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Beach boys' lost jewel is worth smiling over

There's no shortage of people who maintain that pop music was at its zenith just after the mid-1960s. You could certainly see a progression, as acts who previously couldn't see beyond cars and girls as sources of inspiration were broadening their horizons in dramatic fashion.

Mind-expanding drugs certainly played a part, but the limitless possibilities of the pop song, and the use of the studio as a musical instrument in itself, led to wildly ambitious experimentation.

Naturally, the Beatles were leading the charge in this regard, but they were being matched step-for-step across the Atlantic by the Beach Boys, whose records became ever more experimental; once Brian Wilson ceased being a touring member of the band and concentrated his prodigious talents on writing, arrangement and recording.

While the Beatles stretched themselves on Rubber Soul and Revolver, the Beach Boys raised the stakes with the 1966 release of Pet Sounds.

This remains one of the greatest albums ever made and inspired the Beatles to up their game for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But it was in striving to better Pet Sounds himself that drove Brian Wilson to the edge of madness. And the album that precipitated his collapse was Smile.

Having put so much into Pet Sounds, Wilson was ready go even further and, along with lyrical collaborator Van Dyke Parks, set about nothing less than capturing the sound of American music in its past, present and future. No knocking out a few quick 12-bars and heading down the pub here.


The lengthy recording sessions and Wilson's ever-evolving arrangements stretched the patience of both the band and their label and, while Wilson dithered and tinkered, a patchwork version of the album was released as Smiley Smile, leaving Beach Boys' fans pondering for decades what would Wilson's original vision actually have sounded like.

There have been countless bootlegs and, seven years ago, Wilson and his band the Wondermints recreated a version of the album, but here we have the closest approximation of what Smile would have sounded like in 1967.

A staggeringly ornate and beautiful piece of work, The Smile Sessions brings us the wonder and beauty of Heroes and Villains, Good Vibrations, Surf's Up and the almost classical acapella opening blast of Wonderful. In addition to the album itself the 2CD version (there's also a 5CD set, but that's for mad people) offers an insight into how Brian Wilson worked in the studio. Far from being the crackpot of popular myth, here we hear a man so totally in touch with his music and his ideas for it that he's conducting and correcting an entire orchestra as he goes.

When he describes a perfect take of percussion on Surf's Up with the words "Beautiful! Sounds like jewellery" you know that a very special talent was at work here.

>George Byrne

The Smile Sessions is released now on EMI