The story of the ill-fated Beach Boys record SMiLE (1966), and really the story of the Beach Boys themselves, is an excellent case study in cultural tumult of 1960’s America. Changing attitudes and tastes, from a burgeoning civil rights movement to anti-war sentiment and sexual politicization, revealed the delicate balance required to keep a society together. More often than not, this balance was fumbled, and that was certainly the case with one of America’s most beloved musical groups. The Beach Boys‘ failure to weather the shifting cultural landscape led to the loss of one of 20th Century music’s greatest pop documents, SMiLE; however, the release of a deluxe box-set chronicling the formation of the album helps re-capture those moments of turmoil and genius.
Seemingly squeaky clean, the band emerged with hits like “Surfer Girl” and “I Get Around,” befitting of their sunny name. However, as the 1960‘s progressed and the Beach Boys became more ingrained in the California music scene, the band, led by the prodigious Brian Wilson and joined by brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, became more and more psychedelic and experimental. This led to the widely acclaimed and critically essential album Pet Sounds (1966), followed by the release of the single “Good Vibrations” in late 1966. Ostensibly the first song in what was to become the SMiLE album project, this “pocket symphony” became a critical and commercial smash, and remains one of the most hailed and influential singles of the rock era.
However, as the recording progressed under the leadership of a drug-fueled Brian Wilson and newly-recruited lyricist Van Dyke Parks, the other band members started to balk at how esoteric and bizarre the tracks were becoming. Decades-old chatter purports that “Good Vibrations” lyricist Mike Love took the most umbrage with the SMiLE, and Van Dyke Parks eventually lost patience with the far-out Brian Wilson. The project disintegrated into a haze of disputes with their label Capitol Records, and Brian Wilson’s ever-increasing drug use (and inability to find another anchor in the band, like the Beatles found in each other) overshadowed the many personal problems from other bandmates. Some of the tracks were pieced together into the 1967 LP Smiley Smile, but the record was definitely not what SMiLE was intended to be. Smiley Smile was a disaster, both on the charts and with writers and fans alike. SMiLE, on the other hand, has been the subject of fantastical lore for decades, with bootlegs of the recording sessions fervently circulated amongst rock and roll’s cognoscenti.
Brian Wilson re-recorded the project as the critically-hailed Smile in 2004 with his touring band, but the legend of the ditched ‘60s sessions persisted. Beach Boys member Mike Love, who had been touring without Wilson but with other members using the Beach Boys name for decades, responded in 2005 with a lawsuit, purporting that the 2004 Smile “damaged their partnership.” The lawsuit was thrown out, and all was quiet in Beach Boys land until rumors spread that Brian Wilson would be joining the remaining original members of the Beach Boys for their 50th anniversary in 2012. While Wilson refuses to confirm that he will be touring with the band next year, what did come to fruition was the release of The SMiLE Sessions (2011).
More documentary than a recounting of past success, The SMiLE Sessions 5-CD Box Set is not the usual deluxe box set from a band of yesteryear. Instead of offering yet another remastered retrospective from an iconic, influential rock and roll group, this effectively closes a long-open loop in rock history. The SMiLE Sessions provide some great music and very much of an insider’s look into what recording an album was like in 1966–especially for a band with such success behind them.
The first disc offers the closest approximation of what SMiLE would have been were it released, given that many tracks were left unfinished and Brian Wilson states there really was no final track list for the project until he undertook his own recording of SMiLE in 2004. The album as a whole is somewhat incoherent, but between its deconstructionist nature and the incompleteness, this is perfectly understandable. However, the mastery and influence – most especially with keyboards on songs like “Cabin Essence”, the psychedelia in tracks like “Barnyard” and the progression of the classic Beach Boys ballad in “Wonderful” – are clear and assert the first disc in the set as one of the most worthwhile listens in American rock history.
As one moves through the set, the true documentary nature of the release comes through. Each track from the the newly-wrought SMiLE has corresponding outtakes on the following four discs, with a few songs peppered in that the band and producers, one must assume, decided would never make the album and were consciously relegated to b-side or unreleased status. While there isn’t too much continuity to be had here, there is keen insight into how Brian Wilson produced and created a sound, including how much he kept in a very drug-affected brain.
Disc 2 offers several building blocks and outtakes of “Heroes and Villains,” while discs 3 and 4 have fewer outtakes of other songs, following the album order. While this progression may try the patience of the casual listener, the sequence of outtakes provides extremely valuable insight into the construction of an album in that era. CD 5, the greatest treat of all, gives twenty-four glorious takes on “Good Vibrations,” arguably Brian Wilson’s greatest masterpiece.
There’s an intimacy to the unpolished, “warts and all” aspect of The SMiLE Sessions that leaves listeners feeling privileged to hear them. The SMiLE Sessions boxed set reveals loss. The Beach Boys very well could have been the American equivalent of The Beatles had they found a way to be more steady and work well with each other. However, the set also reveals the band’s influence on the general rock and roll scene more profoundly than ever, while also unleashing potential for much more.