(A Certain) “Smile” – The Beach Boys Masterpiece Album That Never Was
Smile was to be the title of the 12th Beach Boys album (who said 13 was the unlucky number?) that was to be released anywhere between January and June 1967. It was to be their masterpiece. Actually, it was supposed to be THE rock and roll masterpiece, better than anything The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan came up with.
Now, many would frown at even using the word masterpiece in connection with The Beach Boys and would be more inclined to connect them with the quoted title of the song popularized by Johnny Mathis and all things dealing with surf and drag car racing. But all indicators say that before and after the Smile album was scrapped for good sometime in mid-1967, such lofty predictions might have actually been quite close to the truth. But then…it never came out. Instead of becoming the legendary project it was intended to be, it became nothing more than rock and roll myth.
…it was supposed to be THE rock and roll masterpiece, better than anything The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan came up with.
What the rock world did actually get out of Smile though was probably one of the three greatest rock singles ever (“Good Vibrations”), another brilliant one (“Heroes and Villains”), and a bunch of genuine musical pearls that appeared on various Beach Boys albums, including their official box set. Throughout the years there have been a plethora of rumors and stories behind the making of the album, piles of articles, essays, and books devoted solely to Smile itself, and Brian Wilson’s possible recreation of the album back in 2004. There’s also been a release of (supposedly) all the existing session tapes in 2011, and approximately 20 or more Smile recreations by music fans and enthusiasts alike. And this is a phenomenon that still goes on to this day!
All musical indicators were pointing to the fact that Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, the man he picked to be the album’s main lyricist, were on the right track to take The Beach Boys to the pantheons of the rock gods. Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys 11th album, was (and still remains) their best album. Smile or no Smile, it is still proclaimed one of rock’s greatest albums, with lot of critics and publications actually naming it as their top choice. Even Paul McCartney reportedly named “God Only Knows” as the greatest rock ballad of all-time.
Brian Wilson Tried to Combine Greatness With Weirdness – Weirdness Won
…it all ended up with an actual fire engulfing a building nearby to the recording studio, all prompting Wilson to burn some of the recorded material and hide most of the rest…
The recording sessions for Smile started sometime in August of 1966 and the main backing tracks were completed by the end of the year. What came out of these sessions were two simply brilliant singles – “Good Vibrations”, which turned out to be their best song ever, and also their best selling one, and “Heroes and Villains”, a song that never really made it chart wise as a single, but was the one that slowly started to get the Smile controversy ball rolling. After this, quite a few critics started the masterpiece discussion, while Jimi Hendrix dismissed it as a “barbershop quartet ditty.” But the real controversies started rolling throughout the recording sessions and behind the scenes.
Wilson himself, an obvious musical prodigy, was seriously burdened by his talent and all the expectations surrounding him. The situation was compounded by a number of other factors – childhood abuse from his father (which even made him deaf in one ear),as well as strife within the band, led by his cousin and singer Mike Love who was particularly displeased by the changes in musical direction Brian was taking and even more so the lyrics Van Dyke Parks was coming up with for the album (Love wrote those for “Good Vibrations”).
Then there were the expectations Wilson was producing himself – in his perceived competition with The Beatles (who themselves were inspired to come up with Revolver after being given an exclusive preview of Pet Sounds), he tried to up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with Smile, comparing its conception as “writing teenage symphonies to God.” All this was compounded by Brian’s bringing in thousands of dollars worth of everything from marijuana and hash to LSD, all for the purpose of the recording sessions.
To say this produced complete chaos would be an understatement. It involved everything from a piano within a sandbox, to a tent recording studio installed in Brian’s house, to the involvement of all sorts of Hollywood scenesters, to writers and freeloaders (later on, even Charles Manson had some connections with the band) who were at one point demanded by Wilson to lie down on the floor of the pitch dark studio and light candles and grunt. All that went even further with Wilson demanding the musicians in the studio to wear fireman’s helmets during the recording session for the intended ‘fire’ theme (part of the supposed ‘elements’ section of the album).
And it all ended up with an actual fire engulfing a building nearby to the recording studio, all prompting Wilson to burn some of the recorded material and hide most of the rest – spiraling him into a personal inferno and a massive nervous breakdown, from which it took him decades to recover.
And the Myth Begins
Actually, along with all the insider stories seeping out of The Beach Boys’ camp during the recording sessions, the whole Smile ‘myth’ had its beginning while the tracks for the album were being recorded.The first in the series was the documentary Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, filmed in November 1966 and which included classical composer Leonard Bernstein commenting over the clip of Wilson playing a version of “Surf’s Up” (one of the songs to be included on the album). Ascribing the aestheticpower of this song “to some deep, elusive meaning, as if any of this music needs to mean something” (Excerpt From: Luis Sanchez. Smile The Beach Boys. IBooks).Then came a text published by Jules Siegel in Cheetah magazine entitled “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!”, itself starting the almost endless series of articles and books on the subject.
As the project unraveled, all that remained was only a handful of completed tracks and a practically unknown quantity of partially finished vocal and instrumental tracks, some even with uncompleted lyrics (and Dyke Parks only completed some of them, leading to the 2004 Wilson version of Smile, since he left the original project at some point due to clashes with Mike Love).
First, only three of the completed tracks saw the light of the day on the ‘replacement’ album that came out in 1967, Smiley Smile. Itself a masterpiece of a kind that included acoustic and quirky versions of some of the original tracks recorded in the ‘famous’ in-house tent — itself a progenitor to various quirky loner albums (think Syd Barrett and Skip Spence), as well as something that bears the names of lo-fi and bedroom pop (literally).
Then came a text published by Jules Siegel in Cheetah magazine entitled “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!”, itself starting the almost endless series of articles and books on the subject.
While some of the tracks that slowly started to trickle out onto the subsequent Beach Boys albums were in a finished form (“Cabinessence” on 20/20), they had to quite literally be wrestled out of Brian’shiding places. While some had to be partly re-recorded or spliced together (one version of “Surf’s Up” on the album of the same name).
The key factor was that during the original recording sessions, Wilson was applying a modular compositional and recording principle, only intending to piece up parts in the finals stages. This may be something standard in the current state of modern music, but at the time was practically unheard of in rock music.
First set of more detailed tracks issued by the band itself came to light on the 1993 box set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys, presenting a set of pieced up song possibilities that were quite astounding themselves. Then in 2004 came Wilson’s attempt to present a ‘certain Smile’ version that was in part influenced by his key collaborator on that project, Darian Sahanaja of The Wondermints, a longtime Wilson admirer, but also by all the fan versions and visions of the album. The debate over whether that was the intended order or not, no one knows; probably not even Wilson himself. The Smile Sessions box set that came out in various shapes and forms in 2011 only collected the recorded session tracks, without a real attempt to actually recreate or form the album itself.
Could Have, Should Have…
What Wilson, Parks, and the band attempted to do both musically and lyrically is left to all that has been said and written (including academic treatises) about Smile. The list that includes the ideas presented by Wilson and Parks themselves reads like an encyclopedia index and includes everything from a general overview of American popular music, cartoons, the logic behind humor itself, as well as philosophical ideas of Arthur Koestler, surrealism and Eastern philosophy – just to name a few (and yet another indication as to why the project never truly materialized). But what probably lies at the heart of the problem was that Brian Wilson was not able to cope with and complete his personal journey into adulthood, which he started with Pet Sounds and never concluded with Smile, resulting in long bouts of mental illness.
The list that includes the ideas presented by Wilson and Parks themselves reads like an encyclopedia index…yet another indication as to why the project never truly materialized
Still, with all the musical and lyrical fragments left, fans, and cult followers are left with an intricate puzzle with which they can eternally try to cope with in their own adulthoods. Which is exactly why they keep on trying…