MARK LINETT TALKS BEACH BOYS: The Original SMiLE Sessions, Re-assembled

The mythic album,
abandoned by Brian Wilson in 1967, is finally resurrected, a Herculean task
once thought impossible.

 

BY
JUD COST

 

Producer/engineer
Mark Linett has been right there for Brian Wilson’s biggest projects of the
last 20 years: the Pet Sounds box set
in 1995; Wilson’s 2004 re-recording of SMiLE,
the legendary Beach Boys album shelved in 1967; and finally to help assemble
the original parts of the SMiLE sessions from over 75 boxes of tape and put together a cohesive album. A
project once thought all but impossible, the re-assembling of SMiLE took nine months, and the results
speak for themselves. The vintage SMiLE,
now sporting its original artwork, was released on November 1 in multiple
formats: a two-CD and five-CD package; a double-LP with two bonus seven-inch
singles; and both album and box-set digital version. Linett, contacted by
telephone, seemed almost as happy and relieved as Brian Wilson must have been
to finally get SMiLE up and running. (Read the BLURT review of SMiLE here.)

 

***

 

BLURT: It must have been
quite an honor to pull off what was once looked upon as an impossible task,
resurrecting SMiLE.

MARK
LINETT: Yeah, it’s been quite a chore, but not in a bad way. Nobody, including
us, really understood how monumental this was going to turn out to be.

 

How much participation
was there from Brian? Was he with you every step of the way or just at certain
times?

No,
we played him the results at various points, and we got a few changes back. By
and large, I think it’s wise when an artist doesn’t choose to obsessively
revisit his past. That being said, of course, had Brian not done so in 2004
[for the re-recording of SMiLE for
the Nonesuch label] we wouldn’t have been able to do this. I think that’s one
of the things that kept this project from happening a lot sooner. Brian wasn’t
satisfied. He hadn’t completed it until 2004. When that happened, with the
encouragement and positive response it got, that allowed this to happen.
Without what he did in 2004, this would have still been a bunch of little
pieces, nothing resembling a coherent body of music.

 

How did Brian, Mike and
Al get along during this process?

Well,
you know, [that happens] with all groups, all families. They seemed to be
getting along the best I’ve ever seen it in the almost 25 years I’ve been
around. I get the sense that everybody realizes that at a certain point other
things are more important. But what strikes me is we all tend to look at them
as the Beach Boys and to varying degrees they were all friends and family
before they were the Beach Boys. When you remember that, it changes things a
bit.

 

How did you go about
assembling the tracks that make up the SMiLE album on disc one?

We’re
using the best possible pieces we have. Sometimes we used vocals that were
recorded slightly later, things from Smiley
Smile
, the Surf’s Up version that
was released, some of those background vocals. What we’re trying to present on
disc one is the most coherent, listenable presentation for everybody of a Beach
Boys version of this unfinished album.

 

And you’ve done it. It
stacks up very nicely to the version Brian re-recorded in 2004.

It’s
interesting, because that version was created by Brian with Van Dyke revisiting
all the material he’d recorded in ’66-’67 finally putting it into a coherent
body of work. Seven years ago, it was a lot easier to do that than it was in
’66-’67, in part because there were no longer the time limitations of a single
vinyl record. I can’t say this 100 percent, but at the last minute they
wouldn’t have gone, “Oh, this has to be a double-album.” That was
extremely unlikely given the time frame.

        But Brian did that all the time,
recorded stuff that got pushed to another project. In 2004, when they went back
to it, it all fit together. It all was recorded for the project. The decision
of which child to leave behind, as it were, didn’t have to be made. And I have
to say, the experience of 2004 was monumental for Brian. Just as much as we
fans had been, obsessing over this unfinished body of work. I assumed that it
upset him that he hadn’t finished it. He didn’t like being asked about it, but
it was clearly a lot deeper than that. Kind of like an artist who half-finishes
a painting and stares at the outline for 40 years, disappointed that he didn’t
finish it.

 

How did Brian feel about
going back to those sessions
?

He
was very reluctant to revisit it. But he did, and the satisfaction that he
clearly got from finishing the album, he was very satisfied that he was finally
able to do that. It was very significant for him. It showed how real artists
are different from the rest of us. It was a tremendous weight off his
shoulders. For whatever version, I think he’s very proud that all this material
was finally put in a coherent form with the help of Van Dyke and a few others,
that it was no longer just a bunch of scattered pieces he decided to put aside
so long ago. One of the reasons Alan [Boyd, co-producer along with Linett] and
I feel he did this, having spent nine months putting this together, was that
the technology that made it possible for us to do this today, didn’t exist back
then. You had to do crude edits with tape and a razor blade. If Brian had the
ability to shuffle around all the pieces to “Heroes And Villains” the
way we can now, it would have been a lot easier to get the album finished
before it became too overbearing for him.

 

Did you ever get a
chance to ask Brian why didn’t finish it back then?

No,
I don’t feel that that’s my place. My feeling is not that the muse left him.
Listening to the sessions you can hear his laser-like ability to hear
something, change it and alter the arrangements. Faster, slower, add this, take
away that. At some point that started to evade him. The goal got fuzzy. It was
just a monumental task. Pet Sounds, as unbelievably beautiful as it is, is a
relatively conventional album.

 

Sure, and SMiLE is anything but conventional.

When
I interviewed Brian for a film back in 1998 and brought up the subject of SMiLE,
he became very quiet and very sad. And it was evident that he still regarded it
as a failure at that time. When I asked him why didn’t that material come out,
his answer, and I think he believed this, was that it was inappropriate music
for the Beach Boys to make. Somehow that had gotten stuck in his head. When SMiLE
had such an incredible response in 2004, the clouds parted and this gigantic
weight came off of his shoulders. One of the happiest encounters I’ve ever had
with Brian was after taping one of the live performances. He never imagined
that music would get such a positive response from an audience.

 

I always felt the reason
he couldn’t finish SMiLE was with the vast amount of tape he rolled, he just
lost the focus
.

Yeah,
absolutely. He almost would have needed a film editor to finish it. It was all
in such small pieces. Just about every track on the 5-CD package had to be
pieced together from even smaller pieces. Not counting the time it took us to
transfer the material, we spent over nine months assembling the pieces. And
that’s with modern technology. When we did the Pet Sound box set in 1995, it had to be assembled from multiple
tapes that had to be re-synched. The old way of recording was you would record
the basic track on four-track and mix that down with half of it going to
eight-track and do the rest of the recording there. Mix that down, there’s your
record. In some cases, do that a couple of times. For the stereo mix, you
wanted the original four-track in synch with vocals from the second tape. The
problem is the speed is slightly different. To do that in 1995 required using
two digital tape machines, each of which cost about $200 thousand and
laboriously get the speed right. Now the recording systems, themselves, have
the ability to do time-shifting, so you can do it much more easily.

 

The finished version of
“Surf’s Up” on the first disc sounds utterly amazing.

When
the Beach Boys did the finished version of “Surf’s Up” for the Surf’s Up album, they initially tried to
take Brian’s vocals off the piano demo version and slide them into the basic
track. And there’s a reel of tape where they’re trying to do that. The problem
was the two tracks didn’t match, time-wise. It was virtually impossible and they
gave up, and Carl re-sang it. Putting Brian’s vocal into that same track using
today’s technology was a relatively simple process. Something like that would
have been almost equally impossible even seven or eight years ago. Now it took
a few hours.

 

To me, just as
interesting as the music is the studio chatter that you left in.

Oh,
yeah. The sense I get from hearing that stuff kind of contradicts the folklore
that the Beach Boys didn’t understand the project, didn’t like the project.
What seems to be happening is they are trying very hard and succeeding. Some of
the vocal stuff was recorded for this album was just astonishing.

 

I love the little bit
where Brian pretends he’s stuck inside a microphone and they accidentally
electrocute him.

Well,
Brian always had a penchant for humor. It was interesting because some of those
experiments would find their way into the music. Two days after the microphone
skit, he has horn players coming in and doing overdubs on “Surf’s Up”
and he has them doing “Oh, George fell into his French horn,” and he
has them talking to their horns. Then a bit of that ends up as a horn overdub
in the first part of “Surf’s Up.” He does the same thing with chants.
He tries them out on his friends. Then later he has the Beach Boys come in and
do them on an actual track.

 

As you say, the legend
goes that the Beach Boys came into these sessions rolling their eyes and
dragging their heels, but I don’t get that sense when I play this. Brian
whispers to the Beach Boys during a vocal session, “Remember one thing,
there’s no rules to this.”

No,
you have to remember they were coming off the biggest hit of their career,
“Good Vibrations,” which was anything but a conventional record.
Everybody was more than willing to give this all the effort they could. Even
from he label’s point of view, although clearly they were chomping at the bit
for “Where’s the next album?”

        The amount of money spent on this
project was phenomenal.  Brian is trying
anything and everything that comes to mind, leaving the fragments open-ended so
they could be assembled any way he might see it. There was a lot of: Get into
the studio and experiment. Just enormous ability and creativity.

 

[Photo
courtesy Capitol Records Archives. An edited version of this interview appears in issue #11 of BLURT.]

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