The Beach Boys are making 'Radio' waves
The rumor mill last year was churning like the gale-swept sea waves Brian Wilson sings about in "Sail on Sailor."
Speculation was rampant that Wilson, the pop genius who hadn't performed with The Beach Boys since September 1996, was finally getting back together with the band. Wilson had been spotted at Capitol Records, the label that released the group's most iconic '60s hits, from "Surfin' USA" to "California Girls," and that had sent fans into a full-on frenzy. Certainly the timing seemed right: 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the group's 1961 formation in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne and the release of their first single, "Surfin'," on the tiny Candix label that December.
Good time for a reunion tour, huh? Maybe even a new album? What about it, Brian?
"I don't know anything about it," Wilson told The Star's Brett Johnson last August. "I haven't talked to anyone about it."
Wilson did allow that he had been in the studio reworking a collection of tunes he had written with producer Joe Thomas more than a decade ago. The usually reticent composer even let slip a title.
"I am writing a song called 'Shelter,' " he said.
That bit of news was followed by a pregnant pause. Then Wilson lowered the cone of silence, his voice rising with each word.
"Now, don't you tell anyone that title — not a soul," he commanded.
Another awkward pause followed.
"In fact, it doesn't exist," he said. "I junked it."
Before freaking out over "Shelter," Wilson said the songs he was working on would "make a great album one day."
That day is almost here.
DO IT AGAIN
"That's Why God Made the Radio" drops June 5 on Capitol. It's the first all-new Beach Boys album since 1992's "Summer in Paradise" and the first to feature Wilson since 1985's "The Beach Boys." The never-junked "Shelter" is one of a dozen tracks on the disc, which features all five surviving members of the band: Wilson, 69; frontman (and Wilson's cousin) Mike Love, 71; guitarist-singer Al Jardine, 69; guitarist David Marks, 63, who played on the group's first four albums; and singer-keyboardist Bruce Johnston, 69, who joined in 1965. (Wilson's brothers, both original members of the group, are dead; drummer-singer Dennis drowned in 1983 and singer-guitarist Carl succumbed to cancer in 1998.)
The new album doesn't try to recapture the jangly surf energy of early hits like "Surfin' USA" or "Fun Fun Fun," and as a whole it doesn't match the consistent artistic heights reached by "Pet Sounds" or "Sunflower," but it rates as a dramatic return to form for a band that's been creatively stagnant for decades. Love's gift for penning sunny, feel-good lyrics remains intact, and Wilson — who's been hailed as pop music's Mozart on more than one occasion — once again proves he's the grand master of melody and melancholy. And the band's harmonies? Gorgeous.
The record is steeped in reflection, but also packs the determined air of a band looking for new triumphs. On the bouncy "Isn't It Time," co-written by Wilson and Love, they offer up a joint declaration: "The good times never have to end."
At least not this summer. Augmented by a killer 10-piece ensemble, the reunited Beach Boys are in the midst of an ever-expanding international tour that includes dates in Italy, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and Japan. A string of SoCal shows starts this week, with the group set to perform Monday at the Santa Barbara Bowl, June 2 at the Hollywood Bowl and June 3 in Irvine.
The band's two-hour, 40-song concert set mixes classics like "Fun, Fun, Fun," "I Get Around" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" with lesser-known album tracks like "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times," "Marcella" and "Please Let Me Wonder." The Atlanta Journal Constitution called the show "fine-tuned nostalgia" and hailed the band's "impeccable" harmonies. The Arizona Republic said the concert "wasn't just historic ... it was great."
"The songs range from the simplest little oohs and ahhs to the most complex arrangements from 'Pet Sounds' and 'SMiLE,' " Jardine said by phone May 7 from New York, where the band was rehearsing for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." "With this wonderful backup band that Brian Wilson developed over the years, we have a powerful presence now. It's very, very impressive. We have a little extra meat onstage. The audience can feel it."
The tour — or "victory lap," as Entertainment Weekly calls it — was by no means inevitable. Though the band's place in musical history was secure, thanks to groundbreaking albums like "Pet Sounds" and classic singles like "Good Vibrations," it's future as anything but an oldies act was in doubt. After Carl Wilson died in '98, the band splintered. Brian Wilson, whose involvement with the group had been sporadic since the early '70s due to problems with addiction and mental illness, forged ahead as a successful solo act. Jardine went solo, too, while Love and Johnston continued to tour as The Beach Boys. Lawsuits, over songwriting credits and use of the Beach Boys name, drove the members further apart.
Despite the acrimony, Brian Wilson never stopped thinking of The Beach Boys as "his band." As a composer, their voices were his favorite building blocks. Even as he created heralded solo albums like "That Lucky Old Sun," and toured the world performing iconic Beach Boys albums like "Pet Sounds" and "SMiLE" in their entirety, he harbored hopes of recording a new Beach Boys album.
This is how it happened.
The Beach Boys are making 'Radio' waves
TURN BACK THE PAGES
"That's Why God Made the Radio" has its roots in demos Wilson made with Thomas in the late 1990s when they were neighbors in St. Charles, Ill. The pair was working on Wilson's "Imagination" album then, but Wilson was already looking ahead to another Beach Boys record.
"Brian was very specific," Thomas said by phone from St. Charles. "He had two or three songs that he did not want to do solo. He wanted to do them with The Beach Boys. One was 'That's Why God Made the Radio.' "
To get the project started, Thomas said, Wilson sent his brother, Carl, a demo of a potential Beach Boys song.
"It had several different names to it," Thomas said. "At one time it was called 'Lay Down Your Burden,' the title of which we ended up stealing from ourselves and turning into a ballad called 'Lay Down Burden' on Brian's solo record. But the original piece was kind of an up-tempo, gospel-y kind of thing that finally ended up on the new album as 'Spring Vacation.' "
Carl never got to work on the song. The Beach Boys project was put on the back burner in 1997 as he battled cancer and then it was shelved indefinitely after he died. For years, Brian Wilson didn't even want to hear the song; the memory was too painful.
Flash forward to January 2008.
"I hadn't talked to Brian in several years and then, all of a sudden, he just gave me a call one day out of the blue," Thomas said. "He was in Australia. I'll never forget: He was calling to ask me, 'If you flush the toilet in Australia, does it really go the opposite direction of the way it goes when you're in the Northern Hemisphere?' I didn't have an answer for him. But then he called back a couple of months later and was like, 'Hey, do you remember those songs we started?' And I was like, 'Yeah.' … That was the first official, 'Hey, I really think we want to do something.' "
Thomas was producing a television special for PBS at the time, but he had his staff in Illinois start rounding up the material, which was on cassette tapes, DAT tapes and tiny microcassette tapes that they used whenever inspiration struck in the car. Once it was all loaded into Pro Tools, there was 10 to 15 hours of material to sort through.
"There were no lyrics at that time," Thomas said. "Maybe some titles. He had a concept of one small verse of a song called 'Summer's Gone,' which was going to be the last Beach Boys song ever."
Wilson took those tapes, started formulating new verses, and then started demoing the still-in-progress songs with Thomas and longtime sideman Jeffrey Foskett. He played those demos for Capitol Records and, Thomas said, the label "bought into the idea of a new Beach Boys record."
Now it was time to see if Love was interested.
"We met Mike, of all places, at a steakhouse in Palm Springs," Thomas said. "You must understand, Mike's a vegetarian ... Brian didn't quite get the memo on that. But Mike was gracious enough to meet us at the steakhouse. He had a salad and Brian had a big, juicy steak and they started talking. Brian had the offer from Capitol, he had some songs, and he asked Mike if he'd like to write some lyrics. He said, 'I'd love to.' "
JUST LIKE YESTERDAY
To get used to one another again in the studio, Wilson and the band convened at Capitol Records in Hollywood last spring to re-cut, appropriately enough, their 1968 Top 20 hit "Do It Again." The song, and footage from the session, was used when the band announced their reunion on Dec. 15.
They recorded another track at the Capitol session: "Think About the Days," the haunting, wordless hymn that opens the album. Soaring harmonies, plaintive piano and a muted splash of French horn combine to rival the beauty of "Our Prayer," which opened "SMiLE."
"That was the moment we all went, 'Wow, these guys can still sing,'" Thomas said.
By winter, Wilson began cutting tracks at Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood for some of the songs he had co-written with Thomas. Love was busy coming up with lyrics to songs Wilson had already started.
"Beaches in Mind," a funky little mid-tempo romp featuring Jeff "Skunk" Baxter on guitar and Scott Bennett on clavinet and organ, is one of the first tracks Love worked on. "That's Why God Made the Radio," the first single, was another that Love helped finish. Wilson had dreamed up the title at dinner one night in Chicago in the late '90s after attending a White Sox game with Thomas, Survivor rocker Jim Peterik and recording engineer Larry Millas. After the meal, the foursome raced over to Peterik's home studio and, with Wilson pounding out a little boogie-woogie rhythm on the piano, they laid down a rough demo.
Wilson, in a short email interview this week, said "Radio" and "Shelter" are his favorite tracks. "I love the fade tag of 'That's Why God Made the Radio' because it has a mellow sound," he said.
As the sessions rolled on, Love and Wilson started writing songs from scratch. With help from Peterik and Millas, the plucky doo-wop tune "Isn't It Time" just poured out in a matter of days. Peterik and Millas hit upon the song's foot-stomp rhythm and Love came up with a bass line underneath it. Then Love wrote the verses, Wilson penned the chorus and it all came together in the studio.
"This song wasn't even on the album until two months ago," Thomas said.
While he and Love were collaborating, Wilson also was finishing up songs like "The Private Life of Bill and Sue" and "Shelter" that he had co-written with Thomas.
" 'Shelter' is about a house that offers shelter from the different elements — sunlight, cold nights, etc.," Wilson said by email. "It's not about anyone in particular but literally about a home being a shelter."
Thomas loves the concept.
"I think it's kind of an extension of 'In My Room,' " he said. "He's gone from his room to his own home. And 'shelter' is just a totally cool Brian word. I mean, who calls your house your shelter? Only he would come up with something like that."
MORE TO SAY
Wilson's plan was to title the new album "Summer's Gone," and end the record — the final Beach Boys record — with that track. Then Wilson had a change of heart.
"Everybody was getting along so well and the creativeness started flowing again that he shelved the idea of this being the last song on the last Beach Boys record," Thomas said. "He was having too good of a time."
As work on the record progressed, an album-length suite began to develop around the "Summer's Gone" theme. "If 'Pet Sounds' is Brian looking at life as a youth, this is him looking at life as an older adult," Thomas said.
Four of the five songs from the second half of the suite — "Strange World," "From There to Back Again," "Pacific Coast Highway" and "Summer's Gone" — close out the album. The fifth track, "I'd Go Anywhere," which is meant to go between "Strange World" and "From There to Back Again," remains unfinished. The six songs that comprise the suite's first half are incomplete, too, Thomas said.
"From There to Back Again" might be the best song on the suite — and the new album. Jardine's aching lead vocal is stunning.
"Al sounds great on this song," Wilson said via email. "The more I heard him sing, the more I wanted him to sing. I kept suggesting that he sing the next line and then the next. Pretty soon, he ended up with the whole lead vocal."
The contemplative cut, with its surging harmonies, lush strings and melancholy flute, sounds like a "Pet Sounds" outtake.
"Yes, in a way, it does," Wilson said. "I got together with Paul Von Mertens and he came up with some great flute ideas. When I heard his flute I said, 'This song needs strings!' Paul came back a week or so later with some string ideas and I liked what he had written so we laid down the strings."
Thomas said the rest of the suite sounds a lot like "From There to Back Again." "(This song) has got that kind of optimistic but sad look on things," he said. "A guy driving down the coast in his car, thinking about all the places he could go. This was always supposed to be Al's song. From the first time Brian played any part of it, he was like, 'Al's supposed to sing this.' It was amazing when he put Al's voice in there, in a song written completely for him."
As of May 7, when he was taping the Fallon show, Jardine said he had heard the song just once — when he was recording his vocals. "I was dropped in like a parachute on this song and the others," he said. "On 'From There to Back Again,' I kept dropping my voice in until I did all of the lines. They kept telling me, 'Why don't you sing this part?' It was always just one part, until I ended up singing almost every part there was."
When told the track is one of the best on the album, Jardine sounds touched — and noticeably proud. "Awwww ... are you serious? Well, I'll be a son of a gun."
"Summer's Gone," the final track on "Radio," was finished with the help of Jon Bon Jovi. " 'Summer's Gone' was something we wrote one verse to and then Jon Bon Jovi came by the studio one day and he called it Brian's 'My Way,' " Thomas said. "Jon collaborated with us a little on it, changing the melody in a couple of spots. He wrote some really nice verses that kind of tied it all in together. We definitely appreciated the contribution because it took it from one great verse to one great song."
The plan, Thomas said, is to finish the suite and release it. But whether it comes out as a Beach Boys record or a solo album remains to be seen.
"All I know is the choice will be 100 percent Brian's," Thomas said. "My thing is, when you're with Michelangelo, you don't think, 'What is he going to paint on the next tile over?' It's not your place to say. You just sit there, look up, watch, and hope you don't get paint in your eye."
In his email, Wilson didn't mention the suite — just that he was open to both solo and Beach Boys projects.
"As long as it's rock 'n' roll, I don't care," he said. "I'm having a lot of fun with these guys, though."
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