The year was 1962. John F. Kennedy was in the White House, and the Cuban missile crisis was in the headlines. Pat Brown defeated Richard Nixon in the California gubernatorial race. James Meredith, escorted by federal marshals, became the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. The United States was still playing catch-up in the space race; on February 20, John Glenn, aboard the Friendship 7, became the first American to orbit the earth.
At the Academy Awards, Lawrence of Arabia took home the Oscar for “Best Picture,” while Gregory Peck won “Best Actor” for his performance in To Kill a Mockingbird. At home, people were tuning in to The Beverly Hillbillies, Ben Casey and Gunsmoke. Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools and J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey were among the year’s best-selling novels.
“I Left My Heart in San Francisco” won the Grammy for “Record of the Year,” comedian Vaughn Meader’s The First Family was “Album of the Year” and Robert Goulet was named “Best New Artist.”
The twist was the hot new dance sensation, and Elvis could still put a single (in this case, “Good Luck Charm”) at the top of the charts. So could The Four Seasons (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry”), Gene Chandler (“Duke of Earl”), Shelly Fabares (“Johnny Angel”) and Ray Charles (“I Can’t Stop Loving You”). Instrumentals, too, were in vogue; Mr. Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore,” David Rose’s “The Stripper” and The Tornadoes’ “Telstar” all spent time in the coveted No. 1 spot.
Then in the summer of ‘62, an entirely new sound found its way onto the nation’s airwaves. It featured tight harmonies, a driving rock beat and lyrics about California’s newest teen craze. The song was called “Surfin’ Safari” — the five musicians who recorded it called themselves The Beach Boys.
A year earlier, Brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, their cousin Mike Love and a friend of Brian’s named Al Jardine were making music in the Wilson family’s garage. They recorded a little tune called “Surfin,” which Brian and Dennis had penned. “Surfin’” became a regional hit and brought the group to the attention of Capitol Records.
Hard to believe that a simple song about fun in the sun could launch one of the greatest careers in the history of rock n’ roll, but it did. The Beach Boys have sold more than 100 million albums, including 32 that reached Gold and Platinum status, and have dozens of Top 10 hits to their credit. They’re enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2001, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences presented them with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Peers and pundits have praised their unique sound — the tight vocal harmonies and driving beats — and Brian Wilson’s wizardry in the recording studio. Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile are considered innovative masterpieces, albums that expanded the creative boundaries of popular music.
In a telephone in interview from his Lake Tahoe home, Mike Love talked about The Beach Boy’s remarkable musical legacy and what the future holds for the group that’s been called “America’s band.
“In February of 1998,” said Love, “Carl (Wilson) passed away. It was a tremendous loss, both musically and emotionally. We had been doing around 150 concerts a year for several years, but after Carl died, we took some time. Carl died from lung cancer that metastasized to other parts of his body. It was eerily similar to George Harrison’s death.”
To continue performing, The Beach Boys needed to find someone who’s talents would mesh with their music.
“The great thing about The Beach Boys’ music is that as long as you have a gifted musician who loves the music, you can carry on,” Love explained.
The trick was finding the right person to fill the void left by Carl’s death. His name was John Cowsill. And, yes, he is one of those Cowsills, the youngest member of the family band from the 1960s that inspired the TV show The Partridge Family.
“John is a phenomenal drummer, but he is playing keyboards with us,” said Love. “He does a lot of Carl’s parts — for example, the lead on “Help Me, Rhonda” — and he’s a great singer.”
Other musicians in the current incarnation of The Beach Boys include Mike Kowalski, drums; Adrian Baker, guitar and vocals; Chris Farmer, bass and vocals; Tim Bonhomme, keyboards and vocals; Scott Totten on guitar and vocals ; and ...
“ ... of course, Bruce Johnston, my partner in crime since 1965,” he added.
Johnston joined The Beach Boys as a bass player and vocalist, replacing Glenn Campbell, who had temporarily replaced Brian Wilson when Wilson retired from the grind of touring.
Mentioning Johnson leads to the inevitable question: Is Brian Wilson still connected to The Beach Boys?
“Brian is indelibly intertwined with the history of The Beach Boys,” Love replied. “He’s on the board of Brother Records, which owns the rights to The Beach Boys name and music. But he has his own band now, and is touring and making records on his own.
He added that he doesn’t foresee Brian touring or recording with The Beach Boys again, but he would be open to that possibility.
Talking about Brian Wilson led to another inevitable question: Which song does Love consider his favorite? His answer is surprising.
“I’d have to pick ‘The Warmth of the Sun,’” he replied. “It was written the night before Kennedy was shot. Brian and I had been up until 2 or 3 a.m. writing the song. The lyrics were about losing someone you loved, and even though it was written about a boy/girl relationship, the words fit the way people felt about President Kennedy. I can remember that the recording session for that song was very emotional.
“And, of course, ‘Good Vibrations.’ It was so unique, so creative. It was derived from some pretty far-out places where Brian’s head was in those days. It was an attraction song, the basic boy/girl lyric, but then the instrumental was very avant garde for those times. There had never been a song like it before.”
I asked Love if, back in the early days of their career, he and the other band members thought that people would still be listening to their music 40 years down the road.
“No way,” he said, with a laugh. “We didn’t have the phone number for the Psychic Friends Network back then.”
More seriously, he continued, “The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were sort of like the ‘begats’ in the Bible. From the music we made came every permutation of pop and rock music you could think of.
“One of the reasons I think we’ve endured,” he added, “is that we always favored harmony and positivity in our music. And people still respond to that.”
I also wondered if there’s a possibility of a new recording in the future — near or otherwise. “Not likely,” was Love’s answer.
“But,” he added, “Capitol Records is getting ready to release a compilation CD.”
Called Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of The Beach Boys, the CD will feature 30 of the band’s top singles. It will be followed by a DVD Audio re-release of Pet Sounds on July 25 and 40 Top 40s, a double-CD which will focus on the band’s international hits.
“The recording process is something that’s necessary but tedious,” said Love. “Being on stage is the best thing of all for me. I love performing. I love the spontaneity of a live show, the reaction from the audience, their response to those songs that are part of the soundscape of their lives.”
With Capitol Records continuing to mine the wealth of gold created by The Beach Boys, and with Love’s energy and enthusiasm for keeping their legacy alive on the stage, it looks like America’s band will be around for a long time to come. Long enough, perhaps, for the great-grandchildren of the teenagers who caught the first wave of the surfing sound to become the next generation of fans.