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Revisiting the Beach Boys' tragic, but influential "Smiley Smile"

by Joseph Massaro - Campus Talk Editor
Tue, Sep 18th 2018 04:00 pm
Surfs up - The Beach Boys (above), with sand beneath their feet during one of their photoshoots in 1967, with photographer, Michael Ochs.
Surfs up - The Beach Boys (above), with sand beneath their feet during one of their photoshoots in 1967, with photographer, Michael Ochs.

Tuesday, Sept. 18, marked the 51-year anniversary of the Beach Boys' disastrous, but influential 1967 release, “Smiley Smile.” The album is considered to be one of the worst follow-up albums of all time and peaked low on the Billboard 200 chart, which was rare for the California band. However, nowadays, bands from Sebadoh to Animal Collective have cited “Smiley Smile” as an influence to their lo-fi and experimental DIY style of music. 

This isn’t surprising, considering “Smiley Smile” is thought to be the first ever lo-fi album. It was recorded in a matter of two weeks at Beach Boys founding member, Brian Wilson’s home studio. The album masters a unique style of lo-fi psychedelia and bedroom pop, a sound that was not familiar with fans and critics at the time. It was a daring record, which baffled and divided their fan base, who either wanted surfin-themed music or sweet and clean harmonies. However, through transcendental meditation, drugs, a home studio and sand beneath their feet, the Beach Boys kept it going with one of its best releases. 

An initial review from Rolling Stone, called the album a “disaster,” while the Milwaukee Sentinel called it “the most valuable contribution to rock since the Beatles' 'Revolver'."

Say what you want, but you cannot deny the album’s legacy; it is becoming just as worthy as its beloved predecessor, “Pet Sounds.” However, the making of “Smiley Smile” did not come easily. 

Capitol Records, the Beach Boys' label at the time, was damaging the group’s reputation and image. Capitol quickly released the group’s first greatest hits compilation, “The Best of the Beach Boys” without the group's permission soon after the release of "Pet Sounds." The label tried burying the Beach Boys as a novelty act. It seemed like Capitol wanted to erase everything Wilson poured his heart into. 

This drove Wilson mad, considering how hard he worked as a composer and writer during the sessions of "Pet Sounds." Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys knew they had to please their label and fans by making comeback onto the charts.

The Beach Boys had a couple tracks, which were cut from “Pet Sounds.” One of the tracks was the ever-popular “Good Vibrations” which was reworked. It has been reported to have used 90 hours of recording tape. That much time for a single showed the pure madness and genius of Wilson; practically making him a better looking Phil Spector. 

After releasing “Good Vibrations,” the Beach Boys went back to number one onto the charts. Soon after, the Beach Boys announced they were working on a new album, which had Capitol, fans and critics loyal and excited again. 

Brian Wilson went back into the studio and collaborated with Van Dyke Parks, an experimental composer and songwriter. Parks introduced Wilson to the more obscure and psychedelic sound of music. This caused some tension within the group however, since Wilson was mainly doing stuff with Parks or by himself again, rather than the Beach Boys as a whole. 

Here, Wilson and Parks collaborated on tracks such as “Heroes and Villains,” “Vegetables” and “Wonderful,” which carried themes surrounding psychedelia, spirituality, and satire. These songs and others were set to be released on the next Beach Boys record, “SMiLE,” an album that would’ve made the Beatles sound like Glenn Miller. 

“SMiLE” went above and beyond what the Beach Boys were used to releasing and was even far away from the progressive and baroque pop style on “Pet Sounds.” Capitol was concerned yet again however, and they stepped in this time. 

Due to the disputes with their label, bandmates, Parks now focusing on his own music and Wilson’s drug behavior, “SMiLE” was shelved and wasn't officially released until Oct. 31, 2011.  

To fulfill obligations with its pushy and untrustworthy label, the Beach Boys still had to release an album. The band settled in Wilson's home studio and recorded a more simple version of “SMiLE,” called “Smiley Smile.” The album included some of the tracks Parks and Wilson collaborated on, but “Vegetables” and “Wonderful” were creepily reworked. 

“Smiley Smile” is just as trippy as its original and carries a highly influential lo-fi and laid back slacker rock sound, crafted mainly from radio broadcasting equipment.

Capitol of course didn't know how to market this album and were confused as to why a once-highly adored surf and hot rod rock band were experimenting and making odd and bizarre noises on a record. 

Immediately after the monster opening, “Heroes and Villains,” the album runs all over the place. The tracklisting goes from a comical and chipmunks singing song “She’s Goin Bald” to a more calm and endearing track like “Little Pad”. Then we get to side two, where “Good Vibrations” carries the electro-theremin, the obscure instrument, which perfects and summarizes the album’s effects.

“Smiley Smile” is an inconsistent and chaotic record, but that’s its specialty. I mean if its original form was released in 1967, the world of music possibly would have changed. 

When “SMILE” was officially released in 2011, people have praised the aborted project way more than its replacement and have kicked “Smiley Smile” farther and farther to the curb.

Sure “Smiley Smile” doesn't have songs like “Surfs Up” or “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)” on the tracklisting, but “SMILE” doesn’t have any songs like “Gettin’ Hungry” or “Little Pad” either. 

“Smiley Smile” wasn’t a bunt or collapse in the Beach Boys discography, it was a grand slam in absurdity within reverberation and a rebirth for the group. Here's to 51 years to the Beach Boys inventing a new sound.