The Beach Boys
As the surf pop pioneers prepare to their play their 50th anniversary concert in Hong Kong (yes, complete with Brian Wilson!), The Beach Boys stalwart Bruce Johnston tells Mark Tjhung that, despite everything, it's still fun.
There’s never been another band like The Beach Boys. Even in the half century since their first appearance, few bands can claim the same kind of influence over the trajectory of the pop universe as the Californians.
Indeed, The Beach Boys story is as rich as the lush, polyphonic, soaring falsetto-enhanced soundscapes that have defined them – lawsuits, intra-family battles, individual (and collective) psychological breakdowns, abandoned albums, shameless commercialism, failed reunions and partial reunions all punctuating the undeniably brilliant output of the band.
Over the past year, to commemorate the 50-year milestone, the band has looked to add another, perhaps final, chapter to the narrative: a reunion of the legendary lineup of Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, David Marks and Bruce Johnston for the first time in more than two decades as well as the release of a new album of fresh material, That’s Why God Made the Radio. And, as they bring the reunion to Hong Kong, Time Out Hong Kong talks to Bruce Johnston about The Beach Boys legacy, the fragile genius of Brian Wilson and the tenuous relationships between the members over the years.
You’ve been on the road for a few months now. How’s it going?
The road. The road when I joined the band was really the road. Today, in these times, the road is the Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton, the Grand Hyatt. It’s a different kind of road. It’s like the Yellow Brick Road. It’s comfortable. The first concert was in April and we’ve pretty much been out since then. The American part of this reunion was really great. We are a band that came from a time when we only needed to sound good. Now we need to have it look good and sound really great. So that’s kind of happened.
What are you like on tour nowadays?
We play to as many people as possible to fit inside where we play. They come to see us – but what they don’t realise is that we come to see them. So, the more people the better.
And who are the people? Who do you find is coming to the concerts?
I’m coming. My grown children are coming. And their children are coming. It’s like going to Disneyworld. You’ve got the whole family going. We never planned that. We never even thought past 30-years-old, like Bob Dylan, ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’. Now you’ve got the Rolling Stones going into their 50th anniversary next year. It’s pretty fun.
The Beach Boys pop has actually been super-influential, beyond the people who heard it first. Are you finding a younger audience has been influenced and is coming to gigs?
I don’t know. The younger audience would probably be the grown up children that are old enough now to be married and have kids. So we’re seeing the uninitiated, their children coming – and they know all the songs but they don’t know how.
When you announced that you were going to reunite, there was excitement and surprise. How did the tour come about?
It’s simple – why wouldn’t you put something together for such a momentous anniversary? And then you just put it together. I mean, why wouldn’t you celebrate 50 years? Because no-one else has ever done it yet. We’re probably the first ones.
Were there any difficulties in putting the tour together? People would talk about the band’s relationships not making it so easy.
You see, those kinds of relationships are what families have. And, as there were three brothers and a cousin who already started out, as with a lot of families, you can have a lot of amazing, press-worthy ‘because you became famous’ challenges. But because you’re family, you can fix that stuff quite easily. Don’t count me in – I’ve never argued with anybody. I’ve been the Switzerland of The Beach Boys. I don’t even have a standing army.
Indeed, while the plethora of destabilising incidents threatened to tear the band apart, Johnston has been conciliator. Part of that, of course, is simply explained: Johnston wasn’t part of the Wilson clan (the brothers Wilson – Brian, Carl and Dennis – as well as cousin Mike Love), and he was a latecomer to The Beach Boys party. He joined the band in 1965, just prior to the recording of California Girls. But, to this day, he remains unassuming about his role in the band. “I’m like a first chair in the string section. I didn’t write the symphony but you can’t realise it without the whole symphony performing.”
This late-coming role to the band also helps explain, to some extent, why Johnston seems a little hesitant to express his own take on The Beach Boys legacy. His memories of joining the band, he limits to ‘it’s still fun’, declining to expand. For particular highlights, he responds ‘the whole time I’ve been in the band has been the highlight’. And his most memorable moment of the 50 years is ‘being friends with everybody’.
It’s when he starts talking about the members of the band that he comes alive. And it starts with Brian Wilson – whose constantly wavering psychological health over the past 50 years has made it difficult or plain impossible for the songwriting genius to take to the road – and how he’s coping on the long global tour.
How is Brian on tour?
This is probably easier for Brian than doing what he does. He goes out solo and he kind of has to sing every song. Let’s say you’re singing California Girls – he’ll sing the lead in his concerts. But his cousin, Mike Love, actually sings the lead on the recording and the live thing. So Brian gets to not have all the pressure. The audiences love Brian. He’s a very brilliant, fragile kind of guy. There are certain stars who have recording genius sounding voices and people want to see them in performance. They have a lot of trials and troubles, but they somehow get through it, and people are so thrilled that you can still go to a concert and see Brian. I think it’s phenomenal to see Brian, in a spot on the stage at the piano, singing leads that he sang. I really love that. I don’t know how long it’s going to last – but that’s not the issue.
It kind of sounds like you’re still in awe of him…
I would never not be in awe of him, for his ability to conceive it, write it, arrange it, produce it, perform when we recorded. Not so much live – I’m more interested in his recorded work. The live performance is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but the fact that he was in the studio and figured so much of it out. Then he has a very underrated partner, if you ask me, Mike Love. Some people go ‘oh, he only wrote the words’. Really? Please. Without the melody, what do the words mean? Without the words, what does the melody mean? You wouldn’t have the song. It completes the song. I totally admire him.
Mike’s got a lot of criticism over the years. Do you think he gets the credit he deserves?
They write more about Brian. And I get that. Those melodies are just amazing. But you couldn’t sing Good Vibrations without Mike’s words – what would there be to sing? Here we are, 3,000 centuries down the road, still talking about The Beach Boys. But we’re still talking about the brilliance of Walt Disney. There’s a reason why all of this stuff happens – something perfect happened, and people still want to be able to plug into it, whether they see it live or whether they go and purchase Pet Sounds or a greatest hits album.
You sound pretty humble about your own role in The Beach Boys...
I just kept the tracks company and made a suggestion now and then. Why would I fiddle with it when the guys who invented it were still making it? You’ve got to understand that I came in from a record label. I thought that, by now, I’d be the now-retired chairman of Sony. I was at Columbia records and that was my path. My family is in business and I’ve looked at it as a business with art. And what finances art? Successful business. But then I was able to meet the most talented guy, at the level of Tchaikovsky or Debussy, being Brian and his amazing talent. And I got hooked on that. I’m a classically trained musician. But my talent takes up one pixel’s worth of space compared to Brian’s.
To mark the 50 years, Brian was given another chance to showcase this undisputed talent – a new Beach Boys album. “If you’re going to make a commitment to a momentous anniversary year, on the list is a fresh album and a worldwide tour,” says Johnston, of the decision to produce That’s Why God Made the Radio.
When the very idea of the album was first announced, it was met with a significant level of hesitation and scepticism by critics and Beach Boy fans alike, who feared a money grab that could partially taint the band’s legacy. But when it was released in June this year, there was a collective sigh of relief. It was hardly their best output – 1966’s Pet Sounds, checkmate, we’d say. But, equally, it did justice to The Beach Boys legacy – that iconic world of lush, summery, hazy pop with a sound only aided by five decades of nostalgia – more than can be said for their last studio album, the bizarrely country-inspired Stars and Stripes Vol 1. And, most evocatively, the last three tracks of the album, which some have dubbed ‘The Beach Boys suite’, is a journey back into the great mind of Brian Wilson.
You described how Brian takes up so many roles in the creative process – from the songwriting to the arranging to the production. Was it a similar process with the new album?
I’ve listened to the album from the studio on. What I like about the album is, imagine someone hasn’t been around, like a movie star or something. They go in and get so over-prepared that they look like they’ve tried too hard. This is just the most relaxed sounding album. It probably took us two months to make. The album is ‘we’re not trying very hard because it’s going to sound like we’re trying too hard’. It’s just the right thing to have made.
Was that what you were trying to capture?
I don’t think it was ‘what did you want to capture’ rather than ‘let’s make some music together’. A lot of albums start that way and then things pop up.
For you, how does it rank alongside previous work?
I can’t rank it with the previous work because we don’t have Carl Wilson or Dennis Wilson. It’s a lovely album but I would love to hear their lead voices. But, as they’ve passed away, we can’t. If they could hear it, they would be proud of it, they would get it, they would think it was well done. But the whole thing is, you just don’t want to try and do something cool. You just want to hope that all your years of experience will connect in a beautiful way to express where you are at this time in your life. It’s okay. It’s a sweet album.
The end of the album, particularly the last three songs which some people have dubbed ‘The Beach Boys suite’, almost seems to act as a legacy for the band. Was that intentional?
I can’t answer because I wrote nothing for the album. I showed up. As I didn’t write any hits, I didn’t force a song on to there. Sometimes, creative democracy kills a project and it’s a little more focused on Brian and Mike.
Do you think this signals the end – or is there potentially another chapter?
What’s the classic horrible comment? God only knows! [Laughs] I don’t know. I just stand up there, sing a little bit, wave my arms and I’m out of there.
The Beach Boys play HKCEC on Sat Aug 25.
Tickets: 3128 8288; hkticketing.com.
TOHK’s Top Beach Boys songs
Don’t Worry Baby
This attempt to recreate Be My Baby culminates in the most flawless interweaving falsetto chorus of the BB canon
God Only Knows
A perfect marriage of melancholy, fragility, fatalism and pop
The ultimate example of Wilson’s talent for flawless mood transitions and unlikely vocal arrangements
I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times
A firmly psychedelic, theramin-featuring tune that reflects the isolation of Wilson’s mental state
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
As hopeful as a Beach Boys song gets, with arguably the most beautiful middle eight ever written
All those lawsuits
Publishing rights, writing credits, misrepresentations and the Beach Boys name: they’ve all been the subject of court disputes over the last three decades. They’ve apparently kissed and made up now.
Brian Wilson’s long lost rap, Smart Girls
Not technically a Beach Boys moment, but what was he thinking?
The collaboration with The Fat Boys in this surf-rap-pop calamity was… ill-advised. bit.ly/beachboyswipeout
Kokomo en Español
The original from the movie Cocktail is arguably a mighty guilty pleasure, but the Spanish version (!) takes it one step too far. bit.ly/tohkkokomospanish