SMiLE, You're in Rock 'n' Roll Heaven with Brian Wilson
“ Could 'SMiLE' live be as good as 'Pet Sounds' live? We had waited thirty-seven years (37!!) to hear 'SMiLE' but we were about to find out. ”
Back in 1966/7, SMiLE was to be the follow up to The Beach Boys' classic Pet Sounds album, itself often cited as the most perfect album ever made. SMiLE was going to build on the worldwide success of the revolutionary "Good Vibrations" single and outdo The Beatles innovations on Revolver. It was going to be the most innovative studio album ever, encapsulating the history of American music. And so on... In the end, it was shelved indefinitely as Brian Wilson cracked up under the strain of producing it, aided by a copious drug intake. Over the subsequent years, various tracks from SMiLE have emerged, in original or re-recorded versions, and added to its aura. For instance, "Heroes and Villains", "Surf's Up", "Our Prayer" and "Cabinessence" all come from the SMiLE sessions and are among the Beach Boys' finest tracks. But despite efforts to piece SMiLE together from such tracks plus copious other studio fragments (there have been numerous bootleg attempts at recreating the album), no one really knew how the album would have run and sounded. That really only ever existed in Brian Wilson's head. And for decades he hasn't been keen to discuss it. Until now.
Since 1967, SMiLE has become the very stuff of myth. It has prompted more rock 'n' roll "what if" speculation than is decent. In the week before the first concert (on Friday February 20th) the London airwaves and newsprint were alive with speculation. How would the world be different if SMiLE had been released on schedule and appeared before Sgt. Pepper did? Would Paul McCartney have cracked up instead of Brian Wilson? What effect would the music on SMiLE have had on the rock music of 1967 and beyond? (Would "Bohemian Rhapsody" exist in a world without SMiLE? Discuss.) Would Wilson be able to perform SMiLE in 2004 without breaking down or cracking up? Would Friday's show be SMiLE's one and only performance? Enough people believed such speculation to make tickets for the first night worth their weight in gold. I didn't get one for Friday, but I was there on Sunday night, the third concert. (Hey, guess what! He didn't crack up or break down on Friday.)
Two years ago to the month, the Royal Festival Hall had witnessed the return of Brian Wilson to London when he came and performed Pet Sounds live plus a breathtaking programme of Beach Boys' and solo songs. Many people, me included, thought that Wilson's 2002 concerts were the most moving and beautiful live events they had ever attended. A lot of tears were shed at them, unashamedly. For those concerts, Wilson was accompanied by the ten piece LA band The Wondermints, who not only seemed able to play just about any instrument required (and that's quite a few for Pet Sounds!) but could also produce a rich vocal tapestry that did justice to Wilson's vocal arrangements. The result was like listening to a band of rock 'n' roll angels. Hyperbole? No! Ask anyone who was there.
Could SMiLE live be as good as Pet Sounds live? We had waited thirty-seven years (37!!) to hear SMiLE but we were about to find out. Once again, The Wondermints were in attendance, providing musical and moral support to Brian Wilson. Moral support? That was obvious as soon as the curtain went up at the start of the show. The band members were closely grouped around Wilson, almost like a huddle around a quarterback. The grouping looked designed to protect Wilson and ease him into the set. With minimal instrumentation - two acoustic guitars and bongos - they performed virtually acapella versions of classic Beach Boys songs including "Surfer Girl", "In My Room", "Please Let Me Wonder" and the little-heard "Hawaii", with those trademark harmonies at their most beautiful and moving.
In between songs, the band swapped banter and jokes with each other and with Wilson, keeping the atmosphere light and informal. It all reminded me of that Beach Boys party album, with its rather artificial jollity. Nonetheless, we the audience would happily have listened for hours. And it seemed to work for Brian Wilson, keeping him relaxed and calm. One could endlessly speculate on Wilson's current mental state. On stage, he seems oddly detached and unemotional, which is probably the total opposite of how he feels given all he has been through to get to this point. In the end though, such speculation is pointless. Wilson may seem fragile on stage, but he has proved to be more robust than any of us have the right to expect. And the support and, yes, love for him that radiate from the audience are unique. Everybody present is willing him to be OK.
After that acoustic opening section, the band dispersed to their instruments and Wilson sat at an electric piano at the front, centre stage. (He doesn't play the piano much. Maybe he just feels safe behind it.) For the remainder of the first half of the show, they interspersed Beach Boys classics - "Sloop John B", "God Only Knows", "Dance, Dance, Dance", "Sail On Sailor", "Marcella" - with material from Wilson's forthcoming album. On any normal night, this set alone would have been one of the highlights of a year's concert going. Tonight though, it was acting as the hors d'oeuvre for a greater feast to come.
After the interval, we were straight into SMiLE. All would soon be revealed! Wilson and The Wondermints were joined by the eight strong Stockholm String 'n' Horns. SMiLE opens with the acapella "Our Prayer" then goes straight into an extended version of "Heroes and Villains" that bears little resemblance to the well-known single version, being even more of a montage of contrasting sections. To have assembled it from short, studio-recorded sections was an awesome task. To be able to play it note-perfect live is unbelievable. From then on, we are all swept along by the sheer majesty of what we are witnessing. Familiar melodies are interspersed with newer, more recently composed sections, but such trainspotting soon becomes irrelevant. SMiLE hangs together. It works! It truly is the great lost treasure it has always been proclaimed as. Even all these years later, it sounds fresh and dynamic. This is no trip down memory lane.
There is plenty of humour, drama, nostalgia, Americana throughout SMiLE , as well as a dazzling, kaleidoscopic array of sounds, instrumental and otherwise. It was conceived on a grand scale and lives up to that conception. The strings and horns are an integral part of it, from the raspberry blowing trombones to the cello choruses. In one surreal interlude, everyone plays tools for a while. Yes, tools - saws, hammers and the like. Brian Wilson played electric screwdriver. And there are chomping vegetables. And animal sounds. For "Fire" (the track that reputedly led Brian Wilson to finally abandon the SMiLE project after a series of fires in the neighbourhood of the recording studio) the string and horn players don fire-fighters' hats as at the original sessions. The track itself is a chaotic, tempestuous instrumental piece that may reveal some of Wilson's torment from the period. Again, one can barely imagine the emotions that playing it live must have stirred in him.
Three quarters of an hour flash by as we listen to all of this. Before we realise it, we are into the finale, a version of "Good Vibrations" ending in a powerful crescendo that acts as a suitably climactic end. As one, we the audience are on our feet, cheering all the performers to the echo, unable to fully convey to them our delight at what we have experienced. Of course, they return and play more. But this has been the heart of the show and everyone present has been affected by it, probably forever. Thirty-seven years is a long time, a long wait. After tonight, it has all been worthwhile. I truly hope that Brian Wilson agrees.
I don't really know why he came halfway across the world to do it, but thank God he did. Wonderful. Event of the year, and it's still only February. Maybe, event of the decade. Time will tell.
Sleep easy, Brian.