BEACH BOYS – THE SMILE SESSIONS BOX SET
Here’s another blast from the past… this review appeared in L.A. RECORD in 2011. Here it is, again, a little cleaned up for a summer camp class I’m going to be helping out with.
BEACH BOYS – THE SMILE SESSIONS BOX SET
In 1966, in the wake of the critical acclaim from the masterpiece Pet Sounds, and coasting on the fame and fortune he’d earned for single-handedly competing with the entire nation of England for two whole years, Brian Wilson boasted to the press that the next Beach Boys album would be better still, grandiose beyond reckoning, as evolved from Pet Sounds as Pet Sounds had been from its predecessor, the goofy Beach Boys Party! album.
Finally on November 1, 2011, we’ll be getting the official, Capitol Records, Mike-and-Al-sanctioned confirmation that he was absolutely right. While Pet Sounds gets the accolades, consistently coming up number one in lists of the greatest albums of all time (Rolling Stone placed it as number 2, below onlySgt. Pepper), it’s now crystal clear that Pet Sounds was supposed to be just the wedge end of a growing block of masterful songwriting and recording genius—yes, the title “genius” is correct, despite what the elder Brian himself claims. Furthermore, it’s obvious from this box set (you can also get the gist of things in a two CD or two album set, though we know our readers will go the full monty on the big version with all the trimmings) that the Smile sessions were NOT written, arranged, and recorded by a paranoid recluse whose mental illness had clouded his judgment—that would come later for Brian. Here, the only thing crazy is how intricate and beautiful the music is. Not only the songs themselves, but the meticulous false starts, the outtakes, the bonus ditties, and even the lighthearted banter with session drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Carol Kaye all show that Brian Wilson was in complete control of a masterful vision from start to near-finish. Done right, Smile could have tossed Pet Sounds around like a tidal wave, and maybe even made the Beatles yearn for yesterday. Though we’ll never know the answer to the mystery of what might have been, this collection gives us our best guess, while at the same time shattering any myths about what was assumed never could be.
You, fair reader, probably know those myths and never believed them, though it’s hard to avoid romancing the Smile saga. To rehash a tale that’s been told to death (and which is covered far better in the box set’s liner notes), Smilemissed its historical moment, big time. Planned to be released after the Beatles’ Revolver and to make good on the promise of the “Good Vibrations” single, Smile instead became unwound and frazzled, hemorrhaging songs and lyric writers and well-wishers as its completion date got pushed further and further into 1967 (lyricist Van Dyke Parks famously amscrayed after one too many terse arguments with Mike Love, a major skeptic of Smile who likely hastened its destruction). When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out, an album made by Beach Boys fans that was nonetheless far more abrasive than what the Wilson brothers were working on, it basically beat them to the punch.
And Brian effectively threw in the towel, scrapping all his hard work and instead gathering the Beach Boys together at his house to hastily bang out cheapo versions of the songs meant for Smile (the only true Smile session survivor being “Heroes and Villains”). The results, mostly recorded on the Capitol album Smiley Smile with just a few instruments and carrot-crunches, have their own oddball charm but did nothing to alert the world of Brian’s genius—instead, they seemed to confirm the rumors of Brian’s madness, and stand even now as perhaps the most goofy sounding of all Beach Boys songs (and that’s saying something–these are guys who cut their teeth writing love songs about cars!).
But those who paid attention knew that Brian was leaving a trail of breadcrumbs back to that unfinished gem of Smile. On record after subsequent record throughout the late 60s and early 70s, some of the best Beach Boys songs lifted their lyrics from Smile snippets (“Mama Says” on Wild Honey) or were outright pieced together from Smile sessions (“Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer” on 20/20, “Surf’s Up” on Surf’s Up). These gave the few remaining Beach Boys fans a taste of the masterpiece that somehow slipped through everybody’s fingers. In the CD era, we got even more treats as bonus tracks and box set extras, with great bootlegs such as the Sea of Tunes Unsurpassed Masters series filling in the rest. Finally, in 2004, a newly refurbished Brian Wilson with a new wife, new band, and new meds got his ass up on stage and took Smile on tour, culminating things with the release of Brian Wilson Presents Smile, its recorded anew in the studio with Wilson’s touring band (mostly made up of the Wondermints) and an assist from Van Dyke Parks himself.
But what about the other Beach Boys? Hearing a finalized running order forSmile was great (it certainly settled a lot of long-standing bets). And the songs were recorded well—in fact, Wilson got the Best Rock Instrumental Grammy that year for “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” But the Brian of 2004 was no match for the Brian of old; nor could the Wondermints surpass the original Wilson brothers’ harmonies—not even with an Idol-worthy female singer hitting Carl’s high notes. The original Beach Boys’ vocals, the harmonies that were supposed to guide us through Smile, the kind you can ONLY get from a group of siblings (think of the Bee Gees, or the Chapin Sisters, or the Chambers Brothers, or the Carter Family) were still sitting in the vaults at Capitol. We fans could splice together our own Smiles from those CD bonus tracks and a few brave Pro Tools edits, but Brian had denied us access to the rest, going so far as to say that the original “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” was terrible and would NEVER be unearthed, and might even be destroyed.
Thank GOD that’s not true, and thank GOD for this final mix, which sends the bootleggers running to the hills with crisp and clear recordings that provide plenty of surprises, at least compared to the Smile detritus we’ve heard in the past. The running order is largely the same as what Wilson gave us in 2004, but many of the details are different than what was presented then, including the song titles, which go by the names fashioned by Wilson and Van Dyke Parks at the get-go rather than what they became after Parks’ renewed participation more recently. And perhaps due to limitations in what the young Beach Boys had laid down on those Capitol sessions (there’s no cheating or re-dos, like Carl Wilson used on the 70s’ “Surf’s Up”), you’ll also hear some Parks lyrics that are different here than on the 2004 version. We’re missing a few good words, such as the megaphone bit on “Holidays,” or the “Maybe not one/maybe you too” lyrics that tied “Wonderful” to “Song for Children” on the 2004 Smile.
Actually, that’s probably my biggest complaint about the “final” Smile, mild as it is: the slightly clumsier connection between songs than what I’m used to in earlier trial mixes of Smile. I’m sure this, too, was a limitation in resources, since in a finished Smile, the piecing-together process would have happened last, and it’s far too late to get the Wrecking Crew back together for a final run-through of the xylophone intro to “Wind Chimes.” But one of the many, many ways that Smile would have been ahead of its time (or at least contemporary with Zappa), and one of the things that was to make it truly symphonic, was the fact that it was more than a collection of songs—it was supposed to be a woven tapestry, where one song became the next gradually. And I can’t help but think that some of this version’s fade-outs and decaying bass lines prevent the full cohesion of the cloth.
But a lack in connections is more than made up for by all the new revelations! Oh my god! In some places, it’s subtle, like in the extra minute of “ba de ba” meat slapping in “Vega-Tables,” or the ridiculously satiating bits of “Cool Cool Water” that show up in the background of “Love to Say Dada.” Other songs, like “Child Is Father of the Man,” contain brand new delicate vocal and instrumental arrangements that almost nobody has ever heard before. If you just put this on in the background while washing dishes and aren’t paying attention to the differences, you might just break a plate at the beauty of the sudden piano break in the middle of “Holiday,” which makes the instrumental sessions from the Pet Sounds era sound like immature stumbles by comparison.
The other four discs of the box set make this comparison even more blunt, proving how much more complex Brian’s arrangements had grown, even when compared to similar session tracks from the Pet Sounds box set. There, though the songs were heartfelt and wistful, many of the arrangements were still largely verse-chorus, the kind like “God Only Knows” that could be recreated in a live setting with minimal changes—just get a concertina player on stage with a banjoist, and let Mike shake a tambourine.
We’re far, far further through the looking glass with Smile! So much is crammed into each song, yet they feel so light! And on some of these sessions, you see that Brian had been even further out there than on the more “finished” tracks, especially on the sessions recorded while the other Beach Boys were still deep into their English tour England in 1966. Some versions of “Vega-Tables” have laughter all the way through them, like a madhouse. And one version of “Heroes and Villains” (track 22 on the first disc, if you want to check it out) is so psychedelic, you’ll drool—certainly this could have made “Tomorrow Never Knows” look like “Yesterday Already Did” if it hadn’t been usurped by the Brit guitar gods, then by Hendrix and the hard rock gang that followed to delegate vocal music to the sidelines.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Smile without some humor. Perhaps my favorite parts of the whole collection are the goofy bits between songs, when Brian and friends pretend that he’s stuck in a microphone or piano, or when you hear Brian in the recording sessions chiding his players into slapping actual chains at just the right velocity to get the desired percussion he needs for a song snippet. Actually, the goofiest part of all is the box set packaging! As though the music and all those sessions wasn’t enough, this gigantic… thing comes with a book, a bunch of photos (er, I mean “lithographs”), and the piece de resistance, a re-rendered Smile “shop” cover that lights up and is in 3D! I guess these are the features that will make the box sex $140 instead of $80? Well, as long as I get my vinyl singles, my vinyl albums, AND my CDs AND all this stuff, I’ll accept the frills and chills as part of the package, like a cigarette after sex.
Too often, history has treated Smile like the fire that Brian Wilson’s bad behavior kicked over, causing the Beach Boys careers to burn out and fade away. So perhaps it’s in some ways fitting that this Smile is the first attempt in a long time to patch things up between the existing Beach Boys—instead of suing each other, as they’ve done so often in the past, Mike Love, Brian Wilson, and Al Jardine came together on this and actually agreed to release this box set of their most celebrated unreleased songs. Maybe they knew it was too important to wait. Despite all the tacky turbans and cynical business decisions Mike Love has used to keep the Beach Boys machine afloat through the years, it’s his gentle voice that makes so many of these songs great: and yes, the final song on here is his “Good Vibrations” with Mike Love vocals and lyrics, and not the original Tony Asher ones as sung by Brian in 2004.
A collection of so many things—themes of Americana, minor key standards, English and Hawaiian languages, the four elements—this final Smile is also a collection that brings the past and present together and makes some sense out of them, somehow. Here’s to not making us wait another ten years—and here’s to the thousand times I’ll be listening to this album, and smiling, in the next month.