Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys capsules: Bootlegs, part 2 of 4 (Brian's peak years)

This second bootleg post will continue to concentrate on Sea of Tunes' Unsurpassed Masters series of unauthorized "alternate" Beach Boys albums; we're presently in the two-year zenith of Brian Wilson as a writer and producer, with the Beach Boys themselves serving as his willing ambassadors. Despite a brief detour in the shape of Party!, this incorporates the Summer Days and Pet Sounds albums and the attendant singles -- his most accomplished work, with the Beach Boys themselves and, at times, a roomful of exceptional session players now attuned to his quirks and needs.

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 21: Today!/Summer Days Stereo (bootleg 1965)
This boot has obviously been superseded now by official releases of both of these albums -- after years of incremental teasing -- in full stereo versions. Like all stereo versions of Brian's best work -- including the contemporary official ones, which use a lot of flown-in electronically isolated vocals and which I find terribly lacking -- the primary utility here is the separation of elements employed, giving you a good taste of how the multiple tracks of these songs interlock. No stereo version of Today! or Summer Days can truly be seen as the "final draft," so to speak, because the mono mixes are Brian's idealized and intended end result, with some elements even introduced in the final stages of mixing to mono. The Sea of Tunes stereo mixes use whatever is available, so many of them have major missing elements (no vocals at all on several songs) or extra bits (Brian directing on "Please Let Me Wonder" and the like), which if you approach them with the right mindset makes them doubly interesting. Needless to say, most fans will undoubtedly prefer Mark Linett's more complete stereo mixes, available on Spotify -- but I would insist that nothing beats the real thing, and the real thing is mono. Incidentally, Summer Days is missing three cuts here: "And Your Dreams Come True," "I'm Bugged at My Ol' Man" and "Summer Means New Love." In their place are some "bonuses": the lamentably unfinished "Sandy," "All Dressed Up for School," "Graduation Day," "The Little Girl I Once Knew," "Sloop John B" (inexplicably) and, uh, "Three Blind Mice."

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 9: Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (bootleg 1965) [4CD] [r]
The first truly great Beach Boys album, one of the defining records of the mid-'60s and a head-spinning tour of Brian Wilson's eclecticism, incisiveness, romance and humor receives a full four discs' worth of attention. Running through Sea of Tunes chronologically, hearing these songs evolving and being put together is the most exciting revelation so far, following through on the "Kiss Me Baby" and "Guess I'm Dumb" sessions earlier on. The vocals for this album were mostly recorded at a different studio (Columbia), which might be the reason why a lot of them aren't here. Thus session musicians dominate the first half of this collection to enough of an extent that labeling "Beach Boys" product seems a misnomer at times. Those first two discs focus on the single version of "Help Me Rhonda," "Let Him Run Wild" (my favorite Beach Boys song, so a highlight for me, like watching a master painter at work, even though Brian initially named it "I Hate Rock & Roll"), "Salt Lake City" (with a great X-rated tangent after Brian accidentally tells Carol Kaye to "whack off"), "California Girls" (then known as "You're Grass and I'm a Power Mower"; the musicians have a lot of trouble with the intro and Brian laughingly complains after one take that the song "keeps getting progressively worse"), and the legendary outtake variously known as "Sandy," "Sandy She Needs Me," "Sherry She Needs Me" and when Brian Wilson rewrote and released it in 1998, "She Says That She Needs Me" -- though its bassline found its way into parts of "Heroes and Villains" well before that. What exists of the Beach Boys' version saw official release on the Made in California box in 2013, but what's collected here isn't nearly so far along yet. The last two discs consist of actual Beach Boys sessions, covering some of their finest songs; take after take of "Girl Don't Tell Me" and "Then I Kissed Her" can get tedious because of the relatively simple arrangements, though it's fascinating to note that the band was perfectly capable of matching the Wrecking Crew fairly closely on a Phil Spector cover, but their interactions and debates while the songs take shape are fascinating and clearly evolved beyond the more adolescent bickering on early volumes in the series. It's enchanting, in fact, to hear Carl's acoustic guitar on "Girl Don't Tell Me" at full volume with no distraction; the song edges close to a finished state by the end of the disc but isn't quite there yet. The last disc gets a similar feeling from endless runthroughs of "You're So Good to Me" and "The Girl from New York City," returns briefly to the Wrecking Crew for "Amusement Parks USA" (also markedly unfinished, with the lyrics yet to be rewritten), and then covers the TV version of "Graduation Day," which captures the group in a testy mood. For fly-on-the-wall advocates and scholars, this is likely the best of the pre-Pet Sounds Sea of Tunes collections, though it's a much less thorough look at the corresponding album than the two Today! boxes.

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 10: Party! (bootleg 1965) [4CD]
This four-disc dissection of Party! has been mostly superseded by Capitol's official release of (essentially) the same material in 2015, though if you're very very hardcore you might still go for the longer version. Even Party! fans I've known have been worn out by four full discs devoted to this ramshackle acoustic covers album, a charming if frivolous stopgap in the Beach Boys' career just prior to their undisputed masterpiece. The Sea of Tunes set does have material not included on the official set but it also has a couple of very unfortunate tape copying errors. Capitol's version is the safer bet for your time, especially if you like the original Party! album; either release includes the alternate version of the album without the chaotic overdubs, which I doubt anyone would deny is superior to the original version.

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 11 (bootleg 1964-65) [2CD]
One of the more bizarre Sea of Tunes bootlegs, this is an attempt at a catch-all grab bag of the "odds and ends" sessions from throughout 1965, though it also includes a slew of instrumental takes for the abandoned All Summer Long outtake "Let's Live Before We Die." By far the best offering here is a fairly complete set of tracking sessions for "The Little Girl I Once Knew," as magic as you'd expect and clearly leading directly into the Pet Sounds era; twelve minutes dedicated to the strange "Three Blind Mice" sessions seem just as much like a proper prelude to Smile. Unfortunately, the remainder of each of the two discs is dominated by orchestral sessions Brian directed for a couple of pop standards sung by Dick Reynolds, a role reversal of sorts as Reynolds had worked up the big band-style arrangements on Christmas Album. Reynolds might have one of the worst voices in the history of recorded music, and both Brian's interest in recording it for posterity (perhaps similar to his later insistence on letting Jack Rieley sing lead on a Beach Boys song) and its presence in such minute detail on this bootleg are a complete mystery to me. I want to say "skip this," but the "Little Girl" sessions are just too valuable to dismiss. I wish they'd been paired with the "Sloop John B" disc instead.

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 12: Sloop John B (bootleg 1965) [2CD]
Another weird pairing, with a full disc of "Sloop John B" sessions arbitrarily separated from Pet Sounds, probably based on the old myth that Brian didn't want it on the album (it was in fact included on the earliest tracklist for the record he submitted to Capitol, and its themes of alienation, isolation and dread fit quite well with the rest of the LP's lyrics, to say nothing of its shimmering arrangement). The tapes are of course fascinating, and you get to hear the finished track evolve in the next best thing to real-time from the multiple takes of the backing track to the various vocal overdubs, some of them eventually discarded. The second disc is the sticking point, a patience-stretching hour of spoken radio spots that consists mostly of Brian and Mike exchanging corny ideas before even they get exhausted and start going through the motions. There are some laughs early on, especially when Brian tries to record a personal message for Roger Christian, but the best moment is a remark from Al: "I hate this worse than anything I've ever done in my life." Even if you don't force yourself to listen to all of this like I did, it's hard to disagree; aside from Grant Gee's Meeting People Is Easy, there might not be a better recorded document of how painfully boring it can be to do the PR rounds as a rock group.

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 13: Pet Sounds Vol. 1 (bootleg 1966) [4CD] [r]
The first of two extraordinary, documentary-like, richly detailed excursions into the Pet Sounds sessions from Sea of Tunes. This is the master at work, Brian calling out orders from the booth and slowly forming "Pet Sounds," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "You Still Believe in Me," "Caroline, No" and "I Know There's an Answer," plus the discarded "Trombone Dixie," with often exhaustive sets of tracking sessions and vocal overdubs. There are too many highlights to go over in great detail, though it's fascinating to hear Brian scolding the talkative musicians as he gets set to lay down tracks for "Hang on to Your Ego" ("it sounds like everybody's not serious about this"), cheering Tony Asher on while the latter crawls into a piano to craft the intro to "You Still Believe in Me," playfully arguing with Hal Blaine ("The mic is placed differently --" "DON'T GIVE ME SEMANTICS!"), and everyone making fun of Murry Wilson when he calls on the phone during the "Caroline, No" tracking session ("This is music for people over 48"). Best of all may be the full disc devoted to "Hang on to Your Ego," the song that became "I Know There's an Answer," which closes with nearly an hour of fly-on-the-wall material involving Al Jardine singing the opening line, then Mike taking over, and finally Brian filling in the remainder; it's extremely telling, especially given the legend around Pet Sounds, that Al is so deferential to Brian's wishes, and you may find it surprisingly absorbing to listen in on their conversations, even if it feels like we're being a little nosy. (At one point you can hear Brian talking to the others about the song in progress "God Only Knows," a magical moment of foreshadowing.) Like the two Today! sets, this is as close as we'll ever get to hanging out in the studio while Brian Wilson cuts a record. Only problems: the first disc, a set of alternate versions and mixes in LP sequence, feels like an unnecessary space-filler, though it doesn't duplicate anything heard elsewhere on the two boxes; and on my copy of the set, there are serious quality issues on the third disc, with some blank space on the "In My Childhood" ("You Still Believe in Me") sessions (a defect?) and bad distortion on the "Caroline, No" tapes. It would be a woeful missed opportunity if Brother and Capitol never see fit to release this material.

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 14: Pet Sounds Vol. 2 (bootleg 1966) [4CD] [r]
The stunning conclusion to this absolutely peerless audio document, taking us through the complete evolution of "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," "I'm Waiting for the Day," "Here Today" and -- most memorably -- "God Only Knows." Yes, you can hear the key moments of these songs being created on the official Pet Sounds Sessions box, but if you want to delve into and explore the various backing takes in detail or hear Brian creating his vocal stack overdubs bit by bit, this is an opportunity to hear this phenomenal album with a greater level of depth and involvement than you might have ever deemed possible. The "God Only Knows" sessions, with seemingly all of Brian's family in attendance on the tracking followed by the riveting sound of Carl's stunning vocal being built up piece by piece, richly deserve official release in some capacity. Once again, there's an extra disc that either sweetens or jinxes the deal, depending on your mental state. There are numerous takes of the band recording various promo ads for "Caroline, No," an untitled piano instrumental, and all of the overdubs for the famous KOMA spot, and then it gets a little off-kilter with a seven-minute sequence of Brian directing the Honeys maniacally through a rendition of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Then it gets a lot off-kilter: a thirty-minute tape that seems to be a part of Brian's long-proposed "humor album," some elements of which would bleed into the Smile sessions. He and several women exchange bad jokes and he then tries to direct their very staged reaction down to the specific tone of each person's laughter. It's unnerving, but not totally without merit as a weird amusement. This is followed by a long conversation from a party, which devolves into pseudo-philosophical mumbo jumbo and word games, with Marilyn getting amusingly exasperated with the up-its-own-ass route the discussion eventually takes. While this last disc doesn't have as much historical value as the rest of the collection, it does set the stage for the bizarre, confused course Brian Wilson's career was about to take... though conversely, with dawning awareness that they were working with something of a pop master who was beginning to be recognized as such, no one questions the absurdity of recording minutely planned fake laughter or "Row Your Boat"; everybody just goes with it, maybe understandably, maybe not.

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