"Catch a wave and you're sittin' on top of the world." -- Brian Wilson and Mike Love
In 1961, a Los Angeles band called the Pendletones changed their name to the Beach Boys and released their first single, “Surfin’." Although they didn’t know it at the time, the band would go on to peddle the California dream to untold millions of listeners around the world: hot rod cars, drag races, drive-in hamburger stands, the Pacific Ocean, surfboards and suntanned girls that outnumbered boys by ten to one.
The Beach Boys were composed of the Wilson brothers – Brian, Dennis and Carl – their cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine. The band jumped to the forefront of pop music with subsequent hits like “Surfin’ USA," “Fun, Fun, Fun" and “I Get Around."
But by the mid-'60s, the highly successful band began coming apart at the seams. Brian Wilson, the boy wonder behind their unique sound, had a nervous breakdown and ceased touring with the group. Lyricist Mike Love began wondering why he wasn’t credited on the records and where his songwriting royalties were. And the happy-go-lucky drummer, Dennis, began to experiment with the many controlled substances available at the time. Even worse, the boys' father, Murry Wilson, was a tyrant who relentlessly bullied the group members until he was fired by Brian.
Before he and the Beach Boys take the Riverside stage on Saturday, Dec. 17, Mike Love spoke candidly about the band, the music, internal strife and keeping the Beach Boys on the road 60 years after those groundbreaking singles hit the airwaves.
OnMilwaukee: Many fans still think Brian was the sole mastermind behind the Beach Boys.
Mike Love: My cousin was a musical genius, but he didn’t do it by himself. I wrote the words to many of the songs. I was the chief lyricist. We partnered that way. I couldn’t work with other musicians the way Brian did. Chord progressions, arrangements, melodies: He was brilliant at that. A good melody and good words are what makes a good pop music story.
When did you discover your ability to pair words with music?
When I was in school, I read all the time. Poetry, literature, things like that. And I love languages. I’ve always enjoyed communicating thoughts and feelings with words. Someday I’d like to make a documentary about what Brian did, what I did, and how all the other guys who were playing and singing fit in.
What was the collaborative process on a song like “Fun, Fun, Fun”?
Good question. Brian came up with, “I’m a real cool kid, I’m making lots of bread” as the beginning of the song. I liked those lines, but I thought it should begin with something more like, "Ba-ba-ba, ba-Barbara Ann," you know? That intro became “’Round, ‘round, get around, I get around." Sometimes we wrote beautiful songs together in the middle of the night. Brian and I were best friends long before the band came along, but that didn’t last.
Brian created the music, and you became the voice of the band.
I did, but I never thought of it that way because Carl or Al Jardine would do the middle parts while Brian sang the high parts. I sang the bass parts on ballads like “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl." We all blended so well. Brian studied the Four Freshmen’s four-part vocal harmonies and taught us to sing like that.
What inspired you to play surf music?
When we started out, we did cover songs like the Beatles, the Stones and all the other bands. The Beatles covered Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” and so did we. When we began writing our own material, we took advantage of what was right in front of us – the waves, the beach, the ocean – that was only a few blocks from our houses and that’s where we discovered the surfer crowd. They talked a certain way, they had their own way of dressing, and they were like no one else. We became the first group to sing about surfing. I was never a good surfer, but I could sing about it. (Laughs) Dennis was the only one of us who could actually surf.
I’ve read uncomplimentary things about the Wilsons’ dad. Was he a good manager?
I’d say on one hand it was positive because Murry was a pusher. He promoted us to Capitol (Records) and got us airplay on the radio. But he was a negative force because he froze me out of compensation for the songs I co-wrote. That was no fun at all. I suppose he wanted everything to go to Brian. But he was my uncle! I didn’t pay much attention in the early years because Brian and I were friends, and I never thought Murry would do something like that. He was mean-spirited, I’m sorry to say.
How did things get so out of hand?
Well, the Beach Boys’ career and music is an American success story, but the relationships and lifestyles of some of the band members were very self-destructive, and therefore tragic. You need to separate the two because of the joy and happiness we brought to the audience each night. Looking at it all, I think it’s a mixed blessing.
Are you doing a Christmas show at the Riverside?
We’re just doing a couple Christmas songs, and that reflects the Wilson and Love family traditions from long before we became a band. The families, neighbors and friends would get together, and this huge group would go from house to house singing carols. So, this year, we’re caroling at the Riverside. But we’ve got so many songs the audience wants to hear, and we’ll do a lot of those. I think we’re going to do “Kokomo," which is one of my favorites.
You wrote that with John Phillips.
Ah, you’ve done your homework. (Laughs) John was a fantastic songwriter, and I’m pretty sure “Kokomo” was our biggest-selling single. It’s been used in movies, television shows and commercials for decades. We do an homage to John in our show, “California Dreaming."
You don’t need to work, but the band is always touring.
That’s true. I treasure the moments onstage. I look out and see great grandparents, grandparents, their children and the grandkids, entire generations enjoying our music together. We’ve played the Wisconsin State Fair a number of times, and that’s a great place to see families. I’ve been blessed to take a family tradition of singing together and turn it into a profession. It’d been a privilege.