Popdose Flashback ’90: Wilson Phillips, “Wilson Phillips”

Written by Music, Popdose Flashback '90

I blame Mike Love.

Yes, it’s so easy to blame the guy for everything wrong in music. I mean, he’s egotistical, gave money to help get the PMRC off the ground, takes way too much credit for his contributions to the Beach Boys, and had no qualms with helping to destroy the ego of not just the best American composer of the second half of the 20th century, but a man who was both his own cousin and the reason he was making money in the first place. Plus, there’s the thing about him suing anything that breathes (by the way, if anyone in Mr. Love’s camp comes calling, this column was actually ghostwritten by a man named “Batthew Molin” with no locatable contact information). In fact, anyone familiar with this site knows our collective feelings about the man Uncle Jesse referred to as “Dr. Love” in an episode of Full House (WTF, Stamos? Ever hear of a guy by the name of Gene Simmons?). I mean, there’s a Popdose tag  that simply says “Fuck Mike Love.”

But in the case of Wilson Phillips, I think some blame can be laid right at Love’s feet. You see, Love took a partly-written song by his friend John “give papa some sugar” Phillips, added his wide knowledge of beach-related lingo, and came up with the song “Kokomo,” which became, somehow, someway, a freaking number #1 song from the Beach Boys — a version of the Beach Boys, which to Love’s delight, and many music fans’ horror, had no Brian Wilson in the mix, but did have Mr. Stamos (at least in the video). It is my belief that, cashing in on the success of the Phillips-Love collaboration, and taking into additional consideration the trend in the 1980s and early ’90s of signing second (or third) generation music acts to major label deals (think Julian Lennon, or Nelson, whose first album also came out in 1990), that led EMI subsidiary label SBK to jump when they heard that Wendy and Carnie Wilson, the two daughters of Brian Wilson, and John and Michelle Phillips’ daughter Chynna, had a “singing group.” The reality of the matter was that they sung together, but more likely closer to the way you and your friends sing along with records at a slumber party. They had never performed live, nor had any visible experience as performers, writers, or arrangers before being signed. For SBK, though, those were just small bumps on the road to making money.

The results of this lack of musical sweat and tears on the part of these young women are on display in their self-titled debut album. While they are listed as co-vocal arrangers on the album, and composers or co-composers on six of the ten tracks, this album is almost all a professional studio product that probably could have taken any three women with generally modest vocal talents at the time and produced the same results. From top to bottom, the work was mainly written, arranged, and produced by professional studio hitman Glen Ballard. With the exception of a couple of tracks, the results are overall quite bland, with slick arrangements, generic lite-rock and pop production, and vocals that pretty much betray the “arranged by” credit–as the three voices end up singing many of the same notes, and the compressed production on them removes most of the differences in vocal tone the three actually did have: Chynna’s pleasant, if generic, California girl-group delivery (much like her mom), Wendy’s slightly nasally baby-doll pout, and Carnie’s husky yet smooth tones. No matter–the final result was a wall of “blah.” The fact that the album was actually nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy in 1991 shows just how out of touch voters have been throughout the history of the award.

So what happened next? In retrospect, it’s mind blowing, and shows how much power major labels (in collaboration with MTV) still had in this time before mp3s, widespread Internet, and the general demise of record stores. The album ended up selling ten freaking million copies worldwide, making Wilson Phillips, after just one album, the largest selling female vocal group in history in terms of album sales (remember, groups like the Supremes, the Ronettes, etc. mainly sold singles, not long-players). Five singles were released from the album; three went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Which also sadly meant that had it not been for the execrable “Kokomo,” Wilson Phillips would have had in one album as many #1 songs as the Beach Boys did in their entire career. One of their #1s, “Hold On,” will occasionally get some lite-FM play even today, and is one of the catchier tracks on the record. The two other chart-toppers, though — “Release Me” and, especially, “You’re in Love” — have to be among the worst Number Ones of the 1990s: safe as milk, generally tuneless, and highly unmemorable (so unmemorable, in fact, that Jon Cummings didn’t even give them any “dishonorable mention” in his Worst Number One Songs of the ’90s column two years ago) and neither did any of the commenters (myself included). It’s like the tunes were so dull that once they left the charts we were all hit by a sense of critical amnesia as to how underwhelming they were. In fact, 20 years on, one might think cynically that a combination of corporate momentum for the group combined with some sort of backscratching between the label and radio led to three chart toppers. Though the fact that perhaps the best of the singles, the tuneful, Wendy-led “Impulsive” (which did a rather good job of reformatting the classic girl-group sounds for 1990s pop radio) didn’t make it to #1 leads me to believe that more likely sheer randomness ruled what took place in the music industry that year.

If all of this success was shocking, what came next was perhaps even more so: Their next album, Shadows and Light (1992) tanked, selling 1/10th as much as the debut, with the first two singles peaking lower than any of the singles off the debut, and the third single not even making the Hot 100. Within a year, Wilson Phillips had broken up. What happened? Most likely it was a combination of the disease of too much too soon combined with an inability of the women to be allowed to develop in any organic manner. Basically thrust out into the spotlight without any period of training, they were an act that, in the beginning, was most assuredly dependent on the corporate machine to push them forward. It certainly didn’t help that for only their second live performance, they were headlining MTV’s 1990 New Year’s Eve special–an event so traumatic for Wendy Wilson that, while singing “Impulsive,” she stood behind the other two women, turned away from the audience when not singing, and to cap it all off, actually broke out in hives by the end of the song. Once Wilson Phillips achieved such immediate and massive success, they were trapped in the same spot that most successful groups find leading up to their sophomore sets: trying to mature as artists while being  pressured to also repeat as much of the first album as possible. When Shadows and Light came out, the results impressed neither the teens who bought the first record, nor the adult market the group needed to win over to assure future survival. So, survive they did not.

In the end, the inability to stick around, improve their craft, and grow a solid fanbase — to both start and end quickly as little more than a flavor of the month — was the real tragedy in the success of Wilson Phillips, because all three of them have talent. Carnie, especially, has a very nice voice, as shown particularly on “Bells of Madness/Fantasy Is Reality,” a  collaboration with her father on Rob Wasserman’s excellent 1994 Trios album. Or listen to both Wilson daughters singing with their father on “Everything I Need,” a song from their 1997 set, The Wilsons. And then compare their reunion performance at 2003’s An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson — where they sang the Beach Boys’ “You’re So Good to Me” — to the MTV clips from 1990 and 1991. Even having been split up 10 years, they sound like a group with much more strength to their voices, and much more stage presence. Unfortunately, they have not been able to follow up their return to working group status with a proper album of new material. Instead, in 2004 they put out an album of covers (California) that was as light and insignificant as their original material, and word is that they are next going to present us this holiday season with a Christmas album — doubly strange, considering that the Wilson sisters put out a Christmas album of their own (Hey Santa) in 1993 (then re-released it in 1999), and then Carnie put out her own Christmas album just three years ago. Then, when you combine the deluge of secular Christmas product from the Wilsons with the fact Chynna Phillips is now born-again, and put out an album of Christian pop-rock just last year, you quite possibly have the makings of a real clusterfuck on the horizon, which would be a real disappointment. I’m just going to go ahead and blame Mike Love in advance for it.

The fucker.