Brian Wilson: Songwriter

Discussion in 'Fred's Barcalounge' started by Synchro, Dec 1, 2018.

  1. Synchro

    Synchro The artist formerly known as: Synchro Staff Member

    Jun 2, 2008
    Admin Post
    I just finished watching a DVD about Brian Wilson’s songwriting from ‘62 - ‘69. There is also another, parallel program which details his work from ‘70 - ‘82, which I have also seen, on Amazon Prime video.

    My interest in Pop/Rock Music seems to be centered on the early ‘60s, probably stemming from hearing this music when it was Top 40 material, while tagging along with my older sister. So I heard Duane Eddy, The Ventures, the various Instrumental Surf songs, Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys in real time. Even then, I felt I was hearing something special whenever The Beach Boys came on the radio and have admired their music ever since.

    Brian Wilson was, of course, the creative genius behind much of The Beach Boys music, and I have spent no small number of hours learning about him and his various creative endeavors. Quite simply, the man is a musical genius whom may well be considered on par with the great classical masters such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, as history unfolds.

    The Pop/Rock music of the late ‘50s consisted chiefly of two patterns, the 12 bar Blues and the circle of 6ths (C, Am, F, G7). There was nothing wrong with this, a lot can be done with these sets of changes and we still see them used frequently, even all these years later. But Brian Wilson came up with something much more harmonically complex and created vocal arrangements which had been influenced by the Jazz-based harmonies of The Four Freshmen and then he did something amazing; he managed to meld these advanced harmonies into the rock n’ roll feel of the times; The Four Freshmen meet Chuck Berry, and it worked.

    The Beach Boys delivered something unique; a form of music which celebrated the lifestyle of southern California and packaged it in two forms; the Surfer subculture, which was far out of reach for most American youth, but they also had a car song as the flip side of most of their singles. Surfer Girl, no small accomplishment in an of itself, had a flip side of Little Deuce Coupe which added relevance for those of us in the landlocked midwest. This was some very smart marketing, to say the least. Beyond that, it provided a sense of identity for members of their target audience. Most of us didn’t have the beaches of coastal California, but young men were hopping up old cars and dreaming about new performance cars pretty much across the US and the Beach Boys gave them entree into the hippest of youth cultures by providing something relatable for the mass of the youth market.

    But then Brian Wilson began to grow up and wanted to write about more than the standard sun, fun, cars and going steady world of his earlier work. After leaving behind the world of touring in late 1964, Wilson concentrated on composing, producing and recording, having the rest of The Beach Boys record their vocal tracks between tours. The music became more sophisticated and Wilson took the world of youth-market music to new heights, with regard to innovative chord changes. The mid ‘60s music of The Beach Boys stood on par with just about anything that had come before. It was compositionally quite sophisticated.

    At the same time, Wilson began to rely almost completely on session musicians, many of whom had extensive knowledge and experience in playing Jazz and improvising a coherent solo on the fly. It is my belief that the contributions of the Wrecking Crew made a huge contribution to the overall quality of the completed product. Wilson was the creative genius, but one of his best choices was to use musicians whom could do justice to his compositions and make a meaningful contribution to the process.

    With all of this in mind, there is still one glaring fact and that is simply that Brian Wilson had a rare ability to create complex and satisfying arrangements in his head; his sense of harmony was flawless. Beyond that, he had unique ideas involving the use of instruments. In an era when the accordion was all but synonymous with being musically irrelevant, Wilson was using them in hit songs, and no one seemed to mind in the slightest. His musical imagination was vast, perhaps even unbounded, combining instruments no one had ever imagined in a rock n’ roll song with vocals that harkened back to the Jazz era and a beat that pounded away unrelentingly. It doesn’t hurt in the slightest that Wilson frequently used Hal Blaine, one of the best session drummers in history, but then again, recognizing talent in others is a talent unto itself.

    As most people are aware, Wilson descended into a period of inertia and mental health issues as The Beach Boys heyday drew to a close. Much has been made of this with legends of eccentric, even bizarre behavior making the rounds. Brian Wilson himself has stated that he feels his drug experimentation played a role in this. My personal opinion is that the same fertile mind which could create complex and intricate arrangements and which allowed Wilson to “hear” these in his head, probably became so saturated and sensitive that he fell victim to auditory hallucinations and obsessions with fleeting thoughts which would have hardly reached the level of conscious recognition in a less fertile mind. Years of therapy and medication marked Wilson’s life in the seventies and eighties, but he seemed to regain a great deal of his equilibrium later on and, happily, has returned to the world of both creating and performing music.

    Perhaps the most amazing aspect of all this is the fact that Wilson’s music has not only stood the test of time, but is actually more appreciated now than ever. What seemed like fun little songs about Surfing and Hot Rods at the time are now seen as significant works in their own right.

    Perhaps my favorite of all Wilson’s compositions is one that remains relatively obscure. Written the night that John Kennedy was assassinated, “The Warmth of the Sun” strikes me as a creative tour de force. It starts, simply enough, with a I VI change in 6/8, like countless ‘50s ballads. Then, instead of proceeding to the IV, it changes tone centers up a minor 3rd and does another I VI change. Then it makes a somewhat unforeseen, but completely logical move up to Dm7 for two measures, a measure of G7 and the 8th measure is a G7+. (C / / C / / Am / / Am / / Eb / / Eb / / Cm / / Cm / / Dm7 / / Dm7 / / Dm7 / / Dm7 / / G7 / / G7 / / G7+ / / G7+ / /)

    If I ever had the opportunity to speak to Brian Wilson, I would ask him if he consciously used a b5 move in the third measure, or if he just thought that it sounded good to move to Eb, at that point.

    The refrain is equally as inventive. He starts with a parallel move, the parallel Major of the relative minor (A Maj) and then deftly transitions his way back to a sequence which will lead logically back to the C Maj at the beginning of the third verse. (A Maj / / A Maj / / A Maj 7 / / A Maj 7 / / Am7 / / Am7 / / D7 / / D7 / / G Maj 7 / / G Maj 7 / / G Maj 7 / / G Maj 7 / / G7 / / G7 / / G7+ / / G7+ / /)

    The vocal harmonies are straight out of The Four Freshmen’s approach and what starts with a musical cliché from countless ‘50s teen ballads ends up as a harmonically sophisticated exercise in parallelism which would have done any jazz composer proud. It’s one of the most musically satisfying pieces I’ve ever played.

    I can’t think of a better point to stop my little dissertation. Through all the twists and turns of his life story, Brian Wilson is at his very root a composer of great depth and versatility and he has gifted us with music of lasting significance.
  2. dak55

    dak55 Synchromatic

    May 31, 2018
    Mills River NC
    I recall John Lennon saying "God Only Knows" was the best song ever written.

    Alberta_Slim likes this.
  3. radd

    radd Synchromatic

    Dec 27, 2017
    Santa cruz
    The music of my youth, very early teens, before the Doors found me.

    Thanks for posting, it was a fun read
  4. Jelly Roll Horton

    Jelly Roll Horton Gretschie

    Nov 10, 2017
    Portland, OR
    I feel very fortunate to have grown up with music created between 1950 and 1970. God only knows what I’d be without it.
    section2, TSims1 and GoLeafsGo like this.
  5. Henry

    Henry Gretschified

    Apr 9, 2014
    Younger. ;)
    speedicut and Jelly Roll Horton like this.
  6. ZackyDog

    ZackyDog Friend of Fred

    Feb 6, 2015
    In the USA
    One of the greats; the music world just wouldn't be complete (for lack of a better word) without him.


    Melancholy, haunting and beautiful:

    Last edited: Dec 2, 2018
  7. Jelly Roll Horton

    Jelly Roll Horton Gretschie

    Nov 10, 2017
    Portland, OR
    Well, it’s true I got older. But I never grew up. :cool:
    MTurner likes this.
  8. Andrew Griffin

    Andrew Griffin Synchromatic

    Oct 22, 2015
    Thanks for the essay; I enjoyed the perspective.
  9. Gretschtim1

    Gretschtim1 Country Gent

    Dec 4, 2012
    Dundalk, Md
    A few summers ago while Brian Wilson was in Baltimore to do a show I had the chance to have lunch with Brian's musical director for his live shows. I obviously asked a lot of questions about Brian's music but there was one thing that stuck in my mind.
    He told me that Brian builds his harmonies from the highest note down. As a singer and writer that blew my mind. I don't know of anyone else who does it that way. No doubt the man has written some great songs with awesome harmony arrangements. After hearing how he does it amazes me even more.
    section2 and Andrew Griffin like this.
  10. calebaaron666

    calebaaron666 Country Gent

    Aug 15, 2018
    Portland, Maine

    Belushi and Aykroyd take Brian Wilson to the beach.
    ZackyDog likes this.
  11. Synchro

    Synchro The artist formerly known as: Synchro Staff Member

    Jun 2, 2008
    Admin Post
    Brian Wilson has an amazing grasp of music. When I hear him speaking during interviews, he just exudes wisdom.
    section2 likes this.
  12. BrianW

    BrianW Synchromatic

    Oct 21, 2014
    Vancouver Island
    Great essay on a very significant figure in popular music. Thanks for posting it.
    section2 likes this.
  13. loudnlousy

    loudnlousy Friend of Fred

    Oct 18, 2015
    Hildesheim, Germany
    Thank you for sharing your thoughs, Synchro.
    I discovered the Beach Boys and the work of Brian Wilson a bit late. As a kid their image was not too attractive to me and that was the reason for not listening to them.
    Now as a grown-up I have the utmost admiration for this body of work.
    Same with the late Beatles.
    The sixies were a kaleidoscope of genius music.
    section2 likes this.
  14. Synchro

    Synchro The artist formerly known as: Synchro Staff Member

    Jun 2, 2008
    Admin Post
    In the early sixties, they were considered very hip, but by the late sixties they had been all but forgotten. In 1974 they released Endless Summer, a collection of their early material and it sold quite well. They ended up having the last laugh. :)
    section2 and loudnlousy like this.
  15. TSims1

    TSims1 Friend of Fred

    Jun 18, 2013

    I feel very blessed this music EXISTS. I was not of that era, yet it’s what I grew up listening to as well. It shaped my musical language and showed me how great pop music could truly be.
    section2 likes this.
  16. Synchro

    Synchro The artist formerly known as: Synchro Staff Member

    Jun 2, 2008
    Admin Post
    Much agreed. I feel quite blessed musically, because of a combination of both time and circumstances. My parents were from the WW II era and loved Swing and Big Band. In my earliest years, the Big Band era had passed, but there were still Standards being played on the adult-orientated radio station my folks listened to, so I hear Rosemary Clooney and some jazzy material. My mom love Mockingbird Hill and I was tangentially exposed to Les Paul & Mary Ford. I heard Jazz on their favorite radio station and Marty Robbins was played on that same wonderful station. There was a lot of variety.

    My sister watched me when I was little and I heard her choice of radio stations, KWEB, a somewhat subdued version of a Top 40 station and WDGY in Minneapolis, which was a more typical Top 40 station, complete with manic DJs. So I heard late ‘59s Rock n’ Roll in real time and as we transitioned into the ‘60s, I got to hear it all in real time.

    But wait, there’s more! Our family was of modest means and my father was a somewhat frustrated intellectual whose education had been derailed by WW II. He worked modest jobs and had to deal with the effects of never having finished his education. In the early ‘60s, my parents could finally afford a stereo, a used Motorola portable. My father bought an eclectic collection of albums that included The Boston Pops, Chet Atkins and some unique recordings that drew from influences stretching back to ragtime and before. So I got to hear some incredible things among his collection and certainly was deeply affected by hearing Chet’s music.

    As I mentioned, my parents listened to the Rochester, MN local station, KROC, and their top DJ was a fellow named Harley Flathers, a brilliant man whom could meld Big Band, Jefferson Airplane, Dave Brubeck, The Ventures, The Beatles, Sergio Mendes, etc. into something sensible, and somehow make it fit in with farm reports and the local news reports of an agricultural area. Harley Flathers was a real gift in being exposed to all sorts of music.
  17. knavel

    knavel Synchromatic

    Dec 26, 2009
    London, England
    Thank you for taking the time to write this. Another sleeper like the Warmth of the Sun that always appealed to me was the Girls On the Beach, where there is a quite dramatic key change in the middle of a line of the verse!

    One thing I've noticed my whole musical life about the Beach Boys is that no one covers them (at least in a bar band sense)--they can't pull it off.

    Another sleeper highly recommended is Kiss Me Baby.

    Through good fortune I had backstage passes to the SMiLE debut in 2004 in London. I remember standing between two PA speakers just to stay out of the way. I saw out of the corner of my eye some track suit and subconsciously thought "uggh". Then the tracksuit turned and said hello to me--it was Brian Wilson. I chirped out "hi" and ran away.

    I'm always this way--the same guy who got me into the SMiLE show invited me to the premier of the Jeff Beck documentary last spring. Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Chrissy Hynde, Imelda May and Roger Taylor (Queen) were there and I was too shy to approach any of them. Jimmy Page sat right behind me during the movie and got to look at my bald head the whole time.
  18. MartyT

    MartyT Gretschie

    Apr 8, 2010
    Mount Laurel, NJ
    I wouldn't argue with that. It's an amazing piece of music.
    Today the term "genius" is thrown around quite casually, even recklessly (Kanye West? Seriously?) But Brian Wilson was truly a creative genius. His struggles with his own sanity have been widely chronicled, but that was part of the total package. Geniuses are rarely regular, stable people.
    georgedombeck and pmac11 like this.
  19. Mr. Lumbergh

    Mr. Lumbergh Country Gent

    May 14, 2013
    Initech, Inc.
    The guy's a genius. Some of the most expertly-crafted vocal harmonies you will ever hear are to be found in Wilson-penned Beach Boys songs.
    As much of an arse as Mike Love can be, not having him in the lineup to hit those highs would've resulted in something very different.
  20. JeffreyLeePierre

    JeffreyLeePierre Gretschie

    Nov 11, 2018
    Paris, north down Montmartre hill

    I didn't know this song. Which could have been on Pet Sounds.

    Thank you for the "dissertation". And that discovery.
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