Revisiting Brian Wilson’s Teenage Symphony to God

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

In April 1967, legendary American classical composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who also dabbled in popular music (for example, he composed the music for “West Side Story”), participated in a CBS News special titled “Inside Pop — The Rock Revolution” which focused on the pop music scene of that time. During the show, Brian Wilson, leader of The Beach Boys, performing solo, debuted a not yet released song.

Bernstein was effervescent in his praise for the song.

“Here is a new song, too complex to get all of the first time around. It could come only out of the firmament that characterizes today’s pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own ‘Surf’s Up.’ Poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity, ‘Surf’s Up’ is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today. As such, it is a symbol of the change many of these young musicians see in our future.”

“Surf’s Up” was intended for The Beach Boys’ follow-up album to 1966’s Pet Sounds, which, despite its status today as one of the all-time revered classic pop albums, was poorly received when initially released. This led the band’s lead singer, Mike Love, to pressure Wilson into writing songs more in line with the band’s earlier surf hits. However, Wilson was undeterred. In his mind, which as all parties involved soon learned, was becoming frighteningly unbalanced, he was in full-on competition with The Beatles to determine whether it was he, or the duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who compromised the one true genius of popular music. Thus began the saga of SMiLE.

First came “Good Vibrations.” The song took months to record and piece together. Wilson was now incorporating the recording studio into his creative process as much as traditional instruments, this process involving countless hours physically splicing and patching together the tape on which everything was recorded. It took a Herculean effort to make it come out as a cohesive whole, but once the multitude of fragments were patched together and released in December 1966, the song became a worldwide sensation.

Wilson, emboldened by the massive hit status of “Good Vibrations” in regard to his vision’s wisdom, and with Love’s fears regarding Wilson drifting too far afield to write commercially viable tunes, dove headfirst into creating SMiLE. Van Dyke Parks, Wilson’s lyric-writing partner for the project, referred to it as a “teenage symphony to God,” an American answer to the British Invasion that at the time was dominating the pop charts. Regrettably, Wilson’s vision far outstripped the technological limitations of the day; what now would be a breeze with digital recording and editing was, as mentioned above, a near possibility for even the clearest mind. Wilson’s drug-clouded and rapidly spinning off its axis mind was anything but clear, and after several months, the entire project was abandoned in favor of the greatly stripped-down Smiley Smile. The song “Surf’s Up” found its way to being the title track of The Beach Boys 1971 release.

After decades of brokenness and at least partial restoration, Wilson recorded and released Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE in 2004. This was followed in 2011 by The SMiLE Sessions, incorporating what could be pieced together of surviving original SMiLE recording sessions from 1966 and 1967, then arranged in the same order as Wilson’s 2004 version. Whether this was exactly what the originally planned album would have sounded like has been the root of hot debate by musicologists; Wilson himself has never given a definitive answer aside from saying he prefers his version as it is completed to his satisfaction.

Comparing the two, one is struck by how, despite the relative lack of vocal parts on the original recordings — some due to original tapes gone missing, some due to the parts never having been recorded — although The Beach Boys are primarily thought of as a vocal group, the melodic strength of Wilson’s compositions is astoundingly rich. No amount of vocal harmony prowess can disguise a weak tunesmith’s work, and Wilson’s work was anything but weak.

A quality composition shines through multiple interpretations. Consider how many reworkings of Lennon/McCartney songs, or Bob Dylan tunes, have been recorded over the decades. Stylistically they have been all over the map. Yet, more often than not, they work. Why? Because the songs themselves are so good.

We all have our preferences in music. But limiting our definition of what makes a song great to its arrangement is depriving ourselves of tasting full enjoyment. It is the song itself, the tune that matters. When one embraces this truth, the true genius of Brian Wilson comes through.