Brian Wilson Smiles Again

Beach Boy unveils a lost masterpiece

March 12, 2004 12:00 AM ET

Brian Wilson famously intended the Beach Boys' follow-up to Pet Sounds to be "a teenage symphony to God" that would set a new standard for rock music, trump the Beatles and provide a latter-day crystallization of the American dream. In the summer of 1967, unfortunately, the project he titled Smile was aborted, leaving some of its tracks to be scattered across subsequent albums and others to fester in the vaults. Last year, Wilson and Smile's lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, returned to the material, with a view to tying up its myriad loose ends and giving the work a much-belated public premiere.

Among Wilson aficionados, the response was a very feverish anticipation, which became tangible in the run-up to Smile's February 20th world debut in London's wood-paneled Royal Festival Hall. When Parks took his seat with the band, he received the first of several standing ovations -- and though an introductory set taking in a slew of Beach Boys classics ("God Only Knows," "California Girls") was warmly received, it was clear the audience was desperate to hear the concert's main feature.

When Smile arrived after a twenty-minute interval, it didn't disappoint. Wilson wore his customary cat-caught-in-headlights expression, but he and his ten-piece band -- augmented by strings and horns -- had little to fret about. They capably delivered music that was both complex and epic; better still, Wilson's battle-scarred voice held up admirably well. Even the familiar songs had been retooled and polished anew: The 1967 hit "Heroes and Villains" was stretched into a ten-minute musical drama, and the legendary "Good Vibrations" featured unheard musical passages and changed lyrics.

Perhaps most astonishing of all was a long-lost piece titled "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," originally intended as the "fire" part of a drawn-out "Elements Suite." (In tribute to a celebrated Smile-era recording session, the string players wore toy fire helmets.) By way of reminding us of his talent for altogether more straight-ahead music, Wilson closed the show with a run of early Beach Boys tunes such as "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun." The crowd frenziedly danced and hollered along -- and then euphorically spilled out into the night.

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