Album review: Beach Boys/The SMILE Sessions

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Album review: rock
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(NB – this album review recieved over 1,000 reads on orangepress.net)

Brian Wilson, leader and creative genius behind the Beach Boys (and some of the 20th century’s most staggeringly brilliant music) will always be remembered for his masterwork, 1966’s Pet Sounds. This LP redefined pop music much in the same way his inspiration and mentor, Phil Spector, had done in the late 1950s and his nemesis, Paul McCartney, would continue to do through to the 1970s – elevating the status of hit records to High Art and paving the way for everyone from ABBA to Radiohead.

In the lead-up to Pet Sounds, Wilson had begun to move creatively ahead of his fellow Beach Boys at such a blistering pace that they could just watch from the side-lines, slack-jawed at the rainbow explosions he conjured before their very ears. Some, like fellow Boy, Mike Love feigned indifference and tut-tutted Wilson’s eccentricities, but the Beach Boys without Brian’s spark are pretty standard – witness 1988’s palely insipid “Kokomo”.

As astonishing and forward-thinking as Pet Sounds was, it is its intended sequel, SMILE that bears the stamp of feverish, unfettered genius for the ages – what a shame it was never released.

There are many theories why the original sessions never made it to market – Wilson’s drug and psychosis fuelled meltdown, the legal and contractual squabbling within the Boys and with their record label; even Wilson being freaked out by the peacock perfection of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to the point he was paralysed into inaction (McCartney and Wilson played a transatlantic game of one-upmanship at the time, Paul being equally staggered by SMILE’s “Good Vibrations” which was issued as a single).

Described by Brian Wilson as a “teenage symphony to God”, SMILE was originally titled Dumb Angels and intended as “religious music… like the Beatles record”. Even working from the depths of his stoned, swirling trip, Wilson created and directed to perfection a suite of songs, fragments, linking pieces and undefinable musics that work both according to his highly personal logic and also as a shining example of Pop as Art.

A rough-draft and thematically messy version (chief-architect Wilson had disappeared leaving it to the other Beach Boys to organise) emerged as the Smiley Smile album in September 1967 – containing “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations” as irresistable hits mixed in with the ‘difficult’ material. The Beach Boys lost much of their hits-happy audience and yet were still considered uncool by the Monterey Pop generation who were digging Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Who. Their captain was lost in his own ocean of bad acid and their ship was sinking.

Then, in 2004 a miracle! Lovingly aided by his longtime touring band, the (aptly named) Wondermints, Brian Wilson rerecorded almost all of the original SMILE music and released Brian Wilson presents SMILE. It sounded so damn good and now so much of Smiley Smile fell into place and made sense.

But it wasn’t the Beach Boys – and that made a hell of a difference.

Now Capitol-EMI have released The SMILE Sessions, opening the floodgates to everything you ever wanted to know and hear from this mindbending chapter in the life of Brian Wilson. Wilson famously and bizarrely suggested that he had once destroyed all the tapes from these sessions. Thank Christ and Owsley he didn’t.

To hear these songs, non-songs, unsongs and sweet children’s rhymes in the original is bliss. The original sequenced 19 tracks run the gamut from the spiritual (the glorious opener “Our Prayer”) through the goofy (“Gee” and “Vege-Tables”; check Beatle McCartney on lead carrot on the latter) to the childlike (“Windchimes”) and beyond (“Good Vibrations”). There are windows on a sweetly nostalgic America (“Barnyard”) and windows to a hellish LSD funhouse (“Fire (Mrs O’Leary’s Cow)”). There are truly majestic moments that seem to praise a God of Nature rather than of Church such as “Cabin Essence” and the anthemic “Heroes and Villains”.

To consider that all this music-world spun from the mind of one man – a man wracked with doubt and demons, almost destroyed by a brutal and bitter father; a man eaten by psychosis from the inside and ravaged by hard hard drugs from the outside – is up there with the Beethoven story and the Shostakovich story (both worth checking out). And of course it makes the music all the more beautiful (a sunny beauty that only the original Beach Boys could realise so perfectly, as natural as a warm current kissing the sunblasted sands of California).

The 2011 SMILE Sessions is an enormous release in every sense, stretching to five CDs, a double LP plus two 7” singles in the box set version. It contains a huge amount of outtakes and alternative takes, snippets and studio banter. Like the Beatles Anthology of 1995, it is just too much to take in, and yet as a document of the creative process it is fascinating – revealing much more than just the making of a pop record; revealing a little more about the nature of what makes small ‘p’ pop into big A’ Art.

Speaking to journo Jules Siegel in 1967, Brian Wilson said “(Phil) Spector started the whole thing. He was the first one to use the studio. But I’ve gone beyond him now. I’m doing the spiritual sound – a white spiritual sound… That’s where I’m going. It’s going to scare lot of people”. It sounds like the talk of a voyager, an explorer and it was. An explorer who went out to the far reaches and came back with good vibrations for us all.

Published October 2011 on theorangepress.net

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