In spring 1967 Brian Wilson had very little to smile about. The record his band, The Beach Boys had been working on was shelved for many reasons including: label pressure, internal conflicts, shortcomings in technology and Wilson’s own mental health issues and substance abuse. In the intervening years the grand mystique surrounding the Smile album and legend grew as fans swapped bootlegs with glee. Eventually they’d get a taste of what could’ve been when Wilson teamed up once again with the LP’s original lyricist, Van Dyke Parks (who assisted with Silverchair’s Diorama album) in 2004 to complete it and christen it Brian Wilson Presents Smile.
Fast forward a few years and you could say that Brian Wilson has come out the other end ahem smiling. This time around the work that is as close to the original “lost” album as possible is now seeing the light of day. Titled, The Smile Sessions, it proves itself to be the magnum opus that never quite was. Originally conceived as an anecdote to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (who in turn were providing their own answer to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds) it combines 19 tracks and song fragments with 9 bonus cuts including a hidden one to ultimately bring the effort to colourful and expansive life.
It’s a testament to the adage that all good things come to those who wait. You see, back in the mid sixties Wilson was the tortured and creative mastermind behind the American sextet. Like The Beatles, this group had originally achieved success with simple, catchy tunes. But just as the Fab Four moved on from singing She Loves You-style ditties peppered with “Yeah, yeah yeahs” so too was Brian wanting to distance himself from the pop tunes about women, cars and surfing. He could hear the sounds he wanted to capture in his head but was plagued by an unerring need for perfectionism (his father’s catch phrase was apparently, “Do it twice”).
Wilson wanted to create a teenage symphony to God because he believed that music is ultimately God’s voice. It was intended to fit into three separate suites- Americana; childhood and fatherhood; and the elements. The former is an interesting reference point because The Smile Sessions seem to traverse The States in many senses- from its history and geography and the influence of these things on its unique art and culture.
“Our Prayer” sees The Beach Boys harmonising like a choir of angels. It is ethereal and reminds us that there were people who did multiple harmonies long before Boy & Bear were in nappies. Wilson reckons nothing topped the music he made with Van Dyke Parks, the old studio crew and the voices of his youth (with his band) and this opening track is just one of the many confirmations to be found on this LP.
A brief adaptation of The Crows’ song, “Gee,” follows before the semi-autobiographical, “Heroes & Villains”. Originally intended to be the centerpiece of the record, like a handful of tunes from these sessions it would end up on Smiley Smile, the album that was released in Smile’s place. This number was written Wilson’s living room in a sandbox containing a piano no less and plays like a meandering horse ride through an old film soundtrack with nods towards a bittersweet fantasy.
Another adaptation is found in “My Only Sunshine” which takes a traditional pop song by Oliver Hood (“You Are My Sunshine”) and combines this with Peggy Lee’s “The Old Master Painter” before “I Wanna Be Around/Workshop,” features a jazz standard by Johnny Mercer. A running theme to the proceedings was the linking of musical ideas with some of these elements often repeated or reprised, an idea that was also used by Pete Townshend on The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia. The most noteworthy example of this is in “Look (Song For Children)”where a section resembles the group’s biggest hit, “Good Vibrations,” which closes the album proper. A song that needs no introduction, it is amazing and chilling with its upbeat nature and that’s before you consider the exorbitant amount of time and money that went into achieving this final but darned perfect result.
Smile also had its fair share of clever lyrics including double-meanings, wordplay and all-round wit. This humour also made its way into the recording sessions with “Vega-Tables” featuring the sound of Paul McCartney chewing celery. While recording “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)” Wilson took a leaf out of Macca’s book by making everyone wear fire hats. But this all ended in sadness because when a fire broke out nearby, Wilson’s paranoia got the better of him and he felt personally responsible for causing it, yet another thing to add to the litany of problems plaguing the proceedings.
Elsewhere “The Woody Woodpecker Theme” is sampled while “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)” shares a few things in common with Johnny Preston’s version of “Running Bear”. The bonus tracks include two stereo mixes of “Heroes & Villains,” a demo of “Vega-Tables” and a montage of the boys’ backing vocals. These tracks twinkle with their artistic pop creativity, melodic feel and altogether dreamy optimism, much like the remainder of the music on offer. The set also has its moments of madness and chaos with the record perhaps inheriting a bit of its erratic creator’s personality.
God only knows what would’ve happened had “Smile” been completed and released in the sixties. The fact is it has remained an enduring phenomenon for decades and when you hear the sunny pop, colourful psychedelia and experimental avant-garde sounds it’s easy to understand why (especially when you give the collection multiple spins and are rewarded to discover new worlds on repeat listens). Like a collection of precious gems, this set is multi-facetted and a truly heavenly spectacle that lived up to the notion that it was going to be unlike any Beach Boys album released before or since. The Smile Sessions really is the holy grail of pop music and almost forty years on remains fresh and articulate; an absolute pleasure to smile, nod and soak up every inch of these good vibrations. Magnificent.
Originally published on 25 January 2012 at the following website: http://www.thedwarf.com.au/nd/albumreviews/the_smile_sessions_beach_boys_the
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