November 1, is the 12th anniversary of one of the most anticipated, mysterious, and legendary albums of all time: Brian Wilson’s SMiLE album. Initially teased for a January 1967 release, then again later in 1972, late 1989 and 1996, “SMiLE” has become The Beach Boys’ lost masterpiece.
It’s a rite of passage for students of pop music history: At some point, you learn that the Beach Boys weren’t just a fun 1960s surf band with a run of singles that later came to be used in commercials; at their best, they were making capital-A Art. The record that convinces most is Pet Sounds, that understated 1966 masterpiece that articulates a specific kind of teenage longing and loneliness like nothing before or since. Once you’ve absorbed that record, you find yourself going back through songs like “Don’t Worry Baby”, “The Warmth of the Sun”, and “I Get Around”, finding a deeper brilliance where you once heard only pop craftsmanship. As you make these discoveries, you come to learn about the auteur at the center of it all, Brian Wilson, who shouldered the burden of being the creative force in one of the most successful and musically ambitious pop bands of the era. And then you find out about SMiLE.
How do you write a follow-up to Pet Sounds? Such was the dilemma of The Beach Boys musical architect, who, at the time, was getting pulled in a variety of directions.
But the story of “SMiLE” is more than that of an unfinished Beach Boys album finally seeing the light of day. It is also the tale of Brian Wilson — who produced and arranged nine gold records before the age of 24 — expanding the limits of what a recording had to be, creating a musical statement that was a commentary on society as much as it was his own group … and then, shelving the project. It is also a documented period in which a highly successful writing team — Brian and his cousin, Mike Love — had difficulty connecting with one another.
Brian Wilson & Mike Love 1966
Conceived, recorded, and ultimately abandoned in 1966 and 1967, SMiLE was to be something like Brian’s Sgt. Pepper’s, his attempt to make the great art-pop album of the era. He followed his muse to the ends of the earth, putting a grand piano in a massive living room sandbox, outfitting another room with an Arabian tent, and having The Wrecking Crew (the cadre of crack session musicians that drove much of the recorded product that came out of Los Angeles in 60’s & 70’s) wear fireman’s’ hats in hopes they would capture the mood of “fire” when they were recording a piece about the elements.
Brian Wilson leads The Wrecking Crew in “Mrs. O’leary’s Cow”
First, there were his experimental ambitions, fueled by a consistent diet of hallucinogenics as well as his partnership with composer and lyricist Van Dyke Parks that began in 1966. There was also the loud, disapproving choir of bandmates, fans and record company executives clamoring for the simple pop music days of yore. He’d eventually fail to satisfy both and put out nothing. But before the stress and frustration of the various influencing voices in his life became too much to take, Wilson worked on SMiLE: a psychedelic rock collage of disjointed Americana– from the prairies to the tropics to the cities and then back again.
Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks
In 2004, Wilson went back into the studio with Parks and a new band to rerecord his masterpiece, allowing for the album’s initially-intended arc to finally come to fruition. Upon the 10th anniversary of that record – titled Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE – here is my own deconstruction, compiling a list of pros and cons in reference to the original Beach Boys demos (which finally saw a proper release in 2011) as well as the album’s overall folklore. And, of course, there’s the following overarching question: Does the 2004 release do justice to SMiLE’s legend or should the record have just remained a series of enigmatic scraps?
Beach Boys Surfs Up Album 1971
“Surf’s Up” is one of Brian Wilson’s finest and (most melancholy) achievements, a multipart symphony of sorts about leaving behind one’s nostalgic past. In the case of his band, that past is centered on writing songs about young love and frivolous beach play, making the title a brilliant, unsettling double entendre. As great as the song stands alone as it first came to light on the 1971 album Surf’s Up, ,it needs its whole conceptual arc, which includes the tracks “Wonderful”, “Song For Children”, and “Child Is The Father Of The Man”. These set the tone for what’s to come with “Surf’s Up”, showcasing the song’s melody for the first time and slowly building tension.
Brian Wilson presents SMiLE box set
SMiLE is a trek through America and its vastly diverse landscapes and essences: breezy, tropical Hawaii on “Roll Plymouth Rock”; rural farmlands on “Barnyard”; the quiet, tranquil forest on “Wind Chimes”; and the chaotic hustle of the city on “Mrs. O’ Leary’s Cow”. In individual form, each song vividly signifies one place. But on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, each stray location suddenly becomes a special part of a larger whole.
Van Dyke Parks 2011
Much of SMiLE’s detailed, intricate storyline can be attributed to Van Dyke Parks, who conceptualized the project with Wilson and wrote a large portion of the album’s lyrics. But it took a long time for people to realize that. Even if you’re a Beach Boys purist and don’t believe that Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE should exist in the first place (without the help of his bandmates), then you should at least feel good for Parks. One can only imagine how draining the original 1966 sessions were, and it’s nice to know that all the work he put in finally amounted to something.
Beach Boys SMiLE Box Set 2011
2011’s The Smile Sessions suggested an album largely unfinished, however some of the instrumental passages that lacked lyrics, I’d argue, were perfect as is. On Wilson’s 2004 version, in an attempt at filling up some of these empty spaces, Parks penned new words and I’m not sure all of them are necessary. For instance, on The Smile Sessions, “Holidays” (on Wilson’s edition it’s “On A Holiday”) has no vocals at all, allowing for the track’s wind instruments and marimbas to gorgeously swell at the front of the mix. But on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, Wilson sings a forgettable line about pirates, cluttering up the otherwise simple, feathery melody.
If I were pressed to pick my favorite moment on The Smile Sessions, it’d be the final movement to “Cabin Essence”, where the strings, harpsichord, and bass harmonica begin to furiously swirl and Mike Love sings that immortal line of bizarre yet harrowing psychobabble that he notoriously hated: “Over and over/ The crow cries/ Uncover the cornfield.” We still get that moment on Wilson’s 2004 version, but there’s less anger and befuddlement in his voice. Part of the appeal of The Smile Sessions is it showcases the beautiful, half-completed product above the bubbling-over, in-band turmoil below the surface. And the music is better for that juxtaposition. There may have been fighting amongst the Boys, but sometimes the best art is born out of such natural tension.
Before 2004, it was a tradition amongst Beach Boys fans to re-imagine your own ordering for SMiLE using the tracks that had already been released. But Wilson’s record renders that practice useless. There was a time when SMiLE was like a book that had been incinerated in a fire, with only stray pages or lines here and there surviving the flames. In essence, because it never made it to the public, it belonged to the public. It was a blank canvas that required everyone’s imagination to come to life. Therefore, it’s hard not consider Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, as the album to officially end the legend, a letdown in some way.