There’s a reason most people think of songs about surfing, cars and cruising for chicks when they think of the Beach Boys: the Beach Boys wrote a lot of songs about those things. And why not? In the mid-1960s, with British Invasion bands going toe to toe with American bands in their native Top 20, songs about surfing, cars and chicks did more than just celebrate perennial California pastimes.
They were durable pop goods, and the Beach Boys had a lock on the sound, matching peers like the Beatles with hit after hit. The Wilson brothers, cousin Mike Love and a friend named Al Jardine got rich and stayed rich with cars, surfing and cruising for chicks. As Love once carped during recording sessions for Smile, the Beach Boy’s unreleased answer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, “Don’t fuck with the formula.”
Smile sounds exactly like what Love was afraid of: the Beach Boys were messing with the formula that made them the biggest American rock act of the early ’60s—and the resultant music sounds like something on the order of a West Coast Beatles, from the British band’s most sprawlingly ambitious era. A new, two-CD bootleg version of the Smile sessions may or may not be the last word on this astonishing obscurity (much of the material on it has been in pirate circulation for years), but until an official release appears, fully remixed and remastered and with full liner notes, the two-disc import will do nicely.
As a band, the Beach Boys were primarily beneficiaries of the oldest Wilson brother, Brian, who wrote the songs and did most of the arranging that kept the California hit factory in harmony-drenched chart toppers at the rate of up to three albums a year. After recovering from a nervous breakdown en route to a concert appearance in late 1964, however, Brian Wilson opted for the life of a stay-at-home Beach Boy, busily writing new songs while the band quietly hired a replacement to take on the road.
From a creative standpoint, the arrangement worked smoothly. While the rest of the Beach Boys toured the world, Brian Wilson stayed home and worked up new material for his brothers and Love to add vocals to when they returned to California. Pet Sounds, the 1966 Beach Boys album that many critics consider the group’s finest, came out of this symbiotic woodshedding arrangement. In his book The Beach Boys and the American Myth, author David Leaf recalls that Paul McCartney once cited Pet Sounds as the Beatles’ inspiration for writing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
McCartney, according to Leaf, declared it “a totally classic record that is unbeatable in many ways,” adding that “No one is educated musically until they hear Pet Sounds.”
Despite overwhelmingly positive press, though, the record was a commercial dud, selling well short of gold status. The Beach Boys began to question Brian Wilson’s pop instincts, which seemed to be leading them out of tried and true cars ’n’ girls material and into more unsettling “experimental” terrain. The poor sales were discouraging for Brian Wilson, too, but he quickly rebounded by writing a new hit, “Good Vibrations,” which sold 400,000 copies in the first week after its release and then went on to become the Beach Boys’ first million-selling album. Inspired by the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” (the creative rivalry worked two ways) Wilson’s platinum “pocket symphony” took over six months to record and was pieced together from over 90 hours of studio tape.
Buoyed by the success of “Good Vibrations,” Wilson returned to the studio to work on a follow-up album with the working title of Dumb Angel. Wilson described the project to close friends as a “teenage symphony to God,” and some of the same friends tried to talk him out of making the project a Beach Boys record, telling him that he should release it as “a Brian Wilson record” instead. Wilson, however, stuck by the group and presented them with the material he’d already completed on their return from a concert tour of England.
The other Boys’ reactions, especially Mike Love’s, were decidedly unfavorable. The vocals Wilson had ready for them to record, with lyrics co-authored with neo-Dylan composer Van Dyke Parks, seemed dark and oblique—at least for a band as ordinarily sunny and steady-on as the Beach Boys. The studio blow-ups and constant griping got to be too much for Wilson, who retreated further into the studio, alienated from the rest of the group.
The release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band apparently finished Wilson’s project off. Wilson reportedly listened to the Beatles’ record over and over again, marveling at what his creative rivals had pulled off and despairing over his inability to move forward with his own album. Dumb Angel, now called Smile, was never completed and never released.
Tapes somehow got out, though. Listening to the scattered fragments of songs of the bootlegged Smile sessions—some more fragmented than others—it’s intriguing to think what might have happened to the Beach Boys if the group had stepped up to the challenge Brian Wilson presented to them. There are countless moments on Smile to prickle anyone’s neck hairs, especially on the somber, minor-key “Surf’s Up” (a misleading Beach Boys song title if ever there was one) and the heart-rending chorale of “Prayer,” which resembles composer Arvo Pärt with the Theatre of Voices more than anything in the Beach Boys catalogue. The gilt-edged nasal harmonies are still in effect, but everything else about songs like “Surf’s Up” and “Child Is the Father of the Man” is unlike any Beach Boys you’ve ever heard. More than just an “experimental” album, Smile deserves its reputation as an unfinished masterpiece.