At last, after 45 years, the listener can make up their own mind.
Is Smile by the Beach Boys a work of genius or did it deserve to be buried?
The Smile Sessions box is massive. Five CDs, a double vinyl album, two 7” singles, a poster replicating the Smile album cover, a photo booklet and testimonials by the surviving Beach Boys in a hard cover book that also includes essays.
At the centre of Smile are 49 minutes of music and Brian Wilson.
After 1966’s Pet Sounds, a remarkable coming of age statement that didn’t sell, Wilson was being hailed as a genius. He was only 24 years old but had clear ideas where he wanted to take his music. Wilson rebounded from the disappointing failure of Pet Sounds with the six month marathon that was “Good Vibrations,” The Beach Boys’ biggest success.
He stayed at home, writing and producing music while the other Beach Boys — Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, Carl and Dennis Wilson — toured.
They came home to a Wilson who had teamed with lyricist Van Dyke Parks and a bunch of recorded fragments of which they couldn’t make sense.
Meanwhile, a sensitive, delicately-balanced Brian was falling apart. Love, for one, didn’t like Parks’ lyrics, didn’t understand them to sing them. The others, alarmed by the tanking of Pet Sounds, feared that Brian Wilson was messing up a good thing. They wanted songs about cars and girls and summer nights, not dove-nested towers or columnated ruins domino.
That resistance and other factors led to Wilson breaking down and the scrapping of Smile.
Over the years, versions of Smile leaked out, various songs showed up on later Beach Boys albums, facsimiles were bootlegged, and Smile achieved a mythic status. The great lost album.
In 2004, Wilson and his incredible (and incredibly devoted) backing band reconstructed Smile. Great as the resulting record was, as Brian Wilson notes, “People loved what me and my band had done but it made ‘em want to hear all the original recordings.”
So here they are. Having Smile is enough. The additional discs of the Smile sessions are fascinating though possibly too much of a good thing. Does anyone need 33 different excerpts from “Heroes And Villains? Twenty-four variations of Good Vibrations?
The completist does and demands it. At the same time, it’s possible to learn how each song developed, how Brian Wilson worked in the studio and possibly to appreciate how driven he was.
The last is hard. It’s why an engineer or producer can hear 100 takes of the same movement until he hears what he alone hears. With the Smile Sessions we get close to hearing what Brian Wilson was hearing. It feels like a privilege
It also feels like entering a time tunnel. For what might have been regarded as avant garde then isn’t now. What would have been a challenge in 1966 or 67 is dated now.
The humour that was important to Brian Wilson was corny then, Cornier now. Then again, it was one of The Beach Boys’ endearing qualities.
Seeing Smile exposed is like solving a mystery that might have been better left as a mystery.
Having the proof diminishes a myth that had grown larger than the Smile Sessions possibly can be.
The listener can make up their own mind.