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Brian Wilson Songbook

 

 

Yesterday, on June 20, Brian Wilson turned 80, just two days after his fellow songwriting genius Paul McCartney, who was the subject of a Songbook last week, turned 80 himself. How were the stars aligned (if you subscribe to that kind of thing) that June 1942 to create two such man within two days of one another?

Wilson and McCartney (and his fellow Beatles) ran a pop music innovations race in the mid-1960s, a serious but friendly competition that spurred each other to greater heights. If a winner must be declared, then it is McCartney, who kept going with some great work while Wilson collapsed under the weight of his own ambitions, and fragile mental health. Crucially, where McCartney had the support, even if often troubled, of his fellow Beatles, who shared in the processes of artistic growth, Wilson had to contend with those, in the band and commercial departments, who still wanted fun fun fun songs about hot cars ‘n’ tanned gals.

 

The Beach Boys and their striped shirts. Brian Wilson is front right.

 

When Wilson heard The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album in 1965, he immediately wrote God Only Knows (with Tony Asher), the first track for what would become the Pet Sounds albums. That album, in turn, motivated The Beatles to up their game — from the already astonishing Revolver album — to create Sgt Pepper’s.

Four months before that album was released in June 1967, The Beatles had released Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever. Reportedly, when Wilson heard that song, he broke down and cried, saying: “They got there first!” That was quite a concession from the man who by then had already produced the stroke of eternal genius that is Good Vibrations.

Wilson’s attempt to top Sgt Pepper’s — and let’s cut a sad story short — ended in artistic and personal decline following the stressful production of the aborted Smile project, and the disastrous reception of what turned out to be the compromise album, Smiley Smile. Wilson completed that project in 2005 with the release of his Smile album.

In the studio during that productive mid-‘60s period, Wilson didn’t even have the Beach Boys with him. His “band” comprised various members of the Wrecking Crew, the collective of highly professional session musicians. One of them, guitarist Glenn Campbell, actually became a member of The Beach Boys in their touring formation. Carl and Dennis, Jardine and Love would come in to lay down vocal tracks — and, of course, their harmonies were integral to the Beach Boys sound. Mike Love would co-write some songs, though in many cases, the extent of his contributions is a matter of diverging memories.

Actors like De Niro and Pacino have their ways of getting into character; Wilson was a method musician, once even filling his home studio with sand to recreate a beach (as if a feature of beaches is grand pianos just standing there). By then he had already experimented with LSD — a year before that drug reached The Beatles — and other drugs. The riff for California Girls came to him after his acid trip.

The progress in Wilson’s songwriting was as spectacular as that of The Beatles. Between the plagiarised Surfin’ USA in 1963 (for which Chuck Berry rightly got a co-writing credit) and the intricate but appealing Wouldn’t It Be Nice were only three years.

 

So here we have the Brian Wilson Songbook. Nancy Sinatra’s version of California Girls from a 2003 album, features the backing vocals of Brian Wilson and ex-Beach Boy Jeffrey Foskett. Nancy’s version opens this set, so suitably the first voice we hear is Brian Wilson’s. And Wilson closes this collection with a cover of his own song from 2005’s Smile album, Surf’s Up. The Nancy Sinatra track was co-produced by the legendary Billy Strange, who arranged These Boots Are Made For Walking, as well as Duane Eddy and The Ventures, who in turn had influenced the Beach Boys.

Wilson originally offered Don’t Worry Baby to The Ronettes, and was profoundly inspired by their hit Be My Baby. They didn’t record it because Phil Spector declined it. Instead The Beach Boys recorded in 1964. Wilson once said he thought it was their finest moment. It later was a hit for BJ Thomas. Thirty-odd years after Spector vetoed Don’t Worry Baby, Ronnie Spector finally recorded it, co-produced by Joey Ramone, a fan of both The Ronettes and The Beach Boys. The Ramones themselves feature later in the mix with Surfin’ Safari.

Spector might have rejected Wilson’s composition, but fellow Capitol signing Sharon Marie recorded Wilson and Mike Love’s Thinkin’ ’Bout You Baby, which Wilson also produced and arranged, with another Wilson/Love composition, The Story Of My Life, on the flip-side. It was not a success, nor was the previous year’s Wilson job Run-Around Lover. The Beach Boys rejigged Thinkin’ ’Bout You Baby and recorded it as Darlin’ in 1967.

If we have ever wondered what ABBA might have sounded like if they had been The Beach Boys, Anni-Frid Lyngstad’s Swedish cover of Wouldn’t It Be Nice gives us a hint. She recorded it for her 1975 Swedish language LP Frida Ensam, which was produced by Benny Anderson, another genius of arrangement, with Björn Ulvaeus on guitar. The album also included the original version of ABBA’s Fernando (featured on Any Major Originals: 1970s).

There are some Beach Boys songs that are impossible to cover well, unless you change the whole structure of it. Good Vibrations is a good example of that. The original is one of pop music’s towering achievements; covering it straight is to punch upwards, even if you do it competent, as Todd Rundgren did in 1976. So I’ve opted for the 1975 cover by The Troggs, which deconstructs the original’s entire arrangement, and does to it what William Shatner had done a few years earlier with other hits, though The Troggs do it with greater discipline and restraint than old Cap’n Kirk. I doubt I’ll ever love what The Troggs did with it, but it’s good fun fun fun.

The same applies to I Get Around; the psychedelic version by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra — whose version of the Rolling Stone’s The Last Time (featured on the Copy Borrow Steal mix) gave the Verve’s Bitter-Sweet Symphony its hook — is joyfully mad.

As ever, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R, includes home-good-vibrationed covers, and the above text in PDF format. PW in comments.

1. Nancy Sinatra – California Girls (2003)
2. The Carpenters – Fun, Fun, Fun (1973)
3. Anni-Frid Lyngstad – Skulle de’ va’ skönt (Wouldn’t It Be Nice, 1975)
4. Johnny Rivers – Help Me Rhonda (1975)
5. Ronnie Spector – Don’t Worry Baby (1999)
6. Bruce Springsteen – When I Grow Up To Be A Man (live, 1985)
7. Dave Alvin – Surfer Girl (2006)
8. Rumer – The Warmth Of The Sun (2015)
9. Linda Ronstadt – In My Room (1996)
10. Andrew Oldham Orchestra – I Get Around (1965)
11. The Troggs – Good Vibrations (1975)
12. Bobby Vee – Here Today (1966)
13. P.P. Arnold – God Only Knows (1968)
14. Carmen McRae – Don’t Talk (1967)
15. Sharon Marie – Thinkin’ ‘Bout You Baby (1964)
16. Jan & Dean – Surf City (1963)
17. The Surfaris – Be True To Your School (1964)
18. Nick DeCaro – Caroline, No (1969)
19. Nazareth – Wild Honey (1976)
20. David Garland – I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (1993)
21. Kirsty MacColl – You Still Believe In Me (1981)
22. Wall Of Voodoo – Do It Again (1987)
23. The Rubinoos – Heroes And Villains (2002)
24. The Smithereens – Girl Don’t Tell Me (1995)
25. Ramones – Surfin’ Safari (1993)
26. Frank Black – Hang On To Your Ego (1993)
27. Brian Wilson – Surf’s Up (2005)

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Previous Songbooks:
ABBA
Ashford & Simpson
Barry Gibb Vol. 1
Barry Gibb Vol. 2
Bill Withers
Bob Dylan Volumes 1-5
Bruce Springsteen
Burt Bacharach & Hal David
Burt Bacharach’s Lesser-Known Songbook
Carole Bayer Sager
Carole King Vol. 1
Carole King Vol. 2
Chuck Berry
Cole Porter Vol. 1
Cole Porter Vol. 2
Elton John & Bernie Taupin
John Prine
Jimmy Webb Vol. 1
Jimmy Webb Vol. 2
Jimmy Webb Vol. 3
Leonard Cohen
Neil Diamond
Paul McCartney Vol. 1
Rod Temperton
Steely Dan

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  1. amdwhah
    June 21st, 2022 at 10:04 | #1

    PW = amdwhah

  2. June 22nd, 2022 at 15:01 | #2

    Fascinating collection! Probably a lot harder to pull together than the McCartney set.

    I remember watching that Wall of Voodoo video back in the day and wondering how they got an actual Beach Boy in it.

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