Capitol's official announcement via Billboard this week that the Beach Boys' Smile will see release in 2011 -- on the heels of a quickly retracted offhand remark by Al Jardine that gave the game away -- is the latest in an eternal line of proposed releases for the troubled, long-delayed project that was intended to follow the band's beloved Pet Sounds in 1966. The confirmed involvement of longtime Beach Boys boosters Mark Linett and Alan Boyd this time suggests it will make it to stores, but fans and scholars know better than to count on that; they've seen Smile announced and botched or quietly aborted too many times.
Smile is hardly the only Beach Boys product that has spent decades in limbo. Andrew Doe's peerless Beach Boys discography lists no fewer than 35 unreleased Beach Boys-related albums, but none have the fame or cachet of Smile. There are at least five instances, by Doe's count, of the legendary album being slated for release and then scrapped. Initially planned for December 1966, only seven months after Pet Sounds, with publicity in place and cover slicks printed, the record ran into problems and was pushed into '67 before producer/mastermind Brian Wilson killed the album and the band issued the stripped-down, ethereal Smiley Smile instead. Displeased with that record's performance, Capitol put Smile back on the table for a release that fall, but Wilson failed even to deliver that abbreviated ten-track version.
The Beach Boys left Capitol in 1969 and retained the rights to most of the material they'd recorded in the latter half of the '60s. Their signing to Reprise was contingent upon the preparation and release of Smile, and owners of the Endless Harmony CD can hear a 1972 performance of "Wonderful" preceded by Mike Love proclaiming that Smile "should be out next year." But, perhaps unable to make head or tail of the tapes or to get his brother's blessing, Carl Wilson (in a position of leadership for the band during this era) took the financial hit for the contract breach rather than providing Reprise with a mutated Smile.
Mark Linett's involvement with Smile begins with an archival tape he made in the late '80s, attempting to convince Capitol that a Smile album was possible with extant recordings. At much persuading by Linett, David Leaf, and Capitol (who have reportedly been pushing for an official release for decades), Brian Wilson allowed an unprecedented number of fragments, outtakes, and even complete tracks to see public issuance on the 1993 Good Vibrations boxed set. Thereafter, at least one likely push for a dedicated Smile boxed set seems to have been abandoned. Forty-five years after recording of Smile began, it remains the most famous unfinished, unissued album in rock music.
A misconception that has contributed to Smile's mystique is that its music is largely unheard; in fact, we've heard an awful lot of it. The album as a whole may have burned out, but fragments were sprinkled across the next six Beach Boys albums, and after the resurgence of interest in the band in the 1990s, a number of Capitol archival CDs picked up the torch. Smile obsessives, if they hadn't had their fill via bootlegs, could revel in demos and extracts offered on the documentary soundtrack Endless Harmony and the two-disc barrel scraping festival of Hawthorne, CA. Then, the crown jewel: Brian Wilson released a new recording of Smile on Nonesuch, albeit one geared toward live performance and -- by his band's admission -- influenced as much by the content of Smile bootlegs as by any notion of how the album was initially designed. Though the solo version of Smile garnered considerable acclaim and fanfare, Wilson's ragged voice backed by the Wondermints was no match for the angelic grit of his old band, the new recordings and compositional elements coming off inauthentic.
The question of how much there really is left to hear in 2011 is pressing, despite Linett's assurances. Many fans follow all this, and drool at each tiny morsel that slips out of the Capitol vaults, in the hopes that the next release will provide some element that lets the Smile puzzle finally fall into place -- the questions of what the album was to mean and how it was to be formatted answered at last. The problem is that it's impossible to parse the meaning of an idea that was never entirely formed, to put together a jigsaw with missing pieces that have either been lost or never existed in the first place, something Wilson's longtime discomfort with Smile seems to bear out. How many of us would truly want to be judged on the basis of a project we started and failed to complete at age 24?
If 2011 is anything like 2004, assuming this lavish release of a Smile album and sessions boxed set actually happens, many will express disappointment and disbelief if the release fails to reflect their own vision of Smile. No album, released or not, has generated a more personal relationship with its audience, since no two people can even agree on its content and purpose. Even if Capitol found some way to issue all of the Smile tapes in existence -- Mark Linett says there are thirty hours of material -- the speculation and debating would continue, the curiosity about what was really in this young man's mind in 1966 never satisfied. Because people love a good puzzle, maybe even more than they love the actual music of Smile.