PCR past banners
   Now in our fifth calendar year
    PCR #241  (Vol. 5, No. 45)  This edition is for the week of November 1--7, 2004.
The Digital Divide by Terence Nuzum
LEDsCD REVIEWS    by Terence Nuzum
CDs are rated 1 to 5 LEDs

SMILE
The current cover of SMILE
SMILE
The orginal cover of SMILE from 1967
Brian Wilson: SMILE

Five LEDs

How do you begin a review about the greatest lost record never made finally completed 37 years later? With a history of the genius behind it, I suppose. In history books it will say that The Beatles were the alpha and omega of pop music in the '60s and that "their" album's production techniques were revoluntionary and ahead of their time. That wouldn't be lying except that I use "their" in quotations because The Beatles had George Martin. Brian Wilson had no George Martin, and no encouragement from mentor Phil Spector who was growing increasingly jealous. All he had was himself and the sounds he had in his head. Now let's take a trip from the beginning of a small little California band, The Pendletones, to the Beach Boys' heyday of '63 - '66, the fallout and nervous breakdowns of '67 - '69, the short 70s revival, and finally to the complete close in 2004 of what is quite probably one of the greatest albums ever made. After the Payola scam and the arrest of Alan Freed in the late '50s it seemed like some unseen force was ending the short life of rock 'n' roll. Elvis went to war, Chuck Berry was arrested, Jerry Lee Lewis married his 14-year-old cousin, Eddie Cochran died in a car crash, Little Richard became a preacher, and finally the '50s' two greatest talents, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, along with the Big Bopper, lay dead in a cornfield in Iowa. The rebel-rousers were done and finished. They were replaced with Dion and other clean-cut white bread teen idols. Out of this sterile conservatism came the garage bands. The Kingsmen and others played it up to the drunk college crowd with hits like "Louie, Louie". Over in California, perhaps inspired by Duane Eddie and Dick Dale, surf garage bands appeared. One of these, The Pendletones, was led by a young and burgeoning songwriter, Brian Wilson. Wilson was a fragile kid who was deaf in one ear suppsedly due to his father Murray Wilson beating him across the head one day. Murray was a domineering brute of a man who, for all his faults, catapulted his family's band into superstardom. He is the one who badgered Capitol to sign his boys Brian, Carl, Dennis, and cousin Mike Love based on a hit record they had in their hometown, called "Surfin'". By now they were called The Beach Boys. Murray also fought tooth and nail to allow them to let Brian produce the record on his own.

From '61 - '64 the Beach Boys ruled the charts and had amazingly put out 6 LPs in three years. Brian watched and learned from great producer Phil Spector and, of course, easily picked up and dicovered the infamous "Wall of Sound".

In 1964, Beatlemania was upon Brian Wilson and he had no choice but to respond. Perhaps his first truimph came with "In My Room" quite possibly one of the most emotional songs ever to come out of the '60s, but his repsonse to the Beatles must be bigger and better; it was, he responded with "I Get Around", a masterpiece of chord changes and production. Unlike the Beatles' songs Wilson's compositions were not always recognizable as being as complex as they really are. For instance like "Little Honda", "I Get Around" sounds on the surface like a typical homage to '50s doo woop but under the layer you can hear odd chord changes, the way the vocals meld to create an emotion or the way the bass was recorded to echo or sound dissonant was unlike anything anyone else was doing including George Martin and his Liverpool gang of moptops.

Also Wilson was not a throwback to doo wop and 50s rock. He was way ahead of his time in that he was playing the music he loved yet making it intricate, artisitic, progressive, and even classically composed. He was retro before there was such a thing. While his tunes didn't sound modern like "She Loves Me" or "Help", they were modern in a different way in that Wilson realized he was referencing old music and uppping its ante. Which is why the two different age groups of indie rockers and classic rockers revere him equally to this day. The Beatles themselves had heard Wilson's genius and knew that he has on par with them, far ahead and that the Beach Boys were basically their American equivalant, so when "I Get Around" knocked them from the number one spot they needed to make a statement.

Meanwhile Wilson had been experimenting again with complex arrangements and on the album Today! the whole second side was what many now call the proto-Pet Sounds. Wilson used the 2nd side to explore emotions instead of fun in the sun. It was on "When I Grow Up" that hit the Beatles at home; it was to date the most intricately produced song from any popular rock group ever. By their next and 2nd album of 1965 Wilson took a break from the experimeting to offer up what would be the last typical Beach Boys album Summer Days (and Summer Nights). It was one final parting shot for the sound that made them so famous with songs like "Do You Wanna Dance" and "Good To My Baby" but it wasn't a total artistic loss as Wilson melded his new found sounds to match his old beach tunes in the great "Help Me Rhonda", and the magnificent classical opening of their penultimate tune "Califorina Girls". The Beatles retalitated with the album Rubber Soul. Now Brian had his first blow and not one year after his nervous breakdown too.

While the Beach Boys toured Japan, Wilson stayed in the studio to start on what would be his first masterpeice, Pet Sounds. Wilson utilized Spectors "wall of sound" and what he called playing "feelings" to make what amounts to the greatest album ever made in the minds of many musicians. Songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice", and of course "God Only Knows" (which Beatle Paul McCartney called the greatest song ever written) were only icing on the cake for other mini-pocket symphonies like "Don't Talk", "Pet Sounds", and "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times". The lyrics co-written with Tony Asher all formed a theme of love fantasized, realized, and eventually lost, which was best described by the closing track "Caroline, No". George Martin and the Beatles had heard it and came to the realization that it was the best thing they would ever hear and even knocked the Beatles out of winning their own country's favourite vocal group poll. Wilson was now riding the high horse and in command of his arena and was not shaken by the Beatles next release, Revolver. Instead, he graced us with, for my money, the greatest rock song ever recorded, "Good Vibrations".

Next Wilson went into the studio to create what he called his teenage symphony to god called "Dumb Angel", eventually retitled Smile. After hiring avant-garde lyricist Van Dyke Parks he experimeted with recording his odd tribute to Copeland, Stephen Foster, barbershop quartets, Dada, and classical music by having the songs written in certain environments to get the mood. For example "Surfs Up" was written in a giant sand box and the infamous "Fire" was recorded wearing fire helmets. Even McCartney dropped by for some the sessions and was blown away. But it all came to a halt when Wilson was drivng home one night and heard The Bealtes newest song "Strawberry Fields Forever" on the radio. As he put it "they beat me to it". The odd sound effects, the vocal arrangements, and yes, the classical composition was everything that Smile was to be and caused Brian Wilson to have his 2nd breakdown. Meanwhile Mike Love refused to sing Parks' odd lyrics and infamously argued over the lyric "columnated ruins the domino". Smile was stopped dead in the water. Brian gave up and after Sgt. Pepper's was dropped on the public something like 5 months before Smile could be finished, the album was shelved. Its replacement Smiley Smile (1967) is a pale imitation of rerecorded Smile tracks that reflect, disturbingly so, Brians cracked state of mind. So Wilson spent most of the '70s in bed listening to Phil Spector records something like 100 times in one day while the Beach Boys tugged on with hits and misses. Finally Wilson got out of his paranoia and sick state of mind and went solo. Soon after his critically acclaimed Pet Sounds tour in the late '90s he was back on track. Now without the Beach Boys but instead his touring band The Wondermints, who are just as good, if not better, he has decided to give us what we wanted. Smile.

OK, first off let me say to the naysayers and blind purists, to hell with you all. So what if Brian rerecorded the songs now and didn't use the original masters from '66. Half of those, the ones that remain in Smiley Smile or 20/20 aren't nearly finished products and aren't as good, frankly. Now compare the new tracks to their originals on the Good Vibrations box set and you would be hard pressed to hear the difference. So stop complaining. We now, with Brian in the right frame of mind, finally have the completed album. If you don't like it go listen to your shoddily put together bootlegs. Smile really wasn't a Beach Boys album anyway. One listen and you can tell it is all Brian and Van Dyke Parks' obsession. Wilson, to his credit, recorded all the vocals on the same tube equipment that he would of used in '66. As for the Beach Boys replacements The Wondermints, well they are better musicians, hands down. They aren't, of course, the godlike vocal team of Mike Love and the Wilsons but they more than suffice. Smile I can say is a masterpiece. Its not Pet Sounds, but then again, what is? Im gonna break it down track by track for you. The album contains three suites like a symphony.

Suite 1
Our Prayer/Gee:
Starting off with perhaps the only vocal that ever feels like it takes you closer to god, an uplifting harmonic acappela that turns into a doo wop opening for.....

Heroes and Villains: If you thought the underproduced dissapointment that was on Smiley Smile was great imagine if it contained the orginal middle section of "In the Cantina" complete with wild west imagery and the spoken line "You're under arrest". Originally to be the follow-up single to "Good Vibrations" it never really got its due till now.

Roll Plymouth Rock: Yes it was originally titled "Do You Like Worms" but in context this title makes much more sense as Wilson weaves Hawaiin melodies with pilgrims and the raping of the Indians' pride.

Barnyard: A sunny number evoking farming complete with cocks crowing and other animal noises.

Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine: Starts off with a baroque violin before turning the classic "You Are My Sunshine" into a depressive reflective piece and ending on sad strings.

Cabin Essence: The version on 20/20 doesn't hold a torch to this. Weaving a tale of settlers and change before the pounding chorus that asks the question "Who ran the iron horse?" as "over over the crow cries uncover the cornfield". Ending the suite brilliantly.

Suite 2
Wonderful:
Yes its sad that Carl can't sing the vocals to this, but Brian pulls it off nicely enough even if age has mellowed his pitch. That being said Brian's voice has changed but for a man in his 60s it sounds amazing. That might be the only complaint--I couldnt argue with a critic is that Wilson no longer can attain those youthful high notes like he once could. But with the added harpsichord we can finally hear "Wonderful" as meant.

Song For Children & Child Is Father Of The Man: These two songs are interwined and were originally on the 1971 album Surfs Up and the title track to that album. Yet they were inserted in the middle painfully out of place. Now it works brillaintly as acappella mid-section and opening to the song that ends the 2nd suite....

Surfs Up: The new recording is every bit of lounge cool beauty as its 1970s version. Now with the "Child Is Father Of The Man" section in place it sparkles and the line that Mike Love detested "columnated ruins the domino" sounds even better. This song closes the 2nd suite.

Suite 3
Im In Great Shape/I Wanna Be Around/Workshop:
The first two parts are strung togeher so closely they might as well be one song but the last part "Workshop" is pure madcap genius with sawing and woodshop sound effects. It is the kind of wackiness that would sound silly of it didn't fit already into Smile's barbershop silly syphonies techiniclolor tribute to Americana and Copeland.

Vega-Tables: So no this version dosen't have Paul McCartney on carrots like the Smiley Smile track, but who cares. This album should be devoid of Beatles anyway. Practically the same as the '60s take except far more restrained in its sound effects of crunching and drinks pouring.

On A Holiday: this tune is basically a big budget remake of the earlier track "Roll Plymouth Rock" with a big pound drum roll and a spoken word interlude by a pirate "unwiegh the anchor yank and we will party".

Windchimes: OK, personally the earthy sound of the original '60s cut was my favorite but admittledly it was a little too downbeat and too underproduced (done on purpose, after the demise of the oringinal Smile in 1966 Wilson recorded Smiley Smile purposely underprodced). But this is a nice breezy and relaxing interlude into.....

Mrs. O'Leary's Cow: yes the infamous "Fire" , the tune filled with nightmare fuzz bass feedback and howling fire engines, the song that in '66 scared Wilson so much that he thought it created several local fires has been renamed. So its kinda tame now but still weird as hell. It's interesting to note that in '66 no one made sounds like this. The weird fuzzy acid comedown of the guitar and bass wouldn't be used like this until arguably Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing At Baxters. This tune would have been shocking and definitely unlike anything the Beach Boys or even the Beatles had been doing previously (seeing this track peformed live was amazing, by the way, as was the whole Smile performace. If you still have a chance, don't miss it)

In Blue Hawaii: "Is It Hot as hell in here or is it me?" the question is answered with a trip from the burning cow farm to the blue of Hawaii complete with steel pedal twang.

Good Vibrations: The third suite's closer is the one that should cause the most controversy. Yeah, it's not the orignal but it's damn close. Much like the rest of Smile you realize with this remake that Wilson's orignal vision of a rock opera or symphony could be rerecored at any year if done right and sound the same and amazing every time, much like a piece by Beethoven or, more to Wilsons intention, Stephen Foster playing Beethoven.

After breaking away from his demons, the sad mentally and emotionally-damaged child, Brian Wilson, has grown up with this recording, call it therapy if you will. Smile is an achievement like no other in music history. Dramatically, it is a great myth: our hero's masterpiece crumbles in his hands causing a nervous breakdown that keeps him bedridden for years until he rises from the ashes conquers his fears and comes out glorious. Seriously, how many albums or movies live up to their hype much less an album lost for 37 years!!!! It even still holds its own to this day which it is amazing that a 61-year-old man can still sound wackily fresh against The Flaming Lips or Beck! Imagining what it would have done to music 37 years ago is moot. Imagining what it will do 37 years from now is vastly more significant. It may very well, now that it has had to sit and get better with the years like a fine wine, better Sgt. Pepper's. The media is not up The Beatles asses so far that they can't see talent now like they didn't in the '60s. McCartney certainly couldn't have made anything this good in his old age. When it surpasses Sgt. Pepper's in the future, Wilson will finally be recognized as the 2nd most important songwriter of the '60s along with Dylan. Indierock and pop has been more influced by Wilson than the Beatles, hands down, and is getting more appreciated as the years go by. Wilson once sang "I just wasn't made for these times". He was right; but now is his time and Smile is finally upon us.



"The Digital Divide" is ©2004 by Terence Nuzum..  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2004 by Nolan B. Canova.