You’d be hard-pressed to find two musical figures who believe in the power of rock and roll quite as potently as Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan. Dylan may have been a folkie at heart, but he had a healthy appreciation for old school rock and rollers like Chuck Berry and Roy Orbison, the latter of whom he was able to pay respects to directly in The Traveling Wilburys. Dylan saw the turning tides of music and went electric before most of his audience was ready, a move that was derided at the time but looks downright prescient now.
For his part, Wilson was a strict adherent to the classic production styles and gigantic hooks of Phil Spector. The fusion of doo-wop, pop, and rock that he heard on songs like The Drifters’ ‘On Broadway’, The Crystals’ ‘There’s No Other’, and especially The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ inspired him to move beyond his Four Freshman roots and past the surf rock gimmickry of The Beach Boys’ initial output. Just as well, Wilson also had a fondness for Chuck Berry, adapting his ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ into the band’s first top ten hit, ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’
The ’80s were difficult times for both musicians. Dylan had entered a period of pronounced born-again Christianity, alienating a fair amount of core audience who had stuck with him through his entire career. Wilson was under the thumb of abusive psychologist Eugene Landy, and was going through a difficult battle of conquering his mental disorders while floating between The Beach Boys and a solo career. On his 1988 self-titled album (most of which contains since-redacted songwriting credits for Landy), Wilson co-wrote the song ‘Let It Shine’.
“I hadn’t known him at all, but Brian asked me if I wanted to write a song and produce it with him. ‘Yes, please – I’d love to.’ I went to his house in Malibu and wrote it with him right by the seashore; his place was only a couple steps from the sea,” Lynne remembered in 2015. “Him playing piano and me strumming guitar and we came up with the song, ‘Let It Shine’. … Anyway, we got to the session and I played lots of the instruments: bass and rhythm guitar and keyboard, and he did some keyboard, and we co-produced. Despite our production backgrounds, there wasn’t a lot on it actually.”
Lynne had just finished working with George Harrison on his Cloud Nine album and would soon join The Traveling Wilburys. It was through the Wilburys that Lynne, Dylan, and Wilson all got together to make a new song, ‘The Spirit of Rock ‘N’ Roll’.
The song is about as cheesy and glossy as a late 1980s song could possibly be. Part classic Beach Boys earnestness, part-weathered late-period Dylan, and full-on Huey Lewis and the News-esque production, ‘The Spirit of Rock ‘N’ Roll’ is at best a strange oddity within the genius catalogues of its two performers and three writers.
The song was originally going to appear on the follow up to Brian Wilson entitled Sweet Insanity, but that album was either scrapped by Wilson, rejected by his label, or the master tapes for the songs were stolen. Perhaps it was a mix of all three, but in any case, Sweet Insanity never saw an official release and neither did ‘The Spirit of Rock ‘N’ Roll’. A few of Sweet Insanity‘s tracks were later re-recorded for Wilson’s album Gettin’ In Over My Head, but ‘The Spirit of Rock ‘N’ Roll’ was not one of them.
Speaking about Sweet Insanity in 2015, Wilson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Sweet Insanity was never really released. You’ve got bootlegs, but it was never released. And I thought some of the stuff was pretty good. It wasn’t the best album I ever wrote. We just didn’t think it was good enough. They were just like demos. We recorded about 10-12 songs, and we decided not to put it because we thought that maybe people wouldn’t like it, so we junked it.”
You can find plenty of unofficial recordings of Sweet Insanity, most of which contains inspired and fairly memorable material. The low point, though, is ‘The Spirit of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, so it’s probably best that Wilson trashed it. That might sound like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but considering Wilson’s fragile mental state and the controlling influence of Landry during its recording, it’s probably best as a forgotten relic.