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Al Jardine of the Beach Boys: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About "SMiLE" (Interview)
They say good things come to those who wait. Well, for Beach Boys fans, 45 years later, the long mythical SMiLE – an album championed back in the ‘60s as a record that would make Pet Sounds sound like a bunch of nursery rhymes – was finally unveiled as part of the multi-disc collection, The Beach Boys-Smile Sessions.
Then, as a perfect grace note, the storied release won the award for “Best Historical Album” at last month’s Grammys:
Just prior to SMiLE’s big win, Rock Cellar Magazine’s Ken Sharp spoke to Beach Boys member Al Jardine, who gave extraordinary insight into the making of this rock and roll classic.
RCM: Now that SMiLE finally got released, what are your feelings – surprise? Joy? Relief?
Al Jardine: It’s a mind blower! After all these years and after having made Smiley Smile, the step-child of SMiLE, thinking that would be the end of all that, to finally have the original masters come out is amazing.
I think all of us began to get interested again in pushing for the release of SMiLE after Brian made his version. I remember thinking, “Well gee, why doesn’t Capitol simply assemble the tapes that we did and we’ll polish them up, finish them up and people can have both versions?” And miraculously it came to pass. There’s a lot of great little musical vignettes on the album and things that I’d even forgotten we’d done. It was just refreshing to hear those crystal clear voices with that pristine production value. I like the use of the banjos and the horns, the unusual combination of instruments.
RCM: What did you think of Brian’s new recordings of SMiLE?
AJ: Honestly, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought; I didn’t want to go there at that time. They were good enough to send me a copy. So I dropped the needle, as they used to say, and listened to a few cuts, and it was very nice. But there’s nothin’ like the real thing.
And remember the production value was quite unique to that period of time in the recording process. We used great outboard gear at the time – the tube gear, echo chambers and acoustical chambers and that made everything sound really great. That’s what I like about the vintage stuff.
RCM: Where was SMiLE recorded?
AJ: The tracks were done at Western Recorders, some were done at Gold Star and the vocals were done at Columbia. Good Vibrations was recorded at several different studios. Of course that didn’t appear on Pet Sounds, but it was slated to be on SMiLE and so now it’s finally gonna be on the album it was supposed to be on.
RCM: During the Pet Sounds and SMiLE sessions was there ever a sense of historical greatness, or uniqueness – as you were recording?
AJ: It took some getting used to, to be honest with you. The singing and the application of the actual performances were like vocal exercises as much as they were anything else. We were just basically experimenting a lot and trying to get it perfect.
We began to get obsessive about it, and started to implode because there was so much to do and so much experimentation going on – it really started to take its toll. We were recording both of those albums simultaneously and the two began to kind of run into each other. We extracted Pet Sounds out of the majority of the material and left the rest of it unfinished.
RCM: How would you characterize the difference between laying down vocal parts on songs for SMiLE to earlier Beach Boys material?
AJ: It was just more textural, more complex and it had a lot more vocal movement. Good Vibrations is a good example of that. With that song and other songs on SMiLE we began to get into more esoteric kind of chord changes, and mood changes and movement. You’ll find SMiLE full of different movements and vignettes. Each movement had its own texture and required its own session.
RCM: Did you ever think “how’s this piece of music going to connect with the other pieces?”
AJ: Not really. We just worked on songs endlessly – took it one movement, one section at a time. Heroes and Villains in particular was a song that we continually updated and did different movements, and recurring themes, and the E minor to A change that became the most important part of the song; this little bridge part. The choruses repeat and you’d hear the theme repeated and repeated in the song. That’s very similar with what classical composers used to do, and that’s what I liked. I really enjoyed the recurring themes with different arrangements.
RCM: How would you compare the single version of Heroes and Villains, to the original version with the cantina section included on SMiLE?
AJ: One’s the Smiley Smile version – which is inferior in every way, in my opinion. Not musically, I want to make that clear. But we basically were making a home movie when we did Smiley Smile. We didn’t have all the cutting edge apparatus that you find in a professional studio, so we were really limited in our ability to deliver the same quality of sound. You hear kind of flat response in Smiley Smile, pretty linear as opposed to what you hear on SMiLE with all of its textural and professional sound.
Listen to the instrumentation, too – it’s entirely different. Brian and I often talk about the tack piano that’s the centerpiece of that particular session; you can’t reproduce that sound anywhere in the world. That particular instrument was available to us and we used it and that’s what makes it so brilliant.
RCM: We recently did an in-depth article on “The Wrecking Crew” – the studio musicians that worked on hundreds of famous records. They contribute a lot of the background instrumentation on Heroes and Villains, as well as Pet Sounds…
AJ: They brought all their experience to the table. When you have people with that kind of talent who’ve done thousands of sessions, you walk into the studio and you already have that depth of knowledge. They can add an idea here or there and pretty soon your creation is improved ten-fold.
Like in any walk of life and in anything you do, whether you’re Brian Wilson or Steve Jobs, it’s the people that you surround yourself with that make an organization great. And the Wrecking Crew added so much to everything they did.
RCM: Take us through a SMiLE vocal session.
AJ: Generally speaking with respect to Pet Sounds or SMiLE every night we’d come in for a playback. We’d sit around and listen to what we did the night before. Someone might say, well, that’s pretty good but we can do that better, particularly with Good Vibrations. We must have worked six months on that song alone. We knew there wasn’t quite something right.
RCM: Was that sense of dissatisfaction coming from Brian primarily or the band as well?
AJ: It was a shared feeling, but Brian was hearing something in his head that he was trying to capture, and that’s always a difficult thing to do. When you hear something in your mind it’s very difficult to get it down in real time – it’s always just short of what you think it’s gonna be. Sometimes you get lucky.
We’d always go to the piano and work out our vocal parts. Brian generally knew what he wanted each of us to sing – we’d figure it out by the chords he was playing with his right hand. He knew what his parts were gonna be. We always sang the same vocal intervals. I was the part under Brian, Carl would be under me, and Mike or Dennis or both would be under that. As soon as we heard the chords on the piano we’d figure it out pretty easily. If there was a vocal move he envisioned, he’d show that particular singer that move. We had somewhat photographic memory as far as the vocal parts were concerned so that never a problem for us.
RCM: Which songs from SMiLE were the most challenging from a vocal standpoint?
AJ: Cabin Essence was a tough one. Just the alacrity of the parts and the movements. There was wind driven part in the parts around “who ran the iron horse” – a lot of challenging vocal exercises and movements in that one. But we enjoyed those challenges. There was almost like a competition among us between who could do their part better than the other guy – but a healthy one.
RCM: On first listen to this SMiLE, was it better than you perhaps remembered?
AJ: No, it was exactly like I remembered – remember, we used to take acetates home with us of the songs. I’ve got a pile of acetates down in my home studio and I’ve listened to them over the years and I really enjoyed what we did. The sequencing works well – it all comes together, it’s quite impressive.
RCM: Are there any lost gems that you forgot – that caught your ear, or maybe surprised you?
AJ: Yeah, there was one part that I’d forgotten about where we sang this dissonant chord – this strange chord, which sounded like the whistle of a train. It was very clear and it actually sounded like a real train. (laughs) It’s amazing.
[AUDIO CLIP – Heroes & Villains – mono mix from SMiLE Sessions]:
RCM: From your point of view, What was Brian’s head space like during this time?
AJ: We were on tour, and he and Van Dyke [Parks] were working a lot together. He was in the studio constantly, experimenting with Van Dyke.
RCM: Mike Love has often dismissed the SMiLE material – particularly the lyrics of Van Dyke Parks. On Cabin Essence – “over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield,” caused some contention, correct?
AJ: Mike’s into lyrics. He’s a big Chuck Berry fan and he loves those kind of lyrics. I’m sure he was perplexed (laughs) as anyone would be about the “acid alliteration,” as he always puts it. I love that description!
So, if you’re singing the lead on a song, you’ll ask what it means if it’s not clear. What does “columnated ruins domino” really mean? Mike was always trying to pinpoint Van Dyke saying, “What does that mean?” And he would go, “I don’t know, I was high” (laughs). Mike would go, “That’s disgusting, that doesn’t make any sense.” (laughs) But it didn’t have to make sense, it didn’t have to have a hook. If it works, it works.
I loved Van Dyke’s lyrics. I just loved how he painted the songs with words, his idea were great. I didn’t care what they meant. It didn’t matter to me. I like the 19th century painters that experimented down on the Left Banke. That to me is beautiful art, and I heard that in Van Dyke’s lyrics. I could almost hear the colors almost in the lyrics.
RCM: But there was friction between Mike and Van Dyke, right?
AJ: He felt displaced, I’m sure. Van Dyke is a great musician, too – he brought a lot of good music to the band. Y’know, he actually apologized to me – for “ruining my career.” I said, “Van Dyke, not only did you not ruin it but you enhanced it! You enhanced our knowledge just by being there.”
RCM: Why did he say that?
AJ: He felt he ruined our career because Heroes and Villains flopped as a single. Remember, he was a co-writer on that. It wasn’t Van Dyke’s fault. Isn’t that wild? Surf’s Up – God that was brilliant! It would be like Van Gogh writing lyrics.
RCM: Surf’s Up is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful Beach Boys songs…
AJ: It’s brilliant. I thought the choruses were so dynamic, and so pure. I don’t think there’s anything as dynamic in our repertoire as that. Listen to the bass line – who can imagine such a dynamic piece? And the way we sang the parts – it’s just a hugely impressive song to me when I hear it.
If you listen closely to SMiLE, there’s a story running throughout the album. Van Dyke was writing about that westward movement – that American thing with the Grand Coulee and the workin’-on-the-railroad kind of stuff. That inspired and influenced me when making my own album, Postcard from California.
That’s what SMiLE entails: we’re always on the move. It captures that romanticism of traveling cross-country. We can always have a new beginning somewhere. Hopes and dreams. There’s always a hope that there’s a new beginning somewhere. That’s how I feel when I listen to the album.
RCM: Do you think people miss out on the humor of SMILE, both musically and lyrically?
AJ: Yeah. I love a song Brian wrote and arranged called The Barnyard – that was my favorite song from SMiLE for a long time. There’s no lyrics at all – it’s just this funny little sequence about a barnyard, and you can hear the chickens and the roosters dancing. I’m living up on a ranch now and I have my own chicken coop and it sounds just like that in there. (laughs) Brian never had a chicken coop in his life and he’s getting these musicians to play like they’re sitting in the middle of a coop – it cracks me up! I don’t know where he came up with this stuff.
Brian’s always had a great sense of humor his whole life. He was the comedian in the band, always the guy to crack a joke, at someone else’s expense I might add, especially Carl for some reason. He’d always get Carl in trouble with his dad or somebody just to make a joke. (laughs) I think that humor shows up in his music at times.
RCM: As one listens to the discs that show the SMiLE sessions in progress, it’s apparent how much Brian is in charge and commandeering the proceedings.
AJ: He knew exactly what he wanted, which is really indicative of a creative genius. When you’re good at something you’re good for a reason, you have a focus. He was totally hyper-focused in the studio. He could be an absent-minded professor about other practical things (laughs) but when it came to music he was a real dictator. You had to be pitch-perfect and rhythm-perfect. That’s why we were good.
RCM: It’s always said about Brian that he “heard it in his head.”
AJ: He heard how he wanted it to sound in his head and knew how good it had to be. Each one of us were challenged every day and we challenged each other. It’s really important for someone on the team to know what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. That’s what you call leadership. It’s like when you’re in the armed forces. One person has to have vision and know where you’re going otherwise the team is pretty much rudderless. He provided that leadership, but after a point it started to implode.
RCM: How do you mean?
AJ: The fact that we didn’t put Good Vibrations on Pet Sounds was a big mistake, but Brian was very insistent that he really didn’t want it on there. I don’t know why to this day. I guess he was thinking ahead to SMiLE – maybe thinking beyond the game. They say in football, don’t think beyond the next team, but he was thinking far ahead. It was patently obvious to us that Good Vibrations should have been the first cut on Pet Sounds.
RCM: What went through your mind when Brian first played you Good Vibrations?
AJ: We had a track waiting for us when we got back form being on tour in Japan. We went into the studio and we heard the playback. The track was really complex. Even to this day if you sit down and analyze it there’s so many key changes in it – it’s just a major production. I thought the choruses were great.
Good Vibrations signaled a real paradigm shift in the way that people were listening to popular music. I don’t even think there’s a category for the song. It’s just a brilliant composition, let alone arrangement, production and performance. It set a standard for the rest of the recording world. That’s why the precipitous drop of Heroes and Villains was such a disappointment. We all knew that the Heroes and Villains that we released on Smiley Smile was not up the standard of what we executed on SMiLE. For me that was the biggest disappointment in my career.
AJ: Result-wise. That we would permit that song to come out like that was a huge setback for us. Because that was the follow-up to Good Vibrations and it had to meet that standard, and it didn’t. And I knew it.
RCM: Why didn’t it meet your standards?
AJ: Because we re-recorded the damn thing and Brian lost his focus. I knew we were in a downward spiral after that. I knew we had the goods but we weren’t delivering them. But now – so many years later – finally people can hear the real deal with the SMiLE version of Heroes and Villains.
RCM: Why do you think SMiLE was originally scrapped?
AJ: We got tired, and Brian certainly got tired. He was exhausted. He started dropping a little too much acid and that’s bound to mess you up. You can’t play with fire like that and not get burned, and I think it just unwound him.
It got a point where he just kind of vanished and that’s when we took over and the Smiley Smile version of Heroes and Villains was that turning point. I think Capitol should release both SMiLE and Smiley Smile in the same package and give people a vision of what both sound like as one. It’s funny, during the session for Smiley Smile Brian became obsessed with this Baldwin organ. A lot of the album was based around this minimalistic approach to music using this three-tiered organ. Actually, there are some pretty cool songs on that album but I didn’t like rehashing some of the SMiLE songs. That didn’t work for me.
RCM: On Vega-Tables, Paul McCartney is rumored to have been at the session chomping on vegetables. True?
AJ: He wasn’t at the session on SMiLE, but he came to the session for Vegetables for the Smiley Smile versions. I sang that one and he produced me on it. We might have chomped on some carrots. I remember telling Brian, “We’ve got to do something different on this thing.” What the hell, it was four in the morning. I filled some water bottles, tuned it to the key of the song and blew air into the bottles. What you hear sounds like an old organ.
RCM: With SMiLE getting junked, what was its affect on Brian?
AJ: He was pretty devastated. He just retreated.
RCM: Would you call SMiLE Brian’s greatest achievement? To date?
AJ: I’d say it’s pretty damn close. Brian and Van Dyke worked really well together. It was amazing the way the words and music are married to each other on SMiLE. I loved how Brian and Van Dyke collaborated on that.
RCM: Brian eventually did finish SMiLE and release a version recorded with his band, which had almost unanimous praise. What’s your take on that?
AJ: I’m not sure Brian wanted to finish SMiLE but people were saying to him, “Hey Brian, you’ve gotta release this thing.” He probably said something like, “Well, I don’t wanna do it with the guys, I’m not interested in doing that again.” I’m sure someone said to him, “Well, let’s do our own version.” I’m sure that’s how that evolved because everybody wanted to hear it.
RCM: So when you listen to SMiLE, it’s still unfinished in your mind?
AJ: Oh yeah.
RCM: What’s missing?
AJ: Just certain parts. There’s performances we probably should have finished. I can’t tell you exactly what they are but that’s the way I feel. There are elements of SMiLE that aren’t even on this version – not everything is on there. It’s just stuff that isn’t finished. A lot of them don’t even have titles.
RCM: Can you give examples?
AJ: There’s one song on there called Do You Like Worms? I kept yelling at people over at Capitol that there’s not one goddamn lyric about worms on this track. It’s called Roll Plymouth Rock. I defy you to find anything about worms on there. But they wanted to name it Do You Like Worms.
Brian added parentheses (Roll Plymouth Rock) – on his album to make it clear. I’m sure that there was song that Brian and Van Dyke did do called Do You Like Worms that they didn’t even play for us. Anyhow, I think what’s there on the original version of SMiLE is totally cool, and I do like the unfinished nature of it. (laughs) It brings back a lot of really good memories.
RCM: There’s been talk through the years that Brian felt his song The Elements: Fire Suite (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow) had a direct effect on a flurry of fires erupting around L.A. And because of that, he burned the tapes. True?
AJ: I wasn’t at that session but I think Carl was there. Yeah, there was the rumor that he burned all the tapes. You can’t burn tape, that’s just a myth. We tried it once, because of the rumor that Brian has burned the tapes, and I wanted to see if that would work.
We were finishing a song for Surf’s Up and we had some outtakes from the album and I put a match to it, and it wouldn’t burn. The tapes weren’t burned, and needless to say they do exist for the SMiLE sessions.
RCM: Can you tell us about your great charitable cause “Operation Smile?”
Al Jardine: Operation Smile is a group of dedicated physicians who literally fly around the world fixing cleft palettes on these young children who have no other possibility of having the surgery. This deformity will affect them for a lifetime and no one can afford to do it for them so these doctors travel everywhere, from Africa to China and help these children. It’s a simple one hour operation that will change a kid’s life.
I talked to Brian and Melinda Wilson about possibly getting involved and they were all for it. They thought it was a great idea that we would dedicate SMiLE to them. There’s info in the liner notes about how to contact this organization.
(web site: www.operationsmile.org) On behalf of the Beach Boys we implore you to help put a smile on every child’s face.
The Beach Boys catalog of albums, DVDs, and digital music is available in our Rock Cellar Store HERE.
Link to Al Jardine’s music at our Rock Cellar record store is here.
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