Brian Wilson

  • Biography:

    The Beach Boys virtually invented California rock. Brian Wilson's songs celebrated an idealized California teenhood — surfing, driving, dating — and his productions were glossy perfection with an ultra-smooth blend of guitars and vocal harmonies. While the Beach Boys attempted more grown-up topics in the late 1960s, they survived into the late 1990s primarily as America's premier nostalgia act. Through the years, the Beach Boys have not only been "America's band," but arguably one of the greatest American rock bands ever selling well over 65 million records worldwide. Just as the Beach Boys star seemed to fade in the new millennium, Brian Wilson began to overcome many of his demons performing live again and finally releasing SMiLE his long-awaited "teen symphony to God" no one ever expected to see the light of day.

    Brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson were encouraged by their parents, Murray and Audree, to do music and sports. Brian was a varsity baseball player at suburban Hawthorne High when he began to work seriously on music. His first band included brothers Dennis and Carl (who was expelled from Hawthorne for going to the bathroom without permission), cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine. As the Pendletones, Kenny and the Cadets (Brian was "Kenny"), or Carl and the Passions, the group played local gigs. At Dennis' suggestion, Love and Brian wrote "Surfin'," which became a regional hit on the soon defunct Candix label in December 1961 while the group was calling itself the Beach Boys. Like most of their early songs, "Surfin'" used Chuck Berry guitar licks with vocal harmonies (arranged by Brian) recalling 1950s pop groups like the Four Freshmen, which Brian studied closely.

    Murray Wilson, who was later revealed to have been psychologically and physically abusive to his sons, managed their band and got them a contract with Capitol. The hits began: "Surfin' Safari" (Number 14, 1962); "Surfin' U.S.A." (Number Three, 1963), a note-for-note copy of Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" with new lyrics; and "Surfer Girl" (Number Seven, 1963), all of which launched and capitalized on the "surf music" fad, although only Dennis surfed regularly. "Surfer Girl" marked Brian's emergence as a producer, with its complex vocal harmonies and sophisticated pop chords. An admirer of producer Phil Spector, Brian would continue to refine his skills and become one of the greatest record producers in rock.

    The years 1963–1965 established the Beach Boys' legacy: "Little Deuce Coupe" (Number 15, 1963), "Be True to Your School" (Number Six, 1963), and "Fun, Fun, Fun" (Number Five,1964), written by Brian and Love in a taxi to the Salt Lake City airport; "I Get Around" (Number One, 1964); "Dance, Dance, Dance" (Number Eight, 1964); "Help Me, Rhonda" (Number One, 1965); "California Girls" (Number Three, 1965); and such ballads as "In My Room" (Number 23, 1963) and "Don't Worry, Baby" (Number 24, 1964). Early in 1965 Brian Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown and decided to quit touring, though he continued writing, recording, and producing.

    Pet Sounds, which was released in March 1966, and included "Caroline, No" (Number 23), "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (Number Eight, 1966), and "God Only Knows" (Number 39, 1966), hit Number Ten but sold comparatively poorly. (In fact, it was not certified gold until the 30th anniversary of its release, in 1996.) Nonetheless, it stands as one of the most important works in the Beach Boys oeuvre, for it ushered in the era of studio experimentation, predating the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and rivaling even Spector in terms of its sophisticated production. With the passage of time, the importance of Pet Sounds has only grown. Paul McCartney and Beatles producer George Martin have acknowledged that it was the inspiration for Sgt. Pepper's, and the album's 30th anniversary was celebrated in 1997 (a year late) with the release of a four-CD box set that included tracks stripped of vocals and vocal tracks without instrumentation. At the same time the Sub Pop label released a single containing three previously unreleased tracks: a stereo mix of "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," a vocal-only version of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," and the stereo backing track for "Here Today." (All three tracks are also contained in the Pet Sounds box.)

    The highlight of the Beach Boys' borderline psychedelic period was "Good Vibrations" (Number One, 1966) (from Wild Honey), Wilson's production masterpiece. It took six months and cost $16,000 to make, with several distinct sections and such exotic instruments as Jew's harp, sleigh bells, harpsichord, and theremin. Meanwhile, Brian's ambitions, neuroses, and drug intake were increasing throughout the 1960s. He and Van Dyke Parks began collaborating on Smile in late 1966, but after a mysterious fire at the studio where they were working, Wilson reportedly destroyed most of the tapes in a fit of paranoia. Several songs have surfaced since; the Wilson-Parks "Heroes and Villains" (Number 12, 1967) appeared on Smiley Smile, and the melancholy, beautiful title cut of 1971's Surf's Up was also a Smile composition. The Smile debacle, and Smiley Smile, marked the end of Brian's reign as the Beach Boys' sole producer.

    Beginning with Wild Honey (Number 24, 1967), other group members shared writing and production, along with Bruce Johnston, who joined the touring Beach Boys after Brian retired from the road in late 1964. (Johnston replaced Glen Campbell after a brief stint.) Johnston has been associated on and off with the Beach Boys, primarily as producer, ever since. The Beach Boys' late-1960s touring band also included Daryl Dragon (later the Captain of the Captain and Tennille) on keyboards; Blondie Chaplin (later a sideman with the Rolling Stones and others) on guitar, bass, and vocals; and Ricky Fataar (later of Joe Walsh's band) on drums. In 1968 the Beach Boys became the first major American rock band to play behind the Iron Curtain when they performed in Czechoslovakia. Increasingly, Carl played a larger role in directing the group. His was the lead voice on "Good Vibrations," "Surf's Up," "Wild Honey" (Number 31, 1967), "Darlin'" (Number 19, 1967), and "Friends" (Number 47, 1968), among others.

    Beginning in 1970 and for the next 18 years, the Beach Boys released their records on their own Brother label, a custom imprint of Warner/Reprise. Their first album under the deal, Sunflower (Number 151, 1970), inaugurated a five-year performance hiatus for Brian, although he tried one live show in early 1970 at the Whisky-a-Go-Go in L.A. The group's hugely popular oldies-dominated live shows reinforced in the public's mind the image of a group whose creative past was behind it. In fact, however, 20/20 (Number 68, 1969), Sunflower, and its more successful followup, Surf's Up (Number 29, 1971) contained some of the group's more adventurous and interesting work: the lower charting but important singles "Do It Again" (Number 20, 1968), "I Can Hear Music" (Number 24, 1969), "Add Some Music to Your Day" (Number 64, 1970), "Long Promised Road" (Number 89, 1971), and the intriguing album cuts "This Whole World" and "'Til I Die."

    In 1972 the Beach Boys decided to record in Holland, but after relocating their families learned there were no adequate studio facilities. They had a studio broken down, shipped, and reconstructed in a converted barn, where for over six months they recorded Holland. Reprise initially rejected the album for a lack of what the company considered a solid hit single, so Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks provided "Sail On Sailor" (written by Brian and several others in addition to Parks). With a rare lead vocal by Blondie Chaplin, the single hit Number 79 when released in 1973, but rose to Number 49 when rereleased in 1975. Holland also contained "The Trader," yet another of Carl's more introspective, mature works, and Al Jardine's "California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a)" (Number 84, 1973). Aside from a critically acclaimed double live album, The Beach Boys in Concert (Number 25, 1973), the group's next five charting releases would be repackages and greatest-hits compilations, including Endless Summer (Number One, 1974) and Spirit of America (Number 8, 1975). Another stellar live collection, Beach Boys '69 (The Beach Boys Live in London) came out in 1976 (Number 75).

    Meanwhile, efforts continued to coax Brian out of his Bel Air mansion, which included a sandbox as well as a recording studio. In the late 1960s he had briefly run a West Hollywood health food store, the Radiant Radish, and in 1972 he produced an album by his wife, Marilyn, and her sister Diane Powell, as Spring (or American Spring). In 1976, after a much-publicized rehabilitation, Brian rejoined the band for 15 Big Ones (Number Eight, 1976). It included oldie remakes (Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music," which went to Number Five and was the Beach Boys' only Top Ten hit from late 1966 through mid-1988) and Brian Wilson originals such as "It's O.K." (Number 29, 1976), with backing tracks Brian had recorded with ELO founder Roy Wood's group Wizzard.

    In 1977 open personality clashes (primarily between Dennis Wilson and Mike Love) jeopardized the band's future as it switched labels and moved over to CBS; eventually Love's brothers Stan and Steve were removed from the Beach Boys' management organization. Steve Love was later sentenced to prison for embezzling nearly $1 million from the group. Johnston was back as coproducer for L.A. (Light Album); in the mid-1970s he had left the band to concentrate on songwriting (including Barry Manilow's hit "I Write the Songs") and make a solo album, Going Public (1977). Love You (Number 53, 1977) contained another overlooked gem, "Honkin' Down the Highway" along with Brian's surreal tribute to the king of late-night TV, "Johnny Carson." Chartwise, the late 1970s were a low time for the group: Neither M.I.U. Album (1978) nor L.A. (Light Album) (1979) charted. A flop single from M.I.U. was rereleased in 1981 and provided the group's first nonmedley Top 20 hit since 1976 in a Number 18 remake of the Dell-Vikings' "Come Go With Me."

    The 1980s proved a tumultuous decade for the group. Carl Wilson quit in 1981 to concentrate on his solo career. He, more than the others, seemed to resist the band's increasingly nostalgic appeal. But after his return the following year, the Beach Boys continued being known more as an oldies-but-goodies act, albeit an extraordinarily successful one. In 1983 they unwittingly became the center of controversy when Secretary of the Interior James Watt banned them from performing a Fourth of July concert at the Washington Monument. Public opinion was solidly against Watt, who later resigned, and the group was personally invited to play the Washington Monument the next summer by First Lady Nancy Reagan.

    Nineteen eighty-three marked Brian's return to the stage with the group, but also the death of Dennis. On December 28 the hard-living drummer drowned while swimming off his boat in Marina Del Rey, California. With the help of President Ronald Reagan, special permission was granted so that Dennis' body could be buried at sea. Brian had since come and gone from the group. The Beach Boys enjoyed their third Number 1 hit, their biggest-selling single ever, "Kokomo" (1988), from the hit film Cocktail, without him. Brian's long-awaited first solo album came out that year. Co-produced by his longtime therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (whose license to practice therapy was later revoked), Brian Wilson elicited glowing reviews but sold poorly. The Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

    As of 1993 Brian was a touring Beach Boy again. Later Mike Love sued Brian, his cowriter Todd Gold, and Landy, claiming he had been defamed in Wilson's autobiography, Wouldn't It Be Nice?: My Own Story. The case was settled out of court in early 1994. In 1995 Brian and Love settled a long-running legal dispute over songwriting credit and royalties for Love. Wilson paid Love $5 million and Love has writing credit on such songs as "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "California Girls." That same year, Brian Wilson and his estranged daughter Carnie reconciled their differences and contributed "Fantasy Is Reality/Bells of Madness" to Rob Wasserman's Trios.

    The period from the mid-1990s through the turn of the century brought dramatic changes within the group, including what appears to be, at this writing, the end of the Beach Boys as we know them. They made their biggest impression on the country chart, where their Stars and Stripes, Vol. 1 (Number 12 C&W, 1996) featured "duets" with the group and country stars. In 1995 Brian was the subject of producer Don Was' documentary I Just Wasn't Made for These Times; he also released a second solo album, Orange Crate Art, and remarried. In 1997 he provided some production work, songwriting, and background singing for his daughters Carnie and Wendy's album The Wilsons. His third solo album, Imagination (Number 88, 1998), was warmly received upon its release, and Wilson returned to performing. By then he had relocated to Illinois, and in a series of candid interviews gave the impression of someone happy and comfortable at last. "My music isn't going to save the world," he said when Imagination was released. "But I think it's going to save souls, certain people in the world. It pleases me to be able to do that. It feels good." He began touring in 1999. For his 2000 tour, he performed Pet Sounds accompanied by a symphony orchestra; a live album was released from that tour in 2001. In June 2000, Brian was inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame. In 2001 he and Pet Sounds were the recipients of a star-studded tribute (with guests Elton John, Paul Simon, and Billy Joel, among others), televised on TNT.

    Ironically, as Brian Wilson seemed to be coming back into his own, the Beach Boys were enduring perhaps the most difficult times of their long career. In 1997 Carl Wilson was diagnosed with lung cancer, which later developed into brain cancer. He continued to tour with the group as his health would permit, sometimes even performing sitting in a chair. However, by fall 1997 he retired (he was replaced by David Marks, an original member who quit the group in 1963 but continued receiving about $20,000 a year in royalties). Carl died on February 6, 1998, in L.A., at age 51.

    Shortly after Carl's passing, Al Jardine quit the group, leaving only Love, Johnston, and Marks (who, ironically, had been replaced by Jardine back in 1964). The trio toured as the Beach Boys, with added musicians, while Jardine emerged with his Beach Boys Family and Friends (later renamed Al Jardine's Family and Friends Beach Band after Brother Records International, the corporate entity that is the Beach Boys, got an injunction against his using the Beach Boys name), which included two of his sons and Carnie and Wendy Wilson. Love and Jardine feuded bitterly in the press and in court, but much of this was overshadowed by an ongoing celebration of the Beach Boys legacy, in a documentary (VH1's The Beach Boys: Endless Harmony), a made-for-TV miniseries (The Beach Boys: An American Family), and three simultaneously released greatest-hits packages. In 2001 the group received a Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy.

    Capitol began another round of Beach Boys reissues and compilations in the early 2000s, and a Love-fronted version of the Beach Boys continued touring while Wilson appeared at various events with other rock legends including Elton John and Paul McCartney.

    On February 20, 2004, Brian Wilson shocked the music world when he performed his legendary SMiLE album in its entirety at the Royal Festival Hall in London. That September, Wilson released a new studio recording of SMiLE which featured a notably different "Good Vibrations," with the lyrics Mike Love wrote for the 1966 hit version of the song replaced by Tony Asher's original demo lyrics. Wilson won his first-ever Grammy Award, ironically for best rock instrumental, for the SMiLE song "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (Fire)." In 2005, he released a two-DVD version of SMiLE that included a documentary and live performance of the album. Wilson toured the United States that year and also appeared at the Live 8 concert in Berlin, Germany. Also that year, Love sued Wilson again, this time for "misappropriating" Love's songs, likeness and the Beach Boys trademark during the promotion of SMiLE. Before a judge threw the suit out of court the following year, Love, Wilson, Jardine, Johnson and Marks all appeared together atop the Capitol Records building to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pet Sounds. Wilson also celebrated the anniversary with a sell-out show at UCLA's Royce Hall in Los Angeles and was backed by a 12-member band that included Jardine. In late 2007, Wilson debuted a new song cycle, That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative) , based on an old African-American spiritual, in London and scheduled a handful of performances in Australia into early 2008. Love and Johnson continue to tour as the Beach Boys.

    Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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