Beach Boys Review Royale: The Smile Sessions

The Beach Boys

The SMiLE Sessions

Smile Sessions Box Set

It has been known as “The Holy Grail of Rock ‘n’ Roll” or the “Most famous album never released”. In 1966 and 1967, at the same time as The Beatles were concocting their  career staple Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beach Boys were constructing their own magnum opus known as SMiLE, meant as an ambitious follow up to their first masterpiece, Pet Sounds. But the project was rumored to be scrapped near the final stages due to dissension among the band about the project as well as Beach Boys front man and producer Brian Wilson dissolving due to heavy drug use and mental disorders.  Many tracks meant for SMiLE including staple Beach Boys songs “Good Vibrations”, “Heroes and Villains”, and “Surf’s Up” ended up landing on subsequent albums, but the album was never released as intended. Also, several of the missing tracks on SMiLE got released in the 1993 Good Vibrations box set but not released in album format or in complete.

The Beach Boys SMiLE
SMiLE, the mighty chalice of rock history

Then in 2004, SMiLE finally took shape in a newly recorded version of SMiLE by Brian Wilson and his personal backing band the Wondermints. But it is one thing to hear a 62 year-old Wilson perform the material and a much better thing to hear the original recordings from the Beach Boys back in their heyday. The SMiLE Sessions, released this month, finally compiles the original recordings into one finished record and also includes almost six hours of additional recordings from their original studio sessions. After 45 years of waiting, the finished SMiLE stands as The Beach Boys’ second masterpiece and shows The Beach Boys really belong to be considered no less than the other rock legends of their era.

In a sea of excellent British musicians of the time, The Beach Boys conceived SMiLE as a journey through America from east to west, standing as a point of pride that Americans can make excellent rock art as well that isn’t about girls, cars, and surfing. Mini opera “Heroes and Villains” is a thrilling constantly-transforming ride, with some of the Beach Boy’s most complex vocal arrangements and swirling instrumentation. “Cabin Essence” is the most menacing song Brian Wilson ever concocted, with the clanging verses wonderfully contrasting the grand dark orchestra that kicks in on the chorus, with a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector blush.  “Surf’s Up” has your ordinary frivolous Beach Boys title but  is ironically one of Brian Wilson’s most conceptually written songs appearing to sing on death and the decline of civilization, a song that received much input from his songwriting partner for the album, Van Dyke Parks. Even the instrumental portions on SMiLE are memorable with an instrumental like “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)” feeling intensely urgent, which is  significant considering The Beach Boys seem to only ever get credit for their brilliantly crafted vocal harmonies.

It is incredible how elaborate the instrumentation is on SMiLE, as with the wide array and complexity of the arrangements sounds more George Gershwin than Chuck Berry. Rock ‘n’ roll was a way for the youth of the 50s to separate themselves from their parent’s music (classical, traditional pop), and SMiLE would have alongside Sgt. Pepper served as the first bridging of the gap between the two. The musical ideas and melodies on SMiLE act more as classical melodies rather than rock melodies, as the melodies on “Child is Father of the Man” and “Heroes and Villains” swirl in and out throughout the album. Brian Wilson called these melody ideas “feels”, and it serves as fairly psychedelic as to how the tunes on SMiLE whirl in and out, like one massive musical tapestry.

The bonus material on The SMiLE Sessions also adds great value in an understanding of the absurd amount of detail that went into making this album and the painstaking nature of recording such an elaborate piece of music back in the day. Brian Wilson is always pinned as a drugged up madman when it comes to SMiLE and the stories you hear about Wilson encouraging musicians to wear toy fireman hats during the recording of “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)” or running around the studio hopped up on LSD seem to be all you ever hear about SMiLE recordings.  But these recordings of several takes from the studio sessions for each and every song indicate that not only was Wilson completely functional, but seemingly worked twice as hard as any other Beach Boy, and insisting meticulously on every instrument and vocal being performed just as he envisioned, with the 25 different portions or takes of “Good Vibrations” included on this box set being great proof of that. Thus, Brian Wilson comes out looking as brilliant as ever, and Beach Boy Mike Love, who famously hated the music, looking eh, not so great.

Honestly, if given the forum, I could drop 3000+ words on this box set as there are tons of material here and tons of stories in regard to SMiLE worthy of getting discussed. However, I will leave it there and let Todd and Austin give their takes. I will give SMiLE my highest rating to date on LxL, only knocking it a half point for the Beach Boys never fully finishing the album as intended, though as shown here, they got awfully close.


Can’t Miss: “Heroes and Villains”, “Cabin Essence”, “Surfs Up”, “Good Vibrations”

Can’t Hit: “I Wanna Be Around/Workshop”


Austin’s Rebuttal

As Wes alluded to above, The Beach Boys have been much-maligned over the years (particularly, I feel, by our generation), for being all style over substance.  This may be one of the more elitist complaints Beach Boys detractors have levied against the band, and I feel SMiLE may go a long way to dispel many of these feelings.

I don’t listen to The Beach Boys with all that much regularity, but have always had an affection for them that I revisit occasionally.  I was not overly familiar with the backstory on SMiLE that Wes outlined above, and so was expecting more of a curiosity piece than a fully-fledged album to sink my teeth into.  And for what it’s worth, the first disc out of five is the only one that is a somewhat cohesive album, with the remainder of the discs being the session recordings featuring alternate takes, truncated versions, and studio banter.  So to be fair, discs 2-5 are to a certain degree curiosity pieces.  The session records manage to be more than listenable, but not something that I will regularly go back to when I want my Beach Boys fix.  They certainly add something of value to the set, but just be aware that the bulk of what we are writing is directed at the first disc.

The first disc, oh is the first disc. Fantastic.  After Wes recommended I listen to the set, I downloaded it, started listening to it on my computer, and then realized the sound was not adequate so synced it with my iPod, threw it on my car speakers as loud as they could handle, and just drove around for about 45 minutes.  I think my text to Wes was “Holy sh**! This sounds incredible”.  And it really does.

The sounds employed on SMiLE are so experimental and strange, yet so deliberate and fitted into exactly the right moment.  As always, the music and harmonies sound effortless, like when you watch a NFL wide receiver make an incredibly athletic catch, and take for granted that the receiver is one of the best at what he does in the entire world.  With everything in life, making something seem easy and it actually being easy are two entirely different things.  Noises as menacing as those found on “Do You Like Worms” and “Cabin Essence” just didn’t exist when SMiLE was recorded.  Songs as beautiful and complex as “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”, despite what Beatles propagandists may say, also did not exist at this point in music history.  And when it comes down to it, I have a soft spot for songs about “Vega-Tables” (Warning: Second Echo & the Bunnymen reference in less than a week)

The only real complaint for SMiLE would be that it tends to slightly jump the rails in a few of the instrumental portions, but typically finds its way back onto solid ground before attentions fade.  “I Wanna Be Around – Workshop” starts out as bad lounge music and morphs into popular music’s first foray into industrial sounds.  The results are pretty bad, but the track is only a minute and a half long, so no harm, no foul.  “Love To Say Dada” may not really be an instrumental, because there is harmonizing throughout, but does not have any actual lyrics.  But, this is probably the high-water mark for what The Beach Boys can do with experimentation.

Overall, songs like “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations” still manage to kill, but SMiLE necessitates a listen for those tracks that you may be less familiar with.  Surfs Up broskies!

10/11 – docked a point for a little unnecessary surplusage

Can’t Miss: “Vega-Tables”, “Heroes and Villains”, “Love To Say Dada”, “Good Vibrations”

Can’t Hit: “Wanna Be Around – Workshop”


Todd’s Rebuttal

The song “Good Vibrations”, I truly believe is one of the greatest songs of all time.  I remember when I was first re-discovering the Beach Boys (I say rediscovering because as the guys already mentioned, there is a big difference between listening to “Surfing U.S.A”. and “Kokomo” as a child with your dad, and listening to Pet Sounds in its entirety years later (the latter is near bliss), it always drove me crazy that the track wasn’t a piece of a larger body of work. It seemed to always get passed around into compilations like homeless child bouncing around foster homes. It did have it’s own “Single” (cooler than a typical single) in which many different versions and stems of the track were thrown on, which was cool. But I still felt as if it didn’t have a home. It also found it’s way onto Smiley Smile, which is considered to be the 12th studio album from the Beach Boys. Unfortunately, this album was thrown together in desperation after Brian had essentially lost his mind, and it was clear the real SMiLE would not be completed to its entirety. This shows if you listen to Smiley Smile.  Although it has incredibly tracks on it, the album is disjointed and rough, and the tracks from SMiLE stick out like a black sheep.

Brian’s 2003 version was well received by most, but left me with nothing but bad vibrations. It actually just pissed me off. “Why would he go back and rerecord this album rather than finish the first one?” I always asked. Well 8 years after that, and 45 years after the initial attempt, the album is finally here. And I couldn’t be happier about it. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be an original fan and follower of The Beach Boys, and unwrap this box set for the first time.

Both Austin and Wes have now covered all of the bases pretty well. The only thing I feel they didn’t give enough credit too, is the multiple takes/renditions of the original recordings. Like they said, the first disc is the album, which is incredible. The rest of the box set though, is like the icing on the cake. After 45 years, the fans are gifted with not only the album, but a sneak peak into the process and evolutions of the individual tracks that reside on said album. It’s phenomenal.

I like the construction process of songs. I like hearing about how people came up with different techniques to record new sounds, where the inspiration comes from, how one sound develops from thin air, and how a track can evolve from vocals and a guitar to a 30+ musician/instrument, majestically-orchestrated, pristine masterpiece. That is exactly what the bonus discs give you. The bonus material included is inspiring, it’s informative, and it’s based around one of the greatest albums ever. So this is why I particularly love every track on every disc that is included in this set. Most tracks from the album have multiple outtakes or different versions that just give you so much insight to Brian’s process, or why a song ended up a particular way.  I particularly love the “Heroes and Villians” and the “Good Vibrations” sessions. It honestly allows you to feel like you are listening in on the entire recording session with Brian and the boys at your side. I almost felt like I was giving input on the final results of the tracks, but then realized I was 20 years away from being born when the sessions took place.

To Austin’s point, Brian was heading up techniques in studio recording that had NEVER been done before. And would still not be done for years to come. Sgt Peppers was groundbreaking, and do not get me wrong, I love that album. However, it is very different from SMiLE, and although I understand why the comparisons are always made (more often to Pet Sounds, but whatever) they are completely different animals.

I feel I am about to breach the realm of repetition to what has already been said, so I will wrap this up here. I am excited to talk to some old-timey Beach Boy fans and get their take on this. To me, it is the mother of all box sets. The album itself should be owned by all, and the entire set should surely be owned by anyone who has ever taken an interest in the creation process of music. It’s truly astounding. 45 years in the making, you would expect nothing less than perfection. 45 years after initial production, you get more than perfection, you get perfected perfection along with bonus material.


Can’t Miss: “Good Vibrations”, every track on the album , every bonus track in the box set

Can’t Hit:SMiLE Retail Promo Advert“… although it contains a snippet of “Good Vibrations”, it is pointless and holds no purpose.


Wes’s Final Rebuttal

I think we have adequately tore this apart for your average reader, but would recommend anyone who is interested in reading more, to check out Mark Richardson from Pitchfork’s review as it is one of the finest pieces of music criticism I have read in quite some time. For all the elitist hubbub that you get with Pitchfork, they have a stable of writers that are true students of music not to mention fantastic writers.

^One of the most hilariously blatant lip-synced performances of all time

Whether your view of the Beach Boys falls in line with the video above as meathead surfer dudes your ma and pa listened to while doing the monkey, or whether you have some understanding of their greatness, either way, give SMiLE a shot. You won’t be disappointed.

Aggregate rating: 10.5/11

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Author: Wes

Hoosier. Writer. Music Buff. Media Man. Tourist. Polar Bear.

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