Essay

How Brian Wilson Helped Spawn Punk

It was the winter of 1978/’79 in Los Angeles — that is to say, not much of a winter at all. The Last were holed up in a studio with John Harrison, Hawkwind’s founding bassist. The band had just made the jump from self-financing to Bomp! Records, and under Harrison’s direction, they were hashing out material for their debut full-length. They’d released three singles to that point, and the decision was made to re-record some of those sides, only this time with a minimum of reverb and a maximum of fidelity. The Last were hip to the nitro-boosted, three-chord rock and roll jolting the West Coast — early in the band’s existence, percussionist/bass player David Nolte had a side project with Frank Navetta that morphed into the Descendents — but they filtered the new style through lo-fi updates of the classic Nuggets sounds: garage, psych, even a little surf. Their second single, “Every Summer Day,” was a paean to an idealized 1963, the year guitarist Joe Nolte saw the Beach Boys. (The B-side was “Hitler’s Brother.”) For the fresh-scrubbed album version, label boss Greg Shaw — perhaps the ultimate rock’n’roll acolyte — got in touch with a couple surf-pop lords: Dean Torrence (of Jan & Dean) and Brian Wilson. But the three men couldn’t coordinate schedules, and the idea died.

So if Brian Wilson was never formally introduced to punk rock, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Any other possible encounters are circumstantial at best, tangential at worst: In 1978, the Mumps frotted a Beach Boys gold record at Carl and Dennis Wilson’s Brother Studios. (The Dickies also recorded at Brother.) As members of the Hollywood Vampires, Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper once found themselves at Brian’s house, watching him bang out endless, manic takes on “Short’nin’ Bread.” The Pretenders’ James Honeyman-Scott, a Beach Boys nut, guested on a few live dates with the band before dying of cocaine-induced heart failure in 1982. Phil Spector claimed that Brian Wilson beseeched him to redo “Baby, I Love You” with the Ramones, and Johnny Ramone once relayed a rumor that Brian wanted to produce them after the Spector debacle. In a 2008 interview with Wilson, Kansas DJ Nick Spacek referenced the Ramones (and, uh, Animal Collective) in his very first question. Brian didn’t bite.

Unfortunately for all of us, he finally bit, in an interview last week with the Guardian. “What did you make of punk rock?” inquires Adrian Deevoy. “I don’t know what that is,” responds the legend. Like every interview Wilson’s ever done, it’s a slow-motion car crash, but you can detect a hint of disingenuity in his answer: after Deevoy helpfully defines the music as “a loud, aggressive musical movement,” Wilson replies, “I never went for the fast kind of music.” (Still, he’s nothing if not consistent: In a 1999 interview with Wayne Coyne, he noted that the Beach Boys “never got into that heavy musical tip.”)

But Deevoy wasn’t going for a poke-the-Croz moment. Though they never dipped into the heavy stuff, the Beach Boys were a totemic influence on punk, particularly punk that hailed from their SoCal backyard. Their early work was the touchstone: compact rock and roll singles trafficking in teenage angst and idle pastimes. Surf-rock’s instrumentalists summoned the sound of pipelines and breaks, influencing acts like the Slickee Boys and Agent Orange in the process. But the Beach Boys filled in the map. Possibly no one outside of hip-hop lodged so many place names on the charts: Rincon, Malibu, Huntington Beach, Laguna, La Jolla, Manhattan Beach, Doheny Beach, Tresle Beach. It didn’t matter that Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy that surfed, nor that their choice of subject matter was often influenced by paterfamilias Murry Wilson. What mattered, as usual, are the songs.

And the songs found true champions in the Ramones, whose Beach Boys fetish could be observed from Rocket To Russia’s “Rockaway Beach” all the way to Mondo Bizarro’s “Touring.” These bruddas didn’t surf, but then again, they didn’t really sniff that much glue. But they picked up on the combo of street-level observation and airtight songwriting. While they didn’t get around to recording a Beach Boys cover until 1993’s Acid Eaters bonus cut “Surfin’ Safari,” their take on “Do You Wanna Dance” hews much closer to the Boys’ version than the Bobby Freeman original. Joey Ramone inherited Brian Wilson’s — and, to be fair, Mike Love’s — skill of rendering adolescent fixations plainly and irresistibly, without melodrama: Stick Joey in ’60s Hawthorne, have him sing “I’m gettin’ bugged driving up and down the same old strip” and try to imagine the difference. Unlike Brian, though, Joey never quite lost his lyrical gift.

The Ramones, of course, passed their DNA — their earthshaking mix of shlock and sincerity — to countless punk rock and pop-punk acts. A lot of ‘em were from SoCal, and some of them paid explicit homage to their forebears: Manhattan Beach’s Descendents covered “Wendy,” Hermosa Beach’s Pennywise did “I Get Around,” the producer of Huntington Beach’s the Offspring told SPIN that Dexter Holland has “the classic South Bay voice” dating to “Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys.” (He wasn’t wrong.) Rikk Agnew, lead singer of Fullerton’s Adolescents, has garnered a number of comparisons to Brian Wilson — sometimes due to his tunefulness, sometimes because he wrote about SoCal pastimes without firsthand knowledge, sometimes for the drug addiction. Others, like Los Angeles’ Bad Religion, patterned their harmonies — as Stereogum commenter StrangeBrownBag noted — after the Beach Boys. Countless more refined the band’s rueful, youthful melodicism. Scanning the list of punk and punk-adjacent groups that have covered the Boys — a list that includes Shonen Knife, the Queers (three times!), Sonic Youth, Hi-STANDARD, the Donnas, and M.O.D. — it’s clear that the speedier set preferred pre-Smiley Smile Beach Boys (bless the Vandals, though, for covering “Kokomo“). A lot of that is due to the Ramones.

But the Ramones were drawing from the same well as the larger culture, even if they were dipping deeper. After all, Brian Wilson’s crew were considered a nostalgia act until deep into the ’80s. A series of best-selling compilations (the first of which came out after Pet Sounds as a sort of hedge against the group’s new direction) and legacy tours cemented the public perception of the band as an oldies act. Rolling Stone was fond of the Boys’ ’70s output, but the consumer preferred 1974’s triple-platinum greatest-hits set, Endless Summer, which contained nothing released beyond 1965. When people under 40 think of the Beach Boys, they’re likely thinking of Endless Summer’s omissions: Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations’ and Smile. So while Brian Wilson’s reputation as an auteur is rock-solid, it’s also built on the lush interiority of his work from the mid-’60s onward, championed by a generation of white suburban kids who abandoned the buzzsaw appeal of punk for the cryptic, allusive climes of indie rock. “Fun, Fun, Fun” gave way to “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.”

Still, “punk” remains the gold standard of musical willfulness, and thus a number of folks have attempted to reverse-engineer the punk-rock/Beach Boys connection. In the ’70s, the band routinely toured the old gems with souped-up chassis. But the cause is probably less Steve Jones, and more cocaine. Love You (the Beach Boys’ contribution to the musical climate of 1977) has been called their punk record, insofar as Brian’s interest in analog synthesizers resulted in relatively austere arrangements. (It’s also been called a synthpop album for the same reason.) Beach Boys archivist Alan Boyd points to Brian’s demo of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” tracked during the Love You sessions, as “almost [having] a kind of punk edge to it.” To me, it sounds like Lou Reed fronting the Walker Brothers, which may be close enough. Most amusingly, Darian Sahanaja — one of Brian Wilson’s frequent recent collaborators — once called his idol “punk” for saying awful things to people while on stage. (“There’s no irony there,” he noted; a few dozen interviewers would agree, I’d imagine.)

Then again, there’s something endearing about Brian Wilson in his 70s: the way he’s utterly disinterested in anything other than his original loves (Paul McCartney, George Gershwin, Phil Spector, the Beach Boys). He’s still re-working his influences, and the only acclaim he seems to really care about is his children’s. Wilson is a survivor, as much so as any hXc vet. His lifelong accumulation of scars would be instantly recognizable to any Redondo Beach skatepunk: a fucked-up middle-class upbringing, mental illness, addiction. And though his blueprints may be out of date, they’d surely recognize the world he’s been trying to build since he was a kid: a golden Southern California of the mind, where the kicks are plentiful, the responsibilities few, and summer never ends.