Click On Each Title Below For A Full Page Review of Each Track:
Interesting Events 1966
January: Julian Bond barred from elected seat in Georgia House of Representatives for opposition to War in Viet Nam
May: Large anti-war March on Washington.
Bob Dylan releases Blonde On Blonde.
June: B52s bomb Hanoi and Haiphong
September: Dr. King leads march through Cicero, Illinois protected by 2,000 National Guard. Supremes' You Can't Hurry Love tops singles chart.
October: Four Tops' Reach Out I'll Be There tops singles chart.
November: Ronald Reagan elected Governor of California
Interesting Events 1967
January: Packers win first Super Bowl
April: Muhammad Ali stripped of Heavyweight Champ title for refusing the draft.
May: Carl Wilson indicted by Federal Grand Jury for draft evasion, misses first Beach Boys concert in Dublin at beginning of European tour.
June: Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You tops album chart.
July; Detroit erupts. 5 days, 43 dead, 1,189 injured, 7,200 arrested, 2,000 buildings destroyed.
August: Thurgood Marshall first African-American appointed to Supreme Court.
Doors' Light My Fire tops singles chart.
October: Anti-war march on
November: Supremes Greatest Hits replaces Sgt. Pepper at top of album chart.
December: Rolling Stone magazine knocks Beach Boys in editorial for "pointless pursuit" of the Beatles, citing Smiley Smile's failure.
Jazzing What Isn't There
You can listen to a be-bop improvisation on a standard and "get it" without ever having heard the standard. Charlie Parker's various takes on "Cherokee" for example, are more familiar than British band leader Ray Noble's original.
Likewise, listening to Smiley Smile in the decades before Smile appeared you could sense the Boys were often riffing off of something that wasn't there. But what was it?
Sometimes, as we have seen, it was the at that time unavailable original material from Smile. Sometimes it was their own back catalogue and career. Sometimes it was their understanding of the expectation and the gap (sorry, no Smile) in their own career. And sometimes it was and is the weight of rock based pop's own history.
You didn't then and don't have to now know all that context to appreciate Smiley's changes. But you do have to have some minimal understanding of jazz context to follow Bird's Cherokee. And you have to have some small grasp of mid sixties pop to follow Smiley Smile. Maybe just that the Beatles went from "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to "A Day In The Life," from Meet The Beatles to Sgt. Pepper.
What made it work then and makes it work now, unlike on the intentionally sloppy put-down versions of "I Get Around" and "Little Deuce Coupe" on Beach Boys Party, is skill. The careful placement of understatement and embellishment establishes that hip detachment/engagement we more often associate with be-boppers than doo-woppers. But Smiley is a Beach Boys version of arty jazz.
To succeed at this you need more than attitude, you need to have the vocabulary, the chops, and the smarts. And by this point in their career they had what they needed, working inside the conventions of their genres. It's as if they went from the big band to the bop quartet in the space of two albums.
What Is There: The Two Big Hits
The lengthy hit singles that sit atop each side of Smiley provide material that gets re-examined by the subsequent tracks. But do those other tracks, with their eccentric instrumentation (no drums or bass) and unpredictable vocals fit with the fuller textures of "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations"?
They do with some of it. Both hits alternate between thick, more beat driven, and thin, less layered, sections. Most successfully, "Good Vibrations" builds at the beginning from thin to thick, alternates in the middle, and fades out at the end into thin. Switching things around less successfuly, "Heroes and Villains" starts off with a bang and breaks at about the 40 second mark, for a slowed down nearly a capella section that Bruce Johnson famously described as the moment when H&V failed its debut at a London club. Impossible to dance to.
Both hits are over three minutes with lots of moving parts. But heard at the top of each side of Smiley, the ear can remember, even if not consciously, all the parts in them that are riffed on, ripped off or re-examined on the other tracks. That includes, as was revealed when Smile was finally available, cuts like "Vegetables" "Wind Chimes" and "Wonderful" that are lifted from Smile, toyed with a bit, and inserted comfortably into Smiley Smile.
Still, there's something jarring about the top heavy sequence of each side. And Smiley wouldn't work if that wasn't acknowledged by some of the weirdness, particularly on side one.
The Brian (and the Boys) At Home Era
The album was originally considered a hodge podge and a dud, the moment when Brian Wilson walked away and the group scrambled to sweep together enough scraps to stay in business. In time a more benevolent, but to my mind still parsimonious view saw this as the first of the three Brian At Home albums, to be followed by Wild Honey and Friends. No grand themes or big ambitions, only the inspiration of daily life.
Even if the sort of theory fits, what three oddly different albums were created! Wild Honey is DIY white R&B, and Friends is a more mellow, grown-up Pet Sounds. Neither has the hip self-reference and downright eccentricity of Smiley. In fact, nothing by the Beach Boys, as a whole or as individuals, will ever sound like this again. Is it a failure, or a one-off success, or a retreat? Or a unique moment as the group pivots towards a new direction?
Or directions. Whatever it may be, Smiley signals the end of the progression that can be traced, if you need to, from Surfin' Safari to Pet Sounds. This disruption or maybe splintering mirrored what was happening, and has happened, in the larger social context they performed in, but it took awhile before a connection that absorbed and acknowledged these changes could get re-established between the Beach Boys and their larger audience.
This may have been the beginning of a domestic interlude for The Beach Boys, but it was a tumultuous and creative one.
Turmoil In the Group?
Another understanding of this record sees a sabotage of, or revenge upon, Brian Wilson (and maybe collaborator Van Dyke Parks) by the rest of the group for his (their) role as the demanding auteur(s) of Smile. The fancy Parkian wordplay segments of Smile (except as survives in H&V) have been eliminated or distorted and the simpler, if still sometimes mysterious Smile segments are spotlighted as independent tracks rather than thematic breaks. Is this an intentional back-to-basics dismantling of Smile and maybe even of Pet Sounds?
Much, perhaps too much has been written about the creation of Pet Sounds and the history of Smile, along with the release of outtakes and rehearsal tapes in box sets and compilations. But as far as I know, almost nothing has been written about the creation of the tracks that are unique to Smiley Smile. Whose idea was it? What was it supposed to acheive? Was it intended to be complexly simple, or just nihilistic? Or is it a masterpiece by accident?
Maybe it was a palace coup, maybe even a self-inflicted wound. From the outside, however, as a fan, it sounded then and sounds to me now like a very clever, hip on their own terms, essentially benevolent Beach Boysian statement about the position of ambitious yet not pretentious white American rock 'n' roll as the middle 1960s gave way to the long late '60s. Not a farewell, but a turning point, a recognition or at least an intuition they were only half way through their own career.
Brianologists see this second half as essentially a long long wait for the release of Smile. Fans like myself can follow that strand yet also hear the Beach Boys, live and on record, entering, with Smiley Smile, a second half more interesting, emblematic, and unpredictable than the first.
Oddly or aptly enough, this second half is bracketed by the release of Smiley Smile at one end and Smile at the other. Which should grant Smiley Smile more historical weight and make it less puzzling. And that can make it easier to hear the enitre second half of the Beach Boys career as uniquely interesting and even appropriate, made for those and these times.
Smiley Smile Lives On In Portland, Oregon
It took 47 years to brew up a scene kooky, clever, talented and benign enough to understand Smiley Smile, and produce a tribute album that knows how to pay tribute. Portland Smiles from tender loving empire compiles a variety of hometown talent takes on Smiley's 11 tracks. All show an appreciation of the flow, structure, and attitude of the originals that allows, as every good tribute album should, some new notes to be played on old tunes. That only happens, and it does happen here, when the new people actually find something interesting inside the old stuff.
Among the most satisfying is Collin Jenkins' opening homage to "Heroes and Villains" which wisely borrows from both the Smiley and Smile versions, stretching and smoothing, without getting too smooth, giving this historically difficult track a coherent and comfortable reading.
Fear not, however. The entire album unfolds to engage both the whimsy and nuttiness of Smiley Smile. A special shout out to Seth Mankowski for noticing, honoring, and revamping the especially significant pronunciation of the "t" in "time" in "comes the night time" in "Gettin' Hungry" but folks, it's all good. Well done, Portland. You are now the world repository of updated late sixties Beach Boydom.
And maybe, Portland . . . you have established Smiley Smile as the foundational document of alt rock.
Downloads only. From the tle site and itunes.