Smile isn’t an album, it’s an obsession.
It started out innocent enough, when my bootleg connection’s email of recent acquisitions included a CD of the unreleased Beach Boys album Smile. Being a huge Pet Sounds fan, and somewhat aware of the stories surrounding the Smile record, I decided to pick it up and see what it was all about.
Initially, I didn’t really get it. Sure there were certainly some interesting tracks on there, but it certainly was no Pet Sounds. What’s up with Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, anyways? Why is he singing about Vegetables? What IS this mess? It got a few spins before getting retired to the shelves as a curiosity, and I went back to whatever else was in heavy rotation at the time.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. This weird little album had planted some sort of seed in my subconscious, and it was starting to bear copious amounts of fruit. The haunting tones of Surf’s Up, and its tip of the hat to the band’s past while plowing into unknown musical territory swirled around in my head like the ultimate unshakable ear worm. No, Smile was no Pet Sounds, but it was something nonetheless, something much harder to wrap one’s head around. The disc went back into the player, and immediately into heavy rotation.
As I listened, read, and discovered more about this album, I came to realize that there was no definitive Smile album, but more like a collection of studio sessions compiled into some sembalance of order. The original prototype album sleeves made by Capitol showed no track order, so bootleggers were left to their own devices to come up with a listing that made sense. most of these boots, including the one I had, started with Prayer, followed by Heroes and Villains, and ended with Surf’s Up. Whether or not this is what Brian intended was anyone’s guess (until 2004 at least), but it seemed to make sense.
I also came to realize that most of the material I had purchased had already been released on the Beach Boys box set (which included about 70% of a “complete” smile record), outtakes from the Smiley Smile CD, and several other bootlegs, most notably the GEMA (the Japanese release that spawned a new interest in the Smile material in the late 80s), Vigotone, Unsurpassed Masters, and Sea of Tunes (SoT) releases. Of course, I HAD to have those boots, and began scouring several torrent sites (anyone remember SharingTheGroove?). I never did find the SoT release, but I did manage to track down the Vigotone version, complete with the outtake of Brian looking for more hash brownies.
Around this time, I also discovered the world of fan compilations, including Mok’s amazingly well done take on the Smile record. He’d taken fragments of songs from multiple releases, and corrected them for timing and pitch differences in ProTools to create a truly remarkable work of art in its own right. Of course it wasn’t historically accurate, but it worked, and it worked well. Anne Wallace came out with her own fan mix around this time as well, but I will be darned if I ever remember acquiring it. That is an error I am doing my best to correct.
While I was busy acquiring every Smile release I could get my hands on, someone else decided to join the remix party. In 2004, Brian Wilson released his own re-recording of Smile, complete with a tracking order that no one was expecting. Not only was Surf’s Up in the middle of the album, he ended up closing it with a lyrically very different version of Good Vibrations! This inspired many to go back to their old bootlegs and create the ‘new’ album from the old tapes. PurpleChick (who’s deluxe editions of the Beatles albums are must owns for any hardcore Beatle fan) gets the gold star in this category, with her seamless mending of snippets and fragments from 1967 into the new 2004 order.
Of course, you could say Brian trumped everyone with the eventual release of the Smile sessions in 2011, a sprawling five CD set consisting of the complete album in the 2004 running order and a slew out session outtakes. He conquered his personal demons, delivered his 1967 masterpiece 45 years later, and we all lived happily ever after.
But this isn’t a mere record anymore, its an obsession. And while I am happy for Brian, and I love his take on the sessions, I see them as just that: his take. Its a take from someone who was obviously much closer to the project than any of the rest of us, but I’m not sure I’d call it definitive. Like the Dylan fanatics who heard the original New York version of Blood on the Tracks and found it superior to the official Columbia release, I cannot un-hear what I’ve heard. Whether it’s Mok’s take on Heroes and Villains, or the intense seven minute version of Surf’s Up on my original Smile bootleg, there’s a lot of room for second guessing.
Fifteen years after this album first hit my CD player, I think it still has more to reveal. In my search for the Anne Wallace version of Smile, I have re-acquired both the Mok and PurpleChick releases, and discovered another version called the “Kal Mix”, which promises 24 bit audio. I haven’t managed to track it down just yet, but the hunt continues.
The obsession continues.