“Mystery is good; confusion is bad,” noted Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan last week. Smile, The Beach Boys’ planned new album for early 1967, has had its share of both surrounding it since the first words were written about it.
Its mystery stems from the fact that it was never finished. Hyped to the skies in the rock press as it was being made, then ultimately abandoned in the face of a complete collapse by creator Brian Wilson, it’s remained one of rock’s most compelling what-if scenarios: what was going to be on it? How would it sound if they finished everything? What would their legacy in the counterculture have been if it had come out in early ‘67?
Confusion came even from within the group’s own ranks, most dramatically observed in Wilson’s writing partner Van Dyke Parks feeling the need to flee the premises following a confrontation with Mike Love about the specific meaning of his abstract lyrics. And in its aftermath, everyone from Wilson on down seemed confused about what was left of it. Legends say Brian burned the masters – you can even see the scene in the ABC TV movie of the week about the Beach Boys. (The entire Smile-era segment of said film is one of the most hysterical things you’ll ever see.)
Forty-plus years of content trickling out gradually, often in tiny amounts- both from Capitol and other, less legit sources sources – failed to clear the murky waters. Even a fanatic collector that had spent years gathering every fragment in circulation could only state with certainty that they knew what was “in circulation” – no one could say with certainty there wasn’t more to be found.
Fortunately for casual fans of sixties music and Smile geeks alike, the release of The Smile Sessions on Capitol manages to preserve the original album’s mystery, while laying a lot of the confusion to rest.
Wilson and Parks, with the assistance of Smile geek and Wilson’s touring keyboardist Darian Sahanaja finally put a period on it in 2004, establishing a complete song list, adding a few lyrics and sequencing a 50-minute concert version that became a well-received album and tour. The first disc of The Smile Sessions presents a sequenced version of what the album could have been using the Beach Boys masters, modeled on the 2004 version as the authoritative word on what’s “in” and what’s merely a bonus track, as well as which arrangement to use.
All of the significant tracks from 1966-67 are here, sounding better than they ever have. But even collectors have never heard these recordings arranged in quite this manner. There are a few segments for which no period vocals exist, and thankfully, no attempt was made to record anything new. Those sneaky producers have however lifted Brian’s voice from a home recording of “Barnyard” and “I’m In Great Shape” (heard in its original form on disc two) and grafted it onto the instrumental tracks, resulting in a “new” recording. These are the only two moments where any apparent Frankenstein job is pulled on the tapes beyond the expected modular editing.
But the Smile mythology remains largely intact, just for the number of unanswered questions. The concept of an “Elements” suite – seen on the original Capitol cover art has been debated for years. My own position on the matter being, since you have an air song (“Wind Chimes”), a water song (“Love To Say Da Da” which later became “Cool Cool Water”) and a fire song (“Mrs O’Leary’s Cow”), you just need an earth song – maybe even represented by “Vege-tables.” And lo and behold, the songs do appear in the final sequence in the order of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, ha ha!
But then comes a news flash – Darian Sahanaja revealed to Aquarium Drunkard a few weeks ago that neither Wilson or Parks had much of a reaction to the idea of an Elements suite when asked directly about it.
So much for that mystery. What we thought was important was really nothing at all, far as anyone who was really there could remember. Maybe it’s more fun not really knowing some things.
As for the mystery of how Brian got these studio musicians to play this stuff, the four CDs worth of session tapes, complete with dialog from behind the board, should tell you all you ever wanted to know. “Make sure you put each one of them out good this time,” Brian instructs the percussionist at the climax of the “Fire” sequence, referring to the three bass players on the session who are meant to be the last remaining embers after the orchestra has faded itself out. For a famously “insane” session, seemingly because Brian thought it would be funny to have the musicians wear fire helmets in the studio, the tape shows a highly deliberate and well thought-out process from a producer who knows just what he wants, and has the ability to direct this team of players into far-out territory. It shows Wilson taking a rational approach to achieve a far-out result.
And boy, is it far-out. Forget completely about the legend, the often sordid history, the missed potential of 1967 and personal tragedy that followed, and just listen. It’s fifty solid minutes of utter magic. As absurd as the lyrics can get, they’re funny, and unstoppably beautiful at every turn. Every moment is accentuated in the most thoughtful way, barroom tack piano for the shootout scene at the cantina, almost inaudible vibraphone swirls creating the breeze behind “Wind Chimes”, the way the vista opens up in the chorus of “Look” like a black and white cartoon suddenly colorizing.
“Surf’s Up” marries Brian’s vocal from 1966 with the completed backing tapes for the first time, and presents a new, revealing mix of those heavenly choruses at its finish. It’s one of the most sublimely rendered pieces of music ever made, made better. The finale of “Holidays”, one of a handful of key songs never to see official release before this set, has a breathtaking finale of dueling vibraphones that is psychedelic, childlike and patriotic at the same time. You smell hear the apple pie in this music as surely as you can in Ives.
And if it’s possible for the listener to grasp metaphor, those lyrics that so upset Mike Love aren’t even challenging. “Cabinessence” is an evocation of manifest destiny and westward expansion, but expressed as a love song. It’s about finding yourself and yourself and your loved one a place to pursue happiness. The couple in the song seem to be doing OK, plucking a banjo while snuggling up in a meadow where “Constellations ebb and flow there/ and witness our home on the range.” Then comes the train, high voices singing the howling wind while the bass repeats “Who ran the Iron Horse?”
This little panorama of pioneer life is followed by the album’s most darkly hilarious lyric, “Have you seen the Grand Coulee/ Workin’ on the railroad?” Marrying a Woody Guthrie line about a famous dam to the plight of the Chinese ralroad workers, in a song about finding happiness through westward expansion… it doesn’t get much better. But then comes the next line, the one that reportedly sent Love over the edge, as the rhythm section swells to big whole, buzzing whole notes and those windy “whoo-oo-ooo” backing vocals come back in–
Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield
Over and over the threshers uncover the wheat field
I don’t know if you’ve ever driven across the middle of this country, but once you have, that sense of unending corn, or wheat, depending whether you’re in Nebraska or Kansas that day, is very vivid. You can go for days without seeing much else.
That’s a perfectly lovely image, not at all hard to comprehend. Maybe Van Dyke Parks should have drawn Love some cartoons.
Completists who already own Smile session bootlegs can hang onto them, this set covers a lot of the same territory but edits the studio dialog for listenability and doesn’t include every known mix variation, nor is that necessarily a bad thing. But it’s also got its share of treasures a milion bootlegs have failed to produce. Besides upping the ante on sound quality from every previously heard source, there are additional sessions you’ve probably never heard (including the ones for “I’m In Great Shape” and “Cool Cool Water”), as well as a comedic Jasper Dailey song called “Teeter-Totter Love”, evidently cut during the same session, that stucks out like a sore thumb in the proceedings. There’s a solo vocal/ piano version of “Surf’s Up” cut during the Wild Honey sessions, with Brian singing the middle “dove nested towers…” section in suspended time. There are a few well-edited montages of backing vocals and studio dialog, which most fans will probably enjoy more than endless hours of real-time session tapes. And there are some new bits of “Psycodelic Sounds” spoken bits, where Brian and his cohorts sit around the mic, smoke joints and try to crack each other up.
I was one of those guys that owned at least 20 hours worth of Smile bootlegs and spent weeks poring through each one to collate my own version from all the tapes I could find. In the three days since I was able to hear this set, I have to say that I’ve never enjoyed listening to this music so much. They’ve found the best versions, and edited them to flow seamlessly from piece to piece. Even the mp3-quality stream I’ve been listening to sounds gorgeous compared to any of the versions I’ve ever found of the same material. It finally works, as a whole, better than ever before.
As with the Pet Sounds Sessions box set with the same basic MO, individual mileage will vary depending on the listener’s attention span for unedited session tapes. A highly affordable 2-CD edition featuring the reconstructed album along with highlights from the sessions will likely be enough for most people. But if you’re already sold on the idea of a Smile box set, I don’t think you’ll be able to resist drooling upon the sight of the genuine article – within a light box of the Smile Shop, no less… It’s the stuff dreams are made of, and I’m pleased to see that such a proper job has been done on such a momentous occasion.