The Smile Sessions: The Story Behind the Box
Over the course of innumerable sessions in 1966 and 1967, the Beach Boys labored over what was to have been their magnum opus, Smile: a lavishly orchestrated suite of “modular” songs by the group’s chief songwriter and resident genius Brian Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks. Smile grew and grew, with hundreds of song fragments piling up — until May, 1967, when the project fell apart.
For more than 40 years, there have been rumors that Smile would appear in some form or other; a few of its songs were re-recorded for later Beach Boys projects, and bits of the Smile recordings trickled out on official releases and bootlegs. In 2004, Brian Wilson returned to the Smile compositions and recorded a new version of the album, completing the project for the first time (and going on to play it on tour).
Now the Beach Boys’ Smile — or as close as it’s possible to come to it — has finally appeared, pieced together by producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd from more than 50 hours’ worth of recordings.
eMusic’s Douglas Wolk spoke with them by phone about how they managed to assemble a project that’s confounded everyone who’s tried to make it work for decades.
How long have you been working on this project?
Aland Boyd: Thirty-some years, I think — like anybody who’s listened to these tracks! You could say we’ve been working on it ever since we started going through the Boys’ tapes and making detailed databases of the catalogue. I guess it was two or three years ago that Mark and I actually went through all the surviving Smile tapes. And there’s quite a bit: There are about 75 reels of tape attached to “Good Vibrations” alone. There’s an enormous amount of material, and it’s scattered all over the place. And as we were going through the tapes in the archive, we would find things that we didn’t know we had, because they’d never been written down on the tape boxes. There’s a version of “Surf’s Up” that we included on the end of Disc 1, from Brian’s home studio in 1967; we never had any inkling that it existed. It’s a fantastic performance, but it’s also very surprising that he was still interested in that song after he shelved the project.
How did you go about assembling Smile proper?
Linett: We used Brian’s assembly from 2004 as a template. And thank God we had that. Until he completed the project in 2003, there wouldn’t have been an album to assemble. It was a very big step, and it took a lot of small steps for Brian to be comfortable with revisiting something that had been so disappointing all those years ago.
How did you deal with juggling all the pieces of the Smile puzzle?
Linett: I first listened to a lot of these tapes back in 1988, when there was an early proposal to do a Smile Sessions set, and it was brought up again in 1995 — many times since the project was abandoned — because it’s always been the great lost Beach Boys album, which explains all the bootlegs there have been over the years. We spent nine months going through every session bit by bit, which really allowed us to try to present them in the best way possible. There’s just so much material. There’s really no precedent from any album I’ve ever worked on in my 40 years of making records, where this much material was recorded and all of it is valuable and listenable.
The difference between then and now is the tools we have to work with. Digital editing allows us to take all these pieces much more easily and construct the songs the way Brian ultimately decided to do them. I think he had these ideas in his head in 1967, but the technology to marry these pieces together really wasn’t available. I won’t say it would have been completely impossible to put something together, because he did it for “Good Vibrations” and ultimately for “Heroes and Villains.” But it would have been so time-consuming back in 1967, when the only way to edit was to do a mix of a piece, then a mix of another piece, then edit them together with a razor blade and Scotch tape, and there was no undo button.
Boyd: Carl Wilson was there for a lot of the sessions. He made cassettes on his own so that he could go through the tapes when it was announced in the early ’70s that the Beach Boys would release Smile. They kind of gave up on it, probably thanks to the frustration of dealing with the fragmentary nature of the recording. But a couple of years after that, somebody asked Carl about the Smile tapes, and he talked about the modular nature of the material that Brian was recording, and Carl said, “It was a bit like making films, I think.” And I think he was right about that. The kind of editing that the project required seemed more like the process of putting a film together than a pop record.
Was there anything you thought might exist from the Smile sessions that you couldn’t dig up?
Boyd: Yeah, there are a couple of missing tapes — we had to pull some early “Heroes and Villains” mixdown pieces from a bootleg, because the original tapes had been stolen. The most frustrating thing is that we still have some of the tape boxes, but someone took off with the reels years ago. There are some sessions we have documentation for that we don’t have tape on, but it’s hard to tell for sure if those sessions actually happened: If Brian canceled sessions without giving sufficient notice, the musicians and studio still had to be paid.
Having said that, there was still an enormous amount of material. The Beach Boys have always controlled their own tape assets, and they archived them; what we have is full sessions for any given track, and that makes the whole package possible, so you can hear the creation and progression of a song — the really fascinating part.
Was there a moment when the project really seemed to come together for you?
Linett: The first time we had a solid assembly of the album and listened to it all the way through, I was just kind of shaking my head afterwards going, “Wow, this really is good!” It really seems to flow well. I even tried it out on some friends and colleagues who are not Beach Boys fans, just to get their reaction to it, and I was blown away by some of the reactions that I saw. People who were coming from a background of hardcore ’70s punk were listening to this and going, “Oh my god, wow, this is amazing stuff.” I have a feeling that this could open doors for a lot of people who were not Beach Boys fans in the past.