SMiLE-ology: Inside The Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions

Literally almost fifty years in the making, last week saw the release of The SMiLE Sessions, a boxed set of material from the Beach Boys chronicling their work on the famous lost album from 1966 and 1967. The legend of SMiLE has grown to such proportions that even casual music fans know of its mythos; the 2004 release of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE afforded the brilliant co-composer (with lyricist Van Dyke Parks) and producer of the SMiLE material to debut the material officially to the world in an exquisite album and concert piece.

With The SMiLE Sessions, both the band and its fans are able to bring closure to this legendary album’s long and strange journey. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few more opinions to share, so the Popdose crew gathered for a freewheeling conversation about the material buried within The SMiLE Sessions and how history might have treated the album in the mid-sixties.

Matt Springer - So anyone else dug through this thing yet? I just wrapped up disc 1…very curious to hear the thoughts of others who have been immersed in the SMiLE bootlegging scene.

Basically, so far I only hear a few brief snatches of music that seem “new” and not stuff that has been previously bootlegged. I also wonder if any changes were made from a mastering perspective on the tracks that already saw release on the Good Vibrations box set.

Brian Boone - It needs less timpani, and more Eugene Landy.

Dan Wiencek - My initial take on hearing disk one last night was that it’s stuff I already have, just cleaned up and mixed better. Onward …

Springer - I guess maybe the big question is whether there WILL be any musical revelations on this set…or will it simply be a definitive compendium of all the extant material, properly curated and mastered with new clarity.

Wiencek - I think the “revelation” came with Brian’s solo version in 2004, when we finally saw the pieces put into a proper order. (My memory may be faulty, but didn’t everyone assume prior to then that “Surf’s Up” would have been the last track?) Today’s release may serve as a kind of annotated edition, letting you see things in more detail without necessarily presenting a lot of new stuff. Though I can’t help but think there’s gotta be something in these five disks I haven’t heard before.

Boone - All the kids at my kid’s school just will not shut up about “Good Vibrations Part 3 Western Bridge.”

Springer - Obviously the 2004 version is based on intent from both Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, but how does that match up with or contradict any information available about what was planned for the 66/67 version? Did such information exist?

Obviously it’s impossible to truly recreate something that never actually happened. But should they have tried harder? It seems highly unlikely that the original SMiLE would have been a double album. Yet the “official” 66/67 take on SMiLE here goes well over what would fit on a slab of vinyl, or so I think. Part of me would love to have seen them take a disciplined approach based on all the info and recollections they had to create a real stab at a 66/67 version of this material, maybe in addition to a longer version based on the 2004 lineup of songs.

Jon Cummings - Don’t be so sure, Matt. Since they called this release The SMiLE Sessions, that still leaves room for another cash grab in a few years with a “This is REALLY it!”, Brian Wilson 80th-birthday edition — one disc, 45 minutes, titled Smile…so that the 85th-birthday edition might be called SMiLE and come out in time to pay for hospice.

Wiencek - As you say, these questions are largely unanswerable, which is what makes this project so continually fascinating. I think part of what derailed Brian was that SMiLE metastasized into something too big for him to manage, so that making a single-disk release out of the material he amassed ended up being impossible. Who knows; he might have scrapped the concept even if he had been able to keep his head together.

Chris Holmes - I can’t help but wonder how much better off he would’ve been with someone like a George Martin in his camp.

Springer - Dan, you’re right of course. The fact that we will NEVER know for sure is a big part of the appeal of SMiLE. Even with this release, the mystery persists. It’s always going to be an unfinished work.

As to Chris’ point, it’s almost hard to imagine a collaborator for Brian Wilson who would have complemented him as Martin complemented all the Beatles in his way. I almost wish Darian Sahanaja had been alive to act as a sort-of librarian/bookkeeper type on the project, although even then, I’m sure the disintegration of Brian’s mind was in some sense inevitable.

Matthew Bolin - These are my two cents:

(1) Most of this stuff on the SMiLE “album” (the 1st part of disc one) was already released for the most part on the Good Vibrations box set some 15 years ago.

Yes, there has been some re-mastering and a bit of remixing since then, but for the most part, if you heard that, you already heard a cleaned up version of most of this stuff.

(2) Really disappointed that they just used a remixed version of the 1972 “Surf’s Up” instead of trying to create something more out of whole cloth with the stuff that had been recorded back in the 60s.

(3) The real treasure here is NOT the “album”, but the tracking sessions cleaned up and in one place, which is really meant for the obsessive, collector, historian, or what have you. which brings me to my most important point….

(4) You can argue back and forth about original intent, or how close this is to the way it would have been if it had come out in 1967, but the fact is (at least in my opinion) that a definitive, completed version of SMiLE ALREADY exists, and it’s the one Brian put out in 2004. There’s a reason why, in an interview leading up to the release of this set, that when someone asked Brian “Which version of SMiLE do you prefer,” that he stated immediately “Mine. Because it’s finished.”

The reality is that, to my ears, this “album” seems “wrong,” compared to the completed 2004 work. It’s not just that some parts are incomplete (no lyrics, muffled guide vocals, sparse or obviously incomplete orchestrations), and not just that some parts are edited differently (such as fade outs instead of hard stops, etc.), it’s also that some parts which are not in the same order as the Brian Wilson version don’t seem to fit. The completed BW version has an extraordinary flow from one piece to the next. Here, things are off.

For instance, what is “I’m in Great Shape” doing stuck before “Barnyard”? It just sounds BETTER before “I Wanna Be Around.” Add to that the fact that the additions made to the arrangements, the lyrics, and the added compositions links between songs to tighten them up, and the 2004 work really is a complete work of art.

There’s a reason that I (and at least one other Popdoser (Jason?) voted it as best album of the 2000s in our poll: because it’s a freaking fantastic album. This “rescued” version–eh, not so much.

Wiencek - I am making my way through the H&V section, and was just thinking that I would have gone off the deep end too if I’d had to collate all this stuff into a coherent, single-disk album. The guy literally had more ideas than he knew what to do with.

I feel your pain, though. As Matt Bolin noted, this five-disk set is really for the obsessive collector, and is not meant to be listened to the way you would listen to the finished work. I prefer not to have to listen to music with a book in my lap, but there seems to be no other way to get the most out of these tracks, unless someone compiles them into a really long documentary.

(Oh, and I also agree with Matt about the use of the ’72 “Surf’s Up.” Bad show, lads.)

Springer - I guess what’s striking to me is that I thought I WAS an obsessive collector, but this strains even my patience. I guess I’ve always been this way, though. I like someone to go through everything and hand me one disc and say, “here’s the most revealing moments,” rather than picking through four discs to find them for myself.

As to the Brian Wilson SMiLE versus this material…I honestly have a hard time even considering which is “better” and would certainly not consider either to be especially “definitive.” I don’t think there is such a thing when it comes to SMiLE.

Dw. Dunphy - I think that as much as I would like to have all the material, as I get older, the necessity just seems less and less important. For example, there are plenty of bands I bought “demo version & writing session” CDs from and I never listen to them. I briefly had my endorphin rush from the thrill of ownership, but then just drifted back to the albums I always listened to and think about the money I spent on unplayed curios.

When I first heard about this set, much like the Dark Side of the Moon set that just came out, I surely did drool. But then I had to question how often I’d want to jump into Brian Wilson’s brain at this time and concluded, “Not as often as I thought.”

They’re supposed to be releasing the vinyl 2-LP set separately, so that is what I’ll get and be done with it. It doesn’t discount any expression of genius, but even genius needs a forceful editor.

Holmes - OK, so here’s a question – had this come out when it was intended to (late ’66, then stretching to early ’67), what would the reception have been? I can’t speak as someone who lived through that time, but even as a fan I can’t imagine the American record buying public greeting this with anymore more than a collective “WTF?”

Note that this isn’t a commentary on the material, as I love SMiLE in any incarnation.

Dunphy - It would have been rejected. Part of the love for SMiLE is the goodwill it has built up over time, in dribs and drabs. Taken all at once at a time period when pop culture was changing radically, I think there would have been a backlash not unlike Dylan going electric. “Our surf rock icons are making children’s music!” I can imagine someone shouting.

Wiencek - It would have sunk like a stone. The Beach Boys’ American fanbase already signaled its displeasure at Brian Wilson’s flights of fancy when it made Pet Sounds a relative commercial dud. Sgt. Pepper took off not only because it was so innovative but because it was so inclusive: stylistically there is something for everyone, and also the Beatles had an instinct for communality that made it seem as though you were sharing their work with everyone else at once. “We all live in a yellow submarine.” “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Brian’s creativity was deeply personal (see Pet Sounds) and, by the time of SMiLE, deeply idiosyncratic. I think most listeners in ’67 would have found it impenetrable. Which is not to say it wouldn’t have enjoyed a genuine post-hoc reappraisal at some point, but had it come out, the Beach Boys story would have been much the same: Brian would no longer have had the clout to run the Beach Boys as his personal fiefdom and he would have been marginalized.

Springer - I don’t think it would have been rejected outright; it probably would have had “Good Vibrations” on it and so it would have sold decently as that was a recent hit single for the band. It would have been a big Xmas gift for holiday 1966 if they’d hit that date.

But would it be in the pantheon of great albums from the sixties? I think there would have been a “WTF” reaction to the content, but it would surely have gained cult notoriety as an example of pop psychedelia. It would have fit right in with the “Summer of Love” vibe. I could imagine a headlining set for the band at Woodstock where they played these songs to delighted hippies.

Over time, I think it would have earned a place in the pantheon. I just don’t think it would have been the instant classic gamechanger type record that maybe Sgt. Pepper was.

Ken Shane - I don’t think that you can try to determine what the audience in ’67 would have thought based on today’s criteria. It was all about the “new” in those days. It was the only time that I can remember that fearless artists could make fearless music and have some degree of confidence that it would have been accepted. I assure you that when Jimi Hendrix appeared on the scene no one had heard anything like that before. And yet he was accepted by a mass audience from his very first album. He was far from alone. Record companies actually supported innovation and were involved in building careers as opposed to looking for the single mega-hit single.

Pet Sounds wasn’t as big a hit as its predecessors, but it was a hit nonetheless, and these were the Beach Boys after all. I think that SMiLE would have found commercial acceptance and would have been a critical smash. Obviously there is plenty on the album that is new and innovative, but the album also contains amazing songs, and that’s why people would have loved it. “Heroes & Villains,” “Cabinessence,” “Wonderful,” “Surf’s Up,” and of course “Good Vibrations,” which was the biggest Beach Boys single to date on its own. SMiLE speaks directly to the time that it was composed, and it’s has to be heard in that context. The lyrics are often obscure and indecipherable, but that was part of the deal back then too. The music is capable of thrilling any generation. It was the psychedelic era, and often the “further out” you could go as an artist, the more you were accepted. Times have changed to say the least.

I’ve been listening to the entire thing for awhile now. I never felt any strain in getting through discs 2-5, and I am hardly an obsessive. The two solo version of “Surf’s Up,” one on disc one, one on disc three, are worth the price of admission for me. The “Smile Back Up Vocals Montage” track is priceless, as are many of the other vocal and instrumental snippets (“Surf’s Up Talking Horns”!). Maybe some or all of this stuff has been on other albums. So?

Look, I don’t know who did what or how this compares to that. I’ve heard the bootlegs too. This sounds better. I love Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. I love the Beach Boys version too. They’re different. Brian’s is vibrant, bright, almost aggressive compared to the more laid back Beach Boys version. Different, not better or worse. Despite the technology available to the remixers, this music was recorded 44 years ago. That seems to be forgotten in some quarters. I’m thrilled to have them both because this music is indelible, and endlessly inventive. The influence it had on the music that came later is undeniable.

Dunphy - You’re right in that there’s no way of predicting how SMiLE would have fared had it gone off without a hitch. Pet Sounds made money but was not as big a hit as other Beach Boys releases (“Seriously, if you could just crank out another Beach Boys Party! album for us, that’d be grrrreeeaaat…”) As these things go, I can only see it through the lens of other bands that made a record for “themselves,” found rejection, even if it was minimal rejection, and then went back to old formulas to firm up the fanbase once again. This usually happens in stable conditions, but during SMiLE‘s time, there was so much upheaval and change. I’d like to believe the band would have survived well but took some blows for making a “selfish” record, but my most cynical side says that they would have been buried for it. SMiLE became a legend more for not being for so long than for being in so many disparate ways.

Shane - I agree that a lot of artists suffered for making albums that were considered self-indulgent, but I think that’s more of a ’70s and beyond thing. The Beatles certainly didn’t incur any losses as a result of Sgt. Pepper or The Beatles. Instead of being seen as self-indulgent (alright, the White Album was seen as being self-indulgent by some), these albums were seen as creative, profound, and personal. In those days self-exploration was encouraged, not derided. In the rarified air of the mid-late ’60s, creativity was king and SMiLE would have been one of the landmarks of that era.

Holmes - The thing about Sgt. Pepper’s, though, is that although it was certainly a lot more “out there” than Revolver, when you really break it down it’s just a collection of great pop songs. Strip away the hype and the status accorded to it, and you’ve got fairly safe pop tracks with some really great production flourishes.

SMiLE took a lot more chances artistically, and was definitely the more daring of the two. I suspect (but have no way of knowing) that fans would’ve freaked out. It seems that the more Brian pushed boundaries, the more the band’s American fans pushed back. We’ve already talked about Pet Sounds ad nauseum, but don’t forget “The Little Girl I Once Knew.” Yeah it hit #20 but it was a huge dropoff from their other ’65 singles. And it wasn’t even *that *different, except in Brian’s production.

Springer - Another point on Sgt. Pepper’s, which I think fits into what Chris says and Dan’s very astute post, is that it’s really a populist album. There’s all this anecdotal evidence of like grandmas and schoolteachers and other “straights” of the era totally embracing the record. It’s got some almost vaudeville moments on it alongside all the great rock and pop, certainly elements that were far more inclusive than “Child is Father of the Man” or “The Elements: Fire.” So while I think SMiLE would have blown many minds, probably done well sales-wise (again, “Good Vibrations”!!!), and been a critical darling, I don’t think it would have rocked the global culture the way Sgt. Pepper’s did.

I think if SMiLE had come out in 66/67, it would have been structured as a somewhat traditional collection of “songs,” even if within those songs, the approach was closer to the modular view that he’d taken on “Good Vibrations.” In that sense, maybe it would have continued to redefine popular conception of what a “pop song” could be. But I don’t think it would have been a sprawling 40-minute piece with all these little chunks glued together; I think it would have hung together as well as Pet Sounds, but like that record, it would be recognizable as a collection of tracks sharing a common sound and some lyrical themes.

Holmes - Another Smile/Sgt. Pepper’s comparison, just to beat things into the ground further:

While Sgt. Pepper’s has it share of abstract lyrics, a decent percentage of the songs are pretty direct and relatable. Macca’s songs in particular are just as universal as they always were, so really it’s just Lennon who goes off into space a bit.

Compare that with the lyrics on SMiLE. Not to back Mike Love, but who the hell could relate to a lot of the lyrics on that album? One of the things that has allowed Pet Sounds to hold up over the decades is the extremely personal and emotionally vulnerable lyrics. I think Tony Asher was the perfect partner for Brian, and he’s a big part of the reason why the album makes that important emotional connection with people. Smile, lyrically, is so distant and arty that while you can certainly admire the imagery Van Dyke Parks concocted, it feels more like an academic exercise than a true expression of feeling.

Wiencek - You’re absolutely right. The contrast between Pet Sounds and SMiLE was that the former was an expression of an emotional need: Brian coming to terms with his thoughts and emotions as he left his childhood behind. The themes of SMiLE seem more arbitrary. SMiLE really exists to give Brian an opportunity to stretch himself as a composer and arranger and to create something transcendent; the actual subject matter of that transcendent creation was not crucial to him.

Jason Hare - I listened to the majority of the set yesterday. I agree with Ken that there are a lot of really great gems on there — the backing vocals montage he mentioned, Brian’s loopy “Heroes and Villains” demo at the radio station, and I especially love the awesome “Our Prayer” tracking sessions — they show such insight into the band dynamic and how hard they worked at perfecting the vocals. Still, I found myself experiencing similar exhaustion to when I delved into the “Sea of Tunes” bootlegs documenting the Pet Sounds sessions — after a while, everything kind of blurred together and I had to skip around a little to remain engaged. I do wish I had access to the liner notes, but for now, I’m perfectly happy listening on Spotify. I don’t pull out my Pet Sounds Sessions box very often and I doubt I would pull this out often either. Like that box, I’ve highlighted the tracks that especially appeal to me and those will be added to my regular Beach Boys rotation.

Shane - I don’t imagine that I’ll listen to a lot of the session stuff on a regular basis, but I the album itself certainly rewards repeated listening. And then those gems that I mentioned from the sessions will be in my rotation too. Again, those solo versions of “Surf’s Up” are perhaps the best things in the entire box. Completely transcendent.

As for Sgt. Pepper, I don’t remember that it captured the larger audience. Beatles fans loved it, and there were a lot of us. But my mom and dad weren’t listening to the album because it had “When I’m 64″ on it. I don’t think anyone else’s parents were listening either. As for the lyrics, “Lucy” was certainly no day in the park in terms of grasping the meaning, and Harrison’s “Within You Without You” was not easy listening either. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great, but adventurous and ground breaking as opposed to being simple pop songs.

I think that there is lyrical meaning in SMiLE. I don’t think it can be understood on a line to line basis, but if you accept the composers’ description of a journey across America that traces the development of the country from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii, it begins to make sense. And how many bigger themes are there? It would not have been the same album, or nearly as profoundly inventive, with lyrics by Mike Love.

As always, the conversation doesn’t end there! What did YOU think of The SMiLE Sessions? Did it meet your every expectation as a music fan? How would this wild head music been received by an audience in the mid-sixties? Let’s keep the roundtable spinning in the comments below!

  • kshane

    I would like to add that I’ve had a chance to listen to the vinyl since I participated in this conversation, and it’s sublime. It puts the digital and CD versions in the shade.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed. The vinyl edition is far and away the best sounding and most transcendent edition. It’s the definitive version.

    I’d like to add that, in terms of Brian’s and Van Dyke’s goal of creating something “different,” they succeeded in every way. They essentially were working on a pop record that, while it contained some pop songs, was set to become a whole that hadn’t existed before. The closest equivalents did not exist in the pop and rock worlds – they existed in the classical world. This was happening just in advance of the first ever progressive rock albums (specifically records with strong classical motifs, like those of Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, etc.), and two years before The Who’s “Tommy” made the rock opera a fashionable thing. In that regard, SMiLE was indeed ahead of its time, and even without that factor, it was still ahead of its time in terms of the sheer scope of Brian’s production ambitions. The tools to assemble a final album of this scope by the deadline Capitol wanted simply did not exist in 1967.

    I’d also like to add that a single 47 minute pop album was not outside the realm of possibility in 1967. In fact, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, from 1965, was a single LP and clocked in at 51:26. Not only that, a 3-sided LP was also within the realm of possibility. Johnny Winter’s Second Winter, from 1969, clocked in at 46:53 and was spread across 3 sides of vinyl. The fourth side was left blank. Either of these two options were possible in 1967, but I’d wager that the single 47 minute LP option probably would have been Capitol’s choice at the time, had Brian submitted in 1967 the album that we have now in 2011.

  • Power Popaholic

    Good discussion. Personally I can’t wait for someone to do a real mashup mix (like the Beatles LOVE) with all these tracks.

  • Dennis Corrigan

    Great stuff, guys!  

    I think the album would have done well, just on anticipation alone.  If I have it right from the ’04 SMiLE documentary you had people like George Martin and McCartney talking it up.

    Meanwhile, I’m going to keep patiently waiting for it to show up under my tree at Christmas

  • kshane

    FYI: SMiLE debuted at #27 on this week’s Billboard Hot Albums Chart. Very impressive indeed. I’m glad that people are getting to hear this music.

  • Jos B

    Hmmm, I’ve been a Beach Boys fan for years now, and heard about (and followed) SMiLE since I found out about it in the liner notes of the 1990 CD album reissues. I own the Sea of Tunes SMiLE Sessions and a few other bootlegs, and have Priore’s book, Look, Listen, Vibrate, SMiLE as well as pretty much any book on the group I can get my hand’s on.

    1) The SMiLE music, while it is brilliant and I appreciate the genius of Wilson’s music (especially in Surf’s Up) and Park’s lyrics, somehow leaves me a little detached. I like music in general and play guitar, so music (and good music in particular) does elicit an emotional response for me most times. I can listen to SMiLE though, and not be emotionally affected much. And I must say that I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE vocal harmony. Listening to SMiLE can almost be a chore though.

    2) I prefer the Beach Boys singing on it over Brian’s 2004 version. The detachment I mentioned above, I feel even more with the 2004 version.

    I guess, for me, SMiLE (and Pet Sounds to a lesser degree) are like albums I know I *should* like, as a fan, but not the albums that I enjoy listening to for pleasure.