Fragments or Modules?
The Puzzle of Brian Wilson’s Smile

by Rob C. Wegman (Princeton University)

Paper read at the Analytic Round Table The SMiLE Album,
National Conference of the Society for Music Theory
M.I.T., Boston/Cambridge, 11 November 2005.

In a radio program broadcast on BBC Radio 1 in the early 1990s, Beach Boys band member Bruce Johnston was asked about the status of Brian Wilson’s legendary unfinished album Smile. This is what he said:

It’s not far from completion. That could be completed if he wanted to put the energy into it. I don’t think I’d attempt to do it. ’Cause it’s not my work, you know. I’d rather he did it. It’s in fragments. It’s just a bunch of fragments. And they’re really good, really superb . . . fragments.

The words seem prophetic in hindsight. It was really up to Brian to finish the album, Bruce said, no one else could do it for him. And in the end, now a year ago, that is exactly what happened.

Yet not everybody has always seen it this way, especially not over the last ten years. Many Beach Boys fans have edited together Smile in their own fashion, with the help of digital editing software like CoolEdit or Audition, and have made their efforts publicly available on the internet. I remember downloading several versions only a few years ago. I have to admit, though, that none of these efforts persuaded me that completion was a realistic or worthwhile undertaking even for Brian himself. And like Bruce Johnston I’ve never been tempted to try my hand at it myself.

Now that Brian has in fact finished the album, most of those versions appear to have been pulled off the internet, and it seems unlikely that similar attempts will be undertaken in future. One question that might be interesting to discuss here is whether that is a bad thing or not. From my own perspective as an author, I can’t imagine that I’d be very happy if someone else, however well-intentioned, tried to complete a projected book of mine out of fragments I had left—I have a hard time enough getting completed manuscripts past copy-editors.

But that brings me to more fundamental question. Did Brian really leave Smile in fragments—that is, bits and pieces of music that are in themselves incomplete, and which were presumably meant to take their place in a larger whole? Bruce Johnston used the word “fragments” emphatically, and elsewhere he described the Smile material as a collection of sound-bites—amazingly brilliant soundbites, he stressed, but soundbites nevertheless.

In recent years many writers have preferred to use the word “modules,” and have spoken of Brian’s so-called modular approach to song-writing. Such an approach may indeed be recognized in one of the earliest recorded tracks of Pet Sounds, “Let’s Go Away For A While,” which is pieced together from three musically unrelated segments.

“Module” literally means “little measure,” and the word carries at least the implication that it stands for a self-contained unit or entity, not merely a fragment. If that is the case, and if Brian’s approach was indeed modular, then yes, it makes sense to assume that those units could be configured in any number of potentially satisfying ways—and it follows that we could all have a go at editing an album out of them. Fragments or modules: the difference is not merely semantic. The question gets us to the heart of what Smile is, was meant to be, or could ever be.

Brian himself preferred to speak of “feels,” a term which he explained as follows:

I go to the piano and play “feels.” “Feels” are specific rhythm patterns, fragments of ideas. Once they’re out of my head and into the open air, I can see them and touch them firmly. Then the song starts to blossom and become a real thing.

Brian speaks here of “specific rhythm patterns,” and that makes perfect sense for his rhythm and blues songs in the tradition of Chuck Berry and others. After all, the harmonic scheme in those songs is so tightly defined that the generating idea for a song could hardly be anything else but a specific rhythm pattern—a riff. A riff is exactly what Brian says a “feel” is: a fragment of an idea, one that can indeed generate a whole song. On the other hand, from about 1965, until at least the 1968 album Wild Honey, Brian did not actually write very many rhythm and blues songs. There are none on Pet Sounds, so far as I can tell, and on Smile only “Vegetables” follows the blues scheme.

In a seminal article published in 1997, Daniel Harrison has made a convincing case that the “feels” in this extraordinary three-year period were usually harmonic rather than rhythmic in conception. What Brian worked out on the piano, and what he took with him into the studio, was chains of chord progressions, involving triads and seventh chords in various inversions. These could be described as harmonic sentences, phrases, in the sense that they had an inner logic, even though that logic was seldom stricly functional. Yet they were also fragments, in the sense that they were left harmonically open-ended. Above all, these “feels” grew out of Brian’s immersion in jazz harmonies as a teenager, when he reportedly spent evening upon evening working out the chords of Four Freshmen discs.

Let me give an early example, an instrumental piece from the album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!) of 1965. Like so many of Brian’s ballads, this one must have started life as a harmonic “feel” on the piano: a chain of triads and seventh chords in various inversions, played in the right hand, with a walking bass in the left. The right-hand chords are pegged onto three descending melodic lines, which in this case, unusually for Brian, are perfectly diatonic [Example 1]. The harmonic “feel” of the verse plus chorus, as worked out on the keyboard, would probably have sounded somewhat like this [Example 2].

The song still needed a tune, of course, and Brian typically made the tune up singing along with his piano accompaniment. His tunes tend to be a little awkward, however, since they are essentially chordal in conception, lack melodic autonomy, and make little sense without the accompaniment. They often involve wide leaps, and are seldom really hummable—the tune of “Surfer Girl,” to name a notorious example, consists almost wholly of broken triads and seventh chords.

Nevertheless, Brian persistently brought out the tune very prominently in the production stage, and tended to downplay the harmonic conception of his songs. The result in the present example was disastrous, at least to my ears. What began as a musical idea of tremendous harmonic power and drive became, in the end, a vacuous piece of the high-school prom dance variety, entitled “Summer Means New Love” [Example 3].

In terms of its conception, “Summer Means New Love” belongs to a type of song that also includes, for example, the Smile pieces “Cabinessence” and “Wonderful.” I will illustrate this in a moment, but first I would like to point out a number of key features.

First of all, the descending melodic line by which Brian organized his right-hand chords was more usually chromatic than diatonic, causing the progressions to be less obviously functional in terms of a single key, and to be more adventurous and downright jazzy.

A good example is “In the Back of My Mind,” from the 1965 album Beach Boys Today. Here is the descending line on which the right-hand chords are pegged [Example 4]. And here is the harmonic progression with walking bass, the “feel,” covering the verse plus chorus [Example 5]. In the final production of the song, Brian once again downplayed this basic harmonic progression. He gave his brother Dennis an erratically meandering tune to sing over a luscious orchestral background, in which the few audible countermelodies tend to leap up rather than descend—as if to counteract the downward chromatic slide [Example 6].

Another important point is that Brian persistently avoided cadences at the end of his descending chromatic progressions, and preferred to leave them open-ended. For the time we are speaking of, 1965 and 1966, I think this makes sort of intuitive sense. One of the things that makes the song “Summer Means New Love” come across as such a hackneyed piece, at least to my ear, is the way in which the harmonies always end up affirming the trivially obvious: at a time when the Rolling Stones couldn’t get no satisfaction, Brian’s cadence kept the high school prom clean and respectable, and affirmed the values of the parents [Example 7].

If Brian felt unease with the sense of conformity communicated by this ending, it might explain why the very last cadence of the song is preceded by the most arresting harmonic progression heard up to that point, and arrives only after a pointed moment of hesitation [Example 8].

In Pet Sounds, significantly, Brian neither begins nor ends these descending progressions, these “feels,” on the tonic, and keeps his songs perpetually floating in mid-air.

A good example is “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder).” Brian briefly toyed with the idea adding a vocal background to this song, as we can tell from the following outtake [Example 9]. In the end he decided against using these vocals, in line with his general tendency to downplay his harmonic conception in the final production. But the outtake does suggest that the original conception, the “feel” worked out on the piano, went probably like this [Example 10].

This progression as a whole doesn’t state the tonic even once: it begins on the submediant, VI, and descends chromatically to the dominant, V. The chorus itself sustains this open-endedness, since it consists of nothing but an oscillation between II and V, supertonic and dominant, without ever giving the tonic [Example 11].

It is typical of the musical language of Pet Sounds that even this oscillation doesn’t resolve in a cadence on the tonic. Rather, the tonic is reached after a harmonic detour, and even then it is stated only as a 6-4 chord, one that is hard to construe as a firm conclusion [Example 12].

Very similar in this regard is “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” also from Pet Sounds. Like “Don’t Talk,” the chorus consists simply of an oscillation between II and V, supertonic and dominant [Example 13]. Once again Brian makes a harmonic detour before giving us the tonic, and even then it is stated in the most indirect and grudging fashion [Example 14].

At the very end of the song he repeats this last progression over and over again, as if wanting to assure us that the tonic is directly within reach, and about to arrive, yet perversely not giving it [Example 15].

Turning now to Smile, we can see the same approach in “Cabinessence”: a descending chord progression from VI to V, submediant to dominant, this time with a leaping rather than walking bass [Example 16]. Once again this harmonic conception is downplayed in the final recording, and merely hinted at, in a sparse and atmospheric instrumental background suggesting the American West [Example 17]. Rather than lingering on the last chord of the progression (as he did in Pet Sounds) or touching on the tonic ever so briefly, Brian simply repeats this whole progression from the beginning, so that we are perpetually hovering, as it were, in a region remote from the home chord. It is only after this second statement that he gives us the long-awaited tonic, with the entry of a new stretch of music, the “Who Ran the Iron Horse” segment [Example 18].

Exactly the same thing happens in “Wonderful.” The song begins on the dominant, V, and descends chromatically down to the same degree, V [Example 19]. Having reached that point, he lingers with an oscillation between II and V, supertonic and dominant, just as he did in “Don’t Talk” and “I Just Wasn’t,” after which he starts the descent all over again [Example 20]. We never hear the tonic even once, in the entire song. In the recorded version of the song, Brian has covered his harmonic tracks, so to speak, giving us a sparse and transparent instrumentation, in which our attention is directed above all to the soaring vocal lines as well as the instrumental counter-melodies [Example 21].

Let me recapitulate a few points before moving on. Brian’s original conception of the songs we have heard so far was harmonic. Essentially the seventh chords and their inversions filled in the space between two poles: a chromatically descending top line and a walking bass. This, I think, accounts for the remarkable sense of direction and drive in these pieces, the sense of logical unfolding, even when the vocal tune itself seems erratic and meandering, and the harmonies are downplayed.

Perhaps it accounts as well for the sense that these songs are not quite as upbeat and exuberant as they try so hard to be. Certainly the persistent avoidance of the tonic, not to mention anything resembling a cadence, accounts for the inconclusive, open-ended quality of the songs, the sense that they seem suspended in the air, and never quite come down.

The II-V oscillation offered the possibility to extend this state almost indefinitely, and Brian was clearly fascinated with that idea. “Caroline No,” the last song on Pet Sounds, begins and ends with a slightly modified version of this oscillation [Example 22]. Only with the arrival of the chorus, “Oh Caroline No,” is this oscillation reinterpreted, however fleetingly, in terms of a key center [Example 23].

Oscillations of this kind pervade Smile, and in fact account for the vast majority of its musical ideas. A good example is the segue into “Heroes and Villains,” immediately after the opening prayer [Example 24]. In this case, of course, the implied tonic is provided by the beginning of the song itself [Example 25].

In that song in turn, the recurring “Heroes and Villains” refrain is yet another II-V oscillation, albeit in minor triads, always leading into a section starting on the implied key center [Example 26]. Some songs in Smile consist of nothing but II-V oscillations, and could scarcely actually be called songs, but rather remain fragments. This is true, for example, of “Roll Plymouth Rock,” which immediately follows “Heroes and Villains.” It is hard to see it as more than a compilation of II-V oscillations like the following, mixed with similar passages repeated from “Heroes and Villains” [Example 27].

The song after that, “Barnyard,” is even simpler [Example 28]. The implied but unstated tonal center of “Barnyard” is provided by the very next piece, “The Old Master Painter” [Example 29], which in turn makes way for yet another II-V oscillation, “You Are My Sunshine” [Example 30].

Other examples of II-V oscillations, and nothing more than that, are “Who Ran the Iron Horse,” “Song for Children,” “I’m In Great Shape,” “Wind Chimes,” “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow,” and the introduction of the fire scene [Example 31].

“Fragments” or “soundbites” is exactly the right word for these musical ideas, I think. In the finished version of Smile, Brian pieces together these fragments in a number of ways: sometimes the entry of a new musical idea may provide the implied tonic, sometimes he simply interrupts the fragment and goes off on another tack, and sometimes he just lets the fragment peter out.

The fragments themselves are shortlived: they are cyclicly repeating ideas rather than sustained musical arguments, and partly for that reason there is the perpetual problem of what to do next. Brian himself once likened his musical ideas in Smile to one-line jokes, and that comparison rings true: the problem with one-line jokes is that you have to keep them coming. In the final months of Smile Brian avoided that problem by tinkering endlessly with the orchestration of the fragments—which was pretty much the only direction in which he could take them.

The kind of solution he probably had in mind is illustrated by his song “Can’t Wait Too Long,” which was never released, and never meant to be part of Smile, though it clearly grew out of the musical world of that album. It consists almost wholly of II-V oscillations, repeated beyond the breaking point, but presented in the most exquisite orchestrations. I will now play a one-minute excerpt out of the five-minute version of the song. There is a longer version in existence, but length is really immaterial when you’re in the right frame of mind, a condition that may be greatly facilitated by inhaling, ingesting, or imbibing. [Example 32]

Mike Love once said about Pet Sounds that it was Brian’s “ego music,” presumably to distinguish it from the more socially and commercially acceptable “superego music” he felt Brian should have been writing. But Pet Sounds is “ego music” also in comparison with what could be described as the “id music” of Smile.

In the fragments we’ve just heard, Brian has abandoned conventional songwriting, has abandoned even the idea of crafting, pacing, and controlling a song within a three-minute format. Instead, it seems, he preferred to dwell in suspended moods, and lavished all his creative energies on their sonic brilliance. Some of those musical “states of mind” were vigorous and upbeat, others are mellow and laid-back—but harmonically they are all variations of the same basic idea, and all of them are short-lived.

For that reason I am not persuaded by the argument that Brian was concerned to establish thematic unity by repeating and modifying basic themes and ideas across songs. When most of the fragments are cut from the same cloth, when you find yourself lapsing again and again into the same musical device, the real problem is not unification but diversification. That, I assume, is why Brian spent so much time tinkering in the studio, to make up for creative problems left unresolved behind the keyboard at home.

I don’t know if there was ever a solution that problem, if Smile could ever be finished in a version that makes more coherent musical sense than the version we have today. It may sound pedantic to say this, but for me, Smile remains an album that rests on the pillars of the completed songs we’ve known all along: “Our Prayer,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Cabinessence,” “Wonderful,” “Surf’s Up,” and, of course, “Good Vibrations.” I cannot help hearing the rest as filler material: brilliantly sounding fragments and soundbites that bridge the gap between one great song and another.

Then again, I am reminded of a famous television interview with Paul McCartney, where the interviewer asked him about the apparent lack of cohesion in the White Album. For a moment, Sir Paul thought about how to respond, and then gave the only answer he could give: “What are you talking about? It’s the bloody White Album!” I can’t imagine that I would deserve any different answer from Brian Wilson.