SMiLE (8/14) Psychedelic Sounds Disc 1 Commentary

The Psychedelic Sounds bootleg is an invaluable peek into the themes running through Brian’s mind during the height of the SMiLE Era, and in my opinion contains some rough working concepts for SMiLE. I’m going to write an instantaneous reaction for it; just some observational notes as I listen along.

Some background information (Liner Notes)

Recorded Friday November 4, 1966. Keith Badman’s “Beach Boys Diary” provides tons of details about this productive day. (see pp. 156-158) From 2:00 – 6:00 PM Brian supervised the first tracking session for Surf’s Up. Sometime after 6:00 Brian gathers Van Dyke Parks, Danny Hutton, Michael Vosse, and “Bob” to record some hip hippie hilarity. Sound quality is very good. (Apparently other versions of this collection w/ a few musical tracks are circulating.)

The discs we reviewed contain the above list of titles and the following notes:

“This double CD gathers all the spoken word recordings made by Brian Wilson during the SMiLE sessions of fall 1966. His main partners in crime are the gang of hangers on affectionately known as the ‘Vosse Posse’, the underlying insurgent intelligentsia that spurred Brian on to greatness and cleared the way for unchecked imagination. Of course, they were also just plain high. The main characters are David Anderle, LA scenester extraordinaire and head of the nascent Brother records label, Brian’s lyrist Van Dyke Parks, Anderle’s friend Michael Vosse, and journalists Jules Seigel and Paul Williams. Disc One (tracks 1-21) features a series of chants and vocal exercises that were found by Alan Boyd on a reel labeled ‘Psychedelic Sounds’, recorded Nov. 4, 1966. Some extremely short clips were included on the Hawthorne, CA release on Capitol Records, but now you can hear the entire reel for the first time. The recording dates for the remainder of the tracks here remain unknown, as does their purpose. ‘Taxi Cabber” (a title coined by the compiler of this CD) is a field recording that has long been rumored to exist and is available here for the first time. Other obscure pieces, such as the ones referred to as ‘Bob Gordon’s Real Trip’ and ‘Basketball Sounds’ also make debuts here.”

On Nov. 4, 1966, Brain was at the zenith of his creative utopia. Unfettered from all constraints, he pours open his ego completely; passionate music like Surf’s Up spews forth. He’s also at a commercial peak- the single Good Vibrations is a world-wide smash. This high continued for the next few weeks. However, his boys blew back in town on Monday, Nov. 28. The result of the boys’ return? Brain cuts the track Fire. Burn baby, burn.

Now, looking at the tracks one by one…

1. How’s Your Foot

Not much to say about this one–you can definitely skip it. The idea of stomping on things, be it someone’s foot or vegetables will be explored again later in the compilation with the Vegetable Arguments.

2. Brian Falls Into The Piano

This one is a lot more iconic for its inclusion on the boxset. This is the first and probably best of the “falls into an instrument” skits on this bootleg. The improv between Brian and Vosse is surprisingly on point. The rest of them just make idle comments on what Brian and Vosse do. You can tell Brian’s trying to prolong and guide the conversation to explore as many different comedic elements this scenario could conceivably offer. It’s charming but hardly something you’re going to laugh out loud over.

During my time on the SmileySmile forum, around when I made the Olorin mix (which used the PS skits extensively and between each track) I took the position that everything in the PS were working concepts for SMiLE. I thought that maybe these “falls into ___” skits might be humorous takes on what it’s like to be a musician and “become one with the music.” Since then, reading some of the primary sources’ insistence on the idea of a separate “comedy album” I’m convinced now that was probably an extreme position on my part. It’s not that the PS skits are Brian doing his own version of “We’re Only In It For the Money” a year before WOIIFTM was released, as I’d wanted to believe back then. I now think the PS skits would probably be used sparingly on SMiLE. It’s also important to note that the PS itself does not and was never meant to represent final completed tracks or pieces that would be mixed in with SMiLE.It’s the working concepts Brian intended to refine with the Beach Boys and Wrecking Crew musicians later.

This “falls into ____” skit idea would be worked on with the Wrecking Crew during a professional recording session for Surf’s Up just 3 days after this Nov 4 series of demos were taped. That session produced “George Fell Into His French Horn” which I personally like to include on my SMiLE mixes as an unlisted bonus track. Considering the Beach Boys unarguably included playful tracks in a similar vein to George Fell on all pre-Pet Sounds albums, it’s hardly inconceivable to think they might do something similar on SMiLE. The “you’re under arrest!” in H&V as well as Brian saying “we’ll have a lot of talking in the pauses” during an All Day/Dada session also lend weight to the theory that at least one or two spoken word tracks or moments would appear.

3. Michael Falls In

An alternate take where Brian is the one speaking to someone else who’s in the piano (Michael Vosse.) I suspect that this was done so Brian could explore possible improv lines he couldn’t use as the person inside the piano. It’s very short and no new comedic lines or scenarios present themselves here. You can definitely skip this track.

4. Look, It’s Mary Poppins

The one guy’s improv “look there’s mary poppins!” is so random it’s hilarious, though pretty much unusable in a SMiLE context. They appear to just be saying random things in vain attempts to get some decent improvised conversations going.

5. Brian Falls Into The Mic

Trying once again to make the “fell into ___” concept work. Cuts off quickly. This is another incidental track on the boot that you can skip.

6. You Just Wiped Out My Eardrum

The majority of the “Brian inside a microphone” skit actually occurs here. It’s unclear if Brian just really loves the “falls in ___” setup or if, after the previous few tracks amounted to little, he decided to return to the only thing that netted good improv thus far to try to get something going again. It’s also unclear whether the non-Vosse guys are supposed to be talking among themselves or if Brian’s (in-character) observation is genuine hurt that they aren’t playing along with this skit as he wants them to.

This skit is pretty successful at being funny because it takes an alternate approach where they can’t tell Brian’s in the mic, while in the piano they could understand and properly interact with him. Two interesting takes on the same idea.

7. Ice Cream Man’s Good Vibrations

This skit seems to occur spontaneously as a result of someone tapping away at the piano, which prompts another person to exclaim “it’s the ice cream man!” It’s unclear whether the other skit setups, like the previous “someone falls into an instrument” series were born of improv as well. The fact that in a later track Brian will goad them into fighting and they don’t want to is a clue that the other skits are probably kernels Brian already had in his brain before involving the others and that makes Ice Cream Man the lone exception, the lone concept which the Posse invented on their own. Further evidence to this theory is that Brian recorded the “falls into instrument” idea with the Wrecking Crew 3 days later in the studio and the “humorously exaggerated petty argument” concept with Hal Blaine as well. Ice cream man was left completely on the cutting room floor.

That said, there’s something about this setup I find appealing, even though it doesn’t build to any big payoff nor is there any great improvised lines (just what I can only assume is a gay/dick joke that one of them wants something with a stick in it.) But the idea of some grown men running excitedly after an ice cream truck is funny in itself, especially with the implication that they’re stoners and probably have the munchies. Trying to think of this in a SMiLE context, it could conceivably work well with the “Cycle of Life” tracks to illustrate innocent childhood excitement over the simple pleasures out there. Or maybe it could humorously express the idea that some things are forbidden to you when you’re an adult. For example, when you’re a kid you can’t wait to be older and drive, drink or get in relationships…but nobody talks about how many adults would love to be able to go on a swing set or buy a fudge-sicle from the ice cream man without people staring. If it had been explored more fully, I think this idea might have warranted being redone professionally in the studio as well.

After VDP takes the skit into unnecessary racial territory and gets called out for it by “David” (Anderle?), Brian once again tries to restart the “falls into a microphone” setup. Clearly he’s not very interested in this idea the others spontaneously jumped into. For his part I think this was bad form. You invite a bunch of your friends to do a series of weird and (to their knowledge) unfocused improv sessions, so the least you could do is try to work with the idea they’ve established. This is another example of Brian and his friends not being on the same wavelength (we’ll explore this more as it comes.)

8. Lifter, Leg and Poker

I saw this one as like a play on the klondike bar commercials (what would you do for one? would you jump up and down?) I like how it evolves from humorous vegetable conversations to chanting. This is the most unified and warm sounding track yet. I really wanted the conversation to continue–it’s genuinely funny and I’m surprised it hasn’t been used in any fanmixes yet (at least to my knowledge.)

9. It Was Brian In The Mic

If drugs were truly consumed during the creation of these tracks, this is when they started to kick in. It’s also when the group really starts to get enthusiastic. That said, there’s still a noticeable disconnect between Brian and the others. He openly mentions the idea of getting them to do a vegetable fight–he says those exact two words. And then someone immediately talks over him “let’s do a rhythmic vegetables thing” and lo and behold, they go in the latter direction.

10. Gotta Have A Cabbage

Brian doesn’t object to the idea of doing vegetable chants, and even purposefully directs the group to stay in rhythm with each other. I’m noticing a pattern here I did not before. I was always under the impression that Brian changed his mind or didnt get around to having the Beach Boys or Wrecking Crew record all the setups found in this bootleg. Now I’m noticing that the things that are in PS which were never refined with the professionals later, are all the ideas Brian himself did not introduce. He wanted to do a “falls into ____” skit and he explored that idea later during a professional session. He wanted to do a veggie fight and he did one later on with Hal. He did NOT originally want to do an ice cream man scene nor veggie chants, and that’s why these concepts were never explored again. In short, Brian wasn’t inviting the Posse along to get ideas from them–he wasn’t interested in the unique new directions they might bring to the session–he was using them as guinea pigs to work out his own ideas.

11. Prune Time

After deciding the other chant wasn’t working, they go back and try again with different phrases/timing.

12. Beets And Carrots

Here they finally get it right. This is one of the versions that plays on the Hawthorne collection. I could be looking too much into this, but the fact that Brian’s lines are “where’s my beets and carrots”/’someone took my beets and carrots and smeared em on the wall’ could be his way of exploring what he wanted to do originally with the fight in this different format. What I mean is, in the veggie fight, the drifter character played by Vosse (and sometimes Brian) throws and stomps on Hal’s garden (“there’s tomatoes all over my gate!”) If I’m interpreting it correctly, that further enforces how singleminded Brian actually was in terms of getting his specific ideas on tape as a reference for later.

13. That’s Right, Vegetables

Another extremely quick throwaway, just saying silly things about veggies.

14. Big Bag of Vegetables

This is the other more well known version of the chant that was on the Hawthorne rarities compilation.

15. Toot Toot Dot Dot

Here for the first time, VDP takes the lead and offers an idea. It kind of shows how secondary VDP was to at least this humor aspect of SMiLE and/or how impromptu this gathering was. Brian did not seem to communicate what he intended with these skits to Van or Van was told to be hands-off or Van was disinterested in this session and decided to let Brian run the show. Maybe Brian wanted genuine improv from everyone including Van himself, or maybe this whole session was a quick impulse of Brian’s like the airport photo. I just find it odd that it’s Brian and Vosse who’ve dominated this recording up to now, leading the back and forth in most tracks, while VDP the collaborator has been a tertiary presence. I’m curious why this was the case.

It’s also interesting to see the two’s difference in leadership as well. Brian tries to lead by example. He doesn’t really establish a scene and delineate tasks, instead he just jumps into the scene and expects them to follow (based on what we can hear off this recording anyway.) With the chants too, he tells the guys to stay in rhythm but as far as we can tell the choice of vocalizations was left up to each guy individually and they settled into a groove organically. With Van, he gives specific instructions of what he wants each person to do. He has a surprisingly delicate, quiet voice. I could totally see how if he was confronted by a more domineering figure as Mike he’d be easily talked over.

I’m personally not a big fan of this chant, however, in comparison to the previous two.

16. Let’s Talk About Swimming

Brian is the one who moves the focus along to swimming. Otherwise not much to say here.

17. Side Stroke

Evidently nobody could really think of anything to say to join in. because those two words are practically all you hear.

18. Swim-Swim

The focus organically shifts from strokes and human swimming to ocean life and fish swimming. This chant is a lot more filled out and interesting than the previous one on the same topic. I think this chanting would have been fitting dubbed over Cool Cool Water or the Water Chant perhaps.

19. Down On The Ocean Floor

This is my favorite of the chants/vocal experiments. It’s kind of amazing how they’re able to make you feel as if you’re in the ocean just by using their voices.

Brian specifically directs them to make it sound like the bottom of the ocean. Whoever came up with the idea of “little fish darting around” did this track a great service, as that really adds a lot to the atmospheric nature of this experiment. I get the sense that perhaps this is why Brian is using these guys first to try out ideas like this as opposed to going directly to the Wrecking Crew or Beach Boys. Because, while sometimes maligned, the Vosse Posse were creatively minded people who were not only willing but able to improvise and add helpful tips during this sessions. I really can’t see something this beautifully picturesque coming from the Beach Boys or Wrecking Crew so organically.
(I know that contradicts my earlier point about Brian being single-minded, but perhaps by this point he’d loosened up and decided to accept their input. Or maybe he wanted their refining ideas but only in the context of the skits he’d already thought up.) 

Was this an early attempt at a Water element? Possibly. If not, it was certainly Brian trying to get inspired for what his Water was going to be by putting himself on the Ocean floor. The only other big contenders we have for Water are the theoretical song Brian could have (but never did) created using Vosse’s water sound recordings and Dada. However, between the three of these I give the edge to this Undersea Chant as being closest to what Brian was probably formulating for his Water. The reasons for this preference are:

1) As I recall Vosse admits in his articles that recording water sounds was his idea and Brian only mentioned offhand that he could write a whole song with them if he wanted to. He never did, even years later.

2) Brian did record an a capella water-themed chant with the Beach Boys if a year later. It’s called the Water Chant. Now, one or two people have argued that Undersea Chant and the Water Chant are completely unrelated. They’re certainly very different–one is an impromptu experiment by some friends and the other was a deliberate, professional recording by a band in the studio. One tries to put you inside the ocean and make you feel like you’re there. The other tries to imitate the distorting effects water has on your voice if you were to speak through it, and it’s more melodic. Both instantly make me think of water with zero hand-holding or forced interpretations. Both are very atmospheric and trippy using only vocals. I think arguing the two have nothing to do with each other is as deliberately obtuse as saying Cabin Essence and Worms, or He Gives Speeches and She’s Goin’ Bald are unrelated. They’re clearly about the same idea, and one clearly morphed into the other. The people who said these things were arguing for other recordings as most plausible candidates for Water, and I strongly suspect they were being disingenuous in order to win the debate rather than searching for the truth in good faith. 

3) The Undersea Chant was placed on the boxset. At the expense of a CIFOTM test edit from Brian’s own hand, countless riffs and takes from the sessions that as a result can’t be heard in studio quality anywhere, other pseudo-SMiLE songs like Cant Wait Too Long (not a stretch if they included Cool Cool Water) or Little Red Book (not a stretch if they included Three Blind Mice) and other iconic PS skits like Smog, Taxi Cabber, the Veggies chants, etc. That, to me, shows its importance in Brian and the compilers’ minds. They wanted this to be heard, because it’s the closest thing to a SMiLE Era water there is, and the clear genesis for Water Chant, which itself became half of the Water track in BWPS and the boxset Disc 1 sequence.

Just so it’s clear, I could care less if people prefer to do a 4-song elements suite in their mixes. I can totally understand the appeal of that over using some half-finished vocal experiments in an awkward cross-fading track. All I’m saying is there’s no evidence for the 4-song structure of Elements being Brian’s intentions in ’66-’67. The way The Elements are listed as a single track, how Fire is credited on the tapes/sessionography as “The Elements: Part 1 (Fire)” but Wind Chimes and Dada are not is pretty definitive proof alone even if you discount everything else I’ve said in this and the previous essays.

20. Breathing

Another favorite. It’s hard to tell from the recording here, but it sounds like Brian who starts off this chant with the first breath. Assuming he didn’t explain his intentions while the recording was paused, it’s really really cool how everyone instantly got it and they did this totally impromptu. I think it’s interesting how this track explores the air humans can make going in and coming out with breathing and laughter respectively. Also pretty cool how, for an album based around the healing and spiritual power of laughter (even named for it) this is the one time we hear laughter on any SMiLE recording (unless you count Swedish Frog or Little Pad.) Like the previous session, I personally believe this is either a rough working concept for the elements (specifically Air) or at the very least Brian trying to inspire himself by getting into the head space of air. Either way, it’s the closest thing to a ’66-’67 Air as we will ever get.

The next most popular theory of air is that it was the tag of another song, Wind Chimes. As far as I can tell, this is based almost solely on a vague quote from the 70s (“Air was going to be a piano piece”). That, and retroactively using BWPS to understand the original sessions, an approach I’ve debunked elsewhere. People are free to believe what they like, that’s half the fun of SMiLE. However, my problem with this theory is it relies on a one-off quote from a decade later. This is compounded by the fact that Brian is a notoriously bad interviewee and usually when this album comes up he gives conflicting evidence or just says whatever he feels like that will shut the conversation down. I place a lot more weight on his quotes from the sessions themselves, especially what he says on-tape.

Possibly even more than Brian, I place a great deal of emphasis on Vosse’s accounts. He’s by far our most in-depth description for what the sessions were like, from recordings of the main tracks to the lesser acknowledged stuff like the Psychedelic Sounds. He goes on to describe the exact Wind Chimes tag himself and at no time does he call it the Air element, nor does he even describe it in “airy” terms. It’d be one thing if he said “it sounded like a cool breeze on a pond”/”it felt like a gentle wind blowing some leaves”/”it made me think of the gentle air in a meadow”/”it transported me inside a tornado in Kansas.” But he doesn’t do that–he compares the Wind Chimes fade to a music box. Notice how Fire could not be described as anything else but a raging inferno with engine sirens careening down the street to put it out? You could hardly describe Fire as anything else even if you purposefully tried. Notice how Vosse describes the previous track (Undersea Chant as its called on the boxset) as being inside Atlantis…because again, there’s no other possible way to consider that song. It’s water, and it instantly puts you into that imagery without any handholding or relying on some forced interpretation or referencing a one-off quote from a decade later. I think this Breathing skit accomplishes the same thing–it’s air/breath/wind sounds. There’s absolutely no other way you could interpret it or describe it or break it down because that’s all it is. I think the elements pieces should and were supposed to have this resolute clarity to them.

I recall even in the Catch a Wave biography, author Peter Ames Carlin felt the same way, that the makeshift “elements suite” that emerged in the 80s and became cemented as canon in BWPS did not represent the same picturesque quality or imagination as Fire or the idea of making a whole song out of water recordings. This is the man who listened to every Beach Boys album and wrote reactions to them in his book, who’s studied Brian’s life and knows him better than most people today. If he doesn’t think Dada and Wind Chimes are up to snuff with what Brian had already done for the Elements I consider that a significant point of contention against the consensus that seems to have emerged by mistake due to the bootleg tracklists and Priore’s book.

Also for the record I’m not saying Air couldnt be a piano either–maybe Brian had a composition in his head that may or may not have ever been finished/recorded at all and may or may not have gone along with breathing vocalizations from the Beach Boys. Personally I think that could be a really cool Air. However, there is absolutely zero reason to believe this piano piece was the tag for Wind Chimes except that it has Wind in the title. If Brian and Melinda had bought a pair of pants that day and wrote a song with the same melody about that, this theory wouldn’t even exist. I guarantee that if the people pushing this “WC tag is Air” theory saw someone else arguing that the Heroes Part 1 Tag was Air, or Wonderful Version 3, (also piano pieces) they’d disregard it as too speculative/lacking evidence without a shred of irony.

21. Torture

I’d thought up to this point that the recording was continuous and one track flowed seamlessly into the next, but the question “are we recording?” breaks that immersion. This is far and away the least focused track yet–up to now Brian clearly had a few ideas he wanted to get on tape and tho sometimes he’d lose control (the unprompted ice cream man skit and doing veggie chants instead of the argument) it was only temporary or he’d work with it. At this point it does in fact sound like stoned goofing off. Brian in particular doesn’t sound as clear-headed anymore. He gets them back to doing a brief funny argument by pretending his foot was stepped on, and we’ve come full circle. Very quickly though it descends back to an aimless stoned conversation.

It’s interesting to hear Smog and its bad effects on mental health brought up here, foreshadowing Smog the track later in the bootleg. I also think the “it’s dark isn’t it? No, I’m the one with the beard” was a funny line.

22. Psychedelic Talk

We continue with them saying whatever random things come to mind, obviously under the influence of weed or something else. Things get real when one of them appears to get annoyed with Brian (“what do you want from us? You drag us here in the middle of the night to this dingy place…”)

I do think the “is there a joint in the lounge” one-liner is funny.

Brian really seems to want to get that comedic argument skit on tape since he brings it up again here. He tries to get them into it but they very vocally shut him down. The sessions have descended into stoned, resentful chaos. I actually do think Brian sounds hurt by this turn of events. He stops trying to corral the guys, talks in a much lower and quieter voice, and says “it’s always good to know that you can be so down you can at least look up.” That’s pretty significant I’d say. In fact it’s interesting how if you look at the Psychedelic Sounds disc 1 as a whole (it was all recorded in one night) it’s a bit similar to the Lifeboat Tape (more on that later). Brian seems to be the friend nobody really likes in this group, and he seems to feel that way both times as the session wears on. In each, he becomes despondent and isolated by the end.

We also hear Brian say that asking “what time is it” is a phrase that brings people down. He asks the little girl in the Basketball Sounds track (more on that later) this question, so whatever that says for his intentions with his conversation with her is anybody’s guess.

Towards the end, I honestly don’t know what’s happening. When they start talking about how it’s 1 AM, 2 AM, 1:30 AM it’s hard to tell whether it’s seriously that late or not, and when they start saying they want to go/gotta get up early/gotta do something with the dog it sounds like it could either be serious or continuing the motif of things to say which bring people down.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this information. Thanks to you I listened to the Smile album for the first time yesterday. Good stuff. Glad I am now aware of it. I have learned so much from knowing you Cassandra.

    Like

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