The collapse of the 1967 Beach Boys album SMiLE, the "greatest rock and roll album that never was," remains one of the most enigmatic stories in popular music history. The release of SMiLE last month by Brian Wilson, who composed the album before pulling the plug on it so long ago, should be counted a triumph. And with Wilson performing his masterpiece to sold-out audiences and standing ovations coast to coast, including an Oct. 24 performance at Denver's Paramount Theater, it's hard to keep from smiling.
The Beach Boys will be remembered for their early 1960s pure-pop songs about girls, sports cars and surfing. But by the mid-1960s, spurred by the Beatles' Rubber Soul, Brian Wilson could see big changes coming to the music world. The Beach Boys entered a musical arms race with The Beatles, recording the experimental Pet Sounds in 1966. That album sold fewer records, but it became a critical smash. Not to be outdone, The Beatles began work on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that would usher in the psychedelic era.
But Wilson wasn't ready to concede victory to his transatlantic rival. SMiLE needed to be even more ambitious than Pet Sounds. To this end, Wilson hired abstract lyricist Van Dyke Parks and converted his home into a kind of psychedelic hide-out. He planted his piano in a huge sandbox so he could twist his toes in sand while he composed. He set up an indoor tent filled with large pillows for his stoned friends and fellow musicians.
When the band returned from the road later that year, SMiLE elicited mixed reactions from them. Many of the lyrics were bizarre, the music fantastical and unlike anything ever recorded before -- some of it to be performed wearing fireman helmets. Tensions rose between Wilson, Parks and the band. Disheartened, Wilson shelved the recording sessions in the spring of 1967.
The Beach Boys careers never recovered. Wilson's life increasingly disintegrated in the following years as he slid into a decades-long blur of drug addiction, alcoholism and mental illness. SMiLE, however, gained reputation with each passing year. Fragmentary bootlegs of the original recordings confirmed to most critics and fans a colossal mistake had been made in shelving SMiLE. Wilson would disagree when questioned about it, often calling the music "inappropriate."
What a joy, then, to see Wilson resurrect SMiLE this fall as a recording and cause for an American tour. Whatever demons Wilson confronted to release SMiLE have been vanquished by the sheer creative glory of this music.
The album (or concert) consists of three song movements: the first opens with "Heroes and Villains" dealing thematically with American colonial expansion; the second deals with the innocence of childhood; and the third deals with the elements of nature and a happy life, concluding with "Good Vibrations." The album's liner notes credit some 20 musicians playing everything from clarinets to power drills on "Workshop" and celery on "Vega-Tables."
Even more than Pet Sounds, the album often credited for revolutionizing the "album" in popular music, each song on SMiLE is played as part of a whole work of art. Had SMiLE been released in 1967, the album's popular influence would undoubtedly have been great and far-reaching. SMiLE in 2004 arrives better late than never to fill a 37-year gap in record collections the world over, and the SMiLE tour should bring grins decades overdue.
-- Dan Wilcock
Paramount Theater, 1621 Glenarm Place, Denver
Wednesday, Oct. 24, 8 p.m.
For more information, call Ticketmaster at 520-9090