10
May 99

Let’s Just Say That Sometimes

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If he had been born in any pop era, Brian Wilson would’ve flourished at least to some degree with those mad skills of his. He wrote and co-wrote cunning songs about surfing, hotrods and teenage autonomy without any firsthand experience; doubtlessly he could’ve come up with good murder ballads or novelty hits for racoon-fur-wearing college students if the need came up. But Brian’s genius (and greatest influence, probably) came from his production work:

“In his own milieu, on his own terms, Brian Wilson sought to subvert the system by which his music was funneled to the outside world…Brian demanded total production authority on the third Beach Boys album. He wanted no staff A&R men vetoing songs, hiring sidemen, and meddling with arrangements; no go-betweens of any kind except Western Studios’ chief engineering Chuck Britz who would toil for him…For the first time in the history of rock and roll the artist himself had absolute studio authority over his album-length output.” (Timothy White, The Nearest Faraway Place)

You can hear the difference Brian made on the first disc of the Beach Boys’ box set Good Vibrations. Compared to even Wilson’s first productions, the earliest BB songs like “Surfin’ Safari” and “409” sound…I dunno. They sound well-played but sort of polite. And the vocals? Out-of-tune, atonal, flat, whatever, I’m hardly the best judge but they sound dismal to me. And then, with Surfer Girl album, Brian’s first production credit, all that changes. Double-tracking the vocals to achieve a creamy fullness, adding extra instrumentation here and there to achieve a lush sound, these were songs that were not merely played better, not merely sung better, but they sounded better, too. Soon enough the listener is faced with records that are as booming, thumping, enormous as anything Phil Spector was doing at the time, yet mysteriously, usually without anything resembling an orchestra anywhere in ear-shot. Caressing. Sexy, even.With Smile, Brian Wilson took that Spectorian fixation about the domination of sound to one logical conclusion, the point the three-minute pop record crumbles into sound-for-the-sake-of-sound, when the sheer sensation of the music begins to overwhelm narrative or sentiment or structure. Example? While the lyrics are usually pretty damned literary, at their most extreme, they’re divorced from any kind of meaning in the straightforward sense. That “doyng-doyng-doyng” bit from “Cabinessence”; the part of “Do You Like Worms?” with its psuedo-Hawaiian babble; the wiggy “George Fell Into His French Horn”, where session musicians explore the lowest registers of their horn instruments, and then “speak” through them sort of like they’re a vocoder or something. Throughout Smile, the line between the sung word and mere sound become criss-crossed and blurred again and again and again. This is where the word becomes subservient to sound, which is only six or so steps on the road to sound-for-the-sake-of-sound, and then sugarplum thoughts about Brian jammin’ with Sun Ra and John Cage start dancing in my head until I realize, duh, the Beach Boys had been doing that for years — it’s called doo-wop, doofus.

O.K. So if the doo-wop angle doesn’t convince you of Smile‘s commitment to the destruction of popular song, try the hip-hop angle. Like Fred says, you can spatchcock together all the Smile fragments in all sorts satisfying, even enlightening ways. Which, oddly enough, is exactly how Wilson composed “Heroes and Villains”. Take a listen to all the wonderful “Heroes and Villains” segments on the Good Vibrations box-set: you get pastiches of romantic western movie soundtracks, European romantic movie soundtrack, some Beatley French Horn, ghostly honky-tonk piano coda, rhythmic grunting, repulsive arrhythmic grunting, the Crows’ doo-wop classic “Gee” and various species of psychedelic barbershop quartet music. In a kind of anticipation of the way yr Grandmaster Flashs and yr Double Dee and Steinskis would work with other people’s songs, Brian composed numerous little sections and pieced them together according to an internal logic which owed little to the pop forms of the time.

It’s almost poetic justice that an album which fragments popular song is in fragments itself. Perhaps it’s better that way. I can think of at least four songs whose post-Smile incarnations just aren’t as good as the originals. The after-the-fact tinkering (whether by the other Beach Boys or Brian himself) with “Wind Chimes”, “Surf’s Up”, “Vegetables”, and particularly “Heroes and Villains” makes me wonder if a finished, labored-over Smile would have ended up like an overcooked batch of meat. And anyway, the fragments have their own perfection, as bootlegged music often does. “Look”, next to the singles and the Brian-only “Surf’s Up”, my favorite fragment, is as beautiful as Christmas morning, all fairy-dust resolution, even though the (rather sloppy) editing might fool us into thinking it’s complete. Perhaps the question mark that Smile is now is a more satisfying fate than the exclamation point it could’ve been.

And what if Smile was finished? Could it have dared compete with that other artifact of mass-avant and production-dementia, Sgt.Pepper? Probably not. The overwhelming success of that album, both in the critical and commercial realms, was something of a fait accompli. By 1967, the counterculture and the mainstream apologists for the counterculture wanted, needed something of rock culture that could justify the whole sixties experience, something you could take home and hang on the wall. And at the perfect moment, the Greatest Rock Band in the World delivered an album reasonably interesting and ambitious enough that, viewed in the right light and with the right drugs, could take its’ place in the pantheon of Really Important Things. How could the Beach Boys stand a chance against that?

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