Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Brian Wilson's smile

Brian Wilson is the man behind the Beach Boys. Well, the good stuff. Brian, using his band as his instruments, composed one of the most critically acclaimed and influential albums in the history of popular music: Pet Sounds (1966).

Pet Sounds was elaborate and orchestral. Pet Sounds was rock and roll, but it was different. It was made to be heard, not to be danced to. Many people wondered how the Beach Boys, notorious for their particularly shallow brand of poppy rock and roll with messages rarely going deeper than cute girls and surfing, had composed such a work of art. What had happened is that Brian had stepped back from touring with the band (and would rarely ever return again) to spend his time on composing. Working with lyricist Tony Asher, Brian composed what he considers a solo album in all but name.

Brian Wilson (left) and Mike Love (right) in the studio
during the "Pet Sounds" sessions
What was Brian's motivation to move beyond the pop songs of the band's youth into a new territory of  music? Brian had something to prove. The Wilson brothers had an abusive father. Their father managed the band for much of the early career, using his sons (who learned to harmonize together in their bedroom) as income for himself. Constantly pushing the surf-rock agenda and continuing to abuse his sons, he was eventually thrown out of the band (and physically out of the studio) by Brian. After this, Brian took a leadership role in the band, and began pushing in a new direction. Battling festering mental illness that was being perpetuated by irresponsible drug use, Brian not only found inspiration for his new album, but a channel through which he could connect with himself and release his inner demons. Thus, instead of singing "I wish they all could be California girls," the new Beach Boys album moaned, "sometimes I feel very sad."

Now Brian had the attention of the people, with mixed messages being thrown his way. The fans of earlier works by the Beach Boys were alienated, but an entirely new crowd of listeners was coming forward to hear what was next. The Beatles, who Brian has identified as the single largest source of his insecurity as a musician, immediately began work on an album to save face after the Beach Boys of all people had done something they had never come close to doing (which would become Sgt Pepper's). The old fans wanted the old music. The band wanted the old music. The new fans wanted more. Brian announced that there would be more.

Brian announced SMiLE, the album that he expected would blow Pet Sounds out of the water. The band was not pleased. As the band toured without him, Brian again went into a composing phase. They would periodically come by and record tracks for him, but none of it made sense. They would ask to listen to pieces, but what they heard was hardly music as they knew it. Brian is driven by those around him. He is hyper-aware and paranoid. The new fans wanted more, and he reached toward this source of stimuli for his writing. Now the old fans, his band, and his label lost faith in him, demanding a return to the band's (profitable) roots. Stretched in both directions, Wilson began to wear thin. 

Mentally ill, damaged by years of drug use, and now in an extremely stressed and helpless position, Brian Wilson's mental breakdown came as no surprise. When Wilson was nearly done working on SMiLE, the Beatles released Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wilson heard it, and he broke down. In his fragile State, he believed that Sgt Pepper's had beaten him to the punch on all of his ideas that he had considered revolutionary, and he ceased all work on SMiLE. He became bedridden for around 3 years, contributing minimally to anything in his life, and his continual downhill spiral would eventually lead to his ejection from the Beach Boys (after his band released a few lackluster albums scraped together using unfinished SMiLE session recordings and their own less-than-impressive compositional skills). 

Wilson, motivated by his need to prove something about his ability, and his need to please those around him, eventually doomed himself. He tied himself to the dock and set sail. After decades of SMiLE living in infamy, almost as a legend among the musical community, Brian eventually got his mind together enough to release SMiLe in 2004 (under his own name rather than as a Beach Boys album). Many people criticize this move. Wilson himself has admitted that the album differs from his original vision substantially, and anybody can hear that Brian's voice is not what it used to be. In 2011 the original SMiLE sessions were released in their entirety, to critical acclaim. The world may never know what SMiLE would have sounded like, or what it would have done to the world had it been released in its intended time. 

Original planned album art, used in the 2011 sessions release

Collins, M. A., & Amabile, T. M. (1999). Motivation and creativity. In Robert J. Sternberg (Ed.)Handbook of Creativity.New York: Cambridge University Press.

1 comment:

  1. Matt, thank you for sharing! I have never heard much about the background of the Beach Boys and their albums but find the story of Brian's work (essentially a solo album) quite intriguing. It is tragic that Brian battled mental illness and addiction which may have both helped and hindered his creativity in developing emotional songs that connect with people. As I read this blog post, it reminded me of another post this week about Heath Ledger. Both men seemed to be consumed by their motivation to create which may have led to their demise. It will always remain a mystery what Smile could have been, or what may have come after that album had he been able to lead a healthy lifestyle. I think the fact that people will always wonder what could have been is a true testament to how creative and influential Brian was.


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