"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Beach Boys and SMiLE

During the dog days of summer, all real Americans enjoy a bit of a pep-up by listening to the Beach Boys, the nation's great rock and roll band. The Beach Boys have definitely been through their ups and downs, but many of their songs have entered the pop culture pantheon, and have well earned the accolades. Led by primary songwriter, producer, and arranger Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys synthesized rock and roll, early American music, folk, and other influences into a sound all their own, as Wilson's great genius for melody, harmony, and counterpoint made lyrically simple songs such as "California Girls," "God Only Knows," and "Good Vibrations" into works of stunning beauty that were easy to understand and enjoy.

In the mid-1960s, however, Brian had a nervous breakdown, while he was hard atSmiley Smile cover art work on what he intended as his true masterwork, SMiLE. With lyrics by the undeniably talented hippie wordsmith/songwriter Van Dyke Parks, the album was to be, in Brian's words, "a teenage symphony to God." After Brian's breakdown, however, work on the album stopped, even though it had been nearly finished, and the group released the rather disorganized and puzzling replacement Smiley Smile and moved on.

Tantalizing pieces from the original SMiLE lineup, however, appeared occasionally on the band's subsequent albums, making the unreleased album a great legend of lost popular art: an album of songs such as "Heroes and Villains," "Good Vibrations," "Cabin-Essence," "Vegetables," "Our Prayer," and "Cool, Cool Water" would have to be an astonishing thing, the group's fans supposed.

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE album cover imageBut it was almost forty years before we got to hear it—in 2004 in a version credited to Brian Wilson and performed by him and his current-day touring band. And it really was great, as I stated in my review of the recording for Tech Central Station.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder what the album would have sounded like as performed by the Beach Boys in their prime, with Brian's youthful voice—his voice has coarsened over the years because of tobacco use, drug abuse, etc.—and with the vocal performances by the orignal band. The group, after all, had sung together since childhood, and was composed of three brothers, one cousin, and a longtime friend, and as a result their voices blended together beautifully. Given the tremendous vocal harmonies and counterpoints Brian had created for SMiLE, and the fact that some of the songs were originally written to be sung by Brian's now-deceased brothers Carl and Dennis, it was interesting to conjecture how the album would have sounded with their contributions.

We can't hear an entire performance of SMiLE by the Beach Boys, but ITunes has created the next best thing: a playlist of the Beach Boys' performances of SMiLE that have been released on the band's albums over the years. Several songs were released as tracks on the original vinyl albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and quite a few more were released on the various remasters and reissues during the past few years, and also on the superb Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys boxed set. (The latter, by the way, is a must-have recording.)

For more on this interesting musical artifact, see the full article on Karnick on Culture.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...

STK, I've seen some background on TV about this.

First, the BBs' lead singer, Brian's cousin Mike Love, claims he wrote many of the words of the BBs' early hits, and was never credited, let alone (worse!) paid.

There has been litigation.

Love's claim is supported in part if you notice that the lyrics to "Good Vibrations" in the 21st century Smile are not the same as those on the 60s hit record.

Where there's smoke...

(BTW, I didn't like the modern version I saw on cable much. I think you're right about the BB's voices being key, and certainly Brian Wilson was writing specifically for them. Perhaps what should have happened did happen. I consider the 60s "Good Vibrations" the greatest recording so far in man's history. We have that at least, and I dunno if we need teenage symphonies. Beethoven didn't write his first until he was past 40, and we do have the vastly underrated "Quadrophenia," not to mention "Tommy.")