Is the Beach Boys Smile album, the greatest unreleased album of all time? Perhaps. The best Brian Wilson solo album and a successful box set for the Beach Boys, it needs little introduction. So much mythology exists about the project that it has displaced history for fact (it’s more interesting). Normally rational minds have danced away in the spirit of an American Gothic trip trying to explain what may or may not have caused the album’s demise. None with a finite conclusion. I love the album and have collected variations on its theme since I first heard about it in the liner notes of a Pet Sounds cd circa Christmas 1990. But since hearing the 2012 re-release of its younger brother Smiley Smile I’ve moved my thinking on a bit. The musical focus has always unfairly been on Smile, an album incomplete for forty years as opposed to Smiley Smile the album that actually appeared. Greeted by icy indifference when it was released in 1967, Smiley Smile must have sounded like a demonstration record when compared to Good Vibrations or the Beatles Sgt Pepper. It’s raw bare bones approach has little resemblance to the lush Smile sounds heard in the 21st century.Yet, truth be told Smiley Smile exerts its own worthy charm. It also disputes the myth of Wilson losing his sanity, as Smiley Smile is a carefully constructed record which prefigures emerging musical trends of minimalism later appropriated by Dylan and the Beatles. Smiley Smile was the legitimate 60’s album for all its pomp and glory, its older brother Smile could not be.
The myth makers will have you believe that Wilson voluntarily gave up on Smile, but Smiley Smile is an admission that Smile could not work in 1966. An era of limitless possibilities had reached its apogee with the creation of Good Vibrations. Analogue tape whilst brilliant in sound was troublesome to be creative with. It stretched, broke and wore out over time. Just the characteristics you don’t need if like Wilson you are creating a modular work requiring intensive editing and reediting. Wilson wasn’t the only one of his peers bitten by the limitations of the 1960’s recording studio. The Beatles faced similar problems during the sessions for Sgt Pepper when they tried to tackle George Harrison’s Only a northern song. Attempting to sync multiple tape recorders together to create more recording possibilities Beatles engineers at Abbey road ran into trouble when the machines ran eschew during mixing. Whilst the Beatles always continued to push the recording envelope it is arguable whether or not they pushed as hard at the same part of the envelope again. What Wilson achieved in two weeks creating Smiley Smile, is nothing short of remarkable. Salvaging songs, creating new arrangements and developing a coherent innovative album. Albeit, not Smile.
Smiley Smile is full of “in tape” innovation. Edits draw full attention to themselves, but on an album containing both Heroes and Villains and Good Vibrations it is to be almost expected. The device works well as a form of juxtaposition. For the most part it is the Beach Boys harmonies around skeletal instrumentation that take centre stage. Even in this format, Smiley Smile works as the druggy companion piece to the Beach Boys Party album, recorded quickly under similar circumstances during a delay in the recording of Pet Sounds. If Pet Sounds was about the rise and fall of a love affair, Smiley Smile is the confused montage of memory we all experience when who we love goes south. In 1967 still years before alcohol, cigarettes and old age had diminished their tone, the Beach Boys voices are still world beaters. Smile songs are carefully measured out, no crafted Cabin Essence or Surfs up, instead Smile out takes and vocal sections are carefully compiled to fill in the blanks. Despite, all the Brian Wilson “genius” hype, his actions with the aforementioned Party album also highlights a sense of commercial realism often denied by the myth makers. Smiley Smile is Brian making Smile work. This is not the conceptual journey planned by Wilson and Van Dyke Parks but by this time annotated paths were already wearing thin. Closer to Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and the Beatles White album. It is ahead of the moment, if only someone told us to listen.