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It Wasn't All Fun, Fun, Fun
Wilson constantly shifts utensils and dishes around the table, and his hands tremble when he lifts his juice glass, which threatens to spill all over his sunflower-yellow shirt. He speaks in a monotone and sometimes slurs his words. While he can be fully present and engaged, he is also prone to suddenly checking out of the conversation.
Q: Did you ever wish the band wasn't named the Beach Boys?
A: No. Never.
Q: Did you ever consider doing "Pet Sounds" as a solo project?
A: We're going to Washington and we're going to perform for the royal family.
(Later, he allows: "Taking drugs kind of spaced my head out.")
After Chaos, Safety
Forming in 1961 in the landlocked Los Angeles County community of Hawthorne, the Beach Boys quickly became a major force on the Top 40 chart. Their bright sound blended Four Freshmen-style vocal harmonies with the rhythmic proto-rock bump of Little Richard and Chuck Berry and, in time, the melancholy chords of Burt Bacharach and Phil Spector's expansive production style. The three Wilson brothers, along with cousin Mike Love and high school friend Al Jardine, specialized in scene-setting SoCal songs about surfin' safaris, little deuce coupes, and fun, fun, fun -- and wound up battling the Beatles for global pop supremacy.
As principal composer, writer and, eventually, producer (he also played bass and sang), Brian was the band's driving creative force -- to the point that Dennis declared: "Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys; we're just his messengers."
By the middle of the decade, depressed and under enormous pressure, Wilson stopped touring to concentrate on studio work. In 1966, the Beach Boys released Wilson's first fully formed studio masterpiece: the startlingly sophisticated song cycle, "Pet Sounds," an expansive, deeply spiritual, innovative pocket symphony about hope, loneliness, love and lost innocence.
But the album stalled commercially and was dismissed by Wilson's band mates ("Brian's ego music," Love called it). Wilson was devastated. "It was music that people weren't ready for," he says today. "I think I was way ahead of my time. But people have heard it over the years." Indeed, "Pet Sounds" has since been canonized -- lauded as a classic album by everybody from Philip Glass to Paul McCartney, who has opined that the majestic single "God Only Knows" is perhaps the greatest song ever written.
"Smile," of course, was meant to top "Pet Sounds," not to mention every Beatles album ever recorded. But Wilson abandoned the project in 1967 after battling his band mates over the challenging material he'd created with lyricist Van Dyke Parks. (Love's cutting critique at the time? "A whole album of Brian's madness.") "It was also ahead of its time," Wilson says of the project. "And we were getting too stoned on drugs; we thought we'd better quit. So we shelved it -- for 37 years." He giggles.