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The Beach Boys' 'Smile:' Everything We Know About The 'Lost' Masterpiece

Music | June 20, 2020

Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys poses for a portrait in 1968 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

One of the great long lost albums of the 20th century is Smile by the Beach Boys, a psychedelic adventure that seeks to encapsulate the journey from youth to adulthood that Brian Wilson called a "teenage symphony to God.” Songs from Wilson’s fraught “Smile” sessions have popped on various Beach Boys album, specifically “Surf’s Up” and “Wild Honey,” but the original version of the album is considered to be lost - or at the very least it’s never going to be released.

“Smile” has long been touted as the album that would put The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper to shame, but Wilson’s manic energy and inability to focus thanks to his declining mental health and drug use made sure that the recordings that make up the original album are forever doomed to the dust bin of history. There have been attempts by Wilson and the rest of the surviving Beach Boys to put out “Smile” in one way or another, but none of the albums, re-recordings, or tours have been able to really capture what this record was. Even the album was released today there’s no way to listen to it in the context of 1967 and get the true experience of “Smile.”

The Songs Were Pieced Together From Multiple Recordings

source: brother records

Brian Wilson has often said that when he was working on Pet Sounds and Smile” that he was “writing by feel” rather than trying to build out each song as its own thing. Wilson always wrote song by song, but by the mid ‘60s he was sitting down at the piano and working out basic (for him) instrumentation that he then took to the studio to craft a kind of mosaic structure.

Wilson brought in musicians, showed them how he wanted the songs played, and then holed up in the control booth until the sections were recorded properly. The session could take anywhere from a couple of hours to an entire day depending on how Wilson was feeling. After the sessions he ended up with different pieces of songs that he cut together to build one musical track, then he and lyricist Van Dyke Parks would work on lyrics for the group to sing. Carl Wilson likened the process to editing a film:

We did things in sections. There might just be a few bars of music, or a verse, or a particular groove, or vamp… They would all fit. You could put them one in front of the other, or arrange it in any way you wanted. It was sort of like making films I think.

The Sessions Were Fueled By Drugs

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It’s not really a shocker to hear that a musician in the 1960s was experimenting with LSD and barbiturates, or that they spent most of a recording session being completely stoned. However, the amount of drugs that Brian Wilson was experimenting with is downright unbelievable - or it would be if it were’t corroborated by multiple people.

Brian supposedly started out the sessions by buying $2,000 worth of hash while taking LSD and getting into the paradoxical riddles of zen known as koans. It’s accepted Beach Boys lore that Wilson put a sandbox in his living room so he could feel like he was “at the beach” while working on music, but he also installed a tent that was used as a giant hotbox for everyone at the sessions.

When asked point blank by Rolling Stone why “Smile” was never released, he first blamed lyricist Van Dyke Parks for being too abstract, but then admitted that his drug intake had created a black hole of a recording session from which no album could escape:

It didn’t come out because, I’d bought a lot of hashish. It was a really large purchase, I mean perhaps two thousand dollars’ worth. We didn’t realize, but the music was getting so influenced by it, the music had a really drugged feeling. I mean we had to lie on the floor with the microphones next to our mouths to do the vocals. We didn’t have any energy. I mean you come into a session and see the group lying on the floor of the studio doing the vocals, you know, you can’t…

'Smile' Was Meant To Be Very Experimental

source: medium

There’s no solid beginning or ending for “Smile.” Recorded between 1966 and 1971, there are about 50 hours of tape featuring music recorded at studios like United Western Recorders, Gold Star Studios, Sunset Sound Recorders and CBS Columbia Square. Produced by Brian Wilson, the recordings feature The Wrecking Crew playing variations on Wilson’s songs. When it came time for vocal overdubs Wilson moved to a studio at CBS Columbia to use its 8-track audio recorder.

According to Al Jardine, Wilson wanted to use the band’s voices to make a kind of vocal texture that was similar to the instrumentation on the album, and these textures took a toll on the group. In 2014, Jardine explained:

It was just more textural, more complex and it had a lot more vocal movement. ‘Good Vibrations’ is a good example of that. With that song and other songs on Smile, we began to get into more esoteric kind of chord changes, and mood changes and movement. You'll find Smile full of different movements and vignettes. Each movement had its own texture and required its own session. ‘Cabin Essence’ was a tough one. Just the alacrity of the parts and the movements. There was wind driven part in the parts around ‘who ran the iron horse’ – a lot of challenging vocal exercises and movements in that one. But we enjoyed those challenges. There was almost like a competition among us between who could do their part better than the other guy – but a healthy one… there was one part that I'd forgotten about where we sang this dissonant chord – this strange chord, which sounded like the whistle of a train. It was very clear and it actually sounded like a real train.

Fueled By Paranoia, Wilson Sent The Sessions Into Chaos

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Aside from doing an amount of drugs that Keith Moon would be shocked by, Brian Wilson was also suffering from paranoid delusions that Phil Spector and his father Murry Wilson were having him followed by private investigators. Wilson hired his own private investigators to look into Spector and his father, and while Spector was clean there was some evidence that his father was spying on him.

Wilson’s behavior spiraled out of control during the sessions but no one really understood that he was suffering from a very real mental break. In many cases Wilson would leave musicians hanging in sessions because he couldn’t get up the mental strength to make an appearance, and sometimes he just emotionally tortured everyone who was around.

Beach Boys member Bruce Johnston says that it’s impossible to listen to the original recordings of “Smile” because it’s the sound of Brian Wilson disintegrating.

There Was A Mountain Of Hype Around The Album

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Wilson wasn’t the only person in the group who was experiencing a major life change. The entire band was trying to change the perception that existed around them being clean cut surfer boys. They hired former Beatles press agent Derek Taylor as their publicist and asked him to make them look hip. Taylor, inspired by the beauty of Pet Sounds, began promoting Brian Wilson as a genius and making the group over as members of the peace and love sect.

Without so much as a single the band began promoting “Smile” as the album that was going to change the world. Ads compared it to Citizen Kane while comparing Wilson to Orson Welles. One piece of internal promotion even noted that the album was certain to sell one million copies within the first month of its release.

The pressure to finish “Smile” and have it turn out to be the most successful record of the era weighed on Wilson. He just wanted to write songs about being a teenager, about girls, and about falling in love. He wasn’t concerned with the business aspect of things, and according to producer Terry Melcher, that’s what did him in. In 1971, Melcher told Rolling Stone:

The guy never asked for any trouble, he just wrote songs about cars and the beach, and everyone nailed the motherfucker to the wall. They really nailed him. That poor motherf**ker.

The Album Collapsed Beneath A Confluence Of Negativity

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In many cases pure genius isn’t enough to bring a piece of art to life. Throughout the recording process Wilson shifted his focus from “Smile” to an album of nothing but sound effects and something that he called his “health album.”

The rest of the Beach Boys weren’t enthused about Wilson’s manic energy, but they understood that to be able to continue allowing Brian to create the way he needed to and to keep making a lot of money they needed more control over their output. They put together the concept for Brother Records while Wilson was recording “Smile,” and while Brian was receptive to the concept he was fighting with Mike Love over the album’s musical and lyrical direction.

Love felt that it didn’t make sense for the band to change their winning formula of short songs about girls, cars, and surfing, with Rolling Stone reporting that he told Wilson, “Don’t f**k with the formula” the first time he heard the tapes for “Smile.”

“Smile” really fell apart in 1967 even if overdubs continued for years. Brian was given the deadline of January 15 to finish the album but after Carl Wilson refused to be drafted into military service on January 3 and was arrested by the FBI Brian was thrown for a loop. He missed the deadline spent the next few months focusing on two songs: “Heroes and Villains” and “Vega-Tables,” experimenting with different takes and a variety of mixes but he never concluded on one solid version.

Brian kept mixing different versions of songs as the band filed a lawsuit against Capitol Records over failed royalty payments. He mixed, remixed, made new edits, but never really got close to what he heard in his head. The songs never sounded right. He was too close to the record and he didn’t have the wherewithal to take a break and leave all behind. Wilson was so inside of his creation that he never found a way out of it.

No Version Of 'Smile' Lives Up To The Original Recordings

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Rather than abandon the album completely, it corroded and fell apart over the next few years with bits and pieces popping up on albums throughout the end of the ‘60s and into the 1970s. In the ‘80s bootlegs of the album began circulating through record collectors, and fans even put together their own track listings based on what they thought “Smile” could have been.

Separately, the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson have both tried to put their own spin on their vision for “Smile,” but subsequent configurations, tours, and re-recordings have never been able to and will never capture the feeling that “Smile” would have given us without the baggage that came with its undoing.

Tags: Brian Wilson | The Beach Boys

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.