Myths, speculation, anecdotes, assumptions and pure flights of fantasy, shroud rock/pop’s most reverential unreleased album, ‘Smile’. Recorded between May of 66 and 67, the adumbrate conceptually ambitious magnum opus has remained aloof; taking on a role as music’s holy grail: much better envisioned in its unheard state; or remaining hidden in a Howard Hughes paranoid style secured vault. Such is the anticipation for this ethereal relic that its brilliance can never, truly, meet expectations. It should, perhaps, remain just in the minds of fans.
However its content will not come as a total surprise to many. From almost day one, the initial sessions have been leaked, bootlegged, cut and pasted, and re-recorded to appear as snapshots of ‘what could have been’ on numerous Beach Boy albums. From the scrabbled together but charmingly sinecure ‘Smiley Smile’ of late 67, to the Brian Wilson/Wondermints reboot of ‘Smile’ in 2004, we have been fed, piecemeal, sections of the original version. Now, as Brian Wilson intended (or as damn near to it), those much revered and prized master-tapes are now seeing the light of day.
An agreed running order, accompanied by an abundance of varied mixes, out-takes, experimental distractions, chatter and extras are gathered together for this, the ultimate and final word, ‘The Smile Sessions’ boxset. Cynics (Christ, there’s some mean-spirited souls out there -especially on the Guardian forum) may be far from impressed – they do have some good points – about the commercially timely release of an album which has been jerked around, and seen countless official, and unofficial, versions of the key tracks make it onto the market in one form or another; yet it seems petty to pour scorn on this lavish package, as the lions share of the featured tracks remained languishing, recondite and unloved until now. Whether its the 2 CD set, or the limited edition 5 CD set and vinyl editions, we can all now hear the Wilson brothers, Jardine, Johnston and Love with the camarilla of producers, Wrecking crew sessions players and writers, all feverishly praising Brian’s hopes, revelations and innovations onto wax.
‘Smile’ was part of the musical space race between the UK and U.S of A; though to be more specific, a perceived battle between the ‘pools Beatles, and California’s golden boys. Tit-for-tat, the Beach Boys had surged ahead with the teenage symphonic pop opus ‘Pet Sounds’; a retort to ‘Rubber Soul’. In turn, the Beatles ‘Revolver’ sent an already damaged Brian Wilson into a funk. He answered with the most expensive (up until that time) and expansive single in recording history, ‘Good Vibrations’. At least holding his rivals at bay for a summer, Wilson began work on the eventual, ‘Smile’ suite; an American musical odyssey from the Pilgrim Fathers’ Plymouth Rock, via a travail across the country that ends on the shores of the golden state of California, influenced by, and featuring Gershwin, doo-wop, Peggy Lee and the folklore of the pioneer spirit. Unfortunately tensions had split the group into two, with Mike Love voicing concerns at the direction the group were heading: favoring a more commercial route, Love would sulk at the increasingly sophisticated and clever lyrics adopted by Brian – calling it “avant-garde shit” in one heated exchange. But then in context, their last couple of releases had actually flunked with the fans; selling at much low levels then their previous material: it seems bewildering to us now, but ‘Pet Sounds’ was initially a British phenomenon , with the US only catching on at a later date to its genius. It didn’t help either that Brian brought in – after much harassment – the intellectual, and wise cat Van Dyke Parks, whose unique assiduous lyrics proved enlightening and deep; fuelled as they were by copius amounts of amphetamines and marijuana (allegedly!): Love called Park’s contributions, “Acid alliteration”. From fits of depression to contractual problems with the label, not helped by Love’s antagonism, the project was ceremoniously shelved; Brian daunted from the release of ‘Sgt.Pepper’, a month after recordings finished – in a manner he believed his cross Atlantic rivals had beaten him to the punch – returned to his Beverly Hills home and began to par-down, and re-record some of the key tracks from those sessions for the, disappointing, and eventual, ‘Smiley Smile’ album; a compromised album of collated half-finished ideas and half-decent re-interpretations of tracks like ‘Heroes and Villains’.
Forty years later, set loose from legend, ‘The Smile Sessions’ are akin to eavesdropping in on that hallowed epoch. Hearing the studio banter (memorable exchanges include a goofing Brian pretending to fall inside his piano) and the often bare bones of these compositions may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I defy anyone not to be moved by Brian’s stark solo renditions of ‘Surf’s Up’, or by the diaphanous choral, hymn like, demos of ‘Welcome’ and ‘Prayer’. The agreed track-list, which differs only slightly from the 2004 edition of ‘Smile’, is of course the highlight, as all the segments and wandering passages now come together in one seamless mix as intended, with all the original vocals and backing harmonies from the group, at their peak – a completists dream. You’d need a heart harder then Pharaohs to tip a bucket of cold-sick over this release, regardless of its obvious money-spinning intentions that coincide with the bands 50th anniversary. Perhaps we can at least hear for ourselves if this mythical work deserves its coveted status, or just treat ourselves: it’s the Beach Boys for Christ sake!