By David Beard
Initially teased for a January 1967 release, then again later in 1967, 1972, late 1989 and 1996, “SMiLE” has become The Beach Boys’ lost masterpiece.
Fans finally will get to experience the long-shelved album as it was meant to be consumed with the “SMiLE Sessions’” release Nov. 1.
“Various things came out on various albums, and as you point out, there are bootlegs out there, but not the whole extent, not the completed amount of work,” says Beach Boy Mike Love. “I think more of that completeness will be on the ‘SMiLE Sessions,’ so people will get more of a grasp of what was going on. Some of it will sound incredibly far out, and people will appreciate it on that basis.”
But the story of “SMiLE” is more than that of an unfinished Beach Boys album finally seeing the light of day. It is also the tale of Brian Wilson — who produced and arranged nine gold records before the age of 24 — expanding the limits of what a recording had to be, creating a musical statement that was a commentary on society as much as it was at his own group … and then, shelving the project. It is also a documented period in which a highly successful writing team — Brian and his cousin, Mike Love — had difficulty connecting with one another.
The Early Years
Since his youth, sitting in front of a piano at his parents’ house in Hawthorne Calif., Brian Wilson has grown as an artist of emotional honesty. He originated the recording dynamic of the self-produced group in the 1960s. He also was one of the first rock-era producers and arrangers to employ studio musicians to record popular music; production was an area in which he excelled. He was the first artist on Capitol Records to be allowed to record outside of the Capitol studios. By the time he fully developed his knack for composition and arrangements, he was making music that indelibly defined an industry, shaped the idealism of the state of California and captured the imagination of the world.
Brian’s primary influence was the Four Freshmen. He pored over their albums, carefully studying the quartet’s vocal harmonization. He immediately grasped the rich harmonies. Combined with his childhood love for the music of George and Ira Gershwin and the influence of Les Paul and Mary Ford, Brian began composing in chromatic scales utilizing jazz, rhythm and blues and classical music.
Between 1962 and 1966, Brian produced 12 albums for his brothers Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love, high school and college pal Al Jardine, neighbor David Marks and peer Bruce Johnston (who joined in 1965), but Wilson was never — by any premise — a “beach boy.” The shy and introverted leader preferred to write from inspiration, which he drew from his and his family’s personal experiences. The earliest examples of Brian’s music reflecting his personal feelings were 1963’s “The Lonely Sea” and “In My Room;” two heartfelt ballads in which he expressed his soul in a musical format. Unfortunately, his emotions were continuously stifled by the demands placed on him to provide new material that was relatable to the more accessible sun-soaked imagery of the group’s moniker. This became problematic for Wilson, because he was far more interested in the compositional connection between how he felt and the best way to communicate his feelings utilizing chord progressions.
“When I sit at a piano (or a synthesizer), right away, my head’s tuned into my instrument. I isolate the music from the world, so it’s just me and the piano and what I do to it; it’s an extension of me,” he said.
Between 1961 and 1966, Brian’s most frequent collaborator was his cousin, Mike. The two wrote nearly 50 songs together during this time, the majority of which charted. In 1963, Love and Wilson co-wrote material for Capitol Records recording artist Sharon Marie. Love was more than a willing partner; he was his cousin’s confidant. Love saw his writing with Brian as a partnership, much like that of Paul McCartney and John Lennon. Love excelled at penning lyrics for songs about surfing (a sport in which Dennis Wilson thrived), cars, the beach and girls. During this period, Mike was Brian’s go-to-guy. Soon, the duo discovered they had a very successful formula. Wilson would compose the music, and Love would write the lyrics. By late 1964, they collectively fired Brian’s father, Murry, as their manager. The senior Wilson was abusive both verbally (in the studio) and physically. Mike understood his cousin’s battered psyche and became protective of Brian. Love took Wilson under his wing early in their career and tried to show him how to interact in a way that belied the shyness and social awkwardness Brian often felt.
Unfortunately, the demands to write, produce, arrange and perform music on tour became too great for Wilson. He stopped touring with the Beach Boys in 1965 due to exhaustion (a documented nervous breakdown) and focused on his musical growth from home, while the group continued to tour, acting as Brian’s musical ambassadors. Wilson needed the time to compose, arrange and produce in the studio. This transition provided Brian with a less stressful environment, in which he thrived. He continued to experiment with sounds, to fit the ideas in sound he heard to bring out a song’s given intent. He began developing content parallels between the composition and lyrics with his “emotive” music, beginning on Side 2 of the “Beach Boys Today!” album with “She Knows Me So Well,” “In the Back of My Mind” and “Kiss Me Baby.” Brian’s progressive arc in modern music between 1965 and 1966 was unprecedented, by becoming as brilliant of a producer and arranger as he was a composer — a very rare combination. Wilson’s production of records was the state of the art, admired by such artists as The Beatles, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.
During the “Pet Sounds” recording sessions, Brian was revolutionizing the recording industry with the use of bicycle bells and horns, harpsichords and upside-down milk jugs. But, the most distinctive instrument was the introduction of the electro-theremin in the telling “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times;” a self-prophetic track that oozed cryptic overtures and self-reflection.
“The theremin was a very pioneering choice by Brian,” says Love. “He was hearing it in his mind, which is the way he operates. I thought it turned out brilliantly on ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.’ Somebody else … a different producer might have used a violin or some kind of woodwind, and it would have been just as pretty. I had never heard a theremin used in a song unless it was in a scary movie or a television show. It was such a unique use of the instrument.”
The composition and lyrics mirrored Brian’s state of mind in 1965 and 1966: He was struggling with feeling as though he didn’t belong, and he was outgrowing his own band. He felt that writing songs about surfing and cars was irrelevant. Because they were a writing team, Brian obtained Mike’s consent to do “Pet Sounds” as an experimental record, with Mike being set to write the lyrics for the album following “Pet Sounds.”
While exploring his spirituality, Brian took LSD for the first time and proclaimed to his wife that “he saw God.” The first result of a drug-related lyric finding its way onto one of Brian’s recordings was “Hang onto Your Ego” — a song about tripping on LSD. Upon hearing the recording (with lyrics), Love talked with Wilson and went to work to alter the words into a more receivable vernacular than an acid trip. The end result became “I Know There’s An Answer.”
“Weird and far out is not a bad thing necessarily, but when it stems from drug use, then — in my opinion — it’s not great,” Love says.
Love’s detachment from the writing process and return from the road to hear music that was laden with drug-induced lyrics took a toll on the cousins’ relationship.
“We were doing a lot of touring at the time, so Carl, Alan, myself, Dennis and Bruce were quite busy on the road,” Love recalls. “Brian stayed at home, which allowed him the time to devote to the writing, arranging and production of the tracks and leave us to come in and do vocals. It was just a separation of responsibilities there. We were comfortable with that arrangement. What I was uncomfortable with was the influence on Brian of the drugs that were all too prevalent in his environment back home. He was a sitting duck … kind of a target for people to come by and offer him substances that weren’t in his best interest health-wise. I think it was ultimately a harmful period of time for Brian.”
“Hang on to Your Ego” was, unfortunately for Love, a benchmark of things to come. He was contributing less and less with Wilson because he was holding up his part of lead singing with the band on the road, and that meant he couldn’t keep the non-music-making vultures away. In a way, Mike felt as protective of Brian during this period as he had in 1962 and 1963 when Wilson was much more socially naive and awkward. This, from Love’s perspective, was the equivalent of Lennon being separated from McCartney.
Charting New Territory
“Pet Sounds” was released in May 1966 and went on to reach No. 6 on the U.S. charts and No. 2 in the U.K. Brian’s main collaborator was Tony Asher, a jingle writer. As the album’s baroque instrumentation came to a close with the dark and evocative “Caroline, No” fading into a coda of Wilson’s barking dogs — Banana and Louie — and a train, expectations mounted. Everyone was wondering what Wilson was going to do next. After “Pet Sounds’” release, the group began to question how they were going to do justice to Brian’s elaborate productions, which prompted Wilson to head to Ann Arbor, Mich., in October 1966 to help the band with their sound (and to record a live concert).
One preliminary track list for “Pet Sounds” included “Good Vibrations,” but it was dropped from the lineup in favor of releasing the album. The “Good Vibrations” sessions began on Feb. 18, 1966, and spanned a total of eight months and four studios (Western, Gold Star, Columbia and Sunset Sound). With Asher initially penning some verse lyrics, Brian and Mike set about completing the song by having Love come up with a lyrical hook.
“When I first heard the early version of ‘Good Vibrations,’ I thought it was pretty far out,” Love says. “With ‘Good Vibrations,’ I thought how would a (Beach Boys) fan living in the Midwest or the East Coast relate to it? My answer to that was boy-girl, ‘I’m picking up good vibrations, she’s giving me excitations.’ It was flower-power time, and those lyrics were my answer to the times.”
“Good Vibrations” was released Oct. 10, 1966. Brian termed it his “pocket symphony.” The recording typifies the success of the Wilson-Love writing team.
“Years ago — I think it was Rolling Stone magazine — a writer said that ‘Good Vibrations’ was the single of the century. That’s quite an accolade. It’s an accurate description, because it was so groundbreaking, so unique, and so unlike any other song before or since. It’s like our pièce de résistance. It stands out more than any other recording of the day, and it still stands out as an incredible piece of music,” Love says.
In 1966, David Crosby introduced Brian to Van Dyke Parks, who was working with Terry Melcher and Paul Revere & The Raiders. The pair immediately felt a connection and began writing together with relative ease. Brian was ready for the next musical thing and was getting deeper into sound experimentation and how it could be utilized within the confines of a recording, and vice versa. Wilson hired Parks to write with him, and the pair set their sights on creating a “teenage symphony to God.”
With a working title of “Dumb Angel,” the sessions for the next Beach Boys’ album — spanning from February 1966 to May-June of 1967 — were underway. With a vigorous use of imagination, Parks and Wilson began work on the great American songbook, but not with America’s band in mind. They agreed that the trappings of the group’s image would limit their vision (never dreaming that there could be a problem with the band’s acceptance of the material).
Wilson’s choice to hire Parks, instead of writing with Love, had a lasting affect, because Love always assumed that he had a promise to be co-writing the album.
The working idea for “SMiLE” was to create an entire album of “Good Vibrations”-like modules in an album format, a continual music linkage threaded by a theme — a rondo. In the rondo form, a principal theme alternates with one or more contrasting themes, generally called episodes, or in Wilson’s case, modules. The number of themes, digressions or couplets, can vary from piece to piece, and the recurring element is sometimes embellished or shortened in order to provide for variation. Whether he was doing it consciously or not, Brian used this form on “Good Vibrations,” and it would continue. Brian, for the first time, gave his lyricist (Van Dyke) an even distribution of creative input for the entire album’s vision, and it seemed to be working. Parks was feeding Wilson with historic overtures and prose. Ironically, this is the level of contribution that Love had hoped he could achieve with his cousin on this album. As it stood, Mike continued to sing lead with the group on the road, performing 12 albums worth of hits. Mind you, this was not a bad gig, as The Beach Boys were slowly becoming the biggest group in the world.
By the time “Good Vibrations” was released in October 1966, Wilson and Parks had begun work on seven new titles: “Heroes And Villains,” “Wind Chimes, “Wonderful,” “Holidays,” “Cabin Essence,” “Prayer” and “Child Is The Father Of The Man.” The mid-1960s had become a drug culture, particularly among music makers, so there was nothing unusual about what was going on with Brian. Some members of The Beach Boys began to experiment with mood-altering chemicals; tracking sessions involving Hal Blaine and The Wrecking Crew did not involve any use of mood-altering chemicals.
The “SMiLE” sessions evolved into a Van Dyke response to Brian’s thoughts about John G. Neihardt’s 1932 book “Black Elk Speaks,” which for Brian was the jumping-off place for some of his ideas about what Manifest Destiny did to the “Church of the American Indian.”
Parks was fueling Wilson’s imagination by tackling the exposition of the beliefs of American exceptionalism and romantic nationalism. The first result of this direction was “Heroes and Villains,” a title from Brian, suggesting a ballad to the golden West.
“‘Heroes and Villains’ by far … that’s my favorite song on ‘SMiLE’!,” says Wilson. “It has to do with the contaminating influence of the white man on Native American society. The first suite is a trip to the Old West.”
Utilizing the “Heroes and Villains” melody, Brian expanded it to additional pieces of music, adding segments like “Bicycle Rider” (about the first playing card used in the old west, where people were coming to win or lose their fortunes) and “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock);” a whimsical recording laden with nonsensical vocals. Work continued on the track “Cabin Essence” — a song full of Americana ambience and historical nuances. The recording tells the tale of the east-to-west migration. “Home on the Range” is the verse construct reflecting the first settlers building their homes in the west; “Who Ran the Iron Horse” revolves around the intercoastal connection of the final “golden spike” that was driven in the ground May 10, 1869; “Have You Seen [The Grand Coulee Dam]” represented the architectural structure and was a play on words for the “coolie laborers” who worked on the railroad and dam; the crow coda of the recording reflects the culmination of these events and that species’ taste for harvested corn resulting from Western migration.
In regard to “Cabin Essence,” it’s worth noting Love’s vocal of “Over and over the crow cries, uncover the cornfield …” can be heard on the coda of the song. Mike didn’t seem to understand what he was particularly singing, but he still sang what he was asked to sing. Almost all of the vocal sessions include all six members of the group, in particular, Jardine and Love. You can clearly hear their voices on most of the recordings. So, if Mike Love was completely opposed to the “SMiLE” era music, why did he participate? The answer is simple: He and the rest of The Beach Boys were willing to see where the sessions were heading, even if he wasn’t particularly crazy about the lyrics.
“There’s this one piece that kind of sounds kind of like Gershwin, and Dennis does a part to ‘Home on The Range,’ which really blew me away,” Carl Wilson reflected in 1976. “It really blew me down when I heard it. ‘Cabin Essence’ is also from that album. ‘Heroes And Villains’ is also very condensed … there are a lot of extra parts. Brian knew what was going on … I think he could tell how it would be accepted. Nobody was ready for it.”
Eventually, Wilson and Parks developed different ideas for suites. Each set of songs would lyrically include double entendres, puns and malapropisms for the sonic foundation of the recordings. There was a lot of humor incorporated into the “SMiLE” era music, mostly by Brian.
“Jonathan Winters was my favorite comedian, and I loved his humor. Del Close and John Brent were also favorites of mine. I used to watch and listen to all of them. They were F-U-N-N-Y!!!,” explains Wilson.
Close’s satirical “How To Speak Hip” album, recorded with John Brent, had a lasting effect on Brian. But when all was said and done, Wilson had a specific goal for what the ‘SMiLE’ album would evoke among its listeners.
“We wanted them to think about America, The travels from Plymouth Rock to the west,” Wilson says of the album’s first suite. “‘SMiLE’ was a musical journey, much like the journey of the settlers. We also wanted them to be treated to some great, fun music! The songs run the gamut of moods in my life. Happy, sad — it’s all in there. They make me appreciate the fact that I’m alive.”
The second suite was the closest thing to Brian’s previous style of music leading up to the “SMiLE” sessions. It was also the shortest set of songs, consisting of “Wonderful,” “Look (Song For Children),” “Child Is The Father Of The Man” and “Surf’s Up.”
“I wanted the listeners to realize just how beautiful harmony really is, vocally and spiritually,” Wilson said. “I was looking inside of me and was hoping that people would do the same. I wanted them to look inside and see/feel the love.”
So, what wins honors for most beautiful song?
“Well, people seem to like ‘Surf’s Up’ and think that’s the most beautiful, and I think that’s a great song,” states Brian.
The third — and least complete suite — included “I Wanna’ Be Around/Workshop,” “Vega-Tables,” “Holidays,” “Wind Chimes,” “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow),” “Love To Say Dada” and “Good Vibrations.”
“I wanted the listeners to experience and realize just how humorous life can be,” Wilson says of those songs. “That ‘Suite’ taught me to realize just how important the creative process is. They showed me the real Brian Wilson … what I could achieve musically.”
“I also really like ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Wind Chimes.’ We put our hearts and souls into all of the songs, so I hope everyone likes and appreciates them all,” Wilson says. “There are a lot of unusual songs on ‘SMiLE,’ unusual for the time that is. ‘Barnyard,’ ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow’… we were experimenting with sounds instrumentally and vocally. A lot of the songs were experiments. They are all unusual in their own way. Nothing had been done like this before musically.”
When The Beach Boys returned from touring, Parks soon found that he had to defend his lyrical contributions. Offended, he left the project in early March 1967. He returned later that month, only to permanently leave the proceedings in mid-April because he felt he was the source of the acrimony between Mike and Brian, as well as Brian and Murry.
Brian was left to fend for the pioneering new music alone. In addition to Love’s questioning of the lyrics, Parks’ departure marked the beginning of the end of “SMiLE.”
By May 1967, Brian decided to shelve the “SMiLE” project, because he was unable to complete the album. Because The Beach Boys had not been part of the creative vision, they were unable to step in and assist.
“There isn’t a specific time that I can recall when the project became shelved,” Love says. “I do recall Brian’s change of dynamism and experimentation of the ‘SMiLE’ project led to the album ‘Smiley Smile,’ which was subsequent to ‘SMILE.’ That was very laid back. The ‘Smiley Smile’ version of ‘Wind Chimes’ is the opposite of the dynamism you hear on the ‘Heroes And Villains’ track. There’s a relationship with ‘Wonderful’ and the ‘Smiley Smile’ album. ‘Wonderful’ is an amazing, amazing piece of work. Holy shit! Van Dyke and Brian did a great collaboration on that one. It’s a really beautiful song. That’s probably my favorite thing from the ‘SMiLE’ project.”
Over time, Love — because of his outspoken views — has been scapegoated for the mythical album’s abandonment and failure. “Somebody once wrote that I shelved the ‘SMiLE’ project,” Love says. “I had nothing to do with that. Brian apparently had some bad experience with LSD and became a virtual recluse for quite an extended period of time. The offshoot of that, was to go from a real dynamic, brilliant tracking that was evident during the ‘SMiLE’ session, in particular ‘Heroes And Villains’ and ‘Wonderful’… I guess I just associated the drug influence with the lyrics that were coming out during the ‘SMiLE’ project. The sessions that I participated in were kind of like … I don’t know what to say without sounding too negative, but they bordered on depravation as a result of the drug experience. I, Bruce and Alan weren’t participating in that whole LSD trend. Dennis, Carl and Brian decided to do it.”
Although Love wanted nothing to do with the pharmacological influences surrounding the ‘SMiLE’ project, he maintains that he supported the musical aspect of the project.
“In fact, Brian has even said in interviews that I didn’t like the album,” Love says. “I did like the music, the tracks, but I didn’t like the association with the drugs and some of the lyrics that Van Dyke came up with. My philosophy has always been that lyrics are meant to be a vehicle for communication. What I have always tried to do is take the feel of the music of any song that Brian is working on, and spend a lot of time and a lot of thought trying to make sure that the lyrics will communicate a concept, mood or a feeling to complement the music.
“That’s not to say that there aren’t beautiful, nonsensical things,” Love continues. “Lewis Carroll — who came up with ‘Alice In Wonderland’ — wrote ‘Jabberwocky;’ it’s cool on its own. It’s a bit of a twist on language in kind of a challenging and confusing way, and that’s fine. As far as a pop single and pop album … maybe there’s room for all that. I’m pretty competitive by nature, and I want to see … not only the song and how it comes out musically … in terms of the instrumental part of it, but I want to see it appreciated by the public to the point where they’ll actually go out to spend money to buy it.”
Love also feels that Brian’s choice to use drugs use ultimately affected the band’s success.
“I think if you asked him point blank if he should have taken LSD, he will tell you it was really the wrong thing for him to have done,” Love says. “The result is obvious. We went from being in the position of vying with The Beatles for musical supremacy on the charts to Brian retiring to his bedroom for too many hours a day, too many days and too many weeks and months.”
Brian didn’t completely retreat from the studio until several years later, but his involvement on each consecutive album release dwindled over time. The Beach Boys’ last single of the 1960s to crack the Top 20 was 1968’s ‘Do It Again.’
“I remember going to Brian’s house and getting him out of bed, and walking down on the beach with him,” Love recalls. “We came back and wrote ‘Do It Again’ in about 10 to 15 minutes. He was staying in his bed most of the time. The studio was put in his house, because he was very reclusive at that point in time. He was better off being around the house than wandering around Hollywood, I guess.”
Love was going through changes of his own. He had found peace through transcendental meditation, which in turn helped him to steer clear of drugs and alcohol.
“I’m as excessive a personality as any of the other guys who are known for those types of excessive (behaviors). Before I learned TM, I would drink plenty of hard liquor and stuff. I think mental illness, ADHD, alcoholism and all that kind of stuff is around, and you can genetically have a predisposition for any and all of those things. But it’s a question how you conduct your life and the choices you make that make the difference between ruining your life or suffering in life,” Love said. “Since I’ve learned TM, I’ve not been susceptible to any of those choices and lifestyles that can potentially lead to self-destruction, and for that I’m very grateful.
He also credits transcendental meditation for giving him energy, strength and clarity.
“The thing that I’ve found with meditation was that I able to put that in perspective and not let the negativity grip me to the extent that I would do something silly, crazy or stupid. Not that I’ve never done anything stupid… I don’t mean it like that. I mean, over time, through the steady practice of meditation it has given me a stability of inner strength and perspective on things that are a bit more broad. I’ve lamented the fact that more of my compatriots haven’t taken to it like I did, and in the case of my cousin Dennis Wilson, it was sad … the outcome. Funny enough, even when he was in a drunken state, he’d say, ‘C’mon, let’s meditate.’ I would visit him occasionally and he always had a very special feeling about meditation even though he had become addicted to alcohol. I remember that as being pretty profoundly impressive to me that even when he was under the influence he still thought, ‘Let’s meditate’.”
Today, the relationship between Mike and Brian is often misconstrued as volatile – with decades of documented court battles and various ups and downs. The two original members (and surviving cousins) maintain a genuine brother-like relationship toward one another. In May 2011, Love and Wilson reunited with Jardine and Johnston at a Capitol Records studio to re-record “Do It Again” for promotional use in 2012, as a part of the Beach Boys 50th anniversary celebration.
“At the end of the session, Brian said, ‘I can’t believe a 70-year-old guy can sing that great!’ It was cool,” Love recalls. “It was something to prove that we can work together.”
Readying the ‘SMiLE’ sessions for release was no small task. First, there was the matter of digging up the original recordings from the vault.
“We got together and listened to over 150 hours of tape snippets,” Wilson says. “I was amazed at how great some of the snippets sounded. I gave my input on what should be included. It was very exciting to listen to everything again. It brought back many memories of those incredible sessions.”
So has the 44-year wait been worth it for music lovers? Wilson thinks so.
“We knew we were way ahead of our time,” he says. “It was not finished … like an unfinished symphony. People just were not ready for it. Now they are.”
David M. Beard is a Beach Boys and Jan & Dean historian. He is the editor and publisher of “Endless Summer Quarterly”
(ESQuarterly.com), the world’s leading Brian Wilson/Beach Boys fanzine, which will feature expanded “SMiLE” coverage and additional interviews with Brian Wilson and Mike Love. Look for his recording and associate producer debut on Peter Lacey’s upcoming “We Are The Sand” CD, available from Pink Hedgehog Records this fall.