Classic Rock Review

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The Beach Boys Smile (1967/2011)


Other than The Beatles’ GET BACK album, which still has not been released in its original form (the Spectorized Let It Be (Remastered) and the remixed, de-Spectorized Let It Be… Naked notwithstanding), The Beach Boys’ SMiLE project is the most famous (and maybe infamous) unreleased album in rock history. Originally planned as a follow-up to 1966’s Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson scrapped the project in mid-1967 after months of work, believing he had lost his competition with The Beatles, and the pressures from the other Beach Boys, plus legal problems with Capitol Records, finally wore him down.

A replacement album, Smiley Smile, cobbled together by the group using only the “Good Vibrations” single and fragments from the original sessions – the rest of the album was rerecorded – was a critical and commercial flop. Fragments of SMiLE were issued on later Beach Boys albums such as 20/20 and Surf’s Up. In 1993, about an hour of lost SMiLE music was issued on the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys boxed set. Then, in 2004, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks completed a new version of SMiLE and recorded it with Brian’s new band, The Wondermints (Brian Wilson Presents Smile); a live concert version, recorded earlier that year in London, was also issued on DVD.

Now, with the impending 50th anniversary of The Beach Boys approaching, Capitol Records, along with Brian, has released two versions of THE SMiLE SESSIONS – a basic two-disc version, and a nine-disc box set (five CDs, two vinyl LPs, and two vinyl 45 RPM singles). The first CD, which contains the same contents in both releases, contains a newly revised SMiLE album, using the same running order as the 2004 remake, giving us an idea of what the album would have sounded like in 1967. Most of the tracks are mono, as Brian always preferred; he was deaf in one ear, and could not hear stereo sound properly, and as a producer, he believed that only mono mixes could present the music to the listener as he wanted it heard. Stereo, Brian believed, left too much to the listener’s equipment setup. While I would have loved to have a stereo version of the album, as was done with The Pet Sounds Sessions box set in 1996, the producers explained that unlike Pet Sounds, most of the multi-track masters and many of the components were lost, so a stereo remix of SMiLE was impossible to produce.

The second CD of the first version contains session highlights from “Our Prayer” to “Good Vibrations” – more than enough to satisfy the casual Beach Boy fan. The deluxe box set is aimed more at collectors and die-hards, and what a collection it is. CD1 is identical to the first version, but CDs 2 through 5 contain a very comprehensive view of the SMiLE sessions. So comprehensive, in fact, that the “Heroes and Villains” sections take up about 90 percent of CD2, and the “Good Vibrations” sessions take up all of CD5. While somewhat repetitive, the session tapes offer fascinating listening, showing Brian’s perfectionism and dedication to getting the right sound. I’m sure he drove the other musicians and the other Beach Boys crazy, but it was obviously worth the effort.

The two-LP vinyl album in the deluxe edition follows tracks 1-19 of CD1 for the first three sides. The fourth side contains rare stereo mixes that are not included on the CDs. The two 45s are the singles that never were, the two-part “Heroes and Villains” single, and the “Vega-Tables”/”Surf’s Up” single.

Packaging and amenities are impressive. The two-disc set includes a colorful 36-page booklet, a SMiLE button, and a fold-out poster of the album artwork. The deluxe edition is even more impressive; the artwork on the box cover has 3-D graphics; the inside of the box lid has the original back cover of the Duophonic (fake stereo) release of the album, had it been issued. Inside the box are a 60-page hardcover book with additional essays and a complete sessionography; a double-gatefold sleeve with slots for all five CDs and the two vinyl 45s; the two-record vinyl album in a mono jacket with a gatefold sleeve and a 10″ photo album inside; and a giant-economy-size version of the album artwork poster.

The casual fan will probably make do with the two-disc set, but collectors will want both.

I’d love to see The Beatles and Apple do a similar box set for the GET BACK SESSIONS, not to mention the long-lost LET IT BE DVD.

Some additional observations:

1) The vinyl LP and singles sound fine. I especially enjoyed the stereo mixes on Side 4, but wish that they had been on the CD releases. Although I grew up with vinyl, after listening to CDs for over 20 years, vinyl just sounds flat.

2) The 45 versions of “Vega-Tables” and “Surf’s Up” are the same as on the LP and CD.

3) If you have the big box set, “Heroes and Villains Part 1” and “Heroes and Villains Part 2” are only available on the vinyl 45, though the individual modules for these tracks are probably scattered throughout the four Sessions CDs. The only way to get the full versions of “Heroes and Villains Part 1” and “Heroes and Villains Part 2” on CD is to buy the two-disc set (Tracks 2 and 3 on CD2). All of the other tracks on that disc can be found on the session box set, although some of them are edited (particularly the “Good Vibrations” sessions).

4) I compared the 20/20 versions of “Cabin Essence” and “Our Prayer,” and the 1971 version of “Surf’s Up,” to the SMiLE versions. Save for stereo remixing and overdubs, the versions are almost identical. It’s amazing that the 1968 overdubbed vocals on “Our Prayer” are almost perfectly in sync with the 1966 originals – another tribute to Brian’s production genius.

May 4, 2013 Posted by | The Beach Boys Smile | | Leave a comment