Why? I’m not all together sure. The wintry sentiment coupled with the charmingly personal lyrics are all very endearing. And, if you pay attention, the production will blow you away.
Dig deeper and you’ll find classic Brian innocence and heartfelt yearning for escape, with more nods to that earth-mother-goddess character we’ve spoken about before.
The lyrics may be idealised escapism, but the story around the production of the song is somewhat tragic, starting with hope and ending in emotional manipulation.
The song was eventually released on 1969’s 20/20 Album, where it was sandwiched among a rag bag of left overs to fulfil a recording contract. All very “Beach Boys”.
Listen, listen, listen
But let’s start with the song.
Brian has said (in the Friends / 20/20 Liner Notes)
“Time To Get Alone” was another waltz. The intimacy of the lyrics, such as “I looked in your eyes and what did I see, I saw love in your eyes,” coupled with the moving instrumental track and Carl’s voice and our voices made for a spectacular record.
And it is a spectacular, shining record. Listen to how the waltz background is constructed. Instead of a single instrument playing a straight 3 hits of the chord we find a staccato pattern created by different instruments merged and intertwined with each other. Piano, Harpsichord, Harmonium. Fantastic stuff and classic Brian.
Out of the two Beach Boys versions available, you really must seek out the the alternate version on the “Hawthorne CA” collection. This adds something very special to the middle eight. (More of which, later).
The harmonies and production are all glorious, but something doesn’t quite sound right in the 1969 context. Something is wrong. What can it be?
Waiting for the day
The initial track for “Time to Get Alone” was actually created in 1967. There then followed various attempts at overdubbed backing vocals (instigated mainly by Carl) before the record was rolled out to the world in 1969.
The details form the Hawthorne Liner notes state this:
Basic Track 10/14, 10/15/67; Lead vocals 11/67, Backing vocals 10/68
Lead: Carl and Brian
This timing falls slap bang in the middle of a very interesting time for Brian and the Beach Boys. Scholars of Beach Boys history will know that SMiLE was abandoned in April ’67. The consensus seems to have Brian as a burned out drug casualty overcome by the magnum opus that was Sgt Pepper. Or Capitol playing funny games with the nascent Brother Records. Or Mike just being a penis.
“Smiley Smile” was sent out as the proverbial “bunt instead of a home run” (as Carl said at the time). A rag bag SMiLE replacement of “acid casualty doo wop” that is used to prove the point of an ailing Brian. Yet “Time to Get Alone” (along with other pop bombshells) was being recorded at this very time, between SMiLE and Wild Honey. Huh?
Now to the first shock of the day.
Not Meant for You
Nope, it was not originally for the Mike-ster and company. For the original recording of “Time to Get Alone” Brian teamed up with his good friend Danny Hutton (far left of this photo from early 1967 when Brian called up all his friends to greet him at LA Airport in an effort to rally the troops for an ailing SMiLE project).
The group was called “Redwood” and Brian spent a great deal of time and energy recording this and other tracks in the summer of ’67. (Redwood would become Three Dog Night, the very popular late sixties pop-rock-blue-eyed-soul outfit).
Redwood recorded two or more tracks with Brian in mid-1967. Darlin’ (the eventual Beach Boys hit) and Time to Get Alone. The original Redwood multi-track tapes were recorded in Summer 1967, with drums, bass, strings and trumpets and Redwood’s vocals. Audio experts have all but confirmed that the Beach Boys track (as released and the alternate version) have the exact same basic track as this Redwood version.
Hmm. So the Beach Boys version is not a re-recording but a re-using of the original Redwood tapes with a convoluted set of overdubs added first by Brian and then by Carl. (Oddly, a 1968/9 Beach Boys re-record does actually exist, but is unreleased. Also, do you want to see more on the recording, mixing? Oh, not that much. Oh well.)
Listening to the production and musical interplay you can really see how Time to Get Alone is the “natural artistic descendant” of Heroes and Villains. So what happened?
The Beginnings of a SMiLE
“Time to Get Alone” has always mysteriously and intriguingly been linked with SMiLE. How so? It was recorded much later (well a couple of months, which is like 20 years in 60s popular culture time) and never appears on any of the bootlegs or final released version of SMiLE, so why? To explain this we are probably best starting with the beginnings of the SMiLE idea itself.
Many people have argued long and hard about the SMiLE sessions. But let’s skip all the conjecture, ignore the baggage and go with the gut feeling you get from the music itself. What you have is an expansive, light, breathy, almost rustic sound that is juxtaposed with an instrumental deftness of touch and, of course, the fantastical lyrical meanderings.
So why did a twenty-something from LA suddenly grasp on to the idea of this rustic, layered, natural setting for SMiLE?
Lake Arrowhead Home
Brian was in the Lake Arrowhead area of California in early 1966 to record the Pet Sounds promo videos. Bill Tobelman presents a fascinating theory about how this led to the idea of SMiLE. And it’s one that resonates with me more than any of the “they took lots of drugs and did crazy stuff” tales (repeated ad-nauseam by that curious band of Mike Love apologists ever since).
Tobelman points out all the fascinating details that would come to form the ideas and visions of SMiLE. He explains how Brian’s “trip” at Lake Arrowhead was an “enlightening spiritual experience in the conceiving of the Beach Boys’ next album and single.”
And all the ideas are there. Lamps, halls, towers, dams, railways, Indians. Take your pick!
It’s no coincidence that Brian moved back to live at Lake Arrowhead circa 2000… just as he set about completing SMiLE.
Lets go away for a while
It seems to me that “Time to Get Alone” encapsulates that personal escape that lake Arrowhead provided to Brian. The big ideas were for the grand spiritual and historic journey that became the SMiLE adventure… but “Time to Get Alone” is the personal side of that escape.
The middle eight in the alternate version (and the Redwood version) of Time To Get Alone clearly alludes to what we knew as the “Look”segment of SMiLE (what became “Song for Children” in the new SMiLE). The suddenly expansive horns and joyful whistling echo a half forgotten melody that the protagonist may remember from earlier times. Perhaps it is a child like wish to escape, or perhaps a knowing nod to previous loftier ambitions. Or both.
To me, “Time to Get Alone” feels like an idealised adventure in the pine scented, snow clad hills around Lake Arrowhead, without the artistic weight of SMiLE and the beast it would become.
It is also interesting to note that in 2004 when Brian finished SMiLE and played it live, he chose to open the first set (after the acapella section) with “Time to Get Alone”. Nice.
But back to 1967…
Time to Get Alone
Imagine for a moment an increasingly exasperated, but still very creatively active Brian in 1967. (I mean, cripes, he released Smiley, Wild Honey and had his Redwood experiment all in a matter of months). Imagine a Brian who is fed up of the baggage and manipulation that comes with the Beach Boys. Imagine the frustration with all the second guessing of his creative leanings. Imagine what a miserable place the studio would be when the boys show up.
This quote from Brian in 1968 (found in Look, Listen, Vibrate, SMiLE) kind of sums up the confused situation in Brian’s mind.
“Early 1967, I had planned to make an album entitled SMILE. I was working with a guy named Van Dyke Parks, who was collaborating with me on the tunes, and in the process we came up with a song called ‘Surf’s Up,’ and I performed that with just a piano on a documentary show made on rock music.
The song ‘Surf’s Up’ that I sang for that documentary never came out on an album, and it was supposed to come out on the SMILE album, and that and a couple of other songs were junked … because I didn’t feel that they … I don’t know why, I just didn’t, for some reason, didn’t want to put them on the album … and the group nearly broke up, actually split up for good over that, that one … the decision of mine not to put a lot of the things that we’d cut for the album SMILEY SMILE on the album, and so for like almost a year, we’re just now kind of getting back together … because I didn’t think that the songs really were right for the public at the time, and I didn’t have a feeling, a commercial feeling, about some of these songs that we’ve never released, and … maybe I … some people like to hang onto certain things and … just as their own little songs that they’ve written almost for themselves.
And a lot of times, you know, a person will write and will realize later that they’re … it’s not commercial, you know, but what they’ve written is nice for them, but a lot of people just don’t like it.” -Brian Wilson, 1968
I’ve always found it almost too obvious… “I’ll give you SMiLE then. Here you go: Smiley Smile…” (then blowing a raspberry… mainly to his band-mates, maybe to himself, maybe to the world in general?). Brian didn’t WANT to give SMiLE to “some” people. That’s the crux. At the same time Brian is recording a song about escaping the city and all the “people”. Time to Get Alone indeed.
Now this passive aggressive behaviour may not be all together adult and civilised but we ARE talking about the Beach Boys. What do we expect? The tragic thing is that it didn’t work. Chuck Negron (from Redwood/Three Dog Night) puts it like this:
“It all came to a head…when Mike Love, Carl Wilson and Al Jardine came to the studio and heard our version of ‘Time To Get Alone’…They manoeuvred Brian into the control booth and reduced him to tears. It was a cruel and pathetic scene. Danny, Cory and I were in the studio and could see it all happening through the control-booth window. It was as if Brian had turned into a little boy. The conversation appeared quiet and calm, but we could tell it was emotional and intense.
The others were doing most of the talking, like overbearing, controlling parents. Brian would move away, and they would block his escape. We couldn’t hear what was being said, but I think a good lip-reader would have picked up something like, ‘We don’t give a shit about these guys, and we want those songs for us.’
We could actually feel Brian crumbling, and when he came out of the booth, a tear dropped down his cheek. His head was lowered and his shoulders sagged. It was the body language of a child who had just been scolded and punished. And this brilliant musical icon – whose songs defined one generation and influenced another – weepingly told us, ‘We can’t do this. I have to give the songs to them. They’re family and I have to take care of my family. They want the songs. I’ll give you any amount of money you want to finish an album, but I can’t produce it. They won’t let me.”
(Priore, Domenic (2007). Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece. p. 129)
This says it all. It is the tragedy of the Beach Boys and Brian. A mentally fragile Brian can’t escape this extended family of people grown so use to living off his talent.
No Break Away
Brian’s uplifting, personal, escapist statement is appropriated by the commercial wing of the family as they see a vague opportunity for a hit song. “You can give away your money, but your songs belong to us…”
All very healthy.
Can you then imagine this controlling “family” deciding to move a studio in to your own house so they can make it easy for the creative force behind the group to spend all their time providing the family with more songs? All he has to do is come downstairs and start recording with the Mike-ster.
You’d stay in bed too, wouldn’t you? (and it must have contributed to the full scale breakdown that happened in the following months). Very sad.
But that doesn’t detract from the song itself. It bristles with hope and joy and escape and I love it despite the sadness… or maybe because of it.
Call me crazy, but I have always somehow linked “Time to Get Alone” with the Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye”.
That too was a heady pop swan-song to the creativity of 1967. One last shot at the stars before the back-to-basics movement took hold in 1968… A movement almost accidentally started by Brian in a sort of passive aggressive way in 1967. Ha!