You probably know the story. Riding high in 1966, Brian Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks began work on a new Beach Boys album. It would include the group’s #1 single, “Good Vibrations”, and be called Smile. It was going to be an amazing record (even Leonard Bernstein was impressed). But Brian eventually gave up. Various reasons have been given: opposition from at least one of the Beach Boys; Brian getting cold feet, thinking Smile wouldn’t be sufficiently “commercial”; his drug-fueled paranoia; and his inability to figure out how to put all the pieces together. Even hearing “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the radio in February 1967 (“they got their first”).
But fans — some of them very talented — have been using the recordings from 1966 and 1967, both official releases and bootlegs, to create their own versions of Smile. Brian left so much music to play with.
Earlier this week, someone who calls himself “Mtt_Brand” on Reddit and “jsp444” on YouTube, whose real name is apparently Jack Stedron, uploaded a version of Smile that he says he worked on for three years. My first reaction was that Smile might have sounded something like this if it all had worked out in 1967.
This recording, Smile: the JSP Mix, uses technology that obviously wasn’t available in the 60s. It might be the ultimate fan mix of Smile. It’s certainly the best I’ve ever heard.
After releasing Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” in 1966, Brian Wilson tried to keep it all going with Smile in 1967. Things didn’t work out, so Smile became rock music’s most famous, most well-regarded, unfinished, semi-existing album. Brian and the other Beach Boys went on to lesser things (as did Brian’s lyricist for the project, Van Dyke Parks), while the legend of Smile grew.
I use the word “legend” because in this case it’s appropriate. The story was told again and again. Unreleased recordings were quietly shared. Speculation abounded among certain Beach Boys fans. Would the group ever finish Smile? What would it be like when we finally got to hear it? What would people have thought in 1967 if Smile had come out before Sergeant Pepper? The Beach Boys and Beatles were having a friendly competition in the mid-60s. We know how that came out.
Brian Wilson, having begun a solo career in the 80s, changed the Smile story in a big way in 2004. Overcoming considerable obstacles, he and his band debuted Smile at a February concert in London. From The Guardian:
So how good, finally, is Smile, the great lost song cycle that Brian Wilson kept the world waiting 37 years to hear? The only possible answer, after Friday night’s world premiere in London, is that it is better than anyone dared hope. Multiple spontaneous ovations were the reward for the former Beach Boy and his musicians, whose pristine performance breathed life into a 45-minute work previously known only through various shattered and dispersed fragments.
Seven months later, Brian Wilson presented us with Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Metacritic, a site that tries to synthesize critical opinion, has it down as the third-best reviewed album of the 21st century:
Well, better 37 years late than never. Originally intended to be the Beach Boys’ 1967 follow-up to their legendary ‘Pet Sounds,’ ‘Smile’ was finally recorded as originally intended in April 2004 by Wilson and his current band, including co-songwriter Van Dyke Parks.
“Originally intended” is a stretch, since nobody, including Mr. Wilson, really knows how he intended to put Smile‘s pieces together in 1967. (Not being able to put the pieces together was a very big part of the problem.)
In 2011, Capitol Records released a big set of Beach Boys recordings from the 60s, The Smile Sessions, also to great acclaim. And that was that.
Except that while we were waiting those 37 years, a number of us (hundreds of us? thousands?) created our own versions of Smile, using whatever pieces were available (legally and otherwise). I did one in 2002, two years before Brian did. If only he’d asked me for help in 1967!
Mine differs from the typical unofficial arrangement, mainly in two ways. I started with something someone put together from mostly instrumental tracks and called “The Elements”. I think it’s an excellent prelude to what comes later. I also used a version of the song “Wonderful” from the Smiley Smile album (what the Beach Boys released in lieu of Smile), not the original “Wonderful” with a harpsichord that most fans seem to prefer. I like the later one a lot more.
Anyway, here’s my Smile from 2002 in two formats up in the Microsoft cloud (YouTube objected due to copyright):
Someone going by the name Summertime Blooz has a YouTube channel that features “amazing music accompanied by colorful and imaginative slideshows”. That is an accurate description. Actually, it’s putting it mildly.
I count 28 videos on his channel devoted to the Beach Boys or Brian Wilson (there are a few for other artists as well). Here are three with some of Mr. Blooz’s comments.
This is a slideshow video for the Beach Boys’ 1964 classic “The Warmth Of The Sun”. I made this video tribute because I think it is probably the most beautiful song in the Beach Boys catalog (sorry, “God Only Knows”).
Brian Wilson and (the unpleasant) Mike Love wrote it in the wake of the 1963 Kennedy assassination. The graphics truly evoke Los Angeles and Southern California from years ago.
… a video for the Beach Boys’ 1966 song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” from their album masterpiece Pet Sounds. I think the themes of feeling alienated and not fitting in are universal and timeless. In making this video I gained an even greater appreciation of the intricacies of the record’s production and believe it’s truly one of the finest and most daring productions Brian Wilson ever created.
“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is the climax to Pet Sounds, appearing near the end of what used to be side 2.
… a slideshow set to my edited version of the Beach Boys’ “Wind Chimes”, recorded in 1966 for the legendary, aborted Smile album. All thanks to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys for the awesome music. Please enjoy responsibly.
More than one version of “Wind Chimes” is available. This is the older, longer version. Keep listening when the video fades to black about 3 minutes in.
Visit Summertime Blooz’s YouTube channel for more, including 17 videos devoted to Smile.
Brian Wilson probably never studied ancient Greek philosophy, but he knew that, once upon a time, smart people thought the world was composed of four fundamental elements: Earth, Air, Water and Fire. (That’s the list Empedocles came up with in the 5th century BCE.) So when Brian was working on Smile, the famous Beach Boys’ album that didn’t get finished in 1967, he was going to include something called “The Elements”. One of his close friends, David Anderle, remembered it this way:
We were aware, he made us aware, of what fire was going to be, and what water was going to be; we had some idea of air. That was where it stopped. None of us had any ideas as to how it was going to tie together, except that it appeared to us to be an opera. And the story of the fire part I guess is pretty well known by now [Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, p. 230].
As the years went by, tapes from the Smile sessions, as well as completed tracks, showed up here and there. This led to many fans creating their own Smile albums, trying to figure out how Brian would have put the pieces together, or simply wanting an album’s worth of music to listen to.
I acquired several unofficial versions of Smile along the way, but didn’t get around to making my own Smile until 2002. That was 35 years after Brian stopped working on the original and two years before he released his finished version, Brian Wilson Presents Smile (which Metacritic determined to be the best-reviewed album of 2004).
A few days ago, a question from another fan got me to look for my homemade Smile CD. When I played it, I couldn’t remember why I’d picked these particular thirteen tracks or why I’d put them in the sequence I did. I couldn’t even remember where some of the tracks came from. Some were obviously from official Beach Boys albums, but others were from sources unknown.
This brings me back to “The Elements”. The first track on my Smile is a nine-minute, almost all-instrumental with that title. It’s made up of five tracks from the Smile sessions. Two of them are the tracks everyone agrees were intended to represent Fire and Water. The other three are well-known to serious fans, but don’t clearly fit the Elements concept. I’ve reached out to the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys online community (of course, there is such a thing – it’s the Internet), but so far nobody has answered the question: Where did this version of “The Elements” come from?
If someone eventually answers that question, and I’m able to identify the source of a few more tracks, I might put my Smile CD playlist on YouTube. Meanwhile, here’s “The Elements” or “An Elements Suite” or “Selected Smile Instrumentals”, hot off the computer.
I like it as the beginning to my Smile because it kind of lays the groundwork for the rest of the album. Plus, the first part, “Look”, could represent Air (that’s what we look through); the second part, “Holidays”, could represent Earth (that’s where we take vacations); and it’s clear what “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow (Fire)” and “I Love To Say Da Da (Water)” represent. It all ends with “I Wanna Be Around / Workshop”, which features the guys banging around in the studio, i.e. putting the musical elements of Smile together.
I’ve heard there was a time when the lyrics to popular songs were easily understandable. In fact, I heard that from my father more than once. He found it highly amusing when a friend and I played one particular song over and over, trying to make sense of the words, sometime in the late 60s.
Often, however, we were pretty sure what the lyrics were. Take, for example, a Beach Boys song called “Cabinessence” (or “Cabin Essence”). It’s a strangely beautiful, relatively psychedelic song about the American frontier, written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks for the long unfinished Smile album.
“Cabinessence” has a special place in the history of the Beach Boys (and the history of American popular music, for that matter), since conflict concerning its lyrics supposedly contributed to Brian Wilson giving up on Smile, history’s most famous unfinished rock album. The person who famously objected to the lyrics back in 1967 was Mike Love, frequent lead singer and lyricist for the Beach Boys (especially in their early days). Newly appointed lyricist Van Dyke Parks didn’t give Mike a satisfying answer when asked to explain the following lines: “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield/Over and over the thresher uncovers the wheatfield”.
I’ve never thought these lyrics were all that mysterious, especially compared to some other lyrics from that period (“The preacher looked so baffled when I asked him why he dressed/With twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest”?). What was Mike Love’s problem anyway? Aside from being bald, jealous and relatively untalented?
So it was quite a surprise when I learned the other day that I have apparently misheard the lyrics to “Cabinessence” for the past 46 years. According to the most official sources (lyrics sheets in recent releases), the final words to the song are: “Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield, over and over, the thresher, and hover the wheatfield”.
“And hover?” Not “uncovers”? What the hell does “and hover the wheatfield” mean? It’s not even English. If that’s the line that bothered Mike Love, I suddenly feel (a tiny bit) more sympathetic toward the guy.
Well, it turns out that matters are not quite that simple. A bit of research reveals the following:
1) Sheet music from 1968 says that the song ends with “the crow flies [sic] uncover the cornfield”. There’s no mention of the thresher or the wheatfield at all.
2) Wikipedia has one paragraph indicating that the song ends with “Over and over, the thresher and plover, the wheatfield” (“plover” = a short-billed, gregarious wading bird).
3) In 2004, an anonymous expert on a Smile message board (there used to be such things) suggested that the last two lines make more sense if they are rearranged, as follows: “Over and over the crow cries and hovers the wheatfield/Over and over the thresher uncovers the cornfield”. Which does make more sense grammatically — although in the 19th century you’d expect to find scarecrows in cornfields and threshers in wheatfields, not the other way around.
4) When I listen to the song, I still (think I) hear the thresher uncovering the wheatfield, with no hovering going on at all.
5) The song was written and first recorded in the mid-60s, when lots of people, including Wilson and Parks, weren’t terribly sober, so who knows what the words were?
And, you might ask, who cares? Well, I do. Now every time I listen to the song, I’m going to be wondering: Now what are they saying? I might as well be back on our living room floor with Dean from across the street, playing some damn song over and over again, with my father shaking his head in the background.
What are accepted, apparently by everyone else, as the song’s full lyrics:
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