Classic Rock Crate Digger: Why The Beach Boys' Smile Sessions Is the Real Masterpiece
Hopefully, the release of the five-disc Smile Sessions box set lays to rest the "pop masterpiece that never was" mythology that has sprouted up over the last five decades, gradually wrapping itself around these profoundly misunderstood recordings like impenetrable kudzu. I say "misunderstood" because I've long held the belief that Smile is a far more radical statement as a mishmash of demos, snippets and fragments than it would've been had Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks and the rest of The Beach Boys completed the album in 1967.
What has always struck me about this music (I purchased the bootleg version many years ago) is how its logic and structure predict the evolution of electronica, ambient pop and myriad other forms of electronic-based modern music. This is most evident on Discs 1 and 3. Though Wilson and Parks are working with live musicians (The Beach Boys' sublime voices married to the Wrecking Crew's uncanny precision), that sound is configured into clusters, lattices, pixels and fractals. Not unlike basic sampling technology, these building blocks are then used and re-used to erect polymer-like formations. Indeed, a piece such as "Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)," found on Disc 1, contains an astonishing amount of repetition and layering of a decidedly vertical nature. It's a sonic collage, one with extremely well-etched geometry. When it came to studio experimentation, very few artists at the time were as prophetic as Wilson and Parks; electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and Miles Davis producer Teo Macero are the first that come to mind.
But where did these novel structures come from? In terms of artistic creation, Wilson and Parks were operating on an elevated plain. They are geniuses, obviously. But I'm quite certain psychedelic experimentation -- which both have opened up about in interviews over the years -- aided in this process. The fundamental effect of lysergic acid diethylamide is to give human perception the ability to "see" past the structures comprising everyday reality and to envision new ways of rebuilding them. In the case of Wilson and Parks, this entailed utilizing the studio to take apart the traditional pop song and reconstruct it from the bottom up. Only problem is, they hit a wall: they were incapable of piecing together these wonderful fragments into a full album.
As the history of rock 'n' roll tells us, this failure can be attributed to Wilson's psychological instability and abuse of psychedelic chemicals. I don't argue with that. Like a decent number of psychonauts in the 1960s, he most certainly lacked a framework for responsible use. (For more on these critical ideas, check out Dr. James Fadiman's The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys.)
Yet this explanation overlooks the technical aspects of the duo's failure, which is germane to the discussion at hand. It's not that Wilson and Parks simply couldn't produce a finished product; it's that they couldn't do it without ultimately slipping back into the traditional pop song format, the very thing they were attempting to move beyond. Comparing the versions of "Cabin Essence, "Heroes and Villains," and "Vega-Tables" to those that emerged on subsequent albums helps prove this point (the 2004 version of Smile is also relevant here). I love these later versions, but outside the proto-ambient "Cool, Cool Water" on 1970's Sunflower, all of them feel less visionary and way more tethered to accepted notions about what makes good pop. In defense of the other Beach Boys, who were forced to fend for themselves after Wilson's psychic derailment, they did what they had to do to salvage some amazing music. Moreover, they did an excellent job. In my opinion, The Beach Boys are the greatest pop band of the 1960s, even better than The Beatles.
But to return to my main point, the versions produced by the remaining Beach Boys offer a glimpse into what Wilson and Parks might've been forced to do to get Smile ready for release in 1967. Under incredible pressure, and in desperate need of a way around that wall, they would've resorted to molding these fragments into music that was significantly more traditional. And this is why there's really no need to ruminate on the "pop masterpiece that never was," because The Smile Sessions -- in all its disjointed, way-ahead-of-its-time glory -- is the real masterpiece.
For a track-by-track comparison of The Beach Boys' lost masterpiece with the altered fragments scattered across the band's subsequent albums, check out my Evolution of the Smile Sessions playlist.
You can always check out my other playlist post too: Getting Psychedelic with the Beach Boys.