A wealth of amazing music, scrapped LPs, obscure sessions and lost nuggets selected from our own private collections…
Recorded 1966, Los Angeles – now mostly released as The Smile Sessions… Words: David Cavanagh
An impossible dream has become reality. Smile, the great lost Beach Boys album, finally received an official release on Capitol Records in 2011. The musical jigsaw that Brian Wilson couldn’t quite piece together in 1967, has, thanks to the wonders of digital editing, been assembled 44 years behind schedule. It may only be a version of Smile – using the 2004 album Brian Wilson Presents Smile as a template – but that’s good enough for Wilson. “Yes, Smile is now a finished piece of work,” he tells Uncut. “I think it’s a great piece of music, and the public is ready for it.”
Pet Sounds (1966) had been a symphonic, heart-tugging album about adolescent love and the coming of age. The intention with Smile – briefly called “Dumb Angel”, a title soon jettisoned – was to explore America’s landscape and history in a theatrical (but also cinematic) style, executed in a spirit of gaiety and fun. “Brian was consumed with humour at the time and the importance of humour,” his friend David Anderle later recalled. “He was fascinated with the idea of getting humour onto a disc and how to get that disc out to the people.”
“We wanted to try something different with music,” says Brian today. “We wanted to do something a little more advanced. We wanted to try and top Pet Sounds.” Wilson and his lyricist Van Dyke Parks conceived Smile as a journey across America from east to west; a movie in widescreen Surreal-O-Vision, featuring pioneers and frontiers, cantinas and log cabins, railroads and “waves of wheat”. Wilson began recording Smile in earnest in October 1966, a week before the release of the spectacular No 1“Good Vibrations”. As Wilson and his musicians – some of LA’s leading session players – worked on the new songs (tackling them in individual sections to be linked together later), his fellow Beach Boys embarked on their second European tour. On October 27, to pick a date at random, Brian was in Western Studio at 6000 Sunset, directing sessions for “Heroes And Villains” and “I’m In Great Shape”, while his stripey-shirted comrades performed on a bill with Peter & Gordon in Ludwigshafen, oblivious to their leader’s visionary activities back home.
Smile was given a catalogue number (T-2580) by Capitol and scheduled for release in December 1966. In mid-December, its release date was put back to January 1967. Artwork depicting a Smile ‘shop’ was created, and Capitol printed around 400,000 booklets for the album. Smile missed its January release, but Brian told the NME’s Keith Altham, in an article published on April 29, that the 12-song album was at last ready. Brian was filmed singing “Surf’s Up”, a particularly poignant moment on the LP, for a CBS TV doc, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, which aired on April 26. However, on May 6, Beach Boys’ publicist Derek Taylor broke the news that Smile had been “scrapped”. Though Wilson continued to record until May 18, he formally abandoned work on the album later that month. “We junked it,” he says now, curiously adopting the royal ‘we’. “We didn’t like where we were coming from. It was too advanced. We were taking drugs. We just decided not to do it any more.”
Various problems had combined and conspired to send the Smile project – and Brian Wilson as a human being – off the rails. He was smoking hashish and ingesting uppers on a regular basis, and had started experimenting with LSD. An enormous musical backlog had built up as he attempted to edit down more than 30 hours of music into the 36-minute confines of a vinyl LP. In a classic case of a man under stress, he worked obsessively on details (“Heroes And Villains”, a proposed single, ran to some nine sections), losing sight of the overall picture. He became paranoid that tapes of Smile had fallen into the hands of The Beatles. He daily faced the implacable opposition of his father, Murry, and he’d seen Van Dyke Parks quit the sessions twice (in March 1967, and again in April), offended by Mike Love’s mockery of his lyrics.
Some months later, in September, a new Beach Boys album, Smiley Smile, emerged. Consisting of re-recordings of tracks intended for Smile, it was a vastly reduced, whimsically simple outline of Brian’s grand vision. Sessions for Smiley Smile had begun, tellingly, on June 3 – two days after the release of Sgt Pepper, the conclusive proof that Brian’s race with The Beatles for artistic supremacy had been lost. Despite the presence of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes And Villains”, Smiley Smile was savaged by critics for being hopelessly anti-climactic. “There was no purpose to it,” says Brian. “We just wanted to make something peaceful. Like ‘aaaaah… peace of mind’.”
For some years afterwards, The Beach Boys excavated elements of Smile periodically. “Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer” featured on their 1969 album 20/20. “Cool Cool Water” (previously known as “Love To Say DaDa”) appeared on Sunflower (1970). “Surf’s Up”, combining original Smile recordings with a new lead vocal from Carl Wilson and new ensemble vocals at the end, was the finale of the 1971 album Surf’s Up. Indeed, as their record sales declined, plans were even concocted for The Beach Boys to finish Smile as a matter of urgency. Capitol circulated an internal memo in late 1967 promising a forthcoming album of 10 unheard Smile tunes (and, for good measure, the release of the 400,000 booklets). The insurmountable obstacle, though, was that Brian was in no fit state to revisit the tapes. The Beach Boys released Wild Honey instead, and the Smile booklets were pulped.
A second attempt to revive Smile was made in 1972. The Beach Boys had left Capitol and were now signed to Reprise. Their contract, intriguingly, demanded that they deliver a master tape of Smile to the record company by May 1, 1973. “When The Beach Boys started courting underground radio in the early ’70s, it was almost like they had to pull Smile out of the hat,” says Domenic Priore, author of Smile: The Story Of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece. “It was as if Smile gave them legitimacy in the eyes of the counterculture.” Carl Wilson, along with the group’s manager Jack Rieley and recording engineer Stephen Desper, sifted through the tapes – and quickly realised that, sans Brian’s input, they were lost. The tapes were returned to the vaults.
In the summer of 1975, a three-part article was published in NME, written by Nick Kent. Armed with bizarre stories of ‘meditation tents’ and pianos in sandboxes, Kent delved deep into the genius and insanity of Brian, the dysfunction of The Beach Boys and the enigma of Smile. He revealed that, following a hashish-fuelled recording session for a song called “Fire”, Brian had flown into a panic on hearing that a fire had broken out in another part of LA at the same time. He was convinced his music had become witchcraft.
There was a further twist that proved crucial to Smile’s mystique. When Kent wrote his story, Smile was so rare, so forgotten, that people couldn’t even find it on bootleg. “The first tape that started circulating of Smile – in very limited circles – was in about 1979, 1980,” explains Andrew G Doe, curator of the online Beach Boys archive Bellagio 10452, “when an official biography of the band was written by Byron Preiss. He was given Smile tapes by a member of Brian’s household, and they got into the hands of collectors. Those tapes circulated for two or three years before we began to see, in 1983, the first vinyl bootlegs that you could go into a shop and buy.”
In ’85 came a second bootleg, with improved sound quality. Evidently, a Beach Boys insider had obtained access to the vaults and, as Doe puts it, “liberated very good cassette copies”. In the late ’80s, Smile bootlegs began to creep out on CD. One of the most popular, believed to have emanated in Japan, bore the album’s original Capitol catalogue number (T-2580) and opened with a 15-minute “Good Vibrations”. The reason it sounded so good, reputedly, is because first-generation Smile tapes had been given to a collaborator on Brian Wilson’s 1988 solo album, who made copies and passed them to a DJ, who distributed them among friends. After that, the vaults opened wide. “Bootlegs of Smile came out left, right and centre,” says Doe. A 20-volume series of high-quality Beach Boys CD boots (Unsurpassed Masters) was made available in the late ’90s by the Sea Of Tunes label, which took its name from the publishing company founded by Murry Wilson.
Volumes 16 and 17 were dedicated to Smile sessions copied directly from original tapes. Other CD bootlegs included a 5CD set (Archaeology – The Lost Smile Sessions 1966-1967) on a German label, Picaresque; Heroes And Villains Sessions One & Two, on Wilson Records; and a 2CD edition of Smile on the renowned bootleg label Vigotone, in 1993. Vigotone released a follow-up, Heroes And Vibrations, in 1998, examining the sessions for “Heroes And Villains” and “Good Vibrations” in detail, and planned a multi-disc Smile box set before being raided by the authorities and closed down in 2001.
Bootlegs of Smile, as a rule, contain familiar Beach Boys songs (“Good Vibrations”, “Heroes And Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Cabinessence”) performed in rather haunting, and at times halting, fragments. Some tracks have vocals, some don’t. As it became clear that Wilson had been working on up to 20 songs, fans speculated about which ones he’d earmarked for the LP – and in what versions, and in which order, they might have appeared. Nobody has ever been able to ascertain the truth. But one thing was inescapable. The music on the bootlegs lived up to the description of Smile as something exceptionally ambitious. How does Wilson feel today, Uncut wonders, about people first hearing Smile on bootlegs? “Well, I don’t know if they liked them or not,” he replies uneasily. “I mean, do you think they did?” Oh, absolutely! “Are you sure? Really?” Yes, really – they loved them. “OK, then.” Besides, didn’t the bootlegs help to establish Smile’s ‘specialness’, creating the romantic notion of a long-lost masterpiece that would blow people’s minds if it ever came out? “No!” he guffaws, and pauses. “But I guess it did, though, right?”
From the mid-’80s onwards, there have been occasional tantalising glimpses of Smile in an official capacity. Excerpts were used in a 1985 documentary, The Beach Boys: An American Band, including the notorious “Fire”. In 1990, edited highlights of sessions for “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes And Villains” were issued as bonus tracks on Smiley Smile/Wild Honey, a Capitol twofer CD. As interest in The Beach Boys’ legacy grew, a 5CD box set in 1993, Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys, found room for almost 40 minutes of music from Smile. Finally, on the 1998 anthology Endless Harmony Soundtrack, fans were treated to a recording of Brian and Van Dyke running through three Smile songs for an LA-based radio presenter in November 1966.
In the meantime, there had been another attempt (in 1988-’89) to prepare the Smile tapes for an official release, but things went awry when a cassette compiled for Capitol executives leaked into the public domain, causing Brian to lose interest. In the mid-’90s, yet another attempt was made. Capitol announced plans for a Pet Sounds boxset (The Pet Sounds Sessions), to be followed by a 3CD Smile box. But the latter failed to materialise. An 18-month delay in the release of The Pet Sounds Sessions – allegedly due to Mike Love’s unhappiness about the way he was portrayed in the sleevenotes – made the relevant parties unwilling to risk a repeat performance.
A few years passed. Brian made a recovery and was persuaded by his wife Melinda to perform live again. His Pet Sounds tour played to packed houses in 2000-2002. Then, in 2003-’04, aided by Van Dyke Parks and musician Darian Sahanaja, work began on Brian Wilson Presents Smile, a modern-day recreation of Smile. “I will be honest with you,” Sahanaja told interviewer Lindsay Planer, “at first he was not into doing it at all. Remember, this was emotionally taxing for him back in 1967. So much so, he abandoned it. Bringing it all back to him was unsettling to say the least.” Brian Wilson Presents Smile was received warmly on its release in September 2004. Seven months earlier, amid scenes of extraordinary praise (the Evening Standard compared it to the comeback of King Lear), Wilson performed Smile live for the first time at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
Even so, few people expected an official release of the original 1966-’67 recordings. Al Jardine let the cat out the bag in February 2011: “Smile is the Holy Grail for Beach Boys fans… I’m happy to see it finally come out. Brian’s changed his mind about releasing the material, but it was inevitable, wasn’t it?” True to form, Smile still missed its scheduled release date (July 12), then its next one (August 9), then the one after that (October 4). It seems amazing it came out at all. Domenic Priore: “When Smile ended, it wasn’t pretty. All of them had their hearts broken in 1967. But I always believed this day would come. I always thought the music on Smile would overcome the inhibitions and the inertia about releasing it.”
Within days of being listed on Amazon, it was the fifth best-selling music title on pre-orders alone. Not bad for a bunch of 44-year-old songs recorded in mono. Uncut broke the happy news to Brian Wilson. “Are you sure, man?” he says, uncertainly. “Really? It’s gonna sell? What market, though? Who’s going to buy it?” Bless him.
But don’t assume that the release of Smile has rendered the bootlegs obsolete. Collectors don’t think like that. “Bootlegs will still have a place,” remarks Andrew G Doe. “People will look at the Smile box and say, ‘It hasn’t got this 30-second snatch of “Cabinessence”, or it hasn’t got the 1967 Capitol promo disc.’ It’s extensive, but it won’t make the bootlegs redundant. I’m sure there’s stuff to be unearthed. New tapes will turn up.”