Brian Wilson on the Influence of the Beatles and Rolling Stones

In this excerpt from his memoirs, "I Am Brian Wilson," he looks back fondly at some of the Beach Boys' only true peers.

Today (October 11), Brian Wilson releases his long-awaited memoir, I Am Brian Wilson. In this excerpt, he discusses the influence of two of the Beach Boys’ only true rivals in the ’60s: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And also, how bandmate/rival Mike Love helped him to finish “Good Vibrations.” 


The one that really got me was Rubber Soul, which came out at the end of 1965. Rubber Soul is probably the greatest record ever. Maybe the Phil Spector Christmas record is right up there with it, and it’s hard to say that the Who’s Tommy isn’t one of the best, too. But Rubber Soul came out in December of 1965 and sent me right to the piano bench. It’s a whole album of Beatles folk songs, a whole album where everything flows together and everything works. I remember being blown away by “You Won’t See Me” and “I’m Looking Through You” and “Girl.” It wasn’t just the lyrics and the melodies but the production and their harmonies. They had such unique harmonies, you know? In “You Won’t See Me,” Paul sings low and George and John sing high. There’s an organ drone in there, a note that’s held down for the last third of the song or so. Those were touches they were trying, almost art music. What was so great about the Beatles was you could hear their ideas so clearly in their music. They didn’t pose like some other bands, and they didn’t try to stuff too much meaning in their songs. They might be singing a song about loneliness or a song about anger or a song about feeling down. They were great poets about simple things, but that also made it easier to hear the song. And they never did anything clumsy. It was like perfect pitch but for entire songs. Everything landed on its feet.

I met Paul McCartney later in the ’60s, in a studio. I was almost always in a studio back then. He came by when we were at Columbia Square working on vocal overdubs, and we had a little chat about music. Everyone knows now that “God Only Knows” was Paul’s favorite song—and not only his favorite Beach Boys song, but one of his favorite songs period. It’s the kind of thing people write in liner notes and say on talk shows. When people read it, they kind of look at that sentence and keep going. But think about how much it mattered to me when I first heard it there on Sunset Boulevard. I was the person who wrote “God Only Knows,” and here was another person—the person who wrote “Yesterday” and “And I Love Her” and so many other songs—saying it was his favorite. It really blew my mind. He wasn’t the only Beatle who felt that way. John Lennon called me after Pet Sounds—phoned me up, I think the British say—to tell me how much he loved the record.

Related: Brian Wilson Talks Lana Del Rey, New Album ‘No Pier Pressure’ 

But Paul and I stayed in touch. Another time not too long after that he came to my house and told me about the new music he was working on. “There’s one song I want you to hear,” he said. “I think it’s a nice melody.” He put the tape on and it was “She’s Leaving Home.” My wife, Marilyn, was there, too, and she just started crying. Listening to Paul play a new song let me see my own songs more clearly. It was hard for me to think about the effect that my music had on other people, but it was easy to see when it was another songwriter.

More than thirty years later, I was opening for Paul Simon, which I didn’t like. It was okay to share a bill with him, but we were playing to older crowds, and that meant the first act, which was me, played when the sun was still up and the crowd was still filing in. It was hard to have a good relationship with the people in the audience under those conditions. At the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, I started the show when it was less than half full. We opened with “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” then played “Dance, Dance, Dance,” then “In My Room,” and then a cover of the Barenaked Ladies’ song “Brian Wilson.” That was the strangest song we played back then. I didn’t know about it until the guys in the band brought it to rehearsal. It was a song about a guy who is trying to write a song and can’t and he compares himself to me when I was under the treatment of Dr. Landy. In the song, the guy has a dream that he gets up to 300 pounds and then starts floating until the ground is so far away that he can’t see it anymore. I never had that dream, but I was cool with playing the song if we did a good job. We went through some more hits: “California Girls,” “I Get Around,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” After “Add Some Music to Your Day,” we started in on “God Only Knows.” Right at that moment, the side door opened and Paul McCartney walked in. Everyone saw him. The theater erupted with applause and everyone stood up cheering for him. I saw Carnie in the audience put her hand to her mouth in shock. It was an “Oh my God” moment. I waved from the piano. But waving wasn’t enough. We were going into the final verse and I changed the lyrics on the fly to “God only knows what I’d be without Paul.” After the set Pablo came backstage. That’s what I call Paul sometimes, Pablo. I was happy to see him. He said that when he was coming up to the Greek in the limo, he rolled down the window so he could hear the music. “I wanted to hear those Brian sounds,” he said. He had a question about the intro to “You Still Believe in Me.” There was a keyboard in the dressing room, so I just played it for him. We did harmonies. It was incredible, Paul McCartney and I harmonizing on the intro to “You Still Believe in Me.” Can you believe that?

The other Beatle that got to me was George Harrison. He was so spiritual. He had a way of making things simple: “Give me life / Give me love / Give me peace on earth.” I remember that during the early years of the Beatles, it was hard to think of him as a separate songwriter. But after “Here Comes the Sun,” I started to pay attention to his songs as their own kind of thing. Maybe every group needed someone like that, a deeply soulful presence who wasn’t exactly at the middle of the band. We had Carl. I never met George, but many years later I did a show for him. In 2015 his widow Olivia called and asked me to play at George Fest in Holly- wood. “Hell yes,” I said. We played “My Sweet Lord,” but I would have done any of George’s songs. He wrote beautiful ones.

The Beatles may have been at the top of the heap, but the Rolling Stones weren’t far behind. They had so many great riff records. They always got me with whatever they had coming out: “Satisfaction,” “Get Off of My Cloud.” My favorite Rolling Stones song was from a little later, “My Obsession,” from Between the Buttons. I was invited to the studio when they were mixing it down. The Stones were in and out that day. I didn’t meet all of them at any one time.

But I was blown away by that song. It has that opening that’s close to “Get Off of My Cloud,” Charlie Watts drumming, and then that awesome combination of organ and piano in the left track. Later on they come back but with backing vocals, too, a string of ooh babys that are sort of like the woo-woos they would do later on in “Sympathy for the Devil.” And the ooh babys are almost R-rated; it’s really a record about a girl’s body.

What’s great about “My Obsession” is that it isn’t just a riff record. Because Keith Richards came up with such awesome riffs, people forget to look deeper in; if they do, they’ll find these complex production tricks and moments of sophistication and beauty. In a song like “Sad Day,” which isn’t a record that most people know, there’s a great little piano part by Jack Nitzsche, who was a Phil Spector–like producer on his own. He wrote “The Lonely Surfer,” which had one of the earliest examples of that guitar sound in spaghetti westerns. The Stones took all those influences. They could. Their own personality as a band was so strong. That’s sort of how the Beach Boys worked. Whatever we brought in ended up being ours.

Over the years I have written some songs that are tributes to the Stones. There’s “Add Some Music to Your Day.” You can hear their guitar in there, especially at the beginning, and that driving vocal part where we sing, “add some, add some, add some music.” Our voices are likes the Stones’ guitars, and the arrangement is, too. Listen real close. I tried for their vibe. And I mentioned them in the lyrics, too: “There’s blues, folk, and country, and rock like a rollin’ stone.” But our Stonesiest song ever was probably “Marcella,” which is on Carl and the Passions—So Tough. “Marcella” isn’t deep like some other songs. It’s not “Sail On Sailor” or “’Til I Die.” It’s about a girl who worked at this massage parlor I used to go to. It’s a lust song, plain and simple, like “My Obsession.” Just before and after the two-minute mark, you can hear the Stones, or at least my version of them. I did most of that session, but then I went upstairs for a while because I was tired. When I was up there, they added the “hey, yeah, Marcella” part, which Al Jardine sings. My favorite lyric there is one of my favorite Beach Boys lyrics in general. Carl sang it:

“One arm over my shoulder/Sandals dance at my feet/Eyes that knock you right over/Ooo Marcella’s so sweet.”

Complicated ideas and simple ideas—so much of rock and roll is both of those. People thought rock and roll was party music at first. They liked hearing about the simple things, about partying and girls and teenage life, and that’s what rock and roll showed them. There were always complicated things in my life, but I kept them in or put them off to the side. But then things around me started changing, and things in me started changing. The flight to Houston and the time I spent alone writing without the band after that was a big change, but it wasn’t the only change. Everything started shifting. Maybe some of it was because of smoking pot and relaxing. When I wasn’t quite so nervous I wasn’t quite so afraid of things being complicated. Maybe some of it was learning more about songwriting and producing and how I could put more musical ideas into the songs I was making. “California Girls” was a huge pop hit, but it had another piece of music at the beginning that was nothing like a pop song. And even though Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) was further toward the pop side of things, there was a little symphony on there called “Summer Means New Love.” That was me on grand piano, and a whole string section. There were times I thought I was building on the foundation and times I thought I was tearing down what we had built and starting a whole new foundation.

What did that new foundation look like? It looked like it sounded. It was complicated, with many parts that stuck out in all directions, but if you looked at it from the right angle, you didn’t see anything sticking out at all. You just saw that it was beautiful.

I started building that foundation after the plane flight to Houston. I did it with Beach Boys Today!, which was a step forward, and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), which was another step. I did it with Pet Sounds, which was a great experience, and with SMiLE, which was such a bad experience in some ways that it has sometimes made it hard to talk about the great experience of Pet Sounds. That doesn’t mean I won’t talk about it. It just means that it’s a situation like the situation with my dad. I need to think a little more carefully about how to talk about it. The one case where it’s easy to talk about the new foundation I was building is “Good Vibrations.” There’s been lots written about how that song happened. People say that the record label and the band thought I was going too far into art music and that I needed to come back to hits. That’s probably true. But that’s not how the song got made.

How it got made was that I was high after smoking pot and sitting at the piano, relaxed, playing. Mike came through with the lyrics for me on this one. He heard me playing and singing the “Good, good, good vibrations” part. That excited him and he went from room to room talking out the idea of good vibrations—what it meant, that it was connected to the peace and love happening in San Francisco and everywhere else. When I started the song, I was thinking of it differently. I was thinking of how people sense instinctively if something is good news or bad news—sometimes when the telephone rings, you just know—and I was thinking of how my mom used to say that dogs could read a situation or a person immediately. I already had some lyrics—some that I wrote, some that Tony Asher wrote—but I was not happy with them. But as soon as Mike started rolling, I knew that there was something bigger in the lyric idea. It grew from there. Mike finally wrote the lyrics on his way to the studio in his car. It was the night we were cutting the lead vocals, and what he wrote fit perfectly.


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