Liveblogging The Smile Sessions

I’m writing this introductory material on the night of the thirtieth of October. If all goes well, I should be receiving my copy of The Smile Sessions tomorrow morning, the thirty-first. I’m going to hit ‘post’ on this introductory section at 8:30 AM, and then as soon as the box set arrives I’m going to start listening to it.

What order I listen depends on whether the new stylus for my record player arrives before or after the box, but my initial plan is to listen to the two singles, commenting after each side, then to the two vinyl albums, again commenting after each side, then listen to the CDs in order, reading the two books during the nineteen-song overlap between CD1 and the vinyl, commenting after each CD.

So right now, I’m going to talk a little about what we already know about this.

I’m already very familiar with a lot of the basic musical material here, through official releases, bootlegs and Brian Wilson’s solo reconstruction of the album (if anyone here still hasn’t heard that masterpiece, there’s a live performance here – the first half of the show isn’t especially worth your while, but the second half is the whole album performed note-perfect live). The interesting thing (apart from any totally new discovered stuff) about the completed album part of this will be the choices the producers have made.

Smile, you see, was not only never finished, it was recorded modularly – little sections, often no more than a few bars long, that were to be spliced together. That splicing was never done, and in some cases it’s unclear exactly which pieces belonged to which song, or what order they would have gone in.

Mark Linett and Alan Boyd, the producers of the box set, have chosen to more-or-less follow the tracklisting that Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks settled on when they completed the re-recorded version of Smile in 2004 (with the help of Darian Sahanaja and Paul Mertens).

In some ways, this is a worrying decision – many of the songs included on Brian Wilson Presents Smile were unfinished in the 60s, and had new lyrics and vocal parts added, which won’t be on the ‘finished album’ part of the new Smile release. This might well lead to people who’ve not heard this material before getting bored during what will seem on first listen to be longeurs. I’d have chosen a tighter ten- or twelve-track album, myself, and put the rest on as bonus tracks.

But on the other hand, it *is* how Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks chose to present the material when they completed it and re-recorded it. And it’s probably the ‘conservative’ decision, in that it doesn’t require Boyd or Linett to create their own running order, which would undoubtedly have every single Beach Boys fan in uproar. Deferring to the completed version is the sensible decision here.

It also makes me more curious how they’re going to sequence this – when Wilson, Parks and Sahanaja sequenced the 2004 version, they used newly-composed linking material by Paul Mertens, which highlighted repeated motifs in the music (for example his introduction to I’m In Great Shape, which repurposed the Cantina section from Heroes & Villains and showed it’s musical similarity to the song it was introducing). Without those, it will be *incredibly* difficult for them to make this work anything like as well as a listening experience.

However, I trust Boyd and Linett more than anyone else with this. Boyd produced the documentary and CD Endless Harmony, the CD version of which is the best Beach Boys rarities collection ever – so much so that it’s my standard recommendation for a first Beach Boys album – and he’s a fine musician himself, as well as being friendly with several of my friends. And Mark Linnet has worked with Wilson on all his studio and live recordings from the last twelve years (and his 1988 solo album), including the reworked Smile, and was also responsible for remastering all the Beach Boys’ music for CD, as well as co-producing the Good Vibrations box set (the definitive Beach Boys retrospective).

So these two are exactly the right people to do this. This is going to be as close to definitive as it’s possible to get, and while I’ll undoubtedly question some of their choices, I’m sure I’ll respect them all.

So now I’m off to bed. I’m going to hit post on this when I get up first thing in the morning, and then I’ll update after the first thing I listen to…

Update 1 It is now 11:38 AM. My box set was loaded onto a van in Rochdale at 9:33. It should be here any time now…

Update 11:49 The box set has arrived. My stylus hasn’t, yet, so it shall be CDs first.

Update 13:38 Wow.

First things first. This sounds extraordinary. None of this music, whether it’s been officially released or not, has ever sounded this clear.

Boyd and Linett have made the very wise decision not to go for historical authenticity, but to cobble together a Frankenstein creation from whatever’s at hand. For example, on the track Surf’s Up, they’ve used the original Smile backing track for the first half, taken Brian’s vocal from the piano demo and time-shifted it to make it fit the track, then added in Carl’s vocal from 1971 (and the backing vocals recorded at the same time) for the missing lines. It’s not ‘how it would have sounded’, but it’s the best possible job of making something listenable out of the materials at hand. Something like 95% of the music on the ‘finished album’ is from the Smile sessions, but the other 5% comes from Smiley Smile, 20/20 and Surf’s Up sessions. But that 5% *fits*

There are also constant little surprises – elements in the mix that I’ve never heard before. On the tag of You Were My Sunshine, for example, they edit in a piece of music we’ve always assumed was a Heroes & Villains session (I *think* the bit known as ‘False Barnyard’, but while I’ve always kept up enough with Smile scholarship to recognise all the music, I can’t remember all the labels that have been attached to different fragments) – but Mike Love is clearly singing fragments from You Were My Sunshine in the background!

These constant surprises – some on the original master tapes, others painstakingly created by Boyd and Linnet – make this music fresh again. I’m very familiar with the raw materials, but there are little snatches of never-bootlegged music, and decisions made in the mixing, that draw the attention back every time I start to think “Heard it before”.

One of the effects of this is to turn it from a Brian Wilson album into something that is definitely a *Beach Boys* album. There’s a lot more vocal on here than on the bootlegged versions – some flown in from other recordings, others just raised in the mix – but it’s gone from being a primarily-instrumental album to being one which sounds much more like the Beach Boys.

And it sounds *SO GOOD*. Mike Love’s vocals, in particular, are no longer buried – there’s a lot more bass in this mix than in any of the bootlegs. And my God that man could sing when he wanted to.

The third movement still has much less to offer than the first two, but having listened through the ‘finished album’, I can safely say that the only problems I have with it are very minor:
There’s a rough edit at the end of the tag of Vegetables, to stick on another section. It’s jarring and unpleasant and should have been left to fade with the tag.
Fire sounds somewhat toned down compared to some of the raw-sounding bootlegs.
And the additions to Good Vibrations, though tastefully done, seem almost blasphemous. They sound good, but Good Vibrations is the one part of Smile that was absolutely, undoubtedly, incontrovertibly *finished* at the time, and was a massive success. It should have been left as it was.

As for the bonus tracks – a lot of it’s stuff we’ve heard before, but the montage of backing vocals is still gorgeous. And the 1967 piano recording of Surf’s Up may be even better than the 1966 one. Beautiful, beautiful music.

As for other aspects, the packaging is beautiful. The book that comes with it is great, and I’m particularly glad that no punches are pulled when it comes to Mike Love – it’s made very clear that he had a problem with the lyrics and found them inappropriate, though he also says he enjoyed the music. I was also pleased to see a lot of my oldest friends thanked in the booklet, especially the thanks to the late Bob Hanes and Greg Larson, who would have loved this.

It’s incredibly disappointing, though, that Van Dyke Parks had no active participation in the booklet. Given that they managed to interview every other figure involved in any way – all the Beach Boys, Brian’s ex-wife, Brian’s ex-sister-in-law, Dean Torrence, Mark Volman, Uncle Tom Cobley And All – there should have been some way found of involving VDP. I have no idea who’s to blame for this omission, or what the politics behind it are, but *something* should have been done.

That’s taken me 32 minutes to write. I’m going to eat now, before starting on the other four discs…

Update 15:48

Disc two there’s less to say about. Almost all sessions for Heroes & Villains and the various other tracks that started as part of that song (I’m In Great Shape, Barnyard etc), most of this material won’t be new to anyone who’s heard the various bootlegs. That said, this is in at least two generations better sound quality than I’ve heard before, and they’ve done a great job of showing the way this material evolved in the studio, and the utter professionalism of all concerned.

Disc three next.

Update 17:43 While the highlights of disc two were mostly vocal, here the highlights are instrumental – the backing track for the first half of Surf’s Up, the tag of Cabinessence, with all its bouzouki, mandolin and banjo lines weaving in and out of each other, the piano and harpsichord parts on Wonderful. Much of this stuff has been heard before of course, but never in such quality.

Another thing that you notice as you go through this material in one big session is that themes, obsessions seem to emerge. Like people being inside musical instruments or equipment – we all remember George Fell Into His French Horn, but we also have Brian in the piano, Brian in the microphone… it reminds me curiously of the people living in the piano in Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy from a year or so later than this.

Unlike the first disc, I wouldn’t recommend discs two or three to anyone who isn’t as obsessed as I am with this music. But for those who are, they’re fascinating.

Update 19:08 Of the ‘sessions’ discs, disc four is probably the most interesting as a listening experience to the non-musician, because here, as well as sessions for Smile itself, we go into the stuff surrounding Smile. So we have sessions for You’re Welcome and With Me Tonight (two Smile leftovers), for Dennis and Carl’s contemporary attempts to make music like their brother, I Don’t Know and Tones/Tune X, for Three Blind Mice (actually an outtake from before Pet Sounds, but included on Smile bootlegs so often they presumably thought it had to be there) and for Cool, Cool Water (a post-Smile reworking of some Smile material) and we have Teeter Totter Love, a track Brian wrote and produced for photographer Jasper Dailey, who has an almost Wild Man Fisher quality to his vocals.

This makes it the most varied of the discs, and the one least concerned with repeated slightly different takes of small snippets.

It also has three ‘hidden’ extra tracks, including a totally different edit of Heroes & Villains, compiled entirely from sections that weren’t used in the main edit on disc one, with different verse and cantina vocals. Well worth listening to.

And now… to disc five. The last disc (unless my stylus arrives now, which is unlikely) and one composed entirely of one song… Good Vibrations.

Update 20:38
And so 12 hours after I hit publish on this, we come to an end.
Truth be told there’s little on disc five of this that will come as a surprise to anyone. There’s been more session material released for this track – both legitimately and otherwise – than for any other, and the main thing I noticed about this is that the sessions are far less edited down. Which, given how well I know this material, was disconcerting – “Wait, that’s not where he says ‘that really felt good, let’s hear it'” and so on.

But what we have here is essentially the ‘Good Vibrations (sessions)’ bits from the Good Vibrations box/Smiley Smile – Wild Honey CD/Hawthorne, CA CD/Pet Sounds Sessions box writ large. We hear attempts at the song from every existing session for it, of which there were many. We hear sections that don’t make it onto the final track, and we hear, slowly but surely, how Brian Wilson sculpted the perfect pop single out of what started as a couple of simple riffs.

Much like disc four, the disc ends with a Frankenstein version of Good Vibrations, with the alternate verse lyrics by Tony Asher going into the chorus from the Rarities version, then into a stereo version of the “I don’t know where but she sends me there” bit missing a few crucial vocal overdubs, then into the fuzz-bass/fast ‘hum-de-ah’ section. It’s interesting, but it’s not a patch on the single.

I’ve still not got my new stylus, so I can’t yet listen to the vinyl, but on the basis of the five CDs totalling more than six and a half hours of music, and the superb packaging, I’d say that while this isn’t something I could recommend to anyone who isn’t as obsessed with the Beach Boys as I am, anyone who’s even considering buying this box set will love it.

For some of you who aren’t, I’ll recommend the 2-CD version, but with the following caveat (which my regular readers, at least, will get) – Smile is the greatest album in the world in the same way that Evil Of The Daleks may be the best Doctor Who story. With Evil Of The Daleks we have one surviving episode, a soundtrack, a bit of film footage shot on set, a load of still photographs and a novelisation. From that, we can tell it was great, but you’re not going to convince anyone who only quite liked David Tennant. In the same way, The Smile Sessions, in whatever form, is a wonderful collection of all the evidence we need to show that had Smile been finishable in 1967, it would undoubtedly have been the best album released up to that point. But those of you who just want something nice to listen to should stick with Brian Wilson’s 2004 completed version.

Polished as it has been, this is still music that requires a great deal of work on the part of the listener. The amazing thing is, it repays that work.

The Smile that you send out returns to you.


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1 Response to Liveblogging The Smile Sessions

  1. TAD says:

    I’ll get the 2-CD version at some point (when I can afford to spend money on music again). Looking forward to it, especially if your comments about things like Mike’s vocals being louder are correct (and similar changes). I definitely prefer the 1966 Smile recordings to Brian’s later solo release……..the earlier stuff has more vibe to it.

    I’ve never been the big Smile fan that you are, though. I’ve always been a Pet Sounds guy….that’s the album that does it for me. Smile was always a bit too artsy-fartsy for me, I guess.

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