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Brian Wilson Smiles Again!

It’s December, 1966. The Beach Boys are riding the biggest wave ever of their career. Their album Pet Sounds (Capitol) has earned critical praise, despite sales that failed to match their previous albums. Their single “Good Vibrations” has become their biggest 45 rpm record ever, selling over a million copies and peaking at Number One on the Billboard singles chart. For the first time in their career, they have topped the Beatles in popularity in the UK. To top it off, Brian Wilson is reportedly working on the follow-up to Pet Sounds, called Smile, which is to contain “Good Vibrations.” Smile is set to be an even greater album than Pet Sounds, and Capitol Records is hoping to have it out for the final Christmas rush.

As it becomes clear that Smile won’t be finished in time, Capitol announces it will be released in January, 1967, and is “sure to sell a million units,” as an audio promo from Capitol proclaims. Capitol even places a full-page ad in Billboard magazine announcing the album’s expected release. Album covers with an illustrated booklet have been printed, patiently awaiting vinyl to fill their pockets.

Fast forward to June, 1967. Smile is still not finished. In fact, Brian Wilson, in the face of resistance from fellow Beach Boys who are unsure of what to make of the album’s content, among other complex issues, has scrapped the album entirely. As if to confirm the wisdom of his decision, the following month’s release of the “Heroes and Villains” single, which was to be Smile’s lead single and a major thematic piece of the album, fails to come close to replicating the success of “Good Vibrations.” It fails to even crack the Top Ten. A hastily assembled, re-recorded, stripped down replacement album called Smiley Smile (Capitol) follows the “Heroes and Villains” single, and its low chart placement seems to confirm that the Beach Boys’ sun has finally been eclipsed by changing tastes and times.

However, the legend of Smile would not die. The lack of Brian Wilson’s signature production flourishes made Smiley Smile a major disappointment to all those who bought into the hype behind Smile. In the ’80s and ’90s, bootlegs of the Smile sessions would become essential additions to the collections of hardcore Beach Boys fans. Though Brian Wilson would steadfastly refuse to talk in much detail about Smile after its demise, the questions from fans and enterprising journalists would not cease.

Fast forward again to 2003. Since 1999, Brian Wilson has experienced an amazing career rebirth since turning his life around. He has worked his way through weight problems, drug abuse and mental illness to finally resume life as a touring artist. He even has a critically lauded tour featuring a performance of the entire Pet Sounds album under his belt, which drew raves from nearly every critic who attended. How does Brian decide to top that tour?

Would you believe he decides, in 2003, to bring Smile on the road in 2004?

To the ears of the fiercely devoted, it sounded too good to be true.
However, as 2004 has proven, it really did happen. Brian Wilson finally pieced together the many fragments he recorded for Smile back in ’66 and ’67 and rehearsed it with his touring band. On February 24th of this year, Smile was finally debuted before a live audience at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

Before Brian had a chance to begin the next evening of his Smile tour in the UK, fans in attendance who successfully recorded the show began circulating digitized recordings to other salivating fans around the world via the internet. A 37 year old mystery – how Brian would have finally assembled the pieces of his ambitious, aborted album for the Beach Boys, the one that industry insiders felt could possibly put the Beach Boys over the top artistically – has been belatedly solved by its creator.

With the solving of this mystery comes almost as many questions as the album’s initial non-appearance had generated. Is this how it would have been assembled in 1967? If it were released when it was originally scheduled, would it have outshone the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper? Does the album’s completion diminish the power of the unfinished studio outtakes?

Will the current line-up of the Beach Boys acknowledge Smile’s completion in their concert repertoire or in any sort of public statement? When will a finished studio recording be released? Could this historic moment steal the spotlight from Brian’s soon-to-be-released album of new material, Gettin’ In Over My Head (Rhino)?

One question sure to be on the minds of those who have not yet had the chance to hear the completed Smile is, “was it worth the wait?”

To paraphrase a speculative report in the latest edition of Billboard magazine, as well as an old Beach Boys lyric, keep an eye on autumn this year…

April 26, 2004