BRIAN WILSON: God’s Messenger

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

What did Spector’s records teach you?
Spector’s records taught me about getting a bigger sound, using two basses and echo on the drums. He taught me little techniques of production. I also really like what Spector did with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Just Once In My Life.”

Which songs of yours carry the Spector touch?
Well…”Heroes And Villains.” It had the big heavy bass drum…just experimenting with all different instruments. I mainly worked in the studio with the Wrecking Crew to achieve what I wanted. I worked with Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Billy Strange and Ray Pohlman. They were very receptive to my ideas. They inspired me to reach higher ground.

Back in the day, how would you present songs to The Beach Boys?
I had to sit in my room and work for hours and hours on songs, and then I would play my songs to Mike, Dennis, Al, Carl and Bruce to see if they enjoyed it. Pet Sounds was an example of something advanced and creative and experimental that I played for them-that they didn’t like. Later on they liked it. But at first, when they first heard it, they didn’t like it. They thought it was too away from the surf song kind of things. They thought it was too experimental. I thought I had said all I could say with the surf songs, at that time.

How would you choose which Beach Boys would sing your songs?
I would just choose them appropriately by the sound of their voices and the appropriate melody for their voices. The stuff that fit was voic…songs like “Heroes And Villains” and “Caroline No.” That song, to me, is a tearjerker, very like “Hey Girl” by Freddy Scott. It’s a tearjerker. It wasn’t written about anyone. It just used the name Caroline.

Why was it released as a Brian Wilson solo single?
Because I wanted it to…I asked the company to put it out because I thought it could be a hit, but it wasn’t.

If “Caroline No” had become a big hit, would you have left the Beach Boys and pursued a solo career?
No, I just wanted to do that one. “Caroline No” fit my voice more than the other guys in The Beach Boys because it was a high pitched voice for my high falsetto. I used my imagination whenever falsetto was appropriate…I would go as high as I thought I should. I was proud of my ability to sing falsetto.

You wrote a terrific song with your dad, Murry, that the Beach Boys recorded…one of the band’s best…”Breakaway.”
My Dad came up to me with the idea. He was watching The Joey Bishop Show, and they said, “We’re gonna break away for a minute, and we’ll be right back.” He said he got the idea from that show. He came over to my house in Bel Air, sat down at the piano and plunked and plunked and plunked…and we finally got the song written. That’s one of my favorites too; it’s a beautiful song-great song.

Are you as competitive today with other artists as you were the ‘60s?
No, not today. I’m not as competitive with people. I kind of get into my own little world and write. Back in the ‘60s, I was competitive with The Beatles. They pushed me and inspired me to be much better. I got inspired by their psychedelic creativity and their good musicianship. I remember in the ‘60s I would go, “I gotta try and beat Spector…I gotta try and beat Phil Spector!” I’d get on these kicks, and I’d go in the studio and try to outdo him…but it never happened. It was fun trying. I had a lot of fun trying.

Didn’t Paul McCartney play you a song from Sgt. Pepper before it was released, asking for your opinion?
Yes. He played me and my wife a song called “She’s Leaving Home” one time in the studio before it came out. I was thrilled to death to hear it. He asked me if we liked it, and I told him we loved it. When I heard it on Sgt. Pepper, I loved it. I thought it was great.

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  1. This is about the best recent Brian Wilson interview I’ve read! Thank you. You really got him to open up. Nice job.
    It’s interesting to read what he has to say about some of his lesser-known songs, especially Breakaway. I wonder why he doesn’t like his vocal on Surfs Up.

  2. Thank you, Ken, for such good questions. Brian is a national treasure, and hearing him talk about his craft is still inspiring to this day. And I agree with Brian’s assessment of “Wild Honey” being a great song. I had that on a 45, the flip side of “Barbara Ann”, as I recall.

  3. great great interview, you can tell that brian is so relaxed and composed. Loved hearing his upto date take on these fantastic songs .
    Monty Borthwick, Portsmouth, England.

  4. Wow…what an amazingly honest interview! I’ve only just discovered the song “Till I Die” and really like it a lot. It gives this aspiring songwriter something to aspire to…

  5. Thank you so much for this interview. This is the best interview of Brian Wilson I have read. Very insightful – and you asked some great questions. Thanks again.

  6. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the man? How lucky we are to have the combination of a man that sings such great falsetto and writes such fantastic music and produces such great music with his friends and brothers. What harmony! Some of his songs just stop people cold. Right in the middle of a song he’ll change key. Or he’ll take the 3rd and make it the root. Or he’ll draw everything in the song up a half note as in “God only knows.” I knew the beach boys had some great stuff still going one even during early 70’s when metal was getting its due. When you look at the stuff being done today, we listeners are being ripped off. Thank God for Brian, Carl and the boys.

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