Growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, California, in 1961, the Wilson clan was a closely knit musical family. Of the three brothers, Brian was the eldest, Dennis was the middle and Carl was the youngest. Along with their father Murry, a music industry veteran and mother Audree, the Wilson brothers lived in close proximity to their cousin Mike Love. Music was always present in the Wilson home and family gatherings provided ample opportunities for music sessions and songfests.
Interested in both sports and music at school, Brian demonstrated an aptitude for music and songwriting at an early age. He was the Wilson family's driving force when it came to singing harmonies, first learning all the parts of a song and then teaching them to his mother and brothers. Obsessed with harmonics and melody, Brian would spend hours listening to his favorite close-harmony groups, in particular, the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Lo's. Convinced that he and his brothers could produce beautiful harmonies, Brian enlisted his cousin Mike and high school football buddy Al Jardine to form a band. At that time, Dennis was fascinated with surfing and encouraged the group to write a song about the sport. Brian and Mike penned some lyrics and came up with "Surfin'."
His parents helped the boys rent instruments and studio time to record Brian and Mike's novelty number, "Surfin'." Initially, Mike sang lead, Brian drummed (Dennis couldn't drum yet), Carl played guitar, and Al played double bass. The boys' domineering father immediately recognized his sons' potential; Murry quickly seized control and appointed himself as manager, publicist and producer. After his own failed attempt at a career in music, Murry now tried to live out his frustrated career dreams vicariously through his sons. With Murry's help, the single "Surfin'" had its initial release in 1961 on Candix. Billed to the Pendletones (a nod to the wool Pendleton shirt favored by the surfing set), "Surfin'" became a sizeable local hit. With Murry's further efforts on the groups' behalf, "Surfin'" garnered some national interest, reaching number 75 on the Billboard Hot 100. As manager, he then negotiated a recording contract for the group (renamed the Beach Boys) with Capitol Records during the summer of 1962. Before the release of any material for Capitol, however, Jardine left the band to attend college in the Midwest. A friend and neighbor of the Wilsons, David Marks, replaced him.
Finally, in mid-1962 the Beach Boys released their major LP debut, Surfin' Safari. The title track, a more accomplished novelty single than its predecessor, hit the Top 20 and helped launch the surf rock craze just beginning to blossom around Southern California. A similarly themed follow-up, Surfin' U.S.A., hit the Top Ten in early 1963 before Jardine returned from college and resumed his place in the group. By that time, the Beach Boys had recorded their first two albums, a pair of 12-track collections of hits with a few related novelty songs. Despite Capitol's policy that required the group to work with a studio producer, Brian (who had fired his increasingly overbearing father) quickly took over the sessions and began expanding the group's range beyond simple surf rock. By the end of 1963, the Beach Boys had recorded three full LPs, hit the Top Ten as many times, and were constantly touring.
When the Beach Boys phenomenon reached the UK in 1963 with the single 'Surfin' USA', they briefly interrupted the Mersey beat domination. The perception of a clean and wholesome West Coast beach environment - blessed with permanent sunshine, fun, and beautiful girls - seemed to be at distinct odds with the image of a predominantly working-class British beat group scene. It seemed that as America was embracing the British Invasion, the Brits held a fascination (however brief) for the American band from Southern California.
The following year, "I Get Around" became the first number one hit single for the Beach Boys. In late 1964 the LP Beach Boys Concert spent four weeks at the top of the album charts - just one of five Beach Boys LPs simultaneously on the charts. The group also undertook promotional tours of Europe, but the pressures, time-constraints and punishing workload proved too much for Brian, who was writing similar material for fellow surfer/hot-rodders Jan and Dean, in addition to his own group.
When Brian suffered a nervous breakdown early in 1965, he decided to quit touring with the band and concentrate on his music writing and studio productions. Brian admired record producer Phil Spector, and throughout his career, Brian continued to hone his own production skills eventually joining Spector in the ranks of rock's greatest record producers. As for the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell stepped in and briefly toured with the group; ultimately, in 1965 friend and colleague Bruce Johnston became Brian's permanent replacement.
With Brian now working full-time in the studio, he would first write the songs, next enlist the cream of Los Angeles session players to record instrumental backing tracks and finally, add Carl, Dennis, Mike, and Al's vocals when the band returned to the studio. The single "Help Me, Rhonda" became the Beach Boys' second chart-topper in early 1965. Two more LPs followed in 1965, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) and Beach Boys' Party. The LP Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) featured "California Girls," highlighting one of the best examples of Brian's ability to produce fluid harmonies and memorable melodies (it's said to be his personal favorite song).
In late 1965, the Beatles released Rubber Soul. Amazed at the high song quality and overall cohesiveness of the album, Brian began writing songs with an assist from lyricist Tony Asher - and producing sessions for a song suite that would chart the growth of a young man to emotional maturity. Even though Capitol was less than supportive to the idea of an album with few commercial hits, the group spent more time perfecting the vocals and harmonies than on any other project to date. However, when Pet Sounds was released in May 1966, it was obvious that the result more than justified the effort. Pet Sounds is still one of the best-produced and most influential rock LPs ever released, the culmination of years of Brian's search for perfection in his productions and songwriting. Critics praised Pet Sounds, but unfortunately the group's new direction failed to impress American audiences. Pet Sounds reached the Top Ten, but missed going gold (the group's first failure to do so since their debut LP). Although America may have failed to recognize the group's efforts, the worldwide reaction was not only positive but absolutely jubilant. In England, the album hit number two and earned best group honors for the Beach Boys in the UK's National Music Express (NME) year-end polls - even beating out the Beatles' releases of "Paperback Writer"/"Rain" and Revolver. Although Pet Sounds may have sold disappointingly as an album, it is now recognized as an innovative classic having yielded a bounty of singles, including "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows" and "Sloop John B".
Oddly enough, as Americans embraced the British Invasion, the Brits were still listening to the Beach Boys. On Brian Wilson's website, Paul McCartney was quoted as saying, "Pet Sounds blew me out of the water... I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence - it was the record of the time. That was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper." Brian later responded, "I can hear a little of our harmonies on Rubber Soul, but the Beatles were genius and had their own sound. They didn't need us..."
It was not widely known that Brian had already experienced two nervous breakdowns, retired from performing with the group and had begun to depend on barbiturates. Even less public was his estrangement from his father and the festering tension within the band. Throughout this turmoil, Brian pressed on to his next project, the single, "Good Vibrations." Originally written for the Pet Sounds LP, Brian removed it from the song list to give himself more time for production. He resumed working on it after the completion of Pet Sounds, eventually devoting up to six months (at three different studios) on the single. As Brian described it, "Good Vibrations" was a "pocket symphony", one song that was packed with an album's worth of ideas and production tricks. At a cost of $16,000, Brian's psychedelic masterpiece took six months to make. The composition was divided into several distinct sections and included such exotic instruments as the Jew's harp, sleigh bells, harpsichord, and theremin.
The Beach Boys rose to their peak at the end of 1966 and capped off the year with the release of arguably their greatest achievement, "Good Vibrations." Charting as the group's third number one single, "Good Vibrations" from Smiley Smile still stands as one of the best rock singles of all time. "Good Vibrations" returned the Beach Boys to the top of the charts and added a new phrase to the pop-culture vocabulary.
Throughout late 1966 and early 1967, Brian worked feverously on an even more ambitious album - a project initially titled Dumb Angel, but later renamed SMiLE. He enlisted the help of eccentric lyricist Van Dyke Parks as his songwriting partner and subsequently recorded reams of tape with increasingly fragmented tracks. A rift soon formed between the band and Brian; they felt his marijuana and LSD use were clouding his judgment, while he felt they were holding him back from embracing the up and coming psychedelic era. Recording for SMiLE dragged on into spring of 1967, with Brian working fewer and fewer hours at a time. In fact, for the first time in his Beach Boys career, Brian seemed unsure of his direction. And just when it appeared that SMiLE might possibly be salvageable, any hopes of success were dashed when Brian officially canceled the project in May - just a few weeks before the Beatles' release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The group reconvened that fall at Brian's Bel Air mansion/studio to record several versions of existing SMiLE songs in addition to a few new recordings; the result emerged as Smiley Smile. Carl summed up the LP as "a bunt instead of a grand slam;" unfortunately, the LPs complete lack of cohesiveness all but sank any reputation that the group had garnered thus far for forward-thinking pop. As the Beatles were sailing across the cutting edge of the psychedelic age, the Beach Boys were quickly sinking from grace with the all-important teen crowd, who tagged the group as throwbacks to the conservative establishment. Several SMiLE songs later surfaced - "Heroes and Villains" (#12 in 1967), appeared on Smiley Smile, and the bittersweet title cut of 1971s Surf's Up was also a SMiLE composition. The disastrous SMiLE project, coupled with Smiley Smile, marked the end of Brian's reign as the Beach Boys' sole producer.
The Beach Boys had a perfect chance to stem this downward spiral in the summer of 1967 with the opportunity of a headlining spot at the pioneering Monterey Pop Festival. Instead of turning the tide, however, they unfortunately squandered this opportunity. The Beach Boys quickly regrouped into a more closely knit, democratic unit and released a series of "back-to-their-roots" LPs - including Friends and Wild Honey - however, any hopes they had of becoming the world's number one pop group with both hippies and critics alike were dashed in a major wipeout in just a matter of months. Not surprisingly, Capitol dropped the band soon after.
In 1970, the group moved to Reprise Records and made a deal to release their records on their own Brother label, as a custom imprint of Warner/Reprise. The group's hugely popular oldies-dominated live shows only served to reinforce the public's image of the Beach Boys as a group whose creativity was past its prime; however, the Beach Boys' LP releases of 20/20 (#68 in 1969), Sunflower (#151 in 1970), and the more successful follow up, Surf's Up (#29 in 1971) contained some of the group's most adventurous and interesting work to date.
During this time, Brian's mental stability was questionable and much of his time was spent hidden away in his mansion as a veritable recluse. Although he made occasional contributions to the groups' songwriting and music sessions, he rarely appeared on album covers or in promotional shots and was hardly considered a regular member of the band. Notwithstanding this situation, Reprise decided to undertake the risky venture of authorizing a large recording budget for the next Beach Boys album. After shipping most of the group's family and entourage (including an entire studio) over to Amsterdam, the Beach Boys re-emerged in 1973 with their LP, Holland. Holland was released to scathing reviews, and its muddy sound did nothing to advance the reputation of the aging band.
After the Holland debacle, the Beach Boys essentially retired from recording during the mid-1970s and concentrated on grooming and perfecting their live act. As it turned out, this was a good move, since the Beach Boys could lay claim to more hits than any other 1960s rock band act on the road at that time. Their performance quickly grew into an incredible crowd pleasing experience.
Then, in mid-1974, Capitol Records decided to revisit the vaults and issue a repackaged Beach Boys hits collection, entitled Endless Summer. To the amazement of both the band and Capitol, the double LP hit number one, spent almost three years on the charts, and ultimately went gold. In a stroke of good luck and good timing, Endless Summer capitalized on America's growing love affair with oldies rock - nostalgic fascination that had catapulted the group Sha Na Na, the movie American Graffiti, and the television show Happy Days into huge hits. By years end, even Rolling Stone magazine - never one of the groups' biggest fans - named the Beach Boys its Band of the Year. During the 1970s, the Beach Boys became an in-demand touring act whose popularity soared as rock audiences rediscovered all the old hits, which had come and gone so quickly in the previous decade.
In an attempt to capitalize on this new interest in the group and promote the idea that Brian was back in the studio, a barely truthful marketing campaign heralded, "Brian's Back!" followed by the 1976 release of 15 Big Ones. This LP contained a couple of 1950s oldies with some justifiably exciting new Brian oddities including, "Had to Phone Ya." Despite many critical misgivings, the LP surprisingly hit the Top Ten and went gold. Brian was much more involved in the production of the following years' offering, The Beach Boys Love You, than any other album since Pet Sounds. Despite any specific expectations from the Beach Boys' oldies fans, The Beach Boys Love You turned out to be the group's best album in years.
As a result, the group signed a large contract with CBS - which stipulated, of course, that Brian be involved on each album. However, Brian's return to the spotlight was short lived and resulted in two dismal productions, L.A. (Light Album) and Keepin' the Summer Alive. Inevitably, the Beach Boys began splintering by the end of the decade - Mike Love's brothers Stan and Steve's financial mismanagement of the band fostered continuing tension between Mike and the Wilson brothers. By 1980, both Dennis and Carl had left the Beach Boys to pursue solo careers.
In 1982, Brian's weight ballooned to over 300 pounds, and he was dropped from the group. However, following the tragic drowning death of Dennis in 1983, the group rallied and tried to regroup. The band released a self-titled album in 1985; and although it returned them to the Top 40 with "Getcha Back," the LP was to be the last relevant Beach Boys album of the 1980s.
In 1988, Brian returned to the studio to produce his first solo album, Brian Wilson. Although critics and fans approved of Brian's return to the studio, the charts were unforgiving. Unfortunately for Brian, his timing couldn't have been worse - the single "Kokomo," from the soundtrack to the movie Cocktail, hit number one in the US later that year - and the spotlight of attention was focused not on Brian, but on Mike Love and the Beach Boys (without Brian) once more.
Despite the continued squabbling, quarrels, and legal battles the Beach Boys kept touring during the early 1990s. In fact, Mike and Brian actually began writing songs together again in 1995. And just as the band appeared to be pulling together for a return to the studio and production of a proper album, Carl died of cancer in 1998.
On February 20, 2004, Brian shocked the music world when he announced his upcoming performance in its entirety of his legendary SMiLE album at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Later that year in September, he released a new studio recording of SMiLE, featuring a notably different version of "Good Vibrations," with Mike Love's 1966 lyrics being replaced by Tony Asher's original demo lyrics. Ironically, Brian won his first ever Grammy Award for best rock instrumental for the SMiLE song "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (Fire)."
The following year, despite being involved in another ongoing lawsuit, Mike, Brian, Jardine, Johnson and Marks all appeared together at the top of the Capitol Records building to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Pet Sounds. Brian further celebrated this anniversary by performing with a 12-member band including Jardine at a sold-out show in Los Angeles at UCLA's Royce Hall. Brian has since scheduled and performed at a handful of appearances, while Mike Love and Johnson continue to tour as the Beach Boys.
As "America's Band" the Beach Boys have amassed a fine legacy: they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988; in 1998, the band was chosen for the Vocal Group Hall of Fame; they received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001; in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked the Beach Boys #12 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time; in November 2006, Brian Wilson was inducted into the UK Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and in 2007, the Beach Boys were inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
"I'm really proud of my career and the Beach Boys legacy," said Brian. Although more than 20 years have passed since their last recording, the group has retained its popularity - which is not surprising, since the Beach Boys have garnered 36 Top 40 hits - more than any other American band.
Having toured throughout the late 1990s as America's premiere nostalgia act, the Beach Boys still continue to delight crowds with their summer tour performances each year - and as long as there are fans that yearn to escape - whether to their room or to their own private Kokomo - there will always be a Beach Boys song ready to transport them there.