Musicianship of Brian Wilson

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The songwriting of American musician Brian Wilson, co-founder and multi-tasking leader of the Beach Boys, is widely considered to be among the most innovative and significant of the late 20th century.[1] His combined arranging, producing, and songwriting skills also made him a major innovator in the field of music production.[2] In a 1966 article that asks "Do the Beach Boys rely too much on sound genius Brian?" brother and bandmate Carl Wilson said that while every member of the group contributes ideas, Brian was most responsible for their music.[3] Dennis Wilson said: "Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys. He is the band. We're his fucking messengers. He is all of it. Period. We're nothing. He's everything."[4][5]

Wilson is often depicted in media as a "genius". He cultivated his skills from an early age, learning how to play a toy accordion before moving on to piano. On his 16th birthday, he received a Wollensak tape recorder that allowed him to experiment with recording songs and early group vocals. With the exception of some college courses, his understanding of music theory was self-taught. Most of his education in music composition came from deconstructing the harmonies of his favorite vocal group, the Four Freshmen, whose reportoire included songs by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter. Another major influence came from the Ronettes' 1963 song "Be My Baby". For the decades that followed, Wilson fixated on Phil Spector's Wall of Sound technique showcased in "Be My Baby" and similar records. He learned more about producing from attending Spector's recording sessions, and received production advice from Jan Berry.

In 1966, Wilson explained his writing process as going to the piano and finding "feels," which he describes as "brief note sequences, fragments of ideas," and that "once they're out of my head and into the open air, I can see them and touch them firmly. They're not 'feels' anymore." Some of his stylistic markers include slash chords, key modulations, "stepwise falloffs", the use of minor seventh chords drawn from Burt Bacharach, piano triads "hammered" in eighths, and a tendency for his harmonic progressions to wander far from the tonal center. Musicologist Daniel Harrison notes that "even the least distinguished of the Beach Boys' early uptempo rock 'n' roll songs show traces of structural complexity at some level." Lyrics were usually written by an outside collaborator after the melody and chord patterns were established.

Only 21 years old when he received the freedom to produce his own records with total creative autonomy, he ignited an explosion of like-minded California producers, supplanting New York as the center of popular records,[6] and becoming the first rock producer to use the studio as a discrete instrument.[7] He used recording sessions as fertile creative terrain in and of themselves, a practice which was unheard of in his time and later shorthanded as "playing the studio".[8] The positive commercial response to Brian's structurally irregular and harmonically varied pop compositions gave him the prestige, resources, and courage to further his creative aspirations.[9] Using major Hollywood recording studios, Wilson arranged many of his compositions for a conglomerate of session musicians informally known as the Wrecking Crew. Their assistance was needed because of the increasingly complicated nature of his music.[10] He proceeded to explore many unusual combinations of instruments while emphasizing inventive percussion and less superficial lyricism.[11][12]

Education and virtuosity[edit]

Formative years[edit]

Wilson playing electric bass guitar with the Beach Boys in 1964

Brian Wilson was born the son of Murry Wilson, a songwriter and machine business owner. Speaking of Brian's unusual musical abilities prior to his first birthday, Murry said that, as a baby, Brian could repeat the melody from "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along" after only a few verses had been sung. Murry said, "He was very clever and quick. I just fell in love with him."[13] A few years later, he was discovered to have extremely diminished hearing in his right ear. The exact cause of this hearing loss is unclear, though theories range from him simply being born partially deaf to a blow to the head from his father, or a neighborhood bully, being to blame.[14]

Although he was often dubbed a perfectionist, Wilson was an inexperienced musician,[15] and his understanding of music theory was self-taught.[16][nb 1] The first instrument he learned to play was a toy accordion[17] before quickly moving to piano and then bass guitar.[23] From an early age, Brian demonstrated an extraordinary skill for learning music by ear on keyboard.[24] By age 10, Brian could play "great boogie-woogie piano", according to brother Carl Wilson.[25] Carl taught Brian how to play bass guitar. Initially, he stroked the strings using only his thumb, but switched to using a pick about a year later.[26] Brian's experiments with his Wollensak tape recorder provide early examples of his flair for exotica and unusual percussive patterns and arranging ideas that he would recycle in later prominent work.[27] At some point in 1961 he wrote his first all-original melody, loosely based on a Dion and the Belmonts version of "When You Wish Upon a Star". The song was eventually known as "Surfer Girl". Though an early demo of the song was recorded in February 1962 at World Pacific Studios, it was not re-recorded and released until 1963, when it became a top-ten hit.[28]

Among the distinct elements of the Beach Boys' style were their voices' nasal quality and the use of falsetto in their harmonies over a run-on melody.[29] Jim Miller observed, "On straight rockers they [the Beach Boys] sang tight harmonies behind Love's lead … on ballads, Brian played his falsetto off against lush, jazz-tinged voicings, often using (for rock) unorthodox harmonic structures."[30] Music theorist Daniel Harrison adds, "But even the least distinguished of the Beach Boys' early uptempo rock 'n' roll songs show traces of structural complexity at some level; Brian was simply too curious and experimental to leave convention alone."[31] Lyric collaborator Van Dyke Parks argued that, "Wilson made music as accessible as a cartoon and yet rewarded repeated listening as much as Bach: Just as the best comic books can turn cliché into high art, so can the best pop music. Brian does that. He can take common or hackneyed material and raise it from a low place to the highest, and he can do it with an economy of imagery that speaks to the casual observer—bam! It's no coincidence that he was working at the same time that [Andy] Warhol and [Roy] Lichtenstein were doing pop art."[25] Wilson wrote in 1990:

I was, by [1968], an experienced song writer and I knew what each basic key meant to me. ... Harmony usually means notes that are perfectly and mathematically related to each other, like 1, 3, and 5. This is the basic chord of music. Then there's 1, 3, 5, and 7. This is a more complex chord. It gets much more complex than that, but I try to keep it sounding simple, no matter how complex it really is.[32]

Before 1966, Brian's mastery of songwriting proved that he was capable of applying odd harmonic progressions, unexpected disruptions of hypermeter,[33] jazz theory,[34] tempo changes, metrical ambiguity, and unusual tone colors successfully within a pop context.[35] He made on-the-spot decisions about notes, articulation, and timbre; composing at the mixing board and using the studio as a musical instrument.[36] Through attending Phil Spector's sessions sporadically, Brian learned how to act as a producer for records while being educated on the Wall of Sound process.[36] As his productions advanced, he became recognized for his pop artistry, vocal harmonization, incessant studio perfectionism,[37][38] forward-thinking song structures,[34] engineering and mixing know-how,[39] and creative multitasking abilities.[40] From then on, Brian received some production advice from Jan Berry. As they collaborated on several hit singles written and produced for other artists, they recorded what would later be regarded the California Sound.[41][42] Author Irwin Chusid noted Wilson as an "ironic" example of outsider music for perhaps being one of its biggest-selling artists. He explains that Wilson's history of torment, substance abuse, and "loopy" material "certify" him as an outsider artist.[43]

Orchestrations[edit]

It was unusual among rock groups that Brian wrote his own arrangements.[44] This included his own string orchestrations, which lyric collaborator Tony Asher referred to for their odd voicings and classical style. He was surprised to learn of Brian's arranging ability, recalling Brian's "economic" use of a relatively low number of players: "Because if you've got 40 strings, somebody'll be playing the right notes. But when you've only got 4 or 5 or a small number of voices, everything's audible, and there's nothing to distract people's ear from what you're writing."[45]

Session bassist Carol Kaye noted, "We had to create [instrumental] parts for all the other groups we cut for, but not Brian. We were in awe of Brian."[44] She added: "He took bass up another step. He saw it as integral in a symphonic orchestra. He used bass as the framework for a hit record. Very few people can write for bass, but his writing was beautiful. There are a lot of jazz musicians who admire him for it."[46] Sometimes he wrote charts that had melodic lines in different keys at the same time, which confused session musicians.[47] "Here Today" was declared by AllMusic's Donald Guarisco to be one of Wilson's most ambitious arrangements that "perfectly blends the complexity of an orchestral piece with the immediacy of a good pop tune".[48]

Friend Danny Hutton highlighted Brian's studio proficiency, citing what he believed to be an extraordinary talent at harnessing several different studio spaces while piecing together discrete instrumental patterns and timbres cohesively. He noted, "Somebody could go in right after Brian's session and try to record, and they could never get the sound he got. There was a lot of subtle stuff he did. ... People don't talk that much about it. They always talk about his music. He was fabulous in the studio, in terms of getting sounds. You'd sit there, and that was him. He was just hands-on. He would change the reverb and the echo, and all of a sudden, something just – whoa! – got twice as big and fat."[49]

Singing[edit]

In 2013, Wilson explained: "I first felt I had a good voice when I was about seventeen or eighteen and was able to sing along well to records by the Four Freshmen. By singing along to those records that's how I learned how to sing falsetto. I would sing along to songs like 'I'm Always Chasing Rainbows,' 'I'll Remember April' and 'Day by Day'."[50] He declared in 1966 that his greatest interest was to expand modern vocal harmony, owing his fascination with voice to the Four Freshmen, which he considered a "groovy sectional sound".[51] He added, "The harmonies that we [the Beach Boys] are able to produce give us a uniqueness which is really the only important thing you can put into records – some quality that no one else has got. I love peaks in a song – and enhancing them on the control panel. Most of all, I love the human voice for its own sake."[36][51] For a period, Wilson avoided singing falsetto for the group, saying, "I thought people thought I was a fairy. ... The band told me, 'If that's the way you sing, don't worry about it.'"[52]

You know Bob Dylan? Well, live, you know, he sort of has this harsh, raspy voice. That's what I have. I'm like the Bob Dylan of the '90s.

—Brian Wilson to Wayne Coyne in a 1999 interview[53]

In 1966, Wilson said that the highest note he could sing was D5.[51] Starting with the 1970 sessions for the Surf's Up album, engineer Stephen Desper remembers the emerging corrosive effects of Wilson's incessant chain smoking and cocaine use: "He could still do falsettos and stuff, but he'd need Carl to help him. Either that or I'd modify the tape speed-wise to make it artificially higher, so it sounded like the old days."[54]

Musical influences[edit]

In 2015, writer Richard Goldstein related his impression of Wilson based on a meeting in 1967:

I've read monographs on the Beach Boys that describe Wilson as a self-conscious artist, fully aware of musical history. That wasn't my impression. He came across as a typical rock autodidact, deeply insecure about his creative instincts, terrified that the songs he was working on were too arty to sell. As a result of this ambivalence, he never realized his full potential as a composer. In the light of electronica and minimalism, you can see how advanced his ideas were, but they remain bursts of inspiration from a mind that couldn't mobilize itself into a whole. This was the major tragedy of rock in the sixties. ... I pressed him to agree that his music resembled [Gabriel] Fauré's—I wanted to prove my point to the Times. He looked like I had pulled a knife on him. "I never heard of that guy," he muttered.[55]

The influence of the Beach Boys' peers combined with Brian's competitive nature drove him to reach higher creative peaks.[56] He has said, "It isn't easy for me. So many things have scared me in my life – I've got fears, lots of stuff. I mean, boy, just all the records that have scared me. So many records just rocked my world, man. It's heavy."[57] He named "What a Fool Believes" (1978) as a song he considers a "scary record"[57] and once believed that Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (1967) was his funeral march.[58] In 1986, Brian told David Toop: "I listened to a lot of orchestral music. I learned a lot of tricks too. Nelson Riddle taught me a lot about arranging."[59] Alice Cooper reported that Wilson once considered the traditional standard "Shortnin' Bread" to be the greatest song ever written, as he quotes Wilson for an explanation: "I don't know, it's just the best song ever written."[60]

On classical music, Wilson stated in 2015 that he doesn't listen to it.[61] Of soul music, Brian has cited Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder as influences.[62] Regarding surf rock pioneer Dick Dale, Brian clarified that his influence on the group was limited to Carl and his style of guitar playing.[63] In 1965, Brian added that he disdained surfing music.[64] On Jimi Hendrix and "heavy" music, Wilson said he felt no pressure to go in that direction: "We never got into the heavy musical level trip. We never needed to. It's already been done."[53] Of punk rock, he said: "I never went for that."[65] When asked for his opinion on artists influenced by him, Wilson responded that he had no knowledge of Kraftwerk,[65] Apples in Stereo,[66] the Shins,[66] Animal Collective, or Elephant 6.[citation needed] As of 2015, Wilson maintains that he doesn't listen to modern music, only "oldies but goodies".[66][67]

Early influences[edit]

One of Wilson's earliest memories was hearing Glenn Miller's 1943 recording of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924), later citing it as a pivotal influence in his development as a composer.[68] He recalled: "Around our house, when I was a child, I heard things from my parents' record collection like Les Paul and Mary Ford, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Rosemary Clooney, and the Four Freshmen. Those were my first inspirations. To try to describe exactly what each influence was is hard to explain because it's very subtle, but it can be felt when you listen to my music. I don't think people realize just how much Rosemary Clooney affected my singing. She taught me to sing with love in my heart ... I would sing along with it ["Hey There"], studying her phrasing, and that's how I learned to sing with feeling."[68] John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful noted, "Brian had control of this vocal palette of which we had no idea. We had never paid attention to the Four Freshmen or doo-wop combos like the Crew Cuts. Look what gold he mined out of that."[69] Carl speculated that it was Mike Love who got Brian into doo-wop music.[25]

Performed by the Four Freshmen, "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" (1961) was a particular favorite of the Beach Boys.[70] Brian explained: "My mom turned me on to them. She turned on the radio and goes, 'Hear that song? This is called 'Day By Day' by the Four Freshmen.' And I listened and I went 'Oh, I love it, Mommy! I love it!' ... We went in [the record shop] and she said you can take records into these little booths and play them to see if you wanted to buy them. ... You know how you sit in a sauna bath and the sweat will come out? That's what that whole experience in that room started to be. I purged all kinds of bullshit and picked up the Freshmen. It was magic. Total magic."[71] By deconstructing their arrangements of pop standards, Brian educated himself on jazz harmony.[72] Lambert notes, "If Bob Flanigan helped teach Brian how to sing, then Gershwin, Kern, Porter, and the other members of this pantheon helped him learn how to craft a song."[73][nb 2] Wilson continued: "I learned them bar by bar. I'd go to my hi-fi set and I'd play a little bit. Then I'd stop and try to figure it out, back and forth, back and forth, until I figured the whole song out."[74]

Phil Spector[edit]

Spector (center) at Gold Star Studios with Modern Folk Quartet in 1965

The work of record producer Phil Spector, who popularized the Wall of Sound, was a focal obsession for Wilson.[75] Spector inspired Wilson to produce a variety of artists outside the Beach Boys, such as Jan and Dean, Rachel and the Revolvers, and the Honeys.[76] He also used the same Hollywood studios, session musicians, and engineers as Spector.[77] In a 1966 article, he referred to him as "the single most influential producer. He's timeless. He makes a milestone whenever he goes into the studio."[78] Later, he reflected: "I was unable to really think as a producer up until the time where I really got familiar with Phil Spector's work. That was when I started to design the experience to be a record rather than just a song."[79][nb 3] He explains: "Before Spector, people recorded all the instruments separately. They got great piano, great guitar, and great bass. But he thought of the song as one giant instrument. It was huge. Size was so important to him, how big everything sounded. And he had the best drums I ever heard."[84] In 1999, when asked if he was a religious man, Wilson responded: "I believe in Phil Spector."[85]

"Be My Baby"[edit]

Wilson's creative and songwriting interests were revamped upon hearing the Ronettes' 1963 song "Be My Baby".[86] "Be My Baby" is considered the epitome of Spector's Wall of Sound, a recording method that fascinated Wilson for the next several decades.[87] The first time he heard the song was while driving, and he became so overwhelmed that he had to pull over to the side of the road and analyze the chorus.[84][nb 4] He bought the record and kept it on his living room jukebox, listening to it whenever the mood struck him.[54] Copies of the song were located everywhere inside his home, as well as inside his car and in the studio.[88] Author Luis Sanchez summarizes:

Of all of Spector’s work, "Be My Baby' etched itself the deepest into Brian’s mind. In its own way, this recording is a gaping enigma in the story of Brian’s journey as an artist. Throughout the years, it comes up again and again in interviews and biographies, variably calling up themes of deep admiration, a source of consolation, and a baleful haunting of the spirit. ... The final result of the story and the variations of it that accumulate from an array of biographies and documentaries is an image of wretchedness: Brian locked in the bedroom of his Bel Air house in the early ’70s, alone, curtains drawn shut, catatonic, listening to "Be My Baby" over and over at aggressive volumes, for hours, as the rest of The Beach Boys record something in the home studio downstairs.[89]

For "I Do" (1964), co-written and produced by Wilson for the Castells, Lambert notes that the intro is "directly inspired by the instrumental accumulation in 'Be My Baby' and in the earlier Spector production of the Crystals' 'Oh Yeah Maybe Baby' (1961), which have similar rhythms and instrumental combinations."[91] Additionally, the influence of Spector can "easily" be heard in Wilson's "He's a Doll" and "The One You Can't Have", both written and produced by Wilson for the girl group the Honeys. In "He's a Doll", Lambert notices that "Brian was not just enamored with the Spector 'sound' but also with the way Spector creates musical interrelationships through [a] kind of internal repetition". Wilson was also "recycling ideas with remarkable frequency, but he was also stretching his creative muscles by challenging himself to create diverse contexts for similar resources."[90] After experiencing a nervous breakdown in December 1964, Wilson endeavored to "take the things I learned from Phil Spector and use more instruments whenever I could. I doubled up on basses and tripled up on keyboards, which made everything sound bigger and deeper."[92] He used similar recording techniques as Spector, especially during the Pet Sounds era.[93][nb 5] Author Domenic Priore observed, "The Ronettes had sung a dynamic version of The Students' 1961 hit 'I'm So Young', and Wilson went right for it, but took the Wall of Sound in a different direction. Where Phil would go for total effect by bringing the music to the edge of cacophony – and therefore rocking to the tenth power – Brian seemed to prefer audio clarity. His production method was to spread out the sound and arrangement, giving the music a more lush, comfortable feel.[3][nb 6]

"Know what's weird about this?" Brian asked in his ingenuous way, playing those four pantocratic notes for the twentieth time. "It's the same sound a carpenter makes when he's hammering in a nail, a bird sings when it gets on its branch, or a baby makes when she shakes her rattle. Didja ever notice that?"

David Dalton, writing about his 1967 encounter with Wilson[98]

Music journo David Dalton said that Wilson analyzed "Be My Baby" "like an adept memorizing the Koran."[98] In July 1967, Dalton visited Wilson at his home, later writing about a box of tapes he discovered in Wilson's bedroom: "I assumed they were studio demos or reference tracks and threw one on the tape machine. It was the strangest thing ... All the tapes were of Brian talking into a tape recorder. Hour after hour of stoned ramblings on the meaning of life, color vibrations, fate, death, vegetarianism and Phil Spector."[99][98] At one point in the 1970s, Wilson instructed Stephen Desper to create a tape loop consisting only of the chorus of "Be My Baby", listening to it for several hours in what Desper saw as "some kind of a trance."[54] His daughter Carnie Wilson stated that during her childhood: "I woke up every morning to boom boom-boom pow! Boom boom-boom pow! Every day."[100] Another time, Wilson recalls playing the song's drum intro "ten times until everyone in the room told me to stop, and then I played it ten more times."[84] Mike Love remembers him comparing the song to Einstein's theory of relativity.[80]

Interplay between Spector and Wilson[edit]

Most accounts suggest that Spector did not share the same admiration for Wilson's music.[101][nb 7] He was aware of Wilson's obsession with "Be My Baby" and remarked that he would "like to have a nickel for every joint [Wilson] smoked" trying to figure out the record's sound.[103]

Wilson unsuccessfully attempted to submit two of his compositions to the producer: "Don't Worry Baby" and "Don't Hurt My Little Sister"; both written with the Ronettes in mind.[104] After Spector's "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" became a number one hit for the Righteous Brothers in early 1965, Wilson personally phoned songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil to praise it as "the greatest record ever".[105] He later recorded multiple (at least two) versions of the song: one in the 1970s and another in the 1990s.[106]

Harry Nilsson wrote "This Could Be the Night" (1966) as a tribute to Wilson, with production helmed by Spector.[107] Modern Folk Quartet's Henry Diltz recalled Wilson at the studio during the sessions: "we could see him in the recording booth, in his robe and slippers, sitting there playing our song over and over, for what seemed like hours". Wilson deemed it one of Nilsson's very best compositions and one of Spector's best productions, explaining "Well, the idea they've been dating and waiting and finally they made love … I love that message."[108] Wilson also attended the session for the Spector-produced "River Deep – Mountain High" (1966), where he sat "transfixed" and "did not say a word".[109]

In 1977, Wilson wrote a 1950s style love song, "Mona", which features the lyric: "Come on, listen to 'Da Doo Ron Ron' now, I know you're gonna love Phil Spector".[110]

Burt Bacharach[edit]

Wilson has cited Burt Bacharach as his favorite songwriter. Author William Farina, who calls the two "direct competitors", says that Wilson's compliment is "especially self-evident when examining Wilson's more serious and introspective musical forays in the mid-1960s".[111] Musicologist Christian Matijas-Mecca noted that Bacharach is "often-overlooked [in his] influence upon Brian's work."[112] Priore wrote that, in a "subtle" way, Wilson grew to appreciate the potential of what a pop song could do after being partly spurred on by the dynamics of Bacharach's "Walk On By" (1964), a song that became as influential to him as "Be My Baby", supporting his strive to achieve a sense of dynamics in his recordings while he began pulling away from a purely Spector-inspired approach to production.[113] Wilson said in the 1960s: "Burt Bacharach and Hal David are more like me. They’re also the best pop team – per se – today. As a producer, Bacharach has a very fresh, new approach."[114]

With production by Wilson, the Beach Boys covered Bacharach's "My Little Red Book" and "Walk On By" in 1967 and 1968 but left the recordings unreleased.[115] Wilson has said that Bacharach was a direct influence on his "She Knows Me Too Well",[116] "Let's Go Away for Awhile",[21] and "Love and Mercy".[117] Writers have variously attributed Bacharach influence on Wilson's "Guess I'm Dumb",[118] "Let Him Run Wild,[119][120] and "The Little Girl I Once Knew".[121] Discussing "Let's Go Away", Wilson said: "there were a lot of chord changes similar to the way he would put something together. And I think that his music had such a profound thing on my head; he got me going in a direction."[21] He mentions minor seventh chords as a specific point of influence.[122] Like many Bacharach compositions, "Let Him Run Wild" opens with an off-tonic minor seventh chord. Similar examples in Bacharach's work include "Walk On By", "Wives and Lovers" (1963), and "Anyone Who Had a Heart" (1963)..[123]

The Beatles[edit]

The Beatles working with George Martin in a studio, 1964

The Beach Boys and the Beatles are often said to have directly reciprocated each other's musical developments during the 1960s.[124] The two bands inspired each other with their artistry and recording techniques, pushing them further out in the studio.[125][126] Author David Moskowitz identifies "I Get Around" (May 1964) as representing both a successful response by Wilson to the British Invasion, and the beginning of an unofficial rivalry between him and the Beatles, principally Paul McCartney.[127] In 2002, Wilson recalled that, particularly over 1964–65, each new Beatles release pushed him "to try something new" in his work; he cited "Girl Don't Tell Me" as the most obvious example of his songwriting being directly influenced by the Beatles.[128][nb 8] After first hearing Rubber Soul in December 1965, Wilson was "blown away" by the Beatles' ability to create an album of consistently good original songs[128] and resolved to top this achievement when making Pet Sounds.[124] In turn, Beatles producer George Martin said, "No one made a greater impact on the Beatles than Brian."[130][nb 9]

Wilson has said: "The Beatles inspired me. They didn't influence me."[133] While he was enamored with Rubber Soul, he explained: "I liked the way it all went together, the way it was all one thing. It was a challenge to me ... It didn't make me want to copy them but to be as good as them. I didn't want to do the same kind of music, but on the same level."[25] Carl elaborated: "[Phil Spector] was Brian's favorite kind of rock; he liked [him] better than the early Beatles stuff. He loved the Beatles' later music when they evolved and started making intelligent, masterful music, but before that Phil was it."[25] According to Mike Love, Carl followed the Beatles more closely than anyone else in the group, but Brian was the most "rattled" by the Beatles, feeling tremendous pressure to "keep pace" with them.[134] Brian once characterized himself as "fucked up" and "jealous" of Spector and the Beatles,[135] saying; "i was flipping out. I couldn't understand how [the Beatles] could be just yelled and screamed at. The music they made, 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' for example, wasn't even that great a record, but they just screamed at it."[136] On another occasion, he's said that he was overwhelmed by the "electricity" of their voices on the song ("It really turned me on"). He recalled that he and Love immediately felt threatened by the Beatles and added that he knew the Beach Boys could never match the excitement created by the Beatles as performers, and that this realization led him to concentrate his efforts on trying to outdo them in the recording studio.[128]

Brian identified the main difference between his music approach to the Beatles' is that they simplify songs to their "skeletal form," whereas he would be "impelled to make [them] more complex," and that if he had arranged "Norwegian Wood", he would have "orchestrated it, put in background voices, [and] done a thousand things."[137] On the subject of the Beatles' Revolver (1966), Love responded: "No, I don't think he was influenced by Revolver. Brian was in his own world, believe me. If he were influenced by the Beatles, there'd be more fuzz tone and a few sitars on our records, but there never have been, really."[138][nb 10] Wilson praised McCartney's bass playing, calling it "technically fantastic, but his harmonies and the psychological thing he brings to the music comes through. Psychologically he is really strong ... The other thing that I could never get was how versatile he was. .... we would spend ages trying to work out where he got all those different types of songs from."[141] In 2014, Brian stated that he thought "Strawberry Fields Forever" was "a weird record ... I liked it", although he denied rumors which said that the song had crippled him emotionally.[61] In 2015, he highlighted "With a Little Help from My Friends" as a favorite.[142] He views "Let It Be" as an intensely comforting song, likening it to valium.[143]

Non-musical influences[edit]

British rock critic Nick Kent wrote that, sometime in the mid-1960s: "Wilson began getting wrapped up in big complicated ideas like 'Art' and 'Civilization'. People would tell him the most commonplace facts about such-and-such a composer or painter and Brian would just flip right out ... A visitor would read a fragment from a volume of Omar Khayyam and Brian Wilson would leap up, his head just awash with all this magical dumb inspiration, screaming 'Wow' and 'Too much' over and over again because he sensed right there and then that this guy had access to all the answers to the problems besetting our troubled universe.[144] According to unnamed participants of the Smile sessions, "If you came up to the house and introduced something new to Brian's thought processes–astrology, a different way to think about the relationship of Russia to China, anything at all–if all of a sudden he was into that, it would find its way into the music. You could hear a bit and say, 'I know where that feeling came from.'"[145] Tony Asher remembers that Wilson "exhibit[ed] this awful taste. His choice of movies, say, was invariably terrible. ... every four hours we'd spend writing songs, there'd be about 48 hours of these dopey conversations about some dumb book he'd just read. Or else he'd just go on and on about girls."[146]

By the time of the Smile era, Wilson had indulged himself in works ranging from the I Ching and Subud philosophy, tracts on astrology, detailed charts of the stars and planets, various topics of mysticism, The Little Prince, the novels of Hermann Hesse, works by Kahlil Gibran, Rod McKuen, and Walter Benton's This is My Beloved.[147][148] In a reported meeting at Wilson's home between him and novelist Thomas Pynchon—a fan of Pet Sounds—the two were so intimidated by each other that "neither of them really said a word all night long."[149] Wilson had also developed an obsession with the Del Close and John Brent comedy album How to Speak Hip (1959), and attempted to reference it in Pet Sounds with the provisional song title "And Then We'll Have World Peace".[150]

Drugs and spiritual beliefs[edit]

An original handwritten manuscript of the lyrics to "God Only Knows"

In December 1964, Brian was introduced to marijuana before quickly progressing to LSD in early 1965.[151] He names "Please Let Me Wonder" as the first song he wrote on pot, with "She Knows Me Too Well" and "Let Him Run Wild" following soon after.[152] Of his first acid trip,[151] he recalls that LSD had subjected him to "a very religious experience" which enlightened him to indescribable philosophies.[153] The music for "California Girls" came from this first LSD experience,[151] as did much of the group's subsequent work where they would partake in drug use during recording sessions.[154] Wilson spoke of his LSD trips as a "religious experience", and during a session for his a cappella hymn "Our Prayer", Brian can be heard asking the other Beach Boys: "Do you guys feel any acid yet?"[155] In 1993, Wilson testified in a legal deposition that by 1965, he was consuming three or four marijuana cigarettes and one LSD pill a day.[156] He believes after he dropped LSD: "It expanded my mind a little bit, so I could write better songs ... [While] it was worth it, I wouldn't take it again."[157]

After being asked in a 1988 interview about whether his music is or was religiously influenced, Brian referred to the 1962-published A Toehold on Zen, and said that he believed that he possessed what is called a "toehold", defined metaphorically as "any small step which allows one to move toward a greater goal". He elaborated: "I learned from that book and from people who had a toehold on... say somebody had a grasp on life, a good grasp—they ought to be able to transfer that over to another thing."[158] During the recording of Pet Sounds, Brian held prayer meetings, later reflecting that "God was with us the whole time we were doing [the] album ... I could feel that feeling in my brain."[159] In 1966, he explained that he wanted to move into a white spiritual sound, and predicted that the rest of the music industry would follow suit.[160]

Wilson elaborated that while he had spiritual beliefs, he did not follow any particular religion.[161] In 1990, he wrote that he believed "music is God's voice".[162]

Mental illness[edit]

Wilson is afflicted with schizoaffective disorder that presents itself in the form of disembodied voices (auditory hallucinations).[163] The illness emerged a week after his first LSD consumption.[163] It formed a major component of Bill Pohlad's Love & Mercy (2014), a biographical film which depicts Wilson's hallucinations as a source of musical inspiration,[164] constructing songs that were partly designed to converse with them.[165] Wilson has said of the voices: "Mostly [they're] derogatory. Some of it's cheerful. Most of it isn't."[166] He added that his hallucinations will inspire a song "every now and then".[167] In 2002, Wilson felt that his successful treatment initiated a writer's block: "I haven't been able to write anything for three years. I think I need the demons in order to write, but the demons have gone. It bothers me a lot. I've tried and tried, but I just can't seem to find a melody."[75]

Health and fitness[edit]

During the latter half of the 1960s, Wilson began an obsession with fitness that led him to move the furniture out of his living room in order to make room for tumbling mats and exercise bars; later briefly serving as the co-owner of his own health food store.[168] Wilson reported in 1967, "I want to turn people on to vegetables, good natural food, organic food. Health is an important element in spiritual enlightenment. But I do not want to be pompous about it, so we will engage in a satirical approach."[169] Derek Taylor remembers: "He'd be sitting with me in this restaurant going on and on about this supposedly strict vegetarian diet of his, preaching vegetarianism at me while at the very same moment he'd be whacking down some massive hamburger."[150]

Wilson's songs about exercise or eating right include "Vega-Tables", "Mama Says", "H.E.L.P. Is on the Way", "Life is for the Living", and "Too Much Sugar".[170][page needed]

Compositional methods[edit]

Songwriting[edit]

Writing process[edit]

In 1966, Wilson elaborated that his writing process involved going to the piano and finding "feels," which he described as "brief note sequences, fragments of ideas," and that "once they're out of my head and into the open air, I can see them and touch them firmly. They're not 'feels' anymore."[51] Mike Love remembered: "Brian is so spontaneous that if there's a piano and two or three people around to sing parts, he’ll sit down and write a song in five minutes. But if you don’t get it right then, he goes off and drops it."[25] According to Van Dyke Parks, Wilson was unique in the way he approached piano by "hammering" eighth-note triad chords.[171] On the subject of Wilson's Bedroom Tapes, Beach Boys archivist Alan Boyd observed: "A lot of the music that Brian was creating during this period was full of syncopated exercises and counterpoints piled on top of jittery eighth-note clusters and loping shuffle grooves. You get hints of it earlier in things like the tags to 'California Girls,' 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' and all throughout Smile, but it takes on an almost manic edge in the '70s."[172]

Form and structure[edit]

Most of his chord progressions stem from at least one of his main music influences: rock and roll, doo-wop, and vocal jazz.[173] Musical collaborator Andy Paley said: "When I was a kid listening to Beach Boys records, I used to go nuts trying to figure out what the hell was going on. It sounded so easy, but you'd get to a spot where it was, Jesus, is that a major chord or a minor chord? Now that I'm in the studio with Brian, I know that sometimes he's playing both. He'll do things that sound like they're going to be terribly dissonant, but when it's all put together, It's beautiful. It's actually a great sort of philosophy."[174] Lambert comments that while the "overall style" of songs like "We'll Run Away" (1964), "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" (1965), "Let Him Run Wild", and "Please Let Me Wonder" is "consistent with popular norms", the infusion of jazz chords such as the seventh and ninth "add sophistication and artistry."[175]

A visual representation of the chord progression and melodic structure for the first verse and chorus of "God Only Knows".

Key changes within verse and choruses (as well as "truck driver's modulations") are common in Wilson's songs.[176] Sound engineer Eugene Gearty refers to "God Only Knows" as a perfect example of "how much [Brian] modulated from key to key. He was far more complex than the Beatles and mostly like [Igor] Stravinsky in orchestral music where the key changes and key centers change four or five times within a pop tune, which is unheard of."[177] On Pet Sounds and other work, author Jim Fussili observed a repeated nuance of Wilson's to "wander far from the logic of his composition only to return triumphantly to confirm the emotional intent of his work".[178] Tony Asher remembers: "one of the things that I really enjoyed, was that first time I'd hear him hunting for a chord change and I'd think 'Man, he's just gone right off the edge because he's not ever gonna get close. He's way out there in some area that's just—he'll never get back. And if he's successful, gets out of there, people are going to say, I've lost my tone center, don't know where the hell I am and stuff. And then, eventually, he'd figure out what it was he wanted to do. A lot of it was just hunting and pecking, the way some of us type."[45]

Some of the devices Wilson often used were ii – V and I – VII alternations, stepwise diatonic rises such as I – iii – IV – V, and a circle of fifths run that begins with the mediant (inspired by "Be My Baby").[179] VII, which is common in the music of the Four Freshmen and popular music in general, is the nondiatonic chord that appears the most in Wilson's compositions, and alternations between VII and I can be heard in "Guess I'm Dumb" and the intro to "California Girls".[180] He frequently employed chord inversions, especially a tonic with a fifth in the bass.[181] Paul McCartney commented on Wilson's bass lines: "If you were in the key of C, you would normally use–the root note would be, like, a C on the bass ... Brian would be using notes that weren't the obvious notes to use. As I say, 'the G if you're in C–that kind of thing. And [he] also [put] melodies in the bass line."[182]

James Perone writes of the second track from Pet Sounds, "You Still Believe in Me", "One of the high points of the composition and Brian's vocal performance ... is the snaky, though generally descending melodic line on the line 'I want to cry,' his response to the realization that his girlfriend still believes in him despite his past failures." He describes the "stepwise falloff of the interval of a third at the end of each verse" to be a typically "Wilsonian" feature. The feature recurs alongside a "madrigal sigh motif" in "That's Not Me", where the motif concludes each line of the verses. This sighing motif then appears in the next track, "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)", a piece inspired by classical music, and once again in the closing "Caroline, No".[183] Another technique borrowed from the Four Freshmen that Lambert calls the "interrupting celestial choir" involves an arrangement suddenly breaking into acapella, which happens in "Salt Lake City" (1965) and "Sloop John B" (1966).[184]

Lyricism[edit]

Brian didn’t write about the Vietnam War, but he did capture the era's gestalt when he described how easily his hopes for romance or status or a happy family could be shattered. He refused to abandon those hopes, however, and each time asked a woman named Wendy or Rhonda or something else to pick up the pieces and reconstitute the dream.

—Geoffrey Himes[25]

In most cases, Wilson was forced to rely on outside collaborators when it came to adding lyricism to his compositions. At this stage, Wilson usually worked with bandmate Mike Love,[185] whose assertive persona provided youthful swagger that contrasted Wilson's explorations in romanticism and sensitivity.[186] Sanchez noted a pattern where Brian would spare surfing imagery when working with collaborators outside of his band's circle, in the examples "Lonely Sea" and "In My Room".[187] Wilson has said that he had "never been the type" to preach social messages in his songs.[167]

In early 1964, Wilson began his breakaway from beach-themed music.[188] The album The Beach Boys Today! (1965) established Wilson's new lyrical approach toward the autobiographical. Nick Kent writes: "In songs like 'She Knows Me Too Well' and 'In the Back of My Mind', Wilson's dream lovers were suddenly no longer simple happy souls harmonizing their sun-kissed innocence and dying devotion to each other over a honey-coated backdrop of surf and sand. Instead, they'd become highly vulnerable, slightly neurotic and riddled with telling insecurities."[144]

Recording and arranging[edit]

Production[edit]

Wilson works out "about a third" of the finished arrangement of a song as he's writing it, leaving the rest to studio experimentation.[20] As he writes in 1990: "Making an instrumental track is a whole experience. It starts after you have written a song. As I write a song, I write some of the instrumental piano and pluck some of the different notes for the arrangement. It's impossible to lay the whole arrangement on the piano but you play just enough to get the overall feelin’ of the record. It is an art in itself. I always get that bigger picture of my records at my piano before I record them. I go in there prepared."[162] From the very beginning, Wilson handled most stages of the group's recording process, despite Nik Venet being credited for producing their early recordings.[189][190] He preferred mixing live as performances were recorded, as opposed to mixing after the fact.[10] He was open to changes suggested by others while recording, often taking advice and even incorporating apparent mistakes if they provided a useful or interesting alternative.[191][192] On Surfin' U.S.A. (1963), Brian began doubletracking.[193] As was practiced by other record producers from the 1960s, most of his mixes ended up in single-channel monaural,[194] believing that varied stereo speaker placement took his control over the sound image away to the listener.[195]

Using major Hollywood recording studios, Wilson arranged many of his compositions for a conglomerate of session musicians informally known as the Wrecking Crew. Their assistance was needed because of the increasingly complicated nature of the material.[10][nb 11] Wilson said that he "was sort of a square" with the Wrecking Crew, starting his creative process with how each instrument sounded one-by-one, moving from keyboards, drums, then violins if they were not overdubbed. Although he had arrangements worked out in his head, they were usually written in a shorthand form for the other players by one of his session musicians.[21] On notation and arranging, Wilson clarified: "Sometimes I'd just write out a chord sheet and that would be for piano, organ, or harpsichord or anything. ... I wrote out all the horn charts separate from the keyboards. I wrote one basic keyboard chart, violins, horns, and basses, and percussion."[21]


Wilson avoided standard rock percussion because he wanted his productions to sound more "delicate" and less "boomy".[25] Van Dyke Parks said: "The first thing I can remember in the studio was how Brian used tuneful percussion, like a piano or a Chinese gong. Even a triangle has pitch. Brian was very fond of pitched instruments. They reminded me of the orchestrations of the early 20th century done by people like Percy Grainger, the man who wrote 'Country Gardens', [sic] who was infatuated with tuneful percussion. He stood out in my youth as a great composer because of what he did with sound, and Brian was doing that."[197] Arranger Paul Mertens believes: "There are string sections on Pet Sounds. But to me, what's special about that is not that Brian was trying to introduce classical music into rock & roll. Rather, he was trying to get classical musicians to play like rock musicians. He's using these things to make music in the way that he understood, rather than trying to appropriate the orchestra. Often he'll direct a drummer to play in a very unconventional way, in a way that drummers don't normally play. He'll say, 'No, no, don't play the hi-hat, just go bomp...ba-domp...bomp...ba-domp on the tom and kick drum.' He's feeling a certain thing, but coming at it from a musical idea rather than the conventions of the instrument."[198] One of Wilson's favorite techniques was to apply reverb exclusively to a timpani, as can be heard in "Wouldn't It Be Nice", "You Still Believe in Me", and "Don't Talk".[192]

"I Get Around" chorus vocals

Once an instrumental track was completed, vocals would then be overdubbed by the group.[199] Carl said about the Beach Boys' vocal arrangements: "Our vocals were voiced like horn parts, the way those R&B records make background vocals sound like a sax section. It sounded big, because the four parts were all within the same octave; that was really the secret. He used a lot of counterpoint, a lot of layered sound; it had a real depth to it. We didn’t just duplicate parts; we didn’t just sing at octaves; that would sound really lame, very square."[25]

Extended techniques[edit]

He experimented with processed effects including varispeed, reverberation, slapback echo, and filtering signals through a Leslie speaker.[200] Lyric collaborator Tony Asher remembers that in the 1960s: "People would try whatever they could think of that was unexpected, just for its own sake...spend three days and call in a bunch of oboe players. Try an instrument just because nobody had ever used it, and in the end, it wasn't in the final mix. That never happened with Brian. He did the same kind of experimenting, not to see if he could accidentally stumble onto something unique, but he did these unique things because that's what he wanted to hear. And most of the time, it ended up on the record."[45]

Wilson sometimes altered the conventions in which the instruments are played in an effort to expand their sonic possibilities. Examples of such would be playing an upright bass with a plectrum alongside a tic-tac bass, or muting a piano by taping its strings.[201] Parks commented, "He was doing stuff that nobody would dream of doing," citing an instance when Wilson instructed a banjo player to play only one string, a "gauche" style of playing that "just wasn't done."[202]

Parks added that during the Smile era, he and Brian was conscious of musique concrète, and that they "were trying to make something of it", naming Brian as a pioneer for its application in pop music.[203] Marshall Heiser interpreted the album's style of jumpcuts a "striking characteristic", and that they "must be acknowledged as compositional statements in themselves, giving the music a sonic signature every bit as noticeable as the performances themselves. There was no way this music could be 'real.' Wilson was therefore echoing the techniques of musique concrète and seemed to be breaking the audio 'fourth wall' – if there can said to be such a thing."[204] For his use of recorded noise and tape manipulation on Smile, Brian is considered by American music journalist Paul Williams to be one of the earliest pioneers of sampling.[205] Domenic Priore argued that Brian "manipulated sound effects in a way that would later be extremely successful when Pink Floyd released The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, the best-selling album of the entire progressive rock period."[197]

Studios and engineers[edit]

Eschewing Capitol Studios, which Brian considered inadequate,[206][207][208] engineer Chuck Britz often collaborated with him at Western 3 of United Western Recorders,[209] also serving as a buffer between Brian and the oft-berating Murry whenever he was present.[210] Once Britz assembled a preliminary recording setup, Brian would take over the console, directing the instrumentalists from the booth using an intercom or verbal gestures after supplying them with chord charts that were sometimes written incorrectly.[22] According to some reports, even though Britz was responsible for setting up recording, Brian would then adjust his configuration to a large extent.[211] Asher adds: "As unorganized or even unproductive as he [Brian] could be in other situations, when he got into a recording session, you had the sense he had ideas that were gonna get away from him if he didn't get 'em done right away. He was willing to have people be relaxed and joke a little bit, but he wanted to get work done. And he sometimes lost his temper just a little bit if Chuck couldn't find a take."[45] At Gold Star Studios, Brian worked mainly with engineers Stan Ross and, with lesser frequency, Larry Levine.[102] Ross said of Brian, "[he] liked the sound Gold Star got on the instrumentation, but he did the voices elsewhere because we were limited to two or three tracks and that wasn't enough for voice overdubbing. ... The tracks were really rhythm pads that would be sweetened after the voices were put on."[212]

Instruments[edit]

Amplifiers[edit]

Keyboards[edit]

Bass guitars[edit]

Legacy and influence[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ In his youth, Brian received a six-week lesson on how to play the accordion.[17] According to the Wilsons' mother, "The teacher said, 'I don't think he's reading. He hears it just once and plays the whole thing perfectly.'"[18] While majoring in psychology at the El Camino Community College in Los Angeles, he took additional music classes.[19] It is unclear to what extent Wilson is knowledgeable in musical notation. In 2004, Wilson stated that he was unable to read music,[20] while other reports suggest that written notation is a method by which he composes and arranges.[21][22]
  2. ^ The tonal formula of the Four Freshmen was that a bass instrument would sing the tonic note of a chord which freed the vocalists to perform five-part harmony, according to Ross Barbour: "And one of those four voices would sing a 'color note' – an unexpected note, a note that wasn't logical, a note that would surprise the listener and make the song sound more interesting. We were interested in doing music, not just having hits."[74]
  3. ^ Before "Be My Baby", Wilson had known of Spector through the single "He's Sure the Boy I Love" (The Crystals, 1962).[80] Barney Hoskyns has speculated, "It was almost certainly [Bob] Norberg who turned Brian on to the productions of Phil Spector",[81] while James Murphy says that Lou Adler may have introduced Wilson to Spector around June 1963.[82] Wilson remembered that he met Spector only a few days after hearing "Be My Baby".[83]
  4. ^ Other songs that "hit almost as hard" as "Be My Baby" include "Rock Around the Clock" (Bill Haley & His Comets, 1955), "Keep A-Knockin'" (Little Richard, 1957), "Hey Girl" (Freddie Scott, 1963), and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" (The Righteous Brothers, 1964), but as Wilson says, "it's hard to re-create the feeling of first hearing 'Be My Baby'".[83]
  5. ^ Wilson considers Pet Sounds to be a concept album centered around interpretations of Spector's recording methods.[93][94]
  6. ^ The Beach Boys recorded cover versions of several songs penned by Spector, including "Then I Kissed Her", "There's No Other (Like My Baby)", "Chapel of Love", "Just Once in My Life", "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'",[95] and "I Can Hear Music".[96] The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (1964) was released as a response to Phil Spector's Christmas Album (1963).[97]
  7. ^ According to engineer Larry Levine, "Brian was one of the few people in the music business Phil respected. There was a mutual respect. Brian might say that he learned how to produce from watching Phil, but the truth is, he was already producing records before he observed Phil. He just wasn't getting credit for it, something that in the early days, I remember really used to make Phil angry. Phil would tell anybody who listened that Brian was one of the great producers."[102]
  8. ^ Lambert acknowledges similarities with the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" (1965), noting "Girl Don't Tell Me" as a "modeling exercise" for Wilson.[129]
  9. ^ In 1966, John Lennon named Wilson as the musical person he most admired.[131] For The Beatles Anthology, George Harrison said that, in the mid-1960s, the Beatles felt they were trying to compete with Pet Sounds.[132]
  10. ^ When asked whether Wilson enjoyed the then-recent use of the sitar in pop music, Wilson responded, "Yeah. I think it's interesting, and if I feel I can make a record that uses an instrument such as a sitar, then I'll do it."[139] On June 8, 1968, an unreleased version of "All I Wanna Do" (1970) was demoed at his home studio with a sitar.[140]
  11. ^ Many of the musicians and studios Brian used happened to overlap with those used by Phil Spector.[56]

References[edit]

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Bibliography[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Cunningham, Don; Bielel, Jeff, eds. (1999). Add Some Music to Your Day: Analyzing and Enjoying the Music of the Beach Boys. Tiny Ripple Books. ISBN 978-0967597300. 
  • Desper, Stephen W. (2002). Recording the Beach Boys. 
  • McParland, Stephen J., ed. (2001). In The Studio with Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys: Our Favorite Recording Sessions: A Look at Various Recording Sessions by The Beach Boys, 1961-1970. CMusic Books.