I hope it’s okay to use my studio blog to publish a recent discovery about what was certainly the greatest studio recording of its time, The Beach Boys “SMiLE”.
A few months back someone sent me this link from Aquarium Drunkard to Brian Wilson discussing air pollution as recorded in May 1967 during one of the final SMiLE sessions.
Listening was a revelation, this quote in particular:
“Air pollution is something that has become increasingly more of a threat to all of us over the last ten years, especially in the last five years since the growing industry demands……and when I hear things like that it makes me want to get involved in this thing in some way, do my best. Ok. We, the way we can help is to make a record, and more or less present the facts in some interesting manner, not boring but in some way that people can retain these facts, and to sort of set up in their minds a goal to get rid of this shit! Because I’ll tell ya something, if it doesn’t subside I’m gonna call the cops!”
What is most striking, besides Brian’s humor, is his statement that SMiLE was intended to “present the facts.” For decades there was so little factual information about SMiLE that Brian’s intent to use SMiLE to “present the facts” is painfully ironic. It was a myth-shrouded, unreleased album which its very participants were unwilling to discuss, and when they did so, they often obfuscated. As the recordings slowly trickled out, they were bewildering in their obscure historical and musical references, and repeating lyrical and musical motifs. It was rumored to be a concept album, but the concept was abandoned, assumed incomplete. 2004’s brilliant “Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE” showed American history, the cycle of life, and the environment to be the major themes of the record, but they were presented as discrete movements. However, in light of the discovery of Brian’s statement of purpose, I would like to humbly suggest that the most logical way to “present the facts” would be to arrange the songs into a chronology. Doing so makes SMiLE come alive as a fable about the effects of the American century on the environment and our souls.
Good Vibrations, the first song written for SMiLE, instantly introduces the album’s overarching theme of enlightenment, and the light and air symbolism that will be used throughout the lyrics and artwork.
“I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair/ I hear the sound of a gentle word on the wind that lifts her perfume through the air / I’m picking up good vibrations”
Heroes and Villains Pt.1 starts the story in the American West, our narrator on the run as he introduces himself and quickly flashes back to the beginning.
Wonderful, Do You Like Worms, I’m In Great Shape, Cabin Essence and Vega-Tables presents a broad history of The United States from the Native American Garden of Eden to the great California migration.
LOOK!, Holidays, Wind Chimes, Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, Love to Say Dada, Child is the Father of the Man and The Old Master Painter take the trip from Kansas to the West ending in heartbreak over the effects of America’s progress.
Heroes and Villains Pt. 2 concludes the story with our narrator’s farewell address, signing off in hope that we’ve gained wisdom from his tale.
Surf’s Up is SMiLE encapsulated in one song. The moral of the story. One man’s enlightenment told through a sweeping history of civilization.
SMiLE was completely baffling to listeners in the decades after its non-release due to its radical production techniques and decidedly non-Beach Boys lyrical content, but it was actually very simple all along. Brian was at the vanguard of the “back to the garden” movement and SMiLE was his attempt to enlighten the masses.
“The lyrics present the listener with the challenge of taking them at face value or exploring them at deeper levels of meaning.” –Van Dyke Parks
SMiLE became an obsession for so many because it required the listener to explore those deeper levels of meaning if they wished to imagine the album had it been released in 1967. “Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE” was so satisfying because Brian and Van Dyke were able to continue modulating SMiLE to reflect their present perspectives. There are a wealth of amazing websites (Arkhonia, Good Humor Smile), books (Domenic Priorie’s “Look! Listen! Vibrate! SMiLE!”) and official liner notes that attest to SMiLE’s ability to satisfy nearly any level of analysis, but this sequence makes SMiLE as easy to comprehend as grade school history.
Listen to the record, read the lyrics and study the artwork. Follow the symbolism and explore the metaphors. Research the cultural and historical references. Read the wealth of Brian and Van Dyke quotes. When arranged as a history, every note, lyric, image, allusion and quotation within SMiLE has purpose and place. From “over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield” to “columnated ruins domino” it all adds up to a fable intended to engender the enlightenment Brian Wilson had found.