Brian Wilson often sounds uncomfortable in interviews. When asked, for example, how his solo recordings differ from those he composed and produced as leader of the Beach Boys, his reply — “I’m not really sure how to answer that” — is not a stalling tactic; it’s his final word on the subject, followed by a yawning silence. When asked about the Beach Boys’ new six-CD box set, “Made in California,” he mumbles about listening to all the tracks selected by the compilers and giving his approval.
It’s only when asked whether any of the old rarities in the package surprised him that Wilson, 71, lights up. He responds not only by talking, but also by singing the chorus of “All Dressed Up for School,” a 1964 song that wasn’t released until 1990. All of a sudden, Wilson’s guardedness evaporates and he nails the impromptu, a cappella lead vocal. Al Jardine, another original member of the Beach Boys joining Wilson for a phone interview from Hollywood’s Ocean Way Recording studio, chimes in with a perfect harmony part.
And later, Wilson explains how he assigned the lead vocals on the Beach Boys records by singing the first two lines of “Help Me, Rhonda”: “Well, since she put me down / I’ve been out doin’ in my head.”
He adds: “As soon as I had that part, I said, ‘That falls right into Jardine’s voice.’ First we did it with ukuleles, but that version sounded kind of flimsy. It didn’t have much depth, more of a background feeling. So we did it again and sharpened it up quite a bit.”
As uncomfortable as Wilson can get in social situations, he always seems at home in music. He doesn’t like to talk, but he loves to sing. He spent most of 2012 on the Beach Boys’ 50th-anniversary tour, supporting the band’s uneven album “That’s Why God Made the Radio.” He was so energized by the experience that he began writing songs for a new solo album, due early next year. Rather than wait for that album, however, he launched a solo tour, with Jardine and former Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck joining him. Suddenly, Wilson is more active than he has been in years.
“It’s hard to say what inspires me to write a song,” he says. “Sometimes it’s girls that I love. Sometimes it’s the feeling that I can’t spend my whole life in bed. I’ve got to get up and do something.”
When the Beach Boys first recorded in a studio on Sept. 15, 1961 (not 1962, as last year’s tour implied), the quintet included three brothers — Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson — first cousin Mike Love and Brian’s college pal, Jardine. Dennis died in 1983 and Carl in 1998, and of the three surviving original members, only Love is still performing with the band (the Beach Boys played Maryland’s Great Frederick Fair two weeks ago). By contrast, Brian Wilson’s solo show will have two original members. Go figure.
The presence of Beck is even more perplexing. The British guitarist has twice been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — in 1992 as a member of the Yardbirds and in 2009 as a solo artist — for his hard-edged blues-rock, seemingly quite different from the Beach Boys’ chamber-pop harmonies. But when Wilson was selected in 2005 as person of the year by the Grammy’s MusiCares charity, Beck eagerly agreed to be part of the tribute. Like such British colleagues as Paul McCartney, Keith Moon and Elton John, Beck was a big Beach Boys fan.
“The sound of those albums was irresistible,” Beck says by phone from his home in England. “It could be very low on the radio in the car, but the way Brian had the harmonies and the guitars, everything fit in place and grabbed your attention. They had that West Coast thing happening that we in London saw in the movies but knew we’d never get. Then along came the ‘Pet Sounds’ album, which was just so beautiful.”
For the MusiCares concert, Beck had intended to play “You Still Believe in Me” from “Pet Sounds,” but when he heard the Brian Wilson Band play the song, he was so overwhelmed that he backed off. Instead he tried to learn “Surf’s Up,” the psychedelic-pop epic from the “Smile” album.
“That’s when I realized it had like 14 chord changes in it,” Beck recalls with a laugh. “I was just playing the melody or variations close to the melody over the chords with just a few backing vocals here and there. The band said I should loosen up at the end, be myself and do some shredding. So that’s what I did. I looked up and saw Jimmy Page and Brian sitting at the same table and said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I met Brian that night and that formed the seed for this.”
That seed has blossomed into a touring show that will include roughly 40 minutes of Beck with his band, 40 minutes of Wilson with his band and 40 minutes of everyone playing together. That seed also has flowered into Beck playing guitar on several tracks for Wilson’s forthcoming album.
“It sounded so good,” Wilson says, “that we asked him to come out on tour with us and to our surprise he said yes. He can play anything you can imagine. . . . Compared to the 50th-anniversary show, we’re not going to be doing so many surf and car songs; we’ll be doing more modern songs.”
Like the anniversary tour, the Beach Boys’ new box set is aimed at nostalgia. Packaged like a high school yearbook with a fake-leather cover and lots of photos and reminiscences, the six CDs contain 174 tracks, including most of the surf and car hits but also a good sampling of later music and some rarities. The latter include the first official release of the band’s 1964 BBC radio sessions, more than a dozen live performances, various studio outtakes and long-lost songs by Dennis and Brian Wilson, including the legendary “California Feeling.”
One thing the box set brings into focus is the often underrated contributions of Brian Wilson’s bandmates to the Beach Boys sound. Dennis and Carl emerge as appealing songwriters, while Love and Jardine reveal the crucial influence of their enthusiasms for early-1960s R&B and folk music, respectively.
“I heard Brian sing at a concert at Hawthorne High with Mike and Carl and some friends,” Jardine recalls, “and I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds pretty good.’ I suggested to Brian that we get together and sing some folk music. So we got together at his house with his whole family, and it turned into surf music, which is a kind of folk music.”
Wilson’s elaborate harmonies transformed the garage-rock songs, Jardine says, but for those harmonies to work, Wilson had to teach his brothers, cousin and schoolmate to hold their parts.
“Carl was a natural,” Jardine says. “There is a tendency to sing flat, which irritated the hell out of Brian. He was always telling us we had to think sharp.”
“If you don’t do that,” Wilson interjects, “you’ll always sing flat.”
And that’s the trick to getting Wilson to talk: Don’t ask about the whys of music, ask about the hows.
Himes is a freelance writer.
Appearing with Al Jardine on Saturday at
the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW.
Show starts at 8 p.m. 202-783-4000. www.warnertheatredc.com. $53-$123.
For a sampling of Brian Wilson’s music, check out:
From “Made in California”: “California Feelin’ ” “Surf’s Up” “All Dressed Up for School”
From “That’s Why God Made the Radio”: “Pacific Coast Highway” “Summer’s Gone”