Brian Wilson
at the Royal Festival Hall,London
21st February 2004
Alan Hardy found 'Smile' well worth the wait
A couple of years ago when Brian Wilson came to the Royal Festival Hall to perform 'Pet Sounds', it seemed a miracle that he would be able to both face an audience and perform live. But the announcement that he was now returning to perform a World Premiere of 'Smile' seemed impossible to believe. After all, it was the recording of this album which led to, or certainly contributed to, the personal difficulties which have affected his life and creativity ever since. The album was never completed and has become the legendary 'unfinished masterpiece'. Since then, Brian has been unable to even contemplate listening to the old master tapes. So what amount of courage would he have needed to perform in public what he couldn't even finish recording? Would he still have the skills to put it all together? How much of the original concept would he remember? And crucially, what effect would it have on Brian if the public heard it and thought it was a load of old rubbish (or at least reacted in a way any less than he might have wanted)?
The concert began surprisingly and delightfully, with Brian's superbly talented and versatile band members gathered around him for an a cappella session. It was just as if the Beach Boys were sitting around at home, or at the beach, laughing, joking and suggesting songs to sing for fun. We heard greats like 'In My Room', 'Surfer Girl' and 'Please Let Me Wonder'. The first half of the concert finished as the 10-piece band took up their instruments and played perfectly-honed versions of 'Sloop John B', 'God Only Knows', 'California Girls' and more, including tracks from Brian's soon-to-be-released new album.
The second half began straight away with Smile. I thought it strange that it started unannounced, but those in the know immediately recognised the beautiful a cappella 'Our Prayer' introduction and then 'Heroes and Villains'. Smile is not a collection of individual songs like Pet Sounds, but is really a symphony made up of three 10-15 minute suites. Although fans have become familiar with some of the songs from Smile which have subsequently appeared on Beach Boys albums, it was fascinating waiting to hear how 'Cabinessence', 'Wind Chimes' or 'Surf's Up' would appear and fit within the context of the complete work. Smile is a constantly-changing musical panorama of mood, pace and layered complexity. Sometimes it's a cacophony; with band members creating sound effects as well as constantly changing their musical instruments to be able to perform the piece live. The final suite includes the fabled 'Elements' section, during which the additional string and brass section put on the notorious fireman's helmets to perform 'Fire'. To me, one of the many delights was the finale, when a return to 'Our Prayer' swooped into the introduction of 'Good Vibrations'. 'Good Vibrations' and 'Heroes and Villains' (with its theme running through the much of the complete work) have both received a rearrangement and reworking.
Van Dyke Parks (far lefthand keyboard)
Hats on – it's a hot combustible number!
So, was Smile worth the wait? The answer must be "Yes" – especially according to the enthusiastic audience members who gave Brian and his musicians a cheering, standing ovation for three or four minutes at the end.

Was there a degree of 'The King's New Clothes'? Dare I say, perhaps – but only very slightly. The problem is that Smile is very difficult to appreciate in one hearing. I would have far rather listened to it and lived with it on CD before hearing it in concert. I also have no doubt that some in the audience must have thought, "What on earth is this all about?" It's quite easy to understand how other members of the Beach Boys and staff at Capitol Records reacted with horror, when they heard it being worked on, late in 1966. All the public was familiar with at that time were two-and-a -half-minute, simple pop songs.
Of course, we don't know whether the Smile we were presented with was the Smile that Brian originally intended. The running order didn't correspond with either the track listing on artwork for the back of the original Capitol LP sleeve, or with the hand-written listing that Brian gave to Capitol – which was different again. But the core material was certainly there and familiar to fans who have obtained bootleg recordings of the original sessions.

For many reasons it's a real pity that we have had to wait 37 years before hearing Smile. But those of us fortunate to be old enough to have lived through the sixties could be best placed to appreciate it. Just stop for a moment and think about the context of Smile. If it had been completed and released early in 1967, we would have heard it before 'Sgt Pepper' and possibly 'Strawberry Fields Forever' – up until then, the most complex pop music made. Smile would have been around years ahead of other 'concept albums', most of which – like 'Tommy', 'Days of Future Passed' or 'Sgt Pepper' – consisted of collections of individual songs, rather than suites. Brian Wilson was only 24 years old when he conceived this amazing work.

Yes, Smile is a work of genius. I look forward to its now- promised CD release, but whether this will consist of a combination of the original masters and new recordings, a completely new recording or 'live' rendition, we don't yet know.
'Stealing that extra bow'
All smiles: Alan with Peter Young and Steve Garlick

While we must congratulate Brian on having the strength, skills and interest to finally complete Smile, we must not forget that it wouldn't have happened without the encouragement of his wife Melinda, who suggested the idea, and band member Darian Sahanaja who got the original tapes from the archives. Van Dyke Parks readily responded to Brian's request to help revisit and finish the project and was in the audience and introduced to take his place on stage at the Royal Festival Hall.

And Smile also happened because of the warm support Brian has constantly received from London audiences. Brian readily admits that "People in England appreciate my music more". That's why London was chosen for the World Premiere. After all this time, I hope Brian smiled. We did.

Click on photo to pre-order 'Smile'

You Can SMILE too

Thirty-seven years after its original anticipated release date, a studio recording of Brian Wilson's lost musical masterwork 'Smile', was finally issued on Nonsuch Records on September 28th, 2004.

A 'Smile' Limited Edition was also released on October 4, 2004, on Atlantic.

This UK-only limited-edition format, exclusive to, comprises a white box with 3D shadowbox embedded in the lid. This shadowbox is a recreation of the artwork from the centre pages of the album booklet and contains movable figures. The CD is housed in a custom slipcase. One in four copies will be signed by Brian Wilson; these will be randomly allocated.

Click on the photo to pre-order the 'Smile' Limited Edition
More releases to make you SMiLE

"Thirty-seven years after the brilliant SMiLE album was hatched as a creative thought, you can see the music come to life in a two-disc DVD package featuring nearly four hours of material, including the documentary Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson And The Story of SMiLE, as well as an exclusive performance of SMiLE shot in its entirety in Los Angeles and nearly two hours of never-before-seen bonus footage."

The Smile DVD was released on June 13th 2005. (Click on the sleeve photo, left, for more info)

Brian Wilson completists can adorn their collection with the book 'Smile. The Story of Brian Wilson's Lost Masterpiece'. (Click on the jacket photo, right, for more info)


Pictures are © Mary Payne and Radio London 2004, review text © Alan Hardy 2004

Back to 'Reliving the Sixties'
Review of 2 previous RFH Concerts, 2003