Lit and Crit
MUSIC THAT MAKES ME CRY
The Beach Boys: SMiLE '67
Ultra SMiLE (remixed by KAL)
SMiLE as composed and performed by Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks and The Beach Boys in 1967 is simply the greatest pop music album of the past 50 years.
SMiLE '67: The Beach Boys Make Me Cry
by Kevin Salveson
The Beach Boys' SMiLE makes me cry. Or, as Van Dyke Park puts it in Windhimes, "Now and then a tear rolls off my cheek."
Since I hit my mid-40s I find that I weep now more than I ever did over small things typically associated with great achievement and the struggle to get there. Stories of hard work, skill, luck, experience, and triumph over adversity to build something lasting always get me. Maybe it is because the older I get the more I can see that I have limited time on this earth to get things done.
The other day I was telling my kids about Phil Jackson's career and dabbing my eyes while I did it. "Championships at both the" --consumptive noises-- "Bulls and The Lakers!" (Sob.) To accomplish something great before we are swept under the surface of the waves forever... what else is there? Then I told them about Solzhenitsyn and had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom and blow my nose.
These feelings first overtook me while I was watching my father die. After he contracted cancer and then MERS I invited him to move in with me. Then, over six months, I watched him wither away. I realized, in a visceral way I had never really felt before, that our existence was meaningless against the vast oceans of space and time. Once we are gone there will be nothing to preserve us. Indifferent nature will continue cycling on. There will be only what we leave behind in the way of accomplishments and records of our existence.
But what if your existence was already close to making its mark on history and you were only in your early twenties after prodigal success in your teens? How would you find your place in the cosmos? Smile is that story, one such record of existence, which truly makes me weep almost every time I listen to it.
I would guess that the story of SMiLE is pretty well-known; how it was a work with so many layers that Wilson couldn't keep track of them and how Mike Love's disdain and other pressures led to its shelving. How it then became one of the most celebrated bootlegs of all time and finally a realized masterpiece 40 years after its conception after all despite Wilson's struggles. (Excuse me, I'll be back in a moment after I find my box of Kleenex).
I first came across Smile way back in 1999 when I was busy trolling Napster searching for keywords like "outtake" "bootleg" etc. (Thank you, Arpanet). Like everyone, I thought that the Beach Boys were a good pop group which stuck to teenage topics like girls and cars. Then one day I was flipping through the channels on TV and I heard these wild wailing sirens. Wait, what? Flip that back! It was a brief Smile documentary of some sort and there was Brian in a fireman's hat in a cool studio and he was whipping shit into a ferocious psychedelic squall. WTF? Psychedelic? The Beach Boys?
Meanwhile, as an aspiring songwriter, I was ready. I was bored with indie rock and guitars but I couldn't sing. Yet here was, I guess, something that showed me that singing wasn't just holding notes. Here was Brian Wilson testing the full limit of the human instrument and experimenting! "Horns, give me the lowest note you can blow..." Now that is what I liked, the fact that he was trying new things with orchestral arrangements and coming up with amazing layers of harmonization for the Boys to sing (just three years after writing California Girls).
Of course the stories are numerous. Brian has everyone in on percussion jams at the dinner table. He puts a teepee and sandbox in the living room. He's using VW hubcaps and jug bottles and barbershop and playing the studio like an instrument. Not only that, he is playing it like a maestro, like Paul McCartney and George Martin inhabiting the same body with Gershwin's and Bach's ghosts on each shoulder.
Next thing I know, I'm listening to them chant "water water water ohhhhhhh now now now now" and Swedish bullfrog impersonations and chewing vegetables for percussion and other crazy shit! (Isn't that an early form of "sampling" and interesting pop musique concrete?) I said to myself, "Now that is what I want to do: some drones and chanting and turning everyday objects into instruments. Even I could do that."
If you want to be honest about it, as Sean Lennon said, SMiLE is the most profound musical experience of my life. Sure, Sgt. Peppers is one of the greatest albums of all time. It has a concept and it has a good number of songs that swerve from noise rock to chamber pop and eastern mysticism, a real variety. Well produced and ingenious all around. But it would be dishonest to say that song per song Smile can't compete with Sgt Peppers. If She's Leaving Home is lovely chamber pop, so is Wonderful (that falsetto, that wistfully resigned story of innocence lost). Heroes and Villains can go up against With A Little Help as the single plus several others you can throw in there section by section. Cabinessence vs Within You. Mr. Kite vs Hey Baba Ruba and its LSD inspired party noises etc. Surf's Up vs Day In the Life. It would be hard to handicap if it were a boxing match and you were a betting man.
So that is why I can't understand those who say that while SMiLE is good and everything they can't get why people think it stacks up against the Beatles finest. In fact, it more than stacks up. In the Ultra SMiLE '67 incarnation, SMiLE surpasses Sgt. Peppers even though it was written contemporaneously and did not have The Beatles' stars to sail by (as the Stones and the rest of the world did). If the Beatles had dance hall the Beach Boys had their western bar tack piano. Just as Pet Sounds had surpassed Rubber Soul, Wilson was taking the pop album into new realms unimagined by anyone else at the time and would go on to out-do Revolver in the number of references to "cycles" of history and the cohesiveness a pop album could achieve.
If I were a betting man (and I am), given everything that has been revealed over the last 40 years about what The Beach Boys did in 1967, I would put my money down on Wilson and company FTW if they both climbed into the ring. After all, Sgt. Peppers is a funny throwaway kind of concept; Smile conceived of encapsulating and solving the issue of American manifest destiny amidst the tumult of the 1960s. Smile is just more ambitious overall both musically and thematically.
Let's just stress that. Practically no one else conceived of pop like that at the time (save perhaps George Martin and Paul McCartney on a good day and a few others who would rise into the latter third of the decade). Let's remember-- classical and jazz were considered worlds away from pop in the 50s and 60s. Pop was stupid rock around the clock dull and repetitive nonsense music for the kids to wiggle to. Sometimes it would be allowed to push into the vernacular via the advent of jingles on television, sure, and the popular song always had a place in the world. But pop groups on the George Burns show or the George Allen show or the Ed Sullivan proved how shriekingly simple the younger generation was to the adults in the room. Rock and roll and surf music absolutely did not belong in the concert hall.
Yet Wilson was at his creative peak and had the time, money and power to follow his impetus that pop could and should be merged with higher art forms. He was at the point where he could sit down at the piano and turn out a melodic masterpiece whenever he wanted to, like Prince, two or three a day. He was turning the pop song into something like an orchestral work, with themes and structure which were positively Gershwin-esque.
And the themes he was attempting to address all at once with the help of Van Dyke Parks were enormous, much grander than simply making up a funny fake band and singing sarcastically or sincerely. The Vietnam War and the tumult of America's history being overturned in the 1960s as a modern media age was being born was in fact the main topic. If youth culture overtaking the old was really what was going on in the 1960's, SMiLE addressed that issue as adroitly as the Beatles. Child is the father of the man, quoted Parks by way of Blake and his mystical experiences. That child was history itself and the man was a slightly damaged and stressed Brian Wilson coming of age as a music wunderkind who had a lot of other people's fortunes riding on his ability to invent brilliance at the drop of a hat or a tab. If Sgt Peppers has its drug rebellion and hidden messages, Wilson had his Love to Say DaDa and The Water Chant. If Sgt Peppers tried to turn people on to a new and bright way of looking at the world, Wilson was trying to get America to see itself better and to bring it all back to a more enlightened kind of innocence. Smile more, he was telling the radicals, have some Good Humor, get healthy, take care of the environment, don't be whiney assholes but get all right with life beyond the city and start a farm! Wilson even eventually went on to open the Radiant Radish on Sunset. He was really doubling down on sincerity as the solution to the tumult of the times.
And he realized, with the influence of Van Dyke Parks, that if pop and youth were indeed going to take over it also needed to go legit and climb the scales of high art. So he ordered up the orchestral instrumentation. He used trombones and saxes, marimbas and pizzicato, thumb piano and thumbtack piano, cowbell and castanets, tympani and cello. Also, Wilson was working with a pounding piano-led beat which he would reiterate over and over in many of the songs. He was also playing with a right hand piano figure while the bass moved up and down the scale. At certain points he let the harmonic possibilities of those long runs up and down the scale appear in the vocal lines as well. He inserted fuzz bass into a song about life in 1800's country cabin which then explodes into a raging inferno and then a rondo with an oriental banjo; in a way its amalgam of styles is quintessentially American in its incorporation and critique of the American melting pot.
So here was Wilson doing more than McCartney in the studio, ordering his session men to wear fire hats and bang out churning whistling pounding arrangements while Lennon had to leave a blank space for George Martin to fill in the strings for him on A Day In The Life. That Wilson lost control of the production in the end is perhaps an example of The Beatle's ultimate triumph-- that they was able to offload the duties of organization on someone else allowed them to finish and release the project after all. (I wonder if Parks had stuck around he could have tried to take on that role and the album could have been released in at least some form, thus changing music history forever and earning Hendrix's eternal respect? That he decided to back off from Mike Love was perhaps ultimately a little too passive but perhaps politically it was the right thing at the time.)
But it is that complexity is also what makes SMiLE more compelling in the end. There is more to it than an album of songs (as Sgt Peppers is) and it can be put together an infinite number of ways. See, amazingly, Wilson was also inventing the "modular" nature of modern music production at the same time. Like a hip hop or EDM remix, the pieces could fit together in a myriad of ways because they were exploring similar rhythmic and harmonic ideas in sympathetic keys. Like a symphony, which offers repeating themes and their development over extended sequences, SMiLE's modular nature certainly makes it fascinating to music lovers which can hear the hints and suggestions the music makes to itself and to other eras and cover songs. (As bassist Carole Kaye once remarked, Brian would have been perfect to write orchestral music for film if he had wanted to).
Not only did SMiLE inspire multitudes of "remixes" on the bootlegs but it also reflected in some ways where modern pop production could still be headed-- into a time where samples could be reworked, resampled, quoted and rearranged over and over. SMiLE, to that degree, could be considered the first true "modernist" symphonic pop album as well. Even Good Vibrations, for example, was stitched together from sessions at three different studios.
Just ask yourself: what would that man have done with Pro Tools and the ability to digitally manipulate blocks of music rather than have to get out the razor blade and slice the physical magnetic tape and then splice it back together at the right spot? What if he didn't then have to feed it all back through the eight track tape machine every time in order to get SMiLE's running order right with every little bell and whistle attached? What if he had been able to attach every bell and whistle digitally?
Hence the need, in my mind, for the Ultra SMiLE. This one emphasizes both the continuity and accessibility of several of Wilson's basic harmonic, key, and tempo themes which he grappled with in '66-67 as well as the drama inherent in the American history lesson of the libretto itself. What makes it an Ultra SMiLE? Well, not content to try and replicate what Smile 2004 did (gather up the music and edit it into an album with all of the major songs featured), I was out to do something more satisfying.
I wanted to organize SMiLE using only the original Beach Boys recordings (those Wondermints are sweet, but no one matches the Boys in their harmonizing prime of the mid 60s) and to find and assemble every last single unique harmonic or melodic idea that Wilson, Van Dyke and The Boys worked on during the era. Sure, he had cranked a hell of a lot of them out and most of them show up in the box sets and the Smile 2004 but when you listen to the Purple Chick version or the Odeon releases or the Sea of Tunes or the Vigotone bootlegs etc and now even the 2011 Capitol data dump, there was a lot of small stuff which didn't make the cut. So for the good of man and womankind I sanded them all down to a fine polish and fit them all onto one CD for the sake of the Earth and the children who will one day live in its caves after The Fallout Era.
Essentially, via the lyrics of Van Dyke Parks, Smile is one of the most ingenious critiques of American history as it was culminating in the 1960s during the time he was collaborating with Wilson. Certainly at the time the nation was tearing apart at the seams. That Wilson wanted to use his pop music --surfing songs that Hendrix hated!-- to build a cathedral to American history and then to address the crisis of the times with music designed to be in form and function orchestral pop while at the same time allowing for environmentalism and vegetarianism with a sense of humor, poetic ambiguity...all the while demanding that it be accessible to children? It was a tall order (which went over even Hendrix's head because they never showed at Monterey in 1967 like they should have; they would have blown him away the same way the Dead kinda dug Sha Naa Naa).
The "crisis" as seen by Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks in Smile is in essence American manifest destiny gone mad. It is reflected in the raging chromatic scales of "Mrs. O' Leary's Cow" and "Cabinessence", the repeating theme of the Bicycle Rider. A sonic representation of "history" repeating itself as America expanded from coast to coast and beyond, all their refrains surge up and down relentlessly in search of a tonic note, rolling like "threshers" chewing up endless fields of wheat, or the wheels of the "iron horse" which circle and surge ever forward on the backs of "coolies" in order that American hegemony continue to sew and reap, sew and reap like a crow over a cornfield, over and over. It was a powerful appetite which swept across the plains from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii (all the way to Vietnam) like a Bicycle Rider pack of cards in the back pocket of a pioneer.
Meanwhile, musically, I understood. When I sat down at the piano there was limitless possibility. How could anyone ever stop the notes, how could you every choose a tonic to finally settle on? Indeed, the search of SMiLE may be for a tonic to the predicament of existence. That is, amid the march of history, what justifies our existence... or the existence of an American teenage songwriter from Hawthorne, CA in the 1960s? That teenager, who had been pushed by his father and the music industry to mental exhaustion, must have finally been growing up (his voice would lose the falsetto) and wondering what the hell it all meant. Could he indeed rise to the level of his newfound mature ambition as a man or would the child in him and in his music win out? Or could he balance the two?
SMiLE's answer is obvious in the little i of the title as well as in its musical choices, such as the experiments with primitive "Hawaiian" and "Native American" chanting and percussion in several songs. They suggest a kind of primal echo from our past erupting into both the noble and "ignoble" savagery of the 1960s (and on into this present era), demanding recognition and resolution to the question of America's and Wilson's place in history and the world. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?
Across songs, minutes and movements, Wilson then manages to reconcile his existence as an American, a sentient being of a more and more polluted Earth, and as a songwriter...with the help of Van Dyke Parks of course.
"Come about hard...and join the young and often spring you gave.
I heard the word...wonderful thing: a children's song...
Child is the father of the man..." --Surf's Up
'Scuse me a moment. (Blows nose).
"Surf's Up" is the song which concludes the sentimental American journey from innocence to experience that comprises the second movement of SMiLE, the emotional answer to the roiling fire in the first act. That resolution is accompanied in the music by a harnessing of the rising and falling chromatic tones of SMiLE's earlier songs (echoed here in the second movement's achingly slow descending falsetto lines as well as in the lyrics "the glass was raised/the fire rose" and the image of an empire's columns dominoing down). Surf's Up's coda then brings a satisfying end to the search for both a spiritual and musical tonic to the crisis: a mid-bar break to a higher chord for the harmonies. Instead of following through with the verse's movement down the chromatic scale, Brian, beneath the 'Child is the Father of the Man' roundelay which ends Surf's Up, sings a counterpoint to the downward spiral: "A children's song/have you listened as they play?/their song is love/and the children know the way/that's why..." ). Yes, that coda really is just as good as the coda in A Day In The Life. In fact, I do believe they even share the same chord progression.
And that is where Wilson and Parks crystallize their message despite it being so ambitious: certainly a sane society would seek to raise its children well and uphold for them nothing but the highest of standards. Indeed, ill-taught children can doom a generation to scatter the seeds and fruits of a country to the wind (see, for example, what W Bush was able to do). Hence, the "child" of history surely presents lessons and admonishments for the future of "man", even as that man might just be WIlson personally and the child he was trying to mature was one of the most successful teen music careers in history.
Breaking out of the cycle of history (both personal and political) was on the minds of many in the 1960's but few communicated it in such a powerful and lasting form. Of course it makes sense that a successful young songwriter would conclude that its "songs for children" that will save LA from smog and the world from the fate which once "steamed upon the Sandwich Isles", thusly justifying his own work in the pop mille, a genre that Wilson himself seems to recognize as inherently childish. Still, the epiphany of harmonic and moral movement in "Surf's Up" creates one of the most uplifting endings to any pop song of the era.
And in a literal sense it also represents the resolution of a personal search by Brian Wilson which more or less wound up taking more than thirty eight years to complete. So in fact perhaps because of that (and for other reasons, e.g. the "Little Pad" faux Hawaiian outro in "Roll Plymouth Rock") SMiLE is timeless and perhaps the greatest pop album of the modern rock era.
Van Dyke Parks' lyrics are also at their punning best when he writes about the "cycle" of history in many of the songs, such as in "Do You Like Worms?" That song first introduces the "bicycle rider" theme of SmiLE. Get it? After calling for it all to "roll over", the journey to maturity in this teenage prayer to God is also one for America, the spirit of Wilson, and music composition itself.
Wilson's 2004 project places the fire episode in the third movement, which is just as well, most third acts run out of steam; the 2004 live performances of the first composed "pocket symphony" in history didn't flag and the song scored a Grammy. This CD places "Heroes and Villains" in that spot, seeing as it echoes several of the themes established in other songs but concludes with an ode to health, wealth and wisdom being "all right" beyond the city, perhaps the final conclusion to the journey from innocence to modernity that the first two acts of SMiLE describe. Then in the Ultra SMiLE third act, there are a bunch of "Children's Songs" devoted to a return to a more romantic, pastoral lifestyle featuring an ecology for the better, one suitable to pass to the next generation. (No wonder She's Going Bald and Wonderful are so sparse... you wouldn't want to scare the children). That this wisdom concludes with an intuition into the very nature of the universe (isn't "Good Vibrations" a song about String Theory?) is astonishing.
In an attempt to capture as much of it as possible, this Ultra SMiLE includes home studio remixes of several songs in various incarnations ("Good Vibrations" for example is an amalgam of seven sources) and incorporates songs from other Beach Boy albums which were nonetheless created slightly before, during or soon after the official SMiLE era. Hence UltraSMiLE can be considered a fairly comprehensive document of the creative apex Brian Wilson, Parks and The Beach Boys achieved circa 1966-67. (Of course, the rest of their catalog is pretty spectacular too).
Plus, let's be honest. Dennis and Carl and Mike and Al and Bruce were all asked to create as well, from chants to improvisational ideas as well as harmonies stacked on harmonies, and they certainly deserve some songwriting credit despite it all being under the direction of Wilson.
As a story of America reconciling itself with the currents of the Sixties, it works both as a statement of the past as well as the present, an autobiography which wound up being national, artistic and historic, a testament of the triumphs and conflicts of the new American mode which has erupted all over the world since that era. Funny, that.