A few weeks ago I was in my car, on my morning commute: 45 minutes of darkness. Somewhere between home and Interlochen I asked myself a question: Who is the American Syd Barrett? For those reading this who don’t know Syd I will try and summarize, briefly. Founder and early leader of Pink Floyd, went NUTTTIER than NUTS, made a few solo LPs, disappeared, and died at age 60. Talented person ruined by drugs. Or to break it down to two words: Drug casualty. (Want a fun game, try to break down famous books to two word reviews. My favorite is for Of Mice And Men: Okies Die) So that thought got me to thinking about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. I chewed this over for the rest of the drive and had forgotten about it until I happened to need a box and stopped by the local UPS store. I saw an old radio station chum there, Matt K., and after talking about boxes and how he found married life he told me about receiving the ultra Smile box set for the holidays. I will say this for Matt, that dude is a die hard, knowledgeable Beach Boys fan. So we got to talking about Smile and the box set. And then we got to talking about the catalog, specifically the 70s catalog. Dude didn’t miss a beat, knowing and correctly reminding me about the band’s chronology. It was nice, talking with someone who knows just as much if not more about a certain subject than yourself. Especially in the field of music as, frankly, I’ve had all this info in my head for almost 20 years. Sometimes you gotta meet your match. Yet for all this we talked and we talked about Smile and how it’s one of the most famous “lost” albums in music.
Smile was the first record the Beach Boys began to work on as a follow up to the famous (and overplayed to the point of rendering the LP overrated) Pet Sounds LP of 1966. As Brian Wilson receded into the studio to create the band’s music he began to create a “teenage symphony to God.” Working with the lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson began to create and oversee the recording of this symphony. But the project was hijacked by mental illness, drugs, fire, and intra-band relationships and recording stopped. The failure of Smile is the stuff of legend. There are books’ worth of information on this LP but it just flattened out like a flan in a cupboard. “The Fire Symphony” was stopped when Wilson became convinced that the work on the music was causing fires around the Los Angeles area. Leonard Bernstein came to the studio and recorded Wilson performing “Surf’s Up” alone at the piano. The high praise that came from Bernstein had an opposite effect on Wilson and he withdrew further.
Smile was not released as the follow up to Pet Sounds. Instead we got Smiley Smile. That record contained many tunes from the aborted Smile project. This would be the band’s M.O. for years to come. Every few LPs would have a few Smile songs on one side or another. Some records only had one song, 20/20 featured three; 1971’s Surf’s Up was (obviously) named for one of the more famous and notable Smile songs. What happened as Smile failed was the failure of the Beach Boys to adapt. I’ve always been intrigued at the strange tale of the band after Pet Sounds. From Smiley Smile through Holland the band produced some downright great music yet were I to stop and ask you about the Beach Boys, what would you first think of? Would it be Pet Sounds? Or would it be “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Surfin’ Safari,” or any other of their first surf hits? I think it would be the surf hits, even after all the Pet Sounds love over the past 15 years. How could the band survive in the wake of the greatest artistic success when the public (and Mike Love — that dude never wanted to grow) had a solid, unshakeable association with their past. Or you will think of their last hit, 1989’s insipid “Kokomo.” Ask yourself, what do you think of when you hear the name the Beach Boys? Do you think of the early stuff or the later stuff? Now think about trying to be a serious band playing surf music while you approach 40 years old.
But this is not an article about how the early Beach Boys music pigeonholed the band for the rest of their existence. Rather this is a piece about Smile. When I worked at Wherehouse Records I would read Billboard magazine and one day in 1995 I read about Capitol Records’ plan to release a three CD set of Smile. I knew enough in my early adventures of wanting EVERYTHING that Smile was famous, unreleased and supposedly great. So this set was really getting me hyped up about Smile. The set was cancelled, it never came out. The next year, still wild about wanting Smile, I found out that the 1993 Good Vibrations box set contained thirty minutes of unreleased music from Smile. Eleven songs from the original sessions, released on CD for the first time. The fifth disc of the set also featured a few tracking (instrumental) versions of Smile songs as well as a 15-minute working version of “Good Vibrations.” I bought this box set and on a trip out West I put together a tape of those 11 songs and a few of the tracking versions. This tape, all on one side, became my Smile. And in the face of the subsequent versions, this remains my Smile.
In 2004 a version of Smile was released under Wilson’s name. This versions was a re-recorded version of the lost LP, with help from Darian Sahanaja from the Wondermints. Not only was this version released, but it was toured as well, bringing a newer, older Smile to the public. Last year Capitol finally released The Smile Sessions, bringing the original recordings to the public in a form that was as authentic as one could hope. There are, of course, a variety of versions. You could opt for the double disc or the ultra five disc set which contains disc after disc of session work. This is the version Matt K. mentioned he got and the version befitting a die-hard fan. I received the double disc set and while I enjoy listening to it, it does not top the tape version I put together so many years ago.
As I listened to the new release, and as I thought about my dances with Smile over the years, I really got to thinking about the nature of unreleased recordings. By nature when we fall for an illicit bootleg, the fact that it is unreleased makes it so much better. It becomes immediately more personal than you could ever expect. Bob Dylan’s famous 1966 Manchester Concert (JUDAS!–look it up) was unreleased for years, you could only hear it in various forms, but in those forms it became more and more famous. I used to have a double CD version with nothing, no information, nothing. The sound was off the charts, the whole show was there, and you could hear the infamous heckle. This was a pinnacle release. And then Columbia released the show as part of the Bootleg Series. I bought it, it was exactly the same thing as I already owned, but there was no life to it, no spark. Bootlegs are for fans, they aren’t from the artists and they aren’t for the record companies. Live recordings, outtakes, sessions, all these things that found their way onto plastic are for fans and are treasured, collected, and listened to. That double disc set from Columbia felt soulless, even with everything about it being 100% the same musically as the silver disc CD version I’d owned. I still have that show, but my copy is a double disc Sony promo with no artwork, no notes, nothing. Just two CDs. I cannot tell you why, other than to say in this form the concert retains some of the purity of fandom I found missing in the proper release.
The same thing goes for Smile. Am I glad it has finally been released? Yes. Is it what I was hoping for? That is a hard question to answer. I think that it is not what I was hoping for. And at the same time I can’t tell you what that was. The LP is reconstructed, the heartbreaking and colorful original cover has been restored. All the music thought lost has been found and released. And yet why hasn’t it sent a chill up my spine? Who knows. I found it interesting that Matt K. also found the set interesting. He too came to Smile via a bootleg, but his was different than mine. So his Smile is not my Smile, yet when he spoke of listening to The Smile Sessions his Smile was different than the box set’s Smile. There were songs snippets in different places, things out of place to his ears, ears that had only known one way. Much like when you would tape an LP and the LP would skip, resulting in a skip on your tape you always heard and never forgot, so too are your own experiences with music a tapestry onto which you project your own desires and experiences. Matt heard differences, didn’t hate them, but he knows where they are and what they are. I haven’t heard my Smile in years, but my memories are stronger than my present. Without my Smile I wouldn’t have discovered that the drone under the chorus in “Cabinessence” are actually cellos, the same cellos that you can hear all of a sudden in “Good Vibrations.” Without my Smile I would not have made that connection. Without my Smile I would not have opened up the lid on a love of the Beach Boys and their overlooked important works. Without my Smile I would not feel so sad at the state of the band, their beholden existence to their past, and their diminished standing in today’s landscape.
I cannot recommend The Smile Sessions to anyone reading this, as it is not my Smile. Heck, the version of “Good Vibrations” is different on the set, and how can that be? Rather I suggest, no, strongly suggest, that you invest the time and energy into picking up the band’s catalog recordings. Due to the extreme brevity of many of the band’s works you can find really nice double LP sets on one CD from Capitol. Smiley Smile and Wild Honey mix the ashes of Smile with a rootsy R&B sound driven by the tones of Carl Wilson. Friends and 20/20 continue to combine solid work with a few Smile songs. The single disc with Sunflower and Surf’s Up contains two of the band’s greatest records into a single package. Watch as each part of the band grows within the band. Listen to Carl Wilson soar and discover Dennis Wilson coming into his own as a musical artist. Listen to the band and work to remove your old associations from your mind, learn to remove your own biases towards your expectations of the Beach Boys and just listen to the music with your eyes closed and your ears open. Find the band all over again and lose yourself to the music.
This year, 2012, marks the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary as a band. Remember that the band is more than just their work up to Pet Sounds and Smile. Remember that the band continued on well into the 1980s, but that everything after 1977 is pretty weak. Remember a band that grew and was then ignored and remember their remarkable art for what it is. I’ll leave now with what could have been a great Beach Boys song, the title track from another “lost” LP. “River Song” opens Dennis Wilson’s 1977 classic Pacific Ocean Blue, which was released for a few months on CD in 1991 and became a legendary out-of-print title before Legacy’s 2007 reissue righted that wrong. Listen to “River Song” and think about its genesis in 1970. Had it gestated fully it would have been released on Sunflower. It would have been the greatest Beach Boys LP ever.
Would it have erased their past? Of course not. But it would have attracted a new generation and opened the doors for more discovery. Summer is approaching. This summer rediscover the Beach Boys, but do it on your own terms and remember that their career is far more rewarding than it appears on the surface.
Mike Vincent is a teacher, dreamer, grouch, and runner. He lives in northern Michigan and his favorite Beatle is George Harrison.