This week RIFF has published an interview with the legendary Brian Wilson, musical genius and creative force behind The Beach Boys, as well as a review of his show in Oakland. I covered the show while our esteemed editor Roman invoked executive privilege to handle the interview.
What I learned is that you people don’t have nearly enough appreciation for the greatness of The Beach Boys.
I kinda understand. When we were growing up it’s the music our parents (or grandparents, I guess, danged youths) listened to, which automatically made it uncool. Their most recent hit is “Kokomo,” a shallow and saccharine pop number from Wilson’s cousin and usurper of the band’s ownership, Mike Love. And their older stuff is very much pop, which tends to make people assume there’s no depth to the musicality.
All that said, you’re extremely wrong so I’m going to teach you some things about one of the greatest American bands.
The Beach Boys — “409”
The Beach Boys’ first album was written and recorded when Mike Love was 20, Brian Wilson was 19, and the other Wilson brothers were even younger than that. With the relative lack of experience in music, let alone in life, it’s unreasonable to expect a lot of complexity.
And yet somehow it’s still great. It’s not as Earth-shattering as what’s to come, but that a bunch of teenagers came up with these harmonies in a garage is amazing. Modern pop bands have teams of professional songwriters dozens deep and can barely put together one song per album this good, and it was the B-side of the second single.
Jan & Dean — “Surf City”
Neither Jan nor Dean was a Beach Boy—it’s true. This is more an illustration of Brian Wilson’s genius.
Sometime in late 1962 or early 1963, a 20-year-old Brian Wilson was playing some of his in-progress songs for Jan Berry and Dean Torrance on the piano at a party. Berry wanted “Surfin’ USA” as a single for his band, but Wilson refused because he liked it too much and offered “Surf City,” which he’d lost interest in and was probably never going to record.
Wilson and Berry reworked the song for a duo rather than the Beach Boys’ larger band, and Jan & Dean recorded it with Wilson acting as producer. The song Wilson gave away because he didn’t even really like it went to No. 1 on the charts and remains one of the two Jan & Dean songs you’ve heard of along with “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.”
The Beach Boys — “I Get Around”
“I Get Around” is notable not just for being extremely good, but for being the song that was being recorded when Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson fired their father, Murry, as their manager.
Murry was the archetypal stage parent. He was distant, verbally abusive and domineering. It’s suspected that his treatment of his sons exacerbated Brian’s mental health issues and caused all three to start abusing alcohol and drugs. While he has his defenders, he’s also been accused of forging his sons’ signatures to sell their musical catalog for well under market value.
While he probably was neither as bad nor as good as either side claims, one indication that the bad side had a point was that upon being fired by his own sons, he almost immediately signed on as manager for a band one of Carl’s friends was in and turned them into a second-rate Beach Boys knockoff in an attempt to one-up his own kids.
The Beach Boys — “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”
After releasing four albums in a 12-month span, firing his father and having a nervous breakdown on a plane, Brian Wilson decided he wanted to change how he did things. With an eye toward musical maturity and moving away from surf rock he wrote Today! in 1964 and released it in 1965.
While people credit The Beatles for pushing albums from being a couple singles and a lot of filler from the label catalog to the sort of album rock that dominated music for almost 40 years until the rise of iTunes, Today! was the first example. It inspired the rest of rock music, the Beatles included, to eschew the status quo and treat albums as one piece of artistry.
Keep in mind he was only 22 years old at this point. What were you doing at 22? [Gokhman note: Or, let us know when you get there, young-uns].
The Beach Boys — “God Only Knows”
Once Brian Wilson put the idea in musicians’ heads of what an album could be, they took the concept and ran with it. And as far as Wilson was concerned the Beatles led that charge with Rubber Soul.
Wilson had stepped away from touring by this point, after his nervous breakdown and the emergence of auditory hallucinations, a symptom of chronic mental health issues that have persisted throughout his life. But with that extra time, he had a chance to try to one-up the Beatles in their prime, something musicians have been trying and failing to do for half a century.
According to the Beatles themselves, Wilson succeeded with Pet Sounds, widely considered to be the very first concept album in music history.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney were so blown away by the album that they felt compelled to respond, since it was itself a response to them. Their answer was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, ranked as the best album of all time in a 2003 Rolling Stone poll. And it still only beat Pet Sounds by one spot—it came in at No. 2.
To this day Paul McCartney considers “God Only Knows” as one of his favorite songs.
While the Beach Boys released albums after Pet Sounds they were never really the same after they canceled Smile, Wilson’s follow-up to Pet Sounds and the next step in his ongoing battle with another of history’s greatest bands. While never formally quitting the band Wilson’s influence waned and he drifted away from any sort of creative role.
Without him The Beach Boys slid further and further into nostalgia. They returned to the surfing theme in the early ’70s, and by the ’80s they were a campy novelty act.
But none of that should take away from their decade of utter brilliance, when they stood among the most influential bands in music history. Rather than focus on their decline, remember their rise. They deserve far more respect than you, or for that matter the band’s current caretakers, give them.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.