In early 1967, when Jimi Hendrix was in London laying down the blueprint for rock's future on Are You Experienced?, the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson was in LA rapidly losing his grip on Smile, the epic follow-up album to his acknowledged masterpiece, 1966's Pet Sounds. When Hendrix sang in "Third Stone from the Sun", "May you never hear surf music again", he was not to know how quickly his wish would be granted. By the end of 1967, The Beach Boys were virtually forgotten a year after the triumphant innovations of Good Vibrations. What happened?
Wilson, along with his friend, the lyricist Van Dyke Parks, had conceived in Smile a project so vast in scope and ambition that it needed every bit of luck coming its way. And for a few months in late 1966 all was fair sailing: with "Good Vibrations" already in the bag, such pieces as "Heroes & Villains", "Wind Chimes", "Wonderful", "Cabinessence", "Surf's Up" and "Vegetables" were conceived and intensively worked on. But for Wilson, the idea of simply making an album's worth of tunes was inadequate: he wanted to present a unified LP that interwove all its themes and ideas in a continual renewal of idea and melody. Facing personal, professional and artistic difficulties, Wilson faltered, delayed completion, then finally announced Smile's abandonment. Those in the know, as well as long-term Beach Boys fans, have regarded this ever since as an incalculable loss to rock's legacy, and over the years successive isolated snippets and fragments of the original work in sub-sequent Beach Boys albums occasioned critical wailing and gnashing of teeth about what might have been.
Now, however, Brian Wilson decided it was time to confront the past and complete Smile. During this process, in late 2003 he re-engaged with lyricist Van Dyke Parks and set about finishing Smile. The results of this long labour were revealed at the Royal Festival Hall on 20 February 2004 - 37 years on.
Even before the music started, things got off to a good start: Wilson's guests, including Van Dyke Parks himself, were given a standing ovation as they made their way to their seats. The group was revealed standing, camp-fire style, on one side of the stage, circled around a seated Wilson. It was a great way to start the evening, allowing everyone - but most importantly Wilson - to feel their way into things. Wilson sat centre-stage behind a keyboard he hardly touched, reading the autocue for every song as he tried to overcome his natural shyness. Yet all eyes were on him. It was as if we had all become participants in his private vision of how the music worked. And boy, how it worked: each old hit was meticulously reinvoked (down to the smallest tambourine stroke) with huge gusto by the young and frighteningly accomplished group.
This came into play even more in the concert's second half, when Smile was finally revealed to the world. It caught even the most assiduous fan unawares, for Smile was much bigger than the sum of its parts - a collection of songs and fragments fitted together to give a huge musical panorama.
Smile was shaped into three song suites, each with linking material. The first comprised: "Our Prayer", "Heroes & Villains", "Do You Like Worms", "Barnyard, "Old Master Painter"/"You Are My Sunshine" and "Cabinessence". The second comprised: "Wonderful", "Child is Father to the Man", "Surf's Up" and Smile's third and concluding part was the fabled "Elements" suite using transitional passages including "Holiday", followed immediately by "Good Vibrations", which wound up the concert with a new and dramatic staccato rhythmic pattern, voices and instruments in climactic unison. The crowd was instantly on its feet giving a standing ovation replete with ecstatic cheers and whistles. A visibly dazed Wilson eventually stood up from behind his keyboards, bent over to his microphone and said in a distracted whisper: "Good night everybody, drive safely", and made as if to leave. At that, band member Jeff Foscombe, who had substituted for Wilson most of the evening when it came to on-stage patter, walked quickly over to him and spoke in his ear. Wilson once more bent to the microphone, this time asking Van Dyke Parks to join the group onstage. The crowd went nuts, and the diminutive, bow-tied Parks emerged from the wings looking as if he was walking on air. He probably was. Everyone else in the RFH certainly was; we knew we'd witnessed a miracle of sorts.
Readers who want to see Wilson conjure this miracle at the RFH have tonight, tomorrow, and Friday before his show moves out of London. I would hazard a guess that something more will come of all this - perhaps a CD or even a DVD commemorating Smile's latter-day second coming. Only 37 years late. Rock history revisionists are going to have a field day.
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