In search of the perfect melody: SMiLE

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The Beach Boys - SMiLE

One Friday evening in my early teens I sat with my family watching The Rock and Roll Years, a BBC television series that presented archive news footage from a given year, backed by a soundtrack of the biggest hits of the time.

That week's year was 1966, and underneath a montage of 1966's highest profile deaths was a song of ethereal perfection entitled 'God Only Knows'. I don't recall when I first heard the Beach Boys, but they had never moved me before. In much the same way as each new love feels like the first time, I don't suppose any song had moved me before like that, and perhaps none ever will.

In a journey with which many music lovers will be familiar, the song led me to the LP (in this case, Pet Sounds, universally recognised by all people with souls as the greatest album ever recorded) which in turn led to countless hours in second-hand record shops and record fairs filling the gaps in my collection of the Beach Boys' then mostly deleted back catalogue. But it quickly transpired that there was one gap seemingly destined never to be filled: SMiLE.

A teenage symphony to God

Brian Wilson, Fireman

SMiLE was to have been the follow-up to Pet Sounds, was to have been Brian Wilson's magnum opus and as much of a progression on its predecessor as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had been on Revolver. "A teenage symphony to God" was how Brian himself had described it. On a mundane level, SMiLE was just a series of abortive recording sessions, but by the time I had heard about it, it had achieved mythic status.

Stories - sometimes apocryphal, sometimes not - surrounding SMiLE were legion. Brian conducted sessions from a sandpit in his living room; when recording 'Fire' from 'the Elements' suite, the orchestra donned fireman's helmets and when a series of fires broke out in Los Angeles, Brian got freaked out thinking he had caused it, and promptly burnt the tapes.

Even though SMiLE had progressed far enough to have a January 1967 release date announced, a radio advert commissioned ("we're sure to sell a million units!") and several hundred thousand sleeves and illustrated booklets printed, by the mid-80s the only thing that seemed certain was that it would never see the light of day. The album imploded in a mess of record company indifference, band in-fighting and Brian's descent into drug-induced mental illness that saw him retreat to his bed for the best part of a decade.

Smiley Smile

Brian Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks

Except, SMiLE never would fully die. The eventual Pet Sounds follow-up, Smiley Smile contained a number of titles originally slated for SMiLE, albeit in radically reworked and markedly less ambitious form, and a handful of completed tracks ('Surf's Up', 'Our Prayer' and 'Cabin Essence') bolstered the track lists of some later Beach Boys albums, which gave some clues as to what the thing might have eventually sounded like.

In 1985, the supposedly burned 'Fire' tapes turned up on the soundtrack to a Beach Boys documentary. And then, with the advent of cheap CD manufacturing, the bootlegs started to flow. Though invariably presenting themselves as SMiLE itself, these bootlegs tended to feature long out-takes of 'Heroes and Villains', along with various incomplete snippets in fidelity ranging from poor to adulterous. But for all their faults, these bootlegs were invaluable documents to the fan trying to work out what exactly SMiLE was.

Despite their incomplete, fragmentary nature, it was apparent that Brian and lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, had succeeded in creating a cosmic American music without precedent, at once both wildly experimental, and as gloriously catchy as should be expected of a Beach Boys recording. But in its very fragmentariness, it transpired that this was no ordinary selection of songs, but a series of modular, recurring musical themes designed to be pieced together in the editing suite.

Reconstructing SMiLE

Brian Wilson

Though I might not have put it that way at the time, this modularity expressed itself, for me at least, in the ease with which it lent itself to compilation. The bootlegs were elucidating, but even more so they were infuriatingly unlistenable, with their long out-takes, between-take banter, and umpteen variations on a number of themes. So I got myself a TDK C90 and on one side, as best I could, I completed SMiLE myself. Kind of.

I wasn't deluded enough to imagine that I really had done what Brian hadn't managed, but I was satisfied that, even on a first attempt and with the meagre tools at my disposal, I had created something that the bootleggers had failed to, which was a relatively cohesive, digestible and listenable reconstruction. However, a bodged edit here and a misplaced coda there meant that I had to have another go. Like a Lego kit, once the building is complete the only thing left to do is to start again.

Deconstructing and reconstructing SMiLE became something of a hobby for me. There was no limit to the ways the various segments from hours of recordings could be sewn together, provided they didn't exceed 45 minutes which was as long as an LP was likely to be in '67. Time that might have been spent more productively familiarising myself with the opposite sex was filled segueing between 'Cool, Cool Water' and 'Child Is Father of the Man' and wondering what on earth the eerie and minimalist 'Wind Chimes' from Smiley Smile had to do with the elaborate and ambitious SMiLE sessions.

The bootlegger's smile

The Beach Boys SMiLE Sessions

That particular question was answered in 1993 when the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys box set was released, featuring a half hour of previously unreleased and mostly un-bootlegged SMiLE out-takes, including a gorgeous and almost unrecognisable rendition of the aforementioned 'Wind Chimes'. And so, with more pieces of the jigsaw available, I went back to the drawing board and compiled SMiLE mk. 29. As more clues were revealed the riddle of SMiLE became all the more intriguing.

And so it went on. Over time, the bootlegs became more comprehensive, and of higher quality. I acquired SMiLE-ologist (honestly, not my coinage!) Dominic Priore's "Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!" a scrapbook of articles relating to the SMiLE project and an invaluable if sometimes misleading guide to all things SMiLE. That so much had been written of an album about which so little was actually known is remarkable in and of itself.

Before too long I had internet access, and with that came the discovery that not only was I hardly the first person to have created what was popularly known as the SMiLE "fan mix", but that it was a rather crowded field. I also learnt that the idiosyncratic use of upper case letters is mandatory. More significantly, I now had free access to every bootlegged outtake. With every technological advance and every liberated tape came an opportunity to approach SMiLE afresh. With the magic of digital editing and my first CD burner at my fingertips I produced a reconstruction of SMiLE that, while far from perfect, was as good as I was likely to manage.

The blueprint live

Brian Wilson Live

That should have been that, but in 2003 something very unlikely happened: Brian Wilson announced that he would be performing SMiLE live. Never mind that he had all but avoided touring for forty years until a couple of years earlier - SMiLE would be completed! The show was revelatory. It confirmed that the modular approach was correct, but segments that I had never imagined together flowed seamlessly, and seemingly throwaway fragments like 'Holidays' and the mislabelled 'Tones' / 'TuneX' turned out to be integral. On a personal level, it provided the blueprint to my final SMiLE "fan mix".

Around a year later, Wilson, with the help of his touring band, released an all-newly-recorded SMiLE. Ontological questions aside, of whether a re-recording of a forty-year old project could be said to be the real SMiLE, the fact that now there was some kind of finished SMiLE was a release in itself. It also made likely the possibility that the vaults might be opened for a comprehensive SMiLE box set in much the way Pet Sounds got the quadruple-CD treatment.

The last smile

The Beach Boys Smile Box Set

On 1st November 2011, the elaborately packaged and exorbitantly priced SMiLE Sessions Box Set - all five CDs, two LPs and two singles of it - made it to the record shops, 44 years late. This album is not SMiLE, and could never be. Some tracks never made it as far as the recording studio; other songs are complete with lyrics on the 2004 rendition but, thankfully, Brian Wilson has avoided the temptation to augment these instrumental out-takes with contemporary vocals.

Though to someone who has been familiar with this music for more than half his life there are not that many surprises, for the most part these recordings have never sounded anything like as good, and by contrast to the poorly produced bootlegs, finally there is a set that answers more questions than it raises. It even opens with the ultimate "fan mix", utilising the original mono master tapes, and so I've told myself that there's no point in reconstructing SMiLE once more; though with it coming in at 48 minutes long and spanning three LP sides - an unlikely format for 1967 - I may still have a little more work to do.

By Tim Allon

1 Comment

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Nice blog, Tim. Can't say I was ever the Beach Boys biggest fan but reading your quest and listening to some of the Spotify tracks that are about is making me think I should give Smile a full listen :)

Here's the one that everyone's been talking about on Twitter, where the you can hear the harmonies being tuned -

It's 'Our Prayer' from the Smile sessions so you should know it well.

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