The Beach Boys are the soundtrack to a perfect California summer—or creating the feeling of one at any time, in any place.
The band was formed with brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, in the hamlet of Hawthorne, California in 1961. Skyrocketing from family garage band to uber-fame, they created a new music genre dubbed “California Sound.” Yet while The Beach Boys sang songs of sunny days, the real story wasn’t always so. There is one band memberwho has persevered to bridge the gap to today’s audiences. He’s responsible for the lyrics behind hits like “California Girls” and the voice leading them, too. Mike Love remains at the front of the stage as a quintessential Beach Boy.
“We are so much more blessed than we were cursed,” said Love, longtime front man, lyricist, and tour de force behind the Beach Boys’ current incarnation. Love, along with his son Christian and a cadre of talented musicians including Brian Eichenberger (of “The Four Freshmen” fame), Bruce Johnston, Jeffrey Foskett, Tim Bonhomme, John Cowsill, Keith Hubacher and Scott Totten, are touring the country performing old and new classics. They’ll play on Thursday, April 4, at the Sunset Green Event Lawn in Key West. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the show begins at 7:30.
This tour is a homecoming of sorts, since Eichenberger was a member of the Four Freshmen, a group that heavily influenced the Beach Boys with their fresh sound and four-part harmonies, which they are revisiting on this tour. They’ll also play some of the most iconic Love-penned fan favorites, like “Surfer Girl,” “California Girls,” “Fun Fun Fun” and “Kokomo.”
“It’s a pretty complete show, with lots of different moods and tempos and dimensions to it,” said Love.
With those tunes and others, the Beach Boys have sold over 100 million records worldwide, have had over 30 records go Gold and Platinum, and have been honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
How did that all spark from a family garage band?
Love’s narration of the early days is fond: “Brian and I and my sister Maureen used to go to Wednesday youth night at Angeles Mesa Presbyterian Church, and we’d sing the church songs and then walk home singing Everly Brothers songs. Or the doo-wop songs we heard on the radio.”
Citing influences from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to the Everly Brothers and The Four Freshmen, Love said they found inspiration for the style of music but plucked subject matter from their daily lives.
“Those influences gave us the elements, but we chose the subject matter,” Love said, “from what we were living in Southern California. We were just a few miles from the beach, and how do you get to the beach? A car.”
“I wrote a song about a girl who wanted to borrow her dad’s car,” says Love,“and I told Brian I had the idea of doing the Chuck Berry guitar intro.” It was “Fun Fun Fun.”
While the Beach Boys’ music is populated by the imagery of shiny eternal youth– surfing, girls, cars, school spirit—their daring genre-bending, unlikely composition and catchy harmonies made it anything but anodyne.
Dennis, the drummer and only true surfer, brought the California culture and surf scene into the rooms and creative spaces of brother Brian and cousin Mike. The duo wrote the band’s first single, “Surfin,’” which was released in 1961. Love recalls recording the song in a little California studio, and when it finally got air time on the local radio, each of the band members would call in doing different voices to request the song. It worked, garnering more plays and more attention, and “Surfin’” eventually wound up on their 1962 album “Surfin’ Safari.”
“Who wouldn’t want to go on a Surfin’ Safari?” asks Love.
As it turns out, the world wanted to go.
“Good Vibrations became our psychedelic offering of the time, in 1966,” said Love, who penned the lyrics along with Brian Wilson’s avant-garde experimental track. By then, the Beach Boys were no longer a small-town band recording and requesting their own song on the radio — “Good Vibrations” hit number one.
“In fact, when that went to number one in England, we were voted the number one band in England, number two being the Beatles, which was pretty remarkable, … No band has been more popular than the Beatles in the history of the music business.” Indeed, Paul McCartney has said “Pet Sounds,” is “required listening” for his children.
While the Beach Boys were at the top of their game performance-wise, it wasn’t always sunny. After Brian Wilson suffered a panic attack during a tour in 1964, he made the decision to pull back and focus on songwriting. Glen Campbell, and later Bruce Johnston, replaced him on tours.
The dissension between Love and Brian Wilson is the dark part of the Beach Boys mythos. Both came out with memoirs, “My Life as a Beach Boy” and “I am Brian Wilson,” respectively, which don’t shy away from the nitty gritty of the family skirmishes. In “My Life,” Love famously writes: “For those who believe that Brian walks on water, I will always be the Antichrist.” Love has been cast as the pragmatist vs. Wilson as the troubled genius.
Caricatures are rarely accurate.
Love has said that he still very much loves his cousin Brian, and said that “If it was just Brian and I, we’d go back to the piano and write a song.”
What got in the way?
“My cousin Brian has never been able to stand up to his father, who didn’t credit me for several of the songs that I wrote, which gave a disproportionate version of who was credited.” Murray Wilson, jazz musician and abusive father of the Wilson boys, managed the Beach Boys and famously sold their song rights for a pittance.
“My uncle purposely didn’t put my name down (as a songwriter),” Love said. “Not a nice thing to do. Really an evil thing to do, so it took some overcoming.
“Brian wanted to rectify it,” Love said, “but he wasn’t in charge of his own business, and the only recourse I had was to go court to establish my authorship. There was partial restitution, but I’ll never have the credit or the money back.”
In the summer of 2018, Brian Wilson and Mike Love were together again as part of Sirius Satellite Radio’s Beach Boys Channel, “Good Vibrations.” Love cites it as a positive experience, and said “Brian said ‘I love you Mike.’ He’s very sweet, and unfortunately, he’s always had people controlling his life.”
The darkness doesn’t just color Brian’s story. Love said, “My cousin Dennis who drowned was under the influence, and there are things that happened to our family that are terrible — whether it’s drug abuse, or alcoholism. But I kind of transcend that and look at the story of The Beach Boys as far more positive than negative.”
His secret to avoiding the siren song of substance abuse that has bedeviled family members and fellow musicians?
“My secret weapon is that I meditate every day. It has helped me cope with ups and downs, good times and bad, the challenge of traveling. … It’s been my daily regimen for 50 years.”
Return to Kokomo
With the help of Tom Cruise in “Cocktail,” The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo”went to number one 22 years after “Good Vibrations” hit number one.
“It’s said to be our biggest hit single,” says Love, “and everybody sings along.”
Off the Florida Keys… there’s a place called Kokomo, that’s where we wanna go to get away from it all.
The dreamy, steel-drum inflected tune promises. Yet: Is Kokomo a real place? Or is it a fantasy, in the league with Buffett’s Margaritaville and Peter Pan’s Neverland?
“Kokomo was a name that originated with John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas,” Love says. “Phillips wrote the melody and the verse, and I wrote the chorus, and our friend Terry Melcher produced the record, and he came up with the ‘Oooh I want to take you…’ and it was a true collaboration.”
To be fair: there is a Kokomo in Indiana and a Kokomo on Maui, but in John Phillips’ mind, it was positioned off the Florida Keys.
The Beach Boys will be back in the Keys on Thursday, April 4, performing for new generations of fans, and probably many original fans. Love laughs, “Pretty interesting that we started out in the ’60s and now a lot of our fans are in their 60s.” He describes the joy of seeing “whole families … grandparents, parents, kids, grandkids” come out to listen to their music.
The Beach Boys, new and old, couldn’t be coming to a better setting for their music.
“We have three states we like a lot: California, Hawaii and Florida. And Key West is a wonderful place, so we are looking forward to going to the epicenter of Kokomo.”
Welcome back, boys.