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The Beach Boys: Back on the Wave

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."

©Capitol
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.

More on Bing: The Beach Boys

"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."

Concert review: The Beach Boys play the Hollywood Bowl

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.

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12Comments
Jun 11, 2012 7:10AM
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The current crop of musicians out on the Beach Boys tour is Beach Boys lite.  The Beach Boys have long been gone, with Brian's brain leaving the group in the 1960s when he suffered mental breakdowns and drug abuse.  Their music lives on, so celebrate the music.  Don't bother going out to see this assembly of dinosaurs recreating Beach Boys music.  It ain't gonna happen!!!
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They were a living legend.  The Beach boys had to battle the "English invasion" of the Beattles, the Rolling Stones, the Monkeys, and all the rest of them.  For guys like me who grew up with the American rock 'n roll sound of the 50's and 60's and never accepted the English groups, the Beach Boys will always be one of my favorites.  Brian Wilson once said that the English invasion wrecked American rock 'n roll.  I couldn't agree more.
Jun 11, 2012 6:18AM
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Dennis and Carl Wilson are not around. I don't see how you can call this band the Beach Boys.
It was Dennis' idea to do a surf band and Carl carried on as leader when Brian was incapacitated with drug related problems. 
Jun 11, 2012 6:12AM
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When I heard they were performing on the Grammys, I went "uh, oh".  I thought, "there's no way a bunch of guys in their late 60's or early 70's will be able to sing and harmonize the way the Beach Boys used to - it's going to be sad."  Boy, was I wrong.  Way to go, guys... you're still showing everyone else how it's done!
Jun 11, 2012 4:51AM
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i have loved the beach boys since i was old enough to listen to music on my own,endless summer was the first album i owned right next to my kiss double platinum.i have never seen these guys but look forward to to it now .this is gonna be great!glad to see them back in action.if it hadnt been for them i may have never started playing guitar so thank you  brian wilson and co.!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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