Sunday, March 20, 2011

Look! Listen! Vibrate! COMPiLE! Last Call For SMiLE Nerds!

Well, the unthinkable is being thought, the unspeakable is being spoken, and the unimaginable is being imagined -- The Beach Boys' legendary SMiLE album is finally being released, 44 years after being shelved by damaged mastermind Brian Wilson in 1967. The news was first leaked by a loose-lipped Al Jardine, who, in an amazing coincidence unprecedented in the annals of public relations, was trying to drum up interest in his solo album. After the inevitable Internet firestorm (heh, "Fire"...), Al tried to throw some cold water on it, but it surprised almost no one when the news became official on March 11th:

Read the announcement made on Billboard's website and the accompanying interview with Beach Boys engineer and compiler extraordinaire Mark Linett.

Three days later, the news became even more official, with a press release posted to Brian Wilson's website. If you're a SMiLE fan, or a Beach Boys fan, or a fan of 1960s pop in general, go to those links and read up on "The Smile Sessions," which has the potential to be a genuine "holy grail" release for a sizeable cadre of fanatics. But this post isn't about that.

The front cover of my SMiLE CD

I'm here to talk about how this affects ME -- namely, the possibility that the "finished" version of SMiLE that I labored over for a year or more might become obsolete. I'm not alone in this fear-slash-joy -- making your own SMiLE is a rite of passage for SMiLE fans, and hundreds (if not thousands) of them have done the same, stitching together the pieces (either officially released or from bootlegs) into something they consider a "complete" SMiLE. Friendly debates raged on message boards -- whether "Surf's Up" should have been the final track, whether there was ever really going to be an "Elements" suite of songs, whether each album side would be a continuous collage of music or traditionally banded individual tracks, whether "Good Vibrations" belonged on it at all, etc. Scans of hand-written notes and tape boxes and record company memorandums were kept at the ready as evidence.

It's all in good fun, but for better or worse the fun will end -- or, rather, CHANGE -- when "The Smile Sessions" is released (hopefully) sometime this year. Part of the beauty of SMiLE is that it WAS unfinished -- so we could mold it in our own images, as it were. Homemade SMiLEs were like snowflakes -- no two were alike, and I think we liked it that way. It made SMiLE into something organic and alive, ever-evolving. Disc One of "The Smile Sessions" will attempt to end the debate, and present the most complete version of the 1966/67 SMiLE possible with the tapes they have been able to recover from the project. (Several reels are known to be lost, but who knows what has turned up in the last few years.) Mark Linett hints that they will probably try to use Brian Wilson's own "homemade" SMiLE -- Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE (BWPS) -- as a template, which will not be a popular decision for a lot of hardcore SMiLE scholars. Historical evidence suggests that in 1966/67 SMiLE would have been a traditional 10-12 song album, not a three-movement double-LP. There will be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth if Linett decides to mimic the BWPS model TOO closely, with digitally-manipulated segues and (god-forbid) modern-day vocals adding the new lyrics.

The way I see it, though, Brian and the Beach Boys aren't going to stamp out the "DIY SMiLE" community -- they're just jumping into the sandbox to play along. Brian's 2004 version was crafted specifically to be performed on stage, and tracks were edited and arranged with that in mind. "The Smile Sessions" will hopefully try to re-create what MIGHT have been a Beach Boys album released in 1967, but even if they get a little too jiggy with it, discs 2-4 of the deluxe set will give us extensive session outtakes (in stereo) and un-futzed-with versions of what appears on disc one. The more the merrier, I say, and I'm sure I'm not speaking for only myself when I predict that most of us who buy the deluxe boxed set of "The Smile Sessions" will be diving into those bonus discs and re-compiling -- or even re-thinking altogether -- our own personal SMiLE comps.

With that in mind, I would like to present my own version of SMiLE, which I worked on for a little over a year, from Winter 1999 until I finished it (or gave up, take your pick) in January 2001. I imagined it as a CD reissue of the original album, meaning that it would be an LP-length "album" with bonus tracks. I wasn't strictly beholden to historical evidence, though, and used link tracks, demos and other things that some purists frown upon. My main objective was to put my absolute favorite bits of SMiLE onto ONE CD, rather than spread out on more than 20 official releases and bootlegs. And so, the tracklist:

01. Our Prayer (1:06)
02. Heroes and Villains (4:44)
03. Wind Chimes (2:57)
04. Do You Like Worms (4:20)
05. The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine (1:07)
06. Link: How I Love My Girl (1:33)
07. Wonderful (2:01)
08. Link: Heroes and Villains (1:14)
09. Cabinessence* (3:32)

10. Look* (2:50)
11. He Gives Speeches (0:58)
12. I’m In Great Shape (demo) (0:25)
13. Vegetables (2:40)
14. The Elements** (7:34)
15. Surf’s Up (4:10)
16. You’re Welcome (1:36)

17. Good Vibrations (alternate mix) (3:39)
18. Heroes and Villains** (alternate) (4:20)
19. Barnyard (demo) (0:56)
20. Wind Chimes* (early version) (2:52)
21. Wonderful* (early version) (1:45)
22. Vegetables (early version) (2:37)
23. Child Is Father to the Man (0:47)
24. Fire* (take 2) (1:50)
25. The Old Master Painter* (sessions) (2:24)
26. Surf’s Up* (instrumental track) (1:37)
27. Surf’s Up* (Brian’s demo) (3:38)

*Stereo   **Mono/stereo

Unfortunately, I can't post PDFs to my blog, or I would upload the booklet that I made for the CD, complete with nerd-tastically detailed liner notes that explain the sweat that went into this. Consider yourselves spared -- but here are a few notes: All of the edits used were my own, except for the so-called "Anne Wallace mix" of "Surf's Up" which expertly combined Brian's 1966 demo of the song with the unfinished 1966 instrumental backing track -- a trick that Mark Linett himself has already completed for "The Smile Sessions." Some of my edits followed other fan edits, but I tried to refine and improve the editing as well as the pieces used in the edits. "Do You Like Worms" for example used 9 different segments for a four-minute song. My stab at "The Elements" was comprised of "I Want To Be Around/Friday Night/Woodshop" (for "Earth"), an instrumental portion of "Wind Chimes" (for "Air"), "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (for "Fire," the only known-for-a-fact portion of Brian's original "Elements" plan), and "Water Chant"/"I Love To Say Da Da" for "Water." As a wink to Sgt. Pepper's "endless chord" at the end of "A Day In The Life," I ended my SMiLE with an endless fade-in of "You're Welcome." "Good Vibrations" is relegated to the bonus tracks section -- just a personal choice; I know that it probably would have been on the LP in 1966 or 1967.

The tray insert for my SMiLE CD

So that's what I've been enjoying as "SMiLE" for a decade now. I'm looking forward to having my decisions and opinions challenged by "The Smile Sessions," and I'm looking forward to the sonic upgrades for several tracks I omitted simply because I didn't like the sound quality of the bootleg versions ("Barnyard," "Child Is Father To The Man," "Holidays," etc.) I've been on a Beach Boys/Brian Wilson/Smile bender this month because of the news -- like, an epic, Charlie Sheen-level bender -- and it's going to be hard to think about anything else until we at least get a release date. I hope everything progresses smoothly, and I hope Brian is happy with the results. My next post will be about Brian and his own 2004 version of SMiLE, and why I don't think it should be forgotten in the wake of "The Smile Sessions." Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happy Birthday, George Harrison

It would have been George Harrison's 58th birthday a few days ago (February 25th, to be exact), and the occasion got me playing his music, as it usually does. I've made many George comp CDs over the years, beginning with an "In Memoriam" CD made in the year after he died (see below for cover art), culminating in an expansive five-disc overview of his career, which I've been laboring over for nearly two years, off and on. In between working on that beast, however, I managed to bang out a mix CD that I'm very proud of, one that honors the 1966-1968 period, when George was truly straddling the eastern and western musical worlds, bringing them together in a way unheard of in rock music, then or since. Most think George was totally immersed in Indian music for most of these years, but in reality he was still making experimental psychedelic rock while composing "raga rock" songs like "Love You To" and "Within You Without You."

The two styles of music, both competing for George's attention, became intermingled in George's first solo album, 1968's Wonderwall Music. Written and recorded as the original score to the movie Wonderwall, George recorded these tracks in early 1968, in Bombay and in London, using Indian and British musicians. While not particularly "Beatley," the recordings certainly showed what George had learned about producing during the Beatles' psychedelic phase. Sounds and recording techniques we had heard on Beatles tracks showed up in Wonderwall tracks, and tricks and instruments he used as the producer of Wonderwall Music showed up in his White Album tracks. The missing link between the Wonderwall album and the White Album is George's "The Inner Light"; George had recorded the music track for it in India during the Wonderwall sessions, and he wrote the lyric and recorded the vocals during a Beatles session. It ended up as the b-side on the "Lady Madonna" single.

A good pal of mine named Glenn -- whom I only know through the Internet, but my gut tells me the guy's a peach -- had the clever idea to combine George's Wonderwall songs with his White Album songs, to highlight their similarities as well as their differences, and to make a new "solo album" out of it -- one that contained vocal tracks, unlike the all-instrumental Wonderwall Music. He sent me a CD-R of his resulting mix-CD, called "George White," and I enjoyed it greatly -- in fact, it was the first time I had ever appreciated George's Wonderwall album at all. I'd tried to listen to it before, but just couldn't get into it; as it turns out, all I really needed was some traditional Western vocal rock tracks sprinkled in to break up the instrumental monotony.

Of course, Glenn's CD got me to thinking, and because I've never met a good idea I didn't think I could improve, I set out to make my own version of this compilation. First, I wanted to expand the scope of it, because (a) I needed MORE vocals from George mixed in with the instrumentals, and (b) I really felt that several of George's 1966 and 1967 tracks (like "Love You To" and "Blue Jay Way") fit perfectly with this music. Then, I wanted to tinker with the sequence a little, have some of the songs blend together via segues -- I am an inveterate segue addict, if there is such a thing -- and tweak the volume levels to make the whole thing flow like one long piece. The result is an an expansion of George's famous "Indian period" to include some truly bold and inventive music which has been mostly forgotten by Beatles fans and overlooked by Beatles historians. I've called it, for no other reason than it sounds cool, It's All Too Much. Here's the cover art, with the album jokingly released on the "Zapple" label:

Here's the tracklist, followed by a few notes:

01. Love You To (2:55)
02. Guru Vandana (1:01)
03. Only A Northern Song (3:24)
04. Tabla and Pakavaj (1:03)
05. Within You Without You (5:00)
06. Gat Kirwani (1:14)
07. Blue Jay Way (3:45)
08. Drilling a Home (3:01)
09. In The Right Place (3:20)
10. Party Seacombe (4:32)
11. Fantasy Sequins (1:49)
12. The Inner Light (2:31)
13. Glass Box (1:03)
14. Not Guilty (3:20)
15. Red Lady Too (1:52)
16. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Rock Band remix) (4:43)
17. Ski-ing (1:50)
18. Savoy Truffle (2:54)
19. On the Bed (2:16)
20. Long, Long, Long (3:02)
21. Dream Scene (5:27)
22. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (LOVE version) (3:20)
23. Wonderwall to Be Here (1:22)
24. It's All Too Much (6:25)
25. Singing Om (1:54)

Now, obviously, this track listing will only resonate with those who are familiar with the Wonderwall soundtrack -- and even then, honestly, I don't know most of these tracks by their names, only by how they sound. But I tried to skip back and forth between vocal and instrumental tracks, between Eastern and Western sounds. If I found an instrument or a sound that was prominent in two songs, I'd put them together -- for example, there's an instrument in "Fantasy Sequins" that is also used in "The Inner Light," so those tracks were matched with each other. I tried to let songs melt into one another, so the way one song faded out and another began became an important factor in sequencing. And, as I often do, if I could find an "inside joke" or "secret communication" between songs, that always helped. The best example of that here is "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (a Beatles song featuring Eric Clapton) leading into "Ski-ing" (a Wonderwall song featuring Eric Clapton), leading into "Savoy Truffle" (a Beatles song ABOUT Eric Clapton).

As they often are, my CD comps are about providing a CONTEXT for the songs so I can enjoy them. It's All Too Much allows me to fully enjoy the Wonderwall tracks as well as the heavily "Indian" Beatles tracks, which sometimes seem out of place or dated on Beatles albums. It also gave me a place to listen to the Rock Band remix of "While My Guitar," which kicks ASS and features an unfaded ending, as well as the "LOVE" version of the same song, which features a beautiful George Martin score over George Harrison's acoustic demo. It's all about context for me, folks.

So thanks to Glenn for the idea -- and finally today, after a year of promising it, I've finally sent him a copy of my version of his original "George White" CD. I hope he likes it -- there are so few people in the world who enjoy this kind of thing to the mega-nerd extent that I do, that when someone really "gets" it, it's a real hoot. And happy birthday to George -- even though you were mostly retired for the last decade-plus of your life, I miss just knowing you're somewhere in England, tinkering in your garden.