I got thinking about this because of the news, gleaned from Progressive Ears, that Capitol records will be releasing the material from the Beach Boys’ legendary Smile sessions sometime this summer. If ever there was a work of art with a compelling back story, that’s it.
Smile was intended to be the follow up to Pet Sounds, which was a high-water mark technically and musically for American pop in the 1960s. It was part of a famous game of musical one-upsmanship between Brian Wilson’s group and the Beatles (heading for Sgt. Pepper’s at the time). Smile was designed as a sprawling epic concept album (“a teenage symphony to God,” as Wilson put it) soaked in American culture and history, stitched together using the same technique pioneered on “Good Vibrations.” “Big fucking deal” hardly did the idea justice.
But it didn’t come off. At least, not in the 1960s. Smile as a conceptual whole disintegrated under the weight of Wilson’s growing mental problems and divisions within the band. It was ultimately shelved in May, 1967, just before Sgt. Pepper . . . was released. However, a lot of the material recorded for Smile showed up (in various guises) on subsequent Beach Boys albums. Nonetheless, the project as a whole was dead, yet took on a mystique and life of its own in the hearts and minds of fans.
Fast forward to February, 2004. Wilson has come out of his battle with drugs and mental illness. In London, he performs Smile in its entirety, with some new bits added here and there to fill in gaps in the original recording. That leads to a studio recording and, later that year, the release of SMiLE.
As one might expect when such a famous project finally sees the light of day (even if in slightly different form than originally intended), the reception was overwhelmingly positive. So much so that even though I’d never had any use for the Beach Boys in my life, I picked up a copy.
I was, to put it mildly, underwhelmed. Maybe I hyped it too much in my head. Maybe Wilson’s stuff just isn’t my thing (I go with that assessment). Maybe it paled in comparison to a milestone that was released in 1966, while Smile was still in development: Freak Out!, the first Zappa album, which I acquired around the same time. Regardless, what was reported as a groundbreaking work of staggering genius to me sounded more like an occasionally interesting, lushly recorded pop record with unfortunate tendencies to get bogged down in hokey music hall shtick. It just doesn't work for me (a result it shares in my mind with another much lauded classic - Kind of Blue).
But the more I read about Smile, SMiLE, and Wilson’s story the more I sensed that so many people were enamored of it for reasons that had little to do with music. The vibe I got from a documentary on the making of SMiLE, of which I admittedly only caught a part on cable one afternoon, was that everyone was so afraid that a negative reaction to SMiLE would have dire consequences for Wilson’s health that nobody would say a negative word about it.
As commenter Desdinova put it:
The more I learned about Brian as a person, as an artist, and as a studio magician, and about the dynamics within the band, the more I enjoyed these albums. It's a fascinating and tragic story, and knowing it made the music far more meaningful.But should that make a difference? Shouldn't the work, at the end of the day, stand on its own? I can't get all high and might about it, but I tend to think so. I'll admit that part of why I'm so fond of Brazil is the battle Terry Gilliam waged with Universal to get the film released in the United States, but I'd like to think that I was captivated by the movie itself before I learned about that. But who knows?
At the heart of it, it seems somehow unfair to treat something like SMiLE or Brazil more favorably because the backstory connects with you. Great art doesn't necessarily require strife in the making, after all. But in the end, given that our reaction to art is primarily emotional rather than intellectual, I suppose it's inevitable.