Surf's Up
By Joab Jackson

The following is an article originally printed 12-6-2000 by Joab Jackson. We are pre-printing it with his kind permission.

Right: The unreleased Smile album

I honestly can't see why Brian Wilson lost it while trying to assemble Smile, the legendary never-released Beach Boys album that was supposed to rival the Beatles' landmark Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It took me all of one afternoon to complete the job.

This project started out as a birthday gift for a friend. I had been leafing through Smile tribute sites such as John Lane and Jon Hunt's Smile Shop), and it slowly dawned on me that the 'Net provides everything one needs to reconstruct this album. A few songs from those 1966-'67 sessions have been officially released, of course--some on subsequent studio albums and some on the 1993 Beach Boys boxed set, Good Vibrations. Other tracks--unreleased, unfinished, bootlegged--pop up on Web sites such as Yet Another Smile Page and, more recently, on Napster. Even copies of the artwork Capitol Records commissioned for Smile are online. With a color printer and a CD burner, I could compile the most famous album that never was. It was a cinch.

For any student of rock history this is no small deal. For years I've ached to hear Smile, having read so much about this "lost masterpiece." The story goes something like this: At the time, Beach Boys leader Wilson was competing head to head with the Beatles, each trying to outdo each other in making sophisticated, artful pop songs. (Paul McCartney has famously recounted how the Fab Four were spurred to create Sgt. Pepper in part by the Beach Boys' ambitious 1966 album Pet Sounds, which had itself been inspired by the Beatles' Rubber Soul.) The increasingly eccentric Wilson worked feverishly on Smile only to shelve it weeks before its scheduled release due to (take your pick) his mental disintegration from all the acid he was supposedly taking; a nervous breakdown caused by pressure from the other Beach Boys to stick to their tried-and-true hit-song formula; or the band's legal clashes with their record label. In any case, after a five-year run of making marvelous white-boy fantasy pop about surfing, cars, and California girls, Wilson retreated to staying in bed all day, just as Barenaked Ladies sang.

Wilson's pinnacle around this time was the Beach Boys song "Good Vibrations," a single he spent six months perfecting. Forget the Sunkist ads; the next time you hear the song on some oldies station, listen as you would to Brian Eno's Another Green World or Joe Henderson's The Elements--listen for the textures. On the surface, "Good Vibrations" is a likable romp. But a closer listen reveals a stunning array of rhythms, sounds, harmonies, and melodies so seamlessly interwoven that the record never gives away its collage-art experimental nature.

Wilson's next step was to try to pull this off for an entire album, but the complexity of the task increased exponentially in the move from three-minute single to 40-minute album. There were reports that Wilson plotted an album of interlocking themes--one section composed of instrumentals about a barnyard, another devoted to the elements. He fashioned dozens of snippets designed to be woven through the album as if cosmically ordered; he just never got around to actually doing the weaving.

What we're left with are countless song fragments, many hauntingly odd and moving, from the ooga-chooga drive of "Bicycle Rider" to the queer dirge "Old Master Painter," during which Wilson eerily breaks off into "You Are My Sunshine." In many ways, he was further ahead of his time than the Beatles: Whereas today most of Sgt. Pepper sounds fit for Top 40 radio, a freaky Smile song like "Cabinessence" wouldn't be out of place alongside the work of such modern art-damaged bands such as Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine, or Mercury Rev.

But the great lost classic of 1967? I don't hear it. Admittedly, I don't know how other great albums sounded as rough drafts (though with boutique record labels like Rhino Handmade releasing entire sessions of select famous albums, we rock fans can finally get an inside look at the recording process). But Smile's fragments sound more like a stoner's stupor than rough-hewn takes of awesome beauty. Many of the tracks just go over the same four measures again and again. In fact, they point pretty squarely at their composer's limitations. While Wilson was a marvelous arranger, his songwriting still rested on the simple major-key, verse-chorus-verse-solo-etc. rock 'n' roll form. However ornately Wilson decorated this form, in the Great Art sweepstakes it wasn't going to rival the work of, say, Leonard Bernstein, much less the clever variations of Handel or Brahms.

And that's my theory on why Wilson let Smile collapse--he glimpsed the box he couldn't escape from. Once you realize you'll never paint the Mona Lisa, it takes the fun out of doing the sidewalk portraits at the beach.

But I could be wrong. Genius is, after all, the gift of making something remarkable out of stuff we regular folks take for granted. And that's the one thing the Smile Web sites lack, for all the musical bits and pieces stockpiled therein. Without Wilson to put together what he heard in his head, we're just picking through the rubble of his possibilities.

Heroes and villains:

Click here to visit the original article at the Baltimore City newspaper online.