Brian Wilson Tosses Us a Carrot: My Thoughts on Smile at 1:45 a.m.

Okay, I’m going to admit right here, up front, that I have not heard or purchased Brian Wilson’s much-anticipated (to put it mildly) Smile. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can proceed.

First of all, I should tell you that I am a recent Beach Boys convert. Yes, I’m sorry to say that there was a time—even less than a year ago—when I, too, regarded the Beach Boys only as poppy hitmakers who provided a good soundtrack to the summer season. I was once one of the great unwashed who believe The Beach Boys can be summed up with a handful of orange-and-yellow-swirl Capitol 45’s. But it’s not true.

I bought Pet Sounds and started to recover from my former Beach Boys ignorance (or was it apathy?). Repeated listenings convinced me of something others had known for decades: this was one gorgeous, sweet, sophisticated, sensitive, intelligent, artful piece of music, created by a person who, clichés aside, could best be described as a musical genius. “That’s Not Me” can still bring a tear to my eye if I’m in the right mood.

So then, a few months later, I decided to check out Smiley Smile. I knew, like everybody else, about the whole Smile debacle. There was this reputedly amazing, unreleased body of music promised to be even a notch above Pet Sounds, and yet was never released because Brian just couldn’t handle it. So I went to have a listen to Smiley Smile, perhaps because I was interested in hearing Brian and the group pick up the pieces. I wanted to hear the result.

And I must say, I was very surprised by Smiley Smile. After the lush production of Pet Sounds, the music on Smiley Smile sounded positively minimalist. But damn, it was interesting. My mind went to thoughts of The Beatles, with whom Brian was in a fierce but mostly friendly battle around this time to create innovative albums—essentially a “production race.” I mentally compared Smiley Smile with its contemporary Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I pictured George Martin at the console, playing with spliced tape loops. I pictured all the orchestra people who played on “She’s Leaving Home.” I pictured George holding his newest sitar, accompanied by a couple of guys playing the tabla and tamboura or whatever else. And then I pictured Brian and The Beach Boys, recording the simple, largely a cappella, largely unadorned Smiley Smile in the makeshift studio the guys set up in Brian’s Bel-Air living room. So, unlike The Beatles, who were layering and echoing and splicing and looping and exotifying, The Beach Boys were simplifying. The Beach Boys had decided less was more.

After the Smile disaster, Brian probably didn’t know what to do. He’d already created a beauty in Pet Sounds and yet, he was determined to top himself. When he understandably had difficulty, he broke down. He didn’t know how he could do more. But he knew harmony, and he knew melody, and these are the two main ingredients in Smiley Smile.

Honestly, I think Smiley Smile is a great album. It’s incredibly unique for its time, particularly in its amalgamation of innovative arrangements and song structures with very straightforward production. It’s ambitious, but at the same time, modest. Not everything works, but that’s okay. It has a unique charm and subtlety that Sgt. Pepper with his moustache and coattails and overproduction could never achieve. What I’m saying is, I like the way things turned out for Brian and The Beach Boys.

Brian Wilson has just released his recreated version of Smile. I support him because I think he’s incredibly gifted musically, and I admire his persistence at trying to achieve a dream. People who have heard the CD have told me it’s great (although they still perhaps prefer the bootlegs of the original sessions). I’m sure the new album will prove a satisfaction for many, many fans, and hopefully for Brian and his colleagues too. But personally, like I said, I like the way things turned out. I don’t think of Smile as the perfect album that was never released, but as the perfect album that was never meant to be.

Kurt Sampsel

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