Brian Wilsonís SMiLE Redux
Jerry Lucky Commentary February 2012
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2012 All Rights Reserved
Back in April of 2009 I wrote about Brian Wilsonís SMiLE. You would think the fact Wilson had
finished this legendary unreleased project and not only performed it live on tour, but completed the
studio version as well would have been the end of it. But not so. There were still the die-hard faithful
who wanted to hear the original material as recorded by the Beach Boys back in 1966. Well, all that
came to fruition in late 2011 when Capitol records released the original tapes in a variety of sets.
Guess which one I purchased? Thatís right, the complete box set with 5-CDs, 2-12 inch vinyl,
2 Ė 7 inch 45ís, the book, the poster and the fancy three-dimensional box. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime must haves. With that in mind let me refresh your memory of what I said back then with perhaps a few edits and some additional comments.
There are some who like to point to the Beatlesí Sgt. Pepperís Lonely Hearts Club Band album as the first progressive rock album. Most of you know where I stand on that issue; I respectfully disagree. But there was an album from that era that perhaps more than most pointed to a more adventurous time in music. And thatís Brian Wilsonís 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 the Beatles released Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys, and specifically I mean Brian Wilson saw a challenge and thatís 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 mediaÖbut no album. And then the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper and all the wind went out of Brianís 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 ofSMiLE. In an interview I did with prog rock publicist Keith Goodwin, we talked about it and how heíd heard bits and pieces and so on. But then I forgot all about it, until one day Iím sifting through some CDís in a used record store and low-and-behold hereís a copy of SMiLEÖwith 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 books, articles and sound samples and anything I could get my hands on about this amazing album. I even made my own version with a 10-minute version of their classic hit song ďHeroes and Villains.Ē But alas, all of these were mere shadows of what the album might have been. I like thousands of others wondered what Brian Wilsonís 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 than Sgt. Pepper pointed to a more adventurous musical time. Had it been released in 1967 Iím certain the resulting musical landscape would have been very different. Thatís 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 vignettesÖthere were long songs and short songs, loud elements and quiet 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.
For the progressive rock music fan there was something else. It was the process with which SMiLE was created that is of particular interest. Because what Brian Wilson did was create long and involved song-cycles that were composed of fragments: this bit will be made to fit here, and that bit will be made to fit there. Sound familiar? Yes, itís true thatís precisely the manner in which Yes created Close to the Edge. In Brian Wilsonís case, he heard it all in his head. What he needed was to create all the component parts to then assemble it in a cohesive whole. It was this method of composing and arranging that progressive rock would greatly benefit from in the years ahead. After all creating 15 or 20 minute epics doesnít occur overnight. Not usually any way. To my mind the fact that Brian was so far ahead of the curve doing this in 1966 is just amazing to me.
Would I consider Smile a lost progressive rock masterpiece? Probably not. Iíd be more inclined to call it Art Rock, Prog Pop or something similar. But there is no denying that SMiLE was infinitely more ďprogressiveĒ than Sgt. Pepper ever tried to be. And for that reason Iím still, perhaps even more than before recommending every progressive rock fan take the time to watch the live video performance to fully experience the musical treasure that is SMiLE. At least thatís what I think.