Welcome to the third and final part of our review series celebrating the release of The Beach Boys’ The SMiLE Sessions. In Part 1, we revisited the history of the album, and in Part 2, we examined the music and lyrics of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks that created the legend. In today’s concluding chapter, we explore "the sessions" of The SMiLE Sessions and compare the various releases!
What’s the biggest surprise of The SMiLE Sessions?
It’s the sound of five young men optimistically working together to create an album that, looking back, we know will never see release. The tales of internal strife surrounding the recording and eventual abandonment of SMiLE are numerous and needn’t be recounted here. Those aren’t the tales told in this lavish box set, either. Instead, The SMiLE Sessions reveals a dedicated group committed to bringing this music to life, regardless of whatever skepticism may have emerged later or was voiced outside of the confines of the studio. If the Beach Boys’ lack of support did, in fact, contribute to the erosion of Brian Wilson’s confidence in the project, it likely didn’t happen overnight.
At nearly seven hours’ length, the box set is exhaustive but never exhausting. It’s an audio verite look at Wilson’s most famous experiment in modular songwriting and production. Of the five compact discs, the first includes the album and a selection of bonus material. The remaining four discs canvas the making of the album, with the entirety of one disc devoted to “Good Vibrations” and the near-entirety of another to “Heroes and Villains.” It’s hard to reconcile the confident studio wizard here with the legend of the defeated man who abandoned his magnum opus. It’s even harder, nearly unimaginable, that these songs (which we hear in various states of completion) were, in fact, consigned to Capitol’s vaults.
The SMiLE Sessions reveals a painter with the studio as his canvas, restlessly pursuing the beauty in his head. Though that pursuit came with a price, Brian Wilson triumphantly made it to the other side. The 2004 release of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE may have been the first measure of closure for the composer/producer/singer, but 2011’s The SMiLE Sessions completes a circle of its own. Of course, it’s the first official release of an album that’s nearly a sacred grail to many, but it also marks a rapprochement of a kind between Brian Wilson and the three living men who share the label “Beach Boy” with him: Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and Al Jardine. All of them, plus the late Carl and Dennis Wilson, have moments to shine on The SMiLE Sessions that make a solid argument for their significance to the project in a positive way. That might be the most illuminating aspect of a box set that’s revelatory at nearly every turn.
Just what will you find in the enormous box? Hit the jump, friends!
Producers Brian Wilson, Mark Linett, Alan Boyd and Dennis Wolfe have chosen the material of The SMiLE Sessions with painstaking care. Some listeners might be most fascinated by the idle studio chatter, others by the spine-tingling vocals being assembled, still others by the orchestral arrangements being crafted seemingly on the spot. Though the sessions have of course been edited, the fly-on-the-wall approach allows for an unbiased and fully immersive look at the album’s creation. Note that all controversial material hasn’t been excised. In light of Brian Wilson’s drug-related traumas, one can’t help but feel voyeuristic listening to the young producer asking his brother, “Denny, do you have any hash joints yet? I know you do!” or inquiring, “You guys feeling the acid yet?” during the sessions for the angelic “Our Prayer.” These moments aren’t surprising in the least, but they add to an unexpurgated, you-are-there feeling that’s rare among commercially released material.
On the five CDs in the Super Deluxe box set, every song is represented in great detail. (The second disc of the 2-CD SMiLE Sessions only features “Our Prayer,” Heroes and Villains,” “My Only Sunshine,” “Cabin Essence,” “Surf’s Up,” “Vega-Tables,” “Fire,” “Cool, Cool Water,” “Good Vibrations” and one Psycodelic Sounds snippet. It’s worth noting that some of the sessions were edited differently for the 2-CD set, so it contains four unique tracks. As a result, completists may find themselves picking up both the Super Deluxe box and the 2-CD distillation.) There are endless variations on the central themes of “Heroes and Villains” and “Bicycle Rider,” with some sections clearly recognizable in the finished song and others completely off-the-wall experiments. Even in fragmentary form, the beauty of the songwriting emerges, such as the haunting piano theme as played on tack piano by Wilson and Van Dyke Parks.
In addition to veteran Wrecking Crew players like Carol Kaye, Larry Knechtel, Don Randi and Hal Blaine, many other familiar names pepper these tracks. James Burton contributes dobro to “Cabin Essence,” Plas Johnson (the saxophonist on “The Pink Panther Theme”) is one of the flute players on “Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow),” and Glen Campbell producer Al De Lory plays electric harpsichord on “Wind Chimes” alongside Parks himself on marimba. (Both Wilson and Parks make significant instrumental contributions.) Wilson is clearly in charge, admonishing his players from the control room with a vision alternately precise and freewheeling. He has some wonderful exchanges with Carol Kaye, advising the bassist to “be more physical” on “Do You Like Worms,” or at one point during the serious “Surf’s Up” reassuring her about the beat, “Don’t worry about it, Carol.” Her succinct reply: “I do worry, Brian!”
It’s clear that Kaye, like her compatriots, worried about getting that elusive perfect note as much as Wilson did. It’s never been easier to appreciate the high level of musicianship possessed by these versatile artists. Bill Pitman’s electric baritone lead guitar on “Child is Father of the Man” shines, as do Roy Caton’s piercing trumpet licks on “Surf’s Up.” Hal Blaine shoes off his jazz drumming chops on an unusual “Wonderful” variation. The “Rock with Me, Henry” version features some near-scat vocals and a beat that turns the song upside down. On the more “traditional” takes of "Wonderful," Brian gorgeously plays harpsichord while Knechtel (the man at the keys for Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) is at the grand piano; Alan Weight’s trumpet part also comes into its own.
So prodigious was Wilson’s output at the time, that there are undeveloped, tossed-off melodies that appear just long enough to fascinate, such as a brief, dark carnival theme entitled “Organ Waltz.” As different as the “Rock with Me, Henry” version of “Wonderful” are some experimental attempts at “Vega-Tables” with a “cha-cha-cha” beat. Pianist Gene Estes supplies cocktail jazz noodling at the piano for the instrumental rendition of “I Wanna Be Around.” The “Talking Horns” sessions for “Surf’s Up,” with wicked rumbles and improvisational howling on the horn, could score a horror movie.
The light and dark contrast that pervades the actual album is reflected in the sessions. Despite the eerie nature of the track and the wild stories surrounding its recording, the one segment of “Fire” (about eight minutes in length) doesn’t sound out-of-control, at all. The vibe is loose during a “Child is Father of the Man” session when Brian is asked, “Where’s the rest of the Skitch Henderson orchestra?” referring to the Tonight Show bandleader. It’s clear throughout each disc that Wilson was thinking visually; at one point in recording “Surf’s Up,” he seems satisfied that “now it sounds like jewelry.” He needed to hear the lyric imagery (“A diamond necklace played the pawn/Hand in hand, some drummed along to a handsome, mannered baton”) in the orchestration.
In addition to the SMiLE session material, the producers have added an appendix of related music to the box set, much of which has been impossibly rare until now. “Teeter Totter Love,” performed by Brian’s friend Jasper Dailey, is by far the oddest curiosity here. Brian contributed production, music and words to this offbeat little curio right in the middle of SMiLE with sessions in January and February 1967. Its lyrics “Teeter totter love goes up/Teeter totter love goes down/When I went down, my baby went up/And she came down, and I went flying off!” almost predict the more childlike songs (like “Solar System” and “Johnny Carson”) that would flow from Brian’s pen years later. Slide whistles and piccolos do give the slight song a distinct flavor.
Brian’s “Three Blind Mice” (not the nursery rhyme) was recorded before SMiLE, all the way back in October 1965, but its horn writing and pizzicato violins augur for SMiLE. “Tones/Tune X” is a lost piece of music by Carl Wilson recorded during the SMiLE era in March 1967, with a big orchestral, string-laden sound that morphs into a country swing with James Burton on electric slide guitar. Alas, no vocals have turned up. Dennis Wilson’s composition “I Don’t Know” (labeled as Part 2, though Part 1 hasn’t been located) from January 1967 features Carl on electric guitar and Carol Kaye’s banjo. It’s not a fully developed piece, either, and one wonders what eventual form it might have taken.
As it was an extension of the SMiLE ethos and spirit, June and October 1967 sessions for “Cool, Cool Water” have been excerpted here, as well. (The completed “Cool, Cool Water” was released by The Beach Boys on 1970’s Sunflower.) Beach Boys fans will also appreciate the inclusion of both December, 1966 sessions and the released take of “You’re Welcome,” which is so stylistically similar to the SMiLE material that it makes a fine coda to the album. (“You’re Welcome” was the B-side of the Smiley Smile “Heroes and Villains,” on Brother single 1001.) A June 6-7, 1967 session of “(You’re) With Me Tonight” offers post-SMiLE magic.
The wackiest pieces appear under the title of “Psycodelic Sounds.” There’s an underwater chant (“Underwater…dolphin…fish…swim”) and Brian and ace drummer Hal Blaine in a comical promo, as well as some crackling fire noises, just to name a few of these bizarre selections. A couple of unlisted “hidden” tracks offer general studio tomfoolery and vegetable chomping, of course!
Unique music is offered on the vinyl 2-LP set (included in the box set, in an exclusive jacket, or available separately) and the two 7-inch singles in the Super Deluxe Edition. The first three sides of the 180-gram vinyl are dedicated to the SMiLE album while the fourth offers stereo mixes of “You’re Welcome,” “Vega-Tables” and “Wind Chimes,” session highlights and the stereo backing track of “Cabin Essence,” and a session excerpt and stereo mix of “Surf’s Up.” The singles offer “Heroes and Villains” in two parts, and “Surf’s Up” b/w “Vega-Tables.” Both singles have a vintage design. Believe me; if you’ve only heard the music of SMiLE via non-commercial releases, you’ve hardly heard it at all. The "full dimensional" sound is pristine, each track having been mixed and mastered by Mark Linett.
The refreshing attention to detail in the production of the music has extended to the overall packages, as well. Most impressive is, of course, the Super Deluxe Edition, which offers everything for which a SMiLE diehard could hope. (The 2-CD and vinyl versions have been produced with the same loving care and dazzling design, albeit on a much smaller scale. The 2-CD set includes a lift-top box and poster, and uses many of the same design elements as its bigger counterpart.) Like the best physical releases, The SMiLE Sessions offers that which a digital release simply cannot, including suitable-for-display artwork and packaging, splendid sound and copious notes that don’t have to be viewed on a screen. This is an artfully-created set that any fan or collector would be thrilled to have on the shelf. The three-dimensional treatment of the original LP art is quite beautiful; alas, I didn't opt for the light-up version! The discs themselves are stored in an LP-sized, three-panel jacket, but the sealed jacket kept any of the discs from dislodging prior to being opened. Its interior is illustrated with delicious period newspaper clippings about the album, and the exterior shows the original tape boxes. The original SMiLE insert booklet of Frank Holmes artwork and band photographs has been replicated. There’s also a poster in the heavy box, too.
Best of all is the appropriately comprehensive hardcover book that accompanies the Super Deluxe box. Tom Recchion’s art direction allows for some truly beautiful period photographs of The Beach Boys, in a splendid full-color format. Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston have all offered new introductory essays, while the famously verbose Van Dyke Parks is conspicuous by his absence. Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson are both present via historical quotes. Peter Reum has written an essay “Lost and Found: The Significance of SMiLE,” which offers context to the music. Domenic Priore offers a SMiLE timeline as well as another detailed essay. Frank Holmes writes about his iconic artwork. The full lyrics are presented with accompaniment by Holmes’ drawings. Fresh and unheard anecdotes are related by many of those in Wilson’s constellation: his first wife Marilyn, her sister (and orchestra contractor) Diane Rovell, Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean, Mark Volman of the Turtles, Michael Vosse, David Anderle and Three Dog Night’s Danny Hutton. Technical information is covered via informative producers’ notes by Linett, Boyd and Wolfe. As if all of this isn’t enough, there’s a definitive SMiLE sessionography compiled by Craig Slowinski and Alan Boyd, revealing the session credits with as much information as is possible. Yes, friends, this is as packed as one could reasonably expect, and then some.
The plentiful text is often illuminating. Johnston and Jardine write about the discipline of recording the tracks and the passion to get them right. Speaking of “Wonderful,” Mike Love admits it’s “probably my favorite…Brian sings so beautifully” on it, and Johnston accurately describes the new box set as “a time capsule coming back to Earth.” Mike’s also not far off when he proudly states that the album is “as far out as anybody ever got around a microphone.” Brian Wilson gets to the heart of SMiLE, though, when he writes, “the real thing to feel is joy, excitement and fulfillment.”
There’s more than enough joy and excitement to go around in these vital, vibrant discs. It may no longer be mythical, but it’s arguably even more magical now. For years, there have been heroes and villains in the saga of SMiLE. Today, the Beach Boys and the teams at Capitol Records and Brother Records are all heroes. This remarkable collection of music was taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time – but now it’s fit with the stuff to ride in the rough. SMiLE is out there, and it belongs to the world. There’s little doubt that its good, good, good vibrations will continue to reverberate for years and years to come.