The First Time I Heard Smile

The first time I heard Smile I was seventeen. Just after Christmas, 1995. I’d got myself the Smiley Smile/Wild Honey twofer. I knew Smiley Smile had a bad reputation, but it was the album that came after Pet Sounds – how bad could it be? Anyway, I knew Good Vibrations, Heroes & Villains, Wild Honey and Darlin’ from compilations, so even if it just had those on, it’d be pretty good.
I was amazed. That album changed my view of music forever. The sparse, ethereal counterpoint at the end of Wind Chimes, the hum-de-ah Good Vibrations vocals, and most of all Wonderful, easily the best song I’d ever heard up to that point. Pet Sounds was what made me appreciate the Beach Boys, but this was what made me a fan.

The first time I heard Smile I was nineteen. Late 1997. I’d bought the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set for sixty pounds, the most money I’d ever spent to that point on anything. I put the first three discs in the changer, turned off the lights, lay down and listened.
I knew most of the proper songs by then, of course, but hearing them in context with the other work of the time was still amazing. The new-to-me version of Wind Chimes didn’t really work, and some of the instrumental bits sounded like noodling, but the harpsichord version of Wondrful and the solo piano version of Surf’s Up were two of the most magnificent things I’d ever heard.

The first time I heard Smile I was twenty, late 1998. I’d never yet bought a bootleg, though that would change very soon, but I’d found someone on the internet, a couple of years younger than me, who had a copy of the Vigotone Smile bootleg that he was willing to tape for me if I taped him a few things he couldn’t afford from legitimate CDs.
By this point, Smile had become a puzzle for me, and I made endless cassette duplicates of bits of that tape and things I had on CD, trying to fit a workable running order out of these snatches and phrases, outtakes and completed songs.

The first time I heard Smile I was twenty-five, in February 2004. I couldn’t afford to go and see the premiere when Brian Wilson announced he was completing the album and performing it live, but I waited up all night, and as soon as the first MP3s were up, I grabbed them with my superfast 200 k/s broadband.
My jaw dropped when I heard the transition from Wonderful into Look, and by the end of the second movement I was in tears. He’d done it. He’d actually pulled together all those bits and pieces, all those plinky instrumental bits and half-finished demos, into something that really was the greatest album in the world. He’d been right all along.
I saw that tour twice, and still treasure my copy of the setlist that I got from Darian in Manchester.

The first time I heard Smile I was twenty-five. It was August 2004, and my friend Gavin (not either of the two Gavins who regularly comment here – Gavin seems to be a name that is unusually common among the best sort of people) had got a promo copy of Brian Wilson Presents Smile from the record shop where he worked, a month before it was officially released. He invited me and my then-girlfriend (now-wife) Holly to come and listen to it, because he knew we’d appreciate it. We sat in silence from the opening “ooh” of Our Prayer to the closing ‘cello fade of Good Vibrations, and I knew that here, finally, was the complete album I’d been waiting nine years to hear.

The first time I hear Smile will be some time in the next four days…

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