Friday 4 July 2008

Review 101) Brian Wilson "Smile" (2003)

You can now buy 'Add Some Music To Your Day - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Beach Boys' in e-book form by clicking here


On which nearly 40 years of worry, regret and nervous breakdowns finally culminates in a record as perfect as perfect can be. No wonder I’m smiling…

Track Listing: Our Prayer > Gee/ Heroes And Villains/ Roll Plymouth Rock/ Barnyard/ Old Master Painter > You  Are My Sunshine/ Cabin Essence/ Wonderful/ Song For Children/ Child Is Father Of The Man/ Surf’s Up/ I’m In Great Shape> I Wanna Be Around> Workshop/ Vega-Tables/ On A Holiday/ Wind Chimes/ Mrs O’Leary’s Cow/ In Blue Hawaii/ Good Vibrations (UK and US tracklisting)



For The Record:

Ones to watch out for: Everything. Honestly, everything is terrific about this masterpiece, but a special mention for the middle ‘childhood’ suite, which is one of the most moving 15  minutes you will ever hear.

Ones to skip: Would you believe Good Vibrations is probably the most ordinary, conservative and least impressive song here?!?

The cover: Simply the album name and artist written in BIG print, which is a depressingly boring cover for such a legendarily colourful album. However, the inner sleeve of the ‘finished’ 21st century version more than makes up for it, with lots of Victoriana psychedelia illustrations for every song and a collection of odd objects on a bookcase to illustrate the album’s American antiques/ recently rediscovered theme. Shame the original 1967 ‘Smile’ drawing – of a shop selling grins – wasn’t used, but never mind. I’ll forgive the creators of this fine album anything after hearing it!

Key lyrics: “I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long long time” (now that’s a sentence!) “Once upon the Sandwich Isles, the social structure steamed upon Hawaii, rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over” “Bicycle rider, just see what you’ve done to the church of the American Indian” “I want to watch you, windblown facing, waves of wheat for your embracing, folks sing a song of the grange, nestle in a kiss below there, the constellations ebb and flow there, witness our home on the range” “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield” “Who ran the iron horse?” “All fall down and lost in the mystery, lost it all to a non-believer and all that’s left is a girl who’s loved by her mother and father, she’ll return in love with her liberty, just away from a non-believer, she’ll sigh and thank God for one, one, wonderful” “Hung velvet overtaking me, dim chandelier awaken me, to a song dissolved in the dawn” “A children’s song have you listened as they play?, their song is love and the children know the way” “Though its hard I try not to look at my wind chimes, now and then a tear rolls off my cheek” “I’m pickin’ up good vibrations, she’s giving me excitations”  Extra lyrics sung over Cabninessence as detailed below: “Truck driving man/ Do what you can/ High tail your load off the road/ Out of night, life/ It’s a gas, man/ I don’t believe I’ve got to give/In and out of luck/ With a buck and a booth/ Catching on to the truth/ In the vast past, the last gasp/ In the land, in the dust/ Trust that you must catch as catch can” 

Original chart position:???? My hit singles and albums book doesn’t reach this far!!

Singles: The re-recording of Good Vibrations was rather less successful when released as a single the second time round – as far as I know it didn’t chart, but we’ll have to wait until the next Guinness Hit Singles book to find out for certain!

Official out-takes: The only alternative recording from these later sessions is an instrumental version of Cabin Essence, included on the B-side of the Good Vibrations single (re-recorded version) and included on the Smile double LP set to bulk up the playing time. As expected for such a well known ‘lost’ album, however, there’s a recording studio vaults’ worth or three stuffed full of the original Smile sessions, all kept safely as the Beach Boys hoped that one day Brian would be able to finish it for them (Smile must be one of the few albums ever to be designated three different catalogue numbers under three different companies: Capitol in January 1967, Brother Records/ Warner Brothers in 1973 and this 2007 version for Nonesuch. Only this third version ever came out). There’s literally hundreds of little bits and snippets from the 1967 sessions that were never used, the vast majority of them still officially unreleased. You can however hear tons of examples of Beach Boys re-recordings of the said recordings, both with but usually without Brain’s co-operation which are listed as follows: the sparse and rather amateurish Smiley Smile album (1967) includes most of them, seeing as the band’s contract of the time meant they had to put some form of a record out and didn’t have much else besides the Smile tapes to cannibalise. This rather odd little album includes the shortened version of Heroes And Villains as released as a single, a much more simplistic arrangement of Vegetables, a rather demented version of Wind Chimes and a creepy version of Wonderful where Carl Wilson sounds like one of the Munsters, plus the single version of Good Vibrations that the whole world knows and loves. An honorary mention too for With Me Tonight – which might have been in the running for Smile at one point and would have fitted on the album nicely – while the tune for She’s Goin’ Bald was originally part of a sketchy Smile song spoofing politicians called He Gives Speeches, which frankly wouldn’t have fitted at all well in either incarnation. The CD re-issue of Smiley Smile/ Wild Honey also includes the glorious but unfinished Smile-sounding piece Can’t Wait Too Long, which was thought for years to be a Smile out-take, but is actually a rare case of Brian Wilson trying to re-create his past epics in the Wild Honey period (an inferior alternate mix of this song is also available on the out-takes set Hawthorne California, 2000). The album 20/20 (1969) includes two more Smile rarities: a largely untouched Our Prayer and a delightful, equally elaborate version of Cabinessence with Carl on specially re-recorded lead vocals. The album Surf’s Up (1971) ends with a version of the title track which never was properly recorded by Brian originally. The first half of the song comes from Brian’s solo performance on a Leonard Bernstein TV special about ‘the exciting new sounds’ of the ‘young’ generation’, with a more developed second half re-mainly handled by Carl attached to the end. Moving onto specific ‘out-takes’ sets, you can hear the legendary first ‘pop’ take of Good Vibrations with Brian’s own lyric before Mike Love changed the words plus around 10 minutes’ worth of backing tracks from the session recordings for this song (Smiley Smile/ Wild Honey CD re-issue, 1990); mesmerising original Smile recordings of Our Prayer, Wonderful, Wind Chimes, Plymouth Rock aka Do You Like Worms? and Vegetables (all fairly similar to what we have here except that Plymouth Rock is missing a good half of the vocals), plus the whole of Brian’s Leonard Bernstein’s performance of Surf’s Up and finally extracts from Heroes And Villains and the opening half of Blue Hawaii (then still known as I Love To Say Da-da for reasons known only to Brian);15 more minutes’ worth of backing tracks and out-takes from the Good Vibrations recordings (The Pet Sounds Sessions, 1997); Brian and Van Dyke’s brief demo for Heroes And Villains/ Barnyard (Endless Harmony, 1998); and finally yet more from the Good Vibrations sessions plus a weird unused promo for Vegetables from Brian and drummer Hal Blaine that would have had them both locked up for definite if anyone had heard them at the time (Hawthorne California, 2001). Finally, the moody original of Mrs O’Leary’s Cow wasn’t burned straight after the sessions as long supposed in Beach Boy mythology and can be heard on the soundtrack of the video documentary The Beach Boys: An American Band, though to date it’s still not officially available on record. Somewhere in the vaults still exist the original 10-minute version of Heroes And Villains, the backing tracks for Barnyard, On A Holiday, Song For Children and I Wanna Be Around, plus finished versions of The Old Master Painter (with Dennis on lead) and Child Is Father To The Man (with an unused ‘middle eight’!), as well as numerous odds and ends that haven’t been re-created by Brian for use in this ‘finished’ product.

Availability: Still on catalogue. No one would dare delete this album while I’m still alive to make sure it sells!!!!

This album came between: As conceived, it comes somewhere Pet Sounds (1966) and Smiley Smile/Wild Honey (1967) in Beach Boys history (highlights: a less wonderful but nevertheless moving rendition of Wonderful and the eerie Let The Wind Blow respectively). As for released, it comes after Brian’s solo recordings Imagination (1998) - which contains the magnificent Cry, proof that Brian still can write songs as brilliant as anything on Smile  and its just about enough incentive to buy the album, but the rest of its pretty poor. It’s the same story for follow-up Gettin’ In Over My Head (2005) – two or three tracks of outstanding brilliance surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. Highlight: the insecure title track.

Line-up: Brian Wilson with Scott Bennett, Jeffrey Foskett, Probyn Gregory, Jim Hines, Bob Lizik, Paul Mertens, Taylor Mills, Darian Sahanaja and Nick Walusko (produced by Brian Wilson)

Putting The Album In Context:

SO, 101 albums in and what have we learnt? That butterflies come from lands with lemonade lakes, that love always wins over gold and that after bathing at baxters you’ll probably need a hearing aid. We’ve also learnt how music shows us things we didn’t know and probably should have done, things we knew that we probably shouldn’t have learnt and things that we only half understood that are now a bit clearer. In all, we’ve learned how music can heal the soul, educate us, give us the basis for a real good time and in my case at least turn us into list-making headphone-wearing obsessive anoraks. What a great hobby.

Anyhoo, its strangely fitting that Smile – the last album on this chronological list – does all of the above and more and is possibly the best record of the whole bang lot for me, creating more list-making headphone-wearing closet music fans since its almost-but-not-quite release in 1967 than any other project and understandably so. This is music like we always dreamed it might be someday, largely written by two people at the height of their powers who were unfortunate enough to have been a couple of centuries too early before the day when - I am confident—rock and roll will be viewed as one of the most important art forms around (long after the spice girls are dead, in other words). Smile is an album born for studying, but with so much emotional power you don’t need a thesis to be moved by it either. The Beach Boy’s missing follow-up to everybody’s favourite bedsitter album Pet Sounds, with the song Good Vibrations recorded in part of the album’s early sessions, more has been written about Smile than any other ‘lost’ album in history.

There are currently dozens of websites out there for those who want to know more about this album’s fascinating history so I won’t bore you with it for now, but suffice to say this amazing record was never finished because 1) Pet Sounds was rather coolly received by American critics who disliked the absence of fun, surf and sun songs 2) Brian Wilson’s new songs weren’t well liked by some band members who disliked the absence of fun, surf and sun songs 3) The band’s record company Capitol were at loggerheads with the group – halting production on the intended album cover over a songwriting dispute and killing off some of Pet Sounds’ sales by releasing a greatest hits compilation about a month or so after it came out. Oh, yeah, they also wanted more fun, surf and sun songs and weren’t afraid to say so. 4) A growing diet of drugs meant the songs and the sessions for Smile got a bit weird to say the least – this might not have been as difficult as it was if only the chaos around this album’s recording meant that Brian’s biggest champion and soulmate of the period, Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks, felt the work wasn’t productive and left partway through leaving a nervy Brian to face the wrath of his confused colleagues alone 5) Brian’s sanity went over the edge after one session for his horrifying new song ‘Fire’ – the night after the sessions a building across the road from the studio burnt down and after hearing this jaw-dropping but quite horrifying song I more than sympathise with Brian’s dismay that ‘bad vibes’ had caused the blaze.  6) At age 24, tired and overworked, with little support, Brian no longer had the courage to pull such an odd and bitty work together – in short after nearly 20 big hits for The Beach Boys and a decade or so on the road, Brian had had enough. I could also add the oft-reported 7) that Paul McCartney played Brian Wilson a tape of the forthcoming Sgt Pepper’s album and he gave up in amazement but a) that occurred in early 1967 when Smile had been abandoned for months anyway and b) love that album to bits as I do, Peppers sounds like amateur hour when held against almost anything from Smile (the same goes for Pet Sounds, come to that, so don’t think I’m picking on the fab four here – Revolver is still the best of the rest as far as I’m concerned).

So why is Smile so good? Well, for starters, I’m having one of those days when everything under the sun seems to be out of synchronisation with everything else. My back hurts, I have a headache, I’ve just had a choking fit that makes me wonder what on earth I bothered to get up for today at all and the last thing I want to do is sit in front of a computer that will probably lose my work or stick it in some weird ‘webdings’ font when I’m not looking like it did most of last week. But I’m writing about Smile and suddenly I feel better and – more importantly – the world seems better. Smile. After all these years hearing about it, I can’t believe I’m actually writing this review about a ‘finished’ piece of work (although no doubt it would have got a mention anyway just from the little wonderful bits and pieces that had come out already). Smile is the album we thought we’d never hear. The album that we spent 40 years thinking couldn’t possibly be as good as the snippets we’d heard suggested it would be – and ended up even better. The album that proves that persevering through hard times with hard work really does get you somewhere in the end – you just have to wait 40 years or so. The album that proves that, no matter how far ahead of your time you are, what you hear and feel is valid. The album that sounds like nothing, absolutely nothing, made before or since. The album that does exactly what it says on the tin. Smile never fails to make me smile. Except when it’s making me cry.

There are albums you weep buckets over, albums you throw things at the wall with, albums that lift you up for small pockets of time, but smile makes you smile all the way through – because it’s everything. Its daring, its eccentric, its comfortable, its hilariously good fun, its deeply deeply serious, it makes no sense and yet it arguably makes more sense to those of us in the know than any other album ever made, including the other 100 on this list. Smile is the one album here that I can honestly recommend to anyone, because even if they don’t give it the re-action I give it, I know there’s some sort of a reaction coming; Smile is structured in a way that completely changes the way you listen to music and an experience that no one should be denied. Peppers has a few odd linking passages, Village Green Preservation Society and Tommy fit nicely together, Pet Sounds makes some kind of thematic atmospheric sense, but no other album has ever turned 100-odd passages of 30 second bursts in a cohesive-sounding whole like Smile. No wonder Brian’s bandmates weren’t ready for it in 1966 (when most bands were still doing 1950s cover versions for goodness sake!), no wonder Brian lost confidence before he could piece it together properly, no wonder the few people who heard pieces of it at the time simply raised their eyebrows: Smile draws a line in the sand for popular music and the release of this album in the 1960s would have changed every piece of music released since, probably for the better. With Brian’s confidence restored and his hangers-on taken away, there is no doubt in my mind that five years on from Smile the Beach Boys would be the biggest act in the world even now and the Beatles would have been a much-loved memory in comparison. I’ve done my best to keep down the hyperbole of my feelings for other albums on this list but when it comes to Smile, you just can’t praise it too highly – it will always be better, braver and more majestic than any writer could ever make it sound. No wonder my mother got me a T-shirt for my birthday a few years back with the logo ‘smile: the best album ever’. I’m thinking of having extra copies made for album archive fans as some of you out there must surely think like me.

The Smile we have here is, admittedly, not the album that was meant to be released in 1967, but then we don’t know quite what that album would have looked like: Brian was still sending panicked messages to Capitol executives to print ‘label may have different running order to the disc’ right up until the 11th hour when the project got cancelled and that track-listing looks quite different to the one we have now (** see note). This album is Brian’s idea of how it should sound now – or at any rate how Brian thought it should sound after band member Darian Sahanaja trawled through the session-tapes for him, sticking bits and pieces together to see what sounded ‘right’ when placed together. Along the way the ‘elements’ suite has been abandoned (sort of), with an air/fire/water message in there somewhere (does this means that Vegetables – long believed to be the ‘earth’ suite – doesn’t fit here in Brian’s head after all?) but simply as the end to another catch-all suite rather than an entity in its own right. Other potential songs such as With Me Tonight and He Gives Speeches have been abandoned entirely, possibly because the other Beach Boys so mangled the latter track on Smiley Smile (the alarmingly unhinged She’s Goin’ Bald) that nobody would ever take it seriously again. Other tracks like Heroes And Villains and the middle section of Child Is Father Of The Man have also been severely edited down from the 10-minute epics they could have been. Others, including the unfinished songs like I Wanna Be Around, Song For Children and Blue Hawaii have gained lyrics apparently started in 1967 but finished now – these three tracks are, contrary to belief, the only tracks left unfinished by Brian 30 years before and even these exist as backing tracks: people always talk about Smile as if it was abandoned completely unfinished, but given another week of ‘good vibes’ Brian could have made the album we hear here (even if he still didn’t know how it all fitted together yet). Other bits and pieces have been left behind for this recording – there were a good few dozen Bicycle Rider passages to run through the opening passages for a start. But what we have here is still an impressively cohesive and impressive album that works well now that it has been divided into three separate suites.

The first of these, curiously unlisted on the album packaging, is the ‘Americana’ suite. All of Brian’s songs about the ‘old West’ and the plight of the first American settlers are here, along with snapshots of the countryside, American artists (linking both painters and songwriters) and the most surreal portrait of life in a log cabin you will ever hear. There’s a second ‘theme’ running here in parallel to the first, with the history of popular music discussed from Gregorian chants to 1950s rock and roll covers to a ‘new’ arrangement of a ‘modern’ American classic. The second and most successful is the ‘childhood’ suite, linking Van Dyke’s lyrical tale of children leaving home to the idea of life cycles and generations repeating the mistakes of their forefathers (Darwin’s evolution theory has never sounded so full of holes as on this scary track) and finally the majestic Surf’s Up where a troubled genius collapses under the weight of what he is trying to say, aware that the children outside his window understand the secret to a happy life much better than he can put his feelings into words. The third catch-all suite simply mops up the remaining Smile-era tracks, ranging from the good vibrations of Good Vibrations to a pirate holiday interlude, a typically off-the-wall Brian Wilson idea of a joke featuring wood-work sound effects and a paean to eating vegetables.  

Parts of the original Smile sessions appeared on later Beach Boys albums and there were even two half-hearted attempts to re-record the album – 1967’s Smiley Smile, assembled largely without Brain’s help, is little short of a joke (the exotic, multi-layered orchestral productions replaced by a one-note bass riff and somebody pouring a glass of vegetable juice on Vegetables for instance) and a 1972 attempt to include the record in a double-set with that year’s album So Tough fell through when the band realised how terrible some of their new recordings sounded alongside their unreleased masterpiece. It actually took lead composer, singer, arranger and producer Brian Wilson a staggering 38 years to complete Smile, with the help of original lyricist Van Dyke Parks and a band who have finally done the sensible thing and treated Brian as a misunderstood mastermind rather than a dusty old relic 30 years past his best. After all the wait, and decades spent listening to fascinating titbits both legal and illegal, the news that Brian had chosen to re-record the work as part of his solo career after some very dodgy 1990s albums made it seem inevitable that Smile wouldn’t live up to its reputation and be more than the sum of its magical parts. Well, we were wrong. Nothing about Smile has ever taken the logical path and the same goes for its quality. By dividing the album into three separate suites and recruiting lyricist Van Dyke Parks to write a couple of linking passages that had previously just been instrumentals, Brian and his tremendously talented and patient back-up band managed to create a cohesive whole out of some of the most breathtaking music it has ever been my privilege to hear.

Take the opening of Blue Hawaii. In its instrumental guise as three-minute opus Cool Cool Water it’s one of the most respected pieces in the Beach Boys’ canon, mixing a tranquil peacefulness and an edgy middle sector in the way that only Brian Wilson can. But as part of Smile, its just a thirty-second backing track, a blink-and-you’ll miss-it piece of sublime music that’s one of about eight sections making up this one short track, almost all of which are equally good. Since this re-recording made it available to all, not just those who ruined their hearing playing murky bootleg recordings of it for 30 years, most Beach Boys fans are divided over whether this album or Pet Sounds represents the high-point of the band’s career – and its true that if it had come out in 1966 it would have left even more old Beach Boys fans shaking their heads in confusion than it does now because its just such a huge leap forward. To think that music this incredible was around in late 1966 when most bands were still mooning and Juning makes Smile an amazingly forward-thinking album, whatever you feel about it now. Alternatively, my friend’s take on it is that Smile is ‘bonkers’ and he’s dead right there too – always twisting and turning, you never know where the album is going next and I know that irritates just as many people as those that love it. But if you’re prepared to alter the way you hear albums, if you’re agreeable to letting the brilliance of Smile wash over you, then get ready to hear nothing less than a ‘teenage symphony to God’ as Brian memorably called it at the time. Your life might be about to change forever. Smile? Yes. Cry? Certainly. Forty years on and still nobody has caught with the complex harmonies, tricky chord changes and sublime inspiration that exists on Smile - and that’s just the first track! (** see stop press note 2)


The Music:

No one does a capella like The Beach Boys (yep, even counting CSN and there’s not much that makes me admit to that!) and like a lot of the album, Brian’s new back up band can’t hope to record back-up vocals as wondrous as his old group. No matter, the gorgeous wordless Our Prayer is still spine-tingling stuff in any form, a modern Gregorian chant that reaches all the way up to the heavens before taking us down to earth again. As deep as a well and as fluffy as a cloud, Brain was tapping into some great spiritual reservoir in 1966 that nobody but nobody has mined so successfully since and it’s a lovely overture for the album, updating Brian’s beloved Four Freshman sound for the psychedelic generation.

After a cheeky steal from 50s rockers The Crows (part of their song Gee), the band set off on a rollercoaster ride through the Old West on Heroes And Villains. Part of this album’s first ‘Americana’ suite, it features so many vocal cameos and sound effects that your ears don’t know where to turn next. The Beach Boys did of course release this song at the time, but classic as the shorter, more ‘together’ single is, the old muddy mix from Capitol sounds unusually horrid and the restored middle section of the song here takes the track up to a whole new level (even so, there’s still a good six minutes or so ‘missing’). This new recording is crystal clear, switching between the song’s multiple sections like a runaway horse and bringing out all the fine detail that mark out a Brian Wilson production at its best. Van Dyke’s alliterative long long long looooonnng phrases are streets ahead of most pop songs of the period, a unique blend of 60s hip talk and archaic American literature, perfectly summing up the changeability of life when ‘villains’ and ‘heroes’ are no longer clear cut and the parallels between ages past and contemporary history. Alas this version sheds the most off-the-wall section of the original (the whole band screaming anything they like into the mix so loudly that the recording distorts) but at least we get the ‘in cantina’ saloon section restored, with the band doing their best to sound like an old steam train near the end. The linking ‘aah’ and the slight reprise at the song’s end are a nice new addition however, leading in subtlety into the next track.

If your jaw still hasn’t dropped yet, maybe the next song will be the one to do it. At face value Plymouth Rock (or Do You Like Worms? to give the song its original 1960s title) doesn’t make an awful lot of sense, but there’s something about the song’s churning rhythm (mimicking a steamboat, a trick finally released by the Beach Boys on Steamboat, a track from Holland—see review number 55), gorgeous block harmonies and a slowly circling melody that makes the whole piece lopsided but still hypnotically beautiful. The lyrics – from what I can tell – look at Modern Americans (bycicle riders) and their relation with their colonial past, mocking their ‘developments’ like ‘ribbons of concrete’ and ‘social structure steaming’ up the primitive coast, bemoaning what became of the ‘church of American indians’ they colonised. As originally intended, this theme came and went several times during the course of the album – here these interruptions are restricted to just this one track. Overall, this is one of many Smile tracks that have so much going on, it should be a mess – but the fact that from 30 seconds to the next you never know where the song is going, and the fact that some of Brian’s trickest harmony arrangements link the song throughout make for one of the greatest musical roller-coaster rides of all. The closing Hawaiian section, with its onomatopoeic interpretation of the aftermath of the colony after the Americans settled in, is also creepier than any horror film.

A short hop into Barnyard and suddenly we’re sideways in time, teleporting in America’s rustic fields. Various members of the group take turns being dogs, chickens, cows and sheep on this one-minute fragment (us Smile-heads reckoned it was meant to be another part of the 10-minute Heroes And Villains song originally, but it sounds even better heard in its own right) but it’s the block harmonies that again stand out. I don’t know what on earth Van Dyke’s words are meant to mean here, with their tale of jumping into pig sties while wearing hats, but the overall effect is very very funny without diluting the seriousness of the pieces either side of it, reminding us of what is lost if our Indian heritage turn completely into bike-riders (or something like that).

Another short interlude comes in the form of The Old Master Painter/ You Are My Sunshine, an old Jimmie Davis song covered by many many people over the years (including The Muppets!) In Brian’s hands it’s a moody atmospheric depiction of a painter at work, perhaps exploring America’s cultural renaissance by reminding us of both a popular songwriter and a renaissance painter, sauggesting some kind of synergy between the two strands of modern culture. Dennis sang lead on the original cut from 1967 and Brain’s ‘new’ lead vocal isn’t quite up to his other sterling efforts throughout this album (is it in Dennis’ key still, not his?), but when I hear this song’s gloriously unwinding string coda eerily dragging itself on for hours I won’t care about anything that petty ever again.

As if the rest of this first suite wasn’t fabulous enough, it ends with one of the Beach Boy’s most popular tracks, Cabinessence (to give it its original one-word spelling). You can hear The Beach Boys’ similar version on the 20/20 album and it’s possibly the best individual ‘re-recording’ of a Smile song to make it out of the vaults (without Brian’s knowledge too – brother Carl was the mastermind of that project although he did base it on Brian’s original recording). A terrific glimpse at the spreading civilisation in colonised America, this song goes just about everywhere in its three fully-packed minutes. This song breaks so many rules so successfully it’s hard not to applaud - for a start, it’s a hard rocking waltz in ¾ time and as far as I know its unique; I was taught many times at school that a waltz taken at a fast tempo just doesn’t work; how I wish I’d had a tape of this song to play to then! Secondly its backing track combines instruments that just should not go together and don’t when used by an arranger without Brian’s gifts: a bass tuba, xylophone, harmonica, banjo, the kitchen sink, everything is in this song. Thirdly, there’s just so much inspiration pouring into the track that there is a third set of lyrics going on that you can’t quite hear and aren’t printed in the lyric booklet (these are printed in full on the first page of this review, at the end of the ‘key lyrics’ section). The deceptively simple verses are impressive enough, with their invocation of American fields and campfires, but the sudden switch to an all-out operatic chorus where everything sounds as if its swirling round in a hurricane, is positively transcendental.

 The lyrics are obscure but somehow easy to follow: this is the song that according to folklore Beach Boy Mike Love refused to do, turning on Van Dyke Parks when he couldn’t give him a literal interpretation of the line ‘who runs the iron horse? Over and over the crow uncover the corn field’ (although Mike does sing this line on the 20/20 version – did he repent? Have historians got it wrong? Did he forget when discussing this song years later? Or was he just so desperate for material in 1968 he relented?) To be fair these lyrics sound so removed to the Beach Boys’ normal style (California Girls, with perhaps the most quintessential Beach Boys lyric ever, was barely a year old when this track was first recorded) and without the music would be hideously confusing. But with the music they make perfect sense for some reason, as open to interpretation and multi-layered meanings as the restless music is (here goes with an interpretation that Van Dyke couldn’t restrict himself to saying: is the ‘iron horse’ a modern motorcar? Is the crow – a message of death if you believe bad Ted Hughes poems – warning us to get back to the country and remember our roots? Are our ‘homes on the ranges’ not so special or integral to us now our ‘iron horses’ can take us anywhere and we aren’t linked to any one place or time?) And the extended ending featuring a swooping choir duelling against the deepest bass harmonica in rock makes it better still. Genius. Bonkers, but genius.


Onto suite two now, the ‘childhood’ suite, which starts with the sweet coming-of-age tale Wonderful. A rather stoned sounding Carl Wilson turned this song into a horrible mess on Smiley Smile, but the Smile version restores the song to its proper glory with perhaps the best arrangement on the album. No Smile song can be called ‘simple’ (even the lyric-less Our Prayer sounds decidedly complicated) but Wonderful is perhaps the only song on the album with a tune so straightforward and repetitive that you could imagine it appearing it on another Beach Boys album. The vocals are little short of amazing, the alliterative but easy to read lyrics are among Van Dyke’s best and the moving tale of a girl left to choose between the safe haven of her parents and the exciting new world of romance must have touched more than a few nerves back in the 60s (compare this song to the Beatles’ similar She’s Leaving Home from Peppers– Brian and Paul McCartney shared more than just a similar date of birth, given the elongated melody and orchestral accompaniment here). Another of Smile’s low-key success stories, this song does everything it can not to sound ear-catching in amongst the noisy tracks around it, but so beautiful is the effect you can’t help but fall in love with it (to be fair, the original Beach Boys’ recording knocks spots off Brian’s re-recording for once so maybe its that version I’m thinking of more- and no I don’t mean the Smiley Smile travesty!)

Song For Children (or Look as it was known to bootleggers in its unfinished state) has always existed as a melody line but Van Dyke’s lyrics are new to this project to the best of my knowledge (some of them, anyway). A welcome breathing space between the complex lyrical pieces either side of it, Children’s is one of the lesser Smile tracks in terms of composition, but the arrangement - with its marching band and timpani seemingly marching us back to our own childhood memories as if our tin soldiers have sprung back to life – is more evidence of Brian’s genius working overtime. Lyrically, this song sounds like an extension of Wonderful, with the narrator – now in the first person – struggling to work out whether leaving home at a young age will let her find her own way in the world or simply let her repeat the mistakes of her parents.

The eerie Child Is the Father Of The Man represents a darker side of childhood, with its tale of cyclical generations repeating the same mistakes, with the child’s attempts to ‘grow up’ into a man and an adult’s to return to the ‘simplicity’ of being a child doomed from the start. The orchestral accompaniment and the round of voices chasing each other round the song’s main hook is so overwhelmingly powerful, especially in the minor key, that its easy to believe that Brian really was tapping into some deep dark dimension of the soul (I’m not kidding! Play this track when the lights are out and see what I mean, this sounds like nothing heard before or since!) The sudden upsurge of regret as played by a mournful trumpet on the instrumental coda says a thousand things to us despite not having any words, with the eerie atmosphere of this track making it among the most unexpected of Smile’s highlights. If only the original ‘middle eight’ of this song - with Brian and Carl deviating into a nursery-rhyme variation of the tune – had been included in the re-recording it might have been even more moving, but no matter, this is exemplary stuff.

Surf’s Up. Well, what can I say?! (Actually quite a lot, as you’ll not be surprised at all to hear!) Another Beach Boy fan favourite despite its original non-release (the band without Brian re-recorded it as the title track of a 1971 album and even in inferior form its moving indeed), this is another of those eerie masterpieces that make up most of this record. The story, from what most people can gather, follows a fallen hero losing his powers of inspiration (Brian naturally assumed Van Dyke’s lyric was about him during his late 60s breakdown) but unusually for this period of Beach Boys history its piano rather than guitar or orchestra based. Van Dyke’s hallucinatory lyrics are the perfect match to Brain’s stumblingly thoughtful melody lines, exploring the keyboard from top to bottom in their search for enlightenment. Much has been made about Brian’s eccentricity in this period (this song was famously written at a piano covered in sand so the Beach Boy could feel inspired with the feel of sand between his toes and wasn’t too happy when his two dogs - heard barking away at the tail-end of Pet Sounds - enjoyed the idea even more than he did). However, this idea – an excuse for all retrospective critics to tut and say ‘he was off his rocker’ for 40 years since – surely makes sense now we’ve heard Smile in its entirety.

Most songs repeat things like verses and choruses because we’re told that traditionally they have to or a listener just can’t ‘relate’ to a song. Smile dispenses with all of that by using what Brian calls ‘feels’, 30-second bursts of inspiration that seem to end as soon as the writer sets them into stone in an arrangement. As anyone who has ever tried to write music will tell you, the hard bit isn’t getting the idea – its knowing where to take it, how to repeat it in new ways that fit the first original version but isn’t so different to it that it scares people. Smile was intended to be an album of ‘inspiration’ all the way through, not ‘perspiration’ as the majority of Beach Boys albums ended up being and Brian’s subtitle for the project – ‘a teenage symphony to God’ – isn’t necessarily as big-headed as it sounds. Brian wanted to treat this album as 30-second bursts of inspiration, ideas that seemed to come directly out of nowhere, with the bare minimum of ‘filler’ in the middle because frankly he thought it was about time that people weren’t scared off by the lack of hooks and repetition. Surely any idea that helps a creator get ‘inspiration’ quicker—be it a sand-filled piano or a vocal recorded in an empty swimming pool (another trick used for the original Smile, so we’re told) is a good thing, however daft it sounds to ‘outsiders’? The closing 30 seconds of this track, which take us back to an innocent childhood we probably never had, shows that this idea worked perfectly – I defy anyone to hear this outpouring and not claim Brian was ‘inspired’ and this passage still makes me cry every time I hear it, it’s so full of love, regret at missed opportunities and a relentless desire to keep pushing onwards while the harmonies are just staggering. No wonder Leonard Bernstein featured Brian singing this song – then still un-recorded – for a TV special about how wonderful the ‘new sounds’ of 1966/67 were and how much he admired the people writing them, Surf’s Up is a gorgeous, remarkable song, among the best made in those benchmark years. Sniff, where did I put my handkerchief?   


Suite three is the least successful part of Smile, with pieces fitted together that don’t thematically go, but even the worst of this album is drop-dead gorgeous anyway so here we go. I’m In Great Shape instantly picks us up off the floor where Surf’s Up put us, with its nice but daft lyrics and its optimistic air. A fleeting return to this album’s idea of putting a ‘smile’ on our faces (Brian promised his next project after this would be a whole ‘comedy album’ –  perhaps the other Beach Boys took him at his word and made the almost deliberately unfunny Smiley Smile to prove to their creator the idea couldn’t work?) the song whizzes by so fast we hardly have time to ‘get’ the joke.

Almost before its arrived, its restless author is already bustling off into Workshop. Another ‘steal’ from an outside source (this time Johnny Mercer), its routine tale of a broken heart is hilariously undermined by the sounds of people drilling and chopping wood, trying to help the narrator stick it back together! This is the point in the sessions where most people began to think that Brain had ‘lost it’ - the session musicians (respected orchestral performers who played on everything from well loved Phil Spector records to million-selling Mama and the Papas singles) were paid by the hour to do the sound effects themselves without being told why - and as this piece only appeared as an instrumental for years, most fans shook their heads at the bootlegs and agreed, wondering how anybody, even Brian, could make a song about chopping up wood. Well, we were wrong, Workshop is hilarious and guaranteed to make you smile – quite fitting really, what with the album title and all!

It says something for Smile’s impression on my psyche that a track as gloriously wacky and impressive as Vega-Tables is possibly the weakest song here. Sadly Paul McCartney wasn’t free to crunch vegetables for the song’s sound effects like he’s meant to have done on the original 1967 take (he can’t remember doing it, but other people can – Beach Boy Al Jardine and Brian for two - and Macca was there at the sessions according to production paperwork). Even without him, though, there’s a lot going on – the biggest thrill being the re-instated Mama Says section in the middle of this song about the importance of brushing your teeth (thanks for that, Brian), which was turned into a fully independent (if short) song on Smiley Smile and thanks to complex block remains the best part of the song as released in 2004. But even with an old friend restored to health after years of existence as just a half-digested Smiley Smile track, this tale about Brian eating the wrapper of a chocolate bar to save putting on the pounds is just a bit too far down the side of being silly for most people.

On A Holiday (or Tones or Tune X to give it its bootleg name – this is another piece left unfinished when Smile was abandoned), is a merry little interlude about pirates with a breezy glockenspiel lick and a swannee whistle. Musically it harks back to Plymouth Rock – this time in a more upbeat manner, as if looking back at colonialisation with rose-tinted glasses – and is one of the album’s lighter tracks, a small return to the playfulness of early Beach Boys songs about cars, girls and surfboards as played on xylophones and swannee whistles. Brian’s tune is as glorious as ever (it must have been important to him as there are more out-takes and discarded ends for this track on 1967 session tapes than for any other tracks save Good Vibrations and Heroes And Villains), but uncharacteristically Van Dyke’s lyrics are perhaps a bit too self-consciously wacky and intellectual to work as well as most of the other tracks here (sample lyric: ‘a ukulele lady – a roundelay, rock, rock, roll, child! Abaft and forth a starboard course with north abeam, sherry of course!’) A quick cameo from Jeffrey Foskett in his best pirate’s voice leads us into…

Wind Chimes. Another of those classic Beach Boys tracks that were ruined on Smiley Smile, this new version is taken a little bit too fast for my taste but is in every other way the superior. The song’s innocent meanderingness and the peaceful xylophone backing suddenly falls through an eight-foot drop for the chorus, really catching the ear and is unexpected, sterling stuff. The lyrics are very 60s but, hey, that’s no bad thing, full of ‘new age’ references that might refer to our creator, mother nature, our sixth sense that someone is watching over us or none of the above. Fittingly, perhaps this could just be a track about beauty – Brian’s next simplest melody after Wonderful, this seems to be a ‘hymn to music’ and inspiration in general, with a sight as simple as wind chimes blowing in the breeze making the narrator cry in awe at the splendour of life. Smilesians are still debating whether this song formed  part of the abandoned ‘elements’ suite or not  – the ‘air’ part, presumably, if that’s true.

Mrs O’Leary’s Cow or Fire as it will always be known, sits outside this album (and indeed the whole of 60s music), sounding like no other piece being made at the time (think Phil Spector going really and truly mad in the studio with nobody around to stop him). Named after the cow that was alleged to have started the great Chicago Fire of 1871 by knocking over a lighted lamp, no piece of music better represents the terrors thought to have been going through Brain’s mind in 1967 than this howlingly mournful song. After a playful swirling tune played with comical sound effects representing licking flames, pounding drums kick into one of the most eerie and frightening instrumentals you will ever hear. The darkest piece on Smile, it’s no wonder that this was the track – more than any other – that encouraged the elder Wilson brother to abandon his magnum opus, afraid of the ‘sources’ he was tapping into (and that ‘symphony to God’ sub-title is as good an explanation as any for where Brian felt he was getting much of his ‘inspiration’ from). The day after the recording session for this song – with Brian forcing the orchestra members to wear fire hats and lighting a fire in a bucket for full effect – a building at the end of the street from the studio burnt down, the cause – at the time at least – was never found (note that the building wasn’t next door or even part of the studio Brian recorded in –a myth that’s understandably grown in stature, given how few people involved in this session date have ever talked about this troubled period). Certain that it was him that had unleashed something nasty, Brian is meant to have cancelled Smile there and then – in actual fact, recording sessions limped on for another month or so (did Brian fulfil the existing dates but refuse to schedule any more?) To hear such an uncontrollable, dissonant piece after 40 minutes of the most tightly controlled bursts of music and some of the most beautiful to boot, is a jaw-dropping experience the first time you hear this song, especially after a comparatively jokey opening played on tin whistles and chirruping keyboards that sound almost cute, just like a small tiny fire in fact—till, in a flash, it suddenly verges out of control. Mocked for too many years, Brian’s fear is excusable. The wordless vocals, siren effects, scraping strings and crashing drums of this track make for one hell of a musical experience and would surely have thrown off the Beach Boys’ fun in the sun tag forever. Amazingly, The Beach Boys actually put the original recording of this track on official release as part of the video documentary An American Band. Unlike most of the album, I actually prefer Brian’s new version to the old 1967 original, as this one is somehow creepier and much more tuneful than the original all at the same time.

An absolutely thunderous assault on the drums leads us into Blue Hawaii, home of the aforementioned Cool Cool Water, for 30 seconds at least. The song’s opening perfectly captures the sudden soothing impact of water on fire and in context is amongst the most moving pieces you can hear in music, with flames eerily rippling and turning into smoke before your very ears. The lyrics are tough too, with Brian’s narrator talking about dying and being miserable, calling for ‘water’ like Beach Boys songs of old to blow out his darker side and cool him down (but this time we know ‘water’ is a metaphor for something darker than fun in the surf as per most Beach Boys tracks). See the Who’s Love Reign O’er Me (at the end of review no 60) for all sorts of juicy clues as to what ‘water’ represents to songwriters, from calming tonics to re-births and baptisms to unfocussed, un-controllable, ferocious insights into nature and life) The song’s second half isn’t quite as strong as the first alas, more an opportunity for a quick singalong where Brian dreams of escaping his problems and going on holiday – yep, as suddenly as that, which is a bit disconcerting to say the least. Van Dyke’s puns on ‘holy holy cow’ are worth the price of a return ticket to Hawaii by themselves though and the talk about ‘losing dreams when we don’t sleep’ is one of the lyricist’s more memorable images. This is the last of Smile’s ‘new’ songs – in terms of hearing words and music together at least – and is in many ways the missing ‘link’ between the work, tying all of its many strands together as we head into the final straight.

There’s still one more surprise to come, however. Lastly comes Good Vibrations, which surprisingly doesn’t fit as well as it might at the end despite being a shoe-in for this album project from the day it was written (in the middle of Pet Sounds). Sadly, this much-loved three minute masterpiece falls a bit flat compared to the other epics on the album, as if Brian and his band were ‘afraid’ that the other Smile songs wouldn’t live up to the Beach Boys’ most well loved and successful track. However, there’s no getting away from it – Good Vibrations was stunningly original when it came out, but after hearing these other songs for pretty much the first time (give or take a re-recording or two) it sounds too false, too poppy, too – and even I’m amazed that I’d ever say this before Smile came out – conventional. I do like this shortened original version, however, with some alternate lyrics un-used on the single version (was this always Brian’s intention? Or a new idea for this 2004 album?) and ultimately any excuse to hear this fine song again is OK by me, although a longer version with re-instated missing links would have been nice (there is, after all, about 30 minutes’ worth of musical links to choose from – and that’s just from the small percentage of sessions for this track that have made it out of the vaults). Interestingly that Theremin sound effect, which used to be the scariest sound in music back in 1966, now sounds positively tame after hearing Fire!

So – Smile isn’t quite perfect and there are one or two tracks I’d like to have seen go, but there are just so many clever little bits and pieces packed into every piece here and there that its hard not to applaud every time you play it. Had this album come out in 1966 it might well have killed off the Beach Boy’s fanbase forever, but just like Pet Sounds it would have brought the band many many more converted music-lovers who knew nothing of their pop-hit making past and ultimately it would have seen the band gaining even greater respect from music critics and the public in large (after all, in the wake of Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys were voted ‘group of the year’ by record mirror readers in the UK in 1966 – the only time between 1963 and 1969 that the Beatles didn’t win. What would they have said if 1966-67 if Smile had come out then?) To think this album should have been released just at the time The Beatles were recording Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane with Paperback Writer their most recent release is mind-boggling. I saw Smile in a library sale the other day and practically forced the librarians to stick it back onto the ‘to borrow’ shelf so that future generations could have their lives changed for the grand price of 50p, to make sure that this wonderful vehicle of music is available to as many people as possible. What they said in response certainly didn’t make me Smile, but the attempt was worth it: everybody with even a vague idea of 1960s music needs to hear this album. It should be on the NHS. It should be given free through the post. It should be compulsory listening in schools. It should be given away free with other CD purchases from music shops. It should be out of my system by now I’ve heard the blooming thing so many times, but it isn’t. Aaaagh. The only way I can ever see this album being beaten on this list is if Brian ever decides to assemble the album from the Beach Boys’ original tapes. Now that would be something to hear! Maybe in a few years’ time, I’ll be back making ‘Alan’s album archives mark two’ with that very release in pride of place at the end. See you then.

It doesn’t matter what might have been, however; Smile is still the perfect place to end our little trip, one which took us out into the ends of the universe and home again in time for tea, just like George Harrison promised we would on Yellow Submarine’s Its All Too Much. That really is all for now friends (till a new classic album comes out that I have to add to this list anyway!) As Brian says on Smile, Aloha nui means goodbye. Thankyou for reading. Keep smiling! Keep shining! And above all keep listening!


**Note: The track-listing submitted to capitol in late 1966 read Do You Like Worms? (AKA Plymouth Rock)/ Wind Chimes/ Heroes And Villains/ Surf’s Up/ Good Vibrations/ Cabin Essence/ Wonderful/ I’m In Great Shape/ Child Is Father Of The Man/ The Elements (presumably Mrs O’Leary’s Cow aka Fire, Blue Hawaii aka Water, possibly Wind Chimes aka Air)/ Vega-Tables/ The Old Master Painter. Note that Barnyard, Song For Children, I Wanna Be Around, On A Holiday and most interestingly Our Prayer—the only one of these missing tracks finished at this point—are all absent from this prospective running order.  

**STOP PRESS NOTE 2: The only album that even remotely comes close to Smile’s bursts of strong emotion and orchestrative genius is brother Dennis’ Pacific Ocean Blue, now lovingly restored to CD for the first time with 20 equally fine unreleased oddities from the late 1970s, released when this website was literally in its final stages and its brilliance comes as even more of a shock than Smile’s (it only sold 200,000 copies and occasional but decidedly awe-struck- reviews when it came out). Has the Beach Boys’ back catalogue ever shone as brightly as it does now in the 21st century? Were the likes of Summer In Paradise and Stars And Stripes just a bad dream? Or have I died and gone to some sort of orchestral harmony heaven? Hey, what else have you got in the vaults Beach Boys?…

Other Beach Boys review from this site you might be interested in reading:

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965)

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo) (1977)

'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased) (1977)

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo) (2008)

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

'That's Why God Made The Radio' (2012)

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

A Complete (ish) Guide To The Beach Boys' Surviving TV Clips

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One 1962-86

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two 1988-2014

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

Essay: The Beach Boys and The American Dream
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions