Released September 18th 1967, ‘Smiley Smile’ was and is one of the Beach Boys most notable and significant albums for various reasons. Essentially the remnants of the then-scrapped, since re-imagined, ‘Smile’ album, the inconclusiveness of the project, alongside an increase in drug-taking, led to Brian Wilson’s mental deterioration and eventual reclusiveness years later. At the time, the cancellation of ‘Smile’ may not have been the grand talking point of ‘Smiley Smile’, but perhaps the fact that it was the follow-up to one of the most important rock albums ever made, ‘Pet Sounds’.
Despite the retrospective acclaim, ‘Pet Sounds’ had its fair share of bad reviews back in 1966, mostly from a pop perspective, as outside songs like ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, the album’s mainstream appeal was limited. Brian Wilson’s heart was in making an album that sounded complete, using detailed arrangements, diverse instrumentation and unconventional songwriting to do so. How would the Beach Boys react to the album’s criticism? Well, there were two plans in mind during the ‘Smile’ / ‘Smiley Smile’ period, as the more-so creative one, Brian was pressured by his brothers and bandmates to put together a new, definitive hit for the band, and while Brian obliged, he decided to make minimalism the focal point of the band’s new music.
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While ‘Pet Sounds’ was large, with large arrangements and an even larger use of whatever instrument Brian Wilson could get his hands on, ‘Smile Smiley’ was not. ‘Smiley Smile’ was the complete opposite, with many song sections focussing primarily on one instrument at a time, rather than an amalgamation. ‘Little Pad’ for instance, features a ukulele section with basic humming vocals accompanying it, and these are followed by very light keyboard sections, with the main refrain of “sure would like to have a little pad in Hawaii” being harmonised over. This basic approach to music and lyricism is also generated beautifully on ‘With Me Tonight’, as the band’s vocal harmony generates the songs rhythm section on its own, before an organ progression comes in, accompanying the very simple lyrics of “with me tonight, I know you’re with me tonight”.
‘Vegetables’ features a very steady bassline, accompanied by chomping noises, serving as the song’s percussion. ‘Wind Chimes’ might be the most beautifully scruffy song on the record, with each member’s vocals coming in eerily over a sparse, bass-driven instrumental. ‘She’s Goin’ Bald’, the album’s novelty cut, features more harmony, still serving as rhythm, but this time with a bit of help from some tapping percussion. ‘Gettin’ Hungry’ makes the most of the album’s lo-fi style, as the song dips in and out of convention, and a rock organ creates one of the album’s noisiest instrumentals.
As mentioned, an attempt at a fresh hit single was the main plan of the Beach Boys after ‘Pet Sounds’. The recording of ‘Good Vibrations’ was initiated during the later ‘Pet Sounds’ sessions, and was released as a single in 1966. A version of the song appears on ‘Smiley Smile’. The recording is a lot rougher, but it only just about fits in with the rest of the album’s minimalism, as it does hold a much greater arrangement than anything else here. This version is also structured differently, with no sudden vocal start, and the chorus comes in before the first verse. The inclusion of ‘Good Vibrations’ on ‘Smiley Smile’ gifts the album a legacy bigger than the one it would otherwise have, a landmark single in psychedelic pop for the general listener, and a nice alternate version for big Beach Boys fan.
The album’s lead single is actually ‘Heroes and Villains’, the opening song. Again, the recording isn’t clean, but thanks to its speedy rhythm, and its full band sound, it does work a lot better as a single than, let’s say, ‘Vegetables’. However, there was some dissatisfaction in the Beach Boys camp with the song’s recording, with Al Jardine particularly disliking the quality.
The ‘Smile’ project would be brought back to life in 2004, with ‘Brian Wilson Presents: Smile’ replicating the original idea. The album revamps a number of songs featured on ‘Smiley Smile’, including ‘Heroes and Villains’ and ‘Vegetables’, allowing them to sound like how Brian had wanted them to sound initially, rather than the minimalistic, lo-fi cuts they’d become. Brian Wilson won a Grammy for the album, and a lot of respect and admiration from fans and critics. But that’s 2004 – in 1967, the critics weren’t so kind to the Beach Boys, as ‘Smiley Smile’ was mostly groaned at. While it has gained somewhat of a positive legacy, at the time, people were far more pleased with the album’s same year follow-up ‘Wild Honey’, which saw the Beach Boys venture into soul and R&B.
Well, fifty years have passed, and while ‘Smiley Smile’ is hardly lauded as one of the Beach Boys’ best, its combination of pop and avant-garde is influential. In its own way, it’s just as unique as ‘Pet Sounds’, but obviously nowhere near as reputable or important. Sure, the album’s quality is up for debate, sure, it’s worth is often outweighed by the legend of ‘Smile’, but in its own little way, ‘Smiley Smile’ is a classic.