The Beach Boys Influential and Disastrous Smiley Smile Turning 50

smiley smile EMI
Capitol Records

September 18 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys release, Smiley Smile. The album is considered to be one of the worst follow-up albums of all time. You might review it as the worst, especially since it came out after the highly regarded, Pet Sounds (1966). However, nowadays, bands from Sebadoh to Animal Collective have cited the album as an influence to their sound. This isn’t surprising, since the Smiley Smile is thought to be the first ever lo-fi album. It was recorded in a matter of two weeks, at Beach Boys founding member, Brian Wilson’s home studio. The album masters a unique style of lo-fi psychedelia and bedroom pop, a sound that was not familiar with Beach Boys fans at the time. It was a daring record that baffled and divided the fan base and critics. There were some initial reviews such as Rolling Stone, calling it a “disaster” and then some like the Milwaukee Sentinel, calling it “the most valuable contribution to rock since the Beatles Revolver”. Say what you want, but you cannot deny the album’s legacy; it is  becoming just as worthy as its predecessor. However, the making of Smiley Smile did not come easy, especially under a label that wanted to bury the Beach Boys as a novelty act.

The upbringing of Smiley Smile was part of the friendly rivalry the Beach Boys had with the Beatles; each band trying to one-up the other. After The Beach Boys Pet Sounds debuted on the Billboard charts only at 106 on May of 1966; this was their lowest placement on the charts. Their label, Capitol Records, was not satisfied and quickly released the group’s first greatest hits compilation, The Best of the Beach Boys without their permission. None of the songs off Pet Sounds made the “very best” compilation, not even “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or “God Only Knows”. This drove Wilson mad, considering how hard he worked as a composer and writer in the sessions. Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys knew they had to make a comeback onto the charts.

The Beach Boys had a few tracks that didn’t make the cut on Pet Sounds. One of the tracks was the ever-popular “Good Vibrations” which was revisited and has been reported to have used 90 hours of recording tape as only a single. By releasing “Good Vibrations,” the Beach Boys went back to number one on the charts, becoming a commercial hit. Soon after, the Beach Boys announced their 12th studio album, entitled SMiLE, which had fans and critics eager for the release.

Brian Wilson went back into the studio and collaborated with composer and songwriter, Van Dyke Parks, who introduced Brian Wilson to the more obscure and psychedelic sound of music. This caused some tension within the group, since Brian Wilson was mainly doing things with Parks and himself again, rather than with the rest of the Beach Boys. Here, Wilson and Parks collaborated on tracks such as “Heroes and Villains,” “Vegetables,” and “Wonderful” that carried themes surrounding psychedelia, spirituality, and humor. These songs and others were set to be released on the next Beach Boys record, SMiLE, an album that would’ve made the Beatles sound like Glenn Miller. The record went above and beyond what the Beach Boys were used to releasing and was even far away from Pet Sounds. This concerned Capitol records and due to the disputes with their label, Parks leaving and working on his debut album, Song Cycle (1967), and Brian’s drug behavior, SMiLE got shelved and didn’t get released officially until 2011. After the collapse of the SMiLE project, the Beach Boys were then set to headline one of  the most significant and influential music festival of all time, the Monterey Pop Festival. However, The group felt that they wouldn’t of fit in with their material and didn’t want to be associated with the music that was spreading at the time and dropped out last minute; a huge mistake publicly on their part. Here, people, especially belonging to the counterculture movement, considered the Beach Boys to be over, but they were just rebuilding.

To fulfill obligations with their pushy and untrustworthy label, the Beach Boys still had to release an album. They settled in Brian’s home studio and recorded a more simpler version of SMiLE, called Smiley Smile. The album included some of the tracks Parks and Wilson collaborated on, but “Vegetables” and “Wonderful” were creepily reworked on. Smiley Smile is just as trippy as its original and carries a highly influential lo-fi and laid back slacker rock sound, that was used from mainly radio broadcasting equipment. It’s such an inconsistent and chaotic record, but that’s its specialty. I mean if SMiLE was released in 1967, I wonder if it would have topped Sgt. Peppers and continue the friendly rivalry between the Beach Boys and the Beatles, save Brian Wilson’s mental illness, and instead of Beatles shirts at Jcpenny’s, there would be Beach Boys shirts. Nonetheless, if it wa released, we wouldn’t have Smiley Smile, an album that is just as good as its original. Smiley Smile separated the Beach Boys from everything that was occurring at the time and before like they did with surf rock, here they were pioneering a new sound called lo-fi music. The track listing goes from a comical and chipmunks singing song “She’s Goin Bald” to a more calm and endearing track “Little Pad”. Then we get to side 2 and “Good Vibrations” carries the electro-theremin, the obscure instrument that perfects the album’s effects. Right after the monster opening “Heroes and Villains,” the album runs all over the place. Beck’s classic lo-fi record, Mellow Gold (1994) shares this same presence. The concealed sound used here, would be carried out on later Beach Boys albums such as Wild Honey (1967) and Friends (1968). You might consider Smiley Smile only to be a good album if you were stoned or that Mike Love caused the collapse of the SMiLE project and that it’s one of the worst follow up albums of all time, but you would be lying to yourself. When SMiLE was officially released in 2011, people have been praising the aborted project way more than its replacement and have been kicking Smiley Smile farther and farther to the curb. Sure Smiley Smile doesn’t have songs like “Surfs Up” or “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)” on the track listing, but SMiLE doesn’t have any songs like “Gettin’ Hungry” or “Little Pad”. Smiley Smile wasn’t a bunt or collapse in the Beach Boys music, it was a grand slam in absurdity within reverberation and a rebirth for the group.  

This past summer, Capitol released a compilation entitled 1967 – Sunshine Tomorrow, that focused strongly on the previous unreleased recordings from Smiley Smile and Wild Honey. 

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