The Legend Of Smile
Mojo. February 2002
"Smile is the name of the new Beach Boys album which will be released in January 1967, and with a happy album cover, the really happy sounds inside and a happy in-store display piece you can’t miss, we’re sure to sell a million units. In January."
Capitol Records album promo. Dec 1966.
AND WE’RE STILL waiting. What could have been the greatest album ever made was of course never completed. Smile, the project that Brian Wilson began to formulate early in 1966 during the making of Pet Sounds, and which he abandoned little over a year later, shortly after the release of Sgt Pepper, remains one of the great lost albums of all time. Pop music’s very own riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
History is littered with famous examples of unfinished novels and symphonies. The untimely death of the writer or composer being the usual cause. But when Brian Wilson abandoned his unfinished masterwork he was only in his mid-twenties, at the height of his fame and the peak of his creative powers.
So what happened? The album, and the circumstances of its non-appearance, now floats a veritable industry on the world wide web. You can hang a thesis on Smile and a simple word search on the internet will tell you that many have. Zen interpretations, conspiracy theories, and myriad shades of fandom in between. They’re all there. It wasn’t always like this. A few tracks originally intended for Smile had trickled out on the Beach Boys late ‘60s albums, but by the end of the decade the band were perceived to be washed up and irrelevant. Nobody much cared what had happened to Brian Wilson’s teenage symphony to God.
Knowledge about what Smile might have actually sounded like was restricted to Brian Wilson’s circle of friends and hangers on, the Beach Boys themselves, and a handful of pop aristocrats and music industry insiders.
Songwriter Bernie Taupin raised a few eyebrows in 1971 by casually mentioning in an interview that he had heard several different takes of ‘Good Vibrations’, including an R&B version. "It was EJ and I's first trip to LA in 1970," he remembers. "Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night, who was a great friend of Brian's took us over to his place late one night to meet him. Brian at that time was basically a hermit and, to put it mildly, toast. I won't go into the complete evening as that would be an article in itself, truly bizarre by anyone's standards. At one point Brian took us into his studio and put up the masters of Pet Sounds and began improvising mixes. While this was fascinating to begin with it soon became apparent that he was never going to give us anything complete to listen to as he insisted on stopping incessantly and beginning again".
Melody Maker journalist Richard Williams had a similarly off the wall encounter in 1973. Invited to Brian and Marilyn’s Bel Air abode ostensibly to talk about Marilyn’s American Spring album, he found Brian uncommunicative. "In fact all he wanted to do was play old Ronettes records all afternoon. I could tell he would rather do almost anything to do with music than talk about it. Then to my amazement he went and sat down at the grand piano in his front room, the room where the famous sandbox had been, and played his way through the entire unabridged version of ‘Heroes and Villains’ which must have lasted about 14 minutes. He then sang this brilliant arrangement of ‘Shortening Bread’, done in the style of The Spencer Davis Group!"
Such audiences were rare though and they got rarer as Brian retired to his big blue bathrobe and his bed. In his absence the myths took on a life of their own.
Most imfamous was the one about the ‘Fire’ tapes. The piece of music in question was meant to form part of a proposed suite about the Elements, but the resulting track was allegedly so scary that Brian thought it was responsible for causing the series of blazes that hit California during the fall and winter of 1966/67, ultimately causing its creator to destroy the mastertape in a fit of paranoia. This story above al others came to symbolise the stoned lunacy that supposedly characterised the Smile sessions. Then there was the one about Brian composing in the sandbox. Brian recording in the pool. Brian getting the hired session musicians to wear firemen’s helmets. Brian cancelling recording sessions due to ‘bad vibes’. Brian getting everyone to munch vegetables while they recorded a song called ‘Vegetables’, a session which Paul McCartney may or may not have attended, and may, or may not have played bass on. McCartney himself doesn’t even remember.
Talk to the musicians who were involved in the making of Smile and a different picture emerges. Carol Kaye remembers who played bass on ‘Vege-tables’. She did. Kaye was part of that elite group of LA session musicians who played on all of the Smile sessions and she doesn’t have a lot of time for bullshit.
"There’s a lot of slander going round even yet, many false things that never happened," she says. "So what if he was in his robe at his house? Hugh Hefner LIVES in his robe. And so what if he wanted to record in the bottom of his empty pool? Paul Horn went to Egypt to record in the pyramids for the same reason. Great echo."
Carol Kaye doesn’t recall any paranoia about Phil Spector, or indeed any reference to him at all other than in jokey asides. Neither did she percieve any particular competitiveness with the Beatles. She just saw a focussed hard working musician in the studio. Even the name ‘The Wrecking Crew’, she reminds me, has been retrospectively applied. There was no Wrecking Crew. It’s a term that drummer Hal Blaine coined long after the event. No one used the term at the time. The ‘Crew’ was just the cream of the ‘you pay - we’ll play’ LA session pool, that crack squad of fifty of sixty musicians (including Blaine, keyboard players Don Randi, Leon Russell, and Larry Knetchel, and guitarists Glen Campbell, Billy Strange, and Barney Kessel) who played on Pet Sounds and Smile, and probably half the records in your collection. They didn’t just play the chops. They invented them. And they weren’t just Brian Wilson’s backing band. They gave those big churchy chords of his beat group arrangements and were as integral to the Beach Boys’ sound as the Beach Boys were.
Elvis Costello is just one of a long line of contemporary musicians who have been dazzled by Smiles brilliance. "For a long time I concentrated on the more lurid aspects of that album’s making," he concedes. "But that stuff’s all been done to death in so many magazine articles and it kind of masks the beauty of what he was trying to create there."
In November 1966 Brian had performed a solo version of ‘Surf’s Up’ for the CBS-TV documentary Inside Pop, a performance that was glowingly eulogised by the shows host Leonard Bernstein. "It was like hearing a tape of Mozart," says Costello of his first exposure to the track on a bootleg tape. "It’s just Brian and his piano and yet it’s all there in that performance. The song already sounds complete."
Costello even toyed with the idea of making his own version of Smile. "It’s not a time-bound album at all," he tells me, and muses on how great Jeff Buckley would have sounded delivering some of those songs. "I even got in touch with the publishers to get hold of the sheet music to ‘Wonderful’, but when it arrived it was all wrong. It was in the wrong key. The notation was incorrect. I don’t know what they sent me. Maybe it was just a section or an unused string part or something. You have Vienna scholars pouring over transcripts of what Mozart wrote 200 hundred years ago and yet its impossible it would seem to get hold of a proper version of Smile." And unlike Brian Wilson, one suspects that Mozart never had a three quarters completed but abandoned symphony doing the rounds of the other royal courts. In the late ‘80s there were frequent hints that a Smile sessions box set was imminent. Appetites were further wetted when a few Smile outtakes appeared on the 1990 two-fer re-issue of Smiley Smile/Wild Honey and in 1993 the Good Vibrations Box Set included a further selection of unreleased Smile tracks. But since then nothing. In the meantime its been left to the bootleggers to fill the gaps. An enormous amount of Smile material seems to have haemorrhaged from the vaults over the years and in the absence of any official release these offcuts remain the definitive uncensored document of Brian Wilson’s lost masterwork. Approximately 30 hours worth of rehearsals, recording sessions, comp reels and acetates have found their way under the counter and into the hands of die-hard fans. There’s an hour and a half of ‘Heroes and Villains’ sessions alone.
If music students in a hundred years’ time want a master class in the development of compositional technique in twentieth century popular music then they should listen to the Smile tapes. To hear ‘Heroes and Villains’ stripped to its Bach meets barbershop raga roots is to realise just how perfectly realised every single component was within a Brian Wilson composition. Heard in isolation those components rely on melodic simplicity. Put them all together and you have a intricate and instinctive sense of modality that stands totally apart from what anybody else was producing during the mid-‘60s.
The bootlegged material that has found its way into circulation is revelatory in more ways than one. Not only does it offer compelling insight into Brian Wilson’s modus operandi it also squashes the popular rumour that Smile was an incoherent indulgent mess. In fact it was tantalising close to being finished with a good 70% of the tracks completed or near to completion. It also becomes obvious on hearing the surviving work that a completed Smile would have been an album of stunning originality and peerless complexity. The rehearsal material is seminal not only for the opportunity it affords us to eavesdrop on Wilson, the taskmaster, at work in the studio but also because it confirms Carol Kaye’s view that, contrary to all the "flakey Brian" stories, he worked incredibly hard to bring the project to fruition. To hear his impatient voice crackling through the control booth talk back as he orders endless retakes ("Forget that tremolo part, it doesn’t make it." "Everyone should come out on that last note because it’s really fucked up the way it is now.") is to hear a master craftsman on top of his game.
Had he managed to pull it off Smile would have been Brian Wilson’s magnum opus. It was a distillation of all his influences, from Disney to doo-wop, plain song to part song, Gershwin to God, all relayed in the form of an extended tone poem full of song cycles within song cycles and fugues within fugues, a fluid soundworld where introductory themes could just as easily be codas, where any compositional element could be elongated or contracted at will. It was a work that suggested infinite variation and possibility. "One day people will pray to my music," he told Andrew Loog Oldham in the 1960s. Nobody could have accused him of under-reaching "I really feel that he was trying to sum up America," Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan told the A&E network documentary Brian Wilson: A Beach Boy’s Tale. "He was literally trying to take Mark Twain into rock and roll and he almost got there."
THE STORY OF Smile begins with ‘Good Vibrations’, the "pocket symphony" that Brian Wilson began working on in February 1966 during the making of Pet Sounds but only threw himself into in earnest once that album was completed. Although never intended for Smile, ‘Good Vibrations’ is important because it was the first track that Brian constructed entirely out of fragments. Although this working method was hardly innovative – it’s pretty much the norm for film soundtrack composers – it was the first time such assemblage had been applied within a pop framework.
From April to June 1966 Brian and his session ensemble painstakingly "built" ‘Good Vibrations’. The resulting three and a half minute single, a landmark development in pop’s sonic vocabulary, cost a fortune to record by 1960’s standards, emerging from over 70 hours of tape recorded at three different studio’s (Gold Star, Western and Columbia) and spawned numerous alternative versions. "The wildest thing is that when you listen to all the out-takes of this tune, while all the parts would change, he kept the same bass line," notes Carol Kaye. "I always thought he had extraordinary ears for bass lines, writing for it symphonically and always enjoyed playing his lines."
For Pet Sounds’ lyrical content Brian Wilson had hired ad agency writer Tony Asher (a very pop art thing to do in 1966.) Intimate late night conversations and intense impromptu demo recording sessions between the pair would result in Asher channelling Brian’s innermost thoughts onto the page but while Pet Sounds represented the beginnings of a more sophisticated musical direction and introduced some daringly introspective and starkly biographical lyrics it was also the end of the line for the boy meets girl stuff.
With new lyrical collaborator Van Dyke Parks on board, "glance" would never again be rhymed with "romance". Parks was a diminutive, bespectacled bookish oddball from way out of left field, an unlikely and yet as it turns out perfect interpreter of the grandiose panoramic intent of Brian’s new music. Parks’ allegorical take on Americana, full of densely packed elliptical imagery and dazzling wordplay, brought a whole new perspective to the beach party. Here was a man who cited the craftsmanship of Cole Porter and the "thoughtfulness of cadence that had preceded rock and roll" as benchmarks, and who wrote not of chicks, cars, and catching a wave, but of the rich arcane resonance of covered wagons, the building of the railroad, the settling of the frontier.
Out went the surfer iconography. In came a much older set of referents. "Canvas the town and brush the backdrop," as he put it on ‘Surf’s Up’. "It’s not hard to understand just how refreshing he must have been to Brian Wilson after five years of Mike Love," noted Barney Hoskyns in Waiting For The Sun, his definitive account of the LA scene.
Pet Sounds, a Brian Wilson solo album in all but name, had been recorded while the other Beach Boys were touring the far east. Similarly, much of Smile – somewhere in the region of 50 recording sessions – took shape while the Beach Boys were touring Europe in late 1966. The contracted musicians, hardened unimpressionable seen it all done it all veterans of the session circuit, loved working with Brian. "We would talk about this ‘genius kid’ on our other dates," Carol Kaye remembers. "Are you working a Beach Boys date tomorrow? Yeah, good. Are you? And so on. Happy to be part of this process of growth Brian was exhibiting. Even the great Barney Kessel, himself a subtle kidder like Brian, after listening to Brian’s recording of his a capella multi-voiced overdubs, said something like ‘Brian, I take back everything I ever thought about you’. Brian acknowledged that with a slight smile. He knew this was a high complement!"
Everybody else involved in the recording of Smile speaks in similarly awestruck terms about the "genius kid", praising everything from his advanced sense of harmonics, texture, and tonality, to the highly original way in which he scored for seemingly incongruous instrumentation. Banjo and Tympani? Barrel house piano and heavy fuzz bass? Harmonica and String Quartet? No problem.
"Brian was the only young person of the ‘60s outside of Frank Zappa to write his own music and produce it so completely," claims Carol Kaye. He could also work the studio desk better than any other pop musician of the time. Even on the rough board mixes on the earliest bootlegged Smile material the stuff sound perfect. The basic music bed of ‘Surf’s Up’ for example – which uses natural studio echo rather than relying on echo effects – shimmers flawlessly from the very first take. "Beautiful. Now it sounds like jewellery," says an exalted Brian on the talkback.
Smile’s original working title was Dumb Angel, and in many ways the juxtaposition of those two words was a more accurate reflection of Brian’s raison d’etre than the slightly dippy Smile. The only time you hear humour breaking out on the Pet Sounds sessions is when Brian suddenly breaks off from introducing ‘Hang On To Your Ego’ (or "Let Go Of Your Libido" as he calls it on the next take) to ask if anyone has ever read a book called How To Speak Hip.
There is even less evidence of levity on the Smile sessions. For the most part Brian kept that stuff for his inner sanctum, outside of the studio. The one notable occasion is captured for posterity on the bootleg segment entitled ‘George Fell Into His French Horn’. Recorded on November 7th 1966, while the Beach Boys were in the middle of their UK tour, and never intended as a Smile track, it’s basically an impromptu lower register tonal experiment featuring George Hyde, Arthur Briegleb and Claude Sherry on french horns, David Duke on tuba, and Roy Caton on trumpet.
According to Brad Elliott in Domenic Priore’s indispensable anthology Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! Brian tried to get double the union scale rates because the musicians were requested to speak into their instruments but Capitol Records wouldn’t comply. "Hit the lowest note you can blow. Play for thirty seconds in that register. These are all just sound effects," Brian assures the horn players. Off mic one of the musicians mutters a quizzical "sustain?" to his colleagues as he tries to work out what to do. "Brian, do you want it sustained?" he enquires. "Sustain, and a little waver and a little motion," replies Brian. "Just kind of a natural sound y’know," he adds as the horn players launch into a noise not dissimilar to that heard on The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra Volume 1, released on ESP earlier that year. Changing tack, Brian then asks Roy Caton to "do a real funny jazz riff and then you guys will laugh with your French horns at it. And the laugh gets a little bit bigger each time." As the horns engage in a little playful duelling Brian, barely able to stay serious, asks Roy to say, "Oh, no I got stuck in my French Horn." All five of them comply. "No! One guy!" giggles Brian. "Who can talk best through the French Horn?" asks one of the session men with admirable gravitas. "Have someone answer him and then have a conversation in there," says Brian audibly improvising a cartoon skit.
Throughout these exchanges the musicians can be heard laughing, not out of derision but from the sheer delight of being paid a fee to have this much fun. The next day those same musicans went in and helped lay down the sublime backing track to ‘Surf’s Up’. That’s them quoting from the Woody Woodpecker theme in the first verse.
While all this was going on, the Beach Boys were playing the back catalogue to English audiences. In rarely shown non-concert footage from Peter Whitehead’s promotional film Beach Boys In London Al Jardine and Dennis Wilson are seen shopping in Portobello Road. They enter a music shop full of antique instruments. Al strums a rusty slack-stringed banjo. Dennis puts money in an olde worlde music box, cocks an ear and listens as intensely and awestruck as a child. Then Al and Dennis play duelling trombones for the cameras outside the Princes Alexandria pub in a drizzly deserted street before entering the I Was Lord Kitcheners Valet boutique.
As they walk in the shop transistor radio plays Val Doonican’s current hit ‘What Would I Be?’ (A great lost Brian Wilson song title if ever there was one.) Al self-consciously tries on an Edwardian military jacket and an admiral’s hat, but Dennis has noticed something far more interesting in the window. A fireman’s helmet. "We’ve gotta get Brian one," he enthuses. "Brian absolutely loves fire hats." Brian sure did.
The Beach Boys flew back to the USA on November 15th, 1966. On November 20th Brian went into the studio to begin work on a track called ‘Mrs O Leary’s Cow’, also known as ‘Fire’. "By this time he was writing out more and more parts, becoming the arranger/orchestrator pretty much all the time" remembers Carol Kaye. "I was amazed at the sound of the cello’s, how the music Brian wrote made it sound like a fire and then fire engines. I knew he could score movies with no problem from then on." Bizarrely, of all the myths and legends that surround the making of Smile, it would appear that the one about Fire is true. "There were two big fires around LA, like we have every year with our santana winds" remembers Carol Kaye. "The third fire, the Malibu fire, was the biggie, though. That was the straw that broke the camels back. Every time Brian played his master co-incidentally one of those fires started and the Malibu fire was the worst and the cause of him giving up on the project." Well, that and one or two other factors.
It’s one of the great ironies of Smile that Brian Wilson wanted to involve the Beach Boys far more than they had participated on Pet Sounds. He valued the bands contribution and had written some great vocal parts for them. Sadly, though, some of the most depressing moments on the Smile bootlegs occur during these sessions. To listen to Brian cajoling, encouraging, persisting, ordering retake after retake in his quest for perfection, while certain parties act like complete jerks in his presence gives considerable insight into precisely how why and where the Smile project lost its momentum. Imagine some Porky’s Revenge or Animal House-type scenario in which the high school aesthete is charged with teaching a bunch of locker room jocks to sing while they flick wet towels and make armpit farts at him. "Somebody bring me a dildo and a vibrator," says Mike Love as the band embark on yet another take of ‘Heroes and Villains’. "Somebody bring Mike a bag of money," replies Carl.
On another bootleg cut, obviously taped during a post-session chill out and with ‘Heroes and Villains’ playing in the background Love lays down the following mock narration. "In every recording career there comes that moment when you realise you have a nuclear bomb on your hands. Right now Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys is about to unleash his nuclear power and sing the song that went all the way to forty, and the next week zoomed right off to 250. Right now it’s lurking at about 10,000 on this years top 10,000. Listen to these outstanding lyrics. It will just amaze you."
Love’s spoof continues in similar rib-tickling fashion before concluding, "no wonder stations were inundated with calls to take it off the air. Thousands of cards and letters came in damning this record. This is the favourite part in all my career and if it keeps up like this it probably won’t last much longer."
While the rest of the Beach Boys were perplexed at Brian’s new direction it was Love who was downright hostile. It was Love who would famously harrass Van Dyke Parks for an explanation of the enigmatic closing line to ‘Cabinessence’, "over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield". Tony Asher had experienced similar problems with the lyrics to Pet Sounds when Love had objected to ‘Hang On To Your Ego’, the original title of ‘I Know There’s An Answer’, and had made jibes about Brian’s "ego music". Now he turned his attention to what he called Van Dyke’s "acid alliteration". On promo film footage from the Smile sessions Love can be seen rolling his eyes and drawing on an imaginary joint as he makes it perfectly clear what he thinks about Brian’s drug music.
It was these constant demands for Parks to justify his existence that forced him early in 1967 to make a tactical withdrawal from what he later endearingly referred to as "this little American quilt work called Smile." He briefly returned to the fold for a few weeks but then left for good to pursue his solo career with Warner Brothers.
By this time Brian’s problems were mounting up and Smile had virtually ceased to exist in all but name. With the Beach Boys trying to set up their own record company, Brother Records, Brian was increasingly having to spend more time in board meetings than in the studio. And aside from the ever-volatile dynamics of his fellow band members and their reluctant participants in his new direction he was also having to deal with Capitol Records desire for commercial product. Remember this is the company that reacted to the initially disappointing sales for Pet Sounds by rushing out a greatest hits set within weeks. And as if all that wasn’t enough the Beach Boys had also filed a lawsuit against Capitol for unpaid royalties.
By the Spring of 1967 Brian was, as his official website puts it, "artistically frustrated, personally embattled and psychically exhausted". Losing his lyricist was probably the final straw. The last reported Smile session, for the Water section of ‘The Elements’, a piece called ‘Love To Say Da-Da’, took place on May 18th. Two weeks later Sgt Pepper was released.
In addition to abandoning their much anticipated masterpiece, received wisdom would suggest that the Beach Boys committed a further unforgivable faux-pas by pulling out of that June’s Monterey Pop Festival at the last minute. In fact, the Monterey myth, like the Smile saga, was slow to develop and you’d be hard pressed to find a news report from the time which suggests that the Beach Boys had irreversibly damaged their career by not turning up for a gig. But orthodoxy hardens with hindsight and its now generally accepted that Monterey was the moment when California divided and the Beach Boys found themselves on the wrong side of the counter-cultural fault line. But then again they always were. These not so dumb, not so angelic, doo-wop barber shop surf punk Hawthorne hillbillies always stood outside of that agenda. Similarly the assumption that the Beach Boys wouldn’t have been able to replicate Smile live is blown away by the legendary Hawaii gig they played two months after Monterey where they did precisely that.
Another reason posited for the non-appearance of Smile at the time is Brian’s drug intake. This would be far more plausible if Brian had immediately retired to his playpen a dribbling wreck and had not continued to show sporadic glimpses of genius on all those late ‘60s Beach Boys albums. Thankfully history has a habit of vindicating good music and contemporary admirers of Brian Wilson, The Delgados, High Llamas, Adventures in Stereo, Stereoloab, Air, Smashing Pumpkins, have been able to approach the beauty of the Beach Boys music without having to wade through all that other sub-cultural baggage. And I’ve yet to meet an ambient or electronica artist who doesn’t have a soundfile full of Smile bytes. Still no sign of an official release though. Brian continues to blow hot and cold on the subject, veering from pained indifference towards something he did half a lifetime ago to teasing forays onto his website to announce that if we all stop hassling him it might still get done. In the meantime we’re left to ponder what kind of world it would have been if Smile had actually made it to the record stores.
WHAT IF? SCENARIO #1. The completed Smile is released early in 1967 to universal acclaim. The Beatles panic and rush out a hastily assembled album called Sgt Rutter’s Darts Club Band in response. Its quaint little songs about meter maids and men from the motor trade pall in comparison with Smile’s sonic sophistication, and the album is critically panned. Particular vitriol is reserved for George Martin’s instrumental ‘Rutter Suite’ which takes up most of side two. "More saccarine than suite," sneers one critic. The effect on the Fab Four is tumultuous. Lennon takes it particularly hard, snaps out of his drug induced ennui, leaves the Beatles and returns to his rock and roll roots. Paul McCartney recognises Smile’s genius and announces portentously that he’s going to explore similar avenues in the future, but he lacks Brian Wilson’s autonomy and becomes frustrated at having to defer his orchestral visions to others. Similarly inspired, George Harrison announces that he is going to spend the rest of his life making devotional religious music. Ringo makes his country album. Leonard Bernstein commissions Brian Wilson to write a new New World symphony. Brian announces that the work will be a triple album and that in addition to Van Dyke Parks he will also be collaborating with Jim Webb and Fred Neil. Archeologists find the actual site of the Garden of Eden. War is declared illegal.
WHAT IF? SCENARIO #2. The completed Smile is released early in 1967 and baffles the critics. "An interesting but uncommercial experiment" is the politest of the reviews. The underground press is scathing. "What do the ramblings of this second rate sandbox Schubert have to do with the impending revolution?" scoffs one mag. "And using session musicians? How unhip is that?" sneers another. "And what on earth does ‘over and over the crow flies uncover the corn field’ mean?" adds Tiger Beat. Mike Love goes solo and issues an LP called See? I Told You So. Smile sells even less than Pet Sounds in America. In England it fares no better, attracting little more than modest cult appeal. Multiple copies sit neglected and dog eared in the 99p bins throughout the ‘70s alongside other acid curious like Harpers Bizarre and Joe Byrd’s Field Hippies, that dopey shop front sleeve looking more incongruous with every passing year. Sometime in the 1990s, Smile quietly slips into Mojo’s Buried Treasure section and then quietly slips out again.
Meanwhile back here in real time Smile has become part of music’s mythological landscape in ways that even Van Dyke Parks could not have envisaged. It stands as the ultimate metaphor for pops golden age; that moment when everything seemed possible, when heaven seemed reachable. When Bob Dylan is asked about the music he made in the mid-‘60s he answers that he doesn’t know where those songs came from. It’s an acknowledgement of a certain kind of compulsive untutored energy, a blinding flash of temporary magic that can’t be recaptured or replicated.
Brian Wilson may well feel the same about Smile. And if he ever was inclined to go back and listen to all the tapes one more time what would he find? Imagine him spooling back through all those instructions from the control booth, hearing how hard he worked and how focussed he was. "Chuck’s rolling. Let’s make it." "One more and we’ll have it." "Make these perfect ok." Eventually he might chance upon ‘George Fell Into His French Horn’ one more time. He’ll laugh that sudden laugh of his. "Boy we had some fun that day didn’t we?" he’ll think to himself. And then, if his hearing is still good he’ll hear a comment that makes it finally all fall into place. For through the tape hiss the disembodied voice of one of the horn players suddenly says "perfect – just one more." You can’t tell from his tone whether he’s being complimentary or merely exercising that dry and sardonic wit so beloved by session musicians. Nor can you tell if he’s responding to something Brian has said or making a suggestion of his own, but our anonymous horn player has nailed it right there. In his feverish pursuit of fulfilment, Brian went past the point where he should have stopped. You can’t have perfection plus one but Brian thought you could.
And there, in a session musician’s aside is Smile’s epitaph. That was perfect. Could you do it just once more please?
© Rob Chapman, 2002