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Review: The Beach Boys, “The Smile Sessions” Part One: What’s Past is Prologue

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Tomorrow, November 1, marks the release of The Beach Boys’ SMiLE, the most legendary lost album of all time.  In recognition of this landmark, The Second Disc is launching a three-part series looking at the SMiLE mythos, including a review of the various editions of The SMiLE Sessions.  Before we begin to explore these collections, however, we’d like to offer a bit of perspective and back story on SMiLE: what was, what is, and what might have been.  Welcome to Part One: What’s Past is Prologue.

This is not a dream!  Not a hoax!  Not an imaginary story!  The Beach Boys’ SMiLE is finally here, and the best album of 2011 just might have been the best album of 1967.

The date is June 18, 1967.  Just prior to setting his guitar ablaze at The Monterey Pop Festival, Jimi Hendrix famously proclaimed, “You heard the last of surfing music!”  There was certainly none to be heard at Monterey, with the Beach Boys having abruptly dropped out of the festival.  Could this have been another sign that the band was falling apart at the seams?  On April 29, Brian Wilson told the NME that “all of the twelve tracks for the new album are completed and there are plans to release the album on a rush schedule at any moment.”  The album in question was SMiLE, the band’s eagerly-anticipated follow-up to the previous year’s Pet Sounds.  But Wilson, in fact, hadn’t completed it.  The track that came to be titled “Love to Say Dada” wouldn’t be recorded until May 16, 17 and 18.  So why then, on May 6, did the Beach Boys’ legendary publicity man Derek Taylor tell Disc and Music Echo that SMiLE had been “scrapped” for good?  Was the departure of the Beach Boys from Monterey Pop a tacit admission that Hendrix was, indeed, correct? What really was going through Brian Wilson’s mind?  Was he a victim of “the toll of the drugs, industry pressure and [an] over-the-top commitment to perfection?, as bandmate Mike Love put it?  Where had the Boys of Summer gone?

The mysteries surrounding SMiLE will never be solved.  Though we now have a beautiful box set that will stand as the definitive monument to this great album that (almost) never was, its five CDs, one LP, two 7-inch singles and one stunningly comprehensive hardcover book still don’t answer the questions of what would have constituted the finished album, and why Brian Wilson came to the decision to scrap it.  It is clear why efforts to resuscitate the album in 1972, 1988 and 1996 didn’t come to fruition: SMiLE is a breathtakingly beautiful but ultimately unsolvable jigsaw puzzle.  And truth be told, would you have it any other way?

In assembling this collection, producers Brian Wilson, Mark Linett, Alan Boyd and Dennis Wolfe have finally performed the herculean task that eluded all of those who came before.  The SMiLE Sessions (Capitol/EMI C-0276582, 2011) is likely the most in-depth collection ever devoted to a single album, let alone one that never saw release.  Like the legend of SMiLE itself, the box set offers plentiful wonders and mysteries.  The questions it raises are as fascinating as the ones it answers, but it’s impossible not to be intoxicated by the spellbinding music written by Brian Wilson, with words by Van Dyke Parks, and at long last, vocals by Wilson, his brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and bandmates Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston.

To grasp the magnitude of SMiLE, one must put it in perspective.  With its riches spread over five CDs, an additional side of a vinyl LP and two 7-inch singles, The SMiLE Sessions opens not just a window, but all of the doors of The SMiLE Shop, too, on why the album’s reputation grew with each passing year.  It also becomes clear why the members of The Beach Boys might have had trepidations about not only the material, but their leader and producer’s ability to finish it to his own exacting standards.  Before listening to The SMiLE Sessions, though, it’s important to consider the two releases that would have bookended a SMiLE LP in 1967.

You can read about those, and much more, after the jump!

The first was the single of “Good Vibrations,” begun as The Beach Boys were recording Pet Sounds.  That 1966 album, of sheer, unsurpassed beauty, was still an essentially accessible collection of pop songs.  Tony Asher’s lyrical themes of love and youth were relatable to a universal audience and matched by Wilson’s mature, subtle and achingly lovely melodies.  “Good Vibrations” was sonically far more ambitious than even the lush orchestrations of Pet Sounds.  Work resumed on the song (written by Brian Wilson with Mike Love, after Asher’s initial lyrical pass was abandoned) in February and March 1966, after Pet Sounds’ completion.  The final released single wouldn’t be completed until September.  It was likely the most expensive single ever made, the result of music recorded at four different studios and some 90 hours of recording over seventeen reported sessions.  Wilson had composed, and recorded, the song in modular units.  Against all odds, he crafted these disparate sections into a seamless whole when he completed production on the three-and-a-half minute single.  It skyrocketed to AM radio success and the top of the charts.

Wilson’s bigger plan was to use the modular process to create an entire album.  It, too, would sound like no other.  Much as Wilson planned to top Pet Sounds, so did The Beach Boys’ admiring rivals, The Beatles.  Paul McCartney acknowledged that Pet Sounds raised the bar.  The Beatles’ response, then, was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  The Beach Boys’ response was planned to be SMiLE.  As “Good Vibrations” was being completed in September 1966, work had begun on the tracks “Holidays” and “Our Prayer.”  The SMiLE sessions would soon total roughly 50, not counting those for “Good Vibrations.”  400,000 front cover slicks and booklets were printed by Capitol.  The album never arrived.

After SMiLE was so abruptly aborted, it was followed by the LP famously called “a bunt instead of a grand slam” by Carl Wilson: Smiley Smile.  It arrived in September 1967, one year after work on SMiLE had commenced, and it systematically rejected the production techniques pioneered on SMiLE.  As Brian wouldn’t come to the studio at this point, the studio came to him; Smiley Smile was recorded largely at Wilson’s Bel Air home.  He also wished to abdicate responsibility for the band’s productions, and Smiley bore the label “Produced by The Beach Boys,” rather than “Produced by Brian Wilson.”  By the time of Smiley Smile’s September release, Sgt. Pepper had already taken the pop world by storm with its June 1 release.  The time for innovation appeared to be over.

“Heroes and Villains,” the Wilson/Parks composition that is the thematic heart of SMiLE, finally appeared as a single and on the Smiley Smile album, in a dramatically-simplified version.  The bass line of “Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)” was grafted onto a new track entitled “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter,” with its musical phrase quoting the laugh of Woody Woodpecker (!).  “Wind Chimes” was recast in a version devoid of the SMiLE original’s delicate power.   A couple more SMiLE fragments (backwards laughs on the tag of “Vega-Tables,” an unused “Heroes” progression on an eerie arrangement of “Wonderful”) survived to the new album, which can only be described as “lo-fi.”  SMiLE would have been anything but.  Delving into The SMiLE Sessions is both fascinating and heartbreaking.  How powerful was the hold this music exerted over The Beach Boys?  Was it so powerful that it couldn’t be heard in anything approaching its original form?  Individual pieces would see release over the years as every new promise of the completed original album came and went.

“Brian purposefully under-produced the song [‘Heroes and Villains’] for Smiley Smile,” recalled Al Jardine to writer Will Hodgkinson.  Was the production of Smiley Smile a final riposte to the industry and to the band that Brian perceived as having derailed his greatest work ever?  Wilson told Harvey Kubernik, though, that Smiley Smile was “a good album” and “one of the most peaceful albums I ever heard.”  The album does possess a certain blissed-out (read: stoned) feel that is only pointed up by the inclusion of the grand production of “Good Vibrations,” standing apart from the other tracks.  It, of course, would have featured prominently on SMiLE.  Despite the presence of that hit single, Smiley Smile ended the Beach Boys’ streak of six consecutive Top Ten albums, and it only lasted on the charts for a disappointing 21 weeks.  Its reworkings of SMiLE songs are about the only important recordings related to the album that are not included in the amazingly comprehensive box set.

More bits of the original SMiLE would surface, on Friends (1968), 20/20 (1969), Sunflower (1970), Surf’s Up (1971) and most significantly, the band’s celebratory box set, Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys (1993).  In 2004, Brian Wilson reclaimed SMiLE, teaming with his “musical secretary” Darian Sahanaja and original lyricist/collaborator Van Dyke Parks for triumphant concert performances, and finally a recording, of SMiLE.  “The album that never was” was finally sequenced and lyrically completed.  Wilson’s 2004 version provided the template for the album assembly that is the centerpiece of The SMiLE Sessions.

The first nineteen tracks on the first disc of The SMiLE Sessions represent the premiere release of The Beach Boys’ SMiLE on Capitol Records.  The fruit of the band’s intensive labors between September 1966 and May 1967 has arrived, at long last.

The SMiLE Sessions review continues here!

Written by Joe Marchese

October 31, 2011 at 15:00

5 Responses

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  1. All Smile diehards have assembled completely illegitimate mixes of the would-be album from bootleg fragments and complete tracks first revealed on the Good Vibrations box set. Even those Frankensteins are magnificent, baroque, tear-inspiringly beautiful and mind-bending. I’m eagerly anticipating what passes for the genuine product as overseen by Brian.

    But I’d like to give a shout out to Smiley Smile. It remains one of my favorite albums, even though it is a let down and an apparent attempt to regain some of the capital expended on the Smile sessions. Along with Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, the Velvet Underground’s 3rd LP, and the Beatles’ Revolver, it’s a sixties pop record that inspired legions of bands to form. It’s combination of glorious harmonies, oddball sound effects, unexpected instruments AND a bone-dry, low-fi production (except for “Good Vibrations,” of course) is practically a blueprint for indie rock.

    Not trying to rain on the inevitable parade to follow tomorrow- and I will be in attendance with bells on, of course.


    October 31, 2011 at 17:08

    • Thanks, Mike! Indeed, the influence of “Smiley Smile” really can’t be overstated. I’ll always have a special fondness for it, even if an overwhelming feeling of sadness takes over when I think what it might have been (SMiLE). “Smiley” definitely goes to show that Brian not only had a lot to offer, but could still be inspirational and influential even as his dark days began.

      Joe Marchese

      October 31, 2011 at 17:58

  2. Nice article, but I would like to make one point, and that is ‘Smile’ was not an answer to ‘Pepper’, as it would’ve been released several months before ‘Pepper’. It would have been fascinating to see (and hear) how the one-two punch of ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’ would have affected the Beatles musically.


    October 31, 2011 at 17:37

    • Thanks for reading, Jim. I think you just misread the article, as it’s not stated anywhere that SMiLE was intended to be an answer to “Pepper”:

      “Wilson’s bigger plan was to use the modular process to create an entire album [SMiLE]. It, too, would sound like no other. Much as Wilson planned to top Pet Sounds, so did The Beach Boys’ admiring rivals, The Beatles. Paul McCartney acknowledged that Pet Sounds raised the bar. The Beatles’ response, then, was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

      i.e. “Sgt. Pepper” was the Beatles’ response to “Pet Sounds,” and SMiLE would have been the Beach Boys’ own response/follow-up to PS.


      “By the time of Smiley Smile’s September release, Sgt. Pepper had already taken the pop world by storm with its June 1 release. The time for innovation appeared to be over.”

      Thanks again and all best, Joe

      Joe Marchese

      October 31, 2011 at 17:56

  3. When Dylan heard Sgt. Pepper, he just said “turn it off”, and went back to working on what are called “The Basement Tapes”. Complex music played with simple arrangements. Brian beat even Dylan when he put out Smiley Smile … complex music with simple arrangements.


    October 31, 2011 at 20:32

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