Where To Start With... Brian Wilson
As the principle creative force behind the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson established himself as one of the most gifted songwriters ever to grace the charts and changed the face of pop music forever. Not only that, but at the age of just 21 he was given full creative control of the Beach Boys' musical output, thanks to his reputation as pioneering producer.
He is, then, a man who should need little introduction. It's difficult to put into context now, but his work behind the recording desk not only revolutionised the way pop music was created, but also the way it was viewed by the public. Along with The Beatles, nobody can claim a greater influence in the way pop music ceased to be considered merely as throwaway light entertainment and came to be appreciated as art in its own right.
Sadly, years of mental illness contributed to both an acrimonious split with his former bandmates and years of musical inactivity, particularly during the 1970s and 80s. By 1988 though he was tentatively beginning to release new material again, this time under his own name. While the years that have followed have not seen Wilson at his most prolific, his recovery has been slow but steady, leading to a number of solo albums featuring new material and re-workings of earlier songs, as well as two albums' worth of cover versions dedicated to the music of Disney's films and legendary composer George Gershwin.
His last solo album proper, 2008's That Lucky Old Sun, was drenched in those famous golden-voiced harmonies and found Wilson as close to his best as he has been for a long time. Seven years on, next week (April 6th) will herald the release of his 11th studio album, No Pier Pressure, and this time around it's quite a collaborative affair.
The first thing to note is that No Pier Pressure will be the first of his solo releases to feature former Beach Boys bandmates Al Jardine, David Marks and Blondie Chaplin, having originally been intended as a follow-up to the band's 2012 reunion album That's Why God Made The Radio, but the collaborations don't stop there. There are also appearances from Capital Cites' Sebu Simonian, Nate Reuss and Kacey Musgrave, as well as guest slot featuring Zooey Deschanel, who appears as one half of duo She & Him.
Of the tracks unveiled so far it is the Sebu collaboration, 'Runaway Dancer' that provides the biggest surprise, propelled by drum machines and synths and sounding very much geared towards the dancefloor. By contrast, 'The Right Time', featuring Marks & Jardine, sounds much more like a traditional Wilson / Beach Boys tune, all sun-kissed vocals and swooning melodies.
No Pier Pressure offers an eclectic mix then, but while you're waiting to delve into the rest of the album's box of tricks we've picked out five moments from Brian Wilson's post-Beach Boys career that are well worth checking out...
Forming the centrepiece of Wilson's eponymous solo debut from 1988, album closer 'Rio Grande' is the longest track on the album at just over eight minutes, roughly seven of which comprising a long, sprawling interlude filled with the kind of cut and paste experimentation that dominated much of the recording process for the Beach Boys 'lost' album Smile. The album as a whole is a bit of a time capsule, as if Wilson exists in his own parallel universe, but 'Rio Grande' is Brian Wilson doing what he does best.
'Heroes & Villains'
Perhaps the most important album of the 20th century never to be released, Smile was intended as the follow-up to the Beach Boys' critically acclaimed Pet Sounds LP, but just as Wilson was recaching the peak of his creative powers he was also beginning to slide into the period of drug use that would later see him admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Famously described by Wilson as a “teenage symphony to God”, it would be almost 40 years before a completed version of the album would see the light of day, but one of the standout tracks on the resulting record has to be the bafflingly brilliant 'Heroes & Villains'.
Like two songs spliced together, it begins with the familiar surf vibe that made the Beach Boys famous, before taking a sharp turn into much darker territory. It's absolutely spine-tingling.
'Mrs. O'Leary's Cow'
Originally recorded as one of a four-part suite for Smile called The Elements under the title 'Fire', the track was quickly shelved after its first recording for the album's original incarnation when Wilson became convinced that the song had developed pyrokinetic abilities. Attributing an unusually high number of local fires to the song's recording, he freaked out when a building across the street from the studio burned to the ground and claimed for years that he had destroyed the master tapes to prevent it happening again.
Re-named 'Mrs O'Leary's Cow', a final version appears on the final release from 2004 and while it's unlikely your house will catch fire while listening to it, there's no doubt it's a spooky track and it's probably one of the darkest things he's ever done.
Appearing on Wilson's 2010 album featuring only cover versions of songs by George Gershwin, one of his favourite composers, Wilson's rendition of 'Summertime' is a wonderfully louche reimagining of the famous jazz standard. It's not quite all the way sleazy, but it does conjure up images of Brian Wilson as the smoky lounge lizard turning in a sparsely-attended gig at Ronnie Scott's. Whereas some of Gershwin's tunes exhibit much more of a Beach Boys vibe on the record, this track is Wilson doing all-out jazz and it's great.
The closing track on That Lucky Old Sun (unless you count the title track's subsequent reprise), 'Southern California' has much more of a traditional Brian Wilson sound than most of the other tracks on this list. Sounding like a sun-faded Burt Bacharach, this piano-led ballad is a beautiful end to one of his best records in years.