The ‘lost album’ is among the greatest subjects of obsession for music fans. Every major artist and band seems to have at least one, and some (like Prince) have several. The lost album is the last great destination for any fan. After you’ve wrung every last drop of good music from an artist’s discography, there still may be one more masterpiece sitting in a vault somewhere. But these albums often end up disappointing listeners when they finally see the light of day, unable to live up to years of hype. The Beach Boys’ SMiLE is easily the most legendary of all lost albums, and one of the few whose material is just as dazzling as its reputation would lead you to believe. Writing about SMiLE and Smiley Smile a couple years ago on my other blog, I thought I had said all I could say about the period, but it continues to enamor me. Like so many others I’ve always wanted to know what the real SMiLE would have sounded like, but has the real SMiLE ever really existed?
Though officially scuppered in the summer of 1967, the project continued to haunt both Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys for years. After the druggy, bizarre reinterpretations presented on Smiley Smile, reconstructed original recordings kept popping up on later records: “Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer” on 20/20, “Cool, Cool Water” on Sunflower, the Carl Wilson led version of “Surf’s Up” on the album of the same name. Members of the band and label insiders teased the release of a finished SMiLE after Surf’s Up, and then again later in the 70s, and again in the 80s. But nothing materialized.
In lieu of an official SMiLE, fans created their own. Bootlegs circulated for years, obscure session material was traded and sifted through, analyzed, compared against bits of information from 1966 and ‘67. Bootlegs of SMiLE were pressed to vinyl, recorded to cassettes, burnt to CDs. Just before the dawn of our modern music culture of remixing and sampling, the passionate and dedicated were doing at home what Brian Wilson couldn’t in the 60s, constructing and finishing SMiLE. In 1993, Capitol released a five disc box set of old and new Beach Boys material which also contained a revelatory half hour’s worth of officially sanctioned SMiLE material. The release gave obsessives a clearer picture than ever of what the album might have sounded like and how close it was to being completed. How hard could it really be to compile it officially?
By the 21st Century, the Beach Boys were broken up and SMiLE was still something of a mystery, but Brian Wilson had come a very long way, artistically and mentally. In 2004, he announced that he would be revisiting SMiLE alongside original lyricist Van Dyke Parks and a new band. Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE was the first ‘completed’ version of the album to ever see release. Seven years later came The Smile Sessions, a massive box set collecting hours of sessions material and finally, an officially sanctioned construction of the album. Personally, I took these releases as gospel for a long time. The decisions came directly from Brian himself, didn’t they? But both releases have become divisive among fans, and the more I read, the more I understood why.
Many found the track listing and it’s medley-like structure to be ahistorical and impractical. The modern SMiLE, at around 50 minutes, would have been a tight fit for a single LP. Wasn’t it only supposed to be 12 tracks, as the original back cover mock-up suggested? And wasn’t “Surf’s Up” always said to be the closing song? Would “Good Vibrations” ever have even made the final track listing? Once you really start digging, there are so many unresolved questions about SMiLE: Were the songs really written as thematic medleys? Or was that just an accident of a freewheeling creative process? How long was “Heroes and Villains” originally supposed to be? The sessions for it imply that it could have been a monstrous epic. And what’s with all those stoned comedy skits that dot the sessions? Brian at one point considered turning SMiLE into a comedy album, what might that have been like?
The answer to all these questions is that nobody really knows for sure. SMiLE is an unfinished album and it will never truly be finished, no matter what anyone says. It’s a labyrinth of conflicting tales, spurious rumors and odd recordings. Beyond The Smile Sessions one could download up to ten hours worth of bootlegged raw recordings. The original sessions reveal the sonic innovations that Brian Wilson began developing in ‘66, with “Good Vibrations,” the discrete pockets of sound and melody that would eventually, theoretically, be stitched into songs. But when songs can be built piece by piece like this, with a constant stream of new ideas pouring out of Brian’s head every day, the scope and the range of options becomes overwhelming. Perhaps this is what truly crippled Wilson in 1967 and prevented him from turning hours of beautiful music into a coherent album.
What was left by the summer of ‘67 might not have looked very much like an album, but in some ways it has become the ultimate album. SMiLE is unfinished and unfinishable in any traditional sense, but now it’s become something more fascinating than even Brian himself could have imagined, an enormous box of musical Lego bricks that can be taken apart and constructed into something beautiful by anyone with a sessions collection and some audio editing software. I’ve listened to The Smile Sessions, I’ve listened to Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, I’ve listened to plenty of bootlegs and recordings. What I’m most struck by every time is that no matter what form the music takes, it remains as sweepingly beautiful as the first time I heard it.
Last week, after a lot of thought, I made my own mix. It’s only a start, just a minor reconfiguration of the Sessions stuff, some small additions and edits. I spent a couple of bored days throwing it together. I don’t think it’s groundbreaking or definitive or historical and I don’t really plan on sharing it with anyone but myself. It’s my SMiLE, and I think it sounds great.