Very few artists have the patience and tenacity to make great music like Brian Wilson. The head commander of The Beach Boys arguably became a better musician with each passing year. Heck, even the great Bob Dylan expressed his gratitude for Wilson, comically stating, “Jesus that ear. He should donate it to the Smithsonian,”
The 1960s were an up-and-down period for Wilson and his bandmates. Entranced with battling forces of fame and keeping up with The Beatles in the early portion of the decade, Wilson almost lost his touch completely, as he headed down a depressing path of drugs and drinking.
Unlike most musicians however, Wilson found new life in his artistry, effectively abandoning the bright summer tunes that made him famous in the first place (much to the distaste of his two brothers Carl and Dennis, his cousin Mike Love, and his friend Al Jardine). While his brothers, cousin, and longtime friend went on tour without him, Wilson channeled his ongoing drug addiction, and created an orchestral masterpiece with Pet Sounds. The 1966 classic acted as a segue for his lo-fi production style for the latter portion of the 60s.
Eventually, Wilson’s family would jump on board with his chaotic recording (just watch the movie Love & Mercy; Paul Dano is a fantastic representation of who Wilson was during the Pet Sounds era). Riding off of the unheralded success of Pet Sounds, as well as a newfound respect amongst his musical peers, Wilson acquired an even freer sound on their 1968 release, Friends.
The short, but effective project only furthered Wilson’s harmonious projections. The 1968 release represented his constant drive to perfection and finding inspiration from the most unlikely of places. With regards to Friends, The Beach Boys paid a visit to longtime Indian guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. An innovator in his own right, Yogi became known for progressing transcendental meditation; something that Wilson dabbled with, and even used as a title for the final track on the album.
Stylistically, Friends had a very similar feel to Pet Sounds. However, unlike the 1966 classic, Friends became more of a record for the people rather than for Wilson himself (at least that was the intention). The Inglewood native conducted an album full of iconic melodies and intriguing topics. With each song only a little over two minutes long, Wilson put his songwriting ability to the test, and it paid off.
Whether it be teaching his son the different facets of a relationship on “When a Man Needs a Woman,” or using his platform to show off his unique vocal registers on “Passing By,” Wilson did not shy away from discovery, especially with his own self.
He also found a way to go full circle on his career, as “Diamond Head” represented the same summery sounds that made The Beach Boys so famous. This time however, the Hawaiian-like guitar pieces were beautifully mixed and much more laid back. The four minute joy ride perfectly transitions into a blast full of horn arrangements on the aforementioned “Transcendental Meditation.” The grandiose final track incorporated a much happier-sounding Wilson, and even used some inspiration from The Beatles.
“Busy Doin’ Nothin'” added a bit of diversity and assimilated a bit of Latin taste into a mainly west coast record. Lyrically, the mellowing track became Wilson’s most clever on the entire album, and even gave listeners an introspective look into the mind set of the troubled artist at the time (“I get a lot of thoughts in the morning/I write them all down/if it wasn’t for that, I’d forget them in a while”). Wilson continued his stream of thought, even mentioning a long lost friend he hasn’t seen in quite some time. Even deeper than that though, Wilson expressed his distressed mind, stating multiple times how often he forgets certain things in his life.
If Pet Sounds was the introduction to a tormented genius, Friends became a segue for Wilson to pour out an even bigger range of emotions. Due to the instrumental similarities between the two projects, people did not react to Friends with as much praise unfortunately. In a way, fans just kind of expected this from him it seemed like.
Eventually, the tour for the record failed miserably, and Friends flew under the radar. Even to this day, if you ask any mild Beach Boys fan about the 1968 release, most if not all would say they don’t remember it.
Unsurprisingly, Pet Sounds became a more successful body of work because it was ultimately sad. And people love sad music. Heck, sir Paul Mccartney said he still cries when he hears the song, “God Only Knows.” On the other hand, the lasting legacy of Friends ironically developed into a shrug for listeners. No one knows about it, but the record was just as inventive and forward-thinking as Pet Sounds. As an accomplished musician dealing with a drug problem, Wilson became an instant legend in the latter part of the 60s. And many were lucky to witness his magic at the time.