Ag dul i bhfeabhas? 3/3

As the 1960s gave way to the Seventies, it seemed that bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Emerson Lake & Palmer would continue to innovate and experiment without sacrificing popular appeal. However they were soon sidelined by punk, and the prospect of pop music evolving into a distinctive new art form ended. It did evolve though, but in the commercial rather than the musical sense.

No sooner had the Beatles split than the music revolution they led became transformed into a marketable product, such as McDonald’s or Coca Cola. Like those two global brands, pop music began to follow a formula that would appeal to successive generations of consumers through its consistent and reliable sameness. By identifying and isolating the key elements of hits like “Penny Lane” or “Waterloo Sunset”, a talented individual could construct his or her own up-to-date variant. Those elements combined the melodic hooks, guitar/piano riffs, and steady beat of the best Sixties pop, with quirky yet appealing personalities similar to those of its most successful exponents. The result was a template for commercial success that has made multi-millionaires of numerous popstars, from Elton John and Abba in the late-20th century, to Coldplay and Lady Gaga in the 21st.

So, far from being the home of musical invention, the pop music industry of the last fifty years has drawn on the wellspring of inspiration created in the 1960s - Leonard Bernstein’s “five per cent”.

If one person was the source of that wellspring it is Brian Wilson, whom Beatles’ producer George Martin lauded as the “living genius of pop music”. Like the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Wilson could not contain the profusion of music that bubbled up within him and which, as he explained to Martin in 1997, “wants to blow right out of my chest”.[1]

His magnum opus was the Beach Boy’s album, Pet Sounds, the making of which Wilson oversaw and directed, much as Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane. Wilson was inspired to make Pet Sounds after listening to the new Beatles release, Rubber Soul, in December 1965. Afterwards he vowed to his wife Marilyn that he would “make the greatest rock album ever made”.[2]

Mike Williams has argued convincingly that George Martin took on a much more significant role in the production of Rubber Soul than is generally accepted. According to Williams, he did not merely produce the album. Martin, he claims, also hired songwriters and session musicians to create the songs and lay down the backing tracks in the studio while the Beatles were on tour. Later, John, Paul, George, and Ringo added their vocals to finish the record in time for its scheduled release date.

A few months later, Brian Wilson followed the same pattern in the making of Pet Sounds. However he went one step further by composing all the music himself. With the Beach Boys on tour without him, Wilson hired Tony Asher, an advertising copywriter, to add lyrics to his compositions. Wilson also arranged the music, hired the Wrecking Crew to record the instrumental backing tracks, and then brought in his bandmates to add their vocals to the mix. Even if one grants to George Martin the elevated status of mastermind behind one of the landmark recordings of the 1960s, Brian Wilson’s achievement on Pet Sounds stands supreme.

There is a caveat however. Pet Sounds was not the result of naked unstoppable genius, like Beethoven’s 5th symphony or Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Brian Wilson conceived and executed his masterpiece while under the influence of a variety of powerful and illegal drugs, most notably the hallucinogenic, LSD. Such was his abuse of these chemicals that his mind was permanently damaged and his creative juices never flowed as freely again.

This is the legacy of the 1960s cultural revolution. Pop music that seemed fresh and vibrant was actually the product of deception or drugs. While, at their best, the resulting sounds were often sublime, they could not be sustained for long given their shaky foundations - only to the end of the decade as it turned out.

Nevertheless, during those few golden years, the magic conjured up by the Beatles, the Beach Boys and others enchanted an entire generation and, for a time, persuaded me that things could only get better.

[1] ‘Brian Wilson and George Martin in studio’, YouTube (, accessed 25 Apr 2020.
[2] Charles L. Granata, Tony Asher, Wouldn't It Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (Chicago, 2017), p. 48.