(Before I start – today’s Big Finish A Week will be delayed until tomorrow. I’d already got most of this post done, and I’ve been promising the Superman one for four days, and I’m incredibly busy today.)
I was there when Smile was announced.
After Orange Crate Art and I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times Brian Wilson continued to make an incredible artistic recovery. In 1996 he worked on two Beach Boys projects – one, an album of new material written by Wilson and Andy Paley, only had two songs completed before the Beach Boys’ squabbling killed the project, but the demos suggested a renewed creativity on Wilson’s part (though some have claimed that Paley had more input than Wilson to several of the best songs).
The second Beach Boys project he worked on in 1996 at least came out – but that’s about all you can say for it. Stars & Stripes Vol 1 was an album co-produced by Wilson and bemulleted fool Joe Thomas, where various country singers (of the terrible variety you get on country radio for the most part – Toby Keith, Lorrie Morgan, Kathy Troccoli) sang old Beach Boys hits. It wasn’t completely terrible – in fact Junior Brown’s 409 and Willie Nelson’s The Warmth Of The Sun were two of the best tracks the band had done in twenty years – but for the most part it was unlistenable dreck. It’s incredibly sad that it’s the last ever Beach Boys album – they deserve better than to be remembered like that.
However, for some reason Wilson continued to work with Joe Thomas, who seemed to be positioning Wilson for an ‘Adult Contemporary’ audience, and in 1998 they released Wilson’s second solo album of new material – Imagination. It was, frankly, awful. There were four very good tracks, and the rest… well, suffice it to say that it was considered appropriate for Brian Wilson to be collaborating with both Jimmy Buffet and Jim Peterik from Survivor (the band that did Eye Of The Tiger).
But that album had a remarkable effect – Brian Wilson, who hadn’t willingly toured in thirty years, started touring to promote it. And the band he put together was stunning – based around LA powerpop band the Wondermints, it also included Scott Bennett and Paul Mertens (two excellent session musicians who’d worked on Imagination), vocalist Taylor Mills, and Jeff Foskett, a singer who’d covered Brian’s parts on stage for the Beach Boys for many years. (There were a few other members, but that’s the core group – other people who’ve been in the band at one time or another include Todd Sucherman, Jim Hines, Bob Lizik, Andy Paley and Nelson Bragg.)
That band were astonishing – capable of reproducing every note of Wilson’s incredibly complex music, and almost all multi-instrumentalists (in a typical show Probyn Gregory of the Wondermints might play guitar, trumpet, french horn, tannerin and keyboards as well as singing). The first live shows the band did were revelatory – while Wilson was not in great voice (and Foskett ended up doubling most of his lines in those early shows, as Wilson would forget lines or miss notes so Foskett was a safety net), his enthusiasm was palpable, and the band were clearly the best possible collaborators he could have. The shows got longer and longer, and they added in more and more obscure material, until by 2002 they were doing the entire Pet Sounds album, six songs from Smile, obscure songs from Friends, Carl And The Passions and The Beach Boys Love You, songs like Til I Die and still doing a good selection of the hits as well. (Unfortunately, since 2004 the setlists have become less and less interesting, to the point where now Mike Love’s touring ‘Beach Boys’ do a significantly more interesting set). They released several live albums and DVDs, and in 2004 Brian released a new solo album, Gettin’ In Over My Head, which while far from perfect was a *good* album (mostly made up of songs from the unreleased Andy Paley collaboration or from his unreleased 1989 solo album Sweet Insanity, rerecorded with the new band).
But still nothing could prepare anyone for the day when in 2003 at a small gig (not a Brian Wilson gig) with about thirty or so people in attendance, Jeff Foskett announced that he’d been asked to put together a half-hour suite based on Smile for the band to perform the next year.
As it turned out, Foskett was exaggerating his own importance to the new work. It was Darian Sahanaja – the Wondermints’ keyboardist and the band’s musical director – rather than Foskett the frontman who was asked to piece together the new Smile. But, crucially, he didn’t do it alone. Acting as Wilson’s assistant, he merely helped Brian sequence the new piece.
Shortly after this, Van Dyke Parks was brought in to provide lyrics where they hadn’t been completed in 1967, and the project moved toward actually completing the promised album from nearly 40 years ago. In the later stages Wilson’s horn player Paul Mertens also added some very Parksian string arrangements that tied together different leitmotifs from throughout the album, creating links between songs and generally giving the project a feeling of cohesion.
While Brian very nearly didn’t go through with actually performing Smile, because it brought back so many memories of a very unhappy time in his life and was linked with many of his mental problems, when he did perform it it was near-unanimously hailed as a masterpiece (with a few exceptions among those who had spent decades of their own lives creating theories about what Smile ‘would have been’ – some of whom, being proved wrong, either decided they had wasted their lives or that the finished version was created by some evil conspiracy out to use Brian).
So, after all that anticipation, what was the Smile they completed?
The finished album was in three movements, patterned after the structure of Rhapsody In Blue ( a piece which Wilson has described as the soundtrack to his life). The first movement had few surprises – it started with Our Prayer, a brief pastiche of Bach’s choral music, before going into a snippet of Gee by The Crows, and then into an extended version of Heroes & Villains. This movement, which then ran through several short bits of songs that had all originally spun out of the Heroes & Villains melody, before ending up with CabinEssence, combined the story of one man’s life in the Old West with the story of the journey of European settlers across North America, going from Plymouth Rock and ending up at the Grand Coulee Dam.
The first movement was extremely good – featuring two of the best songs Wilson and Parks ever wrote, that’s unsurprising – but the third movement was merely quite good. Wilson has spoken of the third movement as being added later, separate from the original conception of the album, and it shows – it’s a collection of little snatches and songs that don’t really belong together, much like side two of Abbey Road. The core of it seems to be the material originally intended for the ‘Elements’ section of Smile, but other bits have been thrown in, seemingly more because they had to be fitted in than because they fit. Having said that, some parts are still stunning – the segue from Mrs O’ Leary’s Cow (Fire) into In Blue Hawaii (Water) is beautifully done. Using the ‘water chant’ recorded in 1967 (and used in the 1971 Beach Boys song Cool Cool Water), they added a new lead vocal line, singing in free tempo over the top:
Is it hot as hell in here or is it me?
It really is a mystery
If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take my misery
I could really use a drop to drink
Somewhere in a placid pool and sink
Feel like I was really in the pink
It’s clever, it adds a whole new interesting layer to the music, and it works in context wonderfully.
But the thing that makes the album – the literal centrepiece and the part that turns it from a good album into possibly the best album ever released – is the second movement.
The second movement is bookended by the two best songs from Smile – which is to say, the two best songs ever written – Wonderful and Surf’s Up. Wonderful is a beautifully oblique story of a girl’s loss of virginity – and loss of innocence generally – with a melody that’s a third cousin of the melody for Heroes & Villains, and a story that’s not too unlike She’s Leaving Home:
Farther down the path was a mystery,
Through the recess, the chalk and numbers,
a boy bumped into her one, one, wonderful
But unlike the Beatles song, here the girl returns to her parents and is accepted by them:
All fall down and lost in the mystery
Lost it all to a non-believer
And all that’s left is a girl
Who’s loved by her mother and father
She’ll return in love with the mystery
Never known as a non-believer
She’ll sigh and thank God for one, one, wonderful
While Surf’s Up (the song I posted a video of in the first of these posts) is more oblique yet, a torrent of imagery that keeps nearly coalescing into meaning before going off again:
A diamond necklace played the pawn,
Hand in hand some drummed along
To a handsome man and baton
The music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now
To a muted trumpeter’s swan
Columnated ruins domino
Canvas the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping?
These two songs had been known for nearly forty years, though. The fact that the album featured extremely good performances of them didn’t matter – we already had several extremely good performances of them by either Wilson solo or the Beach Boys as a band to choose from.
What mattered was the end of Wonderful, where suddenly it segued into a song that had previously only been known as an instrumental, but is now known as Song For Children. With one line – “Maybe not one, maybe you too , are wondering, wondering who, wonderful you” – we went into unknown territory. The two songs that followed (Song For Children and Child Is Father Of The Man ) had been known as separate instrumentals, one with a brief chant for a chorus that was also used as the tag to Surf’s Up. In their 1960s incarnations, those songs were plink-plonk dull instrumentals with not much to them.
Suddenly, with the addition of lead vocals (and additional backing vocals, so that in Song For Children we have a ‘child is father of the son/sun’ to mirror the ‘father of the man’ later on) those songs worked as songs. Chuck Britz, the engineer on most of the Beach Boys’ 60s records, once spoke about how he’d heard some harmonies from the band that sounded terrible, and he’d told Brian so – Brian had immediately added the one extra vocal line, and it had sounded great, and Britz had never criticised his arrangements again. In the case of the middle of Smile, that process was repeated on a much bigger scale.
With the addition of the lead vocals, and sequenced correctly, these songs went from being forgettable bits of noodling into integral parts of a tightly-structured longer piece which is infinitely better than the sum of its parts – and like I said, the parts include probably the two best songs ever written. Hearing this piece for the first time, and knowing that I’d had access to more than 90% of the actual music in it before in pieces, once I got over the shock of how beautiful it was, I felt like Huxley reading Darwin – “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!”
So by 2004, we knew that Brian had conquered his demons enough to complete an album he couldn’t complete in 1967. We knew he was still capable of putting those pieces together in extraordinary ways, and that he could fill in the gaps well. At the time, I thought Smile was going to be the capstone of his career, that he’d probably not do anything more – because how could he possibly top that? I assumed he was going to retire, and it was a good place to bow out.
Because how could he possibly follow that?