Listening Parties August 2020: Brian Wilson

Everyone has some familiarity with The Beach Boys, and primary songwriter extraordinaire, Brian Wilson.  But did you know these fun facts:

1.  Graduating from high school in 1960, Brian got an A in PE, and all B’s, except a C in music.  He hadn’t finished his harmony exercises and didn’t write the required piano sonata by the end of the year.  He got an F in the project.  He submitted a tune instead, which his music teacher recognized later as “Surfin’.”
2.  A year later, Brian put the beginnings of a band together with his brothers Dennis and Carl, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine.
2.   Brian wrote “Surfin'” with Mike Love.  They recorded a demo of it in Brian’s house while his parents were away on vacation.  Brian’s parents had left enough money at home in case there was an emergency.  Brian used the money to rent a tape recorder, a microphone and some instruments.  Instead of getting in trouble, Brian’s father Murray was so impressed with the recording he immediately declared himself manager of the band and arranged studio time for a professional recording.
3.  The Beach Boys never performed in public as a band until they had a local radio hit, with “Surfin’.”  In order to promote the record, they suddenly had to buy instruments, clothes, rehearse, and book their first shows.
4.  Brian called his band “The Pendletones.”  When “Surfin'” was released, it was credited to “The Beach Boys.”  The record company had changed their name without ever telling them.  Obviously, they kept the name.
5.  Although they will always be associated in our minds with surfing, Brian hardly ever went to the beach.  He never went surfing and was terrified by the water.  Of all The Beach Boys, only Dennis Wilson was a surfer dude.  

We can compare the initial demo of “Surfin'” with the final master of their first single:

The first song Brian wrote by himself was “Surfer Girl.”  At 19, he was driving to the hot dog stand, heard the song in his head, and composed the whole thing without access to a piano.  The finished recording demonstrates how early he had mastered the skills of writing melody, harmony, and voice leading arrangement.

During 1963 and ’64, The Beach Boys released several sublime pop songs that sounded like nothing else on the radio:

In late ‘65 Brian began working on Pet Sounds.  He used The Wrecking Crew as the main musicians, with additional players, and only used the Beach Boys for vocals.  The group reacted negatively to his new music.  They wondered, where are all the songs about surfing, hot rods, and having fun?  The album was released May 16, 1966 and, despite modest sales figures at the time, has since become widely critically acclaimed, often being cited among the all-time greatest albums.  One of its tracks, “God Only Knows,” has become a standard, and has been covered by such diverse artists such as Glen Campbell, heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold, Olivia Newton-John, Elvis Costello, Taylor Swift, and David Bowie.

What makes the album so remarkable, is the inclusion of other songs that are miraculously creative and almost unbearably poignant:

Then, as if you hadn’t had enough exquisite teenage agony for one album, Brian finishes us off with “Caroline, No,” about a girl who has cut her long hair, signifying her advancement into a more sophisticated stage of becoming a young woman.  What it signifies for the narrator of the song is the devastating loss of innocence, simplicity and the passing of time sweeping away the exuberance of adolescence, which will forever be impossible to recapture.

Who doesn’t love Pet Sounds?  Less than a handful ever went on record against it.  Mike Love dismissed it as, “Brian’s ego trip.”  Capitol Records executives considered not releasing it at all.  Their commercial instincts proved accurate as sales of the album were disappointing.  But for some fellow musicians in and around London, it was a game changer.   Lennon and McCartney analyzed and studied the album.  Keith Moon, Eric Clapton, and Mick Jagger couldn’t stop talking about it.  In 2003, Paul McCartney said, “I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life – I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard this album.”  Thus began the friendly competition between The Beach Boys and The Beatles.  Brian wanted to make a record better than Rubber Soul.  John and Paul immediately began work on Revolver as a response to Pet Sounds. Furthermore, George Martin said The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper would never have happened without Pet Sounds.  It’s no coincidence that Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time puts Pet Sounds as #2, and Sgt. Pepper as #1.

Before even beginning Pet Sounds, Brian had already retired from performing in public.  Brian was the leader, he sang and played bass on tour, he had major difficulties with his father both as a manager and a parent, he provided the music and lyrics, produced and arranged recording sessions, and was under constant pressure from Capitol to produce hits.  The relentless demands necessitated a withdrawal, which became obvious after a breakdown while on tour.  Plus, as a composer, he needed the peace to pursue the sounds in his head.  Unfortunately, he made the mistake of misusing drugs as an aide to achieve some serenity.  He was already a heavy user of LSD in 1965, among other substances.  If his drug abuse didn’t cause his mental health challenges, they certainly exacerbated any preexisting instabilities, resulting in increasing withdrawal from participation in the band, erratic behavior in public, and the breakup of his marriage.  He was once picked up by the police as a homeless person.  He was eventually declared to be paranoid schizophrenic (a diagnosis which was later dismissed).

Over a period of about 20 years, Brian would only contribute a few, but notably brilliant, compositions for the band:

In the 1980’s, Brian’s family staged an intervention by hiring Dr. Eugene Landy to rehabilitate him.  As in the case of handlers hired to care for other superstars, such as Elvis, and Michael Jackson, Landy took advantage of the situation by gaining complete control of Brian’s life.  Under Landy’s “care,” however, Brian was able to achieve an amazing come back, in the form of a solo album in 1988, titled simply, “Brian Wilson.”  Brian even went on tour to promote the new record.  The album and his performances were praised by fans and critics alike.

His family intervened yet again, this time suing Dr. Eugene Landy, making a case for his negligence.  Landy was given an order of restraint, and lost his license to practice in California.  As Brian entered his 60’s, his career was rejuvenated, recording many albums, and frequently touring to much success.

Brian Wilson’s life has been a fascinating story, with a classic arc of early success, a nearly fatal downfall, and life-affirming resurrection.  His story was portrayed in a 2015 biopic, “Love & Mercy.”  One of the highlights of the film is his random meeting with Melinda Ledbetter, a car salesperson and former model, who fell in love with Brian.  She became the pivotal element in releasing Brian from Eugene Landy’s control.  She and Brian were married in 1992.

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