The Forever Frown

More than 30 years later, Smile remains the subject of so much mystery

About six months ago, the European-based Sea of Tunes label -- a bootleg company devoted entirely to Beach Boys rarities, and a subsidiary of a label named Midnight Beat -- released three discs of Smile sessions. (The collection followed closely after the label's "Good Vibrations" three-disc box, which consists of nothing but rehearsals and demos . . . for a single song!) The Smile box, subtitled Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 16 (1966-1967), featured more than three hours' worth of outtakes, including nearly 20 different "versions" of "Heroes and Villains" and "Vegetables" -- and snippets of Wilson and musicians in the studio. Around the same time, Sea of Tunes, which is named after the Beach Boys' publishing company, also issued a single disc of Smile, which begins with the stunning "Our Prayer" (which consists solely of the Boys singing a wordless hymn composed by Brian) and ends with a thrilling, epic rendition of the symphonic "Surf's Up" suite, penned by Brian and Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the poetic lyrics for the entirety of Smile.

When Midnight Beat was raided two months ago by European authorities, the label's back catalogue was seized -- a total of nearly 10,000 discs, including Smile. (The label is currently in litigation overseas, where the penalties for bootlegging are relatively minor -- maybe a fine, and not a large one.) When word spread through the bootlegging community that the Smile discs were about to disappear, someone kindly packaged all four CDs in one box -- thus creating the most complete account of that album to date. Such handiwork has resulted in the re-creation of a long-gone yesterday still relevant today.

Of course, the question remains: Where did these tapes come from? The quality of the recordings is immaculate, so pristine it's nearly obscene; to own them is to feel as though you've confiscated a piece of history, stolen it out of Brian Wilson's back pocket (and, in truth, you have). To listen to these discs is to stand next to Wilson at the recording console as he dons his fireman's hat and whirls his way through these magnificent, otherworldly songs. Not a pop, not a scratch exists. Put them in the CD player, and mainline magic in its purest form -- get high on what was, what remains, and what still sounds like echoes from the future.

The cover for the Beach Boys' mythical album, the unreleased Smile.
The cover for the Beach Boys' mythical album, the unreleased Smile.

Capitol Records' vice president of catalogue A&R Paul Atkinson (himself a '60s pop player as a guitarist for the Zombies) says he knows precisely where the tapes came from -- but he will not say, citing an ongoing criminal investigation by the label, Beach Boys management, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the International Federation of Phonographic Industry.

"I know where they came from, but until they are arrested, I can't talk about it," Atkinson says. "We're working closely with the Beach Boys and their management and the anti-piracy people to put an end to it as much as possible. But these bootleggers are like cockroaches -- you exterminate them, and they come back. It's a constant problem, and with the Beach Boys, it's an especially virulent problem."

According to one source, Brian had agreed in 1995 to a five-year plan that would have, eventually, allowed for the release of Smile in some form. But a holdup over the release of The Pet Sounds Sessions essentially killed that: The boxed set was supposed to come out in the spring of 1996, but the remaining members of the band took issue with the original liner notes' celebration of Brian. They wanted their share of credit, even though they had little to do with Pet Sounds. Such infighting, so many years after the fact, ruined the chances of a Smile box.

After all, Mike Love and the rest of the Boys quite literally killed the record -- aborted it just as Brian was ready to usher it into this world and forever change it. Worse, the band -- which exists as a shadow of a vestige, its legacy long reduced to parody and punch line -- has spent three decades pretending Pet Sounds and Smile never existed. When the Boys toured, without Brian, for all those years, they never once performed songs from those albums, leaning instead on war-horse oldies -- "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Surfin' U.S.A." and all those other teen-beat anthems Brian wanted no part of by 1966. They dismissed Brian's experiments -- and, by doing so, they dismissed Brian. Once his bandmates -- his brothers, his cousins, his friends -- killed Smile, they killed a little part of him as well. He would never be the same.

For Smile to finally come out after all these years would make fools of Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and Brian's own flesh and blood. It's like getting away with murder, only to have the corpse reappear 33 years later, pointing fingers at the guilty parties.

Paul Atkinson hints that perhaps an official Smile release is not too far off in the future -- but he speaks in the record executive's bland, teasing generalities. He says that next year, Capitol will restore the entirety of the Beach Boys' back catalogue, including the post-Capitol albums released on the band's own Brother Records label (Sunflower, Surf's Up and Love You, among many others). He also insists that he has done his best to delete so many of the best-ofs that have clogged the market -- even though the label has released three such discs within the past two years.

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