Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Smiley Smile (1967)
!!! A+ RECORDING !!!
Look on the bright side: the Beach Boys had gotten past their indulgent psychedelic period with their integrity fully intact, and they did it without releasing a single embarrassing record, and only one record at all: "Good Vibrations," Brian Wilson's painstakingly constructed opera of teen love, bliss and maybe drugs. Overplayed as it may be, it's still one of the most immediately impressive of all his works, and in a sense was the last gasp of his peak period of obsessive control in the studio. "Good Vibrations" was first attempted during the Pet Sounds sessions but was then laid aside and recorded in sections, bit by little bit, over several months (from May to September of 1966) at enormous cost, with at least three studios involved. The reception was validating in a way American sales figures for Pet Sounds hadn't been; Brian Wilson's meticulous art-for-art's-sake had struck a chord, and the single went to #1. In the late summer of 1966, Brian started work on the next Beach Boys album, eventually entitled Smile, with a new brood of hip L.A. friends and influences in tow, not to mention one Van Dyke Parks, musical and especially lyrical collaborator on the project. Smile was intended to be a full-length collection recorded in the same fragmented, incremental manner as "Good Vibrations"; while admirably ambitious, this also was more work and expense than Brian could seemingly handle during a time when he was becoming more than slightly infatuated with drugs and drug culture. His recording methods and behavior grew more erratic, though again, not to the exaggerated degree that's been reported in some of the more sensationalist texts about the band's legend.
Throughout the fall of 1966 and into 1967, the Beach Boys' publicist Derek Taylor hyped up Smile as an Event to Behold until its balloon rose to the heavens with a sort of hype that could never bring anything but disaster, only to pop unceremoniously when the album was shelved, with covers already printed up and ads already running. We could waste a lot of time speculating on the reasons the record was abandoned; a lot of people have been doing so for half a century. The catalyst could have been Van Dyke Parks' departure after he grew frustrated with the other Beach Boys' consternation over the new material. Perhaps the Beach Boys were as unenthusiastic about fulfilling Brian's vision as has sometimes been reported, though session tapes don't seem to bear this out apart from one famous blowup about a line of Parks' that Mike Love found incomprehensible. Perhaps Capitol Records imposed their will and disliked the shape of Brian's decidedly surreal new direction of humorous Americana. Perhaps Brian's insecurity over letting down the many people who were depending on him to deliver hot-selling music had an effect; certainly Murry, who'd wanted the deliriously pot-stoked intro cut from "California Girls," would've been a nagging presence in his ear if he was prompted for any input. But given the evolution of the project into the even weirder, more individualistic Smiley Smile, the most likely scenario is just what Brian maintained for years: that he was uncertain about the impossibly complicated, perhaps emotionally misguided music. Though Smile has many strong advocates, a listen to what exists of it reflects the whims of an overexcited, unfocused artist. There are a handful of brilliant songs and a few more brilliant moments, but they tend to be surrounded by meandering, incomplete ideas that don't show much obvious direction. Parks' lyrics vary between surreal, pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook and occasional moments of profundity (especially on "Surf's Up" and "Wonderful") but aside from Brian, the Beach Boys sound a bit lost and uncomfortable when singing them. Today! and "Don't Worry Baby" might not have sounded smart, but they sounded honest and showed no strain.
It's not for nothing that Smiley Smile, the record that rose from Smile's ashes after its late-date dumping, has a reputation as a major letdown; whereas Smile is brought down by the way its insubstantial bulk rubs up against the lofty aspirations of its peak moments, Smiley Smile -- named, appropriately, by a child -- absolutely owns and takes full responsibility for its airy aloofness. When Smile was abandoned after months of work, Brian supposedly abdicated the throne of studio leadership and wouldn't be credited as sole producer on a Beach Boys album again for nearly a decade. In fact this was mostly a token gesture to absolve himself of some of the pressure associated with the producer title. For some time yet Brian -- by all accounts, including those of other band members -- would remain the band's guiding light in the studio. Moreover, despite some druggy indulgences the run of late Capitol albums seems to have been the music Brian wanted to make with the Beach Boys at this time. This has been hard for some to accept over the years, and there's some truth in the notion that Smiley Smile and its sequels are a retreat or at least a radical turnaround for a man whose work had become steadily more elaborate since 1961. There's even some potential wisdom in noting that Brian seemed more enthusiastic at this point about projects outside of what he may have perceived as the Beach Boys trap; certainly, one probable reason Smile didn't work out was that the Beach Boys didn't seem like the ideal channel for Brian's artsier ideas. All that said, though, the Beach Boys' late '60s albums for Capitol are each singular and inventive, idiosyncratic recordings that could be made and issued by essentially no other band. It's very hard to lament the collapse of Smile when Smiley Smile, Wild Honey and Friends exist in its wake; all three have a focus, consistency and charm mostly lacking in the extant Smile material, and the Beach Boys sound comfortable and confident on them while still stretching themselves creatively. Moreover, the sheer perversity of a haunting, minimal record like Smiley Smile following up the emotional tour de force Pet Sounds is somehow laudable, insofar as it's just counter-intuitive enough to be perfect.
Smiley Smile isn't exactly psychedelic but it is strange and goofy and scary, enough to drive the point home that the grandiose excesses of Sgt. Pepper, released a few months later, weren't the only way to bring originality to the LP form. Pepper is an elaborately produced cutting-edge record, though, and this is not. Pepper sounds professional, maybe even too professional, but Smiley Smile sounds amateurish, to some ears too amateurish. However, it isn't the slapped-together stopgap its reputation suggests; much of the album's chilled-out oddness is the result of innovative hard work (the pitch control on "She's Goin' Bald" and the rigorous arrangement on the vocal tag of "Wind Chimes") and calculated editing (on "With Me Tonight" especially). The inclusion of a song as complex and familiar as "Good Vibrations" here is enough of a ridiculous juxtaposition to be somewhat ballsy, especially after the pot-stoked crackup of "Little Pad." You might think the theremin-driven #1 hit wouldn't be out of place on an album of weird shit, but you'd be wrong to assume the Beach Boys only knew one way to be weird. It doesn't help matters that the easily-dismissed "Little Pad" is one of their most beautiful songs, even with the flawed, jarring aesthetic values.
Some of the recast Smile outtakes that surface here are indeed better in their original 1966 forms, but not by the margin some would have you believe. The Smile variants of "Wonderful" and "Wind Chimes" are among the Beach Boys' most intoxicating recordings, but I still wouldn't ditch the creepily seductive Smiley Smile versions for anything. The new 45rpm mix of "Heroes and Villains" -- the song Brian concentrated on under duress after letting the rest of the Smile songs fall by the wayside -- suffers without the sublime "in the cantina" midsection; this single version is not without merit, with a fine a cappella tidbit, even if its seams are more obvious. It certainly fits better here than "Good Vibrations," which could have used a stripped-down Smiley reimagining. (There's something close, from the Lei'd in Hawaii tapes, on Endless Harmony.) But the Smiley Smile "Vegetables" is the perfect encapsulation of the Beach Boys' humor, the one ingredient of their genius missing from Pet Sounds and that Brian wanted so much to be a part of Smile. Meaningless and funny, it skirts all concern for depth and goes straight to what we all care about: food. It has pouring, and chewing, and echo, and bass, and it's just a stellar (and addictive!) recording, replete with audience participation! ("I know that you'll feel better when you send us in your letter and tell us the name of your favorite vege-table.")
From "I'm Bugged at My Ol' Man" and "Amusement Parks U.S.A." all the way to "Games Two Can Play" and "I Wanna Pick You Up," Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys' humor doesn't have its full impact without the other side of their less widely celebrated great works: their ability to be absorbingly creepy and disturbing, more of a piece with future oddballs like the Flaming Lips and Pere Ubu than the essence of California pop. "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter" picks up just after "Vegetables" with a run of freaky oohs and ahhs underneath mysterious, savory, bottom-heavy instrumentation (it's possibly derived in part from portions of Smile's "The Elements: Fire"). The almost dementedly bare deconstructions of "Wonderful" and "Wind Chimes" have an air of mania about them, with Carl breathing out the words on the former sounding like he's about to take you to the back of a van and cover your face with a chloroform-soaked rag. "Wind Chimes" is even more bizarre, a sequence of drugged-out meanderings on the original song's basic theme that might be the first pop song to contain jump scares. For some listeners, these violent reimaginings of once-lofty pop will be anathema, but they have a strange, sinister beauty that goes beyond quirk and novelty. Then there's "She's Goin' Bald," the perfect fusion of incredibly immature Beach Boy comedy, its melody derived from Smile throwaway "He Gives Speeches," and unnerving offbeat abuse of sonics. The point when the chorus of "sha na na / what a blow" gets pitched out into Chipmunkdom, whereupon the Boys offer a brief musical comedy interlude, has long been cited as the likely moment when most 1967 listeners gave up on Smiley Smile in fear and disgust. And if they survived "Bald," the opening chorus of weedy laughter on "Little Pad" finished the job.
But that's just it. Hearing Smiley Smile without expectations or Beach Boys cultural conditioning, the most striking thing is how unique, interesting and even teasingly original each track is. It's short and breezy but it makes time for no weak moments, at least assuming you're eventually tuned into and appreciative of its wispy but lingering tone of smoothed-over paranoia. Unlike nearly every other Beach Boys record, it seems like something that could be released by some probing, audacious bedroom popster today, though one doubts they would find time or resources to construct such beautiful harmonies. Charles Schulz said once that you have to know how to draw well in order to draw cartoonishly; the Beach Boys had to have half a decade of brilliantly constructed, incisive studio pop under their belts before they could convincingly noodle and craft something vaguely magical out of it. Smiley Smile sounds like an accident; what's more impressive is that it really isn't and is as calculated as any of Brian's work, only it's calculated in a way that's not necessarily designed to please other people. (Whether it was meant to please Brian himself is up for debate.)
Along with "Vegetables," the songs that preface most clearly the casual humor and minimalist nuance of the Beach Boys albums to follow are the thrown-out "Gettin' Hungry," and the sublime, barely-written pop slices "With Me Tonight" and "Whistle In." Neither could be more basic, but verbose passion isn't the only kind of passion that exists, and these sparse tidbits have a charm that's harder to hear on the "bigger" Wrecking Crew linking material from the Smile sessions. There's something magic and otherworldly about a band as famous and talented as the Beach Boys gathering around the fire throwing out these bizarre, intricately arranged but aurally stripped-down (organ, bass, piano and up-front vocals, pretty much exclusively) paeans to simplicity. It foretells the 1968 move away from overblown theatrics by nearly a year, and Wild Honey continues its off-key, offbeat, open-hearted tone impeccably. It may take time to find beauty in the drained energy and drugged exhaustion of Smiley Smile (some have called it "joyless"), but you'll never leave it or stop defending thereafter. Though it's probably of interest only to established fans (call it "advanced Beach Boys") I'd recommend it to anyone tuned into the aesthetic of experimental, undoctored and weird pop music. Most people could probably find something to love here, even if it does come in moments or seconds. A fine and unique album, probably more fun than Smile could have ever been.
[Originally posted in shorter form in 2003.]