Smiley Smile: Historical Context
The release of the Beatles Revolver in the late summer of 1966 confirmed the suspicion that (some of) rock ‘n’ roll was turning into rock, an art form believed to be progressing in sophistication and ambition.
And for awhile the Beach Boys appeared to be participants in this unfolding drama.
By the second half of the decade, their early ’60s surf and car hits were dismissed as relics from a simpler, bygone era. Although Pet Sounds had not sold as well in the States as that earlier material, the album was considered an advance; admired in England by the public, the critics, and the Beatles themselves, at a time when British pop taste was believed to be at least one step beyond American. If you were listening for such connections it wasn’t hard to notice that Here, There, and Everywhere from Revolver was a homage to Pet Sounds.
Then, in October of 1966 Good Vibrations was released – a perfect single: groovy, unique, elegant, and accessible. A million selling number one hit.
And so . . .fitting in with the march-of-historical-progress-rock theory, the next Beach Boys album, Smile, was understood to be in development as a try-and-top-this reply to Revolver, which would then be topped by the Beatles, and so on. The PR was in place, the press was on board, and the public was primed.
And then the release of Smile kept getting delayed.
In June of 1967 the Beach Boys canceled out of the Monterey Pop Festival, the pre-Woodstock, Summer of Love anointing of the Byrds, the Dead, Joplin, Hendrix, the Who, Otis Redding, and Ravi Shankar. Was Brian Wilson worried that the Beach Boys were too square for the hippies?
And then the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper.
Finally, in September of 1967 the Beach Boys released . . . . Smiley Smile.
This wasn’t progress. This wasn’t an advance. This was a collapse, or maybe a retraction, or even a surrender. Not the next Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper. Or an improvement on Pet Sounds. This was . . . what exactly?
Of course, not every consumer bought every album the day it came out or ever. Yet there remained a feeling about the Beach Boys that something was missing. Where was their Sgt. Pepper? Their late ’60s bona fides?
The years rolled by and at best Smiley Smile would occasionally receive a puzzled mention while the Beach Boys transformed into an artistically with-it concert draw and eventually returned to the top ten album charts. And a biography got pieced together in the public consciousness that traced the collapse, withdrawal, and eventual rehabilitation of Brian Wilson.
This emerging Brian bio fit a tortured artist/troubled genius framework that was part of a perspective on the 1960s developed in the 1970s and ’80s. Looking back, that earlier decade came into focus as an era of dramatic changes, some absorbed easily, and some not so well, full of casualties and triumphs, social, political, and personal. In such a context, the failure to finish Smile came into focus as typically late ’60s in its unrealized, perhaps unrealistic ambitions.
Because, as it turned out, the Beatles themsevles never did top Sgt. Pepper. We all have our favorites, but few fans would claim Magical Mystery Tour or Let It Be as progressions. While the Rolling Stones attempt at a Sgt. Pepper, Their Satanic Majesty’s Request is remembered, if at all, as a sloppy psychedelic interlude.
The decades passed: disco, punk, funk, alt and hip hop complicated any simple rock ‘n’ roll to rock pop music history, if not the entire idea of pop progression. Prog rock itself passed into history as a source of nostalgia
Finally, in 2004, after all the speculation and anticipation, Smile would get patched up, performed, recorded and released by Brian Wilson and the wonderful back-up band he had assembled, to acclamation accompanied by relief. Then, using that template, the original Beach Boys Smile tracks, many parceled out on ’60s and ’70s albums, would themselves be compiled and released as a nearly complete, sequentially accurate album as well.
With over 35 years of pop music hindsight, Smiley Smile could now be appreciated as the beginning of Wilson’s long but, as it turned out, temporary withdrawal. An improvised echo of an anticipated event that would not materialize until the following millennium.
This made Smiley Smile understandable as a momentary musical detour in the career of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. An oddball pop footnote. A place holder for the real album that would only surface decades later.
And yet . . . all along some of us, although thrilled by the rehabilitation of Brian Wilson and the release of Smile, would still consider Smiley Smile the best. Not a detour at all, but the beginning of a trip down a road regrettably left more or less unexamined after one more album.
Smile is great, Pet Sounds is great, Wild Honey is great, Shut Down Vol II is great, Sunflower is great. But Smiley Smile is the best Beach Boys album ever.
The Front and Back Covers
The surf and car metaphors from the beginning of the Beach Boys’ career worked not only as subject matter but as visual identifiers. If the imagery failed to suggest the subjectivity and introspection tucked away inside “In My Room” or “Don’t Worry Baby” the first five album covers did place the boys as California teenagers when that had a national, and as it turned out, global impact worth unraveling.
These weren’t just head shots. These were graphics informing you that this group made music about Something. There was more Something in those cars and surfboards than the covers might suggest, but they sent you in the right direction.
When that first set of metaphors got exhausted, Summer substituted in the lyrics and the graphics. That worked well enough, but didn’t really represent where the group, or at least Brian Wilson was headed. Visually, the summer theme managed to sustain two albums, but things hit a snag with The Beach Boys Today!
In the future, meaning for at least the last thirty years, Today! would be considered the moody, artsy precursor to Pet Sounds. Don’t Hurt My Little Sister, When I Grow Up To Be A Man, She Knows Me Too Well, In The Back of My Mind. But how to represent that visually?
The cover shows the boys lined up and smiling beside a swimming pool in crew neck sweaters, a look that I can verify was popular at suburban high schools in 1965. No surfboards, cars, sailboats, or beaches here. And not much else. There’s little to suggest the inward turn taking place on at least half the tracks inside. Unless the sweaters, potentially drained swimming pool, and brown and gold toned palette are meant to signify an autumnal seriousness in southern California.
By now they were in competition with the Beatles and other Brits, who at their best were self-aware, often out of art school, maybe with a theatrical English feel for stage presence. Early album covers that hit the States from across the Atlantic visually telegraphed “we know who we are and want you to know we have a bit of poetry and drama going on here.” Bob Dylan’s album photo shoots, haircut, and choice of scarves and jackets displayed a similar mastery of self-projection.
At the time, the Beach Boys were still performing in striped shirt Kingston Trio imitator outfits while their music was evolving and needed newer wardrobes, on stage and album covers. But visual presentation at this point proved a puzzle.
Pet Sounds itself was dogged by the same dilemma. A clever word play in cover photograph and title for Brian Wilson’s groundbreaking neo-Spector symphonic pop song masterpiece, with the boys now suitably up-to-date attired and groomed, it still failed to transmit the serious ambition and depth of feeling attempted and achieved inside.
Smiley Smile would be their first packaging since at least All Summer Long, or maybe even Shut Down Vol II, that got it right. The cartoonish hippie drawing that channels post-impressionist Henri Rousseau as re-imagined by Walt Disney and the harmlessly bogus but charming Indian wisdom on the back cover caught the mood of counter-cultural domesticity and withdrawal sprinkled with some light weight spirituality in tension with modesty and ambition that informed the album as a whole.
Up to Pet Sounds their covers largely colored blue with red accents, establishing the continuity from surf to cars, except for outliers Now! and Party! The former, as I’ve stated, was so to speak mislabeled, and the later was unique, and probably deserves its own in depth discussion.
The greens in Smiley echoed Pet Sounds’ green banner top that bleeds into the foliage behind the boys and goats at the San Diego Zoo, solidifying a new color theme reused in future albums such as Friends, Holland, and Surf’s Up. Even 1974’s Endless Summer blockbuster anthology of their surf, car, and summer highpoints, quotes Smiley visually. The return of their teenage cannon to pop culture prominence is announced by bearded, brooding Beach Boys peeking out from green Rousseau/Smiley foliage.
On Smiley’s front and back covers there are no photographs or drawings of the Beach Boys, individual or group. For the first time they completely disappear from both sides of an album. Off to some imaginary, bucolic cabin from out of the past and future. It looks inviting. Or perhaps just necessary. For awhile.
A Close Listen Preview
Heroes and Villains
The only chunk available from the abandoned masterwork Smile, squeezed into shape as a single, is placed here at the album’s beginning. Listening to it first is like devouring a huge slice of mofongo or fruit cake that’s been served as an hors doeuvre. We will need the rest of this musical meal to digest the opening track. And that gets really interesting.
A deceptively simple reworked bit from Smile sets us off in new directions utilizing a musical blend of be bop and Spike Jones. The best loved non-hit track on the album and a Beach Boys classic.
Fall Breaks And Back To Winter
(W. Woodpecker Symphony)
A weirdly clever minimalistic musical snippet that sounds like it fell into the album from nowhere (and didn’t), yet fits.
She’s Goin’ Bald
Funny, strange, maybe even a tiny bit ominous, unpredictable, and yet of a piece that moves the album along.
A soft landing as we end this side in a place outside of but adjacent to the universe of the Boys first ten albums.
If side one presents and then explains Heroes and Villians, side two does the same with Good Vibrations, placing it, appropriately enough, in the center of the album, as it is the centerpiece of the Beach Boys’ career.
With Me Tonight
Good Vibrations is a hard act to follow, and this cut wisely yet cleverly works a small piece of the same terrain without boring us or throwing us off balance.
A modest echo in the mode of the previous tracks and an amazing musical achievement: recreating the experience of listening to wind chimes after smoking a joint.
The album’s welcome carnal interlude successfully negotiates its own musical-historical relationship to reality.
If Smiley Smile needs justification as an album beside yet beyond both versions of Smile this is the track.
In conclusion, it’s been nice, farewell, that’s it, we’re outta here.
A Close Listen
Side One, Track One
Heroes and Villains
Originally positioned as the first major movement on Smile, preceded by an intro of the hymn-like Our Prayer and snippet of doo wop classic Gee, Heroes and Villains gets interrupted, expanded and requoted along that album’s full length flow.
Cut out of this context and reworked into a stand alone single as Smile was shelved, H&V on release sounded melodic and ambitious but was too hard to follow, too busy, too dense and intense.
Reproduced in this format as Smiley Smile’s opening track, Brian Wilson’s complex harmonics move into a dissonant counterpoint too quickly for a top 40 pop music fan’s ear, unrelieved by the now absent “in the cantina” interlude from Smile. So H&V’s cascading, dropping (or drooping) melody lines can feel like a bit of a downer, while the too frequent tempo shifts invite irritation. Not good to dance to. All of which, as we would discover so many years later, broken down and stretched out on Smile can feel like being dropped into something complex and beautiful.
Van Dyke Parks poetical wordplay offers up moments of clarity here for the brain to latch on to, but they don’t string together, and isolated on only one cut for three and a half minutes, becomes more frustrating than making no sense at all. We hear that it’s the Beach Boys singing for sure, but can’t catch a link to the surf/cars/summer celebrations or Pet Sounds introspection. Again, that plays out differently full length on Smile.
As a 45, Heroes and Villains attracted respectable, non-blockbuster sales in the States and UK, but was voted song of the year in France. Maybe it helped if English was not your first language. Just dig the sounds, and catch a random word when you can.
Then there’s the production. Mixed both for top 40 radio play and stoned living room stereo sessions, H&V’s layered vocals could pile up on a car dashboard radio until you reached overload and heard them as muddled, with no sustained rhythm to pull you all the way through. The opening stanzas match the chug-a-lug rockin’ car beat of Fun, Fun, Fun or Shut Down, swing into a swirling caliopi tempo, slow way down moving towards the a capella interlude and return to the car beat. Too much.
Performed live over the decades, the drummer and bass player could mash this together and push it along, while the simplified live vocals mimicked yet clarified those from the studio recordings. Or the a capella interlude could get stretched out in concert for the show’s Art Rock segment, giving the audience’s ear time to adjust.
The Smile versions segue at the end with a little orchestration and the clip clop horse beat of old Gene Autrey songs, tipping us off to some of Smile’s Americana ambitions. But the single and hence Smiley Smile version removes (or mixes down) the ascending bass line at the “heroes and villains, look what you’ve done done” chorus and conclusion, replacing it with a low pitched drone that only alters with the chord or key changes. As a witty sonic comment this drone appears as early as Pet Sounds, and gets used here the same way, to set up the “I’ve been in this town so long” segment.
And then overused. Is it an attempt to simplify the sound for the single, to remove the propulsion and turn the song towards a close, preparing us for the rest of Smiley Smile, where its frequent deployment has a different effect? Or is it an attempt to sabotage the song itself, the first sign of Brian Wilson’s withdrawal? I find that removing the uplifting bass to emphasize the drone bottom undercuts rather than undergirds H&Vs final fadeout.
Not the huge Good Vibrations follow up it needed to be, but a whole lot of something. Placed inside of Smile, Heroes and Villains would get explained by being expanded. Placed alone at the beginning of Smiley Smile it would get explained by getting unpacked.
The strategy to come is forshadowed two and a half minutes into the song when H&V strips down to the a capella “I’ve been in this town so long . . .” Just a lead voice with harmony humming backing. Through some trick or advance in recording technique, the voices suddenly sound quiet but closer and clearer.
Side One, Track Two
We’re not sure what “Heroes and Villains” is about but understand it to be jumbled up on purpose in the mode of twentieth century modern art like Picasso’s cubist period. With “Vegetables” the subject is obvious: vegetables. And the words are simple, maybe simple minded. But the presentation is full of sub-texts, deceptively complex.
Naive, clever, hilarious, and hip all at once, the most accessible cut new to Smiley Smile departs from the striving masterpiece of Smile while still supplying a continuity that holds the album together. How did the Beach Boys do it?
Peering back a decade after the release of Smile and 47 years after Smiley Smile we can see that “Vegetables” was extracted from the last third of Smile and then had “Mama Says” (which appears on Wild Honey) extracted from that, leaving behind a song with a more or less common ABAB, bridge, AA structure. Rebuilt and rerecorded so that it flows with a typical musical progression, “Vegetables” disarms and pulls us in with its Magritte-like surreal normality.
Hearing it for the first time, whether today or in 1967, we don’t have to know the story of Smile to hear the connections. The bass drone from “Heroes and Villains” returns here as a pulsing beat, and for much of the song’s first minute, it’s just the Beach Boys singing over that pulse
But that singing signals a break. We have moved away, for the first time in their career, from the Doo Wop/Four Freshmen/Church Choir rock harmonies that soar over the beat or through a ballad, to a swinging staccato phrasing that hops around or implies the beat, closer to, dare I say it, late ’50s, early ’60s bop vocalese as practiced by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.
When a bebopper improvises a vocal over a standard, it’s both homage and comment, familiarity and distance. Here the Beach Boys are commenting on a tune that hasn’t even been released, and we get it. They’re riffing on the idea of Smile as propounded on the previous track, “Heroes and Villains.” Except the Boys aren’t riffing new notes over familiar chord changes, they’re riffing, so to speak, over the standards of rock presentation, over their own history.
That dance of separation and connection only works in jazz or Smiley Smile with the mix of virtuosity, taste, and musical confidence the Beach Boys exhibit here. If we haven’t heard Vegetables before, they sure have, (all those Smile sessions) and they have the vocal chops to understate but bounce along and embellish the melody. This makes the lyrics sound not as simple as they might read on a page, but they aren’t being mocked.
13 seconds into the song we begin the sound effects: notes blown on a water jug, pouring, swallowing. And 50 seconds in we get (according to legend, Paul McCartney) chewing on the back beat. Funny stuff, deployed tastefully, at just the right moment, like, well, the Ike Issacs Trio coming in behind Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, with piano, drums, and bass.
We have left the arena of big themes and sweeping visions for the smaller focus of stoned hippies at home, or at least a vision of stoned hippies at home. Or maybe just a quick peek. Vegetables builds quickly and carefully. No acid trip jam band noodling here.
30 second in we get an added layer of harmony. A minute and 20 seconds in we are at the a capella bridge, and by a minute and a half we are back to a link to Heroes and Villains. “I know that you’ll feel better. . .” mirrors the a capella lead with a hummed background that comes two and a half minutes into Heroes and Villains with “I’ve been in this town so long . . “
We are now out of bop-esque and back to classic sincere Beach Boys mode. But here’s the lyric in full: “I know that you’ll feel better when you send us in a letter and tell us the name of your favorite vegetable.” Absurd and charming. Sung as if it’s the line from Surfer Girl, “In my woody I will take you everywhere I go.” A comment on their own career, their own stance, and a comment on the emerging late sixties. Not a put-down, not false innocence, maybe a recognition of the complexity of innocence extended over time.
And then the couplet is repeated in a snippet out of the original version on Smile, with some of Smile’s signature random background cacophony. Two minutes and eight seconds and we’re finished. Returned to Smile, arriving from a different location. In these two minutes the Boys peel away the layers and in the process add some new ones.
Side One, Track Three
Fall Breaks And Back To Winter
(W. Woodpecker Symphony)
Reoriented by Vegetables away from the lofty ambitions of Heroes and Villains to a project of witty dismantling and hip reconstruction, we move here to a musical form previously undiscovered on a Beach Boys recording. It’s not a song and it’s not an evocative instrumental, like Let’s Go Away For Awhile from Pet Sounds.
It’s a wordless, initially jarring, lower register, minor key vocal refrain, cartoonishly ominous, answered by a harmonica and organ or accordion that does indeed reference the Woody Woodpecker song. Repeated six times to the fade at two and half minutes.
The repetition is part of the humor. Maybe even a statement about late sixties ideas about progress. We aren’t going anywhere, the train isn’t leaving the station, the car isn’t leaving the hamburger stand, we’re in a cycle. The vocal refrain sounds unresolved, dropped on us from an unknown somewhere, which the Woodpecker response resolves and then leads us back to. Six times.
And yet . . . each Woodpecker response is a bit different, building some changes. And within each response the texture reverses, a sound at the bottom of the mix comes forward and takes the melody (like the bass player taking a solo in a jazz trio). The embellishments, whether sound effects, voices, or instruments, deployed with, well, taste, echo the two previous tracks just enough to reassure us we are still in the same album.
With our current access to Smile the plot, if we care to, can thicken. The ominous-ish vocal refrain here is actually the truly ominous vocal refrain in the Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow/Elements/Fire section of Smile. (Where it’s only repeated twice.) The section that supposedly spooked Brian Wilson into dropping the whole project.
Was this version a way of gaining control, reducing the demonic through humor? Or was it the revenge of the rest of the Beach Boys, a musical belittling of an effort that had reduced their participation?
Whatever the backstage historical facts, this track, for the first 35 years, as understood by fans with no insider knowledge, sounded like, and can still stand simply as, a successful attempt to pull under control something with some kind of negative power by utilizing a musical vocabulary only available to musical pros like the Beach Boys. Or maybe only available to the Beach Boys, those musical pros. These jokesters are clever, and that involves skill.
Side One, Track Four
She’s Goin’ Bald
“Where did your long hair go?” the first line of Pet Sounds last track, “Caroline No” is echoed by the first line here. “Silken hair, more silken hair fell on her face, but no wind was blowing.”
This time however, a hair cut is not the central image in a lament for lost innocence, hair loss is the central image in a jaunty description of a bad acid trip. Sung and swung late ’50s jazz combo style, with bongos; close to bossa nova in attitude, tone, and rhythm, if not subject matter. For the first minute.
Followed by another late ’50s homage: the Shanana Chipmunks style bridge wherein the chromatically climbing doo-wop vocals escalate as the tape speeds up. A sonic jolt, and, of course, funny. Who can resist the Beach Boys turning into the Chipmunks? The first time they have distorted their own voices. The invisible hand of the producer brought to the foreground.
And then the mock dramatic spoken exposition. “I started grabbing her hair and threw it in a sack” that segues into the boogiefied finale “It’s too late Mama . . .” Four different sections in a bit over two minutes.
That, on both first listen and close inspection, hang together. There’s the goofy story line, announced in the title, to move us along. And if the four sections are wildly different in technique, they fit together musically. More proof of the group’s arrival at a particular (perhaps peculiar) confidence in their own taste, skill and wit.
The vocals in the first section are layered, but after that the aural layering comes from the sections piled one after another. Instrumentally we are a long long way from competing with Phil Spector’s wall of sound. In the last section, for instance, a treble piano figure that could have been lifted from a Howlin’ Wolf record trades places with a ukulele strum (setting us up for the next track). This isn’t Pet Sounds, this isn’t Smile. This is something different. Studio produced and edited rock jazz.
And then the layers of meaning. Beach Boys aficionados, aware of the presence of Smile’s absence, so to speak, when this was released, can wonder if this track is the group’s (or even Brian’s) revenge on Brian Wilson’s ambitions. One understanding of “Caroline No” places it as Brian’s lament for his own lost innocence. Does that make “She’s Goin’ Bald” a masked description of the collapse of Wilson’s ambition? Or the destruction of that ambition?
More simply, it’s the first female image in a Beach Boys song that doesn’t fit into the found love/lost love format. And inevitably, a woman with her hair falling out suggests, if only for a second, cancer and chemotherapy. Drugs. The bad acid trip.
A funny song, an oddball tour de force, where a significant segment of the unusual humor derives from a negative space. A complicated negative space and a turning point for the Beach Boys.
Side One, Track Five
Sometimes cited when labeling Smiley Smile a stoner album. As if, closing out side one, we still need proof.
In fact “Little Pad” pulls away from the organized disorientation of the last three (or maybe four) tracks, to settle into a charming three verse song. Only the opening 15 seconds have that Beach Boys Party self-mocking vocal smartassedness. After that they sing it straight.
Well, sort of. We aren’t quite all the way back to “In My Room” and “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring.” But we’re not back to “She’s Goin’ Bald” either. As side one concludes we have opened up and explored the implications of “Heroes and Villains” enough to travel from cynicism to whimsy. To end at an achieved intentional innocence.
The complete lyrics. “If I only had a little pad in Hawaii. Sure would like to have ALPIH. By the sea that’s where I’ll build ALPIH.” Who can argue with that? It’s not the hip faux simplicity of “Vegetables.” Nor the grand ambition of Smile.
Nor the “Hawaii” track off 1963’s Surfer Girl LP of bigger waves and nothing but raves. Just a little pad. Foreshadowing the hippie domesticity of the 1970s. The revamped Carole King, the turn away from big themes. The inner life. The set up for the Beach Boys Wild Honey, only three months later.
But the song would lose the power of its charm if it was only about “a little pad in Laurel Canyon (or Malibu).” On top of the clever modesty, similar to the Beatles “When I’m 64,” there’s a nod to the notion of paradise. Their paradise. Surfer’s paradise. The only state in the USA that’s west of California.
That geographic metaphor is also put to use in sweep-of-American-history Smile, and “Little Pad” borrows from Smile’s “In Blue Hawaii.” With Smile’s 37 year delay we can either hear “Little Pad” as the echo, or “Blue Hawaii” as the elaboration. Or both.
Or neither. “Little Pad” can stand on it’s own. It doesn’t sound like a fragment because it has the structure of a typically simple-yet-complex Brian Wilson pop song. And whether we are hearing it now or when it was released, with or without any knoweldge of Smile, we can catch its Beach Boyistic frame of reference.
“When I’m 64” pleasantly manipulates the Beatles self-knowledge of their youth and position as British Invasionists. But even at their outset the best of those Brits as well as American folk-rockers like Dylan displayed an understanding of their position inside the culture they were exploring.
The Beach Boys on their first ten albums were singing a kind of popified rock era folk music. As intentional and thoughtful as the Carter Family or Chuck Berry, but not self-referential. Not until the end of side one on Smiley Smile. Here’s where they really catch up with the Beatles.
Of course, this only works if the song works as a song. The final achievement of innocence over distance, of whimsy over cynicism, of structure over disintegration rests on the musicality. A close listen reveals every hum, every ukulele strum, every slide guitar note as essential. Reveals the Beach Boys at the peak, if that’s the right word, of their powers, whether it took two months in three different studios or one hour in Brian Wilson’s home.
We are ready for side two.
Side Two, Track One:
Arriving between Pet Sounds and (the anticipation of) Smile, “Good Vibrations” belongs to neither. It lacks the soulful adolescent introspection, formal song structure, and symphonic-rock instrumentation of Pet Sounds, and although appearing decades later as the closing track, does not share Smile’s Finnegan’s Wake like word play, American historical context, or long form musical themes. “Good Vibrations” stood and stands alone.
As a perfect single, perfectly defining a piece of the late middle sixties and the Beach Boys’ place in it.
Optimistic, clever, ambitious in length and execution, modest but profound in expression and sentiment, “Good Vibrations” is the mountain top from which we can look down on the two sides of the Beach Boys’ career. On the one side sit the first ten Brian-centric albums, culminating with Pet Sounds. On the other side, Smile and the lack of Smile, production and composing credits shared with the group as Brian fades in and out of involvement and the Boys fall out of and back in fashion.
Opening side two, GV sits as it should, in the middle of Smiley Smile. In the vinyl era that meant you could flip the record and start to listen there, which might have been experienced as too top heavy, like beginning side two of Sqt. Pepper with “A Day In The Life’ or side two of Who’s Next with “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” But here it works. Smiley Smile may be unusual in structure and peculiar or even unique in pop music aesthetic, but it is coherent.
“Good Vibrations” fits in the middle because although as long as “Heroes and Villains” it’s not as dense. Matching the minimalist yet pleasingly weird, well, vibe of the rest of the record, while echoing the choirboy meets doo-wop vocals and motor driven rock beats of the group’s history, GV contently gazes on the past and future.
If Chuck Berry’s car songs are reformatted for outer and inner space here, the job is done with a theramin and cello triplets, not a symphony or a wall of sound. If the Boys’ entire catalogue of falling in love lyrics are updated for the summer of love here, that’s achieved with phrases as simple as the title or couplets like “I don’t know where but she sends me there.” If the classic two and a half minute pop single is stretched out here by an additional minute, it’s done by beginning with the familiar verse, chorus, verse, chorus, achieving lift off, and flying up from there.
Brilliant, upbeat, effervescent, deep but not weighty. We’re ready for the rest of the album.
Historical footnote: In the mid and late 1970s, when the Boys, largely minus Brian, were at the top of their game as a live touring group, they would open their shows with “Good Vibrations” as if to say “We want you to know we know we’re so damn tight we can start with our closer.” It was like Frank Sinatra opening with “My Way” or Tony Bennet opening with “I Left My Heart In San Fransisco.”
This worked because they were that good, in control in concert of all the pieces of their career. It also worked because GV is that kind of song. It’s not merely a summation, it pushes forward, it anticipates, it rises.
Side Two, Track Two:
With Me Tonight
Following “Good Vibrations,” too strong a song would be jarring, too long a song would be tiring, too normal would be boring and too unrelated would break the mood. “With Me Tonight” is none of these, extending the high of GV while easing us down and moving us along.
A casual listen might leave little impression, a mere modest trifle. An attentive relisten reveals more of a mystery.
The complete lyrics, minus the doo-wopish scatting:
“On and on she goes”. (Sometimes “you go” replaces “she goes.”) Followed by “With me tonight, I know she’s with me tonight.” (Sometimes “you’re” replaces “she’s” and “For sure” replaces “I know.”)
After the fabulous anticipation in “Good Vibrations” we are hearing about a kind of consummated, existing relationship, but what kind? A human who now exists or will materialize in the same time and place as the protagonist would most likely be described along the lines of “I know you will be with me tonight” or “Here we are together” or “Let’s get it on.” The “I know” and “For sure” create answers to implied questions suggesting an ambiguity or absence. “I know you’re with me tonight” is not the same as “You’re with me tonight.”
Has the love object of GV made contact and left, leaving the singer feeling “you’re with me tonight” in her absence? Or are the intensities of the original good vibrations strong enough to continue a vibrational or maybe spiritual connection without any physical contact? Or are we talking about some kind of spiritual presence to start with? Perhaps even a female deity?
And what’s with the “on and on you go”? That’s sounding a lot like a non-linear spatial/temporal perspective. Kind of Buddhisty.
It would be easier to dismiss all of this as an arbitrary musical interlude or even slip-up of stoned stupidity, (“Of course I’m with you tonight, I just passed you the hash pipe”) if it wasn’t so beautifully constructed and executed and if it didn’t follow something as perfect as “Good Vibrations.” Sure, the lyrics don’t go much of anywhere, but what if that’s intentional? Or intuitive?
We start right off with some gorgeous a capella group harmony, building with an additional vocal layer and the signature sound of the album, an organ drone, shifting often enough with the chord changes to function as musical emphasis, not irritant. These subtle distinctions are carefully deployed to mark off segments of the song, along with occasional marching footsteps that carry the beat like the chewing in “Vegetables”, one vocal shout out, and, at the end, a bit of piano tinkling.
Throughout, the singing stays, as it does on “Good Vibrations,” in sincere mode. No irony, no distortion, no manipulation. If this is not a display of virtuoso production technique, it is a display of the Beach Boys they-make-it-look-easy virtuoso harmony singing matched to some selective instrumental additions and subtractions. So you have to take seriously the fact that there’s not that much there.
In other words, this is not a bit of pleasant noodling. On its own terms, it’s a beautifully executed, tightly crafted, pleasingly mysterious song. And it’s own terms are shared with the rest of the album, and so in tune following “Good Vibrations.”
Side Two, Track Three:
Like “Vegetables” and “Wonderful” this is a segment extracted from the flow on Smile and refashioned into a stand alone track. Of those three, “Wind Chimes” gets the most intense overhaul, but stays true to the Hippies At Home spirit and basic structure of the original.
While the previous track plays it straight with the singing, the overhaul here, and departure from previous Beach Boys recording norms comes in the vocals. The lead veers in and out of nearly but not quite over the top whispering-in-your-ear breathy and intimate, but not sexy. The subject, after all, is wind chimes. The chorus or group response shifts in natural pitch and tone and by mechanical distortion, from speeding up the tape ala “She’s Goin’ Bald” to slowing it down and applying and removing echo.
The organ drone appears yet again, this time as a sort of lead instrument, opening the track and then mixed up to the front to punctuate the ending of the first verse. But none of this eccentric vocal or instrumental variation is confrontational. Instead, it recreates the experience of the subject at hand. Watching and listening to some wind chimes. Probably after a few tokes.
Even the sound effects disruption at one minute and 25 seconds fits as the sort of jolt that can be a part of a wind chimes appreciation session. Unlike the instrumental disruption that appears at almost the same time in both Smile originals, this one ends quickly. We return to the wind chimes. It’s a break, but a humorous one. A tear can roll down your cheek when listening to wind chimes, and the mood can get broken, and then you can go back to listening some more. That’s not in Smile.
After all these uncommon modulations the track concludes with an absolutely beautiful wordless harmony vocal not unrelated to “Our Prayer” or the opening of “In The Parking Lot” or “A Young Man Is Gone.” Followed by the equally touching “whispering wind” mixed down half minute coda. As if to say, all joking aside, it’s been a beautiful afternoon.
If “Good Vibrations” places the listener inside the experience it sings about in three and half minutes, “Wind Chimes” does the same, more modestly, in two and a half minutes. This track is not about listening to wind chimes. It is listening to wind chimes. The distortions are a part of the reality, a beautiful reality. And therein lies the difference between a put down and a lack of pretense.
Side Two, Track Four:
A break from the spiritual grooviness. Back to the physical body. And sex. Except . . the faux earthy hard-working-man-by-day-needs-a-woman-at-night concept deployed here is both straight forward and removed. And that makes the whole thing kind of, well, intellectual.
We know about, and the album has explored the link between the Beach Boys as rock stars in their home studio and the Beach Boys as typical lower middle class suburban goof-offs and the connection of all that to their audience. They are not and never have been field hands, nor have they often chosen to speak in voices other than their own. This track is not a stab at folk song authenticity or veneration. But it is some kind of folk song appropriation that places the Boys at a distance from as well as in identification with the material.
So the song can’t and doesn’t settle into parody. The blunt and a bit goofy instrumental jolts at the opening, coming after the last three cuts, could signal an out of place patronizing descent. But like the rest of the album, “Hungry” moves into a structure of well aligned almost miniaturized segments, suggesting some sort of, at least musical sincerity and wisdom. Mike’s opening vocals, following by Brian’s “comes the night time” high tenor, followed by the group’s “gettin’ hungry” chorus all choose deliveries and instrumentation (or lack of it) peculiar and exaggerated just enough to pull the song in more than one direction, but restrained enough to hold those different directions in check.
This is dangerous terrain. A lesser ability to turn a phrase, stretch and clip a note, splice an edit, or add one more woodblock clop, could collapse the whole endeavor into album filler and/or embrace the nihilism that Smiley sometimes flirts with but then rejects and/or fall too far outside the parameters placed by the previous tracks. Instead, we get a welcome change of pace in preparation for the next track, while sustaining Smiley’s unique musical vocabulary and perspective. Even the oral orientation of the sexuality echoes “Vegetables” chomping and swallowing from side one.
If “Gettin’ Hungry” is a comment on anything, it’s a comment on the rest of the album. (As the whole album can be seen as a comment on the Beach Boys’ career.) It breaks the mood a bit, as if to say, “Vibrational relationships are fine, but we still have physical needs,” or maybe just “time for a joke.” Yet like all of Smiley Smile, it takes such strategies and insights to be complicated to arrive at and express with ease. Holding all that, in the end of course, is the entire album’s task and acheivement.
Historical Note: In the fall of 1967 Capitol released “Gettin’ Hungry” as a single backed by “Devoted to You” off of Beach Boys Party. It didn’t make the charts in the USA or UK. What were they thinking? It is the Beach Boys, it is a song, it is, at least on one level, about sex. But it doesn’t have the impact of a hit single. It isn’t rock ‘n’ roll. It isn’t even really pop. It’s an art song.
Side Two, Track Five:
Listened to one way, each side of Smiley Smile starts with the big hit and riffs off of that for the rest of the tracks. Listened to another way, the whole album is building towards “Wonderful.”
Unlike the other chunks of Smile reworked onto this album, “Wonderful” exists in all versions as a complete narration. The Smiley version gets extended by the “hey bob a re bob/live party noise” interlude at around one minute and 20 seconds. This makes the story in the song more substantial, adding length and a bit of dramatic tension, especially as contrast to the breathy, intimate Smiley style vocals ala “Wind Chimes” that obtain ultimate breathy intimacy here, and do not appear on Smile.
In fact, “Wonderful” makes use of most of the sonic effects previously established on this particular and unusual recording. The organ drone returns to underscore and then conclude the first two thirds to be replaced by a piano in the final verse. The beginning harmony choral “wonderful” distorts a bit ala “She’s Goin Bald,” but in a pretty way. The final na, na, na, na, na, na, nas are sung with the care and precision a la “Little Pad” of a benediction. Which they are. An impact only possible within Smiley’s less is more aesthetic.
These strategies are not for the most part commonly in use by the Beach Boys at this stage of their career, or really ever. Those extra-intimate vocals and subtle but peculiar production effects don’t work on stage in concert, nor on late ’60s or early ’70s radio. So it’s hard to imagine this version of “Wonderful” having this powerful an impact if encountered for the first time anywhere outside of, or even not at the conclusion of, Smiley Smile. The rest of the album becomes the preparation.
The song itself has an understandable, if pleasantly mysterious, plot line: a sort of spiritual and physical coming of age story. Our heroine leaves home, experiences the hey bob a re bob/ live party noise interlude, and returns home “in love with her liberty, never known as a non-believer” A happy ending!
Maybe she’s also the female featured in “Good Vibrations” and “With Me Tonight.” Maybe not. But she’s of a piece of them artistically. And so the album internally resolves itself, as all great albums must.
Side Two, Track Six:
The album’s coda is in fact what the rest of the album’s cuts have been inaccurately accused of being: a pretty (or pretty odd) musical snippet that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Fair enough. The melody line is introducted by whistling over a dum, dum, dum doo-wop bass. After which the vocals take over with some Smiley style intrumental backing.
Lyrics: “Whistle in. Remember the day, day. Remember the night, night. All night long.” Seven times in about a minute. Fade to out.
What does it mean? Whistle In may be an allusion to a 1960s progression. Civil Rights: Sit In. Viet Nam War: Teach In. Hippies: Be In. The rest: perhaps side two does contain a sequence. Boy gets vibrations from girl, boy wants girl, girl leaves and comes back. Or something like that.
Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything and isn’t supposed to and doesn’t need to. If side two works, then “Wonderful” was the conclusion and this is just a bit of wrapping things up. And we’re done.
Jazzing What Isn’t There
You can listen to a be-bop improvisation on a standard and “get it” without ever having heard the standard. Charlie Parker’s various takes on “Cherokee” for example, are more familiar than British band leader Ray Noble’s original.
Likewise, listening to Smiley Smile in the decades before Smile appeared you could sense the Boys were often riffing off of something that wasn’t there. But what was it?
Sometimes, as we have seen, it was the at that time unavailable original material from Smile. Sometimes it was their own back catalogue and career. Sometimes it was their understanding of the expectation and the gap (sorry, no Smile) in their own career. And sometimes it was and is the weight of rock based pop’s own history.
You didn’t then and don’t have to now know all that context to appreciate Smiley’s changes. But you do have to have some minimal understanding of jazz context to follow Bird’s Cherokee. And you have to have some small grasp of mid sixties pop to follow Smiley Smile. Maybe just that the Beatles went from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to “A Day In The Life,” from Meet The Beatles to Sgt. Pepper.
What made it work then and makes it work now, unlike on the intentionally sloppy put-down versions of “I Get Around” and “Little Deuce Coupe” on Beach Boys Party, is skill. The careful placement of understatement and embellishment establishes that hip detachment/engagement we more often associate with be-boppers than doo-woppers. But Smiley is a Beach Boys version of arty jazz.
To succeed at this you need more than attitude, you need to have the vocabulary, the chops, and the smarts. And by this point in their career they had what they needed, working inside the conventions of their genres. It’s as if they went from the big band to the bop quartet in the space of two albums.
The lengthy hit singles that sit atop each side of Smiley provide material that gets re-examined by the subsequent tracks. But do those other tracks, with their eccentric instrumentation (no drums or bass) and unpredictable vocals fit with the fuller textures of “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations”?
They do with some of it. Both hits alternate between thick, more beat driven, and thin, less layered, sections. Most successfully, “Good Vibrations” builds at the beginning from thin to thick, alternates in the middle, and fades out at the end into thin. Switching things around less successfuly, “Heroes and Villains” starts off with a bang and breaks at about the 40 second mark, for a slowed down nearly a capella section that Bruce Johnson famously described as the moment when H&V failed its debut at a London club. Impossible to dance to.
Both hits are over three minutes with lots of moving parts. But heard at the top of each side of Smiley, the ear can remember, even if not consciously, all the parts in them that are riffed on, ripped off or re-examined on the other tracks. That includes, as was revealed when Smile was finally available, cuts like “Vegetables” “Wind Chimes” and “Wonderful” that are lifted from Smile, toyed with a bit, and inserted comfortably into Smiley Smile.
Still, there’s something jarring about the top heavy sequence of each side. And Smiley wouldn’t work if that wasn’t acknowledged by some of the weirdness, particularly on side one.
The album was originally considered a hodge podge and a dud, the moment when Brian Wilson walked away and the group scrambled to sweep together enough scraps to stay in business. In time a more benevolent, but to my mind still parsimonious view saw this as the first of the three Brian At Home albums, to be followed by Wild Honey and Friends. No grand themes or big ambitions, only the inspiration of daily life.
Even if the sort of theory fits, what three oddly different albums were created! Wild Honey is DIY white R&B, and Friends is a more mellow, grown-up Pet Sounds. Neither has the hip self-reference and downright eccentricity of Smiley. In fact, nothing by the Beach Boys, as a whole or as individuals, will ever sound like this again. Is it a failure, or a one-off success, or a retreat? Or a unique moment as the group pivots towards a new direction?
Or directions. Whatever it may be, Smiley signals the end of the progression that can be traced, if you need to, from Surfin’ Safari to Pet Sounds. This disruption or maybe splintering mirrored what was happening, and has happened, in the larger social context they performed in, but it took awhile before a connection that absorbed and acknowledged these changes could get re-established between the Beach Boys and their larger audience.
This may have been the beginning of a domestic interlude for The Beach Boys, but it was a tumultuous and creative one.
Another understanding of this record sees a sabotage of, or revenge upon, Brian Wilson (and maybe collaborator Van Dyke Parks) by the rest of the group for his (their) role as the demanding auteur(s) of Smile. The fancy Parkian wordplay segments of Smile (except as survives in H&V) have been eliminated or distorted and the simpler, if still sometimes mysterious Smile segments are spotlighted as independent tracks rather than thematic breaks. Is this an intentional back-to-basics dismantling of Smile and maybe even of Pet Sounds?
Much, perhaps too much has been written about the creation of Pet Sounds and the history of Smile, along with the release of outtakes and rehearsal tapes in box sets and compilations. But as far as I know, almost nothing has been written about the creation of the tracks that are unique to Smiley Smile. Whose idea was it? What was it supposed to acheive? Was it intended to be complexly simple, or just nihilistic? Or is it a masterpiece by accident?
Maybe it was a palace coup, maybe even a self-inflicted wound. From the outside, however, as a fan, it sounded then and sounds to me now like a very clever, hip on their own terms, essentially benevolent Beach Boysian statement about the position of ambitious yet not pretentious white American rock ‘n’ roll as the middle 1960s gave way to the long late ’60s. Not a farewell, but a turning point, a recognition or at least an intuition they were only half way through their own career.
Brianologists see this second half as essentially a long long wait for the release of Smile. Fans like myself can follow that strand yet also hear the Beach Boys, live and on record, entering, with Smiley Smile, a second half more interesting, emblematic, and unpredictable than the first.
Oddly or aptly enough, this second half is bracketed by the release of Smiley Smile at one end and Smile at the other. Which should grant Smiley Smile more historical weight and make it less puzzling. And that can make it easier to hear the enitre second half of the Beach Boys career as uniquely interesting and even appropriate, made for those and these times.
It took 47 years to brew up a scene kooky, clever, talented and benign enough to understand Smiley Smile, and produce a tribute album that knows how to pay tribute. Portland Smiles from tender loving empire compiles a variety of hometown talent takes on Smiley’s 11 tracks. All show an appreciation of the flow, structure, and attitude of the originals that allows, as every good tribute album should, some new notes to be played on old tunes. That only happens, and it does happen here, when the new people actually find something interesting inside the old stuff.
Among the most satisfying is Collin Jenkins’ opening homage to “Heroes and Villains” which wisely borrows from both the Smiley and Smile versions, stretching and smoothing, without getting too smooth, giving this historically difficult track a coherent and comfortable reading.
Fear not, however. The entire album unfolds to engage both the whimsy and nuttiness of Smiley Smile. A special shout out to Seth Mankowski for noticing, honoring, and revamping the especially significant pronunciation of the “t” in “time” in “comes the night time” in “Gettin’ Hungry” but folks, it’s all good. Well done, Portland. You are now the world repository of updated late sixties Beach Boydom.
And maybe, Portland . . . you have established Smiley Smile as the foundational document of alt rock.
Streaming and downloads only. From Bandcamp here as of 2022. © 2014 Tom Smucker
Extras & Links
Rolling Stone, December 14, 1967
Below, scanned and cobbled together: an actual very old, falling apart Rolling Stone page, with a lengthy put down, from founder and editor Jann Wenner, of the Beach Boys and Smiley Smile. Over the top Beatles adulation in full flower fails to heed Smiley’s warning: they won’t top Sgt. Pepper. Those were the days.
And A Few Months Later
Here’s some snippets from the beginning and the end of a Rolling Stone review of Wild Honey that feels obligated to throw in some further digs at Smiley Smile and the Beach Boys for the sin, apparently, of thinking they were as good as the Beatles and the Stones. Or something like that.
Smiley was “a disaster” and “an abortive attempt to match the talents of Lennon and McCartney.” Wild Honey, the review continues isn’t that good, but at least qualifies as “a convelescence after the illness.”
In all fairness, Rolling Stone would eventually come round to writing favorably and at length about the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, but in the late ’60s the magazine amassed a lot of influence and power as it solidified its place in the establishment of the counterculture. Struggling against such “official” disapproval became a dynamic in the career path of the Beach Boys as well as a part of one’s (my) identity as a fan, and in the long run added to the complex pleasures of such devotions.
There were, of course, other perspectives in the newly forming world of rock criticism, some more, (and some too) benevolent towards Smiley Smile.
Interesting Events 1966
January: Julian Bond barred from elected seat in Georgia House of Representatives for opposition to War in Viet Nam
May: Large anti-war March on Washington.
Bob Dylan releases Blonde On Blonde.
June: B52s bomb Hanoi and Haiphong
September: Dr. King leads march through Cicero, Illinois protected by 2,000 National Guard. Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love tops singles chart.
October: Four Tops’ Reach Out I’ll Be There tops singles chart.
November: Ronald Reagan elected Governor of California
Interesting Events 1967
January: Packers win first Super Bowl
April: Muhammad Ali stripped of Heavyweight Champ title for refusing the draft.
May: Carl Wilson indicted by Federal Grand Jury for draft evasion, misses first Beach Boys concert in Dublin at beginning of European tour.
June: Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You tops album chart.
July; Detroit erupts. 5 days, 43 dead, 1,189 injured, 7,200 arrested, 2,000 buildings destroyed.
August: Thurgood Marshall first African-American appointed to Supreme Court.
Doors’ Light My Fire tops singles chart.
October: Anti-war march on Pentagon
November: Supremes Greatest Hits replaces Sgt. Pepper at top of album chart.
December: Rolling Stone magazine knocks Beach Boys in editorial for “pointless pursuit” of the Beatles, citing Smiley Smile’s failure.