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A SMiLE In The Echo Chamber - The Beach Boys Lost Masterpiece 

18 November 2019

Echo ChamberAn enclosed space where sound reverberates.

Even though it was released in part eight years ago, the question remains, what would have happened had Brian Wilson finished the SMiLE album?
If releasing it as the Beach Boys follow-up proper to the immaculate Pet Sounds, had it met the January 1967 deadline, would it have taken the wind out of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper

What was originally an impressionistic, psychedelic, folk rock themed concept, or as Wilson simply called it  ”a teenage symphony to God” . That is what his planned project was, before the wheels came off, both the album and unfortunately Brian Wilson. This was, as legend tells us, the architecture at the core of what the sixties, what the free-spirited moment stood for. The Pet Sounds album had opened the door but SMiLE_was going to take it off its hinges. _Pet Sounds was an album of stand-alone tracks, which, when put together they formed one artistic masterpiece. It is no coincidence that the concept was already been thought out during the recording of Pet Sounds.  Of all things this monumental album was paving the way for an even bigger artistic statement. A musical signpost can be heard in the single “Good Vibrations” single, a product of the SMiLE sessions, and a signal as to how Brian Wilson was now going about producing music.

The song “Good Vibrations”, written by Wilson and Mike Love was recorded between February and September 1966. It was spliced together from ninety-hours of tape, from four different studios, from which six sections were used and brought together. The exhaustive process made it, perhaps one of the most important and intricate recordings of the 20th Century pointing to a new direction is in the making of music. This process was the blueprint to how the album SMiLE was to come together, from seamless reels of music cut together to form one collective album of tracks. The point where the true genius shows its trump card, Brian Wilson felt that instead of taping each backing track as a complete performance. What was common practice for previous Beach Boys recordings, along with every other band of the day. Instead, he split the arrangement into sections, recording multiple takes of each section and developing the production arrangements as the sessions continued. Then splicing these sections together to form the finished product, in truth an exhaustive, draining process.

An example is the echo-chamber vocal lines for “Good Vibrations”, these complex sessions were produced over a two-week period. Which saw one week the high-pitched harmony being produced while another week, the low harmony with the main vocals were recorded and simply cut together. As enormous a task as that sounds doing one track, doing a whole album painstakingly sculpted in this way did bring added pressure on Wilson. Put those factors alongside Capitol Records breathing down his neck to complete it quickly, and meet the January ’67 deadline. All this pressure contributed to a personal breakdown and a much publicized descent into drug use.

The song itself “Good Vibrations”, released in October 1966, hit the top of the charts in the US and the UK, making the Beach Boys the biggest selling act in the world in the second half of that year. This led to the January 1967 deadline and the intensity to release new material. But the song itself was a new approach to songwriting, for example, instead of an intro, the single “I” sung by Carl Wilson opened the track at the same time as the music. The SMiLE writing sessions between Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks lasted from April to September of ’66 by a piano at Wilsons home. All arrangements and lyrics were slowly pieced together with the help of two-grand in cannabis which Wilson acquired for the long nights and thought process.

In October, Wilson was already touting the album in the press, but also stating more importantly that this was to be a large suite of music much improved upon their last offering Pet Sounds. The very basis of which was to be an ego less offering of spreading good will. It was no surprise that due to the workload Wilson took on, and the change in the recording style, the January 1967 deadline was missed.  At the same time artwork and advertisements were being readied for the release of this beast, but now pressure mounted. The race was now on as The Beatles were hold up in Abbey Road since the previous November. After quitting touring to concentrate on their studio output, there was something monumental on its way, a glimpse given in February 1967 with the release of the double-A sided single “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”. The Beatles were once again hungry to recapture their crown. 

After the damage from Pet Sounds , and the success “Good Vibrations” had, both musical innovations had impacted, and dented their creativity along with their egos. The Beatles knew they were no longer the supreme innovators, and all their focus was fixed. Unfortunately deeper into the darkness Brian Wilson drifted, and SMiLE had no end in sight, Van Dyke Parks soon distanced himself from the concept as the race was over. In May 1967, The Beatles unleashed Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band to the world, in the same month after 50 sessions,17 of which were spent working on “Good Vibrations” alone, SMiLE was laid to rest and abandoned. 

Brian Wilson, traumatized by the failure derailed any further work on the project. In June 1967 The Beach Boys came together to piece some parts of the puzzle from the aborted album at Wilsons home studios, resulting with the album Smiley Smile. Whilst a good album, it pales in comparison to the original incarnation, though some elements survived. The centerpiece to the SMiLE album, “Heroes and Villains‘” did get reworked and released as a single in July ’67, appearing on Smiley Smile along with “Good Vibrations”. Further songs written for SMiLE became reworked and released on future albums, such as  the spiritual awakening of “Surfs Up” along with “Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer”.

Up until, and including 1972 there was a rumor that SMiLE would be completed, as Carl Wilson had revisited the master tapes many times, unfortunately it would never happen. This resulted with the album becoming one of the most bootlegged recordings of all-time, although parts were released on Beach Boys compilation albums and box sets over the years. The myth drove the market until, in his twilight years Brian Wilson oversaw the release of the Smile Sessions (2011).

These fragmented parts of the original sessions were knitted together as close to his original vision as possible, but not to the same perfected standard that drove him to the brink of madness 45 years earlier. It was praised by the critics, and won a Grammy Award for best historical album. Though it was music from another time, a humorous album, a unique vision from the mind of a genius. Given the title, and even the finished artwork, whether it would have knocked Sgt. Pepper off its pedestal is debatable. The legend will always outweigh the reality, one thing is for sure, back in 1967 it would have been an astounding listen.