Oh, Mercy: Brian Wilson’s rambling reminiscences about the Theremin

By on June 5, 2015

Love & Mercy is opening wide to movie theatres across the country today, Friday, June 5th, but we’re already fairly sure no single actor’s performance can quite capture the effusive enigmatic Brian as he appears here in this fascinating interview segment from Steven M. Martin’s 1994 documentary, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.

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Brian Wilson in Steven M. Martin’s Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

As you probably already know, two actors portray Wilson: Paul Dano stars as the younger Brian, memorably seen producing tracks for Pet Sounds and SMiLE, while John Cusack plays the drug-addled 80s Brian, the one under the controversial care of psychologist Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti, who exploited his patient’s wealth and health, and overmedicated him while he shacked up in one of Brian’s mansions. Brian Wilson himself has said that it was difficult to see the darker periods of his life portrayed on the screen for all to see, saying, “Well, I thought it was cast really good and it was really factual and a really great experience to watch…It brought back a lot of memories when I took drugs and things.”

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Have a look at this interview, where he’s talking about his first exposure to the theremin’s eerie electronic sounds, which “sounded like one of those scary movies where – OOOH – a weird trip, you know. Weird facial expressions. Weird, you know. It’s almost sexual.” He also says something we didn’t quite follow, something like: “Children of God are in their 20s.. and not rapidly approaching 30 at all…. young adults, not quite adults but flamboyant, whimsical…”

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Brian Wilson (left) and John Cusack

At the time he’d envisioned using one on his song “Good Vibrations” (originally he’d thought he’d call it “Good Vibes”), the theremin was mainly being used on the soundtracks to movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, but mostly in low-budget horror b-movies, like The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came from Outer Space, and it had also appeared on several pop records of the 1960’s but never really overcame it’s novelty appeal until Wilson thought that it’s oscillating high frequency pitch would sound good together when matched with the sawing low-register notes from cellos he’d planned on using in the song’s arrangement (which also, at various times, included a Jew’s harp, sleigh bells, and a harpsichord).

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Paul Dano as Brian Wilson

From what we’ve read — and there seems to be entire Beach Boy fanboy sub-cultures out there who like debating this stuff, and you’re free to leave comments if you’d like to turn this into a discussion — apparently Brian originally had tried to use an original Moog tube theremin (although we’ve also read he couldn’t track down a “real” theremin), but found he had no control over the sound, and Brian was all about control when it came to the studio. Then, he decided to contact someone who would be able to play the sounds he wanted, and that led him to Dr. Paul Tanner, who was employed through the L.A. Musician’s Union. Tanner had developed a similar device to the original theremin with amateur inventor Bob Whitsell, and it had come to be called an Electro-Theremin, although Tanner had called their invention, simply, “The Box.” The main difference was that the Electro-Theremin had just one antenna instead of two (that’s the one that Brian demonstrates in the interview, by the way), and it used mechanical controls, and had a long slide bar for the pitch, and a knob to adjust volume. The box had a range of tones that would extend outside of the upper and lower limits of human hearing.

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Tanner was himself a musician, and he had been a trombonist with the Glenn Miller Orchestra between 1938-42, but had become an academic, earning his doctorate in 1975; he was influential in launching UCLA’s highly regarded jazz education program in 1958, and he became a professor there, authoring and co-authoring several academic and popular histories related to jazz. But, as kind of a side job, he was the go-to guy for playing the theremin, and had played it on recordings, like the 1958 LP Music for Heavenly Bodies, the first full-length album featuring the instrument (in fact, it was producer working on the recording of the album, released by the small West Coast label Omega, who dubbed it the “electro-theremin”).

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His instrument had already also been used on film and TV soundtracks, like George Greeley’s theme tune for the 1960s TV series “My Favorite Martian.” Tanner had also used it on the soundtrack to the 1964 Joan Crawford thriller, Strait-Jacket and composer Frank Comstock also used it for his score to the television series, “The D.A.’s Man,” and for his now highly-collectible album, Project Comstock: Music From Outer Space.

Tanner (who died in 2013) has said that the firs recording sessions using the Box were begun at Brian’s home, and that when he asked Brian for the sheet music, Brian had laughed because he could not write music, it was all still stuck in his head. The original early versions of “Good Vibrations” were recorded on a 4-track recorder. It would take another six months, seventeen recording sessions, 100 hours of tape, and $50,000 of recording budget, to get the final version of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” which ultimately climbed to the top of the Billboard charts after a long, delayed release.

Later, Mike Love would play an entirely different instrument, on the road, when the touring version of The Beach Boys would perform their hit song. It was a modified synthesizer with a ribbon controller, and more recently an inventor named Top Polk developed a device (which, somewhat confusingly, is also called a “Tannerin”), which has a similar sound, using a sliding knob and manual volume control. This was much easier to play, and Brian Wilson used it for his 1999 comeback tour.

At one point, with the Box looking more and more amateurish, Dr. Tanner gave it to a hospital in Santa Monica, California, where they were interested in using it for hearing tests (years later, Tannerchecked back with the hospital to find out what happened to the Box, only to find it had been destroyed in the Sylmar earthquake, in 1971).

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We should probably mention Léon Theremin here, the main subject of Steven M. Martin’s excellent documentary. The Russian and Soviet inventor (he died in 1993, age 97) had accidentally begun working on his invention in 1918 while trying to build a radio, and originally called his invention the Thereminvox. It was one of the first electronic musical instruments that could be controlled without contact from the player. It had two metal antennae which sense the position of the player’s hands and control oscillators for frequency with one hand, and amplitude (volume) with the other. The electric signals from the theremin were then amplified and sent to a loudspeaker. It was, as you might expect, difficult to play, and thus Dr. Tanner felt there should be something else invented which would be more practical to control and maintain, particularly in live performances.

By 1922, Theremin was in the Kremlin, demonstrating his strange new instrument for Lenin, and within ten years, he was the toast of New York, playing at Carnegie Hall. He had a pretty young protége, Clara Rockmore, whose 18th birthday he celebrated by building a cake that lighted up and rotated when anyone approached it.

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Brian Wilson in Steven M. Martin’s Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

As we’ve said, Martin’s film is pretty fascinating, and we hope you’ll track it down and watch the entire thing, as there’s much more to the Theremin story (the man, and the instrument), including Martin going to Moscow in order to solve the mystery of what happened to Theremin (the man), who disappeared in 1938 after being kidnapped by Soviet agents from his West 54th Street townhouse studio. His wife, a ballerina named Lavinia Williams, never saw him again, nor did any of his old friends for a very long while. After a reporter found him in the Soviet Union, it became known that Theremin had been enlisted to pioneer the art of electronic bugging.

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Here’s a photo of Steven M. Martin — along with his twin brother Douglas Martin — appearing as The Angry Twins in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, from 1982. Douglas Martin has already contributed to Night Flight here, here, and here.

About Bryan

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide and a dozen other websites and zines, most of them long gone. He’s also worked for over twenty years at reissue record labels, and penned scads of liner notes -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He is now somewhat reclusive and bides his time quietly in his dusty Miracle Mile hermitage in Los Angeles, CA.