The Beach Boys' Smile Special

This week's show (the last of the year before the Christmas break) was another special (after last week's Christmas extravaganza, which, not surprisingly also featured The Beach Boys), dedicated to The Beach Boys and in particular the Smile album, which was finally officially released this year. I was joined on the show by guest Stephen Purcell, who is a colleague at UCC 98.3FM.

After meeting for the first time recently at the station, we quickly established a love of The Beach Boys as something we had in common. However, whereas I would call myself a big fan of the band, Stephen is "hardcore". So, to mark the end of the year when the original Smile recordings were finally released, we decided to devote a show to talking about the album, the band and Brian Wilson as a creative force in popular music. And Stephen also kindly agreed to contribute a superbly detailed background to the album, giving a great insight into the personalities involved in these landmark recordings.

*Unfortunately, due to a technical hitch on the day, the planned podcast of the show didn't materialise, but we're hoping to rectify this, stay tuned...

** it is, the promised re-recorded podcast of this programme, recorded on location in the very welcoming surroundings of The Oval Bar in Cork. Again, my thanks to Stephen for taking the time to contribute to the show.

Smile Pod by Underground of Happiness3's the Beach Boys
by Stephen Purcell

My first taste of The Beach Boys kind of went hand in hand with my first taste of "egg and chips". Every Friday afternoon my mother would do the grocery shopping which in turn meant that dinner duty was in the hands of my old man. Now before the days of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, there was a man who went by the name Billy Purcell. Although Stuffed Duck Charles Vaucher wasn't a common occurrence, egg and chips certainly were. A typical Friday would consist of the three siblings, me, my younger brother and my younger sister, sitting around the kitchen table to the sounds of my Dad’s cassette stereo. Most of the records he owned had been copied on to a c90 for easier access. The soundtrack to these Friday afternoons consisted of Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, Neil Young, The Beatles, Abba, The Eagles, The Police, The Carpenters and one other band I seemed to take to more so than any of the others. That band...The Beach Boys.

Having established that my first introduction to the band was at the dinner table, my first actual purchase came in the form of a double cassette by the band called California Gold. It was a German-only release that somehow made its way to a second hand shop in Limerick. This double album (in essence a greatest hits collection) was where my real obsession with the Beach Boys began.

You might ask...why the Beach Boys? why not the Beatles? or even the Eagles for that matter. In retrospect, the angelic five piece vocal harmonies, songs about sun, surf and Southern California, coupled with a real sense of positivity and the American way just said something to me. After all, growing up in Limerick City in the mid 80's wasn't exactly overwhelming. Maybe as a young eight year old it was my first introduction to escapism. An interesting observation would be to ask myself the same question now, 25 years later. Is it actually a means of escapism? Does the music take me somewhere else? or do I just recognise the extraordinary talent that is Brian Wilson? What exactly is it about The Beach Boys that is so fascinating to me? and more importantly why am I sitting here in my jocks writing about it?

Before I touch on the beauty that is the Beach Boys Smile album it would be interesting to note the events that led up to its release. These are important details that explain why it took over 40 years for the Smile album to be released in its original form.

Brian Wilson formed the Beach Boys in 1961. The band was made up of Brian (bass / vocals), his brother Dennis (drums / vocals), his other brother Carl (guitar / vocals) his cousin Mike Love (vocals) and a school friend Al Jardine (guitar / vocals). Although Brian was deaf in one ear, that didn't stop him writing hit after hit in the early sixties. Most if not all of the early Beach Boys singles were songs about surfing and cars. The crazy thing is Brian couldn't even swim, not to mind surf. The only one that did any real surfing was Brian’s little brother and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. It was Dennis who suggested to Brian that he should write some songs about surfing as it was what the kids did and could relate to at that time.

By 1964 the Beach Boys had six albums under their belt. Including an unheard of 3 albums alone (Surfin USA, Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe) released in 1963. By 1964 the stress of road travel coupled with a self-created stress of maintaining a high level of creativity in regards to composing and producing took its toll on Brian. In December of that year, just a week before the release of the first Beach Boys Christmas album, Brian suffered an anxiety attack on a flight to Houston, Texas. Shortly afterwards Brian announced his withdrawal from touring to concentrate entirely on song writing and production. For the remainder of '64 and into '65 Brian was replaced by renowned country singer Glen Campbell.

Too many Beach Boys fans would go on record to say that 1966 and 1967 are recognised as the most important years in the bands career. I would argue that 1965 changed the direction of music forever. A brave statement but one I would certainly stand by. With Brian now fully retired from live touring, he became infatuated with the studio. At the suggestion of close friends Jan & Dean (60's surf song specialists), Brian began using session musicians in the studio. While the Beach Boys remained on the road through 1965, Brian was maturing at an enormous pace. The songwriting had become both intricate and adventurous, the production was getting bigger and bolder and more importantly, 1965 found Brian opening up lyrically.

Coming out of 1965, it was obvious that a lot of pressure had been on Brian since Surfin' Safari started their string of chart success in 1962. At this stage Brian was only 23 years old and already the Beach Boys had produced thirteen US top 20 singles, as well as ten full length albums. Eight of which made it into the top 10 in the billboard chart.

That December, 1965, The Beatles released Rubber Soul, an album which enthralled Brian Wilson. Until then, each Beach Boys album (like most rock albums) contained a few "filler tracks" like cover songs or even stitched-together comedy bits. Wilson found Rubber Soul filled with all-original songs and, more importantly, all good ones, none of them filler. Inspired, he rushed to his wife and proclaimed, "Marilyn, I'm gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!”

Not only did Lennon and McCartney influence Brian to take on this massive feat, the introduction of psychedelic drugs made Brian turn his attention inward and probed his deep-seated self-doubts and emotional longings. The result, the 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. There was some resistance from within the band to this new direction. Lead singer Mike Love is reported to have been strongly opposed to it, calling it "Brian's ego music", and warning the composer not to "fuck with the formula". Even the album’s title derived from Love’s "Who's gonna hear this shit? The ears of a dog?"

However, that didn't stop Brian from hiring LA based session musicians the Wrecking Crew, The Wrecking Crew were known to be the most successful group of studio musicians in studio history, contributing in large part to the success of Phil Spector and his "wall of sound" recordings. The album, which features the songs God Only Knows, I Just Wasn't Made for these Times and Caroline, No, is ranked by many critics among the greatest records ever recorded. (Rolling Stone magazine, for example, placed Pet Sounds at No. 2 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.) Paul McCartney named it his favourite album and called God Only Knows one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

With the help of lyricist Tony Asher, Brian pushed the boundaries for a rock n roll record. Never before had anybody heard a production so elaborate. Layers of vocal harmonies, coupled with sound effects and unconventional instruments such as bicycle bells, buzzing organs, harpsichords, flutes, Electro-Theremin, dog whistles, trains, Hawaiian-sounding string instruments, Coca-Cola cans and barking dogs, along with the more usual keyboards and guitars. Let it be said that Brian did it first. Not John Lennon, not Paul McCartney, not any of the Beatles. Before the over-hyped release of Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, Brian Wilson lead the way for innovation, musical creativity and sheer genius in the world of music composition and production. Although it wasn't recognised as a masterpiece at the time, particularly in the States, where its initial release failed to reach gold status. It was the UK that really "got it" and over the years championed the importance of Pet Sounds. In recent years, It has been ranked at #1 in several music magazines' lists of greatest albums of all time, including the (cough) NME, The Times and Mojo Magazine. As mentioned above, It was also ranked 2 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.

So, put yourself in Brian Wilson’s shoes. It's the fall of 1966, you're 24 years old, You've just released one of the most influential albums of all time, You've spent more than $50,000 from February to August that year trying to record one song (Good Vibrations), your record company aren't too happy with the success and direction of the previous album (Pet Sounds) and now you plan is to "take your work on Pet Sounds to a new level".

This "teenage symphony to God" would become the Smile album. Originally titled Dumb Angel, the Smile album was to become the most famous unreleased album of all time. Born out of the Pet Sounds sessions (more importantly the Good Vibrations sessions), Smile, put simply, is a work of intense creativity. Good Vibrations was created by an unprecedented recording technique: nearly 30 minutes of barely-related musical sections were recorded, then painstakingly spliced together and reduced into a three-minute pop song. Many within the Beach Boys' camp were sceptical, but the song quickly became the band's biggest hit yet, which went to #1 in both Britain and the USA. Smile was intended to be an entire album produced in the same fashion.

Noting the previous lyrical collaboration with Tony Asher on Pet Sounds, this time it was the turn of singer, musician, composer and lyricist Van Dyke Parks. Wilson invited Parks to write lyrics for the new album in the Spring of 1966, when the project was provisionally being called Dumb Angel. The two quickly formed a close and fruitful working relationship, and between April and September 1966 they co-wrote a number of major songs, including Surf's Up, Heroes and Villains, Wonderful, Cabin Essence and Wind Chimes, all of which were written in the famous sandbox that Brian had installed in his home.

Their first collaboration was Heroes and Villains. Wilson has recalled that when he played the song's descending melody line to him, Parks devised the opening line on the spot. Their most acclaimed song, Surf's Up, was written in the course of a single night. It is also interesting to note that Tony Asher wrote the original lyrics for Good Vibrations, but the hit version released in October 1966 featured a new set of lyrics co-written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love. Wilson had in fact asked Parks to write new lyrics for Good Vibrations, but Parks declined, preferring not to enter a project which was already underway.

Although the concept for Smile was never 100% established, several key features of the album are generally acknowledged: both musically and lyrically, Wilson and Parks intended Smile to be explicitly American in content. This was a reaction to how popular British music, and more importantly the worldwide dominance of The Beatles, had become. It was supposedly conceived as a musical journey across America from east to west, beginning at Plymouth Rock and ending in Hawaii, taking in some of the great themes of modern American history and culture, including the impact of white settlement on native Americans, the influence of the Spanish, the Wild West, and the opening up of the country by rail road and highway.

Wilson's experiments with LSD were undoubtedly another significant influence on the texture and structure of the work, and one of the strongest intellectual influences on his thinking at this time was his friend Loren Schwartz, who is said to have introduced Brian to both marijuana and LSD. British publication The Guardian recently commented on the re-release of Smile by saying "Isolated, dislocated, scared: Smile often sounds like the work of a very lonely man. There's not much in the way of company when you're way ahead of everyone else". A valid statement in my opinion that is backed up by a notable but not very publicised fact. Writer Bill Tobelman suggests that Smile is filled with coded references to Brian's life and his LSD experiences (a presumed Lake Arrowhead, California 'trip' being the most important). He also argues it was heavily influenced by Wilson's interest in Zen philosophy - notably the Zen technique of using absurd humour and paradoxical riddles (the koan) to liberate the mind from preconceptions — and that Smile as a whole can be interpreted as an extended Zen koan. Tobelman modified his theory upon discovering the construction of the Smile riddle was based upon Arthur Koestler's book, The Act of Creation.

According to most sources, Brian Wilson began to encounter serious problems with Smile around late November 1966; some of this can be ascribed to his increasingly fragile mental state (by then, he was beginning to exhibit signs of depression and paranoia), but it is now evident that there was vehement opposition to the project from within the band. It is reported that, during the recording session for the Fire section of the Elements Suite (Smile tracks) at Gold Star Studios on November 28, Brian became irrationally concerned that the music had been responsible for starting several fires in the neighbourhood of the studio. For many years, it was rumoured that Wilson had tried to burn the tapes of this session, but that was not the case, although he did abandon the Fire piece for good. No recording of anything but the introduction to the original "Fire" tapes has been released, though most of the song was heard on the 1985 Beach Boys television special (and subsequent VHS and DVD release), The Beach Boys: An American Band. It has also been noted in several accounts that Parks deliberately stayed away from the session (during which Wilson encouraged the musicians to wear toy firemen hats), and that he later described Wilson's behaviour as "regressive".

In addition to Brian's possible mental health problems, and his many personal, family and creative pressures, there were other significant business and legal pressures surrounding the Beach Boys during the recording of Smile. These included contractual disputes with Capitol over royalty payments and the band's attempt to terminate their then contract, which was a legacy of Murry's management (the Wilsons’ father), and establish their own label, Brother Records.

During early 1967, Brian's behaviour became increasingly erratic, and his use of drugs escalated, but while this was a concern for some of his friends, he was still completely functional in the studio. Although stories of his sometimes bizarre "off-duty" behaviour became the stuff of legend, the session musicians who worked with him during this period have stated that he was totally professional in the studio.

In retrospect, arguably the most significant reason why Smile was repeatedly postponed, and finally scrapped, was conflict within the group, particularly the increasing antagonism between Mike Love and the Wilson/Parks partnership, although there was also opposition to the project from Capitol Records and from the band’s manager, and father of Brian, Carl and Dennis, Murry Wilson.

Love later stated that he was suspicious of the new friends with whom Brian was associating — and that his opposition to these people whom he regarded as hangers-on, who were exploiting Brian and supplying him with "hard" drugs — was another major source of conflict. Love has suggested that some of those who have since been critical of him did so because he had told them to "take a hike". Love also denied disliking Pet Sounds, and claimed that he liked the Smile music and only disliked the lyrics.

However, this is strongly disputed by several other participants, most notably Van Dyke Parks. Responding to Love's claims in a letter to the editor of UK music magazine Mojo, Parks was strongly critical of Love's comments — which he described as "revisionism" — and he was unequivocal in citing Love's hostility to Smile as one of the major factors in Brian's decision to abandon the project. In 2004 Brian stated that Love's antagonism was one of the major deciding factors in the cancellation of the album, stating "he hated it."

"The reasons that I didn't release Smile for one, Mike didn't like it...he hated it. He hated it."

Another significant event, cited in the Beautiful Dreamer documentary, was Brian's first time hearing The Beatles' new single Strawberry Fields Forever (presumably around mid-February 1967, the US release date – ed.). He heard the song while driving his car, and was so struck by it that he had to pull over and listen; he then commented to Michael Vosse, his passenger, that The Beatles had "got there first". Although he apparently later laughed about that comment, the stunning new Beatles production had affected him deeply.

After this episode, Wilson vehemently continued work, mostly on Heroes and Villains. Throughout the first half of 1967, the album's release date was repeatedly postponed as Wilson tinkered with the recordings, experimenting with different takes and mixes, unable or unwilling to supply a completed version of the album. In early March 1967, after gradually distancing himself from Wilson and the group and frustrated by the lack of progress, Van Dyke Parks finally quit the project.

Capitol Records evidently still hoped to the last that Smile might eventually appear, but on 6 May, only a few weeks before the release of The Beatles' groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, The Beach Boys' press officer Derek Taylor announced to the British press that the Smile project had been shelved, and that the album would not be released.

Jack Rieley revealed during a 1996 online Q&A that the commercial failure of Heroes and Villains was the final cataclysmic blow to the Smile project and Wilson's self-confidence as a musician. Brian had expected that Heroes & Villains would be greeted by Capitol as the work which put the Beach Boys on a creative par with the Beatles. All the adoration and promotional backup Capitol was giving the Beatles would also flow to his music because of Heroes & Villains, he thought. And the public? It would greet Heroes & Villains with the same level of overwhelming enthusiasm that the Beatles received with record after record. As it was, Capitol execs were divided about Heroes & Villains. Some loved it but others castigated the track, longing instead for still more surfing/cars songs. The public bought the record in respectable but surely not wowy zowy numbers. For Brian, this was the ultimate failure. His surfing/car songs were the ones they loved the most. His musical growth, unlike that of Lennon and McCartney, did not translate into commercial ascendancy or public glory.

Fast forward to 2003 and the USA's Showtime Cable Network are recording a documentary on Brian Wilson. In the documentary Brian performs pieces of Smile by himself on a piano in the front room of his house. Thrilled with the documentation, Brian decides not only to revisit and complete the entire album (from mostly memory), he shocks many of his peers and even his band mates by deciding to perform it live in concert.

For the new version Brian, Darian Sahanaja (keyboard / vocalist of the Brian Wilson band), woodwind player/string arranger Paul Mertens, and lyricist Van Dyke Parks (original Smile collaborator) based their arrangements on the original, unreleased Beach Boys tapes to give it a coherent and fresh, updated sound. Although released to critical acclaim, this version of Smile went under the title Brian Wilson presents: Smile and featured amongst others: fresh takes of Brian's vocals (at 62 years old), none of the original Beach Boys’ voices (instead the parts were taken by Brian's current touring band), extremely over-produced versions of the songs that lacked the raw, emotive undercurrent of the original Smile sessions (for many years bootlegs of the original Smile sessions had been distributed to satisfy fans).

Welcomed by and large, the 2004 version of Smile went on to win a Grammy, while also receiving rave reviews worldwide. While Beach Boys fans rejoiced in its release, a lot of the hardcore contingent still wanted to see Capitol Records release the original Smile tapes from the vault.

On February 3, 2011, Alan Jardine (Beach Boys guitarist / vocalist) spoke to to inform them that "Capitol Records plans to issue a Beach Boys version of Smile sometime this summer to begin the celebration of The Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary. Smile is the Holy Grail for Beach Boys’ fans, so it will be good." Jardine also mentioned that The Beach Boys "didn't do any new recording. I'm happy to see it finally come out. Brian’s changed his mind about releasing the material, but it was inevitable, wasn’t it?" Being part of the "hardcore contingent" I for one didn't take much notice. Every other week there was to be a new version of Smile. One week it's rumoured to be an instrumental-only version (as the original vocal tapes were missing), the next it's the original voices of the Beach Boys edited to modern day instrumentation. On March 11th, 2011, Capitol Records issued a press release stating that Smile would finally be released in all its glory in summer 2011.

The original instrumentation, the original voices, the original production, the original players, the original concept, the original tapes...finally, after 43 years we were going to get our hands on The Smile Sessions.

Many believe that the track listing presented on The Smile Sessions is different than it would have been on the original 1967 Smile album. Interviews by Mark Linett (producer) and others say that they "presented the whole piece as close to it as was envisioned, or as is envisioned, as possible". Of course, no one can ever know what exactly the album would have been like had it been released in 1967. Brian Wilson has stated that the exact running order was not decided upon until 2004, and that the original Smile would have been less "uplifting".

From the stunning accapella opener Our Prayer, to the roller-coaster pop perfection of Good Vibrations, Smile is simply stunning. Every ingredient of a classic album is present. It is easy to see why Brian Wilson is constantly referred to as a Genius; the song structure, the unconventional rhythms and bass lines, the vocal arrangements, everything Brian touched was so far ahead of its time. The original tapes also have the original Beach Boys voices which makes it even more appealing. The original Carl Wilson vocal on the track Wonderful for example stands head and shoulders above Brian's 2004 effort. Likewise on Wind Chimes, there is something about the presence of Carl on this track that reflects its true beauty. Let's not forget, although Brian is credited for one of the most renowned Beach Boys songs God Only Knows, the lead vocal, again, was that of Carl Wilson. Smile really is a see-saw of emotions. The only way to truly experience its majestic beauty is to hear it for yourself. Some may argue that Pet Sounds is the Beach Boys "piece de la resistance" while others may argue that in fact Smile is the band at their true peak. The funny thing is, although both albums are truly astounding, I believe Brian Wilson took it one step further with the less publicised release of the Beach Boys’ Love You album in 1977. However, like any good Wilson story, that era (and album) also comes with a storied past.

As a huge fan of both Brian and the Beach Boys, I have had the pleasure of seeing him play live many, many times. Both my (poor) girlfriend and I have met many many people that became great friends over the years from these gigs. From salesmen to journalists, priests to doctors. teachers to musicians, film makers to shipping dockers. All connected through one man and his music. There is nothing like a post-Wilson gig piss-up. Most of the hardcore fans book in to the same hotel. The guitars are out and the sing along takes in just about every obscure Wilson track that ever was. Hours upon hours of endless harmony, if you will. Do we all sit around and talk about Brian and his music like some sort of weird cult. It would be easy to think that way, but you'd be far off the mark. At the end of the day it's just music. It just happens that Brian Wilson had some serious issues and is viewed as somewhat of a cabbage from the constant excess.

I don't see any difference between the “cult of Brian Wilson” and going to see a Munster match in Paris, a United match in Old Trafford or a Justin Bieber gig in the 02. It's something that we all love, it's something we're all invested in both mentally and emotionally, it's something that might pick us up when we're feeling down or fire us on when we've had a rough day. Really, it's not rocket science, it's only music.

I remember the first time I met Brian in person. It was at one of his London shows a good couple of years back. I had no idea what I was going to say to him, and to be honest, looking back there isn't anything I could have said without sounding like a cornball. I opted for the handshake, accompanied by "I really enjoyed the show, the songs sounded great" to which he replied, only as Brian could, "out of sight man". After years and years of obsessive listening, collecting, reading and watching, I can honestly say I couldn't have asked for a better answer.


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