He might have been partly responsible for the Californian ‘surf sound of sixties’ but Brian Wilson evoked man’s relationship with the ocean without ever stepping on a surfboard…
Portrait by Bjørn Lie
Brian Wilson was always the creative force behind the Beach Boys, the teenage family band that emerged out of Hawthorne, a couple of miles inland from the Los Angeles beach communities of Manhattan and Hermosa. Having written ‘Surfin’, the beach boys first hit, as part of his high school music class in 1959, Brian Wilson was quick to pick up on the metaphoric potency of wave-riding. His family and management identified the commercial potential of publishing songs about surfing just as swiftly. Catching the wave of the surf obsession that gripped the West Coast and had begun to travel deep into the heart of America, Brian Wilson created music that simultaneously evoked the youthful beauty as exemplified in the California dream, as well as its tragic fragility. And the idea of surfing’s elemental simplicity was as central to the beating heart of his music as it was to California itself.
Replete with images of woodys, huarache sandals and bushy blonde hairdos, the early hits of the Beach Boys were weaved together with devastatingly beautiful harmonies and arrangements of a musical sophistication that easily eclipsed the efforts of other vocal surf bands like Jan and Dean and the Surfaris. But despite the way in which the band came to exemplify the surf lifestyle, the hard core of Californian surfers always sensed the exploitative falsehood at the centre of the music. The fact is that, despite the apparent symbiosis of the Beach Boys and surf culture, the surfing references in the music were little more than a function of the time and the place that Brian Wilson came to musical consciousness. Nevertheless, the images of untrammelled youth, edgy beauty and fun fun fun their songs were populated by, tapped into the aesthetic of the age – and the records sold in their millions. It’s well documented that Brian never surfed, and that it was only his hard-rockin’ brother, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who ever paddled out. Likewise, the teenagers of Arkansas and Oklahoma who paid their dimes to play the music on the juke box and who surfer-stomped in the dusty drive-ins of the Midwest had rarely even seen the sea. The truth is that Brian Wilson would have made beautiful music whenever and wherever he found himself.
The music that most truly evoked the beauty of the surfing lifestyle without resorting to the imagery of cliché can be found in the albums Wilson was putting together after 1966. //Pet Sounds// and //Smile// contain only a single surfing reference between them. Surf’s Up is an ethereal and elusive composition from the Smile sessions whose lyrics are completely unrelated to any of the surfing platitudes that the Beach Boys purveyed in the early sixties. The track was a result of the same fevered creativity that had produced in //Pet Sounds// an album universally recognised as one of the greatest in the history of popular music. The title lyric comes as a culmination of wildly tangential verses and hypnotic chords that hint of surfing’s talismanic qualities – Brian Wilson sought to communicate the eternal significance of surfing, a significance that transcended even the clichés by which the culture had been burdened.
Though he never ever caught a wave, it may be that Brian Wilson was as much a surfer as any of us. He understood the all-eclipsing beauty of the relationship between man and ocean and he evoked that complex, textured relationship in sound. Just as the act of surfing itself reaches parts of the soul that other physical pursuits can never touch, there’s a nugget of emotional and aesthetic truth in each Brian Wilson note that other pop music barely reaches.