June 15 2013
Any musician would be pretty stoked to receive the following accolades from an eclectic bunch of musical icons from the 20th century:
Leonard Bernstein: “One of the greatest composers of the 20th century”
?uestlove: “A modern day Stravinsky”
Paul McCartney: “Classic of the century”
Art Garfunkel: “our Mozart of Rock n’ Roll”
Phillip Glass: “one of the defining moments of its time”
Tom Petty: “I don’t think you’d be out of line comparing him to Beethoven”
Who are they all talking about? They are talking about The Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson (although Wilson wasn’t stoked at all, and suffered severe depression throughout his life).
Shamefully, I only really ‘discovered’ Brian Wilson about 18 months ago. As a teenager in the late nineties, the alternative allure of John Cale and Lou Reed and the avant garde leanings of John Lennon were what defined the sixties: There was no room for The Beach Boys: Everything about them including their name seemed to have this sugary sweetness to it, and songs like Surfin USA sounded so trivial. I mean – there were a boy band, right? – they even shared the same initials as The Backstreet Boys, so why would I bother?
But then came along Big Love.
It is funny the way we discover music (a subject for another blog), love it or hate it, we can’t help but be influenced by the mass media that permeates our days. And my devotion to the HBO show Big Love, about a polygamist Mormon family in Utah, caused it’s theme song, the Beach Boys ‘God Only Knows’, to forever run in my head. Of course, I had heard the song before, and subconsciously always knew it was something special, but thanks to Big Love I was now fully aware.
So eventually I got my way around to purchasing The Beach Boy’s classic Pet Sounds – listened to the whole thing, and of course, like Bernstein, McCartney, and Glass, it changed my life.
There are plenty of people who have written about why Pet Sounds is so great, and the genius of Brian Wilson (and besides that would take years to write). What I find fascinating is, as a child, why I thought The Beach Boys were so bad. As a teenager, why didn’t Brian Wilson attract my attention like Robert Smith did? He certainly had enough angst, and bands that I loved growing up, like The Strokes, were more-or-less Beach Boy rip offs (if you doubt me listen to Here Today). So what was it?
The answer? Musical Vandalism.
While pop culture was what led me to The Beach Boys, I also blame pop culture for causing me to ignore them for so long. If the court would allow me to present two pieces of evidence to the jury:
It seems trivial, but I honestly believe that such vandalism of great art is the reason why I just assumed, well, that it wasn’t great. How could I take this seriously when your knowledge of this work is limited to plasticine figures and chocolate bars. How a 30 second advertisement can destroy such great songs.
Everything has a lesson, so what has this taught me? As musical presenters, performers and composers, we have the responsibility to treat great art with great respect. Every time we program or perform piece, we are inventing it for a new audience – a crowd of new ears whose only knowledge of this music may be informed by how we present it and how we contextualise it.
All audiences have choices of what art they choose to see, what music they choose to listen to. And this is why Great Art should not be vandalised, the stakes are far too high. I’m just relieved that I got my second chance to appreciate The Beach Boys without the whitegoods graffiti!