Wednesday, September 10, 2014
A few thoughts on The Beach Boys and their music...
Anyone who has been following my Facebook feed recently will have noticed that I've been posting a lot of Beach Boys music.
I've been a fan of the band's music, well, forever, it seems like, but I've only really known the hits until very recently. I'm not quite sure why I started looking for songs by the band that aren't as well known. It probably has something to do with the wide availability of their work on YouTube and having the time to go through and look at - and listen to - more than just the usual chart-toppers. There are also a number of band-related documentaries and interviews and the like available, and those have been very interesting to watch and pointed me in the direction of the band's more obscure work.
A turning point was discovering "God Only Knows", which had somehow escaped my notice. Oh, I'd probably heard it, but it didn't do well on the charts when it came out in 1966 (it was on the album "Pet Sounds", which did well critically but not commercially when it was released). The single only reached number 39 when it was released. Not sure how that happened - it is one of the most exquisite songs I've ever heard. Carl Wilson, the youngest of the three Wilson brothers, who sang lead on the song, had perhaps the purest voice I've ever heard in rock or pop music.
Another turning point was my viewing of the documentary "Dennis Wilson: The Real Beach Boy", from 2008. Pretty much all I had known about the middle Wilson brother before seeing this documentary was that he was a drummer, had figured somewhere in the whole Charles Manson story but managed to escape Charlie's wrath at him for supposedly stealing a song from Charlie only to drown at the exceedingly young age of 39. The impression left by what I knew, or thought I knew, was that Dennis was the fuck-up of the Wilson family. Somewhat more kindly, he has been referred to as the "overlooked" member of his talented family . It turns out to be not exactly true that Dennis was the screw-up of the family - yes, he had addiction problems that were different in kind but not in scope from those of his brothers, but he was a talented songwriter and singer in his own right. The solo album that he released in 1977, "Pacific Ocean Blue", was the first by a member of the Beach Boys and was a hit with the critics; it has been called a "lost classic". I sought out the songs on that album after seeing the documentary and found that they are amazing songs. Dennis Wilson's excesses had changed his singing voice, but not in a completely bad way - it had become rough and raspy, but that only seemed to add soul and melancholy to it.
Dennis Wilson's singing voice had never been exactly like his brothers' voices, anyway - not pure like Carl's voice and not sweet and earnest like Brian's voice. But it was a moving voice nonetheless:
Brian Wilson, of course, has always been known as the genius of the brothers. He was the one who was responsible for "Pet Sounds" (1966), which was named the second best album ever made in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and was, according to Paul McCartney, the main reason why The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was made and why that album was as experimental as it was. (Incidentally, McCartney has also repeatedly said that "God Only Knows" is his favorite song of all time). "Pet Sounds" was Brian's vision and Brian's creation, and it was a revelation at the time, with the sort of experimentation that hadn't ever been seen before in pop music. But, by the time "Pet Sounds" was released, Brian had already shown signs of the mental health issues (apparently before he began the drug use that has often been blamed for those issues) that were to plague him for years and he had already stopped performing live with the rest of the band.
"Pet Sounds" was a gamble for Brian Wilson on many levels. The biggest gamble was that the lyrics he had written exposed his soul to the world. These were very personal statements about the state of his emotional life.
An insight into how Brian Wilson worked in the recording studio to create his music can be gained from this rehearsal footage from sessions for "Good Vibrations", which was recorded around the same time he was working on "Pet Sounds":
The songs on "Pet Sounds" were a departure from everything that was expected of pop music at the time, and a definite departure from the music the Beach Boys had been making since they first charted with "Surfin" in 1961. This was largely Brian's album and sources differ on just how much participation there was by the other members of the band, aside from singing background vocals and harmony. In information on Wikipedia regarding the personnel who worked on the album, the only band members credited with any instrumental participation besides Brian were his brothers Carl and Dennis. Because there has been so much mythology built up around both "Pet Sounds" and the Beach Boys, it is difficult to figure out exactly where the truth lies on the issue of band participation on the album. The documentary, "Pet Sounds - Art That Should The World", addresses many of these issues in greater depth than I can within the scope of this post.
The bottom line here is that I love this music, more than I ever realized that I do, which is why I'm sharing it with you here.