Can we please stop giving Brian Wilson a free pass on everything he does?
Pet Sounds — the album he wrote for and recorded with the Beach Boys in 1966 — is a classic, yes. It's one of my all-time favorites. Smile — the long-lost follow-up record that was abandoned by Wilson in 1967 after drugs, paranoia, and depression went to work on his mind — is a fractured masterpiece that was finally released last year in a massive box set that's worth its hefty price tag. And of course there are the great singles the Beach Boys put out in the '60s: "Don't Worry Baby," "Help Me, Rhonda," "Good Vibrations."
Hell, get me in a good mood and I'll even make a case for Sunflower and Surf's Up too.
But right around the time Beach Boys nostalgia settled in — riding the waves of Sha Na Na's minstrel doo-wop and American Graffiti's whitewashed glances back at the late '50s and early '60s — the actual Beach Boys became a joke. Dennis Wilson was coked out. Mike Love was in the early stages of assholitis. And Brian was holed up in his California home, building sand castles on his living room floor.
The music they made during this period from the mid-'70s to the early '80s — some with Brian's help, much of it without — sucked. Hard. The group went on tour every summer and played outdoor shed shows that pretty much looked like today's Jimmy Buffett concerts, with old douchebags and their annoying wives/girlfriends getting drunk in the sun and loudly singing along to songs you really don't want to hear anyone singing, even the guys onstage.
Wilson was thankfully MIA when the Beach Boys scored their first No. 1 in 22 years with 1988's "Kokomo," a deplorable song made even more wretched by its video featuring sitcom fucktard John Stamos on steel drums. Wilson was busy working on his first-ever solo album, which sounded pretty much like you'd expect from a project overseen by his psychologist: fragile, therapeutic, uneasy, and generally a tiptoeing mess.
Which brings us back to where we started. Blinded by the "genius" tag bestowed upon Wilson around the same time people started linking his obsessive productions to his mental problems and coming to the conclusion that nothing feeds creativity like a blown brain, critics and audiences have heralded almost everything he's been associated with as either a masterwork (his 2004 solo reworking of Smile, which is overrated and labored) or kindly regarded as slight missteps (his recent Gershwin and Disney cover albums).
That same line is being toed for the Beach Boys' new album, That's Why God Made the Radio , which was released this week. It's their first album to feature all of the surviving members since 1963 and the first to include extensive songwriting, production, and vocals from Wilson in more than 25 years. And it sounds completely out of touch, which you probably figured out from the title and the similarly named single that pays tribute to the box you haven't used since you got an iPod.
The Beach Boys are also swinging through the states on a 50th Anniversary Tour that comes to town this week. Wilson will be there, along with Love, Al Jardine , Bruce Johnston , and David Marks , who played on the group's first four albums and then quit after an argument with their manager, Wilson's dickhead dad. Should you go? Only if your bucket list includes seeing all these guys onstage together. But don't expect anything more than a soggy nostalgia trip by a band that hasn't been fun, fun, fun in 40 years, and a disoriented leader who crapped away his legend decades ago.
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