Brian Wilson’s return makes Beach Boys 50th anniversary genuine
As late as last summer, it looked like this year’s 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys wouldn’t offer much reason for fans to get excited.
Yes, rumors of a 50th anniversary tour were flying, but at that point Brian Wilson was saying he didn’t think he would join in the festivities.
Wilson, the main songwriter and visionary genius during the Beach Boys’ 1960s heyday, for a myriad of reasons, had not been involved with the group on any meaningful level since the early 1970s.
One reason, of course, was the debilitating mental issues that left Wilson unable to make music altogether for some two decades.
But he had returned to music in earnest in the late 1990s, recording and touring with his own band on a regular basis and even in 2004 reconstructing and recording his own version of the “Smile” album – the intended follow-up to the landmark 1966 Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds.” “Smile” was shelved and left uncompleted as Wilson’s drug problems and mental issues, as well as disagreements within the band over the music being written and recorded, kept Wilson from finishing what figured to be a groundbreaking album.
Without Wilson, the 50th year of the Beach Boys looked to be pretty much like any year since the mid-1970s. Lead singer Mike Love would put together a version of the band that usually included longtime Beach Boys guitarist Bruce Johnston and the group would play a show that revisited the celebrations of surf, sun and girls that characterized the group’s hits. That was fine in itself, but as the Beach Boys grayed and headed into their 60s, the group had grown into little more than an oldies act, as the AARP-eligible age of the stars on stage increasingly put distance between present and the zesty, youthful life depicted in Beach Boys songs.
To be special, the 50th anniversary needed Wilson’s involvement. The problem was, he was giving mixed signals – at best – about his involvement. While at times in the past he expressed interest in working again with the Beach Boys, as late as last summer Wilson was playing down the idea of a 50th anniversary reunion.
He told “Village Voice” magazine “I don’t really (have a relationship with the other members) right now, and I’m not really interested in them.”
According to Love, that sort of ambivalence from Wilson was nothing new to him, and he didn’t take such responses to mean the door was closed to Wilson rejoining the group.
“That’s just Brian. He told me the other day, ‘How can you feel good and bad at the same time?” a statement that Love, in a mid-May phone interview, said illustrates how Wilson is a complex person whose thoughts and emotions can conflict and change at pretty much any given moment.
As far as Love was concerned, though, he knew that Wilson’s involvement was what would give a 50th anniversary tour the legitimacy it needed. He compared the situation to a reunion tour of the Supremes that Diana Ross put together several years ago. But instead of welcoming back the other members of the Supremes, Ross went on tour with two other singers.
“For whatever reason, she didn’t want them,” Love said. “The tour was not a success.”
As Love seemed to suspect, when all was said and done, Wilson agreed to join in the 50th anniversary celebration. And the reunion actually is delivering more than Beach Boys fans could have reasonably expected. There’s also the first new Beach Boys studio album to include Wilson since the mid-1970s, “That’s Why God Made The Radio,” which arrived in stores on June 5.
Capitol Records’ offer to release a new Beach Boys album, Love said, played a key role in getting Wilson on board. He also said that his wife, Jacqueline, and Wilson’s wife, Melinda, also helped open the lines of communication and facilitated the reunion.
The group got together first to record a new version of its hit song “Do It Again” for a Wal-Mart exclusive combination greatest hits CD/magazine that commemorates the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary. When the track was completed, Wilson sat at the piano and played a new song and arranged the vocals for the other Beach Boys. Love said Wilson was impressed that the famous Beach Boys vocal blend was still there.
“He looked at me and said ‘How can you sound so good for a 70-year-old?” Love recalled.
The answer from Love: “I’ve been practicing for all of these years.”
What was also still intact, along with some good humor, was Wilson’s uncanny ability to arrange the Beach Boys’ vocals and harmonies.
“He knows our voices so intimately and thoroughly that he can still do it,” Love said of Wilson’s vocal arrangements.
“I mean, ‘That’s Why God Made The Radio’ must have every chord there is in it,” he said. “It just moves all over the place.”
That song, of course, is the title track of the new album, and it has the trademarks of the classic Beach Boys sound – a sunny vocal melody matched to lyrics that fondly recall the power of hearing a great song on the radio, topped off with the layered vocal harmonies that helped define the Beach Boys sound.
But in a significant sense, “That’s Why God Made The Radio” is not exactly a full-fledged Beach Boys album. Yes, all five current members – Love, Wilson, Al Jardine, Johnston and David Marks – sing on the songs, and Love also contributed lyrics to three tracks and wrote one song, “Daybreak Over The Ocean.” But Love said the several songs were actually initially intended for a Wilson solo album and were co-written by Wilson and his producer, Joe Thomas.
“Brian and Joe Thomas really conceptualized the new album,” Love said.
While Wilson and Thomas helped write some of the sunny nostalgic songs that evoke the classic Beach Boys sound – including the title track, “Isn’t It Time” and “Spring Vacation” – other Wilson-Thomas songs show a different side musically and thematically and clearly fit more with Wilson’s recent solo work.
Ironically, such songs – particularly the album-ending trio of “From Here To Back Again,” “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone” – give the CD its most complex and satisfying moments.
Lyrically, they find Wilson looking back, but realizing he’s not 21 anymore – quite a contrast from the songs like “Spring Vacation” and “That’s Why God Made The Radio,” which evoke feelings of an endless, youthful summer.
Love sees those different facets in the “That’s Why God Made The Radio” CD.
“There are songs that sound like the Beach Boys in 1965 and others that sound more like “Pet Sounds” or Brian Wilson (solo songs),” he said.
A few of the new songs are included in the set the Beach Boys are performing on the 50th anniversary tour this summer. The group is performing for two and a half hours with an intermission. In addition to the hits and a few new songs, the group has been doing some deeper tracks from the catalog, such as “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” a Beach Boys song from “Pet Sounds” that’s closely associated with Wilson, and whose lyrics reflect the emotional difficulties Wilson experienced during the “Pet Sounds/”Smile” period.
“With Brian (touring), it made it possible to open things up with songs like that,” Love said.