Entertainment & Arts

Brian Wilson revisits Smile album

The Beach Boys
Image caption The Beach Boys became popular in the early 60s for their harmonies and lyrics reflecting Southern California youth culture of surfing, cars and romance

Smile was the album that broke Beach Boy Brian Wilson, one of the greatest songwriters of the 1960s. Now, 45 years on, the dozens and dozens of recordings made in the now almost legendary Smile Sessions are being released.

In 1966, the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds and set a new benchmark for innovative pop music. The Beatles took notice.

A year later, Wilson, the sensitive songwriter behind most of their hits, set out to create something an even more adventurous Beach Boys album. It was to be called Smile but it was never released.

Wilson still bears some of the mental scars. Talking to him now it's clear he has good and bad moments.

Some answers are abrupt, some tail off. Then suddenly, usually when he's talking about the music, he's entirely lucid.

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Media captionBeach Boy Brian Wilson talks to the BBC's David Sillito

The main problem was drugs. "I regret what happened. We overdid the drugs, we went too deep into the drugs," he says.

"It took us so into the music we couldn't finish it. Because we were so stoned, we were like... Okay, let's hold on for 10 minutes."

It's no wonder that a multi-layered pop masterpiece such as Good Vibrations took seven months to complete.

It was then an amazing amount of time, given that he had only a year or two before been producing four albums a year.

But while Good Vibrations was issued as a single, much of the material recorded over those months was never released.

In between the tracks were little spoken interludes. One of them is called Brian Falls In To A Piano, which Wilson now admits sounds rather crazy.

"Those drugs got us going," he says. "A lot of people in the early 60s were taking drugs, you know, and drugs do help the creative process. But they also do damage to the brain.

"You get two things. You get this creative high and the minus is you've got to come down off those awful drugs, back to the world of reality."

Water phobia

However, it was never clear how far Wilson truly returned. One tune, entitled Mrs O'Leary's Cow, is about fire and Wilson became alarmed when a fire started in the neighbourhood.

Had the song triggered the fire? Wilson was worried. He also wanted the feel of the beach to help his composing, so he had a sandpit installed in his house.

Image caption Brian Wilson performed at the Glastonbury Festival in 2005

Yet looking back at film footage from that era is a reminder that the description Beach Boy was always an odd one for Wilson. He never went into the sea because he was terrified of drowning.

In the 1970s Wilson was, after some cajoling, filmed using a surf board in a segment for a TV programme. The board is the wrong way round.

In the Smile Sessions is the song Surf's Up. But it doesn't bear any similarities with their old tunes, such as Surfing Safari.

Surf's Up's lyrics go: A blind class aristocracy/Back through the opera glass you see/The pit and the pendulum drawn/Columnated ruins domino.

What did it mean? "I have no idea," says the lyricist Van Dyke Parks.

For a band that had been mocked when they had appeared at London's Albert Hall for being too square in their smartly pressed matching shirts, the transformation was bewildering.

Wilson's bandmates, especially Mike Love, did not know what to make of the songs. How would middle America relate to Love To Say Dada, Do You Like Worms and the companion piece to Brian Falls Into A Piano, Brian Falls Into A Microphone?

There was also a dispute with the record label. Wilson's mental health was not good. The tapes were shelved.

"We thought we were too far ahead of our time," he says. "It was too advanced, too much for people to understand and so we put it on the shelf for 40 years."

In 2004 Wilson returned to Smile and recorded a completed version with his new band the Wondermints.

Now, another seven years on, Wilson and the remaining Beach Boys are releasing the original Smile from the dozens of tracks and fragments recorded in the 60s.

Many of the songs have appeared on other albums. But what makes this special is that there is now a Beach Boys album called Smile - the long lost "missing" album that sent Wilson over the edge.

It's a little piece of the myth of the 1960s.

Smile is released in the UK on 31 October.

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