When we put SMiLE away, Capitol was still on us for a next record. The record that came out of it, Smiley Smile, was a different kind of thing completely. The story has been told so often about me completely bailing out from the Beach Boys after I junked SMiLE and just cutting out to my room, but no way is that true at all. It’s total bullshit. Smiley Smile is the first and best piece of evidence. My instinct told me it was time to get the other guys involved in some of the production work. I leaned on [my brother] Carl for most of it. He had been working with me in the booth here and there, especially during the Beach Boys’ Party! sessions, so it felt like he had it in the pocket.
For starters, we pared down some of the tracks I did for SMiLE and recut them ourselves, without the Wrecking Crew guys. We used only a few pieces: the backing track from “Heroes and Villains” came along with us, and also the end of “Vega-Tables.” We took “Good Vibrations,” which was already a huge hit and needed an album to be on. But other than that, it was all new. We went back into the home studio in Bel Air and cut the album in a month and a half, June and July 1967. The studio wasn’t quite ready yet. I had set it up to make demos. So to get certain effects, we had to do so many different things. We recorded vocals in the swimming pool. We recorded them in the shower. We got incredible effects with nothing fancy at all. We did them ourselves, without the Wrecking Crew guys. That was amazing. I would like to do that again, something kind of modest, without really rambunctious instrumental tracks.
The instruments on that record were a little softer. Carl called that record a bunt instead of a grand slam. But it had some incredible things on it. “Little Pad” is really cool. “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter,” too. And the sound is as interesting as the songs. I had a white Baldwin organ that was just fantastic. I don’t know where that is. It might be in storage. But that’s the kind of thing I would like to try again, to go for those low organ notes. They did great things to “Heroes and Villains,” kept it warm. I used the other guys to make the record more than any time since Beach Boys’ Party!, especially Carl. For the first time, an album came out with the credit “Produced by the Beach Boys.”
Smiley Smile bombed. It was such a different sound for us—for anybody, really. The public wasn’t ready for it. Next was the Wild Honey album. That was a quick one, maybe the quickest. We were going to do that Hawaii live album but it didn’t pan out, and right after Smiley Smile we went back to the studio. I got inspired and wrote a whole batch of songs in an R&B style, collaborated with Mike on the lyrics, and started recording in my house. The band played all the instruments ourselves. We started in late September and had the record done by mid-November and out by mid-December. I thought it sounded great, another total departure. Wild Honey did much better than Smiley Smile and got us back on the radio—we scored two Top Twenty singles, “Wild Honey” and “Darlin’,” with Carl wailing on lead vocals—and we were on to another record.
Through that whole time, the real SMiLE stayed on the shelf as we moved on to Friends and 20/20. It was a high shelf also—too high to reach. I never talked about it to people. I knew that people discussed it, because it was kind of a legend, but they rarely brought it up with me. Then, after Imagination , I was at that Christmas party at [band member] Scott Bennett’s and I sat down at the piano and started to play “Heroes and Villains.” I don’t know why I did it, exactly. It wasn’t to show it off or bring it back up. I just heard something that was an echo of it and it got me thinking. Someone told me it sounded great and I went further into it. That was the beginning of starting to play those songs again.
About a year later there was a tribute show at Radio City Music Hall. People could pick any songs they wanted. Paul Simon did “Surfer Girl.” Billy Joel did “Don’t Worry, Baby.” Elton John did “God Only Knows.” I sang “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with Elton and “Heroes and Villains” on my own. Wilson Phillips—my daughters Carnie and Wendy and John Phillips’s daughter Chynna Phillips—sang “You Still Believe in Me,” and it blew my fucking mind. It was a real trip hearing all the different singers. I liked seeing how people changed a little part of an arrangement, or re-created songs that we built in the studio. Vince Gill, Jimmy Webb, and David Crosby did such a beautiful version of “Surf’s Up.” It was a great night and really amazing to hear so many people who wrote such great songs on their own playing my songs.
During rehearsals, I dozed off on a couch in the back of the green room. The Harlem Boys Choir was singing “Our Prayer,” which I had set aside when I stopped work on SMiLE. A version of it was on the 20/20 album, at the end, with “Cabinessence,” another song from the project. I was half-awake in the green room listening to the choir, and I flashed back to the original sessions. It pulled me up into the harmonies. I was listening harder now, up on my elbow. When it was over, I ran out to the stage. “Hey, guys,” I said. “I wrote that!” From the darkness there was applause.
After that I started thinking more about SMiLE, not just “Heroes and Villains” but the whole thing. There were so many great songs and pieces on there, and they had come out wrong. I don’t mean that they weren’t recorded well. I was okay with the version of “Our Prayer” that the other guys put together for 20/20. What I mean is that they were supposed to come out as one whole thing. The original album was a big idea about America and myth. Forty more years of America had passed and finally I could see my way across all the music we were trying to make back then. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a living thing again instead of something in a museum.
After the live Pet Sounds record, I put out an album called Gettin’ in Over My Head. It was a mix between a compilation and a spring cleaning, even though it came out in summer. I still had some of the songs I had done with Andy Paley, and I still thought they were great. I wanted them to see the light of day. I had made some more songs with Steve Kalinich, who was great, and I had leftovers from working with Joe Thomas. I had the idea to send the songs around and see if I could get some other singers to perform them with me.
I could. Lots of people wanted to do it. We went into the studio to record. They were other rock singers around my age, and it was a blast to produce them. I didn’t go easy on them either. Elton John did a song called “How Could We Still Be Dancin’,” which is one of my favorites of all my solo stuff. I told him to get out there and play the piano like Billy Joel. Eric Clapton did one called “City Blues” with me in London. I wasn’t happy with the first takes, so I went in to tell him. “Hey, man,” I said, “if that’s the best you can do, I guess we’ll just use it.” Eric killed it on the very next take. And Paul McCartney sang a song with me at Western called “A Friend Like You.” Sometimes he was flat on his vocals and I had to say so.
The most important singer I brought in on that record was for a song called “Soul Searchin’.” It was a song I had written with Andy Paley, and the singer was Carl. It was his last vocal. He had recorded it with me years before, and I had never found the right spot for it. Gettin’ in Over My Head was the right spot.
Four of the songs came from Sweet Insanity, though I didn’t reuse “Water Builds Up.” I did use “Let’s Stick Together,” which was “The Waltz” and had new lyrics written with Van Dyke Parks. Van Dyke had come back into the picture because I was thinking about SMiLE all the time. And because I was thinking about it all the time, I was also talking about it all the time. It was in many conversations with the band, and one day [band member] Darian Sahanaja asked me if I would ever remake it. It was a brave idea and a crazy idea. There were lots of memories in there that were hard for me. The memories of the music were great, but the memories of everything around it weren’t. And even the music was a question instead of an answer. I sometimes heard songs on the radio that were great songs but simple songs, and I wondered about the people who made them. Was it easier to do songs like that? Was it healthier? They could just do them and then go on to other things. Melinda listened to the tracks and told me, “Brian, this is so brilliant—you have to finish it.” But I still wasn’t sure.
Darian took the lead. He loaded all the fragments of old songs onto his computer. We started to listen to them together. We started to think about how they could be whole again. He was my leader. But I was his leader. We were each other’s leaders. He would tell me that something should be one way, and I would agree, and then a few minutes later I would have another idea.
I hadn’t listened to all the tracks since I made them the first time. Some of it I remembered perfectly, but other parts were a real surprise. It was very emotional because I took a lot of drugs during the making of SMiLE, and I wasn’t always at my best mentally. I had depression. I had fear. I wasn’t sleeping well. The second time through I remembered sleeping so badly and worrying so much.
Darian didn’t stop there. He found original lyric sheets for a song called “Do You Like Worms?” that we couldn’t completely decipher, so I called Van Dyke Parks, who had been there for the original songs. The very next day he came by and helped make sense of all the lyrics. It was a real trip to listen to those old bits and pieces a third time, not just with Darian but with Darian and Van Dyke. I asked Van Dyke if he had ever thought about writing the rest of the lyrics. He had. Slowly, with the band, with Van Dyke’s help, we started to rebuild SMiLE. We didn’t use all the pieces. But we used lots of them. The thing I remember best was going through the third movement, from the California Saga into Hawaii. I was so proud about that. It brought back so many memories.
And it wasn’t just the lyrics. We dug up old sounds and old ideas also and put them back into the old puzzle to make something new. There was a song called “She’s Goin’ Bald” on the Smiley Smile album in 1967. Originally, it was different. Originally, it was called “He Gives Speeches.” It was a strange little piece, lots of voices. To do that in 1967, we used something called an Eltro Information Rate Changer, which changed pitch without speeding up or slowing down the tape. The Eltro was one of those toys we used as a tool. About a year after we tried the Eltro, it was the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. When we were doing SMiLE again in 2004, people who heard it thought about HAL, not the original record.
It reminded me of something that Ray Davies said once about using Indian music in his music, and the Beatles. He did it first, but then more people knew about the Beatles, so he went from being two years ahead of them to being two years behind them. Sometimes that’s a more comfortable way to do it. It might feel like people don’t remember all the ideas you had or that you were first, but it takes the pressure off. Making SMiLE again was like rebuilding a sand castle or raising the Titanic. Everyone remembers how it used to look. But everyone also understands that it’s never going to be exactly the same as it was before. It can’t be. That’s not how time works. But it meant something new to people. One of the guys in my band, Probyn Gregory, had been a fan of the idea of the album forever. In the early ’80s, he took out an ad in the newspaper asking Capitol to release some version of it. Twenty years later he played on it. Can you believe it?
Lots of my life has been a struggle with understanding how much my music meant to people. It took a long time for me to get it. Sometimes people needed to tell me. Other times I heard it in the music. That happened when I was finishing SMiLE. I started to hear again all the different things we were putting in there, all the different parts of American music. We were trying to reach everyone, and finally we did. People say SMiLE is one of the greatest albums ever made. I’m not sure about that. I am proud of it, but I also think it’s a little overstated, overdone. I think it’s too much music—not too complicated but too rhapsodic, with too many different sections. Still, finishing it was a huge relief. It was a weight lifted.
At the studio, Mark Linett, our engineer, walked over and handed me a box. “What’s this?” I asked. “That’s SMiLE,” he said. I held it right next to my heart.
When the album came out, I sat with Van Dyke and asked him how the hell we did it in the first place. He didn’t really answer. He had a little grin on his face. The CD was on a little table between us. I got goose bumps.