...anyone fearing that finally finishing 'Smile' would diminish its status can now...
Chris Jones 2003-11-07
While current list-orientated thinking places the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds as one of the greatest modern popular recordings, debate still rages as to whether its mooted follow-up, Smile, would have outshone it. Only ever glimpsed in segments, was the album just a victim of a self-perpetuating myth, enhanced by legends of Brian and his missing marbles? Or was this one of the great lost opportunities? 40 years later, Brian's finally letting us know...
After creating Pet Sounds almost single-handedly while his siblings toured the globe, Brian - already in the throes of considerable mental anguish - embarked on a project even more gargantuan. With maverick lyricist Van Dyke Parks he proceeded to craft a 'teenage symphony to God'. Six months of intense work yielded most of the tracks, but by then Wilson was suffering from intense paranoia and exhibiting somewhat erratic behaviour. While recording the "Fire" sequence of "Mrs O'Leary's Cow" (getting the orchestra to wear fireman's helmets!) he believed that the vibes had started a major conflagration nearby. Now irreparably fragile and convinced he could never better the Beatles, he took to his bed for years, releasing tantalising snippets of his symphony on subsequent albums and leaving fans to try and assemble their own versions from advance press release track listings. Ironically Brian's own website claims that: "To this day, few have heard this lost masterpiece".
What's immediately apparent is that this project, once dubbed 'unwieldy', is perfectly suited to modern ears. The complexity of the segmented arrangements, the recurring themes ("Roll Plymouth Rock", "Heroes and Villains" etc.) and the lush orchestration and vocal harmonies actually improve under modern recording techniques, making what once seem muddled now a startlingly clear vision of American history - albeit a baroque and impressionistic one. Parks' lyrics defy categorisation and still convey a concise sense of the weight of 200 years. One instinctively knows what he means by 'Bicycle rider, just look what you've done to the church of the American Indian' or 'Colonnaded ruins domino' ("Surf's Up").
The music manages even more. Every second is packed with a thorough trawling of popular forms, from lounge jazz ("I Wanna Be Around") to barbershop ("Heroes and Villains"). A capella opener "Our Prayer" provides the missing link between the Four Freshmen and gospel music(!) and "Wonderful" manages to be both sensual and holy. Only during the final suite, containing oddities such as "Vega-tables" and the aforementioned "Mrs O'Leary's Cow", do you start to wonder if Brian's muse is unravelling before your ears.
Aficionados will argue for decades over the differences between these newly recorded versions and the sacred originals, yet the Wondermints, Brian's backing band on recent live outings, are so steeped in Beach Boys lore that you'd be hard pushed to tell them from the originals. Only Brian's older, worn vocals really give the game away. Anyone fearing that finally finishing Smile would diminish its status can now rest easy. This is a work of genius that transcends time. Is it time to rewrite those lists again?