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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Beach Boys: Smiley Smile


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.


Check "Smiley Smile" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Smiley Smile" (MP3) on Amazon

14 comments:

  1. The Faces did a very entertaining version of Gettin' Hungry on their boxset. Worth tracking down.

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  2. but this is my favourite Beach Boys album. i'm sad now.

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  3. Yes, yes, I mostly agree, but still... I find this to be a very easy album to enjoy, especially as part of an economical twofer with the superior Wild Honey. You understate the case when you say it's "somewhat of a fascinating listen."

    Somewhat?

    To put things in perspective, Smiley Smile might be the druggiest album ever released by a major label, and it's not like EMI label mates the Beatles and Pink Floyd didn't make a run at that title in 1967. The band is clearly high on "Little Pad" and "She's Goin' Bald." Not that I advocate smoking pot, nor do I think it helps a band make better music, but this is the Beach Boys, for heaven's sake! It's very fascinating!

    It's a necessary album to play for all my Beach Boys-hating friends who think of the band as hopelessly square for their time.

    Regardless, why not enjoy it as a more authentic "Beach Boys Party!"? It's charming, light, and fun.

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  4. Not really a "good album" per-se. But it's hella entertaining and I nevertheless enjoy it a lot. Is that a paradox?

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  5. I'd have given it a thumbs up. There's no way any Amorphis album should get a TU while this doesn't, at any rate...

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  6. With Me Tonight pointed the way forwards, a post-smile song that's utterly lovely. 'Little Pad' also, it has the best harmonic humming ever committed to tape.

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  7. Everybody is so hot about the vocal harmonies here... What’s the matter with you, guys? The Beatles has got beautiful vocal harmonies. Yes has got beautiful vocal harmonies. Hell, even the Housemartins and the Soft Boys has got better vocal harmonies than the harmonies I can here on 'Good Vibrations' and 'Heroes And Villains'. Crap.

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  8. Then there is something wrong with your ears. No way I'm a fan of the Beach Boys; I'm not even interested enough to separate them from Jan and Dean. But Good Vibrations is sheer genius.

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  9. No, it isn't.
    See - this is why discussions about music have no sense. For one person some melody is beautiful, and for another person - it isn't.

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  10. You're right, we should never talk about anything subjective ever again. It's not like somebody could be, I don't know, enlightened by somebody else pointing out something that maybe the other person didn't notice, or from discussing why, exactly, one person likes something the other doesn't.

    It's time everybody just stopped talking about anything remotely subjective. No more discussions about music, movies, art, video games, books, religion, politics, relationships, philosophy, computer hardware, architecture, etc., etc. Only discuss things that are 100% firmly objective! What's the point otherwise, am I right?

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  11. Thank you. Let me clarify my point of view. First of all, I would never generalize my position to other arts, like cinema, theatre or literature. Not to mention other fields of human activity, like the ones you’ve listed - politics, relationships, philosophy. It is pretty obvious what can be discussed in all of these cases. But music is a very special, the most abstract art we have got (especially if you pay no attention to the lyrics, like I do). And I sincerely believe that each and every person can perceive it only in a highly subjective way. And if I don’t like some melody – no “enlightening by somebody else pointing out something” will ever help me liking it.

    This doesn’t mean that the work of music critics, like our beloved George Starostin, has no sense. In fact, their work is EXTREMELY important, and its main function is educational. They teach us, the not so experienced listeners, which albums we should try in the first place, then – in the second place, etc. By the way, this is why I think that the ratings were so important on George’s old site. With the use of these rating, he taught me all I knew once.

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  12. No, I'm sorry. I've been having a rough time lately and I lashed out. I apologize for overreacting and sounding bitter and sardonic.

    However, I would like to say that there have been times when I only kinda sorta liked a song until somebody pointed out to me how cool a certain melody/harmony line/riff/vocal phrasing/whatever was. Discussion of music can lead to a deeper appreciation of it, no matter how subjective it may seem. That's all I'm saying.

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  13. Dean (Wilson) LaCapraraOctober 25, 2011 at 7:27 PM

    Good overall yet disappointing after the stuff released since at least All Summer Long (except of course travesty known as Party). Not until 1972 did our heroes give fans anything this mediocre. However, Smiley thankfully rescues a few gems that might have otherwise been unreleased for decades: Vegetables and Wonderful are highlights, although my choice for best song has to be Gettin' Hungry (a newer classic). The first songs on each side obvious ways to sell a record nobody wanted back then.

    As for Smile, I say better it never came out in '67 because most of their albums following this one are fantastic yet would've been unjustly compared to a masterpiece which had the potential to make Pet Sounds irrelevant.

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  14. Oddly, this was the album that got me interested in the Beach Boys. It was so weird, wild and insane that I actually found myself draw to investigate further. Of course, the album is a huge let down after Pet Sounds and even huger let down after actually having heard some version of Smile. But it does have a weird charm that I can't deny.

    "Good Vibrations" can't help but be the standout here. It's my favorite song and one of the, if not the, best pop song ever. It's a true "pocket symphony" worth all the months and toil Brian worked on it.

    "Heroes and Villains" is a good song but a bit weak in this version. I never noticed until I listened to the more recently released versions. Its pretty stripped back and relatively flaccid but the melodies and arrangements are still solid. On to the rest.

    "Vegetables" is probably the first and best indication that Brian had completely lost his mind. The bass and carrot driven rhythm track is like nothing I've ever heard and the heart breaking ending, which comes from the real Smile is heart breaking because it shows how great the song could have been (and eventually was).

    "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter" is a passable instrumental that is, again a bit flaccid when compared to its Smile counterpart. I like the more ambient, spooky atmosphere it creates as opposed to the violent insanity of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow but it's still not as good.

    "She's Going Bald" is...another great indication that Brian was insane. It jumps from the rather pretty opening melody to the ridiculous speeding up vocals, to a weird, dramatic piano part and then to a boogie woogie ish part with simple acoustic guitar stabs. It sort of winds around like a less successful Frank Zappa tune with none of the instrumental dexterity. Fun but quite mad.

    "Little Pad" is incredibly slight. The stupid giggles at the beginning make it annoying while the humming is quite nice. The odd "sure would like to have a little pad in Hawaii" backed by nothing but a metronome is an odd idea. Again, this is a song that jumps from half baked idea to the next in an attempt at...avant guard? Beauty? Confusion? That's the ticket.

    Skipping "Good Vibrations" we end up with "With Me Tonight." The group singing here is absurdly beautiful but the music is incredibly minimal. Little more than an organ backs this song up. I think the singing helps make this a worthwhile track.

    "Getting Hungry" has more of those odd contrasts. The "dramatic" verses, with the stuttering, stabbing guitars is bizarre for the Beach Boys while the grinding organ chorus seems more normal except for the fact that the only instrument on the chorus is the organ. Another song destined to confuse rather than inspire.

    "Wind Chimes" and "Wonderful" are absolutely heart breaking in these versions: by that I mean its heart breaking to compare these half fleshed out demos to the beautiful songs they were supposed to be and later did become. "Wind Chimes" sounds completely aimless and may be the pop equivalent of the ending of "Moonchild." Just sort of rambling from poorly realized vocal harmonized idea to the next. "Wonderful" fares a little better but the children's choir (or sped up voices) was a bad idea. It's still too minimal: the full version is minimal but not THIS insanely stripped back.

    And of course we end with "Whistle In" another odd piece that seems to have little to no point. Honestly, I do rather like the album because of how confusing, jumbled, minimalistic and sometimes how (probably accidentally) avant guard it is. However, it is indeed a "bunt" and is indeed the bunt that destroyed the bands career for decades.

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