x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Time to dust off that surf board - the Beach Boys are back with Smile

The Beach Boys legendary album Smile is finally to be released this year, more than 40 years after it was originally recorded.

The Beach Boys' happy-go-lucky sound belied a behind-the-scenes reality fraught with angst and creative tension.
The Beach Boys' happy-go-lucky sound belied a behind-the-scenes reality fraught with angst and creative tension.

It wasn’t just the most eagerly awaited album by the Beach Boys, but the LP that was going to revolutionise pop music, full stop. Forget the Beatles’ symphonic Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, back in 1967 the hype surrounding Smile was astonishing.

And no wonder: the song that was its starting point was no less than the peerless Good Vibrations. But such expectations weighed heavily on Wilson’s shoulders. With his mental health spectacularly deteriorating and his bandmates unconvinced by the experimental style of the record – Wilson was working with the lyricist Van Dyke Parks on a continuous suite of songs – the entire project was shelved. Although Wilson’s cousin in the band, Mike Love, called it “a whole album of Brian’s madness”, tracks such as Heroes and Villains and Surf’s Up would, in the end, find their way on to subsequent records, and bootlegs of the demos became collectors’ items. But the original album has never been heard in full – not least because Wilson has intermittently claimed that he burnt the master tapes. As we found out late last week, he was lying.

On Friday, EMI’s spokesman Bill Gagnon confirmed something of an open secret: the Beach Boys are releasing Smile… 44 years late. “It’s coming out,” he said. “Everybody is on board.”

Which, since the various members of the band have paid regular trips to the courtroom over the years, bickering over the use of the Beach Boys name and the authorship of the songs, is something of an achievement in itself. And so, later this year, the original versions will finally be released, in the order in which they were supposed to be heard, as The Smile Sessions. Apparently, there are gaps where vocal parts should be, but the co-producer Mark Linett promised: “The whole piece will be as close to as it was envisioned as possible.”

Beach Boys completists may not actually find much new here beyond the usual 60-page booklet, lavish packaging and multitude of out-takes – de rigueur for such releases these days. But for everyone else, it’s a great chance to hear Smile as originally intended.

Of course, any keen-eyed Beach Boys fan will know that this isn’t the first opportunity to hear a version of Smile in its entirety. In 2004, Wilson and his touring backing band went into the studio and completely re-recorded the album, calling it Brian Wilson presents Smile to pre-empt any complaint from Love – although it still didn’t prevent him from launching an ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge.

The album was a qualified success, every harmony and orchestral arrangement painstakingly recreated, but there was something faintly ridiculous about a fragile, 62-year-old man trying to improve on the pop music perfection of Good Vibrations. However, it did throw some light on what an important album Smile would have been in 1967. Its elaborate predecessor Pet Sounds – complete with Wouldn’t It Be Nice and God Only Knows – is rightly regarded as one of the most influential albums in the rock music canon.

Wilson intended to build on that, crafting songs that were either beautiful in their quiet simplicity (the contemplative Surf’s Up was originally intended to be the centrepiece of Smile) or quite startling in their inventiveness. In 2011, Heroes and Villains still seems as fresh and dizzyingly complex as it did four decades ago. It will be fascinating to hear it in the proper context of an album that Wilson and Parks intended to present as a musical journey across America’s history.

In the end, such ambition was too much both for Wilson – who wrote most of these songs at a piano set in a sandbox to “recreate the feel of the ocean” – and for the other Beach Boys, who resented the input of Parks.

And, of course, we’ll never know exactly how Smile would have sounded. Much as this is a fascinating insight into Wilson’s creativity, the album was never finished to everyone’s satisfaction. The Smile Sessions will simply be a document of how it was shaping up at the point where Wilson decided enough was enough.

As for Wilson, he’s “looking forward to this collection of the original recordings and having fans hear the beautiful angelic voices of the boys in a proper studio release”. Proof that he’s as much a fan, four decades on, as anyone.

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