One of the more haunting, timeless, and beautiful Brian Wilson masterpieces. It has a pretty fascinating back story.
The song was inspired after a late night trip to the beach. Wilson recalled the events prior to him writing the song: “Lately, I’d been depressed and preoccupied with death…Looking out toward the ocean, my mind, as it did almost every hour of every day, worked to explain the inconsistencies that dominated my life; the pain, torment, and confusion and the beautiful music I was able to make. Was there an answer? Did I have no control? Had I ever? Feeling shipwrecked on an existential island, I lost myself in the balance of darkness that stretched beyond the breaking waves to the other side of the earth. The ocean was so incredibly vast, the universe was so large, and suddenly I saw myself in proportion to that, a little pebble of sand, a jellyfish floating on top of the water; traveling with the current I felt dwarfed, temporary. The next day I began writing “‘Til I Die”, perhaps the most personal song I ever wrote for The Beach Boys…In doing so, I wanted to re-create the swell of emotions that I’d felt at the beach the previous night.”
The song was written over the course of several weeks as Wilson tried to express the feelings he had experienced on that night he had spent alone at the beach. As he himself explains, “I struggled at the piano, experimenting with rhythms and chord changes, trying to emulate in sound the ocean’s shifting tides and moods as well as its sheer enormity. I wanted the music to reflect the loneliness of floating a raft in the middle of the Pacific. I wanted each note to sound as if it was disappearing into the hugeness of the universe.”
After asking Brian how he came up with the chords, Don Was recalls that “he told me that he was sitting at a piano, creating geometric patterns with his fingers, trying not to move the fingers on the outside of the patterns, but limiting changes to internal movements. When he landed on a shape that both looked cool and sounded good, he wrote it down. So, essentially he created this masterpiece by contorting his fingers into really groovy shapes.” However, Was goes on to say “I’ve absolutely no idea whether this story has any basis in truth or whether he was just making it up on the spot to entertain me.”
Wilson was crushed when one member of the group disliked the song (rumored to be the reviled Mike Love, though he later has praised it as ‘phenomenal’). Brian recalled the reaction in his book: “Mike laughed out of disgust. What a f*cking downer! he said. Carl and Al agreed. Crushed by the rejection, I walked out of the studio knowing the song was good but that I was unable to defend myself. Several days later, I went into the studio by myself and recorded “Till I Die” anyway. Eventually, out of respect, but mostly because they needed material, the song was included on the album.”
After the critique, Wilson shelved it for several months and it did not make the 20/20 album for which is was originally written. It did get completed and released on Surf’s Up in 1971, with other versions appearing on radio and later compilations. The rich, warm mix by Steve Desper is the best to my ears, and Desper is rumored to have created the great intro section himself, with guidance and steering from Wilson. Instrumentation on the song: organ, guitar, vibraphone, an RMI electra-piano, bass guitar and a Maestro Rhythm King drum machine.