Wow, it’s a busy week in rock history.
Earlier this week we had Hendrix at Monterey and Sir Paul’s 65th.
The history of the ambassadors of the California Lifeâ„¢, The Beach Boys, is not a pretty thing. Oh, it starts pleasantly enough: there are these three brothers, Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson. Brian has a neighbor and school buddy, Al Jardine, and the Wilsons have a musical cousin, Mike Love. With the encouragement of the Wilson’s father, Murry, the boys, who’d been working on their own peculiar form of harmony singing ( a cross between barbershop and doo wop stylistically). Brian and Mike Love were fascinated by surf music, a form emerging in the late 1950’s from the California surf scene. Brian, who showed a gift for composition, reinvented some old Dick Dale/surf band riffs and created their first hit, “Surfin’,” in 1961. Through Murry’s efforts, they obtained a recording date and an indy record was released becoming a hit at first regionally in SoCal, then making the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1962. Eventually the boys make a 4 song demo tape that encourages Nic Venet of Capitol Records to sign the band. That tape remains one of the artifacts of rock music: “Surfin Safari,” “409,” and “Surfer Girl” all first appear on that demo. Capitol releases their first major label single “Surfin’ Safari/”409” in June of 1962. By August it reaches the top 20. All the songs are written by Brian (Mike Love gets co-writing credit on the early “surf pop” material for lyrics).
For the next four years The Beach Boys were the one American group who could challenge the British Invasion on their own terms. Most Americans who grew up in the sixties can sing the songs from memory: “Surfin’ USA,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Surfer Girl,” “Be True to Your School,” “In My Room” – these songs defined California for Boomers. Brian eventually wrote the triumphant “I Get Around” which knocked The Beatles from the #1 chart position.They became rock music icons producing what for many was the sound track of American teen life for their time….
But Brian wanted more….
As his brothers, cousin, and friend Love (adding pal Bruce Johnston) maintained a hectic touring schedule (Brian had already had a breakdown on a flight to Houston and “retired” from touring by 1965), Brian pushed the band with new, ever more creatively brilliant compositions. The results were two brilliant singles, “Help Me Rhonda,” and “Good Vibrations,” both of which reach #1 and “California Girls” (of which Brian once noted that the haunting opening was the only worthwhile bit) which reached #3. All seemed sunny in Beach Boy land….
And then came Pet Sounds.
It was an album like nothing before it. Brian, with studio musicians, created almost the entire album (other than vocals). The album is moody, introspective, dreamy, complex – in short, brilliant. But it is brilliant in ways so foreign to what we would now call The Beach Boys brandâ„¢, that the others, particularly Mike Love (a minor talent at best) and Carl Wilson (the most conservative/conventional of the Wilson brothers) rebelled against Brian’s hegemony as composer and creator of the band’s material….
But the album was a sensation. According to rock legend Paul McCartney got an early copy, listened to it, jumped into his car and drove to John Lennon’s house, rushed in and said, “We’re in trouble. The Beach Boys are way ahead of us now.” The Fabs got to work and produced Sgt. Pepper.
Yet not within The Beach Boys. Fought at every turn by Mike Love, who wanted the band to continue its “sunny California”â„¢ career path, Brian, a fragile personality at best, found himself savaged by the very people whm he most trusted and loved. The Wilson boys’ father Murry, also their manager, about whom ugly rumors of abusiveness to his boys have long swirled (there’s even a story that Dennis, the “tough” Beach Boy, finally beat the old man up and threatened to kill him if he bothered any of them again) aligned himself with favorite son Carl and Mike Love in opposing Brian.
Unable to cope with increasing stress from both family and music business, Brian Wilson disappeared into the maw of drug abuse and mental illness for decades….
Pet Sounds became Brian Wilson’s Citizen Kane – Pet Sounds would be the last album over which Brian Wilson would have significant creative control….
After Pet Sounds, Brian’s career was essentially over as a Beach Boy. The great unreleased Smile became a prime example of “lost art” to rock critics and fans alike. While Brian did contribute (sometimes substantially) to subsequent Beach Boy albums, his role within the band diminished as his brother Carl took over leadership of the band. There’s some fine work on those later Beach Boy albums – but there is only sporadic genius – Brian’s….
Today, only Mike Love remains of the original Beach Boys (with Bruce Johnston as his accomplice). Dennis and Carl are, alas, dead, and Love and Al Jardine (whom Love “fired” from the band after Carl Wilson’s death) continue to fight ugly legal battles over rights to the band’s name and legacy.
Brian? Brian has, in the last 20 years overcome many of his demons and released a series of critically acclaimed solo albums. And his influence on music has continued. Artists from Queen to G4 reflect his band’s fascination with complex harmonies. Artists as diverse as Tears for Fears and Lewis Taylor, whose brilliant new record The Lost Album show the influence of Brian Wilson’s transcendent melody composition and instrumentation ability.
And Brian’s survived. And for a man who’s dealt with as many demons as he has, when so many his great contemporaries have succumbed, that’s remarkable.
Happy Birthday, Brian….