Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Ruminations: Brian Wilson

Steve's notation of The Beach Boys as one of the great American bands of the sixties raised my eyebrows a bit. I have some issues with the Beach Boys: my former mother-in-law used to say they were white supremacists. That may be a bit strong: she was sort of a crazy person. But any rumination on Brian Wilson can't necessarily use that as a dismissal.

Any claim the Beach Boys have to fame begins and ends with Wilson, Mike Love's whiny insistence that it's his group too notwithstanding. But the complications of accepting Wilson's artistic centrality as a composer and producer are obviously pretty significant. I mean, they began as dad's project for the boys, no? And surf music was a calculted attempt to catch a trend that they personally had nothing to do with, simply an economic decision. They did outgrow surf music, of course, and there were a few years there, the Pet Sounds and SMiLE years (SMiLE, of course, listed more honestly as Wilson solo, not The Beach Boys), but that quickly declined into Howard Hughes-style mania for Brian. So he had a good period there, but is that enough? And I don't mean to pick on the guy: it might be, for most people. But I'm just assuming Simels meant Pet Sounds Beach Boys and not, say, "Be True to Your School" Beach Boys. I'll ask him to clarify.

(And no, to answer the inevitable question, I don't much credit "Kokomo," one of the most dependably annoying songs of the last century. I've been to Indiana, there's nothing tropical about it. But I do quite like The Barenaked Ladies song "Brian Wilson," if that helps.)

Worth noting: Matt Dillon's performance as Wilson in Grace of My Heart, an underrated film. (And Jeff and Steve McDonald play the Beach Boys who, when the Dillon character reveals his version of "Good Vibrations" ask, "How do you play it live?")


shrimplate said...

Pet Sounds is the pinnacle upon which the Beach Boys' reputation lies in state.

That, and Paul's comments about his admiration for it, and the subsequent change in production values undertaken by the Beatles.

An odd thing about the Beach Boys is that Pet Sounds is so great, while any "greatest hits" collection of their work will grind your ears down into pulp by the time you're only halfway through listening to it.

Anonymous said...

To me, the Beach Boys are a vacuous wasteland.

But that's just me.

NYMary said...

Simels weighs in:
I must confess I find it a little odd to be writing this -- the Beach Boy's music is pretty much my lingua franca, and the
idea that they need defending feels weird to me given
how much I love them (although I understand your skepticism, at least in the abstract. After all, Mike Love sucks).
In any event, here's why I think they deserve respect from
mere mortals like you and me.
1. The invented an instantly recognizable sound of their own,
one that practically defines a genre. Very few rock bands can make that claim.  (Chuck Berry with "Johnny B Goode", The Byrds with "Tambourine Man," the Ramones, and maybe U2). That alone should guarantee the Beach Boys immortality.
2. What Raymond Chandler did in prose for California the Beach Boys did  in music. They reflected a place and a time and made a kind of poetry out of it. They were not fake.
3. Five part harmonies, astoundingly gorgeous. And Brian's conception -- mating progressive jazz voicings a la the Four Freshman with classic doo-wop -- was totally unique.
4. From their inception in the early 60s, they were pretty much the only self-contained rock band in America. Wrote all their own songs, produced their own  records. Who else was doing that?
5. Kick-ass live act. If you doubt it, listen to "Beach Boys Concert," get a video of their closed-circuit show from '64, or find "The TAMI Show" video, in which -- performing with the Stones, James Brown and most of the Motown acts, they tear the audience to shreds. Carl Wilson was a killer surf guitarist, and the rhythm section was as good as anybody in rock at the time.
6. Not white bread at all. Carl and Dennis were as soulful singers in the r&b sense as anybody else working in the mid-Sixties.  And that includes Stevie Winwood or Felix Cavliere.
7. The car and surf songs are actually quite brilliant. Who else ever conceived of writing love songs to a carburetor?
And has any rock song ever conveyed as much sheer teenage elan as "Fun Fun Fun" or "I Get Around"?
8. Brian's best songs from the early period  anticipate the confessional singer/songwriter LA genre. "Don't Worry Baby" may be as nakedly emotional and self-revealing as anything Joni Mitchell ever wrote. Ditto "Warmth of the Sun."
9. The albums that preceed the sainted "Pet Sounds" and "Smile" are masterpeices. "The Beach Boys Today," Brian's first real studio concept album, is masterly; "When I Grow Up" isn't even the best song on it (try "Don't Hurt My Little Sister" or the astounding Sinatra goes r&b  of "The Back of My Mind" sung by Dennis). It's every bit as good as "Rubber Soul." in terms of consistency and melodic invention. The follow-up --"Summer Days and Summer Nights," of which "California Girls" is simply the icing on the cake, is even better -- it's every bit Brian's "Revolver." He never used the studio more impressively  than "Let Him Run Wild" or emulated the Beatles with the riffy brilliance of "Girl Don't Tell Me."
10. The album that follows the sainted "Pet Sounds" and
"Smile" is another masterpiece. "Wild Honey" is one of the handful of great white r&b albums of the period, and if you doubt it check out the title song or Carl's gorgeous reading of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her." And in it's back to basics way, it's very much of a piece with the Beatles "White Album."  
I could go on about the Beach Boys early 70s output -- you could make a fabulous comp album with songs like "Marcella" (one of their best ever rockers), "This Whole World" (Brian's canniest pocket symphony),  "All I Wanna Do" (the most glorious use of reverb in history), "Bluebirds Over the Mountain" (progressive rockabilly, if you can believe it), "Do It Again" and any number of others up through "Trader" on HOLLAND.
The decline after that was appalling, to be sure, but you get my point....the Beach Boys have a huge body of really transcendent work, and Brian wasn't the only big talent in the
Have I mentioned that Mike Love sucks?

dave said...

Steve pretty much nails it. The only thing I would add is Brian's incredibly advanced production techniques, which still sound fresh today. And after out-Spectoring Spector on "Pet Sounds," he switched to a completely different style for "Smile" where he used less instruments and got an even bigger sound (listen to "Cabinessence," esp. the "over and over the crow cries" fade - there's maybe six instruments in there and it's fuller and more dramatic than Spector's "River Deep Mountain High" - and more affecting!).

Anonymous said...

Wow. Can i be believing this? Brian wilson under attack?

When I think of the poignancy and understated grief about the passage of time;'Caroline No'

When I feel the exitential surcrease of my love for my wife and my realization of teh vast contributions she has freely given me; And God Only Knows

When I leave a high school and see the guys and gals headin' out in wheeled exurberance with the cd player cranked up to overdrive; Dance Dance Dance

I could go on. What the Beach Bros meant and mean to me

And yes, Mike Love is the repuke of the bunch.

NYMary said...

Oh, I wasn't really attacking Wilson. I have, at best, a surface knowledge of the Beach Boys, and for those of us who were born around the time Pet Sounds came out (I know, I know. Sorry) the crazy Wilson looms large.

But steve tells me over at Eschaton that Wilson actually plays the Barenaked Ladies' "Brian Wilson" in concert, which I think suggests a good self-image and sense of humor. I'm pretty open minded about such things, and certainly willing to be educated.

refinnej said...

I kind of look at the Beach Boys in the same way I look at Impressionism. (I know, I know.. work with me.) They're important and their contributions, as Steve points out, certainly shaped what came after. But it's not my fave, and I need to be in the right frame of mind to listen. And Brian Wilson is hilarious.. :)

Phila said...

I guess I'm in between. I basically agree with Steve, although there's something cloying, not quite sincere, and possibly even diabolical about Brian Wilson that's always kept me at arm's length. ("I Wasn't Made For These Times," for instance, strikes me as maudlin and fraudulent.)

But as a sort of musical architecture, even a song like "Be True to Your School" is pretty staggering. "God Only Knows," in terms of chording and arrangement, is up there with Kurt Weill, for my money. And "Surf's Up" is an amazing piece of work too. It's true that "Smile" is a solo album, but it's also true that it was written at the band's peak, and sounds almost exactly like the decades-old rough mixes.

I'm never going to be a member of Wilson's cult, but IMO he's pretty goddamn close to being as good as they say he is.

That said, does pop music really need a canon? Are there artists to whom one actually owes loyalty or even respect? I tend to think not.

Gardner said...

Steve does indeed nail it. What a joy to read his writing on this topic. There may be more to say, but there's not anything else to say, if that makes sense.

I'm provoked, I confess, by the question of whether pop music needs a canon, followed by the even more provocative question of whether there are artists to whom one actually owes loyalty or even respect. The answer to the second question is "yes." Human beings create art. If any human being deserves loyalty or respect, and I for one think many do, then artists qualify as well. Brian's art has been a crucial part of my life. Brian made the art. Not alone, of course, but it wouldn't have happened the way it did without him, and I can damn well tell what he's brought to the party. So I owe him loyalty and respect. (Cf. the party scene in the Brian section of Lewis Shiner's "Glimpses.")

That the canon question comes into play in this context says a great deal about the canon question and its tendencies. 'Nuff said.

I'm sorry, but the above comment in my view carries its own diabolical agenda. Maybe I've just been in academia too long. I'd give up my Ph.D. to have written even one song remotely as good as "She Knows Me Too Well" or any number of other Brian masterpieces.