This multi-part essay is my attempt to thoroughly examine various aspects of Brian Wilson’s unfinished masterpiece, SMiLE. This essay is written with the assumption that readers already have a basic understanding of the album’s goals and demise. If you’re not familiar, the gist of it is that Brian Wilson was working on a follow-up to the critically acclaimed Pet Sounds in 1966-67, but for various reasons he never finished it. (Except as a solo tour and album release in 2003-04 without the Beach Boys.) In my personal opinion, the existing material from the original sessions is so fantastic that it warrants more attention from the general public. Furthermore, I speculate that not only would the ’60s project have taken on a vastly different form than the 2000s recording, but there is enough evidence to make a reasonable assumption of what that “lost album” would have been.
In this first part, I’m going to look beyond the music of SMiLE and see what the auxiliary materials (including the “replacement” Smiley Smile) reveal.
Personally, I prefer the original working title “Dumb Angel” to SMiLE. I consider the former to be more thought-provoking and attention-grabbing with regard to the uninformed. I know I’ve tried to turn people on to this music before, and if the Beach Boys’ reputation as lighter fare didn’t turn them off, the seemingly generic name “Smile” certainly did.
“Dumb Angel” makes me picture a messenger of spirituality, perhaps one that’s unwilling or unable to speak directly about their creed. In this case, that means expressing the message indirectly to their audience via music and the themes therein. The album itself would of course represent this subtler message. Alternatively, I imagine a lonely angel who’s seen Heaven, but is too adorably dim to find it again, so they’re searching for it in all directions. In this interpretation, the album with all its contradictory influences, themes and moods is that journey back to Heaven and Enlightenment. Either of which describe the music and the creator’s intentions to express a “teenage symphony to God” perfectly. It’s really easy to believe all this somber music, Our Prayer, the references to Indian Churches and Surf’s Up were first envisioned for an album called “Dumb Angel.”
SMiLE itself isn’t a horrible title but it’s not particularly great either. It’s a simple and childish name for an album (half) about childhood innocence and humor. Besides Heroes and Villains, Vega-Tables and (possibly) the Psychedelic Sounds skits, there’s really not much material that’s overtly humorous. Most of the songs are decidedly melancholy, perplexing, guilt-inducing, and some (like Fire) are downright scary. All of that said, SMiLE still works albeit as an ironic title. I’ve always thought of it as a subtlereference to Timothy Leary’s psychedelia-inspired philosophy of S.M.I.2L.E.–Space Migration, Increased Intelligence, Life Extension. The first side is about white settlers migrating across the physical space of America, the second side is about the cycle of life, and all throughout are references to several intellectual figures or philosophies. In that context it works…if perhaps coincidentally.
This is a Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE (BWPS)-era Brian quote, so take it with a grain of salt, but Brian did also say the lowercase “i” was intentional. Supposedly it was supposed to be about ego death, making the “I” less of a focus compared to others. Ego death is a central component to the psychedelic experience, and therefore I find that fitting as well. The album is largely about how our actions effect others, perhaps in ways one wouldn’t immediately consider. For example, the Americana tracks are about the effects of the settlers on the Indians and nature itself. “Wonderful” is perhaps the somber, girl’s POV of the relationship in “Good Vibrations,” where we learn that for her it wasn’t always so lovely. “Child is Father of the Man” could be about how children have a lot to teach us–and if not, that’s certainly what “Surf’s Up” is trying to convey. The album is about understanding the wider world, the perspectives of other people, and the deep body of philosophical ethos out there which most people don’t bother to study. With all this in mind, I can say that the spelling “SMiLE” is meaningful and part of this project’s identity, hence why I make a point to use that spelling throughout my essays.
My initial impression of the cover (from a low resolution picture on an older version of the wikipedia page) was disappointment. It was such a boring, simplistic image with nothing trippy or abstract to speak of. I felt the exact same way when I saw the Pet Sounds cover for the first time. However, unlike PS, SMiLE‘s soon grew on me and has come to be one of my favorite album covers ever. I found that the more I learned about the themes of this project, the more the drawing fit like a glove. Brian wanted to appeal to younger audiences and Surf’s Up ends with children as the justification for putting up with the bullshit in life after all.
Like the name SMiLE, I find the childish cover to be ironic and perhaps intentionally subversive of our expectation. Imagine all those teen girls picking up this happy looking record and being exposed to “Fire” and “Do You Like Worms!” Putting a symphony to God (or even just a generic rock album) in this seemingly crudely drawn picture you’d least expect was supposed to take people aback and force us to think. I strongly believe it was meant to make you question preconceived notions of what rock music, or a symphony to God could and should be. If the key figure in Brian’s own chosen religion (Christianity) came in the unexpectedly humble form of a poor carpenter, why can’t a divinely ordained message also arrive in a simplistic cover art?
The cover works much better with the name SMiLE than Dumb Angel, which makes me wonder if this had an effect on the eventual name change. The idea of a literal store that sells happiness is either a beautifully naive fantasy or a cynical critique on Capitalism depending on your interpretation. Considering this album celebrates childhood innocence while also challenging every other enshrined institution and belief in our modern society, it could go either way. In fact, I think it was supposed to work both ways, where the listener initially perceives the previous meaning and only considers the darker implications after the first listen. I can’t recall another example of album artwork which has provoked even half as much analysis. Frank Holmes should be very proud.
All the pictures of the Beach Boys were meant to be off-putting with how we’ve known them up to this point. They’re called the BEACH Boys, and up to now on all the covers (and promos) of past albums, they’ve been at the beach in warm, sunny climates. In the SMiLE booklet, we see them in colder locales for the first time, like fish out of water. It’s once again all about humorously subverting your expectations of what a Beach Boys album could and should be, who the Beach Boys are and who they can be, and therefore getting the listener to open their mind to new possibilities.
The Brian portrait by the mirror with black bars shadowing his face is my favorite picture of the man that I’ve ever seen. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for how he must have felt during the SMiLE Era–pulled in two different directions at once and imprisoned by audience expectations as well as self-imposed standards. I think on some level, even unconsciously, Brian wanted that particular picture in there for this reason. Notice how in this crucial centerfold image, Brian isn’t even smiling himself–in fact he looks downright miserable.
The Frank Holmes illustrations are suitably abstract…by putting to picture the lyrics exactly as they’re written on the page. Another interesting contradiction borne out of this project’s material. On the surface level they’re just some surreal pictures for a trippy album, however deep down it’s communicating that you’re not supposed to take the lyrics too literally. Everything has a symbolic meaning, is a pun, or is meant to evoke a mood above all else. Now that’s I’ve read a synopsis of The Little Prince, I also believe they’re meant to fulfill the same purpose as a drawing in that story. (More on that below.)
The back cover has symbols of all the astrological signs on it, and because of this I don’t think my theories about astrological connections (and Aquarian Age values) in the music are unfounded. (More on that to come.) Clearly it was important to Brian and he wanted that to be on your mind when you see the tracks. I love the way this grandiose symphony to God has so many silly or unexpected song titles like “Do You Like Worms.” That playful subversion of expectations (notice how often I’m using this phrase) was intentional. I believe that, while these specific 12 tracks represent the intended songs on the album, the list order probably wouldn’t have been accurate. It reads like someone coming up the tracks off the top of their head. They knew Worms was first for sure so they put that, then listed off the big songs like “Heroes and Villains” as well as “Surf’s Up,” and finally they got down to the less conspicuous entries. In short, the tracks themselves are genuine, but the list doesn’t represent anything close to a true intended playing order. The explicitly clear disclaimer confirms this.
The one and only fault with the entire SMiLE presentation is the shot of the group on the back. They should have went with the image of Brian holding a picture of all the other members. Really anything else would have been fine.
I personally get the impression from the sources that Smiley Smile was closely related to SMiLE despite their immediately apparent differences.
I now believe the change between them amounted to the abandonment of songs that were more lyricist Van Dyke Park’s brainchildren, or at least those that couldn’t be finished without his continued help. “Worms,” “Cabin Essence,” “CIFOTM,” “Surf,” “Old Master Painter.” Meanwhile, “The Elements” and “I’m in Great Shape,” the two most mysterious SMiLE tracks, the ones Brian couldn’t finish and which broke his focus on the album, are also gone. A lot of the intellectual themes and references have been excised since attempting to fit them all in is made the original concept harder to finish in the first place. The new bridge in “Wonderful” seems to poke fun at those lofty goals of the past by saying: “don’t think you’re God, just be a cool guy.” Brian didn’t want to be the Dumb Angel anymore, it was too much work for too much trouble. So he resigned himself to just do a regular, non-pretentious album. In that sense, Smiley Smile is the self-sabotage that the Catch a Wave biography and fans have claimed it to be.
But as several other fans have said, the SMiLE sessions were trending towards a more stripped-down approach anyway. I do think Brian, reluctantly or not, resentfully or not, took his band-mates’ criticisms seriously. They wanted simpler arrangements that could be played live, so he reworked the entire concept beginning in January ’67 at least partially in consideration for their concerns. Perhaps once that seal was broken, Brian realized that it would look like stagnation or incompetence on his part if he put out an album that had regressed from the groundbreaking complexities of Pet Sounds. (Especially so after all the hype.) That’s why Smiley Smile is so far in the other direction–it had to look like a deliberate and unflinching decision not to participate in the production race which Brian himself had started. All the SMiLE tracks that were finished and/or more Brian’s creations than VDP’s were kept along with some later ’67 fragments (“With Me Tonight” for example) plus some new stuff from Mike, to throw him a bone.
I’ve also heard some fans as well as David Anderle claim that Smiley represented bridging SMiLE and the vague humor album (see later essays) together into one. Personally I think this “humor album” was creeping into Dumb Angel from at least November 4. It wasn’t a clear break between “SMiLE had no humor, Smiley does” so much as “November had some humorous skits…then there was going to be talking in “All Day”…then ‘you’re under arrest’…then a sillier Veggies with humorous overdubs…then Smiley.” I’ve been saying for the last few years online that Smiley and SMiLE are a lot more alike than most Smiley detractors want to admit. I even once went so far as to say that if one doesn’t like Smiley, they probably wouldn’t have liked SMiLE as much as they expect they would.
With all that in mind, I wouldn’t say it’s the humor that separates the two, or (arguably) even the minimalist production. It’s the abandonment of modular recording and the Wrecking Crew. The stereo versions reveal the complexity of the Smiley arrangements; it’s just that this time around it was the Beach Boys doing it all and in Brian’s house. The sessions were recorded among friends in a calm environment while having fun. It’s still a trip, just in a more relaxed set and setting after a year of a stressful “bad vibrations” in the studios. Mistakes as well as idiosyncracies (“Good!” in “WMT,” laughing in “Little Pad,” pouring a drink in “Vegetables” for example) are not just kept in but pronounced in order to capture that light-hearted, nothing-to-prove atmosphere. It had to look like a deliberate, unapologetic counterpoint to Pet Sounds or else it would appear as though they’d merely failed to meet the challenge other bands were setting with their own ’67 material.
I understand people who would ignore what I’m going to say next, but I choose to interpret the Smiley tracklist as significant. “Heroes” and “Vegetables* are right next to each other because they sounded so similar on SMiLE, had the most humor and were closely related during the ’67 sessions. They’re paired with the redone, calmed “Fire” (now “Fall Breaks”) and redone sillier “He Gives Speeches” (as “She’s Going Bald”). I personally see all this as a clue that these particular tracks would have been on Side 1 of SMiLE. (While I don’t think it ever would have made the cut, “He Gives Speeches” is also pretty clearly more at home on the Americana side than Cycle of Life. More on this in future posts.) I feel the same way about Side 2 of Smiley, which has “Wind Chimes,” “Wonderful,” “Good Vibes” and “With Me Tonight.” All the slower, softer, moodier tracks. This also is the way it would have been done on SMiLE, with a softer second act featured several of the exact same songs in their earlier incarnations. I feel if “Wind Chimes” were really an element it would have been closer to “Veggies” and “Elements” (“Fall Breaks”) on the Smiley tracklist, especially since other closely related tracks like “Heroes” and “Veggies” were put so close together.
*Notice too, how Veggies is renamed “Vegetables” from “Vega-Tables,” because Brian took out all the astrological/Aquarian Age reference in this new Smiley Smile framework. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, an Eagle gripping a lyre, representing Americana music in the constellations. In Smiley it’s just a funny weird song about vegetables with no greater theme or messaging to it. This crucial change is mirrored across all other tracks in the album.
Besides being easy to crank out and having the TV demo as free advertising, “Surf’s Up” would have been a great post-“Good Vibrations” single because it’s the same subversion of expectations as the album as a whole. Imagine all the radio jockeys announcing “the hit new single from the Beach Boys–‘Surf’s Up!'” and the general public thinking “oh boy, like we haven’t gotten enough of that before” and then being totally blown away by this new sound with far more provocative lyrics than ever before. That’s the kind of thing that would have blown some minds and drummed up even more buzz on the album. It would have been the perfect counterpoint to GV which has simple lyrics but the most inventive music yet. Trying to make “Heroes and Villains,” a song with an un-commercial sound and structure into the flagship single was absolutely the wrong call. This crucial decision led to months of wasted effort, cannibalizing (and therefore destabilizing) the entire album in order to cobble together a radio-friendly hit from a song that apparently was never meant to be straightforward or a single at all. This had the deleterious effect of crushing Brian’s confidence when it inevitably disappointed in sales. Remaking “Wonderful” and “Love to Say Dada” for the B-sides was also a foolish, futile effort. Brian had two outtakes in the can by 1967 with “Holidays” and “Look.” Why not just use them instead?
The Little Prince
There’s several literary works said to have helped inspire SMiLE. The biggest of these is supposed to be The Little Prince, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. So I thought I’d look into that and see if there were any obvious parallels in the music. I found the description of a drawing in the beginning of the story to be very significant–a snake that ate an elephant, yet all adults perceive it to be a hat. Only the titular little prince identifies it correctly, and the narrator who drew the picture sees this as proof that children have an innate ability for perception which adults lack. I see this theme mirrored in the childlike drawings of Frank Holmes, both the “friendly neighborhood smile shop” cover and the booklet illustrations.
The little prince himself has come from a distant planet where he cares for a rose, which I see as a parallel to SMiLE‘s love of nature and giving a voice to the delicate things and people whom our society continues to hurt. On the prince’s journey to Earth, he stopped at several other planets, each parodying some aspect of adult society. Considering SMiLE also parodies or outright condemns so many elements of our society and history, I think the influence is obvious. Finally, the prince learns on Earth that roses are common, and thereafter feels downcast that his rose wasn’t special. A Fox tells him his rose is, in fact, special because it’s the object of his love and dedication–essentially “it has value to you and that’s what matters.” I think of this as another theme on the album, that every individual person and especially every child has inherent value despite how numerous we are.
The (Theoretical) Impact
Pet Sounds was top 10 in the charts and the sales were underreported so it did even better than we think. “Good Vibrations” was a #1 hit record. The Capitol hype for SMiLE was huge and it was the beginning of the “Brian is a genius” campaign. The group was just voted best in the world by a popular British magazine. “Surfs Up” was demoed on TV where it was presented as the future of pop music. Yes, SMiLE is very abstract and far out but that was in vogue come 1966 and especially 1967. It was the kind of music that was literally perfect for the time. There is no way in hell SMiLE would have bombed as I’ve seen too many people speculate. If released in January, or even as late as early May, I think it had a solid shot at going #1. At least as good a chance as any previous Beach Boys album.
Saying it was “too weird” just doesn’t make sense to me. People would have bought it on the Beach Boys name alone–this was before their brand became toxic for a few years. (In fact, it was SMiLE‘s non-release and the group’s no-show at Monterey which ruined their reputation in the first place.) Any old fans turned off by the new sound would be replaced by those that loved it as was the case with the Beatles. Pointing to Forever Changes or other arty albums as proof it would have flopped is misguided. In this case, Love was unknown outside of Southern California; according to Arthur Lee’s biography, they almost never toured. Other underground psychedelic classics have similar stories–they had no built-in audience or massive marketing campaign as the Beach Boys enjoyed.
Pointing to Smiley is also misguided. That came out in September, long after the GV boost had died, the Capitol hype ended, the Boys no-showed at Monterey and ruined their reputation and so on. Smiley was also rerecorded in a deliberately anti-commercial, stripped down, stoned-out style that was completely against the trend of big psychedelic extravaganzas in the Summer of Love. The people wanted wild psychedelic arrangements and burning guitars played by cool, vaguely dangerous men like Hendrix. Smiley wasn’t cool in a way that SMiLE would have been, and it came out at the worst possible time where SMiLE had everything possible going for it.
As for the argument that SMiLE would have flopped because vocal groups were going out of style, I’d agree. Post-Monterey. Personally, I think the turning point was Hendrix and Janis Joplins’ debuts there. Before that, I don’t think it would have mattered much if the Beach Boys were still perceived as a softer group. They still could’ve gotten away with not playing on their own album/not having that badass guitar shredding on their album in the first half of 1967. The Beatles managed just fine with the same “handicaps” in May. And yes, I do actually think the Boys were about on the same level of respect at the time that they too would have pulled it off.
The album’s immediate success depends on when in 1967 it’s released. If in January 1967, I think it would have been huge. Like, #1, a-million-units-shipped level huge. If it had taken until April, May or June then the answer’s a bit less definite. I still think it would’ve been a great success, but probably not the unprecedented smash hit it could have been. In this scenario, many other bands would’ve already released their great psychedelic opuses, and the competition with Sgt Pepper would be imminent and fierce. Unlike an early ’67 release, in this scenario the Beach Boys don’t get undisputed credit for being first. All that said, I think SMiLE probably would’ve still been a top ten (at the very least top 20) record.
If it came out when, say, Smiley did in real life (September) then I suspect you’d have the “overlooked gem” scenario that a lot of people say SMiLE was doomed to be had it been finished back then. In this scenario, the Beatles would’ve been seen as the clear victors in the “production race” rightly or wrongly. The Beach Boys would’ve missed Monterey still, which was a massive blow to their reputation in the US. New up and coming giants like Hendrix, Joplin, the Who, the Doors and many others would’ve rendered them irrelevant as far as the casual public were concerned. In this scenario, I see SMiLE being largely overlooked by the contemporary press and selling at #30 or so on the charts. Just a rough guess.
In any case, the long term success is the same. Initially somewhat overshadowed by Pepper but comes to be regarded as the great album of the year and the era. Think Pet Sounds, and that growing appreciation and eventual enduring legacy which we associate with that album.