Late last month, with little notice, three Beach Boys compilations appeared on Spotify and other streaming platforms: Wake the World: The Friends Sessions; I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions; and On Tour: 1968 (Live). Almost none of the recordings had been previously released. They include originals and covers, captured in live soundchecks, in-studio work tapes, instrumental backing tracks, and isolated a cappella vocal tracks, a number of which are revelatory.
The music from this period has generally been considered subpar by the impossible-to-match standards set by Pet Sounds in 1966. But these sessions, made with Brian Wilson still a force in the studio, and brother Dennis Wilson coming into his own as a songwriter, show a group still touched frequently by genius. They continue the archival series that include the 2016 box set The Smile Sessions and last year’s 1967 Sunshine Tomorrow and Sunshine Tomorrow 2 — The Studio Sessions. All the aforementioned were assembled by longtime Beach Boys associates Mark Linett and Alan Boyd, who spoke with us about the new releases.
What inspired the release of this material now, and in this fashion, straight to digital?
Linett: It has a lot to do with 50-year copyright term limit in the U.K. and the E.U. for sound recordings. Back in 2013, some copyright tribunal amended that, and added 20 years to the term. But there was a sort of use-it-or-lose-it provision, which basically said unreleased recordings have to be officially released within 50 years of creation in order to get copyright protection. And I think they did this because in 2012, the first Beatles recordings were starting to fall into the public domain. It happened with the Beach Boys too — the Surfin’ Safari album in that territory is now public domain, because the registration wasn’t retroactive. Plus an enormous amount of the material in the archives was bootlegged.
Boyd: It’s ironic the bootlegs that once were sort of a threat to the band have now made it essential to release all this stuff legitimately. It’s a boon for Beach Boys fans. The question of marketability in the real world would’ve likely kept them off the market.
Some of this material has been available on the Unsurpassed Masters bootlegs and other places, yeah?Linett: Oh, yeah. Not done the same way — I mean, just sort of thrown out there.
Boyd: It’s hard to tell what’s floating around. There are probably things in the hands of superfans that I’m not even aware of. It wouldn’t surprise me. Somebody got into the tape vault in the late Seventies, early Eighties. In recent years, we’ve actually been buying tapes back, stuff that was stolen way back when.
Linett: Most things were just mixed and copied by someone. But some things literally walked out the door. About 10 or 15 years ago, somebody approached us with a box full of tapes — we were aware of some of them, because the person or persons who had stolen them, probably in the early Eighties, had left the boxes with somebody else’s tapes in them, and just spirited the [Beach Boys] tapes away. Some things from that same pile we didn’t know existed; we didn’t have original boxes for them.
It’s fantastic. I’m writing a book about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, who unfortunately don’t have anywhere near this amount of archival stuff.
Linett: Mostly it’s because the Beach Boys always controlled their masters, after the first album. It was in their contract. So rather than turning in the multitracks to Capitol, they . . . well, mostly they left them behind wherever they were working! It wasn’t until about 1978 when somebody was actually given the job of finding what they could and putting it all in storage. The typical process for a record label, when you turned in your session masters, was they’d keep the last, dubbed-down multitrack that the final was mixed from. Any sub-masters would just wind up in the dumpster, because otherwise record labels would need 100 square blocks to store everything. And of course, they didn’t see any value in this stuff long-term anyway. There’s just one album in our files where all we have are the final three track masters — all the outtakes are gone.
Boyd: Most of the Surfer Girl album.
Linett: Yeah. But after that, I’d say between 80 and 90 percent of all the Beach Boys recordings survived. That’s why things like this, and the Pet Sounds and Smile boxes, were possible, because we have all the session outtakes. It’s unusual.
What was Brian’s level of involvement with these sessions originally?
Boyd: Brian was very much involved in Friends — he was still basically running the show. He even finished the album after the boys had left to go on tour. At that point, the Beach Boys were sooo far behind on their contract with Capitol because of that long period of time between Pet Sounds and the eventual release of Smiley Smile. They were still playing catch-up. By the spring of ’68 , an album had to be turned in. Same thing with 20/20 — there was a major flurry of activity to finish that one in time to get it to Capitol before they launched a major tour of Europe. But Brian was very much involved in Friends. He pretty much produced it.
Linett: Even [songs] we’d probably say were co-produced, like Dennis’ “Little Bird,” were still more Brian producing. Not a whole lot different than earlier group recordings. The exception here is there are a lot of session players on the basic tracks, as opposed to Wild Honey and Smiley Smile.
Where were these sessions recorded?
Linett: All over the place. A lot was done at a place called ID Sound. It had originally been the Liberty Records studio. The building and the studio are still there, but not called ID. It’s on La Brea [Avenue].
Boyd: And I believe there was a lot of recording on a mobile unit at Brian’s house, too, which was where they’d done a lot of Wild Honey.
What are the standout tracks on these sets, from your perspectives?
Linett: Well, there’s two ways looking at it. One is being able to dissect some of the released songs, which I always find fascinating with Beach Boys recordings. The interweave of the instruments and the vocals, when you’re able to take it apart, I think that’s really interesting and really informative — hearing the backing tracks for, say, “Little Bird,” and then the vocals a cappella. The same for the rest of the album. I mean, left to our own devices, we’d probably have done that for every single track on the album. And then there’s all the unreleased stuff.
Virtually all the a cappellas are fantastic — it’s amazing to hear the vocals isolated that way.
Boyd: On “Little Bird,” there are these jazz-type chords in some vocal parts. That probably goes back to when Brian was a teen and was almost obsessively dissecting Four Freshmen harmonies — very jazz-oriented, lush, close harmonies. Some of the vocals just blow me away. They’re so precise, and the voices blend so well. Listening to the “Little Bird” a cappella, I got choked up. It’s that beautiful.
There are a few covers on the sessions. The version of “Walk on By” made me notice the Burt Bacharach chord echoes on other tracks.
Linett: Yeah. He was clearly a big influence on Brian during this period.
Boyd: I’m thinking Brian was also influenced by Brazilian singers too. We found a song called “Even Time,” which is an early version of “Busy Doin’ Nothin’.”
Linett: It’s a bossa nova. At some point it seems Brian realized it had been played a little too fast. So he slowed it down and redid his vocal for the released version.
And “Diamond Head” has that beautiful Hawaiian slide guitar. What’s the story of “The Gong”? The spoken-word material is all Dennis, right?
Linett: Yeah. That’s all Dennis. [The gong] was originally released as the intro to the 20/20 version of “Never Learn Not to Love” — it was tacked on to the beginning, but I think it was played backward! The rest of the session was just Dennis messing around and having a good time.
His whole spoken-word thing is extremely trippy.
Linett: Well, yeah — this is 1968. You’re definitely in that period.
And “Never Learn Not to Love ” has a pretty strange backstory.
Linett: Yeaaaaah. . . . There was some involvement by a fellow who stayed at Dennis’ house for a while that summer.
That would be Charles Manson.
Boyd: You can’t avoid this story. But I think, really, the less said about it, the better. Though it’s kind of unavoidable, given the history.
True enough. There’s a number of non-Beach Boys voices on the record. Audree Wilson even puts in an appearance [on “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?”].
Linett: That’s something we found — apparently it had been recorded one afternoon at the home studio. Brian got his mother to sing that. She really had a very sweet voice.
And the track “Oh Yeah” — what’s that about?
Linett: My understanding is that the Beach Boys were on tour — I think they just played the Fillmore East in New York — and because there was this sort of mad scramble to finish up the new album, they’d taken their tapes with them and were working on them every chance they got. I guess they did some work at Capitol Studios in New York, and one of the band members happened upon this kid on the street who was doing this kind of rap thing, and they thought, “Oh, man, this is great, we should get him on tape.” They brought him into the studio, gathered the guys around the mic, and had him lay it down. All it says on the tape box is “Oh Yeah.” No indication as to who he is.
And then there’s the live material. Some of it has been released, yeah?
Linett: Not those shows — two are from the London Palladium, plus the first show at Finsbury Park. The second show was released as the Live in London album. . . . They were never meant for a live album. They’re really good. And it’s great that we have those. If I’m correct, Alan, in 1969 and 1970 there wasn’t much live recording at all.
Boyd: I don’t think we have anything from 1969 in the vaults.
What sort of archival stuff are we looking at for the near future? Do you have anything on deck?
Linett: Well, we’d love to do some projects that focus on the first albums they did for their own label, Brother Records. Because in 1969 they started laying down tracks, some of which found themselves on Sunflower. Some of them were intended for a possible last album with Capitol that never came out. And, you know, there was a single, “Breakway,” that came out that year, too. So I guess we’ll start talking with the label soon about plans for the next round.