One of my very favourite things that I’ve ever written was a massive two-part look at The Beach Boys’ albums Pet Sounds and SMiLE for one of my old paper-and-ink fanzines. Although it’s now massively out of date for fairly obvious reasons – I don’t think the The Pet Sounds Sessions box set had even been released at the time that I wrote it – and overall perhaps not the best thing that I’ve ever written (although some of the turns of phrase, especially calling Pet Sounds itself “the sound of catching a wave somewhere on Mars”, do still raise a, well, smile), I can still recall the thrill of trying to piece together the real non-sensational backstory from what little hard evidence was actually available, and indeed of pasting the whole thing together with glue and cut out photocopied bits of album covers and issues of Record Collector.
While it would actually be easier – if less thrilling and satisfying – to put that issue together now, matters would not be quite so simple when it came to the content. If you asked me to write an article about SMiLE now, I wouldn’t know where to start. What was once a genuine lost album only ever hinted at to the public through out of context fragments has now been released and documented down to the last often bewilderingly contradictory detail. If you started looking at those details in too much detail, chances are you would end up staring at them with as much confusion as Brian Wilson did at those rows and rows of tape boxes back in 1966.
More importantly, however, that excitement over SMiLE itself has gone. It was, for a long time, pop music’s single biggest mystery, an album that was supposedly ready to roll off the back of two massive hit singles – one of them arguably the artistic highpoint of sixties pop – yet which it turned out even The Beach Boys themselves hadn’t actually heard. There were the wild stories of its non-making, from Mike Love throwing tantrums in the studio over elliptical lyrics to songwriting sessions held in sandpits and, most notoriously of all, Brian Wilson attempting to burn the master tape of an instrumental track dubbed ‘Fire’ when he started to believe it held para-elementary powers; depending on whose account you listen to, the tapes wouldn’t burn, which tipped his paranoia even further over the precipice. There were the tantalising-sounding extracts that did leak out, officially or otherwise, from genuinely brilliant finished tracks like Our Prayer, Cabinessence and Surf’s Up to the short vignettes, usually running to less than sixty seconds, that sounded like they had simply been edited out of the middle of a larger song but actually hadn’t, to rumours that fragments of SMiLE backing tracks were hidden deep within big Beach Boys hits. You could even find the ‘Fire’ music, more properly known as Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, accompanying perhaps inappropriately zany footage of the band whizzing around a fire station, if you knew where to look. The only problem with this was that there was no actual album. You could listen to, analyse and talk about Pet Sounds as an album until someone came along and gave you a job at Q just to save your friends from gnawing their own legs off. With SMiLE, you couldn’t even guess at which bit of it went where.
Everybody did try to guess at which bit of it went where, though, and that was part of the appeal. We all had different theories about what bolted on to what, and it’s at this point that I should admit that there were some bits that I wasn’t quite so intrigued by as well; I have to confess that I was never exactly bowled over by Vega-Tables, not least on account of it appearing to turn into the Jim’ll Fix It theme at the end, and if anyone has ever worked out what the actual point of He Gives Speeches is then you’re doing better than me. Thousands upon thousands of Chop Suey The Galactic Emperor-style putative versions of SMiLE, probably few of which bore any relation to what turned out to be the finalised running order. Because there was one, and that’s where it all changed.
A couple of years after The Pet Sounds Sessions had taken possibly the most finely crafted album in history and dropped it on the floor and smashed it – those three bonus tracks at the end of the original CD issue, taking in an excised vocal bit, an alternate lyric and a genuine outtake, say more in less than seven minutes than the box set manages to in what seems like seven years – rumours began to circulate that Brian Wilson was finally preparing a version of SMiLE for release. Early in 2004, it was unveiled in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, and as I watched the excited reports roll in about how this bit now had lyrics and that baffling musical cue now made sense, I have to admit that I felt a bit of that thrill falling away. The newly-recorded accompanying album that appeared later in the year was a great listen, even if a little too clinical and hefty-sounding compared to the stray originals that fans had once thrilled to, but it also took away a good deal of the mystery. Mystery that was duly set light to – though presumably wouldn’t burn – with the release of The SMiLE Sessions in 2011, which gathered up pretty much every available recorded fragment right down to end-of-session spoken word silliness about getting stuck in a piano and a Capitol Records in-store ad that promised with “a happy album cover, the really happy sounds inside and a happy in-store display piece, you can’t miss; we’re sure to sell a million units in January”. Rarely has the blithe optimism of commerce versus art been more ironically illustrated.
Although some crackpot columnists tried to claim at the time that it actually showed up Pet Sounds as silly throway frivolity, a stance that hilariously put them in the same camp as Michael Parkinson and his dismissal of the album as “pop rubbish”, everyone has since calmed down and you don’t really hear very much about SMiLE any more. Which is a shame as it was once an important part of pop history precisely because it didn’t actually really exist. A cautionary tale of how sometimes, you just have to draw the line and say that you’ve had enough bonus tracks, making ofs and raw footage, thank you very much. At the end of that article, I remarked that “It’s a strange thought, but no matter how brilliant it may have been, maybe SMiLE did better out of not being released than most people would appear to think”. I really ought to have sent a copy to Brian Wilson.
Incidentally, that issue also included features on Chris Morris’ Radio 1 show Blue Jam – which used some of the then-incomplete SMiLE fragments as backing music for sketches – and long-forgotten Watch With Mother show Barnaby. Even all this time later, there’s still no Barnaby DVD. Some things do not deserve to be languishing in the archives.
You can find a longer version of this piece, with further tales of fanzine editing and hunting down bootlegs of SMiLE, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can find a feature about another great lost experimental piece of the era – Carnival Of Light by The Beatles – here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.