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Music Review: Beach Boys – Smiley Smile

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Smiley Smile is a Beach Boys album that continues to draw me like a moth to the flame. I return to this album every year or so and can never quite grasp all that it contains. It is one of the most unpredictable albums in the Beach Boys catalogue as it evokes different thoughts and feelings during each listening. 

Smiley Smile is an album that should never have happened. Shortly following the release of Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson produced the single “Good Vibrations.” “Good Vibrations” is now recognized as one of the most creative and revered songs in rock and roll history. The harmonies flow along and build upon each other until they form a virtual symphony of sound all within three and a half minutes. Brian Wilson recorded “Good Vibrations” in small sections and then pieced them together into the finished song. This one single took weeks to produce and cost over $50,000 which was an unheard of sum at the time. “Good Vibrations” rewarded the Beach Boys with their third number one single.

This success, both creatively and commercially, gave Brian Wilson the impetus to begin work on his next great creation entitled Smile. He formed a musical partnership with Van Dyke Parks and they worked for about six months on the Smile project.

Problems began when Mike Love voiced his displeasure about many of the Smile songs. He felt that the songs were too complicated to be sung in concert. Capitol Records was worried about the commercial viability of the album. Finally, Brian Wilson began to suffer from exhaustion and mental problems. The Smile project was shelved and Smiley Smile was quickly pieced together as a substitute. Smile would not surface as a completed project for decades but various songs would be issued on a number of Beach Boys albums over the years. 

Smiley Smile was released in 1967 at the height of the psychedelic rock era. While followers of such artists as The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead were not likely to be Beach Boy fans, Smiley Smile would fit this era in music well. It can legitimately be considered psychedelic pop.

Brian Wilson did not want to include “Good Vibrations” on the album but was over-ruled. This was probably a good decision as it fits well here and 41 years later it is difficult to imagine Smiley Smile without it. “Good Vibrations” forms a foundation around and against which the other songs flow.

“Heroes and Villains” is a mellow, understated song in the style of “Good Vibrations.” While it does not have the dramatic high soaring quality of “Good Vibrations” it still is very creative. “Heroes and Villains” would become a hit in its on right reaching number 12 on the national charts. 

Smiley Smile contains some other highlights as well. “Gettin’ Hungry” features an innovative use of a keyboard sound as the underpinning of its structure. Brian and Mike  share vocal duties and would release this song as a single under heir own names at a later date. “Vegetables” is a tad weird at first listen but is saved by the harmonies which branch off in odd directions. “Wonderful” and “With Me Tonight” feature lead vocals by the increasingly confident Carl Wilson. “Wind Chimes” is another song that requires multiple listenings. The song meanders and flows until it finally coalesces into a satisfying conclusion.

Many people consider Smiley Smile to be an album of desperation. I disagree with that assessment. While it may have been hastily assembled at the end, the production of many songs are on a par with anything the Beach Boys ever produced.

In the final analysis we come back to understanding Smiley Smile and that can be a lifetime’s journey.

About David Bowling

  • JC Mosquito

    I admire your defence of the album, and I’m sure it must have some redeeming qualities, but other than Good Vibrations, I still can’t listen to it. And I’ve tried to for years. But I’ll spin it again and try to identify those positive points you mentioned…. I dunno – maybe this is just one of those albums I’ll never hope to understand.

  • zingzing

    jc–do you own/like smile?

    smiley smile is a strange strange album, but one of their most interesting, if not best. it’s not what smile was supposed to be, but, then again, it isn’t smile.

    of course it pales in comparison… and its strangeness just seems to be strange for the sake of strange…

    i think it is an underappreciated album, with its own aesthetic rules. it’s never been viewed under its own terms–even at the time, it was seen as a crap replacement for what was supposed to be the album of the decade–and even its creators dumped it like so much afterbirth.

    but! when viewed for what it is, not what it could have been, it’s got miles of charm and whimsy, and never takes itself too seriously. it has even aged well compared to a majority of 1967 psychedelia.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i never really follow the story close enough, but when they released Smile a couple of years ago, what was that? this record here plus some unreleased stuff?

  • zingzing

    no, the smile they released a couple of years ago was brian wilson’s original vision for the album (and it’s pretty close to the bootlegs). but! wilson RE-RECORDED the whole thing with a new band, added a few lyrics and finished off a few pieces.

    it’s a great way to hear smile… but the bootlegs are still the best, i think. the original recordings were totally amazing.

    wait, mark, do you know what smile is?

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i knew that Smile was “refurbed” older material as you mentioned. is there something else i’m missing?

  • zingzing

    i’m assuming you know the general history of smile. but your question (thinking it was smiley smile) kind of makes me doubt that assumption.

    so have you heard smile? in either it’s 1966 bootlegs or 2004 re-recordings?

    if not, it’s one of the most important albums of the sixties, released or not. it’s certainly the beach boys’ high point, which, after pet sounds, is a very high point indeed. i prefer it to just about anything put out in 1967, and think that if it had been released, complex psychedelia and simplistic americana could have been reconciled instead being seen as reactions to each other.

    in short, it would have changed the landscape of american and british music immeasurably. brian’s use of editing and fragmented compositional techniques has really never been fully duplicated, and his ability to produce imaginative sounds also reached its peak on smile.

    it’s also a total shame that wilson failed to release the album. the critical and popular adulation he most likely would have received would have greatly bolstered his confidence, meaning he would have created much more music at this rare level… instead of spitting out the occasional reminder of his brilliance throughout the 70s.

  • JC Mosquito

    Yep, zing, I own Smiley Smile and know the history and its relationship to Smile and over the years periodically listen and try to like it, or even appreciate it, but it’s lost on me. It’s sitting right here – let me see, H & V – weak Good Vibrations clone; Veg – just plain dumb; Woodpecker Symphony – dumber. Of course that’s an idiotic review and I respect the BB’s more than that, but I clearly remember that’s exactly how I felt the first time I heard Smiley Smile when I was…20ish. I’ve mellowed since, but it aint no sgt. pepper, or satanic majesties, or piper at the gates of dawn, none of which I like either. maybe iI’m not psychedelically inclined enough.

  • zingzing

    ahh, but jc, the question was whether or not you like “smile,” not “smiley smile.” i can imagine not liking “smiley smile…”

    “smile” is certainly psychedelic, but not in the usual (english) way. it does use a lot of warped textures, but it is rooted in americana. and it’s a lot less eccentric than “smiley smile,” not because it’s any less strange, but because there’s so much substance to back it up that the eccentricities are just part of the artistry of the thing.

    the versions on “smiley smile” are sometimes similar, but are cobbled together at the last moment as a quick replacement for “smile,” which was never going to come out. viewed as that, it does seem rushed and raw and somewhat limp.

  • zingzing

    and by “americana,” i mean “american song forms” rather than what it has come to mean today.

  • JC Mosquito

    Ach – yo’re right, zing – it’s Smile you asked about.

    I’ve heard it – though I heard it in the reverse direction as it were.

    You said about SS – “it’s never been viewed under its own terms–even at the time, it was seen as a crap replacement for what was supposed to be the album of the decade–and even its creators dumped it like so much afterbirth”.

    And my problem is I can’t hear Smile without thinking of the album it’s now trying to re-replace. So maybe I have to go back and re-re-revisit both – my head has always acknowledged Wilson as an Ameican pop genius, but my heart hasn’t let itself be 100% convinced of that yet.

  • zingzing

    ahh. well, “smiley smile” should be listened to on its own terms. but! start with “smile.” there are many versions out there. so, that’s a bit of a conundrum. i’ve got a version that takes the most completed versions of each song and orders them pretty much the same as the 2004 rerecording.

    the best stuff on smile–heroes and villians, do you dig worms, cabinessence, surf’s up–is absolutely mindblowing. a total treat.

    it must be said that the 2004 version, while sonically inferior (especially in the vocals,) does do a nice job of presenting the material as a complete work, with sections that seemed like snippets (on the bootlegs) reordered into medleys of striking power.

  • http://www.grayflannelsuit.net/ Chris

    When I transferred this album (on the Smiley Smile / Wild Honey two-fer) to my computer, the only songs that made the cut were “Heroes and Villains”, “Vegetables”, “Fall Breaks…” and “Good Vibrations”. I really can’t deal with the rest.

  • JC Mosquito

    Oh – Surf’s Up – how did I forget that? There’s another BW meisterwork.

  • zingzing

    chris, doesn’t the two-fer have “can’t wait too long” on it?

    jc, surf’s up has to be his greatest song. it’s brought tears to my eyes many times, for many different reasons. i love it that the title looks like any early beach boys’ title… you hear that title and you think you can hear the song… but then you hear the song… it’s nice to spring that one on people and watch their jaw drop.

  • Ray

    I don’t know what to say. It’s either a great piece of work that I just don’t understand, or a bunch of junk. Since the first time I heard and and up until now, I have gone with the later. I think critics have been generous with thier reviews on this album. For me it’s right down there with M.I.U , 15 Big Letdowns , and any number of post Carl & The Passions dissappointments.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    It’s either a great piece of work that I just don’t understand, or a bunch of junk.

    this is a great statement. general purpose,even. let’s see how many records we can apply it to:

    Smile
    Trout Mask Replica
    Metal Machine Music

    ….

  • JC Mosquito

    Metal Machine Music IS a buncha junk, but very COOL junk.

  • PAYSAS

    DAMN I REALLY LIKE YOUR GUYS SONG THEY KOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL