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The Beach Boys’ Cheshire Smile
J. D. Buhl

For a “lost” album, the Beach Boys’ Smile has never been hard to find. Since the moment it was abandoned after several postponements in 1967, its songs have been reconstituted and rerecorded so many times that at least nine of them have been in listeners’ ears for years. The album was almost titled “Dumb Angel,” and like an angel it has always hung just past our shoulder, lending its beauty, humor, contemplation, and vigor to decades of Beach Boys fans as they faced life without the record that should have been the high water mark of the 1960s.

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Now, with Capitol Records’ 2011 release of The Smile Sessions, the little guy has been brought down to earth and most of the mysteries surrounding the album’s construction, incompletion, and subsequent mythical status have been answered. The set includes eighteen tracks from the original recording sessions, a nineteenth track—“Good Vibrations” (a previous hit that would have been included on the 1967 Smile as a label-placating add-on), plus alternate versions, demos, B-sides, and a bracing vocal montage and testimonial that take listeners inside the album’s recording session, when a driven Brian Wilson created his most ambitious artistic statement, his “teenage symphony to God.”

By the looks of things, the original Capitol album would have been twelve tracks long. The original twelve-inch jacket, with the note “See label for correct playing order,” indicated that Wilson had yet to decide how the work would be configured. When he finally walked away from the project after much frustration (the last session was 18 May 1967) boxes of these LP jackets sat in a warehouse awaiting their contents. They were eventually destroyed. So what we get with the 2011 version is not that album but a collection of all the tracks from which Wilson and his co-writer Van Dyke Parks (and the Beach Boys themselves) had to choose.

Unable to make something meaningful out of all those reels of tape, the band began with bits and pieces of the recordings and built new tracks. “Heroes and Villains” was released as a single in July 1967. A substitute album, Smiley Smile, came out in September. Although Smiley Smile is, as Keith Badman has written, “one of the most baffling and bizarre albums to appear from a major rock act” (The Beach Boys, Backbeat Books 2004, p. 200) it did include the versions of “Heroes and Villains,” “Vegetables,” “Wind Chimes,” and “Wonderful” that Beach Boys fans would come to know and love. New or reconstructed versions of “I’m in Great Shape,” “Cabin Essence,” and “Surf’s Up” would follow on less baffling albums in the early 1970s. The days of Brian constructing wondrous backgrounds in large studios with hired musicians, ready-made tracks that the touring group would come home and sing to, were gone after Smile. Now, a small studio had been built in Brian’s house, and the others did much of the work. Smiley Smile bore the credit “Produced by the Beach Boys,” as would several albums to come. By the early 1970s, Brian’s mental health had deteriorated to the point where he had largely withdrawn from the band.

To continue Keith Badman’s quote above, the release of Smiley Smile gave “the underground rock aristocracy… the material with which to crucify them.” The usually praiseful music newspaper Melody Maker said that the band’s “prestige has been seriously damaged.” Carl Wilson admitted that their reputation for forward-thinking pop had been all but destroyed. However, the Beach Boys’ more democratic, back-to-basics studio approach allowed the group to learn how to be the rock band on record that they were on stage. Years before the Beatles realized they needed to “get back” to their roots and cut a stripped-down version of Let It Be, the Beach Boys were in Brian’s studio playing guitars, bass, and drums, covering Stevie Wonder and Ronettes tunes and becoming songwriters and producers in their own right.

The band’s reputation was slow to be redeemed. Even as they grew into a muscular, exciting touring act in the mid-1970s, bravely including new material alongside the oldies, few in the rock press took notice. Two hits compilations from Capitol, Endless Summer (July 1974) and Spirit of America (May 1975) increased demand and edged out new songs on the set list, and the Beach Boys were playing and singing better than ever for “a whole new generation of fans… some of them [not] even as old as the songs themselves,” as Carl said at the time. Their own compilation on Warner Brothers, Good Vibrations: Best of the Beach Boys (1975), included tracks from the great albums that came after Brian’s withdrawal. Those reconstructed fragments from Smile also found a new generation of listeners.

There is a general sense of completion—even “closure”—that surrounds the release of The Smile Sessions. I made a special trip to my local independent record store the day of its release and felt part of something larger than myself, something a long time coming in popular culture. The poster went up in my classroom, and the badge is nice, but the accompanying book is not at all extensive, and it even includes a few mistakes. There are indeed some ­won-won-won-wonderful selections on this new release, but I find myself feeling disappointed. I prefer the earlier well-loved versions of “Heroes and Villains” (a straight-up 3:39 single without all that “Cantina” silliness in the middle), “Surf’s Up” (with Carl’s lovely vocal on the first part before the track gives way to Brian’s original vocal on the second), and even the crunch-crunch of the spritely “Vegetables.”

Smiley Smile might have been, as Carl admitted, “a bunt instead of a grand slam,” and the Beach Boys were accused of “raiding the vaults” for years to come, pilfering what was left of Brian’s big project, but it took guts to even approach such material, chop it down, get it in releasable form, and push on with their career after losing Brian to mental illness (for a time), the respect of the rock press, and their worshipful audiences. Perhaps they’d even lost some of their self-respect and confidence; Brian surely had.

Those fans who stuck by the Beach Boys thank them for seeing this stuff through, enhancing our lives with “Wonderful” (Smiley Smile, 1967), with “Mama Says” (Wild Honey, 1967), with “Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer” (20/20, 1969). For all its beauty, the music of The Smile Sessions brings with it the strain of its time, and the sometimes tighter, sometimes looser re-realized versions of its songs that first entered the world decades ago sound like real works of art after all.

 

J. D. Buhl teaches eighth-grade English and literature at the Casady School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

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