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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

I’m In Great Shape: Brian Wilson’s Smile

After 37 years of speculation, theories, hype, and exaggeration, one might fear that Brian Wilson, of Beach Boys fame, finally getting out of bed and finishing Smile (what was to be his “teenage symphony to God”) would be something of a disappointment. Could rock and roll’s most famous lost album, composed and created by rock and roll’s most famous lost genius, possibly live up the lofty expectations of what its fans thought it could be, or should be, or what they so desperately wanted it to be?

Originally planned for release in 1966 as the follow-up to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which itself stands as a tremendous artistic achievement that greatly expanded the sonic pallet of popular music, Smile was to further build upon those achievements Brian Wilson had already made by that point. All ready tremendously successful at conquering the mainstream music charts with his early Beach Boys singles and albums, Brian retired from publicly performing with the Beach Boys in 1965 and instead stayed back home to focus his attention to writing, directing, and recording songs with session musicians. Latter Brian’s music would be fleshed out when the remaining Beach Boys returned from touring to contributing their vocals. This allowed Brian Wilson to not only perfect his near obsession with emulating the production technique of his idol, Phil Spector, but also enabled him to actually build upon it with music that became more personal, and thus deemphasized his previous pop orientation.

Arguably the culmination of his ambition, creativity, and mastery of the pop form showed itself in the release of the Good Vibrations single. Though Good Vibrations was a huge success, its predecessor, Pet Sounds, was the first Beach Boys album to not immediately climb the charts. So, when his fellow Beach Boys returned from their 1965 tour and were presented with the highly elaborate music that Brian had been working on for the Smile album, they (namely Mike Love) failed to understand how this was to be interpreted as a Beach Boys recording. It didn’t help that Brian’s lyrical collaborator on the project, Van Dyke Parks, was writing words that reflected the expansive nature of Brian’s music, a drastic departure from the Beach Boys previous formula of “fun in the sun.” As a result Brian’s fellow band mates failed to grasp what Parks and he were trying to accomplish, and it caused fellow Beach Boy, and Brian’s cousin, Mike Love to dismiss the Smile project as “a whole album of Brian’s madness.” Soon, Brian ended production on Smile. It has never been clear what lead to its abandonment, but several factors can be named: lack of support, contractual feuding with Capitol (their record label), Brian’s increased drug use and general mental deterioration, and his paranoia that the Beatles had beat him to the punch with Sgt. Pepper’s. But in the end it just seemed that Smile simply collapsed under the weight of its own ambition.

Immediately one has to acknowledge Smile to be both a personal and artistic achievement for Brian Wilson. For him to return to performing, after overcoming his well-publicized stage fright and general retreat from the world following his mental breakdown, is a sign of hope in the eyes of his fans. For him to finally return 37 years later to his lost masterpiece after refusing to even mention its very name and claiming that all the session tapes were destroyed, is utterly remarkable. So to see him on Thursday October 14 at the Orpheum Theater with the promise that he would be playing, in its entirety, the newly completed Smile, one might be tempted to put the experience up on a pedestal, to expect more from Brian Wilson than he is capable of delivering.

Well, I have to humbly admit that I got more than I expected. The first part of the show started with an intimate acoustic set featuring Brian surrounded by his twelve member back-up band as they gathered around to play a few classic Beach Boys numbers and some of Brian’s solo material while casually sitting on stools, or standing and joking around between songs. They were not the faceless studio musicians who would desperately try to turn Brian Wilson into the superstar that many feel he should be. Instead, the whole group, along with Brian, functioned together as a band that only seemed to want the audience to have a good time. This was a situation that everyone needed – Brian could relax a little and his band could get a little of the attention that they deserved. Because honestly, the re-emergence of Smile is very much a product of their effort and devotion to Brian’s vision, helping him to get back in the spirit of performing and creating again. As they moved into an electric set, the band’s enthusiasm helped make the songs sound contemporary, instead of merely a Beach Boys oldies act. At the same time, many of the band members having already toured with Brian during his Pet Sounds Tour a few years back, played the more complex compositions, such as “God Only Knows” and “California Girls,” note-perfect. Even Brian’s voice sounded surprisingly youthful, although many of the falsettos that the Beach Boys were famous for are no longer within his vocal range, his band were capable and made the seamless transition so that none of the classic sound was lost.

But this first set was merely a warm-up to Brian’s performance of Smile, as that is inarguably what everyone had come to see. Fist off, let me say that the performance was done with such skill so as to translate even the more dense arrangements of Smile note for note, never missing a beat or sacrificing a slide whistle. The live performance only emphasized the good-time feel of the music; the seven-piece horn and string section danced when not playing, several thematic props such as “vege-a-tables” and plastic fire helmets made an appearance, and all the while Brian Wilson actually seemed to be enjoying himself, even managing to crack a well deserved smile every once in a while. This is what ultimately justified our 37-year wait – seeing Brian’s Smile.

About the Contributor
Denez McAdoo served as the following positions at The Mass Media for the following years: Arts Editor: Spring 2005; Fall 2005 Editor-in-Chief: Spring 2006; 2006-2007