I’ve long been a Brian Wilson/Beach Boys fan–although not a fan of the post-”Brian Is Back” nostalgia-laden direction that the Beach Boys took from the late ’70s to the present day–and like many, I was a sponge for any news or revelation related to what many have dubbed the best album never made, Smile. Before Brian Wilson performed the material from that abandoned project at the Royal Festival Hall and then released Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE in 2004, I was, of course, well familiar with the material that surrounded the Smile sessions. I had collected a number of Smile bootlegs–e.g., Sea of Tune’s Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 16 (1966-1967) Smile and Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 17 – Smile Sessions, Vigotone’s SMiLE, Purple Chick’s Smile – A Reconstruction, Dumb Angel’s Smile – Millenium Edition, Odeon’s Smile, Mark Linett’s 1988 Compilation Smile Era, Secret Smile, the Mok Mix, and the 66/67 Fan Mix–so I knew the music and the legend behind the abandoned project. It was exciting enough when Wilson released the new studio SMiLE in 2004, but it was utterly incredible when he and the remaining Beach Boys finally decided to release the Smile Sessions Box Set last fall. This was something that Brian Wilson fans have been waiting for for years, going back to the late 1960s. Sure, I had heard most of the songs and the various outtakes before on numerous bootlegs, but this was an official release in a wonderfully packaged box set, and so the sound and “legitimacy” of the Smile session recordings were now available. If you aren’t familiar with the Smile project, you don’t know what you’re missing.
With the session recordings now released, I thought it a good time to read Domenic Priore’s Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece. Priore has a long history with Smile-related writing and reporting, going back to his editorship of fanzine, The Dumb Angel Gazette. His Look! Listen! Vibrate! SMILE!, a very long edition of Dumb Angel Gazette, was the first real effort to document the various ins and outs surrounding the Smile sessions. (I got that book back in the late 1990s, but for the life of me I can’t seem to find it now. It seems to be lost, along with my copy of Paul William’s wonderful collection of essays, Brian Wilson And The Beach Boys: How Deep Is The Ocean? And I’m very frustrated about that.) His more recent book on Smile, though, is a much more coherent narrative than the earlier book, and it provides an interesting history at this point in Brian Wilson’s life, what many consider his creative peak. Coming off of the success of Pet Sounds and then “Good Vibrations,” Wilson began work with Van Dyke Parks on an album of experimental, studio-driven material (to label it merely as “psychedelic” would be to short change the work, although the psychedelic music just beginning to flower at the time certainly went into the influential mix of the recordings). It was to be like nothing every created before, not by the Beach Boys or by anyone else. Legend has it that Wilson was in competition with the Beatles when it came to cutting edge experimental sounds, with Rubber Soul influencing Pet Sounds, which in turned spurred McCartney and Lennon to create the studio tour de force, Sgt. Pepper’s. Smile was to be the next step in the Beach Boys’, or Brian Wilson’s, evolution as a creator. It was to be an album that would have rivaled Sgt. Pepper’s, if not left it in the dust. But as Priore aptly documents, a number of factors led to the project ultimately being shelved. The attitude of the other Beach Boys (especially Mike Love), the lawsuit with Capitol Records, paranoia over associates and friends revealing or stealing from the project, the abundance of hangers on, the ultimate release of Sgt. Pepper’s, and drug use all contributed to Wilson deciding not to finalize and release the album. (Interestingly enough, Priore doesn’t really give much, if any, attention to drugs in his book, leading me to think that either the author/fan papered over that part of the story and/or the drug reason has been inflated over the years.) In the 45 years since the original studio recordings, the legend has built, and the sheer weight of the album’s reputation has jettisoned it in ways that, perhaps, have surpassed what might have been its actual release in 1967. Hard to say. The question of Smile–What would have happened to the Beach Boys if they had actually released the album as Wilson had planned?–is similar to the kind of speculation surround JFK: what would have happened to the country if Kennedy was never assassinated? The same could be said of the Beach Boys’ withdrawal from the Monterey Pop Festival. What would their career had been like, and how would they be viewed today, had they played that event along with Hendrix, Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and The Who? We’ll never know.
Priore’s book is divided into three sections. The first provides a build up and background narrative to Smile, discussing the Los Angeles music/culture scene at the time and the reputation that Brian Wilson had established with Pet Sounds. The second section, by far the longest and most substantive, centers on the recording sessions and contexts of Smile, focusing at times on individual songs, such as “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf’s Up,” and “Vega-Tables,” and the recording process surrounding those. The final part of the book deals with Wilson and the Beach Boys post-Smile, from Smiley Smile to Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. This third section spends quite a bit of time on the history behind and creation of Wilson’s 2004 release, but it also devotes a chapter to the world of fandom and bootlegs that helped to spawn Smile‘s ultimate release, both as a “finished” Brian Wilson project and last year’s Smile Sessions (although the book was published a few years before any mentioning of the Smile Sessions‘ ultimate release). All in all, Priore provides a good overview of everything that was going on during the making of the unfinished Smile. At times he becomes a little too much of a fan/cheerleader in the very last part of the book, where he discusses Wilson’s 2004 efforts, but I guess you can excuse him that little bit of passion. After all, Priore had a lot of professional investment in Smile and Brian Wilson. He also tends to avoid the soap opera aspect that surrounded the Smile sessions, saying relatively little about the infighting and bickering that occurred between Brian and the rest of the Beach Boys. Every now and again he’ll point out that Mike Love was one of the stanchest opponents of what Wilson was doing and that he was the main reason that Smile didn’t see the light of day when it was supposed to. Mike Love comes across as a real asshole in this book–and from everything I’ve heard, this may not be far from the truth–but Priore doesn’t dwell on the harmful actions of Love as much as he could have. To a point, I had expected more of a “behind the scenes” approach to Brian’s relationships at the time, but Priore sticks primarily with the studio work and his collaborations with Van Dyke Parks. And perhaps that’s as it should be. If you love the Smile-era music and want to know more about the history of this seminal project, Priore’s book is a good place to start.