When it comes to The Beach Boys, I’ve learned to take any news with a decidedly big grain of salt. But some “news” is just too good not to pass on. In an interview with Jeremy Roberts of Examiner.com, Al Jardine revealed that “Capitol Records plans to issue a Beach Boys version of ‘Smile‘ [sic] sometime this summer to begin the celebration of The Beach Boys’ [50th] anniversary.” Could a release of the original “most famous unheard album in pop history” actually happen? When it comes to The Beach Boys, anything is possible, and there are further clues that a thaw could finally be coming in the long-frozen relationships between band members. In 2006, The Beach Boys reunited atop the Capitol Tower for a photo opportunity, and later that year, Jardine played a number of dates with Brian Wilson. This weekend, Jardine will join Mike Love and Bruce Johnston (who have carried the Beach Boys’ touring torch) at A Concert for America: A Tribute to Ronald Reagan at the Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. Wilson reportedly declined an invitation to participate at the concert, but Jardine has acknowledged that talks are ongoing and “encouraging” as to his participation in future anniversary activities.
I was in the audience on February 20, 2004 when Brian Wilson and his band premiered his completed (and now officially titled with eccentric spelling based on the original LP logo) version of SMiLE at London’s Royal Festival Hall. I doubt that I will ever again experience a more memorably emotional evening of music than I did that night. The audience was spellbound watching this famously-troubled artist finally find closure to one of the most difficult periods of his life, reclaiming and giving new life to the legendary music he and The Beach Boys created nearly forty years earlier. One word comes to mind when I think back to that night: love. It overwhelmingly filled Royal Festival Hall. Only the most churlish individual would downplay the significance of that soul-enriching evening. Some pundits felt, though, that just one thing was missing, with all due respect to Wilson’s remarkable ensemble: the combined voices of Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson, with whom Brian and lyricist Van Dyke Parks had first collaborated on the music played to perfection that night. There’s not nearly enough room to go into the myriad problems that plagued SMiLE; documentaries have been filmed and entire books have been published about that period.
In short, SMiLE was intended as the follow-up to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Producer/arranger/composer Brian Wilson enlisted Van Dyke Parks to supply lyrics for the album, scheduled for a January 1967 release. One song destined for SMiLE was released and became a million-selling single for the band, the “pocket symphony” known as “Good Vibrations.” No less a luminary than Leonard Bernstein praised the music intended for SMiLE when Brian Wilson performed a stark, chilling rendition of “Surf’s Up” on Bernstein’s Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution television special. More than 400,000 album jackets were printed with Frank Holmes’ now-iconic cover art, but SMiLE didn’t arrive in January 1967 as promised, despite over 85 recording sessions having taken place (including more than two dozen alone for the endlessly inventive “Heroes and Villains,” which was released as a single).
What happened next? What does a release of the original Capitol tapes to SMiLE mean for Beach Boys fans? And will this be a bright spot in a rocky 2011 for EMI/Capitol? Hit the jump for some guesses.
The music intended for SMiLE trickled out over the years, sometimes in the original versions and sometimes in re-recordings, while ardent fans created their own SMiLE compilations. Wilson debuted the finished SMiLE to great, deserved acclaim in 2004. But was this the SMiLE intended for release in 1967? Wilson wouldn’t hesitate in answering “no.” This was a new SMiLE, created in 2004 as a unified composition of three musical suites by Wilson, Parks and Wilson’s right-hand man and multi-instrumentalist Darian Sahanaja. It very reasonably reflected a lifetime of work by these gentlemen, and was thoughtfully derived from the legendary original work with some new additional material. Does anybody even know what SMiLE circa 1967 would have consisted of and sounded like? The answer, alas, is also “no.”
Song titles were listed on the junked SMiLE LP covers, but were amended by the phrase “See label for correct playing order.” The track listing and running order was never finalized. The closest thing to an official released version of SMiLE to date was contained on the 1993 Capitol box set Good Vibrations: 30 Years of the Beach Boys, when almost thirty minutes of the original sessions were released. The songs included were “Good Vibrations,” “Our Prayer,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Wonderful,” “Cabinessence,” “Wind Chimes,” “Do You Like Worms,” “Wind Chimes,” “Vegetables,” “I Love to Say Da Da” and “Surf’s Up.” (“Worms” would be retitled “Roll Plymouth Rock” for SMiLE 2004, and “Da Da” incorporated into “In Blue Hawaii.”) iTunes even offers SMiLE playlists for purchase, drawn from the Good Vibrations box, bonus tracks contained on the Smiley Smile/Wild Honey two-fer CD and the albums Smiley Smile and Surf’s Up. Jardine’s statement to Roberts brings up a number of questions, about this new(est) version of the lost classic. Is Brian Wilson interested in creating a second “definitive” SMiLE after the rapturous reception accorded his 2004 completed version? If not, will the Beach Boys version be based, at least in part, on the 2004 track lineup and structure? (Collectors have already assembled such a set.) And if Wilson himself isn’t producing this new set, then who is? (Jardine did confirm that no new recording has taken place.) The Brian Wilson of 2011 is undoubtedly different than the Brian Wilson of 2004 who was different than the Brian Wilson of 1967. But at least to my mind, the final word on this Beach Boys SMiLE should belong to its principal creators, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, and of course to The Beach Boys as well. (The Beach Boys’ support of the album in 1967 has long been a hotly-debated topic of discussion, and that isn’t likely to change any time soon.) Will Wilson, Parks, Jardine, Love and Johnston work together to produce a version amenable to all parties? Passionate and spirited discussion has already begun at The Steve Hoffman Music Forums, on Brian Wilson’s official website and elsewhere.
So I open this to you, dear readers. As a kick-off to a hopefully exciting 50th anniversary year for Beach Boys fans (and perhaps the first of a number of catalogue reissues?), what form should a released SMiLE take? This writer is hoping for a box set in the style of 1997’s The Pet Sounds Sessions, presenting fully-packed CDs of the best of the recording sessions, including material never heard by collectors. The centerpiece of this set should then be a single-disc distillation representing the “most finished” SMiLE as agreed upon by Wilson, Parks and the Boys. It still won’t be Smile as it would have been, but it will allow us to hear the rich and truly inimitable harmonies of Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston shining once again – officially – on Wilson and Parks’ mind-blowing songs. This package would of course be accompanied by a definitive recording session chronology with new assessments by all of the participants. In this, the era of the Super Deluxe Box Set, an audiophile-quality vinyl LP in a replica of the original jacket would be more than welcome, as would a long-awaited SMiLE in surround sound. But whatever form it may take, a SMiLE release would offer closure for all parties to this fascinating era in Beach Boys history, making moot the question of who were the “heroes” and who were the “villains” back in 1967, and allowing The Beach Boys’ renowned harmonies and “good vibrations” to transport us all, once again. The Beach Boys’ SMiLE (1967) will forever remain a great rock “might-have-been.” But, should it see release, there’s no reason why SMiLE (2011) can’t be one of the best albums of this year.
What do you think? Look, listen, vibrate, smile – and please sound off below, friends!