The final weeks of 2011 have been memorable ones for longtime followers of the Beach Boys. In November, Capital Records released “Smile,” the legendary lost Beach Boys’ album that had remained uncompleted and unavailable for 45 years. Then, last week, it was announced that the surviving members of the group would reunite during 2012 as part of a Beach Boys 50th anniversary celebration, meaning that Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks will share the same stage for the first time in more than a decade. The magnitude of these two events depends on what level of a Beach Boys fan you happen to be. There are the very casual fans, who love the band’s earlier songs (Surfin USA, I Get Around, Help Me Rhonda and California Girls), know little or nothing about “Smile,” and may not be aware that the group’s members have not been together recently. Then you have the more knowledgeable individuals, who heard that Brian Wilson discarded some musical project in the late 1960’s, and know that a Beach Boys concert these days means Mike and Bruce and a bunch of guys you never heard of. And finally, you have the Beach Boy fanatics, who already own bootleg versions of “Smile,” and are skeptical that the five men can get along well enough to make it through the 50 planned dates. In any case, the appearance of “Smile” is a welcome one, while we’ll have to wait and see about the reunion.
It’s never been fully explained why “Smile” was not released in late 1966, as was originally planned, although many reasons have been offered. Brian Wilson, the genius behind the Beach Boys, had conceived the project on the heels of his success with the group’s “Pet Sounds” album, and their most recent single, “Good Vibrations.” Brian, who had stopped touring with the Beach Boys in 1965, had spent much of 1966 in the studio fusing together the hundreds of musical ideas that were rapidly growing inside his head. By early 1967, enough “Smile” material had been recorded to produce an album, but Brian was never quite satisfied with the results, and continued to edit and re-edit many of the completed tracks. By late spring, “Smile” was pretty much abandoned, as Brian decided to concentrate on finishing one song, “Heroes and Villains,” which, along with “Good Vibrations,” was meant to be a centerpiece of the “Smile” album. The disappointing reception to “Heroes and Villains” as a single along with the Beach Boys failure to deliver the much anticipated “Smile” took a heavy toll on the groups career, as critics dismissed them as just another group that couldn’t keep pace with the Beatles. Brian Wilson stepped aside as the leader of the Beach Boys, and would only sporadically contribute to the group for several years.
Even in its unfinished form, “Smile” often lives up to its status as a lost masterpiece. There are beautiful tracks, such as “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes” that showcase Brian Wilson’s ability to mastermind great harmonies, while songs like “Vegetables” and “Barnyard” reflect an uncharacteristic sense of whimsy. In addition to a slightly version of “Good Vibrations” than most of us are familiar with, the “Smile” CD includes several intriguing fragments of music, several intended to be part of what would have been an extended version of “Heroes and Villains.” When listening to “Smile,” one can’t help but wonder how the album would have been received had it been released in 1967.
Of course, a complete Beach Boys reunion is not possible, as two of the founding members, Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson, are now deceased. For many years, Carl was the glue that held the band together, and it was his death that allowed the group to splinter into three separate touring factions. Mike Love, the Beach Boys’ lead singer, obtained the right to perform under the group’s name, while Al Jardine and Brian Wilson tour with their own backup bands under their own names. In 2012, Mike will be 71, while Brian and Al will both turn 70. Since their voices are not what they used to be, it’s my hope that the Beach Boys ask Al’s son Matt and longtime Brian sideman Jeff Foskett to join them onstage to help with the vocals. But regardless of the presentation, I for one will jump at the chance to see the remaining five Beach Boys, as time is definitely running out. But the lineup on stage has never been as important as the timeless joy provided by such songs as “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Fun Fun Fun,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” As Dennis Wilson once said, “none of the Beach Boys are superstars…the music is the superstar.”
Notes: Bruce Johnston has been with the Beach Boys since 1965, as he replaced Brian in the group’s concert lineup. The first person to take Brian’s place in 1965 was Glen Campbell. David Marks joined the group in its very early days, when Al Jardine left during the first year. Marks stayed with the Beach Boys through the first four albums, left in late 1963, shortly after Al was asked to return.