But Is It Americana? – The Beach Boys

In our latest article in this series,  Ljubinko Zivkovic asks the question about one of the most American of bands. Could the Beach Boys be considered Americana?

The main question here is whether the music of an artist or band can fit under the Americana banner. Yet, if we mention The Beach Boys and particularly their now mythological project ‘Smile,’ another question pops to mind –  is it even an album?

Actually, where The Beach Boys themselves are concerned, both their musical and lyrical themes are firmly rooted in the American, specifically Californian, tradition. From Brian Wilson’s love of George Gershwin and Chuck Berry and folkish harmonies of Four Freshmen to ‘Surfin’ USA’ or ‘California Girls,’ to name just two American-themed songs of theirs.

On the other hand, their ‘Smile’ project, to give it a bit of a loose tag, was/is supposed to be a cornucopia of the American musical, historical and pop mythology all in one. As such, it was more or less recorded and pending release sometime between January and June 1967 but then scrapped sometime that year. What materialised was a makeshift album, ‘Smiley Smile,’ which was at the time neglected but later turned out to be a mini-masterpiece in itself. A series of finished or combined songs cropped up throughout The Beach Boys’ albums up until the early seventies. Brian Wilson’s (possible) recreation of the album itself was in 2004, a box set of all of what remained of the sessions and was released under the ‘Smile’ title in 2011 with some 20 or so fan-imagined recreations of various quality. All firmly support the ‘Smile’ myth.

What Wilson, Van Dyke Parks and the band attempted to do, both musically and lyrically, is left to all that has been said and written (including academic treatises) about ‘Smile’. The list that includes the ideas presented by Wilson and Parks themselves reads like an encyclopaedic index and includes everything from a general overview of American popular music, cartoons, the logic behind humour itself, as well as the philosophical ideas of Arthur Koestler, surrealism and Eastern philosophy – just to name a few (and yet another indication as to why the project never truly materialised). But what probably lies at the heart of the problem was that Brian Wilson was not able to cope with and complete his personal journey into adulthood, which he started withPet Sounds’ and never concluded with ‘Smile’, resulting in long bouts of mental illness. 

While it seems the whole chaos surrounding the recording of ‘Smile’ seems to have ended with Wilson burning part of the recorded tapes and then hiding (or misplacing) the rest, what actually did come out of those sessions can sometimes loosely be more firmly filed under Americana of the highest order. The key factor in the re-appearance of the original recordings can be attributed to the fact that Wilson was applying a modular compositional and recording principle, only intending to piece up parts in the final stages. This may be something standard in the current state of modern music, but at the time was practically unheard of in pop music.

While some of the tracks that slowly started to trickle out onto the subsequent Beach Boys albums were in a finished form (‘Cabinessence’ on ‘20/20′), they had to quite literally be wrestled out of Brian’s hiding places while some had to be partly re-recorded or spliced together (one version of ‘Surf’s Up’ on the album of the same name).

The latter, along with the songs/snippets like ‘Heroes And Villains’ (song) or ‘Plymouth Rock’ (snippet), is one of the more clear-cut connections of The Beach Boys’ music with Americana. Even more so, whatever remained and was released in one form or other from the ‘Smile’ project is, as music, something of rarely imagined beauty, whether you see/hear it as Americana or not.

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