Thursday, November 26, 2015

"Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE" and "The Smile Sessions"

The 2011 release of "The Smile Sessions" added another layer of confusion to the complex history and mythology of  Smile but it's really simpler than it seems - this is my attempted explanation of where "The Smile Sessions" fits in this history.
After the critical acclaim and artistic success of "Pet Sounds", Brian Wilson attempted to surpass his achievement with the much more complex, multi-layered, intertwined "song cycle" or "rock opera" that was to be Smile.
The writing and recording process for the project followed on from the "modular" approach Brian used on the Good Vibrations single. Hundreds of different segments of the songs were written and recorded seperately to be assembled later - the overall blueprint only existing in Brian's head.
As well as hundreds of small sections of songs there were also multiple different versions of each segment with different instrumentation and different levels of completion. No one other than Brian knew which bits were finished or where they belonged in the whole.
As deadlines passed, legal action loomed, criticism grew and Brian's mental health deteriorated - the massive task of juggling all these fragments in his head and arranging, conducting, recording and producing the album became too much to face and the project was abandoned. And the whole process had been so stressful and depressing to Brian that it seemed he would never want to even talk about it ever again.
However enough fragments of it were released on later Beach Boys albums and bootlegs to give a tantalising glimpse of how good it could have been and in the late 1990's and early 2000's as Brian's health improved and he returned to touring, he began to re-evaluate his musical history.
In the year 2000 he began performing Pet Sounds live in it's entirety and in 2001 he performed "Heroes AndVillains" at Radio City Music Hall.
In 2003 Brian, Van Dyke Parks and Darian Sahanaja began compiling the segments of Smile from the original, reportedly 50 hours of tape(!) and written notes from 1966-7 with the aim of creating a live version to perform similarly to the Pet Sounds concerts.
Now it's important to realise that the main task, which had prevented Smile's release thus far, was the actual ordering and reassembling of all these song fragments into a whole work - it was a mammoth task that couldn't have legitimately been done by anyone except Brian Wilson.
Indeed fans have been assembling their own running order of the bootlegged segments of Smile for decades and this is where some of the complaints and confusion come from - some people have gotten used to their favourite bootlegged recreation and think Brian should have used that running order or shouldn't have added new lyrics (Brian and Van Dyke Parks who wrote all the original lyrics, added some new lyrics to tie the different sections together - they no doubt would have done that in 1967 had the project progressed that far...?)
Anyway - the project was completed and performed in 2004 and was followed by a studio version and a world tour (which I was lucky enough to see in Adelaide).
The 2004 studio version is brilliant and brings a wonderful closure to the whole Smile epic but the 2011 release of The Smile Sessions" confused everyone again!
The Smile Sessions follows the format of the 1997 "Pet Sounds Sessions" which had a newly created stereo version of Pet Sounds on disc 1 - a "what if Pet Sounds came out in Stereo" mix - followed by other discs of out-takes.
Likewise the Smile Sessions features a "what if Smile was finished" mix on disc one followed by several discs of out-takes.
The Smile Sessions is a fantastic release but since it came out a lot of people have been saying "why didn't they release this version back in 1967?" because it sounds so NEARLY finished.
But the fact is (besides Brian didn't want it released in 1967) this 2011 version is essentially a recreation of the 2004 version using 1966-71 recordings - it is NOT representative of Smile's state of completion in 1967.
Mark Linett, Alan Boyd and Dennis Wolfe followed Brian's 2004 running order and chose the versions of particular segments to follow the format of Brian's 2004 version.
The production of the Smile Sessions version was still an amazing achievement - as Alan Boyd said "There were just so many pieces, and keeping track of them all was a bit of a challenge...We had 70-some reels from the 'Smile' sessions; not only the session tapes but old mix-down reels and third-generation masters and safety masters and multitrack fragments here and there. You had the songs, which essentially had to be created from spare parts, or the sessions, which had to be whittled down from, in some cases, they would be 40 minutes long to seven, eight, nine minutes. So we had a few months of just sort of living this seven days a week, you know, walking around with 'Bicycle Rider' going through your head or falling asleep with different pieces of 'Heroes and Villains' playing over and over and over in your brain."
As well as existing Smile material, several other, later recordings were flown in to complete missing sections. From Wikipedia -

    "Brian Wilson's lead vocals for "I'm in Great Shape" and "Barnyard" are taken from his and Van Dyke Parks' piano demo of "Heroes and Villains" (which includes the other two songs), recorded on November 4, 1966 for KHJ Radio and featured in full as track 36 on Disc Two in the 5-CD box set edition. The vocals were stripped from the demo and laid on the existing backing tracks, comprising instrumentation, backing vocals and animal noises by the band.
    "The Elements: Fire" contains wordless vocals that were recorded for "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter" on June 29, 1967.
    "Holidays" and "Wind Chimes" segue together with a pitch-shifted version of the Smiley Smile "Wind Chimes"coda, recorded July 11, 1967.
    The water chant intro to "Love to Say Dada" was recorded on October 29, 1967 for an early version of "Cool, Cool Water".
    Carl Wilson's lead vocal on "Cabin Essence" was recorded for the 20/20 album on November 20, 1968.
    The "bygones", Carl Wilson's backing vocals and the "Child Is Father of the Man" coda of "Surf's Up" was recorded on June 18, 1971."

The Smile Sessions version is an incredible achievement and a fantastic listen but it shouldn't be seen as areplacement or improvement to the 2004 Studio version. While it's brilliant to have these segments arranged and released and it's wonderful to hear Brian's 25-year-old voice and the rest of the Beach Boys - there are many segments that are very obviously not finished, the mix is not always optimal and it doesn't flow from song to song like the completed 2004 version.
As a historical document it's priceless - particularly the other four discs of out-takes! The main revelations for me were how much work was still required to put it together - potentially too much work for it to ever be completed in period (for example many of these segments would have had to be re-arranged and re-recorded to get them to flow together).
As Alan Boyd said "One of the things we discovered as we got deeper into working on this project was that the process of assembling the album from all the modular little bits and pieces and fragments that were scattered over so many different reels, using the technology of the day -- which would have been a razor blade and some sticky tape -- that would have been probably an unbearably arduous, difficult and tedious task."
The other major revelation is how much work the other Beach Boys put into the project - there is months and months of very hard work there - including all the wacky vocal sound effects and avant garde sections legend has the Beach Boys objecting to - there is no sign of any objection throughout what must have been a gruelling and probably very boring ten months of recording!
No doubt the complaints built up as the project began to appear un-finishable and to someone suffering from paranoia and depression, even percieved criticism of your artwork could be crippling.
The Smile Sessions was always intended as a collection of session out-takes, alternate vesions and studio chatter that sheds a brighter light into the mythical beginnings of Smile - not a replacement of the 2004 version.
The 2004 version is still the only 100% completed version of Smile - the 2011 version is as close as we can get to a glimpse of what SMiLE might possibly have sounded like if it was completed in 1967 - and they're both wonderful!

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