Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson, the brains behind the Beach Boys (he co-founded the group) and the single most important factor in their success, struggles with mental illness just like me. He wrote iconic songs such as “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows”. He’s a master of writing rich multi-layered complex harmonies with beautiful and captivating melodies, dynamic and elaborate orchestration, and vocal arrangements that are dazzling. These factors rate him as the foremost genius in pop music of the past 60-70 years. He literally changed how music was made.

Brian Douglas Wilson (born June 20, 1942) is an American musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer who co-founded the Beach Boys. Often called a genius for his novel approaches to pop composition, extraordinary musical aptitude, and mastery of recording techniques, he is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative and significant songwriters of the 20th century. His work is distinguished for its vocal harmonies, complex orchestrations, and introspective or ingenuous themes. Wilson is also known for his past high-ranged singing style and for his lifelong struggles with mental illness.

Raised in Hawthorne, California, Wilson’s formative influences included George Gershwin, the Four Freshmen, Phil Spector, and Burt Bacharach. In 1961, he began his professional career as a member of the Beach Boys, serving as the band’s songwriter, producer, co-lead vocalist, bassist, keyboardist, and de facto leader. After signing with Capitol Records in 1962, he became the first pop artist credited for writing, arranging, producing, and performing his own material. He also produced other acts, most notably the Honeys and American Spring. By the mid-1960s, he had written or co-written more than two dozen U.S. Top 40 hits, including the number-ones “Surf City” (1963), “I Get Around” (1964), “Help Me, Rhonda” (1965), and “Good Vibrations” (1966).

In 1964, Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown and resigned from regular concert touring, which led to more refined work, such as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and his first credited solo release, “Caroline, No” (both 1966). As he declined professionally and psychologically in the late 1960s, his contributions to the band diminished, and he became much-mythologized for his lifestyle of seclusion, overeating, and drug abuse. His first comeback, divisive among fans, yielded the would-be solo effort The Beach Boys Love You (1977). In the 1980s, he formed a controversial creative and business partnership with his psychologist, Eugene Landy, and relaunched his solo career with the album Brian Wilson (1988). Wilson disassociated from Landy in 1991. Since 1999, he has toured regularly as a solo artist.

Wilson’s accomplishments as a producer helped initiate a period of unprecedented creative autonomy for label-signed acts. He is considered to be among the first music producer auteurs and the first rock producers to apply the studio as an instrument. The zeitgeist of the early 1960s is commonly associated with his early songs, and he is regarded as an important figure to many music genres and movements, including the California sound, art pop, chamber pop, punk, dream pop, and outsider music. Wilson’s accolades include numerous industry awards, inductions into multiple music halls of fame, and entries on several “greatest of all time” critics’ rankings. His life was dramatized in the 2014 biopic Love & Mercy.

Smile was to be the follow-up album to Pet Sounds, but due to stress from work, declining health due to abuse of alcohol, abuse of illegal hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and LSD, and abuse of food Wilson went through a rocky 20 years spending time in mental institutions and various living arrangements. Smile was scrapped in 1966. He emerged in the year 2000 much better and finally saw Smile realized as he envisioned it. It was a truly groundbreaking and revolutionary album that was decades ahead of its time when originally conceived in the 1960s. For the background on Smile click here.

To the surprise of his associates, Wilson agreed to follow the Pet Sounds tours with concert dates that would feature songs from the unfinished Smile album arranged for live performance. Sahanaja assisted Wilson with the sequencing, and later, they were joined by Parks, who was brought in to contribute additional lyrics. Brian Wilson Presents Smile (BWPS) premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in London in February 2004. Encouraged by the positive reception, a studio album adaptation was soon recorded. Wilson’s engineer Mark Linett recalled that when he handed Wilson the CD of the completed album, “I swear you could see something change in him. And he’s been different ever since.” According to Sahanaja, Wilson held the CD to his chest and said, “‘I’m going to hold this dear to my heart.’ He was trembling.”

Regarding Wilson’s mental health he suffers from schizoaffective disorder with mild bipolar disorder (manic depression) and general anxiety disorder. I can relate to Wilson’s struggles. I too hear auditory hallucinations on a daily basis, as well as visual hallucinations. Wilson has been brave in his mental health struggles and candidly discusses them.

Wilson is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and significant songwriters of the late 20th century. He was the first pop artist credited for writing, arranging, producing, and performing his own material. Wilson was also one of the first music producer auteurs, helping to popularize the idea of the recording studio as a compositional tool, and was the first rock producer to use the studio as a discrete instrument. In the 2010 book The Producer as Composer: Shaping the Sounds of Popular Music, he is acknowledged as a “brilliant producer” and “a major innovator in the field of music production.” The control Wilson had over his own band’s records was itself unprecedented in the music industry.

For a glimpse into the impact Wilson has had on music see these quotes by leading musicians on Wilson’s website.

Here are 2 of my favorite Beach Boys songs, both written by Wilson.

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