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Know When To Fold ‘Em: The Beach Boys should have fired Brian Wilson after Pet Sounds

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By Joseph Kyle

I like pizza. I like butterscotch candy. I like chicken. I like coffee. I like water. I like spaghetti. These are things I love to eat. They contain elements and tastes I like to savor. Sometimes, the elements blend together.

I would never, however, put them all into a pot, stir them together, and call the end results an enjoyable meal. At best, it would be a mess. At worst, it would be utterly disgusting and could potentially put me off of said foods.

That’s exactly the feeling I get listening to The Smile Sessions. Capitol Records has taken bits and bobs of the sessions that have been released over the last 40 years, crammed them together, and called this an ‘album’. But this hodgepodge collection that Capitol has released isn’t as thrilling as the media campaign and the virtual advertising would lead you to believe. (It’s telling that the ‘sessions’ require one to spend at least a hundred dollars to access material that’s been released in bootleg form over the years.)

Frankly, though, The Smile Sessions? It is an utter bore.

Based on Smile alone, the genius of Brian Wilson is dubious. Yes, when he made Pet Sounds, he was a hermetic studio wizard, obsessing over his tapes and his orchestras and his musicians, and he produced one of the most beautiful works of art of the 20th Century.

So he decides to top it, by ‘tuning in’ to the times, which was really just a pathetic rationalization of “I’m going to become a heavy drug user”.

We must admit one fact: Smile is unfinished. It could never be finished. Its creator was so fractured out of reality. Yes, yes, I know – there are those that say that the album was close to completion when he shelved it, that production was slated to begin when it was shut down. But that doesn’t make the record truly finished, and this is probably the closest one comes to having the ‘finished record’ in hand.

We naively like to think that a genius can easily produce a second masterpiece. There are those itching for ‘new’ Neutral Milk Hotel material. There could be a very good reason Jeff Mangum hasn’t produced it – because he’s aware that he is incapable of reaching that height again – or, even worse, the expectations of a second interstellar work of beauty. Wilson got lucky with Pet Sounds. He’s never achieved that greatness again – and Smile sort of suggests that he couldn’t.

But what of the new set? It’s nice enough, but it’s going to send you cherry-picking because of the 40 songs found here, maybe a fourth of them are worth listening to repeatedly, and another fourth are somewhat as good. The other half should have stayed in the vault.

There are some puzzling decisions in terms of track-listing, too. To start off with the beautiful ‘Our Prayer’ is not a surprise, and is perhaps the best way to go about it. To follow it with ‘Gee’, a less-than-a-minute vocal tag ‘segue’ – and then follow it with ‘Heroes And Villains’? That simply doesn’t make sense. Take out ‘Gee’, and the segue is perfect. ‘I’m In Great Shape’ and ‘Barnyard’? Stupid little pieces that survive only because for a few seconds they sound good. ‘My Only Sunshine’ – a bastardization of the Jimmy Miller composition that sounds like it was recorded in a tin can. If you take those four songs out, you have a very, very strong 15-track album. With those in there, this version of Smile is off-balance. Taken out, the record is interesting. Not particularly great, nowhere near as genius as Pet Sounds, but it’s at least a much more interesting listen. It could have been a good starting point.

But it wasn’t.

As for the bonus material, many of these songs are not lost; they have appeared as bonus tracks on reissues and in box sets. In those settings, the songs are fascinating glimpses into the studio mind of Brian Wilson. Outside of those settings? It’s your call. And, really, how many versions of ‘Heroes And Villains’ do you need to hear? It’s an OK song, but it’s not ‘Good Vibrations’. That said, there are moments of transcendent beauty, and all of those have to do with ‘Cabinessence’ and ‘Surf’s Up’. Those songs were classics, and their release years after the fact, away from the whole Smile debacle, has helped to show them as the rare jewels in the Wilson canon.

“When choosing between the truth and the legend, print the legend.” The truth was, the Smile sessions were the work of a drug-addled brain beginning its ascent into mental illness. Brian may have felt that what he was doing was “genius”, but like most self-indulgent drug-addled works of art, it’s a hell of a mess to sift through. This collection is somewhat monotonous, oft repetitive, and, frankly, not that interesting.

But there is a much more painful truth at play here, one that, if anything, Smile most painfully highlights.

(continues overleaf)

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8 Responses to Know When To Fold ‘Em: The Beach Boys should have fired Brian Wilson after Pet Sounds

  1. Dennis October 31, 2011 at 6:41 am

    Sad ! Thanks for saving me $130.00 !

  2. Mike Relton October 31, 2011 at 8:40 am

    ‘Could The Beach Boys have survived without Brian? Listening to albums like Friends and Sunflower and various singles, the answer is a difficult to admit, but resounding, “yes”.’

    Brian wrote the majority of both of those albums

  3. Joseph Kyle October 31, 2011 at 8:51 am

    That’s actually somewhat debatable. He certainly was hardly in the picture for the making of Sunflower; many of his “songwriting” credits are simply reworked material from years prior, including Smile. Friends, too, was, if I recall correctly, Steven Gaines stated as being “the Beach Boys recording at the studio beneath him in an effort to get him to come down from his bedroom, which he did, occasionally, but not to much significance.”

    Then again, I’m still curious as to how much McCartney wrote on “Give Peace a Chance.” Those business arrangements can get awful tenuous, and some of his credits on later songs are probably simply an act of courtesy.

  4. Phil October 31, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    I had already decided not to plunk down my hard-earned cash for the Smile Sessions and you’ve articulated why better than I ever could. It just doesn’t seem essential listening. For whatever reason (drugs, mental illness etc), Brian Wilson peaked early and has produced nothing since Pet Sounds that came anywhere close to the quality of that record. That doesn’t take anything away from him to say that: I hate when people bash an artist saying “he hasn’t done anything good since …” — if you’ve produced something like Pet Sounds, who cares that your later work isn’t as good. That said, I’m not going to waste my money on the stuff that falls short.

    What you say about the other band members stepping up after Brian checked out is really interesting. Funny how Brian gets lauded and the lyricists he worked with (Tony Asher, Van Dyke Parks) get ignored, just as the contributions of Brian’s brothers and band mates get ignored in pursuit of a simple reductive story: Brian was the genius.

    P.S. As for Give Peace a Chance, I think Paul has said he had nothing to do with writing it; John added Paul’s name as a courtesy. Sometimes they did collaborate on later songs, especially in the studio in terms of the arrangements (Come Together, for example, is — musically — as much Paul’s song as it is John’s).

  5. Mike Relton November 1, 2011 at 10:22 am

    ‘has produced nothing since Pet Sounds that came anywhere close to the quality of that record’
    neither has anyone else though really

  6. Mike Relton November 1, 2011 at 10:23 am

    don’t get me wrong, the contributions of carl and especially dennis are sometimes great, but while ‘brian was the genius’ might be reductive, it is also basically true.

  7. Oliver November 2, 2011 at 3:02 am

    If The Beach boys would have fired BW they wouldn`t have had material to work on for their four albums that followed. Beach Boys practically made a living of feasting on the Life of brian. He did however contribute quite a lot to the following albums like Friends and Sunflower. That is not debatable.

    I do wish Smile would have been released in 1972 though as it was scheduled to be released round that time, it even had a catalog number. By that time The band had worked on it as they knew it was good music.

    I think it would have sounded far less like a concept album and more grounded in finished songs. Cool, Cool water (Sunflower), Cabinessence (20/20) or Surf`s up (Surf`s up) would have surfaced in their polished versions. I can`t imagine that all these titles where planned for a major release.

    I can understand people finding the Smile Sessions hard to listen to with all the experimentation and endless takes. I don`t. It reminds me of Arthur Russell and his instrumentals which also got a good panning from music critics.

    However Wilson did great production work other projects like American Spring and with three dog night, from the latter Beach Boys stole the song “Darling”. I think Brian wanted out, but was not allowed, so the firing biz was not on the table. So in conclusion your article is amusing, but slightly silly.

  8. Geoff November 5, 2011 at 3:17 am

    I suppose a person can’t know everything about everything, but it’s unfortunate to see a person form an opinion based on ignorance, as Mr. Joseph Kyle has done here. You mention to albums, Friends and Sunflower as being post-Brian Wilson albums that demonstrate how the Beach Boys no longer needed their leader to produce great records. Unfortunately, you miss the mark completely with your analysis by ignoring the facts.

    “Friends” is through and through a Brian Wilson penned record. There are two Dennis Wilson songs, one of which even used part of a SMiLE backing track, but the rest were either written solely by Brian or largely by him with other members contributing.

    “Sunflower” was a much more collaborative album, each member being primary writers of their own tunes, but I would argue that some of the best tracks on the album (“This Whole World,” “Add Some Music,” “Our Sweet Love,” “Cool, Cool Water”) were done by Brian. Many of the remaining songs also included his input, and as a result, he earned co-writing credit.

    “Wild Honey” was also mentioned in this piece, and it should be noted this was nearly all Brian Wilson as well.

    As stated, the foundation upon which this argument was built is clearly flawed, making your conclusions shaky at best. You can argue that the firing of Brian would have helped him get his life in order, made the Beach Boys more of a band (Dennis Wilson even once said, “Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys. He is the band. We’re his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We’re nothing. He’s everything.”), or helped improved the band in the long run by forcing Wilson to get his life together, but you cannot cite the band’s later output as evidence.

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