Probably the greatest SMiLE mystery of all-time, "The Elements" has puzzled SMiLE aficionados for 50 years now. Every SMiLE fan-mixer seems to have their own unique idea of what "The Elements" actually was or could have been, and the hope of getting concrete answers upon the release of the SMiLE Sessions
in 2011 was unfortunately in vain. In a nutshell, "The Elements" was to be a four-part suite, in which each musical section would represent one of the four classical elements: Earth, Wind, Water and Fire. The origin and plan for "The Elements" was described by another member of Brian's SMiLE era crew, David Anderle, in 1968:
"Smile was going to be the culmination of all of Brian's intellectual occupations; and he was really into the elements. He ran up to Big Sur for a week, just 'cause he wanted to get into that, up to the mountains, into the snow, down to the beach, out to the pool, out at night, running around, to water fountains, to a lot of water, the sky, the whole thing was this fantastic amount of awareness of his surroundings. So the obvious thing was to do something that would cover the physical surroundings. We were aware, he made us aware, of what fire was going to be, and what water was going to be; we had some idea of air. That was where it stopped. None of us had any ideas as to how it was going to tie together, except that it appeared to us to be an opera. And the story of the fire part I guess is pretty well known by now."
Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what each element was supposed to be, accept for Fire. Everyone has theories (of varying degree of plausibility), but no real evidence. In the most non-bias way I can, let's break them down:
The only element we know for sure was Fire, as Brian specifically stated it: "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow". The title of the piece is a reference to the cow who belonged to Catherine O'Leary, who allegedly knocked over a lantern and started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The instrumental piece is infamous as being the catalyst for much of the SMiLE mythos and specifically Brian's mental illness, and the decline of the project.
Recorded at one session on November 28th, 1966, "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" featured three basses, drums & triangle and a string trio to create a rather ominous audio representation of a burning fire; Brian took it a step further and even overdubbed the sound of fire, started in a canister on the studio floor! The session was notable not only for it's experimental content, but that each band member was instructed to wear plastic toy firehats. Unfortunately, this session's proceedings were too experimental, as Brian though his music had actually caused a series of fires to spontaneously combust throughout Los Angeles, as explained by Anderle:
"And then there was a rash of fires in the city, and Brian became aware of this rash of fires, and then there was the fire across the street from the studio.... Brian's not superstitious, he's something that I can't name, 'cause I totally do not understand what it is, but he had a series of dialogs with me where at one point he asked if I would check the fire department, call the city fire department or whoever it was that I would have to call, to find out if there were more fires within this period in Los Angeles than in any other period in history. Because he really felt, I guess, the word is vibrations. Brian is very into vibrations, and made me, to this day, very aware of vibrations."
In effect, Brian shelved "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" and claimed to have destroyed the mastertapes. The later is probably untrue, as the masters were utilized for 2011's SMiLE Sessions
. But either way, this was the turning point in SMiLE, in which Brian realized the album wouldn't be all smiles. In the end, the song was never heard except on bootlegs. By 1993 though, the "Heroes and Villains" Intro (which admittedly invokes the images of a firetruck) recorded March 1st, 1967 was featured on the Good Vibrations
box set and misappropriated as the Fire section. Since then, SMiLE fan-mixers have used the piece as an Intro to their "elements"--specifically "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", an idea that went on to be used by Darian in his arrangement for Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE
, which influenced it's construction on the SMiLE Sessions in 2011. But the truth is this Intro was never a part of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" or "The Elements", it was merely an Intro for "Heroes and Villains".
Literally the only information we have to Air's identity is a short quote from a Landy-era Brian Wilson, contained in 1979's The Beach Boys
by Byron Priess:
"Yeah. There was a cut--a piano piece, an instrumental, no vocals--we never finished that."
That's it. That's all we know. But what exactly was this unfinished, piano instrumental?
Plowing through the SMiLE tapes (that we know of), there are several contenders of varying degree of probability... The 'All Day' segments recorded for "Heroes and Villains" on January 27th were unfinished instrumentalist piano pieces, eventually rewritten and recorded as "I Love to Say Da Da" in May 1967 and then reborn as "Cool Cool Water" in June and October 1967 (more on those later). But they don't sound very airy, do they? Another option is the music box Ending recorded for "Wind Chimes" on October 4th; they certainly invoke the sound of air, is associated with a song called "Wind
Chimes" and was a multitracked instrumental piano piece. The problem was that it wasn't unfinished; the piece actually completed
the song "Wind Chimes". A third theory is that this Air piece was just an embryonic version of "Country Air", which would later appear on Wild Honey. Unfortunately there's no evidence to support this; wouldn't the fact that "Country Air" evolved out of one the most noted SMiLE mystery tracks be a relevant factoid which would have emerged over the last 50 years? Apparently not...
Some fan-mixers also simply claim "Wind Chimes" itself is the Air element. The problem with this is that both "Wind Chimes" and "The Elements" are listed on the January 1967 tracklist, implying they are both separate songs. Air must be something else entirely, and the debate continues...
Unlike the previous two elements, we have no hard facts to suggest what Water was, only circumstantial evidence. But there are few ideas:
Many SMiLE fan-mixers use "I Love to Say Dada" as the Water element because the song eventually evolved into "Cool Cool Water". That is of course ignoring the fact that during the SMiLE era, the song was written about a baby and wouldn't be assigned to an aquatic theme until after the demise of SMiLE. Supporters of this claim also note that the final recording for "Dada" (and SMiLE as a whole) was called 'Second Day'. Could that be a bible reference?
"And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day. And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so."
Very interesting. But then again, it could have been called Second Day because it was the second day they had been working on Part 2 of "I Love to Say Dada".
Another fragment often used as Water is what was dubbed the "Water Chant", a multipart chant of "water water water water" on top of a droning organ. Unfortunately, this piece was recorded in October 1967, long after SMiLE bit the dust, so it could not have been Water, although it was used as the intro to "In Blue Hawaii" on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE
A third possibility for the Water element is a recording that has never been heard. Vosse explains:
"And I was talking to Brian one day about water sounds on records—he and Van Dyke had both decided the album would have quite a bit of sound effects on it—and Brian had a list of things he did not want off sound effects records: he wanted us to get the real thing. That was really my first assignment for the record and he got me a Nagra - he didn't mess around, man, I had the whole thing - I didn't even know how to work one. And a list from Brian, and a stack like this of tapes; and off I went to get these sounds. And in the process of doing that we talked more and more about water. At first, Brian said he wanted to do a water album, so what we finally got it down to was that Brian and I collected, for a week, together, every kind of water sound we could: we like spent a whole evening in some chick's kitchen because she had a metal sink; and boiling water and toilets-went out to streams, went out to the ocean, went to water fountains - everywhere, man - garden hoses: one night we were up at three o'clock in the morning rolling pebbles down the street in front of his house because there was water in the streets — he was hearing all that; and when we got through, he listened to those tapes, and he told me, and I'm sure it was true, that he could sit down and edit those tapes and find the notes and construct a song so that all of it would come from the sounds of the water: he would do nothing to it except edit it, 'cause he said within that range of what we had recorded were all the notes in all the musical scales—the water has all that kind of varying pitch.
And that never got done.’"
Like Water, we have no hard evidence of what Earth could have been, only circumstantial. The leading theory is that Earth was actually the Cornucopia version of "Vege-Tables"! The evidence that points to this is a panel of Frank Holmes' artwork for the song "Vege-Tables"
, with the caption below it:
My Vege-tables" The Elements
To counter this, one could make the argument that Frank Holmes was working independently from Brian and Van Dyke Parks; how would he know?
But then again, a more recently-noticed clue was found in Peter Brown's 1983 biography of Paul McCartney, The Love You Make
, concerning Paul's trip to Los Angels in April 1967:
"In LA [McCartney] met John Phillips and Cass Elliott of the Mama and the Papas and attended a Beach Boys recording session, where Brian Wilson was working on his "masterpiece" The Four Elements Suite."
This is notable because Peter Brown was not a Beach Boys/Brian Wilson insider, he was an Apple Records guy. While it was common mythos that Paul had crunched vegetables on "Vege-Tables" or even SMiLE, why specifically mention neither, but specifically identify it as "The Four Elements Suite"? Where would this information even come from, circa 1982?
The logic against "Vege-Tables" as the Earth element is the same reason why "Wind Chimes" couldn't be Air: the titles were listed separately on the Capitol tracklist. The reasoning around this is because it was the October
1966 Cornucopia version of "Vege-Tables" that was Earth; and by the time the tracklist was written in January, it had become it's own song.
Another suspect for Earth is the piece "Friday Night/I Wanna Be Around", based almost solely on bassist Carol Kaye's recollection that the construction effects of the piece was "Rebuilding after the fire". It is of note that the song was recorded the day after "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow", so this could be anecdotal rather than factual.
One final possibility of what the various elements could have been lies within the recording session that has come to be known as Psychedelic Sounds. Recorded at Western Studio on November 4th, 1966, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, along with their "crew" members of David Anderle, Michael Vosse, Jules Siegel, Danny Hutton, Arnie Geller and a final friend only identified as Bob, all gathered around a microphone and commenced not only a handful of humorous skits, but an impromptu chanting session on themes that Brian imagined. Coaching and instructing his group, Brian lead the group in a series of chants about vegetables, aquatic life and breathing & sighing. Could this have been the earth, water and air elements?