The Beach Boys’ ambitious follow-up to Pet Sounds nearly destroyed the band

This week’s entry: Collapse of Smile

What it’s about: The best ’60s album that never was. In 1966, the Beach Boys—who had had a string of hits with simple songs about sand, sun, fast cars, and pretty girls—took a creative leap forward with Pet Sounds, a response to both the previous year’s Rubber Soul from The Beatles, and the overstuffed orchestrations of Phil Spector. The album was a critical success, but had lukewarm sales. The band (brothers Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine) was split on whether to return to its simpler sound, or push its creative ambitions further. Brian in particular was highly competitive with The Beatles and other contemporaries, and intended to answer Revolver (which came out shortly after Pet Sounds), with an ambitious masterpiece called Smile. Tension within the band, escalating drug use, and the intense pressure of trying to will a masterpiece into existence took a permanent toll on both the band and Brian’s mental state, and the album was abandoned in frustration.

Biggest controversy: While drug use among ’60s musicians tends to be romanticized as opening minds and promoting creativity, its effect on The Beach Boys was uniformly negative. Things started to go bad in 1964, when the Wilson brothers fired their father, Murry, as manager. Away from his watchful eye, Brian’s social circle expanded to include many of Los Angeles’ most creative minds, but also those in the city’s drug culture. Later that year, 22-year-old Brian, already using pot, LSD, and Desbutal (a combination amphetamine/barbiturate) had a panic attack on an airplane flight and quit touring (which he had only done sporadically before that), and was replaced onstage by Bruce Johnston, while he continued to be the main songwriting force behind the group.

One of Brian’s new positive influences was fellow songwriter Van Dyke Parks, who he would invite to co-write Smile. Parks described some of Brian’s other hangers-on as “self-interested people pulling him in various directions”; his ex-wife, Marilyn, called them, simply, “users.” Brian later told a journalist, “We were too fucking high to complete [Smile]… someone would have needed willingness and perseverance to corral all of us.” Jardine wanted nothing to do with the rest of the band’s drug use, saying he felt “trapped in an insane asylum.”

Strangest fact: Jardine’s assessment wasn’t far from the truth. As Brian’s drug use increased, he began having auditory hallucinations. He stayed in bed for days consuming nothing but marijuana and candy bars. He spent $3,000 hiring a string section and then sent them home because the studio had a “negative atmosphere.” He believed the John Frankenheimer film Seconds contained coded messages from Phil Spector, taunting him.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Despite everything, Wilson maintained a steady work ethic and grand ambitions. While working on Smile, he also planned a sound-collage album, a comedy album, a “health food” album (Wikipedia does not explain what that means), and a Beach Boys-owned record label to release them. He and Parks also wrote and recorded numerous songs or fragments of songs, many of which would emerge in some form on future Beach Boys albums.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: There was chaos surrounding the band beyond Brian’s deteriorating mental state. In January of ’67, Carl Wilson refused the draft as a conscientious objector, and was arrested by the FBI in May. In February, the band sued Capitol Records for a quarter million dollars in withheld royalty payments, and attempted to terminate their contract, meaning that even if they had finished recording Smile, it might not have been released until the legal issues were settled. Meanwhile, their impatient British label, EMI, released “Then I Kissed Her” as a single without getting approval from the band.

There are conflicting reports of how much or little tension there actually was among the band, but it seems Love—and even sometimes Brian—thought Parks’ lyrics were too arty and abstract. Love was famously quoted as saying, “Don’t fuck with the formula,” but denies ever having said that. “Good Vibrations,” the single that accompanied Pet Sounds, was a huge hit, so there was reason to believe the new formula was working. Nevertheless, the rest of the group had legitimate concerns about how to perform Brian’s complicated arrangements live.

But eventually, even Brian came into conflict with Parks over Smile’s lyrical direction. In April, Parks was offered his own record deal and left the project. Without him, Brian couldn’t assemble the song fragments they had recorded into a cohesive whole (and it’s not clear he could have even with Parks’ help), and he asked Capitol to postpone the album.

Also noteworthy: Trying to top their contemporaries was a tall order for The Beach Boys, given the creative explosion happening around them. The band worked on Smile from August of ’66, the same month Revolver was released, and abandoned the project in May of ’67. The last four months of the Smile sessions saw the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Are You Experienced?, The Velvet Underground And Nico, and Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow. Music was changing fast. Asked 20 years later if a successfully completed Smile would have topped those albums, Brian said, “No. It wouldn’t have come close. Sgt. Pepper would have kicked our ass.” He said even hearing “Strawberry Fields Forever” in February of that year made him realize, “They did it already—what I wanted to do with Smile. Maybe it’s too late.”

It was also too late to salvage the Beach Boys’ career. While the band soldiers on to this day, it never again regained the popularity of its early days or the critical acclaim of Pet Sounds. While nine of The Beach Boys’ first 11 albums (all released in under four years!) hit the top 10, they wouldn’t do so again until 2012’s reunion album, That’s Why God Made The Radio, and their only hit singles after “Good Vibrations” were a 1976 cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music” and 1988’s ubiquitous “Kokomo.” Brian eventually made two different attempts to re-create the album, 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents Smile and 2011’s The Smile Sessions.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: One more conflict within the Beach Boys organization involved Derek Taylor, the band’s publicist. There were rumors he had leaked Smile outtakes to The Beatles, his former employers. As Smile floundered, he announced (falsely) that Brian had destroyed the tapes. He eventually quit working for the band to organize the Monterey Pop Festival. The Beach Boys were scheduled to headline, but dropped out at the last minute, further contributing to the image of a band in disarray. The festival went on to be one of rock’s seminal events, with the first American performances by The Who, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Ravi Shankar; one of Janis Joplin’s first performances with Big Brother and the Holding Company; and Otis Redding’s first major exposure to a primarily white audience. The show also etched into history the moment when Hendrix, wanting to outdo the Who’s instrument-smashing antics, ended a virtuosic performance by lighting his guitar on fire.

Further down the Wormhole: Neither this page nor Carl Wilson’s page discuss how the charge of draft evasion against him was resolved. (Off-site research reveals he offered a Beach Boys USO tour as an alternative form of service but was rejected. After several appeals, he was ordered to perform community service, in the form of singing at hospitals and prisons.) The Vietnam War draft, which Carl objected to, was the last draft in American history thus far, but was deemed necessary at the time, as Vietnam was seen as a crucial battle in the Cold War. While the two major players—the U.S. and U.S.S.R.—never engaged in direct military conflict, there were numerous proxy battles fought, including supporting opposite sides of civil wars in Vietnam and Korea. An unlikely figure who attempted to bring the two sides together was Samantha Smith, an American girl who, at age 10, wrote to Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov, who invited her to visit the Soviet Union. We’ll hear her story next week.

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