I’ve been wanting to talk about SMiLE, or more accurately, The SMiLE Sessions, released last week. Honestly, though, I’ve not known where to start with it. I wanted to tackle the whole thing in a big long tome-like post, but people wouldn’t read it, and I’m too lazy to spend hours and hours at a time digesting and regurgitating it all at once. So I’m going to handle it in small bites. It’s hard to tell if anyone besides hardcore Beach Boys fans even care at this point. I can’t ignore it because it’s a pretty significant release.
- With little exception, The SMiLE Sessions (at least the double disc set) reveals little that is new. The majority of the songs that were intended for SMiLE originally, ended up on its shoddy replacement, Smiley Smile, or later albums like 20/20, Surf’s Up, and Sunflower. Granted, some of these songs were released in different form. Brian’s masterpiece, Surf’s Up, was sung by Carl Wilson for release on the album of the same name. What didn’t end up on later studio albums came out in later official Beach Boys releases like Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys, the band’s anthology (for all intents and purposes.)
- One of my first experiences with online music was when I stumbled upon a website dedicated solely to the SMiLE album (that never was.) It was the late 90’s and MP3’s were starting to come into heavy use — it made sense for internet-based music sharing. This site — sadly it has been gone for years — had essentially the full SMiLE album, with links to the songs in their entirety. The site ordered the songs in pretty close to the same order as The SMiLE Sessions; eerily close! All that said, I was not surprised by much.
- What I have found striking is that SMiLE was…. ahem would have been… ahead of its time, though maybe not in some of the ways fans have imagined over the years. The “what could have been” scenario that people have probably fantasized over these 40 years typically goes something like this: “If Brian had been able to get the album out, it would have been the soundtrack for the (so-called) Summer of Love, and would have been what Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been all these years. It would have been the it record of the 60’s.” I don’t think there is enough to demonstrate it would have been universally loved in that way. I would guess it probably would not have been understood and would have even been flaky or “far out” to stoners, acid heads, hippies and, of course, old school Beach Boys fans. More than Sgt. Pepper’s, SMiLE would have prefigured Abbey Road.
- Why Abbey Road? Right off the bat, understand that I’m not claiming it had anything like the grit of Abbey Road. But, it has the feel, flow and almost free association style of Abbey Road’s famous medley. Half the songs on Abbey Road were fragments or sort of half songs, strung together to make a strong, somewhat unified side. “You Never Give Me Your Money” recurs on the big medley, ties bits and pieces of it together. Likewise, “Heroes and Villains” is the unifying musical piece that ties SMiLE together. The album’s fragmentation is hardly an accident. Brian Wilson recently said in an interview that Van Dyke Parks suggest the album be built around song fragments just as “Good Vibrations” had been assembled as a mini-rock orchestra-like piece from bits and pieces patched together over months in 1966.
- More than the earlier albums, SMiLE is driven by vocals. The most important instruments are the voices. That doesn’t say much when you’re talking about the Beach Boys. Vocal harmonies were their bread and butter. But, the vocal work is so complex and strong, that most of the album could have been a cappella. John Lennon’s beautiful “Because” on Abbey Road hints, in one song, at what SMiLE would have felt like had it been finished.