Smile the Beach Boys
It's a rite of passage for students of pop music history: At some point, you learn that the Beach Boys weren't just a fun 1960s surf band with a run of singles that later came to be used in commercials; at their best, they were making capital-A Art. The record that convinces most is, that understated 1966 masterpiece that articulates a specific kind of teenage longing and loneliness like nothing before or since. Once you've absorbed that record, you find yourself going back through songs like "Don't Worry Baby", "The Warmth of the Sun", and "I Get Around", finding a deeper brilliance where you once heard only pop craftsmanship. As you make these discoveries, you come to learn about the auteur at the center of it all, Brian Wilson, who shouldered the burden of being the creative force in one of the most successful and musically ambitious pop bands of the era. And then you find out about SMiLE.
Conceived, recorded, and ultimately abandoned in 1966 and 1967, SMiLE was to be something like Brian's Sgt. Pepper's, his attempt to make the great art-pop album of the era. He followed his muse to the ends of the earth, putting a grand piano in a massive living room sandbox, outfitting another room with an Arabian tent, making session musicians wear fireman's hats for the recording of a song about the elements, freaking out when an actual fire broke out down the street from the studio around the time of recording of said track, and, no surprise, taking enough drugs to amplify the whole scene and turn it into something terrifying. But the record was not to be. The music recorded for SMiLE was too far-out for the rest of the band (lead singer Mike Love hated the lyrics penned by Wilson's collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, an opinion he still holds) and Wilson had trouble finishing tracks. Eventually, he shelved the record for good and the band issued the low-key, weird, and supremely stoned . By setting the record aside, Wilson became afraid to indulge his talent, and his contributions to the Beach Boys would never again be central to the band.
If you're wired a certain way, once you learn the SMiLE story, you long to hear the album that never was. It looms out there in imagination, an album that lends itself to storytelling and legend, like the aural equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. And the songs from the sessions that eventually made it out on other records- "Surf's Up", "Cabin Essence", "Heroes and Villains", and more, including material on the 1993 Beach Boys career-overview box Good Vibrations- were so brilliant that the lack of proper release becomes almost painful. So you might start hunting down bootlegs, poring over the fragments, and finding competing edits and track sequences, which only feeds your desire to know what the "real" SMiLE could have been.
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