over the chore of mixing to his brother Carl, certainly the second most talented Beach Boy. Brian had never been interested in mixing, even when he only had four tracks to worry about. "I remember when he turned in Pet Sounds," said Steve Douglas. "It was full of noise. You could hear him talking in the background. It was real sloppy. He had spent all this time making this album and zip, dubbed it down in one day or something like that."
Since then, Brian has virtually disappeared again. He sang on the atrocious "MIU Album" (1978), a product of the Jardine-Love meditating faction within the band, but has done nothing since. Bruce Johnston has produced the last two albums, and now we hear that Steve Levine will be producing the next album, with Brian "involved". We shall see.
The one question we have not touched upon, is that of whether Brian Wilson is, as is so often said, "a genius". Certainly, he is no intellectual giant in the sense of a Darwin, or a Freud, or an Einstein.
But he did have a "natural ability or capacity: the special endowments which fit a man for his peculiar work", as my dictionary defines genius.
He was a young man with immense gifts, to whom music came as naturally as breathing. But he wanted to go beyond that, to become, self-consciously, an artist. He lost confidence in his instinctive reactions and came, in time, to despise them. In those natural responses lay his genius; without them he was doomed to a decline. Like his own Dumb Angel, or some foolish Icarus, he traded in the gift of flight for a pair of cardboard wings.
Of all groups, the Beach Boys are probably the worst served by compilations. A better bet would be to go for a handful of genuine albums, for instance "Surfer Girl", "All Summer Long", "Beach Boys Today", "Pet Sounds", "Wild Honey", and if you are a fan, "Beach Boys Love You". That omits a lot of important tracks, such as "Good Vibrations", "Heroes & Villains", "Cabinessence" and "Surf's Up", but you can find most of them on compilations. It's more important to get the feel of an album from the classic period.
David Leaf "The Beach Boys and the California Myth".
Byron Preiss "The Beach Boys" (the authorised biography, with all that that implies, but revealing despite itself).
Brad Elliott "Surf's Up" (a fine discography). Sadly none of these is available in this country at present, but resist the temptation to buy anything that is, like John Tobler's flimsy "study".
One Two Testing - Jul 1984
Donated & scanned by: Simon Dell
Feature by John Morrish
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!