The impact that Brian Wilson made on popular music is undeniable, although I wasn’t really aware of its reach until I recently listened through most the catalog of the Beach Boy’s studio recordings. I come away with a sense of loss, wondering what might have been if Brian hadn’t imploded so early in his career. And just this weekend we lost Whitney Houston, another case of a career arrested by the tragedy of self-destructive behavior.
I was too young for the Beach Boys, being the tender age of three when Surfin’ Safari hit the air waves. My adolescent brother was the one that brought them into the house. I was six when the British invaded, seven when my sister turned our family on to Rubber Soul, and I have been a hardcore Beatles fan ever since.
But the Beach Boys owned the radio before the Beatles, cranking out an impressive amount of material in 1962 and ’63. My favorite album of this period is their third: “Surfer Girl”. I think it epitomizes the “California” sound.
In ’64, Brian felt the pressure to counter the British Invasion and come up with something more than songs about surfing, cars, and high school fantasies. You can hear him mature as a producer and songwriter–“The Warmth of the Sun” is a standout to me.
In ’65 Brian quit touring with the band, having Glen Campbell and later Bruce Johnston fill his role. Then, in ’66, while the rest of the Boys were on tour, he created the masterful “Pet Sounds”, adopting a more Phil Spector “wall of sound” style and utilizing a set of studio musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew”. I find the songwriting quirky, but the songs have a way of getting under your skin, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” particularly endearing. This is the album that inspired Paul McCartney to dream up the vision for the Beatles’ “Sgt. Peppers”.
It was late ’66 when things started to unravel. “Pet Sounds” was not well received by the public or the rest of the group for that matter, who wanted to stick to formula. However, the innovation of “Pet Sounds” was just the beginning for Brian, and he embarked on what he envisioned to be the ultimate Beatles buster, a concept project called “Smile”. And this is where tragedy strikes. Band infighting and record company pressure results in “Smile” not seeing the light of day, and Brian is never the same.
Lost in drug addiction and mental illness, we see Brian surface only occasionally over the rest of their recording career. Even then, some of his songs are gems, “Sail On Sailor” being one of my favorites. We see him reassert control in earnest with the mid-seventies albums “15 Big Ones” and “Love You”, and there are moments. But I get sense of arrested development from all the dark years–that Brian was stuck where he left off–he was still somewhere in the late 60’s, and the material resorts lazily to tired doo-wop cliches. Rare moments of brilliance, but it could have been so much more.
The rest of the Beach Boys stumble along through these years, but their 1970 album “Sunflower” is very listenable and a true break from formula. Though it received critical praise, it was one their worst charting records ever.
Brian eventually finished “Smile” and recorded an all new version as a solo album in 2004. I listened to a borrowed copy a few years ago and thought at the time that it was weird and sophomoric. After just finished with their entire catalog, I now hear “Smile” in context. It has stunning musical moments and I get a heartbreaking sense of what could have been. Last year, Capitol released a Beach Boy’s version of “Smile” from the original 1966 and ’67 sessions using Brian’s finished version as a blueprint. I wish they would take the original vocal tracks and marry them to Brian’s modern backing tracks.
Here’s a list of my favorite albums: Surfer Girl (1963), Shut Down Vol. 2 (1964), Pet Sounds (1966), Smiley Smile (1967), Sunflower (1970), The Smile Sessions (2011), Brian Wilson’s Smile (2004).
Coincidentally, last night’s Grammy Awards featured a Beach Boys tribute, including a reunion of the surviving members performing their classic “Good Vibrations”. Awesome!