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

By | June 17, 2020

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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

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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.