Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.
Next Up: Luis Sanchez, born and raised in West Texas, Luis earned his PhD in Musicology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland–not your typical provenance for someone whose subject of choice–The Beach Boys’s Smile–deals in post-WWII suburban California-style Americana.
Luis’s take on this classic promises to deal with Smile not as one of the great lost albums of rock history, but instead as a significant work of art that is, in his words, “all at once expansive, naïve, fervent, indeterminate, humorous, and resolutely pop.”
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Luis Sanchez: I think it was during my first semester of college when I first learned about Smile from watching a television documentary about The Beach Boys. I was already a fan of their early records and Pet Sounds. There was an interview segment where Sean Lennon talked about the back-and-forth creative exchange between the Beatles and The Beach Boys in the mid-‘60s—how Rubber Soul inspired Pet Sounds, and how Pet Sounds inspired Sgt. Pepper’s. Then he talked about this Beach Boys album I didn’t know, called Smile. He described it as the next phase of Brian Wilson’s blooming creative genius, that it involved this brilliant musician and lyricist named Van Dyke Parks, how the album was meant to take the listener on a radical pop music trip with ideas about God and American history, and how much studio time was spent working on it, except it was never finished. But the documentary only gave a vague explanation: Drugs? Perplexing lyrics? Fire in the studio? Mike Love? Brian’s sensitivity to “bad vibes”? Woodstock?
I hunted for the available fragments that pop up on later Beach Boys records, compilations, and bootlegs, and did a lot of listening. At some point I got a hold of Dominic Priore’s book, Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, a dense collection of period writings and journalism about Smile, and what felt like a secret history of events and “lost” recordings gradually came into focus. But something about the “Brian Wilson is a genius” narrative bugged me because, while I agreed with it, it contradicted my perception of rock history at the time, which hadn’t developed beyond a silly schoolyard mentality. How could you argue with Sgt. Pepper’s?! Listening to the music affirmed a naiveté that I already loved about the Beach Boys and intensified it with elements of drama and loss. It’s hard not to be fascinated by the Smile recordings. They call up all sorts of images of creative struggle and what-if possibilities to listen for. I’ve always thought of Smile as a story with an unsatisfying ending.
Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
LS: I have been in contact with Van Dyke Parks, and he has already graciously shared some of his insight, perspective, and memories of working with Brian Wilson.
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another?
LS: I wanted to be clear that I’m not interested in writing a straightforward “making-of” account of Smile. Several of those already exist, and there’s no need for another one. I tried to make a case for Smile not just as this mythic, unfinished album but even more as a suggestive turning point for a larger story about the Beach Boys and a particular period in American cultural history.
What do you want to explore about The Beach Boys that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
LS: When Smile gets mentioned at all, it’s usually at the expense of The Beach Boys’ early surf and hot rod records or it gets overshadowed by cloying admiration for Pet Sounds. I’m not convinced by the Rolling Stone-branded account of this period of music or of The Beach Boys’ place in it; it contradicts what I hear on the records. So much of their music is rooted in pop traditions that reach further back and into sensibilities that put it at odds with the cultural upheavals we usually associate with the 1960s. I think there is a strong aesthetic disposition running from the group’s early records and through Smile that familiar rock music accounts sometimes have difficulty trying to reconcile with the period.
Perhaps better than any other group of their time, The Beach Boys represent the youth-oriented optimism and credulousness of post-WWII America. They gave it an identifiable musical style and vocabulary. Then the Beatles and Dylan showed up, and everything turned serious. How is a group like The Beach Boys going to perform “Surfin’ USA” to a crowd of socially and politically conscious university students in 1966? It’s almost difficult to appreciate now, but Smile was recorded at a time when the future of popular music was open for the taking. I want to explore the story arc that led to this anxious moment when it seemed like there was so much at stake, both in terms of the album and in terms of the cultural attitude the Beach Boys embodied.
It’s almost difficult to appreciate now, but Smile was recorded at a time when the future of popular music was open for the taking.
What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favourites? Why?
LS: Tony Tost’s book about Johnny Cash’s American Recordings stands out. I admire his approach, exploring the album thematically, honoring Cash as myth, and treating the music as a gateway to some dark corners and voices of American history.
What was your first concert?
LS: Nine Inch Nails, October 1994. They played the El Paso County Coliseum, which is a smallish, grimy venue that some locals affectionately refer to as “the barn.” This was at the height of The Downward Spiral period, and the opening acts were Marilyn Manson and the Jim Rose Circus. I remember we arrived too late to see Manson but just in time to see some dude from the Jim Rose Circus act hang a brick or some other heavy object from his pierced penis. Nine Inch Nails played a fantastically loud and angry show. All of this, of course, blew my fourteen-year-old mind. What struck me most was how Trent Reznor dramatized the performance with what seemed like elaborate, arty stage production for the time, treating the whole thing like a self-contained piece of theater with a beginning, middle, and end—things I still admire in a live show.
How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
LS: I do most of my listening while driving. I try not to be fussy about audio format. Given the choice between MP3 and CD, I’ll go with CD for the better quality and because backing up files isn’t my favorite thing to do. I think if I had a better turntable setup, I’d probably be one of those people who annoy their friends and family by constantly talking about how amazing and warm vinyl sounds. So any friends and family reading this, count your blessings.
Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
LS: The first line of “Heroes and Villains” is a pretty great mouthful: “I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time.” By themselves, the words have a dispirited tone, but when you hear them in their musical context they outline a slapstick, cartoonish vignette about cowboys strutting and boozing it up with damsels in the cantinas of the old American Southwest. It’s a terrific example of Van Dyke Parks’ capacity to complement Brian Wilson’s music with wit and affecting imagery.
Next up: Ethan Hayden on Sigur Ros’ ( ). Stay Tuned.