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Studio album by The Beach Boys
Released Unreleased
Recorded May 1966 - May 1967
Genre Psychedelic pop
Length Not determined (estimated to be 35-45 minutes in length)
Label Capitol Records
Producer Brian Wilson
The Beach Boys chronology
Pet Sounds
Smiley Smile

Smile (sometimes typeset with the idiosyncratic partial capitalization SMiLE) is an unreleased album by The Beach Boys, and perhaps the most famous unreleased rock and roll album of all time. Recorded throughout 1966 and 1967, the project was intended by its creator Brian Wilson as the follow-up to The Beach Boys' influential album Pet Sounds, but was never completed in its original form. The project was resurrected in 2003, and a newly recorded version was released by Beach Boys composer and leader Wilson in 2004. During the 37 years from its cancellation to the release of Wilson's version, Smile acquired considerable mystique, and bootlegged tracks from the never-completed album are circulated widely among Beach Boys collectors. Many of the tracks which were originally recorded for Smile eventually found their way onto subsequent Beach Boys albums.



In an October 1966 interview, Brian Wilson dubbed the work "a teenage symphony to God".[1] His plan was to take his work on Pet Sounds to a new level, with an album-length suite of specially-written songs which were both thematically and musically linked, and would be recorded using the unusual sounds and innovative production techniques which had made their recent hit "Good Vibrations" so successful.

The Smile story begins during the recording of Pet Sounds. On February 17, 1966, during the sessions for Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson started work on a new single, "Good Vibrations". The most expensive—at a cost of more than $50,000—and complex pop recording ever made (at the time), it still stands as a milestone in recording history. "Good Vibrations" was created by an unprecedented recording technique: nearly 30 minutes of barely-related musical sections were recorded, then painstakingly spliced together and reduced into a three-minute pop song. Many within The Beach Boys' camp were skeptical, but the song quickly became the band's biggest hit yet, which went to #1 in both Britain and the USA. Smile was intended to be an entire album produced in the same fashion.

Crucial to the inception and creation of Smile was Wilson's collaboration with singer, musician, composer and lyricist Van Dyke Parks, whom Wilson invited to write lyrics for the new album in the Spring of 1966; at the time, the project was provisionally entitled Dumb Angel. The two quickly formed a close and fruitful working relationship, and between April and September 1966 they co-wrote a number of major songs, including "Surf's Up", "Heroes and Villains", "Wonderful", "Cabin Essence" and "Wind Chimes", all of which were written in the famous sandbox that Brian had installed in his home. Their first collaboration was "Heroes and Villains", and it is reported that when Wilson played the song's descending melody line to him, Parks devised the opening line on the spot. Their most acclaimed song, "Surf's Up", was written in one night.

Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher wrote the original lyrics for "Good Vibrations." The hit version released in October 1966 featured a new set of lyrics co-written by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys' Mike Love. Wilson had in fact asked Parks to write new lyrics for "Good Vibrations", but Parks declined, preferring not to enter a project which was already underway.

Although the precise nature of its original conception is still hotly debated, several key features of Smile are generally acknowledged: both musically and lyrically, Wilson and Parks intended Smile to be explicitly American in style and subject, a direct reaction to the British dominance of popular music at the time. It was supposedly conceived as a musical journey across America from east to west, beginning at Plymouth Rock and ending in Hawaii, as well as traversing some of the great themes of modern American history and culture, including the impact of white settlement on native Americans, the influence of the Spanish, the Wild West, and the opening up of the country by railroad and highway.

As the name implies, humour was a key ingredient, and the Smile songs are replete with wordplay, puns and multiple meanings. A good example is "Vega-Tables", which includes the lines "I'm gonna do well, my vegetables, cart off and sell my vegetables"; the phrase "...cart off and..." is a bilingual pun on the word Kartoffeln, which is German for potatoes. At one stage, Wilson apparently toyed with the idea of expanding Smile to include an additional "humour" record, and a number of recordings were made in this vein, although they were apparently unsuccessful, so the idea was dropped. One of the possible remnants of this aspect of the project is the track "She's Goin' Bald", which was recorded after the main Smile sessions and included on Smiley Smile (the original Smile track circulated amongst bootleggers is sometimes titled "He Gives Speeches").

Wilson is known to have been deeply influenced by the music of George Gershwin at an early age (especially "Rhapsody in Blue"), and Smile contains echoes of Gershwin's emphatic American-ness, and the episodic and programmatic characteristics of the composer's works. A short scene featuring Brian at the piano in the DVD documentary on the making of Smile 2003 suggests that Brian may have directly based the main riff of "Heroes and Villains" on a variation or inversion of a fragment of "Rhapsody in Blue".

Smile also drew heavily on American popular music of the past; Wilson's innovative original compositions were interwoven with snippets of significant songs of yesteryear, including "The Old Master Painter" (made famous by Peggy Lee), the perennial "You Are My Sunshine", Johnny Mercer's jazz standard "I Wanna Be Around" (recorded by Tony Bennett), the song "Gee" by noted '50s doo-wop group The Crows, as well as quotations from other pop-culture reference points, such as the Woody Woodpecker theme.

The cut-up structure of Smile was certainly unique for its time in mainstream popular music, and it indicates that Brian was familiar with the techniques of musique concrète and the usage of chance operations in making art—an approach which, according to musicologist Ian MacDonald, was also exerting a strong influence on the Beatles at this point.

Wilson's experiments with LSD were undoubtedly a significant influence on the texture and structure of the work, and one of the strongest intellectual influences on his thinking at this time was his friend Loren Schwartz, who is said to have introduced Brian to both marijuana and LSD.

Writer Bill Tobelman suggests that Smile is filled with coded references to Brian's life and his recent LSD experiences (a presumed Lake Arrowhead, CA trip being the most important), and that it was heavily influenced by his interest in Zen philosophy — especially in that Zen teaching uses absurd humour and the paradoxical riddle, the koan, to liberate the mind from preconceptions — and that Smile as a whole can be interpreted as an extended Zen koan[2]. Tobelman notes that Wilson's autobiography recounts an acid flashback which Wilson interprets as a Zen riddle and suggests that this same riddle, when contemplated upon, helped Wilson attain spiritual enlightenment. By presenting this riddle in the form of Smile, Wilson is promoting spiritual enlightenment.

Studio techniques

Brian Wilson developed his 'classic' production method over several years, perfecting it with the recording of Pet Sounds during 1965 and 1966. In this period it was still common for mainstream pop recordings to be recorded 'live' in the studio in a single take, but Wilson developed a more 'modular' approach that relied on recent advances in recording technology, using both 4-track and the newer 8-track audio recorders. He produced the tracks for Pet Sounds in two major 'blocks' -- while the rest of the group were away on tour he recorded the elaborate instrumental backing tracks using a band of "first-call" Los Angeles session players (now often referred to as "The Wrecking Crew") and these backing tracks were typically recorded live in a single take onto a 4-track recorder. By the time the group returned from touring, the backing tracks were virtually complete and had been mixed down onto one track of an 8-track master tape. Wilson then recorded the group vocals, often assigning an entire track on the 8-track tape to each voice; the remaining eighth track was reserved for additional "sweetening" overdubs.

With "Good Vibrations", Wilson took this 'modular' approach to recording even further, experimenting with radical editing of his work. Now, instead of taping each backing track as a complete performance (as had been the case for all previous Beach Boys recordings) he began to break the arrangements into sections, recording multiple 'takes' of each section. He also recorded the same section at several different studios, to exploit the unique sonic characteristics or special effects available in each. Then, he would select the best performances of each section and edit these different segments together to create a composite which combined the best features of production and performance.

Wilson continued this exploration with the songs on Smile. Working mainly at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles (Phil Spector's favorite studio), he began a long and complex series of sessions in late 1966 that continued until early 1967. He also frequently used Sunset Sound Studios and United Western Recorders on Sunset Boulevard, and Capitol's own renowned in-house studio.

Much of Smile was recorded in this piecemeal manner; each of the finished tracks is a heavily-edited composite recording, and most of the unreleased Smile fragments are either alternate versions of backing tracks, alternate sections of these tracks, or passages intended to provide transitions between the main songs.

Despite the availability of stereo recording, Wilson always made his final mixes in mono, as did rival producer Phil Spector. Wilson did so for several reasons -- he personally felt that mono mixing provided more sonic control over what the listener heard, minimizing the vagaries of speaker placement and sound system quality. It was also motivated by the knowledge that pop radio broadcast in mono, and most domestic and car radios and record players were monophonic. Another, more personal reason for Wilson's preference was deafness in his right ear.


Recording for the new LP, now officially named Smile, began in earnest in August 1966 and continued until mid-December.

In early December, Capitol Records was given a handwritten list of twelve tracks planned for Smile, for use on the LP back cover. This list was long considered crucial evidence of Wilson's intentions for the piece, but since the track listing (as printed by Capitol on the never-used album covers) carried the standard advisory "see label for correct playing order", it can only be taken as confirming Brian's apparent choice of songs at that time, and not their exact sequence. However, in 2006 it was realized that the handwriting on the list was not Brian's, but someone else's; furthermore, when shown a copy of the list, Brian himself stated that he had never seen it before. A comparison of the handwriting indicates that it may have been written by Carl Wilson, or possibly Brian's sister-in-law, Diane Rovell.

Capitol began production on a lavish gatefold cover with a 12-page booklet. Cover artwork was commissioned from Frank Holmes, a friend of Van Dyke Parks, and colour photographs of the group were taken by Guy Webster. 466,000 covers and 419,000 booklets were printed by early January 1967; promotional materials were sent to record distributors and dealers, and ads were placed in Billboard and teenage magazines including Teen Set.

Some time in December, Brian informed Capitol that Smile would not be ready that month, but he advised that he would deliver it "prior to January 15". Wilson's conception of the work evidently changed around this time, probably as a result of disagreements within the band. Early in 1967, work was halted on all the Smile tracks except for "Heroes and Villains" and "Vega-Tables".


"Heroes and Villains"

"Heroes and Villains" was a semi-autobiographical piece couched as a Wild West fantasy, and featured some of Parks' most intriguing lyrics. It is the keystone for the musical structure of the album, and like "Good Vibrations", it was edited together from several discrete sections.

Like most of the Smile songs, "Heroes and Villains" is based around a deceptively simple three-chord pattern. It encapsulates Wilson's musical approach for the project, which was to create songs that were (for the most part) structurally simple, but overlaid with extremely complex and often highly chromatic vocal and instrumental arrangements, and capped by Parks' lyrics.

The considerable time and effort that Wilson devoted to "Heroes and Villains" is indicative of its importance, both as a single and as part of Smile - sessions for the various versions and sections extended over more than a year, from May 1966 to July 1967.

Capitol Records had scheduled January 13 1967 as the release date for the single. Yet, although he was renowned for his efficiency in the studio, Brian Wilson clearly struggled to complete "Heroes and Villains", and despite devoting more than twenty sessions to it between October 1966 and March 1967, he was unable to complete it to his satisfaction.

It now appears that the song underwent many changes during its production, and that several important elements, including the so-called "Cantina scene" and the segment commonly known as "Bicycle Rider", were taken out of the finished single and album versions, although they were retained in other (unreleased) mixes. A single version of the song was released in mid-1967, but rumours persist of a far longer edit, and it is known that several alternate versions were put together. Both Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys frequently included "Bicycle Rider" when performing the song in concert.

"Surf's Up"

Smile's centerpiece, "Surf's Up", was written in one night and was certainly fully composed by November 1966, when Brian Wilson was filmed performing the song on piano for a CBS news special on popular music, hosted by Leonard Bernstein and David Oppenheim; "Surf's Up" was featured on Oppenheim's portion of the show. Wilson also made a studio demo with solo vocal and piano around this time, which was eventually released on the Beach Boys' 30th anniversary boxed set.

A nearly or fully completed backing track for the first (2:20) section was recorded and mixed in November 1966, but vocals and other overdubs were still to be added, and work on the middle and closing sections was either never undertaken or never finished. It is notable that the flourishes played on muted trumpet in the verses of "Surf's Up" are almost identical to the familiar 'laughing' refrain of the theme for the cartoon series Woody Woodpecker. This musical reference recurs in the instrumental piece "Fall Breaks And Back To Winter" on the album Smiley Smile (which was in fact subtitled "W. Woodpecker Symphony").

A full-length version of "Surf's Up" was eventually assembled by Carl Wilson and released on the 1971 Beach Boys album Surf's Up. The 1971 track was edited together from the two major basic tracks - Carl and the group recorded new vocals over the original 1966 "Part 1" backing track, which was edited together with the 1966 studio demo of Brian performing the second half solo on a piano, with new group vocals and additional instrumental overdubs in the closing section.

Other songs

The following is based upon the handwritten note given to Capitol Records in December 1966. It was given to Capitol in order for the track titles to be included on the album cover; however, the original cover states "see record for running order". It has not been conclusively proven whose handwriting is actually on the note.

All the evidence, including interviews with Brian himself, state that a final definitive running order was never decided upon until the release of the 2004 Smile.

Certain songs have been renamed. "The Elements" was a suite which encompassed the four elements: Air, Fire, Earth, and Water. The songs were all retitled: "Wind Chimes" (for Air), "Mrs O'Leary's Cow" (for Fire), "Vega-Tables" (for Earth), "In Blue Hawaii" (for Water).

Project collapse

According to most sources, Brian Wilson began to encounter serious problems with Smile around late November 1966; some of this can be ascribed to his increasingly fragile mental state (by then, he was beginning to exhibit signs of depression and paranoia), but it is now evident that there was vehement opposition to the project from within the band.

It is reported that, during the recording session for the "Fire" section of the "Elements Suite" at Gold Star Studios on November 28, Brian became irrationally concerned that the music had been responsible for starting several fires in the neighborhood of the studio.

For many years, it was rumoured that Wilson had tried to burn the tapes of this session, but that was not the case, although he did abandon the "Fire" piece for good. No recording of anything but the introduction to the original "Fire" tapes has been released, nor is it likely to be. It has also been noted, in several accounts, that Parks deliberately stayed away from the session (during which Wilson encouraged the musicians to wear toy firemen hats), and that he later described Wilson's behaviour as "regressive".

In addition to Brian's possible mental health problems, and his many personal, family and creative pressures, there were other significant business and legal pressures surrounding the Beach Boys during the recording of Smile. These included Carl Wilson's call-up notice for the draft (which he was to fight as a conscientious objector), plus the commencement of the group's contractual dispute with Capitol over royalty payments. In addition, there was the band's attempt to terminate their then-present contract, which was a legacy of Murry's management, and establish their own label, Brother Records.

During early 1967, Brian's behaviour became increasingly erratic, and his use of drugs escalated, but while this was a concern for some of his friends, he was still completely functional in the studio. Although stories of his sometimes bizarre "off-duty" behaviour became the stuff of legend, the session musicians who worked with him during this period have stated that he was totally professional in the studio.

In retrospect, arguably the most significant reason why Smile was repeatedly postponed, and finally scrapped, was conflict within the group, particularly the increasing antagonism between Mike Love and the Wilson/Parks partnership, although Bruce Johnston has also indicated in a web forum discussion that there was also opposition to the project from Capitol Records and from Murry Wilson.

The growing conflict within the Beach Boys about Smile came to a head during December 1966. The December 6, 1966 session for "Cabin Essence" was apparently the scene of a climactic argument between Van Dyke Parks and Mike Love about the song's lyrics, and the situation evidently worsened during the 15 December vocal sessions for "Surf's Up" and "Wonderful". The group was filmed by CBS during this session which, according to Jules Siegel, went "very badly". Later the same day, Wilson recorded his now-legendary solo piano demo of "Surf's Up". Although there were more Smile sessions (on December 23, January 9, and January 23), work on the major tracks effectively stopped after 15 December.

Love later stated that he was suspicious of the new friends with whom Brian was associating, and that his opposition to these people whom he regarded as hangers-on, who were exploiting Brian and supplying him with 'hard' drugs, was another major source of conflict. Love has suggested that some of those who have since been critical of him did so because he had told them to "take a hike".

Love denied disliking Pet Sounds, also claiming that he liked the Smile music and only disliked the lyrics. However, this is strongly disputed by several other participants, most notably Van Dyke Parks. Responding to Love's claims in a letter to the editor of UK music magazine Mojo, Parks was strongly critical of Love's comments—which he described as "revisionism" -- and he was unequivocal in citing Love's hostility to "Smile" as one of the major factors in Brian's decision to abandon the project. On the DVD that accompanied the 2004 Smile release, Brian himself also makes it clear that Love's antagonism was one of the major deciding factors in the cancellation of the album:

"The reasons that I didn't release Smile: One, Mike didn't like it...".[3]

Wilson continued work on "Heroes and Villains" and other cuts, including "Do You Like Worms" and "Vega-Tables", as well as taping numerous musical fragments which were probably intended to serve as links between the main songs. Throughout the first half of 1967, the album's release date was repeatedly postponed as Wilson tinkered with the recordings, experimenting with different takes and mixes, unable or unwilling to supply a completed version of the album.

Another significant event, cited in the Beautiful Dreamer documentary, was Brian's first hearing of The Beatles' new single "Strawberry Fields Forever". He heard the song while driving his car, and was so struck by it that he had to pull over and listen; he then commented to his companion that The Beatles had "got there first". Although he apparently later laughed about that comment, the stunning new Beatles production had affected him deeply. The final, irrevocable blow came in early March 1967 when, after gradually distancing himself from Wilson and the group, Van Dyke Parks finally quit the project.

Capitol evidently still hoped to the last that Smile might eventually appear, but on 6 May, only a few weeks before the release of The Beatles' groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, The Beach Boys' press officer Derek Taylor ruefully announced to the British press that the Smile project had been shelved, and that the album would not be released.

Fame and reception

Following the stillbirth of Smile and the release of the poorly-received Smiley Smile (which Carl Wilson described as "a bunt instead of a grand-slam"[1]) that September, Brian Wilson retreated from the public eye, increasingly hampered by mental health problems, but his legend grew, and the Smile period came to be seen as the pivotal episode in his decline; Wilson would become tagged as one of the most notorious celebrity drug casualties of the rock era.

By the beginning of the 1990s, Smile had earned its place as the most famous unreleased album in the rock era, and was a focal point for bootleg album makers and collectors. A 1988 proposed sequencing of the album by engineer Mark Linett eventually leaked to the public in stunning sound quality. In 1993, fans were treated to a goldmine of official archival Smile material included on the 5CD boxed set Good Vibrations - 30 Years of the Beach Boys. The second disc of the set included almost thirty minutes of original Smile recordings including versions of "Our Prayer", "Wonderful", "Cabin Essence", "Wind Chimes", "Do You Like Worms", "Vegetables", "I Love to Say Da-Da", an alternate version of "Heroes and Villains" and numerous linking segments built around the "Heroes and Villains" theme, plus Brian's fabled demo recording of "Surf's Up", which Elvis Costello famously compared to discovering an original recording of Mozart in performance.

These recordings, sequenced by David Leaf, made it clear that Smile had been much closer to completion than had previously been thought, and this prompted much excitement by fans over what additional songs might exist, and debate about how the songs fitted into the Smile running order. There was hope that the box set would be followed by an official Smile release, but this did not materialize.

Project resurrection

Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks would eventually revisit and complete the Smile project with Brian's touring musicians in 2004, 37 years after its conception. First, in a series of concerts (debuting at London's Royal Festival Hall on February 20, 2004), then as the solo album Brian Wilson Presents Smile, released in September 2004. The album debuted at number 13 on the Billboard 200 chart, and later earned 3 Grammy nominations, winning Brian Wilson his first solo Grammy award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance ("Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"). In 2005, the album won graphic artist Mark London and Nonesuch/Elektra Records the 2005 ALEX award for Best Vinyl Package.

iTunes Store released a playlist of Smile comprising the songs that were released on later Beach Boys albums in 2006.


  1. ^ Wilson's SMiLE / Brian Wilson finally finishes his 'teenage symphony to God'
  2. ^ Bill Tobelman - The Zen Interpretation of Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks' SMiLE
  3. ^ Brian Wilson, quoted in Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson & the story of Smile (Warner Vision/LSL Productions, 2005)

Further reading

One of the principal sources of original information on Smile, and the basis for much of its legendary status, was Jules Siegel's article "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!" which appeared in the first issue of Cheetah Magazine in October 1967. Almost equally influential was Domenic Priore's 1987 book Look, Listen, Vibrate, Smile.

In Lewis Shiner's novel Glimpses, the mental time-traveling protagonist meets and befriends Brian Wilson, and encourages Wilson to complete Smile over the objections of his bandmates. Glimpses won the 1994 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

External links


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