Thursday, November 3, 2011
Move over Smiley, a new SMILE has arrived!
With the newly released Smile Sessions treasure-trove, Beach Boys fans are given another opportunity to re-evaluate the meteoric rise and spectacular crash of California’s greatest myth-makers. If the group’s only contribution was to set the California Dream to music, as their early car and surf hits did so well, the Beach Boys would still be considered a major cultural force of the 1960s. Add to this the great myth-within-the-myth of “The Greatest Unreleased Album of All-Time” and you’ve got a truly special situation on your hands. Smile’s failure to launch in 1967 has given rise to all manner of theory and armchair psychology – predictions about what could have been if only the record was finished and released on time to compete with the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album. Many hold the opinion that Smile would have wiped the floor with Pepper in terms of artistic achievement, which could very well have been the case.
But I really wonder if it would have made that big of a difference. It is very likely that Smile would have been a critical favorite, yet a commercial flop much in the way Pet Sounds was perceived as such in those days. And it certainly would have been nearly impossible to perform this music live. (Listen to period performances of Good Vibrations – they sound anemic. The Beach Boys didn’t really figure out how to do the song justice in concert until about 1968 when they started augmenting their basic lineup with backing musicians to beef up the sound). What is so alluring about Smile is what it came to represent – the unattainable peak of the frustrated artist cruelly cut down in his prime – stymied by primitive technology, lawsuits and infighting – not to mention the dangerous side-effects of mind-bending chemicals. A tragic fall from grace. Smile’s non-appearance also marked the beginning of the general dispersal of the throngs away from the Beach Boys’ lure. Plenty of great music would follow, but not with the magical qualities that had been the group’s trademark sound under the leadership of Brian Wilson.
Those magical qualities are to be found on the Smile tapes – as odd as the music is in many respects, that “magical quality” is still present. Only in a very few isolated circumstances would that magic reappear on future Beach Boys releases (best heard on the classic track from 1971 “Till I Die”). But it would never return in full force. This is what is most apparent to listeners who hear the original Smile Session tapes. Yes, the music is weird, but not in an unfamiliar way – in fact, the effect is quite brilliant and not unlike the style that Brian Wilson pioneered on the “Good Vibrations” single. Are there any “hit songs” on the record? Well, maybe not (aside from the obvious inclusion of “Good Vibrations”). But the material does have obvious CLASS and artistic merit – something that is not immediately apparent on what was sent out as the replacement in September of 1967.
The old story of how Smile was too weird to lay on the Beach Boys fans – as being a legitimate reason for its non-appearance in June 1967 – can’t be taken very seriously if one gives even a cursory listen to the record that came out in its place. If Pet Sounds was deemed “too weird” by the car and surf set, I cannot begin to imagine the outright indignation Beach Boys fans must have felt when playing Smiley Smile for the first time. How the group ever convinced Capitol Records to release that album is beyond my understanding. And, for the official record – I like Smiley Smile a whole lot. On its own terms it’s an interesting and rewarding album to listen to. But it does stand alone in the Beach Boys catalog as being the Mystery Turkey from Mars.
The overall listening experience of Smiley Smile is so weird – it’s actually a bit unsettling. Fans at the time must have been either convinced that it was a terrible joke or that something seriously wrong happened to these guys. The record was so out of step with the hitherto-accepted Beach Boys image (and sound) it could be argued that it was as rebellious as the Beatles Butcher Cover fiasco in its own way – perhaps WORSE since the release of Smiley Smile derailed the group’s popularity in a way that baby dolls and butcher meat certainly didn’t for the English fabs. The Beatles’ surrealistic psychedelia was, for the most part, whimsical – the Beach Boys psychedelia (as presented on Smiley Smile) was………kinda disturbing, really.
However, I have a theory about Smiley Smile that I’ve never encountered from any of the Beach Boys experts (at least the ones I’ve read). I think it was a gross miscalculation on the part of the Beach Boys in terms of how the record would be perceived by their fans. Consider this pattern: From the album Surfin’ Safari up through Pet Sounds, there were some, for lack of a better expression, “off the cuff” releases the Beach Boys set loose on their fans in those years: Beach Boys Concert, Beach Boys Christmas Album, Beach Boys Party! – these were all quickly thrown-together affairs tossed out onto the market in between the “serious” productions. And consider all the wacky moments found on the “serious” albums : Brian and Mike Love having a scripted mock-fight in the studio, Our Favorite Recording Sessions, Bull Session with the Big Daddy? Remember these little nuggets of weirdness? What were they doing on those records? Are they supposed to be funny? Were they ever? Hmmmmm.
Could it be that the Beach Boys just figured Smiley Smile would be accepted by the fans as a “Beach Boys Pot Party” record? Did they even know just how wacky the record really was? Were they too close to it – in the way the Beatles were too close to the in-jokes in the Magical Mystery Tour movie to notice how incomprehensible it was to the general public? Although the Beatles movie was pretty obscure and impenetrable for most folks to appreciate – at least they were not known for being film-makers. And the music on the MMT album did not sound out of place with the rest of the Beatles catalog up to that point. Smiley Smile was a sore thumb – and there was no logical excuse for this coming from a group known for giving much more care and effort into their work for the most part. To expect the fan base to embrace Smiley Smile – especially as some sort of “sane substitute” to the Smile album! – was, I think, a bit much to ask on the Beach Boys’ part. It cost them dearly.
And if it were only that one record it could have been a different story. Yet – the shift away from that “glorious Brian Wilson sound” was, essentially – a permanent one. Now, of course, there’s no way the Beach Boys would have been selling as many records in 1969 if they put out something that sounded, sonically, like “California Girls Part Two” – the sound of popular music had changed (the shift to stereo being one example). Whether or not Brain Wilson would have been able to lead the group through the stylistic changes of the late 60s and early 70s – in an obvious commercial way – is, I believe, quite debatable. My point is – Smile was not simply abandoned by the Beach Boys on purely artistic issues alone. The path the group took – as a more democratic unit, as opposed to following Brian Wilson’s lead – would never yield either the artistic or the commercial appeal of those golden years between 1962 and 1967.
A major question remains for me : How much were the Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, 20/20 albums a reflection of democratic decisions on the part of the Beach Boys as a whole or were they still the reflections of Brian Wilson’s artistic choices? All of those records were released with production credits assigned to “The Beach Boys” instead of “Brian Wilson”. Yet, it has been argued that some of the sonic change was attributed to Brian Wilson’s ideas – the out-of-tune piano on Wild Honey, the snarky organ sounds on Smiley Smile. These abrasive kinds of textures would re-appear on later Brian Wilson-led records (The Beach Boys Love You album is the premier example of this).
It seems to me that when Brian Wilson pulled the plug on the Smile sessions it was a conscious decision to lay aside the familiar trademark sound he became known for – that glorious, warm “Phil Spector” approach. If we can argue that Smiley Smile was the result of purposeful artistic choices (instead of simple laziness), what has to be confronted is the proposition that Brian Wilson made a conscious decision to embrace a sort of avant-garde minimalism approach to his music. Was it commercial? Oh, hell no. Interesting? You bet. Just not AT ALL what anyone would have expected from a Beach Boys release – and certainly not as a logical successor to Pet Sounds.
Finally, with the official release of the Beach Boys version of Smile, fans can get a glimpse of what could easily have followed in the wake of Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations, at least from a musical point of view. And maybe after sifting through the many discs of Smile pieces, outtakes, sessions – we, as listeners, might be able to feel ready to move on – just as Brian Wilson did – to consider the merits of all the records from Smiley Smile forward on their own terms. Because, in the end – had Smile actually arrived on schedule in 1967 it is still likely that we would have had Wild Honey, Friends, 20/20 and Sunflower anyway. Maybe without any of the Smile-castoff tracks perhaps, but I would reckon in very similar form nonetheless. It’s just a hunch, but I suspect that Brian Wilson would have liked to conclude his “golden-sound period” with the bang of what Smile promised to be instead of unveiling a new and decidedly less-commercial musical style (in very raw form) as the substitute. I’m glad he’s finally gotten the chance to give listeners the opportunity to hear the results of all that hard work. It’s what we’ve been waiting for all along. Amen.