It scarcely seems possible but Brian Wilson – still celebrated for his sumptuous teenage symphonies for The Beach Boys six decades ago -- turns 80 today.
Two days after his one-time rival-cum-inspiration and fellow bassist Sir Paul McCartney reached the same landmark, the only surviving Wilson brother is America’s greatest living pop genius. And I refuse to say ‘arguably’. The vast body of work stretching from 1962 into the 21st century encompasses songs of adolescent angst and optimism, music that raises the spirits despite being resolutely melancholic, exuberant romps and complex paeans to mystery and imagination.
You Still Believe In Me – the first, slow-paced, almost hymnal break from the deceptively jaunty pace set by Wouldn’t It Be Nice on the Beach Boys’ magnum opus Pet Sounds – has one of the most beautiful and affecting finales of any song I’ve heard. A quarter of a century after its 1966 release, McCartney remembered playing it to his children in the car and telling them, as the ‘multi-coloured harmonies’ of the heavenly coda approached: ‘Wait, wait! Here it comes.’
When he first heard Pet Sounds, McCartney thought: ‘Oh dear. This is the album of all time. What are we going to do?’ The immediate answer was Revolver, one of the best in The Beatles’ canon, although the group’s producer George Martin said the following year’s Sgt Pepper was their attempt ‘to equal Pet Sounds’. The latter has aged far better.
Like the Fab Four’s new octogenarian, Wilson’s singing has inevitably deteriorated. Each masks his shortcomings with virtuoso bands containing members capable of hitting the notes now beyond the main man. When I saw the Californian’s show at Nottingham in 2016, Matt Jardine, son of Beach Boys guitarist/singer Al, seamlessly took over Brian’s lead vocal in sections of Don’t Worry Baby, The Warmth Of The Sun and other classics with prominent falsetto parts.
The adoring audience were happy to forgive his faltering delivery. After what he has been through – drug addiction, the loss of brothers Carl and Dennis, the abusive relationship with a controlling psychologist depicted in the feature film Love & Mercy and his diagnosis with schizoaffective disorder – they could forgive him anything.
No vocal doubles were necessary when Wilson recorded Pet Sounds, an album he would later say was ‘trying to capture spiritual love that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world’. A grand claim, but one that does not appear hyperbolic or pretentious when you immerse yourself in the album’s rich orchestral textures, soul-baring lyrics and celestial harmonies.
By 1966 Wilson had given up touring, devoting himself to creating a set of songs he hoped would surpass the previous year’s Rubber Soul by the arch British invaders. He ditched the fun/sun formula that had sustained the quintet after The Beach Boys’ breakthrough with a succession of surfing songs.
In truth you could pick almost any track from Pet Sounds and hail it as the epitome of his/their new-found sonic sophistication. God Only Knows, described by McCartney as the greatest pop song ever written, is the best-known number on Pet Sounds. Caroline, No, an emotional lament for lost innocence, closes the album. In between come the tender Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), the up-tempo Here Today and the all too prescient I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times. Even the obvious filler track, Sloop John B, is irresistible and enduring.
The song which never fails to move me with its candour and delicacy, however, is You Still Believe In Me. (McCartney – yes, him again – calls it his favourite on Pet Sounds.) The lyric is the kind of examination of self-doubt that would become commonplace among singer-songwriters and bedsit balladeers during the late 60s/early 70s but was then rare in pop.
I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be
I’ve been very aware you’ve been patient with me
Wilson has not explicitly stated that the lyric is about his first marriage, to Marilyn Rovell. Yet she is certain it was, saying: ‘I always thought he wrote that with me in mind. He knew he wasn’t a good husband, and that I was lonely and really didn’t get much back from him. It wasn’t like there was much of a relationship. The only way we really ever related was musically [Marilyn was a member of all-female groups The Honeys and American Spring].’
Her role in the marriage was that of the stabiliser, the re-unifier, whereas Brian confessed his culpability. If we are to take the song as autobiographical, and based on their relationship, the next lines acknowledged as much:
Every time we break up
You bring back your love to me
And after all I’ve done to you, how can it be
You still believe in me
In the second verse Brian admits to his selfishness and inability to change. He can hardly credit that she’s still with him, which she was until their divorce in 1979.
I try hard to be more what you want me to be
But I can’t help how I act
When you’re not here with me.
I try hard to be strong, but sometimes I fail myself
And after all I promised you, so faithfully
You still believe in me
Brian himself has spoken of the song as an expression of his sensitive side. ‘I was able to close my eyes and go into a world and sing more effeminately and more sweet,’ he said 30 years after the LP’s release, ‘which allows more love to come down through me.’
His vocal style on the song was ‘quite the opposite’ of a ‘masculine-sounding voice’, he added, identifying Kenny Rogers as an example of macho singing. In another quote, he called it ‘a little boys’ choir-type of song with me doing the soprano… very, very spiritual’.
The ‘choir’ comment almost certainly stems from that exquisite, ethereal ending. With just three words – ‘I wanna cry’ – he and The Beach Boys soar into the harmonic stratosphere. Happy birthday, maestro. We still believe in you.