*) Copy from SOURCE: http://www.utdallas.edu/~awa021000/stuff/smile.html
Smile is an album with one hell of a story, and that's probably why it's the most discussed and dissected unreleased album in the history of rock music.
After the critically overwhelming but commercially underwhelming Pet Sounds album, lead songwriter Brian Wilson had to come up with an album that would not only return the Beach Boys to the level of commercial success which had made them the most popular American band of the 60s, but also keep the Beach Boys musically relevant and hip with the times - no easy task in the rapidly changing musical landscape of late 1966 and early 1967.
Good Vibrations, a single originating during the sessions for Pet Sounds but released some months after, was a huge blockbuster, selling hundreds of thousands of copies immediately after release.
Blending the straightforward pop aesthetic the Beach Boys were famous for with the new psychedelic sound that was beginning to show itself to be more than just a passing fad, it promised a lot out of the band that had wrung their their carefree party image a bit too dry for the public.
Behind the song was 6 months and tens of thousands of dollars worth of a new fragmentary style of production which had Brian and the band shifting from studio to studio, recording and rerecording backing tracks, vocal tracks, and cramming the song full of inventive instrumentation and innovative structural characteristics.
Based on this song, a new album was beginning to form itself in Wilson's mind, which would take the components of Good Vibrations that had made it a #1 hit and expand it to an entire LP the likes of which not even the Beatles, the world's foremost rock band, could come up with.
Originally titled Dumb Angel, it was rebranded as Smile, a musical statement which came to embrace several themes, among them: the history of America from the landing at Plymouth Rock through the settling of the frontier to the beaches of Hawaii, the life cycle from birth to death and beyond to rebirth, the four elements of nature, and the importance of a sense of humor in music.
This was a tall order, and initially the rest of the band and the session musicians recording the backing tracks were blown away by the simple-sounding yet incredibly sophisticated sounds Brian was conjuring up before their eyes.
Some songs were conceived and recorded in as little as a day, works of delicate beauty such as the baroque masterpiece Surf's Up appearing almost fully formed from the heads of Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks.
Others, like the album's centerpiece and thematic keystone Heroes and Villains, mutated from simple riffs to ornate, imposing suites, growing ever more elaborate and complex without losing the essential beauty and humor that underlied the album.
But as the end of 1966 drew near, it became apparent that Smile was in deep trouble. For one thing, the album's sly and oblique, almost poetical lyrics bordered on the deliberately incomprehensible a bit too closely for some members of the band, who demanded a return to the simple and catchy tunes which had made the band rich.
Disputes with the band's record label over being shortchanged out of several million in royalties took up a large chunk of time and energy, as well as the creation of the band's own label Brother Records, interrupting the creative process more and more.
Also, Wilson's drug use was leading to bizarre and erratic behavior, such as canceling thousands of dollars worth of studio sessions due to "bad vibes", or becoming convinced that rivals such as producer Phil Spector were sending "mind gangsters" to try and disrupt his life, or deciding that recording the fire-themed Mrs. O'Leary's Cow was responsible for an outbreak of fires in Los Angeles and stopping work for a few days.
And most of all, it was becoming clear that what worked for a 3:40 single would simply not work for an entire album.
Songs were recorded, then scrapped, then recorded again with only the most minute changes. Songs such as Heroes and Villains sprouted multiple sections which, it became clear, Wilson was unable to piece together into a coherent whole in time for any kind of deadline.
Eventually, the confluence of problems came together in early 1967 when the Smile project was scrapped. In its place, the band released Smiley Smile, a commercial and critical disaster which destroyed the Beach Boys' reputation and permanently relinquished the title of "most innovative rock band" to the Beatles, which released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to tremendous popularity a few months after the album was officially canceled.
Smiley Smile was raw and unfinished, scrapping nearly all of the recorded material for a bunch of half-produced, drugged-out garbage.
Heroes and Villains, in particular, was butchered into a 3 and a half minute midget, while other songs were altered unrecognizably, such as Wonderful, Wind Chimes, and Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (released as Fall Breaks and Back to Winter).
The Beach Boys would never recover, releasing wildly uneven albums that slowly drifted into self-parody over the next few decades, becoming a retro-themed nostalgia act. Little bits and pieces of Smile turned up over the next few albums, such as Cabinessence on 20/20, or Surf's Up on the album of the same name, but those songs' brilliance only made the loss of the album more painful.
Several efforts by the band and their record label's engineers to reconstruct Smile failed due to Wilson's retreat into paranoid schizophrenia and the drastic deterioration of his ability to write music.
It appeared that Smile was gone forever, since no one else could piece together the fascinating snatches of promise into a releasable album.
In 2004, 37 years after the album was abandoned, Wilson announced that he would be touring Europe with a completed version of Smile, finished by a team composed of himself, Parks, and a new backup band which had prodded him into the venture.
The tours were sellouts, as in Europe the fans still appreciated the music which had grown old and unfashionable in the United States.
Buoyed by the ebullient reactions, Wilson also announced that he was going back to the studio to rerecord the album for a year-end release, which would now be sung and played by himself and the new band.
This would not be the Smile of 1967 which had been bootlegged and discussed note by note for so many decades, this was the Smile of 2004, sung by a man who had gone far beyond the energetic 25 year-old who had written some of the most memorable songs of the 60s.
But fans of Brian Wilson braced themselves to see if what had been hyped as the greatest lost album of rock history could possibly live up to the name and justify the generation which had passed since it had first been promoted as the album which would revolutionize rock and roll.
Comparisons to the old versions released over the years are inevitable for a record like this, but this album isn't Vigotone Smile, or Odeon Smile, or Secret Smile, anything but just Smile, to be judged on its own merits.
Would it have changed the history of music had it been released on schedule? Definitely.
But it wasn't. It's tempting to think about what the consequences could have been for a musical genre which was becoming dominated by protest songs and dissatisfaction with modern life, if this totally positive and warm "teenage symphony to God" had beaten the Beatles for the first major album with psychedelic influences.
But Smile is out now, and I think you will be very pleased with the results.
'Finally released in 2004'
It may almost help to imagine Smile as a classical album rather than a rock album.
You're just not going to hear a traditional "2 guitars, a bass, and a drumset" lineup here. Instead, Smile glistens with strings, marimbas, banjos, harmonicas, saxophones, and every instrument you can imagine.
The sonic textures are impeccable, painting moods of playful joy and innocent wonder like nothing else in rock music.
There are so many sounds that I've never heard anywhere else, that no one has thought of making hidden in here, that it's truly astounding.
Smile is divided into 3 sections, each corresponding to a major theme. Americana is first, then Childhood, then The Elements, and ending with Good Vibrations, which is not technically part of Smile, but it embraces many of the same underlying attitudes.
There is a considerable amount of interplay and cross-references between the main sections, but each section is still pretty cohesive.
The Elements is a little disjointed due to the looseness of the subject matter, but even it fits neatly into the overall work.
There is a flow and sweep to Smile that its famous old competitor Sgt. Pepper's lacks.
I could see this album becoming very popular with children due to the mood created by the composition.
It's childlike without being infantile, presenting music that an awful lot of work has been put into in a light-hearted and cheerful manner.
There's certainly nothing to DISLIKE here, and I think that anyone who was intrigued by Pet Sounds will find a lot to love here.
First Movement: Americana
Our Prayer / Gee opens the album with a wordless "spiritual invocation" that demonstrates Wilson's total mastery of vocal harmony arrangement.
This sounds like a Gregorian chant teleported into the modern era but with an air of innocence and joy that totally bowls me over.
The second part of this song is a little prelude with a bit of production that makes it sound like it was coming through a radio, for some reason.
When "How I love my girl" is sung, the sound fades back to normal, and the main Heroes and Villains theme is introduced.
Heroes and Villains, the album's real emblem, is about the narrator's estrangement from his hometown in the Southwest and his love affair with a mestizo girl in a far-off town, but that is mostly irrelevant.
Here is where the use of voice as an instrument is showcased, with amazingly complicated harmonizations between layer upon layer of voices chanting and humming and singing.
There are parts where the listener is forced to just sit and listen to the sounds, which is of course sui generis.
The fragmentary nature of this song, with frequent tempo, key, theme, and instrumentation changes, is bewilderingly complex, but it flows together so smoothly it might as well be called a suite.
The fadeout transitions us to Roll Plymouth Rock, which moves the setting to Plymouth Rock, where the first truly successful American colony was founded.
One thing to notice is that while Smile is peppered with allusions to all sorts of historical events, it never condemns or judges, merely observes.
The line "Ribbon of concrete / See see what you've done / to the church of the American Indian" is a good example of this, as is the bit about Hawaii.
The listener is merely be asked to witness the unfolding of the American experience, filled with good and bad.
The end of the track is a meaningless Hawaiian chant, as far as I know. Hawaii is important in what you could call the American mythos, the beginning of the brief period of imperialism at the end of the 19th century was also the true closing of the western frontier, which is extremely important. It's no coincidence that the western is the only truly original American film genre, because no other country had the experience of a vast, nearly empty continent that allowed for such an expression of individualism and personality.
Hawaii was the last stop for the adventurers who setlled the west, and also the most foreign part of America, far out, surrounded by the sea.
Hawaii will return later, but now the action moves to Barnyard, which is a pastoral representation of a barnyard.
While not a particularly good song, it's pretty whimsical and enjoyable if you like animal sounds. Old Master Painter / You Are My Sunshine is next, with a brief cello beginning leading to the most morose version of You Are My Sunshine I've ever heard, sung as if through a tinny radio over clicking drumsticks, and fading over a string swell and a meandering saxophone solo.
I'm not really sure what role it plays in Smile, though I'm told the Old Master Painter is God, giving the song a meaning of... attachment? separation? pride? I don't know.
Cabin Essence instantly starts up, a folksy meditation on the settlement of the frontier and the railroads that were so vital to the colonization of the vast western expanse.
The lyrics are a little obtuse, but they take the listener through a series of impressions of life on the plains, depicting the clear stars above, the endless plains, the hominess of isolated houses on prairies.
There are two brief bridges which represent the railroads chugging their way across the vast expanses, with voices chanting "Who ran the iron horse?" and then segueing into a delicate Bach-inspired fugue: "Have you seen the grand coolie working on the railroad?", which sweeps away to imitate the railroad worker seeing a bird wheeling above a field of grain and his mind wandering on some foreign tangent.
This is one of the most evocative tracks on here, both due to the brilliant lyrics, but also due to the instrumentation, which, through the use of a harmonica (never my favorite instrument, it is used excellently here), a banjo, voices singing "doing", and backing strings conjures up an impressive vista that I can only call "American", in the best sense of the word.
Second Movement: Childhood
Wonderful tells the story of a little girl, learning about life and growing, while "wonderful" is used as a metaphor for all sorts of things that she finds important.
It's very moving and somehow sad, as the backing harpsichord and bass support the soaring vocals which recount the girl's story.
Song For Children starts with the same theme in a higher key, punning on the "won" in "wonderful", as the theme changes.
The taut snare drum evokes the image of a toy drum, while the chant "Child is Father of the Man" is repeated over and over again.
The chant is taken from a poem by William Wordsworth about growing up, and means that what is in a child's mind will be worked with and built upon by the adolescent and then by the adult, your childhood nature informing your life when you age in a manner which metaphorically makes the child the father of the man.
Like considering the 13 colonies as the father of the modern USA. It's a little weird, but it sounds great, as it smoothly segues into Child Is the Father of the Man, a cymbal roll uncovering a bass riff which plays as the harpsichord continues to explore the backing theme.
The chant returns, as the lead enters to exhort the child to continue to believe and hold on to his faith in the mystery of life.
Whispered backing vocals breathe "I believe" in gorgeous syncopation, as the chant concludes, shedding the harpsichord for a lonely piano and bass, with trumpet flourishes.
An anticipatory violin melody brings us to Surf's Up, the most complicated and beautiful track on here.
The background music itself is stunning, using strings and a piano with complicated key changes and time signature changes to breathtaking effect, but what catches the attention are the lyrics, which are baffling even after repeated listens.
Here is the basic plot: the narrator is describing an opulent but decadent city ("A blind class aristocracy / Back through the opera glass you see / The pit and the pendulum drawn") which is beginning to decay, as must all things ("Columnated ruins domino").
Empires and institutions fall to the ravages of time, even a dream-city such as this ("The music hall a costly bow / The music all is lost for now / To a muted trumperter swan").
As the narrator wakes up in this city, he sees the illusion, but he is still captivated by the beauty of it ("Hung velvet overtaken me / Dim chandelier awaken me / To a song dissolved in the dawn").
As the city crumbles, life still goes on, but everyone knows the end is near ("Two-Step to lamp lights cellar tune / The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne").
A final toast is raised ("The glass was raised, the fired rose / The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting / While at port a do or die") as the struggling ends in the absolute sadness of death ("A choke of grief heart hardened I / Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry").
And yet, there is still hope. There is still the power of youth, which is strong enough to save anything, even you, at the end of your life ("Surf's Up / Mmm / Aboard a tidal wave / Come about hard and join / The young and often spring you gave").
The power is conveyed through song, and this song of childhood comes soaring through at the song's climax is a glorious tidal wave of harmonies which I can't even describe.
Once again, it is reiterated that the child is the father of the man, and that their knowledge of life is knowledge of love ("Have you listened as they played / Their song is love / And the children know the way / That's why the child is the father to the man"). Wow.
My personal favorite song on here, and the best the Beach Boys ever did. Something about that ending....
Third Movement: The Elements
I'm In Great Shape / I Wanna Be Around starts off with a snatch of part of Heroes and Villains played very fancily by winds and percussion, until the narrator declares himself to be fit thanks to the clean living of the country.
A tenor sax and this jaunty theme continue before decaying in an extremely disorienting fashion, suddenly metamorphosing into a lounge song! Wilson declares that he "wants to be around when somebody breaks your heart", and then the song ends with the sound of hammers and drills and saws constructing some unknown project. Kind of baffling.
Vege-Tables, the "earth" element, is a goofy meditation on the health-related wonders of vegetables, with lots of sound effects and percussion noises that are actually people chewing on vegetables.
This is probably my least favorite track on this album, but it ends with some neat humming that moves us briskly into the initital charming and quirky marimba with backing flute melody that begins On a Holiday, the story of a pirate wandering the Caribbean in search of a good time.
Lest we forget that pirates played a part in our country's history, "Rock rock and roll / Plymouth Rock roll over" returns from the first movement alongside the slide whistles and clarinets.
At the end, the pirate sets sail for Hawaii on a holiday, as muttered "wind chimes" vocals fill the tag. Wind Chimes starts immediately, promising a thorough discourse on "wind".
The narrator is afraid of looking at his wind chimes for some odd reason (I have no idea why).
Maybe it could be due to the vocal break, which has more of that voice-as-instrument goodness, with trumpets, a trapset, and all sorts of instruments.
In case we've gotten too comfortable listening to the wind chimes, the song changes to a humorous slide whistle- and bird noise-filled snatch which I believe to be a representation of the comical life of a city-dweller in the late 19th century.
I made that guess based on the fact that this is Mrs. O'Leary's Cow, standing in for "fire", and it of course is a sly reference to the famous cow owned by a Chicago housewife that supposedly caused the Great Chicago Fire.
The beginning is pleasant enough, but after a slide noise, the songs changes on a dime, becoming incredibly eerie with shrieking strings and pounding drums and howling voices and crazy whistling noises and God knows what else.
This apocalyptic section is probably the closest anyone will ever get to depicting a fire with only music. You can hear the flames roaring, the buildings collapsing, and all sorts of mayhem in this almost frightening whirlwind.
Luckily, at the end the fire dies down, leaving behind a ruined city with presumably a very thirsty surviving population, as Wilson sings over a beautiful near-wordless humming and chanting about how great it would be to have some water to ease his discomfort.
Fortunately, some can be found In Blue Hawaii.
A quick seque therefore moves us into Hawaii again, where a happy dance tune plays as Brian extols the watery virtues of Hawaii and the backing vocals bring up again the near-mystical nature of Hawaii.
The track ends with a sort of reprise of various portions of the themes of this movement, as well as a quick snatch of the Prayer theme.
Good Vibrations needs no introduction. A relentlessly energetic exploration of the mindset of the drug culture of the late 1960s, told through the eyes of someone looking for love and feeling the good vibrations all around.
The lyrics are the original ones Tony Asher penned during the Pet Sounds sessions, before Mike Love replaced them with his own, and I think they do a good job of showing the mentality of, well, good vibrations.
This song has been described as a mini-symphony, and with the groundbreaking density and complexity of this tune, it's multitude of parts and layers, I think you'll be forced to agree.
It ends the album on a high note, the theremin fading away to somewhere else far away.
I love this album. If you can't tell, it's a 10/10, the highest 10/10 possible.
The best tracks are in my opinion: Surf's Up, Good Vibrations, Cabin Essence, Heroes and Villains, Child Is the Father of the Man, and Mrs. O'Leary's Cow, but really there's no bad tracks on here.
Even Barnyard is not really bad so much as just an annoying distraction from the great tunes.
This is one of the great achievements of popular music, and if you listen to it, it can move you.