ENDLESS SUMMER OF LOVE
by Paul Freeman (2009)
Summer means fun... and The Beach Boys.
In an era when it seemed you had to be British to top the charts, tons of the hits - from “I Get Around” to “Good Vibrations’”- made The Beach Boys America’s pop culture phenomenon. Mike Love’s cool vocals and charismatic stage presence were big parts of the band’s appeal. He co-wrote many of the group’s most popular songs, as well.
In 1961, the Wilson brothers - Brian, Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, and pal Al Jardine formed The Beach Boys. Music had always been a big part of all family gatherings.
“It was completely environmental culture with us,” Love told us. “Music was a real presence in our lives, growing up. My mom sang in a trio. Murray [The Wilsons’ father and the band’s original manager] was a songwriter. There was a vocal quartet in the ‘40s. Music was pervasive in both our households, the Wilsons and the Loves.
“We really liked singing harmonies - Everly Brothers, doo wop songs, once in awhile a Four Freshman song.”
After The Beach Boys became local Southern Cal faves, Capitol Records marketed them as international superstars. “Surfin’ Safari” was their first smash.
“We liked singing all the songs of the day,” Love said. “When we were asked to do a folk song, originally. We liked Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary - pretty good. But we’re not really folkies. We’re more into R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. And specifically, we wanted to do a song about surfing, because it’s a whole lifestyle - a way of dressing, walking, an attitude, an actual activity - and it wasn’t sung about yet by anybody.
“There were what we call ‘surf bands’ in Southern California. But nobody was singing about surfing. We were the first ones to do that, I think. Dick Dale was an incredible guitarist... still is. monster guitar player. And he played songs that surfers really liked. And yet nobody did a song that was actually about surfing, per se. We were the first ones to do that, with ‘Surfin’’ and ‘Surfin’ Safari,’ ‘Catch A Wave,’ ‘Hawaii’ and ‘Don’t Back Down,’ ‘Noble Surfer,’ ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.,’ that kind of thing.
“Dennis and myself and Alan all were aficionados of surfing. In high school, long before The Beach Boys started, if the surf was up, me and a couple of my friends would cut out and go to the beach and attempt to surf. It’s hard. It’s a hard-ass sport.
“’Catch A Wave’ says, ‘Don’t be afraid to try the greatest sport around. You don’t just have to put it down.”
The Beach Boys painted an idyllic picture of what California might be... or should be. “In advertising, they call that heightened reality. ‘California Girls’ was heightened reality.”
It was the vocal blends that sent listeners’ spirits soaring. “That distinguishes The Beach Boys from any other rock or pop group - our blend and our harmonies.”
Love believed it was worth pursuing their musical dream. “I remember my dad saying, ‘What if this doesn’t work out?’ I said,’Well, I guess I’ll be back here doing sheet metal work.’ I was a sheet metal apprentice at one time. That was my dad’s and my grandfather’s business. But I didn’t like it. It wasn’t for me. I had a chance to pursue music, which was great. ”
Original songs about surfing and drag racing, as well as girls, of course, made The Beach Boys overnight sensations.
Love recalled a 1962 show at a Minnesota ballroom. “We were doing four sets. It was sold out. Kids were breaking the windows to get into the place. After the second set, we went outside to get some air, because it was so packed inside. We looked down the road and there were cars still lined up for miles.
“I said to Brian, ‘Gee, this must have been what it was like when Elvis Presley started out.’ Because that our frame of reference for rock ‘n’ roll success. That was the first time I thought, ‘Wow, something pretty special’s going on here.’”
On stage, Love displayed an infectious sense of fun. “It wasn’t so natural when I first started. When we did our first show as The Beach Boys, it was at the Richie Valens Memorial Dance and Show, December 31st, 1961, in the Long Beach Municipal auditorium, Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, featuring the Ikettes, were on the show, too. Tina Turner was an Ikette at that time. They were incredible. What a groove he laid down. He succumbed to a cocaine overdose at 75 or so - that was smart, huh? Anyway, The Rivingtons were on that show. They did ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,’ which we covered later on a live album. We did three songs, got paid $60 each. I thought, ‘That’s pretty good for three songs.’
“I was nervous. After that I said, if we’re going to do this stuff, I’m just going to go out and do as well as I can. We’re going to do our songs as well as we can. I’m not going to worry about getting nervous. You’re not going to please everybody. I just made up my mind to go out and do the best I could and that was just going to have to be enough. I just don’t like that feeing of being all anxious and worked up and stressed out over doing a performance.
“On that basis, I started coming out of my introverted shell. Until I got into The Beach Boys, I was definitely introverted when it came to that kind of thing.
“Then I thought, ‘Who wants to see somebody who’s just singing and looking at his shoes?’ So I started to act out the songs a little bit, whether through hand gestures or running around or whatever it might, dancing along to the appropriate songs. I just made it up as I went along. I never practiced in front of the mirror like Mick Jagger, though. I don’t know if I could bump and grind like he does, anyway.”
Not even the mid-’60s British Invasion could dry up The Beach Boys’ big splash. The Beatles and The Beach Boys had a complex relationship.
“There was definitely a rivalry, but it was more of a mutual appreciation than anything else,” Love said. “ It’s like we’d hear ‘Satisfaction’ by The Stones and go, ‘Wow, what a great record.’
“There’s been nobody more successful than The Beatles. But in 1966, we were voted the number one group in England. ‘Good Vibrations’ went to number in England. In the Top 20 at the time, there was no Beatles and no Stones. So we were the number one group in England. Number two Beatles, number three Rolling Stones. So that felt pretty good, in the midst of all the Beatlemania in the world, to have a record that gets us voted in their home country as the number one group. That was pretty cool.
“The ‘Pet Sounds’ album and ‘Good Vibrations’ were both in that year. The year before, we had ‘California Girls,’ which wasn’t chopped liver either.”
“Pet Sounds” was an adventurous project. “It finally sold a million copies. But it took 20 years, because Capitol Records didn’t know what to do with it Brian and I went to present it to the A&R guy and he said, ‘Gee guys, can’t you do anything more like ‘California Girls’ or ‘I Get Around’ or ‘Fun, Fun Fun’? They were used to those kind of hits, what they called ‘surf music.’ To have something with symphonic orchestrations and these great arrangements and different subject matter, more introspective, less objective, as in car, surfboard and girl, they didn’t know what to do with it. It took a long time to go platinum.
“But in the meantime, other performers and artists, writers and singers and what have you, they all loved that album and totally got into it.”
“Smile,” considered Brian Wilson’s long-lost masterpiece, took decades before seeing the light of day as a fully realized album.
Love had issues with the project. “The music was brilliant - that’s Brian. But the lyrics were Van Dyke Parks. And I, being a lyricist, I like the lyrics to connect with the listener. For instance, on ‘Good Vibrations,’ when I first heard the completed version of the track, which was going to be the single, I said, ‘Wow! That’s far out. It’s a groove. But it’s so freaky, how are people going to relate to it? I said, ‘Well, the way people are going to relate to it is boy-girl. ‘I’m pickin’ up good vibrations. She’s givin’ me the excitations.’ So I wrote the words from the perspective of a flower power poem and it merged beautifully with that track, our psychedelic song. And it went to number one. It was not derivative at all. It’s so unlike any other pop song.
“With ‘Smile,’ I asked Van Dyke Parks, ‘What is ‘Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield’ or ‘Have you seen the Grand Coulee working on the railroad?’ I know what he was talking about. But I called it, ‘acid alliteration.’ Then I get a lot of shit for having an opinion. People think I don’t like this or that or the other thing.
“I’ve been accused of not liking ‘Pet Sounds,’ which is absolute horseshit. I worked as hard on that album as anybody other than Brian Wilson. There’s been a lot of misconceptions as to what I liked or didn’t like. But, to be honest, the lyrics for a lot of the ‘Smile’ stuff that Van Dyke came up with, weren’t my cup of tea. Not to say he’s not brilliant. Van Dyke Parks is a brilliant musician and a very nice guy and interesting fellow. But I plead guilty to the fact that I like to have songs be successful and connect with the listener. So I wrote the words to ‘Help Me Rhonda,’ ‘ Surfin’ U.S.A.’, which I still have not gotten credit on. Chuck Berry didn’t write any surfing lyrics. ‘Fun Fun Fun,’ all these songs that have to do with little vignettes that depict life, particularly in Southern California, growing up. ‘Do It Again’ went to number on in England. It was about going surfing again with my high school buddies. Actually it was about 10 years after we graduated.”
In 1968, Love and The Beatles, along with Donovan and Mia Farrow, made a pilgrimage to an ashram in India to study Transcendental Meditation with the Mahareshi.
“I’m absolutely certain I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, if I hadn’t been meditating all these years. That’s the one thing that can wear you down is the amount of traveling we do. So, if I get a little tired, I’ll just do an extra meditation.
“It doesn’t replace sleep. But it’s been established through research that it helps to recover from sleep deprivation. The biochemistry of your blood actually changes. You feel more refreshed. If you’re feeling irritable or stressed, which is a chemical reaction from all the stuff you confront in life - meditation clears that up substantially. It makes it much easier to perform and to keep a positive attitude.
“There a lot of negative things going on in people’s personal lives and in the world, but rather than dwell on all that negativity, or wallow in it, I’ve always felt that to accentuate the positive was the thing to do. Even if something is negative, I try to put a positive spin on it. We like to sing about more uplifting things, if we can.
“The song ‘The Warmth of the Sun,’ the whole premise was, okay, somebody you’re in love with doesn’t feel the same way anymore... and that’s a bummer. But still, you did at one time, have that feeling of being in love and that’s the warmth of the sun. It’s no fun when a romance ends. When somebody goes in another direction in your life and you’re really into it, it’s no fun at all. But at least you were able to feel that wonderful feeling for a while.
“When we wrote that song, ‘Warmth of the Sun,’ the morning after we wrote it, we were wakened to the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. So it was a very emotional time and a very tragic time. The mood was completely melancholy. I think it shows up on the recording. We didn’t rewrite the words to fit that occasion. But the recording has all that emotion in it. Still, it has that silver lining on the cumulus-nimbus cloud.”
Despite traumas, trials and tragedies, The Beach Boys’ music is remembered for its sun and fun. Brian Wilson took a lengthy detour due to drug and mental problems.
“I’m a Pisces and Brian Wilson is a Gemini. The astrologists say that PIsces work from inspiration and Geminis sometimes work from desperation... or melancholy. Either way is good. From the melancholy side, you can get really moody and come up with some beautiful melodies and harmonies, which Brian absolutely has done.”
Of the songwriting process, Love said, “A lot of times, Brian would have a melody, but no words. Like ‘California Girls,’ I wrote all the words to that. He did the track and the vocal arrangements. It was a great collaboration. While he was working on the tracking, I’d be writing the lyrics. Bruce Johnston remembers me in the hallway, writing all the words out. We still sing it every night that we’re performing. It works.
“I love the intro. It’s like a mini-symphonic overture, the opening bars of ‘California Girls.’”
Love always seemed to know what would work as commercial pop-rock. “It’s a function of listening to radio, from the mid-’50s into the early ‘60s. All the great songs. We really loved all the R&B doo wop stuff. Also, Chuck Berry, the hooks he had with his guitar licks, which influenced almost every guitar player in rock ‘n’ roll. There may be any number of guys who can play better than him, but the hooks he came up with are amazing. And his lyrics and his sense of storytelling, the lyric hooks that he came up with, stick in the mind. That greatly influenced me.
“I always appreciated poetry. From a lyrical standpoint, I was writing poetry when I was in grade school, junior high school. So it was natural for me to be the lyricist to Brian’s musician. Yet, I would come up things like, the intro to ‘I Get Around’ was somewhat more protracted. I said, ‘No, no, let’s start it more like ‘Barbara Ann,’ which was ‘Ba-Ba-Ba, Ba-Barbara Ann.’ I said let’s go with ‘’Round, round, get around. I get around.’ It’s the same kind of syncopation. Same hooky beat. I came up with ‘I’m picking’ up good vibrations, she’s sending me excitations,’ As well as, ‘Aruba, Jamaica, ooh, I wanna take ya.’ That’s the R&B influence in ‘Good VIbrations’ and in ‘Kokomo.’”
“Kokomo” was recorded without Brian Wilson. “Brian was around, but at that time, Eugene Landy, his psycho psychotherapist, was involved and didn’t want Brian to participate in the recording, unless Landy was the producer. But we had the producer - Terry Melcher, who was quite capable of producing a hit. So that didn’t work. So Landy withheld Brian from the session, much to Brian’s later chagrin. It went to number one and actually was the most successful single that we’ve had.”
Love had a knack for writing perfectly hooky lyrics for many of Wilson’s catchiest melodies. But Love had to go to court to get credit and royalties for many of the songs.
“Brian actually wanted to rectify it, but Brian was in a conservatorship and his attorney said, ‘Too much time has passed. The statute of limitations has past. So Mike has no recourse.’ So even though, ethically Brian wanted to change it, he couldn’t, because he wasn’t in charge of his own business affairs. Even in court, Brian took the stand and said, ‘Yeah, Mike and I wrote that.’
“It’s an absolute drag that that happened, but with Brian and his emotional problems he had an inability to deal with his father Murray and Murray’s outright vindictiveness towards me. It was a real bummer, but, ultimately, it was, for the most part, resolved. We fired him as manager after a couple of years... and that’s where the vindictiveness came in. He was a conniving person. I didn’t even know what publishing was, when we started. He did. And he basically took it away from Brian and myself and his other two sons and basically disenfranchised us. I sold it for $750,000 and it’s worth millions and millions.”
Brian Wilson is indeed the tortured genius. But there would be no Beach Boys without Mike Love. “What there wouldn’t be is as many hits,’ Love laughed. “If you subtracted all my words and all my hooks that I offered, you’d be hard-pressed to find a top 10 in there.”
It’s been a long time since Love collaborated with WIlson. “I have an attitude about that,” Love said, “which is, you’re free to do whatever you want to do. But his success came with Brian and Mike. He did a thing called ‘Lucky Old Sun,’ more Van Dyke Parks. But he has yet to get together with cousin Mike. There’s a lot of things that come along with Brian, mentally, emotionally and what have you. The fact that we go back to childhood together is a plus. There’s a connection there, a symbiosis there, a knowingness about where Brian’s strengths are and what mine are. We complement each other.
“Musically, he could come up with some beautiful chord structures, especially harmonies, some great melodies, chord progressions. Like ‘When I Grow Up To Be A Man,’ we do it in our show lately. And I love doing it. Those harmonies are incredible, for a pop song.
“There’s some harmonies in our songs that no other group has done, not in the Top 40 end of things. A lot of people sing great, have a great lead singer, but as far as four-part harmony, they’re few and far between. There’s lots of two, lots of three. But four-part harmonies, especially with the chord progressions that Brian’s able to bring into things, that’s pretty rare.
“Despite problems or issues or setbacks or ups or downs or all arounds, that love of the harmony, love of the music, shined through. I think that’s what people continue to respond to.”
With the band’s 50th anniversary coming up, Love envisions bringing Brian Wilson and Al Jardine back into the fold. “I’ve spoken to Al and he’s done some new music. I’ve done some music. And Brian’s always at the piano. We have a 50th anniversary coming up. It only makes sense to get together, go through everybody’s stuff and see what we can do, maybe some new stuff, maybe stuff that’s been percolating for a few years. Al’s got some good stuff. I’ve got some good things, I think. I’ve recorded 18 or 20 songs which I’ve not come out with, which are waiting for the days, as it says in the ‘Pet Sounds’ album
“There have definitely been issues. But they’re in the past. So I think we can re-approach whatever it might be. I’d really like to see a PBS special done, ourselves with guests, friends or people who have held The Beach Boys in high regard and would like to join us in versions of our songs.”
Love would also like to see a movie or theatrical musical along the lines of “Mamma Mia.” “If you put a really good story together and incorporated Beach Boys music, that would be very cool. Another thing is a Broadway show. They did one called ‘Good Vibrations,’ but it didn’t last. It was not a great script. But the music is timeless. The weakness in the show they tried was that the story had nothing to do with The Beach Boys. Look at the success of ‘Jersey Boys.’ That should tell you that people like stories with a lot of dramatic, truthful elements. And that’s what I think needs to be done with The Beach Boys.”
There’s another potential recording project that intrigues Love. “We have done shows with symphonic orchestras, in various places around the country. I would absolutely love to do some recording with a symphony orchestra, maybe do a double, symphonic album live. That would be pretty amazing.”
Has there been any downside to a life of pop stardom? “There’s a lot of missing your home, a lot of being away from your children, family, wife, girlfriend. I try to be at as many things as I can. I get up in the morning and make breakfast for my youngest, the 13-year-old, before she goes to school. Even if I get in at two in the morning, I’ll get up at six to make her breakfast. There’s a connection there - she knows that Dad loves her enough to do that. It’s little things like that you try to do, because you do miss a lot of little things, when you can’t be there.”
The Beach Boys have impacted countless musical artists. But Love would rather have a different sort of imprint.
“Look what happened, Dennis Wilson, 1983, died way too young. Carl Wilson smoked since he was 13. Died of lung cancer. Major boo-boos - cigarettes, drugs, alcohol. The best influence would be if we could prevail on people to find other ways of getting high, like taking a walk, playing golf, yoga, meditating. There’s a lot of great things you can do with your mind and your body and your life and not get all overwhelmed by stress or self-indulgent to the point of destruction.”
Listening to Beach Boys songs can also be a healthy high. “When you think of the music of the late ‘60s, all that psychedelic stuff, there’s not that much played on oldies radio. There’s some tremendous music. Hendrix was fabulous. But by and large, the main stuff you hear on oldies radio is The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Motown.
“Those songs make people happy. They love them - children, pre-teens, teens, young adults, adults, middle-aged, seniors - they all like The Beach Boys. It’s quite amazing when you do a state fair or something like that and entire families come out.
“I have a 13-year-old daughter who, three years ago, came home from school, saying,’Hey Dad, my fourth-grade class’s favorite song is’ Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ It came out on the ‘Pet Sounds’ album exactly 40 years before she said that. But when you look at the lyrics - Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long. Wouldn’t it be nice to live together, in the kind of world where we belong? Nothing’s gonna make it that much better. We can spend the night and stay together.’ For a young person who’s got a crush, if they’re romantically inclined, that song is right on.
“The music will live on in the minds and hearts of people for a long time,” Love said. “They still play Beethoven, Bach and what have you. Who knows? Maybe a hundred years from now, they’ll play The Beatles and The Beach Boys, too. These songs make people happy, people of all ages.”
People never tire of hearing Beach Boys songs and Mike Love never tires of singing them. “As long as people like what we’re doing and as long as we like to do what they like, as long as we’re healthy and have good attitudes. The nature of an artist of any kind is to do his or her art. It’s not like you have to flog a person to make them go on stage. It’s second nature for those of who grew up with music and were blessed enough to have it go from being a hobby to a profession.”
The endless summer continues.