Few albums are as mythic as the Beach Boys’ Smile. One of the most romantic of the myths holds that, had the album come out as intended in 1967 – instead of being abandoned unfinished until it was ostensibly completed by Brian Wilson and his latterday touring band in 2004 – it would have been acclaimed as a masterpiece, eclipsed the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper and changed the course of rock history. Listening to this box set – which assembles a virtually complete version of Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks’ grand LSD-fuelled folly from the original tapes, alongside four CDs of outtakes – you find yourself wondering.
In the studio, Smile’s loudest detractor was vocalist Mike Love, who accused Wilson of wilfully “fucking with the formula” that had made the Beach Boys one of the world’s biggest bands. But he had a point about the commercial reception of Smile’s predecessor Pet Sounds, at least in the US, and he may well have had a point about how Smile would merely exacerbate the problem. The preceding single Good Vibrations had been a mammoth hit. It perfectly compressed Wilson’s new method of writing songs by brazenly splicing together wildly differing sections of music into a pop format, but there’s nothing else like it on Smile. You wonder what the kind of fan who’d preferred the gruesome forced jollity of Beach Boys Party! to Pet Sounds’s exquisite melancholy would have made of Smile’s awesome opening sweep, from the wordless, ethereal Our Prayer to the dark, lurching rumble of Do You Like Worms? via a brief cover of the Crows’ 1953 hit Gee and the wilfully episodic version of Heroes and Villains that, depending on your perspective, either pushed the “feel” technique to new heights of awe-inducing audacity or to breaking point, where the song started to sound genuinely disjointed, however spectacular the vocal harmonies on the chorus sounded. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee the hipsters would have got it either. Jimi Hendrix dismissed the re-recorded version of Heroes and Villains as “a psychedelic barbershop quartet”: a description that fits the Smile original even more perfectly.
Hendrix clearly thought the Beach Boys sounded hopelessly square, and he too had a point. Wilson may have been a genius, the greatest songwriter and studio technician of the 60s, but he was never cool. The LA hipsters who flocked around him in the mid-60s sneered behind his back at his terrible taste, his galumphing attempts to grasp the counter-culture. And Smile was the sound of a square mind unleashed by LSD. What came gushing out was a warped version of straight-arrow, white-collar American pop culture, the stuff most rock stars in 1967 deemed hopelessly naff. If it ultimately sounds like nothing else, it still variously touches on doo-wop, barbershop singing, ragtime, the mock-Polynesian Tiki culture that swept Hollywood in the 50s, pre-rock’n’roll crooning, yodelling, cowboy movies, You Are My Sunshine. Unlike any other major rock record in 1967, it bore no debt to Bob Dylan, but you could catch an echo of the scrubbed-clean version of the folk revival promoted by the TV show Hootenanny on Cabinessence’s astonishing re-telling of the saga of America’s pioneers. It was a psychedelic experience Hendrix wouldn’t understand, but Don Draper might.
Amid the outtakes – stuff even the most dedicated bootleg collector won’t have heard – there’s a telling moment. “You guys feeling any acid yet?” asks Wilson during a session for Our Prayer. He sounds terrified. LSD didn’t make Wilson relax and float downstream: it scared the shit out of him, lighting the touch paper on a whole range of mental health problems. And he couldn’t keep the fear out of his music. Even at its most remorselessly upbeat, the Beach Boys’ music was marked by an ineffable sadness – you can hear it in the cascading tune played by the woodwind during Good Vibrations’s verses – but on Smile, the sadness turned into something far weirder. All the talk of Wilson writing teenage symphonies to God – and indeed the sheer sumptuousness of the end results – tends to obscure what a thoroughly eerie album Smile is. Until LSD’s psychological wreckage began washing up in rock via Skip Spence’s Oar and Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, artists tactfully ignored the dark side of the psychedelic experience. But it’s there on Smile: not just in the alternately frantic and grinding mayhem of the instrumental Fire, but in Wind Chimes’s isolated, small-hours creepiness and the astounding assembly of weird, dislocated voices on I Love to Say Da Da.
Isolated, dislocated, scared: Smile often sounds like the work of a very lonely man. There’s not much in the way of company when you’re way ahead of everyone else. Whether anyone would have chosen to join Wilson out there in 1967 seems questionable: perhaps they’d have stuck with the less complicated pleasures of All You Need Is Love after all. What’s beyond doubt is the quality of the music he made.