Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys capsules: Bootlegs, part 3 of 4 (SMiLE)

This is by no means an exhaustive list of Smile bootlegs, nor does it come close to addressing the proper "canon" of unauthorized releases related to the Beach Boys' unfinished follow-up to Pet Sounds. But these are the ones I have in my possession. Taken together they form a reasonably balanced picture of a project that seemingly got away from its creator, sometimes too big and vague for the easily distracted Brian Wilson to get his arms around it and steady or control what he'd begun. For all the legend attached to it and its more than occasional moments of transcendent brilliance (mostly the "complete," conventional pop songs: "Wonderful" and "Wind Chimes" are phenomenally beautiful, "Heroes and Villains" is a corker in its best moments before all the meandering chants overwhelmed the idea, and "Cabin Essence" and "Surf's Up" are musically arresting despite clumsy, overwrought lyrics, a generalized problem that's completely conquered solely on "Wonderful"), Smile as a whole, at least as we know it, is an overexcited detour in Brian's output, unfocused and insubstantial, and particularly facile when compared to the inward-looking, personal and less "constructed" Pet Sounds.

A very general history of the collapse of the Smile project can be found on our main Beach Boys Essentials essay as well as in our review of Smiley Smile; for this project I've also added a few new paragraphs to my old review of The Smile Sessions, Capitol's 2011 boxed set that finally brought the original album as close to a finished state as can ever really be possible, addressing most of my specific criticisms of the music of Smile itself. There's no way I can express myself better than Beach Boys historian and sessionographer Craig Slowinski, who put it thusly in 2016 (and who knows all this material more intimately than I ever will):

I've always felt various pieces of Smile [...] are freakin' brilliant, yet as a whole, cohesive work, it pales compared to Pet Sounds or other less ambitious albums like Friends. Looking at the original sessions, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, and I believe that's because Brian painted himself into an artistic corner that he couldn't get out of -- which is the main reason he chose to abandon it. Once [Brian Wilson's solo version] was unveiled, it made a bit more sense as a whole, but only through the lens of knowing that Brian was looking back from the vantage point of his later years to the fractured, acid-influenced (yet still brilliant) ambition of his youth.

Speaking of which: not reviewed on this page but very much relevant to it is the 2004 album Brian Wilson Presents Smile, on which Brian ostensibly "finished" the album after almost forty years, writing some new lyrics with Van Dyke Parks and attempting to piece together a proper coherent sequence for new rerecordings of the oft-bootlegged material. The album has an added poignance because of the fracturing of Brian's voice, and a few inspired moments (the new versions of "Fire" and "I'm in Great Shape" intriguingly reframe an album with decades of demons surrounding it as fluffy kiddie fare) but its musical and thematic shortcomings remain hard to skirt past.

At any rate, the fate of Smile permanently changed the Beach Boys' career and reputation and the legend that grew in its wake has undeniably affected their stature as an artistic unit, both in the years immediately after it was shelved and decades hence when unauthorized CDs of this music became common. The mystique and mystery that surrounds Smile bootlegs are a major catalyst for many people to become serious Beach Boys enthusiasts in the first place, myself included, and so on this page we will try to briefly address the Smile story through the lens of several of the most noteworthy and/or easily obtainable sources... with the understanding that Capitol's official set is now the most comprehensive collection of original Smile material by far. But as with the bootlegs, you still will have the same problem Brian did; no matter how much time you spend with Smile, you'll never get a really clear idea of what it is or what it's trying to say and why. "Concept albums" are more often than not a terrible idea, and this was not an exception.

The Beach Boys got as far in the process of completing Smile as submitting an unordered track listing to Capitol, who pressed up cover slicks with it. (Apparently Brian himself didn't write this list of tracks, and was still adding new songs to the project for some time afterward.) These twelve titles can be considered the "core" of the record; though other songs like "Prayer," "Holidays" and "Look" were undoubtedly meant as some form of linking or (sometimes) introductory material, it's generally assumed that the twelve were to be banded separately with no segues. In the order they're listed on the back, they are:
- "Do You Like Worms"
- "Wind Chimes"
- "Heroes and Villains"
- "Surf's Up"
- "Good Vibrations"
- "Cabin Essence"
- "Wonderful"
- "I'm in Great Shape"
- "Child Is Father of the Man"
- "The Elements"
- "Vega-Tables"
- "The Old Master Painter"

"Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains" were finished and released as singles, though the latter was vastly scaled down from original intentions, which at one time had included a "part II" on the b-side, the actual nature of which remains clouded in speculation. "Wind Chimes," "Vega-Tables" and "Wonderful" were wholly re-recorded and included on Smiley Smile, the next proper album, but in all three cases the Smile version was finished or very close. "Cabin Essence" was finished and released as "Cabinessence" on 1969's 20/20 (along with "Our Prayer," which under the title "Prayer" is assumed to have been intended to open the record, as Brian himself says during the recording session). "Surf's Up" was later finished, combined with "Child Is Father of the Man" (there's some argument as to whether this was the original intention) and released on Surf's Up in 1971. We have a good idea of what was involved in "I'm in Great Shape," "Child Is Father of the Man" and "The Old Master Painter," parts of which are either incomplete or missing. Lots of other short pieces -- like "Workshop," aka "I Wanna Be Around," and "Barnyard" -- were meant as segments of other cuts, with "Heroes and Villains" inspiring an almost endless series of "sections." The big wild card is "The Elements": those would be fire, earth, air and water, but apart from the famous instrumental "Fire," what was actually involved in the other three pieces has been hotly disputed for decades. "Water" was long thought to be "I Love to Say Da Da" until a separate piece called "Water" showed up. Brian said "Air" was a piano piece. "Earth"... well, we're not going to settle this here. But that's the rundown, which should help make what follows a little more coherent. Brian of course took his own stab, with a fair bit of help, at completing the album and rerecording it in 2004, but that hasn't stopped fans from speculating and constructing their own mixes and alternative sequences, and they likely never will. There's no "final answer" to how Smile was going to be sequenced and what was going to be included because, plain and simple, it wasn't finished, and that's that.

***

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 15: Good Vibrations (bootleg 1966) [3CD] [r]
Official or not, probably the most exhaustive examination ever put together of a single pop song, roughly three and a half hours of session material for the Beach Boys' most legendary hit. Capitol condensed this down into one disc for their Smile box in 2011, which is still a staggering amount of material for just one tune. It all might sound like overkill, but this song was of course rather unusual, and it's a more varied listen than the uninitiated might expect, since Brian put the song together in fragments and then tied them together, working on it for months and at unprecedented cost. This is an opportunity to hear the master producer -- overflowing with enthusiasm and excitement -- slowly constructing and tweaking what's often considered his masterpiece; for even a person who likes the record but has never connected with it personally, the sound of its formation is fascinating. Even the portions Brian discards are often glorious and memorable; listening to that "hum-be-dum" section is like floating away on a cloud. We don't get to hear the finished vocals being put on, but we get a good idea of what a miraculous task it was to make "Good Vibrations" happen, a singular achievement Brian would never duplicate. It was subsequently intended (perhaps less by Brian than by Capitol) as the feather in the cap of Smile, and part of Brian's intention for that album was for its creation to proceed in a similar incremental fashion, with the hopes that the entire record would prove as towering, impressive, impossible. Thus, onward to the slow crushing of that particular dream.

The Beach Boys: Smile [Vigotone] (bootleg 1966-67) [2CD]
This 1989 two-disc collection of sparkling high-quality outtakes and session material was the biggest source of Smile on CD for a number of years; I've long since lost the cassette bootleg I was sent in 1997 but I believe at least parts of it were dubbed from this set. Not making much of an attempt to coincide with the prospective album order but aligning closely with the list of tunes on the back cover, it contains a good deal of music sourced from a tape Mark Linett mixed and mastered of a prospective Smile release in 1988. "Good Vibrations" and "Cabin Essence" are represented by unfinished vocal overdubs, "Child Is Father of the Man" by an acetate, "Surf's Up" by a series of incomplete versions, "Heroes and Villains" by a sequence of fragments similar to what later showed up on the Good Vibrations box. "Vega-Tables" is mislabeled as containing parts of "I'm in Great Shape," the nature of which may have been unknown at this point. There's also a bit of "Cool Cool Water," left unfinished until Sunflower. After the proper-ish album sequence we get a spooky series of takes on "Prayer" that serve to prove first of all that Brian intended for it to be the album intro, and secondarily that at least a couple of band members were on acid at the time it was recorded. There's the fun novelty "He Gives Speeches," which became "She's Goin' Bald" on Smiley Smile and fits more snugly with the "humor album" concept, followed by a wonderful early take of "With Me Tonight," also a Smiley selection. The first disc closes out with a "Wonderful" overdub, another "Child" acetate, the "Heroes and Villains" b-side "You're Welcome" and another group of "Heroes and Villains" bits and pieces. Disc two gets more heavily into sessions: overdub outtakes of "Good Vibrations," session outtakes of "Surf's Up," "Fire" and "Holidays," track assemblies of "The Old Master Painter" and "Cabin-Essence" (with no vocals on the former). There are also a few of the canonical Smile songs not on the final tracklist: "Workshop," "Holidays," "Barnyard" (instrumental at this point) and "Look." We close out with an alternative "Prayer," the Inside Pop TV performance of "Surf's Up" (Brian forlornly playing piano while Leonard Bernstein waxes about his brilliance), and twenty-five minutes of a party during the Smile era for some reason. This served at the time as a good primer, though it's a lot less useful these days despite a few rare fragments here and there. But it's the only place you can hear all nine minutes of the legendary "George Fell into His French Horn," a bunch of richly entertaining goofing around with Brian in the studio directing the French horn players in an increasingly ridiculous comedy sketch. Part of me is more interested in where Brian was going with the whole "humor" concept (see also: the loopy rant about "smog" he recorded around this time) than in where Smile was headed.

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 16: Smile (bootleg 1966-67)
Sea of Tunes' inevitable take on how Smile would have been laid out in 1967 seems believable insofar as it runs about 43 minutes and includes all of the canonical tracks in an order that makes sense... though it's difficult to overlook the fact that Brian was still tinkering with these songs, especially "Heroes and Villains," so late in the game that this resembles a workprint (with footage still to be shot). Still, it's almost definitely the most coherent pre-2004 version of Smile that exists, and with the highest sound quality aside from the loose construction on the official Good Vibrations box. Several of the takes here are excluded from the larger Sea of Tunes sessions box, apparently with the assumption that anybody who shelled out for one would pick up the other. The most curious decision is to feature the completed 20/20 version of "Cabin Essence" but to include "Good Vibrations" and "Surf's Up" in various in-progress stages. Apparently, this bootleg was consulted frequently during the 2004 preparation of Brian Wilson's solo version of Smile.

The Beach Boys: Smile [Purple Chick] (bootleg 1966-67)
There are about a dozen commonly seen Smile bootlegs on CD and vinyl and there are comprehensive lists and descriptions covering them in places like the Smiley Smile message board; these sessions alone warrant investigations and inventories as complex as some bands' entire discographies. But this was my go-to version of Smile for the several years between my discovery of it in 2008 and the official Beach Boys release in 2011 (with the caveat that I don't listen very often to Smile anyway, except when doing something like this). Never issued in physical form, this comes from the anonymous online bootlegger Purple Chick who's known for their comprehensive collections of the Beatles' released and unreleased work in easily accessible downloadable format with artwork provided for free; there's also a superb ten-disc Purple Chick collection of Buddy Holly's entire output plus peripheral items. The PC assembly of Smile is not really at attempt to "finish" the album, like most fan mixes, or to present each song in the most complete known form available, as with Sea of Tunes, or to resemble the thrill of uncovering a stack of disorganized tapes and acetates like the Vigotone set. Rather, it's really designed for people who dug Brian Wilson's 2004 Smile but wish the Beach Boys were singing it. It attempts to duplicate the tracklist and format of the modern disc with the material that's available from the '66-'67 sessions. Given that it's an amateur production, it's very impressive. The liner notes give some detail of how Purple Chick used various sources -- occasionally including the 2004 album itself, but only for minor tweaks -- to create an interpretation of the album that at least looks somewhat complete... though as ever, how it feels is a different story. The Smile material at its worst is not just grating and insubstantial, it's downright insipid, and hearing it with perfect clarity like this only lets all the excuses for that fall unceremoniously away.

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters 17: Smile Sessions (bootleg 1966-67) [3CD]
This has now been largely superseded by Capitol's Smile Sessions box... but it does get a little more heavily into the nuts and bolts of how some tracks were constructed, up to the point that they were; the material here is surprisingly listenable and fast-paced, though the endless takes of "Vega-Tables" and twenty minutes of the accompanying Hal Blaine argument (in which Blaine portrays a "get off my lawn" type figure yelling at Michael Vosse and Brian to get their hands off his vegetables; the short sample of this on Hawthorne, CA is all of it you will ever need) wear thin. There are a few alternate versions of "Wonderful," "Look," "Wind Chimes," "Friday Night," "Water" and "The Old Master Painter" that never found official release, but except for "Wonderful" there's nothing radically different; Smile buffs will, however, be interested in the real-time bounces and overdubs of vocal tracks, a Sea of Tunes staple included generously here for several songs and quite fascinating in their way. This set is not nearly on the scale of the Unsurpassed Masters Pet Sounds boxes, both because of the number of missing tapes and unavailable fragments and because the music was simply incomplete. You can't really hear Brian struggling outwardly in the control room. On the earlier sessions, he sounds just as driven and "together" as ever, though as the album's creation drags on he does seem to become a bit more soft-spoken and a bit less single-minded, though never anything other than astonishingly detail-oriented. Capitol does seem to have taken some inspiration from this presentation when preparing the official box.

Quick note: there exist online separate session collections for "Heroes and Villains," as well as a complete source tape for the Sea of Tunes box and a boot called Secret Smile, plus lord knows how many other bits and pieces spread around the galaxy. I was Smile-d out many years ago and have never sought them out, but they do feature material not included on either the official or Sea of Tunes boxes.

The Beach Boys: Lei'd in Hawaii Rehearsal (bootleg 1967)
This famous bootleg has a complicated, confusing genesis. Smile collapsed in early 1967; one single made it to release, followed by the radically reworked, abbreviated and fascinating Smiley Smile. The band's disastrous cancellation of an appearance at Moneterey derailed things further. Bruce Johnston took a leave of absence due to creative differences and as a result Brian -- with organ in tow -- joined the group for a live show in Hawaii that was meant to be recorded. The shows were, according to legend, under-rehearsed and embarrassing, and the bits of them offered on the Vigotone CD seem to bear this out; they come off as terribly anachronistic, badly in need of a setlist upheaval, especially with Mike still opening things up by slaving his way through the old "Little Deuce Coupe" "how the Beach Boys make their records" routine. Immediately scrapping the live album plans, the Beach Boys instead set about tentatively throwing together a low-key "live in the studio" album, which amounts to a set of extremely chilled-out and often sublime scaled-down takes on their own older songs. These days you can find most of the Lei'd material in other places, but it does merit notice that these stark organ-driven takes on "God Only Knows," "Help Me Rhonda" (slightly reformatted as "Help You, Rhonda"), "You're So Good to Me," "Surfer Girl" and the Box Tops' "The Letter" are strikingly beautiful and well in keeping with the vibe of the Smiley Smile-Wild Honey period. The Hawaii material was abandoned altogether in favor of an album of all-new material, which became Wild Honey, but the band really struck modest gold here. Similar rearrangements of "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains" could have possibly made Smiley even better than it already was; unfortunately, while we have such a take of "Good Vibrations" from a year or so later on Endless Harmony, the scaled-back "Heroes and Villains" is tainted by a horrendously insulting voiceover from Mike slagging off the song and its ambitions, an ill-advised attempt by Brian at making light of the song's relatively mediocre chart performance compared to its predecessor. (It was still a sizable hit, so this all seems rather like sour grapes.) One thing about it, though, is that it does work as strong firsthand evidence that Smile went kaput less because of band or label interference, as was long presupposed, than because of Brian's own unhappiness with it.

Brian would look back on this period with great fondness -- perhaps because the pressure was off and the process by which he made music was dramatically scaled down, with a renewed concentration on elaborate, intimate vocal arrangements laid against far simpler, band-oriented backing tracks. In that spirit, Lei'd in Hawaii as Vigotone presents it works as a sort of bridge between the first and second great eras of the Beach Boys' history. They also throw in "Sherry She Needs Me" in its mid-'70s reincarnation and several takes of the Friends-era outtake "We're Together Again," neither of which have much to do with anything, but hey, it's a bootleg.

The Beach Boys: Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 18: Smiley Smile (bootleg 1967) [r]
Right out of the gate, the big difference here as we spend an hour at Brian's house working through a little over half of the new tracks for Smiley Smile is that the instrumentation is so much barer than on Smile; Brian doesn't sound like he's lost his marbles, nor does the band seem inordinately impatient or stoned. Brian is a bit more relaxed, and stripping things back obviously helps him with focusing; the only fully successful "incremental" track he'd completed was "Good Vibrations," so despite the expense to Capitol he apparently came about the rolled-back approach quite naturally, and 24 year-olds aren't widely known for being super responsible with finances in the first place. This disc deconstructs the Smiley versions of "Wonderful," "Wind Chimes," "Vegetables," "With Me Tonight" and "She's Goin' Bald" (formerly "He Gives Speeches"), plus the new song "Gettin' Hungry." There are more layers to these deceptively sparse records than first meets the ear, though a number of elements you can clearly hear -- piano especially -- were deliberately buried in the final mono mix. At the time they were recording Smiley Smile, the Beach Boys were still a months off their biggest hit ever, and it's fun to imagine the biggest band in America working out this intricately detailed series of half-awake grooves. If only it had turned on as many people as Sgt. Pepper did.

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