The story of Smile, the legendary lost Beach Boys album of 1966-67, is a long and sordid tale, a classic rock and roll myth borne out of creator Brian Wilson’s growing insanity and steady drug intake. In the early 60’s the Beach Boys had been the quintessential American pop band, churning out finely crafted songs about cars and girls whose often-times intricate arrangements were overshadowed by the sheer melodicism and commerciability of the tunes.
The mastermind behind the writing, arranging, and production of the Beach Boys’ hits was Brain Wilson, a boy wonder of sorts who in a few short years had become one of the top producers in all of pop music. By 1966 he had tired of the group’s “fun in the sun” image and wanted to express himself on a more emotional and mature level. This was accomplished with the critical favorite Pet Sounds, which is now universally recognized as a masterpiece but at the time was a relative commercial failure.
Pet Sounds differed from the Boys’ fluffier output but still contained enough material with commercial appeal so as not to freak out the other guys in the band too much. By this point Brian had retired from stage performances to concentrate on making the albums while the other members of the group toured and showed up occasionally at the studio to record their vocals. There was a bit of resistance from the others at first when they heard the songs Brian had been working on; he was using a larger number of studio musicians than before and was coming up with arrangements that were almost orchestral at times. This was not the music of teenagers going to the drive in and groping each other’s horny little bodies. This was music that expressed feelings of inadequacy, longing, love, and not fitting in, yet still contained an underlying hope that everything would come out alright. Pet Sounds is perhaps one of the greatest statements of the hopelessly romantic ideal.
After this there was only one place for Brian to go: straight into the heart of God.
But before he sent himself spiraling out into the cosmos, Brian worked on what most consider to be his best single, his “pocket symphony” known as Good Vibrations. The impact that this song had in 1966 may be hard for us to understand now, especially after hearing it on those tacky Sunkist commercials throughout the 80’s, not to mention on oldies radio every single day. It was the wacky structure, the endlessly hopeful message, and that so very avant-garde Theremin on Good Vibrations that propelled Brian into the hippest of hip circles, which in turn was his introduction to the drug culture of the late 60’s. Brian smoked lots of grass and did acid, which slowly started to warp his already-fragile mind, but more on that later…
The success of Good Vibrations led to Brian’s desire to make an album above all other rock albums that had ever been produced. This new album would be his “teenage symphony to God”, his grand statement, his artistic and emotional breakthrough. What he didn’t know is that it would be his artistic and emotional death-knell. Work on Dumb Angel, later Smile, began in mid-1966 with a projected release date of Christmas of that year. As had been done before, Brian crafted the musical backings with a bevy of the industry’s top studio musicians while the Beach Boys slugged away the hits on tour. Brian’s music became much more experimental than before, probably as a result of the drugs that were simultaneously opening the doors to unbridled creativity and cracking open the dank, dirty basement of his mind’s worst nightmares. Spooky and sinister sounds appeared in the music alongside the more hopeful and positive sounds. Brian partied a lot and things started to get crazy in the studio. Then the other Boys showed up and wondered what the fuck Brian had been doing in their absence.
Even though now-balding wearer of captain’s hats Mike Love claims that he never hated Smile, all other reports show that he thought the experimental leanings of the music and the mystical lyrics of collaborator Van Dyke Parks were utter shit. This didn’t keep the guys from supplying vocals for a good portion of the sessions, but their involvement was fairly minimal. On Brian’s side of things, life was getting out of hand. Long story short, he started getting crazy and paranoid and work slowed down drastically on his masterwork. The release date was pushed back to mid 1967 but plans for the album were still in full force as artwork had already been readied. He later cited competition with the Beatles as a major factor in Smile’s breakdown and when they released Sgt. Pepper’s in June of 1967, Smile was officially dead. Brian never really recovered from his own breakdown and the Beach Boys returned to making friendly, albeit mostly bland, pop music.
Over the ensuing years Smile became the most legendary unreleased album in rock history. Bootlegs of the sessions leaked out and fans were allowed the opportunity to hear the fragments that were recorded. As more and more complete versions of these sessions became available in the underground market, it became apparent that Smile would have been a very important work in the history and development of popular music. The myth continued to grow. Over the years Brian and various other members of the Beach Boys mentioned putting together the bits and pieces of Smile and even completing work on the album, but nothing ever came of it. As time went on Brian tried to distance himself from the work as much as possible and it seemed that Smile would forever be lost to the annals of rock history.
Brian’s career has had a definite revival over the last few years, mainly due to his overcoming many of the demons that plagued him throughout the 70’s and 80’s. In recent years he went on tour with a new band, performing Pet Sounds in its entirety and receiving much acclaim for his efforts, especially in England. So I guess it seems only natural that the only way to top Pet Sounds would be to complete Smile and perform it live. I just didn’t think he would have the ability, creatively and mentally, to do it. Well, I was wrong.
Late last year Brain released a new studio recording of the completed Smile. This was after performing it live many times in both England and the United States. It is from this tour that the new Smile DVD comes at us from Rhino records. Featuring a full live performance from Los Angeles and a documentary covering all the sordid business I just discussed, this two disc set is a pretty good document for those of us who have wondered and waited all these years for anything to be released on this important album.
The documentary, Beautiful Dreamer, is an entertaining affair, but if you’ve read anything about Smile (especially Domenie Priore’s exhaustive tome “Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!”) or seen any of the other few good documentaries made about the band, you’ll realize quickly that this is a fairly sanitized version of the story that reeks of revisionist history. The drug factor is downplayed and Brian’s post-Smile disaster years are essentially skipped over (they don’t even mention his 80’s fiasco with crackpot therapist Dr. Eugene Landy. C’mon!). Although the bulk of the film is spent on the Smile years, the sessions aren’t really discussed in much detail. Instead we get Brian and Van Dyke randomly commenting on individual songs and giving a fuzzy narrative of how things progressed and fell apart. Also, none of the original recordings are used (probably because of copyright issues with Capitol records – the new Smile is on Nonesuch), which provides those who haven’t heard the bootlegs no real grasp of the sound of the 60’s recordings.
These points will probably not be much of a problem for those that are new to Smile, but for those who have spent endless hours piecing together the story through articles, books, documentaries, and recordings, Beautiful Dreamer will fall a little flat.
The live disc, however, is a real treat. Brian’s band gives an enthusiastic, expertly played performance that is very comparable to the new Smile CD. It is very interesting to see all of the different instruments employed in Smile’s aural palette, and Brian’s giant band pulls off the intricacies of the studio recording in an effortless manner. It is also nice to see Brian in such good spirits while performing. In various TV performances that he’s made in the last few years he’s often looked petrified and lost, but in this he seems very in control. He states in the documentary that performing Smile has freed him of his mental and emotional demons, and this live performance is proof of that.
Even with its few faults, this DVD set is a worthwhile purchase for any Beach Boys fan or even anyone who has the slightest bit of interest in this mysterious album. It retails for $29.98 and also contains many bonus features in the way of extra live performances, additional interviews, Brian Wilson solo piano performances, a featurette on the recording sessions, a photo gallery, and a video for “Heroes and Villains”.
So what will Brian Wilson do next? Since Smile was the last unexplored frontier in the Beach Boys canon, it may be difficult for him to find another project of equal stature to embark upon. Who knows? With his demons exercised and his dark past exhumed, he may just be able to channel into that creativity that seemed to escape him all those years ago. All we can do is wait.