I had a ghastly and unsatisfying meal on November the first 2011, completely lacking in any nutrients. I had to eat my own hat! Why you ask? Because the Beach Boys SMiLE was finally released! This monstrous meisterwerk, much beloved by scholars of the arcane for over four decades finally gets the full treatment it deserves…… I think! For me, since the first bootleg cassette I had of it in the early Eighties, it’s been a major musical obsession. I decided to count all of the bootleg cds I have of it…….they number some 17, that’s not including Brian Wilson’s version, which I personally thought was wonderful, tho’ the 2011 version has a good deal more fairy dust sprinkled on it. Or the numerous internet versions, (such as Purple Chick’s excellent “reconstruction”) which must number almost 20. And I heard a couple of tracks on the net recently, AV’s of familiar bootlegged tracks, in pristine sound, stereo I might add, completely unheard by me before.
What is it about a piece of unfinished music from 1966/early 1967 that intrigues and obsesses me so? I suppose with any unfinished piece of art, the imagination can run riot, and SMiLE has plenty of space for that. Then there’s the “what if?” factor, “what if” it had been released early 1967? How would it have changed musical evolution? And would it have inspired the Beatles to even further heights than “Sgt Pepper’s”? I think it may well have done, and for anybody still wondering how Macca’s bass playing went from melodic Rock’n’Roll shapes to a far more clipped, obtuse style, well look no further than “Pet Sounds”. Of course Carol Kaye played a lot of bass for the Beach Boys from 1965, but Brian Wilson told her exactly which notes to play, and how to play them. Listen to “God only knows” back to back with “With a little help from my friends” and I think you’ll get my drift. And of course Macca has stated time and time again that he thinks “Pet Sounds” is the greatest musical work ever.
When I listen to the “Bicycle Rider” pieces, it sends chills down my spine. The piano sounds strange, almost ghostly. The melody is dark and foreboding, like a negative zone version of the “Heroes and Villains” theme. And with that crawling heavy bassline underpinning the sound, it conjurers up something very Gothic, but oddly very Wild West too. The piano sound has something of a Western saloon bar feel, albeit a bar frequented by Zombie gunfighters! Do you like worms?(or Roll Plymouth Rock)has always blown my mind, but when I saw Brian Wilson doing it live for the first time in 2004, and he started singing “waving from the ocean liners……” I nearly went into religious rapture! Finally, the missing part of another wonderful jigsaw, and again a very eerie sound, with the ominous timpani and tack piano, and a slight return to the “Bicycle rider” theme, played on the Harpsichord. When Brian’s faux Hawaiian vocal comes in, over the mournful slide guitar and haunting backing vocals, the effect is simply otherworldly and black. Psychedelic, American Gothic.
There’s so much mystery surrounding SMiLE. Eliphas Levi once said “mystery is the abyss which ceaselessly attracts our unquiet curiosity”, and certainly SMiLE could be that definitive abyss. Just the song titles themselves intrigue, “Love to say Da Da”, “Cabin Essence”, “Child is the Father of the Man”, what on earth could Brian be talking about? In the early Summer of 1965, Brian Wilson took LSD for the first time. The trip inspired “California Girls”, and from there on in Brian continued to take Acid to stimulate his creativity, and there’s Brian saying “you guys you feeling the Acid yet?” on the Our Prayer sessions. In 1967, Brian said LSD “shattered his mind”, and this drug psychosis, coupled with Mike Love’s total disapproval of the project(and much pressure from Capitol, as per, not to mention the Beach Boys suing them for unpaid royalties), ended any possibility of SMiLE’s completion. SMiLE recording sessions ran from May 1966 until May 1967, and Brian continued to work on Heroes and Villains up til August 1967.
So what was left? Well, having listened to the “finished” versions of several of it’s major pieces i.e. Wind Chimes, Wonderful, Heroes and Villains, Good Vibrations and Vegetables on Smiley Smile, albeit in somewhat different forms, and Our Prayer and Cabinessence on 20/20, and the awe inspiring Surf’s Up from the album of the same name, (courtesy of Carl and Dennis for the most part), the next biggest revelation in the mystery was the release of over 30 minutes of SMiLE fragments on the 30 years of Good Vibrations box set in 1993. And here’s a major part of the enigma that needs to be explained. Whilst madmen like me were obsessively attempting to collect every known take and fragment on every bootleg available, it eventually became clear that it was the audio quality of the track and how it had been modified by the bootleggers that made it sound like a different take in some instances. Obviously, some of the sources were rather noisy acetates, probably Brian’s, or given away by him. Apparently he delighted in Frizbie-ing many! There’s a fabulous AV of “Worms”, a different arrangement with some instrument variations, it’s fabulous but it sounds like it was recorded in Marilyn’s deep fat fryer!
So without a complete sessions log(which I’d personally like to have!)we were buggered! There is a “sessionography” in the deluxe box, but apparently it’s not totally complete and there are minor innacuracies. Oh no, please Lord!
Let’s get one thing very clear, SMiLE was never completed, so beyond the released tracks, how many other revelations can we expect? Well, even for the jaded pallet such as mine, there are a number of morsels that are previously unheard. The brilliant thing about the 2011 version is the sound quality is awesome, clean and noise free. And there’s a lot of takes that are announced(and annotated in the sleeve notes)so we can be very clear about which take is which. I’ve found a day by day SMiLE session-ography, http://www.mountvernonandfairway.de/smile.htm but it doesn’t list specific takes, just the tracks recorded. What would be cool is a kind of SMiLE forum where one can contribute a track and have it appraised by “SMiLE scholars” as to which take/overdub session it was. But you can bet Capitol wouldn’t like it! So, in the interests of sanity, I’m going to let go of getting every take of every track, and perhaps in my lifetime the totally complete sessions will be released on whatever format is popular then. There are apparently 75 master reels in existence. Yeah, I’d like to hear them all……if I haven’t already.
With the 2011 release, we get a fairly certain idea of what Brian originally had in mind………I think. The 2004 template is probably, rightly the starting block. Has any one verified the oft cited hand written note that Capitol supposedly based their tracklisting on? It’s disputed by many. Indeed if you compare BW’s signature on the various “products”(the SMiLE box signed by BW, a snip at $6000, with the surf board of course, I got one for each of my family members)and the Capitol note, I don’t think the handwriting matches at all. Did any body get a reason why Van Dyke Parks refused to have any thing to do with the project? Bearing in mind his brilliant word imagery is the icing on the finished parts of the SMiLE cake. Perhaps he thought he’d given his all to the BW version? More mysteries……
Sometimes I dispair living in the modern world. No blue touch paper, no Bowie, and a lifelessness inherent in our culture. But this box set is a beautiful glimmer of what could have been, and why the enlightened call Brian Wilson “genius”. And I’m still finding numerous delights. SMiLE touches my soul like few other pieces of music do, and it continues to inspire and intrigue me. Somewhere out in that darkness,
“Lost and found you still remain there……”