Brian Douglas Wilson (born June 20, 1942) is an American musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer best known for being the multi-tasking leader and co-founder of the rock band the Beach Boys. After signing with Capitol Records in 1962, Wilson wrote or co-wrote more than two dozen Top 40 hits for the group. Because of his unorthodox approaches to song composition and arrangement and mastery of recording techniques, he is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative and influential creative forces in popular music by critics and musicians alike.
In the mid-1960s, Wilson composed, arranged and produced Pet Sounds (1966), considered one of the greatest albums ever made. The intended follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smile, was canceled for various reasons, which included Wilson’s deteriorating mental health. As he suffered repeated nervous breakdowns, Wilson’s contributions to the Beach Boys diminished, and his erratic behavior led to tensions with the band. Following a court-ordered removal from the care of psychologist Eugene Landy, Wilson started receiving conventional medical treatment, and in the late 1990s, he began performing and recording consistently as a solo artist. He remains a member of the Beach Boys’ corporation, Brother Records Incorporated.
Wilson’s work with the Beach Boys helped raise pop music to the level of high art. He is considered a major innovator in the field of music production, the principal originator of the California Sound, one of the first music producer auteurs, and one of the most famous examples of the outsider musician. Only 21 years old when he received the freedom to produce his own records with total creative autonomy, he ignited an explosion of like-minded California producers, supplanting New York as the center of popular records, and becoming the first rock producer to use the studio as its own instrument. Wilson effectively set a precedent that allowed bands and artists to enter a recording studio and act as their own producers or co-producers. His songs became inextricably tied with the zeitgeist of the early 1960s, and he helped develop the sound of the wistful Flower Power era that proceeded. In later years, Wilson was regarded as a “godfather” to an era of indie musicians who were inspired by his melodic sensibilities, chamber pop orchestrations, and recording explorations.
His honors include being inducted into the 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and winning Grammy Awards for Brian Wilson Presents Smile (2004) and The Smile Sessions (2011). In lists published by Rolling Stone, Wilson ranked 52 for the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” in 2008 and 12 for the “100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time” in 2015. In 2012, music publication NME ranked Wilson number 8 in its “50 Greatest Producers Ever” list, elaborating “few consider quite how groundbreaking Brian Wilson’s studio techniques were in the mid-60s”. He is an occasional actor and voice actor, having appeared in television shows, films, and other artists’ music videos. His life was portrayed in the 2014 biopic Love & Mercy, which received a wide release in 2015.
Early years and performances
Brian Douglas Wilson was born on June 20, 1942, at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, California, the son of Audree Neva (née Korthof) and Murry Wilson. He was the eldest of three boys; his younger brothers were Dennis and Carl. He has English, Swedish, Dutch, German, and Irish ancestry.
When Brian was two, the family moved from Inglewood to 3701 West 119th Street in nearby Hawthorne, California. Speaking of Brian’s unusual musical abilities prior to his first birthday, his father said that, as a baby, he could repeat the melody from “When the Caissons Go Rolling Along” after only a few verses had been sung by the father. Murry Wilson said, “He was very clever and quick. I just fell in love with him.” At about age two, Brian heard George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which had an enormous emotional impact on him. A few years later, he was discovered to have diminished hearing in his right ear. The exact cause of this hearing loss is unclear, though theories range from him simply being born partially deaf to a blow to the head from his father, or a neighborhood bully, being to blame.
While Brian’s father Murry was ostensibly a reasonable provider, he was often abusive. A minor musician and songwriter, he also encouraged his children in this field in numerous ways. At an early age, Brian was given six weeks of lessons on a “toy accordion” and, at seven and eight, sang solos in church with a choir behind him. At Hawthorne High School, Brian was on the football team as a quarterback, played baseball and was a cross-country runner in his senior year. He sang with various students at school functions and with his family and friends at home, teaching his two brothers harmony parts that all three would then practice. He also played piano obsessively after school, deconstructing the harmonies of the Four Freshmen by listening to short segments of their songs on a phonograph, then working to recreate the blended sounds note by note on the keyboard. He received a Wollensak tape recorder on his 16th birthday, allowing him to experiment with recording songs and early group vocals.
Surviving home tapes document his initial efforts singing with various friends and family. In his senior year at Hawthorne High, in addition to classroom music studies, he sang at lunch time with friends like Keith Lent and Bruce Griffin. Brian and Keith worked on a revised version of the tune “Hully Gully” to support the campaign of a classmate named Carol Hess when she ran for senior class president. Enlisting his cousin and frequent singing partner Mike Love as well as his own brother Carl, Brian’s next public performance featured more ambitious arrangements at a fall arts program at his high school. To entice Carl into the group, Brian named the newly formed membership Carl and the Passions. The performance featured tunes by Dion and the Belmonts and the Four Freshmen (“It’s a Blue World”), the latter of which proved difficult for the ensemble. However, the event was notable for the impression which it made on another musician and classmate of Brian in the audience that night, Al Jardine, who would join the three Wilson brothers and Mike Love a few years later in the Beach Boys.
I first felt I had a good voice when I was about seventeen or eighteen and was able to sing along well to records by the Four Freshmen. By singing along to those records that’s how I learned how to sing falsetto. I would sing along to songs like “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” “I’ll Remember April” and “Day by Day” … When I wrote “Surfer Girl” I liked it so much that I said that I’m gonna keep on writing songs.
—Brian Wilson, 2013
Wilson enrolled at El Camino College in Los Angeles, majoring in psychology, in September 1960. He continued his music studies at the community college as well. At some point in 1961 he wrote his first all-original melody, loosely based on a Dion and the Belmonts version of “When You Wish Upon a Star”. The song was eventually known as “Surfer Girl”. Though an early demo of the song was recorded in February 1962 at World-Pacific Studios, it was not re-recorded and released until 1963, when it became a top-ten hit.
Wilson, his brothers Carl and Dennis, Mike Love and Al Jardine first appeared as a music group in the summer of 1961, initially under the name the Pendletones. After being prodded by Dennis to write a song about the local water-sports craze, Wilson and Mike Love together created what became the first single for the band, “Surfin'”. Over Labor Day weekend 1961, Brian took advantage of the fact that his parents were in Mexico City for several days, and the boys used the emergency money his parents had left to rent an amplifier, a microphone, and a stand-up bass for Jardine to play. After the boys rehearsed for two days in the Wilsons’ music room, his parents returned home from their trip. Eventually impressed, Murry Wilson proclaimed himself the group’s manager and the band embarked on serious rehearsals for a proper studio session.
Recorded by Hite and Dorinda Morgan and released on the small Candix Records label, “Surfin'” became a top local hit in Los Angeles and reached number seventy-five on the national Billboard sales charts. Dennis later described the first time that his older brother heard their song on the radio, as the three Wilson brothers and David Marks drove in Wilson’s 1957 Ford in the rain: “Nothing will ever top the expression on Brian’s face, ever … that was the all-time moment.” However, the Pendletones were no more. Without the band’s knowledge or permission, Candix Records had changed their name to the Beach Boys.
Wilson and his bandmates, following a set by Ike & Tina Turner, performed their first major live show at the Ritchie Valens Memorial Dance on New Year’s Eve, 1961. Three days previously, Wilson’s father had bought him an electric bass and amplifier. Wilson had learned to play the instrument in that short period of time, with Al Jardine moving to rhythm guitar. On stage, Wilson provided many of the lead vocals, and often harmonized with the group in falsetto.
Looking for a follow-up single for their radio hit, Wilson and Mike Love wrote “Surfin’ Safari”, and attempts were made to record a usable take at World Pacific, including overdubs, on February 8, 1962, along with several other tunes including an early version of “Surfer Girl”. Only a few days later, discouraged about the band’s financial prospects, and objecting to adding some Chubby Checker songs to the Beach Boys live setlist, Al Jardine abruptly left the group, but rejoined shortly thereafter.
When Candix Records ran into money problems and sold the Beach Boys’ master recordings to another label, Murry Wilson terminated the contract. As “Surfin'” faded from the charts, Brian, who had forged a songwriting partnership with Gary Usher, created several new songs, including a car song, “409”, that Usher helped them write. Brian and the Beach Boys cut new tracks at Western Recorders including an updated “Surfin’ Safari” and “409”. These songs convinced Capitol Records to release the demos as a single; they became a double-sided national hit.
Success and record producing
Recording sessions for the band’s first album took place in Capitol’s basement studios in the famous tower building in August 1962, but early on Brian lobbied for a different place to cut Beach Boy tracks. The large rooms were built to record the big orchestras and ensembles of the 1950s, not small rock groups. At Brian’s insistence, Capitol agreed to let the Beach Boys pay for their own outside recording sessions, to which Capitol would own all the rights, and in return the band would receive a higher royalty rate on their record sales. Additionally, during the taping of their first LP Brian fought for, and won, the right to be in charge of the production – though this fact was not acknowledged with an album liner notes production credit.
In January 1963, the Beach Boys recorded their first top-ten (cresting at number three in the United States) single, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, which began their long run of highly successful recording efforts at Hollywood’s United Western Recorders on Sunset Boulevard. It was during the sessions for this single that Brian made the production decision from that point on to use double tracking on the group’s vocals, resulting in a deeper and more resonant sound. The Surfin’ U.S.A. album was also a big hit in the United States, reaching number two on the national sales charts by early July 1963. The Beach Boys had become a top-rank recording and touring band.
Brian was for the first time officially credited as the Beach Boys’ producer on the Surfer Girl album, recorded in June and July 1963 and released that September. This LP reached number seven on the national charts, containing singles that were top 15 hits. Feeling that surfing songs had become limiting, Brian decided to produce a set of largely car-oriented tunes for the Beach Boys’ fourth album, Little Deuce Coupe, which was released in October 1963, only three weeks after the Surfer Girl LP. The departure of guitarist David Marks from the band that month meant that Brian was forced to resume touring with the Beach Boys, for a time reducing his availability in the recording studio.
For much of the decade, Brian attempted to establish himself as a record producer by working with various artists. On July 20, 1963, “Surf City”, which he co-wrote with Jan Berry of Jan and Dean, was his first composition to reach the top of the US charts. The resulting success pleased Brian, but angered both Murry and Capitol Records. Murry went so far as to order his oldest son to sever any future collaborations with Jan and Dean. Brian’s other non-Beach Boy work in this period included tracks by the Castells, Donna Loren, Sharon Marie, the Timers, and the Survivors. The most notable group to which Wilson would attach himself in this era would be the Honeys, which Wilson intended as the female counterpart to the Beach Boys, and as an attempt to compete with Phil Spector-led girl groups such as the Crystals and the Ronettes. He continued juggling between recording with the Beach Boys and producing records for other artists, but with less success at the latter—except for Jan and Dean.
Resignation from touring
The Beach Boys’ rigorous performing schedule increasingly burdened Wilson, and following a panic attack on board a flight from L.A. to Houston on December 23, 1964 he stopped performing live with the group in an effort to concentrate solely on songwriting and studio production. Wilson explained in 1971: “I felt I had no choice. I was run down mentally and emotionally because I was running around, jumping on jets from one city to another on one-night stands, also producing, writing, arranging, singing, planning, teaching—to the point where I had no peace of mind and no chance to actually sit down and think or even rest.” Glen Campbell was called in as his temporary stand-in for live performances, before Bruce Johnston replaced him. As thanks, Wilson “rewarded” Campbell by producing him with the single “Guess I’m Dumb”.
About a year ago I had what I consider to be a very religious experience. I took LSD, a full dose of LSD, and later, another time, I took a smaller dose. And I learned a lot of things, like patience, understanding. I can’t teach you, or tell you what I learned from taking it. But I consider it a very religious experience.
—Brian Wilson, 1966
It was during that December that Wilson was introduced to cannabis hesitantly by his friend Lorren Daro (formerly Loren Schwartz), an assistant at the William Morris Agency. Attracted by the drug’s ability to alleviate stress and inspire creativity, Wilson completed the Beach Boys’ forthcoming Today! album by late January 1965 and quickly began work on their next, Summer Days. Sometime in April, Wilson experienced his first acid trip, which had a profound effect on his musical and spiritual conceptions. Again, Daro was hesitant to provide drugs to Wilson, which he did not feel he was ready for, but has recounted that his dosage was “one hundred and twenty-five mics of pure Owsley,” and that “he had the full-on ego death. It was a beautiful thing.” The music for “California Girls” came from this first LSD experience, a composition which would later be released as a #3 charting single. Wilson continued experimenting with psychotropics for the next few years, sometimes even during recording sessions. He became fixated on psychedelia, claiming to have coined a slang, “psychedelicate,” and foreseeing that “psychedelic music will cover the face of the world and color the whole popular music scene.” A week after his first LSD trip, Wilson began suffering from auditory hallucinations, which have persisted throughout his life.
Pet Sounds and Smile
In late 1965, Wilson began working on material for a new project, Pet Sounds. He formed a temporary songwriting partnership with lyricist Tony Asher, who was suggested to Wilson by mutual friend Daro. Wilson, who had recorded the album’s instrumentation with the Wrecking Crew, then assembled the Beach Boys to record vocal overdubs, following their return from a tour of Japan. Upon hearing what Wilson had created for the first time in 1965, the group, particularly Mike Love, was somewhat critical of their leader’s music, and expressed their dissatisfaction. At this time, Wilson still had considerable control within the group and, according to Wilson, they eventually overcame their initial negative reaction, as his newly created music began to near completion. The album was released May 16, 1966, and, despite modest sales figures at the time, has since become widely critically acclaimed, often being cited among the all-time greatest albums. Although the record was issued under the group’s name, Pet Sounds is arguably seen as a Brian Wilson solo album. Wilson even toyed with the idea by releasing “Caroline, No” as a solo single in March 1966, it reaching number 32 on the Billboard charts.
During the Pet Sounds sessions, Wilson had been working on another song, which was held back from inclusion on the record as he felt that it was not sufficiently complete. The song “Good Vibrations” set a new standard for musicians and for what could be achieved in the recording studio. Recorded in multiple sessions and in numerous studios, the song eventually cost $50,000 to record within a six-month period. In October 1966, it was released as a single, giving the Beach Boys their third US number-one hit after “I Get Around” and “Help Me, Rhonda”. It sold over a million copies.
Sometime after Pet Sounds was released, the Beatles’ press agent Derek Taylor started working as a publicist for the Beach Boys. He gradually became aware of Wilson’s reputation as a “genius” among musician friends, a belief that wasn’t widely held at the time. Motivated by Brian’s musical merits, Taylor responded with a campaign that would reestablish the band’s outdated surfing image, and was the first to tout Brian as a “genius”. According to Van Dyke Parks, this was “much to Brian’s embarrassment”.
By the time of the universal success of “Good Vibrations”, Wilson was underway with his next project, Smile, which Wilson described as a “teenage symphony to God.” “Good Vibrations” had been recorded in modular style, with separately written sections individually tracked and spliced together, and Wilson’s concept for the new album was more of the same, representing a departure from the standard live-taped performances typical of studio recordings at that time. Having been introduced to Van Dyke Parks at a garden party at Terry Melcher’s home, Wilson liked Parks’ “visionary eloquence” and began working with him in the fall of 1966. After Wilson famously installed a sandbox and tent in his living room, the pair collaborated closely on several Smile tracks. Soon, however, conflict within the group and Wilson’s own growing personal problems threw the project into terminal disarray. Originally scheduled for release in January 1967, the release date was continually pushed back until press officer Derek Taylor announced its cancellation in May 1967.
Reduced band involvement
We pulled out of that production pace, really because I was about ready to die. I was trying so hard. So, all of a sudden I decided not to try any more, and not try and do such great things, such big musical things. And we had so much fun. The Smiley Smile era was so great, it was unbelievable. Personally, spiritually, everything, it was great. I didn’t have any paranoia feelings.
—Brian Wilson, January 1968
Following the cancellation of Smile, the Beach Boys relocated to a studio situated in the living room of Brian Wilson’s new mansion in Bel Air (once the home of Edgar Rice Burroughs), where the band would primarily record until 1972. This has been perceived by some commentators as “the moment when the Beach Boys first started slipping from the vanguard to nostalgia.” Throughout mid-to-late 1967, Wilson oversaw the production of only a few heavily orchestrated songs holding continuity with his Pet Sounds and Smile work, such as “Can’t Wait Too Long” and “Time to Get Alone”. Wilson’s interest in the Beach Boys began to wane. Carl explained: “When we did Wild Honey, Brian asked me to get more involved in the recording end. He wanted a break. He was tired. He had been doing it all too long.”
Still psychologically overwhelmed by the cancellation of Smile and the imminent birth of his first child Carnie Wilson in 1968 amid the looming financial insolvency of the Beach Boys, Wilson’s creative directorship within the band became increasingly tenuous; additionally, cocaine had begun to supplement Wilson’s regular use of amphetamines, marijuana, and psychedelics. Shortly after abandoning an intricate version of Kern and Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River” at the instigation of Mike Love, Wilson entered a psychiatric hospital for a brief period of time. Biographer Peter Ames Carlin has speculated that Wilson had self-admitted and may have been administered a number of treatments ranging from talking therapies to stiff doses of Lithium and electroconvulsive therapy during this stay.
In his absence, 1969’s 20/20 consisted substantially of key Smile outtakes (“Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer”) along with the long-germinating “Time to Get Alone”. The album’s lead track, the Wilson/Love-authored “Do It Again”, was an unabashed throwback to the band’s earlier surf hits, and had been an international hit in the summer of 1968, reaching number 20 in the US charts and number 1 in the UK and Australia while also scoring well in other countries. During this phase, Wilson also collaborated with his father (credited under the pseudonym of Reggie Dunbar) on “Break Away”, the band’s final single for Capitol Records under their original contract; although relatively unsuccessful in the US (peaking at number 63 in Billboard), the song reached number 6 on the British singles chart.
At a press conference ostensibly convened to promote “Break Away” to the European media shortly thereafter, Wilson intimated that “We owe everyone money. And if we don’t pick ourselves off our backsides and have a hit record soon, we will be in worse trouble … I’ve always said, ‘Be honest with your fans.’ I don’t see why I should lie and say that everything is rosy when it’s not.” These incendiary remarks ultimately thwarted long-simmering contract negotiations with Deutsche Grammophon. Although Murry Wilson’s sale of the Sea of Tunes publishing company (including the majority of Wilson’s oeuvre) to A&M Records’ publishing division for $700,000 at the band’s commercial nadir in 1969 renewed the longstanding animus between father and son, the younger Wilson stood in for Mike Love during a 1970 Northwest tour when Love was convalescing from illness. He also resumed writing and recording with the Beach Boys at a brisk pace; seven of the twelve new songs on the 1970 album Sunflower were either written or co-written by Wilson. Nevertheless, the album (retrospectively appraised as “perhaps the strongest album they released post-Pet Sounds” by Pitchfork Media) was a commercial failure in the US, peaking at number 151 during a four-week Billboard chart stay in October 1970. Following the termination of the Capitol contract in 1969, the band’s new contract with then-au courant Reprise Records (brokered by Van Dyke Parks, employed as a multimedia executive at the company at the time) stipulated Brian Wilson’s proactive involvement with the band in all albums, a factor that would become hugely problematic for the band in the years to come.
Even in those years when he was supposedly in seclusion, Brian came downstairs all the time, this great big guy in a bathrobe. And we went places. Brian and I used to get into his Mercedes and drive over to the Radiant Radish, or we’d go to Redondo Beach and hang out with his high school pals, or go look for Carol Mountain. Brian was as normal to me as anyone else.
Sometime in 1969, Wilson opened a short-lived health food store called The Radiant Radish. The store closed in 1971 due to unprofitable produce expenditures and Wilson’s general lack of business acumen. Reports from this era detailed Wilson as “increasingly withdrawn, brooding, hermitic … and occasionally, he is to be seen in the back of some limousine, cruising around Hollywood, bleary and unshaven, huddled way tight into himself.” This notion was contested by lyricist Stanley Shapiro.Nevertheless, Wilson’s reputation suffered as a result of his purported eccentricities, and he quickly became known as a commercial has-been whom record labels feared. When Shapiro persuaded Wilson to rewrite and rerecord a number of Beach Boys songs in order to reclaim his legacy, he contacted fellow songwriter Tandyn Almer (whom Wilson would later characterize as his “best friend”) for support. The trio then spent a month reworking cuts from the Beach Boys’ Friends album. As Shapiro handed demo tapes to A&M Records executives, they found the product favorable before they learned of Wilson and Almer’s involvement, and proceeded to veto the idea. Wilson commented in 1976:
Once you’ve been labeled as a genius, you have to continue it or your name becomes mud. I am a victim of the recording industry. I didn’t think I was a genius. I thought I had talent. But I didn’t think I was a genius.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wilson amassed myriad home demo recordings which later became informally known as the “Bedroom Tapes”. Most of these recordings remain unreleased and unheard by the public. Some of the material has been described as “schizophrenia on tape,” and “intensely personal songs of gentle humanism and strange experimentation, which reflected on his then-fragile emotional state.” Beach Boys archivist Alan Boyd observed: “A lot of the music that Brian was creating during this period was full of syncopated exercises and counterpoints piled on top of jittery eighth-note clusters and loping shuffle grooves. You get hints of it earlier in things like the tags to ‘California Girls,’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and all throughout Smile, but it takes on an almost manic edge in the ’70s.” Brian’s daughter Wendy remembers, “Where other people might take a run to release some stress, he would go to the piano and write a 5-minute song.” Her sister Carnie has recounted: “My memories of him are him wandering from room to room … thinking about something. I always wanted to know what he was thinking, you know? Who knows what he was thinking in his head? … We got used to what the whole environment was. It was very musical; there was always a piano going. Either “Rhapsody in Blue” was playing, or …”Be My Baby”—I mean—I woke up every morning to boom boom-boom pow! Boom boom-boom pow! Every day.”
While working at the Radiant Radish, Wilson met journalist and radio presenter Jack Rieley, who would manage the Beach Boys and act as Wilson’s principal lyricist for the next few years. Wilson played and sang on much of the 1971 Surf’s Up album—the band’s highest American album chart placement (#29) since 1967—and wrote or co-wrote four of the album’s ten songs, including the title track. However, only one fully formed original song from Wilson emerged during the album’s nominal recording sessions, the dirge-like “A Day in the Life of a Tree”. According to engineer Stephen Desper, the cumulatively deleterious effects of Wilson’s cocaine and tobacco use began to affect his vocal register in earnest during the Surf’s Up sessions.
In late 1971 and early 1972, he worked on an album for the American Spring, titled Spring, a new collaboration between erstwhile Honeys Marilyn Wilson and Diane Rovell. He was closely involved in the home-based recordings with co-producer David Sandler and engineer Stephen Desper, and did significant work on more than half of the tracks. As with much of his work in the era, his contributions “ebbed and flowed.” According to Dan Peek of America, Wilson “held court like a Mad King as [longtime friend] Danny Hutton scurried about like his court jester” during the ascendant band’s engagement at the Whisky a Go Go in February 1972 Concurrently, he contributed to three out of eight songs on Beach Boys’ Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” (1972). During this period, Wilson became estranged from Almer after Marilyn Wilson falsely accused the songwriter of absconding with a piece of equipment from the home recording studio.
Later that year, he reluctantly agreed to accompany the band to the Netherlands, where they based themselves to record Holland. Though physically present, he often yielded to his bibulous tendencies (primarily hashish and hard cider) and rarely participated, confining himself to work on “Funky Pretty” (a collaboration with Mike Love and Jack Rieley), a one-line sung intro to Al Jardine’s “California Saga: California”, and Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale), a narrative suite musically inspired by Randy Newman’s Sail Away that was promptly rejected by the band; eventually, Carl Wilson capitulated and ensured that the suite would be released as a bonus EP with the album. When the album itself was rejected by Reprise, the song “Sail On, Sailor”—a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks dating from 1971 that had grown to encompass additional lyrical contributions solicited by Wilson at parties hosted by Hutton—was inserted at the instigation of Parks and released as the lead single. It promptly garnered a considerable amount of FM radio play, became a minor chart hit, and entered the band’s live sets as a concert staple.
In 1973, Jan Berry (under the alias JAN) released the single “Don’t You Just Know It”, a duet featuring Wilson.
I was snorting cocaine, which I shouldn’t have gotten into. It messed up my mind, and it unplugged me from music. I just remember reading magazines. I would say, “Get me a Playboy! Get me a Penthouse!
—Brian Wilson, 2004
Wilson spent a great deal of the two years following his father’s June 1973 death secluded in the chauffeur’s quarters of his home; sleeping, abusing alcohol, taking drugs (including heroin), overeating, and exhibiting self-destructive behavior. He attempted to drive his vehicle off a cliff, and at another time, demanded that he be pushed into and buried in a grave he had dug in his backyard. During this period, his voice deteriorated significantly as a result of his mass consumption of cocaine and incessant chain smoking. Previously, Wilson claimed that he was preoccupied with “[doing] drugs and hanging out with Danny Hutton” (whose house became the center of Wilson’s social life) during the mid-1970s. John Sebastian often showed up at Wilson’s Bel Air home “to jam”, and recollected: “It wasn’t all grimness.” Although increasingly reclusive during the day, Wilson spent many nights at Hutton’s house fraternizing with Hollywood Vampire colleagues such as Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop, who were mutually bemused by an extended Wilson-led singalong of the folk song “Shortnin’ Bread”; other visitors of Hutton’s home included Vampires Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Keith Moon. Micky Dolenz recalls taking LSD with Wilson, Lennon, and Nilsson, where Wilson “played just one note on a piano over and over again”.[ On several occasions, Marilyn Wilson sent her friends to climb Hutton’s fence and retrieve her husband. Jimmy Webb reported Wilson’s presence at an August 2, 1974 session for Nilsson’s “Salmon Falls”; he kept in the back of the studio playing “Da Doo Ron Ron” haphazardly on a B3 organ. Later that month, he was photographed at Moon’s 28th birthday party (held on August 28 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel) wearing only his bathrobe. Sometime in 1974, Wilson interrupted a set by jazz musician Larry Coryell at The Troubadour by leaping onto stage and singing “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, again wearing slippers and a bathrobe.
During summer 1974, the Capitol Records-era greatest hits compilation Endless Summer reached number 1 on the Billboard charts, reaffirming the relevance of the Beach Boys in the popular imagination. However, recording sessions for a new album under the supervision of Wilson and James William Guercio at Caribou Ranch and the band’s studio in Santa Monica that autumn yielded only a smattering of basic tracks, including a banjo-driven arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; “It’s O.K.”, an uptempo collaboration with Mike Love; the ballad “Good Timin'”; and Dennis Wilson’s “River Song”. Eventually, Wilson diverted his attentions to “Child of Winter”, a Christmas single co-written with Stephen Kalinich; released belatedly for the holiday market on December 23, it failed to chart.
Though still under contract to Warner Brothers, Wilson signed a sideline production deal with Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher’s Equinox Records in early 1975. Together, they founded the loose-knit supergroup known as California Music, which involved them along with L.A. musicians Gary Usher, Curt Boettcher, and a few others. This contract was nullified by the Beach Boys’ management, who perceived it as an attempt by Wilson to relieve the burden of his growing drug expenses, and it was demanded that Wilson focus his efforts on the Beach Boys, even though he strongly desired to escape from the group. The idea of California Music immediately disintegrated.
1975–92: Landy interventions
[Landy] was such a performer … You couldn’t stop him. To him, he was the star of the story … He was full of himself … He did so many other things that you thought the whole thing might have been a scam. However, one way to keep a person from taking drugs is having a guard there to keep him from taking drugs. It’s called prison, but it was in his home.
Marilyn and the Wilson family were dismayed by Brian’s continued deterioration and were reluctant to payroll him as an active partner in the touring Beach Boys (an arrangement that had persisted for a decade). They enlisted the services of radical therapist Eugene Landy in October 1975. Landy diagnosed Brian as paranoid schizophrenic (a diagnosis later retracted), and the treatment prompted a more stable, socially engaged Brian whose productivity increased again. The tagline “Brian’s Back!” became a major promotional tool for the new Beach Boys album 15 Big Ones, released to coincide with their fifteenth anniversary as a band as a mixture of traditional pop covers with newly written original material. The record was released in the summer of 1976 to commercial acclaim and, despite lukewarm reviews, peaked at number 8 on the Billboard album chart. Brian returned to regular stage appearances with the band, alternating between piano and bass, and made a solo appearance on Saturday Night Live in November 1976; producer Lorne Michaels stipulated Brian’s exclusive performance.
Brian’s behavior during this time was reported by many to be strange and off-putting, and Landy’s role was described as “unethical” and ostentatious. Oftentimes, Wilson would ask for drugs in mid-interview. During this period, Brian was under constant surveillance by bodyguards, which he resented. Writer David Felton published an editorial piece for Rolling Stone , titled “The Healing of Brother Brian”, which included bizarre exchanges between Brian and Landy, witnessed by Felton. This included a report of Landy’s medical staff promising Brian a cheeseburger in exchange for writing a new song.
Brian expressed a fervent desire to leave the group and record a solo album in this period but could not, due to conflicts that it would create between him and the group, leading him to remark, “Sometimes I feel like a commodity in a stock market.” He was also firm in that he wanted to record another work on par with the achievement of Pet Sounds. In April 1977, the all-original Brian album Love You was released bearing the Beach Boys moniker, although the group’s contributions were minimal. It was described by Brian as an attempt to relieve himself from mental instability brought on by a period of inactivity. Love You has since been cited as an early work of synthpop. The album features playful lyrics (alternately invoking Johnny Carson, Phil Spector, and adolescent interests) and stark instrumentation (featuring Moog bass lines and gated reverb-drenched drum patterns reflective of contemporaneous work by David Bowie and Tony Visconti). Love You reached number 53 on the Billboard chart and was lauded as an artistic watershed by many critics, including Robert Christgau of The Village Voice.
Brian was under Landy’s care for fourteen months until December 1976, when the therapist was dismissed for a dispute on his monthly fee. Throughout the next several years, Brian vacillated between periods of relative stability and resurgences of his food and drug addictions. He repeatedly checked in and out of hospitals, and continued behaving erratically, plagued by incessant mood swings. At one point, he wandered off alone for several days and was sighted at a gay bar playing piano for drinks; living as a vagrant in Balboa Park, San Diego until officers took him to Alvarado Hospital for alcohol poisoning. Brian’s role in the band, as well as the Beach Boys’ commercial prospects, began to diminish once more. By 1982, Brian was immersed in debt, owing the government tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes.
Brian overdosed on a combination of alcohol, cocaine, and other psychoactive drugs. Landy was once more employed, and a more radical program was undertaken to try to restore Brian to health. This involved removing him from the Beach Boys on November 5, 1982 at the behest of Carl Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine, in addition to isolating him from his family and friends in Hawaii, and putting him on a rigorous diet and health regimen. According to Carolyn Williams, Brian refused to see Landy: “They told him that the only way that he could be a Beach Boy again, and the only way they would release his 1982 tour disbursement money, was if he would agree to see Dr. Landy. Brian started yelling that he didn’t like Dr. Landy and that [Landy] was charging him $20,000 a month the last time. He was willing to see anybody to get the weight off, but he didn’t want to see Landy. And they said, ‘Well, no, you have to see Dr. Landy. That’s the only way.'” Landy described the program that he accorded Brian in The Handbook of Innovative Psychotherapies:
The success of twenty-four-hour therapy rests on the extent to which the therapeutic team can exert control over every aspect of the patient’s life. … [The goal is to] totally disrupt the privacy of [the] patient’s [life], gaining complete control over every aspect of their physical, personal, social, and sexual environments.
Coupled with long, extreme counseling sessions, this therapy was successful in bringing Brian back to physical health, slimming down from 311 pounds (141 kg) to 185 pounds (84 kg). As Brian’s recovery consolidated, he rejoined the Beach Boys for Live Aid in 1985 and participated in the recording of the Steve Levine-produced album The Beach Boys. Brian stopped working with the Beach Boys on a regular basis after the release of the album, largely due to the control that Landy exercised. Eventually, Landy’s therapy technique created a Svengali-like environment for Brian, controlling every movement in his life, including his musical direction. In the mid 1980s, Landy stated, “I influence all of [Brian]’s thinking. I’m practically a member of the band … [We’re] partners in life.” Brian later responded to allegations with, “People say that Dr. Landy runs my life, but the truth is, I’m in charge.” Between 1983 and 1986, Landy charged about $430,000 annually. When he requested more money, Carl Wilson was obliged to give away a quarter of Brian’s publishing royalties.
Debut solo album
Brian thereafter signed to a solo record deal with Sire Records label boss Seymour Stein and variously worked with Andy Paley, Russ Titelman and Landy’s girlfriend as co-authors on the new material. Old friend and collaborator Gary Usher was a key participant in the early demo work for the album, though Landy later removed him from the project. After several years of genesis, Brian released his debut solo album Brian Wilson. It is arguable that this work was hampered by Landy’s influence, since Landy insisted on controlling involvement in every aspect of Wilson’s writing and recording and his lyrical influence is significant.
Despite the critical success of his debut solo album, rumors abounded that Brian had either suffered a stroke or had been permanently disabled due to excessive drug use. The actual problem was that Brian, who had been prescribed massive amounts of psychotropic drugs by Landy’s staff since 1983, had developed tardive dyskinesia, a neurological condition marked by involuntary, repetitive movements, that develops in about 20 percent of patients treated with anti-psychotic drugs for an extended period of time. During recording of the Brian Wilson album, engineering staff had observed what seemed to be “every pharmaceutical on the face of the earth,” referring to the medicine bag Landy was using to store Brian’s prescription drugs. In order to dispel these claims, Landy separated from Wilson in 1989 to prove that Brian could function independently. However, they remained supposed business partners. Brian’s proposed second solo album under the direction of Landy, titled Sweet Insanity, was rejected by Sire in 1990.
In 1990 came a faux memoir, Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story, published in 1991. In the book, whose authorship is still debated, Brian spoke about his troubled relationship with his abusive father Murry, his private disputes with the Beach Boys and his lost years of mental illness. In 1992, for an unrelated court case, Wilson testified that he had never read the book. Landy’s illegal use of psychotropic drugs on Brian, and his influence over Brian’s financial affairs was legally ended by Carl Wilson and other members of the Wilson family after a two-year-long conservatorship battle in Los Angeles. Landy’s misconduct led to the loss of his California psychology license, as well as a court-ordered removal and restraining order from Brian.
1990s–2010s: Touring and solo resurgence
Wilson released two albums simultaneously in 1995. The first was the soundtrack to Don Was’s documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, which consisted of new versions of several Beach Boys and solo songs. The second, Orange Crate Art, saw Wilson as lead vocalist on an album produced, arranged and written by Van Dyke Parks. I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times includes Wilson performing for the first time with his now-adult daughters, Wendy and Carnie of the group Wilson Phillips and Van Dyke Parks. During the early 1990s, he also worked on some tracks with power pop band Jellyfish, which remain unreleased. Roger Manning has recounted an anecdote during these sessions involving Wilson falling asleep at the piano yet continuing to play. Later in the decade, Wilson and his daughters Carnie and Wendy would release an album together, titled The Wilsons (1997). Also, around this time, Wilson sang backup on Belinda Carlisle’s “California”.
Having missed out on the Beach Boys’ 27th studio album Summer in Paradise, Wilson returned to the Beach Boys for sporadic recording sessions and live performances during the early to mid-1990s. Working with collaborators Andy Paley and Don Was, the sessions were reported to have been tenuous. It had also been discussed that Wilson and the Beach Boys would work with Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas on a comeback album for Wilson and the Beach Boys. All projects collapsed, and instead, Wilson was involved with the 1996 Beach Boys album Stars and Stripes Vol. 1: a group collaboration, backing country music artists singing lead vocals of Beach Boys’ standards.
In 1998, he teamed with Chicago-based producer Joe Thomas for the album Imagination. Following this, he received extensive vocal coaching to improve his voice, learned to cope with his stage fright, and started to consistently perform live for the first time in decades. This resulted in Wilson successfully performing the entire Pet Sounds album live throughout the US, UK and Europe. In 1999, Wilson filed a suit against Thomas, seeking damages and a declaration which freed him to work on his next album without involvement from Thomas. The suit was made after Thomas allegedly began to raise his industry profile and wrongfully enrich himself through his association with Wilson. Thomas reciprocated with a suit citing that Melinda Wilson “schemed against and manipulated” him and Wilson. The case was settled out of court. Wilson’s third solo album Gettin’ In Over My Head (2004) featured collaborations with Elton John, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and brother Carl, who died of lung cancer in February 1998.
Brian Wilson Presents Smile
With his mental health on the mend, Wilson decided to revisit the aborted Smile project from 1967. Aided by musician and longtime fan Darian Sahanaja of Wondermints, and lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson reimagined the session material into something that would work in a live context. His work was finally revealed in concert on February 20, 2004, 37 years after it was conceived, though he later stated that the finished product was substantially different from what was originally envisioned. Wilson debuted his 2004 interpretation of Smile at the Royal Festival Hall in London and subsequently toured the UK. Following the tour, Brian Wilson Presents Smile was recorded, and released in September 2004. The release hit number 13 on the Billboard chart. At the 47th Grammy Awards in 2005, Wilson won his first Grammy for the track “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” as Best Rock Instrumental. In 2004, Wilson promoted Brian Wilson Presents Smile with a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Europe.
In February 2005, Wilson had a cameo in the television series Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century as Daffy Duck’s spiritual surfing adviser. On June 26, 2005, Wilson performed at Glastonbury Festival in England to critical success. On July 2, 2005, Wilson performed for the Live 8 concert in Berlin, Germany. In September 2005, Wilson arranged a charity drive to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, wherein people who donated $100 or more would receive a personal phone call from Wilson. According to the website, over $250K was raised. In November 2005, former bandmate Mike Love sued Wilson over “shamelessly misappropriating … Love’s songs, likeness, and the Beach Boys trademark, as well as the ‘Smile’ album itself” in the promotion of Smile. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed on grounds that it was meritless.
In December 2005, Wilson released What I Really Want for Christmas for Arista Records. The release hit number 200 on the Billboard chart, though sales were modest. Wilson’s remake of the classic “Deck the Halls” became a surprise Top 10 Adult Contemporary hit. He appeared in the 2005 holiday episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, performing “Deck the Halls” for children with xeroderma pigmentosum (hypersensitivity to sunlight) at Walt Disney World Resort.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pet Sounds, Wilson embarked on a brief tour in November 2006. Beach Boy Al Jardine accompanied Wilson for the tour.
That Lucky Old Sun and band reunion
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Wilson released That Lucky Old Sun in September 2008. The piece originally debuted in a series of September 2007 concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall, and in January 2008 at Sydney’s State Theatre while headlining the Sydney Festival. Wilson described the piece as “… consisting of five ’rounds’, with interspersed spoken word.” A series of US and UK concerts preceded its release. On September 30, 2008, Seattle’s Light in the Attic Records released A World of Peace Must Come, a collaboration between Wilson and Stephen Kalinich, originally recorded in 1969, but later lost in Kalinich’s closet.
Around this time, Wilson announced that he was developing another concept album, titled Pleasure Island: A Rock Fantasy. Accordingly: “It’s about some guys who took a hike, and they found a place called Pleasure Island. And they met all kinds of chicks, and they went on rides and — it’s just a concept. I haven’t developed it yet. I think people are going to love it — it could be the best thing I’ve ever done.” The album has yet to surface, and for several years, Wilson has consistently maintained in interviews that he wishes his “next album” to be more rock-oriented.
In summer 2009, Wilson signed a two-record deal with Disney after he was approached to record an album of his interpretations of classic Gershwin songs, and to assess unfinished piano pieces by Gershwin for possible expansion into finished songs. After extensive evaluation of a vast body of Gershwin fragments, Wilson chose two to complete. The resulting album, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, was released in August 2010 on Disney’s Pearl label. Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin achieved Number 1 position on the Billboard Jazz Chart, and had sold 53,000 copies by August 2011. Wilson’s second album for Disney was In the Key of Disney, a collection of classic Disney movie songs, which was released on October 25, 2011. Wilson contributed his revival of Buddy Holly’s “Listen to Me” to the tribute album, Listen to Me: Buddy Holly, released on September 6, 2011, on Verve Forecast. Rolling Stone praised Wilson’s version as “gorgeous,” featuring “… angelic harmonies and delicate instrumentation.”
The official Beach Boys release of the original, partially completed Smile recordings was overseen by Wilson for the compilation, titled The Smile Sessions, released on October 31, 2011.
In October 2011, Jardine reported that the Beach Boys would reunite in 2012 for 50 American dates and 50–60 overseas dates. The Beach Boys released their new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, on June 5, 2012. The album’s title track was released as its first single in April 2012. The new album debuted at Number 3 on the Billboard charts which was their highest album debut to date. Following the reunion a year later, it was announced that Wilson would no longer tour with the band as Mike Love returned the lineup to its pre-Anniversary Tour configuration with him and Bruce Johnston as its only members.
On June 6, 2013, Wilson’s website announced that he was recording and self-producing new material with guitarist Jeff Beck, session musician/producer Don Was, as well as fellow Beach Boys Al Jardine, David Marks, and Blondie Chaplin. On June 20, the website announced that the material might be split into three albums: one of new pop songs, another of mostly instrumental tracks with Beck, and another of interwoven tracks dubbed “the suite” which initially began form as the closing four tracks of That’s Why God Made The Radio. In January 2014, Wilson confirmed that he did not write any new material with Beck, that Beck was just a guest musician on songs he wrote and nothing the duo recorded together would appear on his upcoming album.
Premiering in September 2014 at the Toronto International Film Festival, Wilson was in attendance at the first screening of Love & Mercy, a biographical film of his life directed by Bill Pohlad. On October 7, 2014, BBC released a newly recorded version of “God Only Knows” with guest appearances by Wilson, Brian May, Elton John, Jake Bugg, Stevie Wonder, Lorde, and many others. It was recorded to celebrate the launch of BBC Music. A week later, Wilson was featured as a guest vocalist for the Emile Haynie single “Falling Apart”. A cover of Paul McCartney’s “Wanderlust” was contributed by Wilson for the tribute album The Art of McCartney, released in November 2014.
Almost two years after recording began, Wilson released his eleventh solo album, No Pier Pressure, on April 7, 2015. The thirteen track album (a deluxe edition containing three bonus tracks was also released) features many guest appearances including Al Jardine, David Marks and Blondie Chaplin. Fun’s Nate Ruess, She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel and M Ward, Capital Cities’ Sebu Simonian, along with Kacey Musgraves and Peter Hollens. Earlier in January 2015, Wilson contributed vocals to Mini Mansions’ single “Any Emotions” from the album The Great Pretenders. On September 17, 2015, Wilson announced that he would play a November 4 benefit concert as part of a new partnership with the Campaign to Change Direction. Proceeds from the concert will go to provide free mental health services to veterans.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, Wilson embarked on the Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour in April 2016. It was promoted as his final performances of the album. An autobiography titled I Am Brian Wilson, co-written by ghostwriter Ben Greenman, was published in October 2016. That same month, Wilson announced a new album, Sensitive Music for Sensitive People, comprising originals and rock and roll cover songs. He describes the name as a “working title”, and that recording would begin in December 2016.
Wilson’s understanding of music theory was self-taught. The first instrument he learned to play was a toy accordion before quickly moving to piano and then bass guitar. From an early age, Brian demonstrated an extraordinary skill for learning music by ear on keyboard. According to bassist Carol Kaye, “He took bass up another step. He saw it as integral in a symphonic orchestra. He used bass as the framework for a hit record. Very few people can write for bass, but his writing was beautiful. There are a lot of jazz musicians who admire him for it.”
The work of record producer Phil Spector, who popularized the Wall of Sound, was a focal obsession for Wilson. In the 1960s, Wilson thought of Spector as “the single most influential producer. He’s timeless. He makes a milestone whenever he goes into the studio.” Wilson later reflected: “I was unable to really think as a producer up until the time where I really got familiar with Phil Spector’s work. That was when I started to design the experience to be a record rather than just a song.” Wilson’s work is sometimes characterized as avant-garde pop. Critic Michael Hann cites an “extraordinary rush of avant-pop creativity between 1965 and 1967”. In the belief of writer Richard Goldstein: “[Wilson] never realized his full potential as a composer. In the light of electronica and minimalism, you can see how advanced his ideas were, but they remain bursts of inspiration from a mind that couldn’t mobilize itself into a whole. This was the major tragedy of rock in the sixties.”
Wilson believes after he first dropped LSD in 1965: “It expanded my mind a little bit, so I could write better songs … [While] it was worth it, I wouldn’t take it again.” He has spoken that “It isn’t easy for me. So many things have scared me in my life – I’ve got fears, lots of stuff. I mean, boy, just all the records that have scared me. So many records just rocked my world, man. It’s heavy.”He named “What a Fool Believes” (1978) as a song he considers a “scary record” and once believed that Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (1967) was his funeral march. He denied that the Beatles ever influenced him, only that they inspired him. Alice Cooper reported that Wilson once considered the traditional standard “Shortnin’ Bread” to be the greatest song ever written, as he quotes Wilson for an explanation: “I don’t know, it’s just the best song ever written.”
From late 1964 to 1979, Wilson was married to Marilyn Rovell, with whom he had daughters Carnie and Wendy, who went on to musical success of their own in the early 1990s as two-thirds of Wilson Phillips. In 1995, Wilson married Melinda Kae Ledbetter, a car saleswoman and former model whom he met in 1986. The couple dated for three years before Eugene Landy put an end to their relationship. The couple reconnected in 1992 and married in 1995. As of 1999, Melinda was also acting as Brian’s manager, a job which she said is “basically negotiating, and that’s what I did every single day when I sold cars.”
In 1999, when asked if he was a religious man, Wilson responded: “I believe in Phil Spector,” later clarifying that while he had spiritual beliefs, he did not follow any particular religion, also adding that he believed “music is God’s voice”.
Wilson experiences auditory hallucinations and has been formally diagnosed as mildly manic-depressive with schizoaffective disorder that presents itself in the form of disembodied voices. According to him, he began having hallucinations in 1965, shortly after starting to use psychedelic drugs. In recent years, Wilson’s mental condition has improved, although he still has auditory hallucinations from time to time. His relationship with his wife and his new regimen of psychiatric care have allowed him to resume his career as a musician. In 1984, Wilson had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, with doctors finding evidence of brain damage caused by excessive and sustained drug abuse. The paranoid schizophrenic diagnosis, originally made by Landy, was later retracted.
Wilson is infamously difficult to interview, rarely ever giving a long answer. According to Salon writer Peter Gilstrap: “He’s also been known to get up, extend a hand and blurt out ‘Thanks!’ well before the allotted time is up. And sometimes he just gets tired and shuts down. None of this, however, is due to a bad attitude.” He admits to having a poor memory, and in interviews, occasionally lies to “test” people. When asked about negative comments written in I Am Brian Wilson, Love responded: “He’s not in charge of his life, like I am mine. His every move is orchestrated and a lot of things he’s purported to say, there’s not tape of it. But, I don’t like to put undue pressure on him, either, because I know he has a lot of issues. Out of compassion, I don’t respond to everything that is purportedly said by him.”
XTC’s Andy Partridge says to have “heard quite a few stories that would put off any sane person from getting involved in the Brian Wilson camp … I’ve heard stories of people who’ve gone over to work with him, and he’s not acknowledged them being in the room for days. … he’s definitely in the Wilsonverse, I don’t think he’s in the known universe. … one of the few people you can actually call genius, I think, so hey, he can be as nutty as he wants.” Several weeks after Jeff Beck participated in recording sessions with Wilson, Beck encountered Wilson at a Los Angeles deli, as he recounts, “on the way out, I said, ‘Hello, Brian,’ he said, ‘Hi!’ And he walked straight past me [laughs]. It was like I never existed. We had never toured for five weeks. There’s something not quite right.”
Legacy and influence
Wilson is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and significant songwriters of the late 20th century, and his work is credited as a major innovation in the field of music production. According to Erik Davis, “Not only did [he] write a soundtrack to the early ’60s, but Brian let loose a delicate and joyful art pop unique in music history and presaged the mellowness so fundamental to ’70s California pop.” The A.V. Club wrote that Wilson was among “studio rats … [that] set the pace for how pop music could and should sound in the Flower Power era: at once starry-eyed and wistful.” Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas named Wilson an important pioneer of experimental pop. Once Wilson started incorporating quasi-symphonic textures into his work, many people began crediting him for propelling the mid-1960s art pop movement. Carlin wrote that Wilson was the forerunner of “a new kind of art-rock that would combine the transcendent possibilities of art with the mainstream accessibility of pop music”. He is also regarded as the most famous outsider musician. Author Irwin Chusid noted Wilson as an ironic example of the genre due to his past commercial success, but believes that Wilson’s history of torment, substance abuse, and “loopy” material are what “certify” his outsider status.
As one of the first music producer auteurs, Wilson (along with George Martin) popularized the idea of the recording studio as a compositional tool by using recording sessions as fertile creative terrain in and of themselves, a practice which was unheard of in his time and later shorthanded as “playing the studio”. Only 21-years-old when he received the freedom to produce his own records with total creative autonomy, he ignited an explosion of like-minded California producers, supplanting New York as the center of popular records, and becoming the first rock producer to use the studio as a discrete instrument. The Beach Boys were thus one of the first rock groups to exert studio control.
Music producers after the mid 1960s would draw on Wilson’s influence, setting a precedent that allowed bands and artists to enter a recording studio and act as producers, either autonomously, or in conjunction with other like minds. The Atlantic‘s Jason Guriel credits Pet Sounds with inventing the modern pop album, that Wilson “paved the way for auteurs … anticipat[ing] the rise of the producer … [and] the modern pop-centric era, which privileges producer over artist and blurs the line between entertainment and art. … Anytime a band or musician disappears into a studio to contrive an album-length mystery, the ghost of Wilson is hovering near. … [he was] the first to turn an album into an occasion.” In the late 1960s, Wilson also started a trend of “project” recording, where an artist records by himself instead of going into an established studio.
Awards and honors
- Nine-time Grammy Award nominee, two-time winner.
- 2005: Best Rock Instrumental Performance for Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.
- 2013: Best Historical Album for The Smile Sessions.
- 1988: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Beach Boys.
- 2000: Songwriters Hall of Fame by Paul McCartney who referred to him as “one of the great American geniuses”.
- 2006: UK Music Hall of Fame by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.
- 2003: Honorary doctorate of music from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.
- 2004: BMI Icon at the 52nd annual BMI Pop Awards, being saluted for his “unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers.”
- 2005: Beach Boys Historic Landmark on the former site of the Wilson family home in Hawthorne, California.
- 2005: MusiCares Person of the Year.
- 2007: Kennedy Center Honors committee recognized Wilson for a lifetime of contributions to American culture through the performing arts in music.
- 2011: UCLA George and Ira Gershwin Award at UCLA Spring Sing.
- 2015: Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song nomination for One Kind of Love from Love & Mercy.
In popular culture
Wilson is the subject of the documentary films I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times (1995) and Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile (2005). He is also the theme of several tribute albums.
Love & Mercy
In 2014, Wilson’s life was dramatized in the biopic Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad. It stars John Cusack as Brian Wilson during the 1980s and Paul Dano as Brian Wilson during the 1960s; supported by Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy and actress Elizabeth Banks as Wilson’s second wife Melinda.
- Studio albums
- Brian Wilson (1988)
- I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times (1995)
- Orange Crate Art (1995) (with Van Dyke Parks)
- Imagination (1998)
- Gettin’ in Over My Head (2004)
- Brian Wilson Presents Smile (2004)
- What I Really Want for Christmas (2005)
- That Lucky Old Sun (2008)
- Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (2010)
- In the Key of Disney (2011)
- No Pier Pressure (2015)
|2014||Love & Mercy||Himself (archival)|
|1993||Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey||Himself|
|1987||The Return of Bruno||Himself|
|1965||“Girls On The Beach”||Himself (with The Beach Boys)|
|2006||Tales of the Rat Fink||The Surfite (voice)|
|2005||Duck Dodgers||Himself (voice)|
|1988||Full House||Himself (as The Beach Boys)|
|1988||The New Leave It To Beaver||Mr. Hawthorne|