Brian Wilson isn’t just an American singer, songwriter, musician, record producer, and, as most people know him, one of the founding members of The Beach Boys. He is more often referred to as a genius in songwriting, specifically for his pop compositions, as his mercurial influence has established so much of the trajectory of modern pop music as we know it today.
As is evidenced by much of his music, Wilson is a California native, maturing under the beaming sunshine of post-war America, Wilson has been playing music from a young age, channelling his unique vision into a sonic structure. He’s particularly distinguished by his ability to learn and write music by ear, and by his historically high vocal range, which you can easily observe in much of his music from the Beach Boys.
He is a founding member of the Beach Boys, which formed in 1961 and has produced nearly 30 studio albums, the last of which came out in 2012. Technically the band has never disbanded, although they have endured lineup changes throughout the years. They have technically been active since their formation in 1961 and have remained on the stage in some guise ever since.
Brian Wilson is a powerhouse of American pop music, and, today, he reaches a birthday milestone. With 80 trips around the sun and many of them spent contributing so vastly to music history, it’s enough to make us want to take a look back on the stories behind some of his most influential hits. Here are just a few of the best.
The stories behind five of Brian Wilson’s hit songs:
‘Good Vibrations’ is one of the most recognisable Beach Boys songs out there, released and recorded in 1966, it’s often considered to be one of the most expensive singles ever recorded. This is due in part to the episodic structure and complex soundscapes that Wilson insisted were deeply woven into this otherwise seemingly gleaming pop single.
Brian Wilson said of writing the track, “I had a lot of unfinished ideas, fragments of music I called ‘feels.’ Each feel represented a mood or an emotion I’d felt, and I planned to fit them together like a mosaic.”
The track utilises a variety of innovative instrumental techniques both for its time and including its use of the theremin, cello and the overall modular approach, which would influence much of the coming wave of acid rock. The song may appear to be dripping in shimmering pop sensibilities, but it has deep pools under the surface.
‘In My Room’
A classic and mellow track from the Beach Boys, ‘In My Room’ is filled with great harmonies and a calm, beachy beat. It’s a short and sweet one, but that’s all it needs to deliver on the incredible sound. Off their 1963 album Surfer Girl, it peaked at 23 in the US.
Wilson has a lot to say about this song, stating, “I also enjoyed producing ‘In My Room’. There is a story behind this song. When Dennis, Carl and I lived in Hawthorne as kids, we all slept in the same room. One night I sang the song ‘Ivory Tower’ to them and they liked it. Then a couple of weeks later, I proceeded to teach them both how to sing the harmony parts to it. It took them a little while, but they finally learned it.”
He continues, “We then sang this song night after night. It brought peace to us. When we recorded ‘In My Room’, there was just Dennis, Carl and me on the first verse … and we sounded just like we did in our bedroom all those nights. This story has more meaning than ever since Dennis’ death.”
‘Please Let Me Wonder’
Off their 1965 album The Beach Boys Today!, ‘Please Let Me Wonder’ was recorded and released in 1965. It was actually originally released as a B-side to their single ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’. It was also the first song Wilson wrote under the influence of marijuana.
Of writing the song, Wilson has said, “I wrote that at my apartment in West Hollywood. As soon as I finished I felt I had to record it so I called up my engineer, Chuck Britz, and woke him up. “Please Let Me Wonder” was recorded at 3:30 in the morning.”
He continues, “I drove to the studio in the middle of the night and recorded it. That song was done as tribute to Phil Spector’s music. It definitely a good straight-ahead feel to it. I knew I loved that song from the moment it was finished and I’ve always loved it.”
Move over, Katy Perry, because the original ‘California Girls’ is a truly iconic masterpiece. Recorded and released in 1965, ‘California Girls’ is one of the most popular songs by The Beach Boys, and the story behind its glimmering tone opens up a few more avenues of artistic expression.
Apparently, Wilson came up with the song during his first acid trip while thinking about women and Western film scores. He said of thinking up the song, “I came up the introduction first. I’m still really proud of that introduction. It has a classical feel. I wrote the song ‘California Girls’ in the same key as the introduction.”
He continues, “It took me some time. I wanted to write a song that had a traditional country and western left hand piano riff, like an old country song from the early ‘50s. I wanted to get something that had kind of a jumpy feeling to it in the verses.”
‘Don’t Worry Baby’
Off their 1964 album Shut Down Volume 2, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is considered to be a distinguishing vocal performance from Brian Wilson. It was originally released as the B-side for The Beach Boys’ ‘I Get Around’.
Wilson said of writing 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.”
As for what (or who) the song is about, he also took the time to clarify, “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.” Never one to settle on a singular idea for too long, Wilson always kept his songs open to discussion.