It was 1967, and through those hash-hazy days of the Summer of Love, Beach Boys auteur Brian Wilson had a vision. Inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, he had created his epochal Pet Sounds, which was even then being hailed as one of the best rock albums of all time. Heady praise – perhaps too much so.
Now Wilson had something new in mind.
He announced he was collaborating with impressionistic lyricist Van Dyke Parks on his next album, Smile. He was recording what he termed “modular music” – tape snippets of songs, sounds, and “sampled” excerpts that could be combined into a weird and wonderful whole. Wilson saw this whole in a golden halo and humbly described it as “a teenage symphony to God.” Nothing more, nothing less.
With this as his goal, it’s little wonder he faltered.
Smile was shelved, and Wilson was gone, off to fight his own personal and creative demons, a battle that raged over the next three decades.
Still, a handful of tracks from the projected Smile album – “Heroes and Villains” and Wilson’s glorious feel-good tour de force “Good Vibrations” – were released as stopgap singles and on the belittlingly titled Smiley Smile album. We all had a taste, leaving us wanting more of the greatest album never heard.
Fast forward too many years. Wilson is back, releasing his 1988 album Brian Wilson, 1996’s Imagination, 2004’s Getting’ In Over My Head, and replaying his Pet Sounds glory days in concerts. It’s all proof that the summer really is endless.
Next, Wilson was coaxed to dig back through the remains of 1967’s Smile. His youthful paean to God existed only as a mishmash of song fragments, alternate versions, and poorly cataloged tapes. The motivating force getting Wilson back on track was another collaborator – keyboardist, harmony vocalist, and self-described “musical secretary” Darian Sahanaja. Van Dyke Parks and Sahanaja provided their support, but it was Wilson who dug in and began work over a five-month period starting in April 2004.
Now, 37 years after it was first promised, Smile is here. Wilson sifted through Parks’ now-ancient lyrics, revised old songs, and composed new music, creating a 47-minute whole.
And what a creation it is. Think of the Beatles’ Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Abbey Road. Think of Pet Sounds. And yet Smile is different – not necessarily better, just different. On first listen, it’s a surfer doo-wop opera: the Beach Boys, now with gray in their golden hair but still chasing waves on longboards and California girls in little deuce coupes.
But spinning the disc again, there’s something more. Harking back to 1967, Smile begins with a beach party hallelujah chorus jumping in time to a tinny car-radio intro to “Heroes and Villains.” The album is bookended with a reworked version of “Good Vibrations” bringing everything back home again.
In between are three symphonic-rock movements comprising a total of seventeen tracks of Wilson’s modular music. The instrumental orchestration is incredible in itself – keyboards, percussion, strings, Theremins, saws, you name it. But as with the best of the Beach Boys, it’s the layers of doo-wop vocals and harmony vocals that fill the ear with a sonic rainbow, all the fruit of Wilson’s long-ago fascination with the Four Freshmen. The musicians and singers are rehearsed, spot on, and wondrous.
Yet underlying the music is a strange mood – a sense of a man trying a bit too desperately to relive his youth. The songs are at times funny, at other times dark, as with the foreboding instrumental “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” There’s an attempt to recreate the joy of the old surf songs, but that innocence is long gone and they now sound world-weary. And Parks’ lyrics are often too deep – or too obtuse – an odd counterpart to Wilson’s persona.
But after 37 years, this is no longer a teenage symphony to God anyway; it’s the saga of one man’s life and struggles, and with that as its vision, Smile is a great success.
So, is this the best album of all time? Naw. And who cares? Ultimately, what matters is that Smile does indeed make you smile.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.