Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Cruel Tease of Lost Promise: The Beach Boys' The Smile Sessions

Probably no pop album experiment has ever developed the legendary mythical status afforded The Beach Boys' ill-fated Smile album. Considering that it's a record that was never finished by the band and shelved in the vaults for years (in fact, it's a work that brought heartache and madness to its creator), Smile built a large appetite over the years for its release. Now it has finally been issued in an epic box-set (The Smile Sessions) complete with 5-CDs of material that includes a facsimile of the original record, plus many CDs of session material that chronicle the album's creation. Included as well is a 2-LP vinyl set of Smile, two 45rpm singles from the work, a book with extensive background material on the making of Smile and its aftermath, and a 24" by 36" poster of Frank Holmes' quaintly evocative cover art (which is duplicated in 3-D on the front of the box itself). A more compact 2-disc set will be out shortly for the more casual and cost conscious fan. Never in the history of pop music though has an incomplete record ever been so lavished in merchandising. It puts the work itself in danger of being buried by the hype. But no amount of hype can hide the troubled atmosphere conjured within its tracks.

Like Bob Dylan & The Band's The Basement Tapes, Smile is a drug-induced gaze back on the early frontier spirit of the American past; and just like many daring artifacts that tap into the tapestry of that frontier, it's a grand folly, a failure of ambition with scatterings of masterful songs embroidered into its symphonic canvas. But where The Basement Tapes provided a clearly defined map of America's musical past, it also confidently pointed forward to a future that would give birth to the grassroots pop of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (1967) and The Band's Music From Big Pink (1968), two hugely influential records that changed the course of sixties music. Those informal 1967 recordings in the Big Pink basement in Woodstock also created a camaraderie among the musicians which brought focus to their subterranean experiments. With The Beach Boys' Smile, which began recording in 1966, its progenitor Brian Wilson had no such spirit of fraternity with his mates and the drugs didn't loosen up the dynamics (as it did with The Basement Tapes). Instead it brought paranoia and collapse. As for the album title, Smile couldn't have been more of a misnomer. It became what David Leaf, author of The Beach Boys & the California Myth, aptly called "a cruel tease of lost promise."


Bob Dylan & The Band's The Basement Tapes

The origins of Smile began as early as 1965 when Brian Wilson had been introduced to composer Van Dyke Parks. In one sense, Parks was Hollywood incarnate, a former child actor who once had a small role in Grace Kelly's final picture, The Swan (1956). In his adult years, though, Parks developed into a musical iconoclast who both arranged, produced and composed idiosyncratic pop (Song Cycle). What he was after was a new and bold form of American song, compositions that would contain faint echoes of America's past while opening up new territory for its future. He crafted lyrics of the kind he described to Barney Hoskyns in Waiting for the Sun as "lyrics from the halcyon days of the pop song in America ... the days of Cole Porter and great musical theater." Parks told Hoskyns that he was chiefly interested in "the thoughtfulness of cadence that had proceeded rock & roll." This thoughtfulness of cadence became the exceptional characteristic that Parks brought to Wilson's beach party.

Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks working on Smile
Parks had first worked his way into the band when he played some piano and marimba on The Beach Boys' exuberant 1966 hit, "Good Vibrations." While this mini-symphony was climbing the charts, Parks and Wilson began entertaining ideas of collaborating on some songs. Their budding friendship, though, was starting to infuriate the rest of the band – especially Wilson's usual writing partner, Mike Love, who began to sense someone fucking with the very formula that made The Beach Boys the standard-bearers of California hedonism. As a follow-up to the group's staggering Pet Sounds, Parks and Wilson conceived (with the assistance of hashish and speed) a teenage symphony to God (not a promising sign). Ultimately called Smile, they both saw the work as a musical collage designed to be both amusingly enchanting and spiritual. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be neither.

The Beach Boys in 1966

The tunes written for Smile (and included in the box-set) are instead some of the most abstract pieces ever conceived for a pop album. On this project, Wilson set out to abandon his long celebration of Southern California youth culture even though it had been The Beach Boys who depicted this world so well, and so generously. Wilson and Parks concocted an American pastiche that was meant to move The Beach Boys into adulthood. Smile opens with "Our Prayer," a wordless, a cappella benediction with cascading harmonies immediately invoking the band's antecedents like The Four Freshmen. "Our Prayer" leads the group into a cover of a brief snippet of "Gee," the 1953 doo-wop hit by The Crows (the first doo-wop recording ever to sell over a million copies), an affectionate bit of R&B, which represented another part of The Beach Boys' musical underpinnings. An elliptical allegory, "Heroes and Villains," then quickly follows, pointing a way out of the teen wilderness that The Beach Boys had occupied for so long ("I've been in this town so long/That back in the city/I've been lost and gone/And unknown for a long, long time"). "Heroes and Villains" was intended to be a getaway car eagerly gunning out of town, an adult love story playfully adorned with whistles, a honky-tonk piano serenading a cantina, and those famous Beach Boys voices decorating the song like coloured lights on a Christmas tree.

A stoned Brian Wilson conducts "The Elements"
Taken as a whole, Smile is less a collection of songs than a madly inspired soundscape, a wildly ambitious series of components with faint remembrances of America's musical past (including traces of "You Are My Sunshine" and variations on Hawaiian canons). You'll find wistfully contemplative tracks like the heavenly "Cabinessence" and the exquisite "Surf's Up" (which puts the band's career and the country that spawned them in perspective), as well as an experimental suite known as "The Elements." "The Elements" was initially conceived to encompass four classical elements: Air ("Wind Chimes"), Fire ("Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"), Earth ("Vega-Tables") and Water ("In Blue Hawaii").

Back in 1966, Capitol Records eagerly anticipated the finished record (especially after "Good Vibrations," which would be included on Smile, hit Number One) and began promoting it as a January 1967 release. But by the fall, something started to go horribly wrong. For one thing, the Smile sessions were starting to leave the rest of The Beach Boys grumbling rather than grinning. Mike Love, who had been quite content singing, "She'll have fun, fun, fun, 'til her daddy takes the T-Bird away," wasn't pleased at having to wrap his tongue around Parks' lyrics like, "Dove-nested towers - the hour was strike the street, quicksilver moon" ("Surf's Up"). In effect, Parks had become the equivalent of The Beatles' Yoko Ono a loquacious outsider who, before long, had everyone but Brian searching for the right words to get rid of him. The calamitous collision of personalities ultimately collapsed Brian Wilson's already fragile state of mind.

By the new year, Smile was doomed. To fulfill their contractual obligations, however, a few of the songs formed a shadow project called Smiley Smile. Released later in 1967, the new album was more a work of oddball chamber pop. While featuring some re-recorded versions of Smile songs like "Wind Chimes," "Wonderful" and "Vegetables," as well as "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains," it lacked the thematic unity Wilson and Parks had envisioned for their original project. Other Smile tracks would be scattered like crumbs over the next few Beach Boys' albums.

Time, though, has a way of changing our perspective on failure. Within a year after it was shelved, Smile started to take on a rather curious status in the American pop underground. Although incomplete and unreleased, it became oddly influential. After functioning mostly as a rumour, when some bootlegged tracks confirmed its existence, Smile became a catalyst for records that followed in its wake. It was the ultimate ghost project. In fact, looking back now, it's hard to consider The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Love's Forever Changes (1967), The Monkees' wild experiments on Head (1968), the Byrds' The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968), Jimi Hendrix's uneven masterpiece Electric Ladyland (1968), Al Kooper's You Never Really Know Who Your Friends Are (1968), Spirit's The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970), Shuggie Otis's Inspiration Information (1974), or Fleetwood Mac's Tusk (1979), without thinking of Smile.

Ironically, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks did complete Smile in 2004, with the help of The Wondermints (a group whose very sound is an homage to The Beach Boys), and recorded the CD Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Although Wilson no longer possessed the soaring falsetto he had in the sixties, it was a joy to hear the conceptual work freed from its consignment as a transitory object, an amorphous voice that opened countless doors for other artists to walk through. But as satisfying as Brian Wilson Presents Smile was, it lacked what critic Donald Brackett called "the chemical component." There was an aspect of the album's original danger, brought on by the dope, that the new recording sidestepped. (It even ended with the upbeat and reassuring "Good Vibrations" rather than the more poignant "Surf's Up." The new Smile makes exactly the same mistake.)

Brian Wilson & The Wondermints perform Smile in 2004
The Smile Sessions doesn't remedy any of its other problems either because we're still hearing an unfulfilled project (whether that chemical component is there or not). While it's tempting to compare The Smile Sessions to the 1997 The Pet Sounds Sessions, which also did a forensics examination of the creating of that record, it is nowhere near as coherent. On The Pet Sounds Sessions, we hear Brian Wilson marshaling his full creative resources in bringing The Beach Boys to new ground with a completed masterpiece at the end of it. On The Smile Sessions, the exhaustive session material, as riveting as it is, illustrates the exact opposite. We hear Wilson now desperately trying to get the band to sing harmonies that his new music can't fully harness, while asking the others whether the acid has kicked in yet. You can hear the fear of failure in this music along with a brilliant stab at audaciousness that is rudderless at its core. The Smile Sessions provides a fascinating subtext to the collapsing confidence of Brian Wilson (much as the documentary Hearts of Darkness did likewise in revealing to us Francis Ford Coppola's fear of failure while conceiving Apocalypse Now).

The Gentlemen from "Hush"
Pet Sounds was Wilson's attempt to top The Beatles' Rubber Soul. When The Beatles answered back with Revolver (1966), their own eclectic masterpiece, Wilson tried to reply with Smile. But unlike The Beatles, who (like Godard in his sixties films) tore up the ground that others tried to follow, The Beach Boys couldn't shake the brand name that chained them. Like The Beatles, The Beach Boys would also cross paths (although more literally) with killer Charles Manson and battle through (and sometimes without) Brian Wilson. Their uneven career following Smile was forever overshadowed by its naked daring and The Beach Boys never fully recovered from it.

This is what all the heavy packaging and hoopla over Smile cleverly hides. It veils the darker corners within the record. The boxes of laughing lips in the window display of the cover art (accompanied by the assuring smiles of the store owners inside) could just as easily turn into the eerie smiles of The Gentlemen in the episode of "Hush" on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. The mission of The Gentlemen was to tear out the hearts of their victims which Smile would also do to its own creator some 45 years ago. The Smile Sessions is moreover a paradoxical bit of marketing. In grandly celebrating an ambitious work that never really saw the light of day, Capitol Records is trying to perfume the turbulence that once permeated it. But the music in this set is too unsettling and alternately too daring to be hidden by the label's sunny front. Once the five discs of the session tapes are fully listened to, and absorbed, you are simply floored by the madly ambitious reach and scope of this record. It's an absolutely startling listening experience. But you also can't help but finally grasp why all those smiles would soon be turned to frowns.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. On November 6th, CBC Radio's Inside the Music presents the documentary Dream Times: The Story of Perth County Conspiracy...Does Not Exist, written and hosted by Kevin Courrier with sound design and production by John Corcelli.

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