Brian Douglas Wilson was born on June 20, 1942 in Inglewood, California and grew up in Hawthorne. At ages seven and eight he sang solos in church accompanied by a choir. As a young guy he played football, baseball, and was a cross-country runner. His musical influences include George Gershwin and The Four Freshmen. He lists ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes as his favorite song by another artist.
In 1966 Brian and lyricist Van Dyke Parks began working on the SMILE album. It was shelved the next year. Various reasons floated around for years. There were disagreements among The Beach Boys about the project’s relevance. There were legal battles with Capitol Records. Carl Wilson had a draft battle. Brian had drug and mental problems. Whatever the reasons writer/producer David Leaf notes SMILE “became the most legendary, unfinished, unreleased album in history”. Fast forward to February 20, 2004 and Brian and his new band premiered SMILE live in concert to great ovation at London’s Royal Festival Hall. In September 2004 SMILE, actually called BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMILE, came out on CD and double vinyl (Nonesuch Records). It was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album at the Grammy`s.
SMILE is divided into three movements. The first begins with ‘Our Prayer/Gee’. ‘Our Prayer’ was on The Beach Boys 20/20 album in 1969. It features voices harmonizing acappella. ‘Gee’ was released in June 1953 by The Crows and was the first 1950’s doo-wop record to sell over one million records. One of the lyrics is “How I love my girl”. A version of ‘Heroes and Villains’ appeared on 1967’s Beach Boys album SMILEY SMILE. The version on SMILE is the album’s longest track at 4:53. This bouncy pop song is a story song that begins with these words: “I been in this town so long that back in the city I been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time/Fell in love years ago with an innocent girl from/The Spanish and Indian home of the Heroes and Villains”.
‘Roll Plymouth Rock’ is also known as ‘Do You Like Worms?’ It is a song that makes a strong point: “Waving from the ocean liners/Beaded cheering Indians behind them/Rock, rock, roll Plymouth Rock roll over (2X)/Ribbon of concrete/Just see what you done/Done to the church of the American Indian!/.../Bicycle rider/Just see what you’ve done/To the church of the American Indian”. ‘Barnyard’ is SMILE’s shortest track at 58 seconds. This unique song uses animal noises and has some funny lyrics: “Out in the barnyard, the chickens do their number/Out in the barnyard, the cook is choppin’ lumber/Jump in the pig pen/Next time I’ll take my shoes off”. Next up is ‘Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine’. The latter is subdued and has a very familiar chorus: “You are my sunshine/My only sunshine/You made me happy when skies were gray/You’ll never know dear/How much I love you/How could you take my sunshine away?”
‘Cabin Essence’ was originally on 20/20. At times it is mellow musically and at other times it races. Brian Wilson has said it is written from the perspective of a railroad spike. Here are some of the mysterious lyrics: “Who ran the iron horse?/Who ran the iron horse?/Have you seen the Grand Coulee workin’ on the railroad?/Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield/Over and over, the thresher and hover the wheat field”. No wonder The Beach Boys objected to the lyrics back in the day!
The second movement of SMILE begins with a pretty, light pop song called ‘Wonderful’. It has been said to touch on a young gal losing her virginity: “She knew how to gather the forest/When God reached softly and moved her body/One golden locket,/Quite young and loving her mother and father/Further down the path was a mystery/Through the recess, the chalk and numbers/A boy bumped into her one, one, wonderful”. Earlier versions of ‘Song For Children’ were known as ‘Look’ and ‘I Ran’. Here it uses happy carnival like sounds. Here are some of the words: “Tho I know I’m wont to wonderin’, nevermind wonderful you/I can’t stop a-wonderin’/Never you mind, wonderful you!” ‘Child is the Father of the Man’ speaks of one’s potential: “Easy my child/It’s just enough to believe/Out of the wild/Into what you can conceive/You’ll achieve/Child-the child/Father of the man”. ‘Surf’s Up’, a mellow song, was the title track on The Beach Boys 22nd album in 1971. The song includes these words: “Surf’s Up!/Aboard a tidal wave/Come about hard and join the young and often Spring you gave/I heard the word/Wonderful thing!/A children’s song/A children’s song/Have you listened as they play?/Their song is love and the children know the way”.
The third movement of SMILE begins with three songs pieced together. ‘I’m in Great Shape’ has humorous lyrics: “Fresh clean air around my head/Morning tumble out of bed/Eggs and grits and lickety split/Look at me jump/I’m in the great shape of the agriculture!” ‘I Wanna Be Around’ is a Johnny Mercer/Sadie Vimmerstedt composition. ‘Workshop’ contains lyrics that could either be sarcastic or compassionate: “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces/When somebody breaks your heart/Yes when somebody breaks your heart in two”. Hammer and drill sounds are used!
‘Vega-Tables’ has been said to have been influenced by Brian Wilson’s health obsession. It is a carefree sounding song with ridiculously clever lyrics: “I’m gonna be ‘round my vegetables/I’m gonna chow down my vegetables/I love you most of all, my favorite vegetable/If you brought a big brown bag of them home/I’d jump up and down and hope you’d toss me a carrot.../I threw away my candy bar and I ate the wrapper/And when they told me what I did/I burst into laughter”. Jan and Dean covered the song as ‘Laughing Gravy’ in 1968 and Terry Scott Taylor of Daniel Amos covered it in 2002. ‘On a Holiday’ has pirate-friendly lyrics: “Abaft and forth, a star board course with north abeam/Sherry of course/The men will share some sport ah-now me hearty!/Not the rum of Carib scum/It’s Port tonight, drink up and come/Un-weigh the anchor yank and we will party!”
‘Wind Chimes’ has overly sentimental lyrics: “Hanging down from my window/Those are my wind chimes/On the warm breeze/The little bells tinkle like wind chimes/Though it’s hard, I try not to look at my wind chimes/Now and then a tear rolls off my cheek”. Next up is ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow’, also known as ‘Fire’. It won Brian Wilson a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. It was his first Grammy Award! The song has an urgent, driven feel to it and uses whistles and animal noises. Catherine O’Leary was an Irish immigrant living in Chicago, Illinois in the 1870’s. Legend has it that her cow knocked over a lantern when she was milking it and that that started The Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Catherine said she was in bed when the fire started.
‘In Blue Hawaii’ mixes monastery type sounds and voices with pop ones. It contains these first person lyrics: “Oh I could use a drop to drink right now/In a waterfall, back there in Hawaii/Take me to a luau now and lay before me/Wholly Holy Cow!/Down in blue Hawaii/So far away from blue Hawaii/Aloha nui means goodbye”. ‘Good Vibrations’ was penned by Brian Wilson, Michael Love, and Tony Asher. It was The Beach Boys’ third U.S. No 1 hit. The song is quirky musically and describes a guy being attracted to a gal: “I, I love the colorful clothes she wears/And she’s already workin’ on my brain/I, I only looked in her eyes/But I picked up something/I just can’t explain/I’m pickin’ up good vibrations/She’s giving me excitations/Good, good, good/Good vibrations”.
SMILE has been classified as orchestral and psychedelic pop. It is ambitious, experimental, boundary breaking music. It is a fine follow-up to PET SOUNDS. Given the very abstract lyrics though, it is easy to see why some of The Beach Boys didn’t want to release these songs! On BRIAN WILSON PRESENTS SMILE, Brian is accompanied by a ten member backing band, seven of whom contribute vocals. The Stockholm Strings and Horns add their talents as well. Brian sings and plays keyboards. I’m rating this project 88%. For more info visit: www.brianwilson.com.