Brian Wilson's Secret Bedroom Tapes
The Beach Boys' 1966 Pet Sounds album overnight changed rock & roll into art. Its follow-up, the stand-alone single "Good Vibrations," continued leader Brian Wilson's experimental direction; Capitol Records promo men pronounced it the "kind of gutsy production that makes a No. 1 single," a prediction swiftly fulfilled.
While the rest of the Beach Boys were touring the United Kingdom in late 1966 — having just bested The Beatles in a year-end New Music Express poll — Wilson labored back in Los Angeles on what he described as his "teenage symphony to God." Titled Smile, the now-legendary project finally saw release in a definitive five-disc box set in 2011.
Yet as Smile received its due fanfare, winning a Grammy Award and landing on the Billboard album charts more than 40 years after its conception, there remains a post-Smile body of Wilson recordings that is almost unknown to critics, historians and fans alike. L.A. Weekly recently was granted access to many of these never-before-heard tapes from 1968 to 1974 — almost 60 titles in all — currently stored at the Beach Boys' archive on Vanowen Street, near Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.
The tapes represent a treasure trove of material from the last period in which Wilson was at the peak of his songwriting abilities, a time when the chief Beach Boy ultimately took leave of his duties as the band's writer-arranger-producer. That sudden departure would drive a wedge between him and his bandmates for decades to come.
The rift began in the fall of 1966, when the Beach Boys returned from their tour of England. Lead singer Mike Love took issue with the Smile lyrics. Wilson's newest collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, had penned lyrics on such weighty issues as the decimation of the Native American, Western expansionism and the fragile ecology. According to Parks, Love's earlier paeans to souped-up hot rods and suntanned beauties were illusions that Wilson could no longer abide.
The internal discord caused Smile to degenerate, then collapse, sending Wilson into a self-imposed exile in his bedroom, which led to his reputation as the Howard Hughes of rock & roll.
"When the withdrawal began to attract notice," says Jack Rieley, who managed the Beach Boys from 1971 to 1973, "Brian's keen sense picked up on the fact [and fed] off the crumbs of legend available to 'Brian Wilson, eccentric recluse,' a hideous second-best to the public acclaim he was denied [with Smile]."
We know now, however, that Wilson wasn't simply growing his toenails. With a studio installed in the living room of his Bel-Air mansion, Wilson was able to craft intensely personal songs of gentle humanism and strange experimentation, which reflected on his then-fragile emotional state.
During the early '70s, a small group of Wilson's trusted friends and collaborators — including Byrds leader Roger McGuinn, songwriter Tandyn Almer ("Along Comes Mary"), Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night, and Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks — visited him often at the mansion. Byrds producer Terry Melcher, himself a part of this inside group, likened the disheveled Beach Boy, lumbering down from his bedroom midday in bathrobe and slippers, to Aesop emerging to deliver his latest fable.
"Brian went through a period," recalls sometime Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who also was removed from the band during the early to mid '70s, "where he would write songs and play them for a few people in his living room, and that's the last you'd hear of them. He would disappear back up to his bedroom and the song with him." Thus these late '60s–early '70s recordings have come to be known as Wilson's "Bedroom Tapes," akin to the "Basement Tapes" that Bob Dylan made with The Band at Woodstock, following a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966.
"He was so innocent and bizarre and so truthful," Hutton said of Wilson in the 1995 documentary, I Just Wasn't Made for These Times. "He would frighten people. I took him to a party at Alice Cooper's and, afterwards, Alice, Iggy Pop and me went to his house to write something. There was a certain point of the night where Iggy said, 'I'm leaving! This guy's nuts!' He had us singing 'Short'nin' Bread' in parts."
In fact, during this period Wilson wrote a number of tunes riffing on "Short'nin' Bread," an old American plantation song. These include titles in the archive such as "Clangin'," "Rollin' Up to Heaven," "Ding Dang" and "Brian's Jam."
Meanwhile, an unreleased 1970 cut titled "My Solution" remains a strange Halloween novelty, with Wilson doing his best Vincent Price imitation over a set of descending chords and bubbling test-tube sound effects. An eccentric Moog synthesizer piece titled "Honeycomb" was tracked in 1974, replete with the kind of jagged bass lines that felt a million miles from Wilson's heyday with the Beach Boys.
"This period is important," confirms Andrew G. Doe, author of The Complete Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys, "because it allowed Brian to write in his home, without pressure from the band to be commercial. More importantly, we know now that Brian didn't just spend three years in bed."
Doe confirms the comparison of the archive's breadth to that of Dylan's "Basement Tapes," the major difference being that the folk legend's home recordings saw eventual release nearly a decade after they were laid to tape. Wilson's remain sequestered.
Back in 1968, Wilson had completed his last full album production with the Beach Boys on the brilliantly understated Friends, whose summer release was followed by a disastrous recording session of Jerome Kern's Broadway classic "Ol' Man River." Session tapes reveal Wilson conducting the Beach Boys to such extreme perfectionism that both he and the band seem at the end of their rope with one another. Wilson soon thereafter checked himself into a mental institution, where he was prescribed Thorazine for severe anxiety disorder.
Mixing pills with booze, pot and cocaine, he became increasingly withdrawn. He returned to the studio that fall, though from this point onward, Wilson rarely finished a single track. "Carl [Wilson] took over where Brian stopped," recalls engineer Stephen Desper, acknowledging the youngest Wilson brother's role in completing select Brian Wilson tracks for subsequent Beach Boys releases. For those that remained on the cutting room floor, however, it's hard to know whether Wilson was being purposely lo-fi or if he just didn't care anymore.
Around this time, Wilson suffered another big emotional blow when his notoriously tempestuous father, Murry Wilson, sold the publishing rights to his son's back catalog to Almo/Irving Music for the astonishingly low price of $700,000. (Today the catalog's estimated value is well over $100 million.) In short order, the Beach Boys left Capitol Records, signing with Warner Bros. in 1969, with their advance payment contingent on the delivery of Smile by 1972. It never happened.
The Beach Boys' 1970 album, Sunflower, peaked at an all-time low for the band, stopping at No. 145 on the Billboard charts. Wilson's diminished role in its production was apparent to public and critics alike. He contributed just three originals to the Beach Boys' 1971 Surf's Up album, including its title cut, a leftover from the ill-fated Smile.
Unlike Sunflower, the critics embraced Surf's Up, and the Beach Boys promoted it in a tour with psychedelic rock gods the Grateful Dead.
Album cut "'Til I Die" remains one of Wilson's most poignant, if tragic, songs. Some saw its haunted vocal harmonies and intense lyrics as a sign of Wilson's sometimes-suicidal leanings. Stories abound of Wilson's threats to drive his Rolls-Royce off a cliff; one friend remembers Wilson digging a grave in his own backyard and asking wife Marilyn to push him into it.
Rieley says that much of this was simply Wilson's offbeat sense of humor, often abandoned once the prank was acknowledged. "The one-dimensional side of Brian," Stanley Shapiro confirms, "looks like a zombie. But out of the blue, he'd astonish you with the things he'd say."
Shapiro was a lyricist who worked with Brian Wilson and Tandyn Almer in the early '70s to rewrite the Beach Boys' Friends album for an unrealized A&M Records project. (Four tracks were completed.) During the same time, Wilson worked on a number of other side projects, including tracks with Redwood, an early incarnation of Three Dog Night; notorious sessions with Charles Manson before the latter's murder spree in 1969; an unreleased country-western album with Beach Boys promo man Fred Vail; and a strange spoken-word album with poet Stephen Kalinich titled A World of Peace Must Come.
A 1973 single titled "Shyin' Away" by American Spring — featuring Wilson's wife, Marilyn, and sister-in-law Diane Rovell on vocals — was produced by Wilson in a converted chicken coop in Otho, Iowa, whereafter the unpredictable Beach Boy headed to a nearby bar to run lights for a local pub-rock band. Back in California, the musical genius who gave the world "God Only Knows" could be found many nights in his bathrobe, behind the counter of the Radiant Radish, the West Hollywood vitamin store he co-owned, tallying receipts.
When the Beach Boys moved camp to the Netherlands in 1972, Wilson reluctantly joined, though not before missing several flights out of LAX due to reported paranoia of flying. In Holland, Wilson's work on the next Beach Boys album was once again scant, left largely to Carl Wilson and the rest of the group to complete.
According to Brian Wilson himself, days were spent locked away in his cottage listening to Randy Newman's seminal Sail Away album, in which Wilson heard a kind of magic realism that inspired him to craft Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale). Later released as a bonus EP with the Beach Boys' Holland album, Mount Vernon tells the story of a musical Pied Piper who appears to a family of young princes and princesses but disappears forever when they stop believing in him — a thinly veiled allegory of Wilson's deteriorated relationship with the Beach Boys. "I wrote it about Mike Love," Wilson confirmed to me in 2003 for a documentary I co-directed for the Carl Wilson Cancer Foundation.
As for Holland, record-company men deemed it "unreleasable," remembers Van Dyke Parks, then a staff member at Warner Bros. "So I said, 'I have a tape at home of this song I think could help.' " The song was titled "Sail on, Sailor."
"I went over to Brian's with my new Walkman," Parks continues, "and told him the name of the tune and sang those intervals, and he pumped out the rest of the song. That was a tough moment for both Brian and me. I just went over to see how he was, and he wasn't good. Of course, you couldn't tell from the song, because it represents such hope. The next week I brought it in and [record company representatives] said, 'This is sliced bread!' "
"Sail on, Sailor" turned out to be Wilson and the Beach Boys' only chart hit of the period, though a dozen or so Wilson originals from the "Bedroom" years saw release on various Beach Boys albums as well. A handful more have trickled out over the decades on rarities collections and box sets. Still, a huge chunk has yet to see the light of day.
According to Ed Roach, who filmed the Beach Boys endlessly during the early 1970s, there exists a tape of Brian and his daughter Carnie reciting narration for what may have been a second fairy-tale record. A spring '72 track titled "Rooftop Harry" is described by one listener as "schizophrenia on tape"; another, "Spark in the Dark," is a pounding organ jam whose jagged synth lines result in a catchy melody later recycled for Wilson's solo career. Other titles such as "Symphony of Frogs," "Patty Cake" and "Song to God" have been tossed around but never heard.
"A lot of the music that Brian was creating during this period," notes Alan Boyd, the Beach Boys' current archivist and my co-director on the Carl Wilson Foundation documentary, "was full of syncopated exercises and counterpoints piled on top of jittery eighth-note clusters and loping shuffle grooves. You get hints of it earlier in things like the tags to 'California Girls,' 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' and all throughout Smile, but it takes on an almost manic edge in the '70s."
Boyd, who also directed Endless Harmony, a 1998 VH1 special on the Beach Boys, has been cataloging the band's tape archive for two decades. He confirms that enough material exists to comprise a new release focused solely on the "Bedroom Tapes." (The rights to these recordings reside with Brother Records, the Beach Boys' own imprint, founded in 1967.) A number of issues, however, may prevent this from happening.
For starters, many of the titles have never been published, a process the Beach Boys seem reluctant to take on. (It is far easier to keep reissuing alternate versions or new mixes of popular hits.) More likely, however, the people behind Brother Records — the Beach Boys and their management — simply don't see a market for such uncommercially conceived music. (Beach Boys management declined comment for this story.)
Shortsightedness also could be blamed for the band's inertia regarding Smile, which sat dormant for more than 40 years and whose high sales figures surprised both band and record label alike. Yet it remains to be seen whether the same audience would find in the "Bedroom Tapes" a common mystique.
Back in 1972, the Beach Boys moved their studio operations out of Wilson's living room to a small, rented space near Santa Monica Beach. The move seems also to have coincided with Wilson's diminished output of "Bedroom"-style music.
Another band move — this time out to Colorado for a collaboration with Jim Guercio, then producer of the band Chicago — came in 1974. Wilson went armed once more with a series of riffs but struggled to complete anything.
An optimistic ballad titled "Good Timin' " was tracked, replete with lilting harpsichord, though it would not be finished until 1979. A Christmas-themed single, "Child of Winter," was co-written with Stephen Kalinich, as was the demo recording of "California Feelin'." The latter may have been the last time Wilson was still in possession of the inimitable falsetto voice that first gave the world "Surfer Girl," "In My Room" and "Don't Worry Baby" during the early '60s. His instrument was seemingly ravaged by 1975, due in no small part to years of chemical abuse.
"['California Feelin'] was white gospel," Kalinich recalls of the sessions. "But I think it [also] frightened him a little to let his defenses down and give the vocal all he had." Following the session, Wilson asked the engineer to wipe the tape, a wish thankfully not granted. (It was released on the Beach Boys' Made in California box set last year.)
After Wilson was again hospitalized in '75, the Beach Boys hired experimental psychologist Eugene Landy to rehabilitate the ailing songwriter. The first thing Landy did was push Wilson back into the studio to record an album of oldies, forever closing the door on Brian's introspective artistry. That it was replaced by the kind of tepid nostalgia that dominated the Beach Boys' direction for decades to come made Wilson himself even more a stranger in a strange land.
Today, however, the scales seemingly have tipped back in favor of Brian Wilson, the artist. Once-marginalized recordings like Pet Sounds, Smile and, now, the "Bedroom Tapes" continue to demonstrate his unparalleled range of expressionism in pop music.
Brian Chidester wrote essays for two official Brian Wilson tour programs in the mid-aughts and was research historian for the Showtime documentary Beautiful Dreamer: The Story of Brian Wilson and Smile.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.