Busy Doin' Somethin': Uncovering Brian Wilson's Lost Bedroom Tapes

1968 - 1974

Music Features Brian Wilson
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It turns out that Brian Wilson—leader of the Beach Boys, notorious recluse during the early 1970s—didn’t just lie in bed and let his beard grow long. In a recent cover story for the L.A. Weekly, I posited that Wilson had quietly amassed a body of songs from 1968-74 that fed Beach Boys albums, side projects and his own solo career for many years to come. The individual tracks that comprise the “Bedroom Tapes,” an umbrella moniker for the period entirely of this chronicler’s own making, are superfluous. The more important question remains the extent of Wilson’s lost catalog and how it came to matter.

The story goes that Wilson reached an artistic peak with his production of the Beach Boys landmark 1966 album, Pet Sounds, which was succeeded in every way by the infamous Smile sessions that followed in ‘67 and which ended in disaster. That is to say, the album was abandoned and left on the shelf until 2011, when it received a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album. Back in the summer of 1967, Wilson pulled out of his competitive production race with the Beatles. The Beach Boys then had a studio built in the living room of Wilson’s Bel Air mansion, where they’d work on a series of lo-fi albums in the wake the chief Beach Boy’s tumble.

To be certain, the home studio did not remain in the home until 1974, but was dismantled in ‘72. Albums recorded from summer 1967 to spring ‘68—Smiley Smile, Wild Honey and Friends—were indeed homemade and lo-fi Wilson productions, though they were tracked at Wally Heider Studio and ID Sound, as well as Wilson’s home. His full retreat as leader of the Beach Boys seems to have begun in the summer of ‘68, following a brief stint in a mental institution, and lasted until 1975, when the band appointed an experimental psychologist to coax Wilson back into official Beach Boys activity. However, as the “Bedroom Tapes” label represents the whole era and not a specific project conceived of by Wilson himself, it is important to acknowledge that cut-off lines of delineation can easily blur.

For starters, an alternate version of the Wild Honey track “I’d Love Just Once to See You” boasts an extended tag, whose quirk could mark the onset of the “Bedroom” sound. Alternately, spirited takes of “Whistle In,” from summer ‘67, are also characteristic of the way Wilson attached himself to a basic riff and noodled with it endlessly during the “Bedroom” years. By spring 1968, a number of unrealized outtakes from the Beach BoysFriends album were tracked, which too foreshadow the intimacy of Wilson’s early ‘70s stockpile.

“Our Happy Home” is a short, bouncy riff that maintains the gentle air of the Friends sessions. A tape labeled “New Song” features a slowed-down melody of what later becomes the Friends rocker “Transcendental Meditation”; the bridge to “New Song” is what has long been described by collectors as “Spanish Guitar Song.” Another, titled “Even Stephen,” is an early version of the Friends cut “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” its casual lyrics presenting a visitor step-by-step directions up to Wilson’s pad. “You’re As Cool As Can Be” is an additional instrumental from the Friends sessions, this time an upbeat, driving melody pounded out by Wilson at the piano.

Wilson also cut an early version of the gorgeous Sunflower ballad, “All I Wanna Do,” which in ‘68 featured a sitar but no lyrics. A song titled “Walkin’,” as well as Wilson’s solo piano version of Burt Bacharach’s “My Little Red Book,” were also tracked during the Friends sessions, both long known to bootleg collectors. “Sail Plane Song” and “We’re Together Again” were recorded in the aftermath of Friends, and both have been comped on Beach Boys reissues since the 1990s.

Of particular note regarding the Friends album is the pair of tracks written by middle Wilson brother, Dennis—“Little Bird” and “Be Still.” According to Stephen Kalinich, who wrote lyrics to both songs, “Little Bird” was based around a riff that Brian had already worked on as “Child Is Father of the Man” during the Smile sessions. “It was his gift to Dennis and I,” remembers Kalinich. Brian was also the organist on “Be Still,” long thought to be a solo Dennis Wilson outing on vocals and keys. Brian, in fact, cut a longer organ version of “Be Still,” as well, with Kalinich reading it as an extended poem.

By 1969, Wilson—whose retreat from the Beach Boys had turned into a rout—commenced work on a full spoken-word album with Kalinich. “America, I Know You,” the album’s centerpiece, was, in fact, possibly the truest “Bedroom” tape in Wilson’s oeuvre. The backing track—a gorgeous string arrangement of ascending and descending chords—was tracked at the Wally Heider Studio on Aug. 22, 1969; according to Kalinich, however, the heartfelt reading of the poem was delivered in Wilson’s bedroom, where microphones were set up to capture the ambience.

Sadly, that same year, Wilson’s father, Murry, sold the rights to his son’s publishing to Irving-Almo at the absurdly low price of $700,000. (The catalog today is valued at around $100 million.) Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn, says the sale sent the fragile songwriter into even deeper depression.

The Beach Boys  situation, sans Wilson, became desperate. A forged signature apparently put Wilson’s mansion up for collateral in order for the band to acquire additional recording funds needed to complete their last Capitol Records album, 1969’s 20-20. They signed with Warner Bros. in 1970. Mo Ostin, head of Warner Bros. at the time, said of the chance to sign the Beach Boys away from Capitol: “The only signature I care about getting on that contract is Brian Wilson’s.” Wilson, as the goose that laid the golden egg, was marched into a conference room in white undershirt and tossled hair, where photographs show him scribbling his John Hancock with pronounced disdain.

1970’s Sunflower, the Beach Boys’ Warner Bros. debut, was, in many respects, their Abbey Road—a lush production that signaled an end to the 1960s, the decade that gave them creative flight. Sunflower was, in fact, largely produced by the youngest Wilson brother, Carl. Dennis Wilson contributed four stellar new compositions as well. Brian Wilson also wrote a number of new tracks at the time, many of which embody the “Bedroom” aesthetic at its most pure—sweet melodies set to intimate lyrics and tender falsetto vocals.

A session for Wilson’s “Good Time,” in fact, was tracked in early ‘70 with either Wilson himself or Beach Boy Bruce Johnston segueing into a brief rendition of the Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money.” It seems that every Beach Boy tried in some way to keep Wilson engaged during the Sunflower sessions. (Johnston co-wrote the album’s “Diedre” with him.) Wilson’s early version of “Our Sweet Love” features his own solo vocals over a basic piano and drum track, which Carl Wilson later augmented with strings and harmony vocals. Beach Boy Al Jardine wrestled “At My Window” from Wilson, which started out as a simple cover of the Kingston Trio’s “Raspberries, Strawberries.” Wilson and Jardine also co-wrote an outtake titled “Back Home” together.

A piano demo of the Wilson masterpiece “’Til I Die” exists, as does a full production with the more optimistic lyric “I’ll find my way” alternating for what eventually became “I lost my way” on the Beach Boys’ 1971 Surf’s Up album. According to the band’s engineer Stephen Desper, a version of Brian’s eco-conscious ballad, “A Day in the Life of a Tree,” was first recorded with brother Dennis Wilson on lead vocals before being replaced by manager Jack Rieley on the final track. This version has yet to surface.

Outtakes from the period include: “Where Is She?,” a sweet Wilson ballad from 1970 which saw release on last year’s Made in California box; “H.E.L.P. Is on the Way,” “Games Two Can Play” and “I Just Got My Pay,” all of which were released on the 1993 Capitol box set, Good Vibrations; “Soulful Old Man Sunshine,” co-written by Wilson and Rick Henn of the Sunrays, of which a demo version and a full Beach Boys recording were released on the soundtrack to VH1’s 1998 documentary Endless Harmony; and “My Solution,” a 1970 Halloween novelty by Wilson, often bootlegged, never officially released. A song titled “What Can the Matter Be?” was tracked in 1969; its title has been thrown around as one written by BW, though according to session logs, every Beach Boy is present on the track except Brian. A few additional BW songs from the era have been recently discovered, but not heard by this author.

In 1971, Wilson—assisted by songwriter David Sandler—produced an album by American Spring, featuring Wilson’s wife Marilyn and sister-in-law, Diane Rovell, on vocals. Wilson recorded a pitch-perfect piano demo of “Awake,” hitting catastrophically high falsetto notes; the song later appeared in a Spring version on the album. An unheard Spring outtake titled “Funky Fever” was recorded at Ike Turner’s Bolic Studio on Feb. 28, 1972; a cover of Jimmy Rodger’s “Honeycomb” was cut in October ‘74 with Marilyn on vocals. The latter featured Roy Wood of ELO and Wizzard on the backing track. (Wood also played on the Beach Boys’ “It’s OK” from the same session.) The former Mrs. Wilson retains the masters to the American Spring album, as well as a number of other Brian Wilson tapes from the period.

Wilson also labored in 1971-72 with lyricist Stanley Shaprio and songwriter Tandyn Almer to re-write the Friends album for an unrealized A&M Records project. (A&M’s Irving-Almo owned the aforementioned publishing to Wilson’s ‘60s catalog, as sold by father Murry Wilson, who needed to fund the final renovations of his tacky home in Redondo Beach.) According to Shapiro, four tracks were recorded by the trio—new versions of “Passing By,” “Wake the World,” “Be Still” and title track, “Friends.”

Shapiro also told me the story of the time Dennis Wilson had engineer Stephen Desper queue up a Brian Wilson reel-to-reel labeled “Song to God.” According to Shapiro, as the tape ran and Dennis and Desper sat mesmerized, Brian came barreling down from his bedroom, ripped the tape off the playback and yelled, “Don’t you ever touch that again! That’s between me and God!” No tape for this has ever been found. Nor has anything for Wilson titles like “Is Jack Rieley Superman?” or Wilson/Rieley’s “Burlesque,” the latter an outtake from the Beach Boys’ 1972 album, Carl & the Passions – So Tough.

A 1978 instrumental labeled “Beach Burlesque,” tracked during the band’s MIU album sessions, might be the same song, but as of this writing, Rieley, who is currently in a hospital in Berlin, has not been able to confirm it. Beach Boys historian Andrew G. Doe did previously get Rieley to repeat a couplet of the “Burlesque” lyrics, which reads: “Tantalation and hot glowing skin/Sun’s ‘bout to rest.”

Also missing is the tape of Wilson’s early 1972 production of “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’,” while a tapebox for “Beatrice of Baltimore” is present in the Beach Boys’ vault, though it features no vocals for the song that eventually became “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone” on Carl & the Passions. A tape has been found, however, of the jagged 1972 instrumental “Rooftop Harry.”

According to engineer Barry Rudolph, the Beach Boys vaunted into Larabee Studios in West Hollywood after midnight and began unloading truckloads of equipment whilst Wilson sat lotus position in a corner for two hours. When he awoke, a flurry of action took place on tape, Wilson himself playing piano, electric bass, toy piano and a calliope on “Rooftop Harry,” all of which ran through a then-new device called the Countryman Phaser. The results are manic.

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