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In The Studio

Brian's preferred recording method was that once a particular song was finished, or even sometimes before the lyrics were completed, he couldn't wait to get into the studio and record the backing track. Often, going into the studio with just a chord pattern and a melody, Brian and the musicians would build their sections from scratch. In what was a painstaking process, Brian would work with each player to come up with individual sounds. With occasional hands-on guidance from Brian (who understands the sound of virtually every instrument and could play almost anything except horns), the arrangement ultimately made its way from Brian's head into the band's. This process alone could take several hours.

Once everybody knew their part, recording would start. Typically, one song would be recorded at each session, with the studio band playing under Brian's direction until they had recorded a completed take that satisfied him. Over and over, for as long as it took, the band played the song from start to finish; occasionally, Brian would do pickups, inserts and overdubs (usually at the same session), but there were only a few instances of piecing a track together. Brian, in 1966, was at the absolute peak of his talent, playing the studio as the ultimate instrument, directing the mixing during each take, searching for the right balance.

As you'll hear on the session highlights presented on Discs One and Two, as each take was performed, Brian would listen intently, frequently interrupting to correct tempo, to point out a missed entrance or change a specific part when he realized that what he had come up with at first wasn't working to his satisfaction. There was give and take, with the musicians offering ideas. Brian, to his credit, was open to their suggestions, and would really jump on a new sound. Sometimes the musicians' ideas and licks would be taken by Brian and integrated into his vision.

(The musicians' comments, which are presented a little later in this book, are a fascinating tapestry of memories from those days.)

Before we learn about Brian's working methods during the Pet Sounds era, it is instructive to go back to his beginnings as a producer so that we might understand how his talent developed. Nik Venet, the youthful Capital Records executive who signed the group to the label in 1962, recalls that from the very start, Brian was in control.

Nik: "During the first year of Beach Boys recording sessions, Brian was already working on outside projects. At these sessions, I watched Brian Wilson work as I imagine Orson Welles must have looked when he directed and performed in his early films. Brian would lean over the seated engineers' shoulders, mumbling mix instructions as if the tracks would never have a chance to be remixed again. He orchestrated and arranged sections of songs out of sequence, confounding the mixers, myself and every musician in the studio. The engineers would look at me and I would look at them and I'd say, ‘Just stay with him, please.’ I had no idea where he was going with the musk either, but I would plead with them to ‘stay with him!’

"His directions were sometimes so disconnected from the big picture that the players would need a few minutes to catch their breath, think about what they could not believe they had just played and look at each other with collective smiles of contributing artists who had proven they could play anything Brian threw at them. “From these disjointed fragments of modern musical art, he would mix, edit, sing, play on and eventually string together into one long mysterious track. During a playback, he would leave the recording booth and wander out into the recording studio. Like a team coach instructing his batters in a major league baseball game, he would whisper changes to be played on the next take to each musician...privately, as if no one should know what the musicians seated next to him was expected to play.

“Remember, Brian was a kid and they had a certain confidence about them. He was just meeting professional musicians for the first time, he was a bit intimidated by their ability to make changes on the spot, and looking at these adults, he was almost embarrassed to be a kid telling them what to play. He didn't know you were allowed to say, on the talk back, ‘Say, Steve [Douglas], make it wilder towards the end.’ Or ‘Earl [Palmer], make it just a little slower.’

"With inspiration, Brian would ask for one more take, adding 'a little faster.' You could watch them from the control booth window, quiet and wide-eyed, staring at their musical charts, covered in changes and corrections, with that look of 'How in the hell am I going to do this again?' But they did. And Brian's face would light up like a kid whose team just hit a grand slam home run. One of us would mumble over the talk-back, ‘That's a take. Thank you, everyone.’ The musicians would respond with a roar of approval that could be heard through the sound-proof glass wall. It was a time of great fun and creativity without a chance at failing. Sometimes the music was beautiful and sometimes simple, but never cute or boring.

"Working with these musicians was the complete opposite of the Beach Boys sessions I supervised. On those Beach Boys dates, nothing came easily. But on these Brian Wilson productions (The Honeys), I remember the musicians saying to me, 'This kid is out there but it makes sense after he's done'. It was a surprise and a pleasure to Brian that these players would listen to him, These guys didn't make judgment calls; they just tried to do what he wanted.

And I remember the musicians telling me afterwards that no matter how long the session would go, even if it was ten hours, they weren't exhausted after a Brian Wilson date because there was so much grace to the music. "Brian Wilson was a dangerous producer. Dangerous in the sense that he entered and explored non-defined recording territory without a net. He was abstract when the record industry executives wanted simple and silly.

Brian's records would start from a small place of ordinary and then go for the 'middle thing' that is so difficult for musicians and painters to get to. He concentrated on what could be left out as much as what would be left in. The music had grace and spirit, so much so that it could be orchestrated across a wide spectrum of musical styles. Brian composed and produced musical effects like the first viewing of a sunrise to a once-blind person."

Who were these musicians about whom Venet is so effusive...professionals who were willing to bend their talents to Brian's unique vision just because the ride was so much fun? Well, they are the ones Hal Blaine named "The Wrecking Crew," because the older musicians thought these unruly "kids" were wrecking the music business. When producer H. B. Barnum first assembled them and then Phil Spector employed them as his studio orchestra to create his fabled "Wall Of Sound," modern record production was forever changed.

One of Spector's biggest fans in the early 1965 was Brian Wilson, who loved Spector records like "Be My Baby" and was obsessed with Spector's sound. Brian and Phil did several sessions together (circa 1963/1964), and Brian once noted that he "was able to perceive very much more than he [Spector] thought I could. I was a little more alert. I basically knew all that was to be known about that [Wall of Sound] by listening, using my ears."

Even though he had run his own sessions prior to observing Phil at work, as Brian explained, "I was unable to really think as a producer up until the time where I really got familiar with Phil Spector's work. Then I started to see the point of making records. You're in the business to create a record. So you design the experience to be a record rather than just a song. It's good to take a good song and work with it. But it's that record that counts. It's the record that people listen to. It's the overall sound, what they're going to hear and experience in two and a half-minutes that counts."

Brian saw Phil's studio methodology and adapted it to fit his own vision, so Spector's impact on Brian wasn't so much sonic as it was procedural. Obviously, the idea of a roomful of musicians all playing together wasn't exactly novel, and Brian had already used session players on his non-Beach Boys productions. What Spector did do that was new to rock 'n' roll involved the sheer numbers of players. The idea of three pianists or guitar players all playing the same line, so that the track would have the impact of a rock 'n' roll orchestra, was one of his key innovations.

From Brian's point of view, Spector was the first in rock to combine the sound of a piano and a guitar to give you the sound of a new instrument. Brian: "Rather than just say, ‘That's a piano, that's a bass.’ Now, we have what you call a piano-guitar. Which you're going to call something else. It sounds like something else. Although it may be two or three instruments combined playing the same notes, it now sounds different."

What Brian did was take that technique and use it in a completely different way, mixing his records in a manner that didn't compromise clarity. It was, in part, what he learned from Spector, that allowed him to make quantum leaps in his work, and musically, quickly outdistance Spector. But as you listen to Pet Sounds, compare it to a contemporaneous Spector production like "River Deep-Mountain High." You have to marvel that even though they used the same musicians (and sometimes the same studio), Brian's records were just the opposite of Phil's. Where Spector's records were designed to overwhelm you, Brian's seduced you, immediately insinuating themselves into your heart and soul with musical hooks that were heaven-sent, and then, proving their timeless quality, allowing endless repetition that never grew tiresome. The tracks and vocal arrangements were so discreet and complex that there was always something new to discover or rediscover.

Actually, trying to compare Phil and Brian is really irrelevant and unfair. Spector assembled a great team which he led with reputed verve, discipline and a strong vision. But he wasn't a serious songwriter or an arranger (Jack Nitzsche handled that) or much of a singer. Part of his brilliance was to know and get the best, whether it was singer Darlene Love or Brill Building songwriting greats like Goffin/King, Mann/Weil, Barry/Greenwich and Gene Pitney. Brian, on the other hand, not only led the sessions but musically, he did it all, from composing to arranging and producing. Also, at any point during a basic tracking session, Brian (with the exception of horns) was capable of picking up an instrument and demonstrating to the musician what he wanted.

In general, Beach Boys records (circa 1965/1966) are filled with playing that was far beyond what most people were doing in rock. Brian was essentially composing classical music, putting it into a rock 'n roll framework and executing it with seasoned, schooled jazz musicians. And he was doing it live, on the spot, in the studio.

Because Brian's records are so layered and deep, complex orchestrations and wonderful parts often ended up unheard. Their subtle impact is still felt, but you're not quite sure what it is you're hearing. That's one of the main reasons we've included the backing tracks without the vocals on this collection so that you can hear the beautiful instrumental parts that are somewhat "buried" in the final mix because of the prominence of the Beach Boys' spectacular vocals.

In the mid-1960s, Spector and Brian were two of the hottest producers in town. The contrasts in their personalities made Brian the more popular session leader, but it wasn't a popularity contest. The musicians worshipped Brian because of the incredible music he was creating, and ultimately, he would make them his own. Starting in 1963, Brian had begun regularly employing them on his outside productions. By early 1964, Brian began calling them in for Beach Boys recording dates, and in 1965, when Brian quit the road to concentrate on record production, the session musicians essentially became the in-studio Beach Boys, playing the backing tracks for most of the band's biggest hits...from "California Girls" through Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains." [Carl played 12-string guitar on many sessions.]

Here's how it would work. After Brian had composed a new song, he booked the musicians for a day (or night) session. They usually lasted at least three hours and almost always yielded a basic track for at least one song. As you listen to the highlights from the session, you'll hear the interaction between Brian and the players. Drummer Hal Blaine explains the way the sessions unfolded. Hal: "Brian used to come in and sing us a song. We would individually take it over ourselves, the way we felt it. That's the way we made records. Brian would basically give us a chord chart, and we built our sections."

Engineer Chuck Britz points out that Brian "knew basically every instrument he wanted to hear, and how he wanted to hear it. What he would do is call in all the musicians at one time (which was very costly), but still, that's the way he would do it. We'd start out maybe with a bass or maybe a marimba or something."

Brian would work with that instrument until it had the sound he wanted. The process often took hours, Britz recalls, as Brian and each musician worked out the part individually. "Usually," Britz explains, "the horns were the last thing we'd work on. There'd be a guy in the horn section (usually Steve Douglas], who would take Brian's idea and transpose it for the other horn players." [The late] Ray Pohlman did the same thing for the guitar players. Suggestions were always welcome, and oftentimes, incorporated into Brian's final arrangement. Then, once each player had his part and the arrangement was complete, they would usually need less than an hour to get it prosper recorded. Also, keep in mind that as the recordings were being made, Brian was both directing the orchestra from the booth and controlling the mixing at the same time. How incredible was that? The late Steve Douglas once offered an example which explained why the musicians were so impressed by Brian. "We had a pretty large rhythm section over at Western 3, and Brian was trying to get the guitar to play a certain thing. I remember Tommy Tedesco saying,’Hey man, it won't work; it just won't work!’ And Brian said, 'Play it And it sounded like it didn't make sense until he dubbed the strings and it all fell together. It was just amazing. He heard that in his head. That's what has always blown me out about him--that he could hear these complex orchestrations."

Now, before we hear their stories, let's set the scene. Brian and Chuck Britz are in the booth, looking out at Western Studio 3, a long, comparatively narrow room (about 15' X 32') that given the size of the band, was extremely crowded. Down the middle of the room would be an aisle, and sound baffles would be strategically placed, creating small musician "cubicles." Everybody would sit with their backs to the side walls except for Hal Blaine. Hal would sit at his drum kit, in front, on the center right side of the aisle, not surrounded by very much baffling; the studio wall acted as a partial baffle.     

The basses would be to Hal’s right. As Carol Kaye recalls, "although you didn't have to see Hal to hear the count-off, you could hear him a half-block away. There would be cracks in the baffles so that the players could lean back or lean forward and see each other."

Behind the basses would be an organ. The horn players would be in the back against the right wall. If there were only a couple of horns and there was no organ, the horns would be behind the bass.

Closest to the booth, on the left, would be where the guitar section would sit. With their backs to the left wall, the guitar players would be in a row with small amplifiers, facing Hal. The baby grand (which would face the booth) and tack piano (and an occasional second organ) would be behind the guitars strung along the left wall. The percussion would be spread wall-to-wall in the back, facing the booth. Strings were generally done in overdub sessions, but if there were strings on a live date, they would be in the back behind baffling.

Almost all of the musicians who played on Pet Sounds loved working with Brian, and he loved them for helping him fulfill his creative vision. The sense of mutual trust...of creative exploration...of supportive friendship...and, of course, their great musicianship makes their contribution to the success of Pet Sounds incalculable.

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