Forever Changeless: The Beach Boys, The Smile Sessions

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In June of 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out. Brian Wilson is said to have heard it and wept. Wilson, the Beach Boys’ main songwriter, producer, erstwhile bass player, and singer-of-high-harmonies, knew he’d lost the race with the Beatles. Though it’s nearly unthinkable now that such a race even took place, the truth is that the Beatles saw the Beach Boys as inspirations, if not rivals, with Paul McCartney suggesting that Sgt. Pepper’s was conceived partly in response to 1966’s Pet Sounds. Later that same year, when the Beach Boys released the groundbreaking single “Good Vibrations,” many fans, particularly in England, saw the two bands as equals.

“Good Vibrations” famously took six weeks, dozens of musicians, and hundreds of takes to record, at an unprecedented cost of $50,000. The finished product was spliced together (using razor blades and tape) from separately recorded sections. It was an expensive, exhausting process. Had the song failed, Capitol Records may have decided that that was enough from Brian Wilson and his band-mates. Instead, it sold a million copies, giving Wilson the go-ahead to record a whole album in the mode of “Good Vibrations.” Focusing on laughter, health, and the history of Westward expansion, Smile (the name of the album) was never finished.

What gets the press are the sordid details: How Wilson wrote the songs on a grand piano he had planted in a sandbox in his living room; how the rest of the band, particularly front man Mike Love, hated the music and Van Dyke Parks’ arty lyrics; how Wilson’s drug-induced paranoia, complicated by record-company disputes and his own perfectionism, caused him to scrap the sessions. What’s gotten lost, popularly at least, is the music itself, which languished in a vault for over 40 years.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Much of the material from those sessions has been available, officially or via bootleg, since 1967, including a “completed” Smile, pristinely recorded by Wilson and his touring band in 2004. But an official release of all the original recordings wasn’t available till this past fall, when Capitol Records released The Smile Sessions, available as either a two-disc version for about 20 bucks, or as a deluxe boxed set for closer to $140. What you get in both versions are outtakes and more outtakes—the more expensive version, for completists only, provides several hours’ worth. In both cases, a beautifully mastered sketch of the album is the main event, an event that was as hyped as anything in popular culture at the time.

Had Smile been finished as intended, would it have been embraced by the public the way Sgt. Pepper’s was? The melancholy Pet Sounds, though now considered a masterpiece, was a financial disappointment to both the band and the label, halting the upward trajectory of record sales the Beach Boys had enjoyed since their 1962 debut. Maybe people weren’t ready for the Beach Boys to grow up. Sgt. Pepper’s is accessible in a way that Smile wouldn’t have been. The Beatles sang about stuff that felt both current and timeless, validating karmic balance (“Within You, Without You”), the strange juxtapositions of modernity (“A Day in the Life”), and the passions of youth (“She’s Leaving Home”) in ways that, for all their aural trappings, were relevant and catchy.  Parks’ lyrics, on the other hand, were collage-like (suiting Wilson’s dense music), and as florid as the poetry of Hart Crane. You can imagine a young woman relating to McCartney singing, about the girl who’s run off to the city, “Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.” But what about Wilson singing, of what it’s not clear, “Columnated ruins domino”?

Thematically, too, Smile’s a challenge. Its America is dreamlike and mildly sinister, its songs tone poems that mix up history and hokum the way movies do, but without the easy linearity. Occasionally, the words cohere into comprehensible, off-kilter sentiments, like this unexpected accusation, from the incomplete “Do You Like Worms”: “Bicycle rider: Just see what you’ve done to the church of the American Indian.” But the sentiment is undercut by a radical shift in tone, an approximation of Hawaiian singing—A wai he ho lei…—that comes so suddenly you can nearly hear the tape splice. Even with recurring motifs (repeated rising and falling notes, usually played on piano) threading through the album, such shifts jar and surprise, as frivolity and protest sit side by side. Yet the handful of “finished” songs—something the history of their respective releases complicates—are epics in miniature: “Heroes and Villains,” “Cabinessence,” “Vegetables,” “Wonderful,” “Surf’s Up,” and “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” But their charms take time to unlock. They’re also pretty weird.

In earlier Beach Boys music, the hero plunges into the roiling sea or floors it on the drag-strip for the sake of she who “stands beside the ocean’s roar,” waiting to reward our hero’s courage with not just her body but her being, a kind of spiritual presence. Like a mythological nymph, the girl is both figure and place—romantic interest, yes, but also emblem of youth and health, embodiment of Southern California, and revelation of God’s grace. The boy singing is merely a pilgrim on the way. (Lest you think I’m reaching here, Wilson has described holding prayer sessions with his band-mate brothers while recording Pet Sounds. He also called Smile a “teenage symphony to God.”)

One of Smile’s lyrical threads takes us back to before this California dream to explore what drove the white man westward in the first place. Take the exquisite “Wonderful”: Accompanied by harpsichord and background harmonies (including yodeling), Wilson sings about a girl in possession of something called “one one wonderful.” This girl is not passively waiting on the beach for her man. Instead, we’re told that she “knew how to gather the forest when / God reached softly and moved her body.”  She is God’s instrument, a Pocahontas whose inexpressible something is a mark of her authority and irresistibility. The boy who “bumps into her one one wonderful” is not smitten so much as owned. We were the land’s before the land was ours.

Another song, “Wind Chimes,” seems to anticipate the dark turn such idealization can take, when it slips into solipsism. In a fairly chipper delivery, the narrator tells us he’s “hung up” on wind chimes, that he “tries not to look” at his wind chimes, and that, eventually, they make him cry. Sung over marimba and other percussive instruments, the song has a slightly malevolent edge, as when someone who’s tripping might confide, “Oh man, check out the wind chimes. I can see their sound! It sounds like death.” The next track is “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” a semi-instrumental that sounds like the world on fire or, if you like, the end of the ’60s.

Which is to say that little on Smile has the direct accessibility and, well, good vibes, of “Good Vibrations,” which caps the album. That song was the apotheosis of the avant-pop the Boys had been slyly making for years. The audience-minded Love, not Parks, wrote the lyrics, about a girl who gives off “good vibrations.” This is what ties the song to the rest of the album. Like Smile’s America, she’s an ideal—“Softly smiles I know she must be kind”—who transports us, as if our will and consciousness have nothing to do with it: “I don’t know where but she sends me there.” Compare that line with T.S. Eliot’s “I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where,” from The Four Quartets “Burnt Norton,” and you see that Love could be arty, too, though without the self-consciousness of the artiste. For him it really was all “fun, fun, fun.” That’s why he hated Smile.

Sentiments like the ones in “Good Vibrations” represent just one part of the album’s themes, but if you think about them for long, they’re pretty unseemly. The girl in “Good Vibrations” may have power, but it’s power projected onto her by the singer—she never speaks!—and it will not last. She will grow older, whereas symbols never age. (Listen to “Caroline, No,” from Pet Sounds, to hear maturity conceived of as betrayal.) The Beach Boys resonated with the kids because their songs tapped into the power of teenage emotional experience, where every kiss is sublime and every wrong move—in the surf or in the parking lot—can devastate a life. Smile implies, as The Great Gatsby did 40 years earlier, that the “fresh green breast of the new world” acted on European explorers the way a girl in a bikini acts on a 16-year-old’s unthinking courage. One can imagine the plea: I couldn’t help but do what I did. I was powerless before her mute, mysterious beauty.

Except the Beach Boys wouldn’t have defended themselves, for it wouldn’t have occurred to them. In the end, the difference between Sgt. Pepper’s and Smile, between the Beatles and the Beach Boys, is that the Beatles were actors. That’s not a judgment any more than it’s a judgment on Meryl Streep or Marlon Brando. It doesn’t matter to “Good Morning Good Morning” that John never punched a clock, nor does it matter to “Lovely Rita” that Paul never dated a meter maid. You get the sense that, with the Beatles, the song was the thing—no more, no less.

But the Beach Boys, even if they never really surfed, meant what they sang. Wilson revered Phil Spector for his “Wall of Sound” because he saw that conveying the crushing emotions of youth required an edifice of commensurate force. This is why the tensions of Smile make for such a strangely compelling listen. Amid the baroque arrangements, Parks’ arcane, pun-filled lyrics are sung with such sincerity! Young, talented, beautiful, and (in the studio at least) guileless, the Beach Boys didn’t know any other way.


Chris Davidson has written book and film reviews for The Rumpus and the District Weekly. His poetry has appeared in journals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Burnside Review, Zocalo Public Square, Denver Syntax, Entasis Journal and is forthcoming from Zyzzyva. He lives in Southern California. More from this author →