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A Lost Pop Symphony

Smile

an album by Brian Wilson
Nonesuch, $19.98

1.

The Beach Boys are arguably America’s quintessential pop group, but their importance has been unfairly diminished by the cultural fads with which they are associated: surfing and hot rods. Consisting of three brothers, a cousin, and a friend, the young group emerged from the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne in 1961 with “Surfin’,” an unpolished paean to the local surfing craze. Relying on the prodigious musical talents of the eldest brother, Brian Wilson, they combined harmonies inspired by innocuous vocal groups of the Fifties with rock music’s adolescent exuberance, capturing the hedonism of postwar American affluence.

Their exultant tributes to surf and auto culture resulted in several top ten hits over the next three years, including “Surfin’ USA,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “I Get Around.” Wilson’s talent for writing hits was such that even when he gave away his song “Surf City” for his friends Jan Berry and Dean Torrence to record, it resulted in a number-one single. Wilson sang harmony on the Jan and Dean recording of “Surf City,” and his rapturous falsetto palpably evoked teenage male Californian bliss in the refrain, which sang of a paradise where there are “two girls for every boy.” Casual listeners are today as likely to think “Surf City” is by the Beach Boys as by Jan and Dean.

Brian Wilson was minutely attentive to the possibilities of mixing sound and the other resources of the recording studio, and his elaborate musical arrangements rapidly approached in quality those of his most direct influence, the producer Phil Spector. While adolescents continued to enjoy the group’s fun-in-the-sun tunes, Wilson included on his albums ballads such as “Don’t Worry Baby” and “In My Room” that revealed both extraordinary skill in composition and emotional vulnerability. The coupling of commercial success with a growing musical sophistication thrust the Beach Boys into the vanguard of popular music. They were for a time America’s only match for the Beatles, with whom they shared a record label and an intense musical rivalry.

The mid-Sixties were highly competitive years in the development of popular music. Musicians began to regard themselves as recording artists rather than pop stars, and their work reflected this ambition. Albums became occasions for artists to improve on their previous releases and distance themselves from the pack. Wilson felt the demands of the era acutely. After releasing the brilliant Pet Sounds in 1966, a personal meditation on love and growing up that bore no trace of either surfing or hot rods, the twenty-three-year-old Wilson conceived of Smile, the highly anticipated follow-up (originally titled Dumb Angel), as his “teenage symphony to God.”

He envisioned the album as an affectionate critique of America’s mythic past, a cartoonish representation of Manifest Destiny from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii. Like the American composer Charles Ives, whose unconventionally impressionistic work sometimes seemed to attempt to include and interpret all of American culture, Wilson made wide reference to American history and music, from the folk songs of Woody Guthrie and the familiar “You Are My Sunshine” to pop standards like “I Wanna Be Around.” A work unified by recurring musical motifs, Smile was imagined as a collection of three suites composed of discrete musical segments that would evoke themes of frontier Americana and childhood, as well as the four natural elements—the movement of air could be heard, for example, in the song “Wind Chimes.” Wilson intended the album to be the preeminent psychedelic pop-art statement.

The psychedelic era produced rock music’s most recklessly innovative work. The use of the drug epithet “psychedelic” suggested the recording and arranging of songs in ways that would approximate aspects of an altered state of awareness. The result was music whose bizarre conventions demanded (and often rewarded) close attention from the listener. For Wilson, this psychedelic element had a spiritual quality. As he related in a 1966 interview,

About a year ago I had what I consider a very religious experience. I took LSD, a full dose of LSD, and later, another time, I took a smaller dose…. I can’t teach you, or tell you, what I learned from taking it. But I consider it a very religious experience.

Wilson hoped the release of Smile would set off the commercial eruption of psychedelic music that he and others (such as the Beatles) anticipated. “Psychedelic music will cover the face of the world and color the whole popular music scene,” he declared. “Anybody happening is psychedelic.”

A number of obstacles prevented Wilson from completing Smile, which was only recently released by Wilson in 2004 as a solo project. Chief among those difficulties was his inability to contend with the dissatisfaction of the other Beach Boys, who feared that the album’s musical adventurousness would prevent its commercial success. Efforts to establish the group’s own label, Brother Records (almost two years before the Beatles attempted a similar venture with Apple Records), and a lawsuit with Capitol Records over royalties also distracted Wilson. He was further demoralized by the approaching release in 1967 of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, itself inspired by Pet Sounds and instantly heralded as the type of psychedelic masterwork that Smile was meant to be.

After repeatedly postponing the album’s release date, the group finally ceased recording it in mid-1967 and instead released a modest substitute album, Smiley Smile, cobbling together home-recorded versions of some Smile songs with other miniature compositions. The Beach Boys’ obvious failure to complete Smile, coincident with their timorous pullout from the momentous Monterey Pop Festival that summer (a consequence of their having no groundbreaking material to perform live), alienated critics and fans whose developing tastes were fast outpacing the group’s sunny anachronisms.

Despite occasional flashes of brilliance and sporadic musical contributions from Wilson, the group suffered precipitously diminishing sales over the next several years. Wilson, the Beach Boys’ least dispensable member, receded into mental illness, becoming over the next decade a bedridden, drug-addled eccentric weighing some 320 pounds.1 Smile, meanwhile, became the archetype of the unfinished pop masterpiece: the Great Lost Album.

Smile haunted the music of the Beach Boys into the Seventies; melodic fragments and entire tracks from it would appear on their later releases, often in new incarnations. A contract signed with Warner Brothers in 1970 following the group’s departure from Capitol even included a clause that promised a finished Smile by 1973. When it failed to appear, the group was fined $50,000. Wilson had by then renounced the work as “inappropriate music” and derailed any attempt to revive it. The Beach Boys returned to the top of the charts only after repackaging their early hits on the 1974 album Endless Summer. The compilation’s retrospective appeal renewed their fortunes, but it also eclipsed with nostalgia their legacy as one-time innovators.

In the mid-Eighties, a recovered Wilson broke with the Beach Boys—who over the years have suffered the deaths of Wilson’s two brothers, Dennis and Carl, internecine lawsuits, and a descent into woeful self-parody—and began his solo career. Although he still hears voices and suffers from occasional bouts of depression, in recent years he has been performing with accompaniment and writing music with greater frequency. In early 2004, nearly forty years after the aborted sessions, Wilson introduced a newly completed version of Smile at the Royal Festival Hall in London to great acclaim and almost equally great surprise. The album was rerecorded and released by Nonesuch Records in September 2004 on the eve of a well-received tour that was extended through the summer of 2005, delivering an improbable denouement to one of rock music’s most enduring myths.2

2.

To understand Smile and its enigmatic place in the history of pop music, it is necessary to look back at Brian Wilson’s mid-Sixties career with the Beach Boys. The arrival of the Beatles inspired Wilson to move beyond surf rock. “When I hear really fabulous material by other groups, I feel as small as the dot over the i in ‘nit,’” he explained in 1964, when the Beatles first toured America.

That’s probably my most compelling motive for writing new songs—the urge to overcome an inferiority feeling…. I do my best work when I am trying to top other songwriters and music makers.

Whereas the Beatles featured the talents of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and their producer, George Martin, Brian Wilson was essentially alone. The Beach Boys’ bass guitarist and most versatile vocalist, capable of sing- ing all the parts himself if necessary, Wilson also wrote, arranged, and produced their songs. “I go to the piano and play ‘feels,’” he once said of his songwriting.

Feels” are specific rhythm patterns, fragments or ideas. Once they’re out of my head and into the open air, I can see them and touch them firmly. Then the song starts to blossom and become a real thing.

Straining to prepare and record new material while also touring in support of the group’s unceasing release schedule—four albums in 1964 alone—he suffered his first nervous breakdown late that year. Wilson insisted to the other members—Dennis and Carl Wilson, his cousin Mike Love, and family friend Al Jardine—that he stop touring to concentrate entirely on composing and producing. “I wanted to move ahead in sounds and melodies and moods,” he commented shortly afterward. “A song can, for instance, have movements, in the same way as a classical concerto, only capsulized.”

Recording with temporarily hired session musicians while the others were away on tour, Wilson’s heightened concentration in the studio allowed him to satisfy Capitol’s demands for more music by producing songs of greater structural and melodic complexity. Two albums in 1965, The Beach Boys Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), featured attempts to blend the classical composition of George Gershwin, whose Rhapsody in Blue Wilson held as his “general life theme,” with the group’s resplendent vocals into songs that amounted to miniature pop symphonies. The hit single “California Girls,” with its orchestral introduction and cascading harmonies, is a prime example. In part because Wilson was almost completely deaf in his right ear, a defect he has attributed to his father’s physical abuse, he produced his recordings in mono. His grasp of musical arrangement and skill at the mixing console brought clarity and spaciousness to Phil Spector’s similarly monophonic Wall of Sound style, in which a great number of instruments and vocals are layered symphonically to come together in a rich mass of sound.

But the influences of Gershwin and Spector didn’t compare with Wilson’s preoccupation with the Beatles. Following the release in late 1965 of the Beach Boys’ Party! album, a live-in-the-studio collection that contained no fewer than three versions of Beatles songs, Wilson listened to the Beatles’ newly released Rubber Soul while high on marijuana. Rubber Soul‘s allusive lyrics and reflective tone suggested to Wilson that artistic achievement in pop music would be measured by full-length statements of songs linked thematically and stylistically to form an integrated whole. He decided that his next album, Pet Sounds, would better it.

  1. 1

    Despite some embarrassing misspellings and a tendency toward the sensational, Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys, by Steven Gaines (Da Capo, 1986), provides a detailed account of the inner turmoil of the group, with much about the Smile debacle and its fallout.

  2. 2

    A new DVD set of Smile has also been released by Rhino Video, packaging a revealing documentary by Beach Boys authority David Leaf (Beautiful Dreamer: The Story of Smile) with a live performance of the entire album.

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