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.