Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bruce Johnston: From Pet Sounds to Pink Floyd and having time to SMiLE

photo courtesy of Bruce Johnston

If Bruce Johnston decided to retire right now, his music career would be one of the most impressive around.  Luckily, retiring is pretty far from his mind.  You can hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about the future and the music he's yet to discover.  We recently got a chance to talk about his early influences and what it means to be a part of a band like The Beach Boys.  His career is far from being limited to that iconic band though.  He's been involved with songwriting, producing and arranging of some pretty impressive projects.  His talents can be heard on songs from Elton John to Pink Floyd to Barry Manilow to The Rip Chords.  A lot is being written about The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary and the release of SMiLE which proves they are still a relevant force in the music industry.  Bruce is excited about what he's been able to be a part of in the past but may very well be more excited about what is yet to come!

You had a pretty famous group of friends from University High School in West Los Angeles with Jan Berry, Dean Torrence, James Brolin, Ryan O’Neal and others.
With The Beach Boys in 1967 (on far right side).
Photo courtesy of Bruce Johnston
The great thing is that everybody starts young.  It’s kind of fun that I knew all these people.

What were your influences during this high school time?
Growing up in the 50’s, when we were conscious of music in Jr. High School and all that, the radio was a mixture of Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Peggy Lee, Little Richard…you know there was a lot of yin and yang because you couldn’t stop these unusual rock records and rockabilly records like Gene Vincent.   Rockabilly was absolutely fabulous.  Rockabilly broke through.  Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”…we even play that now….a lot of cool stuff.  As a guy who’s 69 ½… I was listening to my parents records from the 40’s like Glenn Miller.  Glenn Miller was huge.  You have to understand the roots of the world down in the south.  You’re getting a lot of blues stuff coming in over the years.  From Ireland, Scotland and England you’ve got all that Appalachian stuff when they brought the guitars over here.  The music in life we hear goes into a blender…comes out of a blender…processed to something else.  You kind of wind up hearing everything…so lucky me…I heard a lot.  And I’ve got more to hear.  I will say honestly, I like to go over my Sinatra stuff but currently I kind of got hooked on the "not-so-complicated sound, but beautifully written songs" in Country music for the last 30 years. So I love that.  Every morning when I get up and take a shower, I’ve got a great radio in the bathroom that is on the Country station in Santa Barbara.  The Country music keeps me sane.

My 11-year-old son always gets to ask a question and this one fits perfectly for the high school topic and time period for you.  Did you want to be in a band?
Never.  Just high school band at the time.  High school band was plenty because I met all the girls.  I was also a cashier in the cafeteria and met all the girls and got a free lunch.  What I was  able to do was  be in a band that sounded like the radio and girls loved that!

You were in a band with Sandy Nelson around this time, weren’t you?
He was like a recording studio mentor when I was 15 years old.  He was like 18.  I was in the band with him and we had Phil Spector in the band, and he was 18.  Boy, did it sound like the radio or what?!  Shortly thereafter, Sandy plays on this hit “To Know Him Is To Love Him” that Phil Spector wrote.  I don’t want to say this is rock & roll….it was all pop…but pop music back then would be considered Sinatra so I don’t know what the hell they called it.  I went on to backing up people.  I remember Duane Eddy having a show.  Dick Dale opened.  There was a few more on and we backed them up.  Dick Dale was a greaser, rockabilly guy before his surf thing.  I started surfing around then.  Guys started making surfing movies.  We had an east coast jazz and west coast jazz thing.  Pacific Jazz Records had Chico Hamilton and Bud Shank.  They started making surfing movies and started putting the Pacific Jazz albums to the soundtrack.  A surf film producer in the late 50’s would have a recorder he’d project a surf movie on.  He’d narrate it live and play this very cool jazz.  Well, somehow in the mix somebody started putting The Ventures to the soundtrack and that really struck a chord with the young surfers.  That got all the guitar guys going.  Surf guitar that you hear today sounds the same as it did a million years ago. 

One of my favorite live albums is that fun project you did in 1963 called Surfer’s Pajama Party.  Can you tell me a little bit about  making that album?
That literally was at a fraternity party.  I went to UCLA.  Did you ever see Animal House?  I swear to God when I saw that I thought it was a documentary of the time I recorded that album and the toga parties.  I never saw drugs to tell you the truth.  I’ve still never participated in it.  But Animal House was so accurate for the times of that album.  That album is like listening in to any band playing a college party.  There’s no depth to the album…there’s not supposed to be.  It’s just kind of cool.

So in 1965 you joined The Beach Boys after Glen Campbell left to pursue a solo career.  How did that come about?
I was on staff at Columbia Records as a producer with Terry Melcher.  We had a band called The Rip Chords that we signed.   They couldn’t sing in the style of The Beach Boys so we became their voices on a song called “Hey Little Cobra” that was top 10 and sold a million copies.  Jan & Dean were across the street from our studio.  Across another little street were The Beach Boys.  I was consulted to find someone to take Glen Campbell’s place, who took Brian’s place, and I couldn’t find anybody.  So I said I could come for the weekend and that’s how it started.

Wasn’t the first song you sang on in the studio with The Beach Boys “California Girls”?
That whole ablum…Summer Days Summer Nights.  I had never sung harmony in a group before.  I had used a little multi-tracking with Terry Melcher.  I had never been around a mic with people.  It was just unbelievable to have that experience.  Your feet are right to the fire.  “Ok, come on sing a part”.  I was too nervous to say no.

Pet Sounds is certainly one of the greatest rock albums of all time.  “God Only Knows” is still a masterpiece today.  Originally, weren’t all the Beach Boys singing on that song along with Terry Melcher?
Yeah…and Brian’s wife and his sister in law.

Then Brian pulled it back to just you, Carl and himself.
Yeah that’s right

After the album was finished you went to England and played this for people like Keith Moon, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  What was that like?
Keith Moon kind of introduced me to John & Paul.  I played the Pet Sounds album twice.  They were in the middle of Revolver.  From their point of view, the spirit of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” went in to “Here, There & Everywhere”.  Brian takes a bow for everything.  You know what I mean?  He gets it.  I just happened to be the lucky “fed-ex” guy.

Besides being a member of The Beach Boys, you have also been successful as a songwriter, with songs like “I Write The Songs”, which became a huge hit for Barry Manilow in 1975.
When Clive Davis played the recording over the phone, they held back the drums until after the bridge.  It waited so long to explode.  I said “Clive, I don’t know if it’s a hit.  It’s just so sophisticated for most of the recording.”

Didn’t you win a Song Of The Year Grammy for that?
Yeah a real Grammy.  You can’t fix that…it’s the real deal.

How did your involvement with Pink Floyd’s The Wall come about?
They wanted the Beach Boys.  We were in Dallas the day they were available.  The producer was going to fly down.  We lined up a recording studio that was part of a film studio…really a fantastic studio.  They had to change their schedule and we didn’t have time to reconnect with them.  Roger Waters called me and said “can you get some singers to sing on it if the band’s not available”.  The one I would really have loved to have done was “Another Brick In The Wall” with the young boys choir.  Anyway, so I lined up some great studio singers…Toni Tennille…you know “Love Will Keep Us Together”…I don’t think she even had a hit then…well maybe she did.  I used her on Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”.  I did the vocal arrangements for that.  When you look at the credits, they shrink it for CD’s.  Now maybe my credit will come back larger when we look on the web (laughs).  Toni went to a sports arena performance of The Wall 3 years ago.  Some “too heavy, too cool for his own body” guy said “what are you doing here?”  She said “I sang on the recording!” (laughs)

You did a fun disco version of “Pipeline” for your Going Public album in 1977.  How did that come about? 
That was the first disco 12 inch Columbia ever had.  We were just jamming in the studio and I said “hey let’s play this” and that’s how it came out.

It seems like every 10 years there is a renewed interest in the Beach Boys, with a new generation discovering you guys.  The 80’s were a huge time for this including the smash hit “Kokomo” in 1988.  Was that the band’s biggest hit?
Impact-wise, no…but as far as pure sales, yes.  It sold 12 million albums.  It’s a wonderful song but hats off to “I Get Around”, “Good Vibrations” and all that other stuff.  That’s more important songwriting for the band.

In 1996 The Beach Boys did a great duets project with Country artists like Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Sawyer Brown, and others (Stars and Stripes Vol. 1).  Was it a surprise that the country audience accepted it?
No, not really.  Country guys love rock & roll.  They’ve listened to everything.  I knew that.  The first song we recorded was “The Warmth of the Sun”.  All the Beach Boy’s songs live are in the original keys.  We had to move it up because Willie had to sing it low so we had to sing it high and it’s a really good recording.  The whole thing was great.

You produced the fun Symphonic Sounds:  Music  of the Beach Boys project in 1998.  I know you were particularly happy with the way Tammy Trent’s “God Only Knows” came out on that.
Now that to me is the best recording outside of The Beach Boys recording.  The arrangements are absolutely stunning.  The 85 musicians were playing those arrangements over at Abby Road were absolutely fabulous.  That’s just a great unknown recording (laughs).  

I understand that you, Mike Love, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine got together to re-record “Do It Again” this summer?
You know when you go up to a mic and you go “test 1,2,3,4” when you do a soundcheck?  I think that’s what “Do It Again” was.  “Hi boys, I know you haven’t recorded together in 3,000 years…test 1,2,3,4…Do It Again”. (laughs)

This year marks the end of the 44 year wait for the release of SMiLE.  Did you ever think that would come out?
I actually never thought about it to tell you the truth.  From my point of view, Brian chose not to finish it.  I think the SMiLE he finished might be more interesting to him than the SMiLE that’s been released now.  In other words, Brian Wilson the solo artist (see info here), with the support of the musicians in his band that are fabulously, ridiculously cool, emotionally finished the SMiLE songs he composed over there and not here because it’s not finished…and it’s absolutely brilliant.  Have you heard the project?

Oh yeah.  I had to get a copy immediately.
How many copies? (laughs)  Which one did you buy?  There are so many versions.  I picked up the double vinyl disc version!  I do have Brian’s version from a few years ago on CD as well.

So with the 50 year anniversary and the SMiLE release, there have been lots of rumors of a reunion tour.  Is there anything you can talk about?
Nothing has been booked.  I know there have  been offers in Japan.  There are offers out there.  You have to sort out how they translate back to you in terms of business.  I’m just going to stand by.

Do you still like to surf?
I’m looking out my window right now.  I live 150 feet from the beach at high tide.  My surf spot when I was a young boy is to my left and my beach club that I belong to is on the right.  The water is always cold.  You always have to wear a wet suit here in Santa Barbara.  So don’t think when you come out here you’re going to run in to the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, or Dick Dale and jump in the ocean and be warm.  It’s not like the weather below you there…It’s cold!
With The Beach Boys in Norway in 1980 (front left)
photo courtesy of Bruce Johnston
Which website do you recommend to get all the news about the band?
Beach Boys Britain.  Go to google and type in “BBB message board” and that will get you to all the people chattering and that’s really interesting.  (click HERE)

What are some songs that you never get tired of playing live?
The one that is not in the set enough is “Warmth Of The Sun”.  Oh my God…that’s killer.  Another that’s not in the set hardly at all is “Please Let Me Wonder”.  That was the back side of “Do You Wanna Dance?”.  I like playing “California Girls”.  I think Mike’s lyrics are so on the money.  I told Mike the other day that you start like a garage band and you instantly get on the radio.  You’re struggling but you have stuff on the radio.  You have a Christmas album and have “Little Saint Nick” as a hit.  When you turn that hit over, you have an a capella version  of “The Lord’s Prayer” with very modern harmony.  For me if the career ended right there and I was the age I’m right now, I would be so proud and satisfied that I had some great hits, a seasonal hit and to top it off with the most difficult vocal arranging of my career with “The Lord’s Prayer”.  It was so incredible. 

Do you ever step back and take a look at all the great projects you’ve been a part of…both solo and with the band?
Well people do these things and if they live long enough they get interviewed constantly about what happened.  You never probably think people have more to offer but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.  What I decided  to do was enjoy these brilliant reruns because we go all the way up to playing with a ton of symphonies.  Although I, Bruce Johnston, may wrinkle quite naturally like Paul McCartney but my writing doesn’t.  I decided I’m going for writing for tv and movies.  I always torture Mike about writing because he’s so good.  I told him the other day that nothing happens until you write it…whether it’s a book, screenplay or words in music.  That’s always been my whole thing.  I never thought I’d be in a band.

You seem to keep a lot of stuff going.
I do 140-170 concerts a year.  It’s really all cool.  I’m thinking about “what’s next?”   I’m not thinking about when I’m going to retire.  By thinking “what’s next”, you still feel like you’re still contributing your talent.  You’re contributing your talent by reassembling night after night even though the set list changes every night.  That’s one way to look at it.  As I love the writing talent better, I’m kind of doing the Clint Eastwood move.  Instead of just staying in front of the camera, he got on the back of it and the side of it by writing.  That’s what I want to do.  I kind of peeled back on my writing and raised 4 children.  The last one is in grad school.  So instead of retiring I have time to focus.        

"Down Under" 1963
"Friends"- The Beach Boys 1968

"I Can Hear Music"- The Beach Boys 1969

"Disney Girls" 1975

"I Write The Songs" 1975

"Pipeline" 1975

"Kokomo"- The Beach Boys 1988

With The Beach Boys at Ronald Reagan Tribute February 2011

SMiLE promo