Brian Wilson - The Beethoven of Rock
KURT VON MEIER
Behind Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys is an extraordinary history, composed of mosaic fragments of modern mythical archetypes rearranged to create an original yet deeply familiar image. First of all, the Ludwig van Beethoven syndrome comes to mind as a source.
There are the obvious similarities between Beethoven and Brian Wilson : the brilliance, intensity and success of their compositions, plus the technical virtuosity of first-rate performer& The major and most tragic event of Beethoven's mature career was his deafness; the realization that all sounds of the world were becoming gradually cut off from his existence. Thus he could only continue to compose (such masterful works as the Ninth Symphony) from sounds that existed within his own head. Brian Wilson's case is a. poetic inversion of Beethoven's. Beethoven lost his hearing tragically toward the end of his life, when he had already a developed talent; Brian Wilson has been almost completely deaf in one ear since birth. Strictly speaking then, there could be no "tragedy"; it was hearing he never had.
Brian Wilson's story is almost certain to come out happier. Several doctors had assured him that the nerve endings in his ear were dead, and that his hearing could not possibly improve. That is one reason why, of all top groups of the sixties, only the Beach Boys have never really had a stereo-conceived album : Brian produced them all with the use of only one ear. But with the insights and advances of modern medicine, a hopeful diagnosis could finally be made. Last year, just after finishing up the recording sessions for Wild Honey, a successful operation was performed. Although Brian is still recuperating, a joyful "Beethoven's Alternative," appears imminent—as though history were finally squaring things with civilization. All those unrealized sounds and unimaginable stereo combinations are now within the realm of possibility. Who knows what it will sound like on records, or what this may mean for the Beach Boys' sound wherever they play?
A study of the group's progression since their inception gives us some idea of what might come next. Pet Sounds marks the end of the Beach Boys' first phase, beginning in late 1961 when Brian produced the group's first single, "Surfin'." In a way, all of their music —from that first release right up to the Pet Sounds album—fits together with firm stylistic consistency.
The music, the group's image, even the Beach Boys' individual and collective life-styles all emerged to form a coherent "Beach Boy Idea." The Beach Boys are up front: direct, honest, wholesome and healthy. They symbolize a golden California; a red, white and blue America—but without the quasi-fascist, professional-flagwaver overtones we have come to associate with this image.
One of the key problems confronting the group's evolution lay in transcending much of what became associated with this heretofore successful Beach Boy Idea. In order to move forward artistically, they had to expand and modify the historical and aesthetic limitations of the name and the image. It is just this image-identity problem, together with related interpersonal issues, that is raised by Pet Sounds. Alternatives and implications are explored in Smiley Smile, and a final resolution is achieved in Wild Honey. Indeed, the last three Beach Boy albums document a confrontation facing almost every pop group that has met with success and yet has attempted to go further in terms of its own art—the search for a dynamic and productive, yet peaceful and loving, natural organic balance in the group.
The Beach Boys—like the Beatles and other groups. in England—discarded the older show-biz idea of a carefully costumed, tightly choreographed act just before making Pet Sounds. The liner photos show them in traditional Japanese attire. This was more than just a road-show gimmick for a one-shot laugh. There was a deep feeling of affinity with Japanese life-styles and culture--and while a Samurai suit might not be the best thing to wear for a concert in California, the Japanese audiences loved it, appreciating with pride the respect and inspiration their own culture had engendered. This is also reflected in the music, such as the use of Kabuki drum sounds at the beginning and near the end of "Caroline No."
The Idea of the Beach Boys, however, had not yet dissipated. Most of the guys admit there was an indefinite period of crisis when it just didn't make any sense to confine the group's development to a misguided, rigid adherence to some "corporate image." Getting away a little bit from the necessity to wear striped T's and topsiders, the group demonstrated outwardly their greater sense of inner freedom and self-expression.
From the start, the Beach Boys were a very close-knit unit, secured by ties of close friendship, and by family relationship. It was also clear from the start that Brian, the eldest of three Wilson brothers in the group, was the prime mover. In fact, Brian might even have been an outstanding member in Johann Sebastian Bach's brilliant musical family. Admittedly, words like genius fantastic, outstanding and brilliant are bandied about loosely in the music business, often in reference to Brian. This in itself doesn't prove very much. There is, however, fairly widespread agreement in ranking Brian right up there with the other creative masterminds in the field—John Lennon, Phil Spector, Smokey Robinson, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, and one or two others. (You fill in the blanks.)
As Derek Taylor—longtime friend of the Beatles—once wrote about Brian Wilson, "He alone in the industry—at the top of the pop pyramid—is full creator of a record from the first tentative constructions of a theme to the final master disc. Brian is writer, performer, singer, arranger, engineer and producer with complete control, even over packaging and design."
Brian is the anchor man of the Beach Boys. They know it and he knows it. At another time, and with other people, this would immediately suggest a fantastic assortment of potential ego/group hangups—because of the group's tightness.
For all of the arts in the 1960's, certainly one of the most basic and recurrent concerns is the problematic necessity of an assertive, even aggressive ego as a condition of creativity. In painting and sculpture, this surfaces as a stylistic problem of "impersonality" seen both in the commercially derived imagery of Pop Art painters and in the austere forms and machinelike textures of "minimal" sculpture. From architecture to scientific research projects, this impersonality is indicated by the absorption of individual contribution into the achievements of team effort. In popular music, we witness the subtle shifts that occur between individual stars and the groups with them. The Beach Boys exemplify the complex problems of this shifting-limelight ego-game. But their importance in the history of popular music lies in the group's beautiful and practical solution to these hangups while each member remains essentially himself.
Groups tend to form around leading talents. And there is often a great temptation, subsequently, for the key figure to assume an identity separate from that of the group. This causes a group as tightly fashioned as the Supremes to become "Diana Ross and the Supremes," or the Animals to become "Eric Burdon and the Animals." Of course, many groups, following a fifties tradition, still start off like a chief and his Indians. But there is another tradition which respects the identity and integrity of the individual while envisioning a heightened potential for self-realization which he gains as a member of a tribe. The Beach Boys reflect this growing attitude, along with the Beatles, the Stones and many of the groups out of San Francisco.
Now, a whole generation of musicians is developing, who are much less interested in power plays than in everyone's contribution to the mutual health and happiness of the entire tribe by becoming a more beautiful, complete person.
Brian Wilson's perceptive genius —in somewhat artificial distinction to his creative talent—lies in recognizing the Beach Boy Idea as something more valuable in personal, human terms than merely the commercial, show-biz image. Maybe that is why he didn't climb on everyone else's back just to get a little higher himself. There are problems of just plain decent behavior, too; it would be much easier to push your own ego-image out in front if you didn't happen to dig the other people with whom you had been working and creating for several years.
Whether the motives be professional, or personal, every member of the group slowly came to realize the indispensable sense of interrelationship. Through the transformations that occurred during production of these three albums there arose a pervasive desire for natural, organic forms of organization, rather than the artificial, authoritarian structures imposed on many pop groups (by the work schedules, by managers, or by the members of the group themselves). In the case of the Beach Boys, it only remained for this mutual realization to be road-tested, then instituted as a new "organizational" foundation.
The first stylistic and structural crisis for the group was occasioned by Pet Sounds, a year-long project. This album stands historically as a watershed in the development of the group. In marked contrast to all the earlier Beach Boy albums, a host of studio musicians augmented the group. While this is normal procedure for pop and rock recording sessions, the Beach Boys, from their earliest studio dates, were used to producing all their own sounds. So, even before the introduction of the compositions themselves, a major extraneous element entered the concept of the record.
Then there was the conception Brian had of the music itself. It was more symphonic; deeper and more ambitious than anything the group had recorded. It's even been said that some of the executives at Capitol Records, despite their pleasure and confidence from an unbroken string of smash sales with previous Beach Boy albums, were very uneasy about the commercial potential of Pet Sounds. Fortunately, this challenge, created by stylistic maturity and supported by artistic integrity, was met by industry and commerce. Capitol decided to go ahead and release the record.
In all, production of the album took a full year. During this time, the Beach Boys were in and out of town fulfilling concert tours and personal appearances, and taping at recording sessions whenever time could be sandwiched into the schedule. Meanwhile, Brian completely dropped out of the touring bag. He stayed in Los Angeles working over tapes—correcting, editing, dubbing and overdubbing—and planning new music or new arrangements for music already recorded. Then the group would appear for another taping session, returning from wherever it had been.
Onstage, Brian's place was taken over by Bruce Johnston, a California bass-player, singer and longtime friend of the group. Inevitably, this shift in personnel, accomplished gracefully and fortuitously, produced a subtle change. This was a radical modification in the basic character of the music. No matter how it might sound onstage, as music performed it was quite clear the Beach Boys were breaking into more exploratory realms with music created by very different principles than those that had become so comfortable and familiar. The studio and its workings are an inherent part of Pet Sounds. The Beach Boys would find, as would other "studio-oriented" groups, that it takes performing skills, technical virtuosity, plus a high capacity for showmanship to come near carrying off a recorded Pet Sounds onstage.
With the group onstage or touring much of the time, and Brian in the studio or at home. a sense of separation occurred. Certainly this is what the public came to believe, with the touch of natural malice all gossip holds for us. Fans—especially those who had not been following the group's musical development—became almost perversely fascinated with the image of Brian Wilson, who seemed a lonely, isolated creative genius, a counterpart to the romantically tinctured image of Beethoven.
Particularly in England, Beach Boy fans began to eat this up. The illusion did not correspond to reality, although it was not totally false. There was that full-page ad in a British music publication offering "Holiday wishes from the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson." This sort of thing did tend to project the idea of a growing split. The notion, however, was based on essentially false premises; i.e., that Brian no longer really considered himself a Beach Boy, that he had set himself outside—and above—the group. That was not where Brian was at.
Within the group, there was apparently never any question about their underlying solidarity. Dramatic and conclusive evidence of this is manifested in the project that followed Pet Sounds: the creation, recording, production, and release of a tune called "Good Vibrations."
"Good Vibrations" is among the greatest single recordings ever produced in the field of popular music. Brian Wilson worked over the tapes and the scores throughout the spring and summer of 1966, polishing and refining until the early-fall release date. This meant full-time effort for well over half a year to produce one 45-rpm disc. If there is any one "secret" to the Beach Boys' success—apart from natural talent —it is that they all work very hard.
Also their heads are straight. Some very nice things were happening to the group now. Along with millions of the under-30 generation, they joined in the quietly revolutionary processes of self-discovery that may well reveal the mid-1960's as the beginning of a great historical movement. On the more apparent social level, which is but a counterpart to the explorations of inner space, they have accepted the human potential for freedom, openness, love. Moreover, they are applying self-discovery to the real world in new and radical ways, to relations with other human beings and, first of all, to themselves. One may question the relative efficacy of various means by which these insights are gained ; but there will be little dispute—among people under 30, or among spiritual teen-agers—that such a revolution is, in fact, under way, and that it is one of the most important and pervasive facts of our cultural existence.
Brian's brother Carl once said, "We're only part of a world-wide pop movement in which millions of people have a part to play. . . . We are simply the front men for what's happening."
This movement is much of what "Good Vibrations" is about. The immediate source of the phrase was Brian's mother. One day she was telling him about a feeling that there was something like vibrations between people. These did not correspond to specific words, nor even to articulated thoughts; they might suggest, rather, another, nonverbal medium of communication altogether.
The original track of the song, though comparatively simple in form, was already close to the final version's melodic line, except that the whole idea of a melodic line is shattered by that time. Instead, "Good Vibrations" projects its musical structure, from which melodic elements emerge like pieces of a mosaic. That ultimate master was assembled very much like a mosaic, too. The group was still traveling in and out of town during this period. It was definitely Brian's musical mentality that held the strings controlling the creative surges and subtle refinements, balancing to a definitive sense of poetic continuity.
What makes "Good Vibrations" one of the most significant releases of the 1960's, over and above its importance in the Beach Boy's evolution, is the monumentally ambitious symphonic structure in the context of a pop tune. A failure here would appear ludicrous, but Brian Wilson's success in producing "Good Vibrations" lifts pop music to the full dignity of classical repertoire. The recording breaks into an area of musical thought anticipated perhaps only by Phil Spector, or, much earlier, Stan Kenton.
"Good Vibrations" is one of the first and finest examples of nonlinear, nonfinite, nonstatic, instant, total, integrated mosaic-type organization. In Marshall McLuhan's term, it is cool, requiring the listener to enter into its world of sound, to participate as a party in an aesthetic event and to supply for himself all the connections and transitions prerequisite to instantaneous total comprehension. It is also a masterpiece of technical production and engineering.
After the release of this single, the group felt primed for a massive attempt to create a complete album of music reaching out to the technical, conceptual and aesthetic extremes of "Good. Vibrations"—a new album realizing the epitome of pop sound.
The follow-up single to "Good Vibrations" was "Heroes and Villains." Again there was an extraneous element penetrating and potentially unsettling the tight group-relationship of the Beach Boys—the collaboration (however cordial it was) between Brian and Van Dyke Parks. After some time spent working closely together—Parks mostly on the lyrics—the rather tentative entente split up, though on a friendly basis. An objective evaluation of "Heroes and Villains" is difficult if only because "Good Vibrations" is a tough act to follow.
The character of the next album, Smiley Smile, began to emerge. "Heroes and Villains" was the first cut on side A and "Good Vibrations" led off side B. The completed album, rather than representing an all-out attack upon aesthetic ideals beyond these previous singles, was resolved into a somewhat more realistic attempt at consolidation of the possibilities and directions they opened up.
The production processes of Smiley Smile contrast markedly with those of Pet Sounds. Instead of setting himself even further apart from the group, Brian succeeded in bringing the other members into the various levels of creation and production. Thus he helped to renew for the Beach Boys those tight internal bonds which now transcended ties of family, formal friendship, even the years of artistic and commercial success. These were bonds that meant something a little different—and something much, much larger.
Since Smiley Smile, all efforts by the Beach Boys have been genuine group productions. The printed credit, "Produced by the Beach Boys," instead of "Produced by Brian Wilson," are just incidental objective points of reference for the truth they represent. Both the single, "Heroes and Villains," and the album Smiley Smile were issued on the Beach Boys' own label, Brother Records. After these two releases appropriate arrangements were made with Capitol, and the group returned to their previous label ; but the Brother Records spirit remained intact.
Activities of the various members of the Beach Boys bear this out. Mike Love, who had been writing songs with Brian for some time, has gotten even further into production—especially in the last two albums. Now both Dennis and Carl have been devoting time to writing and producing records. Dennis had been an undercover composer before, coming off like Admiral of the Fleet with his thirty-eight-foot Chris Craft; now he spends most of his time with Brother Records, and with new interests: photography and movies. Carl is already actively involved in producing a new album for Brother Records, featuring two wild musicians appropriately named Thelibius and Zarathustra. Al Jardine has also entered record production, concentrating on "unusual" projects, such as informative and educational LP's. Meanwhile, Bruce Johnston is developing as a single, producing and performing his own music on Brother Records.
It would be misleading to interpret these events as a diaspora of the Beach Boys, however, because there is also an important new solidifying factor. Between Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, the group was on tour in Europe. In Paris, where they performed at the Palais Challot for UNICEF, the Beach Boys also came into contact with Transcendental Meditation. Together with the Beatles they enjoyed a lengthy session with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Brian had been into meditation for about a year, but this experience for the rest of the group established (even reestablished) a new and significant basis for each one's doing his own thing—but, at the same time, being closer together than ever before.
In contrast to Pet Sounds, the more challenging musical content of Smiley Smile reflects changes taking place on personal levels. No longer can it be heard as the ego-extension of any one group-member. And despite the almost full year dedicated to preparation of the album—overlapping the laborious period spent on "Heroes and Villains" with Van Dyke Parks—the Beach Boys themselves once again did almost all the actual playing, accounting for the album's adventurousness and tightly coordinated sensibility.
Throughout Smiley Smile the Beach Boys were hooked on a health kick. This meant about ten laps around the big backyard at Brian's place before each recording session. There was a jar of wild honey in Brian's house. "Hey, this would make a great title for an album !" A friend of the group, Arny Geller, spotted the cover: an Old stained-glass window with a bee and flowers, in Brian's living room. This good-humored attitude of easy spontaneity seems to carry right through the entire Wild Honey album—the follow-up to Smiley Smile.
Stylistically, Wild Honey reapproaches the earlier Beach Boys "sound." The important functional innovation is the element of improvisation. The arrangements, although sometimes strikingly delicate and complex, are much less studied than for either of the two preceding albums. Witness, for instance, the lightness of "Country Air," a song indirectly resulting from Brian's sensitivity to smog. Even better is a witty cut from the B side, "I'd Love Just Once to See You," which went from concept to master in a single day.
The whole Wild Honey album was conceived essentially as fun, but fun in the extraordinary sense suggested perhaps by the Buddhist notion of Om; the Cosmic Chortle, constantly roc'ng the universe. After all, not everything truly serious has an obligation to be downright glum as well.
Wild Honey closes one circle of regeneration. They seem to have said to one another, "Let's do real Beach Boy music, because that's what we are, the Beach Boys." Going along with this attitude was the decision to record all tracks in the warmth and friendliness of Brian's home (which, by the way, has an ample complement of the most sophisticated studio equipment anyway).
There was no suggestion of the melancholy, romantic artist hang-up at any stage in the production of the album. No pretensions, no articulated sense of "reaching," as if to attempt some superhuman, nigh demonic feat, such as the (curiously antihuman) ideal of a totally perfect, pristine work of art. Smiley Smile came as close as anything the Beach Boys have done to achieving this ideal. It may be, however, that it is simply impossible to make a complete album on the sustained level of "Good Vibrations." It might be like wanting to turn a haiku into a four-hundred page novel, or like serving a complete meal out of sherry and smoked oysters. For the belligerent and demanding critic then, Smiley Smile might constitute a failure. But what incredible successes it contains!
The underlying choice Brian Wilson had to confront sometime during the Smiley Smile year involved the full, beautiful meaning of human relationships in the real world, and its antithesis—real loneliness—resulting from dedication to either the chimera or the high inspiration of ideal art.
Thus, on a level much closer to where Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys are really at, Smiley Smile may be interpreted as an act of great humility. Maybe that vision of an ideal art was actually hovering there, for an instant, with the possibility of the ultimate record within reach. But if this required the abrogation (instead of the fuller realization) of humanity, then asking the question, "Why should it be done, anyway?" is not necessarily a declaration of weakness. On the contrary, it may very well suggest the strength and wisdom of coming to terms with the temptations of ego-oriented ambitions, understanding them, accepting them (for they are real, too), but never submitting completely to them. From this most recent solution, perhaps implied ever since Pet Sounds, the reintegration and revitalization of the Beach Boys was realized. Wild Honey is the sweet product of this realization. Or, like the flowing river, always changing, yet always managing to remain essentially the same. . . .
Kurt von Meier
This article appeared in the August, 1968 issue of Eye, a 102-page, large format magazine (10.5" wide x 13" high) which was published by the Hearst Corporation for two years.
Helen Gurley Brown, of Cosmopolitan fame, was the Supervising Editor.
There appears to have been some confusion about when this article would be published, and terms of payment, as noted in the letter from Kurt below.