Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks and The Smile That You Send Out – Part 1: Dumb Angel to Smiley

In a few weeks, Brian Wilson will be releasing his new album, That Lucky Old Sun. It’s one I’m looking forward to more than I have any album in years. A collaboration with his keyboard player Scott Bennett and his old collaborator Van Dyke Parks, both the live performance of the piece I saw last year and the demo versions I’ve been lucky enough to get hold of suggest it’ll be one of Wilson’s best works.

It’s best seen as part of a trilogy with two other Wilson/Parks collaborations (both of which have also had other collaborators – and Scott Bennett may have contributed more than Parks to That Lucky Old Sun, in fact – but it’s thematically linked), so I’m going to try to put it – and those other albums – in context. This week I’m going to write about the failed Smile experiment of the late 1960s, and about Smiley Smile. Next week I’m going to write about Orange Crate Art. The week after, I’ll be discussing the remade and completed Smile from 2004, and then I’ll be reviewing the new album on the day of its release. This first post will be the weakest of the four – I’m telling you this so I can tell you the later things.

Before I go any further, though… I don’t normally do embedded videos – they’re a pain to those using feed readers, they often require the use of non-free software, and I just don’t like them. But there are a lot of preconceptions about the Beach Boys’ music out there – either “Pet Sounds is the only good thing they ever did” or “they’re just a crappy surfing band” or “I heard Pet Sounds and it’s overrated so they were just as useless as I always thought” or whatever. So here’s a song from Smile. If you like the song, or at least find it interesting, read further. Otherwise, you probably won’t be interested in anything that follows in this or the next three posts.

That song was written and mostly recorded in 1967 for the aborted Smile album (some vocals were added in 1971 when the track was pulled out of the vaults and released). Smile (originally titled Dumb Angel) was going to be the follow-up to Pet Sounds, the album we are all supposed to think is the Best Album Ever. I wouldn’t actually put it even in my top five Beach Boys albums, but it is a stunning artistic achievement.

Smile was going to top Pet Sounds, but it would have very little relationship to it. Smile was musically essentially a series of variations on the melody of Heroes & Villains, with lyrics to be provided by Van Dyke Parks, a songwriter who was himself every bit as good as Brian.

Only four Wilson/Parks songs were recorded in anything like a finished state for Smile – all songs that they claim to have written in the first writing session they had together. Those songs – Wonderful, Surf’s Up, Heroes & Villains and CabinEssence – contain to my mind possibly the two best songs ever written (Wonderful and Surf’s Up) and two extremely good ones (Heroes & Villains and CabinEssence). The rest of the songs recorded for Smile either had inconsequential lyrics by Brian ( Wind Chimes, Vegetables (credited to Wilson/Parks but the original lyrics were very different)) no lyrics at all (Fire, Prayer) or never had their lyrics recorded (most of the rest).

The album became a legend, mostly because of the quality of those four completed Wilson/Parks songs, but was never released. Bits of it trickled out over the years on later albums, or on the band’s box set, but the album itself was never completed. There are many reasons for this – members of the band didn’t like the music, Brian was having problems with his mental health, the band were suing their record label.

My own hypothesis for the main cause is that Brian felt he was being pushed into making a record different from the one he had envisaged. Brian Wilson has always created music for the heart, rather than the head – his music is all about communicating emotion. I’m going to quote some bits here from a longer article I wrote last year, because this stuff is very relevant to what will come along:

“Even the most cursory critical listen to Wilson’s body of work shows the same themes, both musical and lyrical, occurring time and again over the forty-five years he’s been writing. Far from being an aberration, Pet Sounds is just one more iteration by Wilson of the themes that have haunted him throughout his life and work.”

“Wilson’s music is almost a private language, made up of allusions to other music. A lot of this is the music of his childhood — he will appropriate wholesale the melody of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” for a song like “And Your Dream Comes True”, or the structure of “Rhapsody in Blue” for Smile — but occasionally it will be more recent — Switched On Bach or Sail Away. More than anything else though, he comes back over and over to “Shortenin’ Bread” and “Be My Baby”; those two songs appear in mutated form throughout his career.”

“Remember, also, that this is a composer for whom the epiphanic and the bathetic are often the same. On his first acid trip, Wilson heard music he’d never been able to conceive before — and wrote “California Girls.” And yet, bad as that song is (although the faults in it are almost all down to the smug, leering Mike Love lyric), listen to the harmonies under the line “I dig a French bikini on Hawaiian island dolls.” That backing vocal part, in isolation, is as close to perfect as anyone has ever come with the mere human voice. But it wouldn’t exist without the appalling, near-monotonous, lead part.”

“The real recurring theme in Wilson’s work is an attitude towards women that comes close to goddess-worship. Over and over again, throughout his career, his songs take the point of view of a weak, imperfect man who loves and is loved by a woman he knows is too good for him.He even believes that the only reason she’s with him in the first place is because he’s tricked her. But more often, he knows that she understands him and accepts him, even with his faults”

“In his best work, be it full albums like Friends, The Beach Boys Love You or Smile, or odd tracks on otherwise terrible albums like “Happy Days” (on 1998’s Imagination) or “My Diane” (on 1978’s MIU Album), Brian Wilson’s work is the sound of a man opening his soul absolutely, with all the simplicity and complexity that entails. “

Van Dyke Parks, on the other hand, is an equally talented songwriter but with a completely different (and complementary) set of skills. Parks is a very intellectual songwriter, and also a very American one. He has a deep love and knowledge of American pre-rock music, whether Gottschaulk , Gershwin or old blues records, and it comes out in his own songs (which are often repurposings of bits of other people’s material). While Brian Wilson was in direct competition with the Beatles, Van Dyke Parks is like Randy Newman’s antimatter universe double – optimistic where Newman is cynical, happy where Newman is sad, but with a remarkably similar skillset.

The two blended perfectly, but a lot of the hangers-on around Wilson appear to have misunderstood what they were doing (not surprising, since Wilson may well be the least articulate person ever to have been called a genius), and if you look at the articles at the time about the album, the music they’re describing bears little relation to what was actually recorded. I suspect ideas that turn up late in the Smile recording sessions – like a suite based around the four classical elements – which have no parallels in either Wilson or Parks’ other work and are notably less focussed than the earlier songs, were created to try to make the album Brian’s new cool friends wanted, rather than the album he’d intended.

The early songs Wilson and Parks worked on together combined Parks’ wish to create a new vision of a progressive America rooted in its own history with the emotional core of Brian’s music. They’re about childhood, loss of innocence, looking back at youth from a perspective of age, and rebirth after disaster. With the exception of CabinEssence, they all have the same ‘arc’ – starting from a position of power, losing something valuable, and then looking back on the loss from a more mature position, with hope for the future. The musical quotes throughout the album, the repeated motif of the Heroes & Villains melody, all point to a very consistent vision for the album, which was abandoned without quite realising it long before the album itself was scrapped.

In the end, possibly the best explanation for what happened to Smile is Brian’s own – “it was inappropriate music for us to be making”.

But the loss of Smile wasn’t a wholly negative thing. In particular, in its place came the remarkable, and woefully underrated, Smiley Smile. Smiley Smile was a mixture of Smile recordings (Good Vibrations, Heroes & Villains), rerecordings of some Smile songs (Vegetables, Wonderful, Wind Chimes) and new songs made up from fragments and half-thought-out Smile ideas. And it’s incredible. It’s been described as ‘space-age acid casualty doo-wop music’ and that description sums it up perfectly. Obviously made under the influence – several songs contain moments where band members stifle laughs or giggle – the accompaniment is stripped down to the bare minimum, often just an organ or bass. The lyrics are nonsensical, but the vocals are extraordinary – some of the best ever committed to record – and the effect is rather like taking a stained glass window, smashing it, and using the pieces in a kaleidoscope.

Little, empty, half-formed songs with very little instrumentation (inadvertantly creating the same effect I wrote about in my recent Final Crisis post), sung angelically, Smiley Smile is as strange as some of Scott Walker’s recent music – like Walker, it makes me think “Where did that come from? How could a human being think of that?” – but has a warmth and feeling of love that is absent from Walker’s harsh challenges.

The album that never was and never could have been meant that the beautiful, strange, remarkable album that was released is still ignored more than forty years on. But like the cover says, the smile that you send out comes back to you.

Next week, I’ll skip forward 28 years, and talk about Orange Crate Art…

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