How to Steal a SMiLE : An Alternate History of The Beach Boys’ Lost Classic
The Beach Boys – color band photo© 2011 GuyWebster.com – Courtesy of Brian Wilson Archive
Wilson had been recording nearly continuously since the 1961 breakthrough novelty single, “Surfin’,” creating hit after hit. These tunes were the culmination of some two centuries of American westward migration—the sunshine and golden life ebulliently written, arranged and further promised in song form. They remain licensing gold, a sound that Hollywood production companies like AudioSparx still mimick with titles like “California Vibes,” “Young Hapiness” (sic) and “Brian ‘66.”
The first manifestation of something profoundly un-sunshine-y was a panic attack that Brian suffered on a plane to Houston in December 1964. Replaced by Glen Campbell and then Bruce Johnston for road gigs, Brian stayed home to write music. And to the record-buying world with all of the Boys’ releases, that is exactly what it seemed throughout 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, and even beyond.
As he started SMiLE, he was fresh off the biggest single of his career, “Good Vibrations.” Released in October 1966, it hit No.1 in December. Seven months later, and still barely a year since Pet Sounds, arrived Smiley Smile. It contained only hints of what Taylor and others had reported. Two more albums followed within nine months. Though more SMiLE -intended songs turned up (including “Our Prayer” and “Cabin Essence” on 1969’s 20/20 and the title track of 1971’s Surf’s Up ), The Beach Boys continued to insist that SMiLE was imminent. (In 1972, Carl Wilson announced it at a press conference.)
The band never officially shelved the album. As Brian contributed less and less, The Beach Boys continued to use it to leverage credit with both underground radio and record companies and later had to return an advance to Warner Brothers when they couldn’t deliver it. The SMiLE period would later be thumb-nailed as Brian’s descent into drugs, serious depression, and years of cheeseburgers in bed. That all happened, though, a little later.
Derek Taylor left quickly. Brian wrote a song called “Busy Doin’ Nothing.” While that was increasingly true for him, the Beach Boys kept recording and touring, slowly unraveling into wooly bitterness and long-repressed family drama. They briefly returned to the top 10 in 1974 with a greatest hits album, Endless Summer, but their hit-heavy setlists only cemented their reputation as nostalgia-mongers. Lawsuits, death (Dennis in 1983 by drowning; Carl in 1998 to cancer), a Sunkist ad, collaborations with John Stamos, and more lawsuits followed.
Throughout the years, beginning with their initial surfer persona, The Beach Boys embraced countless trends, from transcendental meditation to vegetarianism to comebacks to Reaganomics to plastic surgery. (Let us please not speak of Brian’s 1989 rap single, “Smart Girls.”) But during the 14 months between Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile, The Beach Boys played at being conceptual kings of high California culture. It has taken four decades to reconstruct their benevolent, harmony-laden reign.
Bootleg versions of SMiLE began to abound in the mid-1980s. First, Byron Preiss, who was working on an authorized Beach Boys biography, acquired a tape containing half-a-dozen outtakes. Producer Curt Boettcher got some too, and soon shared them with British collectors. For a while, the only way to hear them was at annual Beach Boys Stomp fan conventions in the United Kingdom, where they were played at the end of each weekend. Moving much more efficiently than the tapes were the legends of what SMiLE was supposed to be.
There was supposed to be a “Bicycle Rider” leitmotif linking the songs, as well as a so-called “Elemental Suite” (both true). Brian destroyed the tapes after blazes ravaged the neighborhood near the studio on the night he recorded the “Fire” segment (false). Paul McCartney munched celery on the “Vega-Tables” rhythm track (maybe). Brian recorded the Boys singing while lying on their backs (yes) at the bottom of his empty swimming pool (it’s possible).
“Heroes and Villains,” meanwhile, was supposed to be a half-hour long suite (not really) and Brian was a crazed acidhead who couldn’t function in the studio (maybe a stoner, but still a doofy human dynamo). Mike Love bullied Brian and lyricist Van Dyke Parks about imagistic lyrics like “columnated ruins domino” until Parks quit (yup). Love refused to finish his parts (thankfully, not). Brian had his grand piano placed in a sandbox under a sultan’s tent in his living room so that he could smoke hash and feel the beach under his feet as he wrote (like, way true).
Still more intriguing were the tapes themselves, filled with dubbed-down bits of instrumental exotica and scrambled modular compositions. A fan culture emerged to piece it all together. One Beach Boys freak, Domenic Priore, assembled Look! Listen! Vibrate! SMiLE! —a 300-page dossier featuring reproduced articles originally published during the album’s recording, session logs and Brian’s handwritten track list.
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