Tony Asher Interview

April 4, 1996

This interview was conducted by me exclusively for this web page and the Pet Sounds Mailing List. Members of the mailing list contributed questions, which I put in a coherent order and added to my own questions and e-mailed them to Tony Asher. The following is his response to those questions. It is an enlightening and in-depth interview. Enjoy!

The last few weeks have turned out to be extraordinarily - and quite unexpectedly - hectic. Some of that has to do with the upcoming release of the Pet Sounds boxed set, as you may be able to imagine. Anyway, here goes. Hope people haven't lost patience with me on this.

I never left advertising during the time Brian and I were writing Pet Sounds. I merely took a short leave of absence to work on the album. I couldn't be gone from work too long, which is why (regrettably) I attended so few of the actual recording sessions. So, I returned to advertising and continued for many years in that arena. Originally, I was schooled as a journalist/writer. But I also had a strong musical background. I once considered becoming a jazz piano player before discovering that there were hundreds - perhaps thousands - of better piano players than I in the city of Los Angeles alone.

However, my musical experience served me well in advertising. Combined with my writing skills, it allowed me to specialize in jingle writing, which most people probably know is the somewhat trivializing way to which creating musical advertisements is vernacularly referred in the business. I was pleased to be able to work in this way because I enjoy being in the studio and writing and producing jingles is a great way to spend your working life. Getting paid to do so makes it almost too good to be true.

At one point, I left advertising proper -- which is to say, I stopped working directly for advertising agencies and became a supplier to them instead. With a very gifted partner named John Bahler, I formed a jingle writing and producing company and supplied jingles for lots of advertisers and agencies in the U.S. and abroad. John is a very talented arranger, vocal arranger and composer who did vocal arranging for many top groups including the Jackson Five. John is probably best known throughout the music business as a "first call" studio singer. For many years he was the voice -- or one of a group of voices -- you would have heard singing on dozens of radio and TV commercials each day. He also sang on many of the most popular opening themes for TV shows. (If anyone remembers a show called "Love American Style", that's a good example of John's lead singing.)

John and I wrote a lot of songs together, too. We did many of the songs that were used on the Partridge Family show, for example, since John and several other studio singers were, in fact, the singing voices of the Partridge family.

I also wrote a number of songs with Roger Nichols, who some people will know wrote some terrific songs with Paul Williams, many of which were recorded first by the Carpenters. We were all together at A&M records/publishing in those days. I used to hang out with Roger and Paul and, in fact wrote several songs with both of them. At that time, I continued to write for the advertising business, which gave rise to the following rather ironic happenstance.

Roger and Paul had not yet had any real hits and were trying to survive on the publishing company advances they got from A&M which were designed to keep promising composers from sleeping on park benches, but just barely! I enjoyed, on the other hand, a lifestyle that seemed to them at the time positively opulent. They reckoned that writing advertising jingles was making that possible and wanted a chance to do some of that. I told them frankly that I didn't really have any leftovers. In fact, I was glad to get every job that came my way. I promised, however, that if I ever found myself in a position to throw crumbs to anyone, I would do so in their direction.

A short time later, I was involved in an automobile accident. Automobile accidents are never timely. But this one came at a particularly bad moment in my life. Among many others things, I was committed to provide a jingle for a bank to a particularly good client of mine in a San Francisco ad agency. But I found that it was impossible to write for the first few days after the accident. I had one arm lashed to my torso with coils of adhesive tape, which is not even to mention the pain I was in. It took me most of the day, using one arm, merely to get my socks on and brush my teeth.

Desperate for some kind of "out", I called my San Francisco client and explained my situation. He was unsympathetic, a characteristic which may have explained his enormous success in the 'ad biz.' At any rate, he wouldn't take "no" for an answer. He had made a commitment based on my commitment to him, he explained, and I simply had to deliver. End of conversation.

As you can guess, I called Roger and Paul, who were delighted to help and promptly wrote "We've Only Just Begun". Paul later went on the Johnny Carson show and told the story referring to me only as "the guy with the broken arm". Whenever we see each other now, I make some poor taste remark about his stature and he refers to me as "the guy with the broken arm." Both Paul and Roger are first rate songwriters in my book.

We talked a lot about our thoughts and feelings. What had happened to us thus far in life. We were both still formulating our personal philosophies and so that was quite natural. They were the kinds of conversations many readers may recall from their early college days, or more likely late evenings, sitting around discussing the meaning of life with your contemporaries. I may have said at some time or another that I was concerned about the personal nature of "Wouldn't It Be Nice". If so, I was less concerned with revealing anything about either Brian or myself and perhaps more concerned about the commercial potentials of such a personal song. Actually, I don't think there is anything compromising about that lyric. In fact, it apparently has enough universal resonance that, a generation or more later, my 19-year-old son and his girlfriend consider it "their song" and have for the last four years of what seems like a remarkably durable relationship, given their ages. They promise me it isn't because I had a hand in writing it. On the contrary, they would be far more likely to choose a Pearl Jam song or a Dave Matthews song than a Beach Boys song. But it is, they claim, simply because it expresses so precisely the frustrations they feel or have felt. It's a lucky man who can get that kind of validation from his teen-aged son. Where did I go right?

It varied from song to song as you will probably not be surprised to hear. In a couple of cases, Brian had an idea for a partial lyric or for the lyric to what would be called "the hook" of the song. "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" is one example. He expressed a desire to write a song about feeling that you simply didn't fit in with the era you found yourself living in. I responded immediately to that idea. It's always helpful to me to get a different slant on a song. Left to my own devices, I tend to write "I love you" or "me/you" lyrics to most songs. Unless the form and/or tempo of them simply dictates some other subject matter. But here was a different angle on a song, and I bounced for it right away. But in most cases, Brian was just playing riffs on the piano, ideas that were anywhere from tiny fragments of a song to completed melodies. When I heard one that seemed to lend itself to an idea, I would throw out a lyric idea. Not a lyric, you understand. An idea for the direction a lyric might take.

With "Wouldn't It Be Nice", the idea revolved around being too young to do the things young people in love always want to do. Live together, sleep together, wake up together, do everything or anything together. Get married, in the more traditional expression of it.

The influence that Brian exerted over all the lyrics came out of those sessions I mentioned in answering the question above. We talked about the variety of feelings we had experienced in relationships and drew upon those when we got to the piano. Or I would draw upon them when I took a song home to work on it alone . In the case of "Wouldn't It Be Nice", I took the tape home and came back a day or two later with the lyric completed. It wasn't always that easy, of course. Brian didn't really write lyrics to the songs for Pet Sounds. He edited them in some cases. That means he might have simply said that he didn't like a particular line. I would then have tried to convince him of its merit, if I felt strongly about it. Or I would have written an alternate in an attempt to get closer to what he seemed to be after. None of this is to say that he didn't supply words and even lines to some of the songs. He did. But his role was more to react to what I did after I did it rather than to direct it before it occurred or even as it was occurring. He deferred to me a remarkable percentage of the time -- remarkable given his success at that time compared to mine. But his thing was music not words, and I think he had always felt a little unsure of himself in that area. I, on the other hand, was a "word person" both in terms of my education and in terms of my career. He recognized that and, in fact, very likely called me in on the project for that very reason.

My input with regard to music was very like Brian's with regard to lyrics. I made suggestions from time to time as he was creating a melody. I'd say things like, "what would happen if it went up there instead of down?" Or something like that. Sometimes he liked my occasional suggestions, sometimes not. After all, I had some musical background and could express my thoughts in musical terms fairly well. But the music was essentially Brian's thing. I helped with the structure of songs more than anything else. In other words, I might have suggested that a song go back to the bridge at a certain point, or that we needed another section to a song. Or even that some part of it seemed superfluous to me. Brian nearly always gave consideration to my suggestions, although didn't always end up agreeing with me.

None, whatsoever. As most people know, the Beach Boys were on tour during the writing of that song. During the trial, Mike's attorney asked me how I could be so sure Mike hadn't influenced the writing of that song. "After all, " he speculated, "wasn't Mr. Wilson out of your sight from time to time? Didn't he go to the bathroom, or leave the room periodically for one reason or another? And couldn't he have been taking a phone call from Mr. Love during one of those absences?" These guys get paid big bucks for this kind of absurdity. At any rate, I answered that, while it was true Mr. Love could have called Mr. Wilson on one of those occasions, it was doubtful it had any influence, since "Wouldn't It Be Nice" was one of the few songs I wrote the entire lyric to by myself at home. "Mr. Love did not then," I explained, "and I pray does not now, have my home phone number."

So where does Mike's claim come from? Is he just making this stuff up out of some kind of jealousy or rage toward Brian or does he really believe he wrote some of the lyrics to that song?

I think he would say that it is based upon things that were added at sessions that could be characterized, I suppose, in the loosest sense of the word, as lyrics. I'm talking about background vocals like the typical "doo-wha's" and "dum-diddies" that occur in many songs, not only from the Beach Boys. Lyrics of that type have always been considered part of the "arrangement" of songs and those supplying them, such as vocal arrangers, have never been given part of the songwriting royalties for such contributions, although I suppose an argument could be made that they should. Actually, I believe that a far stronger argument can be made for giving arrangers royalties so at least part of their compensation would be based upon the success of a record since their arrangement, like the producer's production, is -- in my opinion -- often a real factor in the commercial-ness of the record. But I wouldn't favor giving everyone who ever wrote a "ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong" part of the songwriting credits.

Sorry. I neither wrote them nor ever heard them. I don't know what they were or if they were ever recorded.

Not quite. I am plucking the strings by leaning inside the piano and Brian is holding down the notes on the keyboard so they will ring when I pluck them. For those not familiar with the construction of a piano, each string is damped by a felt-covered hammer until the note on the keyboard is struck. Then the hammer lifts up and the string can ring for a limited amount of time while the key is being pressed. To accentuate the effect, Brian also held down the so-called "loud" pedal on the piano, which raised all the other hammers, allowing a lot of what are called sympathetic resonances to be produced in other strings. There's a cut on the up-coming boxed set that consists entirely of the two of us perpetrating this particular act. I plucked the strings with paper clips, hairpins, bobbi pins and several others things until Brian got the sound he wanted. This section, by the way, was recorded separately after the track had been cut and then spliced onto the track.

I think the explanation for this emerges from the event I described in the previous answer. I believe that the "string plucking" was recorded the same day as the vocals, but long after the track had been recorded. Somehow the "plucking" date was assumed to be the track recording date. In fact, I wasn't around for the original "In My Childhood" recording. It was recorded before Brian even asked me to work with him because it was one of the first tracks he played for me when I came over to his house. Perhaps the first day we got together. Along with "Sloop John B". But "In My Childhood" had no lyric in the version he played for me. I asked about the bicycle horn at the end. And he explained that the song was originally going to be called "In My Childhood" but that he had decided he wanted a new lyric to it. I assumed that the horn would be mixed out of the final song. But, then I discovered that it had already been combined with the rest of the track and couldn't be removed or even de-emphasized.

Again, I regret to say, I don't know. I never heard any lyrics to that song, Although I understood there were some. I don't know if they were recorded or who wrote them, if in fact they ever existed.

Sorry, again. I really can't say. I certainly never heard Brian express that notion. I was back at work in the ad agency when the final mixes and the ordering of tunes was being done. But I would venture to guess that what you suggest is the product of a rather creative flight of someone's fancy. What I might say is that I would have quite agreed with Brian if that had been (or if it is) his point of view. Which is to say, I agree that "Sloop John B" is the one song that fits least with the others.

No. I don't believe I wrote any lyrics for that song. It's possible we did a little work on it. But if so, it's faded from my memory, (along with what I had for breakfast this morning). Just to be perfectly precise, I can't even confirm that it was Mike who insisted the lyrics be changed, if that is implicitly part of your question.

Another welcome feature of the upcoming boxed set are a lot of vocal only tracks. Every tune is represented, I think. So you'll be able to answer many of these questions for yourselves should you be willing to shell out the required tariff. My recollection is that the words are something like, wish that I could find something to put my heart and soul into .

Of course, any psychiatrist worth his couch would tell you that much of what comes out in this kind of creative undertaking is intended, albeit subconsciously. Of course, they wouldn't tell you that for free. It would cost you plenty, and they probably wouldn't even validate your parking ticket. (Apologies to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner!) In any event, there were some things we were both conscious of wanting to express. Obviously there were others that may have been unconscious. You have to understand that during these bull sessions Brian and I would get into -- occasionally others were present, as well -- the conversation might establish a certain kind of mood. The last subject discussed had the potential of leaving us with a certain state of mind.

If we started to work on a song at that point, it's perhaps not surprising that the mood of the song might mimic, at least to some degree, the mood of the previous conversations. Was this the case with "Caroline, No"? I wish I could remember. But it's likely that it was. We discussed the subjects you raise on more than one occasion. Brian's wish that he could go back to simpler days. His wish that the group could return to the days when the whole thing was a lot of fun and very little pressure. Even the fact that life on the planet seemed to be becoming more complicated as we matured. Hardly new ideas. But significant to everyone at some time in their lives. And particularly to us at that time in ours.

One (I hope) slightly amusing side note about "Caroline, No". I've been asked who Caroline is or was. Actually, I had recently broken up with my high school sweetheart who was a dancer and had moved to New York to make the big time on Broadway. Broadway for a dancer, of course, is the equivalent of Hollywood for an actor. When I went east to visit her a scant year after the move, she had changed radically. Yes, she had cut her hair. But she was a far more worldly person, not all for the worse. New York City, even in those days, grabs you by the throat and simply demands that you grow up -- and fast!

Anyway, her name was Carol. And when I sang the lyric for the first time to Brian, I was singing "oh, Carol, I know". I had in mind a song in which the girl had undergone these changes and was, perhaps trying to explain to the former lover the inevitability or maybe the unavoidability of growing up. And I was going to have him answer "oh, Carol, I know" as a way of acknowledging that unavoidability but then going on to say that even though he knew it had to happen, he missed the old "her". Brian, understandably, heard it as "Caroline, No" which struck me as a far more interesting line than the one I originally had in mind. And the rest, as they say... somehow, I can't bring myself to finish that sentence.

I guess I sort of answered that above. But, like the psychiatrist says, these things are never simple. When I talked about my relationships, Brian would talk about his. He had a lot of ambivalent feelings about Marilyn. Not because of any failings in Marilyn in particular. But these were the kinds of feelings all (especially) young married people have at times about the wisdom of their having given up their freedom so early. No big deal. And no reflection on Marilyn or how happy she made him or didn't make him. He had periodic fantasies and longings as we all do about the other "possibilities" in life.

The point is that I knew the kinds of feelings that Brian was experiencing at the time. And it's hard to imagine that they didn't influence the songs we wrote. In other words, I wasn't drawing exclusively on my own experiences when we wrote. It's like when psychiatrists say that every character in your dreams is to some extent you. And to some extent your mother and/or father. And to some extent all kinds of other people. I must say I do believe that such things are largely true. And to that extent, these are complex issues. And going to "the source", if that's what I'm considered, doesn't necessarily yield all "the truth". Which is just another way of saying that much of what goes on in the process is other than completely conscious activity.

The group was less than enthusiastic about the material. They, along with many others, were hoping and expecting more of what had been hits for them all along. I don't think that's so unreasonable. At that point in the music business, the conventional wisdom was that you keep doing what's selling. They had just returned from a very successful tour. So they didn't see the wisdom in changing the "formula". In a way, of course, they were shown to be right. Sort of. The album, after all, was nothing like the economic success of their immediately previous releases.

During the writing of the songs I feel safe in saying that was never a consideration. During the assembling of the album, which Brian was solely responsible for, it may have been otherwise. In other words, he well may have realized a relationship, or fashioned one, out of what we had wrought. As I've suggested in previous answers, I don't deny the possibility of some subconscious "master plan" at work in either or both of our heads. But it was never expressed by either of us that I can recall.

Well, surely one never thinks to himself, I'm making the greatest album ever produced. Although, maybe some people do, now that I think of it. I mean, there are some colossal egos in the entertainment industry. And some colossal talents, too.

I mean, maybe Steven Speilberg or George Lucas set out to make movies that are intended to change the entire industry in one swell foop and actually understand that that's what they're doing while it's going on! If that was their intended plan, they certainly succeeded. I can't speak for them, of course. And I can't speak for Brian in that regard, either. What I can tell you is that we set out to make an album that would top "Rubber Soul". I didn't think we had a prayer of succeeding, frankly, in spite of what I regarded as Brian's enormous talent. I was entirely blown away by "Rubber Soul" and simply questioned whether anyone could ever top such an effort. But that was what we set out to do. And we verbalized that. I concluded early on that it would be impossible for me to accurately assess at any time during the process whether or not we were succeeding at that. And so, in an effort to avoid the pressure that such a goal would inevitably place upon us, I just tried to forget about it. I must say, however, that it occurred to me that, if anyone was likely to do it, Brian was probably the leading candidate. Which made me consider the possibility ever so fleetingly. At the time, I decided that we failed. Again because of the disappointing sales of the album. And the fact that it didn't have any singles that did anything like what the beatles were doing. In retrospect, I'm grateful for the praise the album continues to receive, especially from the likes of Paul McCartney and George Martin, and others. And from fans like you out there. But I suspect that I'm simply too close to it to ever be able to assess in what kind of regard it should properly be held. It's clearly a great album. I acknowledge having played a role in its becoming that. And I'm grateful for the opportunity to have done so. How great an album is it? I leave that to others to debate.

I stand on my previous answer. And, if necessary, the fifth amendment.

The subject was never discussed. I would have been delighted to be asked to work with Brian again. But I assumed, given the disappointing sales of the album and the groups unhappiness with the material, that my services were "no longer needed." That assumption seemed to be confirmed when "Good Vibrations" came out without any of my lyrics.

Brian is one of the truly sweet people in the world. Obviously, he's a giant talent. I reserve the word genius for the Albert Einsteins of the world. In other words, the sciences not the arts. Why? I'm not exactly sure. It's really semantics. Anyway, I have nothing but affection, admiration and regard for Brian. If he's not the greatest ever at what he does then maybe you can't pick a "one greatest" in areas like this. Maybe you have to lump half a dozen or so together and say "jump ball"!

Let me answer the question about the rest of the Beach Boys all together. I had relatively little contact with the group. They were generally polite to me, if a little distant. They were entitled to their skepticism, I believe. Carl was the warmest, the most accessible. That had been his reputation, although some say it was sort of an act. I didn't have enough contact to decide that for myself. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. The others I can't really say much about. I'm mindful of the fact that Mike has inflicted a certain amount of wrath on me, intentionally or otherwise. I'm really not sure! I do know that it's nothing when compared to what he's reputedly inflicted on others. I have more or less been an innocent bystander in some drive-by shootings. I'm referring to the rather galling effect of seeing his name as writer on a song I know he had nothing to do with. And the fact that, the story goes, he's the reason my lyrics to "Good Vibrations" didn't survive. But, in fairness, perhaps my lyrics didn't survive because they weren't good enough. His might be better. After all, his lyrics went to number one, which none of mine ever did. So it seems to me that it profits me very little to say unkind things about any of the group members. Especially in a forum such as this where they have no opportunity to explain themselves. Nor even the slightest interest in doing so, I would guess.

From what little I know of him, Bruce seems to me to be a nice enough man. And a pretty darn good songwriter. And, at the risk of revealing myself as a hopeless male chauvinist pig, let me say that he has exquisite taste in women. That I can say with certainty. I had a delicious affair with another pretty darn good songwriter (and spectacularly beautiful woman) by the name of Patti Dahlstrom some years ago. I discovered after several months with her that she had been Bruce's significant other of choice for quite a while. His stock went up several points when I heard that.

Another person with whom I had so little contact that I can only make some sweeping generalizations which are no doubt influenced by his abundant reputation. Murry verbally bludgeoned me into submission at the signing of the songwriting contracts. I caught a dismal glimpse of the dominant nature Brian has referred to often. Murry appeared to me to be a man entirely devoid of compassion or, for that matter, refinement. (Rest his soul.)

Van Dyke is a true original. There's simply never been anyone quite like him, I'll wager. His love of language appeals to me in the strongest possible sense. And, frankly, I admire his unhesitatingly risk-taking nature. Van Dyke was a person I loved being around. I genuinely enjoyed his conversations, marinated, as they were, in obscure and arcane references. But somehow you never got the impression he was trying to intimidate anyone. He was unquestionably bright as hell and perpetually positive in spirit whenever I saw him. I admired that, as well. Additionally, if occasionally somewhat pedantic, he was in those days, nearly always in the company of a stunning woman with the unlikely first name of Durry. Or perhaps it was Durrie. In any event, together they presented a curiously marvelous and attractive coupling. All of this without my even mentioning my enormous regard for Van Dyke's very considerable musical talents, over and above those of lyric-writer. I must say that I'm very glad he didn't burn up on re-entry!

As this is a somewhat controversial and inflamed subject, which continues to fester despite my best efforts to put it behind me, perhaps I would do well merely to refer you to disc five of the 1993 Beach Boys boxed set which contains some of the lyrics I wrote. Some will conclude that, if Mike Love gets writing credit for his "work" on "Wouldn't It Be Nice" -- and if there is in fact a God anywhere -- I should surely get credit for mine on "Good Vibrations". 'Nuff said.

Since these questions are all somewhat related, let me give you this answer. Recently, I was put in touch with Brian again through the good offices of David Leaf, a first-rate music historian who is acknowledged as the consummate Beach Boys biographer. And particularly, Brian Wilson biographer. David is co-producer of the up-coming boxed CD set and meticulously crafted all the rather copious liner notes and other text materials included in the set. These materials, incidentally, add immeasurably to ones enjoyment and appreciation of the music. It was David who posited that getting back together with Brian might produce any number of positive outcomes. He was, as usual, right. It has been a real pleasure for me to see with my own eyes how well Brian is doing. Far more often than not, he is very nearly exactly as he was in the old days when we wrote the album together. As many of you who have followed his career closely will know, that's no small potatoes.

Do I mean he's completely normal? Of course not. He was never even close to completely normal. Even in the old days! But he is lucid and attentive and one can work productively with him. And so, that is what we're doing. We're writing songs together again. At this point, I have almost no interest at all in what eventually comes of this reunion. What I mean to say is that I haven't given much thought to when, where, by whom or even if the songs we're writing will be released. We've talked briefly about the possibilities. But what is far more important to me is that Brian is making good, solid music again. He's back in the studio. He's enthusiastic. He's energized. And he has his self-confidence back. What makes me so happy is just to see him back in the studio. I don't even care if any of it turns out to be worth releasing. The therapeutic value of the experience -- for both of us -- for others, like Melinda, his devoted wife -- but especially for Brian, himself, is what really matters.

On the other hand, who knows. Maybe "Pet Sounds - With A Vengeance" is somewhere on the horizon. Listen, anything is possible!!

In fairness, I never worked with the Beach Boys. I would love to have stood -- just once -- on stage -- somewhere in the background -- slapping a tambourine against my knee -- just slightly out of rhythm -- during even a small section of a song in front of 60,000 of you screaming fanatics. Who of us hasn't had that fantasy? But, alas, that is still the stuff of fantasy where I'm concerned. My favorite memories of Brian? That's easy. It's that unbridled roar of enthusiasm -- that yelp of joy he let's out when he hits a chord or happens upon a series of notes that just knock him out. Thankfully I heard it frequently in response to my lyrics.

In fact, I heard it as recently as last night. I suggested that we discard a partial chorus I had written, since it seemed likely we would end up repeating the one I had written earlier in the song each time through. "What?" Brian shrieked. "Throw that out!! Are you crazy? Listen, Tony," he warned as he looked me straight in the eye like a father admonishing an errant, young son. "You don't throw out lyrics like that. Not lyrics that damn good. Now go write a couple of more lines just like them to complete the chorus and we'll have ourselves a smash!"

Maybe. Maybe not. But when the likes of Brian Wilson says something like that to you, it makes you feel like number one with a bullet!

Thank you and your mailing list members. I hope it was worth the wait. While I didn't include these sentiments within any of my answers, I hope everyone will understand how deeply appreciative I am of the praise they have had for my work. It is very gratifying and I accept it only with genuine humility. Please extend my thanks to them all and let them know that I understand how fortunate I was (and am) to be working with the likes of Brian. He is just the sort of catalyst that raises ones work to its highest level. I mean that sincerely.

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