Forget about “Kokomo.” Erase from your mind the image of those balding, portly, middle-aged men dressed up in the red, white and blue singing surf tunes at Ronald Reagan’s 1985 inauguration. There was a time, we’ll call it the ’60s, when the Beach Boys were the vanguard of California cool.
It was the spring of 1966 when Brian Wilson started work on SMiLE. As resident boy genius of the Beach Boys, it was accepted that Wilson had the golden touch. In the course of four years, a dozen albums (from 1962’s Surfin’ Safari to 1966’s Pet Sounds) and nearly two dozen top-40 hits, his songwriting and production had propelled the group to international stardom. But it wasn’t stardom that interested Wilson; he wanted nothing less than to make the greatest pop record of all time. And if there were rumblings in the band over straying from the winning formula of girls, cars and fun, fun, fun in favour of sublime, orchestral meditations on faith, mortality and the nature of self—and yes, there were rumblings—the success of the band’s first million-selling, number-one single, “Good Vibrations,” in the fall of ’66 drowned those rumblings out.
From this late vantage point, it’s all just legend. But during the recording of SMiLE things began to fall apart for Brian Wilson. For instance, the sandbox he built in his living room to house his grand piano. Or the time he made LA’s top session musicians wear firefighter helmets and dragged buckets of smouldering logs into the studio for atmosphere. The recording sessions scrapped on account of bad vibes. The drugs and the chronic depression, the voices he heard in his head that told him bad things were going to happen, the constant opposition he faced in the band. And there was that rash of fires in Los Angeles that year, fires that Wilson knew deep down he was responsible for, knew were caused by the song he’d written, his incantation to fire, “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.”
So he abandoned his “teenage symphony to God” and locked the tapes away. And then, famously, Brian Wilson went to bed for a very long time.
For 37 years SMiLE was the impossible crush of music geeks around the world. Those SMiLE tracks that found their way onto Beach Boys albums (“Heroes and Villains,” “Vegetables,” “Windchimes” and “Wonderful” on Smiley Smile (1967); “Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer” on 20/20 (1969); “Surf’s Up” from the album of the same name in ’71), though re-recorded or overdubbed or remixed, fuelled the obsession. And then there were the bootlegs. Discs bearing such cryptic monikers as Sea of Tunes 17 and Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 16 started to appear in the early ’80s, offering aficionados tantalizing tastes of what SMiLE might have been. While the audio quality of the boots varied, the songs they contained (even unfinished) stood out as little slabs of pure pop joy—puzzle pieces that hinted at something wonderful and strange. And always unattainable.
Now, in record stores everywhere, living down the legend, better late than never, ladies and gentlemen, pop music’s most famous unreleased album, Brian Wilson presents SMiLE.
SMiLE—as premiered in concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall on February 20, 2004 and then released on disc this fall—is, as Brian Wilson promised, a symphony. Its 17 songs break down into three movements: Americana, childhood and “The Elements.” Of course, the concept album—once considered the hallmark of rock music’s maturity—has cycled in and out of favour in the years these songs languished in the vaults. However, on listening to SMiLE, what’s most remarkable is how far ahead of its time the record remains.
Swinging from carnivalesque grandeur to hushed beauty, often in the course of the same song, SMiLE succeeds because the complexity of its compositions and arrangements surpasses the conceptual framework. It doesn’t matter where you place “Wonderful” in this song cycle, the harpsichord-driven track is one of the most sadly beautiful pop songs ever written. Forget the way that “Surf’s Up,” for instance, echoes and illuminates the musical themes set out in the rest of the album; it stands as a haunting ode to lost innocence, different in kind but not in quality from the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”
Fully re-recorded by Wilson, with his touring band the Wondermints and the Stockholm Strings ’N Horns, this official release of SMiLE apparently sets to rest the debate over how close the project was to completion when moth-balled in 1967. Heartbreakingly close. Every single piece of music on the 2004 record (with the possible exception of a bridge or two) corresponds in minute detail to an “unfinished” bootleg track. However, many vocal tracks truly were incomplete, and Wilson’s original SMiLE collaborator Van Dyke Parks even returned to the project he stormed away from decades ago to supply words for three songs whose lyrics were never written.
Part of Wilson’s particular genius was for composing in the studio, with musicians. Given that he took a full year inventing the complex arrangements for SMiLE the first time around, it’s not surprising that the five days in April, 2004 spent laying down the album’s basic tracks produced something faithful to the original vision, rather than a radical departure. (In fact, though the record was mixed on ProTools, care was taken to duplicate the sonic feel of the original eight-track technology, down to using the same studio and same tube microphones from 37 years ago.)
Much of the credit for this fidelity is likely due to Wilson’s “musical secretary,” Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints. At 62, Wilson is reportedly happier and more stable than he’s been in nearly 40 years, however it’s clear he could never have resurrected SMiLE if left to his own devices. Having survived the drug abuse and depression and years of virtual slavery to the Svengali-esque therapist hired to cure him, Brian Wilson is simply not the talent he once was. But as the world tour of SMiLE continues to draw standing ovations from hippies and hipsters alike (next stop: New Zealand and Japan in 2005), while the disc earns critical raves (with three Grammy nominations, including a nod for best pop vocal album), Wilson is shoring up his legacy as one of rock ’n’ roll’s great composers.
Wonderful and strange and ahead of its time as Brian Wilson presents SMiLE is, it still doesn’t replace the memory of the bootlegs. What could be more perfect than an unfinished masterpiece? Unfinished, its genius is every bit as great as you can imagine it might be. Surely it’s only a matter of time before a SMiLE boxset makes those sessions from 1966 and ’67 available—unmixed, unsequenced, full of fragmentary, beguiling composit- ions for the listener to dream to completion. That would be the greatest pop album of all time.