The Beach Boys’ Smile

While the Beach Boys started out as a Fun In The Sun group, celebrating the joys of cars, girls and surfing, they – like the Beatles – were also in the process of growing up, outgrowing their adolescence and finding new maturity in their music.  

The Beach Boys started out by ripping off Chuck Berry’s tunes and updating what amounted to generic 1950s rock and roll with fresh lyrics, vocal arrangements derived partly from the Four Freshmen, and new themes, like surfing and hot-rodding.   But quickly enough leader Brian Wilson was creating melodies of his own, and forging ahead with songs like “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Don’t Worry Baby” and “I Get Around.”

Wilson saw himself to be competing on two fronts. On the songwriting front he was competing with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, of the Beatles. On the production front, he was competing with Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.”   (Spector produced, among others, The Ronettes.) Wilson had taken over the production of the Beach Boys records, and when he could worked with the same Los Angeles session musicians Spector had used. (For a good example of Wilson’s work with these musicians, listen to the “sessions” on Capitol’s Pet Sounds boxed set.) Wilson’s response to the Beatles’ Revolver was to write and record Pet Sounds.

The Beatles, not to be outdone, came back with Sgt. Pepper.   That album received the kind of major media attention which until then had never been seen for a rock record. And the album itself upped the ante considerably. It was up to Wilson to meet the challenge.

He proposed to do so with Dumb Angel, an album which would unleash the powers of humor and laughter, reflecting his beliefs of the time in vegetarianism and health food (he had a small store in Los Angeles which sold health food and supplies), as well as the Zen principles he was exploring, partly with the aid of psychedelic drugs.   The album was quickly renamed Smile.   Capitol had a cover designed and printed.

A great deal of music was written for the album, and much of it was recorded. But the album was never released. Instead, a patchwork album of pieces was released as Smiley Smile. Most Beach Boys fans were disappointed by it, although it contained the two major singles, “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” and several other very well realized songs, like “Wonderful.” We’d all heard about so much more. Our expectations had been raised too high.

Van Dyke Parks, the brilliant young rock composer whose Song Cycle would carry rock another step higher, was the lyricist on the album, and worked daily with Wilson. Wilson took music into the studio and had his session musicians perform it. There was to be an “Elements Suite,” based on Earth, Air, Fire and Water.  

Bootlegs exist of those sessions, and some bootleggers have tried to assemble their own version of Smile from them. Material intended for Smile came out on several subsequent Beach Boys albums, from “Cabinessense” on 20/20, to “Surf’s Up” on the album of the same name. “Vegetables” (Earth) and “Wind Chimes” (Air) were on Smiley Smile and “Cool, Cool Water” (Water) was on Sunflower. But “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” (Fire) has never been officially released, and exists only on bootlegs and a brief section of The Beach Boys – An American Band, a now out-of-print Laserdisc, which shows part of the session during which it was recorded. (Wilson had the musicians wearing plastic fire helmets. The music was frighteningly intense.) No lyrics or vocal parts exist.

Wilson’s basic problem was that he couldn’t leave the music alone. He was composing modular music – riffs and counter-riffs which could be assembled together in virtually any order. And daily he reassembled it as new combinations occurred to him.   Thus, much of the music revealed on the bootlegs could fit equally well into “Heroes and Villains” or one of the other songs. There was a wealth of material and endless ways to fit it together. In the end, Wilson was overwhelmed by the choices and what we finally got to hear was an almost random culling of those musical elements into a few songs and some backing tracks (“Fall Breaks and Back to Winter”) for which vocals were never supplied. It was as if Wilson had said, “I give up! Here! You make an album of it!” and someone did, giving us Smiley Smile. No one can say for sure how much of Smile was completed and it is very possible that Wilson never had a complete vision on what the final album would be like.  

Although rumors have persisted through the years, surfacing in both the 1970s and the late 1990s again, that Smile was still in production and would be finished, it never has been and seems no closer now than it was in 1967. 

In December 1967 the Beach Boys released their next album, Wild Honey. It was a simple album, pared down to production basics, a retro-rock album that led the way for the Beatles, Bob Dylan and others to do their own return-to-basics recordings. It was also the worst-selling Beach Boys album.

[After this was written I acquired a four-disc bootleg set of Smile – three discs of session work and outtakes, and a fourth disc assembled from them to approximate the proposed original album – which included a “booklet” which was virtually a real book in length and which painstakingly explored the history of every session and track.   What emerges from this set, in addition to a lot of well-recorded music, is the fact that Smiley Smile used none of the material recorded for Smile.   Everything on Smiley Smile was re-recorded for that album.] (29638 bytes)