As the Beach Boys were falling apart, Brian Wilson’s solo career was getting a second wind. After the abortive efforts to produce a Beach Boys album, he guested on four tracks on an album, The Wilsons, by his eldest daughters Carnie and Wendy, who a few years earlier had had a brief career as pop stars as part of Wilson Phillips.
For those four tracks, Wilson once again worked with Joe Thomas, the producer with whom the Beach Boys had collaborated on Stars & Stripes vol 1, and shortly after the Wilsons’ album was released, it was announced that Wilson and Thomas were collaborating on an album together, and that Wilson had moved to St Charles, Illinois, to be close to Thomas to aid in their collaboration.
The result was the first album of new material from Wilson in a decade, and it’s mixed at best. Joe Thomas, who co-wrote almost every track and produced (he was officially credited as co-producer, but from the descriptions of their working methods it seems Wilson had fairly little input), has an aesthetic which is very different from that which Wilson’s fans had grown to expect. The collaborators Thomas brought in were (with the exception of shock-jock Steve Dahl) almost all people who had had their greatest success in the early 80s, making “adult contemporary” or yacht-rock tracks, and that is very much the feel of the album as a whole.
The album is full of close-mic’d nylon-string guitar, tinkling percussion, keyboards, and snare drums with gated reverb — a sound which had been popular, if not critically acclaimed, in the mid 80s, but even by 1998 sounded horribly dated. And it was clear that the album — with its airbrushed-to-death cover photo — was trying to pitch Brian Wilson’s music at a mainstream market, on the theory that the same baby boomers who had bought Beach Boys records in the 60s were the people who’d bought records by REO Speedwagon, Styx, or Billy Joel in the 80s, and might be tempted back to Brian Wilson if he made records that sounded something like that.
The problem is, of course, that by this time Wilson couldn’t, vocally, sound commercial. The slurring, straining, forced vocalisation and pitch problems are all here, and Wilson sounds more like a slightly more eccentric Randy Newman than the over-slick production and songwriting can really cope with.
The result is an album with a few very good tracks on it, but much more that’s weaker than it should be. Wilson said, even in interviews promoting the album at the time, that “it’s not my kind of music…well, vocally it is”, and ten years later was saying “I didn’t really like that ‘Imagination’ album as much as I did some of mine.”
In retrospect, Imagination is far more important for the musicians it brought into Brian Wilson’s life than for the album itself. Three of the musicians who played on this album — Scott Bennett, Paul von Mertens, and Bob Lizik — remain core members of Wilson’s touring band to this day, and a fourth (Todd Sucherman) played in his band on his early solo tours.
Because for the first time, as a result of this album, Brian Wilson had started touring solo. And the results were quite spectacular…
Songwriters:Brian Wilson, Joe Thomas, Steve Dahl (and, uncredited on the sleeve, Jim Peterik)
The opening track — and first single — is really rather good. One wouldn’t expect that from the writing team (Steve Dahl is a shock-jock, best known for starting the “Disco Sucks” campaign, and his previous musical highlight was a Rod Stewart parody called “Do Ya Think I’m Disco?”, while Jim Peterik is best known for co-writing “Eye of the Tiger” for his band Survivor), but the fact is this is a very respectable pop song.
The song is built around a fairly standard trick — using a descending scalar bassline and moving the chords above it as little as possible while making musical sense with the bass note — one that Brian’s brother Dennis had used on “Forever”, and which is used in scores of other pop tracks. Over this, Brian sings a melody reminiscent of “Love and Mercy”, but noticeably more upbeat and exuberant.
The lyrics are mostly a mixture of nostalgia (“another car running fast, another song on the beach”) along with what will regrettably become a cliché of Wilson’s late-period solo work, references to his past difficulties (“I miss the way that I used to call the shots around here”). Banal as they are, though, they work, and the transition between the verses and bridges, where the same word is held from the end of one line to the beginning of the next (“And when I feel all alone, sometimes I think about/you take my hand”, “I took a trip through the past and got to spend it with/you take my hand”) is actually moderately clever, although set against that is the fact that the lyric wavers arbitrarily between first and second person.
All Joe Thomas’ production tics are here — crunchy electric guitar, too many woodwinds, tinkling percussion, and two separate truck-driver’s key changes for the last chorus — spiced up with some referencing of old Beach Boys classics (the “oom bop didit” backing vocal line being taken from “This Whole World”) and some baroque trumpet on the fade. There’s nothing at all original here, it’s built entirely from parts — but those parts work together, and the result is a fun track that would be pretty much what a casual Beach Boys fan would expect Brian Wilson circa 1998 to sound like.
She Says That She Needs Me
Songwriters:Brian Wilson, Russ Titelman, Carole Bayer Sager
The second song dates back to 1965, when Wilson and Russ Titelman wrote the song as “Sandy She Needs Me”, and recorded a backing track, but no lead vocals. It was revived in the 70s as “Sherry She Needs Me”, and in the 80s as “Terri She Needs Me”, and Mike Love even recorded a solo variant as “Trisha”, but none of these had been released as of 1998.
And it’s amazing it was never released, because in any version this is one of Brian Wilson’s most lovely melodies (though in the “Sherry” version its debt in the chorus to the Four Seasons’ “Sherry” is perhaps a little too obvious). Going from a plaintive minor key verse to a massive major key chorus a semitone up, it has the emotional surges of a Phil Spector classic, but with a self-awareness that Spector’s songs never had.
Unfortunately, the version here is not the song at its best. Carole Bayer Sager (the lyricist best known for co-writing “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” for Christopher Cross) was brought in to rewrite the lyrics, and while she only made a few small changes, one was to introduce the line “it’s too late and you know there’s nothing here for you and I”, in place of the original “before we both start crying I’ll just walk away”.
Sager’s change has the advantage of rhyming with the previous line’s “wanna cry”, but it has the disadvantages of being both overlong and grammatically incorrect. A professional lyricist, someone whose job it is to work with words, should understand the difference between the dative and the nominative — grammatically the sentence should be “there’s nothing here for you and me”. This could perhaps be let go if the line was otherwise great, but it isn’t — and the fact that this was a change made to a previously reasonable lyric makes it even less excusable.
The other major problem with the track is the production, which is full of nylon-string guitars, and which has a thumping four-on-the-floor kick drum on the chorus which sounds like someone smashing a hammer on your head.
But these things aren’t enough to wreck what is a truly lovely song, one of Wilson’s best, and vocally he rises to the challenge, giving perhaps the sweetest vocal performance he’s given since about 1970. It’s the only track on the album where vocally one doesn’t have to make allowances — this isn’t “a good lead vocal for Brian”, it’s just a good lead vocal by any standards. And the clarinet part (reportedly arranged by Brian rather than Thomas) is nice.
The result is imperfect, but so far we’ve had the best two-song opening run on a Beach Boys (or solo) album since 1979. Can the run of quality continue?
Songwriters:Brian Wilson, Joe Thomas, Jimmy Buffett
We descend here into yacht rock, and three-chord yacht rock at that (a fourth chord is introduced, briefly, in the middle eight). Presumably an attempt to get some of that “Kokomo” money a decade later, this has unconvincing vaguely-mariachi horns as the only vaguely interesting element in a backing track that’s otherwise a mass of AOR guitars strumming away. The lyrics, by yacht-rock star Jimmy Buffett (who is more-or-less unknown outside North America, but was at one point truly massive in the US, with hits such as “Margaritaville”), are full of supposedly-”aspirational” boasts about “doing lunch with Cameron Diaz” and going sailing in “a little piece of heaven near the Argentine”.
The sound of mass-produced corporate fun-like substance.
Where Has Love Been?
Songwriters:Brian Wilson, Andy Paley, J.D. Souther
The only track to be included that dates from Wilson’s mid-90s songwriting with Andy Paley, this is a pleasant but unremarkable ballad. The lyrics, at least partly rewritten by J.D. Souther (who co-wrote several of the Eagles’ biggest hits) are a bland mush of Hallmark card lines like “making love can always get you through the night, but true love’s there to catch you when you fall”. There’s also an example here of a problem that comes up occasionally in Brian’s later work, where a melody has been written for which it’s very difficult to write singable lyrics — while the tune is pretty, the scansion on the line “I know that even if I tried I couldn’t hide my love inside” and the others that follow the same pattern is so off that it breaks the flow of the song.
Keep an Eye on Summer
Songwriters:Brian Wilson, Bob Norman (aka Bob Norberg)
The first of two old Beach Boys tracks redone for the album is an utterly pointless remake of what was never even one of the better songs on its album. No-one listening to the All Summer Long album ever thought “this is a nice track, but what it really needs is a much sloppier lead vocal, a horrible drum sound, and an over-busy guitar line”.
Songwriters:Brian Wilson, Joe Thomas, Jim Peterik
Jim Peterik co-write? Check.
Truck driver’s key-change for the last chorus? Check.
Horrible guitar sound? Check.
This is a song so bland and generic that even my criticisms of it have to be bland and generic. Supposedly written for Brian’s baby daughter, it’s hard to detect the slightest trace of human emotion in the finished product. Some interesting horn parts are buried in a mix that’s otherwise guitar crunch, while Brian sings lyrics that rhyme “girl” and “world”, “alright” and “tonight”.
One of the two tracks on the album that are solo Brian Wilson compositions, this is a pretty little tune with an incoherent lyric, inspired by a row Wilson had with his wife Melinda. (interestingly, like “Your Imagination”, it’s both based on a descending bassline — though chromatic rather than scalar here — and has a lyric which confuses persons (in this case the second and third person)).
Unfortunately it’s around two minutes of actual decent song, followed by a further three minutes of vaguely bluesy guitar noodling.
Lay Down Burden
Songwriters:Brian Wilson, Joe Thomas
This is a song whose origins for a long time caused some confusion among fans. It was known that in the early stages of the album’s recording, there had been plans for Carl Wilson to guest on a track called “Lay Down Burden”. When the album came out, however, Wilson and Thomas referred to the song as being about Carl Wilson’s death.
The explanation for the contradiction only became public in 2012, during interviews for the That’s Why God Made the Radio album, in which Thomas explained that “Lay Down Burden” was originally the title given to a gospel-flavoured song (which was later reworked as “Spring Vacation”) which they’d planned to give to Carl to sing, but that they’d applied the title to a new song after Carl had died.
The song as recorded seems more about generic loss than a specific loss (and, indeed, Wilson had also lost his mother only months before his brother’s death), and seems to be about the end of a love affair rather than a death, but the sense of loss is palpable, and while the track shares most of the faults of the rest of the album, the song itself is a pretty one, and other than the title track is the only song from the album that remained in Wilson’s live set any length of time (in a piano-only arrangement much more suited to the song).
Let Him Run Wild
Songwriters:Brian Wilson, Mike Love
The second Beach Boys remake here is less pointless than the first. Wilson’s vocal is strong, and the arrangement is relatively faithful to the original, give or take a few skittering hi-hats. Since Wilson never liked his vocal on the original (although personally I think it’s one of his best) there was at least some reason for rerecording it,and while it’ll never replace the original, it’s at least a listenable version of a great song.
A snippet of an early working track for this version, with Brian apparently playing all the instruments, circulates, and it would be interesting to hear the full track in that rawer style, but this is OK.
Songwriters:Brian Wilson, Joe Thomas
This is a song about which there is a massive split in Beach Boys fandom. On the one side, there is me, and on the other side (as far as I can tell) is everyone else.
I think this is lovely. Not to be confused with the Beach Boys song of the same name on Keepin’ the Summer Alive, this starts out as an utterly charming, fun track. This first two minutes is almost always dismissed by fans, but in fact it’s one of the most Brian-feeling bits of the record, at least for me — a song clearly written as a Fats Domino style shuffle, though given a vaguely reggae-ish production, with Brian singing nonsense like “Here’s my number, number one/Dial it honey let’s have some fun”. It’s lightweight froth,but fun lightweight froth, and Brian sounds like he’s enjoying himself.
The extended tag of the song, on the other hand, got a lot of praise from fans until it was revealed that it was composed by Joe Thomas. Whoever composed it, the idea (taking the basic piano riff from the intro to Dennis Wilson’s “River Song” and adding a massive stack of Brians singing a round over it, with strings) works beautifully, though it has nothing to do with the rest of the song.
And at the end we get to the one true masterpiece on the album. “Happy Days” is made up of sections from all over Wilson’s career, but somehow manages to have a unity to it that allows us to be guided from great despair to deep joy.
The song starts with a simple, happy, instrumental melody, recycled from the then-unreleased Smile track “Holidays”, but after this instrumental intro, everything changes.
We move into a verse/chorus taken from a song dating from the 70s, “My Solution”. But where that song had been a joke — a comedy song about a mad scientist, this is the darkest, densest, thing Brian Wilson has ever been involved with.
Over a verse consisting of a single minor chord, an electronic noise beeps out the Morse code for SOS over and over, a saxophone skronks atonally, while a massive stack of Brians, mostly hideously distorted, chant in dissonant unison “dark days were plenty, never-ending sorrow”, sounding like a choir of demons, while buried in the mix Joe Thomas recites chunks of Dante’s Inferno
[FOOTNOTE Specifically, since many people have been unable to figure out what he’s saying, it’s these two passages from Dr Robert Pinsky’s translation:
In the first verse, from Canto XIII
Mixed with sad words?” It answered, “O souls–you two who arrive to see this shameful havoc crush my leaves and tear them from me–gather them now, and bring them to the foot of this wretched bush. In life I was of the city that chose to leave Mars, her first patron, and take the Baptist: for which the art of Mars will always make her grieve.”
In the second verse, from Canto XII
Guarded by the feral rage that I defied and quelled just now. Know then: that other time I journeyed here, this rock had not yet slid. It must have been a little before He came to Dis, if I have reckoned rightly, to take the great spoil of the upper circle with Him– when the deep, fetid valley began to shake
After eight bars of this, there’s what seems like some respite — there’s a change to the relative major for the chorus, and an actual melody and chord changes. The fact that someone singing “Oh god the pain” actually feels like a relief from the gloom tells you how oppressive the verses are.
We have a repeat of this verse and chorus, and then some new musical material comes in — a mid-tempo rock groove, shuffling between closely related chords — actually for a while a minor-key transposition of the same basic two-chord shuffle that underpins the chorus to “Good Vibrations”, though it later goes in a different direction — over which we get a lounge sax solo and plinky electric piano, before a mass of Brians come in “Ooh”ing.
We then get a short section, with the same basic feel as the lounge sax section, but with Brian singing about how “happy days are here again” and “everybody I talk to says ‘man you’re looking cool’”, before suddenly going into yet another section, similar in instrumentation and tempo, but with Brian lamenting “nature, oh nature, please let me feel…”
And then into the final section, we have an uptempo, sing-along, almost nursery rhyme section with Brian singing “Oh my gosh, happy days are here again”, and Brian Wilson may be the only rock star in history ever to unironically sing “oh my gosh”, and for that alone one has to love both him and this song. While Joe Thomas co-produced this track, the song is Brian Wilson communicating without any filters, as he does on all his best material, and the utter joy and despair, and the wild swings between them one experiences in less than five minutes, do a wonderful job of communicating the mental problems experienced by someone with Wilson’s particular set of mental health problems.
Imagination is not, by any reasonable standards, a very good album at all. But in the first two and last two tracks, at least, it still manages, almost despite itself to show why Brian Wilson is an artist that matters.
This post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?