The Genius of Brian Wilson: A Beginner's Guide
The phrase "Brian Wilson is a genius" has been heard in music circles for many years now. Many people will respond "Brian who?" but even many of those who know that Brian was the musical leader of the Beach Boys still seem to understand little of why he has earned the genius tag.
So what is this genius and where can it be found? Those who haven't delved in too deep may answer "he was a good songwriter and producer who managed to tap into where the youth were at in the period 1963 to 1966, and his genius can be found in some of the Beach Boys hits in that period, plus Pet Sounds. After that he bombed out on Smile and everything after that is irrelevant."
Only partly true. Brian's genius goes a lot deeper than tapping into surfing and motoring fads and throwing a few pretty love songs. And there are musical treasures, tapping this genius, right up to the present day. Sure, he had his periods of total non-creativity, not to mention non-functionality, but the joy of delving into Brian's full musical canon is that there is so much brilliant music there, not to mention the moments which are truly astonishing.
Back to the first question, what is this genius? Every fan will give you a different answer bit for this writer it is the following: the ability to combine a unique sense of melody, a sense of melody which is at times spiritual in the places it takes you to, with an ability to write, or inspire others to write, lyrics that tap into the deepest recesses of human experience, topped up with a unique production sense that knows just what sounds to add to top off this mixture. Brian's combination of songwriting and production skills are unique to popular music and add credence to the claims that he is the greatest musical genius of the century.
Where can it be found? The following is my list of places to find Brian's genius, ranked in approximate order of what this writer believes a newcomer to Brian could usefully investigate his music. My intention with this list is to show how richly we have been blessed with Brian's genius.
1) Pet Sounds (1966)
Some key tracks: God Only Knows, Let's Go Away For Awhile, Caroline No, I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, Wouldn't It Be Nice
Comment: The greatest record of the 20th century. No arguments please. For maybe the only time in his life, Brian was completely able to realize a record that he wanted to make, and the result is unique marriage of songwriting and production genius with lyrics about the deepest yearnings of all of us.
2) Today (1965)
Some key tracks: When I Grow Up (To Be A Man), Please Let Me Wonder, In The Back Of My Mind
Comment: Unusual in splitting into an up-tempo Side 1 and downbeat Side 2, this album was the lyrical and production precursor to Pet Sounds and much of it is up to the standard of the later album.
3) Smile (1967)
Some key tracks: Surf's Up, Good Vibrations, Wonderful
Comment: Rock's greatest "what if." Released evidence shows that it would have given Sgt Pepper a good run. Expansive lyrically, thanks to Van Dyke Parks, tapping into a lot of aspects of Americana. Beginners will find a fairly good portion of what would have been on the "Good Vibrations" box set.
4) Friends (1968)
Some key tracks: Meant For You, Busy Doin' Nothing, Diamond Head
Comment: Brian's "chilling out" album, almost a reaction to the complexity of Smile. An paean to tranquility in the madness of 1968, and of 1998 for that matter. People didn't get "it" then, making it a massive USA chart failure. Time to make amends and put some peace in your heart.
5) Surfer Girl (1963)
Some key tracks: In My Room, Surfer Girl, Hawaii, Your Summer Dream
Comment: The first album Brian produced and an early treasure. High class pop, teenage dreams and a trip "In My Room" that more than hints at something much deeper.
6) All Summer Long (1964)
Some key tracks: I Get Around, All Summer Long, Girls On The Beach, Don't Back Down
Comment: Top class mid 60s pop, with many a familiar tune. Girls, fun, dreams and summer, with a few hints of the reality to come
7) Love You! (1977)
Some key tracks: The Night Was So Young, I'll Bet He's Nice, Let Us Go On This Way, Solar System
Comment: Brian takes on the 70s, with this sparsely produced masterpiece that has caused a million debates amongst Beach Boys fans. Strip away the rough vocals and mixes and you have some of the most endearing tunes that Brian has written plus lyrics yearning for intimacy as middle age approaches.
8) Sunflower (1970)
Some key tracks: This Whole World,. Cool Cool Water, Add Some Music, All I Wanna Do
Comment: Yes, this is Dennis's show too. But Brian's sometimes phantom presence here ensures that this is top-class album, cruelly ignored by the punters. "This Whole World" is pure genius.
9) Summer Days (And Summer Nights) (1965)
Some key tracks: Let Him Run Wild, California Girls, Help Me Rhonda, Summer Means New Love
Comment: The apex of the fun in the sun period. Yes, Brian can rock. And "Let Him Run Wild" touches every man who feels he has been spurned.
10) Wild Honey (1967)
Some key tracks: Aren't You Glad, Wild Honey, Darlin', Let The Wind Blow
Comment: Brian's R&B album. Very underrated, but repeated listening reveal a LOT of soul.
11) Brian Wilson (1988)
Some key tracks: Love and Mercy, Melt Away, Rio Grande
Comment: Brian's first solo album. People expecting classic Beach Boys music were disappointed but those who took the trouble realized that the songwriting skills were still there.
12) Shut Down Volume 2 (1964)
Some key tracks: The Warmth Of The Sun, Don't Worry Baby, Fun Fun Fun, Keep An Eye On Summer
Comment: Rather weighed down with filler, this album has two of Brian's most important ballads, "The Warmth Of The Sun" and "Don't Worry Baby." And the megahit "Fun Fun Fun."
13) Sweet Insanity (early 1990s)
Some key tracks: Don't Let Her Know She's An Angel, The Spirit of Rock and Roll, Water Builds Up
Comment: Ok, so the lyrics are dodgy at times. And we could do with less synths. But this man can write songs. Sadly this is only on bootleg.
14) 20/20 (1969)
Some key tracks: Do It Again, I Went To Sleep, Time To Get Alone
Comment: Not a lot of Brian here, and some of it is directly from "Smile." But the three new Brian songs listed above alone make this album worthy of investigation.
15) Surf's Up (1971)
Some key tracks: Surf's Up, Til' I Die, A Day In The Life Of A Tree
Comment: Even less Brian here, especially if you exclude Surf's Up as a Smile retread. "A Day In The Life Of A Tree" seems silly until you apply the lyrics to Brian's life. "Til' I Die" is unfathomable genius.
16) Adult Child (1976)
Some key tracks: Still I Dream Of It, It's Over Now, Lines, Baseball
Comment: A million miles from surf music, this unreleased album is not really a complete new record. But there are moments of pure inspiration here and a direct honesty that we don't always see in Brian's songwriting.
If all the above is not enough, there are additional moments like that first emotional ballad The Lonely Sea, the sheer romanticism of After The Game, the outstanding production and mood-creation of Guess I'm Dumb, the unspeakable sense of loss in My Diane and that wonderful collaboration with Carl on Good Timin'.
And don't forget Sail On Sailor, It's Just A Matter Of Time, Break Away, The Ballad of Ole' Betsy and Pamela Jean either…….
Any more questions?