Brian Wilson Essay - Critical Essays

Wilson, Brian


Brian Wilson 1942–

American songwriter, musician, musical arranger, and producer. Wilson's music is noted for authentically capturing the American teenage experience and for helping to create the international image of Southern California as a youthful utopia. The Beach Boys, which he formed as a teenager with his two brothers, Carl and Dennis, a cousin, Mike Love, and a friend, Al Jardine, gained fame in the early sixties with songs that depicted a mythic world of long-haired girls and golden boys who live for surfing, cars, and long summer nights. Wilson's descriptions of this free lifestyle did not come from experience; he wrote as an outsider looking in, and built his career out of his displacement. His music, which started as confident and joyous in the surf genre he created, gradually became more introspective with songs like "In My Room" and "When I Grow Up." Filled with inner turmoil, pain, and longing, these songs were wrapped in lush arrangements and were characterized by their distinctive chord progressions and unique harmonies. Influenced by the close-harmony vocals of the Four Freshmen, the jaunty rockers of Chuck Berry, and, especially, the mini-operas of producer Phil Spector, Wilson concentrated on creating and overall sound that would be both musically innovative and commercially successful, much as the Beatles were doing. The Beach Boys became phenomenally successful, and demands were made on Wilson to churn out hit singles in the fun-and-sun mold despite his own desire to concentrate solely on improving his composing and production talents. This pressure on his creativity caused him to retreat further into himself, and he stopped performing with the group and suffered a series of breakdowns. After the commercial failure of Pet Sounds, an album which some critics consider both Wilson's definitive work and a milestone in pop music, he retreated from the music scene, and the group floundered without his leadership. Musically, he released fragmented but exciting works such as Smiley Smile, but seemed to lose interest in his work and entered a period of creative inertia. During the late sixties and early seventies The Beach Boys became considered a reactionary, clean-cut anachronism that had no relation to a period of social change and revolution. Wilson's lyrics were criticized as being sophomoric, weak, and unworthy of the maturity of the music, and he became more well known for his eccentric behavior than for the quality of his work. However, the band returned to public favor in 1974, after dogged touring and the success of a greatest-hits compilation. Wilson returned to the group in 1976, but their recent albums have achieved only minimal success. It has been argued that no songwriter has been better at depicting the joy and sorrows of adolescents than Wilson, in a language that was specifically their own. Certainly many young people have related to his innocent, lyrical yearnings and have appreciated his undeniable musical gifts.

Barry Fantoni

I think "Pet Sounds" is probably one of the best produced albums out, but it suffers because of it. I managed to listen to one side of it, and I heard just about a bellyfull. At times it was beautiful but the words were hazy which may have been unintentional—or that may have been the idea. It was rather a lazy record. Sometimes boring—not because of the way it was done—but the slight monotony. I've got "Beach Boys Today!" which is rougher but more exciting. Actually "Pet Sounds" reminded me of two classical composers—who I prefer—and shouldn't really compare, but it has similarities to Palestrini, and, also what happened to Mozart and Turner the painter in mid-career. Their techniques became immaculate and their production fantastic and you thought "who the hell managed to produce this?" That's how I feel about the Beach Boys. I preferred them when they were young and more loose and rough, as I did Turner and Mozart when they got older and loosened up. I agree it's probably revolutionary but I'm not sure that everything that's revolutionary is necessarily good. I'm not being antiprogressive—but I'm not convinced they're always good. (p. 8)

Barry Fantoni, in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), July 30, 1966.

Andrew Oldham

I think that "Pet Sounds" is the most progressive album of the year in as much as Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherezade" was. It is the pop equivalent of that. A complete exercise in pop technique. Personally I consider it to be a fantastic album. The lyrics are tremendous. The way Wilson has suited them to the songs is outstanding. I see pop music as a form of escapism, and "Pet Sounds" is a great example of escapism. (p. 8)

Andrew Oldham, in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), July 30, 1966.

Arthur Schmidt

The Beach Boys have tried faithfully to render who and what they are. That what they are is in some ways a simply (existential but) foolish denial of reality, that Hawthorne is not the world that Watts is, is nothing other than the fact that art, like human action, when it impersonally duplicates reality, is more schizophrenia.

The group takes risks, however. After Pet Sounds, the only flaw of which was its indulgence in a sometimes over-lush sound, they cleaned up and came out with Smiley Smile, so controlled, precise and tight that it risked (and at times lost to) sterility. "Wild Honey" bet on keeping tight and somehow simultaneously releasing everything they had in a sustained emotional burst. The bet paid off. Friends is a transition…. Occasionally lapsing into the style of Pet Sounds (as on "Diamond Head," which is not as good as anything on that earlier LP), they more often mix the dry, silly-but-witty (like a fatigue high) style of Smiley Smile with the harder-driving, less still, more emotional feel of Wild Honey.

The best cuts are "Meant For You," the dedication: "Friends," a more mature (in that it lacks their usual immediacy) evocation of the surfer "pack" or "club" vision—why go out with a girl when you can go cruising with the guys on Saturday nights? It's really warm, simple, touching, saying in not so many words that friendship isn't about words. Other...

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Paul Williams

[The Beach Boys] are moving forward all the time.

Each Beach Boys album since Pet Sounds has been (or seemed) a little less sophisticated. Retrogression? Not at all, but to prove that, we'd better decide what "forward" is.

Forward is the direction in which time moves. It's kind of like "out," which is the direction in which cosmic matter moves. There is no possibility of reversal inherent in this movement, nor even of angular shift. Those concepts have no meaning. Can a line stretching from zero towards infinity turn around? I mean, try to visualize it. At best, it would no longer be a line; and the basic assumption we make in calling something a line is that it is, at least, a line. So forward is a description of how time moves, just as outward might describe how space moves, if we think of "space" the concept rather than the objects that move about within space.

Now, "forward" as applied to the Beach Boys must have to do with their relationship to time. Do they move forward in time (or rather, with it)? Yes, of course, everybody does. Do they make progress? To answer that, we must consider their work as existing in time, and ask: is there a real movement (if there is, it couldn't be anything but forward) from the Beach Boys' earlier creations to their more recent ones? Not, do they get better?—that would require a highly subjective judgment (I, personally, do not think they get better; I feel they are as great now, or conversely, were as great then—I don't favor any particular period). Rather, do they incorporate the past in the present, do they seem to learn, do they operate out of some kind of awareness of past accomplishment and failure, or are they striking out anew from the beginning, the origin, every time? The question is, is there some kind of real expansion evident in the achievements of the Beach Boys as time goes on, something that would justify our considering one album as a step forward from a previous one?

This is very difficult to answer; it breaks down into a matter of subjective judgment no matter how we try to avoid that. I would say that, taking the various albums the Beach Boys have done and shuffling them, it is not necessarily evident that there are "more advanced" and "less advanced" albums. They have reached different audiences at various times sophisticated. Retrogression? Not at all, but to prove that, we'd better [say] that they were only good up to this point, or since that point ("Good Vibrations" is one popular dividing line). However, I would argue that, from the point of view of the longtime listener who has taken them pretty much for what they are, the Beach Boys have covered more distance than almost any other group in rock.

Can I explain that statement? I hope so. It must be remembered that the consistent listener himself moves forward with time; he heard Pet Sounds in 1966 and Smiley Smile in 1967 and Friends in 1968. So each new record the group releases may well seem to him not merely another piece of plastic to be measured against past pieces, but rather the most recent advance of a continually expanding body of work…. (pp. 9-10)

In terms of the listener, he feels himself moved further (at least I do) by each new album the...

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Gene Sculatti

Brian Wilson and company are currently at the center of an intense contemporary rock controversy, involving the academic "rock as art" critic-intellectuals, the AM-tuned teenies, and all the rest of us in between.

As the California sextet is simultaneously hailed as genius incarnate and derided as the archetypical pop music copouts, one clear-cut and legitimate query is seen at the base of all the turmoil: how seriously can the 1968 rock audience consider the work of a group of artists who, just four years earlier, represented the epitome of the whole commercial-plastic "teenage music industry?"…

The answer is a simple one. The Beach Boys' approach to their music is as valid now...

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Jim Miller

After a long period of recovery, mediocrity, and general disaster, the Beach Boys have finally produced an album [Sunflower] that can stand with Pet Sounds: the old vocal and instrumental complexity has returned and the result largely justifies the absurd faith some of us have had that the Beach Boys were actually still capable of producing a superb rock album—or, more precisely, a superb rock muzak album. "Add Some Music to Your Day"; hip supermarkets might program this album for contented browsing among the frozen vegetables and canned fruit.

As a reassuring note, most of the lyric impotence of the group remains, though not so prominently displayed as on colorful recent outings as...

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Richard Williams

Just as it's tied to emotional memories, so most pop music evokes specific times of year. Most of the best pop picks on summer, simply because that (idealistically speaking) is when the nights are longer, the girls are prettier, and you can take the hood off your sportycar and bomb off into the glorious sunset.

There's never been any better summer music than that created by Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys, between '62 and '67. More so even than Chuck Berry, Wilson's compositions sum up what pop was always about, and what we're the poorer for having lost.

The very early Sixties, the years just before the Beatles, were the most unproductive that white pop has known, until Wilson came...

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Michele Hush

Most people seem to love [Surf's Up]. They say the harmonies, production and instrumentation are perfect; they like the way it flows, its smoothness and sweetness. Surf's Up does possess all of these characteristics—it is made of ball-bearings, silicone and glycerine, with the friction kept down to a minimum. In essence, it is spun sugar, and that is precisely why I don't like it.

Consider the following hypothetical situation: the Vienna Boys' Choir, under the direction of Henry Mancini, records arrangements lifted from the California "cool jazz" school; the libretto is topical—lots of ecology, revolution, nostalgia and romanticism. Given a couple of years to play around in a...

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Arthur Schmidt

I've been waiting impatiently for [Surf's Up] since Sunflower, and the small letdown I feel could be the other side of that impatience, the wish that they could have kept it a little longer to make it perfect. In this case that would not be a matter of production … but rather of waiting for the material to even out in quality….

Still, I recall my own first reaction to Sunflower, some cuts at first seemed too thin, too light.

But the important thing about the Beach Boys is just this aspect of their music. The production is usually flawless and the melodies so frequently exquisite that one tends to hear, then listen for—and finally dismiss it...

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Stephen Davis

Pet Sounds, aside from its importance as Brian Wilson's evolutionary compositional masterpiece, was the first rock record that can be considered a "concept album"; from first cut to last we were treated to an intense, linear personal vision of the vagaries of a love affair and the painful, introverted anxieties that are the wrenching precipitates of the unstable chemistry of any love relationship. This trenchant cycle of love songs has the emotional impact of a shatteringly evocative novel, and by God if this little record didn't change only the course of popular music, but the course of a few lives in the bargain. It sure as hell changed its creator, Brian, who by 1966 had been cruising along at the forefront...

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Peter Fornatale

There are vast differences between the 1966 and 1972 Beach Boys. This fact becomes painfully apparent with the release of their new double set Carl and the Passions—So Tough coupled with the re-release of their classic Pet Sounds. Spin for spin, Pet Sounds is the superior album. It soars. So Tough doesn't soar. It taxis all around the runway looking for a place to take off, but never quite finds it.

Of course, the biggest difference is one of leadership. In 1966, the Beach Boys were Brian Wilson's group. Their main function was to serve as the vehicle for Brian's unique and personal vision of life and reality. Nowadays, the musical chores are divided up pretty equally...

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Richard Williams

["Holland"] contains more fun and beauty than any dozen efforts by more fashionable bands.

The overwhelming quality of "Holland" (so called because they recorded it in a town outside Amsterdam) is consistency, in two respects: first, it fits right in with the sequence of Beach Boys music from '62 on; secondly, the consistency of writing and performance is on a higher level than anything since, perhaps, "Pet Sounds"….

First question: what is B. Wilson's contribution this time out? Answer: less than I'd expected, but as it happens that doesn't hurt at all. With four collaborators … he composed the opening cut, "Sail On, Sailor", which is also the upcoming single, and although it...

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Greg Shaw

[Except] for Dick Dale's, no surf music came out on major labels before the Beach Boys proved it could be more commercial than anyone had dreamed. They did it by blending together—probably not too consciously—elements of all the disparate styles they'd heard in records they liked, and they had the good taste to prefer the kind of records that approached a sort of summation of teenage consciousness. By distilling the essence from these, the Beach Boys emerged as perhaps the ultimate in teenage rock-and-roll groups.

Influenced by various Fours (Freshmen, Preps, Seasons), they added to the standard surf instrumentation a thick vocal sound laden with harmonies, falsetto singing, and constant...

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Geoff Brown

No group has as consistently made music celebratory of sun, fresh air and youth as the Beach Boys and it is particularly appropriate that they should have two albums out during the present endless summer.

Hardly a June, July or August has passed since 1962 without a Beach Boys tune implanting itself in mind and heart, and 1976, what with bicentennial and all, will be no exception.

For me, this year's memory will be "It's O.K.", a Brian Wilson/Mike Love song from "15 Big Ones", which is vintage, euphoric, hot weather music….

"15 Big Ones" is not an "advanced" Beach Boys album. After a decade and a half of serious and immeasurably enjoyable progression they are...

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Bill Gubbins

Does Brian make that big a difference [in 15 Big Ones]? Not really.

There is no question that Brian Wilson is a genuine talent in American music (mind you, we're talking about a category somewhat beyond rock 'n' roll) and the controversy about whether he did or did not destroy/burn the famous Smile tapes just might be the valid rock equivalent to the search/confusion over the missing portions of [Erich] Von Stroheim's alleged film masterpiece Greed. Nevertheless, Smile was ten years ago and one can wait only so long for the vanquished hero to return. Unfortunately, on 15 Big Ones at least, he hasn't.

The overriding concept … behind...

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Jim Miller

Gone are the white Levis, tennies and striped shirts. Gone too are the odes to affluent hedonism, replaced by a host of ecologic, mystic and poetic preoccupations. Yet despite the beards, beads and plugs for TM, the Beach Boys, after 15 years in the business, remain identifiably the Beach Boys. Alone among white American rock groups, their ingenuity has sustained them over a decade, at times shaping, at times ignoring the whims of passing fancy.

The elements of their style are by now legend: the vocals, densely clustered or moving in counterpoint, simultaneously frail and precise; the compositions, some complex, others elementary, some anthemlike, others confessional, some a catalog of clichés,...

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Richard Williams

The dilemma facing the Beach Boys today is created simply by their audience's expectations. Those who throng to their concerts do so in anticipation of swooning to "Surfer Girl" and bopping to "Fun, Fun, Fun", and would be mightily put out were these demands denied.

On the other hand, critics and old-time aficionados approach each new album with an equally understandable lust for the exploratory daring enshrined in the likes of "Wendy", "Caroline No", "Wind Chimes" and "Surf's Up".

"15 Big Ones", the 1976 album which featured Brian Wilson's first wholehearted studio participation in several years, suffered a cruel backlash from the latter camp, whose members refuse to acknowledge...

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Steve Simels

[There] is one group—and one group only—for whom [a] preoccupation with the aging process seems to have no relevance whatsoever. (p. 67)

[Despite] the attrition of years, the virtual disappearance of the surf and car culture from which they sprang, and the inevitable distancing from their audience their growth from boys to men must bring, the Beach Boys are still fueling the fantasies of adolescents and of those of us long beyond them. This is a most remarkable achievement; other musicians who, like them, began their careers at the same age as their first fans have for the most part hung on to these same fans as the greater part of their audience. Paul McCartney, Dylan, the...

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Billy Altman

The Beach Boys Love You is a truly wonderful album, and it is Brian's show from beginning to end. He wrote 11 of the 14 songs and coauthored the others. In light of last year's events—15 Big Ones is easily the worst album in the Beach Boys' long history—its success is even more amazing. The bad songs here are really embarrassing—"Let's Put Our Hearts Together," a duet between Brian and wife Marilyn, and "Love Is a Woman," with Brian's achingly strained vocal, should never have been released—but mostly this album presents a Brian Wilson who is again comfortable in the recording studio, functioning at a level not too far removed from his better days.

As usual, the strengths are...

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Mitch Cohen

There is no TM song, no music-is-swell song, or "unfolding enveloping missiles of soul," or political/ecological commentary [in The Beach Boys Love You]. Instead, what we have here is a collection of 14 Brian Wilson compositions (three are collaborations) and a return to the Beach Boys' musical-thematic values of the late 1960's. If the group had been traders in the slobbery hogwash endemic to the era, that would hardly be news worth celebrating; but who would be grumpy enough to complain when faced with a distillation of Pet Sounds atmospheric cohesiveness, Wild Honey plains peak domesticity and stripped-body instrumentation, Smiley Smile jokiness and Friends unadorned...

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David Leaf

Brian Wilson's special magic in the early and mid-1960s was that he was at one with his audience. There was no "writing down" to the listeners. Brian had a teenage heart, until it was broken. Before that happened, Brian used the Beach Boys music to "invent" California.

California has always occupied an exalted position in popular American culture, whether it was the Gold Rush days or the heyday of Hollywood. Brian Wilson's particular California Myth is a product of the 1960s, and it is important to remember that to teenagers in 1961, California was just a state, not yet a state of mind….

For kids whose oceans and beaches were made by intersecting asphalt and fire hydrants, whose...

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Tom Carson

You go to a rock and roll show in the hope of being moved by the unexpected; you go to see an institution, like the Lincoln Memorial, or the Grand Canyon, or the Beach Boys, to be moved by the expected—to trigger a response you already know is there. That they continue to be a working band, nominally in the present tense, hardly matters. The albums of new material that they release from time to time simply aren't part of the legend; they're appendages, and they feel incomplete, because the audience, the community of belief that made the Beach Boys' fantasies come to life, doesn't exist in the present tense to sustain them. Only as evokers of the past, passive agents of their fans' desire, does the band become whole...

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Davitt Sigerson

The finest wit, the most affecting, and the most difficult to achieve, is the wit of tolerance. The Beach Boys have become masters of this medium in recent years. Although their output has been worrisomely uneven, they have not, as some argue, "gone soft." The Beach Boys have never worked with the facile arts of cynicism: so, in the Sixties, simple minds believed their surfing records to be naive, because they were uncontemptuous … so, in the Seventies, simple minds believe the Beach Boys are dead, because they are unrepentent.

The Beach Boys are not dead, as this fine album ["L.A. (Light Album)"] proves. Their gentle wit begins in the title, a double pun. For not only does LA stand for "Light...

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Dave Marsh

The Beach Boys are easily the most overrated group in rock & roll history—which presents the reviewer with a problem: simply stating the facts invites an overreaction from the band's maundering cult who exaggerate the surf bums' importance. But the truth is that Brian Wilson was never a musical genius, though he executed some of the most crafty reworkings of Phil Spector's production style ever done and, for a few years, tapped into the heart line of teenage lifestyle; that the Beach Boys have not made great rock music since Wild Honey; that the Beach Boys have not made competent pop music since Holland.

Like the LPs that preceded it, L.A. (Light Album), the Beach Boys'...

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