Sometimes, while alone in dimly lit rooms, attempting to fall asleep, I contemplate the benefits of time travel. I would only utilize these powers for purely selfish reasons: To warn myself at age ten, that the same person listening to “The Real Slim Shady” while trying to gleam the meaning of “cunt” and Eminem’s fondness for the term, someday would be the same person attempting to fall asleep the lily white rhythms of a band named “Seapony.” Of course, in these moments of self-realization, one must attempt to trace these disastrous events back to their source. Aside from a middle class upbringing, my recent lighthearted rhythms can mostly be explained by the brilliant crimes of one suspect— Brian Wilson.
The mastermind behind The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson was born in Inglewood, California, in 1942. Murry Wilson, his father, was a notoriously violent man, and the popular belief in the confines of musical history is that Wilson’s deafness in his right ear is the direct result of one of Murry’s outbursts. The eldest of three boys, Dennis and Carl, Brian would soon enlist his brothers along with a few other talented musicians that became The Beach Boys. Even at an early age, Brian had a musical mind. Once he recalled the story of him hearing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” at age two. Murry, a minor musician himself, encouraged Brian and his sons to pursue the craft of music to the fullest extent. Brian soon took up the challenge, singing in his church choir and also taking lessons for his toy accordion. But he was also a stud, playing quarterback for his high school football team, and also finding time for baseball and cross country as well. The wonders of music soon seeped into all the crevices of his every daily life. Rather than spend his lunch hours socializing or flirting with California girls, he gathered with like-minded schoolmates to practice vocal harmonizing. Soon these schoolboy fascinations developed into greater desires. With his brothers Carl and Dennis, his cousin Mike Love, and Al Jardine, a fellow classmate, the group later known as The Beach Boys was formed.
Thisfirst collective, in 1961, called themselves The Peddletones. In the early 60s, California began to gravitate toward the surf culture that would essentially dominate the pervasive ideal of California: hot sun, hot cars, hot women, and of course, surfing. Later, in 1966, the surf culture was captured in the groundbreaking documentary, Endless Summer. The sly agents and CEOS in California, always waiting for the big thing to cash in on, embraced the “Southern California” paradigm with open arms and open palms holding contracts. This soon matriculated into mostly terrible “surfer-themed” feature length B movies, provocatively dressed women in commercials advertising automobiles, and lastly, terrible, terrible, music. In truth, much of the music spawned in those early years were nothing more than novelty songs, only one level better than the static noise on blank radio waves. God only knows what the genre what have turned into if it weren’t for the pet sounds of The Beach Boys.
Thefirst official Beach Boys penned single was 1961’s “Surfin.” The song surpassed the capabilities of what the young men thought they were capable of at the time, and with a little help from their friends, and mothers, and Brian stealing money out of his father’s room, the band amassed enough money to record the song in a proper studio. The single quickly attracted attention around Southern California, and became a hit on local radio stations. Not surprisingly, no less than one hundred million surf-themed songs sub sequentially emerged from the band, including “Surfin U.S.A.” a complete riff-off of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Sixteen.” I won’t go into much detail about the thievery, but I have to believe that in the film Cadillac Records Mos Def captured the essence of Berry’s thoughts when he first heard the record, if only you were add a few hundred more expletives.
The Beach Boys soon became a mainstay on national radio and the singles’ charts, but by 1964, some groovy bands in Britain like The Beatles and The Stones were beginning to invade American radio stations. The pressure to keep up with the likes of Keith Richards and John Lennon would drive anyone to madness by itself, but constant road travel almost literally drove him there. During the same year, Wilson suffered a bit of a nervous breakdown aboard a plane to Houston, Texas, where he was expected to perform with his band. The anxiety attack caused him to quit touring with the band, and focus on the composing aspects of the music solely, which only enhanced his troubles.
Brian’s new role as composer allowed him to elevate the musical direction of the band in shocking ways. The Beach Boys soon scrapped their bubble-gum pop sensibilities for stronger, experimental instrumentation. The creative output of this time became some of The Beach Boys’ most recognizable songs to date, like “I Get Around,” and “California Girls.” But despite being the biggest American band at the time and charting up Number One singles left and right, Brian couldn’t get no satisfaction.
One of the biggest story lines in music history is the non-feud feud between The Beach Boys and The Beatles, which was really a friendly yet intense competition between two friends, Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney, to constantly outdo the other, sonically speaking. In the mid-60s, according to rock critic Robert Palmer, The Beach Boys “left surfing behind and began to write surreal, melodramatic and revolutionary songs. The group was exploring similar musical tastes to other contemporaneous acts, such as The Byrds and The Yardbirds.” These leanings to delve into the psychedelic music scene only augmented with the release of The Beatles’ first landmark album, Rubber Soul in 1965. Unlike most of the albums in the 60s at that time, Rubber Soul contained no filler (even though I’ve never been a big fan of “Michelle”). Not to mention, it was a fucking great album, with each song perfectly able to stand on its own as single material (aside from “Michelle”). The album so influenced and inspired Wilson that he immediately ran to his wife and said that he “was going to make the greatest album. The greatest rock album ever made.”
He came close, and in the minds of many, did exactly what he said he would with 1966’s Pet Sounds. This album is constantly on the lists of those “Greatest Albums Ever” that online music magazines publish so that you’ll have something to occupy your time when Twitter is down. Maybe that example was dumb, but the point is that Pet Sounds is one of those albums that defies the logic of simple vinyl, and sounds better than most artists greatest hits albums. Basically, Pet Sounds is a masterpiece to mostly everyone who has taken the time to listen, and unless you belong to the “chosen ones” over at the Pitchfork staff (who gave the 40th anniversary edition a 9.4 rating and who, one can reasonably assume, have atomically magical ears, that are synced directly with God’s internal organs, and can of course hear songs intuitively better than us poor common folk possess the abilities to) then you appreciate its awesomeness.
The brilliance of Pet Sounds lies mostly in the the myriad layers. In comparison to the poppy songs that The Beach Boys had previously built a pretty steady career on trailed in comparison to the complexity of the Pet Sounds compositions, and consequentially, Surf Rock underwent an extreme makeover, causing critics to expect future musicians of the genre to take similar approaches in their music. Wilson, of course the mastermind behind the boards, structures every song like a Baroque symphony, barricading the listener with an ocean (or zoo) of sounds coming from all directions. As lead singer, Mike Love is the most prominent voice on the record, but the group’s overdubbed vocals are interwoven in intricate, groundbreaking ways. Additionally, the lyricism borders on the deeply personal, giving the effect of spontaneous recordings ripped right from the confessional booth. The album commences with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” a song that in retrospect is difficult to properly praise, due to the fact that the track has been included in the soundtrack to every single romantic comedy ever to exist (yes, every single one). But from the opening seconds of the song, the album only builds and builds, spilling into masterpiece upon masterpiece, such as “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “That’s Not Me,” the Kingston Trio cover “Sloop John B,” and “God Only Knows,” the latter of which Wilson has publicly admitted is his favorite song from the album.
Phrases like exhaustion, mental degradation, and poor health do nothing for the average consumer, but the culmination of these unfortunate ailments lead to the production of one of most beloved albums in American History. Ranking #2 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Pet Sounds was almost entirely the sole creation of physically exacerbated Wilson. The stress and strain would greatly contribute to Wilson’s later problems with mental illness, but this tiny albeit important footnote hardly factors in the equation when most people hear “Caroline, No” on the radio while on the way to the beach.
With the quest for artistic greatness achieved, Wilson had no choice but to keep honing his craft. Amazingly, at the same time he was arranging Pet Sounds, Wilson was working out the kinks to “Good Vibrations,” a song that in terms of experimentation, would far surpass anything the group ever made. Wilson abstained from including the track on the album, but one can only wonder how the inclusion of “Good Vibrations,” arguably the group’s finest musical achievement, was added to the track list. Possibly, Pitchfork would have given the anniversary record a 9.5 rating 40 years later.
But I digress once again. The Beach Boys had temporarily won the “top-spot” with their masterpiece in 1966, but just a year later, the Brits stepped up to the plate again, and shattered any previous notions about a silent rivalry. The Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, despite being a bitch to type, is a flawless recording that shook the world. Even The Stones periodically lost their minds with the release of the album, attempting to mimic the sound (or soundsss) the Beatles had captured with the oft-not-spoken-of Their Satanic Majesties Request. But for Wilson, the fight was over. At the time, Wilson was trying his damnedness to receive the financial blessings of his record label for his work in progress, Smile. Despite the success of Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations,” two projects that the label had little faith in during the beginning stages, the experimentation of the album was too much for the label, and they shelved the project. Depressed and defeated, Wilson spiraled into mental illness. As he was driving home, The Beatles’ new hit, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” came on the radio. According to Wilson, the complexity, harmony, beauty, and overall perfection of the song plundered his soul in such a way that he was unable to safely drive. Sobbing to himself, he pulled over his car, torn between feelings of wonderment and resentment, the latter due to his realization that his attempt at musical supremacy was over.
Brian Wilson’s problems only doubled in the coming months, with a little help from his friends (sorry, I know I used that joke before it still isn’t funny), and family. In 1967, Dennis Wilson came in contact with a young man with earnest and eager dreams of making it in the music business. Although he had had some trouble in the past, the man had sincere aspirations of changing the world, and felt that his music could be the catalyst for dramatic change in the country. Although a bit strange, the man’s talent could not be denied, and Dennis offered him residency in his Los Angeles home and access to a recording studio. The man’s name was Charles Manson, and he would go on to orchestrate some of the grotesque murders and music known to man.
Also around this time, Wilson’s daughter Carnie was born. Apparently, chromosomes are not inherited by offspring as science would have us believe, as Carnie Wilson went on to form the three-part collective, Wilson Phillips, eventually blessing the world with wretched pop songs and reality shows. The pressures of advanced artistry culminated in a full-blown addiction to cocaine. Wilson’s family was forced to enlist the services of Eugene Landy, an expensive therapist with unconventional methods. While Wilson’s role with the Beach Boys diminished, Landy took it upon himself to aid him to recovery with a host of bizarre yet successful therapeutic mental exercises, of which have never been properly explained in the pages of rock history. Although the Beach Boys remained somewhat in the public eye during the 70s and 80s, mostly through special televised concerts and greatest hits albums, they became sort of a distant memory in the rapidly changing musical scope of subsequent rock music.
To the testament of their talent, The Beach Boys were able to achieve relevancy once again in 1989 with their hit “Kokomo,” written by John Phillips, of Mamas and Papas fame. Wilson was unable to attend to the recording session, but Mike Love and the band managed without him. This is where I was first introduced The Beach Boys, albeit indirectly. Long before I knew anything of the band, “Kokomo” was one of my favorite songs, and every morning before school I waited to hear Kermit and the Muppets sing their own version of the extremely catchy song. In 1992, The Barenaked Ladies, a band with a most unfortunate name, and even more unfortunate catalogue, released the surprisingly good song “Brian Wilson” as an ode to the famous musician. Around the latter half of the decade, Wilson began performing the song himself at concerts. Then again, in 2004, luck struck Wilson once again. The highly-awaited Smile album was finally released to the public, much to the crazed delight of Beach Boys fans everywhere.
Overthe last decade, surf rock has exploded, with all new players. Seapony, Wavves, The Drums, Beach House, and Surfer Blood are just some of the most popular names currently associated with the Surf Rock genre of today. Most of these bands are descendants of Pet Sounds, constantly attempting to reinvent and reshape the genre. For a band like Best Coast, another steadily rising group of artists within the surf rock idiom, commonly blend punk sensibilities with the basic paradigm of surf rock. “In an interview with Pitchfork.com, Bethany Consentino cited “Don’t Worry Baby” as her all-time favorite song. “ I’m also inspired by the aesthetic of the era. Beach parties, California and summer fun. It makes me feel really happy and there is an innocence to it. The aesthetic inspires me more than the music.” Needless to say, these promising bands inherited the genes of Brian Wilson, much to the detriment of Carnie, I’m sure.
It is easy for one in the modern age to misinterpret the catchy rhythms of The Beach Boys as lacking in terms of musical ambition and creativity, as I did as a young, ignorant, but handsome kid. Compared with a band like Radiohead, the ambition in apparent in a song like “Good Vibrations” is minimal at best. But in the 60’s, rock was still was very young genre. Whether Wilson’s courageous musical endeavors were part of some elaborate scheme to see scantily clad women on beaches cannot be confirmed or denied, but what is for certain is that his impeccable foresight and creativity allowed him to transform the scope of rock music forever.