Get Ready to SMiLE With the Beach Boys
It’s the album that lies in myth and until now hasn’t seen the light of day. It was declared by “Rolling Stone” to be the most famous unfinished album in music history and has a legacy that has grown larger than that of the band itself.
Now, nearly 45 years after its original intended release, the Beach Boys masterpiece “SMiLE” will hit store shelves.
In the 1960s pop scene, no other American act was bigger than the Beach Boys. They invented the California sound and were the only band to challenge the commercial success of the Beatles. The Beach Boys had a formula for their success – songs about cars, surfing, and girls.
They cranked out two albums a year and rose to the top of the charts on a wave of popularity. But by 1966 the band’s leader, Brian Wilson, had outgrown their bubblegum image and wrote “Pet Sounds,” widely regarded as the best pop album ever released. Capitol Records did not like it as it did not fit into their successful formula, but Wilson kept progressing and focused on a new body of work.
Born out of Wilson’s drug use and exploration of Eastern religion and metaphysics, “SMiLE” was, as described by Wilson, a teenage symphony to God. It would have three movements, each with a different theme – a journey from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii on a bicycle, childhood, and the elements.
The centerpiece of the album would be “Good Vibrations,” which Wilson was originally prepping for “Pet Sounds.”
Over six months, Wilson used three studios and $50,000 to create the song, which was the most expensive single produced at the time. It reached No.1 on the Billboard chart in 1966 and got fans excited to hear “SMiLE,” which was expected for release in January of 1967.
While the rest of the Beach Boys were in England on tour, Brian Wilson and his new writing partner, session musician Van Dyke Parks began laying the ground work for “SMiLE.” Most of the songs were written at Wilson’s home at his piano which he placed in a large sandbox so that he could “feel the beach.”
Songs for “SMiLE” were recorded in sections and they would later put the fragments together into whole songs. Songs that emerged from the sessions were “Heroes and Villains,” “Vege-tables,” – a call to eat healthy and exercise – and “Cabinessence” – about the bicycle rider witnessing the building of the railroads and westward expansion.
In the midst of the project, Wilson exhibited erratic behavior. He became paranoid and would discuss the project with Parks and his session band while driving in a limousine so Phil Spector would not overhear.
When the Beach Boys returned home from England, they were confused as to what Wilson had really accomplished. They felt the music was weird and detracted from their formula. Lead singer Mike Love declared to Parks that he wasn’t going to sing this “psychedelic crap.”
This was a personal insult to Wilson and caused him to fall deeper into his drug use and as a result, he became depressed and despondent. Combined with psychological damage inflicted by his abusive father and schizophrenia, Wilson began to become withdrawn from the creative process.
On top of that, while recording the fire section of their elements suite, the building next to their studio caught fire and burned down. This made Wilson think twice about releasing the album and he called off the project – “SMiLE” wouldn’t be released, and Wilson would spend the next several years alone in his bedroom, contributing very little new material to the Beach Boys.
“‘SMiLE’ is so good it makes ‘Pet Sounds’ stink,” declared Dennis Wilson, Beach Boy drummer and brother of Brian. However, nobody got to hear it. “SMiLE” as it is heard now is innocent, pure, and one of the most spiritual albums ever recorded. You can hear many different influences in the music: doo-wop, classical, and the surf inspired pop.
Lyrically, it is satirical throughout, but illustrates the poetic side of Wilson; other members of the band made fun of “Surf’s Up” because they thought it was too deep. There are also a few examples of ancient motets, namely “Our Prayer,” which sets the tone for the rest of the work.
“SMiLE” is available on CD, vinyl, and iTunes.