It has been thirty five years since the inception and destruction of "Smile" and yet it still is considered by many to be the greatest single work of pop music created. Why was something so wonderful and ahead of it's time never released? The fascination of the album has been written about endlessly over the years yet to me it is interesting everytime it is discussed. This essay will attempt to recreate the "Smile" saga retracing the major players and the rise and fall of the "Smile" myth. I have heard what are only bits and pieces of the "Smile" album and well it is amazing. The finished product if released would have changed pop music forever and have really given the Beatles something to top. Maybe it already has? The album may have had more of an impact because it was never released than if it had ever hit the shelves. The journey ahead is troubling but patience will be our guide. Are you ready to search for "Smile"?
The summer of love was right around the corner but a war had been brewing between the two biggest bands in the world. The majestic release of the masterpiece album "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys had only fueled the fire of the Beatles to create their masterpiece. Brian Wilson had been the brains behind the "Pet Sounds" album orchestrating an album that was way ahead of it's time. If "Pet Sounds" was a minute taste of what lay ahead then perhaps we were on the brink of a revolution. The waters that lay ahead were turbulent and what happened next are the tales of myth. The now infamous "Smile" album has been idealized into the "Holy Grail" of pop music.
The time was 1966, and everything was not right. The cultural and political situation in the United States was on the brink of explosion with the Vietnam War and counter-culture movement taking full swing. It is from witin this context that Brian Wilson started out to create what he called his "Teenage Symphony to God." The friendly but competitive rivalry between the Beatles and the Beach Boys was reaching a boil. The pressure only made Brian create one of the greatest rock n' roll songs of all time with "Good Vibrations". It was the most expensive song to make for it's time and well the use of unusal instruments gave it a spooky vibe. If Brian could make a theremin sound conventional then the sky was certainly the limit for the next Beach Boy's album.
The problem was that the rest of the band was on tour in Japan and had no idea what Brian was doing back at home. Brian wanted to create a concept album moving away from the "Surf and Sun" singles to a more mature and complex sound. The ideas were endless from that of a fitness album to a childhood story of life. Brian had recently converted his home to a makeshift studio complete with a piano in a sandbox. The use of mind-altering drugs was popular and Brian began experimenting with LSD. The rest of the band should have seen it coming with the majestic "Pet Sounds" containing sounds of dogs barking and trains. Brian originally had titled the album "Dumb Angel" but now "Smile" was in it's earliest stages. Brian had plenty of time to work on tracks for the album with the band out on tour and he took his perfectionist style to a new level. The hope was that Brian could create a whole album that was well an "album" flowing together that had a concept.
There was no doubt who was in charge of the infamous Smile sessions. Brian Wilson was the head honcho and the rest of the players were mere pawns. Or were they? Brian had incorporated the "heavy" feel on Pet Sounds and he was now searching for that perfect lyrcist to compliment his orchestration. Van Dykes Parks would provide the lyrics for the tracks of Smile along with input from Brian himself. What exactly was the album going to be about? This is itself a subject of speculation and the literature written about it is abundant. Was it going to pertain the "Elements"? Or was it an attempt to startle the foundation of Americana itself? No, perhaps it was a zen spiritual journey? The details of the album will be discussed later pertaining to individual tracks that may unearth various clues.
Jimi Hendrix had once described the Beach Boys as a "pychedelic barber-shop quartet" and all the signs showed that what Brian was creating in late 1966 would make "Sgt. Pepper's" not seems so trippy. It is difficult to really pinpoint where the "Pet Sounds" sessions ended and where "Smile" began. This was partly due to the immense amount of time that Brian was spending in the studio tinkering with sounds and using numerous musicians. It is well documented that Carol Kaye an accomplished bass guitar player in the studio spent countless hours arriving at the sound Brian wanted. Brian often made countless outrageous requests like asking all the players to wear red plastic fireman's helmets to really feel the vibe. This was during the recording of the "Fire" track also known as "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" that was part of the "elements" suite. Brian was determined to finally outmatch the Beatles with "Smile" and only perfection would accomplish his goal. This is very noteable in the various tracks like "Heroes and Villians" which consisted of different parts and mixes revealing the genius and perfectionism of Brian in the studio.
It is vital that in understanding the formation of "Smile" the proper background is understood by the reader. The Beach Boys were known as the "American Band" that represented something innocent and pure about "good times music". For example, the early songs of the band featured the "fun in the sun" and "cruising to get chicks" lyrics that represented a clean cut image. One can imagine how "square" this must have felt in late 1966 when the whole country was about to change to the tune of the pychedelic summer of love. Brian had previously attempted to change this image with "Pet Sounds" baffling Capitol records by only selling 35,000 copies. The album was dense and beautiful and would not be fully appreciated unitl years later when it acheived masterpiece status. The link to "Smile" as mentioned earlier was "Good Vibrations" and it was only laying the groundwork for "Smile". The "image" may have been why Brian laughed at the notion of the band playing the Monterey Pop Festival. The amount of time spent in the studio was creating some beautiful music but at the same time assembling the players who would witness the downfall of the album itself.
The main collaborator for "Smile" was Van Dyke Parks who was to provide the lyrics to the album. Van Dyke Parks was a young poet who at twenty two years old was having quite an impact on the "hip-scene". His lyrics were symbolic and ironic contrasting with the personal ones provided by Tony Asher on "Pet Sounds". It is believed that he was actively involved early on in the "Smile" sessions but disappeared later on only to come back later then leave for good. There was David Anderle who was head of Brother records and a confidant of Brian. Paul Williams also was invited to at least hear a few samples of the tracks off of "Smile" while heading the underground music magazine "Crawdaddy". There was the infamous Derek Taylor who was the publicist for the Beatles and very "hip" to the music scene at the time. Jules Siegel a writer for the Saturday Evening Post was also involved sent to write an article about the "Smile" album which he did entitled "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God". These were just a few members of the entourage that surrounded Brian Wilson during the recording of the album. It is important to ask where the rest of the band was during this time? After all, wasn't the group called the Beach Boys suggesting a plurality and not a Brian Wilson solo project. Perhaps, it is unfair to not mention the significant contributions of each member but like "Pet Sounds", "Smile" was the brain-child of Brian Wilson. The group surrounding Brian witnessed and heard the album like some group of tourists on a field trip. The Beatles themselves were heavily influenced by "Pet Sounds" and Paul McCartney himself was present during the making of "Smile" adding the percussion on the track "Vegetables".
The fact that the Beach Boys had a number one single with "Good Vibrations" pleased Capitol records but the group was caught in a lawsuit with the record company and the label wanted another album quick. The pressure to get back to the "Beach Boy" sound was on the group after the disappointing sales of "Pet Sounds". It is funny how such a landmark album like "Pet Sounds" was the group's worst selling album although it was hailed by critics especially across the pond. With the pressure mounting Brian hastily sent a rough track list to the executives at the record label hoping to appease the corporate brass. What are the tracks on the album? What order were they going to appear on the album? This again is mere speculation but I will attempt to list various tracks that may or may not been included on the "Smile" album.
Brian had scratched a rough tracklist to Capitol records consisiting of twelve songs. The list was probably not comprehensive and many of the tracks may or may not have ended up on the "Smile" album. The evidence that "Heroes and Villians" had different versions and parts shows that the album was still in the creative process. Here is a rough list that was presented to Capitol records: 1. "Do you like Worms?" 2. "Wind Chimes" 3. "Heroes and Villians" 4. "Surf's Up" 5. "Good Vibrations" 6. "Cabin Essence" 7. "Wonderful" 8. "I'm in Great Shape" 9. "Child is the Father of the Man" 10. "The Elements" 11. "Vegetables" and 12. "The Old Master Painter". It is important to realize this is only a very unfinished tracklist and Brian probably just gave Capitol something to tide them over. What was the journey taken during the recording process? Do we have enough evidence to accurately reproduce the correct tracklist? The answer is most likely "No" but people have been creating their own versions of "Smile" for years.
The isolation of Brian from the rest of the band is portrayed in earlier albums such as "TODAY!" in 1965. The liner notes revealed that there were some new songs by Brian Wilson as if hinting that a division in the band had begun. This became even more apparent on "Pet Sounds" with Brian gaining total production of the album. The difference with "Smile" was that Brian had surrounded himself with a new group of friends who assumed the role of the Beach Boys. The band had been touring in the UK leaving Brian at home to experiment with new horizons in music as evidenced on "Good Vibrations". The house of Brian Wilson had been turned into a collection of "hipsters" who in someway may have contributed to the downfall of the album. The landscape of the 1960's was the perfect setting for the "next big thing" in pop music the only problem was the world may not have been ready.
The various tracks on the album were recorded and re-recorded numerous times along the way in 1966 and 1967. Brian seemed to want to create a sequel to "Good Vibrations" by focusing his attention on the next single "Heroes and Villians". The track consisted of two versions in different parts but Brian may have intended to form the track into a cohesive whole. My favorite version of the song is the famous "cantina" version that appears on the "Smiley Smile/ Wild Honey" two-fer cd released in the early 1990s. The journey of tracks is as follows the best that I can list based upon the documentation available on the fantastic website "The Smile Shop". The track "Wind Chimes" was recorded in August and October of 1966. This is a haunting song that may have been intended for the "elements" suite on the album. This song can be heard on the "Smiley Smile" album but I am not sure whether it is the actual version intended for "Smile". The track "Wonderful" a beautiful tune about innocent love was recorded in late August 1966 along with versions in December 1966 and January of 1967. The opus "Hereos and Villians" was recorded over a very long period of time taking up most of late 1966 along with part two in early 1967. "Do you like Worms?" was recorded in October and December of 1966 and may have played off of the theme of childhood in the album. The majestic "Child is the Father of the Man" was recorded during October and December of 1966. The beautiful instrumental track "Our Prayer" that is often listed by "Smile" enthusiasts as track one on the album was recorded during October 1966 with vocals being added in 1968. "The Old Master Painter" sometimes called the "barnyard song" was recorded in November of 1966. "The Elements" was recorded in November of 1966 but this date is only based on the "Fire" recording and the dates of the other element tracks are unknown. This section of recordings has always fascinated me with the irony that an actual fire did occur a day after recording the "Fire track" across the street from the studio. Brian was convinced that the numerous fires in California may have been a direct result of the specific "Fire" track so according to legend he destroyed the original tape. "Cabin Essence" was recorded in October and December of 1966 along with early versions of my favorite track "Surf's Up". "Surf's Up" is just a beautiful song and few artists have captured what Brian did with this song. It is often put as the last song on the "Smile" album although many think that there was a concluding track after it. The hilarious "Vegetables" track which may play into the childhood theme or as an obscure vegan reference was recorded during April of 1967 although another demo version exists that may reference an earlier date. This track is rather humorous and may follow the concept that Brian was creating with an album about "laughter and God". The instrumental "Look" or "I Ran" was recorded in August and October of 1966. The fitness inspired "I'm in Great Shape" which was a vocal recording and remains unheard was recorded in October of 1966. It may be an early take when Brian was tossing around the idea of doing a concept album about fitness. "I Wanna Be Around/Friday Night" was recorded in November of 1966 and the second part of the song contains "woodshop" sounds that may have been connected to the track "Fire". The summary above lists the various tracks that may or may not have been intended for the album although I believe that most of the tracks would have been included in some form or fashion whether in combination or blended with other songs. The running order of the tracks again is up to much "guess work" and speculation so I will not attempt to place them in order here. One of the great things about the album not being released is that fans can create their own versions of the album. It remains one of the mysteries of "Smile" and has added to it's own myth.
Let's examine some of the possible themes that Brian may have intended to create in making the album. Most agree that Brian had three major themes in mind while working on the "Smile" project. The so called "health and humor" theme that is evidenced in tracks like "Vegetables" and "I'm in Great Shape" seems to hint that Brian was likely looking to create a humor and health inspired album. The evidence is also there that Brian may have been toying with the concept of Nature with the "elements" suite and water sound affects. This could have been a zen spiritual revelation showing the unity of mankind with nature but this is mere speculation mainly my own. The other theme is the "Americana" theme or Gothic theme. Most of the songs seem to fit this theme with references to lyrics like "Roll, roll, Plymoth Rock roll over" and the "Bicycle rider" theme that appears on various tracks. This could be the idea of "Western expansion" with the "Bicycle-rider" being the American settler invading Native American territory all the way up to the Hawaiian territory. If one listens closely one can hear Indian chants in the "Bicycle Rider" theme followed by trippy Hawaiian music. This again is speculation but enough evidence is there that it could be. The irony is that the Beach Boys were America's band yet here was Brian Wilson writing an album that may or may not have been questioning the whole system. Van Dyke Parks described the "American-Gothic" theme in 1976 a full ten years after the beginning of "Smile" but yet there are many theories that I have not mentioned. What is interesting is that the album was never released and so the music fan is left to piece together what might have been. The question still remains that if "Smile" had been released in 1966 or 1967 would it have changed the face of popular music? The answer seems almost an obvious "yes" because here was an album following the brilliant "Pet Sounds" that was combining the complexity of "Good Vibrations" with mutli-layered sounds. How could it not change music? The "Smile" album was destined to be ahead of it's time but yet it had another destinity. The album has become so infamous because it was not released and we are left to scrap pieces together of a true epic. So what does the album sound like? The question is why are you asking me? Are you willing to work a little to dig for artifacts? The reward is well worth it and I speak from hearing all the bits and pieces that would have been the album that yes it is brilliant. In other words, "Sgt. Pepper's" would not be put on such a pedestal had "Smile" been released. Besides, "Pet Sounds" is the greatest album of all time and it was just a mere taste of "Smile".
Brian somewhere along the way decided to scrap the project named "Smile" and things started on a downward spiral The entourage surrounding Brian began to crumble with Van Dyke Parks leaving studio sessions towards the end. The rest of the band was not confident in Brian and his new direction. The old formula that Capitol wanted was the last thing that Brian wanted to do and the "Smile" album was his opportunity to show the world his masterpiece. The Beatles released "Sgt. Pepper's" in June of 1967 but I think this had little impact on Brian abandoning "Smile". The original release of "Smile" was going to be in January of 1967 so it would have been well ahead of the Beatles. The fact is that Brian was well in control of the "Smile" project but yet decided not to release it. This may have been due to the tension between him and Mike Love and the new direction of Brian's music. The public may have not been ready for what Brian was working on and Capitol was expecting a commercial success after "Good Vibrations". All of these things may have contributed to the downfall of "Smile" leaving Brian Wilson paranoid and depressed for the next two decades after "Smile" was stopped. The mystery of the "Smile" album is what makes music and history so interesting and challenging. It is there if we are just willing to listen. Can you hear it?
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