Tony Asher was a 26-year-old budding copywriter for a respected advertising agency, Carson-Roberts. In January of 1966, his life would be forever altered by a chance meeting with Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson. Enlisted to pen the lyrics for The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, with songs like Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, Caroline, No and You Still Believe in Me, he’s responsible for helping to craft some of the most moving and emotionally resonant songs in the Beach Boys canon.
RCM spoke with Tony Asher for a discussion of the back story behind the creation of the group’s most critically revered and beloved album.
Rock Cellar Magazine: How did a advertising copywriter come to collaborate with Brian Wilson on Pet Sounds?
Tony Asher: I had a job as a copywriter at Carson-Roberts. One of my earliest assignments at the agency was writing jingles. They didn’t have anybody on staff to do that and it fell to me because I knew the difference between an E flat and A flat and nobody else did. One of our clients was Mattel. It occurred to me that it would be easiest for kids to remember a jingle with the name of the product in it. Mattel already had a jingle that went, “You can tell it’s Mattel, it’s swell” that was at the end of every commercial. I thought it was a good idea so I just built on that.
We were representing products like games and puzzles, which are really hard to explain so if you can make a jingle out of it and show them it’s a lot of fun, it works. I used to go to recording studios a lot and was hanging out at Western and United Recorders at least one day a week. All my sessions were done in the day but at night they were all booked up with the rock and roll dates.
Oddly enough, Brian (Wilson) was there at ten in the morning. In those days he did a lot of recording in the daytime. He was very spontaneous and might be at home and come up with an idea at the piano and then say, “Let’s go to Western right now and record it!” You can’t do that in the evening because the studios were all booked weeks in advance. So the only time available would be during the day. That’s why Brian ended up doing a lot of last-minute sessions during the day.
He was doing a session at Western Recorders and laying down some demos. I remember that Brian was at the water cooler and I think I went to get a cup of coffee and I bumped into him. I knew who he was on sight. I said, “Hey, how are you doin’?” And he said, “I’m just laying down some tunes that I’ve written, just little demo stuff.”
As in the case with Brian, it doesn’t matter who you are, he will say, “Hey, come in and listen to this and tell me what you think.”
And actually that’s not such a crazy idea because his music is sort of every man’s music. It’s not a very specific slice of music; it’s not a punk kind of thing or someone who was into death and destruction. I remember being at his house once and we were working on a song. The doorbell rang and it was the UPS guy delivering a package. Brian said, “Hey, come over here and tell me what you think!” (laughs) And on the one hand I thought, “Why are you asking him?” And then I thought, “of course you’re asking him”.
He’s the perfect guy to ask because you don’t want people that are skilled or jaded or have a point of view about music, you just want the opinion of an every man and that’s what he did. Anyhow, when we first met he played me three songs and asked me what I thought. The trouble with listening to music with Brian is that he hears all kinds of things that he assumes everybody hears but you don’t hear it because it’s not there, it’s in his head. He’d be saying, “Strings will come in here and for this part I’ll bring in horns.” It sounded fine to me but he was hearing stuff I wasn’t hearing. Eventually the engineers kicked us out of the booth and said, “Hey Brian, come on, we’ve got another session coming in here.”
So we went into the studio where the piano was set up and he started banging away on the piano. When I say banging, it’s just that he plays with so much energy. I told him, “Yeah, I wrote a tune” and I started playing it and then he said, “Oh yeah, that reminds me of something I did” and he’d play something. Before you know it you’re kind of trading music back and forth. And then that was it. He didn’t ask for my phone number, I wasn’t even sure he would remember my name.
Then suddenly a guy appeared at the door and said, “Hey Tony, the client wants to finish this thing up. So I went back and finished the jingle and didn’t think there was anything more to it. I told some people in my agency that I had met Brian Wilson.
A few weeks later I get a phone call and the person on the other end said, “Hi, this is Brian Wilson” and I said, “Yeah right.”
I thought it was someone at the office who was pulling my leg (laughs) but soon came to realize it really was Brian. He said, “Listen, I have to finish this album; the boys are in Japan touring and I don’t have anybody to write with and besides, I don’t want to write with anybody I’ve written with before anyway. I want to do something totally new.” He didn’t say, “Do you want to try writing one song?” He said, “Do you want to write this album with me?”
RCM: What was the first song you wrote with him for Pet Sounds?
Tony Asher: He already had a track called In My Childhood with a lot of stuff on it. That’s why there was a bicycle bell mixed into the track, which you couldn’t get out. He apparently didn’t like the lyric or the vocals. So he played the track for me and said, “I’m not going to play you any of the vocals but I’ll put down a single note melody for you on cassette. Why don’t you take it home and give it a shot?” A day or two later I came back with the lyrics for You Still Believe in Me. That’s a very nice song.
There are a couple of very nice songs on Pet Sounds that weren’t giant hits and that’s certainly one of them. People have asked me when if I was nervous going up to Brian’s house with the lyrics. But for some reason I wasn’t.
Part of that is because Brian is so disarming. Also, he kept talking in terms of “Let’s do this album” so it was almost kind of like I was hired already, which in reality wasn’t true because if he hated what I did we wouldn’t have done the rest of the album. Brian’s reaction to the lyrics for You Still Believe in Me was very positive. He said, “Oh this is great man, I love it!” and he was singing along. I don’t believe we changed anything.
RCM: Was there a conversation between the two of you in regards to the tone and direction of the lyrics?
Tony Asher: Not for You Still Believe in Me; he just gave me the track and we didn’t talk much about it. But for the rest of the album, absolutely. I’d go to his house to work and he’d still be asleep, which I stopped doing after a while. He’d say, “Be here at ten o’clock and we’ll get started!” So I’d wind up having to sit around and talk to Brian’s wife, Marilyn, for two hours until he got up. Then he’d come out and say, “Man, I’m starving, I need something to eat!” and Marilyn would make him some food.
He’d start eating and then we’d start talking. We always talked about some kind of incident that had to with dating a girl or wanting to date a girl or finding somebody attractive or having a relationship and breaking up. He didn’t realize that he was doing that because he was, like most of that that age, attracted to pretty young girls. He’d say, “Gosh, I just got back from the Rovell’s house (maiden name of Brian’s wife Marilyn) and Diane (Marilyn’s sister) is so cute.”
He’s talking about his wife’s sister and most of us, even if we had those feelings, wouldn’t really be talking about it. So that would start this conversation. “Oh yeah, I knew a girl like that in high school or my friend had a relationship like that” and that would get us into a certain frame of mind. That happened with a lot of songs. We also wrote songs not so much about specific girls but how your feelings about people change. Caroline, No is an example of a girl you liked a while ago and you see her at a party after not having seen her for three years and she’s totally different. We’d have those kinds of conversations and it would put us in a certain mood. It could be a happy mood, a not so happy mood or a philosophical mood.
RCM: Do you think Brian always felt like an outsider?
Tony Asher: I don’t know about always feeling like an outsider but he I certainly think he did in all the time I’ve known him and those feelings are reflected in some of the songs we wrote for Pet Sounds.
RCM: In working on Pet Sounds, did Brian speak about talking about wanting to write songs with more on an artistic flair and being less worried about having hits?
Tony Asher: Yes, we did talk about that. After I’d written You Still Believe in Me, I began to meet with Brian and we’d talk about all kinds of things before we started writing a song. With this album, he talked about wanting to do something totally different and not wanting to write with the people he’d written with before.
He’d say periodically when we’d be working on a song or even in the studio when a song would begin to take shape, “Wow, people are gonna say ‘This sure doesn’t sound like a Beach Boys song!’”
He’d already recorded Sloop John B, which he played for me when I first came over and I thought that doesn’t sound like a Beach Boys songs in the sense that it’s a sea shanty (laughs) but vocally it sounds like The Beach Boys. He kept saying. “My fans are not gonna know what’s going on. They’re gonna be blown away and love it or they’re gonna hate it.”
RCM: With Pet Sounds not selling nearly as well as other Beach Boys releases, how did that affect you and Brian?
Tony Asher: Well, I was happy with the accomplishment but I was disappointed. You just think to yourself, Beach Boys albums have always sold really well and have become huge hits so I’d just assumed it was gonna be a hit, not so much based on what I thought of the album but based more up until that time that their stuff was always well received. I felt bummed out by it and Brian did too. He actually said, “I think the album was just ahead of its time”, which it turned out to be true.
He also was suffering from the fact that when he boys came back from touring Japan and heard what he wanted them to do in the studio, they were saying. “What is this? This is not Beach Boys music.” Brian went through a period where he thought Pet Sounds was gonna be such a breakthrough album and then it really didn’t happen and I think he began to second guess himself for some point.
RCM: When you would write with Brian, would you normally take away music on a cassette and go home and write lyrics or would you work together?
Tony Asher: Both ways. Most of the songs emerged while we were together – with songs like God Only Knows and Caroline, No, I was writing lyrics while he was writing the melody and we were trading ideas. I would say, “Gee, I love where you go up with the melody, why don’t you try and do it the second time?” He’d say, “Well, even better than that, why don’t I do this?” When a song was over, you could ask, “Well, who wrote that?” and I wouldn’t be able to remember because it was building off itself and off each other’s input and you don’t care particularly.
When I was working on Wouldn’t It Be Nice he’d already finished the melody. He’d be banging away at the piano on this fun, bouncy song and so I started to write lyrics to it and he had nothing to do because his part was finished. So I got my yellow legal pad and I’m writing lyrics. Whatever I wrote he’s paying close attention because he’s got nothing else going on. There are so many notes in Wouldn’t It Be Nice that I thought I was gonna be there until hell freezes over. (laughs)
We were inching along. It’s a fairly long song with several parts and a lot of words or at least a lot of syllables. At some point I said, “Brian, let me take this home and I’ll work on it.” I think he was relieved because he didn’t really have anything to do and he wasn’t terribly comfortable sitting there watching what I was writing. It was becoming work for him. He had done his part and now he’s working on lyrics, which is not his forte. He did literally question pretty much every word (laughs), which is fine.
RCM: What was the most challenging song to write for Pet Sounds from a lyrical standpoint?
Tony Asher: It might have been Wouldn’t It Be Nice because there are a lot of lyrics. It wasn’t inordinately challenging, it’s just there was a lot to write. But with God Only Knows, on the other hand, I always felt like we barely got started. I felt like saying, “Wait a second, can’t we put another section in this song?” because there was not very much to it.
RCM: Would Brian come up with songs titles that you’d work off?
Tony Asher: I think I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times was one of them. I think he might have suggested Here Today as well.
RCM: What was Brian’s state of mind working on the record?
Tony Asher: I’d taken a couple weeks off from work so as along as we got something done in a day I was okay. Once he was up he was in a good mood. He was excited about working on the album. When he either composes or arrives at something he really likes, he just loves playing it and he’ll play it and play it and play it. He tends to play it a little faster than it should be because he’s excited about it and with a little more expression unless it’s a ballad. He was very up throughout most of the writing sessions. I learned some interesting things.