Some Things You Need To Know About SMiLE

So, the Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions (as it’s now officially called, capitalisation and all) is now out. It’s not officially released until Monday (UK) and Tuesday (US), but people have seen it in shops, and some people have got their copy. Unfortunately for me, I’m not one of them – I pre-ordered from Amazon, and they’ve still not even dispatched their copies, while people who ordered from Sainsbury’s (SAINSBURY’S!) have already received theirs.

So right now I’m twitching like I’ve drunk thirty cups of coffee, and checking my email every fifteen seconds to see if Amazon have dispatched it yet. They haven’t. They still haven’t.

But I thought I’d let people know what they should know, before they go out and buy this.

Firstly, Smile is not a finished album. Alan Boyd and Mark Linnet have done their best to get something as complete as possible, but a lot of vocal parts simply weren’t recorded in 1966 and 1967. Unless there’s something I’ve not heard about yet, and that none of the lucky bastards who’ve got their copies have said, the tracks Do You Like Worms, Look, Child Is Father Of The Man, I Wanna Be Around, Holidays and Love To Say DaDa are all missing lead vocals.

If you want a complete Smile listening experience, buy Brian Wilson Presents Smile either the 2004 CD or the (preferable) live DVD version. Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, his collaborator, put together a completed version of Smile in 2004, with lead vocals, extra bits of linking instrumentation and so forth. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and quite probably the best album ever released. It doesn’t feature the Beach Boys’ vocals, but it’s still great, and the closest thing possible to hearing how Wilson and Parks intended the album to sound.

Nonetheless, this Smile will definitely be worth getting. If you like Brian Wilson Presents Smile, you *will* like this. Any album containing Heroes And Villains, Cabinessence, Wonderful and Surf’s Up would, just on the fact of containing those four tracks, be a contender for greatest album ever recorded. Just remember that what you’re getting is closer to the Beatles’ Anthology series than to, say, Revolver.

The good stuff is as good as any music out there. Mike Taylor once asked me to recommend a Beach Boys album, and seemed unhappy when I couldn’t give a straightforward recommendation of a classic album (other than Pet Sounds, with which he was unimpressed). The Beach Boys didn’t really work in album terms – they had good and bad tracks, and which of those tracks actually got released had little or no correlation with quality. This is a band that didn’t release Still I Dream Of It, possibly the most heartbreaking song ever recorded, but did release Hey Little Tomboy, one of the creepiest. This being unreleased music doesn’t mean it’s not great.

Be aware of the different versions There are at least five separate configurations for this music out there:
The single-CD version. This is just a reconstruction of the album, following the template of Brian Wilson Presents Smile, along with a handful of bonus tracks. This is what you should get if you’ve heard and enjoyed BWPS, and maybe own Pet Sounds and a Beach Boys Greatest Hits, but aren’t really a huge fan or anything.
The double-CD version. Same as the single-CD, with a second disc of highlights from the recording sessions. Get this if you’ve got most of the Beach Boys’ stuff already, maybe got the Good Vibrations box set, but aren’t hugely interested in how the tracks are put together.
The double-vinyl version. Sides one to three are the reconstruction of the album, as on the single CD, but side four is a different set of bonus tracks not available on CD. Buy this if you like vinyl.
The box set. This has the double vinyl, the single CD, two vinyl singles (apparently including at least one mix that’s slightly different from anything on CD), four CDs of session outtakes, two books, a poster, and a pretty box. Buy this if you’re me.
The download version of the box set. This just has the music from the five CDs. Buy this if you’re as obsessed with this music as me, but don’t have a turntable and don’t want some pretty books, because it’s cheaper.

Assuming I get this before Tuesday, I’ll be liveblogging the whole Smile experience here, all five CDs, four vinyl records and two books of it. In the meantime, why not visit Arkhonia ? He’s done a wonderful *long* series of posts on Smile, the myth of it, the music, and its portrayal in the media. I disagree with quite a bit of it, especially his dismissal of Smiley Smile, but he’s doing a great job of showing just why this is so important, and why I’m still twitching like mad waiting for this thing.

(And of course if you want to read more Beach Boys writing from me, you can buy my book The Beach Boys On CD. Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats)

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11 Responses to Some Things You Need To Know About SMiLE

  1. Richard says:

    I can’t disagree with a word of this.

    I’d just add that the Brian Wilson Presents Smile DVD will also give viewers the feature length documentary “Beautiful Dreamer” which is the best concise history of the Smile story you’ll find, and quite possibly the best documentary that will ever be made about the Beach Boys with Brian’s participation. (And without any of the others.) A potential new fan could do worse than to have this as an introduction.

    When I first watched the full performance of Smile on that DVD, my reaction was something along the lines of “Okay, now I understand what music was invented for.” I’m not kidding about that.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, that was about my reaction, too.
      BTW I enjoyed your 33 1/3 RPM post. Tried to comment on it but blogger ate the comment. Nice piece.

  2. Pingback: ‘Smile’ – My First 25 Years : a note about deadlines « Arkhonia

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    I have tried with Pet Sounds, honestly — I’ve listened through it five times complete, which seems like a fair shake. I’ve got nothing against it, it just doesn’t strike me as particularly better than, say, Invisible Touch or An Innocent Man.

    … and I do know that I’m wrong by any objective standard — I know that McCartney loved it, and that it was somehow a big influence on Revolver (which really *is* a contender for Best Ever, as I know you know). So obviously I am missing something here. It’s frustrating.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      Er, I meant Sergeant Pepper, of course.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        It was actually a big influence on both – Here, There, Everywhere for example is *very* Pet Sounds.
        And I hope you didn’t think I was having a dig at you. Different people like different things, and that’s fine. It was actually more of a dig at the Beach Boys for having so many of their albums be so wildly inconsistent.

        • Mike Taylor says:

          No, of course I didn’t read it as a dig! I am peprlexed myself. It’s the same with Bob Dylan.

          I will listen again to HT&E and try to detect the PS influence!

          • Andrew Hickey says:

            The most obvious things are the tonal ambiguity, the way McCartney keeps changing key – listen to the line “I want her everywhere”, where not only is there a very Wilson key change, but Ringo’s fill is very like the fills on Pet Sounds. There’s also the bass-line – McCartney’s no longer playing just plain root notes, but a simple countermelody that sounds like Wilson’s use of the bass. And finally there’s the vocals – McCartney singing right at the top of his range, in a near-falsetto, while there’s three-part block harmony behind him.

            It’s nowhere near as sophisticated as Pet Sounds, but it’s clearly coming from the same place as You Still Believe In Me, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) and God Only Knows.

            Another obvious comparison is Wouldn’t It Be Nice and Penny Lane – they’re practically the same song…

            • Mike Taylor says:

              Hmm. Ian McDonald, in Revolution in the Head, points out that Pet Sounds wasn’t released in Britain until July 1966, and so could not have influenced Here, There and Everywhere, which was recorded on 14-16 June.

              I see from Wikipedia, though, that it was released (presumably in the US only) on 16 May 1966, so that doesn’t seem conclusive.

              Anyway, we have McCartney’s own abundant testimony concerning its huge influence on Pepper, which is enough to be getting on with.

              • Andrew Hickey says:

                MacDonald knew more about the Beatles than about the Beach Boys, though – Bruce Johnston visited London in May 1966, specifically to play Pet Sounds to people in the British music industry, mostly connections he’d made through Derek Taylor (the BBs’ publicist and before that the Beatles’). He played it to Keith Moon, Andrew Loog Oldham and Lennon & McCartney. I’ve read somewhere (can’t remember exactly where) that McCartney wrote Here, There And Everywhere that night, after listening to Pet Sounds for the first time.

    • Richard says:

      Mike, may I offer a perspective on this?

      I first heard Pet Sounds in its entirety in 1990 when it was released on CD…and other than the three songs I already knew from 24 years of radio play, it did nothing for me at all. I forced myself to listen to it all the way through several times for the sake of all the people telling me it was a great album, as well as my deep passion for the Beatles and my desire to become more familiar with their influences. But it just left me cold. Some years later, after I’d heard and enjoyed The Beach Boys Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) I went back to Pet Sounds and it all fell into place. Finally, I understood exactly what all these people had been raving about. The little bit of extra musical context offered by the preceding albums undoubtedly helped — but what really made the difference was letting go of the weight of McCartney’s endorsement, letting go of the idea that “hearing this album is a duty and a responsibility, it’s good for you, you must listen to it and be edified.” It’s like the schoolmaster in The Meaning of Life, you know? Anything can seem oppressively dull with the proper effort.

      My advice would be, stop trying to like Pet Sounds. Leave it aside. Only pick it up again when you’ve forgotten it almost completely and a stray thought occurs to you: “Huh, what’s that line he sings in Spanish in ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ again?” And listen to it on a whim, without expectations. You can’t plan that, but if you can pull it off, the album might just surprise you.

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