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Author Topic: Brian's vocal decline - when is it first noticeable to you?  (Read 4629 times)
thr33
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« on: December 25, 2020, 08:14:21 AM »

Is there a particular album or single (or perhaps interview or live appearance) on which Brian's vocal decline is first noticeable to you?

It's likely variations on this topic have been discussed before, but was wondering about this specific question. To be clear, this is about the *initial* decline, not the steepest decline or the point of no return. Those sound like they happened a bit down the line in the mid-late 70s, while this was probably a number of years earlier.  
« Last Edit: December 25, 2020, 08:20:01 AM by thr33 » Logged
SMiLE Brian
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« Reply #1 on: December 25, 2020, 08:17:04 AM »

The falsetto (while still amazing) started to thin around friends and 20/20.
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« Reply #2 on: December 25, 2020, 01:05:44 PM »

I don't hear any decline until 15 Big Ones. He wasn't singing many leads in the years between Friends at 15BO; maybe if his voice was more prominent in those years, I would notice a decline.
I find it heard to listen to 15 Big Ones and The Beach Boys Love You because his voice is so awful there. Such a tragedy what happened - and I wonder if it was a case of self sabotage?
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« Reply #3 on: December 25, 2020, 03:41:05 PM »

15 Big Ones.
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« Reply #4 on: December 25, 2020, 03:58:54 PM »

It was noticeably reedier by the time of Sunflower/Surf's Up, and even more so on the 'Passing By' demo from 72 where it sounds like he can barely sustain his head voice without hurting himself (all this the result of cocaine much more so than smoking, I'd contend). But yes, the real big change didn't come til mid 70's.
« Last Edit: December 25, 2020, 03:59:32 PM by Tom » Logged
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« Reply #5 on: December 25, 2020, 07:58:27 PM »

His vocal on Dont You Just Know it may be the worst vocal he ever did before 1978.  Doesnt help that the song itself is mindboggingly stupid.

Truth be told though his vocals on 15 Big Ones and Love You are outliers, in that his voice was in worse shape than itd be afterwards until , again, 1978. Its difficult to tell how much was permanent damage before then as the sudden change wasnt as drastic as one might believe at first, nor as sudden . There are cases in the 1972 period that he sounds exactly like his 1976 self. I was told some years back that Brian would intentionally try to sound like various people. Part of the reason why his voice sounded so different was due to this, paired with lack of use in 1975 , and laryngitis. Unfortunately, he was so determined to wreck his voice that he intentionally sang in a way that would shred his voice as much as possible. Theres a clip of a 1977 show where he every lead he took is sung completely differently, like he was taking the piss out of it. Sounded like Yogi the Bear on Sloop John B.

But anyway back to the point, Id say if were talking when it started sounding bad at times, Id say 1971. As far as it changing, Id say as early as 1967. But if were talking when he first started getting a rasp, well Ive got news for you... he ALWAYS had it when singing in his natural range; he so rarely used it prior to the later 60s.

And for the record , speaking of his natural voice....Im gonna do a hot take and say that his vocal on the 1965 Ruby Baby, although hes mostly just messing around, is one of my favorite vocals he ever did
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« Reply #6 on: December 26, 2020, 04:06:26 AM »

Brian's voice changing and declining are two quite different things. For a first change to his default sound that wasn't just age, it's probably Summer Days, or post-LSD. You can hear him expanding on that more fully through Pet Sounds, experimenting with different vocal styles, singing in a less 'mannered' way, belting higher notes in his chest voice, etc.

The next noticeable change is Hawaii '67 and Wild Honey. He drops the rounded, Bob Flanigan-y stylings even more fully and starts embracing something closer to his natural speaking voice. It's lighter and the phrasing's less considered. Brian's less likely to slide up into his head voice as one smooth sound, more likely to do a clean break, leaning on the nasal squawkiness as a default rather than just something he can do. And his voice was a little weaker by then from not using it so much on the road - he bails on Wouldn't It Be Nice not because he can't do it, he just doesn't have the energy to do it easily. I don't think that's a notice of any permanent decline though. Probably for the same reason, he started going lower and lower in his head voice to cover parts that he once would've yelled on Pet Sounds.

1968 continues the trend and pushes it further. More nasal squawky high voice, more relaxed conversational full voice. He's avoiding most of the challenging stuff. And it's about here that he starts doing that fragile pushed thing from the front of his throat (I call it 'Elf Brian') that turned into his natural sound through the early 70s, even closer to speak-singing. By the time he does We're Together Again and Walk On By the squawk is in full effect, and when he tries to pull a 1963 Brian on the early Do It Again by singing the bridge up high it comes out incredibly thin and cutting, none of the fullness that used to be there. I'm sure he could've imitated his younger self slightly better with some thought, it's just not the way he sang anymore.

The 'pause' happens, and then I think the first real decline is there in the Break Away scratch vocal. It's good, but you can tell Brian's struggling to do what he used to do without extra effort. Besides not singing very often it'd add up that he first used cocaine in '69. He pulls it together for the final proper opening verses though - that's pretty much the last difficult range-y vocal where you could close your eyes and picture Pet Sounds Brian doing it. By late '69 to early '70 it's really getting noticeable. Thinner, cracking sometimes, less resonance. He's now probably the weak link in the group (after IMO being the strongest & most consistent at the Lei'd in Hawaii shows), although obviously still great when used in the right places. On Games Two Can Play he's doing Busy Doin' Nothin' but it's not happening in the same way. From there I think it's a steady decline from coke and inactivity to Murry dying. In some 1971 stuff his voice is pretty shot.

The 15 Big Ones voice is a whole other cocktail. That's a deliberate, extreme change (plus a lot of actual damage), and I don't think there's much of a suggestion of it until 1974ish. He abused his vocal chords and put on another voice so heavily in such a special combination that it made him metamorphose into Bill Murray. In He Come Down, that's a guy trying to sound like someone else, not a reflection of his natural sound. It's kind of a mystery how that did become his default talking/singing voice so quickly and so thoroughly.
« Last Edit: December 26, 2020, 11:10:13 AM by SaltyMarshmallow » Logged
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« Reply #7 on: December 26, 2020, 05:23:38 AM »

15 Big Ones, he had so little recordings available until then it wasn't really noticeable. But I remember when I first heard 15 Big Ones, I was like "WOW!
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« Reply #8 on: December 26, 2020, 06:28:52 AM »

Thank you everybody for the replies, appreciate it.
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« Reply #9 on: December 26, 2020, 07:16:35 AM »

His vocal on Dont You Just Know it may be the worst vocal he ever did before 1978.  Doesnt help that the song itself is mindboggingly stupid.
Fear to 2 stop cover?  Grin
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« Reply #10 on: December 26, 2020, 07:23:11 PM »

His vocal on Dont You Just Know it may be the worst vocal he ever did before 1978.  Doesnt help that the song itself is mindboggingly stupid.
Fear to 2 stop cover?  Grin

🤣. Dont tempt me lol
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« Reply #11 on: December 27, 2020, 08:04:52 AM »

Brian's voice changing and declining are two quite different things. For a first change to his default sound that wasn't just age, it's probably Summer Days, or post-LSD. You can hear him expanding on that more fully through Pet Sounds, experimenting with different vocal styles, singing in a less 'mannered' way, belting higher notes in his chest voice, etc.

The next noticeable change is Hawaii '67 and Wild Honey. He drops the rounded, Bob Flanigan-y stylings even more fully and starts embracing something closer to his natural speaking voice. It's lighter and the phrasing's less considered. Brian's less likely to slide up into his head voice as one smooth sound, more likely to do a clean break, leaning on the nasal squawkiness as a default rather than just something he can do. And his voice was a little weaker by then from not using it so much on the road - he bails on Wouldn't It Be Nice not because he can't do it, he just doesn't have the energy to do it easily. I don't think that's a notice of any permanent decline though. Probably for the same reason, he started going lower and lower in his head voice to cover parts that he once would've yelled on Pet Sounds.

1968 continues the trend and pushes it further. More nasal squawky high voice, more relaxed conversational full voice. He's avoiding most of the challenging stuff. And it's about here that he starts doing that fragile pushed thing from the front of his throat (I call it 'Elf Brian') that turned into his natural sound through the early 70s, even closer to speak-singing. By the time he does We're Together Again and Walk On By the squawk is in full effect, and when he tries to pull a 1963 Brian on the early Do It Again by singing the bridge up high it comes out incredibly thin and cutting, none of the fullness that used to be there. I'm sure he could've imitated his younger self slightly better with some thought, it's just not the way he sang anymore.

The 'pause' happens, and then I think the first real decline is there in the Break Away scratch vocal. It's good, but you can tell Brian's struggling to do what he used to do without extra effort. Besides not singing very often it'd add up that he first used cocaine in '69. He pulls it together for the final proper opening verses though - that's pretty much the last difficult range-y vocal where you could close your eyes and picture Pet Sounds Brian doing it. By late '69 to early '70 it's really getting noticeable. Thinner, cracking sometimes, less resonance. He's now probably the weak link in the group (after IMO being the strongest & most consistent at the Lei'd in Hawaii shows), although obviously still great when used in the right places. On Games Two Can Play he's doing Busy Doin' Nothin' but it's not happening in the same way. From there I think it's a steady decline from coke and inactivity to Murry dying. In some 1971 stuff his voice is pretty shot.

The 15 Big Ones voice is a whole other cocktail. That's a deliberate, extreme change (plus a lot of actual damage), and I don't think there's much of a suggestion of it until 1974ish. He abused his vocal chords and put on another voice so heavily in such a special combination that it made him metamorphose into Bill Murray. In He Come Down, that's a guy trying to sound like someone else, not a reflection of his natural sound. It's kind of a mystery how that did become his default talking/singing voice so quickly and so thoroughly.

I love this thoughtful analysis, but balk at the notion that Brian became the vocal "weak link" in the group...even as his voice thins and reeds out in the early 70s and he draws into the background, his tone retains that singular "Brian Wilson" quality and tonality that encapsulates the sound of the Beach Boys. To me a perfect example is the bridge/outro on "You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone;" once you pick out Brian, in a low-mid range, doing that simple buried "She don't know it" ---- that TONE! Nobody else in the group had that level of pure vibe vocally, even on such a low burn.
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« Reply #12 on: December 27, 2020, 09:18:59 AM »

when you hear Brian sing things like Awake and Sail Plane in the late '60's early '70's it's obvious his voice is still intact. What some people refer to as his voice deteriorating as early as 1967 is just a change in style of singing. To the fans it wasn't obvious until 1976, of course there is the mysterious improvement for Matchpoint.
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« Reply #13 on: December 27, 2020, 10:20:16 AM »

With due respect to Gerry, who just said the opposite: the Awake demo is the earliest Brian vocal recording I know of that would probably cause the casual listener to grimace. Granted it's a demo or guide vocal and he's not putting much effort in, but he sounds like he's struggling for breath, and it's this struggle that's the first sign of his general deterioration. The actual loss of his upper range that is so apparent on 15 Big Ones (though he recovered it for a while, somewhat, circa MIU) came later. I can hear that same struggle for breath, in greater degree, on the Passing By demo (1974?) and the 1975 version of In The Back of My Mind.
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« Reply #14 on: December 27, 2020, 11:05:53 AM »

I just went and listened to Awake and I find none of the issues that you mention. His falsetto is mostly intact. I guess it's in the ears of the beholder
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« Reply #15 on: December 27, 2020, 07:42:15 PM »

I think Salty's point pretty much holds true - yes, Brian could still sing in 69-70, but he'd lost a lot of resonance, power, consistency, flexibility, etc etc. He sounds fine on stuff like Sail Plane or Walkin, but that's because those songs are relatively easy - both melodies are quite small in range, and neither require any big changes in dynamics or register. He wasn't attempting the difficult stuff anymore - maybe he could've done This Whole World for example, but it was no longer comfortable for him to sing that way, so it probably just made better sense on all fronts to let a member of the touring group do it.

I agree 100% that it was coke and being out of practice that contributed most to Brian's initial vocal decline - not cigarettes as many have suggested. Cigs aren't ideal for the voice of course, but generally their effect is mostly to irritate/dry out the larynx. McCartney was a heavy smoker for his entire Beatles tenure and his vocal tone didn't change in any significant way until at least his 40's. Same is true for Carl Wilson. Cocaine, on the other hand, has such a dramatic effect on the health of the pharynx/nasal lining etc - it doesn't take long at all before you hear the difference with singers who've indulged in it excessively. Stevie Nicks is a very similar example to Brian imo - dramatic change around '76-77 in her case, where her upper range and flexibility disappeared, and she began sounding like she had a cold all the time. Very familiar when we think of Brian's 'shouty' sound from the 80's forwards, which was really starting to appear from about '70 onwards, and especially apparent in some of his early '70s vocals.

Also agreed that the gruff voice in the mid 70's was essentially a detour where Brian purposely 'placed' his voice very differently in order to imitate Randy Newman. He did have laryngitis in '76, and I'm sure that played a part, but overall Brian's 15BO/LY voice is not that far out of the realm of what any healthy adult male could achieve with a bit of effort (not to say that they wouldn't be hurting their voices in the process...) Overall, I'd have to say that Brian knew what he was doing at this point - at least by switching to a completely different vocal style he could regain some warmth & character in his voice, knowing that his old style of singing was no longer viable.
« Last Edit: December 27, 2020, 07:43:53 PM by Tom » Logged
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« Reply #16 on: December 27, 2020, 10:19:08 PM »

I think Salty's point pretty much holds true - yes, Brian could still sing in 69-70, but he'd lost a lot of resonance, power, consistency, flexibility, etc etc. He sounds fine on stuff like Sail Plane or Walkin, but that's because those songs are relatively easy - both melodies are quite small in range, and neither require any big changes in dynamics or register. He wasn't attempting the difficult stuff anymore - maybe he could've done This Whole World for example, but it was no longer comfortable for him to sing that way, so it probably just made better sense on all fronts to let a member of the touring group do it.

I agree 100% that it was coke and being out of practice that contributed most to Brian's initial vocal decline - not cigarettes as many have suggested. Cigs aren't ideal for the voice of course, but generally their effect is mostly to irritate/dry out the larynx. McCartney was a heavy smoker for his entire Beatles tenure and his vocal tone didn't change in any significant way until at least his 40's. Same is true for Carl Wilson. Cocaine, on the other hand, has such a dramatic effect on the health of the pharynx/nasal lining etc - it doesn't take long at all before you hear the difference with singers who've indulged in it excessively. Stevie Nicks is a very similar example to Brian imo - dramatic change around '76-77 in her case, where her upper range and flexibility disappeared, and she began sounding like she had a cold all the time. Very familiar when we think of Brian's 'shouty' sound from the 80's forwards, which was really starting to appear from about '70 onwards, and especially apparent in some of his early '70s vocals.

Also agreed that the gruff voice in the mid 70's was essentially a detour where Brian purposely 'placed' his voice very differently in order to imitate Randy Newman. He did have laryngitis in '76, and I'm sure that played a part, but overall Brian's 15BO/LY voice is not that far out of the realm of what any healthy adult male could achieve with a bit of effort (not to say that they wouldn't be hurting their voices in the process...) Overall, I'd have to say that Brian knew what he was doing at this point - at least by switching to a completely different vocal style he could regain some warmth & character in his voice, knowing that his old style of singing was no longer viable.

I rarely say something like this...

But I think this was a hell of a post and I wouldn't mind if you delved deeper into what you've posted here.
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« Reply #17 on: December 28, 2020, 12:11:46 AM »

Thanks Jim - it's a worthwhile topic imo. One has to wonder how much of Brian's relative withdrawal from recording in the early-mid 70's was to do with him feeling like he had less to offer as a vocalist. The fact that he kept on producing for other artists while singing fairly little in this period would seem to support the idea.

Any singer would understand the harsh reality that if you stop exercising/using your voice even for a few weeks, your throat muscles very quickly get weak again - you lose your sense of control, power, even pitch. It's evident from Brian's vocal progression in the late 60's that he was experiencing a degree of this, while the touring members were better equipped to handle the 'beltier' stuff in studio.

I think the example of Wouldn't It Be Nice is a good one. To belt a song like that in its original key is almost an athletic undertaking. It's not that the notes themselves are extremely challenging or high - it's more the intensity of the delivery, and the fact that it doesn't let up except for the bridge - to sing the whole thing through requires a lot of exertion, and is fatiguing if you haven't practised. The untrained singer would probably do okay for the first verse or so, but then find they're running out of energy/breath come verse 2 - even though the notes are the same, it's the sheer endurance of it.

With practice all that stuff becomes muscle memory, and it becomes easier to get that more projected sound and just sort of coast through it while also adding rasp as required. Brian could have sang it in Hawaii, but Al was better equipped to do a reliable & professional sounding job of it in that moment.

It's a bit of a chicken and egg thing when you think about it - Brian's stated that he gave Carl more leads from '67 onwards so the touring band could recreate the recordings properly, but as a result he stopped putting effort into his own voice, solidifying Carl as the new defacto lead vocalist of the Wilson trio. In any case, Brian kept challenging himself less and less as a vocalist, and was evidently comfortable to mostly sing the softer/quirky stuff while letting Carl handle the belt-ier leads.
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« Reply #18 on: December 28, 2020, 01:23:43 AM »

I once heard that Brian modelled his shouty voice after the lead vocal from The Modern Folk Quartet's This Could Be the Night. That always made perfect sense to me; he really sounds a lot like that on his Knebworth lead vocals (espacially Surfer Girl, love that performance) and parts of BW88.

I'm a huge fan of Brian's singing on Wild Honey and Friends, very expressive and soulful. It's all the more frustrating how he kind of disappeared into the group vocals (Sunflower) or almost total absence in the years that followed. Holland is one of my favorites from that time and his brief spotlight lead vocal on California Saga may be the absolute highlight of that record. Oh what could have been... Imagine Brian singing the middle-eight on Sail On, Sailor, or sharing the lead on Marcella.
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« Reply #19 on: December 28, 2020, 08:27:02 AM »

Funny you should mention that. It made me remember a terrfic interview Brian did for a French magazine in 1992, still under the Landy regime (Now it has been converted into a book):

You were  into an unique position at the time: to be a composer, producer, arranger and singer at the same time. Even Phil Spector didn't do all of that.

He tried.

Did he try to sing?

Haven't you heard a record called "This Could Be The Night"? Well, it sounded like he was singing. It's a band called The Modern Folk Quartet. There was a guy in the Quartet who had a nasal sound, and Phil Spector made it amazing sound. It was the first time that I had really heard him take care of an ordinary singer. Instead of Bill Medley or the Ronettes, all those great singers, he tried an average singer, okay? And it works. I have a copy somewhere, I don't know where.
« Last Edit: December 28, 2020, 08:28:21 AM by Pablo. » Logged
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« Reply #20 on: December 28, 2020, 10:16:09 PM »

That's amazing! Is this interview on the web somewhere? Would love to read it!
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« Reply #21 on: December 29, 2020, 07:03:32 AM »

Loving this discussion.

Totally off topic, but I just realized "All I Wanna Do" borrows a few things from "This Could Be The Night".

1) The verse chord changes.
2) The key (okay, it's about a full step off)

... and the whammy

3) The bridge. Same chords, same idea of it being wordless (instrumental in the former's case) and the bassline is extremely similar!

Anyone else catch that?

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« Reply #22 on: December 29, 2020, 08:05:29 AM »

That's amazing! Is this interview on the web somewhere? Would love to read it!

I don't think so. It has been collected on a small book called (wait for it...) "Brian Wilson", by Michka Assayas. It's in French (I have a magazine with an abriged version in Spanish). An epub is out there. Google does a pretty good translation.

Of course, it goes without saying that Brian did "This Could Be The Night" for a Nilsson tribute, a gifted singer who wrecked his voice even more than Brian.
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« Reply #23 on: December 29, 2020, 08:54:20 AM »

For me, the earliest cases of Brian's vocal decline start in the early 70's, particularly with the demo of Awake. Yes, it's a demo/guide vocal, but notes that would've once sounded painless now sound very strained.

With that said, I'm of the opinion that Brian's voice never has declined as much as 15BO or even recent Pet Sounds tours indicate. Despite the effects of cigarettes and cocaine, I think Brian has always been able to re-channel his iconic falsetto when he wants to. This Beautiful Day comes to mind as a recent example.

Check out Brian singing a few moments of Surfer Girl in this interview at 2:00. He sounds identical. It's pretty astounding.

I think he has just evolved over the years in the way he likes to use his voice as instrument. In the 60's it was that pure falsetto, in the 70's it was that gruff "Randy Newman" voice, in the 80's and 90's it was the "shouty" voice, and in the last few years he's positioned himself as a talk-singing crooner. It would probably get boring to sing in the exact same way for 60+ years, so in my mind, a lot of the different stylings reflect experimentation, rather than decline.
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« Reply #24 on: December 29, 2020, 10:38:33 AM »

I don't really agree with that assesment. For better or worse, chemical/psychological changes in the Landy days mean Brian hasn't sounded at all like the same person since the 80s. Not saying it's good or bad, he just hasn't, especially not after re-training his singing for Imagination. Some of his best latter day vocals on the Gershwin and Disney albums are the farthest from his young self he's ever gotten. The synapses and muscles don't connect in the same way anymore.

Brian didn't sing actual falsetto when he was younger, almost ever. His signature sound was a clear unbroken head voice. Starting probably in the late 70s he lost the ability to fully support that and started mixing in some falsetto (thinking She's Got Rhythm, not Love You), and it's pretty much the sound he's retained to this day when he manages to call on it. Those examples are more Getcha Back or Love and Mercy than what we'd think of as classic Brian.

Also, great posts Tom - more eloquently said than mine!
« Last Edit: December 29, 2020, 10:43:58 AM by SaltyMarshmallow » Logged
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