LOS ANGELES — “The Velvet Underground’s first album only sold 10,000 copies,” Brian Eno’s famous quote posits, “but everyone who bought it formed a band.”
The Beach Boys were never remotely in the same universe of rock hipsterdom that the Velvets have long occupied, but they may top Lou Reed and company in terms of a nexus for far-reaching musical impact: The Southern California group’s endlessly mythologized “Smile” album was never commercially released until now, yet it created an indelible impression on successive generations of musicians in its wake.
Several “Smile” songs surfaced on subsequent Beach Boys albums, and significant chunks of the recording sessions leaked out on bootlegs over the years, but “Smile” as a completed creation long stood as a Holy Grail of sorts for musicians.
“It seems to be an open experimentation that suggests anything is possible,” said Wayne Coyne, leader of the Flaming Lips, the pop experimentalist band that recently recorded a single track that runs for 24 hours. “It’s this way of approaching recorded music as something completely different than music that you play live.”
Grizzly Bear member Daniel Rossen, an L.A. native born a decade and a half after “Smile” was originally scheduled to be released in 1967, was in college when “I fell in love with it as a piece of music, even though I didn’t know quite what it was supposed to be.”
“I would completely, honestly say it’s influenced everything I’ve ever done,” singer-songwriter Michael Penn said. “To me it said that pop, rock — whatever you want to call it — could be an art form.”
Tuesday, 44 years after it was supposed to have been released, Capitol Records is issuing an official edition of “Smile” that showcases the original Beach Boys’ recordings. This version uses as a blueprint the 2004 “Brian Wilson Presents Smile,” in which the work’s chief architect reconstructed and completed what he hadn’t been able to do more than three decades earlier. Capitol also has created a five-CD box set that includes extended segments from the recording sessions that show the album as a work in progress.
“The fact that it’s the sessions that ‘Smile’ arose out of, you can hear what’s behind it,” Wilson, 69, said in Beverly Hills home. “Things just squeeze up to where you can hear them, so people can hear how we did it and just how fast we worked. We worked very quickly.”
The back story of “Smile,” often ranked as rock’s greatest “lost” album, has been chronicled many times.
After the critical success of the Beach Boys’ 1966 album “Pet Sounds,” which had vaulted the group’s artistry forward, group leader Brian Wilson sought to expand its reach even further.
“Our next album will be better than ‘Pet Sounds,’” Wilson said in 1966. “It will be as much an improvement over ‘Sounds’ as that was over (its predecessor) ‘Summer Days.’”
Wilson had teamed with composer-lyricist Van Dyke Parks for an album that would capture various strains of American vernacular music, from folk and gospel to jazz and Tin Pan Alley to classical music and rock. He employed a new process called “modular recording,” in which he would record snippets of songs, some a few seconds long, others a minute, two or more, with the idea of fitting the various pieces together later into a musical jigsaw puzzle.
He also incorporated found sounds — ambient effects extending the anything-can-be-treated-as-music approach he’d begun with “Pet Sounds.”
Lauren Onkey, vice president of education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, says it’s hard to understate the artistic reach of “Smile.” “Melodically and in terms of record producing, it really would have been ahead of anything anybody would have done at that time,” she said. “This was the winter of 1966-67, before ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ but ‘Smile’ was way beyond it.”
Perhaps 80 percent to 90 percent of the raw material for “Smile” was finished when the group and Capitol agreed to shelve it for a multiplicity of reasons that have been fodder for stories, white papers and books for decades.
Various attempts to craft and release some coherent version of “Smile” never materialized, largely because it would have required major guesswork, according to engineer Mark Linett, co-producer of the set Capitol is releasing this week.
“The only real requirement going in was to present the best estimation of an album based on Brian’s completion of it in 2004,” Linett said. “That was his decision and agreement that’s what this version would nominally be based on.”
Wilson’s 2004 reconstruction received critical praise and scored a Grammy Award. Today, “Smile” songs such as “Surf’s Up” and “Wonderful” still rank among the most beautiful ballads the group ever created, while “Heroes and Villains,” “Cabin Essence” and “Good Vibrations” stand as three of the most inventive tracks in pop music history.
The full album, in both incarnations, balances such classical music principles as theme statement and variation with the accessibility of pop melody and harmony. Wilson and Parks also combined serious themes such as Western imperialism and the cultural ramifications of Manifest Destiny with lighthearted views on health food.
In particular, Capitol’s album mirrors the structure Wilson brought to his 2004 recording while using the Beach Boys’ performances at the height of their vocal abilities, captured by Wilson at his creative peak as a composer, arranger and producer.
Told of the many younger musicians who cite “Smile” as a key influence, Wilson, who often has expressed uncertainty about the effect his music has had on audiences, offered just one word: “Really?”
“When I discovered ‘Pet Sounds,’ it changed my life” said Andrew McMahon, 29, of indie pop band Jack’s Mannequin.
“It’s informed a lot of what I’ve gone forward doing as an artist,” McMahon said. “You never want to get caught in that spot, making something you can’t finish. It’s a scary thought, and I’ve had that feeling: ‘This can’t be my “Smile.” I’ve got to get this done.’”
As for any broader assessment of the recordings that influenced generations and, in many respects, represented Wilson’s Waterloo nearly half a century ago, the former Beach Boy said, “I’m stripped. I’m at a loss as to what to think.”
At the rock hall of fame, Onkey said, “It’s unimaginable what he tried to do. ... It’s great for it to see the light of day now.”
In official form at last, she expects “Smile” to exert an even broader impact on pop musicians. “Younger artists will take pieces of this now, it’ll get sampled and recontextualized. They’ll do things we can’t imagine.”
// Notes from the Road
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