Q&A: Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson brings ‘Greatest Hits’ to National Harbor

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Brian Wilson at MGM National Harbor

He was the songwriting genius behind two dozen Top 40 hits for the Beach Boys.

Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 12 on its 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.

And Paul McCartney praised his gem “God Only Knows” as the best song ever written.

It’s impossible to overstate the achievements of Brian Wilson, who has overcome struggles to tour again with “Greatest Hits Live!” at MGM National Harbor on Jan. 22.

“Genius is just another word for clever,” Wilson told WTOP.

Born in 1942 in Inglewood, California, Wilson formed the family band with brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine.

“Dennis brought drumming, Mike brought singing, I brought producing, Carl brought singing [and Al] is a great singer,” Wilson said. “Dennis was a very, very nice person. Very, very friendly. [Carl] brought joy and happiness. The way he talked to us when we were recording, he’d say, ‘OK, guys let’s get going.’ [Mike] could sing bass or regular.”

Debuting in 1961 as the Pendletones, they quickly changed their name to the Beach Boys after their breakthrough hit “Surfin’.” Signed by Capitol Records, the song was featured on their debut album “Surfin’ Safari” (1962), which featured an iconic album cover of the guys holding a surfboard on top of a yellow pickup truck on the beach.

“I realized I was creating a [genre],” Wilson said.

The band had found its niche, doubling down on the surf rock tunes for a second album “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (1963), carried by the catchy title track. Their third album “Surfer Girl” (1963) included another hit title song, which Wilson cites as one of his most underrated favorites today, as well as the melancholic confessional “In My Room.”

“It’s about a little sanctuary where you can go sleep and dream,” Wilson said.

The hits kept on coming: “Little Deuce Coupe” on “Little Deuce Coupe” (1963); “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Don’t Worry Baby” on “Shut Down Vol. 2” (1964); “I Get Around” on “All Summer Long” (1964); “Little St. Nick” on “The Beach Boys Christmas Album” (1964); “Help Me, Rhonda” on “The Beach Boys Today!” (1965); “California Girls” on “Summer Days (and Summer Nights)” (1965); and “Barbara Ann” on “Beach Boys’ Party!” (1965).

Around this time, Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown and began staying home from tour. His combination of psychedelic drugs and auditory hallucinations led to “Pet Sounds” (1966), ranked the No. 2 album of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. Wilson experimented with unorthodox recording techniques, turning the studio itself into an instrument to record “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows.”

“It gave me time to go in the studio,” Wilson said. “The psychedelic drugs helped me write my melodies. … I close my eyes and I start playing the keys, then comes the melody, then comes the lyrics. … We used bicycle horns, tambourines [and] my dogs.”

Soon, band publicist Derek Taylor began promoting Wilson as a reclusive songwriting “genius” on par with such classical icons as Mozart and Beethoven. Contemporaries like The Beatles tried to keep up, leading to McCartney’s aforementioned praise.

“That made me pumped up,” Wilson said. “That made me feel proud.”

In 1966, he attempted to top “Pet Sounds” with the equally experimental “Smile,” but the risky project ultimately went unfinished. The band salvaged some of it for the truncated release “Smiley Smile” (1967), including the iconic hit “Good Vibrations.”

“It was one of my best songs,” Wilson said.

Things took a turn for the worse when his father and former manager, Murry Wilson, sold the song catalog for just $700,000 when it was actually worth $40 million.

By 1975, Wilson had plunged into his darkest time when first wife Marilyn placed him under the control of psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy, who used a controversial 24-hour therapy throughout the 1970s and 1980s. During this time, Wilson’s condition was compounded by grief over brother Dennis’ 1983 drowning in Marina del Rey at age 39.

“I went through it and came out on the other side,” Wilson said.

In 1988, the Beach Boys found a popular resurgence with the No. 1 pop hit “Kokomo” and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that same year. Wilson attended.

His condition improved when second wife Melinda removed him from the debilitating care of Dr. Landy with a court order in 1992, allowing him to receive proper treatment.

This allowed him to finish his abandoned album “Smile” with the Grammy-winning comeback “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” (2004) and “The Smile Sessions” (2011).

“[It took so long to finish] because it had a lot of different sections to it,” Wilson said. “We used like four different recording studios to record it.”

His life’s journey was captured in the masterful movie biopic “Love & Mercy” (2014), intercutting Paul Dano as a young Wilson and John Cusack as an adult Wilson.

“I thought it was a very factual description of my life,” Wilson said. “I was proud of that movie. I thought it was a great movie.”

The film also featured memorable performances by Paul Giamatti as antagonist Dr. Landy and Elizabeth Banks as his wife Melinda showing unconditional love.

“She inspires me to write music,” Wilson said.

In 2016, Wilson released the autobiography “I Am Brian Wilson” and embarked on a “Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour.”

“I haven’t written for a couple of years, but I plan to very soon,” Wilson said.

Now, he’s touring the country again with his “Greatest Hits Live!” tour.

“I hope they feel happy that they heard something good,” Wilson said.

The audience spans generations, proving that the Beach Boys’ music lives on.

“It’s evergreen,” Wilson said. “It’s forever.”

Hear our full conversation with Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Brian Wilson (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up