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Credit: Capitol Records

The Beach Boys second place in the sonic space race: ‘Smiley Smile’

How on Earth do you follow an album like Pet Sounds? Re-entering the studio after that celestial sonic feat must have been akin to the Earth-bound dread that Ham the Chimp-onaut underwent following his undisputable accomplishment of being the first living being to successfully return from orbit. Unlike Ham, however, who suffered the first known case of post-lunar depression, Brian Wilson was profoundly upbeat, stating: “Our new album will be better than Pet Sounds.” He even ventured to add: “It will be as much an improvement over Sounds as that was over Summer Days.”

Sadly, that wasn’t to be the case. In fact, it would seem that the battle to topple Pet Sounds left Brian Wilson and his cohort of crooners hoisted by their petard. Once again, we draw on the analogy of Ham, the unlikely sage through our journey of Smiley Smile, because as it happens, the rapid pioneering developments in sound that The Beach Boys and The Beatles were spearheading bore similarities to the space race itself. Almost overnight music – an art form as old as man itself – was changing, and while The Beach Boys might not have suffered from anything post-lunar, the daunting vista of sonic possibilities set about a damaging hysteria.

“Jesus, that ear,” Bob Dylan once remarked. “He should donate it to the Smithsonian. The records I used to listen to and still love, you can’t make a record that sounds that way. Brian Wilson, he made all his records with four tracks, but you couldn’t make his records if you had a hundred tracks today.” And another master songwriter Randy Newman added: “Brian Wilson is one of the greatest creative artists in the history of popular music. Pet Sounds is a remarkable achievement.” That was the beauty of Pet Sounds; it was all in the melodies that Wilson was creating, and the innovation was merely there to enhance it, to draw it into the future and open up possibilities, but never to blaze the trail itself. 

Thus, when Smile entered the studio and set about incorporating well over 50 hours of sound fragments into a 12-track LP intended to only be around half an hour, it seemed doomed from the start. Much has been made of the issues that the band were facing and Brian Wilson’s mental health in the years that followed, but 50 hours into 0.5 simply doesn’t go, especially not for a band built upon the doo-wop simplicity of harmonies and beach-bound atmosphere. It all simply proved too much, and Smile was shelved, never to be finished.

When the downscaled version of Smiley Smile was released in September 1967, Paul McCartney was providing percussion by chomping on carrots for the satirical track ‘Vega-Tables’ and comedic westerns in the form of ‘Heroes and Villains’ were going up against the likes of Sgt. Peppers and everyone else who was catching up with the boom of innovation, and the record was fated to fall flat. If the music of the time was a space race, then Smiley Smile was the proverbial lead zeppelin.

The record itself, therefore, should perhaps sound better in retrospect when the impact of being a few months late to the party has surely dissipated? Perhaps, but equally, we know the story of the ill-fated album now, and the sound of acquiescence to the status of second-place can certainly be heard. Downscaling from an ambition so lofty that it proved impossible results in a turgid halfway house where acoustics, intentions and dashed ambitions form a jarring mix. The end result is flashes of brilliance marred by misfires and a manic desire to capture something almighty that leaves you relieved when the salvation of music’s simple boon re-enters the fore on the likes of ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Gettin’ Hungry’. 

In 1966, Brian Wilson remarked: “Psychedelic music will cover the face of the world and colour the whole popular music scene. Anybody happening is psychedelic.” It’s a beautiful ambition and a vital one for the progression of the art form that will have people discussing Pet Sounds centuries from now, but the main reason for that is because people actually listen to it. It’s a record that coloured the world at BBQ’s, bars, wedding dances and on the radio. Smiley Smile, on the other hand, is so manic, fraught and misguided that it has faded into an obscurity of its own making, occupying more analysis in column inches than adulation from the collective masses. 

The artful conceptual science that sought creative progress on which Smiley Smile is based is creditable, but much like the space race itself, the competitiveness and blindsided drive lost sight of the fact that science and progress are there to lift the load of life, and not the other way around.

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