The Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston remembers his first brushes with classical music: sticky August days in Los Angeles, watching the orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl with his parents. “There’d be a beautiful picnic basket dinner,” he recalls. “I’d wear a suit and my dad would wear a white dinner jacket and drink some wine. We'd sit in one of the boxes at the Hollywood Bowl and listen to the symphony.” The 75-year-old pauses, connecting the dots. “And that’s what this sounds like."
"This" being The Beach Boys With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the band's new orchestral album and their first full-on dive into classical music. The Boys didn’t have a hands-on role in the recording; they simply let the Royal Philharmonic do their thing over original recordings of “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “The Warmth of the Sun” and other highlights from the band’s body of work. The result is not only a new entry point for those unaware of or wanting a refresher on the Beach Boys, but a historical achievement: America’s Band meeting the world’s most prestigious symphony orchestra.
Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine, who performs in other touring configurations, agrees. “The symphony doesn’t get in the way of the vocals,” he says. “The vocals are the star of the show. When the mixes are a little weird or someone tries to do something with a well-known song, it never seems to work out. But this one actually takes you to another level. It’s like a punctuation mark on an entire career.”
Even over the phone, Jardine has a mellow, ethereal aura to him and a willingness to play the neutral Ringo personality in a band whose history was often dominated by egos, lawsuits and drama. These days, the Big Sur resident often tours around the nation with his son, Matt Jardine, taking audiences on a tour of the Beach Boys’ career through his lead-vocal contributions like “Sloop John B."
As Jardine says, the Philharmonic keeps it simple on this new album; given the often cash-grabby nature of these orchestral team-up releases, it’s not a rococo disaster. Instead, they subtly dip and sway in and out of the brittle old '60s mixes, sometimes adding nifty preludes and motifs to bind the set together. "It doesn’t sound like Mahler or anybody, where it takes hours to listen to," continues Johnston. "It’s beautiful seasoning. It didn’t ruin Brian’s production magic."
The result is what Mike Love -- who called from Omaha, where he and Johnston’s Beach Boys had just wrapped up a three-night stand with the local orchestra -- calls a “reincarnation” of the music.
“We would have never conceived of doing such a thing, but the elements were all there,” he says. “To hear the symphony orchestra precede the vocal parts is an amazing thing. It’s an evolutionary step.”
Plus Love, a consummate performer and the flamboyant opposite of his introverted cousin Brian Wilson, just gets a kick out of dressing a bunch of classical musicians up in beachwear. “Instead of wearing their black suits and stuff, they’re wearing ‘Aloha’ shirts,” he said of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. ‘It’s like a Tommy Bahama ad up there.”
Love and Wilson may have had their differences over the years, but on this new composition, they agree that the orchestra brings the Beach Boys’ music to new heights. Wilson himself has had the most far-reaching relationship with the classical world. During the avant-garde days of albums like Pet Sounds and the aborted Smile, he used the orchestra as a backdrop to express his deepest fears and longings, bringing the Byzantine chord structures of composers of old into a pop context.
And, as he tells Billboard, Wilson is a self-taught piano player. “I learned piano when I was 12 years old and I would play along with records,” he recalls. “I learned a lot from Bach, especially [while I was writing] ‘California Girls.’”
All four of these surviving Beach Boys exude a sense of awe and wonder about seeing their old classics transformed. They're especially aglow about the decision to use the original vocal stems, where you can clearly hear the late Carl and Dennis Wilson.
“We would have never conceived of doing such a thing, but the elements were all there because of the technology to lift those original vocal recordings off the tape and record the symphony with them,” says Love. According to Wilson, it was the best decision to use those original recordings: “It was very well-executed and it brought a lot of love and light to our album.” Jardine puts it plainly: “I don’t even feel like they’re really gone. I feel like they’re always around, somehow.”
The song choices on The Beach Boys With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, from 1963’s “Fun, Fun, Fun” to 1988’s commercial renaissance “Kokomo,” provide a fresh unity to a tumultuous history. Johnston was especially psyched that his signature song “Disney Girls (1957),” a deep cut from the band’s 1971 album Surf’s Up, was included.
“I had no idea ‘Disney Girls’ was on the album until Jerry Schilling, who spent a year and a half putting it together so we could have this album, told me. Jerry is the hero who brought this to Universal and Capitol and stuck with it. He gets the bow.”
He’s right: The importance of Schilling on Orchestra can’t be overstated. A protégé of Elvis Presley, he later helmed the Beach Boys’ holding company Brother Records -- and spent a year and a half putting this project together for the band. In fact, the album follows a series of fusion albums between the Royal Philharmonic and other rock performers, like Elvis and Roy Orbison. And the string and brass parts were recorded at none other than Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios, itself sort of a Mecca for rock and roll.
Despite the new dimensions the Royal Philharmonic brings to the Beach Boys material, Johnston is adamant about one thing: “You can’t beat Brian. You can’t make it better than Brian Wilson. No possible way. I just thought it was a great industry tip of the hat to Brian Wilson for what he created and the Beach Boys’ career.”
Although Wilson seemed surprised that other rock singers had made Royal Philharmonic albums (“Really! I didn’t know that!” he exclaimed), it clearly felt like a milestone to him. “It’s a great honor and privilege that we could be associated with that great of an orchestra. I’m very proud of it,” he says.
And even though the Beach Boys currently operate in multiple touring incarnations, with decades of acrimony and creative differences keeping their story as unpredictable as ever, there’s a boyish wonder between them. All these years later, how does it feel to hear the family band all there together, even the departed Dennis and Carl, on a brand-new trip to the symphony? “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Jardine marvels. “All you have to do is put it on. All you have to do is listen to it, and it makes you feel good. They really do sound like the best orchestra in the world.”