Been in this town so long

A couple of months back I promised a post about the Brian Wilson album Smile. Here it is.

Smile would always have been a very strange album; now, it’s an extremely strange one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very beautiful album and probably a great one. I’d recommend it almost without reservation to anyone seriously interested in music: you won’t have heard anything quite like it, and you won’t forget it when you have heard it. It’s made a stronger impression on me than Pet Sounds, put it that way.

But it is a strange album. The best reference point – and also, to get a bit Paul Morley for a moment, the worst – is “Good Vibrations”, which I’ve loved ever since it came out as a single. (I got into pop music at an early age, I should add – I’ve got fond memories of “Have I the right”, and I wasn’t even four when that came out.) “Good Vibrations” has some strange things in it: melody lines that twist around or stop dead; instruments – and combinations of instruments – that are naggingly, unnervingly wrong. Then there are the vocals: there are a lot of those sweet, soaring harmonies which the Beach Boys could do in their sleep by this stage. (But if it is a formula, it’s a magical formula; when they got into it the Beach Boys could combine the ear-filling lullaby sweetness of barbershop with the drama and uplift of Gregorian chant, which is quite a trick if you think about it.) And then there’s something else: moments of intense stillness and awe, when the music gestures to something outside itself, something beyond. (At the risk of descending irreversibly into Pseuds’ Corner, the full second of tape decay at 2:57 always sends me – and no, I don’t know where.)

So there are three things to say about “Good Vibrations”: it’s very strange, it’s very beautiful, and it works. Smile can only rate two out of three. Partly I think this is simply because everyone concerned was working so much harder and trying to produce so much more: an entire album constructed with the jigsaw intricacy of “Good Vibrations”, and with lyrics at once celebrating and questioning US nostalgia for the early years of the nation… Let us now, incidentally, praise the lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, although not without wondering what he was on back then. An American journal of record recently ascribed the lyrics of Smile to Brian Wilson, prompting a letter from Parks, who pointed out that Wilson’s contribution to the lyrics consisted of providing the melody; specifically, “Brian sang ‘Da da da da da da da da da’, I wrote ‘Columnated ruins domino'”. He added that he’d been embarrassed to admit to his part in Smile for most of his adult life; now that it was seen as something to be proud of, he felt he deserved to take some of the credit as well. Rightly so. Something odd and powerful happens – something unlike anything the Beach Boys had done before – when Brian Wilson gives voice to Parks’ fantasia on American themes: you wonder how the jockish innocence of the Beach Boys has produced the godlike omniscience of this singer/narrator. When it works it’s a magnificent conceit, but it doesn’t always work.

Smile is a strange album musically, as well – stranger than Pet Sounds at its most ambitious (“I wasn’t made for these times”, “Caroline No”), or even “Good Vibrations”. Lush vocal arrangements meet twisted, off-kilter melodies amid orchestration that ranges from ambitious to bizarre; the elements are familiar, but – with only a couple of exceptions – the overall effect falls short of “Good Vibrations”. (Sadly, this is even true of “Good Vibrations”, a briskly cheerful version of which closes the album.) Still, there are glories here. “Wonderful” is perfectly named; “Heroes and Villains” tacks obsessively back and forth between suspense and resolution, but does it so elegantly that you only want it to continue; and “Surf’s Up” is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, unless you’ve spent time in Heaven recently. But as a whole Smile feels like a delirious fantasy: a jumble of endlessly, naggingly charming musical ideas, the product of a mind which had overdosed on sunny major chords. Which, I suppose, was precisely what it was.

Or rather, what it would have been. Nobody has ever heard the Beach Boys’ Smile, or ever will (although I gather there are some interesting mix-tape versions out there). What we’ve got now is the product of the two-decade pause in Brian Wilson’s life after 1966, and of the eternal present of rock music which began shortly afterwards. It’s an album that Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks left incomplete, some time ago, and which they and some other people have now got round to completing. But it’s also a Cream-at-the-Albert-Hall thirty-year-retrospective Mojo-reader cultural event, commemorating and celebrating the album that was never made – and it probably wouldn’t have been completed if it didn’t function on that level. The combination of those two perspectives is always present when you listen to Smile now – and sometimes makes it a heart-wrenching experience.

Brian Wilson’s vocal range would be remarkable at any age; for a man in his sixties it’s astonishing. He’s still got it. Except that a large part of it, for the Beach Boys, was youth – youth and freedom and potential. Really, Brian’s were quintessentially adolescent songs – standing at the edge of childhood and looking into a wide-open future when anything would be possible. Sex, for example – the Stones celebrated it, the Beatles avoided the subject, but the Beach Boys sang about it (sweetly, joyfully) as something to look forward to:

You know it’s going to make it that much better
When we can say goodnight and stay together

On the original Smile Brian Wilson was looking ahead to an adult existence which included everything: Old World decadence, life on the Western frontier, the colonisation of Hawaii and, er, the pirates of the Caribbean (not the album’s high point, that). On the Smile we have now, he’s looking back on the youth in which he looked forward to those things. The man who voiced the dreams has forty years of (often traumatic) experience behind him; the dreams are unchanged. And so, in the album’s first full song, the weathered voice of a sixty-year-old man sings a twenty-year-old’s fantasy of maturity – and, for a moment, he relives his ignorance of what the words would come to mean.

I’ve been in this town so long
That back in the city
I’ve been taken for lost and gone
And unknown for a long long time…


  1. Clare
    Posted 25 March 2006 at 00:50 | Permalink | Reply

    Fascinating. I’ve never been a Beach Boys devotee; I find the vocal harmonies too saccharine.

    But I have listened to Smile several times and been, well, bemused. It’s great, and weird, and sometimes wrong. Good Vibrations in particular confuses me because I’ve always loved it in a back-of-conscious kind of way and never stopped to analyse it. But hearing it surrounded by all those other Smile tracks, I realised just how weird it is.

    Nice to hear someone express similar sentiments, and so well.

  2. Jim Bliss
    Posted 7 April 2006 at 23:13 | Permalink | Reply

    Lovely review. I don’t quite agree with you on every point (or indeed with the central thesis… for me ‘Smile’ works) but you capture a lot of the essence of the album.

    A friend of mine put together a Brian Wilson / Beach Boys mix cd of stuff from the Smile sessions (and a few tracks from elsewhere). Drop me an email and I’ll bung you a copy if you like? If nowt else, it’s fascinating to compare the originals with the new release.

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