The Beach Boys

: ‘Smile’ suffers from the weight of its history. –>

Betwixt a ‘Smile’ and a tear

By Greg Cahill

So I’m cruisin’ up Highway 101 a few days ago, listening to KALX on the car radio, when DJ Meaty Paws tosses out a tasty morsel of gritty blue-eyed soul that sounds like it was recorded in the garage of a split-level in Inglewood, Calif. Vaguely familiar and damned catchy. Not the usual college-radio fodder by Mouse on Mars or Leftover Crack, more like the Sir Douglas Quintet meets the Kingsmen at a Beach Boys concert, with a cheesy Farfisa organ break and a yelping lead vocal.

Then it dawns on me that it is the Beach Boys. The song is “How She Boogalooed It” from 1967’s Wild Honey album. The track is rough, unlike the typically polished Beach Boys production in which the group laid down pristine vocal harmonies after ace L.A. studio musicians added parts to Wilson’s basic piano tracks (à la prefab teen idols the Monkees or Dino, Desi and Billy). This song sounds like the band actually played their own instrumental parts–a garage-rock classic.

The Beach Boys recorded Wild Honey just weeks after troubled boy-genius Brian Wilson imploded under the weight of his much-publicized neuroses, pot and acid abuse, and the pressure of trying to top the Fab Four, who at the time were busily crafting the studio wizardry that would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Earlier that spring, an obsessed Wilson and eccentric lyricist Van Dyke Parks had collaborated on 85 sessions for Wilson’s ambitious Smile, which for the most part were abandoned after his meltdown.

That is, until a couple of weeks ago.

That’s when the Nonesuch label released Brian Wilson Presents Smile, a reconstructed version of perhaps the most legendary lost rock album of all time.

In some ways, it would be better had it stayed lost. Smile is simply too burdened by its own history. Make no mistake, the production is lush–with somber strings, heavenly horns and blissful harmonies–and Wilson has given the faithful plenty to cheer about (and that counts for something in these cynical times). If Smile had emerged as planned in 1967, almost simultaneously with Sgt. Peppers (rather than the watered-down Smiley Smile that featured some of these songs), it would have been hailed as a major leap past the formulaic pop of its day, though it’s hard to imagine this material standing up to the Beatles creative masterwork.

In 2004, Smile sounds quaint, childish (though not as cleverly childish as the Beatles’ silly spoofs) and as though it’s trying too hard to be hip–like a Southern California Republican at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

This tripped-out, often mirthful album is a suite in three parts. It offers a trio of thematic song cycles bookended by the soaring “Heroes and Villains” and the lustrous “Good Vibrations.” Earlier versions of those songs were big hits in the late ’60s–“Heroes and Villains” was salvaged from the original Smile sessions, and “Good Vibrations” had been pulled by Wilson from his 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. Both tracks stand the test of time. And while there are other brilliant moments on Smile, the album sags in the middle movement. (Maybe I just don’t have the patience for arcane lyrics like “eggs and grits and lickety split / I’m in the great shape of the agriculture.”)

To someone who never bought into the notion that the Beach Boys were the American Beatles, the warmed-over doo-wop, Phil Spector textures, barnyard sounds and outright glee club crooning lacks the muscle to match the hype. I’m not surprised. From my perch as a teen on the New Hampshire seacoast, California dreamin’ was a favorite pastime, but the Beach Boys were regarded as poseurs who never looked comfortable with the British Invasion, psychedelia or the styles of the time. After all, the Beach Boys were a surf band that couldn’t surf, or at least most of them couldn’t. And the one Beach Boy who could surf, Dennis Wilson, drowned.

But there was no shortage of pop innovation in the late ’60s, beyond Sgt. Pepper and against which Smile would have been compared. It probably wouldn’t have held up even against those. For instance, the original Blood Sweat and Tears, with Al Kooper and members of chamber-rock pioneers the Blues Project, experimented with many of the same musical elements heard on their breakthrough 1967 album Child Is Father to the Man (which shares a nearly identical title to one of Smile‘s songs). And while Wilson was penning his goofy homage “Vega-Tables” as part of Smile‘s weak “Elements” song cycle, Frank Zappa already had released his biting pocket opera Absolutely Free, a brilliant satirical opus that lampooned vegetables and other aspects of America’s plastic culture.

If you adore Brian Wilson and forgive him for his lame solo album Getting’ in Over My Head, released in late June, then you’ll probably cherish Smile. But I’m gonna groove to Wild Honey instead and imagine what might have been if Wilson’s bloated ego hadn’t overpowered Dennis and the rest of the band for all those years.

From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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