Smile Brian Wilson
Last week I traveled to Los Angeles to spend time with Brian Wilson at his home in Beverly Hills. My interview with Brian is in today's Wall Street Journal (pick up a copy or go if you're a subscriber). As the founding member of the Beach Boys and the musical wizard behind the group's most absorbing recordings, Brian also is probably rock's most direct link to the California's jazz scene of the 1950s.
What many jazz fans may not realize is that Wilson modeled the Beach Boys after the Four Freshmen. During our conversation last week, Brian expressed how much he enjoyed the swinging vocal quartet of the 1950s, particularly Four Freshmen and Five Trombones. But once 1960 rolled around and Phil Spector in Los Angeles began producing singles by the Crystals and the Ronettes—dense-packed with instrumentation and overdubbing—Brian fell in love with Spector's Wall of Sound approach to recording.
While Pet Sounds (1966) is widely regarded as the group's finest work and one of the decade's most radical rock albums, the material that Brian recorded next for a project known as Smile is even better. Let me explain:
After Pet Sounds, Brian set to work at home and in the studio writing and recording the music for the Beach Boys' next album. After using LSD and marijuana, he produced inventive tracks illustrating a psychedelic road trip of the U.S., as seen through a teenager's eyes. Brian enlisted the help of lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and through the summer and fall of 1966, they worked industriously on Smile.
Unfortunately, Brian didn't have a George Martin to crack the whip, and his quest for perfection and a layered, textured sound began to buckle under its own weight. By December, it was clear that the album wasn't going to make its January 15, 1967 deadline set by Capitol Records. As the months of the new year dragged on, it became clear to all involved that the music was too surreal, too exotic and ahead of its time. In addition to being a major break from what the Beach Boys' fan base was used to, it was almost impossible to perform the material on stage, where the band's money was being made.
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