The Unexpected Subject The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson Failed In School

Brian Wilson's final project for his music composition and piano class was coming due. It was 1960 and Wilson was a senior at Hawthorne High School, in the city of Hawthorne, located in Southern California. Brian, along with brothers Dennis and Carl, cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine would soon be riding high as the Beach Boys. They would eventually become one of the most important rock bands of the 1960s, with their friendly rivals the Beatles, along with the Rolling Stones and several others. But back in 1960, they were still known as the Pendletons, named after their favorite shirt brand, and were still far from the limelight.

Brian Wilson's teacher, Fred Morgan, had asked his students to write a piano sonata consisting of 120 measures that changed key five times for their final assignment. What he got from Wilson was something altogether different. "[H]e wrote thirty-two measures of music with chords in it," Morgan later recalled in "Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963." Morgan gave him an F on the assignment. Wilson took it in stride. "He failed me in the class because I didn't know how to write classical music, but he got me thinking about some of the different ways music could work," Wilson wrote in his book "I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir". The failed assignment would become the Beach Boys' first song, "Surfin'."

Surfin' launched the Beach Boys' career

Brian Wilson was a talented pianist as a child and began writing musical compositions while still a teen. In high school, Wilson divided his time between sports — he played baseball, football, and ran cross country — and his music. Fred Morgan remembered Wilson was "the quietest one in class" but a "nice boy and good student" who was "fairly popular with his classmates because he had a good laugh." While Morgan believed Wilson had "a quick mind" it didn't stop him from failing the future Beach Boy.

As previously mentioned, the failed class assignment would evolve into the song "Surfin'." Dennis Wilson, the only surfer in the group, suggested the title and theme of the song. Mike Love was listed as the co-writer of the song. Wilson and Love would eventually have a long-running feud that began with the making of what is considered one of rock's greatest albums of all time, "Pet Sounds," which Love initially didn't like. "Surfin'" was the band's entree into a recording contract with a local record label that released it as a single and changed the name of the band from the Pendletons to the Beach Boys. The record became a regional hit, selling 50,000 copies, and launched the band's career.

The Million Dollar F

Over the years, Fred Morgan has talked about sometimes mistaking "Surfin'" for "Surfin' U.S.A.", a later Beach Boys hit. "It's been called the million-dollar F," Morgan told The Daily Breeze in 1981. "What's that tell you about my musical ability?" There has also been some uncertainty as to whether Wilson failed the class or just the assignment. In "Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963," author James B. Murphy says the F on the final assignment lowered Wilson's final grade to a C. But Wilson himself recalled failing the class.

Whether or not Wilson actually failed the class or just the assignment, in January 2018, when he was 75, he returned to his old alma mater. The principal of Hawthorne High School, Dr. Vanessa Landesfeind, oversaw the changing of Wilson's grade from an F to an A. Brian Wilson apparently didn't hold a grudge about his failing grade. He recalled in his memoir that Morgan was "an interesting teacher" who taught Wilson that "music was a contrast, pale parts versus emotional parts, and that not all the instruments in a song had to go in the same direction." Wilson would go on to be hailed as a musical genius and one of the most important songwriters in the history of pop and rock.