Would-Be Spectors # 4 – Brian Wilson

My original plan for the ongoing feature about ‘Would-be Spectors’ was to show how nearly everyone within Spector’s studio inner-circle was inspired to churn out great records themselves with a heavy slant towards the Wall of Sound.

So far, I’ve written about Nino Tempo, Jerry Riopelle and Jack Nitzsche, all of whom served as Spector’s right hand men at various sessions. Aiding Spector in LA’s Gold Star Studios, these guys literally attended a master class on how to achieve that massive monophonic sound.

When I turn my attention to Brian Wilson in this newest blog post I’m compromising my perspective a little bit. The Beach Boys leader was far from a member of Spector’s inner circle. If anything, these two brilliant, yet insecure and neurotic whiz kids saw each other as rivals on the local music scene, no doubt keeping a close and guarded eye on each other’s efforts. Having said that, Brian Wilson definitely merits inclusion in the series for the following reasons:

For one thing, he was absolutely obsessed with the Wall of Sound. In interviews he has often described how he had to pull over, literally shaking, when he first heard ‘Be my Baby’ in his car. In the book ‘Catch a Wave’ author Peter Ames Carlin even describes how Brian once had engineer Steve Desper make a tape loop of the ‘Be my Baby’ chorus so Brian could sit in a trance and listen to it for four hours straight!

Secondly, Brian often utilized the same musicians Spector used, the Wrecking Crew, and occasionally also recorded at his preferred studio, Gold Star. Brian even attended his fair share of Spector sessions as an observer. So just like Tempo, Riopelle and Nitzsche, he had plenty of opportunities to take notes on how to achieve the otherworldly sound and the rich blending of instruments.

Brian Wilson at a Spector session in 1965 - others present are Mike Love from the Beach Boys, Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield and in the background with Shades, Jack 'Specs' Nitzsche.
Brian Wilson (far left) at a Spector session in 1965 – others present are Mike Love from the Beach Boys, Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield and in the background with Shades, Jack ‘Specs’ Nitzsche.

And third, as far as I’m concerned, of all Spector’s contemporaries on the 60s LA studio scene, Brian Wilson was the one who went about using the inspiration drawn from the Wall of Sound in the most imaginative and original way. No Wall of Sound? Probably no Pet Sounds – one of the greatest and most cohesive albums of all-time. And yet, an album with a sound that is much more tender and embracing than Spector’s often heavy-handed approach.

pet sounds

In the ‘Endless Harmony’ Beach Boys documentary fellow producer Terry Melcher probably spoke some truth, when he described Brian’s sound as one of love as opposed to Spector’s ‘angry’ sound. It’s of course a very simplified, black & white view – what about gentle Spector productions like ‘I Love How You Love Me’, ‘When I Saw You’, ‘So Young’ etc? – but I agree with the basic distinction.

‘Anger’ is probably not the best term for Spector’s sound. More a sense of a deafening, overwhelming and intense grandeur that can easily be construed as aggressive and cluttered when compared to Brian’s often more sophisticated approach.

Spector was and remains the ultimate master at what he did; creating glorious, gargantuan and monophonic monsters that would always pack a punch when played on the radio or record players. It’s a production style I obviously cherish enough to build a whole blog up around it! But truth be told, I don’t think Spector really diversified or softened up his sound with other influences the same way Brian did brilliantly time and again. That, in a nutshell, is probably the real distinction between these two master producers – the ambition to progress, break new ground and absorb outside influences that I’ve always found to be at the very heart of Brian Wilson’s art.

Brian during the sessions for Pet Sounds.
Brian during the sessions for Pet Sounds.

As much as I love the work of Tempo, Riopelle, Nitzsche and other future ‘Would-be Spectors’ written about here, when they went for a Wall of Sound-type song, they didn’t stray far from what Spector did. Generally, they recorded dazzling carbon-copies that could make you double-check label credits to make sure that it wasn’t a Spector cut. However, I feel Brian often went about this in a much more nuanced manner. He usually only took the elements from Spector’s sound that would compliment his own distinctive strengths as a producer and mixed it up with other influences to great effect.

‘Don’t Worry Baby’ comes to mind as an example of this. Rumored to be originally written for the Ronettes, that stellar Beach Boys hit indeed has an obvious wall of sound influence, but the listener will also find those gorgeous trademark Beach Boys harmonies harking back to Brian’s other fetish, the vocal magic of the Four Freshmen. And there’s even a bit of proto folk-rock thrown in by way of that iconic electric guitar-plucking throughout the track. Terry Melcher copied that feel blatantly on his production of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ by the Byrds.

Don't Worry Baby / I Get Around - how's that for a killer single?
Don’t Worry Baby / I Get Around – how’s that for a killer single?

The mind boggles thinking about what could have been had Brian Wilson and Phil Spector somehow put their guards down and overcome their insecurities in order to collaborate on songs back in the day. Their professional competition certainly resulted in some great productions on Brian’s part.

They did come awfully close to collaborate though. In the mid-60s Brian offered Spector ‘Don’t Hurt my Little Sister’ for the Ronettes which Spector and his protégée Jerry Riopelle subsequently turned into ‘Things are Changing’, – a pretty cool promo song for an equal employment opportunities campaign. More info on that obscure release on this Spectropop sub-page: http://www.spectropop.com/gg/thingsarechanging.html

Like I always do, I’m going to finish my post by highlighting three favorite recordings.

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The Beach Boys – I Do (1963) – Brian showed off his Spector influence most clearly on some of the cool productions he made on the side for other acts like girl-surfer group the Honeys and singer Sharon Marie. There have been a few compilations gathering all these great, overlooked productions. ‘I Do’ was issued by vocal group the Castells, but this take by the Beach Boys themselves I think is even better due to the superior Beach Boys vocals. Unbelievably, this gem was unreleased at the time, not even creeping out as album filler.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ygi4mOuuevU

Glen Campbell – Guess I’m Dumb (1965) – Yet another outside production proving that Brian mastered achingly beautiful big ballads as well as Spector. Like most of Brian’s Wall of Sound-inspired tracks there’s more air to the sound than the rumble, a Spector production would have entailed. In truth, there’s as much a Bacharach influence going on here. Listen to how Glen Campbell nails that beautiful melody!

Beach Boys – Kiss Me Baby (1965) – Rather than doing the obvious and feature a track from Pet Sounds, I’m going to pick this cut from the previous Beach Boys album, Today. The second half of that album was made up of wonderful, tender ballads that heralded the unheard sophistication Brian’s work had taken on by the release of Pet Sounds. Harmonies to die for and a dense backing track– sheer pop heaven!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sR5FKRGHPIk

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2 thoughts on “Would-Be Spectors # 4 – Brian Wilson”

  1. While Phil Spector is most famous for having “everything playing,” over his career he was a varied as his spare Teddy Bears arrangements to his River Deep Mountain High instrumentation (meant as both the song title and a description). I’d say that Brian Wilson tailored his broad range to each song. Is one “better” than the other? My music collection needs both men’s output. Each dramatically influenced my musical taste many more times than once! (On the other hand, it’s wonderful that Brian has controlled his demons and so tragic that Spector was consumed by his.)

    Your three selections representing Brian Wilson are excellent choices, in my opinion. “I Do” works really well by The Castells, too, but the Boys’ version knocks it out of the park. Campbell is transcendent in “Guess I’m Dumb,” and “Kiss Me Baby” is one of those magic melodies that Brian just kept turning out so frequently for so long.

    Thanks for the love you pour into this blog. I’m very glad I subscribed!

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  2. “Guess I’m Dumb” sounds like something that should have been on the Pet Sounds album. I would have scrapped “The Sloop John B” in it’s favor.

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