Let”s do it again! Fifty years after creating the soundtrack to summer, the Beach Boys are back on the road
Rewind to 50 years ago. Five fresh-faced young men — three brothers, their cousin and a friend — have formed a band and are driving a battered old van to a New Year’s Eve dance where they have been hired for their first paying gig.
They are bottom of a bill headlined by Ike and Tina Turner. However, with the promise of 25 each, they are prepared to play all night if necessary.
But as they walk on stage, they wonder if they are out of their depth.
The Beach Boys in London in 1964 (l-r): Carl, Brian and Dennis Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine
‘We were asking each other what the hell we were doing there,’ the group’s leader recalls now. ‘We were five clean-cut, unworldly white boys from a conservative white suburb in an auditorium full of black kids.’
But they needn’t have worried. The crowd applauded wildly and called them back for several encores.
It was the night that the Beach Boys were born. Band leader Brian Wilson and his brothers Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine went on to become America’s most iconic group.
Hits like Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl, Good Vibrations, I Get Around, Wouldn’t It Be Nice and Help Me Rhonda established them as a serious challenge to The Beatles, who were taking the U.S. by storm.
It’s been a five-decade roller-coaster ride for them — or, as Brian put it this week, ‘a rock ’n’ roller-coaster’ — with the many incredible highs interspersed with rows, tragedies, legal wrangles and personal problems. But the surviving members of the group are reuniting to make 2012 their golden anniversary year, commemorating their first major record deal with the Capitol label.
‘We are making a new studio album, re-issuing a lot of our hits, and in April we will embark on a 50-date world tour,’ says Brian. ‘And, yes, we are planning to play in the UK.’
Back in harmony (l-r): Brian Wilson, David Marks, Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine and Mike Love
Pet Sounds: The Beach Boys in 1962. Band leader Brian Wilson and his brothers Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine went on to become America”s most iconic group
Brian, Mike and Al will be the only original members. Drummer Dennis drowned, aged 39, in 1983, and Carl lost his battle with lung cancer in 1997, at the age of 51.
They will be replaced by Bruce Johnston and David Marks, two fellow Californians who have been in and out of the band since the early Sixties.
Earlier this year, they all got together to work on a new version of Do It Again, one of their classic Sixties hits. The recording session was a dry run for their full-scale reunion of a group who were once known simply as ‘America’s Band’.
‘The tension in the studio was palpable,’ says Wilson.
‘Everyone knew, but it was left unsaid, that if things went well, the possibilities were tantalising. There were offers on the table that would give the group a chance to play songs such as California Girls and Good Vibrations in front of an audience again.’
And, if old wounds resurfaced, then the rock veterans could happily go their separate ways without losing face.
Says Mike: ‘It was almost eerie, re-recording Do It Again. Brian and I wrote that song 44 years ago. He paid me a compliment saying: “How can a guy sound that great so many years later”
‘Later, while working out harmonies on a new song, it was a thrill to be around a piano again and experience, first-hand, the brilliance of Brian’s gift for vocal arrangements. Music has been a unifying fact of life in our family since childhood. It has been a huge blessing.’
Isolated: Brian (pictured) remained largely estranged from the band he had led
It wasn’t all fun, fun, fun for the Beach Boys, however. In 1964, Brian suffered a full-blown panic attack after boarding a flight from Los Angeles to Australia. He burst into tears before burying his head in a pillow, screaming loudly.
A few months later he stopped touring to focus on songwriting and the studio experimentation that would become his hallmark. ‘I told the band that I saw a beautiful future for the Beach Boys as a group,’ he said. ‘But the only way we could achieve it was if they did their job and I did mine.’
Brian’s place on tour was filled for the next few months by session guitarist and future country star Glen Campbell, before Bruce Johnston joined in April, 1965.
Alone in a purpose-built studio in his Bel Air mansion — and supposedly with his feet in a sandbox for inspiration — Brian began coming up with the music that would move the Beach Boys away from simple surf-pop towards something more sophisticated.
The outcome was 1966’s Pet Sounds, a collection of introspective, multi-layered songs that even rival Paul McCartney conceded was the most accomplished album of its time.
Not everyone was as impressed. Mike Love, the principal Beach Boys lyricist during the sun-and-surf years, was worried that his bandmate was messing with a hit formula. At one point, he even dubbed Pet Sounds ‘Brian’s ego music’.
Producing a sequel to the masterpiece took its toll on Wilson. Despite the release of a brilliant single, Good Vibrations, work on a follow-up album, Smile, was shelved as Brian, his mental state affected by psychedelic drugs, grew increasingly reclusive.
With his contributions becoming fitful, other band members took over Brian’s mantle. But, despite some notable hits — including Darlin’ and Do It Again — their glory days were numbered. New members came and went.
In 1972, they even moved to a Dutch farmhouse in a bid to rekindle their old creative spark.
They did find solace on the road, though. Their popularity boosted by the gold-selling, mid-Seventies compilation LPs Endless Summer and Spirit Of America, the Beach Boys became a hit on the nostalgia circuit, playing to millions of fans in the Eighties and Nineties.
Brian, however, remained largely estranged from the band he had led, and his triumphant re-emergence during the past decade after years in the wilderness was achieved without assistance from his old group.
But, with all internal tensions now seemingly resolved, the surviving Beach Boys are determined to make this full-blown comeback a memorable one. They have started work on their as-yet-untitled album, and are promising to ‘do something really exciting’ at the Grammy Awards in February.
The tour opens in New Orleans on April 27 — and further dates are still to be announced. With Brian on board, it is sure to be one of the year’s hottest tickets.
There are still dangers, of course. Wilson has cut a fragile figure of late. Along with Jardine and Johnston, he will have hit 70 by the end of 2012. Lead singer Mike Love was 70 this year. Even guitarist Marks, the baby of the band, is 63.
But, as The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac have shown, age is no impediment if the internal chemistry of a band is right. For, the Beach Boys, the time to spread those good vibrations once more is surely now.