Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Beach Boys' Mike Love: 50 Years of Fun, Fun, Fun!

As one of the founding members of The Beach Boys, Mike Love (along with his cousins Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson and friend Al Jardine) helped usher in a new sound in 1961.  Brian Wilson's successful combination of a Chuck Berry rhythm and a Four Freshman vocal harmony along with Mike Love's visual lyrics catapulted the band out of the starting gate.  We recently talked with Mike about the early days as well as being honored by the Society Of Singers at their 21st Ella Awards (named after the great Ella Fitzgerald).  Below are some of the highlights of the interview but you can listen to the full Rockabilly N Blues Radio Podcast that includes many great songs from The Beach Boys as well.

(play episode here):

Let's start by going all the way back.  One of my favorite movies is That Thing You Do starring Tom Hanks.  In the film, a fictional band called The Wonders hear their song on the air for the first time to a thrilling response.  What was it like for you and the band to hear "Surfin'" on the air for the first time in 1961?

They had 4 or 5 songs that they played.  It might have been on a Sunday.  The one that got the most phone-in requests would be the record of the week and they'd play it during the week.  It was a way of promoting new records.  The radio station would be market testing at the same time to see if it had any value as a hit.  Well, we have an extended family.  My mom was one of 8 kids.  All the cousins, aunts and uncles and everybody phoned the radio station and we easily won (laughs).  Sure enough, "Surfin'" became the record of the week.  That first time it was played, we were all so excited.  We were gathered around the radio because we had been told the record had been chosen as part of this contest.  It was extremely exciting to hear your record on the radio.  I was 20 and I think Carl was 14 (laughs).  And Brian was maybe 19.  He's a year younger than I.  Dennis was 17.  It's pretty amazing.  That song, "Surfin'", was a big hit in LA.  I believe it went to #2.  It went to #1 in Vegas.  It was played in Minneapolis and a few stations around the country.  It didn't have a national distribution like a major record company.  It was on a minor record company.  In fact, the guy declared bankruptcy so he wouldn't have to pay us (laughs).

While "Surfin'" wasn't a major national hit, it did get the attention of Capitol Records which signed the band in 1962.  Tell us about those early days.

Yeah, the record got the attention of Capitol Records.  We signed in 1962 and it had to be after March.  I turned 21 and I was the only one that didn't have to have court approval on that contract.  The Wilson brothers were all under the age of 21 so they had to have court approval.  The next record we came out with was "Surfin' Safari" and that became more well known and even internationally got some play.  Then the next year '63 was "Surfin' USA" and it was a huge hit.  Of course, '64 was "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "I Get Around".  We really took off.  People ask us, "did you struggle a long time before you got discovered?"  Not really.  The first song we ever recorded became a hit although a minor one.  It got the attention of Capitol Records.  The second was a bigger hit and the third was bigger yet!  All in a space of a couple of years.

Tell me about "double-sided" hits.

We'd put out a 45 and have "Surfin' Safari" on one side and the other side was "409"..."Surfin' USA" and "Shut Down" know, that kind of thing.  We had "double-sided hits" as they called them for several years.  That's why I have so many hit singles in the 60's.

The Beach Boys style is so unique.  Your lyrics and Brian's style seemed to set you guys apart.

He was brilliantly gifted musically.  He would structure harmonies like you wouldn't believe.  In fact, the distinctive sound of The Beach Boys harmonies which separates us from so many others is a direct result of my cousin Brian having that gift to structure harmonies.  And then the conceptual and lyrical part to a great degree in the 60's up through "Good Vibrations" was in large part my compliment to his musical abilities.

Your lyrics can't be overlooked in the brilliance of the band.  As a kid growing up in Kentucky without a beach in sight, I still related to the picture you'd paint in the songs.

Yeah, I was always into the lyrics and the concepts.  The style of writing that really impressed me was Chuck Berry.  They call it alliteration.

(repeats verse of "Nadine")
When I got a city bus and found a vacant seat
I thought I saw my future bride walkin' up the street
I shouted to the driver, "hey conductor you must slow down
I think I see her please let me off the bus"

When I did "Fun, Fun, Fun", it was like...

Well, she got her daddy's car and she cruised through the hamburger stand now
Seems she forgot all about the library like she told her old man now
And with the radio blasting goes cruisin' just as fast as she can now

It's the same type of syncopation and alliteration.  I was always into lyrics...always into poetry, literature...not into math or science (laughs).  I love literature, history, philosophy and poetry.  I wasn't a massive reader of poetry but I read American poets and a lot of English poetry going back to Chaucer and stuff.  I was fascinated always with where words came from.  Was there Latin involved?  Was there Greek involved?  Was there Sanskrit involved?  I was very well read when I was a kid.  I was the best-read kid in my grade school,  Jr. high and high school.  It wasn't formal studies so much as it was preparation for what I did with my cousin, Brian.

There are lot's of behind the scenes events that happened with the band that many may not know about.

Brian left the touring group in 1964 and concentrated on record production.  Our deal was that he would go and produce the records and we'd all share equally in records and he would share in the touring revenues.  That worked out really well because he could concentrate fully on developing a song and at least the tracks.  We'd come back in and sing them or complete the writing process.  For instance, "Good Vibrations" he might have taken several months to put the final track together.  We'd come in and write the lyrics and sing the song.  I remember writing all the words to "California Girls" in the hallway of the studio.  That was Bruce's (Johnston) first record he recorded with us.  He remembers me going out with a legal lined paper and writing the lyrics.  Brian had "I wish they all could be California girls" but that was it.  I came up with East coast girls, West coast southern girls, mid-west farmer's daughters and all that kind of stuff.  I wrote all the lyrics to the song.  Although, it's been myth and actual lies about who wrote what.  For instance, I wrote all the words to "Surfin' USA", but have yet to be credited for it.  My uncle Murry unfortunately disenfranchised his sons and his he controlled the publishing.  So I wasn't credited for many years.  It finally got rectified.  It's too bad because Brian wasn't capable of protecting himself or myself and I was just too naive in the beginning.  I didn't even know what publishing was when we started.  My dad was a sheet metal worker and hard working guy but had zero knowledge of the music business.  But my uncle Murry did because he was a songwriter and he knew what the value of publishing was.  He took advantage of me and his son.  It was a tragic kind of thing actually when you're betrayed by your uncle.  That's pretty heinous.  If you don't think that way, you become a more innocent victim.  It's really sad what greed will do.

How did the lyrics to "Good Vibrations" come to you?

I wrote the lyrics on the way to the studio when we were recording that day.  Brian had experimented with it and put together a composite of some of his experiments which became ultimately the single.  Well, not having the exact track to write to it, I literally dictated it to my then wife, Suzanne...mother of 2 of my children, on the way to the studio...about a 15 minute ride.  It was a flower-power poem.  "I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair".

While The Beach Boys are closely tied to surfing and car songs, there are a lot of styles with the group.  

Yeah, you've got "All This Is That" which kind of came in from the ancient scriptures.  It's a saying, "I am that, thou art that, all this is that".  "Warmth Of The Sun" is a more melancholy thing about love lost.  You still experienced the feeling of having been in love.  Then you had "Little Deuce Coupe", "409", "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Good Vibrations" was one of the most unique songs ever on pop radio.  Not only was it psychedelic in a way but it was also successful.  You can be weird and not successful commercially.  That was both.  Unique and successful at the same time which is great.

You wrote a song for your departed friend George Harrison in 2004.  The recording circulated in bootleg form for years but you recently released it via Soundcloud.  Tell me about this song.
Mike Love and George Harrison

I just released a song called "Pisces Brothers" to the Cloud.  It's been tweeted 8 million times.  I don't know how many people have heard that song by now.  I wrote it about 10 years ago...a couple of years after George Harrison passed away.  It's a reminiscence of that time in India at Maharishi's place which was really fascinating.  There's a line in it, "not for fortune or for more fame, but for enlightenment we came, to Maharishi and how sublime, there was an atmosphere divine, such precious moments now in the past, music and memories are all that last".  "Pisces Brothers" is a very sentimental song.  George Harrison passed away but one of the things I said in the lyrics of the song is "we're going to miss you but your songs in life go on and on".  It's pretty sentimental and takes me back to that time with Maharishi's place in India.  Also, there's the time that Paul McCartney came to the breakfast table with his acoustic guitar and saying, "listen to this".  He starts strumming away and playing "Back In The USSR".  I said, "you have talk about the girls around Russia in that middle part" and he did.  Anyway, "Pisces Brothers" has been heard I guess by millions of people now which is pretty far out.

That song is a great reminder that our music lives on.

Yeah, that's a line in the song, "though your earthly form be gone, your songs of life go on and on".  It's so true.  Music not only soothes the savage beast, it transcends time.  I mean, they're playing Beethoven aren't they in some of these symphonies (laughs).  If it's a great song and good music and well performed, there's an indication of immortality there.  There are so many people in the past that are no longer with us but we still love their music.

The Society Of Singers recently honored you at their 21st Ella Awards.  The night looked to be historic and something you'll most likely never forget.  Are you able to put into words what that night meant to you?

It's impossible to put into words how fantastic that evening was.  My older son Christian plays with us and
Mike Love, right, Jacquelyne Love, center, and
John Stamos pose together at The Society Of Singers’
21st Ella Awards
(Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision for
The Society Of Singers/AP Images)
sings Carl's parts that Carl sang on the original recordings.  He sings "Kokomo" and "Good Vibrations" and sounds wonderful on them.  My younger son, Brian, gave a really nice speech.  My youngest daughter, Ambha, sang one of our songs "Darlin'" in a set with California Saga which is all the children of The Beach Boys...Carnie and Wendy (Brian's daughters), Matt Jardine (Al's son), Justin Wilson (Carl's son), Carl B. Wilson (Dennis' son) and Christian and Ambha.  It was such a fantastic night with kids singing and a lot of friends like America (singing "Surfin' USA"), David Marks ("409"), Dean Torrence ("Little Deuce Coupe"), Micky Dolenz ("Wild Honey), Rita Wilson ("Warmth Of The Son"), Dave Koz (sax solo "Kokomo"), Christopher Cross ("All This Is That" and Carl's part on "Kokomo"), The Waters Family ("Unleash The Love"), Lucy Lawless ("Wouldn't It Be Nice").  The whole event was so fun.  Peter Noone came up and testified to the fact that in 1966 the #3 group in England was The Rolling Stones, #2 was The Beatles and #1 was The Beach Boys on the strength of "Good Vibrations".  Al Jardine came in and did "Help Me Rhonda" which was great.  The whole crowd was singing along with that one and rocking out.  It was surreal that David Lee Roth came in and did "California Girls" with me.  I would sing the first line and he'd do the second one that way.  It was absolutely surreal.  The fact that David Lee Roth came in from Japan and did that was beyond belief.  "Fun, Fun, Fun" was all hands on deck (laughs).  John Stamos did a wonderful job as host and emcee.  At one point, he says "now I'm going to play some drums" (laughs).  He loves to play drums and he loves to come out and perform with us.  Because of our being on Full House 3 or 4 times, which was completely John's doing, we've been recognized all over the place having seen The Beach Boys first on Full House.  John has been a long time fan and supporter of The Beach Boys and always brings such an element of positivity and showmanship to whatever he does.  When he comes out and performs with us, he really adds a great element.  There are so many great things about that night that it would be difficult to quantify.  They say when you die, your life passes before you.  I didn't die, but it was 50 years of "Fun, Fun, Fun".  This year is the 50th anniversary of when "Fun, Fun, Fun" was released in March of 1964.

You keep up an incredible touring schedule!  What are the keys to your longevity?

People ask us if we ever think about retiring.  I say "well I'm going to ask Tony Bennett what he thinks we should do".  He's 87 and we went and saw him the other night.  We had a sold out show in Austin, TX and we had the night off and went to see Tony Bennett the night before our show.  It was in a beautiful
Bruce Johnston, Tony Bennett,
Mike Love
performing arts center there.  He put the microphone down on the piano and sang a capella.  He sounded fantastic at 87.  He practices every day and keeps those vocal chords well exercised and we perform enough to where the voices stay strong.  If you use your voice regularly, you keep the tonal quality intact.  It's when you don't use it or you abuse it with drinking or smoking or something, that's when things go wrong.  If you work out a little bit, you stay toned.  If you don't, muscles get flaccid.  A similar thing happens with vocal chords.  I'm not sure if it's identical but it's a similar thing.  If you use your voice and practice vocal warm-ups, you're going to be a lot better off as a performer and can perform for many more years.  I always meditate a couple of times a day.  It keeps the stress level down and the energy level up.  The positivity is enhanced and the negativity subsides.  It's a cool thing.

Meeting up with Mike Love (left) and Bruce Johnston (right) before
their show in Nashville, TN.  October, 2013

"Surfin' Safari"

"Fun, Fun, Fun"

"I Get Around"