Brian Wilson – Album By Album
The reunited Beach Boys' new concert DVD is reviewed in the latest issue of Uncut (dated January 2013, out now) – so it seemed like a good time to revisit this fascinating piece from our October 2006 issue (Take 113). We were talking to Wilson, primarily, to discuss the 40th anniversary of Pet Sounds, reissued in deluxe format that month. But Wilson agreed to revisit five other pivotal Beach Boys albums, too. “If you’re a young guy or girl going out and buying Pet Sounds for the first time, you’re gonna be knocked out when you hear it, right?” Words: Rob Hughes
Formed in Hawthorne, California in 1961, the original Beach Boys were Mike Love, David Marks and the Wilson brothers – Dennis, Carl and songwriter Brian. Their debut was a West Coast teen-dream of sun-kissed girls, surfer boys and hot-rods, all riding the crest of an endless summer.
Wilson: "I wasn’t aware that those early songs defined California so well until much later in my career. I certainly didn’t set out to do it. I wasn’t into surfing at all. My brother Dennis gave me all the jargon I needed to write the songs. He was the surfer and I was the songwriter. Capitol encouraged me to keep on writing surf songs. I just wrote and wrote. I didn’t want to quit while we were ahead.
"[Co-writer] Gary Usher was a friend of my next-door neighbour. He came around one day telling me he knew how to write songs. So we started on '409'. Gary taught me how to really get into songwriting, to really involve myself in it. The feel of a song was always a big part of writing for me. It’s more important then getting things exactly right musically. 'Lonely Sea' [from 1963’s Surfin’ USA] was on a different tack. It was very mellow and soft. I felt like I needed to express myself more. I always wanted to produce records myself, even then. Up until 1966, we were just making car songs and surf songs. Then I wanted to try something new. I needed to create a new kind of music."
After nine albums in four years, Wilson tired of sun, sand and surf. Following on from 1965’s more complex, ambitious Today, Pet Sounds revealed Wilson as a composer/arranger/producer of extraordinary vision. The impact of Pet Sounds can never be understated. As Paul McCartney declared: “No-one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album.”
"Pet Sounds happened immediately after I heard Rubber Soul by The Beatles. I went away and said I’d write an album that was just as good. I was a perfectionist; it had to be right. I wanted pianos and organs and guitars to make one big new sound, like the Phil Spector sound. It wasn’t really like Phil’s stuff, but the style was similar. When I played it back for the first time, I couldn’t believe how much love we put into that album. There was a lot of love in our voices.
"I sang 'Don’t Talk (Put your Head On My Shoulder)' and 'Caroline No', which had very sweet, feminine vocals. I wanted to bring a kind of spiritual love to the world. Carl and I conducted two or three prayer sessions for people, so that when they received Pet Sounds, they’d get a blessing from The Beach Boys. 'Let’s Go Away For Awhile' was influenced by Burt Bacharach. The chord structure was similar. And there was a little Beethoven, too. My lyrical collaborator, Tony Asher, and I had 'God Only Knows' done in a half hour. All the songs came very easily for Pet Sounds. It was like I reached up into the sky and grabbed them."
Collapsing under the strain of recording his masterpiece SMiLE, a disheartened Wilson pulled the remnants together – along with other sketches – for Smiley Smile. A disappointed public largely stayed away, despite global chart-topper “Good Vibrations” and the thrilling “Heroes And Villains”.
"I wanted it to be about laughter. Where did something like 'She’s Goin’ Bald' come from? From my head! [laughs]. Love made me write something like that. Van Dyke Parks and I sat down and wrote 'Heroes And Villains', with that lovely organ sound on it. I think it took 23 takes to get it right. When I was a little boy, my mom and dad took me over to a friend’s house. And the father there played a theremin, where you put your hand over a bar. If you raised your hand a little bit, the sound would go up. So when it came to do 'Good Vibrations', I found a guy called Paul Tanner, who had a band theremin. You would run your fingers along a band on a little rack and the sound would go up and down. It worked so well.
“'Good Vibrations' took six weeks to record, in five different studios. I wrote out each musician’s part on music paper then they all played it together. I found I could work out each part without it being too difficult. It did get tedious, though. The musicians understood it all more or less straight away. Hal Blaine [famed session drummer] was always right on my wavelength."
With an increasingly disillusioned Wilson having given up production duties on Smiley Smile, the follow-up – again “produced by The Beach Boys” – further alienated the masses with its back-to-basics white soul. In retrospect, though, this LP marks the beginning of the wonderful second phase of the band’s career.
"It was always a challenge for me to live up to my name. It was a really big thing for me. People expected me to come up with great orchestral stuff all the time and it became a burden. I was getting tired of it. It still happens, too, but you just learn to live with it.
"So the other guys started getting more into the production side of things. Carl [Wilson] really got into that. And we decided to make a rhythm’n’blues record. We consciously made a simpler album. It was just a little R’n’B and soul. It certainly wasn’t like a regular Beach Boys record. It was good to go back to the boogie-woogie piano I’d grown up with. Dear old Dad [Murry Wilson] taught me how to play that stuff when I was young. In its way, it’s very nostalgic. And we used the theremin again for 'Wild Honey'. Carl had fun singing on that. He was laughing and dancing around. People still think this record came about because of some wild honey I’m supposed to have kept in my kitchen, but I don’t remember that being true."
Immersed in Eastern mysticism, Friends was a record of subtle rapture and invention. With Mike Love in thrall to transcendental meditation, Wilson’s lazy days fed into “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”, while younger brother Dennis came to the fore with two originals. On the 1969 follow-up, 20/20, his “Never Learn Not To Love” was a re-jigged version of “Cease To Exist”, penned by Brian’s new pal – wild-eyed wannabe Charles Manson.
"Friends is in my top five favourite Beach Boys albums. Dennis really did his thing on that record ['Little Bird' and 'Be Still']. It really surprised me, too. He learned a lot from me about producing, and he just went on his own. And I couldn’t believe how good he sang.
"I was still really into love music at the time. I wanted happy music. 'Busy Doin’ Nothin’' and 'Wake The World' came out of that. Mike Love went to India and met a healer called Anna Lee. So ['Anna Lee, The Healer'] came naturally. We just sat down and started writing it. We didn’t get anywhere at first, so we came back to it after a couple of weeks and it started really happenin’. I think it turned out great.
"I tried transcendental meditation for about a month, but it didn’t work for me. I couldn’t concentrate on my mantra because I had so many thoughts in my head. So I wasn’t able to do it and just stopped altogether."
The Beach Boys Love You
A solo album in all but name, …Love You was by turns inspired, throwaway, beautiful and childlike, marking Wilson’s brief re-emergence as a major force. “The Night Was So Young” ranked alongside his very best, while the absurd “Johnny Carson” tribute trilled, “He sits behind his microphone/He speaks in such a manly tone”.
"This is my favourite album we ever did. It’s funny because now people are beginning to see it as a classic. It was quite revolutionary in its use of synthesisers. It’s got so much good stuff on it – 'Ding Dang', 'Let Us Go On This Way' and 'The Night Was So Young'. I think it’s overlooked. Everything’s going on in there.
"All the cuts are different from each other. Some are rockers, some are ballads. 'Johnny Carson' came about when I was sitting at my piano and someone was talking about him. I told them I was gonna write a song about him and they didn’t believe me. I had the whole thing done in 20 minutes. I worked with Roger McGuinn on 'Ding Dang'. He wrote that line [sings], 'I love a girl/I love her so madly'. He was so easy to work with. I’d never worked with him before, but it was really something. 'I Wanna Pick You Up' was a really good cut, too. And 'Honkin’ Down The Highway' was a kind of a C&W idea. CBS didn’t promote that album very well. They just let it go and it didn’t sell at all."