Music, Music Commentary

SMiLE: Brian Wilson's Elusive Opus Made Accessible by Crafty Fans

January 10, 2012

SMiLE, the most famous unreleased album of all time (at least until 2004), was slated as The Beach Boys‘ follow-up to the epochal Pet Sounds (1966; Capitol Records).  SMiLE‘s original recordings were roughly committed to tape between May 11, 1966 and May 19, 1967, shortly before lead composer Brian Wilson — arguably the only American rock musician to counterpoise The Beatles in compositional genius and songwriting craft (post-Rubber Soul) — fell into a drug-induced impasse of bedridden depression.

The notorious straw that broke the psyche’s back can be traced back to April 1967, when Wilson listened to a tape recording of “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Paul McCartney played back to him in Los Angeles.  At that time, McCartney had a deep, ineffable respect for Wilson, whose masterpiece, Pet Sounds, truly leveled him.  Sgt. Pepper, to The Beatles, was their response to Pet Sounds

SMiLE, sadly, was abandoned shortly thereafter, as Wilson was convinced of Sgt. Pepper‘s insurmountable ingenuity.  As his songwriting collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, told Will Hodgkinson of The Guardian in December 1999:

“…Brian had a nervous collapse. What broke his heart was Sgt. Pepper.”

With SMiLE‘s LP and back covers already submitted to Capitol Records in 1967, the recordings abruptly fell by the wayside, leaving UK-based fans of Wilson’s unique musical acumen unrealized.  SMiLE‘s orphan songs were adopted by the various Beach Boys albums that followed.  They were, essentially, children without a home.  Their primary orphanage was, largely, the scatterbrained and psychedelic Smiley Smile, which helped define Wilson’s break with The Beach Boys in 1967.

It didn’t help that fellow Beach Boy Mike Love openly labeled “Good Vibrations” “avant-garde shit”Mike Love, as Wilson-era Beach Boys buffs know, had gone on to co-write such handsome, seaside super-hits as “Kokomo” (1988; Elektra Records).  In case you’re new to the Wilson bandwagon, I’m being sarcastic.

(My brother and I have a penchant for labeling anything we deem excessively tacky as “Kokomo bullshit.”)

Wilson found his orphaned opus in 2004 with Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, an intimidating listen for any dilettante musician, if there ever was one.  The newer recordings, however, left much to be desired, as the soaring, falsetto pitch of Wilson’s angelic vocals deteriorated over decades of disuse.  The raw authenticity of SMiLE‘s older recordings were replaced with an unwelcome, overly produced sheen.  The brilliance of composition was still present, but the fierce abandon of his youth was lost in the process.

Praise be given, then, to our post-millennial era of bit torrents and digital researchers.  One of the most thoroughly definitive unofficial fan mixes of SMiLE has to be by the anonymous “PurpleChick,” whose mix can be found here (a.k.a., “SMiLE Deluxe“).

Now, if you’re listening to this mix, you’ll notice that PurpleChick stayed loyal to Wilson’s envisioned track listing vis-a-vis SMiLE-as-it-exists-in-2004 — only she substituted the official album’s recordings with the older ones that were laid down in the late ’60s (more or less).

If you thought this assumed the definitive version of SMiLE, though, please bear with me.  An alternate (yet equally important) December 2011 unofficial mix struts in the form of fan SonicLoveNoize* (of indie band The Curiously Strong Peppermints), whose stereo arrangement of SMiLE stays true to the track listing originally submitted to Capitol Records in 1967.  Here, it more faithfully adheres to the notes on the back cover of the planned original release (pictured below):

If you’re a B.W. fan, this download is an iTunes friendly must.

Tandem to PurpleChick’s mix, SonicLoveNoize’s treatment should better round out the organizational vision, recording aesthetic and arrangements that Wilson first conceived in the 1960s.  And, while it remains inconclusive as to whether or not SMiLE supersedes the flawless mastery of Pet Sounds, these fan mixes should (at least) sate the faded wishes of a younger, scrappier Wilson, who appeared to have something else in mind.

In the 38 years that followed Pet Sounds, for instance, Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE comes through on the other side of nearly four decades of chain-smoking; drug use; schizoaffective distress; misguided anti-psychotic prescriptions; hygienic neglect; extreme dieting; and the systematic brainwash by one Eugene Landy, a therapist whose controversial treatment methods akin to Wilson led to the loss of his practice license in the early 90s.

Landy gained a colossal restraining order from the Wilson family for placing his star patient in a draconian environment that afforded him financial, contractual cuts from the royalties or income Wilson received.  Allegedly, he even went as far as to co-write and produce Wilson’s first eponymous solo album (1988; Rhino Records).  Seriously?  Yeah, seriously.

It’s a wonder that Wilson had the mental fortitude to resume work on SMiLE in 2003.  In that context, it’s imperative that his fans listen to the original recordings, as well.  Ergo, in what better format than PurpleChick and SonicLoveNoize’s historically tender mixes?

Listen.  Have fun.  Don’t lose faith.  And most importantly:  SMiLE.

Featured Image from Capitol Photo Archives; via MusicAngle.com

PostScript 

*Be sure to dig into SonicLoveNoize’s 5-in-1 10th anniversary stereo mix of The Flaming Lips‘ 1997 experimental rock album, Zaireeka, which is available here (2010).  As those in-the-know already … er … know, Zaireeka consists of four CDs that require listeners to play simultaneously (via four discrete CD player systems).  A rather expensive endeavor when subtracted of three other equally devoted friends (or the freakish sum of four arms).

What makes SonicLoveNoize’s mix salient and juicy, however, is that it includes Zaireeka’s obscure fifth disc — distributed in limited amounts during the Lips’ Zaireeka 10th anniversary listening party.

If all else fails, check out his stereo mix of Lips track “Two Blobs Fucking,” which was designed to be played on 11 separate audio devices at the same time:

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