SMiLE was to be the follow-up to Pet Sounds, but its recording was apparently so arduous for The Beach Boys, the session musicians, and the increasingly unstable Brian Wilson, that he called it off in the Spring of ‘67. Driblets of the studio material were released over the years, Wilson presented a live and newly recorded version in 2004, and finally, in 2011, The SMiLE Sessions was released. The Sessions producers attempted to put the original studio material into a shape as near to Wilson’s original intention as possible, and did so with his approval and oversight.
And our response? Well, here is commenter “danbk’s” initial reaction to listening to the SMiLE songs I linked below:
Ugh.. Meandering and dull. The time changes are random. There isn’t a memorable riff, rhythm, harmony or melodic line. …It sounds to me like cutting room pieces left as is instead of being structured into a song, and then being presented as “artistic” for that reason.
My initial reactions were similar. It took about five disappointed listens before the music began to click. Everyone knows this happens with lots of music, but in SMiLE’s case, the difference between the initial listen and later ones is fairly stark. You immediately hear some of the general wonderfulness of Beach Boys’ mature sound, but its immersion in weirdness, and the continual juxtaposition of incomplete bits is off-putting. It grows on you, though, and I now listen to 9/10ths of the album with real pleasure.
But Pet Sounds it ain’t. The songs of that album work both as chart-potential pop-song and as artful orchestral expansions of such. They are not initially off-putting. Even as the SMiLE songs become more familiar, they never entirely lose their aura of experiment. By contrast, Pet Sounds refrains from calling attention to its arty/classical elements—humming along with it, it mainly just feels natural.
We can say that SMiLE is good pop-derived art music and that on its own terms it is a remarkable achievement. And what terms! The SMiLE Sessions liner notes argue that
…[this release] is possible in no small part because of innovations in digital editing and recording that allowed the material to be more easily edited, re-edited, and sequenced until it met with Brian’s approval.
The album perhaps could not have been realized with the recording techniques of the times, and if so, was a case of artistic genius getting too far beyond where the materials could currently go.
But it must be said that in certain ways it was a failure. There are two obvious ways, and one fundamental one.
First, the project self-destructed, and some reports suggest it came close to breaking up The Beach Boys.
Second, it appears that even if Brian and co. had soldiered through and released it in ’67 or early ’68, it would neither have captured immediate popularity nor gone on, as became the case with Pet Sounds, to win durable acclaim.
And there is a more fundamental failure behind this second one, and indeed one whose tragic character takes us to the heart of 60s rock: it was the very auter/avant-garde instinct that produced the legendary “artistic arms race” between the mid-60s Beatles and Beach Boys, that is, the Pop Art effort to Mix In classical/international/advanced elements into pop-song, the instinct that produced Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Peppers, Between the Buttons, Something Else, Da Capo, Odessey and Oracle, and Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” also, which produced the failure of SMiLE!
It was not acid, nor the beatnik influence of Van Dyke Parks, that is most responsible for its strangeness, but rather Wilson’s intention to advance, to really do what the achievements of Phil Spector, some British bands, and Pet Sounds itself had caused a lot of talk of: to produce, as he said, “a teenaged symphony to God.”
I think Brian knew that however we want to analyze and talk about the momentous compositional/orchestral achievement that is Pet Sounds, “symphony” would not be the right word. Yes, it contains unprecedented intricacies of harmonic relation and fine-mixture of instrumentation, but the development and contrast of themes that occurs quite regularly even in the briefer compositions of classical music is not really there. And can such be done in pop-song? Two or three “movements” might work, but beyond that you may lose the a) dancers and confuse the b) catchy-melody lovers, who together constitute the pop audience. SMiLE, methinks, was Brian’s effort to push beyond this barrier, to really take pop-song places that works like Sgt. Pepper’s could only ornamentally pretend to take it. It was the pop-artiest effort of the era, the effort most dedicated to mixing, cutting, and re-combining pop song. Instead of two parts posed neatly against one another, as in the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love,” Wilson wanted our ears to swim amid the recurrences of five or seven parts. At least.
So, he went too far that time, you might say. So what?
Well, if “symphony” is giving us something that pop song, even pop song reconfigured as Pop Art and Rock cannot, then perhaps there is reason to return to it, to take it on its own terms, at least when we feel those sorts of musical needs. SMiLE’s failure to really work as pop music, as music that grabs less-patient listeners, thus reveals the limits that Pop Art, and thus Rock itself, has to work within.
But the times were opposed to limits (and to a large extent the official Rock ideology still is). No, one had to perpetually advance, and each victory goaded one into more audacious attempts. In contrast to, say, the high-point compositional achievements of artists like Duke Ellington or (his follower) Dave Brubeck, Pet Sounds is not an instance of a composer and group arriving at a high plateau and then to a large degree remaining there, movin’ and groovin’ all over it and being able and willing to come back down to partake of simpler pleasures too; it rather represents a mountain-top of achievement that The Beach Boys, and symbolically Rock also, speed their car up and then right off, crashing down into the pretty wreckage of SMiLE.
I’m not merely playing with metaphors here. In fact, quite a bit within me resists, and even flinches at, the conclusion I think we’re in large part led to, that Pet Sounds begat SMiLE.
Worse musical mutations of rock n’ roll put into avant garde overdrive were of course possible. Not long after SMiLE imploded, other pop musicians who felt the need to express their educated high-culture side, or at least the side that wished to move beyond the R+B forms, began abandoning Pop Art prettiness for Hard Rock, avant-garde Noise, or electrified approximations of Free Jazz formlessness—-those became the ways to keep advancing into Art. And what do we really have to show for all that? How much of it has approached the compositional richness of classical?
As the Songbook has repeatedly said, one thing we do have to show for it is a dearth of dance, and an eventual disconnection of the dance from live musicianship.
And this distancing from the dance floor, and from the whole family of Afro-American blues-swingin’ traditions, undoubtedly began with what I’ve called the Pop Art sound. I fully admit that works that I am willing to praise pretty highly, such as the Kinks’ Something Else, The Who’s The Who Sell Out, Love’s Da Capo, and even the Zombies’ practically-perfect-in-every-way Odessey and Oracle, noticeably diminish the swing and blues elements. It’s just that insofar as those groups wanted to do more than just supply dance music, I sympathize. When they wanted to find ways to express their middle-class character, their interest in fine arts, or their sweetly melancholic suburban-ness, I’m right there with ‘em. When they wanted a musical world in which one could plausibly introduce “Jane Austen” to “Count Basie,” I approve whole-heartedly.
The difference, however, between what was wanted and what was delivered, could be decisive. Along these lines, Peter’s appalled astonishment that I would seem to praise the Left Banke makes sense to me—their music helps illustrate what the Pop Art sound was after, but theirs is not itself music I regularly turn to—and it is not so much the lack of manliness that repels me, but its underlying tow towards bottomless melancholy. None of the blues-therapy is there. In any case, the concept of “Pretty Ballerina” ultimately works better than the song itself—it sounds brilliant the first ten or so spins, but then begins to wear at one. And absent the blues, such initially sweet/naïve driftings into utter melancholia have become legion in Rock—more on this soon.
But some bands, the Kinks, Zombies, and Beach Boys most of all, did for a time deliver us music that, while perhaps not as danceable as we would have wanted, seems to have gotten close to that desired middling ground between drawing-room and night-club. For reasons I don’t claim to fully understand, which have something to do with acid, the sexual revolution, and the general confusion of the times, this particular musical “center” could not hold. And of course, there is reason to fear that at the heart of the problem was wanting to combine things that really couldn’t be.