Rock history—whether it’s written by music critics, fans, journalists, or scholars—often paints Brian Wilson, the oft-proclaimed creative leader behind the Beach Boys, as a solitary auteur whose personal vision utterly dominated the rest of the band. This belief dates all the way back to the late ’60s, when the slogan “Brian Wilson is a genius” first spread; it’s persisted in collective memory ever since. A documentary released this past November, Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, posits exactly that, dedicating its run time to deifying Wilson as one of music’s most singular artists. It ably details his personal struggles and self-perception but deals uncritically in promoting this glorified understanding of his musicianship.
And that view isn’t entirely wrong. As the band’s producer, foremost composer, and creative leader, Wilson’s musical direction was the most prominent among the Beach Boys during the band’s seminal period, from their inception in 1961 through the year their highly anticipated Smile album was scrapped, 1967. It’s because of Wilson’s musical talents and labor that we have the timeless tracks of Pet Sounds, the pocket symphony of “Good Vibrations,” and endless anthems to summer fun and teenage love, songs that soundtracked the youths of an entire generation of Americans.
But the film also does the work to repromote this idea that Wilson is the Beach Boys, that it was his musical prowess alone that made the band what it was. It’s true that the Beach Boys would have been nothing without Brian Wilson, but the inverse is also true: Wilson needed the Beach Boys just as much as they needed him, his real genius lying in his ability to collaborate with others, to compose music that was greater than the sum of its parts. The other Beach Boys—most famously Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and friends Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston—more than pulled their weight on stage and in the recording studio. Wilson’s skills lay in synthesizing their talents to create music that was at once experimental and commercial, personal and relatable, timely and timeless.
The Beach Boys were always a vocal group at heart, a rock ’n’ roll choir. The very core of their sound was built upon complex harmonies that required a great deal of coordination and mutual understanding. Brian Wilson’s falsetto was but one part of the band’s vocal blend; every member was needed to unlock the potential of their collective sound. They were also far from passive acolytes of Wilson’s vision. As Wilson himself put it in 1965, “When I sit down at the piano to play a new song … we take the melody apart and work it out phrase by phrase. If they don’t like my approach, they suggest another.” Long Promised Road extolls Wilson’s individualistic genius by featuring endless praises of his musicianship from talking heads ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Elton John, but contradicts itself with scenes depicting Wilson in the recording studio communicating and working amicably with his backing band. He listens patiently to their sound and works with them to adjust it to his satisfaction, crafting new music by combining his own talents with those of his fellows.
When it came to lyrics, Mike Love was Brian’s most trusted collaborator. Just as the Beatles had the songwriting team of Lennon-McCartney, the Beach Boys had Wilson-Love, a partnership that defined much of the band’s early ’60s output. Songs like “Surfin’ USA,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “California Girls” were the combination of Wilson’s sonic innovation and Love’s talent at writing relatable verses and catchy hooks. All too often, Beach Boys fans imagine this relationship as a false binary between avant-garde aestheticism and cynical commercialism. Even YouTube commenters, on innocuous videos of Beach Boys songs, blame Love for the band’s creative slumps. English professor Kirk Curnutt, in his book Brian Wilson, terms this perception “the two Beach Boys theory,” but Love summed it up it best in his 2016 memoir: “For those who believe Brian walks on water, I will always be the Antichrist.”
However, the reality of the situation was not so black-and-white. The wisdom of pop music from its relative inception equated commercial success with artistic success, and this was true for both Wilson and Love. Like so many others in the music business, Wilson measured his creative success by how well the Beach Boys’ records charted. Even when he worked with other lyricists, commercial success was his end goal: Pet Sounds hits like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” were co-written with Tony Asher, a man who wrote advertising jingles for a living. When Wilson sought to capitalize upon the countercultural trends of the mid-’60s with his esoteric, retrospectively hailed (albeit aborted) Smile album, he hired abstract lyricist Van Dyke Parks to help him tap into the trippiness of the zeitgeist. The result? The psychedelic hit “Heroes and Villains.” And Love wasn’t afraid to get adventurous himself if he figured out a way to make it sellable. After all, he wrote the lyrics to “Good Vibrations,” perhaps the most innovative track the band ever released.
In fact, the very idea of Brian as a solo visionary was first popularized as the result of a promotional push surrounding production of Pet Sounds, then Smile, from 1966–67. The Beach Boys hired a publicist, Derek Taylor (who previously worked for the Beatles), who marketed the band by providing endless praise to Wilson’s skills as a producer and composer. “This twenty-three-year-old powerhouse,” wrote Taylor, in a piece published in 1966 or 1967, “not only sings with the famous group, he writes the words and music then arranges, engineers, and produces the disc. … He has often been called ‘genius,’ and it’s a burden.”
Such promotions led music critics, fans, and the public at large to disregard the importance of the other Beach Boys to the band’s artistic process. “Singlehandedly, for all practical purposes, [Brian] has made the Beach Boys the top group in the world,” concluded Tracy Thomas in the New Musical Express on Jan. 28, 1967. “ ‘Singlehanded’ because Brian takes each song from the first inspiration through to the record sleeve, with only occasional advice and certainly complete co-operation from the others.” Music writer David Leaf’s The Beach Boys, published in 1978, put it far more bluntly: “[Brian] wrote the hits and made the records, and the group sang them and toured and were rich … all thanks to Brian Wilson.” Melody Maker reporter Alan Walsh put the question bluntly to the Beach Boys themselves in an interview published Nov. 12, 1966: “Are the five touring Beach Boys merely sound puppets of recording genius Brian Wilson?” The answer was a resounding no. “Brian plays the major creative role in the production of our music,” replied Carl Wilson. “But everyone in the group contributes something to the finished product. It’s not like an orchestra translating the wishes of the conductor. We all have a part to play in the production of the records.”
If Pet Sounds and Smile truly were the predominantly solo efforts that they are often portrayed as, it would be difficult to understand why Brian Wilson gave Carl Wilson the lead vocal on “God Only Knows” and Mike Love the prominent chorus on “Good Vibrations.” The Beach Boys were primarily vocalists rather than instrumentalists (Carl Wilson’s skill with the electric guitar was a notable exception), but they did hold their own as studio musicians. However, fans and critics have perpetuated the idea over the years that the band stopped playing their own instruments in the recording studio. While this was largely true for Pet Sounds and Smile, most of the band played instruments on every preceding album. Music writer Kent Crowley, in his Carl Wilson biography, Long Promised Road, explained that documentation of the band’s studio sessions was often incomplete, noting the presence of unionized session players while failing to record the attendance of the Beach Boys themselves. These session artists supplemented, but did not replace, the Beach Boys.
Wilson worked best within the context of the Beach Boys, as he arranged and produced with their musicianship in mind. “I write and think in terms of what the Beach Boys can do,” he told Melody Maker in “Brian, Pop Genius!” an article published May 21, 1966. “Not what they would find easy to do, but what I know they are capable of doing which isn’t always the same thing.” Other musical acts he produced, such as girl group the Honeys and male vocal quartet the Castells, remain obscure today. Even a 1966 single Brian issued as a solo act, the Pet Sounds closing track “Caroline, No,” never came close to achieving the popularity of the Beach Boys’ releases. Though it was anticipated as a great hit and promoted enthusiastically by the rest of the band, it peaked at a disappointing No. 32 on the Billboard charts. As Brian gradually withdrew from the group post-Smile, Carl Wilson filled the role his older brother left behind and led the Beach Boys to renewed success in the early ’70s. Though they were without Brian, the rest of the Beach Boys ultimately proved themselves to be skilled artists in their own right.
Wilson’s present-day solo career has seen far greater success than “Caroline, No’s” chart performance, particularly with his completion of Smile as a solo album in 2004 and his Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour in 2016. However, his legacy is still primarily remembered by both himself and his audiences within the context of the history of the Beach Boys. Films ranging from 2014’s Love and Mercy biopic to 2021’s Long Promised Road root Wilson’s auteurship in his past, detailing his mid-’60s heyday and subsequent personal struggles. Wilson’s 2008 album That Lucky Old Sun drew its emotional weight from his nostalgia for 1960s Los Angeles and the band’s early days, most profound in its closer “Southern California.” His most recent album, 2021’s At My Piano, is a series of piano covers of Beach Boys classics. Wilson’s solo career is successful because of Wilson’s musical talent and perseverance, but it remains inseparable from the legacy of the Beach Boys.
“I’m not a genius, I’m just a hardworking guy,” remarked Wilson in 1964. Even as he was heading toward pop ascendancy, he still thought of himself as just another laborer in the music business—as just another Beach Boy. He was wrong: He was a genius team player. As brilliant as the Long Promised Road documentary is for the intimacy and sensitivity with which it tells Wilson’s personal story—including his struggles with mental illness and substance abuse, his relationships with his brothers, and his ongoing solo career—it never quite gets at this aspect of Wilson’s genius, which comprises the foundation of his pop musical mastery. Perhaps the greatest irony and strongest proof for this truth is that the title of the documentary doesn’t even refer to a Brian Wilson song: “Long Promised Road” was written and performed by his brother Carl, without Brian’s involvement.