Imagine, for a moment, that the pressure to follow up the epoch-defining ‘OK Computer’ had sent [a]Radiohead[/a] crazy. So crazy, in fact, that ‘Kid A’ became such a sprawling, ambitious and extreme record that they couldn’t even finish it, let alone release it.
This, more or less, is what happened to Brian Wilson and [a]Beach Boys[/a] in 1967. In the wake of 1966’s amazing ‘Pet Sounds’, the brilliant and unstable Wilson, together with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, embarked on a project called ‘Smile’, which aimed to incorporate large chunks of American history, music, character and humour into a brief pop record. Whether he actually pulled it off has been quite hard to tell these past 37 years. Wilson’s physical and mental health, and his recording career, have been in an erratic state for most of that time. And while the songs from ‘Smile’ that have surfaced in the interim – both legally and illegally – have been fantastic, it’s been impossible to know if they’d work as a coherent whole.
Until now, that is. So here’s Wilson, sat stiffly and nervously in the middle of a superb mini-orchestra. He’s playing ‘Smile’, finally completed and being heard in its entirety for the very first time tonight. It’s rare that you can honestly say you were present at a moment of genuine historic significance. And it’s rarer still that the reality of these occasions measures up to the hype.
‘Smile’, though, is sensational: about 45 minutes of the most head-spinningly odd and beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear. There are fragile choral sections, farmyard animal noises, woodworking tools, Hawaiian war chants, and one part (called ‘Mrs O’Leary’s Cow’) where the string section put on fireman’s helmets. When it was originally recorded in 1967, the musicians wore fireman’s hats, too. A sequence of fires in Los Angeles that night convinced Wilson his music started the blazes, and the tune was never released.
Somehow, he keeps his nerve tonight. It’s an astonishing show, made even more so by the fact that this staggeringly ornate music was designed for the studio, not the concert hall. Would ‘Smile’ have changed the direction of pop if it’d been released in 1967? Probably not: most people, back then, would’ve shared the incomprehension and horror of Wilson’s conformist bandmates in [a]Beach Boys[/a]. Now, though, we can handle it – and so, crucially, can Brian Wilson. Maybe [a]Radiohead[/a] should’ve waited 37 years to unveil ‘Kid A’, too.