(2 of 3)
Brian was a triple whiz: at pop composition, vocal arrangement and record production. He elevated harmony to sophisticated choral work. Emulating Les Paul, he made his magic on a primitive eight-track recorder. But Wilson devoted just one track to the band and the other seven to vocals; as Paul did with Mary Ford, he doubled each vocal part to thicken the stew of sound. Brian, the self- taught studio maven, was his own George Martin a wizard at weaving eccentric instruments and his pal's voices into a majestic aural tapestry.
As a young songwriter he often worked variations on two familiar structures 12-bar blues ("Surfin' Safari," "Shut Down," "Little Deuce Coupe") and the C-A minor-F-G pop-ballad progression ("Surfer Girl," "In My Room," "Don't Worry Baby") with pleasing tweaks to lend distinction to the breezy melody. Later he broke out of the four-chord prison, educating the ears of the world's teenagers. Some of his strongest songs ("God Only Knows," "Good Vibrations," "Surf's Up," "'Til I Die") begin with verses in bold minor keys, then either soar into majors or sour into more meditative minor patterns.
And even when the songs hopscotched over musical logic, they scanned, because analysis fails here they sounded so gorgeous. "God Only Knows" is full of blithe contradictions: a declaration of love that is also a warning ("If you should ever leave me/ ...what good would living do me?"); a summer song with the feeling of Christmas (the main percussive elements are sleigh bells and hoofbeats); a verse in fruitless search of a chorus (but with such fabulous filigree work that the melody needs no release). The musical setting comprises an amazing 21 different chords, and you might have to be Einstein or Bernstein to figure which key the song is in; it seems to think it's a mythical bird that would die if it were ever to alight on the ground of its primary chord. "God Only Knows" never does touch down; instead, it ascends into its final contradiction, a fade-out that is song's climax. That vocally precise and delirious coda, a round of five integrated parts, lasts 45 sec., more than a quarter of the song's duration, And as far as I'm concerned, it could go on forever. (Alert my family: if I should ever become mute and paralyzed, they're free to play this song in the hospital room an hour every day.)
Similarly, the patchwork fabric of modes, moods and melodies in "Good Vibrations" is immediately disconcerting, but that's part of the listening thrill: not knowing, for once in a pop song, where the heck it's headed. The flower-power verse bleeds into the doo-wop excitations before modulating into the giddy chorus of countertenor voices ("Good, good, GOOD") that escalate almost to infinity, as if a seraph were having an orgasm. Now the scheme is repeated; but just as we think we're on to Wilson's plan, he steals our compass by introducing another rapturous fragment with harpsichord backing ("I don't know where but she sends me there") and yet another, in a slower tempo ("Gotta keep those lovin' good vibrations a-happenin' with her"), that appears to fade out. Then the jolt of a harmonic "Ahhh" and, one last time, we're back in the chorus. (In my living will, I also ordain a daily 12-hour dose of "Good Vibrations.")
"I believe that music is God's voice," Brian once said. (As the Beach Boys sing in "Add Some Music to Your Day": "The Sunday mornin' gospel goes good with a song.") Listening to the music of Wilson's youthful maturity, people heard angels in tight harmony the Heavenly Choir of Hawthorne. The more secular among us just marveled at what a fellow could do at 24. Then, in the years that followed, they watched in dismay as his spirit shriveled and his talent atrophied.