Friday, December 2, 2011

A Child’s Guide to SMiLE

Music Review by Jack Silbert
On the day of its long-awaited release, I posted a photo of the Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions
online. My friend Maggie commented, “Is this by any chance a kid’s book?” Certainly, Frank Holmes’ legendary unused-for-44-years cover art has an undeniable childlike quality. It’s as if we’re welcome to enter the old-timey country store where smiles are for sale from who else but grinning proprietors. Good vibrations, indeed.

So, no, not a children’s book, but it got me thinking: How would SMiLE—the infamous unfinished album—hold up as a children’s recording? The Beach Boys’ previous release, the 1966 classic Pet Sounds, is noted as a move away from their earlier sun, surf, cars, and girls happy-go-lucky style. And SMiLE seemed poised to only extend the new trajectory. But just as Pet Sounds featured the sea-shanty singalong “Sloop John B,” and a photo of friendly goats on the cover, I knew there were more than a few kid-ready moments within the riddle that is SMiLE. I gave it another spin from that perspective, and now share with you my findings, track-by-track.

“Our Prayer”—While not specifically child-friendly, I defy any human being, regardless of age, race, religion, size, shape, or socio-economic background, to resist the angelic quality of the Beach Boys’ unaccompanied harmonies on this brief opening track.

“Gee”—Fifty-one seconds of goofy old-time doo-wop with a Sesame Street-esque “Bah-b-bah-bah” ending that I think kids will get a kick out of.

“Heroes and Villains”—One of the centerpieces of the album, it can be viewed as a perfect-for-kids cowboys-and-Indians story. Boy leaves city, moves west, falls in love with a dancing maiden. There are gunfights, and a sheriff yells out, “You’re under arrest!” Children grow up, and love wins out in the end. Plus there are fun whistle sounds, clip-clops, and a “Lalalalalalalala” sequence that feels like we’re going down a rollercoaster.

“Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock)”—The title may elicit a delighted “Ewwwww!” from younger listeners. Lyrically we don’t get much here, but kids can take a quick trip through history from east to west. It feels almost like a Disneyland attraction, with the “Heroes and Villains” theme popping up in the darkened tunnels between scenes. We begin at the Pilgrims’ landing point, then wonder about the plight of the American Indians, before finally winding up in blue Hawaii.

“I’m in Great Shape”—Rise and shine, kiddies! Time for breakfast! We’re in great shape!

“Barnyard”—We’re at the farm (same one from the Pet Sounds cover?), complete with animal noises. Good fun!

“My Only Sunshine”—You know the old nugget, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” Well, I’d only heard it in present tense before. This is delivered in past tense (“How could you take my sunshine away?”) and it’s a melancholy bummer. Boo! Not for kids. Luckily, the second half of the song picks up the mood with some happy harmonica.

“Cabin Essence”—Not to side with the Beach Boys’ Mike Love (who picked commerce over art in the complicated saga of the album’s creation), but I don’t have the slightest idea what these Van Dyke Parks lyrics mean. Maybe we’re camping? Near the Grand Coolie Dam? Tell you what, kids, go back to the barnyard, we’ll pick you up there when we’re done.

“Wonderful”—What’s that? A glockenspiel? Ah, this is a sweet, pretty tune, perfect for little girls. Laughter and forests and a locket, hopscotch at recess, meeting a boy, parents who love you. Wonderful.

“Look (Song for Children)”—Well, this one is called “Song for Children,” so it must be… but no, it starts out as a bit of a drag. Wait, 37 seconds in and it now sounds like happy marching music for kids. (Maybe that’s a glockenspiel? Or a celeste?) A track from Brian Wilson’s 1988 solo album comes to mind, in which “little children are marching along.” Arrgh, 15 seconds later and it’s gone! Oh, OK, it’s back, for another 15 seconds. And the last 27 seconds marches us happily home, or perhaps to the circus.

“Child Is Father of the Man”—Another song with “child” in the title, but, this one is no fun at all, not even for 15-second stretches. And oy vey, that repeated title phrase! Do you really want to explain to the kids how the person we were determines the person we grow to be? I didn’t think so.

“Surf’s Up”—While this is the most gorgeous song on the album—perhaps one of the greatest songs of all time—I think it’s also the least kid-appropriate. This is despite the deceptively fun “Surf’s Up” title, and the repeated child’s refrain, “Are you sleeping, Brother John?” I once again do not have the slightest idea what the lyrics mean but it sounds … mature. Adult. Wistful. Oh, it talks about kids: “A children’s song. The child—father of the man. [OK, we heard you before.] A children’s song—have you listened as they play? Their song is love and the children know the way.” Turn off the lights and listen to this one alone.

“I Wanna Be Around/Workshop”—The first 30 seconds are an instrumental take on a Tony Bennett hit. So thankfully, kids won’t hear those biting lyrics: “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces, when somebody breaks your heart … like you broke mine!” Children are welcome to tune in for the last 50 seconds, which sound like ambient noise from a Bob the Builder taping (mixed with xylophone). Amongst the sawing and hammering, there’s an “Oww!” toward the end—nice touch.

“Vega-tables”—Total kiddie time, in this fun, funny, goofy song. Not since the Fonz’s endorsement of veggies has the green leafy stuff had a cooler champion. And the good advice here isn’t limited to vegetables: We’re told to “sleep a lot, eat a lot, brush ’em like crazy. Run a lot, do a lot, never be lazy.” OK, maybe Brian should’ve backed off a tad from “eating a lot.” Have you seen photos of him from the ’70s?

“Holidays”—Put your marching shoes back on; we’re headed to the North Pole. (Marching snow shoes or insulated boots might be preferable, actually.) I actually don’t know if the title refers to the winter holidays, but we do get happy music courtesy of a vibraphone (or is it a xylophone?—you’d think with a deluxe 2-CD set, they could at least list musicians and instruments). Ooh, that’s a slide whistle for sure, and pounding drums, and I’m fairly certain I hear a clarinet.

“Wind Chimes”—Very pretty, mostly mellow, and musically, a nice follow-up to “Holidays.” For the laid-back kids out there.

“The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary Cow)”—The title gives us another reference to a familiar tale from childhood, this time the bovine troublemaker who reputedly burned down Chicago. The music is genuinely frightening, particularly from the 45-second mark on. (Prior to that there’s a fun mix of whistles, kazoos, and toy horns.) But it’s a kid-OK sort of scariness, nothing that you wouldn’t hear in a scene with an evil Disney character. And we do “hear” the fire, the sirens, and mostly just with the use of musical instruments and voice. For kids who can handle a fun fright, this is a nice little trip.

“Love To Say Dada”—Speaking of trips, maybe the LSD was kicking in by this point in the recording sessions. The title is yet another childhood-inspired one. The track itself meanders, then finds a bit of form, then backs off, then finds a bit more form…. I personally think it would be a boring 2 minutes and 32 seconds for the youngsters.

“Good Vibrations”—The final song on the album: a No. 1 hit single, ladies and gentlemen! In the top-10 of Rolling Stone’s Greatest Songs of All Time! Gather the family and let’s all sing along. Even that cool spooky theremin can’t kill the bouncy mood. Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’!

My advice: Make an iTunes playlist of the tracks that best suit your kid. Heck, Brian never finished the record, so who’s to say your version isn’t the definitive one? (And if you want more snippets and options to play with, there’s always the five-disc super-deluxe box set.) Your kid may even like some tales from the album’s history: writing in a sandbox, wearing plastic fire helmets, etc. I’d leave out the parts about the excessive drug use and resultant madness, but hey, that’s just me.

Jack Silbert is a writer of children's books, restaurant reviews, witty essays, and the like. He lives in Hoboken, N.J.


  1. This Beach Boys Fan Site, The Beach Boys News, loves Jack's story.