How to Steal a SMiLE : An Alternate History of The Beach Boys’ Lost Classic
As Brian Wilson turns 70 today, we look back to this feature on SMiLE from our December issue
There are those who maintain that the “Mona Lisa” on display in the Louvre in Paris is a fake, replaced by a forgery after its daring 1911 theft. The appearance of The Beach Boys’ SMiLE during this shopping season might raise similar eyebrows, but it will undoubtedly induce equally deep ear-to-ear expressions of happiness a few inches below.
Indeed, the package (officially titled The SMiLE Sessions ) presents itself with the original jacket art designed by Capitol Records’ Frank Holmes for the concept album’s scheduled 1967 release date. On the cover, a cartoon shop offers disembodied grins for sale. Just like the smiles on display, this box set for rock’s most legendary unfinished album comes in multiple flavors with double and quintuple-disc varieties, featuring bonus LPs and 7-inches.
All in all, some six hours of remastered music represent Brian Wilson’s milestone—a would-be, segue-filled statement of the American Dream shot through with pure harmonies that stun the human ear whether it’s trained on Bach chorales or Auto-Tune.
Despite all of this, though, this latest (and seemingly final) edition of SMiLE is not quite the real thing. But don’t tell Capitol Records.
The first person to abscond with SMiLE, metaphorically and half-accidentally, was an excessively charming Liverpudlian named Derek Taylor. As it turned out, it was a very, very good thing that Taylor engineered the heist of SMiLE from Brian Wilson’s brain in exactly the manner he did. Because Brian’s brain wasn’t quite the same afterward.
The Beach Boys hired Taylor, a Daily Express reporter turned Beatles publicist and confidant, in May 1966 to introduce Pet Sounds to a British audience. A towering achievement for the band’s 23-year-old leader, Brian Wilson, Pet Sounds transmogrified sweet post-teen anxiety into complex, moody masterpieces played by a team of California session musicians and sung by the Boys, then comprised of Brian, brothers Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love, and neighbor Al Jardine.
In the United States, Pet Sounds hit No.10 on the Billboard chart, a relative flop for The Beach Boys. However, with Taylor’s help overseas, it reached No.2 on the British charts and garnered a new critical respect for the band. By the time Taylor arrived in Los Angeles to work full-time with The Beach Boys later that summer, Brian was already an unprecedented dozen sessions into a follow-up single, “Good Vibrations,” in an age when most songs took a few hours at most.
Had it not been some 40 years too early for the now in-vogue term “trans-media narrative,” the then 24-year-old Taylor surely would have used it to describe what he was doing with his boss’ in-progress goods: building a story through multiple mediums.
“The excitement of a recording session transforms him into a human dynamo,” Taylor wrote in an early report titled “Brian Wilson: Whizzkid behind The Beach Boys,” one of many that he dispatched (and arranged for other writers) as Wilson held session after session. “He races from studio to control booth, in his effort to be both singer and producer,” Taylor described. In December, Brian appeared on CBS’ Leonard Bernstein’s Inside Pop television special and performed a solo piano rendition of a new song called “Surf’s Up.”
The sessions continued, as did the breathless updates in magazine features and gossip column notices that explained exactly how this new-fangled concept album was going to work. Without leaking a note of actual music, Taylor uploaded SMiLE to the world long before it was done. It would prove to be quite useful.
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