Please let me indulge in a little pop music geekology...
Last week, the surviving Beach Boys released their studio sessions from their officially unreleased album "SMiLE"--an album that was supposed to get released in 1967.
There is a long and fascinating back story to what was going on with Beach Boys singer and songwriter Brian Wilson and the rest of the band at this point in their history, but that's not primarily what this post is about. So, instead, I'll point you to Wikipedia to get up to speed on the history of SMiLE, and hit on a few highlights to give context.
The quick and dirty:
- In 1966, the Beach Boys record and release "Good Vibrations" on the heels of the "Pet Sounds" album--considered their most mature album thematically and musically to date. The song becomes a #1 hit and is scheduled to appear on their next album SMiLE. The hit whets the appetite for fans. The song shows the complex direction Brian Wilson is taking the band and its sound. The SMiLE buzz begins.
- For many reasons, but mostly due to discord within the band, Brian and the band shelf SMiLE in late 1966. It is not finished or released as it was then conceptualized by Wilson.
- Later in 1967, the Beach Boys released the album "Smiley Smile," widely understood to be a mere shadow of what SMiLE was supposed to be with re-recorded versions of the originals and more songs added in that were not part of Wilson's SMiLE vision.
- From the late '60s into the new millennium, the legend of SMiLE grows. As various tracks, elements, and sessions are made available on bootlegs and a Beach Boys box set, fans begin putting together their own unofficial versions of SMiLE. What would this album have sounded like that pushed Brian Wilson to his creative max and ultimately into an emotional breakdown, driven by a desire to match and surpass the innovation and acclaim of Lennon and McCartney?
- In 2004, Brian Wilson sets out to re-record SMiLE as he feels it would have been as a complete album had he seen it through to completion in the late '60s. He records it with studio musicians and large help from the pop band the Wondermints. With his release of SMiLE, the world finally sees the intended sequence of the album and the role and place of the hours of the recorded elements from the original '60s sessions. Fans use Wilson's release as a template to cobble together versions of SMiLE based on the original Beach Boys recordings then available.
- October 2011, Brian and the surviving Beach Boys finally engineer and sequence the original material and release "The Smile Sessions" which, if you use Wilson's 2004 release as a comparison, puts together a rather complete version of SMiLE.
Now you're caught up. So, the question is, which is the "real" version of SMiLE: Wilson's 2004 solo release, or the 2011 release of the original but technically unfinished session material?
The answer: neither and both.
The truth is, no matter how much we wish it, no version of SMiLE--whether Smiley Smile, Brian's 2004 solo, or the band's 2011 release--is going to be what the original would have been. It's impossible. On the other hand, I feel what we do have effectively gets us there. Between the '04 and '11 material, I think somewhere in our imagination we can hear what Brian originally envisioned.
But, like I say, you need both versions to arrive there.
With Brian's solo you get a fresh slate. To borrow the Biblical metaphor, you don't put new wine in old bottles. Brian starts all of the recordings from scratch and makes the album that he said he envisioned in his head. Now, the truth is, that head had seen some hard living, copious drugs and substance abuse, and good ol' fashioned age in that nearly 40-year gap. How do we know he didn't change or attempt to improve on his vision? Well, we'll never really know. But the upside is that we have a fluid album. An organic album with it's own complete DNA. It's made from whole cloth. The tracks blend from one to the next creating a whole suite.
Also, in my own bias, I'm sure there were some advantages to using the latest recording technology that I would hope has advanced in the last four decades. Lastly, the musicians at Brian's disposal were no slouches. They approximate the original Beach Boys sound about as well as I can imagine can be done. Finally, it came directly from the master's hand. Who can argue with the artist himself? If Brian Wilson says it's SMiLE, then it's SMiLE.
On the other hand, the "Smile Sessions," released in 2011, also have claim to their own authenticity. It has the original voice recordings of the band itself. It's the musical recordings made in real time while it was a fresh budding idea in Brian Wilson's mind--not a reclaimed decades old memory. There's an honesty and integrity to the original recordings that cannot be captured in any other way. Only one entity can be the original, and these recording hold that distinction, and anything not these sessions is simply a copy, no matter how well crafted. Still, if there are missing pieces and elements, and surely there are, it's impossible to make them now without compromising the original material itself. It is what it is.
So like I say, neither Wilson's solo or these compiled sessions are the real SMiLE--particularly by themselves. But they compliment each other. They fill in the others' missing parts and elements whether that's continuity, heart, raw energy, or polished mastery.
I love SMiLE. When I say that, I'm not referring to either version specifically, but rather perhaps the idea that the sum of them create. The "real" album is stored and plays somewhere in my heart, mind, and soul rather than my ear drums. SMiLE is a spirit with two bodies. And yet it singularly is one of my all-time favorite albums.
If you're one of those people who upon hearing the name Beach Boys can't get past surf and car songs, I implore you to look deeper. Once you get past "Surfin' USA" and "Little Deuce Coupe," (and don't get me wrong, I LOVE these classics) there is some excellent music, particularly on "Pet Sounds" and iterations of "SMiLE." I already featured one of SMiLE's classics "Surf's Up" in one of my first Get-It-Yesterday Song features. So instead, I'll leave you with another: "Heroes and Villains":
Also, there's a great series of short documentaries that have accompanied the most recent 2011 Smile Sessions release. Here is the first installment: