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Brian Wilson’s SMiLE

Jerry Lucky Commentary April 2009

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2009 All Rights Reserved

 

There are some who like to point to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album as perhaps the first progressive

rock album. There are others who take a less emphatic approach and simply point out that Sgt. Pepper created a seminal turning

point in the world of pop music. And there is no denying that what the Beatles created with that album, and even how they made it,

changed things forever. I have never been one however to point to that album as any kind of beacon or pointer to the progressive rock genre.

I keep remembering a comment Paul McCartney made about the more experimental side of music where he pointed to Pink Floyd as being the band to watch for that. That said, there is another disc that deserves more than a mere mention. And that’s Brian Wilson’s epic Smile.

 

I doubt that many of you will be familiar with the story, after all Beach Boys history rarely makes it into the progressive rock world. But when theBeatles released Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys, and specifically I mean Brian Wilson saw a challenge and that’s when they released Pet Sounds. Then when the Beatles heard that they kicked it up a notch and released Revolver and when Brian heard that he pulled out all the stops and started working on what he referred to as his symphony to God eventually to be titled Smile. However in the process of putting together this monumental work he suffered a very public breakdown. Most of the tracks were recorded but not all the vocals were completed. And while there were clues about how it was supposed to go together, it was never fully completed. What was clear however, based on what was available, was that this was going to set the world on its ear. Sadly everything conspired against Brian. Sleeves were printed, ads were sent to media…but no album. And then the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper and all the wind went out of Brian’s sails. The rest as they say is history.

 

Sgt. Pepper became that monumental album that everybody remembers and Smile became one of those great never to be released albums, perhaps even the greatest mythical non-released treasures of all time. The only hints of its creativity were the various bootleg elements that floated from collector to collector. I had heard of Smile. In an interview I did with prog rock publicist Keith Goodwin, we talked about it and how he’d heard bits and pieces and so on. But then I forgot all about it, until one day I’m sifting through some CD’s in a used record store here in Victoria, a place called Ditch Records and low-and-behold here’s a copy of Smile…with the original sleeve. As it turns out it was a lovingly assembled fan-version of the disc, but listening to it got me all excited and I became obsessed with tracking down articles and sound samples and anything I could get my hands on about this album. I even made my own version with a 10-minute version of their classic hit song “Heroes and Villains.” But alas, all of these were mere shadows of what the album might have been. I like thousands of others wondered what Brian Wilson’s finished work would have really sounded like.

 

Then February 2004 everything we knew or heard about Smile came to fruition when Brian performed a completed version of his masterpiece in London to an adoring crowd that included the likes of Paul McCartney and George Martin.

 

Smile, far more that Sgt. Pepper pointed to a more creative and complex musical time. Had it been released I’m certain the resulting musical landscape would have been very different. That’s because Smile is far more complex than Sgt. Pepper ever attempted to be. Where Pepper had some great songs, Smile offered more. Great melodic songs were linked with sound effects or musical vignettes…there were long songs and short songs, loud elements and quite ones, fast and slow, atonal, harmonic, instrumental segments and a cappella vocals. Smile showcased virtually every musical motif possible within a 35 minute time span. It literally bubbled over in creativeness.

 

Would I considerSmile a lost progressive rock masterpiece? Probably not. I’d be more inclined to call it Art Rock, Prog Pop or something similar. But there is no denying that Smile was infinitely more “progressive” than Sgt. Pepper ever tried to be. And for that reason I’d recommend that every progressive rock fan take the time to watch the live video performance to fully experience the musical treasure that isSmile. At least that’s what I think.

 

Jerry Lucky

(4/1/09)