In a recent interview with Brian Wilson’s collaborator, this wonderous musician said when asked about modern America: “I think there is a malaise, a spoon-fed audience simply wanting songs to be niceties; they think songs shouldn’t agitate, shouldn’t inform. It’s a soft ball mentality that’s taken over most of the arts - journalism too”. I tend to agree but would argue its more of an international phenomenon, and since I’ve just discovered that Brian is releasing the original vaulted-off Smile sessions later this year, I decided to post this article I wrote in January for a music magazine about the infamous album that has taken 40 years to see the day. I’m also completely over the moon, as I had no idea when writing the article that Brian would release the ‘haunted’ recordings or that Parks who had had to bear the defeat for so many years, was aslo working on solo new releases, that were seperate from his arrangements for other artists like Joanna Newsome etc.
Here is the piece:
Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys still affecting modern music:
“Look, listen, vibrate and SMILE”
If it weren’t for Ariel Pink and Deerhunter - dipping into the best of “sixties garage”, with their all-male-American vocal harmonies - putting anything across the Atlantic to shame, I wouldn’t be thinking about The Beach Boys so much these days. Their obvious influence on Animal Collective, Beach House, the newer Washed Out or even Grizzly Bear and The Fleet Foxes, all make me believe that Brian Wilson should be plated in gold while he is still breathing. Perhaps a little excessive, but looking back, the movement the Beach Boy’s inspired represents a defining moment in American culture that has yet to be paralleled.
Jimmy Hendrix who didn’t like them much, called it the end of “psychedelic barber shop” when they didn’t show up at the Monterey rock festival in 1967. I’m not sure he could have forseen that four and a half decades later their unforgettable style would still be playing out.
The Gershwin Estate commissioned Brian to complete some of George Gershwin’s compositions for the tribute album to their prodigal relative, released in 2010. Making the connection between the references to Gershwin in Wilson’s arrangements might have been considered audacious before, but certainly not now. His recent re-emergence in classical terms is long over-due. The observation was somehow frozen in time and asking Brian to “re-imagine Gershwin” was perhaps a way of honouring the words uttered by the classical hack Leonard Bernstein, on his 1966 television show, ‘Inside Pop’. As the camera pans around, Brian is sitting at the piano, (black polo neck, in a blacked out studio), we hear in a solemn voiceover:
“There is a new song too complex to get all of first time round. It could only come out of the ferment that characterises today’s pop music scene, Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own “Surf’s Up”. Poetic, beautiful, even in it’s obscurity, “Surf’s Up”, is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today…”
This song, which to me symbolises the perfection that this new obscure sound was offering, was not released until 1971, on an album named after it, by The Beach Boys and not by a solo Brian Wilson. Inspired by the tragedy of the Vietnam War, it brought Brian to tears when he listened to it after the first recording. Destined to be included on the mythical album Smile and forgotten amidst a myriad of other recordings, the song represents a moment of amphetamine charged brilliance that destroyed Brian’s life at the same time as enabling him to push forward musical boundaries.
The show that aired on CBS that night in 1966 did not highlight any match up between the song’s harmonic construction and Gershwin (or any other classical composers) and failed to talk about Van Dyke Parks, Brian’s collaborator, who wrote the lyrics. However its inclusion was significant, and highlighted the astonishing evolution that had taken place in the Beach Boys sound from 1965 to 1967.
We can’t seem to get away from that time period. Anything worth emulating seems to come from those formative years in pop recording history; but here’s the bit that intrigues me the most. Would today’s music scene be what it is, had The Beach Boy’s seminal album Smile come out as planned? It was said to be the most anticipated album ever not made. Forty thousand album sleeves were produced before recording had even finished, they remained in boxes in a warehouse somewhere in California for over thirty years, like new clothes intended for dead people.
The album, was supposed to follow the ground-breaking and critically acclaimed Pet Sounds, and would include the world number one hit single “Good Vibrations” as well as the melodic masterpiece just mentioned: “Surf’s Up”. Had it come out fresh after its time of recording, Smile would have been the only rival to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and perhaps the unconscious influence of Abbey Road. The 2004 version of Smile that Brian finally made as a solo project, newly out of his public coma aged 62, is like having a dream to finally fall into: you wake up in 1966 on the beach in Paradise Cove. Or at least I did when I first heard it. Fans had been making their own versions of Smile for years, piecing together the songs that appeared on ‘Best of’s’, subsequent albums and the strange but wonderful Smiley Smile, the rushed ‘home recorded’ replacement album that finally appeared in the wake and absence of Smile.
The reasons for the non-completion of this notorious work still remain ambiguous. In the documentary Beautiful Dreamer, Brian admits suffering from extreme paranoia, along with falling victim to growing tensions in the group. Nearly all the songs were co-written between him and Van Dyke Parks. Brian had formerly collaborated on lyrics with his cousin and fellow band member Mike Love, and later chose to ask Tony Asher to co-write with him on Pet Sounds. For Smile, he chose a young pill popping composer, intellectual, and with an obscene talent for words.
The boys often couldn’t or didn’t want to understand the cryptic Beat poetry in the new lyrics. Brian was suffering from other artistic and personality clashes. The source of these originated in the pathological relationship he had with his father, the distance now forming between him and the other band members, and his own seismic expectations of what he was trying to achieve with Smile. The Beach Boys formula for chart success and making millions weighed on him continuously in spite of his advanced sense of creating avant-garde music. Not only that, it was taking too long to complete. His indecision was costing a lot of money. A sort of silent protégé and ardent admirer of Phil Spector, Brian was known to be as demanding in the studio but with the added problem of an inability to defend his opinions to the record label or the other Beach Boys. The results had a disastrous effect on his personal life.
The legend is as follows: The “Fire” suite of Smile, a piece of music that was planned for the end of the album, where he had his studio orchestra wear fire hats to get into the frenzied mood, was the beginning of Brian’s breakdown. After recording the instrumental parts in the studio, a warehouse burnt to the ground, down the street. The coincidence is said to have tipped him and his God complex over the edge. But perhaps Van Dyke had already lost interest as a result of the in-band feuds, Brian’s fickle drug dented work ethic and his paranoid and crazed pop star whims.
Indeed Brian’s pot, LSD and amphetamine abuse probably made his general perception of things worse. In 1976, in an interview marking his first return to health, on the famous talk show Michael Douglas, he talks about the “heaven and hell” effects of the cocaine addiction that followed the making of Smile. We hear a slightly demented but determined voice extolling the virtues of hedonism, but the voice points out, only if you can handle it. He certainly couldn’t. He slipped back into the throws of addiction months after the interview. He tries nonetheless to make it clear that he didn’t need it for the music, but more as a crutch. In truth, he started using acid through new musical friends, and after experiencing the liberating effects it had on his creativity, the other drugs became a way to forget his recurring nightmares and the hallucinations of a painful childhood. Brian’s weight fluctuations also mirrored his on-going detachment from reality, this habit dating back to his teens; along with his brother Carl, he over-ate for comfort.
So was it just the substance abuse, the food binging with the resulting psychosis that these habits revealed, that ended up throwing him into the dark and forced him to abandon the Smile trapped in his head? Enough YouTube comments after Beach Boys’ videos show that there is an army of “Mike Love” haters, who blame the unspoken bullying between him and Brian as the main reason for his self-torture.
Brian needed Mike and the others’ approval desperately. “They were afraid I was fucking up the formula that had made them all famous and wealthy”, he wrote. When he showed them the songs he had been working on for Smile they apparently responded with the same bewilderment as when they first heard “Good Vibrations” - that his wacked out experimentation would never sell any singles.
Certainly if you watch the footage of the rehearsals in preparation for the Smile Tour in 2004, some forty years later, he looks like he is reliving a sort of self-crushing hell while he listens to his new devoted musicians sing out the harmonies written for the original band.
Brian had privately considered Smile as a solo adventure predicting The Beach Boy’s disapproval of the new direction, but quickly rationalised it as impossible. The band was his family and he didn’t want to lose them. The perpetual conflict that his loyalty to them and his creative voice provoked would haunt and confuse him for years to come.
Age twenty-four, he had already written, produced and collaborated on a monumental array of material and had an infinite amount of financial and artistic success. He had every reason to feel strong. Other strange pressures existed; the conscious desire to be an innovator, now that he had been world-recognised as a rival to the Lennon - McCartney machine. He felt the pressure to perform. Just as Lennon and McCartney did, now that Brian existed for them. Nonetheless, contrary to the burden Brian felt, the competition he presented across the Atlantic had a more positive effect on the British duo.
Once Brian had stopped touring and worked from home in 1965 (due to fatigue and general discomfort being on the road) and became The Beach Boy’s main writer/arranger/producer, the other members of the group were generally seen by the press as his puppets. Perhaps a nicer way of putting it is that they were the invaluable but not entirely necessary elements of his vocal orchestra. Yet there is nothing that demonstrates that they were worthless to him as musicians. Everything Brian created with them was because of them. And if he was worried that Smile would be too far out and if Mike and the others objected to the often abstract lyrics of his dope scene co-writer and friend, Van Dyke Parks, then why did they even bother recording the clearly psychedelic and less commercial trip that was Smiley Smile in 1967? Contractual obligations seem unlikely as it was released on their own label, Brother Records.
This album, mainly ignored, featuring six versions of the songs that were intended for Smile, and bearing a similar title, is far bolder than the Zombies’ so-called modern Odysseys and Oracles could have ever been. It surprises me that it hasn’t had the same venerated re-issue into today’s mainstream, when one supposes that we are able to handle it. Perhaps the creepy laughter and lo-fi tales of a woman losing her hair are as disarming now as they were then. The album was played entirely by The Beach Boys with only two extra session musicians used. The mix of humour and rich melodic layering in the subtle “Little Pad” is indicative of Brian’s power to make any composition sound lush, intimate and powerful even with lower-end production.
Nonetheless, Brian in his autobiography published in 1991, didn’t really rate this album and refers to the real Smile as the unfulfilled potential, valuing their nineteenth studio album Friends, released in 1968, as the only musical achievement of that period. It was the first time, he said, the other members and his brothers truly presented their own songs to an album.
It was in 1971, when the albums Sunflower and Surf’s Up were made, that we see The Beach Boys demonstrate the sound that I think was imagined for them in Smile. Brian seems to confirm this, admitting that when he heard Surf’s Up, he found the whole experience unnecessarily eerie. Started without his knowledge, it reminded him of the personal failure that was the unmade Smile. The Beach Boys had, at this point gone vaguely out of cool and these albums appear not to have made an impression in the critical zeitgeist. Brian wasn’t really present anymore due to his mental illness, but The Beach Boys managed to record and function without him while he was in bed tripping, wriggling around in the glass box that was his room.
The truth was, the sound he created could live on (and he knew it), which is why as a composer he should be celebrated so much more, and why as a band, they should be admired all the more for being able to perform so many co-authored compositions in such an effortless and uniform way. 2004’s Smile, the album that Brian finally had the courage to record based on the incomplete original recordings, is to me the perfect collector’s album. A journey through America, it encapsulates all the elements of Brian’s musical inspiration. Similar to Dvorak’s American Symphony, it celebrates the mythological wealth of the Old West. However something inside me wishes I’d heard The Beach Boys sing it their way. Of course it would have been Brian’s way too; but the Brian age 24 with his beautiful falsetto voice and ear for experimentation. He didn’t use the original tapes half abandoned from ‘67 to record the new version in 2004. Instead he used his new touring band and orchestral players to make an entirely new recording.
(since writing this it was announced that the original Smile sessions shall be released!)
This however, is not supposed to be a “what if” story. In American musical history, Brian is now considered the road between George Gershwin and Burt Bacharach. I would go further and say that he and his band’s unforgettable style are also the link between Cole Porter and the nineteenth century French Classical movement, right through to the The Doors and all the way up to the USA Coastal dream pop that, in my opinion, outshines anything else around at the moment. You cannot ignore the classical and jazz elements which are present, nor deny the original ways in which their choral presentation changed and contributed to pop music. “A Day in the Life of a Tree”, which is on Surf’s Up, contains a church organ arrangement similar to Fauré’s “Requiem in Paradisum.”
The other songs on the twin albums Sunflower and Surf’s Up, like Carl’s “Feel Flows”, or his brother Dennis’s “Forever” and the vocal swells of Bruce’s “Disney Girls”, “Our Sweet Love” (co-written with Carl and Al) or “Cool Cool Water” (originally written by Brian for a Coca-cola ad), culminating with the sublime arrangement of Brian’s “Till I die” and “Surf’s Up”, are I think, a peculiar homage by his band mates to the ‘almost existence’ of the late sixties version of Smile. There is a fresh warm atmosphere reminiscent of The Beatles’ White album.
The epic 1971 album version of the song ‘Surf’s Up’ was mostly supervised, arranged and sung by Brian’s youngest brother Carl. He also incorporated the live piano and voice tracks from the ‘Inside Pop’ TV show. This in a way proved that he had understood Brian’s vision. It was unfortunate that Brian thought the band didn’t believe in him the first time around. Incidentally in the 2004 version, Brian remains faithful to Carl’s arrangement.
The frustrating thing, looking back, is that ‘Surf’s Up’ and the eponymous album came out when it did. Four years too late. Why did Brian not try and finish the song earlier, or release it as a single after “Good Vibrations” huge success? It was nationally applauded on television by Bernstein’s lips, so why didn’t he have the confidence to just do it his way. The tension between Love, Parks, and the others plus the over all disaster of the Smile project seems to have been the main issue. Even if “Good Vibrations” became a million selling single, an experiment pieced together in five different studios that inspired Capitol Records to push Smile in billboard advertisements well before it was ready, Brian clearly had given up trying to prove to everyone he could write and sell innovative music.
I accidentally stumbled upon Wilson Phillips the late eighties girl band, made up of Brian’s daughters from his first marriage, and one of the girls from The Mama’s and Papa’s offspring. In a 2009 radio interview, the eldest Wilson was asked about the bad vibes between Mike Love and her father. She answered diplomatically and said: “Wouldn’t it be great to see all the living Beach Boys on stage together again”.
I agree, but I can’t help lamenting the absence of the angelic vocal chords of the deceased Dennis and Carl. The other main members Al Jardene, and Brian Johnston - Brian’s replacement on tour and eventual solid band member - seem to be silently allied with Brian.
All Brian wanted to do was create spiritual music. He definitely achieved that with Smile - often described by him, as his intended “teenage symphony to God”. The sense of poignant frustration in his own life by the end of his youth or an unwillingness to accept his uncomfortable adulthood is reflected in today’s chill-wave scene that harks back to The Beach Boys and their endless summer.
Eric Harvey in a recent article in music journal Pitchfork refers to chill- wave “not as a type of music per se, but a specific lifestyle that merges real-life obligations with the desire to stay deliriously young”.
New acts like Toro y Moi, Neon Indian’s song ‘Should Have Taken Acid With You’ and Washed Out’s LP Life of Leisure are examples of this. In Baltimore pop-band Beach House’s recent LP named Teen Dream, we see a more obvious reference to what Brian was trying to achieve.
Harvey tells us that now “psychologists are increasingly regarding our 20s and early 30s not as the default point for entry into adulthood, but more a lengthy extension of adolescence”.
We rarely hear any bands compared to the “Beatles”, unless it’s a case of sixties plagiarism, but “The Beach Boys” is being bandied about these days like a synonym to anything a modern music critic thinks is any good. Some people would prefer to argue that The Beatles win hands down in any meaningful battle of historical importance with the Beach Boys, but I maintain the modern influence that The Beach Boys continue to instigate is something much more mysterious and exciting.
Brian as a contemporary figure seems to generate images of a recovered junkie, damaged from the years of self-destructive pent up genius, side by side with a venerated composer being allied with the likes of Gershwin. It’s as the post war Californian youth, who through his music, captured a sense of eternal freedom in the imagination, that I think he should be admired.
Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Beach House and the chill wave progression, despite any objections, are very much the offspring of the Smile and Surf’s Up era. The elements of garage and surf music that are reappearing, confirm the affiliation that The Beach Boys have with the present youth obsessed scene.
The obscure lyrical potency Van Dyke Parks added to Brian’s music is immeasurable. And for this “Surf’s Up” will remain truly timeless. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of this composition’s first release, here are some lines from the masterpiece.
“…Hung velvet overtaken me
Dim chandelier awaken me
To a song dissolved in the dawn
The music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now
To a muted trumpeter swan
Columnated ruins domino
Canvass the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping, Brother John?
Dove nested towers the hour was
Strike the street quicksilver moon
Carriage across the fog
Two-Step to lamplight cellar tune
The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne
The glass was raised, the fired rose
The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting
While at port, adieu or die
A choke of grief HEART hardened I
Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
A children’s song
Child, Child. Child….”
Written by Carly Blackman
All Rights Reserved - January 2011
Created by DC and Marvel comic artist JJD. This is just a sneak preview of some sketches…