Sunday, November 04, 2007

Now it's dark and I'm alone

(Several lifetimes ago, I promised to do a post about Brian Wilson. This isn't quite as long ago as I promised to write something about Haruki Murakami's long-disowned second novel, a post that will probably appear around the time Chelsea Clinton becomes President, but it's still too long. The following isn't ideal, but it's something at least. A promise is a promise, after all.)

If you were to compile an orthodox canon of the most important (not best or favourite) rock and pop acts of all time, you'd immediately spot a neat Atlantic divide. The American acts on the list (Presley, Dylan, Springsteen, Madonna, Jackson, Aretha, etc) will tend to be individuals; the European side of things (Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Sex Pistols, U2, ABBA) mostly comprises bands. There are exceptions, of course (the Velvet Underground, Bowie) but there's enough meat there for a good, chunky thesis on US individualism versus European collectivism, with an appendix on the aesthetics of stencilled logos on bass drum skins.

There's one other act that throws a spanner in the works by refusing to fit neatly into the band/solo dichotomy: the Beach Boys. Pundits will argue whether they should be perceived as a band, or simply as a vehicle for their founder, Brian Wilson. Their greatest album, Pet Sounds, was for the most part concocted by Brian with studio musicians, and his bandmates were brought in at the end to provide harmonies.

There's no doubt that Brian was the towering genius of the band, and that the work he produces today under his own name is far more important than the slick nostalgia-fests being touted by the various other surviving Beach Boys, often under some variant of the BB identity. But that doesn't mean that the contribution of Love, Jardine, et al was irrelevant. The true poignancy of Brian Wilson's work is that it evolved from within a group of hormonally-charged males devoted to a proto-Loaded lifestyle of skirt and cars and high-jinks. Brian, shy, sensitive, insecure, chubby, half-deaf, tormented by a toxic relationship with his father, soon to descend into the pits of addiction and madness, would be a freakish outsider if he were playing maracas for the twee-est C86-era indie band. Putting him at the centre of this pit of rutting blokery (didn't Dennis end up shagging Mike's daughter, or was it the other way round?) was like having Franz Kafka turn out for the Springboks.

The result is that even when the songs are about stereotypically 'manly' pursuits (and before the pedants weigh in, I know a lot of the lyrics were written by outsiders) there's still an air of vulnerability. It's as if these all the driving and surfing and wenching is hypothetical: 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' and 'I Get Around' are childish imaginings of masculinity and adulthood; the closest Wilson comes to the reality of adolescence in his early work is 'In My Room', the song of a lonely boy who needs refuge and reassurance.

I think it was Marilyn Monroe who said something like: "lt's a terrible thing to be lonesome, especially in the middle of a crowd." And that's what makes Brian Wilson so perfect: he's in a band, and yet not in it; of it and not of it; eternally, transcendentally, semi-detached.

7 comments:

tom said...

Wasn't it partly due to the 'British Invasion' that Americans suddenly felt like they needed to have 'a band'? Maybe Buddy Holly and the Crickets would have been just The Crickets if they'd started out a decade later. But there probably never would have been a 'Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys' otherwise. Very interesting about that divide.

Billy said...

The Beach Boys are the only music my dad, my brother and me all like.

Of course they all like the wrong songs, but you can't have everything.

M.A.Peel said...

In this new Who doc, Townshend talks about how Keith Moon really wanted to do Beach Boys music more than anything else.

Tim Footman said...

Interesting point, Tom. Although don't forget that the BBs were once called Carl and the Passions.

That's right Billy: like the Beatles, they encompass the gamut from mainstream oldies radio to avant-garde weirdness.

Yes, Mrs Peel, Moon was a surf nut, I'd forgotten that. Although he didn't like Pet Sounds, oddly.

Robert Swipe said...

"(Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Sex Pistols, U2, ABBA)"

What kind of European canon is that, Timster???

Why no Desperate Bicycles???????

Bobster

Murph said...

Interesting point regarding solo US v UK Groups Tim.

Disney Girls , one of best tracks was written by Bruce Johnson, who Wakipedia tells us replaced Glen Cambell as extra Beach Boys vocalist. Blimey!

But Brian's lowest ebb must have been this. Supporting the status quo wasn't for ground breakers!

Tim Footman said...

Or indeed Jive Bunny, Bob.

Christ, Murph, that's horrible. Worse than the Fat Boys.