In Defense Of | The Beach Boys - Smiley Smile
In Defense Of is a column where Eject writers re-evaluate widely-hated albums or artists, and argue the case for a better reputation. This time, Luke Lowrance stands up for The Beach Boys' 1967 album Smiley Smile - an album critically overshadowed by the famously unfinished Smile project and its multiple released versions.
In April 1967, Brian Wilson appeared in the television special Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, where he gave a solo performance of his most adventurous composition to date. The song was called “Surf’s Up,” and it became the first hint of new Beach Boys music in the wake of the mammoth “Good Vibrations.” The track was slated to be on the long-awaited new Beach Boys record Smile, an album that’s release was seemingly perpetually delayed following its announcement in 1966. It was a tender, powerful performance that sounded unlike anything else in pop music for the time. Brian’s falsetto weaved effortlessly between the spaces in Van Dyke Parks’ evocative poetry, creating a nostalgic, bittersweet aura, as if the end of an era was approaching. Little did the listeners at home know, it was.
Brian’s performance of “Surf’s Up” was filmed in November 1966, two months before the album’s January 1 deadline. By the time the segment aired in April, the album was still nowhere to be heard. In less than one month, the entire project would be abandoned. Over 50 recording sessions and almost a year of work were suddenly deemed unusable. It was a devastating artistic blow to Wilson, who grew increasingly erratic and withdrawn from society following the album's cancellation. Before he had time to do that however, he and his band needed to put out an album. That record became Smiley Smile.
To many, Smiley Smile seems like the bastard cousin of the superior Smile. It’s the same songs that were to appear on Smile, but they’ve been stripped to their most basic musical cores and then some. It was quickly recorded by The Beach Boys in a makeshift studio at Brian Wilson’s home, using whatever instruments the band could play at the house. That’s right, for the first time in two and a half years, The Beach Boys were allowed to play their own instruments on their own record. Gone were the Carol Kaye basslines and Hal Blaine drum fills that had defined their sound for the last two years. In their place were spooky bass pedal melodies and mysterious percussion. It became the most ominous album about happiness ever recorded.
Never has a record had to reckon with its own past more than Smiley Smile. It has had to contend with the legacy of its long lost brother, even though for years no-one actually knew what it was. Smiley Smile had to follow the borderline-unfollowable “Good Vibrations.” It was released in the wake of albums such as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and The Doors’ self-titled debut album. Everything about Smiley Smile was out of step with the times. Somehow it was simultaneously too psychedelic and too tame, too light and too heavy, too slick and too lo-fi. The record was creaky and hunched like an antique store overrun by time. Following the majesty of their previous few albums, namely Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile was just plain weird. The stoney atmosphere of tracks like “She’s Goin’ Bald” is pitted against the tense “Good Vibrations” in a way seemingly devoid of thought, while simultaneously making an artistic statement about the artist’s process in a way no major group had yet done. The record was almost universally panned, and effectively ruined The Beach Boys’ career. Still, it was the only place to hear the fabled Smile songs (albeit in their alternate arrangements), aside from difficult-to-obtain bootlegs. One could only imagine.
In the wake of the 2011 release of The Smile Sessions, music fans no longer had to listen to bootlegs and fan remixes to hear the Smile tracks, which effectively made Smiley Smile obsolete to casual Beach Boys fans. I mean, why listen to “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” when you can listen to at least four alternate takes of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”? Perhaps surprisingly, there actually is a reason to listen to this album. These songs were transformed from their grandiose origins into intimately crafted, borderline delicate pieces of music as a means of artistic statement, not just as a “fuck you” to all the people who felt the band owed them something. In the wake of over-bloated “post-Pepper” albums from many second-rate groups, Smiley Smile was a breath of fresh air. It was able to stay trippy with the times, but displayed a back-to-roots sensibility that many groups wouldn’t catch on to until at least the ’70s. The only contemporary artists displaying similar thought processes were weirdos like Bob Dylan and The Band, and even they couldn’t come up with something as out-there as “Gettin’ Hungry.” The Beach Boys were still proving themselves to be innovators, but no one wanted to listen. It was the Summer of Love, and while many were digging the sounds of Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds, audiences weren’t ready for minimalist art-rock from some bedroom.
After living almost as a footnote for fifty years, it is time for Smiley Smile to be taken on its own artistic merits. The arranging and recording of this album was just as meticulous as the music that proceeded it. The group had been attempting to distance themselves from their surfer image for years, and while the precedent had been set with Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile effectively destroyed any preconceived notions of what a Beach Boys album could and should be, but at what cost? Their further attempts to commercialize the sound of this record proved to be a waste of time. They had advanced before their audience was ready, and with their new sound considered “too far-out”, they weren’t yet lined up to be getting new fans without further changes. Thanks to Smiley Smile, the band was out of artistic favour, audience favour, and commercial and critical expectations. Never before had an album by such a major group been so controversial and widely disdained. An album so important deserves to be enjoyed on its own merit, free from the preconceptions put upon it by Smile. Alas, Smile is dead. Long live Smiley Smile.