How The Beatles And Beach Boys' Rivalry Inspired And Eventually Broke Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson was slowly building to his breaking point, again. It was 1967, and unlike his first breakdown three years earlier that freed him from touring and, along with a friendly rivalry with the Beatles, helped him create some of the best American pop music in history, this time was different. He'd pushed himself too far in the game of one-upmanship with the Fab Four, resulting in an eventual mental collapse, drug overuse, and the spectacular failure of what Wilson had hoped would be his magnum opus, the album "Smile."

After more than 80 recording sessions between August 1966 and May 1967 that resulted in about 50 hours of recordings, Wilson abandoned the project. "I thought it was too weird, I thought it was too druggie influenced, I thought the audience wouldn't get it," Wilson told The New York Times in 2004. On top of this, the rest of the Beach Boys — Al Jardine, Mike Love, and Brian's brothers Dennis and Carl — didn't love the album's direction. The failure helped push Brian Wilson over the edge and into a decades-long spiral.

Messages sent across the ocean

While there were many musicians who couldn't stand the Beatles, from Elvis Presley to Lou Reed, Brian Wilson was not among the haters. He was in fact a huge fan as were the Beatles of Wilson and the Beach Boys. "People talk about a rivalry between the Beach Boys and the Beatles, but that's not the right word," Wilson wrote in his book "I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir." "There were messages that got sent back and forth across the ocean. They would do something and I would hear it and then I would want to do something just as good."

For Wilson, the unspoken interchange escalated with the Beatles' sixth studio album, "Rubber Soul," from 1965, and kept building from there with the Beatles responding in kind. "'Rubber Soul' inspired 'Pet Sounds,' which inspired 'Sgt. Pepper's' and that inspired me to make 'Smile,'" Wilson told The Daily Beast in 2017. "It wasn't really a rivalry, though. I was jealous! It was really just mutual inspiration, I think.

First breakdown leads to Pet Sounds

Brian Wilson's first breakdown happened aboard a plane in December 1964 as he flew from Los Angeles to Houston. He began crying hysterically and was inconsolable. The pressure of touring and a brand new marriage to Marilyn Rovell collided catastrophically. "We were really scared for him," Al Jardine, the band's rhythm guitarist, told the Houston Press in 2000. "[We were] concerned for him because he was so upset. He obviously had a breakdown. None of us had ever witnessed something like that."

Not long after this incident, Wilson told his bandmates during a recording session that he was no longer going to tour or travel with the Beach Boys. "I said the Beach Boys could have a beautiful future if they did their job and I did mine," Wilson told Tiger Beat in 1967 (via Anne Moses' website). The rest of the band wasn't happy, but they eventually capitulated. Freed from his touring duties, Wilson was able to focus on writing and recording. And with the Beatles as his foil, he masterminded the groundbreaking album "Pet Sounds," which upped the ante for the Beatles.

The Beatles respond

Brian Wilson wasn't just receiving messages from across the ocean. In Britain, the Beatles were also all ears for what Wilson and the Beach Boys would come up with next. "Brian Wilson sort of proved himself to be like a really amazing composer and I was into chords and harmonies and stuff at that time," McCartney recalled on the Ronnie Wood Show in 2010. "And we ended up ... it was kind of like a rivalry. We'd put a song out and Brian would hear it and then he'd do one, which is nice. It's like me and John [Lennon]. You know, you kind of try to top each other all the time."

While recording "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band," McCartney was actively listening to the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds," and aimed for a similar sound, according to the Beatles' recording engineer Geoff Emerick. "One of Paul McCartney's favorite albums of 1966 was the Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds' and he often played it on his portable gramophone during breaks, so it wasn't altogether unsurprising when he announced that he wanted a 'really clean American sound' on the next song of his to be recorded: 'Penny Lane,'" Emerick recalled in his memoir "Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles." "Lovely Rita," from the same album, was also heavily influenced by the Beach Boys.

A failed teenage symphony to God

With "Smile," Brian Wilson envisioned what he called a "teenage symphony to God," according to Rolling Stone. He enlisted the help of lyricist and composer Van Dyke Parks for the album. But several factors collided that doomed the project, including Wilson's drug use. "Because I was on drugs, I couldn't concentrate, and this music requires a lot of concentration," he told Paste magazine in 2004. The rest of the band's attitude during the recording process didn't help. Mike Love was especially opposed to where Wilson was going with "Smile" and let everyone know it. Parks butted heads with Love so much that Parks quit. Wilson eventually gave up on his masterpiece.

The truth about the Beach Boys' album "Smiley Smile," the record that eventually emerged in 1967 out of the ashes of the "Smile" recording sessions, was that it was a watered-down version of Wilson's vision that didn't land with audiences at the time. The album's failure helped send Wilson down a years-long spiral of mental illness and drug and alcohol dependence. Even years later, Wilson mourned his unfinished masterpiece. "It's pretty well documented how he associates this music with all of his failure," Darian Sahanaja, Wilson's musical director, told Paste magazine. "Smile was the moment when he started to check out; when it fractured and he lost his support system."

A Smile reborn

By the late 1990s, Brian Wilson had overcome his addictions, stabilized his mental health issues, remarried, and had broken free from the controlling behavior of his disgraced psychologist Eugene Landy. It was time to return to "Smile." In the early 2000s, he reunited with Van Dyke Parks, to finish what they'd started 37 years earlier. In 2004, Wilson performed "Smile" live for the first time at London's Royal Festival Hall before taking it on tour and releasing the album "Brian Wilson Presents Smile."

"I was amazed when I finally heard it," Wilson told Paste magazine. "It brought back a lot of memories. It sounded the way I anticipated it would when I first wrote it. We wrote a bit of new music because we didn't think it was complete. We wanted to make it a little bit longer." Paul McCartney was in the audience for the first London performance. In 2004, Wilson said "Smile" "wasn't anything like The Beatles. It wasn't pop music; it was something more advanced." Tragically, the reason you don't hear from Brian Wilson much anymore is due to his dementia and other health issues.

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