[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
At this moment, I am sitting in front of my stereo as the Beach Boys' SMiLE album wraps up with “Good Vibrations.” Sonically, the album is one of the best things you are likely to hear in all of your life. There are moments on SMiLE that are so astonishingly good you might find yourself just staring at your speakers in unguarded wonder, as I have.
SMiLE is perhaps the Beach Boys' most legendary album. It was recorded in 1966 and 1967 but only saw a formal release in 2011. That's a long time to wait for what was said to be Brian Wilson's masterpiece.
The reasons the band did not release SMiLE in 1967 are probably myriad and perhaps not made any clearer with the passing of more than four decades. Being one of those people who have heard hours of outtakes of the songs, I have my theories as to why the album didn't come out, one of which I will come back to shortly.
Several of the songs on SMiLE have been released over the years: “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf's Up” and, of course, “Good Vibrations.” The entire album — the concept, as it were — was left for the bootleggers to assemble.
And did they ever. The Beach Boys are one seriously bootlegged band, almost on the level of the Beatles and Dylan. As proof, I direct you to the site surfermoon.com/boots.shtml, which has a fairly exhaustive list. One label in particular, Sea of Tunes, seemed to have total access to the Beach Boys tapes. Several years ago Beach Boys box sets on Sea of Tunes were dropping every few hours, it seemed.
Some of them clearly were assembled by the insanely obsessive. There is a multidisc set that covers the song “Good Vibrations” only! I had a feeling that the person or persons liberating the source tapes must have been working feverishly on the down-low, and that these sets were not going to be around for long. I reckoned I needed to get all of them. For this reason I traveled to record stores and underground outlets all over New York City, Singapore, Japan and Germany. As to the limited availability of the sets, I was right. Soon, the Sea of Tunes boxes were gone. Months later, I saw color-copy-covered CDR versions in some of my normal haunts, but those beautiful box sets were no more.
SMiLE was supposed to be the follow-up to the band's ridiculously good Pet Sounds album, released in 1966. Perhaps their biggest competition for youthful genius dominating the world at that time would have been the Beatles, who were in their Revolver–Sgt. Pepper's–Magical Mystery Tour phase, and to a minor degree the Rolling Stones, who were still in their pre-Their Satanic Majesties Request era.
Both the Beach Boys and the Beatles were aware of the other, and both were incredibly driven. The major difference was hands on deck; the Beatles had two Godzilla songwriters in Lennon and McCartney and a great one in Harrison. The Beach Boys had Brian Wilson. Though he collaborated with the extremely talented Van Dyke Parks, and other band members made contributions, Wilson carried the weight. Therein lies a biography that is at times fascinating and sad, and often imbued with a lot of pain.
Brian Wilson, a true, not-up-for-debate musical genius, was under immense pressure from Capitol, his bandmates and his own extremely high standards. The weight took its toll on Brian, whose adolescence is the stuff of nightmares, thanks to a violent father, who made Brian the target of his rage. He was the band's manager until 1964, when, at around age 22, Brian fired him.
And now my theory as to what happened to SMiLE. When you listen to these songs, at once you hear the breathtaking harmonies of the band, arrangements on the complexity level of a classical master composer, and lyrics that are heartfelt and sometimes whimsical but all completely unguarded. SMiLE, to me, is the work of a man trying desperately to hold on to himself as he struggles to navigate his great and fragile talent through a psychotic breakdown and corporate expectations. These songs are those of a man on a small boat, thousands of miles from any shoreline, sure of his navigational abilities but surrounded by the vast and turbulent ocean of his talent.
I think that at some point, he had so many parts that ultimately he didn't know what he had anymore and hit the ejector button. (Listen to “Good Vibrations” on headphones and trip on how many different sessions are seamlessly glued together.)
What we don't know and perhaps never will is if we are hearing the full version of the album exactly as Brian Wilson has envisioned it. Be that as it may, to hear all these songs in final mix, in sequence — WOW. I have seen Brian Wilson play a couple of times. He still has it, in large quantities.
Even if you are not a Beach Boys fan, please, listen to SMiLE, all the way through, at least once. Totally worth the trip. What would have happened to the Beach Boys and the music world had SMiLE been released in 1967 or 1968 is one of those conceptual discussions that will have to wait until we are all stuck on the tour bus in the middle of one of those really long hauls. For now, a 40-plus-year-old labor of greatness has finally been brought to light. Prepare to SMiLE.