Smile, by Brian Wilson, and Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate, by Jaap Blonk
by Ian Simmons
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A bit like buses, these: you wait for 37 years for one to come along, then two turn up at once. Actually, in the case of Ursonate it has been an awful lot longer - since 1932, in fact. Smile started life as the legendary Beach Boys album which was intended to follow Pet Sounds, but was never completed due to internal strife in the band, Brian's deteriorating mental state, drugs and general weirdness of a kind only late 60s California could muster. So, apart from a few songs such as 'Good vibrations', 'Heroes and villains' and 'Cabinessence' which leaked out on later Beach Boys albums, and a succession of bootlegs with various track listings and running orders that claimed to represent the true Smile, that was it. Brian was assumed hors de combat in the Syd Barrett home for far-out rock stars, and when anyone actually managed to get an answer about Smile's release from him, all he would say was it was "inappropriate music". Ursonate, on the other hand, had a slightly less murky history; an epic, legendary sound poem written by the Dada-linked artist and poet Kurt Schwitters over a 10-year period, it has been long known in its text form. However, apart from a scratchy partial recording of Schwitters himself performing it, and a one-minute extract by George Melly on Morgan Fisher's Miniatures album in the early 80s, it has not been available as a recording. This, apparently, has simply been due to Schwitters' estate refusing to allow anyone to release a recording, a decision that, for some reason that remains fairly unclear to all, they reversed in 2002, allowing Blonk to put out these performances.
Apart from their long-delayed appearances, these two pieces have relatively little in common. Smile is lushly structured Californian pop, while Ursonate is a solo voice performance of stark and sometimes abrasive clarity. What they do share is that both, in their time, were revolutionary, and can make some claim to still being so today, and that both are supremely excellent. What is most extraordinary about Smile is that it exists at all. 30 years ago, if you had to lay bets on who would be the great survivor of the Beach Boys come 2004, you would not have put your money on Brian Wilson, much as you would have been utterly wrong if, at the time, you had been presented with Michael Jackson and Ozzy Osborne and asked to decide which one would end up as the beloved family entertainer and which the grotesque mutant child molester (allegedly). However, here we are; the other Wilson brothers are dead, Mike Love owns the Beach Boys name and uses it to tour what, in all but name, is a tribute band, and Brian has produced his career-defining masterpiece. When considering Smile one should probably look at it in context with its intended contemporaries. It was created as part of the Beach Boys/Beatles rivalry when each was trying to top the other's last album, so should perhaps be held up to Sgt Pepper, but, to be honest, it doesn't really need that. It isn't time locked and would be genius if it had been conceived today: Sgt Pepper, however, remains very much a 60s artefact. There are no wacky Ringo comedy songs like 'When I'm 64', though the animal noises and nursery lyrics of 'Barnyard' and the strange plant paean of 'Vegetables' come close, and there are no overtly psychedelic set-pieces like 'Lucy in the sky with diamonds'. With the Wondermints doing sterling service as Brian's Beach Boy surrogates, familiar classics like 'Good vibrations' and 'Heroes and villains' have been faithfully recreated, and the missing songs drawn seamlessly together. It is startling how innovative pieces like 'Wind chimes' are and how the whole thing holds together as a sustained magical whole. It is stunning, shimmering work of beauty that someone in their prime would be proud of; that it was put together by a battered survivor in his early sixties is nothing short of miraculous.
Ursonateis similarly vivid as a performance, with renown Dutch voice artist Jaap Blonk bringing Schwitters' explosive sounds to startling life. Consisting of tonal and rhythmically structured nonsense words that seem likely to have spread their influence to such diverse successors as Bob Cobbing and the scriptwriters for Pingu, Ursonate is both provocative and riveting. There are two versions here, one recorded by Blonk in 1986 and blocked from release by the Schwitters estate, and a more recent version recorded after the embargo was lifted. While there are differences between the two, both animate the sounds in an impressive manner, with Blonk whooping, rattling and barking out the sounds like a man possessed, doing the spirit of Schwitters more than proud. Having heard this, I can't help seeing the story about the collapse of Schwitters' mental health during his period of internment as an enemy alien after fleeing to Britain to escape the Nazis during World War II in a different light. He apparently appalled fellow inmates by barking like a dog, causing them to fear for his sanity, having heard some of Ursonate it may have been he was just reciting his work. Either way Ursonate is a piece that still lives today and, like Smile, exists outside time. Both are as fresh and brilliant today as when they were first conceived.