The burden of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE



My history professors called them “counter-factuals,” and generally cautioned us to avoid them (except for Dr. Duke, who found them quite fun). You probably know them better as “what ifs.” They’re those questions that recognize how much history matters, and that the slightest change in events can trigger massive consequences (often known as the “butterfly effect,” which references Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder,” which was made into a movie last year starring Ed Burns and Ben Kingsley, which is apparently awful). They’re popular fodder; heck, CBC had a special a few years back hosted by Peter Mansbridge where they had several historians look at several turning points in Canadian history and discussed what would have happened had they gone the other way (for example, if Montcalm had won the battle on the Plains of Abraham).

So here’s my counter-facutual question: what if the Beach Boys had finished SMiLE in the late 1960s?

At the risk of oversimplification, there are really two groups of Beach Boys fans, not unlike there are two groups of Beatles fans – those who know the band for their earlier pop songs and those who champion their later, more ambitious work. With the Beach Boys, it’s the former who tend to still be willing to pay money to see Mike Love and half-Beach-Boy Bruce Johnson tour around North America playing the same classic songs year in and year out using the Beach Boys name. It’s the latter who champions Brian Wilson on the same level as Lennon/McCartney, and who buy countless copies of 1966’s Pet Sounds.

In many ways, the Beatles and the Beach Boys followed similar trajectories: bands who began by working within the boundaries of popular music at the time before seeking to shatter them. I hesitate to hypothesize, but I suspect the reason why the Beatles are remembered with great reverence and the Beach Boys are dismissed as a simple pop band is because the Beatles finished Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, while Brian Wilson never finished SMiLE.

It would take too long to recount the entire history of SMiLE – the Wikipedia page does a great job giving an overview of the whole thing – but simply put, for decades SMiLE was the most famous unfinished album of the rock and roll era. The planned follow-up to Pet Sounds, SMiLE was to be Brian Wilson’s masterpiece, his “teenage symphony to God,” as he called it once in an interview.

“Good Vibrations” was to be featured prominently on the album, along with songs that would later pop up in various forms on Beach Boys albums in the years to come, like “Surf’s Up” and “Wonderful.” The album was to be more adventurous than anything Wilson had tried before, an ambitious collection of abstract lyrics and gorgeous melodies that sought to embrace Americana in a way never done before.

What happened? Well, most accounts have it being a combination of Wilson’s increasing paranoia and depression and the fact that the rest of the band – led by Mike Love – had serious issues with the lyrical and musical direction. So while the Beach Boys trudged onwards, Wilson found his role in the band increasingly limited and his creative abilities followed suit. The Beach Boys became the oldies band they are today, with Wilson becoming something of a revered figure in popular music. Over the years bits and pieces of SMiLE came out on various compilations, albums and collections, but the entire album was only assembled by bootleggers, and even then, not with no guarantees that it was the way Wilson envisioned.

That all changed in 2004, when Wilson reunited with Van Dyke Parks and proceeded to complete SMiLE as a live show, the success of which prompted them to return to the studio and, with the help of a talented team of musicians, re-recorded and finally completed the album.

I’m not sure what stroke of fate led to 2004 being the year that Wilson finished SMiLE, but it’s notable that the year saw one of the year’s biggest mainstream hits (Green Day’s American Idiot) and one of the most noted indie hits (the Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat) using the same kind of song structures as Brian Wilson’s album. The fact that pop albums have long since caught up to – and in many cases surpassed – what Wilson envisioned somewhat lessens the impact that SMiLE could have had. Even though it was one of the best reviewed albums of the year, it’s hardly going to be remembered as an iconic album in the way Pet Sounds is.

But for me, Pet Sounds – as much as I love it – is the album burdened by history, weighed down by every rock critic worth listening to telling me how utterly, absolutely IMPORTANT it is. Given the choice between a mythology of mystery and a mythology of excessive critical praise, the former is much more appealing to me. I followed the release of SMiLE with great expectation: what on earth would it sound like?

In short, quite brilliant. Sure, Wilson’s voice doesn’t have nearly the range that it used to, and at times feels like it’s about to break at any second. But the songs, my god, the SONGS. They float through the ears like candy, at times hard and challenging and at other times soft and easy to handle. The lyrics sound like nothing and everything all at once, with elements of history and mythology weaving through in a complicated-but-childlike tapestry.

But as much as I love the album on its own terms, I still can’t get over what the world would have thought of SMiLE had it come out when it was originally supposed to. Hopefully as much of it as I do almost 40 years later.

Watch: Brian Wilson – “Surf’s Up” (1966 piano rehersal):


4 responses to “The burden of Brian Wilson’s SMiLE

  1. There is something lonely about a blog that has no comments. I’m sure it’s being read by others much wittier than me who could actually leave a comment that pertained to the post …..

    I’m just writing to say hi to you Ryan.

  2. Hello to you too, Lynn. Thanks for posting.

    I’m rarely discouraged that my posts usually don’t inspire dialogue. My readership is limited to a small circle of friends and peers, so the odds that someone is going to have something valuable to say about the topic I’ve randomly chosen to write about on any given day is slim at best.

    (Heck, when I saw that this post had a comment, I was actually shocked, thinking to myself “Who do I know that’s actually listened to SMiLE?!?!)

    If a couple of my friends check this blog a couple of times a week or so as part of their internet scanning, really, I can’t ask or expect any more of them than that. To do otherwise would be to vastly overinflate my sense of self-importance. Besides, if nothing else, this blog allows me a chance to write more, which can hardly be a bad thing given that both my profession and my top pastime both rely on the skill.


  3. I for one am still reading and enjoying daily. I consider post a hearty “I concur!” on occasion, but that would be foolish. Keep up the good work, radio silence notwithstanding.

  4. See, that’s really the problem here – since everything I say is unquestionably correct and truth-filled, what more can anyone else possibly add?

    Ahhh, beautiful, beautiful self-importance…

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