Not only is Brian Wilson a unique songwriting talent, he was one of the most influential producers of his era, renowned for his ingenious musical arrangements.
Brian Wilson remains one of the more lauded and beloved figures of 20th Century popular music. His recordings with the Beach Boys have inspired and influenced countless musicians, and continue to do so. What’s especially amazing about the Beach Boys’ records is how much they are the result of the talent and vision of one guy. Unlike the Beatles, where Lennon had McCartney, and they both had George Martin, the Beach Boys only had Brian Wilson. He wrote or co-wrote all of their early songs, and what’s more, from 1963 until the early ’70s, he arranged and produced all the bands’ music. Not only is he a unique talent in terms of songwriting, but he was one of the three most influential producers of his era (along with George Martin and Phil Spector).
We’re going to run a series of articles that focus on different aspects of Brian Wilson’s talents. This month we’re going to dig into one aspect that set Beach Boys’ records apart from their contemporaries: Wilson’s ingenious musical arrangements.
What is a music arranger?
Quite simply, an arranger decides which instruments will be used to perform a piece of music. The role of an arranger was much more important in the swing music of the ‘40s and ‘50s than in early rock and roll. After all, in jazz, artists were frequently recording songs that had already been recorded by other artists. So, if Frank Sinatra wanted to put his stamp on a standard like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” he would contact Nelson Riddle to arrange the song for big band, and his arrangement would be different from, say, the arrangement Dinah Washington had used with Clifford Brown. The arranger was separate from a producer, whose job was to record the band.
In rock, there was never a separate role for an arranger. Records were either arranged by the band or the producer. Occasionally, if the song called for a string or horn section, a pro was hired to arrange that part of the song, but on the whole, rock records simply didn’t have enough instruments to require a lot of arranging. If a band had two guitarists, a bassist, and a drummer, you would usually find those instruments, plus perhaps an additional piano or harmonica, on the record.
Phil Spector was one of the first rock and roll producers to spend a lot of time on the arrangement of songs. What became known as the “wall of sound” was an attempt to create a powerful, spacious sound that would still sound huge on AM radio and mono records. Instead of using a small combo group, Spector would double or triple up instruments (even drums), and he recorded them all live in a small room, with instruments bleeding over one another. Finally, he would run the entire recording through an echo chamber to create a huge wash of sound. (Critics often refer to it as the “wall of mush.”)
It’s interesting to compare the arrangements of Spector’s records to Motown’s. Here are two recordings from 1963. Notice how in the Martha and the Vandellas’ song (Motown) you can hear individual instruments and the vocals are much more prominent. In the Spector-produced Ronettes’ song, the instruments that stand out the most are the percussion. Everything else is just massive waves of chords. Even the vocals are drowned a bit in the mix. In the Motown song, it sounds like you might be hearing the group in an intimate night club. In Spector’s, it sounds like you are at the Hollywood Bowl.
Brian Wilson was massively influenced by Spector. He recalls hearing “Be My Baby” for the first time and having to pull the car over because he just couldn’t believe the chorus. He attended every Spector recording he could, and he considered Spector the greatest producer in the world. He loved how Spector would use several instruments to create new and unusual sounds. Spector likes to say that Wilson spent his entire career trying to remake “Be My Baby.” (In fact, Wilson wrote two songs he hoped Spector’s girl groups would sing, including “Don’t Worry Baby,” which was his answer to “Be My Baby.” Both songs were rejected by Spector.)
You can hear one of Wilson’s most blatant attempts to remake “Be My Baby” on this 1964 Honeys’ record, “He’s a Doll.” Wilson wrote, produced, and arranged this hit. Note the similar use of percussion, and the similar vocal interplay on the chorus.
But as much as Wilson was influenced by the enormous sound of Spector’s records, he would find a way to deliver what Spector could not (or, more accurately, would not): he would get Spector’s giant sound, but he also found a way to get the clarity of Motown’s records. Note how, even on this early arrangement, you can hear a difference from Spector. The lead vocals are more intimate, the sax stands out more, as do the amazing drums.
The Brian Wilson sound
Rather than go through a history of the development of Wilson’s sound, let’s start with it at its most baroque: Pet Sounds. Wilson had dabbled in creative, expansive arrangements before this album, namely on the Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) albums – “California Girls” and “Let Him Run Wild” are arrangement highlights – but on Pet Sounds he was able to combine all of the elements he had been working towards: personal songs backed by the most intricate and unique arrangements anyone had ever attempted in rock.
Wilson is renowned for using unusual instruments in a pop setting. On Pet Sounds alone he would use bicycle bells, water bottles, buzzing organs, guiros, sleigh bells, timpani, harpsichords, Electro-Theremins, vibraphones, Coca-Cola cans, orange juice jugs, and more.
One of the stories you often hear is how the group initially didn’t care for what Brian had recorded. The band had been on tour in Japan while Brian was busy recording in LA with the Wrecking Crew. Today, it’s easy to dismiss their initial critiques as being short-sighted. But, when compared with their earlier hits, it’s not hard to see why they might have been concerned.
Listen to just the music of one song from Pet Sounds, “Here Today.” If you didn’t already know the song, you might wonder how you were supposed to sing on top of this busy music, let alone play it live on stage.
For all the talk about how many weird instruments Wilson used on Pet Sounds, what’s striking is his restraint. “Here Today” is a veritable showcase of how to take 13 instruments – most of them “bass” instruments: two baritone saxes, a bass trombone, a double bass, and a bass guitar – and not have it sound like a mess. But Wilson uses space in a way Spector never did. For much of the song, you only have Hammond organ and bass, with occasional tom-tom hits and tambourine. And it’s only on the chorus when most of these instruments are playing at the same time. Thanks to these dramatic dynamics, Wilson was able to get an intimate verse and pounding chorus.
The use of bass guitar on Pet Sounds was unique at the time. So unique, in fact, that it floored Paul McCartney, who regularly cites Pet Sounds as his favorite record. “The thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines … and also, putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines.”
Brian was the bassist for the group in their early years, so it makes sense he would choose the instrument to highlight in his recordings. Though he didn’t play bass on Pet Sounds (that was handled by the great Carol Kaye), he composed all the bass lines. On “Here Today” the bass notes are especially high in register, and way out in front of the mix. During the verse they play the same rhythm as the vocals, acting as a melodic counterpoint to Mike Love’s voice, which, again, was highly unusual. (Also fun, though it’s more of a harmonic thing, but from 1:47 to 2:02, the bass, which most artists use for playing root notes of chords, is playing seventh notes: an A note under a B minor and a G under an A major.)
Unlike most rock groups at the time, the drum lines for Pet Sounds were composed by Brian, and the drums are used more for their timbre than for rhythm. Note the complete lack of a single cymbal hit. The Beach Boys seldom use cymbals in their songs, often giving that role to the tambourine player, or in some cases, bells. The Beach Boys were first and foremost a vocal group, with a special focus on falsetto singing, so it’s likely Wilson didn’t want anything up in the high register to compete with the singing.
Now listen to the original mono recording of the entire mix, and see how the music fits in with the vocals. Note how the pre-chorus doesn’t work the way you expect it to. Love sings “It makes you feel so bad…” and THEN the music drops out to just the bass and organ. It’s dramatic moment, nicely highlighting the line “It makes your heart feel sad,” and complementing the theme of the song, that love is here today, gone tomorrow.
“Wouldn’t it Be Nice”
Here’s a song you’ve probably heard so often it can be hard to hear it with fresh ears. So let’s just stick with the backing track. That glorious opening… if you’ve ever wondered what instrument is playing those notes, it’s a detuned 12-string guitar. And when the band kicks in, it’s accordions – two of them – that provide the signature rhythm sound traditionally provided by guitars. This is a great example of Brian’s penchant to use instruments in unusual ways in order to create a unique sound.
We can’t talk about the Beach Boys without discussing their vocals. Wilson arranged every single line of every harmony on Pet Sounds. And they recorded them over and over again. Mike Love took to calling Wilson “Dog Ears” because he could hear imperfections no one else could. This brief clip offers a beautiful insight into Wilson’s vocal arrangements (as well as the glories of the Beach Boys euphonic harmonies).
It’s worth comparing Beach Boys records to the records of another popular American vocal group that also featured falsetto singing and that also had its roots in doo wop: The Four Seasons. To get a sense of how much bigger and more complicated – and flat out weirder – Wilson’s recordings are compared to other pop songs of the era, check out “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” which was co-written and co-arranged by Four Seasons’ band member Bob Gaudio. This hit, from 1967, is one of the Four Seasons’ most ambitious, popular, and covered songs. It’s a great song with a complex arrangement, but it’s a lot more traditional than “Wouldn’t it Be Nice.”
We also can’t talk about Brian Wilson without considering his greatest single. And since this is another song that’s hard to hear fresh, we’ll play just the music again. (Note the similar use of bass and organ as on “Here Today.” Both songs were recorded around the same time.)
Wilson’s use of cellos as a rhythm instrument are counterintuitive (apparently Van Dyke Parks made the suggestion, but hats off to Brian for using it). His use of Electro-theremin, which first appeared on Pet Sounds‘ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” was as mind-blowing to audiences at the time as the Beatles’ use of sitar. But the most interesting aspect of this song is that it was a pastiche. There are six different sections, which were recorded in a dozen sessions, at four separate studios.
The change in production values is enough to give you aural whiplash, with one particularly jarring cut happening at 2:13. You go from the rather busy third section of the song (“I don’t know where but she sends me there…”) and there’s a cut that actually cuts off the lyric (“Oh my my, what an elation, oh my my what a—”) to a moment that sounds like it’s recorded at night in a church. There’s just an organ and a slowly-shaken maraca (ASMR trigger!) before the vocals come in with, “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happening with her,” followed by a throbbing bass. It’s not just a magical moment in the song: it’s where you first truly realize you’re in the middle of an epic, and there’s no telling where the song may go next.
“Good Vibrations” was the first cut-and-paste song where Wilson recorded snippets – each with different music, instruments, and production values – and it would influence his next attempted project, Smile. Alas, for a number of reasons, the album was shelved (and revisited in 2004), and after his inability to fully realize Smile, Wilson drastically scaled back his ambitions. There are plenty of wonderful songs in the post-Smile era, from Smiley Smile through 20/20, but for the most part, the fire had gone out.
Smiley Smile’s “Little Pad” offers a nice example of the intimate production and charming arrangements the Boys would use from ’67-’69. Like “Good Vibrations,” “Little Pad” is a pastiche song, but on a much smaller scale. In any given section there are only one to maybe three instruments. Then again, when you have guys who can sing as well as the Beach Boys, you don’t need to dress things up with much more than a ukulele. Note how effective a simple snap of the fingers can be. (Also, for as psychedelic as “Good Vibrations” may have been, no one on the song sounds like they’re on drugs. Not so for “Little Pad.” That percussion (maraca?) that comes in briefly at 1:58 strikes me as a such a stoner touch.)
Sunflower (1970) and Surf’s Up (1971) are a return to form in terms of production and arrangement. “This Whole World,” “Our Sweet Love” (which sounds almost like an outtake from Pet Sounds), “A Day in the Life of a Tree,” and Carl Wilson’s wonderful “Feel Flows,” are highlights – as great as anything they had recorded earlier in their career. But I’ll end this article with the song that is generally considered Brian’s last masterpiece: the glorious “’Til I Die” from 1971.
Featuring a drum machine, a moog synthesizer, a Rock-Si-Chord, vibraphone, and an organ, the arrangement for this song is a 180 from the dynamics and “wall of sound” arrangements of Pet Sounds. Musically it is very static, with big, lush chords that change subtly throughout the song. (Worth noting is the different vocal arrangements on that giant E minor-ninth chord. It’s a pretty hollow chord at 0:22 during the line “I’ve lost my way.” It gets bigger and more fleshed out at 0:55 and further elaborated on at 1:28.) It’s a dense song that starts big and gets bigger, with no respite, complementing Brian’s haunting lyrics. It’s hard not to listen to this song and mourn for all the music we may have lost from Brian following his Smile implosion. On the other hand, at least we have “’Til I Die.”
For a great insight into Brian’s arrangement and production process, check out this video, which shows the recording of “I Know There’s an Answer” from Pet Sounds. The video is great for not only showing who played on the track (including Glen Campbell on banjo!), but also detailing how Brian beautifully mixed various instruments together to create new sounds.
Images sourced from Shutterstock (editorial use only).
Brian Wilson’s songwriting tricks and techniques
“Good Vibrations” and Smile: A complex album built on a song
3 songs that break music theory rules – and are better for it
The song worlds of three musical greats
The creative genius of Paul McCartney’s bass lines
A look at Ringo Starr’s enduring musical influence
George Harrison’s songwriting brilliance