brent johnson digs up another lost treasure, this week from The Beach Boys …
It could be the greatest lost song on the greatest lost album of all-time.
Legendary as it may be, the story of The Beach Boys’ SMiLE is too good not to re-tell. From May 1966 until May 1967, Brian Wilson spent hours and hours and hours tinkering at what he intended to be the group’s boldest statement. Their last album, Pet Sounds, was a lush, heartbreaking classic that pushed America’s most popular band far away from the sun-and-surf sound of their early days. But SMiLE was a whole lot wackier. Wilson wrote the music at a piano placed in sandbox and encouraged the musicians to wear plastic fire hats while recording. The lyrics — by Van Dyke Parks — spoke of cantinas, Plymouth Rock, iron horses and ‘columnated ruins domino.’ Oh, and one of the songs supposedly featured Paul McCartney chomping on carrots.
But it wasn’t to be. Burdened by mental anguish and mounting pressure to finish the thing, Wilson scrapped SMiLE. The record remained in the vaults for 37 years, leaving fans to snatch up snippets in bootlegs. It wasn’t until 2004 that Wilson revisited the album, re-recording it with his touring band to critical acclaim.
Then, last year, it happened: The Beach Boys finally released the original sessions in box-set form. And the result is magnificent. SMiLE, even in fragmented form, is a fun, funny, smart and infectious pop opera filled with playful nods to American history, Aaron Copeland and country music.
Tucked amid all the alluring strangeness, though, is a pretty little tune called ‘Wonderful.’ It’s the record’s most understated song: just a harpsichord, Wilson’s lead vocal, and a choir of Beach Boys cooing in the background. But listen to the way the chords rise and the voices build. It’s classical music for a pop audience — something Wilson does better than anyone.
Sadly, this isn’t the version of ‘Wonderful’ that most record-buyers have heard. After shelving SMiLE, Wilson and the Boys cherry-picked some of the songs, tamed them down and released them as Smiley Smile in 1967. ‘Wonderful’ was among them — but they turned it into a muddy dirge that falls just short of charming. The original is more divine.