In 2004, Brian Wilson presented SMiLE. In 2011, Capitol Records unveiled the real deal. One of the most paramount developments in the Beach Boys’ history was inadvertently announced by “Help Me Rhonda” singer-rhythm guitarist Al Jardine, a founding member of America’s Band.
In a long-form feature published exclusively in my former “Jeremy’s Beach Boys Central” Examiner.com column, the final moments of the conversation found us exploring the looming Beach Boys’ 50th Anniversary. Summoning the courage, I wondered whether any archival projects might be in the pipeline. Jardine nonchalantly replied, “Capitol Records plans to issue a Beach Boys version of SMiLE…it is the Holy Grail for Beach Boys fans, so it’s gonna be good. I don’t have many details on it, although we didn’t do any new recording. I’m happy to see it finally come out. Brian’s changed his mind about releasing the material, but it was inevitable, wasn’t it?”
Jardine’s statement was an out of the blue bombshell since SMiLE was supposed to be the follow-up to Pet Sounds — the group’s most critically acclaimed album ranked No. 2 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list in 2003 — and the band’s answer to the Beatles’ Revolver. However, SMiLE was never finished, and the much-ballyhooed record grew to mythic proportions over the next half century. “Did Brian really burn the SMiLE tapes” became a water cooler topic among devout Beach Boys collectors.
The prolonged sessions for “Good Vibrations” led directly to the modular recording style of SMiLE, with the A-side taking an astonishing 17 recording sessions before Wilson was satisfied in September 1966, four months after Pet Sounds bowed to relatively disappointing sales but Top Ten status nonetheless.
Van Dyke Parks was brought in to beef up the lyrics for “Good Vibrations.” He politely demurred, preferring to work on a fresh project, and SMiLE was born. Wilson originally dubbed it Dumb Angel, a “teenage symphony to God.” SMiLE was going to be bigger and better than any previous Beach Boys album — a historical journey across America set to music. Although Parks was a genius, his oblique lyrics and prickly personality repelled the other Beach Boys, especially Mike Love who had expressed reservations about the previous Pet Sounds material.
The infamous quote attributed but vehemently disputed by Love — “You’re going to blow it, Brian. Stick to the old stuff, and don’t f**k with the formula” — undoubtedly would have upset Wilson tremendously. Jardine’s response was decidedly less inflammatory after listening to the SMiLE material. “Wow Brian — sure doesn’t sound like the old stuff.”
Hashish and amphetamines ran rampant, contributing to Wilson’s already deteriorating mental state. Wilson was convinced that domineering, abusive father Murry Wilson had planted eavesdropping bugs in the recording studio, at home, and in his car.
Wilson’s hero was eccentric producer and currently incarcerated murderer Phil Spector. He would obsessively play Spector’s “Be My Baby,” a career-making hit for Spanish Harlem pop trio the Ronettes, over and over. When John Frankenheimer’s black and white thriller Seconds, about a depressed, nondescript banker who undergoes plastic surgery to assume a new irresistible identity in the form of Rock Hudson, premiered in October 1966, Wilson was convinced Spector had directed subliminal messages to him via the film’s dialogue.
The round the clock hangers-on and yes-men didn’t help, either. Wilson would have a promising song idea brimming with sound effects or humor, convene the session musicians, and oversee countless takes. But the next week he would scrap everything. Indecision obfuscated his final judgment. Alternate, extended takes of SMiLE centerpiece “Heroes and Villains” contain hints of those early visions.
Respected Beatles press officer Derek Taylor also worked as a publicist for the Beach Boys during the mid-’60s. He concocted the “Brian Is a Genius” campaign, a stunt manifested in the CBS documentary Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, which aired in late April 1967. A clip of Wilson at the piano, executing a stunning rendition of “Surf’s Up,” encapsulated the SMiLE fiasco.
The pressure for Wilson to forge another masterpiece was reaching a boiling point, and once the Beach Boys returned from a relentless touring schedule in December 1966, a summit seemed inevitable. Prior to the tour, they had completed vocal sessions for some pretty complex material. It was a valid argument when the group questioned Wilson as to how could they possibly replicate the intricate SMiLE arrangements in concert.
The group also learned about a recent Gold Star session for “Fire” — part of “The Elements” suite — that demonstrated Wilson’s increasing irrationality. Wilson had asked the studio musicians, including a prim and proper string section, to don fire helmets for the recording. A bucket of burning wood placed on the floor by a janitor completed the smoky atmosphere. In the days following the “Fire” session, a nearby building burned to the ground and an unusual number of fires were reported in Los Angeles. Fearful that he had conjured a demonic musical force which might unleash fires in all corners of the world if listeners heard it, Wilson placed the “Fire” master under lock and key.
During the mid-‘60s the two biggest bands in the world had a friendly rivalry, with Paul McCartney in particular name-dropping the Beach Boys. When Wilson heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” a double A-side 45 single by the Beatles, in February 1967, he knew it was game over. McCartney visited Wilson two months later, kibitzing about the recent Abbey Road sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which would go on to spend a mind-blowing 15 weeks atop the Billboard 200.
In Wilson’s mind, the Beach Boys were irrelevant. When the group, apparently at Wilson’s instigation, inexcusably withdrew from the lauded Monterey Pop Festival in mid-June, the shit hit the fan as counterculture-embracing artists like the Who, Janis Joplin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Otis Redding — filling the vacated Beach Boys’ spot — became virtual overnight sensations.
Capitol rightly kept demanding deadlines for SMiLE, having printed 468,000 front jacket covers. A few years later, those covers and accompanying booklets were inexplicably trashed at the record company’s behest.
On May 2, 1967, SMiLE was officially abandoned in a press release sanctioned by Taylor. Wilson was shattered but attempted to pick up the pieces with Smiley Smile, an album containing inferior, stripped down re-recordings from SMiLE. Wilson’s youngest brother Carl Wilson accurately assessed Smiley Smile as “a bunt instead of a grand slam.”
From 1967 until 1971, assorted cuts from SMiLE — “Our Prayer,” “Cabinessence,” “Surf’s Up”, “Cool, Cool Water” — were dropped on subsequent studio albums, all featuring fresh vocal and instrumental overdubs.
Various Beach Boys claimed in vintage interviews that SMiLE would be distributed soon. That obviously never happened, despite a clause in the Beach Boys’ Reprise contract stipulating the delivery of a SMiLE master tape before May 1973. Wilson went so far as to tell people he had burned and/or destroyed the SMiLE masters.
Thirty minutes of song fragments from the prodigious SMiLE sessions turned up in 1993 on the Beach Boys’ inaugural box set, Good Vibrations. Fast-forward 10 years, and Wilson unexpectedly underwent a change of heart. Parks substituted revised SMiLE lyrics, Wilson’s backing band — assembled from L.A. psych-pop veterans Wondermints, the city of Chicago, and elsewhere—re-recorded the SMiLE material and retained the complex orchestral arrangements, and Wilson and Wondermints songwriter-keyboardist Darian Sahanaja hatched a track sequence.
Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE garnered a No. 13 Billboard debut — Wilson’s best-selling solo release — and universal critical acclaim. Still, it wasn’t the Beach Boys. Fans had been clamoring for an authorized and complete SMiLE archival set for nearly half a century.
Capitol executives were none too pleased when Jardine let the cat out of the bag regarding the impending SMiLE Sessions, ruining a carefully planned media blitz. After my February 3, 2011, Examiner article was picked up by Billboard, Gibson, and other prominent news sites, Jardine was undoubtedly coerced to appear on a local radio station, halfheartedly backtracking what he had told me. Archivist Alan Boyd and recording engineer Mark Linett were then assembling The SMiLE Sessions box and were kept off limits by Capitol when I sought verification.
Five weeks later amid burgeoning hype Capitol confirmed that Jardine’s statements were accurate in a press release containing exclusive comments from all of the Beach Boys. Delayed several months to Halloween, various configurations of The SMiLE Sessions were unleashed. Debuting at No. 27 on the Billboard 200 and selling 46,500 copies in the USA within a 12-month period, the long-gestating album was hailed by Rolling Stone as the best reissue of the year and won a Grammy for Best Historical Album.
- Sincere appreciation to Beach Boys researcher Andrew G. Doe for the opening promo tag line and further inspiration.
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