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Music / Brian Wilson

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"Hi, this is Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, and I don't know who knows me, but I hope they like my music."

Brian Douglas Wilson (born June 20, 1942) is an American Singer-Songwriter, musician, arranger, and Record Producer, best known as the principal songwriter for The Beach Boys, and the eldest brother of Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson.

A musical prodigy from birth, he ironically suffered from complete deafness in one ear.note  During The '60s, as his group enjoyed increasing success and popularity, Brian withdrew from touring to focus entirely on writing, arranging and producing. Brian's increased focus on introspective existential angst birthed Pet Sounds, regarded as one of the best pop albums of all time. His follow-up project, a "teenage symphony to God" entitled SMiLE, was intended to mark The Beach Boys' ascendancy to the pinnacle of popular music.

It was not to be. For reasons too numerous to list here, SMiLE was shelved, and Brian's musical productivity slowed considerably as he withdrew from the world. Following a diagnosis for schizoaffective disorder (a condition that combines symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorders like bipolar) which he further exacerbated with drug abuse, Brian holed himself up in his house for a number of years, surfacing only occasionally to aid the 'Boys. With over a decade of "help" from controversial therapist Eugene Landy,note  Brian was able to more or less restore his health and some level of musical productivity, releasing a self-titled solo album in 1988. A follow-up called Sweet Insanity was completed, but never released.

After being legally separated from Landy in 1991 (Landy had his license to practice stripped by the state of California in 1989, was legally forbidden to ever contact Brian again in 1992, and spent the last fourteen years of his life reduced to obscurity), Brian was able to tap into a level of productivity not seen for three decades; to everyone's surprise, he conquered his still-lingering stage fright to perform live. In 2004, Brian resurrected SMiLE for a series of live shows; the unanimous praise resulted in a solo studio version of the album, which also resulted in his first Grammy. Since then, he has released a steady stream of solo recordings, and even rejoined with The Beach Boys on a number of occasions, finally releasing the original SMiLE sessions in 2011, reaffirming his belief in his masterpiece amongst lavish critical praise. Truly the story of a man who learned to "smile!"

Studio and Live Solo Discography:

Tropes associated with Brian Wilson:

  • The Ace: When it comes to... basically everything related to song-writing and recording, Brian has a borderline savant-like talent... a gift. They don't call him a genius for nothing!
  • Affectionate Parody: Brian is pretty much the go-to inspiration for "ambitious artistic genius uses strange methods to produce his masterpiece" parodies, mercilessly poked fun at in Walk Hard.
  • Album Filler: Brian was acutely aware of The Beach Boys' tendency towards this. Upon hearing The Beatles' Rubber Soul, he was inspired by it being "all good stuff", and resolved to write a cohesive album with no filler. The result? Pet Sounds. One might dare say he achieved what he set out to do.
  • Album Intro Track: "Concert, concert tonight..."
  • Album Title Drop: "Rainbow Eyes".
    Rainbow eyes, perfect fantasy / You thrill me with your sweet insanity
  • Answer Song: The Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" was intended by Brian to be this to the Ronettes' "Be My Baby".
  • Artistic Stimulation: It's fair to say it certainly played a part in the creation of his most famous works. Unfortunately, however, it probably exacerbated his already existing mental issues.
  • Author Appeal: Brian really loves Moog synthesizers, and even created an entire album around it. It keeps popping up in instrumental tracks for songs such as his cover of "You've Got a Friend in Me".
  • Bawdy Song: A hallmark of the "Landy years", resulting in some surprisingly cheeky songs such as "Male Ego", "Let's Go to Heaven in My Car", and of course, the infamous "Smart Girls".
  • Big Brother Mentor: To Carl and Dennis, in the ways of music composition and production.
  • Big Eater: His self-image shattered, he retreated to his room, which he seldom left, and ate like crazy. Needless to say, the weight piled up. Brian weighed 325+ pounds at his worst.
  • Biopic: Love & Mercy, an acclaimed film released in 2015. Young and older Brian are portrayed by Paul Dano and John Cusack, respectively. (There were also a couple of other ones, but we won't talk about those.)
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Brian is an eccentric fellow, no question about it, but he's considered a musical genius on par with Phil Spector (and without Spector's less savory personality traits) and listening to any album he's produced will show you exactly why he has that reputation.
  • The Cameo: Portrayed the cleverly named "Mr. Hawthorne" in an episode of the ill-fated reboot of Leave It to Beaver.
  • Car Song: While not to the extent of his Beach Boys days, these still surface from time to time in his solo career... not the least of which was his first '80s comeback single, "Let's Go to Heaven in My Car", featured in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol.
  • Christmas Songs: What I Really Want for Christmas, which features a few originals (some of which are re-arranged Beach Boys songs) alongside such staples as "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", "Deck the Halls", and "Silent Night".
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Oh yes! While his, um, idiosyncratic sense of humor and thought processes were always there, it really reached full flower during the SMiLE period. Handing out plastic firefighter hats at a recording session, putting his piano in a sandbox in his living room, and erecting an indoor tent is only the tip of the iceberg that was his multi-faceted creative process back in the day. Oh, and his chance meeting with Van Dyke Parks resulted in a perfect storm of cloudcuckoolandish music and lyrics.
  • The Comically Serious: These days, Brian can be a real cut-up out of nowhere, but rarely looks like he intended for it to be that way.
    • During an interview, he once sent his brother Carl into hysterics by matter of factly stating, "I like food" completely out of nowhere.
  • Concept Album: Pet Sounds can be considered one, The Beach Boys Today! less so.
    • SMiLE was intended to be one. Even incomplete, the idea of a trip across America in a child's mindset as a "Teenage Symphony to God" is applicable (although even then it doesn't explain all the themes). The 2004 version fleshes out the concept further.
  • Cover Album: Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin and In the Key of Disney, both of them released on the Walt Disney label, even.
  • Demoted to Extra: To a gradual extent, both as a songwriter and performer, following the failure of SMiLE, to a point where '70s albums featured little involvement from him. Even more so after beginning his solo career, though the 2012 reunion saw the band feng shui restored, and then some. While a bit generalizing, sure, some fans are of the opinion that the quality of a Beach Boys album is often dependent on the level of Brian's involvement.
  • Denser and Wackier: In the nicest possible way, Brian's solo career has mainly been this compared to his Beach Boys work.
  • Disappeared Dad: While not in body, he certainly was "gone in spirit" when his two girls, Carnie and Wendy (who would later become notable artists themselves as two-thirds of Wilson Phillips) were growing up. This, combined with Landy's embargo on Brian's personal life, estranged them from one another for decades. They've patched things up since, though.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: As stated previously. These days, Brian's definitely trying (and succeeding) living brave instead of dying.
  • Educational Song: "Solar System" gives off this vibe.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: In particular during the Pet Sounds / SMiLE era. In the first example, we have dog barks, a bicycle and Coca-Cola cans; in the second example, we have celery, construction tools and a key chain as percussion.
  • Fake-Out Fade-Out: The first version of "Help Me, Rhonda", which understandably made disc jockeys rather averse to play it.
  • Foil: He could be considered a real-life one to Phil Spector who pioneered the "Wall of Sound" style that Brian used and they are considered two of the defining figures of 60's pop music, acclaimed for their genius. The difference is that Brian is also respected and well-liked among the musical community while Phil is as famous for his horrible behavior as he is for his music.
  • Friendly Rivalry: Perhaps not the viewpoint shared by the entire Beach Boys camp, but Brian himself viewed The Beatles as this. After all, Rubber Soul inspired Pet Sounds, which in turn inspired Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which... well, you know. Brian maintains a friendship with Paul McCartney to this day; Paul still says Pet Sounds is his favorite album of all time.
  • Gentle Giant: The tallest Beach Boy by far, and definitely above average in this department. And he's a nice guy.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: Recurring on his album That Lucky Old Sun.
  • Grief Song: "Lay Down Burden" is a tribute to dearly departed brother Carl.
  • Handicapped Badass: Has an extremely lowered sense of hearing in his right ear, the reasons for which vary. Whichever it is, the man is well aware of the irony that he is unable to mix in stereo... this makes Brian's meticulously balanced mono mixes even more revered amongst the fandom compared to most other artists.
  • Harsh Vocals: During the mid-'70s, mostly due to being out of practice, Brian's vocals were very characteristically harsh and haggard-sounding. It's gotten a lot better since, though.
    • Several reviewers discussing Brian Wilson Presents [SMiLE] said things to the effect that what Brian's voice had lost in innocence over the years, he gained in conviction.
  • He's Back!: On at least three separate occasions:
    • The mid-'70s "Brian's Back" campaign, which was in retrospect a bad decision for Brian's recovery. He more or less relapsed, forcing Landy to make more drastic measures for the next decade.
    • The mid-to-late '80s comeback, heavily "supervised" by Landy. The momentum tapered after the true level of Landy's involvement was revealed, and he faced a myriad of court cases.
    • The mid-'90s until present day after being separated from Landy. This period has seen him restored to a level of productivity (not to mention relative happiness) not seen for near thirty years.
  • Hidden Depths: Despite his rather, um, stoic disposition these days, it's a common belief that Brian's a lot quicker in the head than he lets on. Some of his moments of aforementioned comical seriousness have been interpreted as something akin to well-intentioned trolling.
    • Much of this is due to Brian's general lack of a filter — sometimes he says funny honest things, not to be funny but just because he doesn't realise (or particularly care) that it's not a faux pas. One good example of this was a run-in with Don Henley — Henley went over for a chat and asked for an autograph, and Brian signed "Thanks for all the great music, Don!". He was about to hand it back, but paused, then scribbled out "great" and replaced it with "good".
  • In Name Only: There's a good portion of fans that disavow any Beach Boys line-up that doesn't include Brian (or his brothers).
  • Instrumentals: A few. Notably, "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (a re-titled "The Elements: Fire") won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental. You gotta figure that must have been pretty cathartic for Brian considering its part in his abandoning SMiLE.
  • Intercourse with You: "Let's Go To Heaven In My Car", full stop.
  • Large Ham: Surfaces from time to time, but especially prevalent during the Landy era. Hell, Sweet Insanity might as well have been named Large Ham!
  • Lead Bassist: In the early years of The Beach Boys.
  • Let's Duet: "Let's Put Our Hearts Together", with then-wife Marilyn. Rather heart-warming, though it didn't really work out in the end.
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "Love and Mercy" opens with Brian singing the first line:
    "I was sittin' in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin"
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Most of the lyrics of Pet Sounds deal with anguish, the ambiguities of growing up, the loss of love and innocence and inner grief; most of Pet Sounds' music sounds, if not happy, then at least ambiguous. A common reviewer's description of Pet Sounds is that it represents the most beautiful, childlike and earnest collection of songs about sadness.
  • Man of a Thousand Voices: In his prime, it seems like Brian could reach any octave he wanted to (and more often than not, did just that). Even today, his range is pretty damn impressive!
  • Manchild: Described as "innocent and childlike" by friends and family. And hey, child is the father of the man, after all!
  • May–December Romance: Married Marilyn Rovell when she was 14. Brian was 20 at the time.
  • Meaningful Name: As evidenced on the documentary Beautiful Dreamer: The Story of Brian Wilson and SMiLE by Brian himself, his initials BDW can stand for "Beautiful Dreamer Wake," the three first words of the song "Beautiful Dreamer" by Stephen Foster. It isn't made clear if this was intentional however.
  • New Sound Album: The Beach Boys Today! is considered to be where Brian found his style and identity as a songwriter, not least of which was because he was no longer bound to the stylistic trappings of surf and car music.
    • Imagination pretty much set Brian's current style of song-writing and production in stone.
  • Piss-Take Rap: The notorious "Smart Girls" actually invoked this purposely for Narm Charm, with the idea that Brian obviously isn't a rap natural and is doing this for fun. He even opens it with "My name is Brian."
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Many of his songs are direct references to his life and experiences, the obliqueness of which varies by song. "Thank You", however, is heartbreakingly merciless about it...
    All my life, I've been running scared / Being shut out, no one cared / Not my mother, not my brother / Crazy beatings by my father...
  • Rearrange the Song: Gettin' In Over My Head is pretty much considered a rearranged Sweet Insanity with some new and improved stuff.
  • Record Producer: A ground-breaking visionary in this field. To give some due to the old man, Brian did learn the basics from him... then surpassed him in every possible way, natch.
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: A rarity during The Beach Boys' heyday (Pet Sounds containing some exceptions) but pretty much part and parcel of his solo works.
  • Self-Titled Album: Brian Wilson.
  • Song of Song Titles: "Smart Girls" uses snippets from various Beach Boys songs, plunder-phonics style. Some of them are even integrated into the lyrics, like so:
    (God only knows what I'd be) / without smart girls, hip hop, and harmony
  • Song Style Shift: This is what Brian was all about during the S Mi LE The Beach Boys era, most famously "Good Vibrations", pieced together from a number of musically divergent sections. Even now, he continues to employ this modular approach to composing to various extents.
  • Soprano and Gravel: He and Mike Love have got to be one of the most famous singing duos of this nature.
  • Silver Fox: Started growing some gray hairs around the late '80s, going completely grey sometime during the 2000s. It hasn't affected his adorable good looks at all.
  • Standard Snippet: Particularly during the SMiLE (The Beach Boys) days... part of his vision was to celebrate American musical history.
    • Special mention must be given to "Shortenin' Bread", an object of Brian's obsession for the longest time. The result was a good number of songs utilizing its riff and chord patterns in various ways, most famously "Ding Dang".
  • Stop and Go: "The Little Girl I Once Knew", which almost certainly hurt its radio airplay.
  • The Svengali: Landy. While credit must be given to him for getting Brian's life back on track, everything else he did is questionable at best and downright evil at worst.
  • Vapor Ware: SMiLE (The Beach Boys) is (or perhaps was, depending on your definition) music's greatest such example.
  • Vocal Evolution: Exactly when Brian's voice lowered into what it is today is a point of contention, believed to be sometime during the first half of the '70s. Smoking, drinking, and just plain old age did its job on him, and it was never to be the same.
  • Vocal Range Exceeded: From until he lost it to about the mid-1990s, Brian still tried to hit his iconic falsetto at times to mixed results. Eventually, he just dropped it and began being less adventurous with his range; he couldn't hit the high notes on "Surf's Up" when he re-recorded Smile, so he made himself the middle voice of a three-part harmony.
  • When He SMiLES: Ironically, the man never smiles much, which is understandable given the way life's treated him at times. When he does, however... it's the greatest thing ever!
  • Where It All Began: In the documentary I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, Brian returns to Hawthorne, California to find his childhood house has been demolished. Today, the Beach Boys Landmark is situated on that very spot.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Though not his lyrics, SMiLE (The Beach Boys) is notorious for this. Notably, a certain infamous disagreement about lyrics served as just another nail in the coffin for Brian's master-work; Mike Love repeatedly complained that he couldn't make sense of Van Dyke Parks' words and had no idea what the hell he was singing about.