The Beach Boys’ Smile and the roads not taken
Scattered within the 140-plus tracks straining at the confines of the Beach Boys’ massive new box set, The Smile Sessions, there are a few non-musical bits of nonsense called “Psycodelic Sounds.” In a couple of these silly interludes, Brian Wilson pretends to have fallen inside a piano and later become trapped inside a microphone. The clips are likely remnants from an abandoned notion of making the original Smile LP a kind of comedy record, but retrospectively they convey a little something about Wilson’s dilemma in realizing his magnum opus.
In 1966, Brian Wilson was rightly or wrongly considered one of the few pop music artists capable of challenging the Beatles as the titans of contemporary music. Paul McCartney has acknowledged that the Fabs felt they were engaged in a kind of arms race with the Beach Boys. Rubber Soul and Revolver are counterpunched with Pet Sounds, which prods McCartney and company toward Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys to “Good Vibrations.” Smile was to be the full album expansion on the wild musical canvas defined by “Good Vibrations.” But it didn’t happen. Wilson metaphorically got trapped inside his piano, his microphone and his ambition. To quote a later Wilson composition, “’Til I Die”: I lost my way/Hey, hey, hey …
The saga of what went wrong with the making of Smile has been the subject of endless debate, mythologizing, hype, disappointment, recrimination, litigation, fabrication and revisionism. Ironically, the one piece of evidence that has never been fully assessed is the music itself. For that reason, the release last week of The Smile Sessions constitutes a kind of closure on one of modern pop’s top musicological points of discussion. While a simple two disc version is available, those with deep wallets and lots of shelf space can gorge on the deluxe edition — five CDs, a hard bound book, 2 pic-sleeve 45s, a double-vinyl gatefold LP set, a poster, a reproduction of the photo booklet intended for the original release and a groovy three-dimension box cover riffing off the original storefront design. The depth and mass of it flips the bird to file sharers. It’s an experience you can’t download. No more need for idle speculation about what was or was not achieved by Wilson’s scuttled ambition — here it all is.
Well, not quite. There have been plenty of bootleg takes on the record over the years, although listening to this account of the completed album, it is clear those earlier illicit drafts were merely component sketches of a much larger piece. Hearing those elements knitted together in a best-ever approximation of Wilson’s intent, the listener will marvel at the scope of his ambition. The session notes make clear that a few stray pieces may have gone missing in the Capitol vault over the years, but it is hard to conceive of how Wilson and company could have wedged in a single other idea, concept, melody, lyrical allusion, pun, harmony or instrument into this sprawling piece.
There are probably some readers already wondering why I’m including a consideration of a Beach Boys record within No Depression. What the hell does surf music have to do with Americana? This may be the biggest revelation of The Smile Sessions, though. Smile represents a reboot for the Beach Boys’ perception as a disposable, good-time band and a road not taken by popular music during the 60s — a fusion of psychedelic ambition and traditional American folk and country music.
At the risk of grossly over-simplifying matters, psychedelic music in the 1960s more or less broke off into two druggy camps: British and American. The British stream took as its base a tradition of English surrealism as a launching-off point for all kinds of mind trips. The line from the fanciful weirdness of Alice In Wonderland and, say, Pink Floyd’s early singles with Syd Barrett, is not a huge leap. In America, aside from groups which took their lead from the British sounds, it was the blues which largely inspired the psychedelic scene. Even a group like the Doors tended to build their music on traditional blues structures; many other groups from the San Francisco scene took their jam-happy cues from blues tradition. Blues is, of course, American, but distinct from the folk and traditional American songwriting explored on Smile.
I acknowledge that is a hopeless oversimplification, but it does help identify two tendencies in the music of the time, and how far outside either sits Smile. As dense and layered and complex as Wilson would render the music he created for Smile, it is built on a vision of traditional American music, which echoes in the extraordinary lyrics provided by Van Dyke Parks. Plinking tack pianos, plunking banjos, barbershop harmonics — this is not the stuff of Fillmore freak outs. It more clearly recalls traditional American song (you can hear a section of “You Are My Sunshine” threaded into Smile), Gershwin, Sousa, Stephen Foster, Tin Pan Alley and Music Row — all transposed to the sunshine surrealism of Southern California and rendered in astonishingly precise and innovative vocal arrangements.
There isn’t a linear story to be followed in Smile, but the theme of the early part of the piece suggests a train journey that passes through time on a transcontinental trip across the young country. From the old West (“Heroes & Villains”) to the Pilgrims (“Rock, rock, roll Plymouth Rock/ Roll over …”) to paeans to rural homesteading (“Barnyard,” the chilling, hypnotic “Cabin Essence”) and perhaps Wilson’s signature achievement of this period — “Surf’s Up,” which seems to jump between high culture and some semblance of God and nature as worthy of worship. That the record shifts in its final phase to a series of songs pondering the four elements, ending in the ominous “fire” section dubbed “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” (after the bovine credited with starting the great Chicago fire) before erupting into a climactic retake of “Good Vibrations” puts some heft to Wilson’s early claim of his ambition for Smile: a teenage symphony to God.
Although he is typically credited strictly as Wilson’s lyrical collaborator on Smile, the shadow of Van Dyke Parks looms large over all aspects of the resulting music. It is Parks who has had a consistent fascination with traditional American music, and the discs of session tapes in The Smile Sessions include snippets of studio dialogue where one can hear Wilson conferring and deferring to Parks in the studio. It is illuminating to reconsider, in the context of The Smile Sessions, Parks’ own 1967 magnum opus, Song Cycle, which similarly mines traditional American song to render a surrealistic vision, and it is well past time that Song Cycle get a proper, thorough reissue.
If Smile had been realized according to original plans, if it had become even close to a consensus pop masterpiece as Sgt. Pepper and exerted a similar influence (for better or worse) over contemporary music, perhaps the folk and country music that fed Wilson’s ambitions would not have been tied into a traditional (or conservative?) cultural category? Who knows what the Beatles might have come up with to respond to Smile? Chances are it might not have been the White Album as we know it today. And what if Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys became the avatars of American contemporary music during that epochal time in the late 1960s?
It might have mattered a great deal. But what really matters is one of the best new records of the year is here, 45 years later and not a moment too soon.