One thing that I am not is a musically talented person. I can’t sing, play any instrument, DJ, or do anything musically-inclined. I do, however, have an ear for different kinds of sound, and what makes one artist unique from the next. Though I don’t make music, I do know that coming up with a special kind of sound is probably one of the most difficult tasks that a musician can face in any day and age. In the fifties, “rock and roll” began to emerge, with talents such as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. In the sixties, the turf was split between the invading British bands and the sub-genres of rock, most of which went along with the hippie, psychedelic culture or the “fun in the sun” surf culture of the late fifties and sixties. The seventies was led mostly by Elton John, Chicago, The Eagles, Paul McCartney and Wings, The Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen, harder rock and disco also playing their own parts. This has continued on though the years, different “types” of music ruling their specific decades. One band (a favorite of mine) that doesn’t get enough praise is the Beach Boys, in particular it’s musical leader and genius, Brian Wilson. After watching Love and Mercy, an emotional movie about Wilson’s life and career, and glancing through his history of song-making, one can see that through cognitive mapping, Wilson was able to express his true self through his music.
When one thinks of the Beach Boys, “fun in the sun” and the genre of surf rock comes to mind. One might picture fifties style clothing and old cars parked on the beach. This was the fifties and early sixties; fun and surfing and a carefree attitude. This is what people wanted to hear. However, not many know the true story behind the band, the story of how one of the members decided to branch out and lead the group in the direction that really made the famous. The original band consisted of brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine. The beginning of the Beach Boys carried a theme that was easily known by their name; surf rock and songs about summertime and romance on the beach. The early sixties were known as the band’s “Beach Period”. They released songs like “Surfin’”, “Fun Fun”, and “Surf City”. Not many know the creative mind behind these songs, and while every band member had their individual part to play, Brian Wilson was the main songwriter for the band, and the absolute genius for everything music. That said, Brian really had an ear for unique and interesting sounds. After a tour abroad, the band returned to America just in time for the British Invasion of the mid-sixties, and watched in awe as the Beatles were interviewed time and time again on television. Brian stated, “I was flipping out. The music they made, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ for example, wasn’t even that great a record, but they just screamed at it. … It got us off our asses in the studio. We started cutting – we said ‘look, don’t worry about the Beatles, we’ll cut our own stuff” (Espar). The times were changing, and they had to as well. Now, more social and political issues were becoming involved in the music, and simple days at the beach were fading from peoples’ minds. Brian wanted to change up their next album but his aggressive manager (and father) needed the album sooner. So for another two years, Brian continued to write beach music.
In 1964, the band released their last surf song, and their father was relieved of his duty as a manager. Their music began to incorporate new instruments, such as the xylophone and piccolos into their tracks. All Summer Long was released, and climbed to the top of the charts. However, Brian was still unsatisfied, noting to the rest of the band that he really wanted to try something new. There were so many different sounds during the mid-sixties, and Brian was obsessed with making the music “deeper” and not just about the beach.
A few months after composing their 1964 Christmas Album, Brian suffered a panic attack on a plane; apparently the stress of making the music had become too much for him. Brian left the tour and focused entirely on songwriting and record production. While the band went on tour, Brian finally was able to make the music he had wanted to for so long. He wanted to emulate the Beatles, but add his own personal unique style. “Rubber Soul blew my mind,” Wilson said. “When I heard Rubber Soul, I said, ‘That’s it. That’s all. That’s all folks.’ I said, ‘I’m going to make an album that’s really good, I mean really challenge me” (Greene). Pet Sounds was released in 1966. It truly demonstrated Brian’s songwriting expertise. Influenced by psychedelic drugs, Brian :turned inward and probed his deep-seated self-doubts and emotional longings; the piece did not address the problems in the world around them, unlike other psychedelic rock groups” (Miller). “The instrumentation combines found sounds such as bicycle bells and dog whistles with classically inspired orchestrations and the usual rock set-up of drums and guitars; among others, silverware, accordions, plucked piano strings, barking dogs, and plastic water jugs” (Bogdanov). The track God Only Knows was arguably the star of the album, with a mix of piano, harpsichord, and sleigh bells combined with Wilson’s voice. Wilson combined certain chords and bass lines together in tunes that had never been created, and were near impossible to create, at that. His brothers, upon return of they tour, claimed that Wilson was meticulous, and would make them sing the songs over an over until he got it just right.
The band, as well as their producers, Capitol Records, didn’t quite enjoy or understand the album the way Brian did. They had been doing so well with the beach and surf songs, and it was the band’s trademark. The company didn’t understand why Brian wanted to change the theme of the tracks entirely. They gave so little faith in the album that they decided to release The Best of the Beach Boys at the same time. Pet Sounds peaked on the charts at #11, while The Best of the Beach Boys reached #8. Despite the slightly unappreciative critic ratings, Paul McCartney quoted, “it was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much…” (Interview with Paul McCartney). Both Lennon and McCartney have stated that they used Pet Sounds to help them write Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts. After Pet Sounds, Brian continued on to write Good Vibrations, which became the band’s biggest hit. However, Pet Sounds is considered an important cultural and historical work by the Library of Congress, and is said to be an innovator of the psychedelic counterculture movement of the sixties.
Wilson not only looked inside himself (while using hallucinogens) to find the inspiration for this album; he also found what he wanted through other bands, such as the Beatles. Though most of his tracks on the album are unique, one can see imitations of certain Beatles songs (especially on Rubber Soul) and other psychedelic bands of the time. Just like previously mentioned, once he heard the Beatles, he knew that he had to make something to challenge both himself and time. There was a lot happening during the sixties, and psychedelic counterculture was a huge part. Brian used the space, and what was happening in music, around him to map himself onto the face of music. He used certain ideas, while building on them to create something completely new, while at the same time such a product of the sixties. Not only did he use cognitive mapping through the use of the drugs (a very prevalent activity during the sixties), he used his own personal touch combined with the “sounds of the sixties” to create, arguably, one of the best albums of the decade, and of all time.