February 2005
By Steven M. Housman

Something to Smile About

The Beach Boys are arguably the most popular American rock and roll band in history. In 1966, after just three years and the phenomenal success of eleven albums and twenty five hit singles that include “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Surfer Girl,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “I Get Around,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “California Girls,” and “Barbara Ann,” the group set out to make an album equivalent to those of their British rivals and label mates, the Beatles (both recorded for Capitol Records). While the Beach Boys were more respected for their hit singles than their complete sets, they created an album and called it Pet Sounds. The album was considered to be the first “concept” album by the Beach Boys, a work of genius, and rightly so. It is one of the finest rock and roll albums ever recorded. The magic and myth of Pet Sounds still continue to this day. There have been box sets of The Pet Sounds Sessions, complete with studio outtakes, and in 2001, Pet Sounds was re-released on one CD in stereo and mono. The first original 13 tracks presented as they were in 1966, along with a bonus track “Hang On To Your Ego” that never made the final cut. All in all, the remastered version carries 27 tracks. The “singles” released from Pet Sounds were the haunting “Caroline, No,” “Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and the gorgeous “God Only Knows.” Most albums in that day were lucky if they had one hit single, it was unheard of to have four from one album, with the rare exception of the Beatles. Who knew perfection could be perfected?

Brian Wilson, who was the composer and lead vocalist of the Beach Boys, was considered to be a tortured genius. Anybody who knows a bit about this legendary man and his band of brothers, Dennis Wilson (drums), who drowned off the California coast in 1983, and Carl Wilson (guitar), who died of cancer in 1998, and cousin Mike Love (who shared lead vocals on various tracks, saxophone) and friend Al Jardine (guitar) completed the band, knew of the trials and tribulations being raised and then managed by Wilson’s mentally unbalanced and abusive father. The trauma eventually caught up with Brian, and by 1966, at the age of 24, set him on a path of depression and destruction. Even though he was diagnosed as clinically depressed and suicidal, Brian Wilson continued to make records.

In the summer of 1966, following the enormous financial and critical success of Pet Sounds, Brian teamed with lyricist Van Dyke Parks to make an album that was consistent and equally as daring as Pet Sounds. They worked through the summer until all the tracks had been written. They named the project Smile. Friends of Wilson’s and those in the industry back in 1966 knew they had something very special with these tracks. They were recorded as demos and, besides a few standout tracks including “Heroes and Villains” and “Surf’s Up,” the rest of the album never saw the light of day. It’s been well-known in the industry and among music aficionados who were lucky enough to hear these sessions that Smile was one of the most brilliant concept albums ever written. Imagine the frustration and disappointment to those who never got to see and hear this dream of Wilson’s realized. Another cut that was written and recorded was a little number called “Good Vibrations.” As we all know now, “Vibrations” was released and became an instant classic as well as one of the Beach Boys’ most identified hits, and became their first million-selling single. The sound was pure 1966 and reflected the psychedelic, love revolution “sound” of the time. It mirrored the Beatles’ forthcoming Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band opus that was released in June 1967. Unfortunately for Wilson, and his fans, he released the aforementioned tracks on an album titled Smiley Smile, with optional tracks, but it never captured the magic of the tracks that were originally written and eventually shelved for Smile. As Wilson fought his personal demons, he continued to write and produce more albums for the group, but none had the vigor and brilliance of Pet Sounds or the shelved Smile project. Wilson eventually went into isolation, became addicted to almost every drug that was available, gained an enormous amount of weight and was known as the recluse living out at the beach. He was rarely seen, and it seemed he became yet another stereotype of a 1960’s burnt-out rock star. But it wasn’t over yet. In the late 80’s, after numerous and successful reissues of the Beach Boys’ earlier hits, Wilson came out of isolation, thanks to many years of psychoanalysis, started to write and produce solo albums that went on to win critical acclaim. In 1988, the Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 1990, Brian’s two daughters, Wendy and Carnie, teamed up with the Mamas & Papas John Phillips and Michelle Phillips’ daughter, Chynna, and formed the group Wilson Phillips. The goal of these three girls was to deliver the beautiful harmony that was so beloved by Beach Boys and Mamas & Papas fans all over the world. It worked. Wilson Phillips was an instant smash with their debut self-titled album and was certified five times platinum. The legacy and “sound” of their parents was being appreciated by a whole new generation. I would never suggest that their songs carried the brilliance of the Beach Boys and Mamas & Papas, it was a bit sugary at best, but they connected and brought back the genre of the music that had all but been forgotten. They succeeded with two more follow-up albums, then split up for various reasons. In 1995, Carnie began hosting her own talk show and Chynna opted for domesticity and married actor Billy Baldwin. Fast forward to mid 2004, the girls reunited for a pleasant album titled California. While the effort was commendable, it was barely noticed by the public.

Now that we are discussing the present, let me tell you about another type of present, a gift. In the fall of 2003, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks dusted off the demos and decided to finish what they started 37 years prior. In February 2004, Brian Wilson went to perform the original contents of Smile at London’s Royal Festival Hall. He performed it the way it was originally meant to be recorded. The result was an ecstatic standing ovation, and thus was the world premiere of Smile. Wilson, still reeling an hour after the rousing reception, said to Parks on his way to the stage door, “Our Smile dream has come true.” They went back to the studio (Studio One at Sunset Sound in Hollywood - the same place where the “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” sessions took place) and recorded this material the way it was intended thirty-seven years prior. The result is nothing less then spectacular. As a matter of fact, Newsweek magazine said, “Brian Wilson’s masterpiece…it is the most famous pop-music album never released.” It’s also known to music lovers everywhere as “the abandoned follow-up to the Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds.”

Brian Wilson Presents Smile is a must for anyone who ever appreciated the genius of Pet Sounds. The CD carries all seventeen tracks that were originally written for the album. It not only harkens back to the melodies and gorgeous lyrics of Pet Sounds, Smile has been produced as a “project.” This is not an album of tracks that have been randomly set down. This is an album with tracks that have been produced, recorded and laid down so meticulously, it is absolutely astonishing. Nothing, and I mean nothing, has been overlooked, right down to the detail of the album cover and liner notes. It is stunning. Do you remember what it was like to buy an album and be consumed by the gorgeous graphics and printed lyrics? To read the notes of the artist and know how special and hard the artist worked on the project? Brian Wilson Presents Smile, with its artwork and production, reminds me of the impressive 1973 Elton John classic, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It’s hard not to notice the similarities in the package design and the production. In an age where CDs are mostly pasted together by a computer, this album was carefully recorded the old fashioned way, in a studio with real musicians. In the liner notes it says, “Within the industry, and with a few die-hard fans, Smile remained a phantom, a cruel tease of lost promise. But the Smile dream didn’t go away. When the Beach Boys signed a multi-album contract with Warner Brothers Records in 1970, part of the impetus behind the deal was that Warners wanted Smile. So did anybody who’d ever heard it or heard of it. In the fall of 2003, over 37 years from the moment they first articulated their original version, Brian and Van Dyke finished Smile.” It goes on to say, “For those who don’t know the entire drama, you might rightly ask, “Is this Smile thing really such a big deal?” A fair question and a lengthy retelling of the history and mystery of the original Smile era might convince you that Smile matters. Or it might not. The best thing one can do is listen to this music without the burden of history. Just as Brian did when he composed Smile over thirty-seven years ago, rejoice in the glory of the music itself. This music was created by him not to cause pressure, but to ease it.”

I would love to tell you of the standout tracks, but I can’t. The entire album is one gorgeous soundtrack. Once the CD opens with the familiar Beach Boys’ harmonies on “Our Prayer,” there isn’t an instance where the album pauses. The time gone by seems like a minute and you’ll want to start it all over again. The CD is produced like the classic rock/pop albums of old. One is not sure where one track stops and the other picks up. It’s one continuous journey of splendiferous lyrics and sound. I rarely write and gush about just one album in an entire column, but when I do, there’s good reason for it. In this age of 17 year-old divas that get movie roles and marry every fifty-five hours, please pick up an album and listen to the reason why it’s was called music to begin with. In summation, Brian Wilson wrote this music to make us Smile. Eternally. I thank him for that.

Footnote: Brian Wilson’s Presents Smile received several nominations from NARAS including Best Pop Album of the Year. I hope Mr. Wilson has his acceptance speech written.

© 2005 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.