10 Brian Wilson Solo Songs From His Overlooked Solo Career

Brian Wilson

Feature Photo:Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com

Fans of the Beach Boys who know a thing or two about Brian Wilson may be aware of his solo career and can probably list off his top ten songs, no problem. But Brian Wilson’s solo career has been overlooked by most music fans. This article sets out to change that.

Born on June 20, 1942, Brian Douglas Wilson co-founded the Beach Boys with his brothers, Dennis and Carl. They also recruited their cousin, Mike Love, and a friend, Al Jardine. This was the original 1961 lineup of a band that would win over the world with their California beach-style rock music. Over time, the lineup of The Beach Boys changed. At one point, Brian Wilson himself needed to take a breather after experiencing a nervous breakdown in 1964. The grueling recording and touring schedule caught up with him and the rest of the roster. However, what he and the rest of the Beach Boys crew did after getting their groove back was pick up the pieces and move forward.

Going, Solo

In 1966, Brian Wilson began his solo career as a recording artist. His first single was “Caroline, No.” At the same time, he and his fellow Beach Boys released Pet Sounds. After this, his first solo album, Smile, was also supposed to be released. Both Pet Sounds and Wilson’s first single as a solo artist met with a colder reception than expected. As far as the public was concerned, there was a threat he would cut ties with the Beach Boys and focus exclusively on a solo career. It was explained the solo project was merely a temporary step away from the band’s shadow. However, the psychological damage was done. Perhaps for the first time in Brian Wilson’s life as an artist, he met with what he deemed as a failure. Already still fragile from his 1964 breakdown, Wilson slipped back into a somewhat reclusive state. Smile was never completed as an album and was shelved for the time being.

The remainder of the 1960s witnessed a struggle on a personal and professional level for the man. He did, however, push himself to stay creative. This led to exhaustion and mental health issues that would plague him to the point where he mostly went into seclusion. Before 1968 was over, Wilson sought psychiatric treatment at a hospital. As he continued to battle his demons, Wilson’s closest family and friends worked together to help him through this dark experience. Despite his continued contribution with the Beach Boys, it wouldn’t be until 1976 that there would be a sign of hope that Brian Wilson would bounce back into top form.

Comebacks and Withdrawals

After undergoing an intensive therapy program with psychologist Eugene Landy, Wilson appeared to be bouncing back to his former self. In 1976, there was tremendous hype with a “Brian’s Back!” tagline that suggested a major tour for him and the Beach Boys was in the works. The summer of 1976 witnessed Wilson appearing more with his fellow Beach Boys but was still dealing with personal issues that made him feel like a prisoner. His discomfort while performing on stage was apparent to observant critics and fans. He seemed more comfortable in the studio, as the extensive collection of records suggested. Most of them were solo projects as other members of the Beach Boys were busy with their own interests. The Beach Boys Love You was an April 1977 release that featured Wilson as the primary composer for the first time since 1967.

As for Eugene Landy’s influence, Wilson’s family and management team felt the price increase he inflicted upon his client was too much. His influence upon Wilson was stripped away; Wilson’s cousins and closest associates would handle his creative and business affairs. This led to a drug-free Brian Wilson for several months, until the pressure of working full-time as a recording artist sent him straight back to a depressive state. Between disappearances and hospitalizations, it was evident Brian Wilson’s withdrawal symptoms were getting the better of him. Despite all this, he continued to pour his creative energy into his music.

After overdosing yet again in 1982, Brian Wilson’s bandmates convinced Eugene Landy to come to his rescue again. The only way he agreed to do it was to have full control over Brian’s affairs without interference in what would be at least two years’ worth of rehabilitation. In order to pull this off, members of the Beach Boys convinced Brian Wilson that he was broke and no longer part of the group. They also told him he needed to clean his act up with Landy as his caretaker if he wanted to continue earning an income from the band’s earnings.

Cut Off

While under Landy’s care, Brian Wilson was first moved to Hawaii and isolated from his family and friends. The focus at the time was to restore Wilson’s ailing physical health while at the same time his mental health. In 1983, he returned to Los Angeles and moved into a Landy-appointed home in Malibu. He was still cut off from his family and friends during this time. The price of Landry as Brian Wilson’s handler was not cheap as his fees demanded over four hundred thousand dollars annually from 1983 until 1986. When he asked for more money from the Wilsons, a quarter of Brian Wilson’s publishing royalties was paid to Landy. As Landy’s influence on Brian Wilson continued to grow, so did his family and friends’ concern about Wilson’s overall well-being. At this point, what seemed like a good idea in 1983 was met with a string of second thoughts. By December 1991, after a series of complications, controversies, and lawsuits, Brian Wilson and Eugene Landy ended their partnership, including a filed restraining order.

Now with Landry gone, Brian Wilson was free to do what he does best. That artistic freedom witnessed a comeback for Wilson, as well as the Beach Boys. This new energy kept him recording and touring until Wilson performed his final concert on July 25, 2022, at the Pine Knob Music Theatre in Clarkson, Michigan. He was supposed to continue but canceled the rest of the tour for what was cited as health reasons.

Wilson’s Legacy

Brian Wilson’s fondness for popular music drove him to excel as a musician and producer. His influence ushered an era of creative autonomy as he broke new ground when it came to songwriting, production, and self-management. During an era of youth culture in the 1960s, Wilson’s influence established an explosion of music genres and styles. In the 1980s, he did it again with another wave of sub-genre pop and rock material. Wilson’s legacy includes a long list of music industry awards and Hall of Fame entries. Regarded as one of the godfathers of indie rock and pop, Brian Wilson’s influence as a musical artist continues today. Aside from his accomplishments with the Beach Boys, Wilson’s discography as a soloist includes twelve studio albums, three live albums, a compilation album, and seventeen singles.

#10 – Deck the Halls

As a song, “Deck the Halls” became a traditional Christmas carol after it was first published in 1862. It started with Welsh roots before Tomas Oliphant wrote English lyrics. While this isn’t exactly a Brian Wilson original, his unforgettable performance of this all-time seasonal favorite is hard to beat. On the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Songs chart, it peaked as high as number eight after it was released as a single in 2005.

“Deck the Halls” came from his first sixth studio album, What I Really Want for Christmas. It was his first seasonal recording as a solo artist that featured a mix of traditional Christmas music and cover versions of “Little Saint Nick” and “The Man with All the Toys.” Those two songs were first recorded and released in 1963 and 1964, respectively, from The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. While Wilson’s holiday album met with mixed reviews, his version of “Deck the Halls” rightfully stood out as a fan favorite.

#9 – She Says That She Needs Me

Brian Wilson and Russ Titelman wrote “Sherry She Needs Me” as a song performed by the Beach Boys. However, the recording was never released until many years later. In 1998, Wilson finished the song with lyric changes made by Carole Bayer Sager. It was also renamed to “She Says That She Needs Me.” From his fourth studio album, Imagination, this song was a dramatic love ballad that featured a vulnerable Brian Wilson pouring his soul out in fine musical form.

#8 – Walkin’ the Line

Originally from the Wilson Project, “Walkin’ the Line” would find its place on Brian Wilson’s 1988 self-titled album as a recording. Built around an old bass line he previously composed, Wilson’s lyrics shared his experience as someone walking on a thin wire that toyed with the balance between sanity and insanity. This is a wonderfully melodic song that once again showed Wilson’s vulnerable side as a person and as an artist.

#7 – The Like In I Love You

From Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, “The Like In I Love You” was the opening track to an album that was Brian Wilson’s tribute to one of his favorite musicians, George Gershwin. It was Gershwin, along with his brother Ira, who played a huge role in Wilson’s love for music. It was their influence that contributed to his brand of musical genius. “The Like In I Love You” featured an installment by Wilson and Scott Bennett to some of Gershwin’s unfinished fragments.

This is a true gem as “The Like In I Love You” beautifully paid homage to the music industry’s finest legend. When it was released on June 28, 2010, for streaming to the public, it won over scores of fans and critics. This song, along with the album, became a number-one seller on the Amazon website and the US Billboard Jazz Albums chart. For a real Brian Wilson treat with George Gershwin’s influence, “The Like In I Love You” is too good to pass up.

#6 – Rio Grande

In 1988, “Rio Grande” was a song that was released from Brian Wilson’s self-titled album. There were notable similarities between it and a favorite Beach Boys classic, “Good Vibrations.” In 1966, Wilson attempted to record and release Smile as his debut album but fate had other ideas. At just over eight minutes, this is Wilson’s longest song as a solo artist. Listening to “Rio Grande” felt like taking a step back into an era where the fun of 1960s music was at its peak. There was also a wild west appeal to this song, especially as it dwelled on the desire to simply get away from the world and go home.

#5 – Soul Searchin’

Written by Brian Wilson and Andy Paley, “Soul Searchin'” was intended to be featured on a Beach Boys album in the 1990s. However, that didn’t happen and it found its way into Wilson’s 2004 album, Gettin’ In Over My Head. While Paley put the music together, it was Wilson who came up with the lyrics. Carl Wilson sang “Soul Searchin'” for the Beach Boys and as far as Paley was concerned, it was good as it was loaded with rich soul and emotion. It would be Carl Wilson’s final recording as a lead vocalist before he lost his battle against cancer in 1998. “Soul Searchin'” failed to be released due to creative differences that erupted between the two brothers. When Brian Wilson opted to include Carl Wilson’s lead vocalist performance onto his album this was recognized by critics and fans alike as one of the best songs on the tracklist.

#4 – Your Imagination

“Your Imagination” came from Brian Wison’s 1998 solo album, Imagination. His vocal talent had him sing the lead, as well as the harmony, thanks to using the overdubbing technique. As a reminiscence of the past, hints of the 1960s Beach Boys’ influence were evident in what was one of Wilson’s most entertaining songs. It also made references to “Sgt. Pepper,” a Beatles classic that was released in 1967. On the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Songs chart, it peaked as high as number twenty.

#3 – Love and Mercy

From the 1988 album, Brian Wilson, “Love and Mercy” was a single that was released but failed to make an impression on the music charts. According to Wilson, it was partially written as an autobiography about himself and his vulnerabilities as a man who always wore his heart on his sleeve. The inspiration behind “Love and Mercy” came from the 1965 Jackie DeShannon hit, “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Regarded as one of his best songs as a solo artist, “Love and Mercy” was played at the tail end of Brian Wilson’s concert performances going into the late 1990s. For Wilson, it was a song that touched him deeply as a Christian and as an artist. “Love and Mercy” was about prevailing over some of the toughest challenges that threatened to destroy him. On the US Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, “Love and Mercy” peaked as high as number forty. If you’re looking for a wonderful anthem about love and mercy, “Love and Mercy’ is it.

#2 – Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel

First released in 1998 from Brian Willson’s studio album Imagination, “Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel,” was a gentle song beautifully played by acoustic guitar that featured Wilson’s trademark harmonies. As poetic as ever, the lyrics described the power of love and all the beauty that comes with it. It was one of his most heartfelt songs as he stressed the importance of holding fast to the closest people we have in our life. For Brian Wilson, the delicate balance of sanity in an insane world seemed to make him incredibly vulnerable. Whenever Wilson poured energy into his music, he always gave it all. “Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel” was as godly as it gets as a song that boasted so much love and gratitude.

#1 – Caroline, No

The release of “Caroline, No” as a single in 1966 wasn’t as successful as Brian Wilson hoped. It was his first single release that didn’t have the Beach Boys label to it, and it was met with a mixed reaction by the fans. Many assumed he was planning to ditch his bandmates permanently to embark on a solo career. On the US Billboard Hot 100, “Caroline, No” peaked as high as number thirty-two. In addition to its release as a Brian Wilson single, it was installed as the closing track to the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds. Both were released in 1966.

The song was about the loss of a woman’s innocence as she transitioned from a sweet girl to someone with a hardened heart. What made “Caroline, No” stand out was the jazzy influence and the manipulation of various instruments sped up as Wilson wanted to sound younger as he performed the lyrics. This was a beautiful ballad performed by a musical genius who will admit this song was one of his favorites. Among most of his fan base, “Caroline, No” is a personal favorite of theirs, too.

Top 10 Brian Wilson Solo Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023

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