Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Brian Wilson at 70!

On this day 70 years ago Brian Douglas Wilson was born in California. Happy Birthday Brian!. I will spare you from a skinny recap of The Beach Boys history due to the fact that their recent release (their 29th Studio release no less) ‘That’s Why God Made The Radio’ will call to arms every hack and journalist in every music publication and website to churn out bio’s and opinions running up to the release date and instead just cut to the meat of the matter. The songs.

Here are my Top 10 Brain Wilson moments for you to listen to, dig out and SMiLE along to…

01) Time To Get Alone

This album track from the groups 1969 release ‘20/20’ has always been a personal favourite for many reasons. One being that it’s completely solo in it’s writing credits, which for an artists like Brian Wilson shows that it’s conception wasn’t creatively trapped within any guidelines or formula that may have been put on him when faced with a collaboration. The second reason is the glorious production, the layering, the echo chamber being used on certain lines and phrases let alone the harmonies. Happy to see the song make an appearance in his live set when I saw him.

02) Till I Die

From the ‘Surfs Up’ album this track has always been a very popular Brian Wilson piece as it shows that even throughout his darkest periods mentally he is able to conjure up classic beauty and feelings without ever creeping over to depressing or self indulgent music. Written after Brian in one of his introspective moods pictured himself in the grand scheme of things describing himself as a 'cork on the ocean', a 'leaf on a windy day', a 'rock in a landslide'. He wondered about his life as a whole i.e. was he in control of his own life? Was he ever? Record producer Don Was once commented in an interview that Brian told him that he wrote the music by just making different shapes with his fingers on the piano and messing around making different versions of that and suddenly a melody appeared. Whether that’s true or not it shows the kind of child like willingness to explore his imagination that Wilson prefers over the typical song writer with pen in his hand and metronome on his desk that some of his contemporaries chose.

03) God Only Knows

What can be said about this song that hasn’t already been said a thousand times and much better. Paul McCartney calls this ‘Pet Sounds’ track ‘the greatest song of all time’ and who are we to argue? Especially the harmony vocal build up at the end accompanied by snare fills. Perfection.

04) Caroline No

Also from the ‘Pet Sounds’ album and strangely enough the only track that was released as a one off Brian Wilson ‘solo’ single. It was never a hit song and in my opinion it never had the sort of pop sensibility to ever be one. Written in collaboration with lyricist Tony Asher the song was originally entitled ‘Carol I Know’ although mis-heard by the partially deaf Wilson while composing the music he sang “CAROLine No” and it stuck.

05) In My Room

Often described as the point in the Beach Boys catalogue when Brian pushed away from the surf and sunshine image and instead started his personal journey inwards. Written in tandem with Gary Usher this melancholy ballad shows a side of Wilson that needed his own hiding place and artistic freedom from the pop rollercoaster even in the early days of the group. So unclassifiable in it’s presentation and true meaning the accompanying footage of the group singing the song had them sitting in a library in suits!

06) Still I Dream of It

This choice is one I originally heard on the groups ‘Good Vibrations’ box-set. An un-released track that was supposed to be part of the still un-available ‘Adult/Child’ project Brian was creating in 1977. He later commented that he was trying to write more adult songs that would lend themselves to more Sinatra types of performances and productions. This song was later included in demo form on the retrospective documentary ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ although this version is best to be avoided as it’s rough, scratchy and nowhere near the quality of the full version discussed here.

07) Please Let Me Wonder

‘Please Let Me Wonder’ is more of a typical Beach Boys song from their early period pre-‘Pet Sounds’ era although you can definitely see a thread of change evolving through the melodic and production tricks being used by Wilson. Influenced by Phil Spector just as much as the Four Freshman and Chuck Berry this track could have been a standard doo-wop style song if it wasn’t for the almost jazz like chord movements and extensions which Wilson was casually using regularly and confidently. It these sophisticated song-writing choices and tricks that were blowing a lot of minds across the pond, especially in Abbey Road studios.

08) Kiss Me Baby

Another early choice cut from the same cloth as a lot of other early singles, this track was selected as much for the instrumentation layering involved in the production as for the vocals. A master class in depth, space and the ability to ‘play the studio’ as an instrument itself.

09) Surfs Up

Originally written during the sessions for what would be the aborted ‘SMiLe’ project. With lyrics from esoteric writer Van Dyke Parks and combined with a wonderful music cradle including 10 chords in just the verse alone with multiple key changes and subtle shifts in pace this is the work of a man on top of his game and peaking musically. Jimi Hendrix famously sang “you’ve never hear surf music again” although after listening to ‘Surfs Up’ the gauntlet was laid down to everyone who doubted the importance of the group or Wilson himself as a prime creative force in pop music. Later included on the ‘Surfs Up’ album spliced between a live solo version and the groups own studio accompaniment.

10) Surfer Girl

The first song Brian Wilson every wrote for the group (and in fact the first release where he was officially credited as the producer). Inspired by the Disney song ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ this song created the image and feel of the group from then on. Although played at every concert since this has been one that hasn’t lost it’s identity and still sounds as full and fresh today as it did when it was first released in 1963.

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