Albums O’Month: The Beach Boys – SMiLE
Published on November 30th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
The buzz: Long overdue release of the much-storied SMiLE in its original form, or close to it – it differs from the tracklisting of 2004’s rerecorded version, anyroad – along with an optional shedload of extra material from the vaults for the fanatically inclined. And a long awaited exorcism of sorts for Rocksucker, who as a naive teenager spent £15 in Camden market on a bootleg comprised almost exclusively of unfinished snippets of “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations”, in the mistaken belief that it was somehow SMiLE. (Should have read the back.)
Sounds like: The world around you instantly melts away and the monastic strains of a cappella opener “Our Prayer” fill the nothingness, rendering it…erm, something. It’s as arresting an album opener as you could possibly imagine, and would have sounded like a bolt from the blue had it been released back then. Mind you, you could say that about SMiLE as a whole.
Suddenly, you are swept up by the jaunty “doo doo doo”s of “Gee”, and carried as if by log raft towards the vast, sprawling, Wild West-themed adventure playground in the distance. This playground is “Heroes and Villains”, and it’s sent a welcome party out to dance around you, advertising the imminent madness with almost sinister glee: “Doo doo doo wa da, Heroes and Villains!” “Gee” deposits you by the entrance gate and sounds a lone trombone as it swerves back around to leave.
There is a moment of tense silence as the gates begin to creak open, apparently of their own accord, before they suddenly (this is a word that’s hard to avoid when describing SMiLE) burst asunder and whisk you away into a psychedelic cartoon universe where everything is a slightly discomforting level of chipper; at least until you enter a secluded yet bustling saloon in which Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson slouch at opposite ends of the bar, both captivated by the same woman dancing in the middle of the room, cheered on by a crowd of laughing, drunken revellers slamming mugs together and quaffing ale.
Hey, Mike Love: you’re damn right Brian “fucked with the formula”, and he’ll do it mid-song as well if he bloody well likes.
“Heroes and Villains”
A haze of whiskey then sets in, and for some reason the police turn up and arrest you. You sit in the back of the police car in a state of merry obliviousness, swaying your index fingers to and fro and smiling goofily as pretty little “ba ba ba” vocables circle your head; and, the next thing you know, you’re alone, singing mournfully at the moon through the bars of a darkened cell. “I’m fit with the stuff,” you lament, “To ride in the rough/And sunny down snuff I’m alright/By the heroes and…”
Okay, now the cell has vanished and you’re trying desperately to avoid falling off the back of what appears to be one of those marching pink elephants that Dumbo was seeing when he got trolleyed. “Heroes and villains/Just see what you’ve done” intone some of them. Others merely chant “bum bum bum”.
Soon, you approach the bank of a sepia-tinted ocean. A lone trombone sounds. You turn to meet it. Why, it’s your friend the log raft again. There’s something unfriendly in the air: it sounds like the march of the pink elephants has acquired menace. Best bet is to hop on board the raft and see where it takes you next. You set sail towards a majestic island and rock face in the distance, unable to keep yourself from sporadically turning back towards the angry elephants staring back from the edge of the shore. “Do You Like Worms?” they seem to be asking, without even speaking. It makes no sense, but they gradually recede out of sight all the same.
“Rooock, rooock, roooll, Plymouth Rock roll oveeeer!”
The closer you get to the island, the more you can make out some figures gently swaying on the shore. Confusingly, they’re wearing grass skirts and stroking Hawaiian guitars. They melt away in a soft rainfall of plinky keyboards. A siren sounds. Whatever next?
“I’m in Great Shape” leaps in like some unexpected show tune – unexpected, that is, by both listener and performer – before drunkenly staggering over itself and giving way to “Barnyard”. You go for a carefree stroll around the farm, various bleats, barks and whinnies filling the air on this fine day. All seems well, until you chance upon an “Old Master Painter” sitting on a stool, expertly committing the scene to canvas. The presence of all these animals is not enough to cure him of his lonesome heart, and he sings “You Are My Sunshine” in an unfamiliarly funereal fashion.
Overwhelmed with melancholy by the master painter singing his sad song to nothing but an array of unfussed farmyard animals, you stroll away down a shady side street, hands in pockets and facing the floor as you kick a pebble along wistfully as you go. Night falls. At this point, “Cabin Essence” enters the fray and, after being halted in your tracks by a couple of unexpected flurries of tribal chanting, you experience a moment of clarity as you look up towards the moonlit sky and hear the words “Over and over, the crow cries, uncover the cornfield/Over and over, the thresher and plover, the wheatfield”.
“That’s just acid alliteration,” says a dissenting voice from somewhere. You ignore it, feeling elated.
Morning comes. The birds sing sweetly in the trees. It’s “Wonderful”. You feel totally at one with nature, at peace with the world, and are lulled into a blissful state of half-sleep, eventually dream. The dream is “Look (Song for Children)”, which means that it’s one of those intensely beautiful lucid dreams that stays with you for several days afterwards, forcing you to wonder if what you experienced was some kind of scrambled message from a higher plane. Every now and then for the rest of your life, you think back to that dream and thank it, or whatever higher plane it was beamed in from, for adding another dimension to the subconscious realm of your imagination. The best part.
If “Look (Song for Children)” represents the dream itself, then “Child is Father of the Man” represents the goose-bumps-inducing flashbacks you experience in the ensuing days, the dying embers of a strong imprint of a world which somehow feels as if it is waiting for you on the other side. You kind of hope it is.
“Surf’s Up” hits you hard. Bam! One of those songs you might never forget hearing for the first time, where you were and how it made you feel. It is a palatial kingdom unto itself, somehow within just over four minutes. It sees your “Cabin Essence” and raises you to even more gobsmacking degrees of ornate introspection. You wander around the palace, gasping at all the gleaming piles of treasure, until you reach the end of a long corridor. You hear music from inside the very last door.
Inside this room, Brian Wilson sits alone at a piano, in a sandpit. “A wonderful thing, a children’s song,” he sighs, putting all the madness, sadness, burning ambition and conflict in his life to one side for just a few minutes as he wrings untold beauty out of these keys. You too are alone when you hear this song; even if you’re listening with friends, as part of an audience at a live show. Even if the whole world was listening in at once, you’re alone when you hear this.
Everything else fades into obscurity during that brief time. It feels like nothing else could possibly be as beautiful. Then you remember that it can be, and your world – the good parts of it, anyway – rematerialises around you. Who thought sadness could warm your heart so? You recall your journey through Pet Sounds; it was a bit like this, but never quite this arrestingly stark. Brian, alone at a piano, in a sandpit, in a room at the end of a long corridor in this palatial kingdom. Or, at least, it was when you chanced upon it. When you walk out again, Brian and his sandpit-dwelling piano are at the very heart of it.
As you stroll away, a series of hammering, scraping, drilling and sanding sounds emanate from the sandpit. Someone shouts, “Ow!”; what on earth are they up to in there? Your curiosity dissipates when you encounter a table full of vegetables and realise that you haven’t eaten all this time. You reach for a carrot but someone slaps the back of your hand before you can snare it. It’s a mother figure, radiating love and warmth, and she’s trying to keep control over five young Beach Boys. The youngsters are jostling with each other, tugging at their mother’s dress for her attention, generally causing exuberant mayhem.
The mother figure smiles wryly then gently scalds the boys: “Sleep a lot, eat a lot, brush ‘em like crazy/Run a lot, do a lot, never be lazy.” One of the children unwraps a candy bar, throws the yummy treat nonchalantly over his shoulder and proceeds to devour the foil wrapper. Screaming with delight, the other boys tell young Brian what he just did. Brian bursts into laughter. The others burst into laughter. Finally, their mother bursts into laughter.
They carry on laughing. On and on, louder and louder, until they’re all in tears on the floor, beating the ground with clenched fists. Things are getting weird again. You notice that the tears of laughter are beginning to fill the room, Alice in Wonderland style, and you look around for an escape route. None is forthcoming. By now, the boys and their mother have stopped laughing and instead are staring at you inquisitively. “Tell us the name of your favourite vegetable!” they say.
Before you’ve even had time to mull this question over, you are carried off on a wave of their tears of laughter and are deposited onto a steamboat being piloted by a black and white cartoon mouse. He’s smiling, whistling and tapping his foot as he spins his wheel exaggeratedly, stopping occasionally to toot the boat’s whistle for no apparent reason. The whistle sounds its cry as if leaning back for a loud belch. You ask him where you’re headed. “Why, we’re going on our ‘Holidays’!” replies Steamboat Mickey. “Go lay down on the deck, it’s beautiful!”
It is indeed, and you find yourself so relaxed and blissed out that you again doze off. The soothing splash of the ocean underneath and distant twittering of birds filter into your dream, manifesting themselves in your psyche as the most delicate, softly twinkling “Wind Chimes”. You lie on your back as the gentle breeze hypnotises you with the natural music it drums up all around you. After a while, you realise that you are in a hammock underneath the moon, and the breeze is gently rocking you back and forth as well as all the lovely twinkly things. Oh, such splendour!
The music kicks up into something livelier and more regimented, the wind chimes flapping up and down rhythmically as if in formation, like keys played on a piano. “Ba ba ba!” sings the moon, its face so familiar. “Ba ba ba!” You feel a warm glow about you, massaging the back of your neck with its radiance. Ahhh. So warm. Maybe a little too warm, come to think of it. Actually, it’s bloody sweltering.
You wake up to a scene of carnage. The boat is on fire, Steamboat Mickey is charging about in a blind panic, gathering up what he can and attempting to man the lifeboat. He hops in and sails off without giving you a second thought. “Mickey!” you cry out in vain. “Wait for me!” The intense heat is making you dizzy; everything is spinning, and the distant whooping and hollering of fire engines serve to disorient you further. There’s no way of knowing if they’re real or imaginary. Either way, the boat is collapsing in on itself from the blaze, so the situation is hopeless. Unable to tolerate the heat any longer, you take a deep breath and jump overboard.
Ahhhhhhhhh. “Water, water, water, water.” You plunge ever deeper into the depths, into a dark and mysterious ocean world. After a while, various sea creatures begin to emerge from behind the clusters of seaweeds. You fear them at first, but it very quickly becomes clear that they’re all benevolent beings. Some of them swim around you in circles as you continue to sink, the seabed still nowhere in sight, while many more suddenly emerge and dart to and fro, seemingly going about their day.
The various sea creatures circling you are all singing a gently galloping refrain of, “Wah wah woo wah!” to which those going about their business in the background complete the call-and-response with, “Dee dooby doo!” What a thing to behold! You smile warmly at your new friends as you continue to plummet, somehow wholly unalarmed by the situation. Soon, you reach such a depth that you are no longer engulfed in the busy hive of marine life. The sea creatures wave you a fond farewell as you disappear out of their sight.
Suddenly, you stop sinking and remain floating in one spot, apparently in total isolation. “Hello?” you shout, now alarmed. “Is there anyone there?” No voice is returned from the foggy ocean all around. At least, not at first; for, after a while, you hear a familiar sound of voices singing in a cappella. It’s the monastic sounding music you heard at the very beginning of the adventure. As happened then, the world around you begins to melt away. Except, this time, it is then swiftly replaced by millions of little jigsaw puzzle pieces hurtling together from all angles. The puzzle is soon complete: the picture is real life.
“I…I love the colourful clothes she wears…” rings through your ears, alerting every sensor and neurone in the body to the oncoming rush of “Good Vibrations”. You sit up in your bed, still somehow in awe of this song that you must have heard hundreds of times before. How does anyone come up with stuff like that? “Ba ba ba ba ba, BA ba ba!” Crazy, genius. Crazy genius.
“Imagine if someone made a whole album of stuff like that!” you think to yourself, hitting pause at the end of the song so you can go and make a cup of tea before you delve into the bonus material. It’s a funny thing, but it’s yet to truly hit you that what you just experienced was in fact only an album. You might put it on a shelf next to other albums. You might talk about it when someone asks you if you’ve been listening to any good albums lately.
You might put it in a list of your top ten favourite albums. Or you might argue that it isn’t even the best Beach Boys album. Some might even argue that, technically, it isn’t really an album. But that’s all by the by. Whatever which way, you figure, SMiLE is much, much more than just an album.
You finish your tea. Right! You’re going back in…
Kind of like a cross between: Life and death.
In a few words: How do you review that which is unreviewable?
An introduction to SMiLE