Brian Wilson at 65 – not made for his times…

Wow, it’s a busy week in rock history.

Earlier this week we had Hendrix at Monterey and Sir Paul’s 65th.

Today we have to consider America’s great lost genius, Brian Wilson, spirit guide of The Beach Boys, who reaches 65 today.

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 KanePet 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….

13 replies »

  1. Great post.

    I’ve always enjoyed the Beach Boys sound and knew a little bit about the band but not much.

    I knew Brian Wilson was a musical genius, so to speak, and it is sad that he became one of the lost boys – so many of them do become lost or die young.

  2. Thanks for noting the Taylor influence here. One of the most important marks of genius is that your work inspires genius in those who come after you, and The Lost Album is, at the halfway point of 2007, one of the best three CDs of the year and a strong candidate for album of the year.

    Taylor was born brilliant, period, but Wilson’s influence allowed him to do something transcendent here….

  3. Most “great geniuses” are not made for this world — usually misunderstood, mostly far ahead of their time … Brian is one of those. Back to your Hendrix/McCartney post — history will recognize Brian Wilson as the innovator he was and is. But unfortunately, it will probably be ala’ Van Gogh.
    Good job, Jim.

  4. Nice article, but you need to get some facts straight. First, Mike Love was the cousin and Al Jardine the neighbor – you have it the other way around. Second, it wasn’t Brian who was fascinated by surfing, it was Dennis, who actually *was* a surfer. Third, ‘Surfin’ wasn’t based on the Chuck Berry riff, it was ‘Surfin USA’, and he actually ‘borrowed’ the whole song, not just the riff (the Chuck Berry song was ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ – listen to the verse of ‘Surfin USA’ and the chorus of ‘Sixteen – the melodies are exactly the same). In addition, although I’m no big fan of his, I wouldn’t consider Mike Love a minor talent, at least as far as his contributions to the band are concerned. He was the lead singer on a lot of the hits (‘California Girls’, for example), he wrote a lot of lyrics for the early hits, and he was the one guy keeping track of the business side of the music ‘business’. Their resurgence in the late seventies-early eighties can be attributed to him.

    Again, nice article, but please do some fact checking…

  5. Great article but one thing has been forgotten which is Brian Wilson finally finished the long lost Smile record. The piece was played in public for the first time at Royal Albert Hall with everyone from McCartney to Mick Jagger to the Queen herself there for it’s debut. The record/CD was a major hit on college radio for months, proving that when it comes to quality ‘the kids’ can still tell what is good and what is not. From articles I have read Smile has become to college kids what Dark Side of the Moon has been for the rest of us for years, the ultimate headphone record. I recently witnessed Brian Wilson along with his band and guest Al Jardine perform Pet Sounds and it was an experience I will never forget. Brian Still has it, period.

  6. The brilliant Andy Partridge & XTC regularly did vocal harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys. Thanks Jim for a fantastic post on a true genius. Gonna listen to PS and “Smile” (my boots *and* the legit release) tonight and drink a beer for Mr. Wilson.

  7. VJ,

    Sorry for the reversal – one of those brain ahead of fingers deals with Love and Jardine – thinking the right connections but typed them wrong.

    Fixed the note on “Surfin.” Too many surfin’ songs…and I actually only listen to the stuff from “Pet Sounds” on these days, so that early stuff’s gottten misty in the memory banks. Thanks for the catch….

    Love may have been the businessman of the group, but he was a creative wet blanket. I stand by that. And see my note about Brian’s take on “California Girls.” It was the first of the songs that Love dragged Brian through the “group discussion” process on. I’m glad he made them some money, but he more than anyone else drove Brian from the band – and the Beach Boys never became the greater band they could have become with Brian at the helm….

  8. There’s the studio release, the one-disc “Smile”.

    And it IS a great album!

    And then …

    And THEN … there is the two-disc bootleg — with Van Dyke Parks leading the orchestra — the world premiere of “Smile” on 2-20-04 at the Royal Festival Hall — with Sir Paul and Sir Mick and the Queen in attendance.


    It was rumored that it would become a DVD. Not yet, AFAIK.

    The bootleg is absolutely ASTONISHING, far better than the studio release.

    Rock music would have taken a somewhat different course if “Smile” had been released around the time of “Sgt. Pepper’s”.

    Hearing “Smile”, even 37 years late, is like discovering King Tut’s tomb.

    Brian Wilson is GOD.

    Happy Birthday, Brian!

  9. Jim,

    If we need proof on your last point, we need only listen to Brian’s solo work and compare it to what the rest of the band did on their own. It’s not PET SOUNDS, but the non-Brian Boys have never touched IMAGINATION, for instance…..

  10. “The piece was played in public for the first time at Royal Albert Hall with everyone from McCartney to Mick Jagger to the Queen herself there for it

  11. I wish everybody would stop slamming Mike. He sat there with me and helped me do the lyrics for all the big hits. He sang most of the big hits. He’s a hard worker and a clear thinker. When I could not function he and Carl carried the band. That was for several decades. When people sing the Beach Boys tunes they’re not singing the tunes from Smile or Surf’s Up – they’re singing the tunes that Mike sang – and composed the words to. I’m just somebody who likes music and the tunes that made the Beach Boys famous are the ones that Mike wrote the lyrics to and sang. What’s so hard for you all to understand about that?

  12. Uh… was that actually Brian Wilson at #11? If it was: Happy b-day, B. It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.
    Dammit, now I’ve got Carol Channing in my head. Also, thanks to Jim for the Lewis Taylor nod — more people need to hear him. His album sounds like what Brian would have recorded after listening to a lot of Sly Stone.

  13. When I am in need of inspiration, I sometimes listen to “Feel Flows” over and over. It’s one of those songs that makes you feel like you could make a slide show comprised of pictures taken only at the happiest moments of your life and it would serve as the perfect soundtrack. I love the dreamy feel of the Beach Boys music in that phase of their career… dreamy, carefree. It’s like the songs just float around you like a cloud then wash over you gently, but completely. Very peaceful and melodic.