Curt Boettcher, Gary Usher and Brian Wilson

I’ve long wanted to do a post about Curt Boettcher and the tangled web of productions and songs that weaved their way through late 60’s LA and beyond. But I came across a problem that made me question the Wikipedia age of music history.

The problem is this:

Present TenseIn 1997 I got the reissue of “Present Tense” the 1968 album by Sagittarius. This was a Gary Usher created studio hobby / experiment where Curt provided the production chops and most of the musicians (mainly from his mighty but incredibly expensive and commercially unsuccessful “Begin” album by The Millennium).

As with so many 90’s re-issues, this album had a booklet that contained a certain version of the events surrounding the record. There was a lot of good stuff but one passage stuck out…

Curt Boettcher first entered Usher’s consciousness in the spring of 1966.  Their meeting had such a dramatic impact upon Usher that he still remembered it in detail 22 years later.  “I’m over at Studio Three West with Brian Wilson.  We were with (engineer) Chuck Britz, doing something.  I think it was a movie soundtrack.  The (tape) machine was stopped.  All of a sudden, I heard a sound, and the instant I heard it, I froze just like someone had thrown a bowling ball at me.  My ears just perked right up.  And Brian looked at me, I looked at Brian, and we both said simultaneously, ‘What was that?’

“I walked over to the hallway,” Usher continued.  “We put our ears out the door and listened to what was coming down that way.  We went right down the hallway, around a corner, and when we followed the sound, the louder it got.  We were walking and walking and walking up to the point where we were running into this room.  And here’s this little kid with an earring.  That was the first time I met Curt, and it was while he was producing Lee Mallory’s record ‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be.’

“Brian said, ‘What is that?’  That record stunned Brian.  He’s doing little surfer music, and here comes this kid who is light years ahead of him.  I had never seen Brian turn white.  It stunned him.  All he talked about for a week was that song and that kid.  Brian sensed that was where it was at, that’s where it was going.”

Hmm. What seems to be a fascinating insight into the 1966 LA studio scene suddenly shocks us with blatantly wrong information. 1966? Brian? Little surfer music? Movie Soundtrack?

In spring 1966 Brian was well into finishing Pet Sounds and thinking and tinkering with Good Vibrations… and planning the next epoch defining project. (Little surfer music indeed!)

A time and a place

The original Gary Usher quote seems to date from around 1988. This was just a year after the death of Curt Boettcher, so it may have been an attempt by Usher to make people appreciate the work of Boettcher more. It may even be a hint of continuing bitterness from Usher over the Beach Boys forcing him out of their songwriting picture in 1964, and perhaps some more recent shenanigans when he collaborated with Brian again during the 1986-88 Landy years.

As with any historical digging it is important to put the sources into context. Is this potentially good source giving us a certain degree of misinformation?

Warping history, even slightly, does no one any favors. The death of Gary Usher in 1990 made this the last word on any Boettcher, Wilson studio meeting and these lines are repeated again and again as a lone source of proof about Brian and Curt. The takeaway line for any new essay or blog post is that Brian heard ‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be’ and was heavily influenced by it. The above quote is cited… no questions are asked and no analysis is applied.

What IS going on in that 1966 studio?

Let’s look at the evidence before us and work out what probably happened (which I think is actually more interesting!)

‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be’ is a very fine blast of early sunshine pop (both the song itself and the full Lee Mallory album), but it seems to be a little lightweight to compete against Brian’s pinnacles of pop writing and production. Certainly not worth Brian being “stunned” by it… Like many of those Sunshine Pop records, (and quite a few Curt productions), the sound is fantastic but the songwriting and arranging could, shall we say, do with some more work.

So what’s the deal?

Pet Sounds, for all its magnificence, is very much an album full of beautifully recorded and produced sounds. The effects are more to do with the blending and playing of instruments and if the “studio” is used as an “instrument” it is to get the best from those recorded sounds (not to create and significantly alter the sounds themselves).

From early on, Curt Boettcher used the studio slightly differently.

‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be’ features some very interesting studio effects towards the end of the song. The controlled build up of echo, distortion and feedback and the subtle use of some tape loops is exactly the sort of thing that would pique Brian’s interest. (And thanks for that holding picture, YouTube!)

Listen to Curt’s production of Action Unlimited from later in 1966:

Curt is perfecting the use of this studio effect so it becomes a tidal wave of shimmering echo that carries the track along (and again, the song itself is nowhere near as good as the production!)

A few weeks later, Brian was recording things like the Cantina Mix of Heroes and Villains… and, lo-and-behold, from 1:55 you get 10 seconds of that “Curt Boettcher” echo effect!

To me this builds a more reasonable picture of the mid-1966 cross pollination of ideas. You can imagine Curt playing with these effects in the studio and Brian hearing them and wanting to add some of this wizardry to HIS canon of sounds that he can bring to the party. When Brian did use these “found” effects, they were a brief snippet in the overall production, rather than the reason for the production to exist.

Fascinating.

So Usher is both a little right… and also very wrong! Brian may well have heard something in ‘That’s the Way it’s Gonna Be’ that spurred him to augment his attitude to the studio but that original quote does little to shine any lights on the fervent creativity in those LA studios in 1966 or to give either of these great producers the credit they deserve. Shame.

With so little publicly available information about the life of Curt Boettcher, this half true snippet is echoed, repeated and amplified (much a like a Curt production!) until it’s worth is massively overstated. The “facts” from this questionable anecdote become the only thing we have. History eh?

 

I always found it interesting that in some Beach Boy sessions for the 1966 recordings, you can hear requests for doors to be shut and sounds to be kept secret. I think Brian was well aware of other producers stalking the halls of LA studios looking for inspiration!

 

 

 

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