- PHOTO COURTESY OF LANCE ROBISON
- BURIED TREASURE : These reel-to-reel tapes from a 1964 Beach Boys recording session—in the possession of Atascadero resident Lance Robison since he was 13 year old—were sold to Capitol Records last year, the proceeds used to finance Robison’s own album, Codependance Beach.
The Beach Boys have had more Top 40 singles than any other American band and are the best selling American band ever, yet their career is marred by drug abuse, the untimely deaths of Dennis and Carl Wilson, the very public mental breakdown of chief songwriter and singer Brian Wilson, and a relentless history of litigation and acrimony among the surviving members (Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and Mike Love all tour separately, though Love now owns the Beach Boys name after a protracted legal battle). Theirs is the story of unparalleled triumphs and soul-searing tragedies. Yet the popularity of the nearly five-decades-old act remains undiminished, which is why SLO County resident Lance Robison was able to leverage some 45-year-old, reel-to-reel tapes into a five-figure deal that funded his dream project, a new CD called Codependance Beach.
What Lance sold to Capitol Records were three reel-to-reel “work” tapes from the Beach Boys’ 1964 recording session for Shut Down Vol. 2. These tapes contained the multi-tracks from which the original mono recordings were mixed. The mono masters from that 1964 album have since been lost or misplaced, and even if they were found, they don’t contain the various tracks from which to create stereo recordings. In other words, the only reason Beach Boys fans now have stereo versions of “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” is because a then-13-year-old kid named Lance Robison came into possession of these work tapes and held onto them for 43 years.
One day back in 1966, when Robison’s family lived in Southern California, his brother John came home with three tape boxes marked “Sea of Tunes Beach Boys.” Needing money, John sold half-interest in the tapes to Lance for $15, making Lance caretaker of the tapes.
The story of how John came to possess the tapes is murky at best. Apparently “a guy he knew” had them, and not just these three, but perhaps as many as nine reels. John had a friend he went to school with in Torrance who knew a guy who lived near the Wilsons in Hawthorne. Somehow the boxes of tapes traveled from one teenager to another, eventually landing in Lance’s hands. One thing is certain: They weren’t stolen from Capitol Records.
“My best guess is that these reels were probably junked, or were intended to be junked, after the album project was finished back in 1964,” explained Alan Boyd, Beach Boys archivist for Brother Records, Inc., which in conjunction with Capitol Records recently released the Beach Boys’ collection Summer Love Songs, which contains newly re-mastered stereo recordings of two songs from Lance’s tapes. “It was highly unusual for the labels and artists to hold onto the work tapes and session reels once the tracks were finished and released. In fact, it wasn’t at all unusual for session tapes to be left behind at the recording studios themselves—to this day we’re still finding session tapes that have been quietly sitting unnoticed on old studio shelves for over 40 years.”
Lance stored the reels all these years, never playing them. They’d be sitting in his closet still if it weren’t for a New Times article I wrote about local author and Beach Boys expert Jon Stebbins, who had written a book about Dennis Wilson. After seeing the story, Lance contacted me and said he had some old Beach Boys tapes and wanted to talk to Stebbins about them. I put the two in contact.
Lance had three tape boxes, vintage Ampex 1/2-inch reels circa the early 1960s, and the sight of them made my eyes nearly pop out of my head,” recalled Stebbins, who in addition to his book on Dennis Wilson also authored The Lost Beach Boy, about early member David Marks.
“From the attached paperwork I knew immediately that these were original Beach Boys master reels from early 1964. I could see they were multi-tracks, and I suspected that these were session tapes the Beach Boys themselves had been missing for many decades, including the first generation master reels for ‘Don’t Worry Baby,’ one of Brian Wilson’s greatest songs of all time.”
Over the years, Lance didn’t copy or sell the tapes. As a long-time Beach Boys fan, he wanted to see them preserved and returned to Capitol Records, the only entity who could legally reproduce the songs for sale. On the other hand, what Lance had was potentially very precious to both Capitol Records and Beach Boys fans, and as someone who had rescued and preserved the tapes for more than four decades, he felt some recompense was due.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF LANCE ROBISON
- COLLABORATORS : (Left to right) Brother Records, Inc. Beach Boys archivist Alan Boyd, Brian Wilson producer Mark Linett, and local singer-songwriter Lance Robison hold the three tapes Capitol and Brother Records used to release new stereo re-masters of two classic Beach Boys tracks on Summer Love Songs.
“I was skeptical about Lance’s original material because I hear a lot of mediocre music by people who think they have talent,” confided Stebbins. “But his stuff was so well developed; some of the songs were written 20 or more years ago. The style was vintage singer-songwriter. It had patina and reminded me of James Taylor, a little Boz Scaggs, a little Jimmy Buffett with bits of Dylan and Lennon too. His voice was pure, and the songs were good; they grew on me. Some of them are absolute gems.”
On July 3, 2008, Stebbins contacted his most direct connection to the Beach Boys’ corporate entity, Brother Records Inc.’s Alan Boyd.
“When I described the long-lost Beach Boys tapes that Lance was in possession of to Alan Boyd, he nearly melted down,” boasted Stebbins. “I e-mailed jpegs of the tape boxes so he knew I wasn’t kidding. The subject line of my e-mail was ‘This Is Real!’”
Boyd set up an appointment at Mark Linett’s recording studio, Your Place or Mine, in Glendale, California, so that he and Linett could evaluate the tapes. Linett, a Grammy-winning recording engineer and producer, has recorded nearly every Brian Wilson release since the 1980s, including his acclaimed 2004 Smile epic. Linett has also been responsible for remixing some of the Beach Boys’ most celebrated reissues, including the very first stereo mix of Pet Sounds in 1997. His non-Beach Boys credits are equally impressive, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jimmy Buffett, Jane’s Addiction, Ricky Lee Jones, and Randy Newman.
Linett, Boyd, Stebbins, and Robison met at Your Place or Mine on July 15, and using Linett’s vintage equipment, together they listened to the tapes for the first time in 45 years. The reaction in the room was utter astonishment. As Stebbins suspected, what Robison had were three of eight missing reels from the Beach Boys classic 1964 Shut Down Vol. 2 album. The tapes included the backing tracks, vocals, and overdub sessions for six songs, including “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” (with a previously unheard intro-section). The latter had never been heard in stereo until these tapes surfaced. Robison’s tapes were first generation, the very tapes the Beach Boys had recorded in January and February of 1964 at Western Recorders and Gold Star Studios in Hollywood.
Now that all parties agreed that what Lance had was the real deal, negotiations started with Robison and Stebbins facing off against Brother Records, Inc. and Capitol/EMI. While the tapes were probably worth three times the five-figure deal Lance eventually struck with Capitol Records, all he really wanted was enough money and access to have Linett cut his album.
Linett ball-parked a recording budget for Robison’s proposed album of his own material, but the negotiation process was long and sometimes arduous. The Capitol legal department didn’t see why they should have to pay Robison for tapes that the Beach Boys owned the intellectual property rights to. But the physical tapes had been in Robison’s possession for so long they were clearly his property—no one disputed that. Capitol eventually realized that intellectual property rights are absolutely worthless without possession of the only tapes containing that property. Lance’s tapes were the only multi-track versions in existence of six classic Beach Boys songs. If Brother Records, Inc. and Capitol wanted to present a new stereo remix of any of these songs, these tapes were their only chance.
Historically they’re extremely important as well, and their excellent condition, not to mention the wealth of outtake material and fascinating studio chatter, make them a rare look into the very private world of early Beach Boys recording sessions.
At one point, Robison basically issued an ultimatum, telling Capitol he’d rather just hang onto the tapes rather than give up his dream of recording his own album. Negotiations slogged on for another eight months. Independent offers were considered, but Robison truly wanted the tapes to return to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ archive. By holding firm in his request for a recording budget, Capitol blinked and he eventually got what he wanted … and apparently so did Brother Records and Capitol.
On March 20 of this year, Capitol/EMI executive Jane Ventom presented Robison with a check in the Capitol Tower in Hollywood. Robison arranged to use the money to record Codependance Beach at Mark Linett’s studio.
“The thing about the negotiations with Capitol/EMI is that it’s like they used to say about the British Empire,” quipped Lance. “The sun never sets on it. Jane Ventom was getting approval from London and then India the last few days before the check was cut. But she was always really nice to me. I did threaten to put them in the vault like Disney does at one point.”
- PHOTO COURTESY OF LANCE ROBISON
- IT’S WHO YOU KNOW : Local author and Beach Boys expert Jon Stebbins (left) already had a relationship with Brian Wilson (right) because of the two books he’d written about the seminal California band, so Stebbins used his connections to broker a deal between Lance Robison and Capitol Records for some session tapes Robison had acquired from a 1964 Beach Boys recording session.
Just how excited was Brother Records and Capitol to regain possession of these tapes? Well, it took them just three months to release two of the tracks on Summer Love Songs.
“Historically, these tapes are quite important,” admitted Boyd. “The final three-track masters for the Shut Down Vol. 2 album have been missing for years, and these work tapes—which were not the finished three-track masters—had enough of the separate elements to enable us to make new stereo mixes on some of these songs. Also, there are very few surviving session tapes from that era in the Beach Boys career that allow us to hear the group at work in the studio building a song from scratch. To be able to hear how Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys constructed a classic record like ‘Don’t Worry Baby,’ from the basic instrumental tracking to the background vocals and the first takes of the lead vocal offers an unprecedented glimpse into their creative process.”
In retrospect, discarding session tapes like these seems grossly shortsighted.
“It’s very different nowadays,” explained Boyd. “With deluxe reissues, bonus tracks, 5.1 stereo remixes and so on, artists and labels alike have discovered that there is potential value in their outtakes and session masters. But back in 1964, ‘teen’ music was considered to be completely ephemeral, about as durable—and disposable—as popcorn to the executives who were selling and marketing the records. It’s rather the same situation you find with old movies—once a film was finished and released, studios almost always got rid of the outtakes, unused negatives, and work prints.”
So where are the other missing tapes from these sessions, and has Capitol, who paid out a substantial amount of money for something that technically was theirs, set a dangerous precedent?
“I strongly doubt that Capitol would ever have had these tapes in the first place,” said Boyd. “The Beach Boys, unlike most artists in the early 1960s, were very much self-contained—they produced their own records at studios unaffiliated with the label, and when a project was finished they would turn in completed mono and stereo masters. The group didn’t really start saving their own session masters until a few months after the Shut Down Vol. 2 album was finished. Thankfully, from 1965 on, they saved most of their tapes, and the group has multi-tracks for just about every album from 1964’s All Summer Long onward. But for some of those earlier titles, all we have are the final three-track masters, and even some of those are missing.
“As far as value on the remaining missing tapes from the Shut Down Vol. 2 album, I couldn’t set a monetary figure on that,” continued Boyd. “But there were some other gems on that album—the songs ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and ‘Warmth of the Sun’ come to mind—that aren’t covered on the reels that Lance had. They would have some significant value, that’s for certain. So, does this set a dangerous precedent? Far from it. If these reels had been stolen from Capitol’s vaults, there might be an argument for that, but as far as we were concerned, we were thrilled to find that this material even existed, especially since these are the kinds of work tapes that were usually tossed aside once the songs were finished. We’d actually love to see a precedent set in which folks who might happen to have old Beach Boys tapes sitting around are inspired to contact us!”
A dream realized
Codependance Beach, Lance Robison’s dream album, has arrived. What did Boyd think of it?
“Not only have I listened to it, I sang on it—Lance had heard some of my own work and asked me to add some layered Beach Boys-style vocals to his song ‘Warm Winds.’ It was great fun, and I was more than happy to be a part of it. I think that Lance has some really nice tunes, and Mark Linett did a great job producing the album [Lance was co-producer]. It all worked out quite well.”
The recording also contains a dazzling group of veteran musicians including original Cars lead guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboard wizard Tom Canning, whose credits include Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Robbie Robertson, Glenn Frey, T-Bone Burnett, Joe Walsh, and Al Jarreau. The rhythm section featured Brian Setzer band bassist John Hatton and veteran drummer Bill Severance, best known for his work with Captain and Tennille. The record also features major session contributions from Brian Wilson band member and Wondermint Probyn Gregory; Brian Wilson collaborator Andy Paley, who in his career has produced Madonna, Debbie Harry, Jonathan Richman, The Ramones, and has performed and written songs featured on Sponge Bob Square Pants; steel guitarist Rick Shea, whose credits include Dave Alvin and R.E.M.; and woodwind artist Steve Carr, who’s toured with Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter among others. Central Coast guitarist Dorian Michael and Lance’s son Brian Robison (accordion) also joined in.
“I’ve been in recording studios dozens of times, and worked on many varied recording projects through the years, but this one had a magical feel to it that was unique,” said Stebbins, who played some percussion on the album. “The musicians—all veterans with solid careers in the business—truly connected with Lance’s songs and things just came together beautifully. The chemistry was one of a kind.”
Said Lance, “Regarding the sessions, all I can say is it was one of the easiest projects I’ve ever done, and the hardest part was deciding who would pay for lunch … me. My years of experience with [local sound engineer] Rick Sutton and Dorian Michael led me to the rhythm section of Bill Severance and John Hatton. These two along with Dorian gave me a certain comfort zone, which was augmented by Jon Stebbins’ presence during the sessions. Mark Linett, my co-producer, had a similar relationship with Elliot Easton and Tom Canning, so it was like a family get-together of male cousins.”
- PHOTO COURTESY OF LANCE ROBISON
- A DONE DEAL : Capitol/EMI executive Jane Ventom (left) presented Lance Robison with a check in the Capitol Tower in Hollywood, money Robison used to record his album with the same producer Brian Wilson’s used since the ’80s.
“Lance won,” said Stebbins matter-of-factly. “The odds on what happened actually happening were beyond impossible. First off, the tapes survive for 45 years. What are the odds of that? You [Glen] write the article. That only happened because I got a chance to work on a dream Dennis Wilson project that many predicted would never happen. Lance happens to see the article and reaches out. I saw the tapes and knew what they were. I’m one of the only guys on Earth who had the right combination of connections and independence to present this material to Brother Records in a way that gave Lance some leverage in the negotiations (because going in I knew what he had was long sought after, before anyone else could tell him something different). And then for Lance, just a guy from Atascadero with no real Hollywood experience, to go up against Capitol/EMI and their whole international structure and hold firm in his negotiation for eight or 10 months, it was like threading a needle with his eyes closed. And then to have his sessions come off so beautifully. This is also a giant rarity. The recording process is more often than not a series of train wrecks and repairs, but his sessions were almost spiritual in their synergetic alignments.”
“I’m trying to promote my CD right now and not live off the Beach Boy vapors that a lot of people do,” said Lance, “but we altered rock history, dude. As far as the remaining tapes, I can only hope they still exist.”
Glen Starkey still loves his Beach Boys vinyl. Tell him your Beach Boys stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.