Brian Wilson’s SMiLE was destined to fail as a proper album. The hype was out of control in 1967, with Brian himself having promised, “A teenage symphony to God.” He was competing with peak Beatles and his own masterpiece Pet Sounds. There was just no way it could ever live up all of that, and quite frankly it doesn’t. SMiLE is a strange beast, like Zappa’s We’re Only In It For The Money or Ween’s Pure Guava. It doesn’t have the classy pop sheen of Sgt Pepper. It’s not a clean machine. It’s weird, quirky, and very human. There are rough edges and frayed ends, twisting paths that get lost into lullabies and daydreams.
But it is super-progressive. The SMiLE material is more in tune with 90s indie rock than 60s psychedelia. It’s earnestly goofy, with ephemeral messages poking up out of the chaos. It sounds like switching channels on a remote through cartoons, camp singalongs, church mass, and old westerns. The vibe is more Beavis & Butthead than Summer Of Love.
There is no one way to listen to SMiLE. Most versions usually open the acapella hymn “Our Prayer” seguing into “Heroes And Villains,” a multi-part pop song like “Good Vibrations” that was never seen to proper completion. You’ll find lots of variations of “Heroes And Villains,” some succinct, others stretching out over eight minutes. “Vegetables” is a catchy bit of stoner pop with carrot chewing percussion. “Do You Like Worms?” aka “Roll Plymouth Rock” relates to SMiLE‘s vague Americana theme, though it feels more Hawaii than old west to me. I really don’t think you’re supposed to dig too deeply for meaning outside of a few fleeting ideas. SMiLE has a dream sensibility, like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut or Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. To try to tame it, to make sense of the whole thing, is missing the point.
There are two centerpieces: “Good Vibrations” and “Surf’s Up.” Everybody knows “Good Vibrations,” the 1966 single that kicked off the project and its high expectations. “Good Vibrations” is more post-Pet Sounds than SMiLE proper, masterfully constructed and subtly inventive. Where Pet Sounds was elegant and assured, SMiLE is wilder, more curious and carefree. SMiLE colors outside the lines and outside the paper and all over the table.
Nonetheless: “Surf’s Up” is Brian Wilson’s finest song. Three piano based movements with evocative lyrical poetry courtesy of Van Dyke Parks. “Surf’s Up” is an elusive elegy. To what? I’m not sure, which is why it works so well as a conclusion to SMiLE. Lyric meaning doesn’t play a role in this music as it does with Bob Dylan’s, but it’s no less of an intellectual puzzle to decode it.
The real tragedy is that this material was first released to the public as Smiley Smile in 1967. Now I can dig weirdness and druggy albums, but Smiley Smile was a ragged mess and remains a frustrating listen. Key songs like “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes” were sabotaged with whispered vocals and effects. One of my favorites “He Gives Speeches” was bastardized into “She’s Goin’ Bald,” a “joke” song that’s as unfunny as its title. It’s emblematic of Smiley Smile, which feels like a stoned in-joke, a sacrilege to this material.
As with all things Beach Boys, we can partly blame Mike Love. He’s an asshole, plain and simple. He harshly criticized the SMiLE project during the recording process, goofing on it during vocal takes and then infamously calling out the line “columnated ruins domino” from “Surf’s Up.” Mike Love is a philistine, a baseball cap’d schmuck. This is not to say that SMiLE was above criticism, that it may have been too far out and too indulgent for its own good. But “columnated ruins domino” is a fantastic phrase. Mike Love stinks.
Even if the Beach Boys rejected and discarded SMiLE, the material was picked over for their next few albums. “Cabinessence” ended up on 20/20, “Surf’s Up” on the 1971 album of the same name, “Little Bird” from Friends incorporated a riff from “Child Is The Father Of Man,” and so on. You can even hear KISS’s “I Was Made For Loving You” in a piano bit from a “Heroes and Villains” take. It’s still rather sad to look back on how Brian Wilson was not given more support for this project at the time. But it has since been given over to the fans in ways that Brian Wilson could never have imagined.
So what if the album never made it into stores for $12.99? Maybe it was never supposed to. What we have now is something entirely different – a communal puzzle for fans to interpret and piece together their own ways. SMiLE upends our accepted definitions of art, less of an album and more of an interactive project. It’s a resource of raw material waiting for new collaborators. I’ve heard dozens of versions and I hear something new every time.