Brian Wilson: Still Smiling

Music Features Brian Wilson
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The Beach Boys’ SMiLE is often described as rock ’n’ roll’s greatest unreleased album, but that’s not quite accurate, for there never was an album to release. In 1966-67 Brian Wilson, the composer/producer behind the project, was pioneering a new form of “modular recording,” where he would record small bits of music in different studios at different times and then stitch them together later into a finished song—as he did most successfully on “Good Vibrations.” He had created most but not all of the envisioned pieces for the album but had done only some of the stitching together when he abandoned the project in the spring of ’67.

“If we had finished it then,” Wilson claims in a recent phone call, “it would have bombed; it was too advanced for the time.” He sounds a bit defensive, as if by claiming it was merely a marketplace decision, he might ward off discussion of the drugs, intra-band conflicts and psychological vulnerabilities that also went into the decision. When he gave up, he left behind 75 reels of tape containing countless snippets of music.

People have been trying to assemble the puzzle ever since. Wilson and the Beach Boys re-recorded many of the SMiLE songs in stripped-down, off-the-cuff versions for the Smiley Smile album, which was released in 1967. Bits and pieces of the SMiLE sessions surfaced on such Beach Boys albums as 20/20, Surf’s Up and Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys’ Best. All this material plus additional bootlegged tracks gave die-hard Wilson fans enough puzzle pieces that each person could create their own version of what a finished SMiLE album might have sounded like.

“Fans began to exchange their own creatively sequenced assemblies of the available modules,” Peter Reum writes in the liner notes for the newly released box set, The SMiLE Sessions, “and SMiLE, the album that never was, became the most interactive album in music history.”

Among those fans were the musicians Darian Sahanaja and Nick Walusko of the Wondermints, who led the band for Wilson’s solo tours. They convinced their boss to finally put together his own version of the puzzle for a live show in London, and when that went well, for a studio album released in 2004 as Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE.

That project didn’t use any of the original SMiLE recording sessions, but Wilson and his lyricist Van Dyke Parks did reveal their original vision of how the pieces would have fit together—they even included several pieces that Wilson had never gotten around to recording the first time. Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE is the most coherent, most cohesive version of SMiLE ever assembled. What it lacks, however, is the sheer beauty of Wilson’s 24-year-old high tenor—as well as the sumptuousness of the Beach Boys’ harmonies and the virtuosity of L.A.’s best session musicians.

Those qualities dominate the new five-CD box set, The SMiLE Sessions. The first disc assembles the 1966-67 tapes according to the template set down by the 2004 album. Because the early tapes were never finished, they don’t fit together as convincingly as the 2004 sessions do, but the earlier music has an aural grandeur that the 61-year-old Wilson and his road band can’t quite match. So you have your choice: a very-good-sounding version that’s complete and cohesive or a brilliant-sounding version that’s incomplete.

The other four discs in the new box set offer dozens of samples from the SMiLE sessions: instrumental passages, a cappella vocal sections, Wilson talking to his musicians with the focused authority of a man on a mission, musical jokes such as “Brian Falls into a Piano,” and versions of unexpected songs such as Wild Honey’s “Mama Says” and the nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice.” While this material is aimed at “Brian fanatics,” it’s more listenable than you might think.

“I had to approve of each song and each little piece that we used,” Wilson says. “It took two weeks. My criteria were, ‘Are the voices loud enough? Are the drums too loud?’ I wanted it to be something people would enjoy listening to, not just for historical research.”

Having reviewed the tapes, Wilson is emphatic that SMiLE was never a rock album. “‘Who Ran the Iron Horse’ [a section of “Cabin Essence”] was the only song on the album that had that rock rhythm. Back then, I was listening to a lot of jazz, especially Gershwin, and a lot of classical, especially Bach, and the album reflects that.”

Despite his protestations, the jazz and classical influences on SMiLE are subtle and subsumed into pop/rock songwriting in much the same way classical motifs were on the contemporary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beach Boys and Beatles had the light, playful touch necessary to pull off this fusion—a touch the later prog-rock bands never had.

“You can combine pop and classical if you use just a little classical,” Wilson explains. “It makes people happier if it’s not forced, if it’s not overwhelming, overbearing.”

The SMiLE Sessions isn’t Wilson’s only new project. He has also just released In the Key of Disney, new recordings of 13 songs from Disney movies. This is in the same vein as last year’s Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin and Wilson’s title-track contribution to this year’s multi-artist compilation, Listen to Me: Buddy Holly.

For all three projects, Wilson doesn’t take the Rod Stewart/Linda Ronstadt approach of singing these songs with orchestral backing in a retro, American Songbook manner. Instead he ignores the original arrangements and recasts the songs as Beach Boys numbers. Whether it’s Alan Menken & Howard Ashman’s “Kiss the Girl” from the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid or George & Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” from the 1930 Broadway show Girl Crazy, Wilson remakes them as bouncy, electric-bass-driven, “ooh”-filled surf numbers.

“I didn’t want to do someone else’s arrangements,” he says, “so I did my own original arrangements. I wanted to hear Gershwin with a Beach Boys feel. We took each song one at a time; I would play them at the piano until come up with an idea. I might be playing ‘dum-dee-dum-dum’ and then—bam!—come up with a new chord. I mostly used the original chords, but I changed some of them to give it my own feel.”

It doesn’t hurt that Wilson is singing a lot better today than he did in 2004, when he was still rusty. He doesn’t sound as good as he did in 1966, but there are hardly any missed notes now. And his playful side is back in action. One of the highlights of the Disney project is a medley of three marching songs—“Heigh-Ho,” “Whistle While You Work” and “Yo Ho”—tied together by sliding whistles, bicycle horns and found percussion. It would have sounded right at home on Smiley Smile.

“I was working on ‘Heigh Ho,’” Wilson recalls. “My wife and I sat around and said, ‘What does this song need? It needs some humor.’ You need a mix of the funny and serious in your music. If a record gets stuck in one mood, the listener might get bored. Our percussionist had a bag of toy instruments and that gave it a humorous twist.”

That philosophy sheds much needed light on his 1966-67 music. For all its grand ambitions and breakthrough techniques, Wilson’s legendary unfinished album was often really funny. How else could you describe the cowboy-at-the-cantina scene in “Heroes and Villains” or the animal impersonations on “Barnyard” or the sounds of Wilson and Paul McCartney chomping on celery and carrots on “Vega-Tables”? Why do you think he called it SMiLE?