As Love and Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s aurally refreshing Brian Wilson biopic hits the screens, we look at the Californian composer and his family band’s legacy.

As Love and Mercy, Bill Pohlad’s aurally refreshing Brian Wilson biopic hits the screens, we look at the Californian composer and his family band’s legacy.

Brian Wilson created some of the most important music in history. I’m on that side of the fence. On the other side are the non-initiates who take Wilson and The Beach Boys at surface value and call it all cheesy. If you’re one of us, you fetishise the soaring, textured compositions that were produced throughout Wilson’s ongoing career, but particularly in the Pet Sounds and Smile sessions at the twisted end of the 1960s. If you’re on the other side of the fence you vilify the Beach Boys sound as a low ebb of American populism.

But from the perspective of one who is concerned about such things, though he barely got wet Brian Wilson may have turned more people on to surfing than Miki Dora, Occy, Kelly Slater and Joel Tudor combined. We’re not sure that’s a good thing, but no matter. Wilson’s sonic excursions into the aesthetic of sunlight, the beach, girls, hot rods, surf spots and mother love may not only be some of the most culturally influential music ever made but also be an answer to a great question: what is essentially American about an American art form?

The roots of the blues and the branches that grew from it, which includes of course Jazz, rock and all other forms of popular music, essentially grow from the earth of Africa. Wilson hijacked the blues rooted structure of pop – the one that had survived the trauma of 400 years of slavery, and created a whiter-than-white indigenous American music – one that was itself more fundamentally rooted in the beauty and the horror and the insubstantiality of the American Dream.

There is no light and shade, no questionable shadows in Wilson’s sound. There’s just the jarring contrast of southern Californian light  – like the colour thrown down in an LA-era Hockney painting. There are cutesy-pie surfer girls and boys with bushy blonde hairdos, there is beauty that withers with age and girls who make everything all right. But there is also, particularly in the near mystic last studio sessions that a mentally ill Brian Wilson took part in, a hint of the grand sweep of American history, with references to native American, Pilgrim and Hawaiian culture in a psych-tinged hotchpotch of harmony and noise.

But despite the Brian Wilson oeuvre’s superficially apparent status as an elitist anthem generator there are a million reasons to love the diaphanous picture of an idealised America and its star-spangled coastline that Wilson constructed. It simply sounds more unequivocally beautiful than any other pop music before or since. It’s what the California dream is heir to and one – though constantly shattered and rebooted – that remains at the heart of pop culture’s endless yearning.

Here’s five reasons why you should give a fuck about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.

Surfin’ (1961)

Brian’s brother and Beach Boys drummer Dennis was the only surfer he knew. Brian joined Dennis at a ‘surfer stomp’ party at the Newport Beach pavilion in the summer of 1960. A surging tide bust in the doors, filling the dance floor with brine. The party carried on. Brian went home and wrote this. Here’s a rare demo.

The Warmth of the Sun (1963)

Wilson penned this with lyricist Mike Love in the 24 hours before, during and after the assassination of JFK. Although it was originally only a B-Side, it lives forever as an elegiac testament to enduring love.

Good Vibrations (1966)

Sophisticated structurally, soaringly beautiful. This is E-music thirty years before the fact. Rare studio footage.

Surf’s Up (1969)

Lyrically abstract, achingly sensitive. If this is a song about surfing then god is indeed a surfer. Here’s Brian solo on piano.

Plymouth Rock Rollover (Do You Eat Worms?) 1969

Wilson is peaking here out and over his creative apogee – a lofty height that precipitated a long descent into madness. This is a mellifluous journey from the Pilgrims’ landing spot to Waikiki.

Love and Mercy is out now in the UK. Head over to our sister mag Little White Lies to read their review.