2001 marks the 40th anniversary of the first release by the Beach Boys, the closest America came to producing a band who matched the Beatles in terms of artistic innovation and commercial impact.
2001 marks the 40th anniversary of the first release by the Beach Boys, the closest America came to producing a band who matched the Beatles in terms of artistic innovation and commercial impact. Fittingly, a rush of Beach Boys activity is coinciding with this landmark, including the recent issue of the latest batch of two-for-one original Beach Boys albums, the imminent release of the documentary album "Hawthorne, Ca.," and a lengthy series of concerts.
Lead singer Mike Love -- the only original Beach Boy still in the lineup -- is as mystified as Beach Boys fans as to why the two-fers were deleted after their original release in the early '90s. "Record companies might have a regime that really doesn't care at all about the Beach Boys and then after a while they come to realize, 'Oh the Beach Boys are still capable of selling records'," he suggests.
It was Love's lyrics that ensured the early Beach Boys music froze for posterity the '60s middle class Californian lifestyle centered around surfing, girls, and hot rods. But it was only with his victory in a 1994 court case against Beach Boys leader and musical genius Brian Wilson that he was able to prove this.
"That was weird," Love laments, "because Brian admitted that [Love had written certain song lyrics] and wanted to settle the case, but he had a conservator who advised him that he didn't have to credit me or give me compensation for writing on 'California Girls' and 'Help Me Rhonda' and so on." However, Love does acknowledge that the inaccurate composing credits had more to do with Wilson's father (and Love's uncle) Murry than with Brian. "I think it was Murry resentful of me because Brian and I fired him as manager early on. He had no control over his father. He was manipulated by him very badly," he says.
Bruce Johnston, who joined the band in 1965 and, in Wilson's continuing absence, constitutes the band's musical director, says that idyllic California lifestyle was an accurate picture, but adds, "the band didn't realize that we were singing about the end of that era in California. It's a war zone down there now. They have schools that look like prisons, there's the biggest drug dealers you've ever seen, and there are shootings."
The beach-themed songs were completely jettisoned with the 1966 release of the sophisticated "Pet Sounds," frequently cited by music critics as one of the greatest albums ever made. "Unfortunately, Capitol Records didn't know how to market that one," says Love. "It was such a change from what our other music had been up to that date and it took 'til just about last year for it to go platinum. [It is] pretty incredible when you consider that people like the Beatles have always held it in such high regards."
Much of the latest batch of two-fers cover the period immediately after "Pet Sounds," including the "Smiley Smile" album, salvaged from Wilson's aborted masterpiece, "Smile." Love dismisses the legend that Wilson went half-mad during this project trying to top the Beatles. "I think the creative dynamic that existed between the Beatles and the Beach Boys was really healthy, inspiring," he says. "I don't think that got Brian upset. I think it was LSD."
"Before that influence, Brian was extremely dynamic and resourceful in the studio and he became quite the opposite of dynamic: he was more like reclusive and timid and shy about everything." Johnston considers the "Smiley Smile" album vastly underrated, stating, "It's absolutely scary brilliant."
Other albums in the newest two-fer batch include "Wild Honey" (1967), "Friends" (1968), and "20/20" (1969), recordings marked by their mellow tone. "No stress, no strain," says Love. "It was what was called for, given Brian's mental state. He wasn't into competition, he wasn't into proving himself, yet he still liked to doodle around on the piano."
Though they are fine albums, they sold poorly at a time when the Beach Boys' "all American" image was derided as the antithesis of the radical spirit of rock'n'roll. "Overlooking the fact that Carl Wilson was a conscientious objector and went to jail," Johnston caustically notes. "The public perception is different than the reality." Asked whether they had considered ditching their outdated name, Love says, "We flirted with that: shortening it, changing it entirely, whatever. But when all's said and done, the Beach Boys is not a bad name."
Love says he would be happy to rekindle his partnership with Brian Wilson, with whom he is on cordial, but not close terms. "I think that could happen when the people that advise Brian don't steer him away but steer him towards where he's been most successful, which is with his cousin Mike," he says.
Pending such a reunion, Love can bask in the respect that the band, after a period of unfashionability, is now afforded. "In the U.S., on the oldies radio stations, the Beatles and the Beach Boys vie for No. 1 on virtually every station there is. We're in a good place, historically and artistically."
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