[The Mail On Sunday, 2004]
London Royal Festival Hall
THERE ARE more reasons to cherish Brian Wilson than I can fit into one review, or he can fit into one show. He's the kind of artist who receives a standing ovation simply for turning up. When you consider that most of his great work was accomplished within in a four-year period, culminating in the release of Pet Sounds some 38 years ago, when he was 24, it makes you a trifle dizzy. Only Dylan and The Beatles moved so far, so fast, and they weren't carrying Wilson's burdens: a family band which depended upon him entirely; chief responsibility for an astonishing level of production and orchestration (The Beatles, remember, had George Martin); an increasingly precarious mental state, which was to deprive The Beach Boys of their leader, and Wilson himself of decades of creative life.
Pet Sounds, one of those rare records which will forever sound as good as everybody says it does, is usually held to be Wilson's masterpiece. But Beach Boys aficionados dispute this. It is surpassed, they maintain, by Smile, 1967's never-issued follow-up LP, which Wilson proclaimed his magnum opus. Smile resides in rock'n'roll Narnia, a hidden trove of myth and fable. You may have heard more about its creation (firemen's hats, indoor sandpits, Paul McCartney crunching carrots), and its suppression (record company purblindness, the disintegration of both the band and Wilson's psyche), than of the album itself. It exists as a whole only on diverse bootlegged agglomerations of its varied and incomplete fragments. Smile is the most famous unheard record in pop. And tonight, Brian Wilson is at last going to set that record straight. He's going to show us what he had in mind, before his mind collapsed.
He is, however, going to make us wait. Not a problem. Some of us have been waiting since before we were born, if such a thing is logically feasible. An extra hour won't hurt, especially when it's spent listening to Wilson and his exceptionally able band deliver Beach Boys classics. One of the many remarkable things about Wilson's self-styled “teenage symphonies to God” is the way they chime with a listener of any age, not as nostalgia, but with ever-changeable meaning. In My Room, Don't Worry Baby, the sublime God Only Knows - with each hearing, these songs reveal something new. And if ever a song transcended its origins - in this case, as a pandering namecheck of every region in record-buying America - then it's California Girls; its vitality and joy are irrepressible.
The second hour brings us, for the first time anywhere, ever, the definitive Smile. Strung cat's-cradle-style between the twin miracles of Heroes And Villains and Good Vibrations, it is a mesmerizing work. The squiggles, doodles and frayed loose ends on those frustrating bootlegs are given shape, sequence and fluency. This is not to say that every bit of it is brilliant, or even bearable. It was, after all, conceived in a fit of overweening ambition as a psychedelic fanfaronade. It has its longueurs, and its obsolete curios.
But it also has a dazzling, intricate, breathtakingly realised full suite of Heroes And Villains, which affirms that Wilson had every right and cause to attempt what he did. It adds substance to previously flimsy or goofy conceits such as Vega-Tables and Wind Chimes. It features wonderful versions of Cool Cool Water and Surf's Up (the abstruse and affecting lyrics are by Van Dyke Parks, seated somewhere in the sixth row of the stalls.) It displays a singular instinct for the baroque, in both the period and general senses. If The Beatles didn't draw on it for their Abbey Road LP, then it's one hell of a coincidence.
Oddly, Smile may work better as a performance than it would have done as a record. To play it in your living room would demand patience, but to watch Wilson and company coax this outlandish fantasia into existence is never less than bewitching. Would Smile have been the unutterably great album its legend claims? Perhaps not. But with so much unutterably great music on it, that would scarcely have mattered.
All material on this site is copyrighted © to David Bennun and may not be reprinted or reused without permission - and that applies to heroes as well as villains.