Monday, 1 January 2018

AAA Extra: Brian Wilson's Outside Productions 1962-1972

You can buy 'Add Some Music To Your Day - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Beach Boys' in e-book form by clicking here

Dear reader, sometimes looking back at your work you realize that you keep referring to things that would be really interesting to write. Not every book - they are all plenty long enough as they are - but enough to give us a handful of articles that haven't been printed before to take us into the new year. Here is our first, looking at what a busy (Beach) boy Brian Wilson was in the 1960s and beyond...

Despite having one of the heaviest workloads ever seen in the music business in the 1960s, somehow Brian Wilson still found tie to produce and sometimes even write music for other artists. By and large these were confined to family and friends, including wife  Marilyn and her sisters in 'The Honeys', an all-girl equivalent to The Beach Boys (whose later album under the name 'American Spring' is reviewed elsewhere in this book) and collaborators like Gary Usher and Bob Norberg. Sometimes Brian will return to these songs, re-cutting songs like [37] 'The Surfer Moon' and [57] 'I Do' , plus 'Thinkin' Bout You Baby' as [183] 'Darlin' and  'Pamela Jean' as [49] 'Car Crazy Cutie'. A few others were recorded as a favour because they had already been Beach Boys favourites for other artists, such as [164] 'Vega-tables', twice - sort of. Other Brian Wilson songs were never returned to again, such as 'Guess I'm Dumb' and the two hits by Jan and Dean, making them particularly sought after. Thankfully many of these recordings were included on the single CD set 'Pet project: The Brian Wilson production's in 2003 but this set could really have been a double-disc entry with another half-dozen singles that never made the album for various reasons of space and licensing rights. Though not every production here is first-class they do offer an extra helping of Brian pretty much at the height of his powers and these extra-curricular productions allowed Brian to try out all sorts of weird and wonderful sounds he wouldn't have been allowed to get away with on Beach Boys releases (and allowed him to indulge in his love of Phil Spector!) Not all are worth rescuing and treated as 'canon' and few match what Brian was holding back for The Beach Boys in this same period, but all are worth hearing.

1) Rachel and The Revolvers "The Revo-lution/Number One" (August 1962)
You'd never guess this low budget Ronettes soundalike was by the same writing team of 'In My Room' (Brian and Gary Usher!) Brian is very much the junior party here, having only the 'Surfin' and 'Surfin' Safari' singles under his belt by this time and the A-side indulges in all of Gary's loves: female harmonies, horns and big echoey Spectorness. The shrieky A-side is a tad on the shrill side and is too obvious a rip-off of Little Eva's recent big hit 'Loco-Motion', though the pun on words is nice (and clearly Brian's work rather than Gary's). Much better is the sweeter B-side 'Number One', which sounds very much like a Beach Boys song with its slow boogie-woogie bass lines and melancholy. The lyrics too, dealing with the narrator getting an idea of their boyfriend and what their life will turn out like even though they've barely said 'hello' to each other is very Beach Boys - particularly the 'ssh, don't spoil the moment' of [141] 'Don't Talk'. Brian in fact recorded a demo of this song, usually bootlegged under the chorus tag 'Visions', in which he sounds simply gorgeous. Though 'Rachel' (actually session musician Betty Willis) tries her hardest she's not quite in his league. Worth hearing though.

2) Bob and Sherri "The Surfer Moon/Humpty Dumpty" (October 1962)
In September 1963 Brian was running low on material and didn't want to put his fans through a whole load of surfing instrumentals again. So for the first of only two times in his career he reached backwards for a flop single that he's co-written with his one-time flatmate Bob Norberg and his girlfriend Cheryl Pomeroy. It's a good song too, a tribute to the power of the big satellite in the sky that creates the tides. Though Bob and Sherri's arrangement for the song is much cornier and 1950s than The Beach Boys and Bob's grumble and Sherri's sweet-but-flat tones can't match Brian's work this A-side is full of character and charm and sounds even more like an old standard, not a song by a pair of writers who are still just about in their teens. The B-side isn't quite as, well, important re-telling the old nursery rhyme to a backing that sounds like an outtake from 'Little Deuce Coupe'. It's still good fun though, with Brian getting an early chance to add some horns to his surf 'n' rock arrangement.

3) The Honeys "Shoot The Curl/Surfin' Down The Swannee River" (April 1963)
One of the reasons Brian fell for Marilyn was her gorgeous voice - though lower than his it was otherwise just the same, pure clear and full of emotion. The only love to rival theirs was his passion for Phil Spector, who unlike Brian got to work with pretty girls all day long while he was stuck with his brothers and cousin. The solution was obvious: make Marilyn, her sister Diane (Brian's original crush in the Rovell family) and their cousin Ginger into a Beach Boys spin-off band, singing similar songs from a female perspective written and produced by Brian. Even their name is surfer slang for 'beautiful chicks', which must have got Brian extra brownie points at home when he suggested it! The debut single 'Shoot The Curl' sounds very much like an early Beach Boys song with different singers, employing the same rat-a-tat lick and sax solo as [28] 'Shut Down' (though slightly better played). The B-side is an early stab at what will become [38] 'South Bay Surfer' five months later - effectively corny surfing lyrics set to the tune of 'Way Down Upon The Swannee River'. Though neither are that great I much prefer The Honeys' take which features less shouting and a nice grown-up backing that sounds like an early try out for the subtle orchestra of 'Beach Boys Today'.

4) Jan and Dean "Surf City" (May 1963)
Brian's first number one - given away to surfing pals Jan and Dean, a fact that dad Murry never quite forgave his son for (he didn't like the pair at all with their blonde good looks and genuine surfing talent and thought them the band's biggest 'rivals' long after The Beatles arrived!)  Though more competitive than most 1960s musicians, Brian was also keen to make friends and enjoyed hanging out with his pals. In all likelihood he produced this single for the duo too, even though they kept a 'Jan and Dean' production credit as on all their singles, given how many trademarks this simple Beach Boys parody utilises. You can tick off the features as they come: block harmonies, falsetto sweeps, catchy hook, surf guitar and lyrical references to chicks, surfboards and 'two honeys for every guy'. Strangely enough, though this song doesn't sound like that many past Beach Bys songs, it does sound like a few future ones such as surfing paradise [42] 'Hawaii' and very much like  the last part of Mike and Al's retro [272] 'California Saga'. The B-side is titled 'She's My Summer Girl' and doesn't have any Beach Boy involvement.

5) The Honeys "Pray For Surf/Hide Go Seek" (September 1963)
The problem with letting your wife's band record songs is that you have to keep them coming - and Brian was up against it by this time. So instead Diane Rovell stepped forward out of nowhere as the band's new lead writer and 'Pray For Surf' is hugely impressive, a spot-on Beach Boys parody with rocking surfing guitar and a burst of orchestral drama while the lyrics play into the escapist dream of getting perfect waves to surf on in the morning. In fact Brian seems to have loved the track so much he 'borrowed' it as the main riff of Beach Boys single [103] 'Dance Dance Dance' though - you guessed it - Dianne never got credit. The B-side 'Hide Go Seek' is much weaker and noisier, with lots of criss-crossing lyrics and oddly aggressive lyrics about trying to track down a loverboy surfer at the beach (can you imagine what trouble The Beach Boys would have been in if they'd been ogling girls at the beach as openly as this?!) The silly 'Oly Oxen Free Free Free' chorus doesn't do this song any favours either. And yet it's this side of the single that's a Brian Wilson composition, clearly written at short notice and mercifully forgotten.

6) Sharon Marie "Run-Around Lover/Summertime" (October 1963)
After helping out his wife, Brian also felt obliged to step in when cousin Mike said that he had an old flame who could sing a bit too. Perhaps not wanting Mike to hang around the Honeys sessions Brian agreed to give her a try out and was surprised to find that 'Sharon Marie' (nobody seems to remember her surname) was actually a rather good singer in the gritty 'Little Eva' mould. Brian and Mike between them wrote the simple but no mere throwaway A-side, which again has The Beach Boys being far more aggressive sexually than they ever could have been in their own band. 'Here he comes, watch out, run away!' runs the chorus as a lecherous boy comes along to steal their hearts with only the narrator standing her ground because she seems to like bad boys. Or maybe that's just what Mike was hoping! The B-side too is a more than passable rendition of Gershwin classic 'Summertime' - it's fun to compare a very young Brian's first go (which sounds like The Shadows performing 'Temptation') with his second on 'Re-Imagines Gershwin' (from 2010) which is slow, ponderous and full of heart-tugging strings.

7) The Honeys "The One You Can't Have" (October 1963)
There's a grooving backing track going on behind The Honeys' third single, with Brian bouncing back to provide a muscly song that very much sounds like Phil Spector's period work. The sleigh bells and walking pace rhythm immediately suggest contemporary Beach Boys single [83] 'Little Saint Nick' but the lyrics go in a very different place being a deep and moody song about unrequited love and how heartbreaking that can be - especially when your annoying friends tell you there are plenty of other lovers out there when 'only one works for you'. This song packs a lot into two minutes and is a big stepping stone towards greater things for Brian as a writer and producer - it's a shame The Beach Boys never did this one in fact as they'd have done a pretty good version I sense. Brian was clearly puffed out doing so much on this session and didn't work on the B-side 'From Jimmy With Tears' which was produced by Jack Nietzsche in the days before he came to fame working with Neil Young.

8) The Survivors "Pamela Jean/After The Game" (January 1964)
Even if you don't get to hear the other recordings here do listen out for this rare single if you can, re-released in the 1980s. 'The Survivors' is really Brian singing alongside Bob Norberg and his pals Dave Nowlen and Richard Alarian. The reason behind this single was simple: Brian, already a nervy writer, was getting afraid that he was selling songs simply because of the band name and wanted to see if he still had what it takes to write a hit. Sadly he hadn't and this likeable single disappeared without trace. However the public (or many Capitol's publicity department) were in the 'wrong' because this storming girl's name song (in a steeped Beach Boys tradition) is a lot of fun, energetic and full of laughter. Brian enjoyed the 'ron do ron' style chant so much he re-used the whole track for [49] 'Car Crazy Cutie' released on the 'Little Deuce Coupe' album eight months later. I prefer this version though which has better and more believable lyrics (The Beach Boys sounded more natural singing about girls than they did cars!) and is played with much more enthusiasm. As for the B-side, 'After The Game' might be the most important Beach Boys song you've (possibly) never heard. Sounding not unlike The Batles' instrumental version of 'This Boy' made famous in the 'A Hard Day's Night' soundtrack (which won't be out for another six months yet), there's a sleepy despairing sounding surf guitar plucking away against an urgent rhythm part and a first use of the percussion effect that will re-appear on [150] 'Caroline, No' (though it's not played on coke cans here the beat is the same). It's a small jump from here to songs like [143] 'Let's Go Away For A While' but I think I might prefer this more subtle beauty better.

9) Paul Petersen "She Rides With Me" (February 1964) 
This single is an unusual one - Brian wasn't recording music as a favour to a friend this time but because actor Paul (who'd come to fame in The Donna Reed show in the early 1960s) specifically asked for his help. Brian was flattered and somehow got round Capitol's draconian laws to appear on rival label Colpix (to be fair he probably just didn't get round to telling them!) The funky Beach Boys soundalike A-side, full of the narrator's pride at the best looking girl in the neighbourhood sitting in his car, is clearly a Brian Wilson production though, with a Spectorsh echon on top of a 'Little Deuce Coupe' shuffle beat and curious backing harmonies (which feature an early use of psychedelic effects). It's not that great as it sounds here and the single flopped badly (Paul's squeaky vocal probably didn't help!) but many of these tricks of the trade will be put to use better elsewhere in The Beach Boys catalogue and appear here for the first time. Brian didn't have a hand in the bland B-side 'Poorest Boy In Town', even though from that title it sounds as if he should have done!

10) The Castells "I Do" (March 1964)
The Beach Boys didn't completely abandon that many recordings - not considering the volume they made anyway. An unwelcome exception was the charming [57] 'I Do', recorded with a big expansive (and expensive!) backing track for use on 'Shut Down Volume Two' in March 1964 and some gorgeous Beach Boys harmonies, though the melody is a re-write of our old friend [9] 'County Fair'. Perhaps that's why Brian decided to abandon it, but that didn't stop him passing it over to doo-wop band The Castells who even get to use the 'wrecking crew' backing track once intended for The Beach Boys (and which is one of the first recordings on which they didn't play!) The Castells can't sing like their rivals of course, but there's is still a strong performance and this sweet song about the narrator's rush of love when he nervously asks his partner to marry him, expecting her to say no from the first, is a highly pretty song in any version. Even The Spice Girls couldn't have mucked this up too badly! Brian, who also produced the A-side, had no hand in the B-side 'Teardrops'.

11) Gary Usher "Sacramento/That's Just The Way I Feel" (May 1964)
Though Murry hated Gary and considered him a 'hanger-on' looking for fame, Brian remained close to his old lyricist and eagerly agreed to help him out with his own career whenever he could (he probably told his dad he was nipping down the shops or something!) The pair both wrote the A-side, which is nice but not up to their usual standards, being one of those random 1960s travelogues that - ironically - never goes anywhere, although it's pride in a state isn't that far removed from first [113] 'Salt Lake City' and then [115] 'California Girls'. The fact that the Beach Boys song this recalls most is the later [87] 'Christmas Day' won't exactly fill your heart with joy either. Gary alone wrote the B-side 'That's Just The Way You Feel' which is arguably better, if a little on the silly side, as the narrator tells his girl she's 'wrong' not to love him because he's such a great guy. Maybe they should have given this one to Mike or Dennis! Brian produced both sides which feature some very Four Freshman style vocal antics.

12) The Honeys "He's A Doll/The Love Of A Boy And A Girl" (May 1964)
Talking of 'great guys', Brian may have been living out his fantasies here as he write a song for his wife to sing in which her boyfriend is utterly perfect - the right height, weight, manners, looks, everything! Marilyn sounds very much in love here, back in the era when the pair are engaged but not yet married, and Brian's clearly smitten too given the way he drapes her voice in sweet strings. The backing is oddly tough though, with Brian taking his usual love of Spector sound and going to the logical rocking conclusion - the result sounds remarkably like 'River Deep, Mountain High' a couple of years later. Diane and Ginger wrote the rather treacly B-side but even that benefits from an obvious Brain Wilson production which sounds much like [63] 'Warmth Of The Sun' on slow speed. 

13) Sharon Marie "Thinkin' 'Bout You Baby/The Story Of My Life" (June 1964)
Though 'Run Around Lover' hadn't fared as well as it deserved, Brian and Mike invited her back to have another go, writing a sad sweet song about missing a loved one for her to sing. That description sounds nothing like future 1968 Beach Boys hit [183] 'Darlin', a song so busy and entertaining it charted even in an era when The Beach Boys couldn't be less cool, but that's where the singalong chorus started life, here much slower and much sadder. The effect here isn't that great as Sharon frankly deserved better material despite not being the 'stars' and her voice is built for speed, not all this watery emotion. Brian and Mike also wrote the B-side which is still generic but still better than the A-side, with Brian going for all-out Spectorish production sound here on a Ronettes style soundalike as Sharon gets dumped, again, for nothing. Mike probably tries to chat her up [315] 'Hey Little Tomboy' style!

14) Jan and Dean "Sidewalk Surfin'" (October 1964) - non bside 'When It's Over'
Easily Jan and Dean's greatest moment, Brian's second and final song for the duo is a clear re-write of The Beach Boys' own [36] 'Catch A Wave'. Only this time the mood is much sillier, as Brian parodies himself and them both with a whole new craze: rollerskates (a craze so obvious it's odd The Beach Boys didn't nick it themselves!) I'm not so convinced that 'on land you can do everything a surfer can do' and isn't the 'being in surf in nature rather than down a man-made concrete road' bit the whole point? Still  the song is infectious and Jan and Dean seem to be in on the joke too, which isn't always true with Brian's humour over the years! Brian had no part to play in the much more sombre B-side 'When It's Over'.

15) Glen Campbell "Guess I'm Dumb" (June 1965) 
Brian didn't do any outside work for months following the torturous (well, they are to sit through on bootleg!) sessions for the 'Christmas' LP and his nervous breakdown in December 1964. His next attempt was in fact a kind of 'thankyou' single for his  first on-tour replacement Glen Campbell. The singer was clearly talented but hadn't yet found his niche in life with his own country and western songs and laidback delivery a thing of the future. So Brian attempts to invent a personality for him here, in the moody 'Scott Walker' style. This doesn't suit Glen or Brian but it does allow the elder Wilson to indulge in a deeper and more angst-written arrangement than normal, with the first real use of the (over?) lush strings used across 'Pet Sounds' (for comparisons sake play this alongside the lighter [118] 'Summer Means New Love', the nearest similar song in The Beach Boys canon. Brian might have been joking with the title (surely, surely, he originally wrote it with his cousin in mind!) but he's not joking with the song which has an ache and depth and longing that won't be heard on his own songs for another year yet, or indeed his insecurities as Brian pours into these lyrics his 'real' feelings about not being worthy of his new bride - a far cry from Mike's posturing character in recent Beach Boys songs. Not the best song in either man's catalogue, but Glen tries hard and the backing track (a surprise entry on the 2013 'Made In california' Beach Boys box set) is sumptuous. An important and overlooked moment in Brian's career as writer, arranger and producer, even if he'd have sounded better singing this one himself. The B-side 'That's All Right' is closer to Glen's later style and he sounds happier on it but it's not in the same league as a song.

16) Bob and Bobby "12-0-4/Baby What You Want Me To Do?" (August 1965)
Bob Norberg returns for a sly postmodernist take on the old surfing craze. In an inversion of [216] 'Do It Again' Bob's narrator returns to the beach and discovers it empty, with everyone having moved onto the next craze, but he still has fun on his own. The cover of Jimmy Reed's famous song is a little better, even though like many a cover version from Elvis' and The Byrds' on down it's far too slow. Brian doesn't technically get a credit for anything on the single but he himself has talked about producing it and while he isn't obvious on the A-side the B-side features all his hallmarks, from a girl backing (almost certainly The Honeys) and deep bass harmonicas that roar and hum like they will on [146] 'I Know There's An Answer'.

17) Laughing Gravy "Vegetables" (November 1967) 
Jan Berry suffered nasty head injuries in a tragic car accident in April 1966 (spookily while coming round 'Dead Man's Curve', the subject of one of their non-Brian songs) that left him paralysed for much of the rest of his life. Dean Torrence soldiered on, recording material alone but releasing it under their name and the pair racked up a few more hits that way although without being able to play live or appear on TV together their popularity began to wane. So Dean tried his hand at new sounds, including getting Brian's help on this newfangled thing called psychedelia. This cover of [164] 'Vega-Tables', with Brian producing, is significant: it's the first time Brian returns to any of his 'Smile' material and the song choice feels almost as if he's reclaiming one of his favourite songs from the simplified version the other Beach Boys put out on 'Smiley Smile'. Though the song isn't quite as weird as the 'Smile' version it's still close with 'Thunderclap Newman' style piano, cacophonous swirling harmonies and more tension than humour. Despite the 'Laughing Gravy' name nobody's laughing at this version as a sea of vegetables sound threatening more than they sound good for you. Dean will return to this song in 1972, again with Brian's help. He didn't need any for the weirdly titled original B-side 'Snowflakes On laughing Gravy's Whiskers' though, which he did all by himself - as you can probably tell.

18) Ron Wilson "I'll Keep On Loving You/As Tears Go By" (September 1968)
No, Ron Wilson isn't another Beach Boy brother or cousin, though he was a friend and a pal of Brian's. For a time The Beach Boys promised to release his song [211] 'We're Together Again' on an album, though in the end it had to wait for the Capitol CD re-issue series. Perhaps as an apology for missing the cut, Brian co-produced this single for him (the label bears the credit 'A Ron-Brian Music Production', with no mention of Brian being *that* Brian, with reportedly none other than Gary Usher remixing the single after Brian got bored partway through and quit). The A-side is a sturdy but not that memorable song about always being in love that doesn't sound much like Brian's work; ditto the forgettable B-side cover of the Stones song given to Marianne Faithful which way too many people re-recorded in the 1960s (though Ron's is one of the few non-Stones versions by a boy). Not one of Brian's better or more original moments, but it's just nice to see him out of bed in this period to be honest.

19) The Honeys "Tonight You Belong To Me/Goodnight My Love" (March 1969)
The Honeys more or less died a death after Brian's breakdown - Marilyn was at her husband's side now and Brian was working too hard coming up with Beach Boys recordings to have time for his wife. Suddenly, though, Brian was inspired to record his wife and assorted family singing two of their favourite (non Beach Boys or surfing) songs. The surfing references are gone and the orchestra lacks Brian's usual touches, being too obviously grafted onto a rather twee backing track. 'Tonight' is easily the weakest of the Honeys singles and had no chance being released in 1969 but the sweet and syrupy B-side has its moments. You wonder if Marilyn chose it as a 'message' to brian in fact (in the same way he often spoke to her though music) wishing her largely bed-bound husband sweet dreams and the hope that, in the morning, 'you'll come back to me'. This was Brian's last time in a studio for anyone but himself, his brothers or his band, although he very nearly made a single with Bruce Johnston's band 'California Music' in 1974 (still currently awaiting a first release).

20) Jan and Dean "Vege-tables" (January 1972) 

Though it sounds much the same to my ears, this was a remixed version of the ':Laughing Gravy' single credited to Jan and Dean together either though Jan was still too poorly to appear. It still sounds weird and not that convincing to be honest, while this many repeats of the word 'vegetable' when Jan ever so nearly was one would be deemed too insensitive for release nowadays. This was the Bside to 'Jenny Lee', one of the 'duo's better singles, despite no Brian Wilson involvement. 

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