My sister, along with her husband and two children, would visit my parents every Saturday night for about 20 years, until my parents’ death in 2000. She would also phone them every Wednesday evening. On the other hand, I would make sporadic visits as and when I felt like it and I would also forget to phone them for weeks at a time. This meant that when my sister made contact, it was routine and when I did, it was special.
I never did appreciate the biblical story of the prodigal son. Why would the reckless son be made to feel more welcome than the dutiful one? I became the prodigal child and this pattern of behaviour was repeated when my sister and I took it upon ourselves to contact my Dad’s sister, our Aunt. I took her on holiday to Norway and Belgium but was slack about keeping in constant touch. My sister was dutiful. I was mercurial.
One evening, in 1999, I was making a rare visit to my parents’ house on a Wednesday when my sister called. I was with my Dad when he answered the phone. My Dad was not one to show his emotions, or to smile very much but when he answered the phone and realised it was his daughter on the other end, his face lit up with an unconditional and unreserved smile. I can see his face now, beaming with delight and pleasure. A few years later, I told my sister this story. I wonder if she remembers it. I must remind her.
In the late 80’s, I taught at Chancellor’s School in Hertfordshire with a languages teacher called Janice. She eventually took over part of my job as Head of Computer Studies. There was nothing untoward between us but I liked her. She was one of several teachers who came on one of the eight Summer holidays that I organised to Switzerland for children over the course of 10 years. Janice’s default facial expression was a smile and this made her likeable and popular. I believe that the shape, or width, of someone’s mouth is important in regard to how other people interact with them. Although the term “big mouth” normally has negative connotations, a wide smile can make people appear more attractive and less threatening. Think of Julia Roberts or Jurgen Klopp. On the other hand, my default facial expression, with my small mouth, is one of curmudgeonly misery.
The Wikipedia entry on “smile” is interesting. (That’s the facial expression, not this Beach Boys album, whose title is “SMiLE”). Here are some of the things I’ve learned. 1) The origin of a smile in monkeys and apes was to signify submission to more dominant predators. 2) As the human race developed, a female smile increased physical attractiveness to males. By contrast, a man’s smile was not as effective as a proud or shameful expression in attracting females. 3) In some instances, too much smiling can convey dishonesty or stupidity. 4) In some Asian cultures, smiling can indicate emotional pain. 5) There is not a huge difference between a smile and a grimace. 6) A smile can be a prelude to laughter. Not that I’d know because some of my friends (yes, you: Andy and Dave) have never laughed at any of my jokes.
When Capitol Records released “Rubber Soul” in the USA in December 1965, they omitted “Drive My Car”, “Nowhere Man”, “What Goes On”, “If I Needed Someone” and included “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and “It’s Only Love”. The album length was just under 30 minutes and the effect was to make the album more of a folk-rock album, one which Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys said “It was the first album I listened to where every song was a gas”. There had always been huge admiration and respect between The Beatles and The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson was determined to surpass “Rubber Soul” and this led to “Pet Sounds”, the 14th best album of all time. In reply, The Beatles recorded “Revolver” in an attempt to make an even better album. Contrary to accepted wisdom, Brian Wilson was not influenced by “Revolver” but attempted to surpass “Pet Sounds”. This obsession led to the unrestrained majesty and brilliance of “Good Vibrations” and the madness of “SMiLE”.
“Good Vibrations” was recorded over a period of seven months and the final 215 seconds was edited down from over 90 hours of recorded music. Derek Taylor, the Beach Boys’ publicist at the time, described the song as a “pocket symphony”. The song seemlessly pieces together six sections of music and after its critical and commercial success, Brian Wilson determined that The Beach Boys’ next album would develop this musical style to produce a piece of work that incorporated all his current intellectual preoccupations: childhood, fitness, the environment, astrology, numerology, the occult, humour and the American identity.
Humour was a not insignificant factor. Brian Wilson said that he felt people “attach their egos to their sense of humor before anything else.” On “Pet Sounds”, the original title for “I Know There’s An Answer” was “Hang On To Your Ego” and it included the lyrics “Hang on to your ego. Hang on, but I know you’re gonna lose the fight”. Maintaining a sense of humour and continuing to smile was important a year before “SMiLE” was recorded.
Brian Wilson was convinced that laughter was one of the highest forms of divinity. However, the final album does not radiate happiness and sarcasm and lonely introspection shine more strongly than joy. An “audio-verite” recording at the time was meant to provide a snippet that could be inserted into one of the songs. Jules Siegel, a reporter from The Saturday Evening Post who stayed at Brian Wilson’s house for two months, led six other people (including Brian Wilson) in a game called “Lifeboat”. The idea of the game was that they pretended to be survivors of a shipwreck, in a lifeboat that could only hold five people, and have to decide between them who should be tossed overboard. This seems, with hindsight, to be a terrible game. What was conceived as a fun game descended into a very bad tempered discussion, after which Brian Wilson said “I feel so depressed. Really. Seriously. I keep sinking. I’m too down to smile”. As an allegory for the making of the album, it seems pretty accurate.
A session for a song which goes by three names: “Fire”, “The Elements:Fire” or “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” involved toy fire helmets being donned by the musicians. A bucket of burning wood was brought into the studio to enhance the feel of the song. During the evening that followed this session, a building across the street burned down. Brian Wilson felt responsible and abandoned any further work on the song.
It was Jules Siegel to whom Brian Wilson described his new album as “a teenage symphony to God”. A Beach Boys album with “Good Vibrations”, “Heroes And Villains” and “Surf’s Up” has to be a majestic triumph but the recording of the album was stopped after Brian Wilson’s mental health deteriorated. He said “I was used to everybody doing exactly what I told them to do.” This has echoes of Paul McCartney and the myths surrounding the “Get Back” sessions. Whether or not Paul McCartney was a micro manager, a genial dictator or a strong leader doesn’t really matter. Both he and Brian Wilson had musical visions in their ears and were strongly motivated to realise them. (I know that you can’t have visions in your ears but I like the phrase so I’m going to keep it. I may copyright it). Brian Wilson also said “I was feeling resistance to my vision. There was pressure from competing with The Beatles, there was a lot going on inside my head and the record company was pressurising me. It all became too much and I just couldn’t deal with it. I realised I had to stop. SMiLE was killing me. It might’ve killed The Beach Boys too if we had kept going. So I ended it. I told everyone that we weren’t going to finish the album, I put the tapes on a shelf, where they stayed, more or less”.
The album remained unreleased for 37 years until 2004 when Brian Wilson’s “musical secretary”, Darian Sahanaja, encouraged him to play the songs live, re-record a new version of it and release it under the title “Brian Wilson Presents Smile”. Seven years later, a number of people associated with Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, arranged for this album to be released after they pieced together the original tapes to assemble a version that approximated Brian Wilson’s original vision. He wrote in the sleevenotes that this release brought him “joy, excitement and fulfilment”.
12 of the 19 songs on “SMiLE” were released (in full or in part) on subsequent albums.
“Smiley Smile”, – “Good Vibrations”, “Heroes And Villains” “Vega-Tables”, “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes” as well as a snatch of “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow” called “Fall Breaks And Back To Winter”.
“Wild Honey” – “Mama Says” forms part of “Vege-Tables”.
“20/20” – “Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer” and the fade out to “Do It Again” included a snatch of “I Wanna Be Around/Workshop”.
“Sunflower” – “Cool Cool Water” contains elements of “Love To Say Dada”.
“Surf’s Up” – “Surf’s Up” and the coda to the song forms a distinct track, “Child Is The Father To The Man” on “SMiLE”.
Most of the lyrics on “SMiLE” were written by Van Dyke Parks. Fed up of being asked what the lyrics meant, he resorted to saying “They don’t mean anything”. However, Brian Wilson explained the meaning of “Surf’s Up” to Jules Siegel. “A man is at a concert. All around him is the audience, playing their roles, dressed up in fancy clothes, looking through opera glasses. They are far away from the drama, from life. (“Back through the opera glass you see the pit and pendulum drawn”). The music begins to take over but then it is gone. (“The music all is lost for now, turned into a muted trumpeter swan”). Reality is gone, he’s creating it like a dream. (“Dove nested towers”). We are transported to Europe, a long time ago. (“The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne”). The poor people in the cellar taverns, trying to make themselves happy by singing. Trying to forget the wars and battles at sea. (“A choke of grief”). He thinks of his own sorrow and emptiness. And then…hope! (“Surf’s Up”). Go back to the kids, to the beach, to childhood. The joy of enlightenment, of seeing God. And what is it? (“A Children’s Song”). The song of the universe rising and falling in wave after wave, the song of God hiding his love from us, but always letting us find Him again”.
Or, as Van Dyke Parks said, “It doesn’t mean anything”.
The Beach Boys included a quote of “Indian wisdom” on their next album, “Smiley Smile” which reads “The smile that you send out returns to you”. If only that were true. The optimism, love and creativity that resulted in “SMiLE” were rewarded with mental disorder and unfulfilled dreams. After 45 years, the results of the outstanding inspiration of this musical genius, Brian Wilson, was finally released and our musical landscape was forever enhanced.