Despite being the youngest member of The Beach Boys, guitarist Carl Wilson, born on 21 December 1946, took centre-stage on many of their greatest moments. Elder brother Brian knew that Carl’s pure, radiant vocals were perfect for songs like ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Good Vibrations’, but as he matured, Carl showed that he was much more than a set of heavenly pipes, earning his production stripes in the late 60s and early 70s, and effectively assuming the role of the band’s leader as they became a hot live ticket. Were it not for his untimely passing, aged 51, on 6 February 1991, he doubtless would have offered much more. Here we honour Carl Wilson’s memory with a guide to his ten best Beach Boys songs.
Think we’ve missed some of yours? Let us know in the comments section, below.
Carl Wilson’s Best Beach Boys Songs: 10 Essential Tracks
10: ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ (1965)
This tale of a summer fling is significant in that it was Carl’s first major lead vocal for The Beach Boys (we’re not counting 1964’s ‘Pom-Pom Play Girl’). It appeared on the 1965 album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), Brian writing in the sleevenotes, “I’m glad I finally wrote a song Carl dug singin’.” He knew his brother well – Carl really grows into it (just hear the way he flies into the last, “I’m the guy-uy-uy who/Left you with tears in his eyes…”). It’s a masterful piece of acoustic pop that chimed with the times – not only with the sound of the Help!-era Beatles, but also their US counterparts, The Byrds.
9: ‘All This Is That’ (1972)
As the 70s progressed, Carl became the de facto leader of The Beach Boys, as reflected in the title of their 1972 album, Carl & The Passions – “So Tough” (it refers to one of Carl’s early groups). He’s the only band member to feature on every track of that album, producing and knitting together a seemingly disparate set of songs. His vocals elevate Mike Love and Al Jardine’s ‘All This Is That’ from a cosmically-lilting, peaceful and subtle track into something transcendent. Jardine told this writer that he gave Carl a writing credit on the song purely thanks to the way he sang the closing “jai guru dev”: “Carl’s voice on there is just magnificent. And hitting that note, jeez… It’s the best part of the song.”
8: ‘You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone’ (1972)
Written by Brian Wilson and the group’s then manager, Jack Rieley, ‘You Need A Mess Of Help…’ made for a powerful opening to Carl & The Passions…, largely thanks to Carl’s powerful production, nimble arrangement and gutsy vocals. About as raucous as The Beach Boys would get, it obviously suited Carl – he really lets rip here.
7: ‘I Can Hear Music’ (1969)
A cover of The Ronettes’ 1966 single, ‘I Can Hear Music’ marked Carl Wilson’s first hit as producer and arranger, suggesting that he wasn’t the only Wilson brother enamoured with Phil Spector’s music. Rather than constructing a dense and imposing Wall Of Sound, Carl opted for an airy, bucolic treatment, his lead vocal gliding over banks of classic Beach Boys harmonies.
6: ‘Long Promised Road’ (1971)
Alongside his brother Dennis’ early 70s material, Carl’s contributions to Surf’s Up suggest a tantalising alternate route The Beach Boys could have taken. ‘Long Promised Road’ was a reflective and mature demonstration of Carl’s blossoming talent and incredible potential – from downcast verses, his vocals flecked with hard-won experience, to gritty and jubilant choruses full of soul, to extended passages of spectral beauty.
5: ‘The Trader’ (1974)
When The Beach Boys upped sticks to the village of Baambrugge, in the Dutch province of Utrecht, to record 1974’s Holland, it seemed to elicit some homesickness in the group, inspiring them to write a batch of songs about their California home. ‘The Trader’ concerned itself with US history – its lyrics, by then manager Jack Rieley, taking in colonialism – but it was also in keeping with the roots-informed Americana of groups like Little Feat and The Band. Carl was the musical driving force, creating an epic song in two parts: the first a funky strut; the second a drifting and lush extended coda.
4: ‘Darlin’’ (1967)
Alongside his skills as writer and producer, Brian had an uncanny ability to match songs with their singers. Carl’s ability to dig deep for gutsy, soulful vocals made him a perfect fit for the Frankie Valli-meets-R&B stomper ‘Darlin’’. The song became a live staple at Beach Boys concerts, with Carl proving that no one sang “Doggone outta sight!” quite like him.
3: ‘Surf’s Up’ (1971)
When Brian Wilson consented to the use of ‘Surf’s Up’ – the most significant part of the SMiLE jigsaw that hadn’t previously been released in some form – for the 1971 album that would take its name, it was Carl who would again take centre-stage. Opening the song, his poise is the perfect fit, at once stately and tinged with trepidation, until his spectacular vocal gymnastics on the refrain of “Columnated ruins domino…”
2: ‘Feel Flows’ (1971)
Another Surf’s Up song that saw Carl prove he could match his brother’s flair for sonic invention. ‘Feel Flows’ is a wistful, sun-dappled wonder – all Moog synth textures, stinging guitar solos, free jazz-inspired flutes and phased backing vocals – that’s a very long way from ‘Surfin’ Safari’. Carl is at the centre of it all, sage-like as the song shimmers around him..
1: ‘God Only Knows’ (1966)
One of the countless masterstrokes that made up ‘God Only Knows’ was Brian selflessly handing lead vocal duties to Carl, after realising his own voice wasn’t right for the song. As he said in a 1996 interview to promote the Pet Sounds Sessions box set: “Well, I thought I was gonna do it. As the song progressed, I said, ‘Hey, I feel kind of natural doing this.’ But when we completed creating the song, I said my brother Carl will probably be able to impart the message better than I could, so I sacrificed that one.” His instinct was right. Carl sang the song beautifully, capturing the tenderness and spirituality of a true masterpiece.
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