Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson; drawing by David Levine


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


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.

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.

This Issue

September 22, 2005