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A 'Smile' to the world

Brian Wilson classic to finally get official release

By Todd Leopold
"Eye on Entertainment" talks about the weekend's happenings on CNN's "Live Today" between 10 a.m. and noon ET Thursday.
Eye on Entertainment
Brian Wilson
The Beach Boys

(CNN) -- When Paul McCartney heard the Beach Boys' 1966 album "Pet Sounds," so the story goes, his reaction was, "This is the album of all time. What can we do to top it?"

The Beatles' response was "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," a groundbreaking album laden with multi-tracking and original sounds that took several months to create -- unheard-of at the time.

But the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson also felt a keen sense of competition -- with the Beatles, with Phil Spector, with any number of bands in the mid-'60s creating some of the landmark records in rock history.

(1966 was also the year of Bob Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde," the Beatles' "Revolver," the Rolling Stones' "Aftermath," the Kinks' "Face to Face," and the Yardbirds' "Over Under Sideways Down" -- not to mention such singles as the Four Tops' "Reach Out, I'll Be There," the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City," Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin' " -- it may very well be the greatest year in pop music history.)

So as the rest of the Beach Boys went on tour -- he had ceased traveling with the group since suffering a nervous breakdown -- Wilson spent his time immersed in the studio, creating what was going to be a musical masterpiece. It was originally going to be called "Dumb Angel," later changed to "Smile."

But despite tantalizing hints of what was emerging -- most notably the single "Good Vibrations" and a Wilson performance of "Surf's Up" on a CBS special -- "Smile" was never released.

The band rebelled. Wilson, lost in a whirl of drugs and paranoia, had a terrible meltdown. "Smile" became one of the great what-ifs in rock history.

Until now. A newly created version, with Wilson at the helm (and supported by his backing band, the Wondermints, songwriting collaborator Van Dyke Parks and others), comes out Tuesday.

Eye on Entertainment is licking its lips.


Much has been written about "Smile" in the 38 years since it was announced. (For much of the information in this column, I'm indebted to -- among other sources -- The Smile Shopexternal link Web page and an old article in the defunct Atlanta fanzine Muzik! that's stuck in my head for 20 years.)

The Beach Boys were on top of the world -- and in a world of turmoil -- while the record was being made. Depending upon whose story you believe, Brian Wilson was already coming unhinged or heading that direction.

The Beach Boys, attempting to launch their own record label, sued Capitol Records for alleged unpaid royalties. Carl Wilson refused induction into the draft. The band was unhappy with what they thought was a "Brian album."

The original "Smile" cover. Almost everything was ready to go before Brian Wilson pulled the plug.

And yet the group had gone to No. 1 in late 1966 with "Good Vibrations" and -- even though it was a relatively poor seller -- "Pet Sounds" had been hailed by the cognoscenti. (The band was even invited to a top spot at the Monterey Pop Festival, though it was turned down.)

"Smile" started out with the best of intentions -- perhaps I can say "good vibrations." The idea in the minds of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks was to make an album about a "loss of innocence," in Parks' words, one that would also be the story of America. And there was also the "teenage symphony to God," as Wilson called it -- the spiritual side, the deft musical arrangements.

The songs fell somewhere the middle: a gorgeous vocal opening called "Our Prayer," the Western-themed "Heroes and Villains," the goofy "Vege-tables," the elegiac "Surf's Up" and the "Elements" suite, which included paeans to earth, air, water and fire.

Stories about "Fire," in particular, indicate the depth of rabbit hole Brian stumbled down. He asked the musicians to wear toy fire helmets (some thought this was strange, others touching) and was allegedly freaked out by a series of fires in the Los Angeles area, convinced he had caused them in some cosmic way.

In the end -- despite Capitol having printed up tens of thousands of album covers, despite the airing of the CBS special in early 1967, despite the endless hours and creative energy Brian had plowed into the record, by spring he'd pulled the plug.

"Sgt. Pepper" came out in June and the Beatles rose to higher heights; the Beach Boys put out the aborted "Smiley Smile" and struggled along through the rest of the '60s.

But "Smile" wasn't forgotten. Capitol included several tracks from the album's tapes on the Beach Boys' 1993 boxed set, giving fans perhaps their first listens to "Do You Like Worms" and the original "Surf's Up."

And having successfully played "Pet Sounds" live a couple years ago, Wilson returned to his lost masterwork. He performed it in a handful of live performances early this year.

Now he has gone back to the old tapes and the studio and re-created the record. What does he think of it now? "I'm thrilled with it," he told the British press. "I think 'Sgt Pepper's' is better than 'Pet Sounds,' but I think 'Smile' is better than 'Sgt Pepper's.' "

Record buyers can judge for themselves. "Brian Wilson Presents Smile" (Nonesuch) comes out Tuesday.

On screen

  • "The Forgotten," starring Julianne Moore as a mother who copes with the death of her child -- or does she? -- opens Friday. Gary Sinise also stars.
  • "A Dirty Shame," the new John Waters film, opens Friday. This one's about sex addicts, stars Tracy Ullman and Johnny Knoxville, and it's rated NC-17 for "pervasive sexual content." Not nudity, mind you, but "content." Right. But you can probably still get a PG-13 for showing a head blowing up and brains flying all over the place. Now, THAT'S comedy.
  • "First Daughter," starring Katie Holmes as a president's daughter, opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • Two of the broadcast networks' top shows have their season premieres Thursday: CBS's "CSI" at 9 p.m. ET, and NBC's "ER" at 10 p.m. Some of the "ER" crew ends up with their car in deep water. Boy, the producers will put these people through anything.
  • A new ABC show, "Desperate Housewives," has its premiere Sunday at 9 p.m.
  • Sound waves

  • A fabulous American music package -- the bluegrass boxed set "Can't You Hear Me Callin' " (Columbia/Legacy) and the American ballad collection "The Rose and the Briar" (Columbia/Legacy) -- both come out Tuesday. The latter is a companion to a forthcoming book edited by Greil Marcus and Sean Wilentz.
  • Joss Stone's latest, "Mind, Body and Soul" (S-Curve/EMI), comes out Tuesday.
  • Paging readers

  • Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency mysteries, begins a new series set in Scotland: "The Sunday Philosophy Club" (Pantheon). The book comes out Tuesday.
  • Video center

  • Three very different movies are due on DVD Tuesday: "Super Size Me," the hit Morgan Spurlock documentary about the effects of eating fast food; "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," the Jim Carrey comedy written by Charlie Kaufman; and "The Alamo," the big-budget re-creation of the Texas battle and the personalities involved.

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