Brian Wilson…A Look Back

The recent news about Brian Wilson (81) has been sad and disheartening.  He lost his wife and “lifeline”, Melinda (77), on January 30th, 2024, and he has been diagnosed with “major neurocognitive disorder” (dementia).

Let’s go back in time, and look at his life in music.

Brian Wilson’s band, The Beach Boys, broke big in 1963 with songs about surfing, cars, and girls.

(Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson & Mike Love)

They used an original combination of Rock & Roll instrumentation and sophisticated vocal arrangements.  Their songs and arrangements evolved into a peak in 1966 with the album Pet Sounds and the hit single, “Good Vibrations”.  That was after Brian had stopped touring with the band.  Instead, he developed more complex instrumental arrangements, and laid down the tracks using studio musicians.   Later, The Beach Boys added their intricate vocals.  Here are their studio albums from 1962 through 1973:

For a refresher of how many great songs and hits there are by The Beach Boys, here are my two “Best Of” playlists from my collection.

I started collecting their music in 1963, and no matter when you became a Beach Boy’s fan, you’ll likely recognize most of these songs, and be able to sing along with a lot of them.

After the artistic high of the Pet Sounds album, and the #1 success of the “Good Vibrations” single, Brian Wilson worked on what he thought would be his best album, Smile.  This period in 1966 and 1967 would be the turning point in his life and career.  Because of mental issues (anxiety and depression) and drug usage (mostly marijuana and amphetamines), Brian Wilson was unable to complete the album.  After that, his participation in Beach Boys albums was significantly limited, and his songwriting was severely reduced.

The solo part of Brian’s career didn’t start until 1987, 20-years after his problems with Smile.

Although Brian Wilson didn’t have a solo career of big hits and top-ranked albums, the above four albums include some significant musical contributions.  The albums are Brian Wilson (1987), Imagination (1998), Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (2010), and No Pier Pressure (2015).  He had a total of ten studio albums, with a variety of original songs, some re-recordings of his older songs, and a few albums were mostly cover songs.

For those who might not be familiar with his solo recordings, here’s my Best Of Brian Wilson playlist (in chronological order) taken from his solo studio albums.

Through the years, the legendary recordings from The Beach Boys’ unfinished album Smile became available on bootlegs.  I bought a couple of those bootleg CD’s, but like everyone else, I didn’t know how to assemble all the tracks into Brian’s vision for the album.  That changed in 2004 when Brian released his own version of Smile.  It was made up of mostly the same songs, but with new recordings.

(The original Beach Boys’ Smile cover, and Brian’s solo cover.)

I much prefer the original Beach Boys’ Smile recordings with their youthful 20-something voices and their great vocal blend.  If you’re curious about how good the album is, here’s a 29-minute edit of The Beach Boys’ Smile (odd songs like “ Barnyard” and “Vege-Tables” are omitted, allowing a better musical flow).  The audio plays right on this site:

(The list of songs used for the Smile presentation:  1. Our Prayer, 2. Gee/Trombone, 3. Heroes And Villains, 4. Roll Plymouth Rock, 5. Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine, 6. Cabin Essence, 7. Wonderful, 8. Child Is Father Of The Man, 9. Surf’s Up Intro/Surf’s Up, 10. Wind Chimes, 11. Cool Cool Water, 12. Good Vibrations, 13. Heroes And Villains Piano Instrumental.  The songs are segued together to form one complete work.)

The Smile album doesn’t rise to the very high level of Pet Sounds, but it has the strong songs “Good Vibrations”, “Heroes And Villains”, “Wonderful”, and “Surf’s Up”, plus a lot of interesting song segments that link the album together.  To me, it’s better than any of the other Beach Boys’ albums that came after Pet Sounds.  Even if you don’t listen to the whole album above, you’d probably enjoy listening to the one-minute introduction vocalizing song “Our Prayer”…Beach Boys’ harmonies at their finest!

Brian Wilson has rightly been called a “musical genius”.  He co-wrote nearly all the hits by The Beach Boys.  Brian wrote the music, and almost always worked with a lyricist.  They included Mike Love for many of the early hits, Tony Asher for Pet Sounds, and Van Dyke Parks for Smile.  Just as important as Brian’s songwriting and beautiful vocals, was his talent for creatively arranging and producing songs.  Brian Wilson’s music will be everlasting.

2 Replies to “Brian Wilson…A Look Back”

  1. Brian was influenced by the greats of his time and blessed with the vision for how songs and music would be crafted for eternity.

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