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Brian Wilson behind the mixing board of Brother Studios, circa 1976.

I was a Beach Boys fan from the start when they and I both loved surf culture more than we loved surfing. (Dennis Wilson was the only real surfer in the band.)  I loved the harmonies. But it was all about Brian.

Brian had lots of issues – drugs, bogus psychiatry, bad management and fears about touring. 1964 – 1977 is a sad but fascinating period in Brian and the band’s history. I wrote earlier about my own brush against Brian’s problems, but the music has always helped me, and I think it saved Brian.

Brian had a panic attack on a flight from L.A. to Houston in late 1964 and stopped performing live with the group. Like The Beatles in later years, he wanted to concentrate on songwriting  and studio production.

The band continued touring with Glen Campbell and then Bruce Johnston as Brian’s substitute for live performances. Back in L.A., Brian was introduced to marijuana by a friend who thought it would de-stress him and aid his creativity. It worked, and in a month he completed the Beach Boys’ Today! album and started on the next one, Summer Days.

The next spring, Brian tried LSD for the first time and that acid trip also inspired him. You might think it would inspire some “acid-rock” but what came from that experience was the music for “California Girls.” That Top-10 pop single was great for the band, but the acid trip also led to auditory hallucinations which have plagued him throughout his life.

In late 1965, he started working on material for what would become Pet Sounds. It ended up being pretty much a Brian Wilson solo album.

Brian wrote, produced, and sang on it and the album’s instrumentation was done by the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Brian used them throughout the mid-1960s, on “Help Me, Rhonda”, “California Girls”, “Good Vibrations” as well as Pet Sounds and the original sessions for Smile.

When the band returned from a tour in Japan, all that was left to do was record their vocal overdubs. That didn’t go over well with the band, especially Mike Love. Despite their feelings that this was not a Beach Boys album in its creation and sound, it was released in May 1966. It had modest sales figures at the time, but since then it has become critically acclaimed, even arguably (no argument from me) being cited among the all-time greatest albums.

“Good Vibrations” hit number one and Brian started on Smile, which he once described as a “teenage symphony to God.” Like “Good Vibrations,” the album would be recorded in separately written modular sections that would be divided into tracks and spliced together. The standard live-to-tape linear performances that The Beach Boys and most bands were using fell away. Brian wrote with Van Dyke Parks.

The album was scheduled to be released in January 1967 but that was bumped so many times that by May the whole project was cancelled.

Beach Boys recording relocated to a studio situated in Brian’s mansion living room where he had installed his grand piano in a giant sandbox and built a tent. Things were strange.

The rest of the year they produced a few heavily orchestrated tracks (“Can’t Wait Too Long” and “Time to Get Alone”). Brian asked his brother Carl to take on the recording sessions. It was all too much.

After the collapse of Smile, financial issues and more drug use (cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, and psychedelics) and the birth of his first child (Carnie  in 1968), Brian ended up in psychiatric hospital. he received a whirlwind of treatments (talk therapy, Lithium and electroconvulsive therapy).

The Wilson boys’ father had been managing the band since the start but had many issues with Brian over music and contracts. Murry Wilson sold their Sea of Tunes publishing company to A&M Records’ publishing division for only $700,000. Brian lost most of his music and this renewed the feuding between him and his father.

But Brian gained some stability and even toured briefly in 1970 when Mike Love was ill. e went back to writing and recording with the Beach Boys. He wrote or co-wrote 7 of the 12 tracks on Sunflower. A decent album, it was a commercial flop. The Beach Boys were viewed as a nostalgia act.

It was a period when their albums had terrible titles (15 Big Ones, an album of covers) and weak sales. Brain managed to write most of Wild Honey (1967) and Friends (1968) but his studio participation was far less than in the past.

Carl and the band cobbled together tracks for an album called 20/20. I bought that in 1969 and had no idea that it was Smile outtakes (“Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer”) along with older songs like “Time to Get Alone.” Those tracks sit a bit oddly next to the more surf-sounding single “Do It Again.” But that classic single-sound made it a hit on the US charts in 1968 (plus number 1 in the UK and Australia). “Break Away” became the band’s final single for Capitol Records.

In 1971, Surf’s Up became their 17th studio album and got good reviews and reached number 29 on US record charts and #15 in the UK. It was their best performing album in years. The title echoes the band’s past, but the music was not surf rock at all. The title track was from the Wilson/Van Dyke Parks sessions for Smile. Like Pet Sounds, the album had legs and was voted to several “Best Of” album lists later.

Carl and the Passions  (the name of the Wilson boys high school band) “So Tough” was the next album (1972), a moderate commercial success upon release, but one in which Brian had minimal involvement. reaching number 25 in the UK and number 50 in the US.

The band was still releasing an album each year and in 1973 it was Holland. It was produced by the band and mostly recorded in Baambrugge, Netherlands. Two Brian Wilson tracks were recorded in Los Angeles and added to the album at the last minute. The two singles were “Sail On, Sailor” and “California Saga.”

The end, or turning point, of this troubled period is the album Love You  in 1977.

This 21st studio album, Love You, is not a great album, but  it marked the return of Brian Wilson at the helm of Beach Boys ship.

He gets credited with writing and arranging all the songs. He also plays every instrument. But there are some Beach Boys vocals.

Brian says he was more concerned with lyrics on this project.Some of the song topics are odd –  Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show – and stories about his writing at this time have him sitting down and improvising a new song in 20 minutes.

Some tracks, like “The Night Was So Young” and “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” have the old construction and harmonies, but the album heavily uses synthesizers. “Good Time” was a 7-year-old Sunflower outtake.

Brian had planned this as a solo record and the working title was Brian Loves You. It peaked at number 53 on US record charts and was received very mixed reviews from both fans and critics. There was one single – “Honkin’ Down the Highway”/”Solar System.”

Carl Wilson remixed the “finished” album in January 1977 and added guitar and percussion tracks and is credited as the album’s mixdown producer.

The album was done while Brian was in mental and drug rehabilitation. It was the last album written and produced by Wilson for the next 11 years. The week after he finished, he began Adult/Child, but it was never released.

Brother Dennis Wilson died in 1983. Brian’s first true solo album, the eponymous Brian Wilson in 1988, was his return to recording and performing. Carl Wilson died in 1998.

Brian would finally get to release Smile in 2004.

There are 385 versions of albums by The Beach Boys currently on Amazon.


updateSince I wrote this post in 2011, I discovered a documentary, Brian Wilson – I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times (1995) directed by Don Was. It looks at both the early years of The Beach Boys, and his bad years of substance abuse and recovery. It includes interviews with Brian and the Wilson family.

In June 2015, attention turned again to Brian’s life with the release of a dramatic film interpretation of that period around the making of the classic Pet Sounds album. Love and Mercy (the title is taken from a song on one of Brian’s solo albums) should probably be viewed along with the documentary to get a fuller picture of that period. Paul Dano portrays the young Brian and John Cusack plays the older Brian in the film and Cusack has recommended the biopic as a “companion piece” to the documentary.

original post: January 2011


Brian looking very much like “The Dude”

“Well, I’m lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did.”

So, I posted online as my “status” this weekend that I had a Brian Wilson kind of day. Never got out of my robe. Ate junk food. Sang harmony with myself in my room.

It got a few Facebook “likes” which makes me think that people don’t know what that kind of day is all about.

Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys had a high note in 1966 when they released the Pet Sounds album. It’s the album that Paul McCartney said is his “favorite album of all time.” But Brian went into deepening seclusion in the late 60s and early 70s.

I love that album. It has some very happy songs. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” kicks right off on a high and keeps going. I never really liked “Sloop John B.” from that album but it was a hit and an up tempo tune.

But you can hear the sadness creeping into the album too. I most identified with “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”

“They say I got brains
But they ain’t doing me no good
I wish they could
Each time things start to happen again
I think I got something good going for myself
But what goes wrong
Sometimes I feel very sad
Sometimes I feel very sad
Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into

I remember reading some long Rolling Stone articles about his drug use, overeating and depression. The part that I really connected with was that he spent days, weeks, months in bed. He lived in his robe.

I know the feeling. When I had my worst days, weeks and months, it was when I didn’t want to get out of bed. Under the covers was one of the only places I felt safe.

Brian got connected with the controversial psychiatrist Eugene Landy around 1976. It seems like that may have screwed him up even worse, but eventually Brian got dressed, went outside and started producing records again. Landy moved his piano into a giant sandbox that was constructed in his living room to inspire him. He wrote “Surf’s Up” there. (see comment below)

I was thinking about Brian this weekend and listening to some of his music. And when I searched online for a photo to use of Brian in his robe, I came across a number of related articles.  I also came across another blogger, Charlie, who also went through his Brian phase.

Turns out he also got some relief hearing the song “Brian Wilson” by Bare Naked Ladies.

So I’m lying here, just staring at the ceiling tiles.

and I’m thinking about what to think about.

Just listening and relistening to Smiley Smile

and I’m wondering if this is some kind of creative drought

I never quite understood why, but I know that whenever I am depressed, I tend to listen to depressing music. Maybe it’s just that you can’t stomach “happy” music right then and just identify with the sadness. Maybe you want to go down deeper until there is nowhere left to go but up.

Well, I’m lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did.

That particular song isn’t a real downer. It’s hopeful in the end and pulls out of the dive, like Brian did –

And if you want to find me I’ll be out in the sandbox,

wondering where the hell all the love has gone.

Playing my guitar and building castles in the sun,

and singing “Fun, Fun, Fun.”

A song that always brings me down to the bottom of the well is Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” from his eponymous album.
How sad is this verse?

Lonely, lonely

Tin can at my feet

Think I’ll kick it down the street

That’s the way to treat a friend

And yet that is how it feels then.

It’s late now. It’s night, but it’s really morning. I haven’t made it into bed yet, unless the couch and a blanket counts. In a few hours, I have to go to work.

Or maybe I’ll be out in the sandbox. In my robe. Just like Brian Wilson.

Brian Wilson, Official Site

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