The Beach Boys, and their main songwriter Brian Wilson (typically described as “troubled creative genius” Brian Wilson), inspire great devotion among some music-lovers. I can understand this, and if I were 10 years older would probably feel the same, about them or the Beatles, Kinks or Rolling Stones. At least one 60s band (Small Faces maybe) would have my undying devotion. If I were 10 or 15 years younger it would probably be an 80s or 90s band, Stone Roses, Oasis or Blur perhaps. As someone who was born in the 1960s (not the 50s or the 70s) it’s bands like the Clash that changed my teenage life.
Every now and then I see or read something to do with Brian Wilson and feel better about things, and feel that I should read, see or listen further. It happened in the mid-90s with a documentary called “I just wasn’t made for these times”, recorded when Wilson was in a much better state of mind than he had been 10 years earlier. One of his daughters talks about the two years she spent as a child being woken every morning by the booming drum sounds of the Phil Spector-produced “Be my baby”, a song he played daily, relentlessly, at full volume. That documentary prompted me to get a copy of “Pet Sounds” to go alongside my only other Beach Boys album, “Surf’s Up”. (I don’t have to tell Beach Boys fans that “I just wasn’t made for these times” is a track on “Pet Sounds”.)
In 2009 I saw Brian Wilson in concert at the Roundhouse, one of my favourite venues here in London. He was playing with a band whose members had previously been in a Beach Boys tribute band and they ran through 20 or more of the band’s songs. As with other talented songwriters (Janis Ian and Jimmy Webb come to mind) the chat in between the songs was often as good as the songs themselves, by turns entertaining and touching. Songwriter Ellie Greenwich had just died, Wilson said a few heart-felt words and they played one of her songs as a tribute, “And then he kissed me” (pronouns changed to “And then I kissed her”).
It was a great show. Two other songs stood out especially during the evening: “Don’t worry baby” and “Love and mercy”. The latter was vaguely familiar but I hadn’t heard it often. That night I found the song on YouTube and played it a few times, found the chords online and learnt to play it. It’s been a welcome addition to my repertoire ever since and it’s my favourite Brian Wilson song. (“Disney Girls”, from “Surf’s Up”, has always been my favourite Beach Boys song, and it was written by Bruce Johnston, not by any of the Wilsons, or Mike Love. He also wrote “I write the songs”. Barry Manilow might have had a US #1 with it but Bruce Johnston wrote it.)
Earlier this week I saw the Brian Wilson biopic “Love and mercy”, pleased that other people appreciate the song enough to name a movie after it. I loved it, but reflected again how I’ve never been able to feel the same way about “Pet Sounds” as its most devoted fans. I’ll try again, and have dug out that book that’s been sitting on my shelves for years, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times: Brian Wilson and the Making of Pet Sounds” by Charles L. Granata. It’s in the same series as David Quantick’s book “Revolution: making of the Beatles’ White Album”, which I enjoying reading a few years back. It feels rather indulgent to watch a movie, listen to an album and read a book all broadly about the same subject. (Shouldn’t I be reading “Middlemarch” or “The Brothers Karamazov” instead?) But it’s worth it for “troubled creative genius” Brian Wilson.