By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist
Brian Wilson is a legend and an enigma: the leader of the Beach Boys, one of the most successful and beloved American bands ever, he walked away from his musical career just as the band’s popularity reached its zenith. He reemerged decades later as a solo artist, still struggling with personal demons but ready to make music again. Now at peace in his personal life and career, Wilson will perform at St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater on Sept. 13. The show will include the landmark Pet Sounds album, performed in its entirety. In honor of the occasion, here are seven songs to help you get to know Brian Wilson.
A native of southern California, Wilson grew up surrounded by sun, surf, and family strife. He found solace in music, particularly the harmony-laden songs of the Four Freshmen, which he attempted to replicate by singing with his brothers and his cousin, Mike Love. They formed the Beach Boys, capitalizing on the surf music trend of the early 1960s, although Brian, the band’s chief songwriter, had never been a surfer. Instead, he combined his love of Four Freshmen harmonies with the melody of the classic Disney tune “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and produced “Surfer Girl”—the first classic Beach Boys ballad, and one that reveals his true influences and ambition.
“I Get Around”
When the Beatles hit it big stateside in 1964, the surf music trend began to lose steam. Determined not to be a flash in the pan, the Beach Boys produced some of their greatest recordings during this time period. They even scored their first No. 1 single, “I Get Around,” at a time when it was rare to see an American group on top of the charts. An exciting production with start-stop rhythm and soaring harmonies, “I Get Around” established the rivalry between the Beach Boys and the Beatles, as the groups drew inspiration from each other.
Wilson struggled to maintain the demanding schedule of being a Beach Boy—between writing songs, producing three albums each year, and touring, his health began to suffer. After a panic attack on a tour flight, Wilson fought for and won the right to stay at home—the group would tour without him, while he wrote songs and prepared tracks in the recording studio. With more time to spend on the group’s records, he began to branch out, crafting intricate backing tracks that included orchestration, like the intro to “California Girls,” which he has called his favorite piece of all the music he has composed.
“God Only Knows”
By 1966, Wilson had prepared what would become arguably his greatest masterpiece: the Pet Sounds album. Working with lyricist Tony Asher instead of his usual collaboration partner, Mike Love, he created an album that explored deep emotions and gave voice to the common fears and anxieties of young people. Lush orchestration and the usual top-notch harmonies enveloped lyrics about love, growing up, and finding your place in the world. “God Only Knows,” one of the finest tracks on the album, might have lost out on radio airplay (some stations refused to play it, believing that it was irreverent to use “God” in a pop song), but it has become one of the most beloved Beach Boys songs.
After Pet Sounds, Wilson became even more ambitious. He stated that the follow-up album, Smile, would be a “teenage symphony to God.” The first track he prepared was “Good Vibrations.” The song took an unprecedented eight months to record and produce, as Wilson became obsessed with piecing together the perfect single. When it was finally released, “Good Vibrations” became a No. 1 smash. In the years since its release, “Good Vibrations” has become synonymous with the Beach Boys’s signature “fun and sun” image, but at the time of its release the song was considered wildly avant-garde and psychedelic. The theremin and false endings made it sound like nothing else on the radio.
The success of “Good Vibrations” led Wilson to push even harder for perfection with the Smile album. Sessions stretched on and on, and the album drew no nearer to release. Working with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson crafted some of the most inventive pop music ever committed to tape, but he wasn’t satisfied. The Beatles released Revolver, and then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Discouraged and ravaged from pressure and drug use, Wilson shelved Smile. He withdrew from the band and only occasionally appeared on Beach Boys albums for the next decade. Songs like “Surf’s Up” were salvaged by the rest of the group for use on later albums, but their original versions languished in the vaults.
“Love and Mercy”
When Wilson’s first self-titled solo album appeared in 1988, he was greeted like a man back from the dead. While the album contained top-notch songs like “Love and Mercy,” Wilson was still not well. He was under the control of manipulative therapist Eugene Landy, a relationship that was only put to an end when the Wilson family intervened with a conservatorship court case. In the years since, Wilson has married, released more solo albums, and even resurrected and finished the Smile album that he abandoned in 1967. “Love and Mercy” has become a sort of theme song for the singer-songwriter, a love letter to fans and family. He often uses it to close his concerts.