US - California - Full Moon 98 - 09/28/04
It's about 37 and a half years late. Now finally... In 1966 24 year old Brian Wilson was making
pop history, strived for pop revolution, but the result was pop tragedy - and pop legend. Until now,
that is. In 1965 the Beach Boys sang "Went to a dance, Looking for romance" (from the hit "Barbara
Ann" by Fred Fassert, released in December of that year). By early 1966 Brian and the Boys had reached
another level: "If you should ever leave me, Though life would still go on believe me, The world
could show nothing to me, So what good would living do me, God only knows what I'd be without you"
(words by Peter Asher, from "God Only Knows" of Pet Sounds, released on single in July 1966,
the most perfect pop tune ever to originally be released as a B-side). By late 1966 the Boys sang:
"Canvas the town and brush the backdrop, Are you sleeping?", the (sort of) chorus from "Surf's Up",
one of the centrepieces of SMiLE written by Brian's new lyricist at the time Van Dyke Parks.
And Brian's music and arrangements progressed along the same paths as the lyrics. Beach Boys hadn't
the nerve to release the song until 1971. Then it was too late, today it's not.
Brian has recorded the album anew along with his faithful, enthusiastic and excellent young
(relatively!) musicians centered around the Los Angeles band the Wondermints, long time Beach Boy
sideman, axeman and vocalist Jeffrey Foskett and the Stockholm Strings 'n' Horns. 19 musicians all
in all, the very same that are making the triumphant world tour centered around SMiLE these
days. The recordings only lasted five days(!) in April after the world premiere of the SMiLE
live shows at London's Festival Hall in
February. Originally Brian struggled for almost a year in 1966/67 before he abandoned the project.
And only two years ago he didn't even want to talk about anything to do with SMiLE; his and
the Beach Boys millstone and tragedy...
The central songs are familiar. They have all been released in various versions earlier. The
aforementioned "Surf's Up" is probably my ultimate favourite, written by Brian and Van Dyke in only
one hour, the saying goes. I haven't the faintest idea what Van Dyke is trying to say, but coupled
with a lonely piano, then strings & horns and the choirboy harmonies it sounds superb, hand in
glove... "Wonderful" is the most wonderful ballad ever about loss of virginity - or maybe the only
one? "Roll Plymouth Rock" earlier known as "Do You Like Worms" is a tasty soup with orchestral and
choral speaking sections, the melancholic "Bicycle Rider" and sliding guitars or voices of the
Hawaiian part. "Cabinessence" is the playful mid-Western stop on the ironhorse journey across
America, it's 'time for a change' and 'home on the range' with mandolins and energetic string
section and all. "Heroes And Villains" and "Vega-Tables" are other humours well-known songs, not
my dearest of the album but essential. "Good Vibrations" with partly new lyrics, is another quite
well-known song. It's debateable if it was originally planned to be part of SMiLE, one of
the many mysteries concerning the project. Now it concludes the album, having traded place with
"Surf's Up" compared to earlier supposed running order of the original album.
But there are shorter and bolder and funnier stuff in here, too. The waltzy statement "I'm In
Great Shape" coupled with "I Wanna Be Around" and "Workshop" is particularly elegant, with revereberations
of old musicals or the merry and melancholic 1920s' dance halls until the joiner's tools take over
on a Friday Night. "Barnyard" includes animals sounds, whereas "On A Holiday" is as merry and dreamy
as a summer holiday can be for a pirate at the age of about eight. "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (Fire)" would've
shocked contemporary musicians had it been released back in 1967. It's a strange instrumental, quite
merry at first with funny whistles all around until the flames grow higher and the music grows scarier,
recorded with the musicians wearing toy firemen's helmets, of course.
Two of the songs are new to me. "Song For Children" is an elegant bridge between "Wonderful"
and "Child Is Father Of The Man" with elements from them both and a merry clarinet driven original
instrumental outtake called "Look" or "I Ran" with new lyrics, I guess, and all. It's the same with
"In Blue Hawaii", with elements from a 1960s outtake called "Water" (after the "Fire", you know)
and an extended "I Love To Say Da-Da" with brand new words by Van Dyke Parks.
If you compare the new recordings with the original SMiLE recordings available on the
5 CD box Good Vibrations, Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys from 1993, some of the tracks sounds
completely similar, especially the opening acapella hymn "Our Prayer". Some lack the light finishing
touch and elegancy of the originals to some extent, especially parts of "Heroes And Villains", the
fragile piano of "Roll Plymouth Rock", the heavier parts of "Wind Chimes" and the piano of the "Mrs.
O'Leary's Cow/Fire Intro". Maybe the album would've gained with a little less rush in the studio.
On the other hand "Wonderful" sounds more complete now than ever, though I miss the original's sombre
harpsichord. Brian's voice sounds great for a 62 year old, but, well, the 24 year old voice used to
be somewhat fresher and cleaner.
To summarize: SMiLE is 'a teenage symphony to God'; the 2004 version divides the songs
of the symphony into three movements. It's also trying to fathom America from Plymouth Rock of Cape
Cod on the east coast into the west of the indians and prairie of the farmers, a trip down the
Mexican way and on to Hawaii. It's about the four elements fire, water, earth and air and includes
several complex, playful, hilarious, beautiful and humorous sides. If you're unfamiliar with the
SMiLE story, the informative article in the voluminous booklet of the album is a great
start. You can also find lots and lots more about the myths, legends and music out here in cyberspace.
Several articles, short stories and books have been written about the rise and fall of Brian Wilson
and the Beach Boys during the SMiLE period. To these ears SMiLE is better than Pet Sounds
(that includes the annoying "Sloopy John B") and better and bolder than Sgt. Pepper. I guess the
Beach Boys might've been bigger than the Beatles if SMiLE had been completed and released
in early 1967 and Brian had continued the friendly musical combat with the Beatles after the release
of Sgt. Pepper....
Now there's only one piece left to fulfill Brian's creative rehabilitation and to chase the
last sceleton out of his closet: the completion of the original recordings and release of the 1966/67
album. Everyone but the bootleggers will be happy if a follow-up of the Pet Sounds box is completed.
Theres's enough relevant material out there, I guess, for a 5 or 6 disc box. Anyways, we have to
be happy for a while with the eventual fulfillment of an entire SMiLE album. Look for it,
listen to it, vibrate along to the music and give us a big SMiLE!. It's timeless, it's
Copyright © 2004 JP