Brian Wilson rejoins the legendary Southern California group to mark their 50th anniversary
By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music
Brian Wilson admits he had some trepidation about stepping into Los Angeles' Ocean Way Studios with his Beach Boys bandmates to record "That's Why God Made the Radio," their first studio album together in decades. That venerable Hollywood complex, then doing business as United Western, was home to classic Beach Boys sessions including "Good Vibrations."
Total elapsed time before Wilson felt assured it would be fine? Ninety minutes. "I was a little worried at first, but when I heard them singing, I relaxed," Wilson says, calling on a day off from the band's 50th anniversary tour. "[It took] about an hour and a half."
The Beach Boys (©Capitol)
The band's 29th studio album, produced by Wilson and executive produced by his cousin and fellow founding member Mike Love, recalls all the musical trademarks that made the Beach Boys the quintessential American band for decades: Wilson's beautiful string and horn arrangements, songs about all things sun- and surf-related, and, above all, the inimitable, gorgeous harmonies that remain astonishingly undiminished half a century after the group formed in Hawthorne, Calif.
"Why wouldn't we?" replies Bruce Johnston, when told how tight and crisp their close harmonies still sound. "This is the same voice I've had all my life. Our voices are our voices." You can practically hear him shrug over the phone.
Indeed, the Beach Boys waste no time showing that their ability to create a "teenage symphony to God," as Wilson once called the songs for their lost masterpiece "Smile," remains intact. The album opens with "Think About the Days," a stunning vocalization, accompanied only by a piano, that soars straight to the heavens. The album closes with the wistful, melancholic "Summer's Gone" -- co-written by Jon Bon Jovi -- which serves as a fitting metaphor for the band's journey: "Summer's gone/I'm gonna sit and watch the waves/We laugh, we cry/We live then die/And dream about our yesterday."
Like many of the Beach Boys' greatest hits, the songs have a timeless quality, and that's just how the band wanted it. There was no thought to bowing to contemporary fads. "We didn't sacrifice our legitimacy on this album. We didn't say, 'Let's do this because it's on the radio' ... We're not going to put little raps in the middle of this album," Johnston says, "though I actually kind of like [hip-hop.] The electronica thing kind of throws me."
Wilson was always known as a stern, if brilliant, taskmaster in the studio, directing his bandmates and musicians with exacting precision and often exhorting them to do it again and better.
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"I think he rules with a lighter hand these days until we make a mistake. [Then it's] 'Hold it!'" Johnston says with a laugh. "He's kind of like a guy in a plantation house in South Carolina looking at hundreds of thousands of acres that he owns and he can't see over the horizon, so you think, but he probably has mirrors in the sky. ... He has never not known what he wants."
In their '60s heyday, the Beach Boys worked at a punishing pace, pushing out album after album and touring in between. For "That's Why God Made the Radio," they got to take their time and relax a little, recording over two months. "This time I went a little slower," Wilson says. "I still wanted to hear the harmonies, but we took our time this time."
The album's release coincides with the 50th anniversary tour. The lineup includes -- in addition to Wilson, Love and Johnston -- founding member Al Jardine and David Marks, an off-and-on again member since 1962. Johnston came aboard in 1965, replacing Glen Campbell, who filled in for Wilson after he initially quit touring with the band.
Though it has been more than two decades since Wilson has toured with the band, Johnston said he felt it all coming together during rehearsals for the Beach Boys' February performance at the Grammys with Maroon 5 and Foster the People. "I knew it was going to work when we got to the first chorus of 'Good Vibrations,'" he says.
Playing live together again with Wilson has "gone beyond my wildest fantasies," Johnston declares, though he says it took a number of shows to get the 15 musicians onstage, pulled from their various bands, in sync. "With 15 shows under our belt, it's really loosening up. It's kind of a miracle to me that I probably should have never worried about."
Wilson had some hesitations about signing up for the tour, but ultimately decided "what better thing to do with my time?" Several shows in, he says, "It's a great moment in time to be onstage with the guys."
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The nearly three-hour concert covers more than 40 tunes, including classic hits such as "California Girls," "Do It Again," "I Get Around" and "God Only Knows," as well as songs that influenced the band, like Leadbelly's "Cotton Fields" and Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," and obscure B-sides like "Please Let Me Wonder."
Wilson's brothers -- Dennis, who died in 1983, and Carl, who passed in 1998 -- are also represented, singing along with the band in videos of past performances.
The tour will take the Beach Boys all over the world, including playing for the first time in Italy with Wilson onstage, but, appropriately enough, Johnston says it's the dates in the good old USA that excite him the most. "I know I'll have a good time in Europe, but I still view the band as an American band. I'll be looking forward to doing it, but the American part will be the home run in my head. ... I'm just an American surf guy." Same as it ever was.
Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.