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Alternative History

How The Beach Boys’ SMiLE continues to inspire modern musicians

smile beach boys

The Beach Boys were one of the most influential bands of the 1960s and, according to some, never even released the best album that they recorded during that decade. The album in question is “SMiLE.”

Depending on who you ask, this album would’ve been enough to alter the trajectory of pop music and would have helped The Beach Boys to tower over their British rivals, The Beatles.

The recording sessions for “SMiLE” have been available for some years. Many musicians have been influenced by them, and more still by Brian Wilson’s other, completed albums.

But what’s all the hubbub about? Does “SMiLE” live up to the hype as a lost masterpiece? Here’s what I gather might be its troubled history in a nutshell.

The rivalry between The Beatles and The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys spent the first part of the 1960s having hits and developing a sound that even their British counterparts, The Beatles, could envy.

Therefore, in 1966, a peace deal was brokered by Derek Taylor, former marketing guru for the British group, and later employed by The Beach Boys.

Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson met in a bid to tighten pop-rock Anglo-American relations. They played each other new, unreleased recordings. McCartney told Wilson he ought to hurry with his because The Beatles had a little thing called “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” in the works.

The British musician left satisfied and believing he had just befriended his one-time rival. The American stayed behind and maintained an icy stance toward his counterpart. Worse still, he began believing that The Beatles were plotting against him. Could the Fab Four be using their influence to hear his recordings before they were released and use them as fuel for their own work?

Whatever conclusion Wilson came to, it was enough to derail the imminent release of “SMiLE” the album that was due to confirm Brian Wilson as the premier global songwriter and potential visionary. With much of the album locked in vaults for numerous years, the record reached an almost mythical status.

In its absence, “SMiLE” affected millions. Many of those influenced were musicians left to use the breadcrumbs left by The Beach Boys and approximate the impact of the album that ought to have changed the course of pop music history.

The myth surrounding SMiLE

By 1966 The Beach Boys were consistent global hitmakers and artistic innovators. While the group was something of a family business, they owed most of their success to Brian Wilson. He was the oldest of the Wilson brothers. His siblings were Dennis and Carl. The group was rounded up by the Wilsons’ cousin Mike Love and by family friend Al Jardine.

The Beach Boys hit their commercial and artistic zenith with the 1966 album “Pet Sounds.” This was proof of Wilson’s vision. His baroque-pop stylings had managed to thrill both audiences and critics. It only stood to reason that the next album would give the visionary artist permission to venture one step forward.

Perhaps it was one step too far. During the recording of “Pet Sounds,” Brian had practically revolutionized pop music by incorporating unconventional sounds like bicycle bells, horns, harpsichords, and even upside-down milk jugs.

But, his time in the studio had been helped by the fact that he’d been given a leave of absence from touring. It had all started in 1965 when Brian suffered what was later deemed a “nervous breakdown.” The rest of The Beach Boys were sent as ambassadors leaving their songwriter to craft the hits.

SMiLE is axed before its planned release

“SMiLE” would never be released. Not as a standalone record, at least, and not for many decades.

While it was announced in the press as early as 1967, it was mysteriously shelved. This left The Beach Boys absent from The Summer of Love.

Its myth, however, grew. In a bid to stay ahead of the frequent bootleggers, the band promised a belated release in 1972 but failed to deliver. The same happened during the 1990s.

By the time “The Smile Sessions” were released as a box set, in 2011, the world had decided. This was a record fated to exist in the imagination. For many, this is just enough to consider it the greatest record ever made.

Musical innovations in SMiLE

Can we be certain that “SMiLE” would have been a highly innovative pop album? Yes, that much is true.

Brian Wilson had used “Good Vibrations” as proof of the fact that he could a. break the bank on just one record and b. create something of subtle beauty and great artistic depth. Derek Taylor, famously, dubbed it a “pocket symphony”.

“SMiLE” builds on that kind of ambition. Songs are constructed in bits and pieces, like modular construction, ready to be reassembled in an infinite amount of forms. Wilson called these parts feels.

Traditional rock n’ roll instrumentation would just not cut it on this one. The Theremin had been front and center of “Good Vibrations.” Here, the musical saw, the kazoo, or the bass harmonica are used. If that’s not enough, there are even sounds of vegetables being eaten by famous pop stars.

The famous vocal harmonies of The Beach Boys are utilized like never before, and so is the studio as a musical instrument.

Finally, this is Wilson at his most psychedelic. To fully appreciate “SMiLE” one had to imagine themselves back in 1967, a year that also gave the world albums like “Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Their Satanic Majesties’ Request.”

Is SMiLE a concept album?

Great minds think alike. The Beatles weren’t the only ones considering ways to use the album as a complete body of work. Brian Wilson had similar ideas.

“SMiLE” is, in many ways, an image of the United States of America as Brian Wilson wished it could be, innocent yet ambitious, “Heroes and Villains.”

One famous anecdote about Wilson involves him telling friends that he’d met God while tripping on LSD. The same story tells of how Wilson had claimed he was instructed to write pop songs to God. “SMiLE” could’ve been the album where he got closest to his objective.

The album was meant to be a journey through different aspects of American culture, with songs that touched on everything from the innocence of childhood to the complexities of the adult world. There were also references to spirituality, with songs that drew on elements of Hinduism and other Eastern philosophies.

While difficult to pindown, its the general concept of “SMiLE” that had the largest impact on future artists.

Classic artists influenced by SMiLE

“SMiLE” broke the rules and could have set pop music on a very bizarre trajectory. This fearlessness and ambition had a profound impact.

Arguably, the first to take notice of this were the bands that would soon be dubbed progressive rockers. These and avant-garde musicians became some of the first supporters of this lost pop heirloom. Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd were undeniably influenced by The Beach Boys.

However, the most immediate and powerful influence of “SMiLE” was felt across the pond.

Having returned to England, Paul McCartney told his fellow Beatles about the experience of meeting Brian Wilson. The production and unusual compositions fed into the recording sessions for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Some would go so far as to call The Beatles’ 1967 release a companion piece to “SMiLE,” an album never actually completed.

Modern musicians influenced by SMiLE and The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys after the 1970s were not cool. It stayed that way for a long time. But the tide turned eventually.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to find record collectors or serious musicians who don’t sound their appreciation for The Beach Boys.

Radiohead took a page out of Brian Wilson’s style and attitude with their sharp turn toward the experimental for their work in the late 1990s.

Animal Collective claim to be descendants of the “SMiLE” album, and even a quick listen can confirm that.

Indie-rockers Grizzly Bear have based their songwriting and vocal approach on this particular era of The Beach Boys.

And, the host of modern poppy folk groups clearly owe some of their sound to “SMiLE.” Nowhere is this more obvious than on The Fleet Foxes‘ harmony-powered tales of tribulation.

And these are just the influences that you can hear. As I mentioned earlier, “SMiLE” shines in absence.

The beautifully bizarre legacy of SMiLE

“SMiLE” is one of the most famous albums of all time because it … sort of exists. The mystery surrounding it is part of the appeal.

It could have rivaled The Beatles. It could have changed pop music. And it could have been the greatest record of one of the best pop-rock bands in the history of music.

Brian Wilson made other records like “SMiLE.” Some of them include moments of transcendental beauty. Few of them turned music critics into fans, and fewer sold.

This left the other members of The Beach Boys disputing Brian’s role as ship captain. Never, after 1967, would the songwriter have the same authority within the group. Nor would he need to contend with the same kind of scrutiny from the public.

But Wilson’s vision would prevail, albeit in other forms. The Beach Boys did release a diluted version of the album called “Smiley Smile” which was strongly panned.

However, in 2011, they released “The Smile Sessions.” Moreover, “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” appeared in 2004, and is arguably the definitive version of this musical piece.

All of this aside, the sessions for “SMiLE” reveal the work of a brilliant, fearless songwriter. Brian Wilson has many proselytes and imitators. None of them have the ability or courage to travel where he did and tell the tale.

About author

Eduard Banulescu is a writer, blogger, and musician. As a content writer, Eduard has contributed to numerous websites and publications, including FootballCoin, Play2Earn, BeIN Crypto, Business2Community, NapoliSerieA, Extra Time Talk, Nitrogen Sports, Bavarian FootballWorks, etc. He has written a book about Nirvana, hosts a music podcasts, and writes weekly content about some of the best, new and old, alternative musicians. Eduard also runs and acts as editor-in-chief of the alternative rock music website www.alt77.com. Mr. Banulescu is also a musician, having played and recorded in various bands and as a solo artist.
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