Brian Wilson: Smile

NZ Listener


The saga of Brian Wilson’s Smile is the great romantic chapter in pop history: the abandoned masterpiece by a misunderstood genius that no one will ever hear.

But when the masterpiece arrives, 37 years overdue, can it live up to its own myth?

To recap: Wilson made his name in the early 60s as chief songwriter and arranger of the Beach Boys. His ecstatic, harmony-drenched odes to sunshine, surfboards, girls and cars played like a Californian counterpoint to the opening bars of Beatlemania. But beneath the teen-dream veneer was an ambitious and complex composer searching for his true identity. This became apparent with the 1966 release of Pet Sounds, an album that in its melodic and instrumental maturity outstripped even the efforts of the increasingly sophisticated Beatles. The fact that Pet Sounds was a relative commercial failure might have been a warning that Wilson’s artistic ambitions were getting ahead of the market. But that didn’t stop the 24-year-old from planning a follow-up that would be, in his words, “a teenage symphony to God”.

Joining forces with an enigmatic bohemian named Van Dyke Parks, he began to create his masterpiece, Parks welding multi-referenced, James Joyce-inspired imagery to Wilson’s increasingly fragmented if singularly beautiful melodies.

That’s when the trouble really started. The Beach Boys, who were by now touring minus Brian, leaving him in the studio to concentrate full-time on being a genius, balked at this new material. They didn’t hear hits, couldn’t get their lips around lines like “columnated ruins domino”. Wilson’s steady diet of psychedelics didn’t help the growing estrangement, and the release of the Beatles’ spectacular Sergent Pepper as he missed his deadline apparently tipped him over the edge. After months of recording, Smile was aborted and Wilson retired to his bedroom for most of the next two decades.

But like the Cheshire Cat, Wilson’s Smile never completely faded. Over the years its reputation grew, enhanced by the composer’s legendary reclusiveness; bootlegs and out-takes circulated, and Smile became a Holy Grail. Finally this year a rehabilitated Wilson was persuaded to complete and perform the work in its entirety to a packed Royal Albert Hall, for which he received an ovation worthy of Beethoven.

Of course the Beach Boys had nothing to do with it; of the original group, Wilson’s brothers Carl and Dennis are dead while his cousin Mike Love (always Smile’s most vocal sceptic) now owns the Beach Boys brand, under which he tours the oldies circuit.

Following its live debut, Wilson entered a Californian studio with his current band the Wondermints and made a brand new recording of Smile in a phenomenally quick five days. (Compare this to the six months it reportedly took to record ‘Good Vibrations’, the Beach Boys’ hit that is reworked here as the finale.)

The first thing that will strike any moderate Beach Boys fan is that most of Smile is already familiar. Despite the Beach Boys’ scepticism, most of the songs ultimately wound up on their records. ‘Heroes and Villains’ was a summer hit in 67; ‘Surf’s Up’ (which has only the most tangential link to surfing) became the title of a 1971 album. Numerous other fragments became album filler.

For these remakes, Wilson has stuck closely to his original orchestrations, eschewing such convenient modern devices as samplers and synthesisers in favour of his inimitable choruses of whistles, harmonicas and bass trombones.

But Brian Wilson Presents Smile gives us, for the first time, the songs organised as a symphony or suite, which is how they were conceived. So how does it hold up? Is it truly the masterpiece it is meant to be? Do we now revise the pop canon to afford it its rightful place?

It is undeniably a feast of melody. No pop album, barring perhaps Pet Sounds, racks up as many skin-prickling tunes in such rapid succession. How such baroque beauty as the harpsichord-led “Wonderful” comes out of a self-taught surf-rocker from southern California remains a mystery. In “Cabin Essence” and “Our Prayer” Wilson’s roots in doo-wop and Four Freshman-style quartet harmony are more apparent, yet even here he has worked some alchemy that makes them more like the music of the spheres.

As for Parks’s poetry, it may be a little over-ripe in places (“I want to watch you, windblown, facing waves of wheat for your embracing”). But at its best his collage of Americana rivals that of Bob Dylan’s similarly mythical Basement Tapes, which were taking shape in Woodstock during the months Wilson and Parks laboured in Hollywood. Peace in the valley, home on the range, Plymouth rock, the Grand Coulee Dam, God and liberty; all are stitched into an impressionistic tapestry that seeks to make sense of America’s history through the psychedelic prism of the mid-60s.

The Puritans are mocked (“Plymouth rock roll over”), Native Americans shown empathy, ecological awareness espoused, and the Vietnam War, while never directly named, forms the silent yet palpable backdrop for all this cultural self-examination. But there are passages where it all dissolves into juvenile silliness (“Vegetables”, “I’m In Great Shape”) evoking nothing more than a couple of stoned fools rolling around in a sandpit.

Smile today sounds like a gloriously mad period piece. But it didn’t really belong to the mainstream pop of the 60s either. This was confirmed when Parks released his own debut Song Cycle the year after Smile was shelved, employing many of the same modernist devices. That disc – along with similarly-inclined epics by the likes of Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb - largely fell on deaf ears. Whatever the ambitions of Wilson and Parks, their orchestral art-pop was never going to be the next big thing. Instead it was the guitar heroics of Cream and Hendrix that would set the prevailing course of rock for the next few years.

The truth is Smile was never destined to be more than a cult classic. Ironically, it has probably been more influential as a result of not being released than if it had come out in 67.

What Smile did achieve, though, was no mean feat. In effect, it gave birth to what is now known as alternative rock; music that puts artistic ambitions ahead of commercial ones, that is shared in secrecy, that can influence generations while remaining inaudible to the masses. 

Tags: popalternativebob dylanvan dyke parksbeach boysbrian wilsonbasement tapes

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