The year was 1966, and the Beach Boys were riding a wave of energy across the musical landscape of the times. The Hawthorne, California quintet’s sound was evolving into one of the most respected and unique in the industry after the release earlier that year of its now profoundly important album Pet Sounds.
In a few short years, the Beach Boys had transformed from a pop band with catchy harmonies and songs about surfing, cars and teen-love, into full-force musical shaman, much like the creative path their friends from Liverpool were taking during the same period. Whether it was Brian Wilson’s mental wipeout, or his LSD-induced visions of grandeur, the groundwork was being set for one of the most ambitious and abnormal projects in American rock to that point.
Through the guidance and brilliant composing of Wilson, the Beach Boys were primed for an ambitious follow-up to the gorgeous Pet Sounds. Wilson was quoted in a 1966 interview as saying the next project was to be “a teenage symphony to God.” God, and most of the world’s inhabitants for that matter, would not hear that beautiful collection of music which ultimately changed the band forever, for better or worse. The master tapes were shelved, and SMiLE was never released.
That changed this week as Wilson’s long awaited mythical masterpiece was issued in expanded form as The SMiLE Sessions, nearly 45 years after its conception. Be warned, though: While the original album has been referred to as the Beach Boys’ Holy Grail, this massive collection of studio recordings will probably be more well received by musicians and the serious music fan. Novice passersby may need not apply.
That said, despite the newly recorded version of this project released by Wilson in 2004, no one could have expected what depth and quality The SMiLE Sessions would bring to the table. The surviving Beach Boys’ members revived the original version of the album in 2011 and even had talks about a possible 50-year reunion tour — though Brian Wilson has since shot that down. While the band may still not be able to resolve its differences, the rest of us can still take comfort in the fact that after nearly four decades, we’re getting new (uncovered) material from the Wilson, the mad genius.
The sessions’ physical and digital configurations include a group of core session tracks, while the box set gives an avalanche of alternate takes, instrumental mixes, and some very interesting conversation that the mics picked up. (In one instance while recording “Our Prayer,” Wilson can be heard asking: “You guys feel the acid yet?”) The box set even features an entire disc (24 tracks!) of different cuts and versions of “Good Vibrations” — the now-legendary feel-good tune that rose to the top of the charts shortly after the release of Pet Sounds, and was originally slated to be released on what would have been the SMiLE album.
If finally hearing that album itself is an exotic treat, the hours of extra studio recordings are like a fine 40-year-old port wine.
Along the way, The SMiLE Sessions reveal much about the evolution of one of the most mysterious and long-awaited albums in rock history. They also provide a look into the immensely musically gifted mind of Wilson during his creative peak in the late ’60s. Pack a lunch; it’ll take a while to dig through the tracks. But it’s most certainly worth the wait, as you’ll never see the Beach Boys in the same light again.