“Columnated ruins domino” and the creative process: “Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969″

By on December 1, 2017

Clocking in at 90-minutes, Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969 (Part One) — now streaming on Night Flight Plus — takes an intensive, deeply personal look at Brian Wilson’s life and creative process, and examines some of the songs he wrote for, and recorded with, the Beach Boys during the 1960s.

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These topics are discussed in interviews with fellow Beach Boys Bruce Johnston and David Marks, as well as Wrecking Crew studio musicians Carol Kaye and Hal Blaine; Beach Boys manager and concert promoter Fred Vail; record producers Russ Titelman and Bill Halverson; musical friends/collaborators Billy Hinsche, Danny Hutton (of Three Dog Night) and Van Dyke Parks; Beach Boys biographers Peter Ames Carlin, Domenic Priore and Philip Lambert (author of Inside The Music of Brian Wilson); Rolling Stone‘s Anthony DeCurtis; and many more.

After a brief introductory piece of film — showing Wilson, in November of 1966, gently playing “Surf’s Up” — Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969 begins detailing the growth and meaning of the surf subculture in early ’60s California and the significance of the music that emerged from it.

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An early highlight here is socio-musical historian and Beach Boys expert Domenic Priore — author of Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece as well as a contributor to the Smile Sessions compilation liner notes — who explains the connections between the movie Gidget and surf guitar legend Dick Dick to the locale of Wilson’s teenage home in Hawthorne, California and its music room (built by Wilson’s father Murry in the family’s converted garage) where he made so many of his early musical discoveries.

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In addition to vintage film footage of the Beach Boys belting out “Surfin’ USA,” we get to see Chuck Berry (serenading “Sweet Little Sixteen” at The TAMI Show, as well as footage of Dick Dale, the Lettermen, and the Four Freshmen.

Professor Lambert also compares and contrasts Wilson’s love for producer Phil Spector production on the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (he answered with his own song, “Don’t Worry Baby”).

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Beach Boy guitarist David Marks discusses how Capitol Records overdid it with the treble knobs during their mastering process, while Beach Boy Bruce Johnston talks about how their Capitol meddled with Wilson’s creative process when he began to write, produce and record songs that didn’t fit their successful formula.

Johnston also provides a detailed history of Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds recordings, and tells us what happened after his SMiLE project disintegrated.

Read more about Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969 (Part One)below.

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As mentioned, the documentary begins with Wilson performing “Surf’s Up” while sitting at the Chickering piano he’d installed in a sandbox in his home.

This footage aired during the CBS network special “Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution,” hosted by Leonard Bernstein, on Tuesday, April 25, 1967.

Bernstein was, at the time, America’s leading classical composer, conductor and educator, and people of his generation tuned in to see what the maestro had to say about this newfangled rock music the kids were so keen on.

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About “Surf’s Up,” Bernstein said:

“There is a new song, too complex to get all of first time around. It could come only out of the ferment that characterizes today’s pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys, and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own ‘Surf’s Up.’ Poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity, ‘Surf’s Up’ is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today. As such, it is a symbol of the change many of these young musicians see in our future.”

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Wilson had written “Surf’s Up” with Van Dyke Parks, who he’d met one night in 1965 through the Byrds’ David Crosby (according to Domenic Priore in Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece), who had invited Parks up to Wilson’s house, where he was working on songs for Pet Sounds.

In the song, Parks wanted to express many different ideas, including spirituality and love, contrasting these against the way adult society ends up ruining the experience of childhood innocence.

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For an article titled “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!–the Religious Conversion of the Beach Boys” — published in the Vol. 1, No. 1 issue of Cheetah magazine, October, 1967, one of the great counterculture music magazines of the late 60s — Wilson played writer and Beach Boys fan Jules Siegel an acetate dub of “Surf’s Up” on his bedroom hi-fi set, and then attempted to explain to him what the lyrics meant.

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One presumes that Parks had to explain what the abstract, impressionistic lyrics meant to Wilson for him to be able to translate it back to the writer, but one of the highlights from the lyrics is the line “Columnated ruins domino,” which, according to Wilson’s explanation, means: “Empires, ideas, lives, institutions; everything has to fall, tumbling like dominoes.”

Wilson also says the delicate and simple refrain at the end — “Surf’s Up, aboard a tidal wave/Come about hard and join the young and often spring you gave” — means: “Go back to the kids, to the beach, to childhood.”

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Musically, Wilson felt he was competing against some of the groundbreaking rock and pop music being produced at the time, and his recordings for their forthcoming album Smile were supposedly inspired by recordings he’d loved by the Beatles (particularly songs their Rubber Soul and Revolver albums).

However, by May of 1967, the Beach Boys’ Smile project had been abandoned, and after the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album was released on June 1st, the track was shelved, only to surface five years later as the title track (and closing song) of their 22nd album, Surf’s Up.

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Apparently not everyone is a fan, but if you’re still on the fence about Brian Wilson’s musical genius we recommend you watch Brian Wilson: Songwriter 1962-1969 (Part One) on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.