Graham Reid | | 3 min read
In the current issue of Uncut magazine, the editors have compiled a list of the 50 greatest bootlegs. Among the usual suspects are never-released Bob Dylan and the Band, the Clash, the Velvet Underground, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Cave, Captain Beefheart, Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush (her demo sessions) and so on.
Topping the list was the Beach Boys' SMiLE which the authors duly noted would soon no longer be a bootleg.
When, in 1967, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys abandoned what was to be his masterpiece SMiLE -- although the cover art had been done and ads taken out -- it was attributed to his increasing drug paranoia and a failure of nerve.
The release date in January '67 came and went, publicist Derek Taylor announced in May it the album had been scrapped although Wilson continued to work on it, and then . . .
Wilson cracked and became a bloated recluse, the band carried on without him, a few tracks (notably the brilliant lead-off single Good Vibrations, Heroes and Villains and mysterious and wistful Surf's Up) appeared, and SMiLE passed into rock myth with bootleg versions passed among obsessives and aficionados.
Six years ago Wilson, original lyricist Van Dyke Parks (who had quit a couple of times during the '67 sessions) and various musicians re-recorded the album and toured it as Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. That template prompted Wilson, engineer Mark Linett, longtime Beach Boys associate Alan Boyd and others to go through the vaults and reconstruct the original album from the hundreds of hours of tapes. (Linett and Boyd are interviewed here about reconstructing SMiLE.)
So, some 45 years on, we have the Beach Boys' SMiLE almost as originally intended -- and it comes in a double disc edition as well as a five CD box set (with vinyl singles and much more) which includes rehearsals and outtakes.
While 30 snippets of backing vocals and piano parts for Heroes and Villains and a couple of dozen similar fragments of Good Vibrations on the box will be too much for most, what the set shows is the good humour of the sessions and how perfectionist Wilson worked with modules of multi-layered vocal and instrumental passages which he would piece together later as he saw fit.
Perhaps the reconstruction of these beautifully sung and recorded fragments under the pressure of time was, as much as his marijuana paranoia and crippling self-doubt, the cause for SMiLE being abandoned?
The current line is that there were record company problems because the Beach Boys had started their own label, but few believe things were that simple. Wilson was losing the plot quickly and under considerable pressure to finish the project while suffering jibes from Mike Love and own father Murry about the strangely surreal lyrics and musical complexity of the proposed album.
Listening through to it, you'd hate to be the one trying to pull this sonic jigsaw puzzle together. But you also suspect Wilson knew exactly what he was doing and given time . . .
Well, in the past couple of years he – inspired no doubt by the successful reissue of the Pet Sounds sessions and the Presents SMiLE projects. – had plenty of time.
The double disc version – with various outtakes, demos, stereo mixes and montages of some of those modules – is more manageable but again you cannot help be impressed by how exciting and fresh this music sounds.
It would be an icy person who didn't melt to the technicolour Good Vibrations, the summershine harpsichord of Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock) and its wacky doo-wop vocals, or the emotional uplift of the elevating Heroes and Villains.
Or grin at the whimsy of Vege-Tables, indulge in the escapist romance coupled with swirling psychedelia on Cabin Essence (one for the headphones) or laugh along with the surreal Mrs O'Leary's Cow.
And you can hear how those various modules interlock as aural signatures which unify the whole by their repetition and variations. SMiLE was to be a complex construction and even now remains quite singular in pop music. A few tracks have been shifted in the running order from the previous version. That'll feed more discussion in rock magazines.
Brian Wilson was a melodic craftsman who combined surf music, country, found sounds, doo-wop, baroque pop, humour and elements from the Great American Songbook (no surprise he has recently interpreted the Gershwins and Disney tunes) into something unique.
No work of art is worth losing your marbles over, but SMiLE was intended to be a beautiful, intricate and beguiling conceit and here, just a little late, is persuasive evidence it was. And still is.
A flawed and crazy masterpiece. But a masterpiece nonetheless.
There is much more on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys at Elsewhere starting here.