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How Brian Wilson lost his mind and created brilliance

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Imagine Olly Murs going into the studio for a year, only to produce an album of Mongolian throat singing. Or Katy Perry dropping an album of abstract techno. That’s not dissimilar to what it would have been like as an American teenager when The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds. They’d made their bones recording sun-kissed songs such as I Get Around; this music was an altogether different beast, full of mind-bending harmonic experimentation, and an approach where, if it could be recorded, it could be subjected to every aural effect analogue tape could give it. And at the head of it all was Brian Wilson: fragile genius, psychedelic pioneer and ultimate victim of the late-Sixties culture that fostered his burst of creativity.

By 1965, Wilson was beginning to tire of soundtracking make-out sessions. The Beatles had released Rubber Soul and shown that an album could be a cohesive whole, and Bob Dylan was in New York showing that popular music could do more than tell a girl you really liked her. Already a skilled composer – anybody who knows anything about music will tell you The Beach Boys’ early hits weren’t just feats of craft – he wanted to take his band’s sound further. The spark came from LSD, which at the time it seemed you got just by standing still for long enough in the right part of San Francisco. Wilson called taking it for the first time “a religious experience” – this was strong stuff, and approached with a quasi-reverence, its hallucinogenic effects seen as nothing less than a shortcut to shaking off Eisenhower-era repression in one go.

The resulting Pet Sounds sessions are legendary, with Wilson marshalling an army of musicians; he and his bandmates only have vocal credits for most of the songs. Verse-chorus-verse went out the window. Songs were multi-part pieces, themselves constituent parts of a whole that expressed the binary forces in Wilson’s mind – a deep need to be loved, and overwhelming sadness at this love’s failure to arrive. Theremins, bicycle bells and even a barking dog are in the mix.



The US public didn’t take to it, preferring the sunnier experiments of The Beatles. However, Good Vibrations, from the same sessions, was a huge hit, and an emboldened Wilson returned to the studio to make Smile, which he declared to be a “teenage symphony to God”. His drug use increased, not helped by the army of hangers-on to the sessions, and the installation of a ‘hotbox’ in his house. He also added a sandpit under his piano to preserve his earlier music’s beachfront feel, but was later dismayed to find his cats had been using it as a litter box.

As recording for Smile dragged on, Wilson continued his innovations. He began using snippets of music to build songs, essentially creating what we now call sampling. Everything from jazz motifs to yodelling was used, in a hallmark of the pick’n’mix approach of the psychedelic era. The stage was set for a masterpiece, the kind of record that boasted a suite of songs about the four elements.

But nothing emerged.

Wilson had never been the most stable – he’d left a tour in 1964 due to a nervous breakdown. Throw in regular doses of LSD (and almost every other drug going) into the mix, and it was a recipe for disaster. “At first, my creativity increased more than I could believe,” he later told The Guardian of his drug use. “On the downside, it fucked my brain.”

Paralysed by drugs and unable to realise his ambitions, Wilson couldn't finish. Smile was released in a severely compromised form as Smiley Smile in 1967. Burdened with this disappointment, he was hospitalised for much of 1968, while his band fell into self-parody, infighting and lawsuits. This was too much for Wilson, who spent much of the following decades intermittently working with the band, but more often withdrawn completely from his former life, or exploited by psychiatrists who saw dollar signs behind his illness. Wilson only fully returned as an artist in 2004, with the release of an album of songs written for Smile. Drugs had freed his mind like few others in the Sixties – but also created a mental prison he couldn’t escape from.

“Would he have wanted to not have issues?” asks Bill Pohlad, director of new Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. “Or even to have got more support around that era – what would have happened then? He’s not consumed by regret. He’s had this amazing life, and is still making records, and there are some great things that have happened. He’s not half a man, but he has issues. He can teach us a lot, even now.”

Love & Mercy is at cinemas nationwide from 10 July

(Image: Getty)

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