The strange, conflicted, sometimes tragic saga of the Beach Boys dated way back. Even at the very start they seemed sort of out-of-kilter – nothing like as harmonious as they were in their songs. Look at the old promotional photos of them lined up on the beach: even in their identical preppy shirts and khakis they look like a motley crew.
There’s Mike, already married and prematurely balding at 20, and pudgy Carl, 16 but looking like an oversized baby. There’s short, toothy Al (he actually quit the band for a year to go to dental college); Dennis, the sex symbol, the only one in the band who could actually surf; and Brian, tall and lanky, with pale, indoor skin. Even back then his eyes betrayed his shyness and sensitivity.
Brian had his first major breakdown in the winter of 1964 while touring with the band – a cocktail of crippling stage fright, ceaseless bullying from his father (the band’s self-appointed manager) Murry Wilson, and pressure from the record company to keep writing hit after hit. Mind-bogglingly, in their first two years with Capitol the Beach Boys released six albums.
There were tales of acid and dope and a giant sandpit in Brian Wilson’s dining room, in which he sat at his piano and wrote
When Brian chose to stay in the studio and write, the real rift began, with Love becoming de facto leader on tour and Brian entirely taking over the songwriting process. Now that his bandmates weren’t looking over his shoulder, his music became more inventive and his lyrics more introspective and deep.
The critics called Brian a genius and, as geniuses often do, he went a bit crazy. There were tales of acid and dope and a giant sandpit in his dining room, in which he sat at his piano and wrote, while his dogs requisitioned it as a litter tray. Paranoia started to set in; he believed that the legendary producer Phil Spector had found a way to get inside his head.
Finally, after one conflict too many with his band, record label and abusive dad, Brian went into his bedroom and closed the door.
People are strange
All sorts of bizarre Beach Boys tales would emerge over the years: from the alcoholic Dennis’ friendship with Charlie Manson (admittedly some months before the Sharon Tate murders) to Mike Love’s Transcendental Meditation; and Dr Landy, the infamous doctor who helped Brian make his eventual comeback, but who for a while seemed to take over his life.
Add to that Mike Love’s legal machinations and his way with the Beach Boys’ ‘brand’. Take into account how he told Wilson and the other ‘originals’ that, for financial reasons, he would no longer need them after 2012, and it would be hard to have called their 50th anniversary year exactly ‘golden’.
At the time, Love said: “The Eagles found out the hard way when they went out for a second year and wound up selling tickets for $5.” Wilson poignantly replied: “I’m disappointed and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to tour with Al, David and me. We are out here having so much fun. After all, we are the real Beach Boys.”
Still, the bickering and bullshit didn’t stop there. Earlier this month, Love was lukewarm both about the reunion tour and the Radio album, blaming a management consortium for mishandling him and Wilson. Then he took his own ‘Beach Boys’ back on the road, playing in July (to much mockery) before boy-band JLS in Hyde Park.
But frankly, the diehard fans haven’t really liked Love – OK, they’ve despised him – for a good 40 years now. Here, for example, is a recent comment from one blogger, chosen at random:
“Dear M Love, having you parade around all the carnivals billing yourself as The Beach Boys is like Ringo playing at casinos and calling his act The Beatles…who the fuck do you think you’re fooling with this farce?”
Well, yes. But those songs, those songs. That glorious, evocative soundtrack to Brian’s imagined, Utopian, sunny California…
However shambolic the lives of their creators, there’s no way they will ever grow old.
Made in California is a six-CD set, including outtakes, demos and more, packaged in a ‘high school yearbook’ format