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Love Hz: SMiLE — an Unfinished Symphony Lives On

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Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, SMiLE Box SetWow! Wow! Wow! It is so great to finally hear an authorized assemblage of this long lost unfinished work by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, known as SMiLE, presented in as near a final running order as is possible, and in remarkably near-complete form. Listening to these recordings in the aftermath of Wilson’s 2004 version of SMiLE (re-recorded with his current band to great acclaim), and reading the detailed liner notes, I can now understand why Brian opted to not “finish” the original album he recorded with the Beach Boys. It would have been next to impossible to match the “flavor” of the vocals and recording techniques of the time today… and ultimately would probably sound odd in a completed form. It also may have been too weird and painful for Brian to approach those recordings anew as well. As it stands, just reading about what went into the creation of this box set boggles the mind… but I’m getting ahead of myself. [more below...]

SURF’S UP

For those of you reading who have absolutely no idea what SMiLE is/was, or who Brian Wilson is/was or (if it’s possible) who The Beach Boys are/were, a little detail is in order to at least try to summarize a little of what went down in 1966 and 1967. It goes like this: Brian Wilson, the leader of the enormously popular rock pop band The Beach Boys, was working on the followup to his acclaimed 1966 release Pet Sounds and had tremendously advanced ideas on how to create the band’s next opus. He eventually dubbed the recording SMiLE, proclaiming it a “teenage symphony to God.” The now-legendary and groundbreaking single release “Good Vibrations” was the first track finished and released. The track blew many minds around the world not only for its infectious melodies, but also for its advanced experimental production techniques. “Good Vibrations” was a song suite created in the studio of many snippets of music, recorded and mixed in a modular fashion as individual sections and then edited together by hand (with a razor blade and tape!) to create the final master. That is how Wilson got that revolutionary shape-shifting cinematic sound, a stunning kaleidoscope of musical ideas and tone colors.

Making that one single took months and months, working with the finest studio musicians Hollywood had to offer (ie. “The Wrecking Crew”) and reportedly cost as much as $250,000 (in those days that was a lot of money). Unfortunately, making the entire album in that modular fashion took a lot longer to produce than anticipated and, coupled with pressures from the record label, confused band mates over the direction of the music, and a fair amount of drugs perhaps clouding Brian’s original vision, the album was shelved suddenly. Brian retreated into himself and spent the next 20 years barely existing (many expecting him to die). Rumors swirled that he was burned out and mentally fried from drugs and stress and that he’d been out of control on the SMiLE sessions. We’ll get back to what happened afterwards a little later. Lets get back to the box set at hand….

Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, SMiLE box set, side view

FARTHER DOWN THE PATH WAS A MYSTERY

Over the subsequent years after SMiLE was shelved, tracks dribbled out in various forms, all of which indicated that Brian was very much at the top of his game during the recording of the album. “Cabinessence” was issued on 20/20 in 1969, Parts of “Vega-tables” were re-purposed for “Mama Says” on 1967′s Wild Honey. Bits of “Cool Cool Water” appeared on 1970′s Sunflower. And most significantly, a version of “Surf’s Up” with Carl on lead vocal appeared on that acclaimed self titled LP in 1971. Nonetheless, Brian retreated further.

By the late 1980s, a miracle happened — Brian started getting it together and began putting out some really fine albums. Eventually, Brian found himself with a fantastic new band that could perform his most complex music live, in a manner that The Beach Boys never really were able to aspire to. By 2004 had regained enough confidence and support to tackle the prospect of “finishing” SMiLE. The re-recorded SMiLE was released to near-universal applause and a reinvigorated Brian tackled further solo releases, some very good (I especially like the Gershwin tribute album he put out last year). [more below...]

The music on The Beach Boys’ SMiLE, even in semi-complete form, is as powerful and haunting as ever, and it still feels special on the new 2 LP set or the single HDCD in the box set. Listening to the four discs of sessions recordings, you are a fly on the wall hearing a genius make his masterwork right before your very ears — sounds that previously only a select group of people heard. The fidelity on this box set is better than anything I’ve heard before, bootleg or commercial release; the sound is positively huge in many parts. It is all fabulously fascinating. For you audiophiles reading this, Grammy-winning engineer and producer Mark Linnett (who worked on two previous Beach Boys box sets, among many others) reports in his essay that the set was compiled from more than 70 original analog 4-track and 8-track session tapes, transferred at high resolution. He reports that “… the final masters were created at 88.2 kHz before being encoded for HDCD on compact disc.”

This set is a remarkably good value when you stop to think that you are getting five CDs, two audiophile grade 180-gram LPs, two 45 RPM singles with picture sleeves, a 24×36 poster suitable for framing, and a lovely LP-sized hardcover book with loads of details on the album and its sessions with essays by all the surviving Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks, Dean Torrence (of Jan & Dean), Mark Volman (of The Turtles), Danny Hutton (Three Dog Night), and many others who were part of Brian’s world at the time of SMiLE There is so much here to explore. And nuggets abound (even some “Easter Eggs”) for the hardcore fan. For example, the bonus tracks on CD 1 (which presents the SMiLE tracks using Brian’s 2004 version as a template) are different than those on the LP version! All of this is housed in massive 13×13 box that features a 3D diorama reproduction of the Smile store on its cover. So you really need it all if you are a completist. [more below...]

MY SMiLE STORY

I admit, I am a completist. But I’m not alone, I found out. My obsession with SMiLE began in the early ’80s when a bootleg appeared in one of my favorite record stores with a color reproduction of the actual cover art (front and back), a really well-faked Brother Records (the Beach Boys’ own) label, and even an insert sheet of liner notes. It was an amazing-sounding recording, and it even had a big joke built into it by the bootleggers, which both led me to another major artist’s work and highlighted the level of respect accorded this complex but melodically addictive music. You see, tucked away in that original SMiLE bootleg was a haunting melody with strings, clarinets, and muted trumpet that was not the Beach Boys at all — it was a track from Miles Davis’ recording of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The song is called “Here Come de Honey Man,” and in the comments section for this YouTube video of the song someone even pointed out the fact that it appeared on that SMiLE bootleg.

This little snippet fit so perfectly along with the SMiLE music and it really underscores the level at which Brian Wilson was working.

SMiLEAnyhow, finding that recording began my quest for more on this elusive release. I wasn’t alone in this quest, and over the years bits and pieces of the album have leaked out or been released on other, later Beach Boys records. I bought Smiley Smile (the subsequent Beach Boys album Carl Wilson called a bunt instead of the home run that SMiLE would have been), and then Surf’s Up and 20/20 and Sunflower — all of which contained piece of the SMiLE puzzle.

I started imagining how these tracks might have fit together (making my own mix tapes on cassettes). At one point in the late 80s even KFOG-FM (in San Francisco) broadcast a show all about SMiLE. In 1993, The Beach Boys officially put out 30 minutes of SMiLE recordings on its Good Vibrations box set. On cassettes (and later on the web in digital form) fans would compile from these fragments their own versions of what they though the album would have been. Producer Mark Linett comments in the book that “I’ve never met a hardcore Beach Boys fan who didn’t assemble their very own SMiLE ‘album’ from the whatever scraps of audio they could get their hands on.” Indeed, some of these homemade versions of SMiLE were amazingly on target and obsessively detailed. (Case in point: check out the lengths this fellow went through to create his then-stunning version of SMiLE.)

At one point I found an amazing book all about SMiLE by a fellow named Dominic Priore — clearly I was not alone in my fascination with this album that never was. Part of a series of books on The Beach Boys called The Dumb Angel GazzetteDumb Angel was an early working title for SMiLELook! Listen! Vibrate! SMILE! was a thorough collection of writings and clippings about the album. Later, Priore wrote an even more detailed account of SMiLE (written with the participation of Brian Wilson and collaborator Van Dyke Parks), a fascinating and essential detailing of what really happened and the path that led to Brian’s completing the project in 2004. In short, fans and writer/editors of the Dumb Angel Gazette included future Wondermint Darian Sahanaja, who ultimately was introduced to Brian and became his main musical compatriot in the completion of SMiLE. So really, it was the passion of the hardcore fans that brought the album out of the vaults! More on that in a minute. An essay by Priore is of course included the book with the SMiLE box set.

As Priore details in his book, this box set delivers a very different perspective on Brian in 1966-67 than the public has been led to believe. Despite his experimentation with LSD and other drugs, you can hear on this set that an obviously clear-headed Brian Wilson is assertively leading the many talented session musicians and other Beach Boys through the complex recording sessions with microscopic precision. This resulted in brilliant tracks like “Heroes & Villains,” “Wonderful,” ‘Wind Chimes,” “Vege-tables,” “Good Vibrations,” and other tracks that ultimately were assembled into SMiLE as we know it today.

A MODERN DAY UNFINISHED SYMPHONIC CLASSIC

So, why are so many of us smitten with the music on SMiLE? Well, I can only answer for myself and — having spoken with many others who are into this recording — I assume a lot of others. The music in SMiLE was made on another plain of creativity and invention that had not been heard before and — arguably — has not been heard since. Sure, there was Sgt. Pepper and Tommy and Quadrophenia and so many other landmark rock works with amazing musical moments that are of their time. Only Pete Townsend’s Lifehouse can be considered on the same level as SMiLE — once un-finished until 1999, with its elements dribbled out over the years, including the single LP smash Who’s Next. But even that — as fantastic as it is — doesn’t have that classically timeless sensibility about it.

There is something ethereal and haunting about all the music on SMiLE that gets down into your bones and your gray matter. Listening to these sessions, one gets the sense that you’re hearing the creation of the first modern pop classical work — a piece of music that could be performed a hundred years from now and still inspire and invigorate listeners. It’s that special something that has kept works by Verdi, Rossini, Stravinsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Beethoven, and Brahms alive and relevant decades and centuries after the artists’ passing.

Imagine being there when Beethoven or Mozart were composing their finest symphonies…

Think about it — numerous classical and operatic composers left behind un-finished works that permeate popular culture even now. For example, Mahler, Beethoven, Offenbach, Puccini, and Verdi left behind highly regarded works that were unfinished and are still performed to this day. [more below...]

But Brian Wilson didn’t die. He was simply in rock and roll purgatory, emotionally shattered by the pressures of the music industry, family, friends, hangers on, and substance abuses. He was a mess and it seemed highly unlikely that he would (a) live on, (b) resume making original music, and (c) complete SMiLE. He came back from the artistically dead. And after the success of his new 2004 version of SMiLE, here we are with a formal, official, and beautiful release of his original 1966-67 era sessions.

I’m happy to say it is not anti-climactic, as it so easily could have been. It has been worth the wait and it is as exciting as ever. Now we can hear this music in fantastic fidelity instead of off of multi-generation versions passed along from cassettes insiders had, or in the form of bootlegs which were often of dubious quality.

I was actually thinking of comparing and contrasting the new SMiLE to the various and sundry bazillions of unauthorized session recordings that are out there. But after a minute of listening to the first disc of session outtakes I realized that would be a stupid and ridiculous effort — these are recordings from the original session tapes and they sound it: huge fidelity, in stereo (!!!), with very little hiss and lovingly mastered.

This is quite possibly more exciting than the Pet Sounds box set, which gave us incredible insight into how that album was made. More exciting because these melodies are more mature. And perhaps because they emerged to those of us “in the know” often in unfinished or altered form, they have grown that much more near and dear to us as we have internalized this music and imagined how it might be completed.

Listening to these sessions, you are hearing a recording production master at the top of his game. What are you waiting for? Look! Listen! Vibrate! and SMiLE!

A FINAL SIDE NOTE ON MUSICIANS AND INFLUENCES

In the Summer of 1967, The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out and overshadowed pretty much everything from that period — it was a game changer, as they say. Yet, in the years after Sgt. Pepper’s, the influence of SMiLE can be heard even in the Beatles music! Consider that Paul McCartney has gone on record stating that Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds inspired him to create Sgt. Pepper’s. So, I’ll go a step further and say that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Fabs were influenced by what they’d heard of SMiLE and of course “Good Vibrations” on their post Summer of Love releases. Listen to the orchestral/string quartet type sounds on SMiLE (“Old Master Painter / You Are My Sunshine,” and even on the sessions for “Vega-tables” (McCartney has long been rumored to be on that session!) on disc 4 in this set and then listen to tracks like “I Am The Walrus” and especially the end to “Glass Onion,” from Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles (aka “The White Album”). Pair Macca’s “Your Mother Should Know” with SMiLE‘s then unreleased “Holiday” and one wonders. I’m not implying theft — of course the Beatles were working with strings pre-SMiLE (“Elenor RIgby,” “Yesterday,” “The Inner Light,” etc.). But it is known that all these groups were influencing one another at that time, sharing ideas much in the way that classical composers influenced and challenged each other back in the day. It’s a common belief that there would be no Stravinsky if there hadn’t been a Rimsky-Korsakov, for example. Anyhow, I’m just sayin’…

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