Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#541 in the Series) is The Beach Boys, SMiLE
Is SMiLE a magnificent work of inspired musical genius or an over-hyped load of half-formed, unfinished nonsense? You decide!
Rumour, speculation, lies, half-truths, assumptions, deliberate misleads and red herrings, guesswork………it seems that SMiLE has been, and no doubt shall continue to be, the subject of all of the above and lots more besides. For many people, their opinion of this album (regularly cited as “the greatest lost classic” of all time) depends on not just the music which has crept out over the years, but also upon just whose version of events they choose to believe. And everyone involved with SMiLE seems to have had something to say about it not least the man who SHOULD know, Brian Wilson, who’s offered a few versions of what actually happened and why the album eventually didn’t come out at all! If HE doesn’t know then what chance has the rest of us mere mortals got?
Sticking with the facts (for now) then, what we can say for certain is that by May 1967 , 6 months after the originally planned released date, the whole SMiLE project had ground to a halt and the album had been removed from the release schedules. The long awaited and much anticipated new album from one of the very best groups on the planet (and the wayward genius behind the music) had been pulled, even after cover art and booklets had been completed, and was never to be heard fully, in its intended form, until now – a mere 44 years later………….
To try and get a handle on all this we have to rewind, back to those heady mid-60’s years when the legend first began. By 1966 The Beach Boys were one of the very best, and crucially for those times, most credible, acts in the world. People were catching on to just how good this guy Brian Wilson was and previous album Pet Sounds had been an utter masterpiece, everything seemed set for greater glory. How could it be otherwise, The Beach Boys had two great strengths, a young visionary studio-based genius making the music and a superb band going around the world, wowing fans wherever they went? The formula had been refined, the band would come back from their travels and head for the studio to hear what glorious epiphanies Brian had conjured up in their absence, and lay down what was needed. Everyone’s a winner.
After Pet Sounds Wilson had recorded (over 5 months and 90 hours of studio time!) one of the definitive singles in rock music history: “Good Vibrations”. His latest way of working was to lay down musical moods and tone-poems then arrange them to come up with a single piece. It had worked amazingly well and the challenge now was to work the same magic over the course of a full album. Working now with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson headed back into the studio with his trusted session musicians and started laying down the many pieces of music which he’d prepared. The plan was to then work them all together to form a cohesive piece, once which would be telling in music and song the story of America no less from the founding fathers and Native Americans to frontiersmen and onwards……………
Things started to get in the way pretty quickly it seems, Wilson’s drug use among them, and his own doubts about how the music would be received, he knew this was challenging stuff for a pop audience to take on board. More problems emerged when the band got back from the latest tour, one of the main ones being Mike Love. He had his doubts about the project as well but for different reasons. Although realizing that the music he heard was superb he simply didn’t think it was commercial, he wanted the hits and the fame to continue and he famously told Brian “Don’t f*** with the formula! “
It all just went from bad to worse from then on, infighting, dispute over Parks’ lyrics (which Love found, frankly, strange), the obligatory hassles with the record company, all topped off by Brian Wilson’s eventual mental and physical breakdown. Precisely where it all went wrong we’ll probably never know but the original release date in December 1966 was missed, then a January 1967 date was cancelled and by spring it was abandoned completely. SMiLE was consigned to history and would never see the light of day, or so it was assumed.
After the SMiLE project collapsed, Brian Wilson took a step back, he stopped going to the studio and by some accounts became a virtual recluse. This wasn’t entirely the case, it was a myth for years, and he had some involvement on later albums, just nowhere near what he used to have. The rest of the band were left to pick up the pieces and get on with it and when next album Smiley Smile appeared in late 1967 it was bore little resemblance to the original concept for its near namesake. Four songs (at least) however had been salvaged from it and appeared in re-recorded versions: Vegetables, Wind Chimes, Wonderful and Heroes & Villains were all on the agenda for SMiLE. “Smiley Smile” was no classic album but these tracks all stood out and helped tease the fans further.
A couple of years later “20/20” appeared and featured another two SMiLE era tracks, Our Prayer and Cabin essence, both slightly strange but rather wonderful.
The real treat was still to come through and in 1971 it arrived and it was well worth the wait. “Surf’s Up”, the album, featured as its title track a glorious piece of music, the very best song from the 66/67 sessions. Built around the framework of a Brian Wilson piano demo the band added layers of overdubs and an exquisite section sung by Carl Wilson, creating the shining jewel on The Beach Boys best post Pet Sounds album.
Easy to see now just how the legend of SMiLE took off then, by 1971 no less than seven songs from the period had been released (albeit in re-recorded form mostly) along with various other snippets that new songs had been based on, all of which were superb. No wonder the fans were desperate to hear more!
Alas it was not to be. Bootlegs emerged over the years but as far as I’m aware, no further official recordings emerged until The Beach Boys career-spanning box set in 1993 which featured a further 30 odd minutes of material, enough to keep even the most fanatical SMiLE junkie happy.
Eleven years after that, a major development. Brian Wilson, then in the midst of a glorious comeback, went into the studio with his touring band and recorded a brand new version of SMiLE, based on what had been (as far as he could remember !) his intended track list and sequencing. Given the material they were working on and the quality of his band, it’s hardly surprising that the album gained great praise when it came out; making many Album Of The Year lists. Even better, he then took the show on the road, performing the album in its entirety all over the world, sheer bliss!
All of which pretty much brings us up to date.
On November 1st 2011, SMiLE was finally made available, officially, in its “as near as can be managed after all these years” form. The master tapes have been exhumed, given an overhaul and presented at last, a mere 45 years late! You can choose from no less than four formats including the now obligatory “Deluxe” version! It’s based pretty much on the same running order as Brian’s version from seven years ago and after all these years it still stands up, a wonderful piece of music from one of the very best talents we’ve ever had and his band mates, co-writers and session musicians. If it had come out when it was meant to there’s no doubt that it would still be hailed to this day as one of the all-time Greatest Albums. It shall stand, no doubt, along with “Pet Sounds”, as the defining work of a musical genius, Brian Wilson, a man whose only aim in life was to compose his very own “teenage symphonies to God”. I for one think he succeeded, in fine style.
— Stephen Dalrymple, Glasgow, Scotland
VIDEO PIECE: An introduction to the SMiLE Sessions
- Our Prayer (Wilson) 1:05
- Heroes and Villains (Parks, Wilson) 4:13
- Barnyard (Wilson) 0:53
- Do You Like Worms (Parks, Wilson) 4:18
- The Old Master Painter (Gillespie, Smith) 1:06
- Wonderful (Parks, Wilson) 1:59
- Child Is Father of the Man (Parks, Wilson) 1:53
- Cabin Essence (Parks, Wilson) 3:35
- Vegetables (Parks, Wilson) 3:26
- Wind Chimes (Wilson) 2:28
- Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow (Wilson) 2:01
- I’m in Great Shape (Wilson) 1:32
- I Love to Say Da Da (Wilson) 1:32
- Surf’s Up (Parks, Wilson) 3:54