The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson has long been considered one of the greatest geniuses in the history of pop music. This fact should not be qualified or challenged by any mature music fan. In fact, realizing that the Beach Boys aren’t just a bunch of lame old dudes who sing about surfing is a classic watershed moment for many listeners. Though the intervening years have put more distance between them, there was a point where Wilson and his cohorts were nipping at the heels of the Beatles for the title of World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Group, or even surpassing them, depending on who you ask. In 1966, it was really a toss up.
But then, due to a whole slew of reasons (drugs, mental illness, the insane pressure of leading one of the world’s greatest musical entities, etc.) he spent the next couple of decades unraveling. He gradually ceded control of first the group, then of his very person.
By the mid-80s, he was all but wholly controlled by his psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Landy, who employed a controversial, highly-unorthodox technique called “24-Hour Therapy” to treat Wilson. It involved exactly what it says on the tin. During the time that Landy worked with Wilson, he controlled nearly every aspect of his patient’s personal and business life. He became Wilson’s business manager and even “collaborated” on music with him. (Landy’s actual involvement is somewhat suspect, and his songwriting credits have all been removed from reissues of Wilson’s work). At one point, Landy lived alone in Wilson’s own home after banishing his patient to a nearby rental.
It was during this period that Wilson recorded his self-titled solo debut and began to work on his sophomore release, the tentatively (and some what creepily) titled Sweet Insanity. It was never released after being rejected by Wilson’s then label, Sire. But, bit by bit, pieces of those recording sessions (which have still never been fully released) have trickled out and been compiled into bootlegs. The first track to do so is the one above; it was actually sent out to radio stations and journalists as a promotional cassette.
A while ago, I jokingly coined the term “valleying” to describe a moment that is that antithesis of peaking. That is, I verbed the noun “valley” to make a verb that describes the act of hitting rock bottom, of reaching the absolute nadir. I’m glad I did, because the above track is four minutes and twelve seconds of Brian Wilson valleying. Hard.
It’s not just that he’s trying his hand at hip hop, or that he’s plundering his own catalog for samples. It’s how poorly done everything in the track is. In fact, the latter is actually kind of a cool idea. A seminal artist chopping up his classic material to make something new can be daring and exciting. David Bowie did that recently with his cover for The Next Day, and wound up with the best album art of the year by a mile. If you could somehow teleport 1965 Brian Wilson into the 1980s (or later) and suggest chopping up bits of his old songs and building new songs out of them using modern technology, wouldn’t you bet on amazing results? Wouldn’t you expect Brian to extract little bits of songs that spanned his career and use them to build something that sounded familiar, but left you unable to pick out exactly where you heard it before?
But alas, that idea and technology were not available to 1965 Brian Wilson. Instead, they were available to 1988 Brian Wilson, which is to say that they were available to Eugene Landy. And instead of a subtle sample collage, what resulted is “Smart Girls,” or, as you will refer to it forever, “Brian Wilson’s rap song.” As hip hop goes, it’s basically on par (both creatively and production-wise) with something that Elmo would rap to teach kids about the alphabet. If it were just a seminal rock figure making a foolish attempt to adapt to a new sound, it would be bad, but “Smart Girls” manages to be so much worse.
Landy and Wilson attempt to pepper their lyrics with lines from classic Beach Boys songs. If I have to explain to you why that’s a bad idea, then your homework is to watch all of the Friedberg-Seltzer comedies and learn when just referencing something isn’t clever or even really a joke. There’s no invention and no artistry in simply referencing something. It’s basically saying “Hey, remember this? It exists!” That sort of laziness leads to the line “God only knows what I’d be / without smart girls, hip hop, and harmony.” In a word, wooof. But they didn’t stop there.
Instead of just having Wilson deliver those terrible lyrics, they decided that they would insert samples of the tracks themselves, or studio musicians doing their best imitations of the originals. On top of that, their sampling skills are the absolute worst I’ve ever heard. They don’t change the tempos or the keys of the songs they sample, nor do they isolate the vocal track. Instead large slabs of songs like “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and “Good Vibrations” are dropped all over the track, completely replacing everything for a half-bar or so. At every level, it’s a shockingly incompetent piece of work. The awful decisions run down to even the smallest details, like the sleazy sax intro, the random cartoon giggles, and the shout-along on the line about Wilson being “the original Beach Boy.” Listening to “Smart Girls” elicits a combination of confusion, second-hand embarrassment, and nausea. It’s a terrible song on its own, but the fact that it’s credited to one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians just makes it all the worse.
Luckily, Sweet Insanity (and by extension “Smart Girls”) was never released, and Wilson’s family managed to get Landy legally barred from contact with him in the 1990s. Since then, with the help of more traditional forms of therapy, Wilson has stabilized—as has his musical output. And, though he’s rerecorded several tracks from the Sweet Insanity sessions, he hasn’t touched “Smart Girls” with a twenty-nine-and-a-half-foot-pole. It’s never been officially released in any form. And, perhaps, that’s the best indication that Wilson’s back in control.