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The Smile Sessions – The Beach Boys

By Greg Lewis. Posted in Pop, Reviews | No Comments »


I’ve been waiting for this album for 45 years, virtually three quarters of my life, but it is still not the finished article! Back in the mid 1960s, The Beatles reigned supreme in the world of popular music. But if any group (as we then called them) came close to taking that crown, it was the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys’ previous album to the Smile sessions was Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s answer to Rubber Soul and Revolver. The Beatles had raised the bar with their albums; until then, LPs were usually collections of singles, b-sides and fillers. But a few months after the release of Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper raised the bar even higher for Wilson. He wanted something even grander, and Smile was to be his answer. As he describes it in the notes published for this new release, “Each Beatles album had sounded different. The way I saw it we were in a race, a production race.”

Back then, recording techniques were primitive compared to today. Most recording was still done on 4-track analogue recorders. Some studios were beginning to use 8-track machines. For any more than 8 tracks, a process of layering (or “bouncing”) was used, where a number of tracks were mixed together and then layered with another set of mixed tracks. This took an enormous amount of time to achieve the many levels of sound Wilson wanted, so while the rest of the band toured without him, he worked on layering tracks. (For more details, have a look at Wikipedia’s Smile article.)

Drugs, fall-outs, and mental health issues for Wilson eventually led to the Smile tapes being shelved. Versions of two tracks, “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” had been released as singles, but the remainder of the tapes remained in vaults for several decades. In the 1990s, several tracks and even a few versions of the entire album began to circulate on the internet. Versions of several tracks were released in 1993 on Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys, a career-retrospective box-set, and in 2004, Brian Wilson issued a completely new recording of the album. But only now has the original album has been officially released on its own for the first time, though it’s probably not surprising that multiple versions of it are included in the same package, or rather, packages. The Smile Sessions can be purchased as one CD, two CDs, or a boxed set with 5 CDs and 2 vinyl LPs. (I’m reviewing the 2 CD set here; this has the basic Smile tracks along with a range of segments used for the layering, along with a few other items from the studio sessions.)

I was in my mid-teens in the UK when Smile was being recorded. The Beatles were at their peak, and the Summer of Love was still a couple of years away. Bob Dylan was barely known outside the folk music scene; there was no Neil Young, no Bruce Springsteen, and no punk, which was a decade away. Even the English folk revival was a couple of years or so away. TV was still black and white, and England had just won the World Cup – a very different era. Computers with far less power than my basic mobile phone took up a large room. So has the wait for Smile been worth it?

Brian Wilson once described the album as a “teenage symphony to God,” but it is certainly not a religion-inspired record. I do understand what he means, though, in that he is giving his ultimate in this recording, in the way that one should do for God. For me, there are three standout tracks, though all of them have been known in a slightly different format before, two from the time of recording. “Good Vibrations” is the best known; this is a modified version of the original single. The same is true for “Heroes and Villains”, with more changes since the single release. The third of these tracks, “Surf’s Up”, first surfaced in this format in the 1990s as part of the 1993 Good Vibrations box-set. All three are distinctively Beach Boys recordings, with harmonies forming a major component.

The remaining tracks are familiar from Brian Wilson’s own recording of Smile, but the key difference comes in the use of multiple voices to create the sound Wilson wanted. This technique permeates the bonus tracks, which are really just snippets from the recording process, though some must have taken several days to record. These are the ones I’ve found most interesting, as they provide major insights into the way Brian Wilson was trying to work. One such piece, for example, from “Heroes and Villains” reminded me of Crosby, Stills and Nash, even though their first album was two or three years away.

Do I recommend this album? Yes and no – it depends, as always, upon your own musical interests and backgrounds. If like me, you were a teenager in the mid-1960s who was already into music, it’s probably an essential buy. If you want insights into how Brian Wilson created the Beach Boys’ sound, again, it’s an essential album. But for many people, a download of three or four key tracks might be sufficient to add historical insights to their music collections. It does show what we missed at the time, though!

Greg Lewis has been listening to music from virtually the day he was born in 1950. His father played saxophone in a swing band, continuing to play both alto and tenor sax now into his 90s. Greg has been through the Beatles, folk music revivals in the UK twice, blues revivals, punk, Bruce Springsteen, and the growth of indie music. More recently his interest in jazz has developed way beyond Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane, but deep deep down he prefers Bruce Springsteen above any other music.
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