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A Lost Pop Symphony

Wilson assembled for Pet Sounds most of Phil Spector’s stable of musicians, the “Wrecking Crew,” with whom he painstakingly worked out individual parts and fashioned combinations over months of recording. The Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye recalls that

Brian always brought written out charts for most of the musicians…. He wrote the charts himself, you could tell from the illegibility of them sometimes…. He didn’t hire a professional copyist like the rest of the arrangers did.

The crystalline arrangements gracefully combined organs, saxophones, strings, flutes, vibraphones, bicycle bells, timpani, and even barking dogs into stunning instrumental textures. The instrumental tracks of the album were already finished when the other Beach Boys returned from their current tour to record the vocals. To realize the harmonies he had meticulously devised in their absence, Wilson coached them through long hours of vocal takes in an almost peremptory fashion.3 They were surprised and irritated by this exacting approach, and felt alienated from what Mike Love indignantly called Wilson’s “ego music.”

Seeking to move away from the group’s puerile lyrical preoccupations, Wilson enlisted a young advertising copywriter named Tony Asher as a lyricist. With Asher’s help, he explored the anxieties of his early twenties on Pet Sounds. The result was a bittersweet set of songs about a young man’s search for love and certainty suffused with the apprehension of their impermanence. An extended reflection on romantic hope and the loss of innocence, Pet Sounds was an expression of Wilson’s distinctive emotional and musical sensibility. The album’s orchestral rock music was a striking contrast to the juvenile euphoria of the group’s previous work, exhibiting in its musical composition and arrangement a new depth of feeling. As he said of the album years later,

For the first time in my life, I did something that I wanted to do from my heart—what my real music is…. Pet Sounds was something that was absolutely different. Something I personally felt.

While recording Pet Sounds Wilson began work on an inchoate composition entitled “Good Vibrations.” Wanting to devote more time and attention to the song, he set it aside, later recording it over six months at four different studios and a cost of more than $50,000. Rather than record the instrumental track as an unbroken ensemble performance, as he had done for the songs on Pet Sounds, Wilson isolated his musical arrangement into sections and recorded them separately. He made prominent use of the theremin, an instrument whose eerie electronic wail had been mainly confined to horror movies, in an uncommon combination that included jagged cello triplets, sleigh bells, harpsichord, clarinet, fuzz bass, and a Jew’s harp.

A “pocket symphony” composed of vocal and instrumental segments interwoven over little more than three minutes, “Good Vibrations” was released as a single following the disappointing American sales of Pet Sounds. It sold nearly 400,000 copies in its first four days of release in October 1966 and reached number one in both America and Britain. Its original, apparently seamless mixture of different performances on a single record helped redefine the pop idiom.

When the Beach Boys toured the UK shortly after the release of “Good Vibrations” in 1966, the British New Musical Express readers’ poll voted them the most popular group in the world, displacing the Beatles. Wilson was meanwhile collaborating on Smile with a clever twenty-three-year-old studio musician named Van Dyke Parks. Wilson considered the bookish Parks, who had a penchant for puns and abstract imagery, the ideal lyrical foil for an album that would consummate his “spiritual sound” and apply the collage-like production methods of “Good Vibrations” to a full-length record.

Recognition of Wilson’s genius and his evident musical advances was widespread at this time, partly because of his effort to remake the Beach Boys’ image into that of serious pop musicians. The group hired a former Beatles publicist to mount a press campaign, and Wilson immersed himself in Los Angeles’s counterculture, where close admirers in the underground music press doted on him.4 Separated from the touring Beach Boys, Wilson mixed with a fawning coterie of intellectual groupies who stimulated him with ideas and substances uncommon to his suburban upbringing, such as cybernetics, Eastern mysticism, hashish, and amphetamine.

Smile‘s release was delayed as months of recording passed; in the meantime, cover art for the album was designed and reports from the press raised expectations of an exceptional work. Wilson was also featured in an April 1967 CBS television special, “Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution,” concluding the program with a solo rendition (filmed in November 1966) of one of Smile‘s highlights, the ironically titled “Surf’s Up.” The show’s host, Leonard Bernstein, introduced Wilson as “one of today’s most important pop musicians,” describing the song as “poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity.”

But as ideas and hours of tape accumulated in the studio, Wilson’s behavior grew increasingly erratic. He planted his piano in a large sandbox in the den of his house, installed a tree house in the doorway, erected a giant tent in the living room, and moved furniture around to make space for gym mats and exercise equipment that were never used. He became paranoid, suspecting Phil Spector of putting him under surveillance and his father (whom he had fired as the group’s manager in 1965) of bugging his house, and he held business meetings in the pool at odd hours. At a notorious recording session for the Fire segment of the “Elements” suite, entitled “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” he lit a small fire and insisted that everyone in the studio wear red fire helmets. He later learned that a nearby building had burned down that night, and believed the screeching, howling inferno he had recorded was somehow responsible. “That would have been a really bad vibration to let out on the world, that Chicago fire,” he said, and locked away the tapes.

Wilson completed much of Smile‘s instrumental recording by December 1966. When the other Beach Boys returned from their triumphant tour of Britain to record the vocals, they were perplexed by his fragmented music and aghast at the number of interlopers that surrounded him. According to David Anderle, a confidant of Wilson’s whose interviews with the rock journalist Paul Williams offered some of the earliest insights into Smile, “Not only were they hearing things they’d never heard from Brian,” but because the Beatles hadn’t yet released Sgt. Pepper, with its own ambitious mixture of disparate musical elements and surreal lyrics, “there was no way to relate to what Brian was putting down.”

Mike Love was especially exasperated by the inscrutable lyrics, such as the phrase “columnated ruins domino”: he aggressively questioned Van Dyke Parks about their meaning, precipitating Parks’s departure. The unraveling of Wilson’s support group and his dwindling confidence that he could realize his musical vision exacerbated his increasing fragility; after some months of diffuse effort he had another nervous breakdown. It was announced in May 1967 that Smile had been scrapped.

A profusion of unauthorized recordings of the original Smile sessions circulate widely among Beach Boys enthusiasts. They collect songs in various states of construction and varying grades of fidelity, as well as innumerable melodic fragments, amorphous variations of musical themes, and experimental oddities—such as “George Fell into His French Horn,” in which Wilson directs a band of horn players to talk through their horns. These recordings remain fascinating for the glimpses they provide into Wilson’s process of composition, especially when they are combined on certain audio mixes to give a tantalizing impression of being complete. They also give the listener an idea of the unwieldy amount of material Wilson found so difficult to organize into the masterpiece he intended to produce.


It was not until thirty-six years later, in 2003, that Wilson was able to revisit these recordings. He did so with Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, a retro-pop group that has found its calling as Wilson’s musical backing. They helped to prepare his successful Pet Sounds tour of 1998, and Wilson was receptive afterward to the idea of similarly resurrecting Smile for live performance. Sahanaja loaded the extant Smile material onto his computer in order to review it with Wilson, making it easier than it had been in 1966 to sort and recombine the many segments. Van Dyke Parks (whose own eclectic career had produced two minor masterpieces of idiosyncratic Americana, Song Cycle and Discover America) soon joined the effort, providing some new lyrics.

As one of the many who have tried to edit fragments and incomplete mixes of Smile songs into an approximation of what the album might have been, I greatly admire how the material is interpreted on the Nonesuch recording. The treatment by Wilson and his collaborators of the original recordings as a musical score (albeit in pieces) affirms the flexible method of studio production he realized on “Good Vibrations” and sought to apply on Smile.

A principal innovation of Wilson’s was his extensive use of the studio as a compositional element, layering vocals and instruments in unusual combinations, coloring them with echo and reverberation, and piecing different tape sources together into individual songs, a technique he called “modular” recording. Wilson and the Wondermints replicate Smile‘s whimsical fragments with uncanny precision, but they map them out in a dramatic and thematically coherent sequence. The result is a display of vividly imaginative music by one of pop music’s best composers.

In the album’s introduction, the hymn-like a capella harmonies of the wordless “Our Prayer” are slowed one measure from the original. They segue into the exhilarating “Heroes and Villains,” which had been released in an abridged form in 1967, with a line (“How I love my girl!”) borrowed from the song “Gee” by the Fifties doo-wop group the Crows. Dizzying vocal harmonies accompany the lyrical narration of a romantic adventure with a mestizo girl in the “Spanish and Indian home” of the Old West:

Once at night, cotillion squared, the fight

and she was right in the rain of the bullets that eventually brought her down

But she’s still dancing in the night

unafraid of what a dude’ll do in a town full of heroes and villains.

Like much of Smile, the song is more a sustained flow of whimsical imagery and music than it is a typical pop song.

A synopsis of the album’s Americana theme, “Roll Plymouth Rock” (originally titled “Do You Like Worms?”) begins with an ominous sound of timpani and the lines “Waving from the ocean liners/beaded cheering Indians behind them/Rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over.” The latter line links together references to early rock-and-roll stars Bill Haley (“Rock Around the Clock”) and Chuck Berry (“Roll Over Beethoven”) with the site of the Pilgrims’ landing as part of the album’s pop exploration of American mythology.

A tinkling, music-box version of the “Heroes and Villains” theme then precedes guttural, faux-Indian chants, which underlie the lines “Ribbon of concrete, just see what you’ve done/ done to the church of the American Indian.” A play on the “ribbon of highway” lyric of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” the phrase “ribbon of concrete” alternates on the second refrain with the words “Bicycle Rider,” a possible reference to Bicycle “Rider Back” playing cards, first manufactured in 1885. In the album’s cartoonish way, both images suggest the inexorable westward expansion of American settlers. Hawaiian chants usher in the end of the song (“the social structure steamed upon Hawaii”), looking toward the Bicycle Rider’s final destination.

Another song, “Cabin Essence,” successfully completes an arrangement that had been left unfinished in 1966. Brian Wilson said long ago that the song was about railroads,

and I wondered what the perspective was of the spike. Those Chinese laborers working on the railroads, like they’d be hitting the thing…but looking away too, and noticing, say, a crow flying overhead…the Oriental mind going off on a different track.

Between folky illustrations of pastoral life on the frontier (“I want to watch you, windblown, facing/waves of wheat for your embracing”) are interspersed forceful clangs and chants (“Who ran the iron horse?”), conveying the impact of the railroad on the developing West. The lyrics allude variously to “Home on the Range,” “America the Beautiful,” and Guthrie’s “Grand Coulee Dam,” the latter punned with the derogatory word for a Chinese laborer, “coolie” (“have you seen the Grand Coulee workin’ on the railroad?”). The closing line, “Over and over, the crow cries uncover the corn field,” has the ring of a Chinese proverb adapted to the American landscape.

Smile‘s centerpiece, “Surf’s Up” (“aboard a tidal wave”), remains the album’s grandest song, the acme of the collaboration between Wilson and Parks. It comes at the end of the “Childhood” suite, contrasting the shortcomings of adult civilization with the innocence of youth. Over resonant piano chords, elliptical lyrics depict impending catastrophe amid myopic cultural ostentation:

Hung velvet over taking me.

Dim chandelier awaken me.

To a song dissolved in the dawn.

The music hall—A costly bow.

The music all is lost for now,

to a muted trumpeter swan.

Columnated ruins domino!

The worldly images seem vaguely apocalyptic:

The glass was raised, the fired-roast.

The fullness of the wine.

A dim last toasting.

While at Port, adieu or die.

The song’s stirring coda, “Child is father of the man,” is a melodious chant whose words are borrowed from Wordsworth’s poem “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold.” Wilson explained in 1966 that the end of “Surf’s Up” reveals “the joy of enlightenment, of seeing God. And what is it? A children’s song! And then there is the song itself; the song of children; the song of the universe rising and falling in wave after wave.”

The subsequent “Elements” suite presents a rush of impressionistic music: the sound of celery-munching on the earthy “Vega-Tables,” slide whistles and marimba touches on the alternately airy and bursting “Wind Chimes,” vertiginous strings and crashing cymbals on the conflagration of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” The suite concludes with “In Blue Hawaii,” a piece that brings the American drift westward to an end. The song contains what was previously known as the “water chant,” a wordless string of syllables (“wa-wa-ho-wa”) that sound vaguely Hawaiian, and has new lyrics by Parks that reflect Wilson’s psychological torment in the years since Smile‘s inception: “Is it hot as hell in here, or is it me?/It really is a mystery/If I die before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take my misery/I could really use a drop to drink.”

Appended at the very end of the album is a new and inferior “Good Vibrations” that restores Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher’s unfamiliar early verses, which weren’t used in the original 1967 version. Despite the song’s important part in the album’s conception, Wilson was always ambivalent about its inclusion on Smile, and its place at the end of this release makes sense as a crowd-pleasing encore.

Despite the eclecticism of the album’s instrumentation and its thematic conceits, which can seem haphazardly ambitious when described, Smile is impressively melodic and accessible. Now that he is sixty-three, Wilson’s voice no longer has the range it once had, but it retains an earnestness that is expressive and often poignant. The colorful vocal harmonies also lack the special quality of the Beach Boys’ voices, but Smile expressed such a personal vision and realizing it was such a trial for Wilson that it is easy to understand why he has redone the album in his own way and released it under his own name. He probably wouldn’t have completed it, however, if he didn’t have help from Darian Sahanaja, Van Dyke Parks, and the recording engineer Mark Linnett, who had prepared mixes of Smile songs for an aborted release in the late Eighties.

The album’s sequence is essentially a composite of the many unauthorized versions conceived by various enthusiasts over the past several decades, but the thread of motifs and graceful segues give the material a wholeness it has never before enjoyed. The original Smile tapes of the 1960s, which contain many unreleased and still completely unknown recordings, have never been officially released because Wilson had previously refused to revive the music and confront his memories of a troubled period. Some listeners are unhappy that the original recordings have not yet appeared, but their release is now probably inevitable.

Once thought drastically uncommercial, Smile has become the occasion of Wilson’s commercial rebirth. He received a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance early this year, and the album has sold more copies than any of his other solo releases. Members of the boomer generation and young listeners have been equally enthusiastic about his world tour, which has been highly popular. Smile, an album that became a pop music myth largely because it was never released, is finally finished. Its completion validates the album’s complex history, and convincingly reaffirms Wilson’s originality and musical genius.


Smile’ January 12, 2006

  1. 3

    Released by Capitol Records in 1997, the Pet Sounds Sessions box set presents selections from the session recordings over three discs. For more on the recording of Pet Sounds, see Charles L. Granata, Wouldn’t It Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (Chicago Review, 2003).

  2. 4

    These writers and hangers-on had considerable access to Brian Wilson’s music during the making of Smile and are primarily responsible for the myth-making that followed its abandonment. Domenic Priore has compiled their articles and interviews in his formidably large scrapbook, Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, published by Last Gasp in 1997.

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