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Know When To Fold ‘Em: The Beach Boys should have fired Brian Wilson after Pet Sounds

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The Beach Boys should have fired Brian Wilson after Pet Sounds.

Yes, this is a shocking statement. Yes, I expect some hate mail for that. But here are the signs that the band should have buckled up and fired their one-time boy genius, the things that make me feel that not doing so was the band’s worst decision to date – even more so than Holland and MIU combined.

1. Your leader wants nothing to do with the rest of your band.

The band members had a legitimate concern when they said they felt locked out of the proceedings. Brian’s decision to stay at home and make their records while they made the money promoting the records – that should have been a major warning sign. For a while, the arrangement worked; it produced some wonderful singles and album cuts, and it produced Pet Sounds. Yet there were five other members of the band to take into consideration – and they were concerned about being edged out.

2. Your band mates express a worry that you are out of touch with the band.

Mike Love was concerned during Pet Sounds that the band was being written out of the picture and the material too maudlin. In looking back now at that record, he was wrong to be concerned. Love expressed the same concern with Smile, worrying that Brian was creating something that was self-indulgent, unable to be replicated live, and possibly destroying the band’s standing and popularity. Unfortunately, this time, Love’s concerns were well-founded. It is a testament to diplomacy that he played along.

3. Drugs and stoner humor is the topical focus of the new material.

Part of Brian’s ambiguous vision for Smile was to create a “funny” record, using humor and music to lighten up the heavy world outside his bedroom walls – and, to be honest, his increasing psychosis. Humor in and of itself is fine; when your vision of the world is altered by mind-enhancing (and mind-damaging) drugs, well – what you think is funny may not be. Case in point: ‘Psycodelic Sounds – Brian Falls Into A Piano’, is stoner humor that is a waste of a minute-and-a-half. His use of barnyard animals and silly noises might have worked – but his mind couldn’t work them out. The demo version of ‘Vege Tables’ isn’t genius; it’s just pointless silliness, and though I guess some say it’s necessary for the historical record, one doesn’t need to see the sketches of the Mona Lisa to justify that painting’s importance, do they?

4. Your bandleader’s vision is only in his head, he won’t share it with anyone, or put it on paper, and gets angry when you try to confront him.

Brian’s increasing paranoia at this time is well-documented. His fears of Phil Spector and Paul McCartney stealing his sound, his concerns that he’d started a fire with the Elements Suite, and his alienation of those whom he felt didn’t ‘get’ what he is trying to say – these were warning signs that would have, should have been paid attention to. His band-mates probably felt very conflicted, not just creatively, but personally. When you’re on drugs, everything sounds like a great idea, and you become very protective of all your little babies.

5. What your leader is trying to accomplish has nothing to do with your band.

Repetitive as it may be, it should be noted that the studio wizard lost his sense of identity as to who The Beach Boys were. Recording material that couldn’t be reproduced live, pushing the band aside in favor of studio musicians, leaving them to add all but the vocals. A band is a unit. Brian wasn’t in the unit. Conversely, Brian took a direct hands-off on the records that the band released after Smile. Wild Honey was a group effort, a fine collection of stripped-down soul-minded rock that found the band members starting to realize their abilities. Brian left. The records the band produced after he ceded creative control were fine, much better records, finding brothers Carl and Dennis and Bruce Johnston turning into superb producers on a par with their big brother. The decline in quality in original material came … when Brian returned to the band. That’s a sad point that gets left out of the equation – those bad records may get blamed on other factors, but its songwriter’s blown-gasket is often neglected in favor for the oft-believed “Let’s blame Mike Love” mantra.

Any one of these should have been cause for dismissal. That they all were allowed to continue is either a testament to their love of Brian, their desire to hold onto the past, or their fear of change – and probably all three.

(continues overleaf)

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