The Beach Boys: The SMiLE Sessions

The Beach Boys
The SMiLE Sessions

“I hate the way so-called ‘expert writers’ pick and judge him — they’re looking at their own opinions of the man …”

— The Wrecking Crew’s Carol Kaye on Brian Wilson

In the Beach Boys-centric MOJO 60’s “ultimate collector’s edition”, author and Brian Wilson/Beach Boys biographer Domenic Priore lists 10 of the band’s recordings that appeared to have laid the groundwork for SMiLE — the Pet Sounds follow-up that was originally scheduled for release in 1967. One of the songs Priore identifies is “The Little Girl I Once Knew”. A prelude to Pet Sounds, “The Little Girl I Once Knew” typifies this period of the Beach Boys and especially Brian Wilson’s evolving approach to songwriting. “Good Vibrations” would similarly continue this trajectory and birth SMiLE.

In so many ways, “The Little Girl I Once Knew” prepares listeners to hold tight and brace their ears for a new approach to composition from Wilson and his band. Every new direction is there: the lyrical ode to lost innocence, the unflinching bass-guitar line that rules the first half, the wild organ of the second half, brief spoken word sections, and especially the breaks for silence. Priore keys in on this aspect of the song: “Silent parts here meant exuberant non-hit”.

Silence is indeed a big part of SMiLE’s legacy. For countless oft-told reasons — creative, chemical, contractual, and personal — the album was shelved and officially unavailable. Newly available in 2011 as The SMiLE Sessions, this release is like a coda that took 44 years to arrive. Unfortunately, the intervening years of negative space replaced musical greatness with too much chatter — talk that grew up to fill the gap and replace the songs with stories. But wouldn’t it be nice if the legend of SMiLE didn’t exist and our contemporary ears could be unfettered by the tired old tales about the zaniness of Brian Wilson?

The SMiLE Sessions is the first release of these songs that accomplishes just that.

Building on the memory of songs that have reached our ears in the decades since the original sessions, this release reorients us around familiar material, but outdoes all previously existing versions in the scope of its execution and comparative completeness. That it does so is no small feat, because 1967 curio Smiley Smile and other SMiLE-era songs that appeared across other LPs and box sets have long since become classic versions in their own right. At the risk of assigning too strong a power to the compositions, one might say they are infallible and rewarding to the point of survival in even the most heavily compromised forms, and enigmatic enough to offer new revelations with each new form.

Working with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson wrote a series of what have later been referred to as “snippets”. These aren’t proper songs by any mainstream definition of the word, and they certainly weren’t representative of traditional pop songwriting in the 1960s. Despite the frequency with which masterpiece Pet Sounds is cited as a musical influence by contemporary acts, that album did not transform the art or the charts of popular music. The British Invasion gained far more traction.

All of this makes Brian Wilson’s pioneering outward push riskier and more unique — true Americana. Conceptually, SMiLE is about geographical and spiritual renewal, Native America and Manifest Destiny, westward travel, and of course, a love for youth and the loves of youth. Van Dyke Parks’ lyrical snippets are fascinating little windows into these subjects, often written so cryptically that their playful structure and apparent sound weigh more than their literal meaning.

According to Brian Wilson, that modular approach to songwriting is both the album’s mission and its undoing. In a 2011 MOJO interview with Harvey Kubernik, Wilson says, “I liked writing in pieces. And I was tired of the pop song structure. I wanted it to be a departure. Overall we couldn’t get through a whole song.” Then, in the same interview, he says, “They were incomplete songs. That’s why we junked it. They weren’t complete.” Of all the fantastical reasons for the album’s derailment that have been reported over the years, this crisis of confidence seems believable. In this sense, the SMiLE myth is not one of failure, but one of the creator abandoning his creation.

The resurrection of SMiLE into The SMiLE Sessions is a rebirth aided by the passion of individuals such as musician and “musical secretary” Darian Sahanaja, who worked with Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks to create Brian Wilson Presents Smile in 2004. Although that release was received as a triumph of perseverance, the impeccably re-recorded versions sound too perfect and bright when compared to the original song fragments.

Those floating fragments have been the stuff of many a fan-mix over the decades. And as the Internet has democratized the finding, sharing, and re-purposing of music and other arts, the number of mixes has increased and obscured the notion of a “last word” version of SMiLE. Musician, blogger, and SMiLE mixer/enthusiast Arkhonia writes in detail about the legitimacy and history of bootlegs and mixes that have filled the decades-long gap since Capitol records originally failed to release the album. Arkhonia asks, “Isn’t any Smile track released on a Capitol CD by nature also a fan-mix? They were all mixed (and often sequenced) by a fan, being Mark Linett, Brian Wilson’s engineer since 1988.”

It’s a valid point, and one that illustrates another measure of innovation represented by Brian Wilson’s creative breakthrough. Although he couldn’t have anticipated the album’s implosion, the songs were composed in a way that maximized listener subjectivity and interactivity. The long-standing dispute over the originally intended track list continues to this day, only temporarily delayed over the decision to follow the template of the 2004 version for the 2011 release, which was co-produced by Linett, Alan Boyd, and Dennis Wolfe — other key players in the SMiLE resurrection.

Boyd recalls comments from the late Carl Wilson, who years ago compared the assembly of SMiLE to film editing. This is an analogy that is particularly true of Brian Wilson’s cut and splice approach that began in earnest with hit “Good Vibrations”. While mixing and editing the Sessions versions with Linett, Boyd says he pursued that comparison in a pragmatic way and used film editing software Final Cut Pro to put sequences together. In another MOJO interview with Kubernik, Linett recounts that someone once said, “Brian was trying to do digital editing 20 or 30 years before it was invented.”

Embracing a song order that has recently proven successful, and employing modern technology to maintain the compositional and sonic integrity of the original recordings The SMiLE Sessions achieves the seemingly impossible feat of formally “introducing” even seasoned listeners to an album that’s been passed around in various forms for more than four decades. In short, this edition’s creators have dialed back the sheen of the 2004 version while respecting/never subverting the snippets-and-silences approach that is in the very DNA of SMiLE.

There is something holy in the tapestry of the album, woven throughout but never appearing more directly than in opening invocation “Our Prayer”. By this point in his development as a songwriter, Brian Wilson was consciously attempting spiritual communion through his songs, and “Our Prayer” finds the Beach Boys wordlessly intoning to breathtaking effect. The voices of Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and Mike Love were missing from Brian Wilson Presents Smile, but here they’re restored. Since the basic instrumental tracks for the album were recorded by the Wrecking Crew, the Boys were recruited mostly to sing. And sing they did, as magnificent vocal harmonies convey the many emotions present in the album, from longing to pathos to literal “pet sound” humor (yes, that’s here, too).

“Our Prayer” is followed by “Gee”, which transforms the original number by the Crows into a précis of Beach Boys past, present, and future, declaring “How I love my girl” amidst doo-wop/a cappella nonsense words (“Ah oom diddy-wada”) over a piano, all as a way to set up “Heroes and Villains”. The changeover from “Gee” to “Heroes and Villains” is illustrative of the multiple small gaps that breathe between fragments throughout the album.

To add to the film language used by Carl Wilson and reiterated by Alan Boyd, it could be said that Brian Wilson’s fragmentary approach is by design a group of “dangling causes,” a concept David Bordwell defines thusly: “An unresolved action is presented near the end of one section that is picked up and pushed further in a later section. Every scene will tend to contain unresolved issues that demand settling further along.”

“Heroes and Villains” presents a number of scenes that help paint the travelogue concept of the album as well as plant seeds for settling later on the album. In fact, the very next song in this sequence, “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)”, continues the melody from “Heroes and Villains” and alternates between musical and vocal sections, never resting for long in any one place. “Rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over,” is the mantra of the song, which also includes a good deal of wordless harmonizing, some quasi-Hawaiian language and the phrase “Bicycle rider, just see what you’ve done – done to the church of the American Indian!” The song also includes a siren sound created by voices, the effect of which is a paranoia that creeps into a few songs.

The sirens aren’t the only downers around. From time to time, SMiLE dips into melancholia or fear in a way that prior Beach Boys material hadn’t managed. “My Only Sunshine (The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine)”, another cover and a highlight of the album’s first third, features strings that bleed down into low discordance, before the entire song picks up. On the supplementary sessions tracks included on The SMiLE Sessions, Brian Wilson uses adjectives like “draggy” and “snappy” to distinguish between these two modes.

Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks deliver the Americana concept by allusion to traditional musical numbers such as “My Only Sunshine”, but then lyrically and musically transport the listener to “a home on the range” in “Cabin Essence”. Brian Wilson describes the upbeat sections of the song, in which the Boys repeat “Who ran the iron horse?” as the sound of “railroading across America.” “Cabin Essence” also contains silences that separate the separate movements of the song, allowing the listener to temporarily reset expectations for the next section. Harpsichord number “Wonderful” is the track with the most direct relationship to the kind of romantic, confessional songwriting that filled Pet Sounds.

As sequenced here, “Cabin Essence” proves to be a significant thematic transition to the middle section of the album, which puts aside the Americana focus in favor of a three-song sequence that revolves around a Wordsworth phrase: “The Child is father of the Man.” Wilson explores this theme across “Look (Song for Children)”, “Child is Father of the Man” and “Surf’s Up”. Brian Wilson’s recent descriptions of SMiLE’s meaning reinforce his fixation with the passage of youth into adulthood. In an October 2011 interview for The Wall Street Journal, he tells Marc Myers that the album is about “Childhood. Freedom. A rejection of adult rules and adult conformity. Our message was, ‘Adults keep out. This is about the spirit of youth.’” Although the lyrics by Van Dyke Parks are abstract, their playfulness combines with the unguarded sincerity of the lead vocal take to suggest a child’s wondering and wandering.

To say that SMiLE becomes more concrete after peak “Surf’s Up” is only partially true. Some of the tracks that follow are realized in such a literal fashion that they sometimes inspire a search for deeper, more poetic meaning. But in reality, “I Wanna Be Around/Workshop” is little more than workshop sounds set to music. And “Vega-Tables” is indeed a paean for healthy food, albeit gorgeously sung and (at the time of its recording) an occasion for Paul McCartney to visit the studio.

The sprightly “Holidays” sets up “Wind Chimes” much like “Gee” has earlier introduced “Heroes and Villains”. “Wind Chimes” is another song that appears to be startlingly literal when compared to much of Van Dyke Parks’ far-out lyrics on the rest of the album. The first section of “Wind Chimes” is the single most peaceful stretch of music on SMiLE, thanks to Carl Wilson’s lead vocal and a backdrop of marimbas.

But the peace doesn’t last long, as eventually the song swells and leads to “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”, a number that brings back the siren motif from earlier in the album and uses it to work the session musicians into a swirling, paranoid state of alarm. Finally, “Love to Say Dada” is all about “water … water … water … water,” foretelling other water-themed Beach Boys songs that would appear on LPs in the early 1970s. “Love to Say Dada” is itself composed of several small fragments, the smallest of which is a concluding section that reprises the choral invocation of “Our Prayer”, perhaps signaling a benediction.

Although there are a handful of bonus tracks on CD1 of The SMiLE Sessions, “Good Vibrations” is the final song on the album proper. It’s a fitting closer, as the composing, cutting, and pasting techniques Brian Wilson inaugurated with “Good Vibrations” were the foundation for SMiLE, an album that would prove to be ahead of its time, to say the least.

So here we are, more than four decades later, and Mark Linett, Alan Boyd, and Dennis Wolfe have worked with Brian Wilson and Capitol to present several editions of The SMiLE Sessions for the listening public. These include a “2CD lift-top box, double vinyl LP, digital album, and iTunes LP formats.” An even more deluxe version is also available, offering “the main SMiLE album tracks, plus four CDs of additional audio from the legendary sessions, a double vinyl LP set, and two 7” vinyl singles.” This more exhaustive edition is similar to the 4CD Pet Sounds Sessions box set from 1997, and will be a must for Beach Boy completists. For new and/or casual fans, the 2CD version offers a good sample of the bonus audio material, which includes “early song drafts, alternate takes, instrumental and vocals-only mixes, and studio chatter.”

My suggestion for approaching any of these versions is to begin with the bonus material. To do so is to hear these songs be built (in some cases, seemingly from the ground up). To hear Brian direct the session musicians and the Beach Boys through their instrumental and vocal takes is to understand what Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine has referred to as “arranged mayhem.” Brian Wilson is really the only person who had the totality of SMiLE in his head, and although it’s heartening to hear that he had willing participants following him onto a creative minefield, it’s also apparent that recording this album was an almost unbearably ambitious undertaking. When Brian Wilson “disappears” into a piano on bonus track “Psychodelic Sounds: Brian Falls into a Piano”, the funny banter we hear is like a comic predictor of the rabbit hole SMiLE became.

Nevertheless, The SMiLE Sessions are here now, and I hope their release will put a stop to the widespread tendency to focus exclusively on the troubles Brian Wilson faced in the years following his mid-1960s creative peak. To paraphrase a SMiLE track, he’s been in great shape for some time now, releasing LPs, touring, and contributing to a celebration of his back catalog. In the end, the best thing about The SMiLE Sessions is the opportunity to meet Mr. Wilson circa 1966/’67 and have the privilege of sitting in the studio with him in order to hear his creation take shape. Contemporary bands could certainly stand to realize that all the band myths and stories in the world don’t matter much if you can’t bring the songs, and no one brought the songs like Brian Wilson.

RATING 10 / 10