There would be so much to say about 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE concerts (and then the album that followed), had it not all been said already.
There would have been enough to say about the Pet Sounds concerts that preceded it in 2000 (and the Pet Sounds Live album and DVD don’t even touch upon the experience of actually being there). Of the latter, Keith Badman‘s Definitive Diary says
Brian goes out on tour again in the spring and this time the centrepiece of the set is a complete performance of the Pet Sounds album. Although critically well-received, the tour rarely plays to full houses and runs up losses of thousands of dollars.
I first saw Pet Sounds in The Year 2000, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and in the company of hardcore Beach Boys fans I barely knew. A Swedish musicologist began to tell me why the ONLY album that continued where Pet Sounds left off in 1966 was Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, in 1991. Outraged and disgusted by this preposterous assertion, I was about to tell him how wrong he was – when the concert began, with This Whole World…and this petty music nerd difference of opinion suddenly became the least significant thing in the world. Let him love Loveless; I was thinking about the love of This Whole World.
Pet Sounds‘ live performances were sold out all over the UK, and presumably in Europe as well; extra dates were added to fulfill demand. The US tour’s losses of thousands of dollars may have been as much due to the full orchestral accompaniment as it was to disappointing ticket sales. Financial success is not in any ways commensurate with artistic success.
Brian Wilson live performances are usually in three sections. The first ‘mostly featured the adventurous songs that led up to Pet Sounds, with Kiss Me Baby, Please Let Me Wonder, California Girls‘ (says Kingsley Abbot in his 2001 book – he also dates Til I Die pre-Pet Sounds, somehow). There are also those diamonds in the sea of shit that is The Beach Boys seventies catalogue, songs like This Whole World, Sail On Sailor, and Til I Die – with its instrumental intro reinstated, and as excised by The Beach Boys themselves for the track’s release on Surf’s Up in 1971.
The centrepiece is Pet Sounds, or SMiLE, or That Lucky Old Sun. Or Brian Wilson reimagining Gershwin.
The third part is a sop to the Morlocks: all the stomping Surfin’ USA stuff.
At the Manchester Apollo Pet Sounds show, I couldn’t hear any of the stage vocals in Part Three because an older guy a few seats to my right was singing and stomping along at the top of his voice. Annoying as this might have been, that was his joy. That was what he took home from seeing Brian Wilson’s songs performed, by the best band and the best vocalists that Brian Wilson has ever shared a stage with.
The band are His instruments, and they play for their own joy, which is to be the best for ‘their leader’, the music’s composer. Brian Wilson could as easily have just sat onstage, watching and listening, for all the direct contribution he made to the performances. And he earned that right, years before, by actually writing and producing all of this music, and essentially alone. For the guy to my right, this was The Beach Boys as he remembers them; for a lot of people there (more Eloi than Morlock), it was, finally, as if the past thirty seven years of The Beach Boys had never happened.
Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, as the 2004 live experience was, for me, an extended epiphany.
I saw Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE three times, and two of these performances were on successive nights, and in different towns. The first was at Newcastle City Hall, a smaller venue; the others were at the Manchester Apollo and the Liverpool Empire, bigger venues. Audience responses were different – part of Part One was a ’round’ of, I think, Row Row Row Your Boat; audience participation was needed. In Newcastle, everybody sang along comfortably; in Liverpool there was some good natured amusement, but the particpation wasn’t as immediate; at Manchester no one sang. Just an observation. Otherwise the response was hugely positive, and hugely supportive.
But in Newcastle, there was something else. Ridiculous and hyperbolic as this might sound, it felt like being in church. And, somehow, everybody seemed to be feeling the same thing. Or so it seemed. It felt like a collective experience, and a shared experience. And there seemed to be a palpable ‘good will’: that everyone wanted the performance of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE be OK for Brian himself.
Obviously, thus cannot be verified. It could easily be my own self-delusion and wish-fulfillment.
The v2.1 Project Smile CD-ROM has a post-2004 update, with an endless amount of BWPS (easier to type, and to read) data, including setlists:
City Hall, Newcastle, England, March 6, 2004
Songs #1-7 were performed acoustic.
A slightly shorter pre-Smile set than in earlier shows.
1. And Your Dreams Come True
2. In My Room
4. Please Let Me Wonder
5. All Summer Long
6. Good Timin’
7. You’re Welcome
The Royal Festival Hall February 20th, 2004 was ‘a historical show: The Smile album is performed in its entirety for the first time. This is the first show of six at this venue during this tour.‘ Opening song same as Newcastle’s show: And Your Dreams Come True.
The gig setlists for Part One of the BWPS shows could be read as a deliberate narrative, and as preparatory for the central Smile performance. Titles like Please Let Me Wonder, even Wouldn’t It Be Nice and God Only Knows (‘what I’d be without you‘), take on a different meaning in this context. Whoever planned these setlists knew that, for some people in attendance, their own dreams were about to become real.
There is so much to say about 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE concerts, and then the album that followed, but usefully, everybody else has said it. Look! Caspar Llewellyn Smith was there: ‘inevitably, the obsessives will quibble‘. And nice use of ‘echt’. Clever.
If you’re reading this, or have even read all of this thus far, you’re not going to need some guy on the internet to tell you anything more about Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE live, or otherwise. Any review you’ll find will be ecstatic; most naysayers will be contrarian hipsters, arch poseurs, or psychopaths.
There was, of course, a lot to buy:
Double LP (3 sides of BWPS, 1 of instrumentals), CD album (with slipcase & booklet), Beautiful Dreamer documentary DVD (with live performance disc), vinyl 7″s (3 colour variations of Wonderful), Good Vibrations 7″ and CD single, tour programme (with Domenic Priore’s Production Timeline as centrespread), metal badge (and another as a spare), innumerable posters (dunno if this one is ‘unofficial’ or not, from a dodgy man outside Manchester Apollo), plus other stuff I’m sure I missed. There is also a ‘limited edition’ Amazon-exclusive CD box set (but it’s actually a bit tacky); and there was a clear vinyl 10″ with a Freeform Five remix of Prayer that I have, have lost, and don’t want to ever hear again anyway.
The album recording of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE is the live sequence, three suites over three sides of vinyl (or on one CD, depending upon format choice). This is the basis of The Smile Sessions‘ 2011 sequence.
In the 2005 documentary Beautiful Dreamer, ‘fly on the wall’ camera footage shows Darian Sahanaja working with Brian Wilson (and then Van Dyke Parks), constructing a Smile sequence. Darian started with all his Smile bootlegs, chopped them up into snippets (and as also presented on the Project Smile CD-ROM), and then tried out different combinations, to produce a Smile that could be performed live.
One scene has Darian with piano and laptop, rearranging blocks of sound for Brian.
Brian says “hey! Doesn’t that go before Surf’s Up?” (in the finished sequence it does) – as if, in rehearing it all so many years later, some memory of Smile‘s structure and intentions comes back to him, in little flashes.
The Resurrection of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE by Matt Bell (from October 2004’s Sound On Sound) is the best first thing to read about how Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE was made. Then read a 2004 interview with Darian at The Crutchfield Advisor. Read any interview with Darian about Smile.
As BWPS‘ eventual ‘musical secretary’, Darian Sahanaja has been involved with ‘reconstructing Smile’ since at least 1988, as contributor to the Dumb Angel Gazette, and especially Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!. As Domenic Priore says in LLVS,
I seriously doubt that any of you reading this don’t have a homemade-cassette recorder. If you do, then try this suggestion on a blank cassette: COMPILE A SMILE ALBUM YOURSELF AT HOME!!! Don’t be afraid to be creative. I recompile my tape every time some new out-take tape floats in, or a new concept comes to light in the layout that I’ve never realized before. this is the only way you’ll ever grasp the beautiful essence of the concept Brian had in mind for us. If you scoff at this “do it yourself” concept, then it’s you who is missing out!
and, like everyone else who has tried to ‘finish’ Smile, Darian has probably heard to as many downloadable fan-mixes as there were fan-mixes to download. If you ever made a Smile mix, and it was in circulation prior to 2003, Darian Sahanaja has probably heard it. If your mix tried out an unexpected conjunction of previously unsequenced tracks or parts, and it worked, Darian may well have considered it, as he rearranged blocks of Smile audio for Brian Wilson to audition.
Darian’s own dream of finishing Smile eventually lead to him sitting on Brian Wilson’s living room floor with Van Dyke Parks, thrashing out the lost lyric to Do You Like Worms (and transforming it into Roll Plymouth Rock)
This is the stuff of a Beach Boys’ fan’s craziest Smile dream. Darian conveys his humility and sense of wonder quite touchingly in the Beautiful Dreamer documentary, and says here:
I love this music and it was at that formative age in my early teens that I started developing the attitude that I was no longer concerned about what other people thought. I like what I like and that is that. In a very personally and profound way, when I think about it now — well, it can kind of freak me out. I’ll be on stage playing and then I’ll look over at Brian and have this thought that not only has he influenced me musically, but he has also affected my personality and shaped it into who I am today.
This entire interview, like every other interview Darian Sahanaja has done about working with Brian Wilson (and Van Dyke Parks), shows an extraordinary understanding of ‘good will’; without this empathy, there would not be a Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, or any Smile Sessions release, in 2011 or ever.
His mother must be very proud of him.