Deconstructing America: The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, and the Making of SMiLE
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In 1966, Brian Wilson led his band, The Beach Boys, into the studio to begin work on the follow-up to the critical smash hit, Pet Sounds. The planned album, SMiLE, was meant to sit alongside The Beatles forthcoming Sgt. Pepper’s album on the very cutting edge of popular music. Instead, the sessions for SMiLE spun out of control and Wilson, the band’s driving creative force, found himself overwhelmed by the project. In May 1967, SMiLE was officially cancelled – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out and Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn helped to underline British dominance in a field which The Beach Boys had hoped to claim as their own. In 2011, however, The Beach Boys finally issued a composite edition of their long lost masterpiece. Though still incomplete, this release gives us our closest approximation of what the final record should have sounded like in 1967. SMiLE was an album which should have stood along side Sgt. Pepper, challenging its supremacy, whilst providing the US with its own, unquestioned answer to The Beatles. In this podcast, we will examine this release closely, assessing its historic, cultural, and artistic significance.
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Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys
Ten Little Indians – The Beach Boys
“There are few artists who seem to embody pure Americana quite like The Beach Boys. For over fifty years their particular mix of sugary pop rock n’ roll and abstract psychedelic sounds have enchanted and confounded audiences across the world who know them best for a series of songs about cars, surfing, and the idealised life of the American baby boomer. Though the band have existed, in one form or another, for more than half a century it is their material from the early 60s which seems to define their place in popular culture. Tracks like ‘Little Deuce Coup’, ‘Sufin’ USA’, and the 1964 #1 single, ‘I get around’, seemed to effortlessly capture snapshots of life on the west coast. These songs seem to hold a type of pseudo reality in a state of perfect preservation – I say ‘pseudo reality’ because the subjects that the band sang about were alien to most of its members. Despite performing countless songs about surfing, only the band’s drummer, Dennis Wilson, had any interest in the sport whilst it fell to outside lyricist Roger Christian to write the words for most of the band’s early material about cars and racing. Despite this, the band achieved significant artistic and creative successes in the mid-1960s when principle song writer, Brian Wilson, began to deconstruct and lay bare the fantasy which sat at the heart of so much of the band’s earlier material.
Songs about cars, surfing, and girls are one thing but by 1965 Wilson had moved on from the unadulterated adolescence of the band’s earlier material to become a composer of no insignificant weight. With the release of Pet Sounds in 1966, an album which is recognised near-universally by critics as one of the best records ever made, Wilson demonstrated that The Beach Boys were capable of more than just capturing idealised moments in the lives of America’s youth – they were capable of deconstructing, dismantling, and laying waste to the musical Polaroid’s which had hitherto defined them. Through much of 1966 and the first half of 1967, Wilson sought to push the envelope even further with a new album entitled Smile. That record would never be completed but the recent release of a composite approximation of the final product gives us a good insight into what could have been. With Lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson began a musical project that sought to push past Pet Sounds in every way. It sought to deconstruct the contemporary image of America. It was the antithesis of everything the band had done and remains, in all of its broken and barely released glory, their most important set of recordings.
Work on Smile began shortly after the completion and release of Pet Sounds with the #1 single ‘Good Vibrations’ serving as a type of bridge between the projects. Whilst the rest of the band went out and toured, Brian Wilson remained behind in Los Angles to begin work on a new album. Wilson’s chosen collaborator, Parks, was a young musician and songwriter who brought an avant-garde sensibility which perfectly complimented the most complex musical phase in Wilson’s career. Though front man Mike Love had collaborated with Wilson on numerous hit songs and albums, it is difficult to imagine his more straight-forward approach to lyrics being easily compatible with Wilson’s music in 1966 – creatively speaking, the pair had grown apart, the result of Wilson’s constant innovation during this period and Love’s apparent resistance to change. According to most accounts, though notably not Love’s own, Mike was one of the key forces in The Beach Boys to be opposed to the Smile album. In particular, Love took issue with Parks’ lyrics though, considering the diminishment of his role in the studio during this period it is possible that the frustration he expressed in that regard was exacerbated by circumstances.
If Love was as critical of Parks’ lyrics as has been reported then there is perhaps a lot to justify his concern. The music which Wilson was producing and the lyrics Parks which was writing were not only different to almost everything the band had done before – they were antithetical to everything the band had seemed to embody up to that point. Even Pet Sounds had upbeat, exuberant moments which had provided the group with a clutch of familiar sounding hit singles. Smile could boast only ‘Good Vibrations’, which had already become a #1 single, and ‘Heroes and Villains’ as a likely hit single. That latter track would eventually be released in a rerecorded form following the announcement that work on Smile had stopped though it reached only #12 on the US Billboard chart. Many things can and have been said about Love’s opposition to Smile but he was right about at least one thing – this was not music that a significant number of the band’s existing fans could be expected to relate easily to.
Whatever the commercial potential of Smile its artistic merit was significant. Envisioned as a type of musical journey across the United States, the album sought to explore what it was to be an American. One could say that all of The Beach Boys music up to that point served a similar purpose, that songs about surfing, cars, girls, and loneliness were already a reflection on what it was to be a baby boomer but Smile approached these themes in a much more self conscious way which eschewed most of the youthful innocence which had defined the band’s earlier work. In ‘Heroes and Villains’, for example, Parks draws upon the imagery of the Wild West to reflect Wilson’s frustration with the characters he encountered in the music business. In spite of this frame, the song’s narrative is abstract and not easily followed. It frequently references an ongoing love affair, possibly unreciprocated, though the lyrics depict no specific narrative arc for the relationship. The words in this song capture isolated moments without ever forming them into a larger story. Such an approach to song writing stands in contrast to tracks like ‘I Get Around’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’. These earlier songs identified clear narrative threads and easily relatable themes. ‘Heroes and Villains’, instead linked the modern world to a semi-fictional history, a criticism of the music industry expressed through an exploration of the American West. The western setting was echoed in the song ‘Cabinessence’ and helped to anchor Smile in a much broader context than the images conjured up by the band’s early recordings. Whereas the carefree, everyday presence of cars and surfboards associated the band’s early music with the post-war American boom, the western imagery of ‘Heroes and Villains’ and ‘Cabinessence’ suggested a deeper reflection on a broader American experience. Songs like these signal that this album is more than a simple journey across the country; it was to be a journey into the country, its history, and people. It was an exploration of what it meant to be an American beyond the superficial consumerism and hedonism explored in the band’s prior work.
According to Smile, being an American involved moments of deep melancholy, introspection, loss, absurdity, and contradiction. Pet Sounds had engaged with some of these ideas but that album was an exploration of self, not of nationhood. Smile set itself apart from all that had preceded it through the consistency of its themes and its mode of expression. Whereas optimism and joy was the prevailing wind which swept through the band’s preceding albums, Pet Sounds being the exception, Smile feels much more pessimistic. Though happy and joyous at times, the record was much more guarded in its praise of modern life and of the potential for tomorrow. On the track ‘Roll Plymouth Rock’, the lyrics, in a direct thematic link to ‘Heroes and Villains’, say ‘Bicycle rider, just see what you have done to the church of the American Indian! [sic]’. This section of the song is sometimes performed by The Beach Boys as a part of ‘Heroes and Villains’. On the band’s recent 50th anniversary tour, for example, they included this ‘bicycle rider’ sequence, a brilliant lyric which reminds the listener that all that follows is built upon a historic crime. In the studio version of ‘Roll Plymouth Rock’ the band intone ‘Rock, rock, roll Plymouth Rock Roll Over’ throughout that piece. It seems to give motion to this American icon, turning it into something destructive and its victims are, of course, the ‘American Indians’ of the ‘Bicycle Rider’ sequence.
The reference to a church links the Indians of this song to the budding idea that they were a spiritual people. Just thirteen years earlier, Native Americans were being depicted by Disney as simple, mostly unattractive, and fodder for easy laughs in their enduring classic, Peter Pan. And in 1962 when The Beach Boys recorded a song called ‘Ten Little Indians’ for their debut album. That latter track even includes the catchphrase of Lone Ranger sidekick, Tonto – Ke-mo-sah-bee – in the lyrics. ‘Roll Plymouth Rock’ reflected wider changes in how Native Americans were being portrayed in popular culture. Before, American Indians were an inconsequential concern to music of The Beach Boys, the inhabitants of rhymes sung by children. By the time the group had moved to Smile they were a subject of greater weight, at least to Van Dyke Park and, presumably, Wilson also. Like many tracks on this album, ‘Roll Plymouth Rock’ presents a self conscious look at subject that had previously been treated in a light hearted manner by the band. The image of the bicycle suggests tranquillity. It stands in contrast to the band’s previous hits about cars. It suggests a simpler time, though one that is tainted by great misdeeds. The final lyric in this song, and the music which underlines it, for that matter, bring the popular image of Hawaii to mind whilst being just discordant enough to add a dark, perhaps even sarcastic glint, to an image of paradise which the band had previously exploited. Much of this record naturally contrasts with The Beach Boys’ earlier work but some sections seem to actively underline the difference by taking a previously used image and turning it on its head. The result is an album that is often sombre in both tone and content, a place where prior displays of simple pleasure and exhilarating highs have been replaced by their opposite counterparts.
The tone of the album sits somewhat uncomfortably with the way Wilson claims to have envisioned it. According to Brian, the album’s title is an allusion is a very literal type of humour and happiness. As Wilson put it in 2011 when the Smile Sessions was finally released, ‘The music was very serious. The lyrics were very important. The sounds we were putting together were very different. The music, the fun, the friends – all made us smile. That was the goal of what we were doing. To make the world smile.’ Whatever Wilson says, the resultant album does not radiate predominately happy mood. This quote, which appears in the liner notes of the Smile Sessions, could have been about Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), a vastly different record released in 1965 which hosted such easily accessible hits as ‘California Girls’ and ‘Help Me Rhonda’. Wilson may have wanted to make others smile but the record he was working on in 1966 was far from upbeat or happy. At least Wilson admits that the music he created was ‘serious’ though this hardly seems adequate to truly describe the mood of the album. And yet, Wilson does link enjoyment and even humour to the project. If this record succeeds in making its listeners smile I dare say it has more to do with quality and appreciation than the type of upbeat feelings which were exuded by the group on their earlier recordings. Perhaps the smile Wilson refers to is an ironic one – it certainly seems plausible and, considering the toll it took upon him, it certainly seems appropriate to think of it in those terms. Far from making him happy, Smile overwhelmed Wilson. That it was left unreleased until the twenty first century is telling.
Humour, sarcasm, and lonely introspection are the contrasts that hold Smile together. On the track ‘Look (Song for Children)’ Wilson stitches together delightful, enthusiastic music which brings to mind scenes from a circus or beach front arcade. In ‘Child is Father of the Man’, a piece with close lyrical and melodic links to ‘Look’, the gleeful music of the preceding track is replaced with slow, tragic, and poignant instrumental brakes which contrast completely to those already heard by the listener. The chaotic joy of ‘Look’ is echoed in the album’s most direct attempt at humour, the curiously titled ‘Vege-tables’. It contains an absurd narrative thread about eating vegetables and living a healthy life, features several odd plays on words, and some weird, weird imagery. The bizarre lyrics, paired with the jumbled instrumental track, make this probably the strangest song in the band’s entire catalogue. Smiles’ odd clash of the maddeningly joyful and the starkly despairing makes for an interesting, if strange listening experience. The lyrics and mood oscillate from deeply introspective to broad and backwards facing. Compared to the band’s previous work, even Pet Sounds, Smile is unique, a complete reversal and upending of almost everything the band had stood for. Joy was now expressed ironically through the absurd, the sun became the caster of shadows, and the bicycle was now the preferred method of transportation. Even the ocean lacked the excitement and youthful exuberance ascribed to it in the band’s earlier work. All was projected through a lens which brought absurdity and isolation into much sharper focus. The feelings and emotions which the band was better known for were now distant echoes. This makes this an album about loss, maturity, and growing up. The Smile Wilson was trying to sell us was one tinged with sarcasm.
As an example, the band cover the normally upbeat standard ‘You are My Sunshine’ in such a melancholy way as to completely change the meaning behind the words. In ‘Surf’s Up’, the album’s most monumental track, the tension present in ‘Child is the Father of the Man’ is combined with more of Parks’ wordplay to create a lyric so abstract that it renders the first part of the song almost meaningless. In the second section of this piece, something identifiable begins to come into focus; this track is mourning something that has passed, its title reflecting an artist deliberately abandoning the superficial excitement of yesterday for the maturity demanded by tomorrow. The meaning of this track is communicated principally through Wilson’s music whilst Parks’ lyrics provide brief glimpses into scenes from an undefined past. This level of song writing maturity is shocking when it is set next to the material which had become the band’s signature. Smile is as different from the band’s debut album, Surfin’ Sufari as Sgt. Pepper was from The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me. Since the mid-1970s, The Beach Boys have been the victims of nostalgia, their early material having come to define them in the popular consciousness at the expense of their 1966 and 1967 creative peak. To the casual listener, The Beach Boys are defined mostly by superficial songs about surfing and racing cars, not the artistic peaks of Smile or even Pet Sounds. Imagine, if you will, a world in which The Beatles were known only for their early hits whilst The White Album or Abbey Road were of interest, or even known, only to the group’s biggest fans, and you will have some grasp of how The Beach Boys’ distorted public image has helped to bury their most important artistic works. Much of the blame for this must surely rest upon the shoulders of Smile not because of what was created, but because of what the band failed to deliver. Smile was to have been the companion piece to Pet Sounds, a second unqualified creative success which would have cemented the bands’ and Wilson’s credentials as leading lights in the contemporary music scene. Instead, it became a signal that the band’s flirtation with the cutting edg ein Pet Sounds was a temporary affair. The abandonment of Smile saw The Beach Boys voluntarily abdicating their position in the musical top-tier.
Had the album been released as planned in January 1967, and had it been supported properly by the band and label, it could have reinvented the group. Released on time, it would have predated Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn by eight months. Had that happened The Beach Boys of this era might have been regularly talked about alongside early Pink Floyd – Smile and Piper are remarkably similar in some respects. It would have predated the band’s own shift to a more alternative sound by some four years. Instead the mid-late ‘60s is marked by the disintegration of The Beach Boys’ creative focus and a lack of any clear musical direction. Although Smile was cancelled, a not unsubstantial number of tracks from that album were released over the years. Most were not the original versions – when ‘Heroes and Villains’ was release as a single, the version heard by the public was not with one of the original Smile sessions but a simpler rerecording of the song. The rerecorded track, now homeless after the collapse of Smile, found its home on the band’s alternative twelfth album, Smiley Smile. That record borrowed much from the cancelled project though few elements of Smile appeared as they had originally been envisioned. Listening to Smiley Smile now, it feels that the Smile material present is little more than self-parody.
Smiley Smile has to be seen in the shadow of its failed predecessor. It was the consolation prize given out of guilt rather than true artistic drive – at least, that’s how it seemed to have been perceived. Still, that album has managed to attract a small number of devoted fans and, over the years, has gathered to it a reasonable degree of acclaim. Unlike the album it was meant to be, however, it lacked an overarching theme. Smile was bound together by a number of overlapping concepts; happiness from absurdity; the loss of the worlds innocence in one’s own eyes; cynicism in place happiness; the shadow of history; moving on. Smiley Smile lacks those layers, those depths, and the rerecorded tracks feel emptier as a result. It is impossible to talk about Smiley Smile without talking about Smile and that places the weight of something, part of which will only ever exist in our imaginations, on its shoulders. It is an impossible burden which implies that the album which did appear has to be inferior to the one which did not. Smiley Smile’s defenders would refute that view but it’s an impression which that the album finds impossible to shake. It was released under the shadow of what had not come before and struggled to find an audience willing to accept it as the genuine article, an album worthy in its own rights. It also signalled an end of The Beach Boys commercial ascendency in the US. The culturally relevant Beach Boys were no more.
There is one thing that Smiley Smile does accomplish. It shows that Mike Love could have been a very able collaborator and lyricist for a modified version of the original Smile project. The track ‘She’s Going Bald’ features Mike Love showcasing his psychedelic chops over a remade Smile outtake. He does a good job, lending weight to a brilliantly disjointed backing track. It is interesting that Love could have made such a contribution to Smiley Smile when he had been relegated to the creative fringe on Smile – and that is to say nothing of his contribution to ‘Good Vibrations’, a pre-Smile track that was to be re-presented in a modified form, likely as the album’s closing number. When the band recorded Pet Sounds Love was given at least some degree of attention. A few co-writing credits, though some were for minor additions to mostly finished songs, and some lead vocals. Apparently Brian Wilson even offered Van Dyke Parks the opportunity to rewrite the lyrics to that song but was turned down. Considering the quality of the finished article, I can’t help but wonder if this doesn’t suggest that Wilson unjustly lacked confidence in his long time writing partner. Love might well have felt justifiably upset, then, when he was marginalised on Smile, and we should be sympathetic to that. Perhaps had Wilson been more inclusive in his approach to Smile by inviting Love to contribute to some of the lyrics he might have found a more willing partner and some of the tensions which helped implode the project might have been mitigated.
As it was, the goals Wilson set himself and the opposition he experienced in and out of the band, led to him shelving his most important album. Even when rerecorded and newly released material is taken into account, the shelving of Smile denied The Beach Boys the chance to publicly lay bare the dark side of the subjects about which they had previously enthused. They lost their chance to show that they could innovate beyond the bar set for them by Pet Sounds. When songs from the Smile era were released piecemeal in rerecorded and altered forms they lost the collective something which they had together produced. The grand vision was gone though the 1971 version of ‘Surf’s Up’ succeeded in capturing most of the original’s poignancy. Together, the songs of Smile told a disjointed story that looked inwards and outwards at the same time. At its broadest it was a journey across a fictionalised version of the United States, one where myths and fantasy seemed just real enough to have been. At its smallest, it looked inwards to the oddest parts of the subconscious; a place littered with overlapping thoughts and feelings, represented by clashing pieces of music, prominent sound effects, and exaggerated emotion. Or maybe that is just a reflection of Brian’s mental state at that time. Whatever the case, Smile was the point where everything started to unravel for Wilson.
Having been inspired by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul he had produced Pet Sounds. The Beatles had, in turn, produced Revolver. It was in that context that Wilson went to work on Smile. This project wasn’t just about improving on the group’s last album; it was about making the next big statement in popular music. Wilson openly admitted that Smile was in a race with The Beatles who were producing their Sgt. Pepper album in parallel. In Wilson’s mind, the first album to market would be the one to claim victory, it would be the record which would set the standard against which all other albums released after that time would have to be judged. When The Beatles released their record in June of 1967, Wilson raised a proverbial white flag and took himself out of the race to the cutting edge. Through the rest of 1967 and 1968 he continued to be one of the most important creative forces in The Beach Boys but their subsequent albums were much simplified, and Wilson’s confidence in his own abilities appears to have been greatly reduced. In the post-Smile era Wilson’s band mates returned to the studio to lay down instrumentation, something which had long been the job of an army of session musicians. For a large part of the early-mid 60s The Beach Boys had rarely contributed anything other than vocals to their studio recordings. The retirement of complex sessions brought the band back to their instruments en masse and the result was a much starker sound that, whilst experimental in its own way, was far cruder than Wilson’s recent productions. The Beach Boys had lost their direction and their sound in one fell swoop – they continued to experiment, producing several noteworthy albums, but they were no longer in the same league as the Fab Four. They were scrambling to discover a new direction for themselves, not striving to advance the wider musical landscape.
Following the collapse of Smile, the band continued to draw upon many of the songs and elements from this period in order to ensure that their newer albums had compelling material. In 1971 the band released Surf’s Up, an album which featured a newly completed version of the Smile song by that same name. Other Smile era tracks appeared on several other albums and, of course, Brian Wilson recorded a new version of the album, ostensibly completing it, in 2004. The rerecorded album is a much more complete experience than the recently released Smile Sessions but there are a few significant differences between the original recordings and Wilson’s later resurrection of the project. New material was composed by Wilson and Parks where necessary but these fragments cannot be completely associated with Smile proper – over thirty five years had elapsed between sessions and the passage of so much time cannot easily be dismissed. The Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks of 2004 were necessarily different from their earlier incarnations, moulded by long years of experience and, at least in Wilson’s case, a long fight against mental illness and numerous other personal setbacks. The original tracks also have a very distinct sound born out of the recording techniques of the time and the distinct tones provided by the original band’s voices. Wilson’s session and touring musicians do an admirable job of recreating a very Beach Boys-esq sound but the distinct tone of those original voices is notably absent. The 2004 version of the album is also marred by the obvious degradation which has affected Brian’s voice, giving him a very different sound than the one he once had. The original Smile tracks features a Wilson whose soaring falsetto was both distinctive and world class. The 2004 version of that album did not. To make matters worse, without the rest of the band Wilson’s now-strained voice had to carry the lead vocals on tracks which he had never intended to sing. Without Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Carl and Dennis Wilson, Brian’s remake requires fans to forgive much and leverage their imagination at least as much as the Beach Boys’ sessions released in 2011.
The availability of modern production techniques also serves to give the album a different feel to the record that was originally recorded. The 2004 redux feels over produced and dense. Though a large number of session musicians took part in the original recording process Wilson captured a sound from them that was sometimes sparse, but always precise and haunting, even when it was at its most chaotic. This is often not the case on Wilson’s reimagining of the piece. It is a well recorded piece to be sure, but it missing an indescribable something which was captured in the original sessions. That being said, the 2004 remake was an important step towards the release of the original recordings – the complex sequencing for the Smile Sessions was based closely upon Wilson’s later effort making the 2004 album an important step towards the eventual release of The Beach Boys’ version of the record. In addition to that, the 2004 version of the album was a solid commercial success and it managed to attract to it some of the praise which the original had never had a chance to receive.
Smile was a moment of profound transition for The Beach Boys. It had seemed to promise them a status that they would allow them to sit comfortably alongside The Beatles but Wilson’s failure to complete it, and the apparent lack of universal enthusiasm for the project within the band, instead helped relegate the group to the creative second tier. The band would never again achieve the artistic heights they reached in 1966 and 1967. Though they would produce mostly competent albums thereafter and, every so often, a truly great record, they never again stood at the vanguard of popular music. As more time passed, the band came to increasingly rely upon the nostalgia which was stirred by their earlier songs about surfing, cars, and girls, a process which helped to bury their creative epoch. The withdrawal of Wilson from an active role in the group only served to speed this process up. Mike Love co-wrote a few of the tracks on Pet Sounds along with ‘Good Vibrations’, but Smile belonged to Wilson and Parks. That is not to say that the band was unimportant. The Beach Boys were always about their collective vocal sound and it was to that which Wilson wrote. The lyrics on Smile are some of the best out of the band’s entire catalogue but even then it is the delivery of the words, rather than the words themselves, which have the most impact. Parks was a brilliant lyricist and much of his work on this album stands on its own, but sung in the distinctive harmonies which the band was known for, his words became part of a much larger whole.
So, too, were The Beach Boys a part of something much larger than themselves; the ‘messengers’, as Dennis Wilson put it, of Brother Brian. The message they were given in 1966 and 1967 was a complex, ever changing deconstruction of the material for which they were best known. In Smile Wilson and Parks examined the fictionalised vision of the America which The Beach Boys had packaged and sold around the world. This is an important point because most artists who seek to dismantle popular imagery do so by singing about stark or bleak scenes which show the underbelly of society. In the 1980s Bruce Springsteen and Tracey Chapman did just that. On Smile a different approach was taken though it was not shared with the world until long after the album’s relevance had passed. Today, Smile serves as curious sort of historic document, a monument to a moment of intense creativity which highlighted and foretold contemporary trends in popular music. Had it been released as originally planned Smile may well have recast The Beach Boys as well as defining how they are remembered today. As it stands it is a tantalising story about what might have been that is buried under the band’s collection of earlier, less complex material. Smile was a deconstruction of a fantastic, almost mythic America which the band had helped to enshrine. The failure of Smile to materialise appears to have foreshadowed the band’s consistent inability to break with their popular image. However hard Wilson tried, he could not separate his group from shadow cast by the sun.”