55 Years of Good Vibrations – and now SMiLE!
55 Years of Good Vibrations – and now SMiLE!
BY JOBST LIEBRECHT · June 20, 2022 (Brian Wilson’s Birthday)
A calendar entry
It was in February 1966 in California that Brian Wilson, band member and composer for the Beach Boys, opened the door wide for the future of pop music. In four studios he was cutting and layering together the material for his pocket symphony “Good Vibrations.” It was what some of his bandmates more or less shrugged off as “Brian’s ego music,” before it went on to break the three-minute barrier for a pop song and nevertheless become the million-selling hit single that just about everyone has heard and knows.
As a teenager, I was no exception; I loved the delightfully charming and lighthearted songs of the Beach Boys with their glorious, ringing harmonies, but I also had an ear and sense for the profound musical vision that pieces such as “Good Vibrations” or “Heroes and Villains” represented. Together with the Beatles’ albums, and far more than Mozart and Beethoven could, such works gave me an early sense of the possibilities of composition and music:
It could be both comprehensible and at the same time incommensurable.
It could be simple and straightforward, but yet intricate.
It could grab us by the hand with an intriguing motif or melody, for example, and then lead us out into wide open spaces and even desolation.
It cherished beauty, always and forever more, even in the depths of darkness and suffering.
And it never lost its sense of humor.
So, now it’s your turn! — as they say in Hamburg.
Just now, in the middle of the Corona, I’ve turned back to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys,
“If I had to select one single living genius in pop music I would choose Brian Wilson.”
(George Martin, producer of the Beatles)
because I had time to make what was for me a breathtaking discovery:
The pop song milestones “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” were not only self-contained miniature symphonies in and of themselves—they had been planned as a part of something much larger, namely Brian Wilson’s legendary SMiLE project.
But, just a minute, you say—that’s nothing new. Yes and no. It has always been known that in 1966, at the age of 24, Brian Wilson, overwhelmed by the new possibilities of studio technology, spurred on by the availability of the best studio musicians in Los Angeles and by the competition with the Beatles, set out to achieve the ultimate culmination of his “Beach Boys pop song explosion.” And it has always been known that this major project, undertaken together with the lyricist Van Dyke Parks and already titled SMiLE, had failed miserably. Because in 1967, as we also know, before he could complete it, Brian Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown due to or made worse by depression, drugs and pills that led to a decades-long withdrawal.
“We all were waiting for SMiLE, but it didn´t come. We were waiting in vain.” (George Martin)
“The world wasn’t ready for it,” Brian Wilson would stammer helplessly into the microphones when asked.
But perhaps now?
In the early 1990s, some 30 years after his collapse and subsequent struggles, Brian Wilson was finally able to get back on his feet (the story of which can be relived in the touching and authentic 2005 Hollywood film Love and Mercy).
Some ten years later, with the arrival of the new millennium, he was able to look his failed project in the eye once more. Buoyed by a wave of devotion, enthusiasm and support from a generation of younger musicians (notably Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints), he gradually resumed work on the project. Attempting to play down the news, he quipped that as a perfectionist he was long accustomed to doing everything twice.
Remarkably, he first resumed his approach to this difficult project by choosing to play it live on stage with younger musicians, beginning in 2004.
You can watch the live version from 2004 under the YouTube link “Brian Wilson plays SMiLE”
— and the following link
is to a captivating documentary, Beautiful Dreamer, about Brian Wilson and the creative process behind SMiLE.
Wilson was able to latch onto the elementary processes that arise when a band, or in this case an orchestra, performs live on stage. In an effort to overcome the deadly aura of failure that this piece had held for him, he surrounded himself with a supporting cast of voices. Which did the trick. The festive unveiling of the “holy grail of pop history” in Royal Festival Hall in London was met with a wave of enthusiasm and emotional joy.
Encouraged by its reception, in 2011 Wilson released the fully mixed original recordings with the Beach Boys from 1966/67—44 years after they had been laid down!
(I am reminded here of Schönberg’s second chamber symphony, which likewise survived failure and abandonment for almost 30 years before being finally completed—with all the difficulties and struggles that such a history entails.)
The original recordings of SMiLE were not always known. Collectors have had access to bootlegs and snippets of individual recordings. Some completed songs and sections had already been released on other records. There existed an incomplete compilation of editing snippets. Their placement and order within the overall composition existed, however, only in Brian Wilson’s mind. But now, since 2011, SMiLE can be heard in its entirety on CD, just as Wilson imagined it.
Listening to it, it is immediately clear why Wilson has always referred to SMiLE as a “teenage symphony to God”—everything about it has the vibe and breath of a symphony. And I would say, quite deliberately, that is what distinguishes it from Sgt. Pepper. The musical elements of SMiLE flow directly into one other, either as a continuation or a contrast to the section immediately preceding. The episodes unfold as a single continuous narrative. The bizarre details, such as Paul McCartney’s guest turn as celery-cruncher on “Vegetables” (originally “Vega-Tables”)—all of these bizarre details, of which there are many, are preserved in an epic sequence of music, a maelstrom of emotion reminiscent of Franz Schubert. But not to be forgotten, it is entirely music of its century. Meaning that as with Mahler, the individual moment is tightly clung to—as a life raft that can’t be abandoned. Here, perhaps, Wilson has an advantage, as the pop song offers him an anchor he can hold fast to.
Why is this of any importance to me as a composer of symphonies? Here I find music that in its very origin strives to appeal to everyone, to be understood by everyone. The means it draws on to achieve this are quite simple. At the same time, the music is carried forward by a vision, a desire to depict the world in all its overwhelming complexity. It represents a journey through musical moments and junctures inspired, according to Wilson and Van Dyke, by an envisioned road trip across America. It manages, in a mysterious manner that the twenty-four-year-old composer himself could not possibly have accounted for, to create cohesion in the most disparate material. And last but not least, in every fiber there is an expressive power, personality and voice.
The pop symphony that emerges in SMiLE differs fundamentally from many efforts of the same name. No attempt is made to superficially recast the pop music form within the traditional form structure of the classical symphony. There is no attempt to inflict traditional set pieces such as the oboe solo or a violin melody. No, the ingenious process by which Brian Wilson succeeded with SMiLE is achieved exactly the other way around—in godly naivety, free of camp, within his own mind. Arising within the musical language of pop music, and based on the form structure of pop music, something new has emerged—let us call it SYMPHONY.
What is that? How to describe it and how can it engage us today?
(Part Two follows)
( Translation: Kevin Pfeiffer )