Music interview: Mike Love on the Beach Boys’ endless summer

Evergreen: The Beach Boys are on tour again and will be appearing in Scarborough later this month.
Evergreen: The Beach Boys are on tour again and will be appearing in Scarborough later this month.
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The Beach Boys’ music evokes sun, sea and fun – so a gig in Scarborough seems appropriate. Duncan Seaman reports.

Mike Love is having a few problems getting a cell phone signal today, as the lengthy pause while his publicist attempts to connect our transatlantic call demonstrates.

It does however eventually provide the veteran Beach Boy with an opportunity for one of his characteristic puns. “This is supposed to be New Hampshire, not Old Hampshire,” he chuckles.

As has regularly been the way since the start of the 1960s the Beach Boys are out on tour. Their show at Scarborough’s Open Air Theatre later this month is one of 160 concerts they are due to play this year – all the more impressive when you consider Love is now aged 76 while fellow long time harmony singer Bruce Johnston is 74.

Californian Love is looking forward to performing the likes of Fun, Fun, Fun and Sloop John B beside the Yorkshire seaside. “It sounds pretty darn good – and I wouldn’t count out Surfin’ Safari and Surfin’ USA, you know,” he says, adding cheerfully: “It might not be Kokomo weather but we’re going to give it a good shot anyway.

“I just pray that it’ll be a lovely day there because we’ve never been to that particular amphitheatre and I think it’s going to be rather well attended, which is a good thing.”

The sense of it being forever summer in many of the Beach Boys’ songs is, he agrees, part of their enduring appeal. “The subject matter and the environment in which we grew up and the things we chose to sing about primarily – which were the beautiful things about growing up in southern California with our environment, our lovely girls, our lovely cars, our lovely weather and our lovely beaches – it is an endless summer. In fact that was our album title in the mid-70s we had a collection of songs on Capitol Records.

“The beauty of the Beach Boys’ music, the stuff that we’ve created for going on five decades now, it seems to transcend generations. Not only do our original fans still love to hear those songs, their children and some of their grandchildren like the Beach Boys, which is kind of miraculous if you think about it.”

Love once noted that his cousin Brian Wilson, writer of many classic Beach Boys songs, was happiest in the recording studio while he preferred performing live. “The thing is the spontaneity of recreating those songs in the moment, there’s an artistic challenge to it,” Love explains today. “The harmonies are complex and between the instrumentation and the vocal harmonies you have to be totally engaged at every moment in time.

“But the thing that’s special really is the audience response, it’s so wonderful from the standpoint of us as musicians and I as the co-creator of so many of the songs with my cousin Brian.

For us doing a complex harmony was never that difficult a thing, that’s what we started doing before we even became the Beach Boys, as a family group.

Mike Love

“In a studio it’s kind of a sterile environment, which is necessary to get your best recordings, but the biggest joy that I have is recreating those songs in front of a live audience and hearing and seeing and feeling the tremendous warmth that’s generated there. It’s coming from the fact that our original intention wasn’t to make money, it wasn’t to have a big career or be famous; it was purely the joy of getting together and creating those harmonies. Originally taking an Everly Brothers’ songs and adding a part or two to it, so instead of two parts we made three or four, or singing doo wop songs from back in the day or better yet The Four Freshmen, they were a huge inspiration to us, their complex four-part harmonies. It was all about the love of getting together and creating that harmony, those sounds that blend together.

“There’s still that feeling when you step out on stage in front of an audience that’s listened to your music, maybe grown up with it, maybe it’s the first time they’ve ever seen you in concert, there’s a real joy to that and you don’t get that inside a studio. You get other rewards, like hearing the results of your recording and working very hard and perfecting everything, but that’s a different vibration.”

The Beach Boys’ masterpiece Good Vibrations was famously complex and costly to record. Love remembers: “My cousin Brian took several months and many different sessions to do the tracking and to come to terms with what sections were going to go together. When that was finally done then we could address putting the lead vocals and the harmonies together, but for us doing a complex harmony was never that difficult a thing, that’s what we started doing before we even became the Beach Boys, as a family group.

“The track of Good Vibrations was so unique with the theremin and the cello line, all those things were unique to rock ’n’ roll. When he heard the first session of Good Vibrations, just the instrumentation, it was very R&B, it was something like James Brown’s Famous Flames would have recorded. It got slowed down a bit over the next month or two and once the final version of the track was done I wrote the words.

“I dictated what was a poem to go with that song to my then wife who was driving to the studio the day we recorded it. It was maybe a half hour drive to the studio and I just extemporaneously dictated the poem with the lyric. It was 1966 and the Flower Power and psychedelic things were going on in California so I came up with this flowery poem to complement the music and fit the times.

“It turned out it went to Number One and in 1966 we were voted the number one group in Great Britain, number two being The Beatles, three being The Walker Brothers and four the Rolling Stones.

“It had the element of structure and a well thought out track along with the spontaneity of the lyrics, it was a very interesting combination. I also came up with ‘I’m picking up good vibrations/She’s giving me the excitations” to go with the bass line that cousin Brian dreamed up in the track. It was a true Wilson-Love collaboration and the most successful one of the 60s.”

God Only Knows also remains an important part of the Beach Boys’ live set. Although Carl Wilson, who sang lead vocal on the track, died in 1998, Love explains that through the magic of technology the band are still able to perform the song with him. “There’s a concert we did with him – in England, by the way, at a festival – and we have a video of him singing it. We drop the track out and we do the instrumentation and the background vocals come in so our cousin Carl is absolutely there doing God Only Knows as he did so beautifully on the Pet Sounds album. No one ever did it better, it’s just absolutely beautiful so why even try? We honour him by playing that video from Knebworth, so we have Carl Wilson with us every night.”

In 2012 the surviving members of the Beach Boys – Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston – reunited for an album and tour to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Since then Wilson has returned to touring solo but Love harbours hopes that they may yet work together again.

“The problem with that album was I was told I was going to be able to write with Brian. That was never allowed. I was misrepresented,” he says. “If it was just Brian and I could go to a piano with him that would be awesome but it hasn’t worked out that way. But I would never say anything other than I would love to have a chance to get together with Brian, but his life is pretty much dictated by others. He has his own band and thing that he does with concerts and stuff and we do ours, and so I don’t know. I’m not opposed to it but on the other hand there’s no imminent plans for doing things.”

The Beach Boys play at Scarborough Open Air Theatre on May 24. www.thebeachboys.com

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