Today sees the first release, after 47 years, of The Beach Boys’ SMiLE. The Second Disc celebrates this event with a three-part review series dedicated to what was once the greatest lost album of all time. In Part 1, we looked back at the story of SMiLE. In today’s Part 2, we explore the most legendary aspect of the album: the music itself, created by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, as recorded by The Beach Boys.
The SMiLE Shop is finally open for business! It’s only taken some 44 years for Frank Holmes’ iconic artwork to grace an official Capitol Records release, and seeing that artwork reproduced at full LP size (on both the vinyl edition and in three-dimensional form on the Super Deluxe box set) is only one of the many pleasures to be had in the all-too-long-awaited premiere of The Beach Boys’ SMiLE. If ever a set warranted the “Super Deluxe” tag, this is undoubtedly it. Heck, you could add a “Duper” in there, too, as in “Super Duper Deluxe Edition.” There’s no fat in this package, no “swag” other than a suitable-for-framing giant poster of the artwork. Instead, each element (pun intended, more on that later) of The SMiLE Sessions will only add to your experience in this involving, immersive collection. It might not just be the catalogue reissue of the year, but also of the decade. Only a set of this great size could do justice to music of this magnitude. Time has finally caught up with SMiLE.
The lingering mysteries of Brian Wilson’s aborted 1967 production begin with its very title. Was it an ironic one? The album began life as Dumb Angel, and Wilson once described the project as his “teenage symphony to God.” (Though out of his teenage years, Mr. Wilson was, amazingly, a mere 24 years old while recording the album and its intense, sophisticated, dazzling music.) Though there are many moments that will bring that upside-down frown to your face, much of the music is unsettling, if still hauntingly beautiful. Very little of the music on SMiLE contains the pure youthful excitement of “Fun, Fun, Fun” or the innocent pop joie de vivre of, say, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Despite the dark moments that recur throughout SMiLE, there’s no doubt that Wilson has intended (with his 2004 version and this reconstruction) to conclude on a positive note. He’s selected “Good Vibrations” as the album closer, and it’s a triumphant valedictory if there ever was one. The song, in fact, was a farewell of another kind in 1967, as the last true Brian Wilson production for a number of years. The hastily-recorded Smiley Smile was credited as “produced by The Beach Boys.” From that point on, the other members of the Beach Boys had a measure of democracy that continued to grow as Wilson retreated from the spotlight.
The core 19-track album assembly of SMiLE is available in all formats: vinyl, digital, 2-CD and 5-CD/2-LP/2-7″ single sets. (Although more is actually more with SMiLE 2011, one wishes a special single-disc version was released in the U.S., containing merely the reconstructed album alone. A single-CD release would have been a no-brainer for the casual Beach Boys fans shopping at Target, Best Buy or Wal-Mart this holiday season.) This premiere of the album proper would not have been the version heard in 1967; it’s a composite based on, but not slavishly faithful to, the three-movement sequence of the 2004 Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE (or BWPS, as we’ll refer to it). The indispensable, refreshingly detailed sessionography included in the box set indicates which takes were utilized to create each song on the “finished” mix of the album. The best available source was used regardless of origin; the climactic song of the second movement, “Surf’s Up,” even departs from the 1966-1967 vintage by incorporating a vocal tag from the band’s 1971 re-recording. (No new recording was done.) Due to the varying sources, the SMiLE album is heard in mono, as it would have been released in 1967. Much of the session material and a handful of bonus tracks are in stereo. Each disc in the box set is encoded in HDCD.
Fall under the SMiLE spell after the jump!
Above all else, SMiLE is the sound of the Beach Boys in uncharted territory. The compositions aren’t pop or rock in any traditional sense, but aren’t strictly “art songs,” either (though many come close). To use an overused word, they’re quite simply unique in the Beach Boys’ catalogue, and indeed, anyone else’s. The a cappella hymn-like album opener “Our Prayer” (perhaps the single most beautiful piece of music ever written by Brian Wilson, and isn’t that saying something?) first segues into The Crows’ oldie “Gee.” Then a darkly insistent piano enters, and finally a mantra-like “Heroes and Villains” chorale. All of the album’s many facets – spirituality, nostalgia, beauty – are introduced in the first two minutes, and all before the first traditionally-structured “song” even begins. That song, the “cantina” version of “Heroes and Villains” with brief dialogue, is a reminder of Wilson’s stated quest to make comedy an integral part of the album. “Heroes,” with Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics spinning a yarn of the Wild West, itself establishes most of SMiLE’s recurring motifs and themes, both melodically and lyrically. Though written in a modular fashion, SMiLE is structured like a classical composition, with melodies weaving in and out, often taking various, sometimes-surprising shapes.
The song oddly entitled “Do You Like Worms” melodically spins out of “Heroes and Villains,” and incorporates the “Bicycle Rider” chant and melodic progression as well as some wordless vocalizing that seemingly inspired Blue Swede! (Remember Blue Swede? I thought so.) Unlike on BWPS, there are no lyrics other than “Roll, Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock roll over” on this track. The 2004 recording introduced Parks’ fleshed-out lyric which made explicit an arc of Westernization: “Waving from the ocean liners, beaded cheering Indians behind them…Rock, rock, roll Plymouth Rock roll over/Ribbons of concrete, just see what you done, done to the church of the American Indian/Once upon the Sandwich Isles, the social structure steamed upon Hawaii/Rock, rock, roll Plymouth Rock, roll over…”
The brief fragment “I’m In Great Shape” has been moved up from its BWPS position in the new ’67 sequence, following “Worms.” The first movement of SMiLE explores themes of the Old West and the land, taking in “Barnyard” (with animal noises), hallucinatory fragments of the old standards “The Old Master Painter” and “You Are My Sunshine,” and a vocal and instrumental return to the Western motif (not on BWPS) before the concluding song of the first movement, “Cabin Essence.”
Like “Heroes and Villains,” “Cabin Essence” is another widescreen epic from Wilson and Parks. Its sensibility is equal parts American folk and symphonic/classical. Think Aaron Copland and Stephen Foster, gone psychedelic. Over an eclectic instrumentation including piano, banjo, guitars, dobro, bouzouki, bass, tambourine, flute, accordion, harmonica and cello, both Carl Wilson and Mike Love turn in passionate readings of Parks’ oblique lyric imagery of the range and the railroad. There’s, famously “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield,” the meaning of which spurred Love to a confrontation with Parks, but also the repeated cry of “Who ran the iron horse?” Al Jardine and Brian Wilson chime in with “Doing doing” sound effects created with their voices, as the music and chorus vocals meet in a dizzying whirl contrasted with Carl’s lead and the clattering instrumentation. The song’s breathtaking finale is almost the Beach Boys’ version of “A Day in the Life” and every bit as eye- and ear-opening.
After concluding the first epic movement with “Cabin Essence,” SMiLE seems to veer to a more personal journey. The SMiLE version of “Wonderful” is the only way to hear this song, as the Smiley Smile version masks its delicate, fragile beauty with a simplified arrangement and bizarre laughing interlude. The original version possesses a sad, stark splendor, with pastoral imagery turning a boy-meets-girl story on its ear with typically impressionistic language: “She knew how to gather the forest when God reached softly and moved her body…One golden locket, quite young and loving her mother and father/Farther down the path was a mystery/Through the recess, the chalk and numbers/A boy bumped into her one, one, wonderful/All fall down and lost in the mystery/Lost it all to a non-believer, and all that’s left is a girl who’s loved by her mother and father…” Brian’s sensitive harpsichord matches the lyric for melancholy.
For BWPS, Wilson and Parks crafted a transition from “Wonderful” into “Look (Song for Children)” that’s absent here. The playful central melody of “Look” contrasts with the “Child is Father of the Man” refrain that builds into its own track. The new 2011 version has an “old soft shoe” instrumental bit that’s not on BWPS, but the 2004 lyrics do make a smoother segue from one song to the next: “Wonderin’ who/Wonderful you/A-wonderin’/Child, the child, Father of the Son/Where is the wonderful me/Wonderful you?”
Like “Song for Children,” “Child is Father to the Man” might feel incomplete to those who know BWPS. It’s again, largely wordless, other than title phrase. BWPS added a lyric to the gentler, more assuring section of the melody: “Easy my child, it’s just enough to believe/Out of the wild, into what you can conceive.” The new ’67 version also lacks a brief string segue to “Surf’s Up.”
What did Brian Wilson channel in himself to craft “Surf’s Up,” the majestic closing song of the album’s second movement? From what well of despair did this melody come? Nothing in the Beach Boys’ catalogue can prepare a first-time listener for this song. The composition itself consists of two disparate parts and a final, glorious tag that looks back to the “Wonderful” lyric and a “Song for Children/Child is Father of the Man” reprise. Pain is at the surface of the exquisite track, with its title a supremely ironic one for the group behind such hits as “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ USA.” Parks and Wilson continue the theme of childhood with a quote of the nursery rhyme “Brother John (Frere Jacques),” but they then blur the lines of reality and fantasy through the prism of what may be a theatre performance: “Back through the op’ra glass you see/The pit and the pendulum drawn.” While it may be “acid alliteration,” in the words of Mike Love, it’s hard to deny its potency. Echoed, ghostly backing vocals send chills up the spine. Yet for all the musical and lyrical complexity, the song is direct and piercing. When Brian Wilson, on lead, poignantly sings of “a broken man too tough to cry” followed by a resigned “Surf’s up…mmm mmm,” it’s a perfect, emotional synthesis of music and words, simultaneously ravishing and devastating.
Anything after “Surf’s Up” might be an anticlimax, but the third movement of SMiLE is the most disparate, and incorporates the original plans for an Elements Suite. With its lyrics not reinstated until 2004, a snatch of Johnny Mercer’s “I Wanna Be Around” is a brief detour into cocktail jazz until it segues into the clanging cacophony of “Workshop.” The fun, loose “Vega-Tables” is longer here than on BWPS, with superb vocal riffing by the Beach Boys at its conclusion. Marimbas lend an exotic vibe to “Holidays,” expanded with new lyrics and pirate-themed dialogue in BWPS to introduce the suite of wind, fire and water that follows. The gorgeous “Wind Chimes” juxtaposes calm with tension as the song barrels to its conclusion and into the frightening noise of “Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow).” This track may no longer shock, but it is visual music at its finest. (The bass line of “Fire” was recycled for Smiley Smile’s “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter,” while “Wind Chimes” was given a rather malevolent, eerie reading on that album that undercuts the song itself.) The penultimate song on SMiLE, “Love to Say Dada,” became “In Blue Hawaii” on BWPS. Devoid of its lyrics, however, “Dada” still dazzles with its water chant and distinctive, signature percussion that today could be called “Wilson-esque.”
The Wilson/Parks cantata concludes with its most familiar song, “Good Vibrations,” but there’s a twist here, too. Mike Love’s lyrics are in place, as they all but certainly would have been on the original album, whereas BWPS substituted Tony Asher’s more outré original: “I love the colorful clothes she wears/And she’s already workin’ on my brain/I only looked in her eyes/But I picked up something I just can’t explain.” But the version here reinstates the “Hum-de-da” backing vocals that propel the song into a new dimension. SMiLE will leave you feeling those excitations.
As performed in toto for the first time by the remarkable and versatile Brian Wilson Band in 2004, the music of SMiLE was proven to be stunningly original. But to hear Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston on vocals is more than just a long-ago promise fulfilled. Hearing their voices in harmony on these fresh and unexpected compositions, we recollect our own history with The Beach Boys: the ache of Brian’s “In My Room,” the swagger of Mike’s “I Get Around,” the sincerity of Carl’s “God Only Knows,” the nostalgia of Bruce’s “Disney Girls,” the happiness of Al’s “Help Me, Rhonda,” the thrill of Dennis’ “Do You Wanna Dance.” Our shared experience with the young Beach Boys adds a quality and a frisson that’s intangible but also immeasurable. As Van Dyke Parks once wrote, “I heard the word. Wonderful thing! A children’s song. Have you listened as they play? Their song is love and the children know the way.” Indeed.
Tomorrow in Part 3, we’ll delve into Discs 2-5 of The SMiLE Sessions in which we’re offered unprecedented access to The Beach Boys’ studio world. We’ll also explore the lavish set itself in the concluding chapter of our SMiLE series!