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While The Beach Boys and The Beatles were perceived as rivals during the 1960s, the two bands had immense respect for each other, even finding inspiration in each other’s work. One Beatles song influenced Beach Boys’ co-founder Brian Wilson to write an album that was too ambitious for its own good.
“She’s Leaving Home” is a track from The Beatles’ eighth studio album, 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The song is about a girl from a well-off family who suddenly decides to leave home. The story comes from a real news article Paul McCartney saw about Melanie Coe, a teenage girl who ran away from home with her boyfriend.
McCartney was intrigued by the story and wrote a song where he filled in many of the details. In 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh, the former Beatle discussed how the article inspired “She’s Leaving Home.”
“We’d seen that story, and it was my inspiration,” McCartney shared. “There was a lot of these at the time, and that was enough to give us the storyline. So I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note, and the parents wake up, it was rather poignant.”
Before Sgt. Pepper’s was released, McCartney flew down to Los Angeles to visit Wilson and his wife. The British singer-songwriter played “She’s Leaving Home” for the pair, and Wilson recalled having an emotional experience, saying, “We both just cried. It was beautiful.”
Wilson was trying to write another Beach Boys album following the success of Pet Sounds. After hearing “She’s Leaving Home,” Wilson was inspired to write Smile, a more experimental album than his previous work. In a 2007 interview with The Guardian, The Beach Boys singer discussed his mindset at the time and how his desire to be more outside the box might have backfired.
“After Pet Sounds, I wanted to take people to an even happier place, which was Smile. I was digging ‘She’s Leaving Home’ but also trying to do something ahead of its time,” Wilson explained. “Unfortunately, Smile was too ahead of its time – by 35 years. I enjoyed how Van Dyke Parks wrote the lyrics symbolically, and I never asked him what the words meant.”
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Smile is considered one of the most notorious unreleased projects for any group. The Beach Boys were known for their groovy pop hits, and Smile would disappear from that, something Capital Records wasn’t too happy about. Smile would have been a 12-track LP that included over 50 hours of interchangeable sound fragments.
This version of Smile never saw the light of day, and a shortened version, called Smiley Smile, was later released in September 1967. Over the years, there have been various attempts at releasing approximate versions of the album, but it’s impossible to know what the album’s final product would have looked like.