Magazine article The Spectator

Blessed Wonder

Magazine article The Spectator

Blessed Wonder

Article excerpt

I finally got my hands on a record I had been waiting to hear for 37 years last week. I first read about the Beach Boys' Smile project in the New Musical Express when I was 12. The band had recently released Pet Sounds, which now regularly tops those ubiquitous lists of all-time great albums, but the buzz was that Smile was going to be even better. When the miraculous 'Good Vibrations', one of its centre-pieces, was released as a single, it became clear that something very special indeed was likely to be on offer, a record to rival, and possibly eclipse, the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper.

But the album was never finished, never released. Brian Wilson, the presiding spirit of the Beach Boys, who had moved from those exuberant surfing safaris to gloriously sophisticated symphonic pop, had crossed the dangerously fine line that separates inquiring genius from debilitating mental illness. As so often in the Sixties, drugs, particularly LSD, helped push him into the land of the lost. In Britain, Fleetwood Mac's great guitarist Peter Green, and Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, took the same disastrous route at about the same time.

Over the years that followed, Wilson spent much of his time in bed - a beach boy who never actually cared for surfing, who became a beached behemoth, weighing in at 25 stone and tormented by mental illness. He's still not well. In a moving interview in the Times's Saturday magazine last week, the journalist Alan Franks encountered a frail man of 62 who only seemed to be partly there and who confided, 'Most of the time I am depressed.'

The cruel irony of this, of course, is that at its best, there is no pop music more uplifting than the songs Brian Wilson wrote for the Beach Boys. Those glorious vocal harmonies hymning Wilson's vision of a sunlit life spent driving a Little Deuce Coupe with a beautiful Californian Girl in the passenger seat remain as shimmeringly potent today as they were in the early Sixties.

Wilson, fragile but plucky, has been touring again in recent years, with a fine band led by Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, and at rapturously received gigs at London's Festival Hall last February they gave the long-delayed world premiere of Smile. The night job meant that I couldn't attend these ecstatically received concerts, which apparently reduced strong men to tears, and I have been kicking myself ever since. Happily, however, Wilson and his collaborators went into the studio afterwards and finally got Smile down on disc. …

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