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Brian Wilson

Brian Douglas Wilson is an American musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer who co-founded the Beach Boys. Often called a genius for his novel approaches to pop composition, extraordinary musical aptitude, and mastery of recording techniques, he is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative and significant songwriters of the 20th century. His best-known work is distinguished for its high production values, complex harmonies and orchestrations, layered vocals, and introspective or ingenuous themes. Brian is also known for his formerly high-ranged singing and for his lifelong struggles with mental illness.

Brian, who grew up influenced by 1950s rock and roll and jazz-based vocal groups, originally functioned as the band's songwriter, producer, co-lead vocalist, bassist, keyboardist, and de facto leader. In 1964, he suffered a nervous breakdown and stopped touring with the group, which led to more personal work such as Pet Sounds (1966) and the unfinished Smile. He retreated from his dominance of the Beach Boys after 1967, yielding most of the control to his younger brother Carl. He made sporadic contributions to their records, returning only briefly in the 1970s and 2010s, the latter as part of a special 50th anniversary tour and album. Brian started his solo career in 1988, and went on to tour regularly as a solo artist from 1999 to 2022.

Heralding popular music's recognition as an art form, Brian's accomplishments as a producer helped initiate an era of unprecedented creative autonomy for label-signed acts. The youth zeitgeist of the 1960s is commonly associated with his early songs, and he is regarded as an important figure to many music genres and movements, including the California sound, art pop, psychedelia, chamber pop, progressive music, punk, outsider, and sunshine pop. Since the 1980s, his influence has extended to styles such as post-punk, indie rock, emo, dream pop, Shibuya-kei, and chillwave.

The Beatles album “Rubber Soul”, released in 1965, influenced him. Brian had already listed the record as one of his favourites of all time and said it was a crucial album to influence him to write the band’s masterpiece Pet Sounds (1966).

History[]

Brian Douglas Wilson was born on June 20, 1942, in Inglewood, California, the eldest son of Audree Neva (née Korthof) and Murry Wilson, a musician and machinist. His two younger brothers were Dennis and Carl. When Brian was two, the family moved from Inglewood to nearby Hawthorne. Speaking of Brian's unusual musical abilities prior to his first birthday, his father said that, as a baby, he could repeat the melody from "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along" after only a few verses had been sung by the father. At about age two, Brian heard George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which had an enormous emotional impact on him. Brian was quarterback on his high school football team at Hawthorne High School. He also played baseball and was a cross-country runner in his senior year.

Brian sang at school functions and with his family and friends at home, teaching Dennis and Carl harmony parts. He also played piano obsessively after school, deconstructing the harmonies of the Four Freshmen by listening to short segments of their songs on a phonograph, then working to recreate the blended sounds note by note on the keyboard. In 1960, Brian enrolled as a psychology major at El Camino College in Los Angeles. In 1961 he wrote his first original melody, loosely based on "When You Wish Upon a Star.” The song was eventually known as "Surfer Girl.” Along with his brothers, cousin Mike Love and Al Jardine, they recorded the song “Surfin’” in 1961, where it became a local hit on Candix Records. Soon they would become the Beach Boys and change popular music forever.

The Beach Boys signed a seven-year contract with Capitol Records at the urging of Capitol executive and staff producer Nick Venet who signed the group, seeing them as the "teenage gold" he had been scouting for. On June 4, 1962, the Beach Boys debuted on Capitol with their second single, "Surfin' Safari" backed with "409.” In January 1963, the Beach Boys recorded their first top-ten single, "Surfin' U.S.A.", which began their long run of highly successful recording efforts. When "I Get Around" was released in May of 1964, it would climb to No. 1 in the US, their first single to do so, proving that the Beach Boys could compete with the Beatles and contemporary British pop groups. By the end of 1964, the stress of road travel, writing, and producing became too much for Brian. In January 1965, he announced his withdrawal from touring to concentrate entirely on songwriting and record production.

Now a full-time studio artist, Brian wanted to move the Beach Boys beyond their surf aesthetic, believing that their image was antiquated and distracting the public from his talents as a producer and songwriter. Musically, he said he began to "take the things I learned from Phil Spector and use more instruments whenever I could. I doubled up on basses and tripled up on keyboards, which made everything sound bigger and deeper." In 1965 the Beach Boys released their Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) album, with “California Girls,” charting at No. 3 in the US while the album went to No. 2. The album also included a reworked arrangement of "Help Me, Rhonda" which became the band's second number one US single in the spring of 1965. This incredibly productive period included eight albums and a wave of hits that would make the Beach Boys the most popular American band.

Pet Sounds was released May 16, 1966 on Capitol Records. The album was produced, arranged, and composed by Brian Wilson with guest lyricist Tony Asher. Brian’s goal was to create "the greatest rock album ever made" – a cohesive work with no filler tracks. It is sometimes considered a solo album and a refinement of the themes and ideas he introduced with The Beach Boys Today! in 1965. Lead single "Caroline, No" was issued as his official solo debut. It was followed by two singles credited to the group: "Sloop John B" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (backed with "God Only Knows").

Brian's innovative Wall of Sound-based orchestrations included elaborate layers of vocal harmonies, found sounds, and instruments never before associated with rock, such as bicycle bells, French horn, flutes, Electro-Theremin, chamber strings, and beverage cans. Pet Sounds is regarded by musicologists as an early concept album that advanced the field of music production, incorporating elements of pop, jazz, classical, and the avant-garde. In 2004, it was preserved in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

"Good Vibrations" was composed by Brian Wilson, with lyrics by Mike Love. Released as a single on October 10, 1966, it was an immediate critical and commercial hit, topping record charts in several countries including the US and UK. Characterized by its complex soundscapes, episodic structure and subversions of pop music formula, it was the costliest single ever recorded at the time of its release. "Good Vibrations" later became widely acclaimed as one of the finest and most important works of the rock era.

Brian’s ambitious SMiLE was planned to follow the Beach Boys’ 11th studio album Pet Sounds. It was to be a twelve-track concept LP assembled from short, interchangeable musical fragments similar to the group's 1966 single "Good Vibrations". SMiLE was planned to feature word paintings, tape manipulation, elaborate vocal arrangements, experiments with musical acoustics, and comedic interludes, with influences drawn from psychedelia, pre-rock and roll pop, doo-wop, jazz, ragtime, musique concrète, classical, American history, poetry, cartoons, and mysticism. Instead, the album was shelved and the group released a downscaled version, Smiley Smile, in September 1967. Over the next four decades, few of the original Smile tracks were officially released, and the project came to be regarded as the most "legendary" unreleased album in popular music history.

After months of recording their follow-up to Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ SMiLE was shelved for a variety of reasons. Said Brian: "time can be spent in the studio to the point where you get so next to it, you don't know where you are with it – you decide to just chuck it for a while." Sessions for a more homespun version of SMiLE lasted from June to July 1967 at Brian's new makeshift home studio. The album was retitled Smiley Smile and featured the Beach Boys playing their own instruments, rather than the session musicians employed in much of their previous work. It was the first album for which production was credited to the entire group instead of Brian alone. When asked if Brian was "still the producer of Smiley Smile,” Carl answered, "Most definitely.” The Beach Boys immediately recorded a new album, Wild Honey. Recorded mostly at their private studio – located in Brian's home – the album may be retrospectively viewed as the second installment in a consecutive series of lo-fi Beach Boys albums.

1968 saw the release of the Beach Boys’ 14th studio album, Friends. The album is characterized by its calm and peaceful atmosphere, which contrasted the prevailing music trends of the time, and for its brevity, with five of its 12 tracks running less than two minutes long. The decade’s final album, 1969’s 20/20 mostly consists of outtakes from earlier albums, including “Our Prayer” and “Cabinessence” from the SMiLE-era sessions. It was their last album for Capitol Records.

After spending the 1960s at Capitol Records, The Beach Boys signed with Reprise Records in 1970. Their first album under their imprint Brother Records, was Sunflower, released in 1970. Brian wrote or co-wrote seven of the 12 songs and performed at half of the band’s concerts that year. Sunflower is now regarded as classic. In 1971, the band released the critically-acclaimed Surf’s Up, including the legendary SMiLE title track. The album marked a return to the charts and also included Brian’s “A Day In The Life” and one of his best songs, the haunting “’Til I Die.” 1973 saw the release of one of the band’s most beloved albums, Holland.

1973 also saw the release of the film classic American Graffiti, which featured early Beach Boys’ songs “Surfin’ Safari” and “All Summer Long” in the memorable closing sequence. The release of 1974s compilation album Endless Summer, topped the Billboard charts, selling over three million albums, and further cementing The Beach Boys as “America’s Band.” Brian produced the next two Beach Boys albums, 1976s15 Big Ones and 1977s The Beach Boys Love You, now considered a classic, with Brian writing all the songs and even performing most the instruments. Two more albums rounded out the decade, including “Good Timin’.”

The 1980s started off with Keepin’ The Summer Alive. The group wanted Brian to return as their producer and felt that he would be more comfortable recording at the familiar studio environment of Western Studios, home of Brian’s classic 1960s productions. They were briefly successful, as Carl Brian said, "Brian got hot for about three days in the studio. He was singing like a bird.” But it wasn’t meant to be, as Bruce Johnston took over control. Brian did co-write six of the album’s songs, including “Goin’ On,” featuring classic Beach Boys’ harmonies. 1985 saw the release of The Beach Boys, with Brian singing lead on “Crack At Your Love” and the 1950s-style tracks “I’m So Lonely” and “It’s Just A Matter Of Time.” This was the Beach Boys’ 25th studio album and the last for more than twenty years.

1988 was the release of Brian’s debut solo album, Brian Wilson. It was voted one of the best albums of 1988 by NME, and as part of its acclaim, garnered the nickname "Pet Sounds '88" among some critics. The album, which cost $1 million to produce, was the first written and produced by Brian since 1977s The Beach Boys Love You. Working with an array of collaborators, Brian accordingly themed the album around love and spirituality exemplified by its lead single "Love and Mercy.” Nearly a quarter of the LP is devoted to "Rio Grande,” a piece which was intended to rekindle Brian's experimental drive from the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Rolling Stone called Brian Wilson a return to form and  “a stunning reminder of what pop’s been missing all these years.”

Brian released two albums simultaneously in 1995. The first was the soundtrack to Don Was's documentary I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, which consisted of new versions of several Beach Boys and solo songs. The second, Orange Crate Art, saw Brian as lead vocalist on an album produced, arranged and written by Van Dyke Parks. I Just Wasn't Made for These Times includes Brian performing for the first time with his now-adult daughters, Wendy and Carnie of the group Brian Phillips. During the early 1990s, Brian also worked on some tracks with power pop band Jellyfish, which remain unreleased. In 1997, Brian and his daughters Carnie and Wendy would release an album together, titled The Brians (1997).

In 1998, Brian wrote recorded and co-produced the album Imagination with Joe Thomas. A return to form, the album contained top-shelf songs including the title track, “Cry,” “She Says That She Needs Me,” and “Lay Down Burden,” dedicated to brother Carl, who passed away in 1998. For the first time in decades, Brian started to perform live consistently, including performing the entire Pet Sounds album live throughout the US, UK and Europe. Other tour highlights include a successful tour of Japan and a performance at Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit in 1999, where Brian shared billing with Young, Pearl Jam, Emmylou Harris, The Who, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Tom Waits and others. Brian was truly back.

Brian released his first-ever live solo album direct from his website in 2000. Containing classic Beach Boys hits and a few originals, the album documented Brian’s return to form as a live performer, backed by an astounding young band. In 2001, An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson was held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Elton John, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, David Crosby, Vince Gill, Jimmy Webb and George Martin were some of the greats who assembled to honor Brian. In 2002, Brian shared the stage with Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and other luminaries at the Queen’s Jubilee in Buckingham Palace. 2004 saw the release of “Gettin’ In Over My Head” featuring guest performers Elton John, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, and late brother Carl on the duet “Soul Searchin.’”

In 2004, Brian decided to revisit the aborted Smile project from 1967. Aided by band member Darian Sahanaja, and lyricist Van Dyke Parks, the work was finally revealed in concert, 37 years after it was conceived. Brian debuted his 2004 interpretation of Smile at the Royal Festival Hall in London and subsequently toured the UK. Following the tour, Brian Wilson Presents Smile was recorded, and released in September 2004 becoming a hit and winning a Grammy Award. In 2007, Brian was the recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, attended by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. That Lucky Old Sun was released in 2008 to critical and commercial acclaim, while the piece debuted in a series of 2007 concerts starting at London's Royal Festival Hall.

The 2010s saw Brian staying productive, releasing three studio albums, a live album, a retrospective and the first all-new Beach Boys album in over twenty years. In 2009, Brian signed a two-record deal with Disney after he was approached to record an album of his interpretations of Gershwin songs, and to assess unfinished piano pieces by Gershwin for possible expansion into finished songs. Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin was released in August 2010 and hit No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Chart. Brian’s second album for Disney was In the Key of Disney, a collection of Disney film songs, which was released in 2011.

Brian and the surviving Beach Boys released That's Why God Made the Radio in 2012. The new album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts which was their highest album debut to date. The reunion also included a sold-out tour, and confirmed the Beach Boys as “America’s Band.” In 2016 Brian released his highly-anticipated memoir, I Am Brian Wilson, which became a literary best-seller. In 2014, the film Love and Mercy documented Brian’s life, and became a critical success. Brian was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song for “One Kind Of Love.”

2020 started off with the Cayamo Cruise Tour, feautring dynamic performances by Brian, along with Al Jardine, Blondie Chapin and band. Unfortunately, due to the worldwide pandemic COVID-19, Europe, Japan and United States tours were cancelled. In the down-time, Brian left updates with fans on social media, was featured on the first episode of Rolling Stone’s In My Room series, and made in-house TV appearances singing classic songs.

2021 saw the award-winning Brent Brian-directed documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, which included the original song “Right Where I Belong” Brian wrote with My Morning Jacket’s Jim Jones. Brian also released a new studio album Brian Wilson At My Piano, featuring Brian playing some of his greatest songs solo. The busy 2021 also concluded with a 2022 U.S. Summer Tour with co-headliner Chicago.

Brian Wilson recalls how much “Rubber Soul” influenced him[]

“I remember being blown away by ‘You Won’t See Me” and ‘I’m Looking Through You’ and ‘Girl.’ It wasn’t just the lyrics and the melodies but the production and their harmonies. They had such unique harmonies, you know?”

“In ‘You Won’t See Me,’ Paul sings low and George and John sing high. There’s an organ drone in there, a note that’s held down for the last third of the song or so. Those were touches they were trying – almost art music. What was so great about the Beatles was you could hear their ideas so clearly in their music,” Brian Wilson said.

Curiously, the classic Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds”, that Brian is credited as the mastermind behind it, inspired the Beatles to write the acclaimed album “Sgt. Peppers Loney Hearts Club Band”, released one year later in 1967.

What Paul McCartney said about “Pet Sounds”[]

Talking with The Rolling Stones‘ guitarist Ronnie Wood on his TV show in 2013 (Transcribed by Rock and Roll Garage), Paul McCartney revealed that his favorite Beach Boys song is “God Only Knows”. The two musicians ended up singing the song together on stage many decades of it’s release.

McCartney also recalled how “Pet Sounds” inspired him. “You know, Brian Wilson sort of proved himself to be like a really amazing composer. I was into chords, harmonies and stuff at that time. We ended up with this kind of rivalry.”

“We put a song out, Brian would hear it and he’d do one. Which is nice, like me and John, you know. We kind of try to top each other all the time. But he eventually came out with ‘God Only Knows’. That was a sound stomper on ‘Pet Sounds’. I just think it’s a great song. Melody, harmonies, words. It’s a great song, I love it. It’s my favorite Beach Boys song,” Paul McCartney said.

Discography[]

With The Beach Boys[]

  • Surfin' Safari (1962)
  • Surfin' U.S.A. (1963)
  • Surfer Girl (1963)
  • Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
  • Shut Down Volume 2 (1964)
  • All Summer Long (1964)
  • The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (1964)
  • The Beach Boys Today! (1965)
  • Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965)
  • Beach Boys' Party! (1965)
  • Pet Sounds (1966)
  • Smiley Smile (1967)
  • Wild Honey (1967)
  • Friends (1968)
  • 20/20 (1969)
  • Sunflower (1970)
  • Surf's Up (1971)
  • Carl and the Passions – "So Tough" (1972)
  • Holland (1973)
  • 15 Big Ones (1976)
  • The Beach Boys Love You (1977)
  • M.I.U. Album (1978)
  • L.A. (Light Album) (1979)
  • Keepin' the Summer Alive (1980)
  • The Beach Boys (1985)
  • That's Why God Made the Radio (2012)

Selected archival releases[]

  • The Pet Sounds Sessions (1996)
  • The Smile Sessions (2011)
  • The Big Beat 1963 (2013)
  • Keep an Eye on Summer 1964 (2014)
  • Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hits & Dorinda Morgan Sessions (2015)
  • Beach Boys' Party! Uncovered and Unplugged (2015)
  • Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary (2016)
  • 1967 – Sunshine Tomorrow (2017)
  • Wake the World: The Friends Sessions (2018)
  • I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions (2018)
  • Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf's Up Sessions 1969–1971 (2021)
  • Sail On Sailor – 1972 (2022)

Solo albums[]

  • Brian Wilson (1988)
  • I Just Wasn't Made for These Times (1995) (soundtrack)
  • Orange Crate Art (1995) (with Van Dyke Parks)
  • Imagination (1998)
  • Gettin' In over My Head (2004)
  • Brian Wilson Presents Smile (2004)
  • What I Really Want for Christmas (2005)
  • That Lucky Old Sun (2008)
  • Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (2010)
  • In the Key of Disney (2011)
  • No Pier Pressure (2015)
  • At My Piano (2021)
  • Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (2021) (soundtrack)
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