- Tue, 2011-03-22 11:45
Formed in Southern California in 1961, 2011 marks the 50th Anniversary of The Beach Boys, one of the most-loved pop acts of all time. The family band consisting of brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, have contributed significantly to the building blocks of modern pop, with their eleventh studio album Pet Sounds (1966) widely regarded as one of the most influential records ever released in popular music.
Though the past fifty years have not been an easy ride for the band, Mike Love continues to tour as The Beach Boys with shows scheduled for summer 2011. I Like Music caught up with Mike to chat about making music in the early sixties, writing Good Vibrations with his cousin Brian Wilson, his advice for young musicians and his take on the perfect pop song.
"I Like Music because… It creates so much positivity, so many Good Vibrations and so much Fun Fun Fun for our friends, family and fans.” Mike Love, The Beach Boys
ILM: The Beach Boys formed 50 years ago in 1961. Since then, your music has had an extraordinary, global impact upon many. Looking back on 1961 - bedroom rehearsals, unpaid shows and the November release of your debut single Surfin’ – were you aware that you were starting something so unique?
Mike: Well you know, it was very exciting hearing our first recording Surfin’ on the radio. Not being Nostradamus or anything, but there was no way of telling how long we would be involved in music. We were very fortunate. Brian and I got together and wrote some really popular songs, some really great songs that to this day have been appreciated by generations. We just did a gig back here in the US honouring Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of The United States. It was his centennial and we had people from his administration in the audience as well as a lot of young people. It was pretty remarkable, there were four or five generations you know? All having a great time with California Girls, Help Me Rhonda, Good Vibrations and Fun Fun Fun.
ILM: Was there a shared vision for the group in those early days?
Mike: We never anticipated being around so long, we just knew that the lifestyle being lived in Southern California was special. That entailed the Surfing culture - a certain way to dress, a language and of course the actual sport of Surfing. There is a lot to the culture around the beach and yet, at that time, no one had actually sang a song about it... So that was our first song – Surfin’. Our second hit, our second single issue was Surfin’ Safari, and that was popular in a lot of places around the world, Australia, Sweden. The next year, 1963, Surfin’ USA became an even larger hit. We had a lot of great hits in the very early days of The Beach Boys. And there were many, many top ten hits that followed.
ILM: What are your memories from early shows?
Mike: We did a ton of radio promotion shows that were at radio stations, sponsored by the station. For the act, the benefits of doing those shows were that the DJs would make a ton of money out of them, so if they knew you were coming to do a show with them they would play your records! The shows themselves were very primitive. The sound systems were designed to announce wrestling matches or boxing matches, something along that order. We would set up and break down all our own equipment. The sound systems were lacking, the travel was pretty intense, we would get in what we would call a station wagon with a trailer behind to throw all our equipment in, but that was only in the first years.
ILM: Yes. I imagine with your success things improved quite quickly...
Mike: Well shortly after those shows we found out about this thing called ‘roadies’ which made life much easier! So for many years we’ve had the operation well oiled, but in those early days it was very primitive. As things went on we began to assemble a staff, our transportation got an upgrade! Because our vocal harmonies were so unique to The Beach Boys and because it was such an important part of our arrangements, we literally bought, developed and had manufactured a sound system that we could take around with us. We just found that there weren’t adequate systems where we were going. So we invested quite a bit of money in the mid-sixties, we designed and had built a really nice PA system, which made for a much better experience for the listener.
ILM: You’re coming across to the UK this summer, playing a show at the Epsom Race Course on 7th July 2011. What can we expect from the current line-up? It’s come a long way since those early shows...
Mike: Yes it has. We have lost two of my cousins. Carl died thirteen years ago, following his diagnosis with lung cancer. Dennis saw his addiction to a combination of drugs really lead to his demise, although he infact drowned. So...life is like that. There are a lot of challenges along the way. Myself and Bruce Johnston went to my cousin Brian’s place when Brian returned from touring The Beach Boys, and Bruce has been with us pretty much ever since. My son Christian now sings the parts that my cousin Carl sang. He has a really fantastic voice and sounds eerily similar to Carl, which is pretty incredible. There was a group called The Cowsills back in the late sixties, early seventies. They did fairly well, they’re a family group like The Beach Boys and John Cowsill is now our drummer. He’s a strong singer, he plays great drums! So we can replicate the songs! If you close your eyes it sounds like the mid-sixties...!
ILM: The songs have had an incredible life-span so far, can you talk us through your early studio sessions?
Mike: The very early recordings were very primitive. We recorded with a two track machine for Surfin’ and Surfin’ Safari. Then we started using a four track machine. Sergeant Pepper’s was recorded with that machine, which made a real impact. Then that became eight track, then sixteen, then twenty four. After that the development of recording technology improved by leaps and bounds in just a few years. It allowed you to experiment a lot more. The capacity to develop your arrangements and develop any kind of sound you wanted to pursue suddenly was available. My cousin Brian was fascinated by that technology. He’s responsible for all the tracking and sounds and production on Pet Sounds from 1966, lauded by many as one of the great albums of recent years.
ILM: How did you work with Brian and the others in the studio?
Mike: The studio, for myself and for the other members, was used for concentrating on the vocal harmonies. We worked very hard and we took it very seriously, making sure the harmonies and arrangements were absolutely as perfect as we expected. Infact, there’s a box set that exists of the Pet Sounds sessions, just CDs of vocals and tracking. It’s pretty fascinating to hear some of the early sounds, it really gives you that appreciation of just how much work went into creating the sound. The technology was the main thing, moving from two right up to twenty four tracks and now with digital. There’s an infinite capacity to record. A lot of people like the original microphones, the analogue kind of recording still, and I do too. But we have experience through all of those. There’s been such a lot of growth.
ILM: Those digital advances have never affected your popularity, many, many artists we interview cite The Beach Boys as a key inspiration. With that in mind, what do you think are the key components behind the creation of a perfect pop song?
Mike: Well, I have a young daughter. She’s fifteen and she likes all kinds of music. She likes The Beach Boys and other acts from the sixties, but she also likes rap and she’ll say ‘Dad, this is a great song!’ And I’ll say ‘first of all, for me it’s not even a song. It’s a beat and some guy yappin about nothing.’ We have a cultural difference. I mean, some are very clever but... I have sort of found there’s a structure. I always wanted us to have something hooky, something that could stay with you, something you could really sing along to.
ILM: How did you approach the development of those hooks?
Mike: Well, I came up with ‘I’m picking up good vibrations, she’s giving me excitations’ for the song Good Vibrations. That part did not exist until I combined it with what my cousin Brian already had in terms of the verse and the tracking. I wrote all the words. At the time, the music for any artist was just so unique. It was pretty far out. I didn’t know if fans in Nebraska were going to get it! But the one thing that everyone can relate to is boy / girl sort of stuff. So I wrote a flowery poem to go with The Beach Boys psychedelic arrangement and it worked.
ILM: It certainly did, Good Vibrations was the first UK number one single for The Beach Boys in 1966. Followed by Do It Again two years later in 1968...
Mike: Yes! And that was far simpler. For Do It Again I went over to Brian’s house and said ‘Brian let’s go!’ We walked along the beach, came back to the house and wrote Do It Again, and then it went to number one in England! We wrote it in about fifteen minutes or so, sitting at the piano. The verse is very simple, the chorus was a kind of jam. That verse chorus relationship, that hookiness, to me has always been a major part of the writing process.
ILM: Having inspired so many, what’s your advice to musicians on a successful career in music?
Mike: My advice would be, instead of getting mixed up in alcohol and drugs, err to the side of a healthy lifestyle. People misconstrue things. They think that becoming stoned or something makes them creative. I think people are creative in spite of altered states of consciousness through alcohol and drugs. Also, the other negative part of all that is the addictive aspect. Some people can have a drink, some people can do a particular drug and be ok, but others...it’s terribly destructive.
The other thing I would say would be balance. In our case my cousin Brian was brilliant musically and I was more into the lyrics and the concepts. Let’s say you’re a fantastic guitar player but not such a great singer, then obviously you find someone who can really sing great and then you become a fantastic duo that way. That’s how it was with our group. Each person kinda brings their strengths. I mean, maybe everyone can sing, but not everyone is the best lead singer, maybe you’re great at backgrounds, maybe you don’t sing at all, maybe you’re good at playing drums...I don’t care. The point is, you build a group based on the strengths of another individual that exceed yours in that department. It’s kinda a lesson in life anyway. You’ll find that as good as you might be at playing the drums, or singing or whatever, that you might be better off partnering with somebody who is better than you. In our case, because Brian was brilliant musically, I complimented his efforts with lyrics and concepts and together, we strung together something very special.
ILM: Looking back across the past fifty years, what have been some of the biggest highlights for you?
Mike: In 1966 the song Good Vibrations came out. At the time Rolling Stone Magazine said it was the single of the century and that was pretty remarkable. And also, we were voted the number one group in England, number two being The Beatles number three being The Stones, so that was pretty remarkable. There’s been no-one as successful as The Beatles, but we were their contemporaries and we had a really great, lively competition. It was like a mutual appreciation society! That was remarkable. Also, across the Monument Day shows in Washington DC in the 80’s we played to over a million and a half people in four days. I think that’s a Guinness Book of Records type situation. That was remarkable too!
The Beach Boys will be performing on Thursday 7th July as part of the Epsom Live! music nights.