Brian Wilson and Smile

On Tuesday I called in to Radar Records in Christchurch. I left with the new Elvis Costello CD and the remarkable new Nick Cave double, but I didn’t get my paws on Smile. Yesterday, as I passed the record store in our local mall I heard a faintly familiar fragment, and diverted rapidly inside. Smile was looking up at me from the “now playing” pile, so it was immediately purchased. It has been on various players ever since. In fact I’m ripping it to the iPod as I write.

The story of the great lost Beach Boys album is probably familiar enough to anyone who’s bothering to read this entry, so I’m not going to rehash that. Rather, I’d like to ruminate on my personal relationship with this music. It goes back a long way, and as the years have gone by seems to have got deeper and broader. Sloop John B was the first BB’s single I bought. Spring 1966. My Dansette could only play singles. That summer I really, really wanted to buy God Only Knows – the song struck the 12 year-old me as incredibly beautiful, it was evocative of things that I was too young to know about – but my mother was convinced I was spending too much money on records, and banned it. And Eleanor Rigby. By the time Good Vibrations came out (when fall breaks and turns to winter (October?) – odd timing for a record that’s so bloody summery) the ban was lifted. I couldn’t buy Pet Sounds (or Revolver) because of my Dansette limitations, but by the time Sgt Pepper was out, I had something that could cope. Pepper was the third LP I bought. I very nearly bought Smiley Smile, the follow-up to Pet Sounds, but as I already had the two singles on it (I remember being faintly disappointed with Heroes & Villains when I brought it home from the shop – it was from the same mould as Good Vibrations, but not quite so immense) I didn’t bother. I did buy Wild Honey though, and remember feeling vaguely let down. I mean Vibrations and Villains were complex new sounds, pushing the boundaries, like The Fabs were doing, and suddenly the BB’s were doing Motown, going back to basics. It was OK, but what had happened? The mystery deepened with Friends. A lovely little album – but little is the operative word. It was very poor value for money. The whole thing runs for about 25 minutes, at a time when the Beatles were putting 90 minutes on two LPs – even if a chunk of that was Revolution #9. It was a testimony to the quality of the music that I kept coming back for more. The BB’s offering for 1969 was 20/20, and there was a track on there that made my jaw drop. Cabinessence had everything I’d heard in those 1966 singles, and more. I played it to death.

The story of Smile was around in the music press – the inkies, as NME and Melody Maker were known – but it hadn’t meant much to me until I began to realise just what we’d lost. I began to hope that Brian would get his head together and finish the damn thing.

I can’t remember why I didn’t buy Sunflower – probably something to do with money – but I did buy Surf’s Up and the title track just made matters worse. It is one of the great popular songs of the last 100 years – not in the sense of being superbly catchy or chart fodder, but as a thing of beauty. The words have just enough relationship with meaning to be evocative (of what, you may ask – columnated ruins dominoing, obviously), and the performance is perfect. I used to turn the lights out and the volume up, and luxuriate. Every subsequent Beach Boys release suffered by comparison with the wonders of that track. I bought Holland and 15 Big Ones and then moved on to the likes of Mr Costello and The Clash. The Beach Boys turned themselves into an oldies band, America’s band or whatever, and became irrelevant. Meanwhile, in a sort of BB’s underworld, bits and bobs of Smile fragments were emerging as bootlegs. Three CDs worth, in all, but I didn’t notice, not being noted as a bootleg purchaser. Too mainstream and not obsessive enough.

We skip to the 1990s. In 1993, Capitol released a boxed set: Good Vibrations – 25 Years of the Beach Boys, a useful summation of the band’s career, but what made everybody take notice was the official release of some Smile stuff. The second CD finished with tracks from the original Smile sessions: an alternate take of Heroes & Villains, the original versions of Wonderful, Wind Chimes and Vegetables – they’d been re-recorded in stripped down versions for Smiley Smile – two obviously unfinished tracks, Do You Like Worms and I Love To Say Da Da, plus snippets of stuff that sounded like they belonged in H&V. Cabinessence was there, and Surf’s Up. A stunning, if disjointed selection. The Smile versions of Smiley Smile tracks were much more polished, much more fully realised. These weren’t slight little throwaway songs, they were genius at work. Books have been written about how this stuff was going to be put together to create the final masterpiece. People have played around creating their own versions of the album from Brian’s snippets and out-takes, but the only man who really knew how it was meant to work was BW, and he was struggling to get through life without having to go back and revisit music that had driven him to the edge of a drug-fuelled breakdown.

When I’d finally found the £50 to buy the Good Vibrations set, I found myself developing a modest little Smile obsession. Over the last ten years I’ve obtained the bootleg stuff, downloaded some fan assemblages, and passed more than a moment or two wondering which bit went where. If I’d been keeping count, iTunes style, those tracks would certainly be in my decade’s Top 20 most played list.

So with Brian’s return to touring, with his recreation of Pet Sounds, and the news that he was going to have a go at Smile, my interest was rather more than piqued. If I could have found a reasonable excuse to justify the airfare, I would have been in the Festival Hall in London last February when he premiered his new version. In the intervening months I have resisted the temptation to download a boot of the concert, holding out for the official version. I wanted to come to it fresh.

I’ll make the obvious points first. BW’s voice is not what it was, hardly surprising given that he’s 63, but beyond a few awkward moments, you barely notice that. His band, based around the very wonderful Wondermints, more than covers. They’re not the Beach Boys, the voices don’t have that unique blend, but they’re pretty damn fine singers in their own right. The sound is pretty “live” – they’ve recreated not just the sound but the feel of those fragments that we know so well. BW has not rewritten or rearranged the old stuff, just done some deft jigsaw puzzle fitting together, and added some tunes (and Van Dyke Parks words) to the obviously incomplete Worms (now called Roll Plymouth Rock) and Da Da (In Blue Hawaii) – though bits of both themes pop up in several places. For me, the “new” bits work better than the facsimiles of the originals, if only because they can’t suffer in any comparison. The “new” Wind Chimes, for example, is markedly less magical and more mechanical than the first version. Then there’s the question of the sequence. People have been speculating about that ever since Capitol printed some hopeful covers for the original. This Smile is a CD-era Smile. It would not work on an LP. The middle “children’s song” section would be broken in half, and Surf’s Up would start side two. I’d always assumed it would be the album closer, but Good Vibrations does that job here.

Is this the Smile we might have seen in 1967? Obviously not. Too much water under too many bridges for that. This is the work of an older, wiser, survivor, revisiting his youth, not a young man trying to realise his genius (when stoned out of his box). Being older and wiser myself, though not stoned, I love it. Does it work if you come to the whole thing without nearly 40 years of Beach Boys admiration behind you? God only knows.

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