The Beach Boys' SMiLE album was to have been the pinnacle of Brian Wilson's groundbreaking recording and production achievements — but it was never completed. This year, in an extraordinary tale of emotional drama, tape-vault archaeology and recording technology, Brian finished it, debuted it live, and then re-recorded it in the studio. SOS brings you the full story...
In 1966, at the age of 24, Brian Wilson hit a creative peak in his musical career that most of us can only imagine. His enormous success with the Beach Boys had already afforded him the artistic freedom to work however he chose. In 1963, he was one of the first artists to wrest control of his career from the Beach Boys' record label Capitol. He began to produce the group's records himself, and spurned Capitol's own inferior facilities in favour of the cream of Los Angeles' independent recording studios, such as Western Recorders (now Cello), Goldstar and Sunset Sound. Over the following three years, his records grew ever more instrumentally elaborate, to the point where the other Beach Boys could no longer provide him with the musical backing he needed to realise the advanced arrangements in his head. Instead, he came to rely on a crack team of the best session musicians in Los Angeles, known loosely as the Wrecking Crew, and increasingly, he restricted the rest of his group to exclusively vocal duties. At the same time, his production skills matured as recording technology improved; from 1962 to 1966 he moved from using basic three-track recording to the latest eight-track machines, constantly pushing at the boundaries of what was technically possible. And the results of these artistic and technical endeavours continued to be hugely successful (for more technical details on Brian's '60s productions, see the box on page 122).
By late 1966, the Beach Boys had eclipsed the Beatles as readers' favourite group in the end-of-year poll conducted by UK music paper The New Musical Express — the first time this had happened since the Liverpool foursome's rise to fame. Paul McCartney was already admitting to friends that the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was the best thing he'd ever heard, and was wondering what the Beatles could do next to top it. And in December 1966, Brian's most complex ever record production, the single 'Good Vibrations', went to number one in the USA. By then, he was already back in the studio working on an album that was to employ in its assembly the same advanced recording, multitracking and tape-splicing techniques that had resulted in 'Good Vibrations'. It was to be called SMiLE, and promised to meld advanced production, Brian's intricate instrumental arrangements, as realised by the skilled musicianship of the Wrecking Crew, the dazzling and esoteric wordplay of his chosen lyrical collaborator Van Dyke Parks, and the heavenly vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys.
But hauntingly, SMiLE remained unfinished, and most of it was never released. Paul McCartney came up with the title of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for the next Beatles project, and the Beach Boys' moment passed; never again did they reach the pinnacle of artistic achievement and commercial success they had occupied at the end of 1966. Crushed by the expectations placed upon him and his inability to deliver, over the next few years Brian gradually withdrew from the recording business and his group, and lived a hermit-like existence for many years, racked with insecurity and self-doubt. By the late 1990s, although he had made an admirable recovery and had begun releasing solo records and touring, nobody seriously believed SMiLE would ever see the light of day. For Brian Wilson, it seemed that the music that should have been regarded as his finest work had become forever associated with catastrophic failure.
This year, however, has seen the unthinkable happen. On February 20th, Brian, now in his early '60s, debuted a completed version of SMiLE live at the Royal Festival Hall in London. And on September 27th, a newly recorded version of the album will be released to the world. Everyone loves a happy ending — but how did it come about?
By 2002, Brian had regained sufficient confidence in his music that he was able to play Pet Sounds, his best completed work, on a live world tour. Discussions on how he could top this triumph all led in the direction of SMiLE; after all, what was to have followed Pet Sounds and bettered it back in the '60s? Since the music was still such a source of discomfort to its creator, one man in his live band was charged with the responsibility of helping Brian bring SMiLE back to life in some form.
Multi-instrumentalist Darian Sahanaja now describes this past year and a half as a blur of "eating, breathing, and sleeping SMiLE", but in truth few musicians could have been better suited to the task — he has been a huge fan of the unfinished SMiLE music since the 1980s. A decade later, Darian's band the Wondermints impressed Brian so much live that he took several members of the group into his touring outfit. But even with such a knowledgable ally, Brian still found the sense of expectation associated with the music almost overwhelming at first. "SMiLE was the probably the last time he had the confidence to follow through on a vision for many years," explains Darian. "I had to get him comfortable with the music again. So I suggested to him that it was all about performing it live. Believe me, if the assignment had been to go straight into the studio and re-record SMiLE, it would never have happened!"
The first step towards creating a coherent live SMiLE presentation was to find all the recordings associated with the album, to which end Brian and Darian turned to Brian's long-time engineer Mark Linett, who first worked with Brian in 1987 on his first solo album. However, many tapes from the SMiLE period are missing, and no surviving demos have been found (for more on the '60s SMiLE recordings, see the box on page 126). Mark partially attributes this to the fact that Brian recorded the Beach Boys in several different studios during the period, but as with many other aspects of SMiLE, that's not the end of the story. "We've pretty well searched all the legitimate places," explains Mark. "I've been through the library from CBS, where Brian used to do vocals, for example; all the places that we assume would bring up tapes if they still existed. An awful lot of SMiLE has simply gone missing over the years. What's tragic about it is that I think some of it's not inadvertent; I think people have deliberately stolen stuff. So some tapes couldn't be referenced to finish the record."
However, even where tapes do exist, they remain frustratingly incomplete — and Mark believes that this was always the case. "We can't rule out that there wasn't more done which is now missing, but there was no finished album, that's for sure. There's an awful lot of stuff where tracks were recorded, but no vocals, and some tracks were never recorded."
To help Darian, Mark ran off copies of the original tapes. "I gave him everything we could find as multitrack Pro Tools files, so that he and Brian could listen to the tracks as isolated as possible, learn and teach parts to the band, and work on sounds. With Brian's stuff of that period, if you try to dissect it from the finished product, especially where you have vocals on top of the instruments, you're never going to get it all."
From this early stage, Pro Tools proved invaluable to the project, as Darian and Brian worked on possible presentations of the SMiLE material using the Pro Tools Session files on Darian's Apple G3 iBook. One of the problems was the interchangeable nature of much of the surviving music. Darian: "So much of SMiLE is variations on a musical theme. It was all about making those variations work as one piece." Mark Linett adds: "The idea of recurring themes was very much on Brian's mind during SMiLE. The 'Heroes And Villains' theme, for example, recurs in several songs. One of the problems I think Brian had in 1966 was that there were so many different ways to put it all together. But with Pro Tools, Darian and Brian could instantly try out different arrangements".
A triumph occurred in this way when Darian and Brian noticed the similarity between the incomplete ending of the song 'Wonderful' and the musically related intro to an unfinished arrangement entitled 'Look'. Darian: "I was moving things around in Pro Tools, putting things together to show Brian. I dropped 'Wonderful' next to 'Look', and we listened to it. Brian's eyes lit up, and he said 'That's it! That's how we'll do it!'"
As well as assembling existing material in a coherent order, Darian and Brian did their best to use all the available sources from the period. A poor-quality 1966 tape of Brian playing an early version of 'Heroes And Villains' supplied lyrics for two numbers, 'I'm In Great Shape' and 'Barnyard'. And while listening to the multitracks for the song 'Child Is Father Of The Man', Darian soloed a chorus lead vocal by Brian's late brother Carl and made discoveries which were later incorporated into the finished arrangements. Mark Linett explains: "When he's not singing, you can hear faint background vocal parts that no longer exist on the multitrack. They must have been in his headphones, and were picked up by the vocal mic. It could be that Brian decided he didn't need them, or that he was going to re-record them, but never did. You hear this sort of stuff throughout the tapes."
1966-vintage lyric sheets were also salvaged from the archives, proving that some songs that exist on tape with only partial vocals, such as 'Do You Like Worms?', once had more words. Once confronted with the rediscovered verse lyrics, Brian was able to remember the vocal melody without difficulty, but he and Darian had trouble reading lyricist Van Dyke Parks' handwriting. Brian's solution was obvious — call in Van Dyke! Another piece of the original jigsaw fell into place.
Van Dyke's arrival changed everything, as Darian explains. "Another dynamic kicked in. Brian is very impressed with Van Dyke, and Van Dyke is equally impressed with Brian, so they played off each other, trying to top each other, turn each other on." Brian's confidence grew, and Van Dyke proved invaluable in boosting it when it wavered. Darian: "Part of Brian's insecurity was the fact that some of SMiLE was risky, you know... uncommercial. Take the 'Workshop' section, with all the power tools playing. Brian wasn't sure about including that, but Van Dyke said, 'We must have courage, my friend,' and so it went in."
In what Darian has subsequently described as this positive, collaborative "think tank", it wasn't long before Brian and Van Dyke were coming up with musical and lyrical ideas that would finish the incomplete parts of SMiLE. Darian describes his role during this part of the process as a 'secretary' and 'facilitator', responsible for keeping track of Brian and Van Dyke's new ideas, and ensuring that they could still be realised on stage.
With unbelievable speed, SMiLE was pulled together in Los Angeles at the end of last year. New lyrics were written for former instrumentals, and some tracks, such as 'Do You Like Worms?', were retitled. Best of all, the completed songs were strung together as three continuous pieces of music, with 'Good Vibrations' acting as a coda, an idea of Brian's that apparently harks back to a structure he had in mind for SMiLE in mid-1966. The music was kept in its original recorded key at all times, so to effect transitions between pieces in different keys, a handful of short orchestral segues were constructed in a collaborative effort between Brian, Darian, Van Dyke, and Wilson live band member Paul Mertens. Mertens also helped to score the orchestration for the second part of the song 'Surf's Up'. A 1966 version featuring Brian playing the song alone at the piano has survived, and a more produced instrumental track for the first section exists featuring percussion, basses and horns, but no similarly developed recording of the second section has ever been found. "I asked Brian what he remembered of it," says Darian, "and he said there were some strings, so we worked on that a little bit, and Van Dyke and Paul Mertens did some orchestrating."
More discoveries were made as SMiLE was being assembled. When Brian's confidence was judged high enough to listen to 'Mrs O'Leary's Cow', a dischordant, frightening piece of music that had severely unnerved him even back in 1966, Darian was amazed to hear him humming along to it. And it sounded familiar...
Also known as 'Fire', 'Mrs O'Leary's Cow' (named after the farmyard beast that supposedly caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 by kicking over a lantern) shares chordal similarities with 'Fall Breaks And Back To Winter', a recording that made it onto the later, much simplified Beach Boys album Smiley Smile. Unlike the incomplete 'Fire', though, 'Fall Breaks...' has vocals, and it was the melody line of these that Brian was singing. "It just made so much sense," says Darian. "'Fall Breaks...' is a reworking of 'Mrs O'Leary's Cow'. It's the same chords, just a different arrangement." The vocal harmonies were duly restored to the live arrangement for 'Fire'.
Several other Smiley Smile pieces with rumoured connections to the original SMiLE were considered for the concert, as Darian explains. "There's a piece called 'He Gives Speeches', another SMiLE-era out-take, but Brian didn't want to do that," says Darian, "and one called 'With Me Tonight'... it's just another one of those tracks that sounds like a part of 'Heroes And Villains', or also part of 'Vega-Tables'. I played it for Brian, but... I imagine that it's just like when you're making a movie — you film a lot of scenes, and then it's impossible to fit them all in. You're most likely going to leave footage on the cutting-room floor."
Darian feels that the finished results are in keeping with the music recorded 37 years ago. "I don't think there's a single piece in there that doesn't incorporate something that Brian or Van Dyke wrote. Even the little segues and transitions are all little phrases from 'Surf's Up', or the 'cantina' section of 'Heroes And Villains'... It was really important to me that we kept the integrity of what SMiLE was about; the feeling you get from those original recordings and arrangements. We didn't want there to be anything jarring, like a DX7, or a some kind of drum machine beat." And of course, Darian wasn't the only one concerned in this way — he feels that a splendid 'acid test' is Van Dyke's stated happiness with the results of the revived project: "Van Dyke is a man of total integrity. If he felt that this was going in the wrong direction, he would have stepped out right away, like he did in the '60s."
In the interests of staying true to the original arrangements, string and horn players, the Stockholm Strings And Horns, were hired for the live performances. But when it came to reproducing the keyboard sounds live, Darian hit a problem. The original recordings used many delicate keyboards, such as electroacoustic organs, harpsichords, and multiple grand and tack pianos, as well as subtly detuned prepared piano. The difficulties of taking all of this on the road proved insurmountable, and he opted instead for a pared-down rig consisting of a digital Hammond organ, a real glockenspiel for bell and chime parts, and the synth with the best samples of the other keyboards he could find — Kurzweil's top-of-the-range K2600 sampling workstation. Even so, the logistics of zoning the samples so that he could play different instruments simultaneously from different parts of the keyboard were formidable. And the detuned piano parts required some serious synth reprogramming in the depths of Kurzweil's VAST synth engine by Dave Weiser, an engineer from Kurzweil R&D.
Despite being almost deaf in one ear, Brian Wilson was responsible for some of the most imaginative record production techniques of the '60s. His musical achievements are reasonably well documented, for example in the detailed notes accompanying the Pet Sounds Sessions box set, which explain how he arrived at some of his arrangements with studio session musicians. But his technical achievements have received less attention.
When Brian began producing in 1963, most LA recording facilities offered three-track recording at best, the idea being that this would accommodate a stereo backing track and leave a track free for a lead vocal. But Brian had no interest in stereo. Together with his favourite engineer Chuck Britz, he rapidly began stretching what could be done with those three tracks. "Brian became very adept at getting his tracks live in mono, or maybe with one overdub," explains Mark Linett. "And then he'd have a track, or maybe two, for the vocals, which was usually enough, because in the early days, the Beach Boys would do the vocals live round a couple of mics. So he could double the lead and backing vocals with the remaining spare track, which was an effect he liked."
From 1963 onwards, Brian began planning his arrangements carefully, frequently leaving carefully timed instrumental silences in the backing tracks, over which he would later record a cappella harmony breaks with the Beach Boys. He also began to use tape-cutting techniques around 1964, initially to splice short, hard-to-sing a cappella intros or outros on to the beginnings or endings of previously recorded songs.
He soon outgrew the tracks that were available to him. Mark Linett: "If he needed to keep overdubbing after he'd filled up all his tracks, he'd make a reduction mix to one mono track of a new tape, and then he'd have some more spare — although this wasn't unusual for the time.
"In some cases, like [1965 US number one] 'Help Me Rhonda', a whole bunch of overdubs were done as the tape was being mixed to mono, to save another layer of tape copying, and the generation loss that goes with it." This means, though, that those mono mixes are the only places you find those overdubs, and true stereo remixes from the multitrack that precisely replicate the mono single mixes are now impossible.
From 1965, the record label Columbia acquired an eight-track recorder at their LA studio. This changed everything. "By now, Brian was recording the instrumental backings on three tracks. I think this was just something the engineers did with his consent, so that he would have a little more control when he mixed it to mono, which he would do almost immediately. And then he'd either put that mono backing onto one track of an eight-track tape at CBS, or one track of a new three- or four-track tape. And then he'd overdub vocals onto the remaining spare tracks. Half of the Summer Days (And Summer Nights!) album was made using the eight-track at CBS like that, and so was half of Pet Sounds."
The Summer Days album also saw Brian becoming bolder with tape splicing. The a cappella harmony piece 'And Your Dreams Come True' was recorded in sections of a few bars long, and then carefully edited together. "I've never really asked him where this concept of doing things in pieces came from," admits Mark. "He certainly wasn't the first person to do edits, but it was unusual to record a song in four or five sections, and then cut it together. The vocal double-tracking was usually done over the top of the edited version."
'Good Vibrations', begun during the Pet Sounds sessions, took tape-splicing techniques to new heights. Darian Sahanaja comments: "Before that, by and large, they'd go in and cut an entire track, and then he'd lay vocals over it. But with 'Good Vibrations', he'd just hire the top session guys, go into the studio, and spend three or four hours working on a groove, trying different tempos and instrumentation... It wasn't a finished song, it was just a riff. He'd do it again the next day in a different way, and again the next week, and after a few months, he'd have all these different variations on a theme. Eventually, he edited them together in the form of a song, and we got 'Good Vibrations'. For every section of the finished piece, there's hours of just the verse, just the chorus, each with slightly different instrumentation, different rhythmic feels, and different percussion... That was tremendously satisfying to him artistically, and of course, it also did very well on the charts. So then he decides he's going to do a whole album that way. That was the idea of SMiLE... a whole album of these 'feels' that he was going to weave together. And that's why you've got all these recorded sections for 'Heroes And Villains'. It's a bunch of different experiments, and some of them branched off and became separate songs."
'Good Vibrations' was also groundbreaking for being the first song in which Brian began to realise that if he was constructing the song from sections anyway, he might as well reuse some of them. The instrumental backing for the choruses is the same recording repeated several times, as are the first two verses. "In a way," says Mark Linett, "Brian invented the method of modular recording that we take for granted today. Initially, he would still construct it as a song, you know, copy the verse twice, copy the chorus twice, and then splice it all together. Eventually, he didn't do that either; he would just put two different lead vocals on different tracks on one section, mix with one, then mix with the other, and he'd have two verses from one piece of tape."
This is how the SMiLE-era version of 'Vega-Tables' was recorded, which provides a masterful example of using extensive overdubbing to build up a track from very basic beginnings. The track began with Brian playing solo piano backing for two sections, with a brief pause in the middle. He then added a barrage of overdubs to the track, including bass, percussion, interlocking vocals and several leads on each section, seemingly intending to mix most of the sections he needed for the song from these two parts. Unfortunately, this method makes it very difficult to work out which leads and overdubs he wanted to include on each section, and in what order he intended to place them. To confuse matters further, Brian also recorded further sections for 'Vega-Tables' later on. Arguments about the correct sequence of the SMiLE version, and the choice of sections, continue among fans to this day.
Following his abandonment of SMiLE, Brian moved to a home-based studio, but continued to use tape-splicing and section-repeating techniques throughout the next three albums released by the Beach Boys. Many of the tracks on 1967's Smiley Smile have their roots in SMiLE material — 'Good Vibrations' is the 1966 single version, and 'Heroes And Villains' and the mostly re-recorded version of 'Vegetables' contain some spliced-in sections recorded during the SMiLE sessions. Other SMiLE titles, such as 'Wonderful' and 'Wind Chimes', were completely re-recorded for Smiley Smile in much simpler arrangements. However, Brian still put a lot of work in to build up the tracks from basic foundations, using a piano much as producers began using click tracks over a decade later, to lay down a tempo map over which the rest of the song could then be overdubbed. The piano was frequently mixed out in the final version of the song, as in the Smiley Smile version of 'Wind Chimes'.
Overall, although the tape edits carry some of the spliced-together feel of the original SMiLE project over to Smiley Smile, this is a very different album, with very little of SMiLE 's grand orchestration, except on the SMiLE-era singles. Instead, a laid-back feeling permeates the record; the organ-heavy backing tracks are sparse and have an almost a lo-fi, bedroom-recorded feel to them, perhaps reflecting where they were made. Coupled with the cut-together nature of the recordings, this was a very uncommercial album to release to the world in September 1967, which was still expecting something to top the lushly produced Pet Sounds. Fans of its quirky charms rate it not least because the pared-back arrangements allow Brian's extraordinary vocal harmonies to shine through, especially on tracks like 'Little Pad', 'With Me Tonight', and the gorgeous choral tag to the re-recorded 'Wind Chimes'.
After Smiley Smile, Wild Honey was also constructed largely from pieces. Even on songs like the single 'Darlin', where a complete backing track was cut, only one of the choruses was overdubbed with vocals, and then this was copied and spliced between the rest of the verses.
By the release of Friends in 1968, Brian was beginning his retreat from active involvement in the group's recordings. Ironically, the other Beach Boys began to use old tapes of his performances, and his overdubbing and splicing tricks, to maintain the illusion that he was still creatively involved. Recordings with their origins in the '60s SMiLE sessions concluded the Beach Boys' three albums after Friends.
The final such assembly was 'Surf's Up' on the 1971 album of the same name. Carl Wilson took Brian's instrumental recording of the first part of the song and overdubbed vocals to complete it. The backing for the second part of the song had to be supplied by splicing in the appropriate part of the surviving 1966 Brian solo piano performance. According to Mark Linett, an abandoned 1971 tape exists in the Beach Boys' archive upon which an attempt has been made to fly in Brian's double-tracked 1966 vocals from the solo piano version over the January 1967 orchestral backing track for the first part of the song. However, with the technology of the day, it was impossible to marry the variant tempos of the two recordings, and the tape contains no vocals after the first few lines. We can only speculate what they might have done with a software sampler and a laptop!
The concert opened in London on February 20th, 2004 to rave reviews all over the world from fans and press alike; Q magazine placed it in their Top Five Gigs Of All Time the following month. All six nights were recorded for posterity by Mark Linett on a 48-track Genex hard disk recorder acquired especially for the occasion, and some of those performances will appear in a TV documentary on SMiLE that will air in late 2004. "It was an amazing moment for me at the end of 'Blue Hawaii' on the first night", comments Mark. "Sitting in the remote truck mixing the show, I got emotional as I realised that Brian had finally presented SMiLE to the world after 37 years." Darian was delighted too, particularly at the end of the second night, when Brian received a lengthy standing ovation after the SMiLE portion of the concert. "Before the first show, my biggest fear was 'Is Brian going to make it all the way through this?' The second night, after the SMiLE performance... it was the longest standing ovation that I've ever witnessed. I felt that was the night that Brian really acknowledged SMiLE as his work. He actually feels proud of it now."
Two weeks later, the fate of the studio-based recording that eventually followed was still uncertain. Darian: "The idea evolved. It was only after the success of the concerts that Brian warmed up to the idea of doing the studio version."
The 10-piece touring band, plus the nine members of the Stockholm Strings And Horns, eventually reconvened at Sunset Sound Studios, Los Angeles, on April 13th, 2004 following some intense preparation and a day setting up at the studio. With Brian supervising and honing the performances via the talkback, as of old, they finished recording the required instrumental backing tracks in a mere four days, thanks to Darian's efficient organisation before the sessions and the group's fine musicianship. "When Brian cut this originally, he started with just an idea, and had to work out the sounds and arrangements. We came in knowing the stuff; the road was already paved! But it was still a lot of work. I had all these sheets printed out showing the sections, all colour-coded, to make sure we got everything down."
The recording was made using a sensible mixture of old and new techniques and technology where appropriate. It was decided to cut the instrumental tracks in a way that, for the most part, would have been very familiar to Brian in the late '60s. Mark Linett takes up the story.
"We put everybody in the same room, apart from the strings and horns, and decided to go for the sound of good, creative bleed. Sunset's Studio 1 was the original site of sessions for both 'Good Vibrations' and 'Heroes And Villains' in 1966, so we knew this method would work.
"Before eight-track came along, everything was still recorded pretty much live in one room; all the players could hear each other, and to record them and balance them off against each other, you'd move them physically around the room, or move the mics. And most importantly, you looked for good bleed. What people don't understand about those records of Brian's or Phil Spector's, their big sound, and the reverb, is that it was all recorded in a very small room. Studio 3 at Western Recorders, where Brian did many sessions in the '60s, is only something like 30 feet by 12 by 20. The reason it sounds so big is that you can use the reflected information — it sounds good.
"Nowadays, if you're making a rock record, you start with the drums and build it up. If we go right back to the days when there would have been a live vocalist in the room, you would have started with the vocal mic, with all the bleed that was coming into it, and then add enough of the other instrumental mics to fill in. And if that had too much bleed, then you'd have to move things around and make everyone play differently. You have to think about dynamics and arrangements. [Drummer] Jimmy Hines commented that his cymbals and hi-hats were virtually untouched, which was typical of recordings of the period — the high-end stuff was almost always done with percussion, because there was more control. Splashy cymbals would have obliterated everything on the three-track!
"We used the isolation booth at Sunset for the live strings and horns, because we had the same small section we did on stage: two violins, a viola, two cellos, and four horns. Originally, you'd put everybody in one room, and so you'd have to have a certain number of strings and horns just to be loud enough to compete on-mic with everyone else. When amplified rock music came along, you really had to have more isolation. Sunset was the first studio in town to build an iso room big enough to put a small orchestra in.
"It was funny that even though we made it very clear that we were going to be recording everybody live in the same room, I still had musicians coming up to me after takes saying, 'I wanna fix that on a drop-in'. And of course we couldn't. While it's nice when you can do that, and sometimes it's an advantage, it means that you're not capturing entirely real performances. Back in the '60s, you played it right first time, and if you didn't, they got someone else who could! The result of that was music with much more human interaction present, and I think we achieved the same thing."
"For miking, we tried to stay pretty close to what would have been done back then... so there wasn't much in the way of condenser mics, because you tend to get extremely intense bleed with those. For the most part, it was dynamics and ribbon mics [see diagram on page 128]. The drums all had dynamics on them. We had a full percussion rig miked up with dynamics and condensers, and decided which to use depending on the sound of the track we were recording. Sometimes we cut both and decided which to use later. I had two setups on the grand piano that I could call on: a close-miked arrangement and a Mid + Side setup for the bigger-sounding numbers, like 'Surf's Up', where we wanted something more 'roomy'. We also used the sound of Sunset's live echo chamber on the drums and percussion, and printed the reverb returns, just like Brian used to."
In 1965, Brian was the acknowledged master of the two-minute pop song, but it was not enough for him. By 1966's Pet Sounds, he was reaching for larger, more adult lyrical themes and coupling them to longer tracks, and after the realisation of production epic 'Good Vibrations', the new album, SMiLE, was to take these developments even further. Enlisting poetic wordsmith Van Dyke Parks to help him with lyrics, Brian began to work on a bewildering variety of themes for the new record: spiritual development, emotional growth from child to man, physical health, the environment, and the Old West, the last of these perhaps best encapsulated in 'Heroes And Villains'. And the new music was awe-inspiring and evocative, too, the arrangements painting in sound what Van Dyke's lyrics achieved in rhyme. The calm verses of 'Cabin Essence' conjured up rural life on the farm, before the thundering 'iron horse' of progress, the railroad engine in the chorus, swept everything before it — and it really sounded like it, too. 'Fire', written to evoke an enormously destructive conflagration, sounded so alarming that even Brian was unsettled by it. Journalist Jules Siegal watched the recording of what he would later describe as "sequences of great power and beauty" for 'Heroes And Villains', and even Leonard Bernstein was full of praise for 'Surf's Up'.
But as 1967 dawned, Brian proved incapable of completing 'Heroes And Villains', reworking it several times and constantly adding new sections. The other Beach Boys, alarmed at the avant-garde turn the music was taking, and concerned that it would be virtually impossible to reproduce on stage, rounded on Brian. In the Spring, Van Dyke Parks, disturbed by these developments, left the project. Eventually, perhaps feeling that his creative vision was now fatally compromised, Brian scrapped SMiLE, dramatically scaling down his ambitions at the same time. He stopped recording with the Wrecking Crew at external studios and had one built instead in his home. In early Autumn 1967, the homespun, much simplified Smiley Smile was released, and failed to crack the US Top 40. A partially re-recorded, shortened single version of 'Heroes And Villains' had already dropped off the charts.
At the start of the SMiLE sessions, Brian bestrode the world; after Smiley Smile, he rarely left his house. For years afterwards, whenever the occasional curious journalist enquired about SMiLE, Brian would always play it down, maintaining that he had destroyed the master tapes, or writing off the music as unfinished, drug-crazed self-indulgence. By the late '80s, when Mark Linett began to catalogue the recordings from the period, the library was in a terrible state, with many missing tapes.
The most famous of these is the eight-track master tape for 'Good Vibrations' with all the vocal overdubs, but there are countless other examples. The session tape for the SMiLE-era minor-key cover of 'You Are My Sunshine' exists, but lacks the master take. According to Mark Linett, it was physically snipped off and added to a separate compilation reel (which also included the multitrack master of the track 'Wonderful') so that Brian's brother Dennis could add a vocal. Mono mixdowns of 'Wonderful' and 'You Are My Sunshine' performed from this reel (the latter in 1968) exist as evidence of this, but the comp reel itself has disappeared. Similarly, a tape exists which includes a safety copy of the track 'Do You Like Worms?', featuring backing vocals that are no longer present on the main surviving archive tape of the song. Documentation shows that the safety was made from a four-track tape — but that tape, of course, is no longer in the archive. "I hope some day we can get all this stuff back", says Mark. "I don't care how somebody got something — if they have it, I'd love to hear from them."
Perhaps the greatest mystery of all the original SMiLE recordings concerns the second part of the instrumental backing track for 'Surf's Up'; it's completely unclear whether it has been stolen, or whether it was never recorded in the first place. Darian Sahanaja says "The talk is that it exists, somewhere," but Mark Linett's reading of the situation is more prosaic. "If it does exist, we haven't found it."
The backing tracks were also recorded in a way that was very familiar to Brian. Although the 'three-movement' structure and order of the songs was not altered from the live version, the songs were cut out of sequence in sections and strung together later, and similar instrumental sections, such as the verses and choruses of 'Child Is The Father Of The Man' or 'Cabin Essence', were recorded only once and copied, as on the original sessions. Not all of the songs were recorded in exactly the same way — ironically, on 'Good Vibrations', the song on which Brian had originally fully developed the method of recording in sections, the first two verses and choruses were played straight through as one piece — but on most of the songs, the sections were divided up as on the '60s recordings, even the opening wordless chorale, 'Our Prayer'.
Darian: "The only way to do it was in pieces. Listen to the '60s versions of 'Good Vibrations' or 'Heroes And Villains', which were both released; you can hear the cuts as they go by, and that has so much to do with the feel of the original recordings. Van Dyke is a huge fan of those hard tape-style edits, he thinks that's so 'Brian'."
For all that, the recording itself was not made to tape, but to Mark Linett's Pro Tools HD system. But given the nature of the record, Mark thinks this too was only sensible. "Random-access editing has been a part of this from the very conception. Brian was making a record that was tailor-made for something like Pro Tools, but trying to do it 40 years ago! If he had had these tools, who knows what he might have been able to accomplish. Any concerns about the sonic quality — and I don't have any of those now we're recording at high resolutions, with better converters — are more than outweighed by the benefits. At heart, I'm an analogue guy — I still mix in analogue — but I have no problem with the sound of Pro Tools. I don't think recording to tape would have benefited us sonically, and we would have had to transfer into Pro Tools pretty quickly for the editing anyway."
Mark's system comprised a custom Pro Tools HD rig, recording at 24-bit, 88.2kHz. An Apogee Big Ben was used as the master clock ("Having an external clock is a must, if you can afford it," he avers), and he expanded the I/O from its usual 32-input, 48-output configuration (on an Apogee AD16 and Rosetta, and DA16s respectively) to 40 inputs by adding another Rosetta. "We didn't record that many tracks at once — it was more that we had that much stuff out in the studio, and I wanted to be able to say "Right, we're going to add those inputs,' without having to think about it."
Pragmatically, a few instruments were added after the basic tracks were recorded, such as on 'Surf's Up', where the bass line is composed of several bass parts. To save having to teach parts to new bassists so they could all be recorded live, the electric bass was recorded first, and then acoustic bass was overdubbed. On a few songs, Mark double-tracked the strings and/or horns to more closely reflect the number of players on the original sessions. When recording 'Fire', which originally featured a large string section, the Stockholm Strings were triple-tracked. "Overdubbing is so easy in Pro Tools... we'd just arm the tracks and go. In the old days, you needed to repatch, make sure you had enough tracks, repatch the monitoring...".
Although a grand piano was used live, an upright piano, which was not available at Sunset, was overdubbed at Mark Linett's Your Place Or Mine studio later. An early plan to replace the sampled Kurzweil harpsichord with the real thing later was abandoned, as everyone professed themselves happy with the sounds from the K2600 on hearing rough mixes.
Aside from these tweaks, a few alterations were made by Brian and Darian to instrumental arrangements between the concerts and the recordings. For example, care was taken to replicate the delicate rhythm arrangement of the original 'Heroes And Villains'. Although the track has a strong 16th-note feel, it derives this not from hi-hat parts, but from a combination of snare and tom-toms, with the high-end feel supplied by strummed acoustic guitar and banjo. Likewise, some of the heavy tom-tom fills used to power along the live rendition of 'Good Vibrations' were pared back to reflect the more restrained studio arrangements. In contrast, some instruments that had been omitted to allow the music to be performed by the 10-strong group live were restored, such as the timpani and parade drum used on the verses of 'Roll Plymouth Rock', the former 'Do You Like Worms?'.
Vocal sessions began towards the end of April at Your Place Or Mine studios. The background vocals and beds for the clutch of a cappella-only sections were recorded first, with Neumann U47 and U67s, in classic Beach Boys fashion (three to five vocalists live at a time, with a bass vocalist on a separate mic). Work continued on Brian's leads through May and into June, recording for the most part on a Neumann U67 or an old Shure 545 dynamic, running through Universal Audio 610 and 610a valve mic preamps (just as on the '60s recordings). This signal was then passed straight into Pro Tools via a Fairchild 670 compressor and the Apogee A-D converters.
As with the instrumental arrangements, Brian and Darian tweaked the vocal arrangements for the studio performances. Mark: "The tracks that got vocals back in the '60s were heavily multitracked, and we tried to do the same thing, doubling vocals and using whoever was most appropriate for certain parts, rather than being forced to do everything at the same time, as on stage."
One set of 'vocals' remained unaltered; the percussive sounds of vegetables being chewed and chomped on the quirky paean to good health, 'Vega-Tables'. As the band battled over who would get to play 'lead celery', Darian and Mark began trying to work out how best to close-mike a variety of market produce. Darian: "That was hilarious, finding out which vegetables would give you really monster crunches down a mic..." And the result? "Carrots were OK, but celery is the one. You get that big tearing sound from all the fibres!"
Mixing began in June and ran into early July, with Brian and Darian present. As is his preference, Mark mixed in the analogue domain, using Your Place Or Mine's custom API 2488 console, and both Pro Tools-based and Flying Fader level automation. Similarly, processing was carried out both by plug-ins such as Waves' Renaissance Compressor and also analogue outboard, including a Fairman TMEQ six-band valve equaliser, and a Universal Audio 175A compressor. Universal Audio also supplied a UAD1 card, which ran several hardware emulations as plug-ins, including a Pultec EQ plug-in. The mix proceeded from Pro Tools via Mark's Apogee D-As, was mixed and laid back to Pro Tools in stereo at 24-bit, 88.2kHz resolution, passing back in via a high-quality DCS 904 stereo A-D converter. Tannoy SGM10s (with Mastering Labs crossovers), handled the monitoring, fed from a DCS 954 D-A attached to the stereo output from Pro Tools.
The mixing nonetheless posed a problem which had not been resolved even after the basic backing tracks had been recorded. On the original SMiLE recordings, Brian recorded most of the songs in sections, but cut them together to make a complete backing track before adding vocals over the top. The exception was 'Heroes And Villains', where vocals were added to sections prior to assembly. But what was the best approach for the 2004 recordings? In the end, a 'Heroes And Villains'-type approach was adopted, whereby vocals were recorded separately on each section, each section was mixed into stereo complete with its vocals, and then the parts were assembled into songs by slightly overlapping them on two sets of stereo pairs in Pro Tools. Mark: "Everything comes in 'hard' on each section after the count-ins — which the editing process removed — so it was just a question of how we got out of the previous section. Usually I let the natural reverb tail off over the start of the next section, or did very quick crossfades.
"If we had a song with multiple verses and multiple choruses, we would mix all of those first, and then put them together. So there was never an assembled multitrack from which we mixed whole songs. If I'd known we were going to do it this way, I would have done it differently. In some of the repeat sections, we did wind up reusing a lot of the same backing tracks, and in some cases the same background vocals, just like in 1966, but I created a separate copied section each time the lead vocal was different. And that meant mixing each section separately; so in order to ensure that they still sounded alike, anything we did in Pro Tools' automation, and also on my console automation, had to be duplicated in both sections. In retrospect, it would have been easier and faster if we had done it all on one copy of the section, with the different leads recorded on two separate sets of tracks, and then just brought up the lead vocal we needed for that particular verse or whatever. Just like Brian did on the original version of 'Vega-Tables', actually."
Some effects were added during the mix, including the transfer functions of several sampled echo chambers and spring reverbs using Audio Ease's Altiverb, and the profiles in Mark's hardware Sony DRE S777 convolving reverb. "I have a large collection of analogue reverbs, including springs. I love them, but they tend to be very noisy. When you use the sampled versions, you retain all the nice qualities, but you get rid of the mechanical noise," explains Mark.
Altiverb was also used for limited-bandwidth vocal effects, lending an 'old gramophone'-style ambience to the snatches of old cover versions dotted around the completed album. But by far the most obvious Altiverb moment was the emulation of Brian's original 'tape delay plus feedback' explosion effect. Brian experimented with this then-innovative effect on the track 'I'm In Great Shape', recorded in late October 1966. Back then, he used tape delay, but fed the delayed feed back into itself at high gain levels so that the delay built cumulatively until the tape he was recording on saturated completely, creating the effect of a delay-based explosion. Later, early in 1967, he recreated the effect on an early version of 'Heroes And Villains'.
For the re-recorded SMiLE, the effect was restored to 'I'm In Great Shape', and was created using a delay plug-in running on Mark's Universal Audio UAD1 card. "We could have done it the way Brian did; I still have the tape machines. But the UAD plug-in just sounded great. It overloads in a very analogue-sounding way, and gives you full control over the regeneration level, the feedback, the delay time, and so on. And the great thing is, because it's a plug-in, you can automate it! So we mixed that section without the effect, and then I automated the plug-in to create the effect when we were assembling the sections. We experimented with the settings several times to create the best effect."
If your curiosity has been piqued, and you want to know more about SMiLE, seek out Domenic Priore's book Look! Listen! Vibrate! SMiLE! (ISBN 0-86719-417-0), which collects most of the contemporary writings about the original sessions in one handy scrapbook-type volume, together with some exploratory essays and much theorising from Domenic. Some of this is based on information that is now out of date in the light of discoveries made since the book's last revision, but Priore's burning enthusiasm for the music shines through, and it's worth bearing in mind that it was first written at a time when perhaps barely 50 people worldwide knew anything about the subject. An updated version is apparently in the works.
There are plenty of sites devoted to the Beach Boys on the 'Net, but the best one devoted to SMiLE is unquestionably The SMiLE Shop (www.thesmileshop.net). Founded in 1998 by SMiLE fans Jon Hunt and John Lane, the Shop collects essays, information and session data for the original recordings in one place. Even better is the discussion board attached to the Shop, which is one of the best-behaved and most thought-provoking forums around. Actively presided over by the two Jo(h)ns, who post there most days, there's no finer place to discuss SMiLE, or indeed most other pop and rock music.
There's no way to hear a finished version of SMiLE other than by buying this September's release. However, some of the recordings from the '60s are commercially available, mostly on the 1993 five-disc Good Vibrations boxed set. Even in their unfinished form, the 30-odd minutes of SMiLE tracks compiled and mixed for Disc 2 of the set by Mark Linett convey a powerful, compelling sense of what might have been. Sadly, most of the '60s tracks and recording sessions are only available via the shadowy realm of the bootleg collector, and some are rumoured to have been lost forever. Dedicated fans of the original recordings continue to hold out hope that Capitol Records, with Brian's agreement, will one day officially release a multi-disc boxed set of all of the unfinished '60s sessions. Given Brian Wilson's enthusiasm for the newly completed version of the album, however, this seems unlikely to happen in the short term.
Mixing and assembly were complete by mid-July, only just before Brian and the band had to travel to Europe for another round of SMiLE concerts. A few tweaks were deemed necessary before mastering, and Mark sought the approval of Brian and Darian by putting Pro Tools Sessions of the slightly remixed sections up on a secure FTP server so that they could download them and hear them in their London hotel rooms. The same method was used to transfer the final Brian-approved mix to Bob Ludwig of Gateway Mastering on July 16th. By late July, the record was done.
The completed album stands up as Wilson's masterpiece, presenting its music in high-fidelity stereo, with vibrant bass and silky high end. The cut-together arrangements accentuate the strong dynamic contrasts throughout, from the shimmering, glittering beauty of the gentle harpsichord and vocals on 'Wonderful' to the pounding timpani on the verses of 'Roll Plymouth Rock', and the sawing, driving cellos in the choruses of 'Cabin Essence' and 'Good Vibrations'. And Brian Wilson's arrangement skills are all over the record, from the muted trumpet of 'Child Is Father Of The Man' to the rasping, dixie-like trombones of 'On A Holiday', from the mournful horns of 'Surf's Up' to the soaring strings of 'Blue Hawaii', and from the absurdity of the celery accompaniment in 'Vega-Tables' to the harmony acrobatics of 'Heroes And Villains'. You'll be hard-pressed, too, to find another album in 2004 that includes something as beautiful as the sublime 'Our Prayer' on the one hand, and the downright terrifying 'Mrs O'Leary's Cow' on the other. In short, this is a SMiLE that finally fulfils the promise of the sadly incomplete '60s recordings — no mean achievement.
As my final interview with Mark Linett wraps up, he is poring over a test acetate of the fourth side of the double vinyl gatefold album. With three sides taken up by SMiLE, the fourth will include instrumental-only mixes of four songs which allow the complexity of the backing tracks to shine through. And there is talk of a 5.1 version for next year. Funding has yet to be confirmed, but Mark, in his enthusiasm, has already begun to create rough surround mixes of 'Surf's Up' and 'Wind Chimes'. "We're all very proud of this," he says — and rightly so. Darian Sahanaja certainly is. And Brian? Darian sums up: "In theory, it was probably the worst thing you could present to Brian: finish SMiLE! And yet we did it. It's a miracle that everything was in the right place at the right time, but Brian is so proud of it now. It's all been worth it, just for that."
SMiLE will be released on Nonesuch Records on September 27th. 'Wonderful' is coming out as a limited-edition UK vinyl single on September 20th.