The Crux Project Archives: Music
Brian Wilson’s SMiLE reminds us that great music should bring great enjoyment.
Ask most people who are fans of rock music (and old enough to know) what the most important time for rock was, and they’ll probably say the Sixties. By the end of the decade, the Who had recorded a self-styled rock opera, Deep Purple had made a bold (though dubious) attempt at a Concerto for Rock Band And Orchestra, Jimi Hendrix became the first widely acknowledged virtuoso instrumentalist of the form, and 300,000 kids (more or less, depending on your sources) sat in the mud for three days to see him and many others at a concert. (They also yelled at the sky in an attempt to make the rain stop, but that’s a story for another time.)
But most important of all, the Sixties was the era of the Beatles. The Beatles started out trying to copy rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins but got sidetracked halfway through the decade. Disillusioned with touring and awash in more cash than any rock band had ever generated, the band retired to the confines of EMI Abbey Road studios with what amounted to a blank check. Realizing that rock music could be about more than dancing or three-minute bits of disposable aural wallpaper, they set out to create music as an artistic end in itself.
Armed with this crazy notion and building on ideas they had been toying with for the previous two or three records, they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. It was a Citizen Kane for the rock world. Not just guitars and drums, but calliopes and sitars and barnyard animals assaulted the senses, all in glorious stereo. What was truly radical was the way so many disparate musical and lyrical ideas were assembled and presented. There seemed to be an underlying theme to it all, giving the impression that the album was somehow much greater than the sum of its individual songs. It was indeed groundbreaking.
However, as the old proverb says, there are two sides to every story. The other side to this one takes place across the Big Pond from England, in America, where another bunch of young lads started a band called the Beach Boys. They too started out writing catchy commercial ditties but were quickly transformed by the realization that they just might have a bona fide genius in their midst.
That, of course, was Brian Wilson. Months before the legendary Sgt. Pepper’s album was released, the Beach Boys had startled the rock establishment with the album Pet Sounds. It, too, was a mature work with innovative sounds and recording techniques, and the Beatles openly cited it as an influence. But today, as we look back from our perspective of nearly forty years, it is the Beatles that are remembered in capital letters as The All-time Great Innovators of Rock Music, whereas the Beach Boys are generally thought of as just . . . well, a pretty good band.
Why is that?
Could it be because, at the end of the day, the Beach Boys were just too darned happy?
That is what the Beach Boys are remembered for, after all. Surfing. California. Convertibles. Good vibrations. They were fluff. The Beatles, by contrast, were Important. Not just as a musical force, but because, having been deified by fans and press, they realized at some point that people actually listened to them, that the things they said actually became Important Things.
Inspired by the provocative style of Bob Dylan, the Beatles began to speak out on any and all subjects to an ever-eager press, and their words spread like gospel. And so it has been throughout the subsequent history of rock music. From the über-angst (brilliantly articulated) of the Who to the antiwar and antiestablishment blathering of almost every acclaimed late-Sixties band to the political ramblings of the Bonos and Michael Stipes of today, the idea that rock music (and musicians) had a chanceno, a dutyto speak out about things traces directly back to the Beatles.
And the manner of this speaking shall be negative, depressing, and anger-inducing to the extent possible. This is the unwritten commandment of rock and roll consciousness-raising, and it has been followed to the letter by countless so-called artists of the last forty years: Grumpiness equals respectability.
Meanwhile, shifting our story back to the Sixtiesthere were the Beach Boys, with nothing more important to say than Have Fun and Be Happy. They were doomed. They could be fun, and popular. But never Important; never really respected.
Yet this upbeat message was in fact of great importance and weight to Brian Wilson, the leader and prime writer of the Beach Boys. It was so serious, so important for him to react to the negativity he saw growing in the mid-Sixties culture, that he set out with Van Dyke Parks (another up-and-coming genius of the time, who, unfortunately, never quite came all the way up) to make it the central theme of a project they would compose together. The album, to follow up Pet Sounds (and which would have also preceded the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album into the stores), was to be called SMiLE.
What happened next has been well documented and does not need to be repeated in full here. SMiLE was never finished, and Brian Wilson himself ironically became one of the more notably unhappy people on the planet. But life is a strange thing, and seemingly out of the blue one of the most famous “lost” albums in history has now been resurrected. SMiLE, after nearly forty years, has been finished and released to the public, newly reconstructed and recorded following a premiere live tour of England earlier this year.
So, after such a wait, one can only ask, “Was it worth it?”
It took me a few listens before I was sure of the answer, and it is simply this: Yes. Overwhelmingly.
In fact, if I may be forgiven for making an Important Statement of my own, the world might need this album more now than it did in 1967.
It is certainly a heretical album by today’s popular standards. There is no exhortation to rise up and fight the powers that be. No litany of the woes of society. No hand-wringing for the downtrodden. No paeans to sex. No bashing of government.
In an act of devotion and affection quite possibly inconceivable to a post-Y2K audience raised on a lifetime supply of Eminem and Korn, Wilson and Parks have made an album about vegetables. And barnyard animals. And trains, and painters, and bicycles, and wind chimes. It’s a mostly quiet work about quiet ideas, that, taken as a whole, is like bits of gas making up a nebula: it is, when viewed from the proper perspective, quite an astonishing thing to behold.
The production quality of the album is pristine and new, but the technique is pure Wilson. His youthful exuberance appears to be entirely intact. It would have been easy for him to give the whole project a more modern sensibility, to add a veneer of perspective and yearning for respectability that often comes with age, but Wilson somehow resisted that temptation and simply made the album he would have made when he was twenty-four, bless him.
The opening passage is called “Our Prayer,” and it serves to show that Brian Wilson has not lost any of his stunning vocal abilitythe Beach Boy harmonies are a trademark that endures to this dayand sets the stage well. (There is personal and indeed social significance in the title to this wordless vocal song: during the Pet Sounds recording sessions, the band did in fact pray together at the beginning of each work day.)
From this hymn-like prologue we move on to “Heroes and Villains,” one of the few parts of the work that had previously been released and was, of course, a big commercial hit. From here the album unfolds like a flower. Although not a single, continuous piece of music per seit is in the form of three suites of segued songsit flows as a unified work. Many themes present themselves to be reprised.
The bulk of the album is both reflective and affirmative, with songs like “Cabin Essence,” “Wonderful,” and the very deceptively titled “Surf’s Up,” proving beyond any doubt that Mr. Wilson is one of the most woefully underrated (to a larger public, at least) melodic composers in rock history. Meanwhile, heavier songs such as “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” and just plain fun musical settings of Parks doggerel, such as “Barnyard” or “Vega-tables” provide a steady sense of good cheer.
It has been said that with SMiLE Wilson and Parks set out to make a wholly American work of rock and roll art; they succeeded beyond what either might have hoped. The early-twentieth-century-styled graphics are a perfect visual representation of the feel of the album. Wilson cites the work of composer George Gershwin as a major influence, and although there are no overt musical references to him in SMiLE, there is a feeling of Americana pervading the project that clearly suggests Gershwin’s sensibilities. It is also no accident that two classic American songs, “I Wanna Be There” and “You Are My Sunshine,” are on the album.
So, here you have the story of SMiLE:
Once upon a time, there was a band called the Beatles. Many said they were geniuses, or at least two or three of them were. They wrote timeless melodies and did many brilliant things to change the face of rock music. And they sang about silly things like love and the circus of a man named Mr. Kite, and then they got real serious and sang about revolutions and war and sex and death.
But across the ocean there was a man named Brian Wilson. Some people said he was a genius too. He wrote timeless melodies and sang about surfing, nice girls, and GTOs. Then he left the scene for a while. But thirty-eight years later he returned to sing about things that he hoped would cause a SMiLE. And for each person who hears this album, the world is a bit better. •
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