In October 1966, the Beach Boys released "Good Vibrations", an elaborately produced single which had major international success. Smile was conceived as an extension of the song's recording approach, and, together with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson composed several songs intended for Smile. Several months later, the project was shelved due to technical problems, internal resistance, and legal disputes. After the announcement that Smile was cancelled in May 1967, the Beach Boys were still under pressure and contractual obligation to record and present an album to Capitol Records. On June 2, 1967, Wilson declared to his band mates that most of the material recorded during the Smile era was now distinctly off-limits.
In 1968, Wilson intimated on the subject of "Surf's Up" and other Smile material: "[It] was supposed to come out on the Smile album, and that and a couple of other songs were junked ... [because I] didn't want to put them on the album. I didn't think that the songs were right for the public at the time. I just didn't have a ... commercial feeling about some of these songs, what we've never released. Maybe some people like to hang on to certain songs as their own little songs that they've written, almost for themselves. You know, what they've written is nice for them ... but a lot of people just don't like it." In January 1968, Wilson elaborated further to journalist Jamake Highwater that he had run out of ideas "in a conventional sense," and that he was "about ready to die". He says: "I decided not to try any more, and not try and do such great things, such big musical things. And we had so much fun. The Smiley Smile era was so great, it was unbelievable. Personally, spiritually, everything, it was great. I didn't have any paranoia feelings.
In 1983, brother and band member Carl Wilson reflected: "It was also a thing of, 'What if it didn't turn out to be great, what if it had totally flopped?' That would have completely destroyed him [Brian]. We would have lost him forever in terms of having any communication with him. In the middle of all this, Brian just said, 'I can't do this. We're going to make a homespun version of it instead. We're just going to take it easy. I'll get in the pool and sing. Or let's go in the gym and do our parts.' That was Smiley Smile." Dennis Wilson called the album a product of its context, saying "Smiley Smile was just something we were going through at that time connected with drugs, love, and everything." In 1968, he said, "We got very paranoid about the possibility of losing our public. We were getting loaded, taking acid, and we made a whole album which we scrapped. Instead, we went to Hawaii, rested up, and then came out with the Smiley Smiles [sic] album, all new material. Drugs played a great role in our evolution but as a result we were frightened that people would no longer understand us, musically."
When the Beach Boys declined at the last minute to headline the Monterey Pop Festival in June, their cancellation was seen as "a damning admission that they were washed up [and] unable to compete with the 'new music'", in the words of Steven Gaines. David Leaf explained: "Monterey was a gathering place for the 'far out' sounds of the 'new' rock, and the Beach Boys in concert really had no exotic sounds (excepting 'Good Vibrations') to display. The net result of all this internal and external turmoil was that the Beach Boys didn't go to Monterey, and it is thought that this non-appearance was what really turned the 'underground' tide against them."
From the vast sum of material Brian had recorded for Smile, only portions of the backing track for "Heroes and Villains" (recorded October 1966) and the coda for "Vegetables" (recorded April 1967) were sourced for Smiley Smile. In addition to this, "Good Vibrations", which had been recorded sporadically from February to September 1966, was placed on Smiley Smile in its original form. Beyond these examples, the large majority of Smiley Smile was recorded in a modular approach at Brian's home studio in Bel Air from June 3 to July 14, 1967.
Critic Mark Smotroff felt its recording circumstances resulted in a "made-in-the-living-room DIY sort of presence". In a 1967 radio interview, Brian acknowledged: "We had done about six months work on another thing, but we jumped and ended up doing the entire thing here at the house with an entirely different mood and approach than what we originally started out with." When questioned on why the Beach Boys took the approach they did, he stated, "We just had a particular atmosphere—that we were working in that inspired the particular kind of things that were on the album." Beach Boy Bruce Johnston was absent for most its sessions. He later said, "Smiley Smile was an album that marked the end of an era," referencing that Smiley Smile marked the point where Brian began relinquishing his hold as the creative leader of the Beach Boys. It was the first album where the production was credited to the group, instead of Brian alone. Dennis explained: "He wanted it that way. He said 'It's produced by the Beach Boys.'" When asked if Brian was "still the producer of Smiley Smile, Carl answered: "Most definitely."
The studio set up at Brian's house was, in its mid-1967 incarnation for Smiley Smile, in its infancy. Due to the sporadic nature at which Brian decided to produce the record at the house, there was little time to fully outfit the Bel Air residence as a proper equipped recording studio. The Beach Boys recorded the album using what was predominantly radio broadcasting equipment which was lacking many technical elements and effects found in conventional studios. This led to unconventional ways of achieving particular sounds at the home, such as a replacement for what would be achieved by an echo chamber. Jim Lockert, engineer for Smiley Smile recalled "Brian's swimming pool had a leak in it and was empty, so we put a microphone in the bottom of this damn near Olympic-size pool and the guys laid down inside the pool and sang so the sound would go down the wall of the concrete pool into the microphone – and that was part of the vocals on one of those songs", and has spoken out about other peculiarities of the sessions which include vocals being tracked in the shower. Due to this eclectic mix of recording paraphernalia and curious methods of tracking the sounds, Smiley Smile possesses a distinct signature sound.
Smiley Smile continued Brian's explorations in "party tracks", a form of music which includes the sounds of people shouting and making noises as if at a party. Brian previously enacted this approach with Beach Boys' Party! in 1965, thereby mixing that album's style with the composition method he devised for "Good Vibrations". Brian Chidester called Smiley Smile the first "in a series of lo-fi albums" by the Beach Boys. Author Jim DeRogatis referred to Smiley Smile as a work of the "ultimate psychedelic rock library". Conversely, Stylus Magazine wrote that the album: "embraces the listener with a drugged out sincerity; a feat never accomplished by the more pretentious and heavy-handed psychedelia of that era. It is for this reason Smiley Smile flows so well with the more experimental pop of today".
The album's core instrumental combo consisted of organ, honky-tonk piano, and electronic bass. Al Jardine remembered that Brian became obsessed with a three-tiered Baldwin organ, causing him to base his new arrangements from a minimalist approach. According to music theorist Daniel Harrison, Smiley Smile is not a work of rock music as the term was understood in 1967, and that portions of the album "can be thought of as a kind of protomiminal rock music." He continues:
Smiley Smile can almost be considered a work of art music in the Western classical tradition, and its innovations in the musical language of rock can be compared to those that introduced atonal and other nontraditional techniques into that classical tradition. The spirit of experimentation is just as palpable in Smiley Smile as it is in, say, Schoenberg's op. 11 piano pieces. Yet there is also a spirit of tentativeness in Smiley Smile. We must remember that it was essentially a Plan B—that is, the album issued instead of Smile. ... Whereas a Schoenberg could have notated his compositions cheaply on paper and waited for sympathetic performers to play them, Brian Wilson composed in a recording studio that charged by the hour, employed professional musicians, and required the services of a record company to mass produce and distribute his work. Commercial failure simply cannot be tolerated in this regime, and a work like Smiley Smile has no place in it."
Some recording accidents were used to their advantage, such as in "With Me Tonight", which contains an informal link between the verse and chorus by way of a voice saying "good", as in "good take", spoken by Lockert from the control room. Tape manipulation was also a prominent feature, with varispeed being applied to a few miscellaneous vocals. On "She's Goin' Bald", a new device called the Eltro Information Rate Changer was used to raise the pitch of the group's vocals without affecting the tempo.
The only remnants of Smile that were unchanged from their original form were "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains". In contrast, "With Me Tonight", "Wind Chimes", "Wonderful", and most of "Vegetables" were rerecorded with dramatically scaled down arrangements. The Smile version of "Wonderful", as biographer Peter Ames Carlin explains, "had been a jewel-like ballad featuring an elegant arrangement of harpsichord, strings, horns, and blooms of delicate vocal harmony that celebrated the resilience of love and innocence even in the face of cynicism. The Smiley Smile version, on the other hand, featured a tossed-off organ track, high-pitched backing vocals produced either by a sped-up tape or the voice box–shrinking effects of helium, and a midsong digression into an unstructured doo-wop sing-along, with much giggling and drugged-out whispering." Similarly for "Wind Chimes", "[it lost] its shimmering marimbas in exchange for a horror movie–like organ and a midsong blast of dissonant noise that twists the once-dreamy song into something more like a waking nightmare." Jardine says, "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."
Some tracks only faintly recalled compositions stemming from the earlier Smile era. The only songs not explicitly taken from Smile are "Little Pad" and "Gettin' Hungry".
In mid-June 1967, before the release of Smiley Smile, Capitol A&R director Karl Engemann began circulating a memo which discussed conversations between him and Wilson of a 10-track Smile album. It would have followed up the release of Smiley Smile, and would not have included the selections "Heroes and Villains" nor "Vegetables". Engemann also referred to Smiley Smile as a "cartoon" stopgap for Smile.
Smiley Smile peaked at number 41 on US Billboard charts for what was their worst performing album to date. It was preceded by the singles "Heroes and Villains" and "Gettin' Hungry". "Heroes and Villains" peaked at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. The latter was not credited to the Beach Boys, but instead to Brian Wilson and Mike Love. "Good Vibrations" was issued as a standalone single a year earlier to wide acclaim; Brian reportedly objected its placement on Smiley Smile, but for the first time, he was outvoted by his bandmates, who insisted on the single's inclusion.
The album was not particularly well received by all critics. Leaf wrote: "By the time Smiley Smile was released in September of 1967, the Beach Boys had become cultural dinosaurs. And it happened almost overnight." According to writer Scott Schinder, the album was released to "general incomprehension. While Smile may have divided the Beach Boys' fans had it been released, Smiley Smile merely baffled them." A review in Hit Parader praised the album for "probably [having] more a cappella harmony than on any album since the fall of the singing-group era in the late 1950s", but that they "still like Pet Sounds better." NME wrote of the album: "By the standards which this group has set itself, it's more than a grade disappointing." Hi Fidelity said: "... they are making the psychedelic route ... perhaps in the unforgettable city of Fresno. Until they reach the San Francisco Bay Bridge or return to the shores of Malibu ... their work can only receive partial approval."
In contrast, the Milwaukee Sentinel called the new LP "probably the most valuable contribution to rock since the Beatles Revolver", praising the work for being completely dissimilar from anything the Beatles had done. The magazine Cheetah raved the album, observing that "the mood is rather childlike (not childish) – the kind of innocence that shows on the album cover, with its Rousseau-like animals and forest, and the smoke from the cabin chimney spelling out the title. ... The expression that emerges from this music is very strange: it's a very personal mood." Journalist Richard Goldstein remembers his review for The New York Times: "I was struck by its fragile melodies and their relationship to sacred music; those familiar ride-the-curl voices, now 'hushed with wonder,' reminded me of the Fauré Requiem, but they were utterly American. I was listening to proof of my belief that pop could produce a mass culture that was at once accessible and profound."
Author Domenic Priore reflected: "Actually, the reason most people didn't care for Smiley Smile is that it came out in place of Smile. ... In a lot of ways, we're lucky to have a Beach Boys album like Smiley Smile." In retrospective reviews, Richie Unterberger gave the album four out of five stars, calling it "a rather nifty, if rather slight, effort that's plenty weird", and noting that the media-hype of the collapsed Smile project at the time was much to blame for its lackluster reception in the United States. In a 2007 issue for Rolling Stone, Robert Christgau and David Fricke named it one of the 40 essential albums of 1967; Christgau declared: "Towering it's not; some kind of hit it is." In 2001, Spencer Owen of Pitchfork awarded the album a 9.5/10 score, and wrote "Smiley Smile is a near-masterpiece. Without any awareness of Smile's existence, this album could have been a contemporary classic ... Group harmonies shine just as beautifully as any on Pet Sounds, and although the album isn't anywhere close to the sonic revolution that Sgt. Pepper had already brought, Wilson's innovative production and arrangements still bring out the best in every single track."
Pete Townshend of The Who is a known admirer of the record, as is Robbie Robertson of The Band. In a 2012 interview with Time, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith stated that his "island" music picks would be albums by AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, and Smiley Smile, "Just for the melodic fuck all." Composers for the Japanese role-playing video game series EarthBound cited Smiley Smile and related work as major influences on the games' soundtracks. Smiley Smile later inspired the tribute albums Smiling Pets (1998) and Portland Sings The Beach Boys "Smiley Smile" (2013).
Journalist Nick Kent believed that the album "undersold the worth" of the Smile compositions, and that the album comprised "dumb pot-head skits, so-called healing chants and even some weird 'loony tunes' items straight out of a cut-rate Walt Disney soundtrack".
In 2012, Capitol Records reissued Smiley Smile in a new stereo mix. Previously, the album was only available in monaural and duophonic formats. For tracks like "Good Vibrations", whose original master tapes have been lost, digital stereo extraction processes were used.
NoteTrack details per 1990 CD liner notes by David Leaf. On its original release, Van Dyke Parks was not credited for "Wonderful".
The Beach BoysAl Jardine – vocals, water bottle on "Vegetables"
Mike Love – vocals
Brian Wilson – vocals
Carl Wilson – vocals
Dennis Wilson – Hammond organ on "Good Vibrations"
The Beach Boys – producers
Chuck Britz – engineer
Jim Lockert – engineer