This Is Why Brian Wilson Will Never Play With the Beach Boys Again

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 04: Musician Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys attends Meet the Filmmaker: "Love and Mercy" at Apple Store Soho on June 4, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Mark Sagliocco/FilmMagic)
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The music of the Beach Boys is famously upbeat, nostalgic and care-free. Relations within the band today are anything but harmonious, however – and deep divisions separate the founding members today. Despite their enormous success, the band has effectively been splintered – and it’s doubtful that we’ll ever see a reunion of the group’s original lineup.


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The Beach Boys certainly have a storied history. The band has had dozens of hits in the Billboard charts, and they’re rated among the greatest bands of all time. What’s more, with their boundary-crossing work, they’ve had a huge influence on artists across the full spectrum of the musical world. But that success hasn’t been enough to keep them together.


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Indeed, the band behind “Good Vibrations” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” has been split into separate camps in the last few decades; and it would seem that they’ve rarely been on speaking terms with each other. It’s a situation that’s hard to imagine when looking back at the band’s early days.

 
 

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Originally formed in Hawthorne, California in 1961, the Beach Boys were first named The Pendletones – a play on words referencing the name of a woolen shirt that was in fashion at the time. The group was made up of the Wilson brothers – Brian, Dennis and Carl – their cousin, Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine.


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And the boys were extraordinarily young. Carl turned 15 years old in 1961, while Brian turned 19 that year; and the brothers had still been sharing a room in the years before. Nevertheless, having taken up instruments, they soon started writing surf-inspired songs, with the encouragement of the Wilsons’ parents.


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In a pivotal moment, Murry Wilson – the Wilson boys’ father – was able to get a demo to Candix Records. This was the beginning of the Beach Boys: they were formally renamed with the release of their first official single. “Surfin’” would go on to reach no. 75 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – and its success seemed to promise the boys a bright future.


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And as you might expect from a band formed of brothers, cousins and friends, the Beach Boys started off with tightly knit bonds. As Mike Love told the Los Angeles Times, “We grew up together. We sang Everly Brothers’ songs together at Aunt Audrey’s piano. We played football together. We formed a band together.” It was a testament to their closeness; they were more than just a band, they were family, both figuratively and literally.


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In 1962 the band was joined by their neighbor and sometime member, David Marks. Following “Surfin’,” the boys initially had some difficulty getting interest from record labels, but they were eventually picked up by Capitol Records. Their second single, “Surfin’ Safari,” would rise higher and faster in the Billboard charts, though, making it to number 14. This was the beginning of the band’s peak years.


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The Beach Boys had their first indisputable hit in 1964 with “I Get Around,” having largely put surf music behind them. And music was changing. Brian Wilson was reportedly especially worried by The Beatles, which were pushing aside many previously successful American bands. David Leaf quotes Wilson as saying, “The Beatles’ invasion shook me up an awful lot. They eclipsed a lot of what we’d worked for… eclipsed the whole music world.”


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Despite his concerns, though, the Beach Boys continued to produce hits – many of which are still popular today. As well as playing in the band, Brian Wilson was also taking responsibility for most of the group’s production and producing songs for other artists. His musical abilities only seemed to be expanding, while the Beach Boys themselves went from strength to strength.


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Crisis would soon hit, however. Wilson was coming under strain from his workload and the band’s commitments. A panic attack after a performance in December 1964 led him to announce the following January that he would pull back from live performances. Instead, he would become a full-time studio artist, focusing on writing and producing songs, rather than touring on the road. It would be a pivotal moment: whereas Mike Love can say he’s played in every Beach Boys concert in the band’s history, Wilson has been on stage relatively rarely.


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This change in direction seemed to only be for the better for the band as a whole, though. Their following singles and albums were increasingly experimental, and they were hugely popular. Then, in 1966, the band released Pet Sounds. This album was a huge shift from their previous style, and critics were .


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Despite receiving a lukewarm reception from American audiences, Pet Sounds reached no. 2 in the U.K. charts. Rolling Stone named it one of the 500 best albums of all time in 2003, and it was a significant source of inspiration for The Beatles. The album also included some of the band’s best-known songs, including “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”


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Not everyone in the band was apparently keen on the new direction that Wilson wanted them to take, however. The rest of the band had arrived back from touring abroad to find much of the album already completed. All that was left for them to do was to record vocals to accompany the tracks.


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Tony Asher, who had worked extensively with Wilson on the album, said that the recording sessions were often tense. “All those guys in the band, certainly Al, Dennis and Mike, were constantly saying, ‘What the fuck do these words mean?’ or ‘This isn’t our kind of shit,’” Peter Ames Carlin quoted him saying in his book, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.


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Whereas the band had had early hits with upbeat pop songs about beach life, Pet Sounds’ themes would extend from the psychedelic to the world of psychological analysis. It was a dramatic shift. Love in particular is reported to have been aggravated by the new tracks, criticizing everything from the lyrics to the instrumentals.


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And undeterred by his bandmates’ reluctance, Wilson threw himself into work on new music. He brought in Van Dyke Parks, another songwriter, to work with him on the band’s next album, to be called Smile. “Good Vibrations” was released in 1966 and became their third no. 1 hit single in the U.S. and their first in the U.K. and Australia. It looked like Wilson was about to prove all of his doubters wrong.


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As time went on though, and the album failed to appear, interest started to wane. As Luis Sanchez put it in The Beach Boys’ Smile, “Hype… turned into expectation. As time passed, expectation turned into doubt. Finally, doubt turned into bemusement.” Wilson put his ambitious plans for the album aside, and he appeared to be struggling.


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Then, in a decision that caused significant damage to the band’s reputation at the time, the Beach Boys pulled out of headlining the Monterey Pop Festival. The festival had a line-up of fresh and original acts, and one take on the band’s last-minute change of heart was that they didn’t feel that they could keep up. The Beach Boys’ members dispute this interpretation, but the event nevertheless saw critics beginning to turn against them; the band had soared but was now beginning to crash.


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The band’s following albums failed to reach the same levels of success as their earlier releases. Wilson’s involvement in the group declined, and his mental health became more unstable. Labels became reluctant to work with him, even when he was feeling able to. In 1976, Wilson told