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He is maybe one of popular music's most deeply revered figures. The main creative force behind some of the most cherished recordings in rock history. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to call Brian Wilson one of the most influential composers of the last century.
Wilson's remarkable journey began in a modest Californian home that was filled with music. His mum & dad both played piano, and as a young 'boy soprano', Brian's vocal gift was immediately evident as he began singing harmonies with his two younger brothers, Dennis & Carl. As a teen in the 1950s he became obsessed with the harmonic blends of groups like The Four Freshmen, and then, in the early 1960s, as he combined multi-part vocal harmony with the rock rhythms of Chuck Berry, Brian found his place in the musical sun.
He was barely out of his teens when he began to create some of the decade's most memorable pop music. Nine consecutive 'gold' albums followed, featuring such hits as "Surfin' USA", "In My Room", "I Get Around", "Don't Worry Baby", and "California Girls" ...to name just a handful of over two dozen 'Top 40' hits that Brian co-wrote, arranged, produced and performed with his band - The Beach Boys.
|The Beach Boys (circa 1962)|
By 1966, glorious harmonies, ingenious hooks and four years of virtually uninterrupted commercial success was no longer enough to satisfy Brian, and as his artistic horizons expanded dramatically, he produced three records in that landmark year that forever changed the course of popular music.
The first was 'Pet Sounds'; effectively an emotional autobiography of the 23-year old Wilson, it is considered by most right-minded individuals to be one of the greatest albums ever made. In the process of bringing it to life, Brian, as composer, arranger and producer, rewrote all the rules of what a record could be; as one observer noted, its release was 'Independence Day' for rock 'n' roll. Primarily working with a new collaborator, in lyricist and songwriter Tony Asher, Pet Sounds was a musical canvas as boundless as his own heart.
In the American charts the album reached No.10, and featured four hit singles: 'Sloop John B', 'Wouldn't It Be Nice', 'Caroline No' - a mournful ode to lost love, which was actually released as a solo single under the name 'Brian Wilson', and 'God Only Knows' - featuring an inspired vocal from his brother Carl, surely one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded.
Brian's second studio masterpiece in 1966 was a track that he first cut during the Pet Sounds session, but it was not included on the album as it was deemed 'unfinished'. As spring turned to summer, and as Brian spent months on end repeatedly tracking different arrangements and pieces of it, he began to close in on completing what he once called 'the biggest production of our lives'.
Over more than a dozen sessions, the Pet Sounds outtake began to take shape as the next Beach Boys single, and when it was released on the world in the autumn of 1966, it stunned everybody. It was not just the Beach Boys' first million-selling, worldwide No.1 but an absolute milestone in recording history. 'Good Vibrations' was a record that legendary publicist Derek Taylor called a 'pocket symphony'; given its kaleidoscopic movements, it was an apt description. Wilson demonstrated the breadth of his musical vision whilst showing how the recording studio could be a key instrument in creating his art.
Everybody in the industry was asking 'How did he do it?' and 'What is he going to do next?' The answer would take shape through a new collaboration, this time with an inspired poet and burgeoning songwriter, Van Dyke Parks. And so, as 'Good Vibrations' headed from final mix to master to pressing plant, Brian and Van Dyke began work on his third major production of 1966, an album that Wilson believed would be a 'teenage symphony to God'.
'Smile' was to feature such Wilson/Parks songs as 'Heroes & Villains', 'Surf's Up', 'Cabin Essence' and the wordless a cappella marvel, 'Our Prayer'. Those who heard the 'work in progress' were hailing it as the cutting edge of a new sound. A suite of songs that combined classical composition, multi-part harmonies, rock rhythms, wondrous wordplay and an avant-garde sensibility - it was somehow going to be both ahead of its time and timeless. 'Smile' quickly became one of the most anticipated works of the rock era.
Unfortunately, Brian was nearing its completion when a combination of circumstances forced him to shelve it. He suffered from record industry pressure, technical challenges, personal problems and internal group dynamics (band member Mike Love had already dismissed the exceptional 'Good Vibrations' as 'avant-garde shit' and objected to the way Wilson, Parks and a group of highly skilled session musicians were creating music way beyond his understanding).
Everybody, especially the Beatles, who developed a friendly creative rivalry with the Beach Boys, had been watching and waiting to hear how Brian would follow-up 'Good Vibrations'. As their producer Sir George Martin regretfully noted, 'We waited in vain'. During the subsequent 37 years, 'Smile' became the most famous unfinished, unreleased album ever.
Following the cancellation, the Beach Boys relocated to a recording studio within the confines of Brian's mansion, where the hastily compiled 'Smiley Smile' album was assembled, along with a number of future Beach Boys records. This marked the end of his leadership within the band, and has been seen to be 'the moment when the Beach Boys first started slipping from the vanguard to nostalgia'. Psychologically overwhelmed by the cancellation of his album, the release of The Beatles' album 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', and the birth of his first child Carnie Wilson, Brian began having a diminished creative role within the Beach Boys.
Until about 1970 he remained the group's principal songwriter, but increasingly production reins were handed to younger brother Carl, who mostly oversaw the albums 'Smiley Smile', 'Wild Honey', and 'Friends' (a personal favourite of Brian's). After that, he all but stopped writing songs and was frequently seen partying in the company of singer/songwriters Tandyn Almer and Danny Hutton.
It was during this period that he was introduced to cocaine. Brian spent the majority of the following three years in his bedroom - sleeping, taking drugs and overeating. During this time, his voice deteriorated significantly as a result of chain smoking, drug ingestion and neglect. Many of his 'new' contributions to Beach Boys albums were remnants of 'Smile', and those that were genuinely new reflected his depression and growing detachment from the world (most memorably the painfully brilliant 'Til I die').
In 1975, Wilson's wife and family enlisted the services of controversial therapist Dr Eugene Landy in a bid to help Wilson, and hopefully revive the group's ailing profile. Wilson did not initially stay under Landy's care for long, but during this short period, the doctor managed to help him into a more productive, social frame of mind. The new album '15 Big Ones', consisting of oldies and some new songs was released in 1976 and Wilson gradually began to appear live on stage with the band again. He was also deemed to be well enough to do a solo performance on Saturday Night Live in 1976. In 1977, the cult favourite 'Love You' was released, consisting entirely of new material written and performed by Wilson.
|The Beach Boys (circa 1979)|
By 1982, however, Dr Landy was once more called into action, and a more radical program was undertaken to try and restore Brian to health. This involved firing him from the Beach Boys, isolating him from his family in Hawaii, holding long counseling sessions and putting him on a rigorous diet and health regime. As a result, he lost a tremendous amount of weight, was undeniably healthier and more conversant than previously, but was also under an increasingly strict level of control by Landy. Despite all this, Wilson joined the band on stage for 'Live Aid' in 1985.
Dr Landy provided a Svengali-like environment, controlling every movement in Brian's life (including his musical direction). His general misconduct would eventually lead to the loss of his psychologist license, as well as a court-ordered removal and restraining order from Wilson.
Sadly, for a long while music took a back seat as he struggled, in the words of the Pet Sounds song 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times', to find a place to fit in, to survive. Some years later, during his second marriage, Brian was diagnosed with 'Schizoaffective disorder', which supposedly caused him to hear voices in his head. Rumours had been rife that he had either had a stroke or had abused too many drugs and was permanently 'fried'. The actual problem was that Brian, who had been prescribed anti-psychotic medicine by Dr Landy since 1983, had developed 'Tardive Dyskinesia' - a neurological condition marked by involuntary, repetitive movements.
Having been moved on to a reduced, mild combination of antidepressants, he resumed recording and released his long-awaited debut solo album in 1988, which featured 'Love and Mercy' (see below or click post title to hear) - a beautiful song that often ends his concerts.
In 1990, Pet Sounds received its debut release on CD, earning the album the recognition that had often eluded it. Further retrospective releases, including 'The Pet Sounds Sessions' box set and the 5-CD collection 'Good Vibrations' (which included the first official release of outtakes from the Smile sessions) fueled a major reassessment of Wilson's musical contribution.
As the 20th Century came to a close, one of its most beloved composers began one of the most improbable artistic reinventions ever - Brian became a concert performer. Conquering his legendary stage-fright, he went on his first solo tour in 1999, taking centre stage at a series of concerts which finally gave his fans the opportunity to return the love they'd received from his music.
In the summer of 2000, Wilson kicked off his acclaimed 'Pet Sounds Tour', taking his mesmerising studio creation to concert halls around the world (from the Hollywood Bowl to London's Royal Festival Hall to the Sydney Opera House) giving audiences the opportunity to experience the original production masterpiece as a living, breathing work of art.
It had become clear that Brian had also never lost sight of the music that had become the 'holy grail' of pop - 'Smile'. Inspired by the Radio City gig, where he performed 'Heroes & Villains' for the first time in decades, he started to add 'Smile' songs to his live sets. Then, in 2003, the day after receiving the UK's prestigious Ivor Novello Award for 'Lifetime Achievement', Wilson announced the impossible.
Against all odds and in the face of enormous expectation, he and Van Dyke Parks reunited and set out to do a version of the lost album.
Adding a new layer of surprise to the Smile story, which had been conceived as a revolutionary studio record, it would also come to life 'live on stage'. In February 2004, Brian Wilson's version of Smile was revealed to the world in a week of dramatic concerts in London (one of which I had the privilege of being at) where it was rightly greeted with an ecstatic response from fans, rock royalty and the assembled media from around the globe.
After an extended tour of the UK and Europe, Brian and his band recorded an all-new studio version of the album, and 'Brian Wilson presents SMiLE' was released in September 2004. Like the concerts, the album exceeded expectations and was received with unbridled joy and thrilling reviews. It topped many 'Album of the Year' polls, went 'gold' in the UK and earned Wilson his first Grammy Award.
|Brian Douglas Wilson (1942 - )|
In 2005, Brian was among the headliners at the legendary Glastonbury Festival, and also played at 'Live 8', making him one of the very few artists to appear at that event and 'Live Aid'.
It has been said that if music is mathematics, then Wilson might just be Einstein. But no comparisons are really necessary; he's just Brian Wilson - a performer, composer, arranger, producer and musical visionary whose work more than entitles him to be genuinely classed as (that commonly overused but seldomly deserved term) 'GENIUS'.
1976 Interview (Part 2)
1988 Interview (Part 1)
1988 Interview (Part 2)
1991 Eugene Landy Review (Part 1)
1991 Eugene Landy Review (Part 2)
1988 Interview (Part 1)
1988 Interview (Part 2)
1991 Eugene Landy Review (Part 1)
1991 Eugene Landy Review (Part 2)