Search this blog

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Beach Boys, "Smiley Smile"

The Beach Boys
"Smiley Smile"
Brother (1967)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

There are many adjectives that are abused in music journalism. One descriptor in particular catches my eye and my ire: "psychedelic." From the '60s onward, writers have used and overused the term to describe music that features any number of the following: funny wordplay, guitar effects, foreign instruments, odd time signatures, musicians known to do drugs even if it has no effect on the music itself, et cetera. When serving as the editor of my school paper, I did my best to cut the word from every review I read, because it was always an exaggeration (The Lonely Island, psychedelic, really?). Now that you know my feelings on the term, understand how sincere I am when I say that The Beach Boys' "Smiley Smile" is a total trip.

The history behind the album makes it the most controversial release from the Boys. Brian Wilson was looking to one-up both The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's" and its own "Pet Sounds" album. Moon describes how band leader Brian Wilson obsessed over the album's first single, "Good Vibrations," and it's quite possible that his studio intensity drove him off the deep end. Then again, if the tracks on "Smiley Smile" are any reflection of his state of mind, Wilson was already in an odd place.

A handful of tracks demonstrate in various ways just how weird The Beach Boys get here. Start with "Vegetables," a song that features Paul McCartney. On bass? No. The track involves the Beatles member and Wilson chewing vegetables as percussion. Instrumental "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony)" combines woodblock percussion and evil laughs. "Wind Chimes" uses running water and the titular instrument for odd effect. All in all, it's not these odd touches that make this album psychedelic, however. If anything, it's the addition of the Beach Boys' trademark vocal style.

The group was renowned for its harmonies, and "Smiley Smile" is no exception. But here, the Boys use their skills for unsettling ends. Sometimes it's via a network of intertwining vocal parts ("Heroes and Villains"). Sometimes it's via eerie A cappella melodies ("Fall Breaks").

One track in particular accentuates both Wilson's penchant for experimentation and his oddball mental procedures. "She's Goin' Bald" can be broken down into four segments. It begins in typical Beach Boys' style, with multiple vocal parts describing a woman's hair. At :50, studio effects change the vocalists' pitches, ending with a Chipmunks-esque climax. At 1:10, Wilson's anxious voice takes a solo, describing (in the style of a '30s radio program) how the song's protagonist began dumping various chemicals on her scalp, and the track ends with a soul-style lament for the now missing hair.

It's only fair to spend at least a little time discussing "Good Vibrations," which Moon dedicates his entire passage to, and that he goes as far as to call "the highest expression of the art of the pop single." More than 90 hours of recording tape exists from the sessions for "Good Vibrations." Wilson spent $50,000 recording different instrumental and vocal parts, and in the end narrowed it down to 3:36. The range is impressive. He utilizes standard piano, harpsichord and Hammond organ, and both upright and electric bass. Most impressive however is the space age theremin that jumps in during the hook. If Wilson had the mental capacity to invest this much time and money into every track, "Smiley Smile" would have been the end-all of pop music.

The first time I listened to this record, it was just a hoot. After revisiting it several times, I found that the bizarre nature of the tracks can't hide Wilson's experimental genius nor The Beach Boys' fantastic harmonies.

INTERESTING FACT: We've established that Brian Wilson was a little odd. Part of this was the sandbox he had constructed in his home for writing music. Plopping a grand piano in a giant sand box is also one of the best tales of rock star excess I've ever heard.

She's Goin' Bald by The Beach Boys on Grooveshark

(Yes, "Good Vibrations" is the best song on the album. But, you've already heard that song and I want you to experience the true feeling of "Smiley Smile.")

BONUS COVERAGE! Van Dyke Parks was Wilson's replacement for Tony Asher, his cowriter for much of "Pet Sounds." Parks' propensity for acid and general oddness helped alienate the rest of the group during "Smiley Smile" and the only-recently released "Smile." I had the chance to interview Parks for Ohio State's student newspaper. I must clarify that this is far from my best work. My secondary sources got cut from the online version and my writing just isn't at its best. However, you can get an idea for Parks' character from his colorful quotes.


  1. Another insightful post, I'll have to check out the rest of the album. Moon didn't include "Smiley Smile" in the book; he picked just the song "Good Vibrations" (unlike 10001 Albums, he didn't place limits in his "recordings"). I had no idea there were 90 freakin' hours of tape to that song. That's unbelievable. Everyone went nuts over "Smile" when it came out, but I'm still trying to get into it. The more I hear it, the more I get it, but I guess I am just not into "psychedelic" stuff that much

  2. Yeah, for whatever OCD reason it annoys me when Moon only includes one track. So I'm gonna do the whole album when he plays that card. Most of the time I'll end up focusing on the one song tho.

    Really off-the-wall stuff like this and The Incredible String Band can be unsettling at first. Your best bet is to ease into it. Late Beatles are a good start!

  3. Smiley Smile has its low-fi charms. But it's really just some scraps of the SMiLE album that the other BB's threw together because they owed the record company an album. Now that the SMiLE Sessions have been released, Smiley Smile is almost irrelevant. It's an even more incomplete version of SMiLE than the box set is. The SMiLE Sessions are psychedelic, but they're also much more. I'd recommend checking them out before this album. The books you cite will both have to be updated!