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Counterbalance: The Beach Boys’ ‘SMiLE’

I know that you’ll feel better when you send us in your letter and tell us the name of your favorite vegetable. In the meantime, this week’s Counterbalance looks at a 1967 classic, lost and found.
The Beach Boys
The SMiLE Sessions

Klinger: So the story goes that in 1966, Beach Boys leader and pop music wunderkind Brian Wilson was on a mission. He was not only out to top himself, but he recognized that the entire pop game was changing. His friendly rivalry with the Beatles had escalated once again as the Fabs answered his Pet Sounds with the equally (more?) adventurous Revolver. Recruiting upstart lyricist Van Dyke Parks and very nearly every session musician in Los Angeles, Wilson started composing his “teenage symphonies to God”, the album that would be his magnum opus: SMiLE. What happened next became the stuff of pop lore for 40 years.

After months of recording, a release date was set, cover art was created, and the Capitol Records promotional machine was in place. But the album never arrived. Rumors abounded: Brian had burned the tapes, terrified that his music was causing wildfires throughout LA. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had finally broken Brian’s spirit and he simply surrendered. Mike Love had bullied him into submission, increasingly pissed that the group was getting away from the surfing, sun, and cars that were the group’s bread and butter. But whether you blamed LSD, Sgt. Pepper, or Brian’s own philistine kinfolk, rock nerds the world over became obsessed with what SMiLE could have been. Bootleg versions were passed around by fans who cobbled together their own understanding of what the album would have been, for an actual track list had never been released. (Full disclosure: I made my own in 2002.)

Then in 2011, it all became real. Wilson had released a solo reconstruction of SMiLE a few years earlier, but now he had reassembled the tapes to create what we now come to know as the official SMiLE. So now we all know. And we’re left to try to piece together this greatest of great lost artifacts and understand its place in rock history. How would it have been received in 1967? Would it have been hailed as a masterpiece, sailed over the critics’ heads, or simply gotten lost in the general whirligig that was 1967? Let’s start unpacking, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: Sometimes, Klinger, I think these types of mysteries are best left unsolved. There is something to be said about the mystique of rock ‘n’ roll that has completely vanished from the digital age. Artists can now be as ambitious as they want but no one will listen. When the record labels still held the power and controlled the gatekeepers, it was all but assured that big records from big bands would be widely heard, discussed, and dissected. The instant gratification culture we now live in will never accept this type of ambitious project.

Klinger: I think Kendrick Lamar would like to have a word with you.

Mendelsohn: Well, there is ambition and then there is ambition. Kendrick elevated an art form to the highest level. From what I gather, Wilson was trying to reinvent an art form, which, at the time may very well have been technically — and technologically — possible, though just out of his reach. So before we take on macro level examinations, before we build a time machine and before I get started with the whole, “Don’t get me wrong, I like the Beach Boys but …” spiel, I just want to know — for you, as a fan of the Beach Boys, as a person who took the time to assemble his own version of this album, did SMiLE meet your expectations?

Klinger: I knew that the disc I had compiled (thanks Kazaa!) was sheer speculation, but the “official” version was still about a mile away from what I was expecting. There’s a longform suite-like quality to this version of Smile that a simple conglomeration of stolen tracks couldn’t really replicate. Musical phrases are woven throughout the piece, reappearing every so often to serve as a transition or underscore one of the central themes of the record (which seem to primarily center around frontiers — the West, Hawaii, Plymouth Rock — as well as the elements, childhood, and vegetables).

If this version of SMiLE really is the definitive version, the one that perfectly syncs up with Wilson’s original 1966 vision (and I have no reason to believe it doesn’t), then I can’t help thinking that SMiLE would have been an incredible statement, one that put him closer to Leonard Bernstein than Paul McCartney in terms of peerage. There, I said it. What the general population, listeners and critics alike, would have made of it is the real question.

Mendelsohn: I don’t think the listeners, the critics, and the general population would have embraced SMiLE. I think the overall dislike, apathy, or otherwise lukewarm reception to SMiLE probably would have broken Brian Wilson and may have meant the end of the Beach Boys. The first single from the album, “Heroes and Villians”, was met with such a response and it nearly spelled the end.

Wilson was just too far off in left field. He was in a race with the Beatles — whether they were actually aware of it or not — and while Wilson was furiously pedaling his bicycle, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were riding in the luxury of their yellow submarine, already hundreds of miles in the lead. The difference is, the Beatles embrace of psychedelica was still very grounded in rock, while Wilson’s acid-meets-Broadway concept album seemed a little out of touch the current state of music. Instead of moving forward and exploring pop through psychedelic glasses, Wilson was trying to fit the round, paisley colored peg of his music into the square hole of the past. There is something to be said about synthesizing past influences into the present — the Beatles were incredibly talented at that feat. Wilson, however, was not. SMiLE isn’t what music needed in 1967.

Klinger: First of all, the Beatles were very aware of the rivalry, and the Beach Boys were a group that they were watching very closely. Macca didn’t just swing by the LA studio one day because he felt like recording himself chomping veggies — I suspect he was doing some reconnaissance work on behalf of the Fabs. Second of all, “Heroes and Villains” reached #12 on the singles chart, which is pretty impressive for a song as downright odd as it is (granted, it was released without the “in the cantina” bit or the always delightful “You’re under arrest!” But still.) And the quite-nearly-as-odd “Good Vibrations” was a massive hit for the group.

Mendelsohn: Yes, but in comparison to Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations”, “Heroes and Villains” was an unmitigated disaster, chart ranking or not. It was a step backwards for Wilson and a blow to the idea that he could single-handedly keep pace with the Beatles.

Klinger: As for the rest of the album, I could see where it would be too much for the Clearasil set to fully grasp. And it’s true that the San Francisco-based critic’s community had it in for their Hollywood nemeses. But if SMiLE had actually seen the light of day, it would have taken its place next to Pet Sounds as an American answer to the recording studio arms race that was happening at the time. It might have taken a while, but it would have happened. Also I’m not hearing the Broadway in here — the roots of SMiLE go up to Copland and Ives. Again, there I said it.

Mendelsohn: You keep alluding to composers, and not without reason, Wilson was putting together a very ambitious suite of music, one to take American composition to the next level. SMiLE may not be made for the Broadway stage, but I get the feeling that it would be more at home in a fancy theater than on the rock ‘n’ roll stage. Wilson was trying to marry the American traditions set forth by his composer forefathers with his pop heritage and bring into the world a psychedelic baby that would somehow unite the two worlds while simultaneously pushing the British interlopers out of the way. I don’t think it would have worked. Do you? I find SMiLE to be a fascinating piece of music history, but I don’t know if it would have had the impact Wilson was hoping for. Where would we be had this record come out in 1967?

Klinger: Well, I doubt things would be all that different, and it’s possible that we’re making too much out of this whole competition angle (although I’m pretty sure that Wilson has mentioned his rivalries quite a bit over the years, both between the Beach Boys and the Beatles and the ever-looming Phil Spector behind him). And yes, it’s impossible to tell how the album would have been received. It’s an album that was so shrouded in mystery for so long that it’s nearly impossible for true believers to hear it without a sense of revelation. In fact it was so entrenched in myth that I’m surprised that rock nerds’ faces didn’t melt off like in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In the end, the fate of SMiLE would have, like Pet Sounds, experienced the ups and downs that were part of the Beach Boys’ tortured legacy. I doubt a hit album would have kept Brian from having to battle his very real demons. And the 1980s would still have happened, with all of the Sunkist commercials and John Stamoses that that entails. Nevertheless, Brian Wilson proved to be of far tougher stuff than we could have ever imagined, and the fact that he lived to tell the tale and reconstruct this implausibly ambitious Fitzcarraldo of an album for us is a testament to the human spirit. Say what you will about it, I’m just glad it’s here.