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Music

Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Brian Wilson

@jackwhatley89

It’s quite hard to define the talent of Brian Wilson. Mercurial is a word often given to such artists who remain unquantifiable despite shifting millions of records, who hide in the shadows despite hitting the spotlight and the kind of artists who are as wholly indefinable as they are reliable to create majestic work. Brian Wilson, however, operates slightly above such a premise. He is the definition of a true artist. Through six songs, we’re hoping to define the iconic songsmith.

As the calls for rock ‘n’ roll’s funeral seem evermore deafening, even if you do believe Mick Jagger’s assertions that Yungblud and Machine Gun Kelly are keeping it alive, we are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever artists and, perhaps most importantly, their foundational figures. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest, this time we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of The Beach Boys maestro, Brian Wilson.

In compiling such restrictive lists we try to bring you a short education on the acclaimed artist we’re focusing on, bringing some of the lesser-known songs from their widespread careers to the fore and championing their most beloved tracks as moments that carved out their career; from the doldrums of pre-fame life to their place in the star-studded realm of music’s greatest. For Wilson, the task is more difficult than others.

Not only do we have Wilson the genius, in his own right, but we have his seemingly unassailable work as the leader of The Beach Boys and band who are only now really receiving the artistic accreditation they so rightly deserve. The group became pop phenoms with their bright and shining pop tunes. The Beach Boys made good on their name and sang about the sunshine, sand, and salutations of West Coast living through their songs. It meant that surfing and chasing girls in hot rods were at the top of the agenda, and The Beach Boys found their spot at the top of the pop pile thanks to their unique sound and Brian Wilson’s unstoppable talent for songwriting.

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Singing about surfing, girls and cars, they embodied the post-war joy that the 1960s held for swathes of a generation. However, perhaps the most impressive thing, was that Wilson was also able to see the cultural shift that was coming and would, with his meticulously put-together work of art Pet Sounds define music as we know it for decades.

Wilson and his band rarely get the same love and affection that contemporaries The Beatles and Paul McCartney receive. However, there is a very good argument to suggest that without Wilson’s imperial style in the studio, his adoption of the ‘Wall of Sound’ method, and his dedication to achieving sonic perfection, the Fab Four would never have made the giant strides they did in the late 1960s. You only need to recall McCartney’s favourite song of all time as The Beach Boys ‘God Only Knows’ for proof.

The songwriter would, however, tragically have to remove himself from working with The Beach Boys. At first, it was simply to reduce the stress of touring on Wilson and to allow him to focus on the art of songwriting in the studio. Tragically, things worsened and the state of Wilson’s mental health became an ugly tug of war. It’s a shambolic treatment of one of America’s finest songwriters and a reminder that the business of music can be extremely dark. It’s a tumultuous time of Wilson’s life perfectly depicted din the biopic Love and Mercy starring Paul Dano and John Cusack.

Thankfully, Wilson is seemingly beyond such struggles and has spent the last decade or two of his life travelling the world and playing his music for those who want to hear it. For those of you who are unaware of his talent, below we have six songs which define his spellbinding artistry and allow us to focus on the real Brian Wilson story: the story of love, mercy and music.

Brian Wilson’s six definitive songs:

‘Surfin” – The Beach Boys (1961)

In 1961, as The Beatles reminded only the most distant murmurs, Brian Wilson finished penning his song ‘Surfin” and gathered himself a band. Recruiting his brothers Dennis and Carl, as well as his cousin Mike and friend Al, he assembled his group around the piano and began orchestrating what would become The Beach Boys’ very first song. Brian was only 19 at the time but already showing the kind of promising songwriting style that would see him, and the band, flourish throughout the 1960s.

Inspired by the vocal harmony groups of the day, Wilson was influenced primarily by groups like The Four Freshmen, who used expressive jazz arrangements around traditional vocal harmonies to gain a unique sound. He would couple this with the new craze taking over popular culture to manifest a timeless hit.

‘In My Room’ – The Beach Boys (1963)

Part of what made The Beach Boys such a massive commercial entity in the early days was the band’s shining innocence. While The Beatles represented something a little bit dangerous, The Beach Boys were the all-American clean-cut outfit who would promptly have your lawn cut for payment of a cold glass of lemonade.

It was songs like ‘In My Room’ that helped put them there as the heroes of a new generation.

However, scratch away at the surface, and the reality of this innocent song becomes very dark very quickly. Wilson and his brothers had suffered greatly at the hand of their abusive father, Murray. Brian has since gone on to refer to his father as “cruel”, and it’s clear that a younger Brian sought the refuge of his room. It turns this song into a completely different proposition.

‘Don’t Worry Baby’ – The Beach Boys (1964)

Few songs touch Brian Wilson in a more personal way than The Ronettes’ song ‘Be My Baby’. Written in part by the infamous producer Phil Spector, Wilson paid homage to the song with his own attempt at a ’60s girl group bop, providing the world with the similarly wonderful ‘Don’t Worry Baby’.

Lyrically, the song centres on the story of a drag car racer needing the support of his girl before he can hit the accelerator pedal. But, in truth, this matters very little to one’s enjoyment of the song. Instead, we are given a universal and attainable depiction of a man in need of reassurance.

Speaking with Goldmine in 2011 Wilson said of the song: “I wrote that with Roger Christian and it took me two days to write it. I started out with the verse idea and then wrote the chorus. It was a very simple and beautiful song. It’s a really heart and soul song, I really did feel that in my heart. Some say it’s about a car and others say it’s about a girl, who’s right? It’s both. It’s about a car and a woman.” It’s about as perfect as pop music can get.

‘Good Vibrations’ – The Beach Boys (1966)

A number one hit is all well and good, but you only really know you have a timeless classic when it’s allowed to age—gracefully or otherwise. It’s fair to say that The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ is certainly in that category. Not only is it a cheery pop song but also a subversive piece of artistic prowess. Wilson created the song following his interest in what his mother once determined as “cosmic vibrations” and how dogs bark at people with bad vibrations. It was enough to spark some of the most well-known lyrics of all time.

‘Good Vibrations’ is one of The Beach Boys’ most ubiquitous tracks. Going a long way to help popularise the phrase, Wilson’s pop masterpiece from the Smiley Smile LP, the song, took many learnings from Pet Sounds and saw Wilson try to enact his own version of the ‘Wall of Sound’. With help from Tony Asher, he got the lyrics moving too. The track remains one of the most textured, cultured and delicately balanced pieces of pop music you will ever hear. As poignant and poetic as it is catchy and luscious. It is without doubt one of the finest piece of pop music ever composed and a mark of the sheer genius Brian Wilson had in his mind and at his fingertips.

‘God Only Knows’ – The Beach Boys (1966)

Brian Wilson’s songwriting in the early days of The Beach Boys inevitably included cars, surfing, and always the pursuit of girls, California or otherwise. The combination of those lyrics with the band’s unique rhythm made for perfect pieces of great American candy-pop for us all to rot our teeth with. But it was on 1966’s Pet Sounds, Wilson’s masterpiece, that his ultimate love song appeared in the form of ‘God Only Knows’.

When a song is so culturally large as ‘God Only Knows’ is, one expects the song to have been crafted meticulously and pawed over for hours when, in truth, these things often happen in an instant. And so it is true for this track as the story goes as Wilson told The Guardian, “I wrote ‘God Only Knows’ in 45 minutes. Me and Tony Asher,” though it must be said, the execution of the song to record took a lot longer.

While Brian would happily share the credit for this track with Asher and his brother, Carl, the song remains to this day as a beacon of his genius, the moment he cultivated his sound into the ultimate love song. Wilson once described the track as “a vision … It’s like being blind, but in being blind, you can see more. You close your eyes; you’re able to see a place or something that’s happening.” The ideas he conveyed in ‘God Only Knows’, he said, “Summarised everything I was trying to express in a single song.” From Wilson, that’s high praise indeed.

‘Love and Mercy’ – Brian Wilson (1988)

After his acrimonious separation from The Beach Boys, Wilson would barely operate as a solo artist and rarely touched the heights of his time with The Beach Boys. However, if there is one song that not only defines the artist but also as a human being, then it simply has to be his 1988 classic ‘Love and Mercy’, a song so good it would eventually become the title of Wilson’s biopic.

“I had just drunk a half a bottle of Champagne,” recalled Brian Wilson at the Grammy museum in 2009. “And I said, ‘Hey, I feel like writing a song,’ So I wrote ‘Love and Mercy half-drunk.” Few artists are as able to casually create such an undeniably brilliant track, but Wilson has always had seemingly superior powers of songwriting. ‘Love and Mercy’ would feature on Wilson’s first-ever solo album and was created with the help of Wilson’s later-disgraced therapist Dr Eugene Landy.

“I was in my piano room, and I was playing ‘What The World Needs Now, Is Love, Sweet Love’ and I just went into my own song. I worked very hard to get out of me what was in my heart on that one. I called up Dr. Landy and we worked on the lyrics together. I was going for a spiritual, semi-Beach Boy kind of background sound, but more of a Brian Wilson lead vocal thing. ‘Love And Mercy’ is a real positive vibe; it really is.”