THE BEACH BOYS: SMILEY SMILE (1967)
1) Heroes And Villains; 2) Vegetables; 3) Fall Breaks And Back To Winter; 4) She's Goin' Bald; 5) Little Pad; 6) Good Vibrations; 7) With Me Tonight; 8) Wind Chimes; 9) Gettin' Hungry; 10) Wonderful; 11) Whistle In.
The story that surrounds the release of Smiley Smile is one of the weirdest stories to have ever taken place in the music record industry. The basics are well known, and have been accounted for over and over in countless sources (so I will not bother retelling The Most Excellent And Lamentable Tragedy Of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks And How The Both Have Been Perfidiously Betray'd By One Michael Love, An Eater Of Broken Meats If There Ev'r Hath Been One), but that does not help them make any sense.
Put it this way. When your original idea was to produce a groundbreaking, inspirational, more- free-than-a-bird piece of musical art, and, in response to this, you have been tied hands and feet by your friends, relatives, and record company; when you have just made a brave attempt at opening your mind to all sorts of sounds, images, influences, and substances, and your own musical colleagues have openly stated that they are in no shape to stomach it; when, under tremendous pressure from what looks like the entire world around you, you are finally forced to step on your ambitions and shelve your dreams — what is the natural thing for you to do?
Nothing could be simpler. You take a bunch of the craziest songs from your project; you re-record them as raw, demo-quality versions, ten miles away from the general quality of production you are usually known for; and, as a subtle mockery, you bookmark them with two brilliantly produced, multi-layered, visionary mini-suites that provide a brief glimpse into what that project could have sounded like. Then you submit this to your record company. And the record company, naturally, releases the results. Why? I have no answer other than the basic intuition suggests — because people who work in the record industry are fucking idiots, that's why.
Perversely, over the years Smiley Smile has achieved a cult status among a sub-section of the indie crowd, although that could hardly have been predicted by any of the eggheads at Capitol Records. People who tend to get a huge kick from any kind of music that is raw, mad, and daring, often point to Smiley Smile as somewhat of a milestone, noting its uniqueness not just in the catalog of the Beach Boys (who, until 1967, were the last group one could ever suspect of producing something that insane), but among any records released throughout that era.
What they forget, or conveniently omit, is that this insane «masterpiece» was produced almost by accident, and that, when it was released on the market, not a single Beach Boy, least of all Brian Wilson, could probably provide a coherent — or an incoherent — explanation of what the hell it was doing on that market in the first place. (Charts comparison: Pet Sounds – #8, Smiley Smile – #41, most likely because the promoting DJs were smart enough to push 'Heroes And Villains' and 'Good Vibrations' on to the top of their playlists).
It goes without saying that 'Good Vibrations', which had already been released as a single in October of 1966, while the aspirations for Smile were still running high, is a timeless classic, the «Ode to Joy» for its generation; and that 'Heroes And Villains', slightly less known because of its non-anthemic quality, is hardly any worse, going from one of the band's most upbeat, catchiest pop grooves (so sorely missed on Pet Sounds!) to a veritable whirlpool of vocal harmonies that completely redefine our notions of vocal harmonies. In a pop context, that is. The coolest thing about both these songs, though, is that no matter how anthemic, upbeat, or band-oriented they may be, there is still a misunderstood, romantic, tormented loner deep within each of them.
But the rest? Oh, that rest. Now that most of us have a better understanding of what the original Smile project should have sounded like — first, through individual songs scattered on latter era records, then through bootlegs, then through Brian's thorough solo re-recording in 2004, now from an upcoming official archive release, coming out forty-five years too late — I am not going to pretend that the scraps, thrown together on Smiley Smile, were in any way intended to be a «daring» reinvention of the original project. Scraps they were, and scraps they are still.
As in, 'Fall Breaks And Back To Winter' is a meaningless, repetitive, rocking-chair-style, meatless spine of a melody that used to be the psychotic 'Mrs. O'Leary's Cow'. 'Wind Chimes' is but a hushed shadow of a grand, stately, completely self-sufficient composition. 'Wonderful' has one of Carl Wilson's loveliest vocal parts ever, but next to no music backing it at all: appreciation is encouraged, enjoyment is futile.
To make matters even more complicated, at least one brand new number had been included — 'Gettin' Hungry', a barely-comical novelty composition, hanging upon a primitive Farfisa organ (or some other organ) line and choral vocals, somewhat akin in spirit to Brian's «adult child period» output in the mid-1970s. It certainly fits in well with all the other raw deals on the album, but there is still no explanation as to why the band decided to release it as a single — and, furthermore, one formally credited to Brian and Mike rather than the Beach Boys. That Mike Love, he ain't as simple as he'd like us to think.
If the album accidentally invents lo-fi, as some defenders have claimed, there is no more reason to love it for the fact than it is to sanctify Little Deuce Coupe for accidentally inventing the concept album. Of all these lo-fi recordings, the only one that does not sound like a hastily concocted demo is 'Vegetables' (former 'Vega-Tables'), an experimental ode to carrots and beets that's sort of sweet, if rather slight. (The original percussion part, in the form of a chomped-on celery, or carrot, was provided by guest star Paul McCartney, but I am not sure if they retained the original track on this re-recording).
To say that Smiley Smile singlehandedly destroyed the Beach Boys' reputation would be an overstatement. Even Smile itself, had it been originally released the way it was meant to be released, might not have stood critical and commercial competition in the face of straightforwardly psychedelic and/or heavy rock. Nevertheless, riding on the heels of Pet Sounds and the 'Good Vibrations' single, expectations were really strong, and Smiley Smile was predictably understood as a mockery of these expectations. Basically, Brian went all-in with that project — including his personal sanity — and lost it all. The vehicle crashed down from overload; the next several years would be spent selling the debris for spare parts.
Thumbs down, of course, for an album that never had any proper reason to exist, and has done way more harm than good — although, from a purely historical standpoint, it is somewhat of a fascinating listen (and, of course, the two big singles are priceless, although they can always be obtained separately on any semi-respectable collection), especially for S&M devotees.
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