In 2004, Brian Wilson presented Smile. In 2011, Capitol Records presented the real thing. One of the most important developments in the Beach Boys’ history was announced by one Al Jardine, a founding member of the most popular American band of all time.
In a long-form interview published exclusively in this column, Jardine waited until the final minutes of the conversation before mentioning the following bombshell: “Capitol Records plans to issue a Beach Boys version of Smile sometime this summer to begin the celebration of the Beach Boys’ anniversary. Smile is the Holy Grail for Beach Boys’ fans, so it will be good. I don’t have many details on it, although we didn’t do any new recording. I’m happy to see it finally come out. Brian’s changed his mind about releasing the material, but it was inevitable, wasn’t it?”
Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations”
So, why is this announcement so crucial to pop music fans? First, Smile was supposed to be the follow-up to the group’s most critically acclaimed album, Pet Sounds (ranked #2 in Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time’ in 2003), and the band’s answer to The Beatles’ Revolver, yet Smile was never finished.
Interestingly, during the mid 1960s the two biggest bands in the world had a friendly rivalry of sorts, with Paul McCartney in particular being a major Beach Boys fan.
The lengthy sessions for the classic single “Good Vibrations” led directly to the modular recording style of Smile, with the song taking an astonishing seventeen recording sessions before Brian was satisfied around September 1966. Consequently, Brian decided to hold “Vibrations” off the Pet Sounds LP.
Enter Van Dyke Parks
Lyricist Van Dyke Parks was then brought in to help on the lyrics for “Vibrations”; instead, he declined, saying he preferred to work on a fresh project, and Smile was soon green-lighted. Brian first referred to Smile as Dumb Angel, his “teenage symphony to God.” It was going to be bigger and better than any previous Beach Boys album, sort of a musical, historical journey across America.
Although Van Dyke was a talented writer, his complicated lyrics turned off the other Beach Boys, especially the vocal Mike Love. Mike actually had reservations about the previous Pet Sounds material.
The famous quote attributed to him went like this: “You’re going to blow it, Brian. Stick to the old stuff, and don’t f*** with the formula,” which no doubt upset Brian tremendously. Al’s response was more muted, as he admitted, “Wow Brian – sure doesn’t sound like the old stuff.” You can only imagine how they felt after listening to the Smile material.
Problems On The Horizon … and Phil Spector
Drugs, particularly hashish and amphetamines, became an increasing problem, contributing to Brian’s already worsening mental state. Brian was even convinced his dad, Murry, was planting bugs in the studio, at Brian’s home or in his automobiles in order to eavesdrop on him.
Brian’s biggest musical hero was the eccentric producer Phil Spector. He would obsessively play Spector’s “Be My Baby,” a huge hit for The Ronettes, over and over. Later, when the Rock Hudson thriller Seconds (about an old gentleman who undergoes complete plastic surgery, assuming a new identity) premiered in October 1966, Brian thought Spector had directed subliminal messages in the film to him.
The constant hangers-on, or yes-men, didn’t help, either. Brian would have a good song idea, call the session musicians in, and record many takes, but by the next week, he would change his mind and scrap everything.
It was as if he couldn’t say no. Ideas for complete sound effects and subsequent humor albums came and went, although alternate takes of the excellent album centerpiece “Heroes & Villains” contain hints of those early visions.
Surf’s Up … the Creativity Reaches a Breaking Point
Derek Taylor, the well-known press officer for The Beatles, also worked as a publicist for The Beach Boys during the mid-’60s. He is credited with the “Brian Is a Genius” campaign, a stunt that further manifested itself in the documentary Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, which eventually aired in late April 1967 on CBS television.
The show featured a clip of Brian at the piano, performing an amazing, solo rendition of “Surf’s Up,” a cut that sums up much of the Smile fiasco.
The pressure for Brian to create another masterpiece was reaching a boiling point, and once the Beach Boys returned from a relentless touring schedule in December 1966, concerns were again raised.
Prior to the tour, they had already completed some vocal sessions for some very complex material. It was a valid argument when the group questioned Brian as to how they could possibly replicate the intricate arrangements of much of the material in concert.
Fire in the Studio
The group also learned about a recent session for a song entitled “Fire” (part of “The Elements” suite), that demonstrated Brian’s increasing irrationality. Brian had asked everyone in the studio, including a complete string section, to wear fire helmets during the recording process.
A fire was kindled in a bucket on the studio floor, adding to the atmosphere. Immediately after the session, a nearby building burned down, causing Brian to fear he had somehow started the fire through the bad session “vibes.”
Smile Is Abandoned … ‘A Bunt Instead of a Grand Slam’
When Brian heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” a double A-side single by The Beatles, in February 1967, he knew it was all over. Paul McCartney later visited Brian in April, telling him about their latest sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
In Brian’s mind, The Beach Boys were irrelevant, and this was further compounded when the group, apparently at Brian’s instigation, withdrew from the lauded Monterey Pop Festival in mid June. Acts including Otis Redding (filling the vacated Beach Boys’ spot), The Who, Janis Joplin and The Jimi Hendrix Experience became bona-fide stars in the U.S. after appearing.
Capitol Records rightly kept demanding deadlines for the finished album, and they had already printed 468,000 front album covers (a few years later, those covers and accompanying booklets were inexplicably trashed by the record company). However, by May 2, 1967, Smile was officially abandoned in a press release via Derek Taylor.
Brian was shattered, but he attempted to pick up the pieces with Smiley Smile, an album that featured vastly inferior recordings of several Smile-era tracks. Brian’s younger brother, Carl, accurately called Smiley Smile “a bunt instead of a grand slam.”
After Smile … Bonus Cuts on New Albums
From 1967 until 1971, several tracks from the Smile sessions came out on subsequent albums, including “Our Prayer,” “Cabinessence,” and “Surf’s Up,” with each song featuring new vocals or re-recorded backing tracks to varying degrees.
Various Beach Boys would also claim that Smile would be released soon, but that never happened, despite a clause in their Reprise contract stipulating the delivery of a Smile master tape before May 1973. Brian went so far as to tell people he had burned or destroyed the original masters.
Brian Wilson Revisits Smile
Song fragments from the massive Smile sessions (about thirty minutes in total) showed up in 1993 on the Good Vibrations box set. Fast-forward ten years, and Brian finally decided to revisit Smile.
Van Dyke added new lyrics, Brian’s backing band (assembled around L.A. psych-pop veterans Wondermints), re-recorded all of it, and Brian and Darian Sahanaja (a songwriter and keyboardist for Wondermints) came up with a new song sequence.
The new Smile was released to rave reviews, but it still wasn’t the original Beach Boys version. Fans have clamored for a legitimate, complete and original Smile release for decades now, and with Jardine’s announcement, it is almost here.
Archivist Alan Boyd and recording engineer Mark Linett were recently in a California studio assembling the project. In an attempt to interview Boyd, Capitol Records replied that they were not comfortable in giving out any additional details at this time.
- Sincere appreciation goes to Beach Boys researcher Andrew G. Doe for the opening promo tag line and further inspiration.
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