By Spencer Owen; March 29, 2001
In the mid-60’s, Brian Wilson declared a race to the next major development in record production techniques. Everything looked good in Wilson’s Beach Boys camp. He’d just produced one of the most revolutionary albums pop music had yet seen with 1966’s Pet Sounds, and the reports of the follow-up, Smile, were extremely promising. “Our new album will be better than Pet Sounds,” he pledged. “It will be as much an improvement over Sounds as that was over Summer Days.” One can only imagine how great an improvement that must have originally been, and how exhilarating it would have been to look forward to such a dramatic shift occurring again after such a short period of time.
So who were his worthy competitors? Well, there were The Beatles, and then… well, really, that was all. Always the tough competitors, the Beatles were the group with Rubber Soul, the album that inspired Wilson to create Pet Sounds in the first place. He respected and admired them, and felt he could beat them to a pulp. And with Smile set for release in late ’66, Wilson felt that he had the race “in the bag.”
That is, until December of 1966, at which time label disputes and tension within the group had reached such a level that Wilson forced himself to abandon the Smile project as he had envisioned it. To fulfill contractual obligations, the Beach Boys recorded Smiley Smile in the first three quarters of 1967. The hype died, the album failed, Sgt Pepper came out, and Wilson began a quick descent into madness. He stopped taking sole production credits, and lost all confidence, fully aware that, without the possibility of Smile ever being completed, he could never top Sgt. Pepper.
It’s truly a shame that Smile failed the way it did. And like any modern everyday thief in the age of Napster, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to hear the Smile recordings, or at least what’s out there, unfinished, with an “unofficial” tracklist. It’s hard to imagine how it would have sounded if completely finished; as it stands, however, it sounds like the beginning of something that could have changed popular music history. Perhaps we wouldn’t be so monotheistic in our pop leanings, worshipping only at the Beatles’ altar the way some do today. With the Smile material, full of vignettes, lush harmonies, unique arrangements and some of the most gorgeous of melodies, Brian Wilson proved that he was a man of virtually limitless genius.
So now that the history business is out of the way, let’s talk about what the Boys and Capitol Records chose to release in lieu of Smile. Smiley Smile is a near-masterpiece. Without any awareness of Smile‘s existence, this album could have been a contemporary classic. Remnants of the vignette style are still there, along with a sense of humor both musical and lyrical. Group harmonies shine just as beautifully as any on Pet Sounds, and although the album isn’t anywhere close to the sonic revolution that Sgt. Pepper had already brought, Wilson’s innovative production and arrangements still bring out the best in every single track. And one of his best melodies can be found in “Wonderful,” matching, if not topping, anything on Pet Sounds.
As someone who’s heard the Smile sessions, I find many moments sorely missing, of course; if I had to choose, the most notable exclusion is the lounge-psychedelic mini-epic “Cabin Essence.” And the songs that do appear from Smile are pretty radically reworked, with the exception of “Good Vibrations,” already a #1 single from ’66, which can be found in its final and perfect form here. Strangely enough, the most disappointing re-recording is of “Wonderful”; standing on its own, the Smiley Smile version is gorgeous enough, but it nearly pales in comparison to the stripped-down harpsichord and heartbreaking harmonies of the original.
As for bonus tracks or outtakes included here, the centerpieces are those culled from the “Good Vibrations” sessions. There are some takes from the original recording sessions, in which we’re given a fascinating glimpse of Wilson’s way in the studio; he directed most of the players live, as if he were conducting minor symphonies in pop music. Also included is an early alternate version with different lyrics and even a slightly differing melody, which, while interesting to compare to the final version, just doesn’t fully succeed.
“Heroes and Villains” also appears in two forms. As Smiley Smile‘s opener, it remains a multi-part, multi-layered, harmonious pop single, true to the form of Wilson at his peak. Luckily, Van Dyke Parks collaborated on the lyrics as he did for much of Smile, ensuring a poetic success rather than a hit-or-miss Wilson affair, since Brian’s lyrics tended to miss more often than not. As a bonus track, it appears the way it may have been originally premiered on Smile, with even more random sections, unpredictable twists and vocal samples. Surprisingly, the re-recorded “Heroes” works even better; rather than relying on twists and turns, it’s based more on the voices of the gorgeous “psychedelic barbershop quartet,” as Jimi Hendrix once referred to it.
Indeed, Capitol were smart to include 1968’s Wild Honey on the disc as part of their two-for-one Beach Boys re-release series. But when comparing it to such an album as the one preceding it here, it barely deserves a paragraph. One or two of its tracks succeed, mostly when it’s either a classic bittersweet Wilson melody (“I’d Love Just Once to See You”) or a throwback to 50’s dance-pop (“How She Boogalooed It”). And naturally, the production still sounded good as long as Brian was at least in the studio. The rest of the record is in the R&B vein as interpreted by white surfer boys– Beach Boys, even. There’s also a Stevie Wonder cover sung with as much faux-soul as Carl Wilson could have possibly mustered. It’s not pretty, and, to be blunt, neither is the majority of Wild Honey.
Back to 1967, on the day the Beach Boys recorded the bare and light-hearted “Vegetables,” another track written for Smile: Paul McCartney decided to drop by the studio. He can be heard chewing vegetables for the track’s only percussion. And, as Al Jardine recalls, McCartney and Wilson could be seen together behind the console at one point, and McCartney even ventured to play Wilson the just-finished “A Day in the Life” before Sgt Pepper was even released. While a supposedly “burned-out” genius was creating the most simplistic recording he’d made in years, he became a first-hand witness to the popular sonic revolution that he could have been. In the public eye, the Beatles were the clear victors, and the people simply weren’t satisfied with second place. Now, with Smiley Smile finally reissued in America after years of out-of-print status, hopefully people will begin to analyze the whole race again. In my mind, it was a photo finish.
A further appreciation of The Beach Boy’s original 1967 album release of “Smiley Smile” can be found at the following website:
You can further check out the other ‘Smiley Smile’ links below starting with a review of The Beach Boys’ “The Smile Sessions”: