Brian Wilson was already the center of attention for The Beach Boys.
But in June 1963, the 21-year-old took on even greater importance as he assumed the role of producer, moving the band into some of the most innovative territory in 1960s pop music even as the additional pressure from it all endangered his fragile psyche.
I became interested in this topic because of the brief scenes devoted to Brian’s studio sessions for Pet Sounds and the single “Good Vibrations” in the 2014 biopic Love and Mercy.
If music employs elements of mathematics, then the story of how Brian solved so many harmonic equations simultaneously—all within the tight space of a 2 1/2-minute pop single—makes him seem like Einstein discovering the formula for relativity while everyone else is merely adding 2 and 2.
Paul Dano’s Brian in Love and Mercy is, initially, remarkably self-assured for someone so young, coaxing skilled studio musicians towards the sounds he hears in his head. He’s not dictatorial or arrogant in his perfectionism, just hyper-focused—until he finally hears what he has in mind, producing the most beatific of smiles.
Brian had only formed the Beach Boys two years earlier, but his mastery of songwriting and recording techniques was advancing rapidly. And he now had learned enough to know what hadn’t been working, and to try to do something about it.
He and the other Beach Boys had been quietly fuming about how hurriedly and cavalierly their initial producer at Capitol Records, Nick Venet, had arranged their first two LPs, Surfin’ Safari and Surfin’ USA. As a bass player himself, Brian especially hated the poor bass sound coming out of Capitol’s studio.
Brian’s father, Murry Wilson, pressed Capitol to let Brian be in sole charge of the band’s production from now on. The record company reluctantly agreed.
On June 12, Brian took his engineer and studio right-hand man, Chuck Britz, into Western Recorders studio, where the Beach Boys worked on two of their seminal early hits, “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Surfer Girl.”
Two days later—still a handful of days short of turning 21—Brian turned to L.A.'s Gold Star studio, used by one of his musical heroes, Phil Spector—and, over the next four years, until a devastating nervous breakdown diminished his influence in the band, evolved into one of the most influential forces in pop music.
But more interesting to me ultimately was how Brian came by his musical acumen, what his innovations were, and why—along with Phil Spector, George Martin, and Berry Gordy—he ranks among the most influential musical producers of the Sixties.
To answer the first question: however Brian developed as a musician—the bassist and keyboard player in a rock ‘n’ roll band—was as basic as learning one’s ABCs. Even obvious early influences like Chuck Berry, The Lettermen, the Four Freshmen, and Jan and Dean could only take him so far.
He needed people who could fire his imagination. From the age of four, Brian was taken with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, bowled over by “everything” about it, he told NPR in an interview 13 years ago: “The chords, the melodic movement, the arranging, the impetus, the excitement, the beauty. It was just an absolute work of art."
Among slightly older contemporaries, Brian found a couple of others who provoked him into thinking how he could expand his musical palette.
As a composer and producer, Burt Bacharach was blending the complex chromatic shifts in jazz into three-minute pop melodramas of aching and loss.
The “Wall of Sound” created by Spector particularly affected Brian. He played one of the hits of the super-producer labeled the “first tycoon of teen” by Tom Wolfe, “Be My Baby,” “a hundred times every single day,” according to the lead singer on the single, Ronnie Bennett (who later married Spector).
In fact, Brian wrote in the following year “Don’t Worry, Baby,” hoping vainly that it would be used by the man he regarded as the greatest producer in the world.
As Brian increasingly used the group of ace studio musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew,” other members of the Beach Boys—notably, Mike Love—began to chafe about where they would fit in with all of this.
With so little to do instrumentally themselves, how long would they have to wait around in the studio till he got what he wanted? Where would deviating from their surf rock sound take them on the marketplace? How would they perform this in concert? And where would their own harmonies fit in?
On this last score, certainly, their fears proved groundless. Brian adopted Spector’s method of doubling up on instruments, including ones that were quite unusual in pop music. (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, on Pet Sounds, featured two pianos, three guitars, three basses, four horns, two accordions, drums, and percussion.)
But, as noted in Scott McCormick's September 2017 post from the blog “Disc Makers,” the Beach Boy leader also exercised restraint and allowed for more aural space, enabling more intimate harmonies—exactly his group’s forte.
A year and a half later, Brian’s crippling workload and frenetic songwriting-arranging-touring schedule led him to have a nervous breakdown while on tour, leading him to stop performing live so he could concentrate on the studio. It was the first indication of the mental health issues that would plague him from then on.
But, even as he worried about how the Beach Boys would compete musically against a foreign invader on the U.S. charts—the Beatles—Brian would be creating work that would be imitated by fellow musicians and loved by millions of fans for the next 60 years and counting.
Always musically adventurous, he was evolving the group from its Berry-based guitar foundation and surf-and-hot-rod teen subject matter to polyphonic pop symphonies that would take in a wider age group and world.