This Sunday’s Grammy Awards telecast will feature the three living original Beach Boys, reunited on stage for the first time in a couple of decades.
The performance kicks off a short tour promoting the group’s 50th anniversary and its recent Smile Sessions box set.
Probably the last major release by Capitol Records before Sony devours its parent EMI, the box set presents, in as complete form as possible, the most legendary unreleased album in pop history.
The story of Smile is long and convoluted. Whole books have been written about it.
To make this long story short:
In 1966, the pop music scene was changing. LPs and “album rock” FM radio were becoming more important than singles and top-40 AM. Pop combos like the Beach Boys were threatened with irrelevance.
Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ composer-producer, had already quit touring with the band to be in the studio full time. With the Pet Sounds LP, he’d turned away from the Boys’ early songs about surfing and cars, toward more complex subjects and arrangements.
Then with the single “Good Vibrations,” Wilson experimented with “modular recording.” Using L.A.’s top session players for all the non-vocal parts, he recorded (and re-recorded) different sections of the tune in different studios, then mixed-and-matched them for the final hit.
Wilson decided to make an entire LP the same way.
What’s more, it wouldn’t be a set of self-contained songs, but a concept album (the term was just coming into use).
The concept: a “teenage symphony to God.” Themes and motifs would flow, blend, cut away, and recur.
As with “Good Vibrations,” Smile’s instrumental tracks were recorded in the form of dozens of fragments, some as short as five seconds. Some fragments were more or less intended to be merged into standard-length songs. Others were stand-alone musical miniatures.
Wilson had composed and arranged these bits without a running order in mind (for the individual bits or for the LP as a whole), planning to figure that out later.
Wilson’s chief compatriot in the project was Van Dyke Parks, a young L.A. scenemaker. Parks wrote conceptual, sometimes surreal lyrics to Wilson’s melodies, and sat in with Wilson at the instrumental sessions.
These tracks were ready when the Beach Boys returned to L.A. from a long tour. At first, the Boys didn’t “get” Brian’s pop-symphony ambitions. Lead singer Mike Love especially felt Parks’ abstract, allegedly drug-inspired lyrics were too removed from the Beach Boys’ format (what would now be called their “brand”).
Vocal recordings were about three-quarters completed, then suspended.
Parks singed a singer-songwriter deal with Warner Bros. Records and quit the Smile project, with at least one song lyric unwritten.
A few months later, the Boys’ press agent issued a statement saying the album had been scrapped.
Some of its tracks were reused or re-recorded on later Beach Boys releases. Others made their way onto the tape-trading circuit, and eventually as CD bonus tracks.
Then in 2004, Wilson and his current solo band premiered a full reconstruction of Smile on stage, followed by an all newly-recorded CD.
Critics adored it. They called it a timeless work, beyond mere “oldies” status. It deftly mixed different pop sensibilities with modern classical and experimental “musique concrete” influences.
Now we have the “official” Beach Boys Smile CD, assembled in the order Wilson had used in 2004, supplemented with several discs of outtakes and alternate tracks.
Several factors contributed to Smile’s original scrapping, including Love’s opposition and the group’s ongoing beef with Capitol management.
The probable real reason, I believe: Wilson didn’t know how to assemble all the bits into a coherent whole. He was slowly but steadily “losing it” mentally, due to drugs and/or clinical depression. (I suspect the latter was the greater reason.)
Nobody else knew how to assemble all these bits either.
The following is how I conjecture it could have been completed (I’ve probably got some historical details wrong, but go along with me).
After Parks quit the Smile project, Capitol bosses examined the hours of recorded bits and pieces. They decided the project needed adult supervision, if the label stood a chance of making back its investment.
The label brought in a “record doctor.” We’ll call him “Mr. A.” He was familiar with both pop-rock and the outer reaches of modern jazz.
Mr. A’s nominal job was to replace Parks as Wilson’s uncredited co-producer.
His real job was to create a shippable product.
He was respected enough within the business to gain Brian Wilson’s trust, at least at first. The Beach Boys were more reluctant to accept him, but agreed under the condition that, once this quagmire was out of the way, the group would have their own (i.e., Mike Love’s) way on their next LP.
First, Mr. A scheduled two vocal sessions to wrap up Parks’ last unrecorded lyrics. Only the first session required the whole group at once, recording six group parts for four tracks.
The second session involved solos and duets, for three or four standard-length songs and three fragments. Love declined to sing any more of what he called Parks’ more “trippy” lyrics, so those parts were divvied up among the other group members.
While Brian conducted those sessions, a crew of assistants re-logged all the instrumental and vocal fragments, built “scratch track” vocal/instrumental mixes, then redubbed all these onto radio-station tape cartridges.
Mr. A sat Brian down in a mixing booth, where he used these “carts” to play the bits in different sequences. He started with the tracks that most closely resembled traditonal song structures (“Surf’s Up,” “Wonderful”).
Wilson signed off on each approved sequence, under daily and weekly deadlines imposed by the label. As this work dragged on, Wilson reportedly became less active in suggesting or rejecting different options.
Mr. A and Wilson eventually reached a track for which Parks hadn’t written a lyric. Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher was quickly brought in to supply words, under the new title “Hawaiian Islands.” Love agreed to sing on this one, because it updated the classic Beach Boys topic of wholesome recreation. Brian took advantage of this extra studio date to redo some already-recorded vocal bits, punching up some and smoothing out others. But the label steadfastly refused to budget any more studio time after that.
Next came the placing of the one-minute-or-less song bits. Mr. A labeled these “M&S” on log sheets, for “medleys and segues.” Higher-ups at the label, during interoffice chatter, unofficially reversed the initials.
Under Capitol’s dictates, the fragments were used more sparingly than Wilson wanted. This was particularly true of the all-instrumental bits. The label’s reasoning: This was a Beach Boys record, not a “Brian Wilson Orchestra” record.
What Wilson had vaguely planned as three sides running 49 minutes became two sides running 43 minutes.
During the tedious final mixing sessions, Wilson allegedly nodded off in the booth at least once. Later rumors claimed Mr. A forged Wilson’s initials signing off on some of the track mixes.
Upon hearing early versions of the mixes, Love allegedly felt surprised. This music wasn’t druggy; it was dense and cerebral. But that, he’s said to have said, still wasn’t Love’s idea of a proper Beach Boys record.
Smile was released in the fall of 1967, a year after the first instrumental sessions. The previously-printed LP covers got pasted over with sheets listing the final song titles in order, and including the small-type credit: “Mixed by Brian Wilson with Mr. A.”
Some critics called Smile a “flawed masterpiece.” Others called it a more intellectual, but less emotionally involving, work than the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, released earlier in the year.
It undersold its predecessor Pet Sounds.
In later years, pop historians noted that many of the era’s “concept albums” supplied reassuring (even if loud) music to get stoned by. Smile failed miserably at this use, with all its abrupt changes of melody and mood.
The Beach Boys’ next LP was the back-to-basics Wild Honey. It was recorded without outside musicians, and mostly without Brian’s songwriting. It was the Boys’ last Capitol release.
In 1968, the group negotiated with Warner Bros. to distribute their own Brother Records. The Brother roster included Brian as a solo act. However, WB did the least it had to do in regard to funding (and, later, promoting) Brian’s solo debut.
That debut, You’re Welcome, didn’t come out until 1970, and included several leftover compositions from Smile (re-recorded, since Capitol claimed rights to the tapes).
Wilson, like Scott Walker (another top-40 balladeer who’d moved into loftier creations), would be viewed as a post-pop innovator whose releases steadily became more creative, less commercial, and much less frequent.
When CDs came along, Capitol reissued the LP version of Smile, in both the original mono and in a reconstructed stereo version. Several years later came a “director’s cut” version, with many tracks lengthened and restored.
The later career and personal trajectories of the Beach Boys and of Brian Wilson would have probably been about the same as they wound up in real life.
The only difference was that Smile would have existed as a critics’ darling and as a curious artifact, not as a legendary unheard “ghost record.”