Sounds Heard: The Beach Boys—The Smile Sessions

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It might seem somewhat incongruous for the following musings about an album recorded more than 45 years ago by one of the biggest (and most financially lucrative) musical acts of all time to be appearing within this web magazine devoted to new American music that is outside the commercial mainstream. But The Smile Sessions—a total of 144 tracks (in its most complete available form) from the 80 sessions recorded by The Beach Boys between 1966 and 1967 for the never-issued LP SMiLE, finally officially released commercially on November 1, 2011—contains some of the most provocative musical ideas of the last half-century in any genre of music. Although these were recordings for an album by what was—for all intents and purposes—the most successful popular music group of its day, the project morphed into something quite other. Randall Roberts, in one of several pieces on The Smile Sessions that ran recently in The Los Angeles Times, has stated that “every library of American recording history needs this; university composition departments, music professors, budding recording engineers and composers should study it.”

In the extensive hardcover booklet that accompanies the collector’s edition of The Smile Sessions, Beach Boy Bruce Johnston boasts that back in 1967 he was wondering if The Beach Boys’ record label Capitol would realize that the music contained herein should be released on Capitol’s classical division, Angel Records. Of course, it was never issued in 1967 on Capitol, Angel, or anywhere else for a complex web of reasons that are still not completely clear at this late date. But these 144 tracks of music, many of which will be brand new to listeners despite their age, deserve an extensive explication or at least an attempt at one, so here goes.

 
Wouldn’t It Be Nice…

SMiLE Master Tapes
A tantalizing photograph of the original master tapes for SMiLE which is featured on the cover of the LP-sized digipack that holds the 5 CDs contained in The Smile Sessions.

The Beach Boys’ album SMiLE, scheduled for release in 1967 but never issued, has been touted for decades as one of American music’s ultimate what-ifs: the most momentous might-have-been in music history, the musical road not taken which would have irrevocably changed music’s subsequent direction. For decades it has inspired voluminous conjecture comparable to speculative fiction like Philip K. Dick’s classic The Man In The High Castle, a novel not about the future but rather an alternative present which was the result of the Axis powers winning the Second World War. Over the past nearly half-century, knowing about SMiLE’s existence made you part of a cadre of arcane music cognoscenti. There was particular satisfaction in being part of the minority who had been let in on the secret that this group—frequently dismissed even by those who believed that popular music could aspire to a level equal to anything coming from so-called high art—had actually created something that was perhaps even more full of high art aspirations than anything else done at the time.

Like Scott Joplin’s first opera A Guest of Honor, whose performance materials no one saw fit to preserve, or Charles Ives’s Universe Symphony, which some of its champions have vociferously asserted can be completed from his surviving sketches while others (equally vociferous) claim was nothing more than a patchwork of unfinished and unrealizable sketches, SMiLE has become the stuff of legend and its legend has become larger than it or perhaps any work of art can ever be. Its pedigree certainly puts SMiLE in league with those Joplin and Ives pieces, as well as such music history would-that-they-weres as an opera by Giuseppe Verdi based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, which according to some accounts Verdi threw into the flames as soon as he completed it, or Sibelius’s Eighth Symphony, which its composer struggled in vain with for the last thirty years of his life and also ultimately destroyed. (Although some provocative fragments from what might be Sibelius’s 8th finally got their first performance in October 2011). Or closer to home, Charles Mingus’s Epitaph, which its jazz bassist creator was only able to record a portion of in 1962 and whose score was long thought to be lost, but which resurfaced in his papers after his death in 1979 (and only received its first hearing when Gunther Schuller led a performance of it a decade later in 1989).

The legend surrounding SMiLE also includes burning work, the release of less-than-complete portions of work, the music haunting its principal creator (The Beach Boys’ principal songwriter and musical arranger Brian Wilson) for decades, reconstructing a finished product long after that, and lost elements that miraculously resurfaced still later on. So what exactly is the story?

 
I Know There’s An Answer…

Pet Sounds Cover
The somewhat lighthearted cover of Pet Sounds doesn’t really reflect the serious music contained on the album.

In a nutshell (though admittedly one for a rather large nut), by 1966—when the recording sessions for SMiLE began, The Beach Boys were at the top of their game. Their now platinum-selling album, Pet Sounds, which took full advantage of studio recording techniques and was filled with dense contrapuntal layering and elaborate orchestration, was released in May of that year. That album was the first piece of evidence that The Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson as auteur, were capable of a lot more than just churning out teen fare marrying layered vocal harmonies (from low bass to high falsetto) reminiscent of contemporaneous East Coast groups like The Four Seasons to a somewhat less edgy, though way more popular, approach to the regional surf rock subgenre from their native Southern California pioneered by Dick Dale. Pet Sounds earned Brian Wilson respectability and offered concrete evidence that he might actually be—as the band’s acolytes believed and Capitol Records’ marketing department had promulgated—a musical genius. Among its most celebrated fans was Paul McCartney of The Beatles (who had yet to complete the recording sessions for their album Revolver, which was issued in August 1966). By McCartney’s own admission, Pet Sounds heavily influenced him and directly led to the creation of The Beatles’ subsequent LP, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released on June 1, 1967), the album that has frequently been credited with the birth of the progressive rock genre as well as album-oriented rock overall. Pet Sounds is a clear precedent. Among its tracks are the astonishing songs “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “I Know There’s An Answer,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” and (the Brian Wilson solo) “Caroline, No,” whose ending (also the end of the album) is a barrage of sound effects. But despite the sophistication of these songs (whose lyrics also mostly eschewed the Boys’ previous summer fun fare thanks in part to Brian Wilson collaborating with an outside-the-band wordsmith, Tony Asher) and the album’s two equally surprising instrumentals, Pet Sounds was ultimately still a pop album.

Brian Wilson wanted to prove he could create something more significant than that, a fully integrated opus that demands to be listened to as a multi-movement composition containing various permutations of the same thematic material throughout, a project he at one point began describing as “a teenage symphony to God.” To further prove his seriousness, he enlisted the help of even more high-minded librettist—the erudite singer/songwriter Van Dyke Parks—to fashion lyrics for him that would be even further away from the boy-meets-girl and let’s-go-surfing fodder that had dominated the lyrics of most of The Beach Boys’ repertoire. The other members of The Beach Boys—Brian’s two brothers, Carl and Dennis, a cousin, Mike Love, high school classmate Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston, who had just joined the group in 1965—were frequently baffled by the new direction and Love was often openly hostile to it.

Before his collaboration with Parks got underway, in February 1966, Brian began recording an additional song—originally intended for Pet Sounds—that became so elaborate that he was not able to complete it in time for that album’s scheduled release. He ultimately worked on the song, “Good Vibrations” (whose infatuation-themed lyrics were, incidentally, by Mike Love), for more than six months thereafter. To perform his ornate arrangement of the song, Brian assembled an ensemble far larger than any he had put together heretofore which, in addition to the members of The Beach Boys included some of Los Angeles’s most in-demand studio musicians, such as Al De Lory on piano and harpsichord, Jesse Ehrlich on cello, Hal Blaine on timpani and other percussion, and—perhaps most memorably—trombonist Paul Tanner on an electronic musical instrument of his own invention. (Tanner’s instrument, which he had previously played on the Pet Sounds song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” has alternately been named the tannerin—in his honor—and the electro-theremin. As a result of the similar name and a somewhat similar sound, Tanner’s instrument, which is played by controlling a knob attached to a slider with string, rather than hand movements over antennae, has been frequently misidentified by theremin discographers; “Good Vibrations” does not use a theremin.) Perhaps more importantly, “Good Vibrations” was not performed in its entirely from start to finish during these recording sessions, but rather in modular sections, each with different instrumentation. It was later seamlessly layered and pieced together in the studio from a purported grand total of 90 hours of recordings. As a result, “Good Vibrations,” which was released independently as a Beach Boys single on October 10, 1966, and was slated to also be included on their next full-length album (SMiLE), sounds like no other pop song that had been recorded up to that point.

Brian’s approach to the recording of “Good Vibrations” would serve as the blueprint for how he would record everything that was planned for the SMiLE album. While no other track intended for the album had such an extensive production history, some of his arrangements were even more elaborate, such as “Heroes and Villains,” alternate parts of which were recorded on October 1966 and February 1967. All in all, the remaining sessions for SMiLE (excluding the earlier “Good Vibrations”) occurred over the course of 13 months from May 1966 until May 1967, during which time Brian Wilson grew more and more despondent due to clinical depression and drug abuse.

Smile Cover

The original Frank Holmes cover illustration for SMiLE which has graced the cover of countless bootlegs which attempted to reconstruct SMiLE over the years and which was finally officially released as the album’s cover in November 2011.

Finally, the album was shelved despite heavy advertising and Capitol Records printing over 400,000 LP covers with an image that nevertheless became iconic. (This cover image, of a store selling smiles by Frank Holmes, is also the source of the typographical strangeness of the album’s title; it would have been among the earliest covers by a popular music group to feature original, specifically commissioned artwork rather than a photograph of the performers.)

Smiley Smile Cover
The Smiley Smile cover also does not feature a photograph of the band, but rather a cabin in the middle of a forest that presumable contains the contents of SMiLE.

In order to fulfill their contractual obligation to release something in 1967, the remaining members of the group wrested artistic control from Brian and cobbled together an album containing “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” (which they truncated somewhat, re-recorded parts for in June 1967, and issued as a single in July 1967), and several other (but not all) intended SMiLE tracks. That LP, officially released on September 18, 1967 under the name Smiley Smile, is still quite fascinating and frequently extremely odd. (One of its most notorious tracks, “She’s Goin’ Bald,” even speeds up The Beach Boys’ voices in a rare example of musique concrète in the band’s oeuvre, a feat which undoubtedly, along with the electro-theremin and the extensive electronic manipulations on the aforementioned “Good Vibrations” which opens Side Two of the LP, earned Smiley Smile a place in the discography of Paul Griffiths’s seminal A Guide to Electronic Music published in 1979.) Yet the end result is far less ambitious than Brian’s original plan and Smiley Smile proved to be their least commercially successful venture up to that point. (Van Dyke Parks, his input rejected by the other members of The Beach Boys, embarked on his own solo debut album, an inter-related collection of his own music as well as words, tellingly called Song Cycle, in November 1967; it’s a very nice record and it launched his successful career, but it never reached the kind of an audience that SMiLE would have.)

Here’s the official version of the story being told now…

 
God Only Knows…

As the time when Brian Wilson attempted to realize SMiLE and forever change the history of American music—popular or otherwise—recedes further and further into history, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate actual facts from the mythology that has come to surround that era. The 1960s remain a watershed period in the history of music of all genres. In classical music, it was the time when many composers desiring to keep up with the zeitgeist were torn between the rigors of integral serialism and the process-oriented experimentation of indeterminacy and conceptualism, while performing musicians began seriously recreating the sound world of earlier eras (the de-facto birth of the so-called period instrument movement). It was also the decade that spawned minimalism as well as a time when electronic music became a viable performance and compositional possibility—Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach was the most commercially successful classical album of its day, Morton Subonick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, released in 1967, was the first electronic composition created expressly for release on a commercial recording (on Nonesuch, which was then a budget label devoted almost exclusively to contemporary and early music), and Charles Wuorinen’s Time’s Encomium, another Nonesuch release from the end of the decade, was the first all-electronic piece to win the Pulitzer Prize. In jazz, the chord changes that had underpinned musicians’ solos from the earliest recorded manifestations of the music up to bebop and beyond, had already given way to modality inspired by non-Western musical traditions as well as completely free improvisations, but this music grew further and further out as the decade progressed. Rock and roll, ostensibly a music associated with youth culture, grew even more rebellious but also more sophisticated, morphing forever into rock and eventually myriad subgenres. Rhythm and blues, which was basically a racially charged code name given to the rock and roll-type music being made by African Americans, evolved into soul and later funk, also getting more and more experimental in the process. Even composers of film music and Broadway shows somehow seemed to be aesthetically tilting toward the avant-garde, or at least toward a consciousness that went far beyond Western musical traditions. And music from all parts of the globe—from North India and the Far East to Southern Africa—not only profoundly influenced much of music being made in the West but it too became available to the general public in the West through commercially available recordings as well as live performances by some of its greatest practitioners who finally were given opportunities to tour.

We will never know all the music that Brian Wilson had heard up to the point where he began work on SMiLE and how much of it influenced the new music that he was trying to invent. He has acknowledged his indebtedness to Glenn Miller and much has been made over the years about how Paul McCartney’s admiration for Brian Wilson was not only mutual but also competitive. Brian saw himself in a race with The Beatles to create the great rock record. He also fancied himself a latter-day George Gershwin since he, too, as a teenager had become a world famous songwriter but by his mid-20s aspired to be something more—a serious composer, though one working in a thoroughly vernacular American idiom. (In recent years, Brian Wilson even secured the rights to complete some of Gershwin’s unfinished compositional fragments and recorded them in 2010.) Rumored among Brian Wilson’s earlier compositions is a piano sonata that he never completed, another musical holy grail. According to comments made by the late Dennis Wilson, Brian’s brother and the drummer for The Beach Boys, Brian had heard Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 at some point and was completely floored and humbled. But could he have also heard Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 4, a work that finally received its world premiere in 1965, eleven years after the death of its composer, and a work that—all practicality be damned—was trying to redefine the symphony in much the same way that Wilson was attempting to redefine the popular song and the record album?

It would have been impossible for Brian Wilson to escape hearing the theme music for the TV show My Favorite Martian, which also featured Paul Tanner on the electro-theremin. As a Southern California native who knew many session musicians, he was probably also aware of Samuel J. Hoffman, who had recorded on an actual theremin for numerous film soundtracks including Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Day the Earth Stood Still. But could he have possibly also heard Honegger’s 1935 oratorio Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher or Olivier Messiaen’s massive 1948 Turangalîla-Symphonie, both of which use the ondes martinot, another early electronic instrument, similarly to the way Brian eventually used the electro-theremin on “Good Vibrations”? What about John Cage, the composer who completely redefined music, making it more inclusive than anyone else had acknowledged it to be previously? At one point during his work on SMiLE, Brian Wilson considered recording an entire album of various sounds to accompany the album of songs that would make up SMiLE, but this idea never got much beyond the conceptual stage.

Listening with 2011 ears, Brian Wilson’s experiments in 1966 and 1967 seem normative of the kinds of things most interesting musicians in any genre were up to at that point and even tamer than some of them. The blurring of boundaries between musical genres was pretty much commonplace at that time, as was the attitude, however real or imagined, that just about any musical undertaking was somehow an expansion beyond anything that had come before it. In October 1966, John Cage mounted performances of his Variations VII, an all-encompassing live electronic music environment which included the amplification of sounds received from ten telephone lines which had been distributed in locations ranging from lost dog holding rooms at the ASPCA to the press room of The New York Times. By 1966, La Monte Young, now acknowledged as the father of musical minimalism, was exploring extended duration drone installations that lasted for months. In 1966, Meredith Monk gave the first public performance of her music, 16 Millimeter Earrings, a work involving her now signature extended vocal techniques as well as tapes. Across the Atlantic, German serialist-turned-electronic music guru Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose face is among those portrayed on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s proving that they knew who he was) created Hymnen, a Wagnerian two-hour magnetic tape composition based on national anthems from all over the world.

Among the jazz community, John Coltrane was in Japan mesmerizing a live audience with an hour-long interpretation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard “My Favorite Things” in addition to his own expansive compositions. In Chicago, Roscoe Mitchell was joined by fellow members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians on the first recording of his free-form music, a forerunner of the group that would soon be known as the Art Ensemble of Chicago. On the East Coast, Cecil Taylor assembled his largest group to date to perform his gnarly atonal charts, and Albert Ayler was terrifying the denizens of the Village Vanguard with his otherworldly skronking. Before Miles Davis pioneered the fusion of jazz and rock in New York, another trumpeter, Los Angeles-based Don Ellis, outfitted the entire trumpet section of his latter-day big band with quarter-tone trumpets, fed his own instrument through a ring modulator, and made quintuple, septimal, and even higher prime-based rhythms sound perfectly natural. Around the same time, a seventeen-year-old trombonist Willie Colón went into the studio to record his first album, El Malo, blending Cuban and Puerto Rican music with jazz and soul, a style that would soon be universally described as salsa. For his score for the motion picture Wait Until Dark, released in October 1967 (but to this day never released on a separate audio soundtrack album), even the then dean of Hollywood composers, Henry Mancini, whose scores were tailor-made to please mainstream tastes, included two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart in his orchestration.

At the same time, rock music seemed equally poised to break beyond listener expectations. Almost every other pop song from that time seems to include either a harpsichord or a sitar or some kind of oddball-sounding electronic manipulation. San Francisco-area bands like The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were already crafting musical statements that went on much longer than three-minute songs, as were groups in England as diverse as Pink Floyd and The Who. Hair, the first evening-length rock musical, debuted on Off-Broadway the same month that Wait Until Dark opened in movie theatres across the country and would move to Broadway the following year. Jimi Hendrix proved the electric guitar could be the vehicle for virtuosity as intense as on any classical or jazz instrument. Even rock’s premier poet-songwriter Bob Dylan (who was a role model to many aspiring wordsmiths at the time, undoubtedly including Van Dyke Parks) released a side-long track, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” on his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. And La Monte Young’s extended drones found their way into rock music via The Velvet Underground, a group whose original line-up included Young’s former musical collaborator John Cale (who several years later recorded a tribute song to Brian Wilson). Groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears would soon be crafting rock albums scored for almost symphonic ensembles. (BS&T’s debut album, released in February 1968, is coincidentally titled Child is Father To The Man, after a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, but its title is also eerily similar to “Child is Father Of The Man,” one of the key songs recorded for SMiLE that had never been officially released.)

Bigger, longer, and stranger was all the rage. While Frank Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention arguably advanced rock music further than anyone else at that time, scores of now-forgotten groups across the country, who sometimes only recorded one single, were making music that sounds even more eccentric. Record collectors to this day scour the bins for these rare, unknown psychedelic rock recordings hoping to track down the ultimate transformative musical experience. What has gone down in history as the breakthrough, however, is The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Soon after its release, everyone seemed to have an artistic response to it, from The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request to even Zappa and The Mothers’ We’re Only in It for the Money. Sgt. Pepper’s—with its eclectic mix of music hall, harpsichord, sitar and tabla, string quartet, and musique concrète—embraced a much larger musical language than most listeners thought possible in rock music. And since they were so famous, it made a statement that everyone heard. The only band that was anywhere near as famous at the time and poised for similar accolades from a broad audience was The Beach Boys. (They, like The Beatles, were even admired by Leonard Bernstein.) Despite how remarkable Sgt. Pepper’s was and still sounds 44 years later, had SMiLE actually been released, that honor probably would have, could have, and should have been accorded to it instead.

 
Heroes and Villains…

Undeniably the wide proliferation and relatively easy acquisition of a variety of mind-altering substances was part and parcel of the rampant experimentation that seemed ubiquitous in the music of this time. That many of these great ideas could ultimately not be sustained and developed into more substantive efforts is the creative chasm that the abuse of these substances took away from some extremely talented musicians; some fared worse, dying tragically young. Brian Wilson survived but nevertheless was one of drug addiction’s unfortunate casualties.

From Smiley Smile onward, Brian Wilson was no longer the de-facto leader of The Beach Boys. Although he still recorded with them and wrote new songs for them to perform until the early 1980s, he rarely appeared with them in live performance. Some of the subsequent Beach Boys’ albums have some interest, musical or otherwise. (Their 1969 album 20/20 actually includes a song that Brian’s brother Dennis co-wrote with the notorious Charles Manson as a result of Dennis hanging out with the “Family.”) But these efforts overall were rather lackluster compared with the band’s earlier output. Nevertheless, some of these albums occasionally contained a very unusual song which had invariably been intended for SMiLE. The bizarre closer of the December 1967 album Wild Honey, “Mama Said,” was originally created as a break for the SMiLE song “Vege-Tables” (released sans break on Smiley Smile). “Cabin Essence” appeared on 20/20 as “Cabinessence.” A less-than-SMiLE-monumental version of “Surf’s Up,” which Brian Wilson has described as the best song he ever wrote with Van Dyke Parks, served as the title track of a 1971 LP release.

SMiLE bootleg
Many of the SMiLE bootlegs that surfaced from the 1980s onward sported some version of the iconic Frank Holmes cover. The cover above, interestingly, does not call attention to the song “Good Vibrations.”

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, a variety of bootlegs of variable sound quality attempted to re-create Brian Wilson’s original SMiLE (based on the printed materials that had survived, such as ads and track lists) using unfinished masters that had leaked, plus the songs that had been released on Smiley Smile and other later Beach Boys albums. By that point in time, The Beach Boys had become mostly a nostalgia act, playing their famous early ‘60s hits for their aging fan-base, and Brian Wilson’s further degeneration and the exploitation of him by a megalomaniacal psychiatrist would occasionally make newspaper headlines.

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE
The cover for the 2004 Nonesuch release Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE does not feature Holmes’s artwork, but nevertheless sports a similar font-style to the original.

Eventually Brian Wilson overcame his demons and embarked on a solo career which over the past decade has put him in the headlines for something other than his personal travails. In a live concert in 2002, he performed the entire Pet Sounds album accompanied by a group of ace players from a band called the Wondermints (and no one from The Beach Boys). Then in 2004, nearly 40 years after its original conception, Brian Wilson completed and performed SMiLE with many of the same players in front of a live audience and also recorded it for, of all labels, Nonesuch Records on an album titled Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. It sold widely and appealed to listeners across generations; iTunes actually describes it as “indie rock,” a genre for which SMiLE indeed is ultimately the progenitor. Mike Love tried to sue Brian Wilson for performing the music without his permission; Love lost. Everyone thought that was the end of the saga, until earlier this year.

 
I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times…

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE is a wonderful album, but it is also not quite right. It is not and can never be a substitute for SMiLE, even though it might have originally been intended to be just that. By the time he recorded it in 2004, Brian Wilson was 61 years old and was a completely different person from the seemingly totally possessed (by drug addiction as much as by passion and genius) Brian Wilson who was only 23 years old at the beginning of more than a year of sessions for SMiLE. The young man who attempted to corral his sometimes reluctant brothers, cousin, and other bandmates into going along with his crazy musical ideas got noticeably different results than the Brian Wilson of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, a revered elder statesman whose assembled session musicians were willing and prepared to do every last iota of his bidding. Whereas Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE was the realization of a dream finally come true that came after decades of hardship and a great deal of hindsight, the original SMiLE was an innocent dream filled with youthful naïveté and vulnerability. Admittedly that original dream ultimately turned into a nightmare, but you can never quite dream the same dream again after you wake up.

Perhaps more importantly, the world into which the album Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE was released was a very different world than that of 1967. True, since the beginning of the 21st century there have been tons of people creating album-oriented music that mines the borders of rock and, for lack of a better term, contemporary classical music idioms—e.g. the music of Sufjan Stevens or Joanna Newsom, groups like Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, The Fiery Furnaces, Flaming Lips, My Brightest Diamond, and just about the entire discography of New Amsterdam Records immediately come to mind. And the LP, a format that requires sequential listening from start to finish, has been resurgent. But the zeitgeist (at least according to the pundits who control the spin) favors quick listening fixes packaged in non-corporeal files that get shuffled at the whim of their listeners. This is the antithesis of listening to an album which commands and demands attention for approximately an hour, sometimes longer. The very idea of an album is considered by some members of the my-laptop-contains-my-whole-life generation as needless clutter, the ultimate anachronism, and—perhaps worst of all—a quasi-fascistic attempt to force listeners to listen to what you want them to listen to rather than to rightfully allow them to determine that for themselves. SMiLE, to quote a lyric from Pet Sounds, just wasn’t made for these times.

But that didn’t stop Capitol Records (a subsidiary of EMI) from one-upping Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE by finally releasing on November 1, 2011 The Beach Boys’ actual recordings from the original SMiLE sessions in a variety of packagings, including what is destined to rank among the most lavish boxed sets in record history. For casual listeners, The Smile Sessions has been issued on a single CD or—for those who want to recreate a more authentically 1967 listening scenario—two LPs. This version attempts once and for all to present the album that would have come out back then, and throws in a few additional bonus tracks of out-takes for good measure. (The 2-LP package, like the 1980s vintage Original Jazz Classics reissues of classic Prestige and Riverside albums from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, attempts to eschew anything that might reveal it to be an artifact of now rather than then; it features Capitol’s originally album cover design and even their intended matrix number for it—T 2580—on the side of the sleeve jacket!) But folks wanting a broader context can get a 2-CD deluxe set containing even more out-takes from those sessions which reveal some of the real-time performances from which this music was assembled.

Unshelvable SMiLE Box
The unshelvable collector’s edition box of The Smile Sessions stands out even in a large record collection.

For die-hard completists, however, Capitol released a massive collector’s edition that comes in a huge box sporting a three-dimensional simulacrum of the original SMiLE album art on its cover. Inside the box are the two LPs, presented as described above, as well as the single CD, giving listeners both options. Plus there are four additional CDs containing all the fragments released in the deluxe set as well as—they claim—every other sliver of audio that survives from those 1966-67 sessions, some of which are as long as eight and a half minutes, others as short as 24 seconds. (It’s actually not everything; a strange track called “George Fell Into His French Horn” which appears on several widely-circulated SMiLE bootlegs is missing.) The box also includes two vinyl 7″s containing what The Beach Boys had intended to release as singles during the time of The Smile Sessions (the songs “Heroes and Villains” and “Vege-Tables”), a poster, and finally a lavish hardcover booklet filled with discographic annotations, essays, lyrics, and photographs taken during the session. The box is approximately three-inches wide and is slightly more than 13 by 13 inches in length and height. It doesn’t quite fit on standard record shelves and calls attention to itself wherever it winds up being put. Its unabashedly unapologetic thing-ness is an object of wonder in our era of non-corporeal sycophancy. The box is not cheap: it comes with a hefty triple-digit price-tag. But if you weren’t aware of SMiLE before reading this essay thus far and you’re still reading it, you’re probably well on your way to becoming a SMiLE enthusiast (or at least I hope so) and you should therefore at least consider the possibility of acquiring the whole thing. (Admittedly, all 144 tracks contained in the five CDs have also been made available as individual mp3s or bundled together as an album at a significantly lower price than the physical box which is yet another option if you completely can’t bear the thought of owning things.) Even if you already own Smiley Smile, or one of the various SMiLE bootlegs that sometimes surfaces in collector’s shops, or even the Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE CD, there will be something new for your ears herein. While SMiLE did not get to be the first piece of album-oriented rock, The Smile Sessions is perhaps poised to be the last (although I hope not).

 
Wonderful…

The Smile Sessions’ attempt to recreate SMiLE is actually extremely convincing and sounds remarkably fresh, even after having heard all the other versions of this material over the years. The transitions from song to song (and the occasional instrumental interlude) feel completely natural, confirming the veracity of the track order of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE which served as a roadmap with the original recordings for The Smile Sessions’ version of SMiLE. (The track order on the back cover of the aborted 1967 LP is of no help since it instructs listeners to see the disc’s label for the correct playing order.) While at times the performances are not as polished as those on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, the occasional pitch or timbre gaffes I perceived make this feel all the more like a real 1960s album by a young rock band, rather than a perfected rendering realized by seasoned professionals.

As soon as the needle drops on the first side of SMiLE, however, it sounds nothing like most rock records. The opening track, “Our Prayer,” is an unaccompanied wordless chorale. The music is reminiscent of Bach and even earlier polyphonists, but the voices are The Beach Boys and there’s something about the music that is vaguely reminiscent of the backing vocal tracks of “Good Vibrations,” a song you would have already undoubtedly had heard before, even if this disc came out in 1967 as planned. Here “Good Vibrations” comes at the very end of the album, so the thematic relationships between the two function as bookends for the record. It isn’t actually terribly different from the way an opening chorale prelude and a final chorale are thematically related to one another in many of the Bach cantatas. However, before you have an opportunity to completely absorb the ethereality of “Our Prayer” something very down-to-earth occurs as soon as it ends: an almost scat-like coda (separately tracked herein and called “Gee”) which leads directly to “Heroes and Villains.”

On Smiley Smile, “Heroes and Villains” is a remarkable chain of somewhat unrelated fragments which baffle and amaze for sheer audacity. (“Good Vibrations”—however remarkable—sounds like just a warm up compared to this modular collage of different instrumentations and textures.) Here it also baffles and amazes, but even more so because all the disparate fragments somehow fit together. They actually fit together even more cleanly on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, but perhaps there they fit together too cleanly. “Do You Like Worms” (a.k.a. “Roll Plymouth Rock”) flows directly out of “Heroes and Villains,” continuing and further developing some of the same musical material.

“I’m In Great Shape,” “Barnyard,” and “My Only Sunshine” (a.k.a. “The Old Master Painter” / “You Are My Sunshine”) all come off as somewhat fragmentary, but seamlessly flow into one another and feel like harbingers of the much longer, subsequent “Cabin Essence.” Next up is “Wonderful” which is a truly beautiful song, with some great harpsichord riffs, that deserves to be a standard in its own right. But what follows is perhaps more awe inducing: “Look (for the Children)” and “Child is the Father Of The Man” form a completely integrated two-movement exploration of counterpoint and elaborate orchestration.

“Surf’s Up,” whose title seems a throwback to early Beach Boys fare, turns out to be nothing of the sort. It contains some of the most perplexing lyrics in the entire album, such as “columnated ruins domino,” and the leaps and disjointed rhythms of the melody Brian Wilson created to match Van Dyke Parks’s words is perhaps the most difficult thing he ever composed. In almost every other version I have heard of this song over the years, it never quite comes off. Particularly jarring for me has always been the setting of the following lines:

The glass was raised, the fired-roast,
The fullness of the wine. A dim last toasting.

In the various bootlegs of this I had previously heard, as well as the only official previously released version by The Beach Boys (on the 1971 album Surf’s Up), the group doesn’t quite sound together during those lines. And on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, though the ensemble is spot clean, Brian’s diction is somewhat garbled. Yet on the recording included for these Smile Sessions’ completed SMiLE, it all comes off without a hitch. It’s a musical miracle that alone justifies acquiring this recording. (Test this yourself: on the recordings of “Surf’s Up” that appear on both Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE and the first CD of The Smile Sessions, this line occurs from 2:06 to 2:10.)

Then comes a brief, somewhat jazz-tinged instrumental accompanied by various sounds of hammers and other tools (“I Wanna Be Around” / “Workshop”), another of the album’s more experimental tracks. I wish it would have been longer, but I’ll take what I can get. Then comes the delightfully goofy song “Vege-Tables,” a song about the joys of eating vegetables containing a variety of appropriate sound effects worthy of the Vienna-based Vegetable Orchestra (which would not be founded until 1998). The inclusion of the song’s original break (the aforementioned “Mama Said” found on Wild Honey) is the only immediately discernible difference here from the song as it appeared on Smiley Smile (under the less typographically obtuse title “Vegetables”). The brief track called “Holidays” which follows foreshadows a melodic motif that will later re-appear as a countermelody in “Good Vibrations”; it also serves as a prelude to “Wind Chimes.” The arrangement of “Wind Chimes”—which is much the same as the versions on various SMiLE bootlegs, as well as on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE—features some really nice mallet percussion. But for me it is one of the few instances where I actually prefer the less elaborate arrangement that was released on Smiley Smile. There it’s a sparse and somewhat creepy sounding track featuring vocals by brother Carl Wilson who whispers and at times clearly strains as he attempts to sing the tune Brian had composed for his own voice.

“The Elements: Fire” (a.k.a. “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”) is another peculiar instrumental with occasional wordless vocals. It was supposed to have been one of the movements of a four-movement Elements Suite that Brian eventually abandoned. Again, it shows a level of compositional and performance sophistication that few listeners are aware this group was capable of. Then another short fragment, “Love To Say Dada,” leads into the concluding “Good Vibrations,” a track which admittedly is difficult to listen to with fresh ears. But despite how extraordinary, as well as famous, “Good Vibrations” is and how some of its inner vocal lines parallel SMiLE’s opener, “Our Prayer,” which make it a fitting bookend for the entire album, it doesn’t quite sound right to me as the closing track. Brian Wilson was actually worried back in 1966 that “Good Vibrations” didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the album, even though it was created in much the same way and contains thematic allusions to other SMiLE songs. He asked Van Dyke Parks to write a new set of words for it (perhaps triggering the overall antipathy of Mike Love toward SMiLE), but Parks refused and the version with Love’s lyrics was released as an advance single. At one point, Brian tried to cut it from SMiLE, but it was so popular after it was released that Capitol Records insisted it stay on the album, so he opted to put it at the very end. But perhaps the fact that it doesn’t quite work as a finale to Brian Wilson’s sprawling sonic landscape leaves SMiLE perpetually sounding incomplete, which perhaps makes following it with tons of out-takes from those sessions the best of all possible worlds. The completed SMiLE fills three LP sides and a three-sided record would have been unthinkable in 1967. (Such things inevitably happened later on, perhaps most notably Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1975 The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color!) So even the LPs include some out-takes. And, as stated above, the CDs include (almost) every last one of them.

These bonus tracks are admittedly, for the most part, not the kind of things that will wind up in heavy rotation even on my playlist, with the possible exception of a wonderful jazz jam involving some of the session musicians but ironically not Brian Wilson or any other of The Beach Boys, here named “I Wanna Be Around” most likely because some of it, or some other version of it, later was used as one of the ingredients in the aforementioned unusual SMiLE album track “I Wanna Be Around” / “Workshop”. But listening to every one of these fragments is revelatory nevertheless. There’s almost an entire disc devoted to various scraps that became “Heroes and Villains” and another collecting the bits and pieces from which Brian Wilson assembled “Good Vibrations” (though only about an hour’s worth, as opposed to the 80 hours that were said to have been originally recorded). These musical shards offer up many of the secrets of Brian Wilson’s recording processes, his aspirations, and his attempts (not always successful) to realize what he was hearing in his head with physical musicians in real time—there was no written score for any of this music and remember, in 1966 and 1967, there were no computer consoles and no ProTools. That more than 80% of the deluxe collector’s edition of this never-completed album is devoted to unfinished pieces of songs is perhaps the most appropriate way for this record to finally enter the official discography.

 
I Wanna Be Around…

SMiLE LPs shelved
At least in my own home, the faux-1967 SMiLE LPs from The Smile Sessions have taken their rightful place on my wall of vinyl alongside the music of Bartók, Count Basie, The Beatles, and everyone else.

So will the release of The Smile Sessions and its carefully reassembled reconstruction of the lost SMiLE album finally earn Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys the same pride of place in American music history held by other great innovators like, say, Ives, Gershwin, Cage, Coltrane, James Brown, etc.? Sadly, probably not. But this has more to do with the vagaries of reception history than with actual history.

For many people, The Beach Boys will always be perceived as a light-hearted party band that drooled over “California Girls” while on a “Surfing Safari.” That image of the group has not been helped by the endless recycling of their greatest hits on recording compilations, their latter-day cover-band-version-of-their-former-selves concert appearances, and the lasting presence of these early songs as the soundtracks for countless commercials over the years encouraging revelers to have some “Summer Fun.”

I personally can’t remember the first time I had heard The Beach Boys. Their early pop hits were all around since before I was born, seemed ubiquitous when I was growing up, and have remained with us ever since. The first time I seriously thought about The Beach Boys was back in 1983 when a political brouhaha erupted after then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watt cancelled an appearance by them at the National Mall claiming that their music encouraged drug use and alcoholism. Watt subsequently apologized after then Vice President George H.W. Bush claimed that The Beach Boys were his friends and that he liked their music, and then President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan claimed they were also Beach Boys fans. After all, they were the all-American band; what was Watt thinking? Maybe James Watt had heard Smiley Smile or knew about the Manson Family connection. Perhaps he even knew about SMiLE.

I did not, so I couldn’t stop wondering why this wholesome—and to my mind innocuous—music had triggered such a strong reaction from a mainstream social conservative since the music of The Beach Boys seemed to me to be everything that interesting rock music was rebelling against. They were not counterculture rebels; he was picking on the wrong guys, hence the embarrassing apology. Then I read Paul Griffiths’s book, ostensibly to learn more about Stockhausen, and wound up reading about Smiley Smile. I tracked down a then out-of-print LP. It blew my mind. It truly was revolutionary. I gradually picked up their earlier recordings—if they had made something this interesting, the seeds for it had to exist in their earlier work. I became more open to those early songs; there are a lot of interesting voicings in the music that accompanies even the most insipidly worded narrative about meeting pretty girls at the beach. I even fell in love with their 1964 Christmas Album, which I pull off my shelves and spin every December without fail. Eventually I tracked down Pet Sounds, which to this day I think contains some of the most hauntingly beautiful music ever recorded. But then I learned that there was other music that Brian Wilson created in between Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile, music that was supposedly the most advanced music Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys had ever done. In an era before the internet, I scoured libraries and used record shops for more information, tracking down articles, and eventually a couple of bootlegs of attempts at reconstructing SMiLE, both of which sported the album’s planned Frank Holmes illustrated cover. I became one of those arcane musical cognoscenti, talking about the album whenever the subject of 1960s rock came up, or even whenever people talked about stylistic fusions between musical genres. To me, all the latter-day folks who thought that they were creating a new kind of music by fusing all of these disparate elements together were merely going down the path that Brian Wilson tried to take music to. But now, thanks to this ostentatious boxed set (or even one of the less complete manifestations of it now currently available from Capitol Records), you can be taken there as well.

11 thoughts on “Sounds Heard: The Beach Boys—The Smile Sessions

  1. chris s

    Well, though some interesting ideas, and I always enjoyed the vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys, never got into it. How about writing about Gentle Giant?

    Here is one of their works from the mid 70’s

    I find this better than or on par than quite a bit of contemporary classical music!

    Reply
    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Chris,

      I own the entire discography of Gentle Giant and treasure these recordings, especially the extraordinary Free Hand LP from 1975. To my ears, Gentle Giant’s vocal harmonies as well as their use of unusual instrumental combinations are the next step in the evolution that Brian Wilson pioneered on albums like Pet Sounds and SMiLE. But since they are a band from the United Kingdom, an in-depth exploration of the music of Gentle Giant is somewhat beyond the focus of our purview here.

      Indeed, one of the reasons I think it was so important for SMiLE to finally receive an official commercial release is that most people believe that progressive rock was a British invention. I don’t deny and in fact treasure so many British progressive/art rock albums from the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as all the remarkable music made by Pink Floyd, The Who, The Kinks, The Zombies, King Crimson, Van der Graaf Generator, Roxy Music, Brian Eno’s subsequent solo albums, of course Gentle Giant, and certainly The Beatles and even The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request. (There are great progressive albums from other parts of the world, too, including Germany, Brazil, and–I recently discovered–Iran!)

      But a close examination of the music in Pet Sounds and SMiLE reveals that an American band got there first. (Of course in this context Zappa and Captain Beefheart and much of the music coming out of San Francisco at that time is important to remember as well. And I wish I could have fleshed out my comments about fascinating psychedelic bands from all over the country but the essay was already way too long.) I write this here not out of a sense of competitive patriotism, but rather because the erroneous assumption that Americans did not take this music to a further development is to me yet another example of how we somehow underestimate the achievements of American composers in many quarters. Americans have created string quartets, symphonies, and operas that are just as significant as any created in Europe; Americans were also just as important to the development of progressive rock, etc. And, my assertion in what I wrote about Brian Wilson being somehow part of a continuum that also includes Charles Ives, Charles Mingus, Meredith Monk, John Cage, etc. is something I wholeheartedly believe.

      Reply
  2. Michael Fortes

    This is a very well-written essay on SMiLE. I really enjoyed it! I would like to point out of couple of factual errors though, since the rest of this piece is so great that it would be a disservice to leave them be.

    First, the two 7″ singles in the box were intended for release in 1967, but never actually were released. The two-part “Heroes and Villains” single was canceled, though the sleeve was re-purposed for release in parts of Europe. The “Vega-Tables” single was intended as a single, but not only was it never released, it never even had a catalog number assigned to it.

    Second, had Brian submitted to Capitol in 1967 the 47-minute SMiLE LP that was eventually released this year, it very likely would have been a single LP. What I often see ignored in discussions about SMiLE is the fact that single LPs *even longer* than 47 minutes had indeed been released during and prior to 1967. Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was 51 minutes in length and only a single LP. Miles Davis’ Miles in Europe and My Funny Valentine, from 1964 and 1965, respectively, were roughly 60 minutes each. These are just three examples. So very likely, what constitutes sides 1 and 2 of the current SMiLE LP would have been squeezed onto a 27 minute side 1, and side 2 would have been the 22 minutes ‘elemental’ side beginning with “I Wanna Be Around” and ending with “Good Vibrations.”

    However, it’s also not out of the question to imagine a 3-sided SMiLE in 1967 either. Johnny Winter’s Second Winter, released on the Columbia label in 1969, was a three-sided 47 minute LP (just like SMiLE is today) with a blank fourth side. But very likely the single LP option would have been taken, in my opinion. After all the time and money spent on making the album, it would be hard to fathom Capitol spending even more money on pressing a double vinyl disc and risking not completely recouping their costs when a single LP pressing was easily possible.

    Reply
    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      Michael,

      Thanks for your kind words and your extremely important clarifications. I have gone ahead and altered my essay above regarding the unreleased SMiLE-era singles; that was just sloppy prose on my part which didn’t get fixed in the final editing process. There was a lot to get through as you know from reading it all; I really appreciate your doing so! As for Johnny Winter’s Second Winter, that’s a new one for me (must track it down!!), but the 1969 date of that recording you cite also post-dates the original release date for SMiLE so it might have still been out of the question for Capitol to have set a precedent for doing that. I wonder how Johnny Winter talked Columbia into doing so. If you know more details, please share!

      Reply
      1. Michael Fortes

        You’re very welcome! Yes, it’s true that the 1969 release of Second Winter post-dates SMiLE, though only by two years. From what I’ve read about the album’s release, Johnny wanted the record to be played at maximum volume without a great loss of fidelity, and he liked all the music he recorded for the album and didn’t want to cut anything. So the best solution was to spread all the music across three sides. Since Johnny didn’t have anything else in the can to put on the fourth side, Columbia decided to draw attention to the unique format of the album as part of its marketing plan, using the slogan “an album and a half” in its print advertisements. Beyond that, the music is awesome if you’re into late ’60s blues rock. It’s one of the best records from that era of the genre.

        Reply
      2. Michael Fortes

        Oh yeah, one other thing: the passage commonly known among bootleggers as “George Fell Into His French Horn” is indeed included in The Smile Sessions – it’s just not titled that way, nor is it banded separately. It is part of CD 3 track 19, “Surf’s Up: Talking Horns 11/7/66.”

        Reply
        1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

          Funny, didn’t sound the same to me. I remember “George…” being a lot odder. I’ll have to take it out and give these two tracks another listen back to back. Thanks again for your incredible thoroughness!

          Reply
  3. Andrew Waggoner

    Thanks for this, Frank, a great intro to the album and a wonderful tour of mid-60’s American musics. It all reminds me how far ahead pop music was than other genres in exploring the compositional potential of the studio album. It seems crazy to us now that Miles was so roundly criticized by the jazz world for his and Teo Macero’s post-production work on albums like Bitches Brew; that the unique shapes and modular forms that Bitches Brew in particular manifests should have been the result of creative editing and compositional decision-making was seen as a betrayal of jazz’s essential nature. Miles, of course, turns out to have been way ahead of the curve in demonstrating the degree to which this music could shape-shift within a new, technological medium without losing its soul.

    Reply
  4. chris s

    Mr Oteri

    Thanks for the reply. Your comment about Gentle Giant being the next step from SMile intrigues me. This idea could easily be fleshed out into a book (I hope you do it if it hasn’t been done)- or if there is a book you could recommend which traces this lineage of musical development, would be happy to learn about it.

    Reply
  5. Jerry Bowles

    Wonderful piece, Frank. An interesting point which came up during the between song patter at the recent 50th Anniversary Tour concert at the Beacon was the degree to which Brian was influenced by the harmonies of the Four Freshman, who are more identified with Stan Kenton and the West Coast jazz tradition. Mike Love brought it up, if I remember correctly.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Brian Wilson And The Story Of ‘SMiLE’ — Movie Thursday | Providence Daily Dose

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