Thursday, November 03, 2011

...the saga of unreleased 44-year-old music suddenly made available...

Those of you who like The Beach Boys are in for an Excursion in Sound. The Beach Boys were slated to come out with an album called "SMiLE" in 1967, and it was supposed to be The Next Big Thing. Group leader Brian Wilson was the creative voice that gave the group songs to sing. By 1966, he wasn't touring with the band anymore. He assumed the role of Studio Wizard whilst his band-mates were out there gigging away. That formula worked for quite a while. But things began changing. The landmark album, "Pet Sounds" must have confused a lot of people when it came out. Including me. No fast music! Hardly any guitars! An album full of ballads! The first time I heard it, that's what I thought. The record stayed in my collection, because Everyone Said it was an important album. Which it was; I just didn't appreciate it at the time.

Brian Wilson had gotten deadly serious with the "Pet Sounds" album; it's full of melancholy musings about loneliness, confusion and alienation. I tried Really Listening to it, and it just sat there on the turntable spinning around while I sat in front of the turntable, Just Totally Confused. It definitely wasn't one of those fun surfing or hot-rodding albums they used to do, after all. So it sat in my collection for ages. Over the years, I've read everything I could find about pop/rock music, and that was how I found out about the aborted "SMiLE" album. And, that made me want to hear it all the more. One day while shopping in a used-vinyl store, I mentioned the "SMiLE" album to the owner, and he reached under the counter and pulled out a bootleg CD full of songs and musical fragments recorded during the "SMiLE" sessions. The CD was overpriced, but well worth it. So I finally had an idea of what went on during the "SMiLE" sessions. But the bootleg CD, consisting of fragmented musical tidbits, was extremely disjointed.

Yaay! After 44 years, here it is! "SMiLE"!!!
I got on the internet and began searches for anything having to do with the "SMiLE" sessions, and I ran into Beach Boys' fan websites, and through that, I was able to more or less ascertain the running order of the songs. Then, I surfed another fan website in which one guy wrote a post about actually assembling "SMiLE" tidbits into some sort of cohesive whole. So I did. Over the years, I've made half a dozen tapes/discs with "SMiLE" material; in a sense, I feel like I've "lived" the music. For a couple of years, I listened almost exclusively to the music of "SMiLE". So, the fact that this 44-year-old music was finally made available to the general public for the first time wasn't that big of a deal for m since I'd heard portions of it. But, I wanted to compare the album's song order with what I'd come up with over the years, assembling my own "SMiLE" discs. And I was surprised to find that for about half of the album, the discs I made came close to matching the officially-released "SMiLE" music in terms of song-order. So I thot that was cool. It's nice to be 'in the ballpark' sometimes. (Except if you're a Seattle Mariner...)

Brian Wilson's "SMiLE" album from 2004.
Not to be confused with the Beach Boy's version.
A few years back (2004?), Brian recorded a version of "SMiLE", complete with new lyrics for some of the songs; the original "SMiLE" album featured a good number of instrumentals, and so it was interesting hearing new lyrics for 'formerly instrumental' songs. But as in all recreations of most anything, something suffers. Brian's voice is nowhere near as pure as it was back in '67. The instrumentation on the new "SMiLE" album didn't sound as warm or organic, and while it's a good album, it's just not the same. I had come to know the original "SMiLE" music note-by-note, and the new version of "SMiLE" paled in comparison. Fast-forward to a couple of months ago, when news of the release of the original "SMiLE" album was gonna happen on November 1st. I'm going all-out for this release; I already have the two-record "SMiLE" album sitting in front of me as I'm typing this post. And I'm also going to get the CD issue. The 2-LP set features 4 or 5 extra "SMiLE" songs, while the CD features tons of out-takes and alternate versions of "SMiLE" songs.

So what's "SMiLE" about? There's a nod to the old west; there's some Americana, there's some whimsy,  philosophy, and there are portions of it that are "anyone's guess". The songs are suggestive of loss, as well as contentment, and like an abstract painting, "SMiLE" leaves you to paint your own picture. It's not rock, not symphony, and it's barely 'pop'. With song titles such as "Cabinessence", "Wind Chimes", "Vega-tables" and "Surf's Up" (which isn't about surfing), it's a very introspective and personal album. At the time "SMiLE" was supposed to have come out, the album featured two big hit singles, "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes And Villains". This is important, because Brian had come under a lot of fire from his band-mates about the album's weird songs and strange lyrics. But there were two hit singles for the group to do in performance. Sadly, all the pressure made Brian fold, and the album was shelved. Some songs destined for the "SMiLE" album ended up on later Beach Boys' albums, so how bad could this music could've been, seeing as how the group decided to use them later on? "Cabinessence" was issued on 1968's "20/20" album (1968) and "Surf's Up" was the title track for one of the BB's l970's albums.  

The original "SMiLE's" music is very rich, very musical. Some songs are "large" and "echo-ey", and others move to the tempo of a quiet solo piano. Those Beach Boys harmonies are all over the place, and the songs are beautifully strange. This album was supposed to be the Next Big Thing way back when. Supposedly Paul McCartney visited Brian Wilson during a recording session, and told Brian something along the likes of "you'd better get going because our masterpiece ("Sgt. Pepper") will be coming out soon." Finally, after immersing myself in the "SMiLE" music, I dug out the "Pet Sounds" album and instantly felt at home with the gentle nature of songs on that record, which to me, were forerunners of the fascinating "SMiLE" music.

The Beach Boys' "SMiLE" album features 1960's-era Black w/Rainbow Capitol Records labels, which the record collector in me absolutely freaked out over! And the album jacket features the original catalog number (ST-2580). In comparison, "Sgt. Pepper" was ST-2653. Had "SMiLE" been released back in 1967, it would've set a lot of listeners square on their ears, as "Pepper" did. Me, I'm thankful to see "SMiLE's release. So cool, so doggone cool. A red-letter day as far as I'm concerned.


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