Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Sometimes you know too much about your subject.  I know WAY too much about the making of, and myth of SMiLE.  It's one of those nerdy, record collector things that some people got into years ago, and I was one of them.  I can bore you to tears on this, especially if you don't buy into the "greatest album of all time" talk.  My mind was made up years ago, when I heard about these infamous unreleased sessions from 1966-67.  But if you have never heard of them, or heard the music before, gosh, it's going to be hard to give you a concise review.

I'll step back a little, and give you the legend, in summary.  Brian Wilson, leader of The Beach Boys, was on a streak in 1966, having put together his masterpiece album, Pet Sounds, and the world-wide hit Good Vibrations.  If those recordings had stunned listeners and his peers (The Beatles acknowledged his greatness at the time, as did most), now he was ready to blow minds.  Together with a far-out lyricist named Van Dyke Parks, he hit the studios with the best session musicians in L.A. to create his "teenage symphony to God".  SMiLE was a collection of compositions with a loose theme of America, encompassing history, environment, the elements, humour, and youth culture.  The music would continue in the style of composition he pioneered with Good Vibrations, recording interlocking sections and interchangeable parts.  That gem had taken six months to record, and featured many unused and abandoned ideas, as Wilson searched for the right order, composition, instruments, and lyrics.  Now that would be expanded to a whole album.

Recording began smoothly enough, but a variety of problems soon overtook the project.  There was some hostility among the members of the group, not an uncommon thing in their history.  There was Brian's already fragile mental health, which included undiagnosed major issues.  There was increasing drug use, which did not sit well with his mental state.  There was some very tense business going on with Capitol Records, including missing royalties and the band attempting to set up their own label.  Then, amidst all this tension, Parks flew the coop, as the sessions collapsed.

Rumours and tall tales came thick and fast.  The album had already been promised and publicized, and when it was replaced the the lowly Smiley Smile (which brother Carl Wilson accurately described as "a bunt instead of a grand slam"), everyone wondered what had happened to the real masterpiece.  It soon became obvious that something existed;  The Beach Boys would raid the tapes nearly every album over the next five years, as Brian withdrew into his house and abandoned his leadership.  The group would either rework or attempt to overdub the songs, usually with great results, as the songs themselves were quite excellent.

So eventually the hard-core fans figured out this SMiLE album did in fact exist, and in tantalizingly near-complete form.  The group even promised its release in 1972, but that didn't happen.  The word was that it couldn't be done without Brian, and Brian couldn't do it as he was no longer capable.  Over the years, not only legitimate songs appeared, but so did bootlegs, as unknown parties leaked their fragments and tapes, and collectors compiled more and more information.  I was privy to much of this material as early as 1978.  The more tapes that appeared, the closer the final form could be guessed.  More and more fans, especially musicians, became enamored with the myth and music.  I can remember trading tapes with Jay Ferguson of Sloan, for instance, back in the mid-90's.  With the explosion of the internet, all of a sudden everyone had access to the information, and the bootlegs.

In 2004, the unthinkable happened.  Brian Wilson, who for years had trembled at the mention of his abandoned masterpiece, actually had become mentally stable enough to tour and record again.  He was asked, and with the help of his touring band, actually tackled the long-delayed problem of completing SMiLE.  Even he had no idea what the final form would have been, as those decisions had not been made at the time, and he truly forgot some of the plans.  But with his groups, and Parks, he was able to put together an approximation, and he recorded a completely new version.  It was an artistic triumph.  And now there was only one thing left to do, revisit the master tapes and release them.

So, here it is, in all its fame and experimental greatness.  The producers, long-time Beach Boys archival associates, have put together different versions, depending on your level of interest.  Those with basic curiosity are directed to a two CD or two LP version (slightly different).  Us SMiLE nerds (now numbering tens of thousands) will be shelling out at least $120 for a five CD, 2-LP and 2-45 rpm set, with a hard-cover book, huge poster, bells, whistles and smiles.  Using the 2004 re-recording as a template, they have assembled the original versions into an album which might have been SMiLE.  It's as close as we'll ever get, and it's dynamite.  Then, over the other discs, you get all the other parts and sessions, which are just as fascinating as the completed songs.  There are abandoned themes and different instruments used, vocal attempts and failures, studio debates and false-takes, but each one features this incredible music coming at you.  So many groups have been borrowing and stealing the style through the decades since.  How can you tell?  Each time you hear a bass harmonica or a theremin or a cello or a banjo in a pop song, or some other combination of rare instruments, or of course, the famous harmonies, there's a good chance it's from a bunch of kids who spent hours listening to their copies of SMiLE fragments.  That's Cabin Essence, by the way, piano-cello-banjo-flute-harmonica.  Brilliance.

And now.. we have those fragments, not bootlegs and bad copies, but the real deal.  Probably all of the pieces, or at least the great majority.  At least all the substantially different parts are here, and if there are others there's little chance they'll be found now.  Listening to the complete boxed set, you get to sit in the control room while Wilson conducts his band-mates and the studio whizzes, and we hear the songs build up as they come together.  Who knows if Wilson would have continued, and created more music for his jigsaw puzzle, or if he could have completed it back then.  Who knows if it would have wiped out the competition, including Sgt. Pepper, if it had been released in the Summer Of Love.  Heck, it could have bombed, too.  Those arguments will continue, probably with even greater intensity now that everyone has access.  If you've never heard this stuff, a lot of you are about to be blown away.  Lots more will wonder what all the hype is about, and go back to their belief that the Stones or Zeppelin or Nirvana or Jay-Z made a lot better music.  For some of us, November 1, 2011, will be a date we'll always remember, when a dream was actually fulfilled.  That's the intensity with which life-long SMiLE fans are greeting this release.

But, back to my main job, which is to review this collection for you, with the assumption you've not heard it yet.  Here's what I can tell you:  If you like Good Vibrations, and want to hear two or five CD's worth of music that is a lot like it, that's what you'll find here.  As for myself, I'm going to be In My Room, SMiLing.

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