SMiLE: An American Pop Symphony

Opening anecdote: This past week I went to San Francisco’s first cat cafe (don’t laugh, it is a real thing and it is awesome), and while I sat there cuddling with a cat named Stella1, the iPad-controlled sound system played “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows,” to which Alex nudged me and went, “Pet Sounds, get it?” I’m not sure if the folks at KitTea are that aware of their musical selections, but the point is: the Beach Boys’ music is ubiquitous, a staple of oldies stations everywhere, but *especially* in California. Growing up, I remember listening to K-Earth 101 and counting all the beaches in “Surfin’ USA” (getting especially excited when Del Mar and La Jolla came up). Among my first and favorite CDs was this greatest hits album, right up there with B*Witched2 and the Grease soundtrack.

And then, at some point after I’d started obsessing over the Beatles and other classic rock bands, I remember hearing Mike Love’s infamous RRHF speech and deciding (unfairly to Brian Wilson and the rest of the group) that the Beach Boys were just a bunch of bitter, delusional burnouts. So unfortunately until very recently, I never ventured beyond what was on K-Earth and that Greatest Hits CD, figuring (again, unfairly) that not much else in their repertoire was worth listening to.


BW in the studio, looking particularly Orbison-esque

Last weekend we saw Love & Mercy, the movie where Paul Danoand John Cusack play Brian Wilson in two different stages of his life: creative genius 1960s Brian and mentally unstable 1980s Brian, when he was under the control of creep machine Dr. Eugene Landy. It definitely opened my eyes to Brian’s life and struggles, but more importantly, it introduced me to a whole world of incredible music I’d never heard. Namely, the epic, hidden-in-the-vaults-for-40-years masterpiece that is SMiLE.

Holy moly, what a trip this album is. I’m ashamed to admit it took me this long to discover it. But I’ve been making up for my musical faux pas by listening to it religiously every single day this past week: on the way to work, on the way home from work, at home on the big speakers, and most recently on a drive to and from Santa Cruz. It is just…overwhelmingly good.

The story behind SMiLE is worthy of a whole post itself, but long story short: it was never released in the ’60s as planned, most of the tapes sat unheard for years, Brian released his own version in 2004 to critical acclaim, and then a slew of original Beach Boys material was released in 2011. I love the production on BW’s version, but it’s fascinating to hear the untouched recordings by the Beach Boys. My current favorite is “Surf’s Up,” which despite the title couldn’t be more different than the early Beach Boys’ surf music (equally beautiful is Brian’s demo of the same song). There are a lot of things I want to say about this album—like how I could listen to those vocal layers in the middle section of “Cabinessence” nonstop for hours, or how Van Dyke Parks’ otherworldly lyrics make me want to float away, or how this music would’ve blown people’s minds more than Sgt. Pepper had it been released back then4—but I’ve been sitting here way too long trying to put my reactions into words when I’d really just rather be listening to the whole thing over again.

To finish, here’s some cool studio footage of “Good Vibrations,” one of the few songs from this era that saw the light of day (and became a hit!) in the ’60s:

Footnotes (what am I, a liberal arts major??…yes)


[2] Here’s a throwback in case you forgot about B*Witched.

[3] After Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood and now this, I think Paul Dano is now officially the youngest actor I’ve ever really liked (a position previously held by Leo). He was perfect for the role of 1960s Brian, plus he actually learned the music and sang it, no small feat (love you Cusack, but I know you weren’t really playing that piano).

[4] It’s well documented that the Beach Boys and the Beatles consistently tried to one-up each other in the studio. Brian Wilson heard Rubber Soul and wrote Pet Sounds in response. The Beatles heard Pet Sounds and then made Sgt. PepperSmile would’ve come out after Sgt. Pepper – how might it have affected the Beatles’ next album, I wonder? Anyway, I have an obvious newfound respect for the Beach Boys’ music and certainly for Brian Wilson.

Mike Love is still a jerk, though.

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