On the 1st of November 2011, the postman will pass me a large parcel containing five CDs, two LPs, two 7″s, plus deluxe documentation and illustrations of The Beach Boys’ Smile sessions – and enclosed within, and after 25 years of hopes and fears, an official reconstructed 1967 Smile. Will the world’s Record, Tape and Vinyl Exchanges, on this Very Great Day, be inundated with innumerable, redundant and unresaleable Smile bootlegs?
The first Smile bootleg was released in 1983(ish), an LP simulacrum of The Beach Boys ‘lost album’; with a modified version of the abandoned cover art (as above), the now-familiar ‘Smile Shop’ image featured on a record sleeve for the very first time. However, desirable as this might have been, only 7 of its 19 tracks were actual Smile-era recordings; most of the rest was sourced from the same official Beach Boys’ releases as my own first cassette compilation in 1985.
Incidentally, this bootleg also includes Holidays, which
is a simple repeated melody for horns and strings that is so sad, wistful and melancholy that it moves one to sorrow for unknown reasons… what an amazing piece, once again demonstrating the genuis of Brian with a melody! (from Reflections On SMILE Seventeen Years Later by Richard Moritz)
Holidays, as included on this bootleg, is actually Here Come de Honey Man by Miles Davis, from Porgy and Bess…but no matter – I had little chance of finding a copy anyway. As a Girocheque lifestyle didn’t really allow for expensive (and potentially futile) searches for scarce and desirable bootlegs, the best resources I had were market stalls and secondhand record shops. And Beach Boys albums were always cheap…
A few post-Pet Sounds albums have a smattering of Smile-related tracks: Smiley Smile (1967’s emergency Smile substitute), 20/20 (1969), Sunflower (1970) and Surf’s Up (1971).
And so, before all of this becomes lost and gone and unknown amongst the inevitable celebrations, street parties (UK) and ticker-tape parades (US) that surely must accompany the release of The Smile Sessions, and then we’ll get world peace, let us consider the first bunch of clutter that can, finally, be discarded.
Upon its release in 1967, Smiley Smile was, to all intents and purposes, Smile itself. Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys’ next release after Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations generated a huge amount of anticipatory press (in the US, but especially in the UK); much of The Beach Boys’ artistic (rather than necessarily commercial) reputation came via a hugely-sympathetic UK music press, and New Musical Express‘1966 end of year reader’s poll rated Brian and The Boys ‘Best World Vocal Group’ :
Whatever The Beach Boys did next, expectations were very high indeed.
However, upon Smiley Smile’s UK release in November 1967 (and less than 12 months later), Melody Maker described it as
undoubtedly the worst album ever released by The Beach Boys…it contains two single tracks, ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Heroes and Villains’, which are good, but the rest seem to be more a series of introductions to songs, which never start. There is a poor instrumental track ‘Fall Breaks and Back To Winter’, and the rest are so childish and pointless they don’t bear discussion, which is a tragedy in view of their past output. Prestige has been seriously damaged.
According to Nick Kent (in 1975),
Smiley Smile, see, must still rate as about the all-time strangest album ever to be released by a major rock band; certainly no one could begin to work out what it could possibly ‘signify’ at the time of its public initiation…the non-appearance of ‘Surf’s Up’, ‘Cabinessence’ – all the heavy stuff – also countered by the replacing of said masterworks with cranky shots like ‘She’s Goin’ Bald’…the record was an exercise in…um, well, how does “do-it-yourself acid casualty doo wop” sound?
Apart from Good Vibrations (which took 8 months to complete) and Heroes and Villains (the recording of which started in May ’66, and thus its gestation was longer still), the rest of the album is underworked, dumb and pretty fucking slapdash – a handful of very stoned small-scale cover versions of finished Smile songs (Wind Chimes, Vegetables, Wonderful), a couple of Smile variants (She’s Goin’ Bald, With Me Tonight) a few cute but inconsequential fillers (Little Pad, Whistle In), the aforementioned Fall Breaks and Back To Winter (subtitled W. Woodpecker Symphony – an overcomplex title for a curious-but-simplistic two minute instrumental). And Gettin’ Hungry (which I will deal with in a later post).
With a total running time of under 28 minutes, and cover artwork that has the ‘Smile Shop’ distant and indistinct in a cartoon jungle, it’s difficult to conceive of exactly how underwhelming it was in its day – but Keith Badman (in his 2004 ‘definitive diary of America’s greatest band‘) succintly summarises the contemporary concensus :
fans, critics and the music industry alike hang their heads in disbelief and sheer bewilderment when they first listen to Smiley Smile. There have been months of Smile-related hysteria, including the memorable appearance by Brian on the Inside Pop TV show just five months earlier, a performance that prepared everyone for the greatest album ever made.
More on Inside Pop in a later post; but let us linger a moment or two more with Smiley Smile.
If you know (and love) Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile is a fucking disaster: it’s an amateurish stoner’s slow-motion car crash of an album. To its credit, it is ‘weird’ – but not in a good way. And if it were, in some parallel universe, the only album Brian Wilson ever made, it might hold a similar status to, say, Skip Spence’s Oar – but, alas, in this timeline, and prior to the existence or availability of any kind of Smile bootleg, it’s a kind of palimpsest that you have to listen through to understand, on any level, never mind appreciate. Or even enjoy.
As the first Beach Boys album that doesn’t credit Brian Wilson as producer, recorded in a newly-installed studio in Brian’s living room (rather than Western, Gold Star and Sunset Recorders), and with The Beach Boys themselves as sole players (rather than the top session musicians Brian used on all previous Beach Boys recordings), it was obvious that something cataclysmic must have happened between Pet Sounds/Good Vibrations, and the release of Smiley Smile.
And, as an album, this collection of ‘introductions to songs which never start’ seems to have been the best that the band had: a handful of rough tracks, recorded quickly (between May and July 1967 – there only appears to be one unused session, the ironically-titled Good News; even Oar has more outtakes…). As a replacement for the much-anticipated followup to Good Vibrations, there is a rushed re-recording of Heroes and Villains (and thus an abandonment of pretty much every session for the track since May 1966). And, to add further insult to further injury, Smiley Smile and Heroes and Villains were the first (and last) releases on the Beach Boys’ own artist-controlled label (‘Brother Records’, formed in part as an offshoot of a complex lawsuit with Capitol Records); with ‘total artistic control’, one wonders exactly who felt any pride at all in this debacle.
Almost certainly not Brian himself; Keith Badman’s entry for Monday 18th September 1967 concludes:
with the recordings for Smiley Smile over and the record out, it becomes clear that the 25-year old Brian Wilson has lost his control over The Beach Boys. It seems also that his drive and desire to create great artistic statements have deserted him. From now on Brian will be happy to let go and allow others to take over.
So, as the bulk of your first Smile comp, Smiley Smile has little to offer; apart from Good Vibrations (which everyone knows, and everyone knows is great) there is nothing left of Smile bar a few toytown approximations of some of its less-complex moments (read: easy to reproduce by average musicians), plus Heroes and Villains (but not the ‘three minute musical comedy’ Brian had promised months before)…and no, it’s not a patch on Oar, and I rescind my claim that any universe might treat it as an unsung ‘cult classic’.
So while Caspar Llewellyn Smith was baffling his sister and friends with his Jesus And Mary Chain T shirt, I was baffling my own friends with this piss-poor approximation of ‘the greatest album never made’.
You can flesh out one side of a TDK C90 with additional Smile tracks from later Beach Boys albums, and I would often co-opt a proferred spare side of a cassette for friends (“go on, surprise me…”) , but then have to contextualise its contents with so many verbal provisos and caveats, in essence apologising for Smiley Smile, that I’m sure the many sequences I compiled were often recorded over with something/anything to supplant ‘My First Smile‘.
Cool Cool Water on Sunflower (1970) was once rumoured to be a Smile outtake, but it’s actually only the brief mid-section (1:18 to 2:04) that relates to The Elements, the rest of the track being a three part montage of an older (and non-Smile) 1968 outtake, and a newly recorded latter section (“cool cool water/is such a gas” etc.). Paul Beaver‘s synth bass, white-noise wave-whoosh and synthetic waterdrops (all additions to bridge the edits) sound pretty old now, despite the programming complexities that would have been involved. And, kind of lovely as it is, the track was a last-minute salvage job, created at Warner Brothers’ insistence, the first album for The Beach Boys’ new label requiring ‘more Brian’ to be saleable (and after rejecting the album, originally submitted as Add Some Music To Your Day). Cool Cool Water didn’t help sales much however, either as a (belated) single (no chart placing), or as a hit album (#151 on the US charts).
Sunflower, as an album in its own right, has a few other merits (This Whole World specifically, maybe the most joyous two minutes Brian Wilson ever wrote) – but, like all post-Smile Beach Boys albums, it sounds fragmented, and works best on CD because you can skip the dross (track 1, and then 3 through 8, 10 and 11…um, actually most of the album…yeah, contentious I know. But I cannot play Sunflower all the way through – like 20/20 and Surf’s Up, it sounds like a compilation of at least 3 different bands…).
Surf’s Up, as an album, was originally entitled Landlocked, and, like Sunflower , was also rejected as an album release by Warner Brothers, for pretty much the same lack of lustre as Sunflower. Surf’s Up, as a track, was filmed as a solo Brian Wilson performance in December 1966, and broadcast on national US TV in April ’67 for Inside Pop – The Rock Revolution, a ‘highbrow’ documentary about ‘the new music’. You can see the clip here (’embedding disabled by request’… hmmm, OK) – and this widely-viewed 3 minute performance, and then its non-release, was probably the major factor in the critical rejection of Smiley Smile.
The 1971 album version was a far more complex construction than Cool Cool Water: the first 1 minute and 27 seconds is a genuine Smile instrumental session, with a newly-recorded lead vocal by Carl Wilson; the remainder of the basic track is a solo ‘demo’ recorded by Brian in the studio in December 1966 (for the Inside Pop crew but then unused); 3:11 onwards is a ’71 appropriation of a Child Is Father Of The Man chant (another unreleased Smile track) over a loop of Brian’s solo falsetto. Organ and synth overdubs were added, and a long ‘oooh’ vocal overdub helps to bridge the otherwise-jarring transition from part 1 to part 2. Oh, and some noisy background chatter as part 2 segues into part 3, due maybe to sloppy and inattentive final mixing…time constraints I would imagine; Surf’s Up was the last song completed for the album, which was rushed out a mere month later.
Keith Badman dates this recording and reconstruction as ‘mid-June through early July’ and says that ‘at first, the group attempts to record an entirely new instrumental track…”But we scrapped it…because it didn’t quite come up to the original”‘. This is a self-evident understatement, especially as The Beach Boys themselves couldn’t didn’t play on any part of the original Smile Surf’s Up sessions
‘During a 1968 interview for US Earth News Radio, Brian says that The Beach Boys nearly broke up for good‘ over the non-release of the track in 1967. I think that there are two ways of reading this: Brian is being (typically) more charitable towards the band than they really deserve, as its non-release would have been due to its non-completion, and it was left unfinished during Smile (as is widely-documented) because one band member strongly objected to its lyrics, refusing to participate until a ‘meaning’ was made clear to him. This particular Beach Boy, and his significant role in Smile, will be discussed in a later post; however his subsequent willing participation in the ’71 Surf’s Up seems, um, somewhat surprising…
Brian Wilson’s own actual involvement in this new version of Surf’s Up was nominal at best; and thus, a bunch of desperate and artless oafs struggled to approximate a version of something they rejected wholesale years before, solely (and cynically) in order to salvage an otherwise mediocre album. And, as a coda, Brian himself dismissed Surf’s Up as released as ‘atrocious’ in a 1995 BBC radio interview.
Obviously a great deal of work went into the 1971 version of Surf’s Up, but despite this effort (almost as much studio time as the whole of Smiley Smile), the recording failed to make the singles charts. As an album track however, finally available four or so years after the Inside Pop performance, it did help bolster critical perception of the Surf’s Up album (with its ‘ecological theme’, and a mercifully brief consideration that the band update their name to ‘Beach’), and, however temporarily, made The Beach Boys seem ‘contemporary’.
But ‘contemporary’ can become dated very quickly; while the album also has Brian Wilson’s own heartbreaking, autobiographical, and in some ways timeless Til I Die (‘I lost my way/hey hey hey’), and where Side Two ends with the title track (still sublime, but another frustrating palimpsest), the end of Side One explodes with Surf’s Up‘s artistic antithesis – the first real nadir in The Beach Boys’ increasingly besmirched catalogue. Here we have an execrable ‘update’ of The Coasters’ Riot In Cell Block Number 9, recast as Student Demonstration Time.
I have knocked over furniture many times lurching to lift the needle before this risible and cynical ‘protest song’ kicks in …album works best on CD etc. (and don’t ever listen to Student Demonstration Time, even out of some perverse curiosity. Ever. Do not click on the link. It’s so excrutiating it makes Smiley Smile sound like Smile.)
With the release of The Beach Boys: An American Band documentary film as a Vestron VHS ‘home video’ in 1985
which included the first sighting since ’67 of Brian Wilson’s Inside Pop Surf’s Up (2:10), a snippet of Do You Like Worms (33 seconds), and a film clip for Mrs O’Leary’s Cow (1:33), rough audio could be extracted to further enhance this still-skimpy Smile cassette; but there was still little enough music to fill a side of a C90. And also precious little proof of Brian Wilson’s purported ‘genius’, Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations aside. To even guess at what Smile might have been, pre-bootlegs, pre-digital editing (when the Pause button was your only editing tool), and obviously pre-internet, needed an exercise of imagination most people (in my own experience) just couldn’t be arsed making. It is, after all, only the fucking Beach Boys and their failure…
However, there’s one Beach Boys album I’ve neglected to discuss :
It was this 1969 album (a baffling compendium of hits, misses and outtakes) that started my Smile obsession, and it’s this album, and its final two tracks, that will be subject of the one of the next installments of this indulgent part-work.