The Beach Boys
By Scott Reid | 1 September 2004
Carl Wilson once described Smiley Smile, his group’s twelfth album in about five years, as, "a bunt instead of a grand slam." The "grand slam" he’s referring to here being, of course, the lost Beach Boys epic song-cycle SMiLE, abandoned in May of ’67 after a year’s worth of sessions. Smiley Smile would be pieced together and released in its wake in an attempt to appease the newly interested art community that had expected, and indeed had been promised by the group itself, a worthy successor to Pet Sounds (1966). Not only would it include smash single "Good Vibrations," it would also finally give home to the perpetually in-progress follow-up single "Heroes & Villains," which promised to take the aesthetic seemingly perfected with "Vibrations" to even broader ground. SMiLE would have followed through on all of these promises with ease. Smiley Smile, on the other hand, would never even come close.
What even is this album? In its context—quickly chasing the complex "teenage symphonies to God" that had been the great appealing core of both "Vibrations" and "Villains," as well as following up what still stands today as one of the greatest albums ever made—well, we’re talking a pretty drastic jump here, and the last thing included in all of this was a nostalgic safety net for long-time fans to find some semblance of comfort in. Even the addition of "Good Vibrations" fails to give the record any real centre or focus. It is what it is: an unsorted and incomplete set of ideas, a defeated shadow of something greater that was, and would continue to be, laying in wait.
Psychedelic pop with a clear drug influence was nothing new at the time, of course, and Wilson certainly didn’t discover the outer regions of pop music by pulling a Columbus. But there was always something different, something a little more spiritual, to the way the Beach Boys approached their music. Though Sgt. Pepper would arrive more coherently before any of his post-Pet Sounds material, save the “Vibrations” and “Villains” singles (the latter of which would be released the same month as Pepper), and give its listeners as least some grounding in this more "far-out" sounding pop music, who knows how differently things may have played out had Smile been released in late ’66 or early ’67 as planned.
As it stands, however, Smiley Smile would ultimately fail because of its unfinished feel and because, even before many needles would first hit the vinyl, it would widely be seen as the inconsequential come-down to SMiLE‘s high—even if all they had at the time was Brian’s word that SMiLEwould "be as much an improvement over Pet Sounds as that was over Summer Days ,” or that it would, in even more hyperbolic words by brother Dennis, "make Pet Sounds stink"—and a load of critical acclaim pushing optimistically behind it. But what they would get was a record with "Vibrations" and "Villains," and what must’ve seemed like precious little else besides a jokey song about eating candy bar wrappers and them giggling their way through a bunch of audio bong-hits.
Of course, optimists convinced that Wilson would bounce back with another masterpiece after Smiley Smile couldn’t foresee that their next album, Wild Honey, released just a few months later in late ’67, would find the group heading into sparsely produced rhythm and blues territory, and that Wilson’s brilliance, once an unstoppable force both commercially and artistically, was about to halt and return for very brief internals for the next four decades. For many, the dream would prove to be over with Pet Sounds, and Smiley Smile the beginning of a series of disappointments that would constitute the rest of the Beach Boy’s legacy. Yet, Smiley Smile exists as an enigma for the Beach Boys, both as a part of the great SMiLE myth and in that it stands alone as one of the few Beach Boys records that was never really planned or envisioned as an entity of its own. Which, when you look at the actual content of the record, is as mesmerizing as it is obvious.
Smiley Smile opens with the long-awaited follow-up single to the critically adored and commercially successful "Good Vibrations," promised as the single that would surpass even its sophisticated experiments. On earlier versions of the single—one of the best of which, the "Cantina" version of the song, is also found on the Smiley Smile/Wild Honey CD 2-fer release—this was perhaps more evident, but even the abridged, confusingly mixed version included here at least matches the successful ambition of "Vibration,". With help from SMiLE collaborator Van Dyke Parks, he also extends into markedly new lyrical territory—from utilitarian boy/girl rhyming to metaphor-drenched historic criticism. Wilson’s masochistic drive for perfection is still very noticeably missing from the Smiley Smileversion, however, and for good reason. After spending months with the original version, he’d spend mere days at his Bel-Air home studio on the Smiley Smile version. Even Al Jardine would go on to say that Brian purposely underproduced the song, though his motives would be impossible to assume.
"Vegetables" remains one of the group’s more divisive numbers, but its irresistible melody (when the harmonies begin trickling in, it’s damn near unstoppable) are grounded in what is perhaps the album’s sole complete sounding composition. Though missing several great sections from the SMiLE version, including one which would later resurface as "Mama Says" on Wild Honey, Smiley Smile‘s edit maintains the song’s feel and spacious, vital production—even using the sound of Paul McCartney biting vegetables as a part of the percussion track.
The lyric-less "Fall Breaks" borrows both the scaling progression and group harmonies from what was originally intended for "Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow" (better known as "Fire") and adds an odd mimicking of, as the subtitle suggests, the Woody Woodpecker theme in its repeated, serene chorus. It’s one of the album’s strangest moments, if only because of its co-opting what was previously considered by Wilson to have "negative vibes" (the infamous "Fire" story of Brian ditching the track because he felt it had caused several fires during its recording) into a cut with the theme from a popular children’s cartoon.
"She’s Goin’ Bald" and "Little Pad" end the first side of the record with more non-sequitur takes on more bizarrely bastardized SMiLE segments. In the case of "Bald," Wilson takes an older, incomplete melodic idea previously known as "He Gives Speeches" (perhaps a lost "Heroes & Villains" section or, as Domenic Priore suggests, a pre-"Wonderful" segue) and drains any trace of sobriety out of the thing; tapes slow down, harmonies bend, and sections cut suddenly in and out before it all ends with a barber shop reprise of playful, albeit odd, imagery: "You’re too late, Mama/ Ain’t nothing up-side your head." "Little Pad" borrows Hawaiian themes from "Do You Like Worms" and reworks them in a similarly free structure, its segments merely flowing together as a dream-like collage instead of calculated changes. And, like the music it was inspired by, it’s remarkably calming and beautiful (the harmonized humming is especially gorgeous), even despite the increasingly clear inebriation behind it.
So much has been written about the second side opener "Good Vibrations," and there’s little I could possibly add. Impeccably composed, produced, arranged, sung, performed and edited, the song remains the quintessential psych-pop cut from the era, bypassing practically everything even remotely similar, and there was certainly no lack of competition. The rest of the record’s second half borrows liberally from the Smile vault. In two cases—"Wonderful" and "Wind Chimes"—he’d take complete songs and restructure them specifically for the record, much like the group would later do, with far less significant changes, for "Our Prayer," "Cabinessence," "Mama Says," "Surf’s Up" and "Cool, Cool Water." Brief vocal-workout "Whistle In" and goofy Love/Wilson collab "Gettin’ Hungry" are the two exceptions—the latter of which is notable for the stark contrast between the dark, perverted vibe of its verses and over-the-top saccharine perverted vibe of its chorus ("I’m gettin’ hungry/ For my kind of woman"), which melodically follows much the same direction as the light-hearted "Vegetables." Still, it’s salvageable for the great bass sound Wilson pulls out for its chorus, not to mention his classic falsetto delivery just before the last chorus kicks back in again.
But the side is still a majority of scattered Smile fragments. "With Me Tonight" had previously started out as a chant segment (perhaps "Heroes & Villains," but more likely “Vege-Tables”) and receives a beautiful performance here, most notably Carl’s stirring vocals. Second only to his lead on "Vibrations." Like most of the record’s newly edited, shorter tracks, it’s centered around an obsession with the possibilities of four and five-piece vocal harmony constructions, merely using the instrumental arrangement to softly push the melody forward. Likewise, "Wind Chimes" receives a new "whistling winds" section that features some of the album’s most delicate and angelic voicings. The Smiley Smileversion unfortunately pales in comparison to the original, however; it loses an enormous chorus riff (later reincarnated on "Can’t Wait Too Long/Been Way Too Long") and just lacks the energy and impeccable structure of its predecessor.
"Wonderful," on the other hand, is slowed to a funeral pace and given a psyched-out baritone lead, once again from Carl, who still manages to pull it off with relative ease. It’s nowhere near as affecting as the harpsichord-fueled SMiLE original, which has some of the most affecting group harmonizing since "Don’t Worry Baby" and "In My Room.” But, after repeated listens, it’s not hard to dissociate this version enough (assuming that you’ve heard the Smile version, of course) to appreciate it on its own merits as a darker re-imagining of the original instead of its replacement. "Whistle In" quickly follows to close out the record, and acts as an inferior yet like-minded cousin of other Wilson chants like SMiLE‘s opening "Prayer" with a hint of "Little Pad’s" head-trip excursion from California to the beaches of Hawaii. It’s a tad slight, though; much like "Heroes & Villains" b-side "You’re Welcome," with which it has a fair amount in common, "Whistle" feels incomplete and merely a brief melodic idea (Wilson would record many of these kinds of chants during the SMiLE sessions) that was abandoned in its infancy, only to resurface on this record as a hymnal afterthought instead of a spiritual conclusion.
I can understand arguments that try to dismiss Smiley Smile as being light-weight compared to the prodigal works that preceded it like Pet Sounds and, minus a little obvious filler, Today (1965). But there’s still, to these ears, something far more vital and exciting about the stoned-out disassociated twists of "She’s Goin’ Bald" or the harmonic resolutions of "With Me Tonight" than the Stevie Wonder covers and odes to transcendental meditation or, uh, feet. Smile Smiley gives us Brian Wilson with his last traces of limitless artistic progression, before the urge began to disappear, much like himself, from the group permanently.
As far as commercial and artistic impact goes, Smiley Smile would indeed arrive as a bunt compared to the monumental influence that SMiLE could have imparted on forty-something years worth of pop music. But the genius is still there and the ambition is still very much alive, given an inhibited freedom by his weakening quest for perfection, suddenly alleviated to allow some Beach Boys Party-style atmosphere. Smiley Smile fills a void in the group’s discography that bookmarks, but does not quite hold in itself, Wilson’s greatest creative era. It stands as some of his greatest and most daring work—and certainly not just the rushed, drugged-out joke of a record it seems to be continually passed over as.