The Beach Boys on CD: Brian Wilson

As soon as “Doctor” Eugene Landy was taken on for a second time, in 1983, to “treat” Brian Wilson’s increasingly severe mental illness, he started taking control of both Wilson’s personal life and his professional life. Landy fancied himself a songwriter — or at least, wanted to get a writing credit and the concomitant royalties — and so started inserting himself into Wilson’s writing process, as “therapy”.

The end game of this was to create a solo career for Wilson, ideally in parallel with continued membership of the Beach Boys, so that albums could be released with as much Landy involvement as possible, and without the other Beach Boys getting involved in the songwriting process (or, worse — from Landy’s point of view at least — starting to object to the level of control Landy had over Wilson). But Brian was not considered in a fit mental state at that point to take complete control over a project, and so collaborators had to be brought in.

At first, Brian’s old friend Gary Usher, who had recently returned to the music industry, was contacted, and he worked with Brian to shape his ideas into music that would have commercial appeal in the changed industry landscape of the mid-80s. Only three tracks saw any kind of release, though: a Beach Boys/Fat Boys collaboration on “Wipe Out”; a track called “The Spirit of Rock & Roll”, co-written by Tom Kelly (who had earlier co-written Madonna’s hit “Like A Virgin”), which was used on a Beach Boys TV special; and a single called “Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car”, used in the soundtrack for Police Academy 4. Usher was abruptly sacked by Landy after he started asking for actual payment for his services — Usher suspected that this was because he was too independent for Landy’s tastes.

The Usher demos did, though, get Brian a contract for a solo album on Sire Records, a division of Warner Brothers, and Lenny Waronker, the label’s president, took a personal interest in the project. Waronker co-produced one track himself, and paired Wilson up with two major collaborators. Russ Titelman, who co-produced most of the album, was an industry veteran with whom Wilson had collaborated in the 60s (Titelman had written lyrics for “Guess I’m Dumb” and the then-unreleased “Sandy She Needs Me”) and who had worked with Waronker on several projects, most notably Randy Newman’s 70s albums.

The other collaborator, who would be a major force in Wilson’s musical life for the next fifteen years, was the powerpop songwriter Andy Paley. Paley was a very talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in his own right, and as well as co-writing several songs, he also played most of the guitars, bass, and drums on the album — while there were many additional session musicians on odd tracks, the core backing tracks were mostly performed by Paley and synthesiser programmer Michael Bernard, with Wilson adding keyboards.

And this is where we have to discuss what is a potentially inflammatory topic — the question of exactly how much involvement Brian Wilson’s collaborators have in his music. Up to this point, Wilson’s collaborators had mostly been lyricists, with Wilson writing all the music. From this point on, however, his major songwriting collaborations have all been with people who were capable of writing both words and music themselves, and in several cases (including Paley) those people have also been capable of writing convincing pastiches of Wilson’s own style.

This has led, understandably, to some people questioning whether Wilson himself has much involvement in the songs for which he is credited. I believe that for the most part he does, and will be taking that view in this book, except where the evidence points another way on a specific song. The nature of the collaborations has varied over the years, with some collaborators having more influence over the music than others, but I think it is possible to see a clear through-line through all Wilson’s late-period work (and we are here at the precise half-way mark in his career as a songwriter as of the time of writing).

So in all discussions of Wilson’s songwriting, I shall be treating him as the auteur, and his collaborators as (very talented) assistants. I shall sometimes try to make a best assessment of who contributed what, and may say for example that a particular melody line sounds more Paley than Wilson, but Brian Wilson will be treated as the overall primary creative force, and I shall be looking at the music in the context of his body of work.

And in that context, Brian Wilson, the album that came out in 1988, is remarkably good. It’s certainly the best thing he had been involved with since The Beach Boys Love You eleven years earlier, and the most consistent. It’s not, however, a particularly easy listen. It has a very 80s sound, with many of the tracks being built almost entirely out of digital synths, and many of the tracks were mixed by Hugh Padgham (the engineer who was responsible for the drum sound on Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”).

Along with that, Wilson’s voice has changed again. This is neither the gruff, shouty, but enthusiastic and tuneful Brian of the late 70s and early 80s, nor the sweet falsettist of the 60s. Rather, this sounds more like Randy Newman than anyone else, but with both slurring and clipping — these are the vocal equivalent of pressured speech, and he sounds like what he was: a man on incorrectly-prescribed psychiatric medication. The attempts to go into falsetto are often painfully off, but even the normal range sounds uncomfortable.

But listen past that, and this is the best collection of relatively straightforward pop songs that Wilson had recorded since Pet Sounds, and the circumstances of its creation make that achievement all the greater.

Love and Mercy
Songwriter: Brian Wilson †

The album’s opening track is apparently inspired by a quote from the Bible — Isaiah 63:9. “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”

And it appropriately has a hymnal feel, at least when one takes into account the 80s production sound. Musically, the proximate influence was Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now”, but the song actually bears a far stronger resemblance to Brian’s brother Dennis’ “Forever”, being based around the same descending scalar bassline, and with the first few chords identical once one takes the difference of key into account.

The song, both verse and chorus, is based around a repeating I/iii7/vi7/iii7/IV/vi7/ii7/V7 pattern, with lyrics alternating between verses about everyday life (“I was lying in my room and the news came on TV”) and observations of the suffering in the world (“a lot of people out there hurting and it really scares me”), and choruses wishing “love and mercy to you and your friends tonight”.

The only escape from this repetition is in the largely a capella section before the last two repetitions of the chorus, where from out of nowhere what sounds like a choir of angels (or as close as Wilson’s 80s voice could come) descends and wordlessly seems to heal the narrator’s pain.

Of all Wilson’s solo songs, this is the one that has come closest to having the same reputation as his Beach Boys work, and the song has been the closing song at almost every one of his solo performances. The 2015 film based around Wilson’s life was titled after the song, and it remains his best-known solo work, despite being unsuccessful when released as a single.

Some early live performances of this song had an extra verse (“I was praying to a God who just never seems to hear/The things we need the most are what we most fear”). This was supposedly the work of Landy, and thankfully never made it to the finished version.

Walkin’ the Line
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Nick Laird-Clowes *

An uninspired song dating from the Usher sessions, this is catchy enough, but is based around simple, repetitive, I-IV and I-V shuffles (though with quite a pleasant bassline). The one real musical piece of interest, the bridge, is actually ripped off from a then-unreleased Alan Jardine song from a decade or so earlier, “Looking Down The Coast” — the lines “If I don’t get my way this time I’ll die/And that’s no lie” and “Sittin’ at a place called Nepenthe we can see it there/Mountain lion’s lair” are almost identical, musically. Then-hot pop star Terence Trent D’Arby adds some backing vocals.

Melt Away
Songwriter: Brian Wilson *

Easily the best song on the album, this is also the track where a lyrical collaborator would have been most beneficial. Musically this is spectacular (though again marred by the shoutiness of the vocals), and most of the lyrics (originally credited to Landy, but these are clearly Wilson’s lyrics) rise to the challenge, but there are a few infelicities (like the overuse of melisma — the word “why” is stretched out over six notes in the first line) that could easily have been improved.

That’s nitpicking, though. This is a beautiful song, and the lyrical tone matches the music perfectly, with the confusion and pain of the earlier lines of the verses turning into the relief of “and my blues just melt away” mirroring the chord sequence, which makes the song appear to be in B flat at first, but with several “wrong” chords, before the resolution at the end of the verse makes it clear it’s really in F.

Lyrically this is yet another return to the muse who is too good for the singer, and very much part of a continuum with Wilson’s earlier work, but knowing of his personal situation at the time makes the middle eight, where he sings “I won’t let you see me suffer/No not me/I won’t let you hear me crying/No not me”, utterly heartbreaking.

When the CD was reissued with bonus tracks in 2000, this song and several others were included in the wrong mixes, at least on early pressings. Most differed so little that I’ve never noticed an audible difference between them, but “Melt Away” on the 2000 reissue is missing some prominent vocal parts on the round-like tag.

Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long
Songwriter: Brian Wilson *

This song had been around for a few years when it was recorded, and had been recorded during the Usher sessions, though Usher called the song, whose lyrics he attributed to Landy, “nonsensical, immature, and childish”.

That’s probably an accurate description of the lyrics (though the version on the album makes a lot more sense than the demo lyrics did), but musically the track is quite interesting, especially the bridges, where Wilson changes key up a fourth, runs through a slight variation of the standard doo-wop chord sequence, and then has a passage similar to the verses of “Love and Mercy” where he allows the descending scalar bassline to take him back to the original key.

It’s not the most coherent of Wilson’s songs lyrically, but for those of us who enjoy his more eccentric work, there’s plenty of pleasure to be found here in the cleverly-constructed music.

Little Children
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

This song dated back at least to 1976, when it was recorded during the demo sessions for The Beach Boys Love You. Apparently written for his daughters Carnie and Wendy, by the time the song was actually released “poor little Carnie” and “little Wendy” were nineteen and eighteen, respectively, and estranged from their father thanks to “Doctor” Landy.

The song is slight, consisting of a three-chord verse and a chorus that is stolen from the middle eight of “Mountain of Love”, but at one minute and fifty seconds it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

One for the Boys
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

Another 1:50 song, this one has far more musical interest. A totally a capella, wordless, track, this showcases Wilson’s vocal arrangement ability, which was as good as ever, on a piece which sounds like it was inspired by “Rhapsody in Blue”. One of the highlights of the album.

There’s So Many
Songwriter: Brian Wilson †

Another highlight of the album, this song is probably the one that sounds most “Brian Wilson” to the average listener. While it’s a mistake to go into falsetto at the end of each verse, and the lyrics are utter gibberish, if one ignores the differences in production style the music manages to split the difference between his mid-60s Pet Sounds and Today! style romantic ballads and the more idiosyncratic material on Love You. The moment at the end of the middle eight where he sings “planets are spinning around”, the music drops into waltz time for a moment, and the chord sequence goes from G-flat maj7 to Gm7/C to C, is simply transcendent.

Night Time
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Andy Paley †

Apparently one of the songs Wilson was most enthused about, this is one of the weaker tracks on the album, with a faintly “tropical” feel in the percussion that seems almost like a response to the Beach Boys’ recent success with “Kokomo”, though the release date, before that song became the massive hit it did, seems to make that unlikely.

Not a particularly strong track, and not one that has dated well.

Let it Shine
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Jeff Lynne

Apparently Sire didn’t think that Wilson had enough strong material to make a full album, and insisted that some work from outside songwriters be brought in. In the case of “Let It Shine”, they turned to Jeff Lynne, who was at that time having some success as a producer and writer for veteran artists — around the same time period he also worked on albums by George Harrison, Randy Newman, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison, all of which had a great deal of success.

Lynne has recently talked about writing this together with Brian at the piano, but all other information seems to suggest that the song was written by Lynne on his own, with Brian merely contributing the “Let it shine, oh let it shine” section later. Certainly, it sounds far more like Lynne’s work than Wilson’s. It does, however, have some of Wilson’s strongest vocals on the album, presumably because of Lynne’s co-production, although it’s easy to tell that the vocals were edited together from multiple takes.

Oddly, other than “Love and Mercy” and “Melt Away” this is the only song from the album to have been performed live by Wilson since he started touring solo in 1999.

Meet Me in My Dreams Tonight
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Andy Paley, Andy Dean

Another song brought in by an outside writer, this is apparently almost (or totally) the work of Paley, and again sounds more like him than it does Wilson. If Wilson contributed anything, I’d suggest it was either the “lullaby baby/goodnight baby” section (which obviously references “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and doesn’t sound like Paley melodically) or the last, staccato, “meet me in my dreams tonight” of the chorus, which like many of Wilson’s songs on the album features a scalar, descending, bassline.

Rio Grande
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Andy Paley

And the album itself ends with an eight-minute-long suite. One of Lenny Waronker’s conditions for putting the album out was apparently that it have something reminiscent of Smile on it. As Wilson was simply not capable yet of structuring something like that, the job fell to Andy Paley. Paley took several fragments of unfinished songs Wilson had lying around, some dating back years or even decades, and combined them with new material he wrote himself. Paley and Waronker then added sound effects to help smooth over some of the transitions, and the result was a fairly plausible piece of pseudo-Smile — a suite with several different melodic themes, and with lyrics about the old West.

The more one examines the song, the less there really is there — the “night blooming jasmine” section, for example, has no musical or lyrical relationship to anything else in the piece (understandably, as it was taken from a totally unrelated song) — but Paley does a great job of making the disparate pieces seem to hold together, and each of the sections by itself is a musically interesting one. The result is a fine, though not great, closer to a fine, though not great, album.

Bonus Tracks

Brian Wilson on “Love and Mercy”

A section of interview from 1988, with Wilson talking about the song.

He Couldn’t Get His Poor Old Body to Move
Songwriters: Lindsey Buckingham, Brian Wilson

A song that Wilson had written early in the Usher sessions, this was resurrected as the B-side of “Love and Mercy”. The original version had lyrics about exercise and eating healthily; Lindsey Buckingham, who was brought in to rework it and co-produce, rewrote nearly all the lyrics. The new lyrics, while not great, are a vast improvement, but the song itself will never be a great one — it has a nice triplet feel to it, but it’s not got anything particularly interesting about it.

Being With the One You Love
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

The B-side to “Melt Away”, this was originally written as “Doing Time on Planet Earth”, intended for the flop film of the same name (though rather oddly Gary Usher claimed that he had given Brian Wilson that title). When it wasn’t accepted for the film, it was given a light rewrite. The melody has some promise, but between the dud vocals, the 80s production and the dreadful lyrics, a B-side was probably the fate it deserved.

Let’s Go to Heaven in My Car
Songwriters: Gary Usher, Brian Wilson

Gary Usher used this song as an example of why Brian Wilson needed a collaborator to shape his ideas. In actual fact, though, it seems to prove the opposite.

In an early session with Usher, Wilson brought in a song called “Water Builds Up”, allegedly written with Landy. The song was later recorded for Wilson’s unreleased second solo album, Sweet Insanity, and the bootlegs of that reveal a rather charming little song. No “God Only Knows”, perhaps, but definitely worth a place on an album. Usher, on the other hand, thought it “had a nice verse, but the rest of the song was very mediocre”.

A while later, however, Usher was speaking with Bruce Johnston, who told him that Wilson had a song title that was so great Johnston was tempted to buy it off him. The title was “Let’s Go to Heaven in My Car”.

Usher asked Wilson about the title, and Wilson played him a few bars of chorus, which was all he had of the song. Usher’s solution was to take the verse of “Water Builds Up” and the chorus of “Let’s Go to Heaven in My Car”, and put them together and create…a horrible mess.

The song simply doesn’t work. The chorus itself is terrible, with the scansion of the lyrics all wrong, and with no real interesting musical features. Worse, though, the verse and chorus simply don’t go together in any sensible way. When one listens to “Water Builds Up”, the verse, chorus, and middle eight all progress naturally one into the other. Here, though, the chorus comes out of nowhere and sounds like what it is, a jarring interruption from a less interesting song. For the final touch, Usher’s production adds the kind of dull 80s rawk guitar that adorned much of the Beach Boys’ near-contemporary Still Cruisin’ album, as it did the work of so many 60s pop stars who were lost and musically confused in the 1980s.

The song was released as a single, and found its natural home on the soundtrack to Police Academy 4, the fourth-least-dreadful of the “comedy” franchise.

Too Much Sugar
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

The B-side of “Let’s Go To Heaven in My Car”, this sounds like a mildly-overdubbed demo, with a simple keyboard and beatbox backing track lightly adorned with some keyboard and backing vocal overdubs.

Had it been any more produced, this silly little song about health, exhorting you to “move it all around just like Jane Fonda” and warning you that if you eat “too much sugar and too much cake/you’ll end up with a belly-ache”, would seem ridiculous. As it is, it’s rather charming, and while Wilson’s vocals on the middle eight are more than a little strained, his vocals on the verses are some of the most natural-sounding of anything he recorded between about 1985 and 1998. Charmingly eccentric, if slight.

There’s So Many (demo)
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

A rather lovely demo, with just keyboard, vocals, and some overdubbed harmonies. Compared to the released version, the lyrics are even worse, and Wilson can’t hit the notes on “planets are spinning around”. The end of each verse is simpler, too, without the lovely little chord changes under the last word of the line, making the song harmonically much simpler. But on the plus side, that also means that Wilson can actually sing the last lines of the verses, without the soaring into a falsetto that’s out of his range. The released version probably wins on points, but it’s nice to have both.

Walkin’ the Line (demo)
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

A vocal/keyboard/beatbox demo recorded with Gary Usher, this is mostly fully-formed — even in this primitive version it’s very easy to hear what the record will become. There are some slight lyrical improvements on the finished version (presumably the work of Nick Laird-Clowes, who is credited as a cowriter there but not on the demo), but they amount to about three lines being altered. The only musical element missing is the “wah wah wah” that on the finished version leads from the chorus back into the verse.

Melt Away (early version – alternate vocal)
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

A demo featuring very slightly different lyrics, with Brian, a keyboard, and a stack of backing vocals adding “dit”s and “ooh”s. Not especially revelatory — it sounds exactly as one would imagine a demo for the song would sound.

Night Time (instrumental track)
Songwriters: Andy Paley & Brian Wilson

The instrumental track and backing vocals for “Night Time”. Nothing especially interesting if one has heard the finished version.

Little Children (demo)
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

Another demo with little to reveal about the finished song.

Night Bloomin’ Jasmine (demo)
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

This, on the other hand, is a very different matter. This is a recording from 1979, with Brian’s older, gruff, voice, and is a fascinating song in its own right. It consists of three sections — the “night bloomin’ jasmine, it comes a creeping through my window” chorus, which was reused in “Rio Grande”, a much more uptempo verse section (“I smell, I smell, I smell it for the very first time”), and then an even faster instrumental section, with a bass riff similar to “Help Me Rhonda”, and fast clusters of boogie-style piano chords augmented by Moog.

Vocally and production-wise, this is head and shoulders above anything else on the CD, even though it’s clearly an unfinished demo. Unlike some of the patchwork songs I’ve discussed earlier, the three disparate sections here feel of a piece. Quite a fascinating track, and evidence that even at his lowest, Brian Wilson had been musically very inventive.

Rio Grande (early version – compiled rough mixes)
Songwriters: Andy Paley & Brian Wilson

This isn’t really an early version of the song, nor is it a compilation of rough mixes as such. Rather, it’s a selection of bits of instrumental takes and vocal parts, arranged into something resembling the final form of the song (though two minutes shorter), along with some discarded elements that didn’t make the final song, and allowing one to hear different parts of the instrumentation more clearly. It manages to reveal both the fragmentary nature of the pieces that made up the track and the inventiveness of those pieces — what we hear here is several thirty-second or minute-long fragments, most unmistakeably Brian Wilson, with very little connection to each other. But those fragments are often gorgeous, and large parts of this are very reminiscent of the Holland album, with its combinations of banjo, Moog, and piano.

Brian on “Rio Grande”

Excerpts of an interview with Brian Wilson, clearly pressured in speech and uncomfortable, explaining the meaning behind “Rio Grande”.

Brian on “The Source”

Another excerpt from an interview, with Brian saying “art is intangible…art is not a finite thing”. This is followed by two hidden tracks — a Christmas message from 1987, and a very short excerpt from “Doing Time on Planet Earth” (a stack of Brians singing “join the human race”, to the same melody that in “Being With the One You Love” would be “in our private space”).


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1 Response to The Beach Boys on CD: Brian Wilson

  1. John says:

    Very insightful and interesting piece Andrew

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