5
Jun 99

Dumb Angles: The Myth and Promise Of Smile

FT/Post a comment • 219 views

Part of the attraction of Smile to the journalistic and maybe the ‘alternative’ mind is its encapsulation of writerly failure – the deadlines that quietly slip away, the fragmented masterpieces kept in shoeboxes, the way some people can live for years off rumours until the rumours might as well be true. Brian Wilson’s reputation would certainly not be higher if Smile had been released: in fact it’s the very non-existence of the record that makes us take it, and him, to ourselves. Alternative music, alternative listening is about keeping secrets, about not joining the party, and Smile becomes alternative in this way despite its being recorded at the height of the sixties by America’s most wholesome young band.

The circumstances of Smile’s conception and collapse give it a special rock-historic resonance, as it sits right in the nexus of two or three of the great Pop Myths – the rivalry between the Beatles and the Beach Boys foreshadows and reflects every other pop music feud and race; the lostness of Smile puts it with The Basement Tapes at the birth of the shadowy parallel universe of bootlegs and secret music; and Smile’s mis-appearance gives rock romantics like Prieure an ideal point at which to locate the ‘death’ of the sixties and the idea of rock’s inevitable progress onwards and upwards to the status of Art.

Feuds and rivalries aren’t unique to pop, but there’s something quixotically heroic and fascinating about a ‘battle of the bands’ which is lacking when you oppose authors, say, or film directors. One thing I find so charming about the Beach Boys/Beatles rivalry is that there’s no reason at all why any pop fan shouldn’t have listened to both, and in fact I’m sure most did. This is unusual: with Blur and Oasis, say, the faultlines between the two (mostly awful) acts ran parallel not only to their musical divisions but to wider differences in British society itself: to what extent could ‘laddism’ overcome the familiarly ironic, observational mode that bourgeois English popcult tends to settle into, for example? Most pop feuds are like this, entertainingly arbitrary but at the same time rawly exposing the assumptions underlying music discourse: with Spice Girls and All Saints, it was the difference between populism and a smooth black-inflected ‘classiness’ that was being explored, and perhaps predictably almost every critic ended up plumping for the latter.

What was at stake when the Beach Boys won ‘Best Group’ in the 1966 NME poll, when the word got out that their desire was to release a masterwork that would top ‘Revolver’? Looking back, it’s perhaps the oldest pop debate of all: between the ‘real’ and the ‘shallow’. Pop, or at least the sort of pop that gets written about, exists in a state of permanent yearning to be more than it is. It speaks to the infatuated so well because it is itself infatuated – with the street or with the academy, it makes no difference. Preposterous to think now that the Beatles ever seemed raw or real (to these ears they always come across as narcissistic craftsmen) but in 1966 Lennon’s quoting the Tibetan Book of the Dead and McCartney’s borrowing of kitchen-sink drama tropes probably did seem like a blow for Art and realism in pop.

If so, it was a gauntlet Brian Wilson was desperately ill-equipped to pick up, which possibly accounts (if, of course, you believe that Wilson was desperate for that kind of respect) for the unsteadily exhibitionist quality of much of Smile. For a record about laughter and play, it often sounds deeply unrelaxed as it swings and vamps through its virtuoso instrumental pieces. There’s a joy in “Look”, for example, but to me it’s a slightly forced joy, like the chiming of an ice-cream van. The onrushing shadow of progression surely also accounts for the unwieldy conceptual sectioning of the record (i.e. the ‘Elements Suite’) and for the involvement of Van Dyke Parks.

Parks’ participation in Smile is a mixed curse. Put simply, he’s too clever by half – on his own records, his rococo wordplay gets the intellectualized backdrops to match, but on Smile his logophilia can sit oddly with the innocently exploratory music. Others find “Wonderful”’s lyrics beautiful, for example; I think they’re queasy and almost bogus. Phrases and words poke effectively through “Surf’s Up”s dreamish swirl but the immense power of that song comes from its elegiac melody and singing. And yet….the same thing that makes Parks’ Discover America such a rarefied wonder, the man’s freewheeling joy in history (musical or otherwise), is there too in Smile, and that comes to count for a lot.

Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic explicitly links Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes to Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music. But a pro-Situ guy like Marcus out to realise that Dylan’s field recordings of himself are a cop-out, an explicit retreat away from the pressures and possibilities of pop stardom back into homely authenticity: Dylan was privileged enough to have become fictional, and from this selfish fan’s point of view, he blew it. That’s no parallel to Harry Smith’s work, which went in the opposite direction, hoovering up cultural detritus both populist and arcane and turning it esoteric by sheer force of will (and terrific packaging). In Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles there’s a giddying scene where the young hero uses the Top Of The Pops logo as a magic word, unlocking the weirdness of the everyday, and that’s what the Anthology does too.

Smile is the other great lost album of 1967, of course, and for my money would have made a better comparison point to Smith’s Anthology. Parks’ gnomic lyrics and historical concerns give Smile the same kind of hallucinated-America feel that Marcus so evocatively claims for Smith’s compilation. Wilson rises to the challenge with a crazed melange of found-sounds and musical imagism – “Cabinessence” and “Do You Like Worms?” especially evoke a sense of intense distance, the sudden opening of the American frontier parallelling the sudden opening of the mind under the musical and psychological influence of acid. But more than this, Smile shares with the Anthology the sense of a hidden strangeness within popular music, something that Mike Love of the Beach Boys (for example) felt too, and reacted against, dismissing Wilson’s innovations and questings as arty rubbish. This makes Smile’s non-release particularly effective, of course, since one of the great purposes of bootlegging is to carve out an underground, subcultural space (usually in the name of the ‘real fans’ who want to hear bad-quality live shows, but oh well) in even the sunniest regions of mass culture.

All analysis of Smile comes back to this non-appearance, the record’s ghost aura of lostness. Fred’s piece points out, and I agree, that Smile works best as a perpetually unfinished work, an evolving, ‘modular’, compilation tape. But the lostness of Smile has deeper implications. Prieure saw it as a tragedy, the end of rock’s forward march and the beginning of its slide, fitting him into a coterie of sixties critical doomsayers including Nik Cohn and Richard Meltzer. But Smile was due to be released just before rock’s headlong embrace of the meaningful and the conceptual. Had it come out, it would have fitted nicely into the music’s forced march into the artistic uplands and it would now occupy a cosy place in the canon, to be liked despite itself and with a subconscious grudge.

But as it is, Smile plays a special role in rock history. The collapse of the Smile project sets up a great, unanswerable ‘what if…?’ at the centre of that history; the album’s twilight existence challenges the legitimacy of that legend of rock which puts Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at its summit. It’s not that Smile is better than the Beatles’ record (though it is): the reason Smile is so attractive is because it’s the tangible evidence of an alternative rock history which turned out differently (and maybe less hegemonic). And once you’ve stepped into that history, building up your own gets a little bit easier. Forever unfixed, Smile is a sweet grenade in the middle of the canon, and that’s why I love it.

None of which would matter a damn if the record was boring. It isn’t. Smile isn’t the best album ever, and possibly isn’t the best ever Beach Boys album, but it’s astoundingly original, not in its painstaking approach to studio craft, not even in its numinous sense of wonder (the opening “Our Prayer” is an unfailingly jawdropping experience), but in its optimistic, un-rock themes. The very idea of basing an album around laughter and good health seems cracked, naive and baffling, but that’s what Smile allegedly is: a humour record. And given that every year the angst, contrariness and cynicism of rock’n’roll culture gets more tedious, more oppressive, maybe even more dangerous, the more people exposed to Wilson’s damaged but beautiful humanism the better. The real question about this childish carnival record isn’t what would have happened if it came out then, but what would happen if it came out now.

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