As Beach Boys fans gear up for an orchestral reimagining of their music, surviving band members Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston recall the stories behind their biggest hits
It’s not easy to separate the Beach Boys’ music from the California Myth they helped create. Indeed, it’s a well-loved tale: suntanned bodies and waves of sunshine, little deuce coupes cruising through hamburger stands, endless summer days (and summer nights!!) with your honey. And, of course, surfing — which transcended mere sport into a sort of physical Zen, fusing mind and body with the natural world. The band’s canon of 1960s classics forged a new chapter in Americana, stoking fantasies of a beach utopia for generations of landlocked listeners across the globe.
But there comes a time in the life of every Beach Boys fan when the myth rolls out with the tide, leaving behind the remarkable reality of the group’s musical achievements. Of course, the moment of realization will vary. Perhaps it’s during the angelic vocal intricacies of “In My Room,” or the modular stop-start rhythms of “I Get Around.” Maybe it’s the painful, almost shocking vulnerability of “Don’t Worry Baby” or the elegant, elegiac balladry of “The Warmth of the Sun.” Another candidate is the majestic opening of “California Girls,” with its single note emerging from the silence like the first rays of a summer sunrise. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” has an equally cinematic introduction, wordlessly depicting the reverie of youth before being rudely interrupted by a loud whack, like a teacher’s ruler on the desk of a daydreaming student. By the time one arrives at the episodic soundscape of “Good Vibrations,” it’s become abundantly clear — this ain’t just a day at the beach.
At the band’s heart during their mid-‘60s creative peak was a 20-something kid from Hawthorne, California named Brian Wilson, whose astonishing popular success as a songwriter is equaled by his innovation. At a time when even John Lennon and Paul McCartney, his nearest peers and friendly rivals, relied on studio professionals to translate their musical visions, Wilson pioneered the role of writer/performer/arranger/producer largely by himself.
Among his earliest memories, he recalls being mesmerized by a recording of “Rhapsody in Blue,” George Gershwin’s groundbreaking 1924 composition that blended jazz with classical elements. Four decades and one coast removed, the young hit maker would do much the same thing, adding rock, doo-wop and R&B into this singular brand of aural alchemy at behest of his cousin, cowriter and Beach Boys co-founder Mike Love. Teaming up in the summer of 1961 with Wilson’s younger brothers, Carl and Dennis, and classmate Al Jardine, they made mind-bogglingly complex chordal structures go down easy thanks to honey soaked harmonies and infectious hooks. Love served as the longtime lyrical laureate of the operation, penning images that will live forever in the American psyche, and Wilson blossomed into a Mozart for the transistor radio era.
Given the sonic lineage, it seems only natural that these pop masterworks would translate to the orchestral stage — and now a new album takes the Bach ‘n’ Roll approach to soaring heights. The Beach Boys with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra pairs 16 of the group’s most beloved recordings, ranging from 1963’s “In My Room” to 1988’s “Kokomo,” with symphonic arrangements recorded in March at London’s iconic Abbey Road Studios under the guiding hand of conductor/composers Steve Sidwell and Sally Herbert. Producers Nick Patrick and Don Reedman seamlessly weaved this instrumental embroidery into the familiar tracks, skillfully enhancing the Beach Boys’ trademark vocal blend. “I think it’s absolutely fantastic,” Wilson says of the fresh interpretation of his work. “It embellishes the vocals to the point where people can really enjoy the harmonies.” Love, who co-wrote many of the titles, agrees. “It’s a whole new incarnation — a reincarnation,” he adds. “It’s such a great display of our songs, with the Beach Boys at full strength.”
The inventive instrumental backing succeeds in not only exploring the richness of the original productions, but also in highlighting their status as timeless standards. “Symphonically, instead of being overpowering, they were very subtle. It’s like a velvet mist,” says Bruce Johnston, the self-proclaimed “new guy” who joined the Beach Boys in 1965 as a touring replacement for Wilson and quickly became an integral full-time member of the band. An effusive Jardine, who takes the lead on the raucous “Help Me Rhonda,” singles out moments from 1966’s Pet Sounds, Wilson’s legendary spiritual opus, as a major album highlight. “The beautiful orchestral arrangements and the brilliant preludes to the songs are wonderfully done.”
In celebration of this vibrant new take on their music, surviving band members Wilson, Love, Jardine and Johnston told PEOPLE the tales behind some of their greatest songs.
“In My Room” (1963)
Mike Love: “Be True to Your School” was a hit record for us, and on the flip side was a beautiful ballad, “In My Room.” The thing that attracted us to singing together in the first place is that my cousin Brian and I loved to harmonize together. We would do Everly Brothers and doo-wop songs and we studied the Four Freshmen, who were a huge influence on us. That’s why the Beach Boys’ harmonies are so complex and interesting and never boring. You cannot be in a singing group that does that kind of music and lag. You have to pay attention.
Brian Wilson: We practiced the Freshmen songs and about a year and a half later we went into the studio and cut “In My Room” with me and Dennis and Carl and Al harmonizing together, and Mike on bass. We went verse by verse. That was written with Gary Usher. We wrote it together in 1962. He was a great guitar player and he wrote some really good chord patterns.
Al Jardine: The singers — the family and myself — we really made some serious harmony. The singing itself is something that is often overlooked. Brian pointed that out on the [Royal Philharmonic album] press release: people like to be sung to. As kids we all had our favorite songs and we liked it when our parents sang to us. Music, and the human voice in itself, is so powerful that I think it’s often overlooked in big arrangements.
Love: When people ask me, “Do you ever get tired of doing those songs?” I go, “Well, not really, because I co-wrote a bunch of them and it’s really just fun singing those parts and harmonizing.” We took a family hobby and turned it into a long-lasting profession. It’s a pretty good deal.
“The Warmth of the Sun” (1964)
Love: “The Warmth of the Sun” didn’t take all that long to write. We wrote it in the wee hours of the morning. It’s just such a beautiful song, and the interesting thing about it was I remember waking up that morning to the news that President Kennedy had been taken to the hospital in Dallas. A month later we recorded it, and it was charged with the extra emotion of that terrible event that had happened
Wilson: President Kennedy got assassinated and we wrote that on behalf of him. “What good is the dawn that grows into day”: I thought that was a very nice way to start out a song.
Love: It’s about being in love with someone and them not feeling the same way as you. Many of us have felt that, whether it was a crush in grade school, or junior high or high school or as a young adult when things didn’t work out — you were into it and they weren’t. It’s a kind of loss of love. However, the whole premise of “The Warmth of the Sun” is, having felt that way, the warmth of the sun is the love that still resonates within you. I did an album called Unleash the Love [in 2016] and on that album my daughter Ambha did the lead on “The Warmth of the Sun.” It’s beautiful with a woman singing — she’s a phenomenal singer.
“Fun, Fun, Fun” (1964)
Wilson: Mike wrote the lyrics for “Fun, Fun Fun” [on tour] in Australia in 1963 and when we got back to California I wrote the music. We used to drive up and down the strip. That’s how we got “I Get Around” — “I’m gettin’ bugged driving up and down the same old strip.” And then I moved to Hollywood where the kids were hip!
Love: The Wilsons grew up in Hawthorne, I grew up in the Baldwin Hills, which was a few miles away but close. For us, we had the Wich Stand [as the “hamburger stand” in the lyrics], for them it was the A&W. It was all that post-high school life — well for Carl and Dennis it was high school. I was the old man in the group. I was the only one who didn’t need court approval in 1962 when we signed with Capitol Records. I was the old man of 21. [laughs]
“Help Me, Rhonda” (1965)
Love: We originally recorded “Help Me, Rhonda” [first released as the album track “Help Me, Ronda” on 1965’s The Beach Boys Today!], and we felt it was good but thought maybe it could even be a little better. So we went back in and did some additional background parts and so on. The single version was a little more peppy, and it went to number one. I wrote the words and Brian and I worked on the music. Al did a great job singing that one.
Jardine: “Help Me Rhonda” was something that evolved. At the time we were on the road quite a bit. We were growing pretty quickly songwriting-wise, and we were singing all these songs live and Brian was not. The idea was that he was home writing things that were totally new for us, musically. Basically, I replaced Brian in the touring band. He wrote this for me so that I’d be able to go out and promote the song and our careers. I’m grateful for that.
“California Girls” (1965)
Love: I’ve always felt that the intro to “California Girls” sounds like the prelude to a symphonic composition. My cousin Brian outdid himself with that. He worked with what they call the Wrecking Crew—some of the best musicians in Southern California—to come up with some of those tracks.
Wilson: Carl [Wilson] played the intro on electric 12-string [guitar]. Instead of going through an amplifier, he went directly into the recording board at Western Recorders [studio]. That’s why it sounded so pure. He went through direct. It took a while to make but we finally got it together.
Jardine: That was a technique Carl and Brian worked out together. It was very, very, carefully done and recorded straight into the chamber. There was no bleed from any of the other players. It was clean and magnificent. It has a very “Western Suite” flavor to it — a very Western feel.
Bruce Johnston: I was the new guy! That was one of the first ones I recorded — one of Mike Love’s great leads. When I joined the band, they were starting an album and Brian had a track: “Yeah, I call it ‘California Girls.’ Mike, I need some words!”
Love: Brian was in the studio with the Wrecking Crew doing this amazing track, and I stepped out into the hallway and thought, “Hmmm, California Girls.” We wanted to be inclusive, so we put East Coast girls, West Coast, Southern, Northern, and from all around the world. “I’ve been all around this great big world and I’ve seen all kinds of girls. But I couldn’t wait to get back in the states, back to the cutest girls in the world.” Some people misunderstood and thought we were saying that California girls were best, but California is a microcosm of the US, which is the microcosm of the world, and we were trying to be inclusive.
Johnston: I watched Mike in the hallway of Studio 3 at Western Recorders sit with a yellow legal pad and write the lyrics, scratch ‘em out. Write the lyrics, scratch ‘em out. Write the lyrics, keep some. He spent a couple hours while the track was being done.
Love: I wrote it while they were finishing up the track, and then I sang the lead. It was great. The beauty of it was that Brian could focus 100 percent on the tracking and the arrangements and I would focus on the hooks and the lyrics, primarily. Lyrics combined with music hooks — that was my contribution. And Brian is unchallenged when it comes to chord progressions and harmonies. Nobody was ever better.
Wilson: Mike and I wrote the song together. He’s the one who came in with all the great lyrics: “I’ve been all around the world and seen all kinds of girls.” He came up with some very brilliant words.
“Sloop John B” (1966)
Jardine: That was an old Kingston Trio song. When I sat down with Brian I suggested we add a few extra chords to give it that Beach Boys flavor and lo and behold we were able to stretch it out a little and give it that vocal identity that we’d been so well-known for.
Wilson: We didn’t know really for sure if it was right or not. Al taught me the song and together we arranged it. I did the arrangement and a couple weeks later we recorded it.
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (1966)
Johnston: Christmastime ’65, Mike Love, [producer] Terry Melcher, [the Mamas and the Papas singer/songwriter] John Phillips, myself, and [Melcher’s mother] Doris Day heard [the Beatles’] Rubber Soul, and that changed everything. That made Brian think, “I can make an album that’s one theme.” Not unlike Johnny Mathis albums, or Frank Sinatra albums at the time, which were one romantic theme.
Wilson: I wanted to grow musically. We had worked together for a long time, and by the time Pet Sounds got here, we were all ready…I thought we’d do something experimental and something with a lot of love.
Love: We must have done one section of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” maybe 25 times to get it. I started calling Brian “Dog Ears” because he heard stuff that normal humans can’t hear. It was a vibration to the harmonies. People can sing the individual note, but they don’t necessarily blend very well. So we were obsessed with blending. And beyond blending it was, “Is everybody paying attention? Is everybody right in sync? Is everybody feeling good about the part?” There are all of these existential elements that were a part of what we were attempting to do.
Jardine: We suffered greatly through that one. [laughs] We sang so many iterations, and of course just the mixing process itself took a while — combining all the vocals properly and preparing it for the next day of recording. We labored on that one and “Good Vibrations.” We were always focusing on those two in particular. Those were the most important ones as far as we were concerned.
Johnston: I don’t know to this day if Brian likes the way we sang it. [laughs] We re-recorded the vocals so many times, and he didn’t like what we were doing rhythmically. Then he hauled a Scully four-track up to his dining room at his house in Beverly Hills, then we went back to Western Recorders Studio 3 and recorded. I guess eventually he finished it, but it was hard to sing. He was definitely, as I always describe him, General Patton. He knew what he wanted.
Wilson: Harmony — something like that. We were looking for a good harmonic sound.
Love: There’s a box set of Pet Sounds with an album of just the vocals, so you can listen to just the harmonies and it’s just amazing. It really is good, but it didn’t come easily all the time.
“God Only Knows” (1966)
Wilson: Tony Asher and me wrote “God Only Knows” and when we got into the studio I started to sing it. Then I said, “Nope, this one’s for Carl.” He goes, “Brian, I don’t want to do that. That’s your song!” I said, “No, Carl, I want you to sing it.”… We prayed. We prayed that people would like the album, [and] that it would go over well.
Johnston: I said to my girlfriend [one night], “There’s this session. Why don’t you come with me and we’ll watch it for a while.” And so we went over to the studio and Brian was just starting “God Only Knows.” And Carl had been telling me, “You better watch out for this album. It’s going to be special, Bruce. Pet Sounds — you won’t even believe it.” And that’s when I totally got hooked, just watching it come together. If you listen to the [Pet Sounds Sessions set] you’ll hear the tracking session for “God Only Knows” and you’ll see exactly how switched on [Brian] was and how he made it happen. It’s fantastic.
Johnston: That’s what I heard. I was standing in the studio as they did that. He and [session player] Don Randi were putting white tape down on the piano strings so they wouldn’t ring. Now you have a computer with a sample piano and you just move the filter and you get the same sound … That’s what’s missing in today’s recording: the leakage. Brian had several more people than the studio would hold, and in the little small string section the drums would leak into that. Now everything is so separated, it’s not the same. The leakage is missing.
Wilson: Phil Spector taught me how to combine instruments into one sound, where you can’t tell what’s what.
Johnston: Kim Fowley was an amazing guy in the record business and he kind of put together an unexpected promotional tour [in England]. I brought two copies of Pet Sounds. When I got there, there was a guy who wanted to be in a band like the Beach Boys, but he wound up being Keith Moon in the Who. [laughs] Somehow he got McCartney and Lennon to come over to my suite over at the Waldorf Hotel in London. We had a record player and two really nice Beach Boy fan club girls that were there, and they were playing cards with Lennon and McCartney (they actually signed the deck). I said, “Listen, I want to play you what Brian’s been working on.” We hadn’t released it in England yet — this was like May 1966. I said, “Here’s our current album.” They were really cool. They played it twice. They loved it. The Beatles were working on Revolver when I was in England. I heard later that they were so inspired by the harmonies and the vibe of “God Only Knows,” it turned into their song “Here, There and Everywhere.”
“Good Vibrations” (1966)
Jardine: That was the pinnacle, when you think about it. It was the pinnacle of an era.
Wilson: That was a very complex record. We cut that in four studios. The verses at Gold Star, the bridge at Sunset Sound, the background music for the choruses at Western, and the vocals at Columbia. My brothers said, “Brian, this is going to be a No. 1 record.” I said, “I know!”
Love: The track was done in several different studios over six months time, and finally my cousin Brian said, “OK, this is going to be the single. This is the arrangement.” Everything was done in terms of the [instrumental] track, including the Theremin.
Wilson: One of my uncles had a Theremin, the kind that you hold like a crystal ball. You move your hand up and down and it makes a sound: [demonstrates] oOoOooOo. Me and my brothers flipped, we couldn’t believe it. [Later], my brother Carl asked me if we could use a Theremin in the studio. I said sure, so we called up the Musician’s Union and they sent a Theremin player. We used it and he played on “Good Vibrations.”
Love: When I heard that Theremin — that really weird oOoOoo sound — I thought, “This track is so far out that I’m not sure how people are going to take it. Our fans are used to hearing ‘Fun, Fun, Fun,’ ‘California Girls,’ ‘I Get Around,’ ‘Help Me, Rhonda’ and ‘Surfin’ USA,’ — how are they going to take this sound?” So I said, “The one thing that’s going to connect — the one thing that everyone understands — is boy/girl.” So I came up with, “I’m pickin’ up good vibrations. She’s giving me excitations.” “Excitation” may not be in Webster’s Dictionary, but it rhymed!
Johnston: On the drive to the recording studio, Mike’s wife was in the passenger seat as Mike wrote and dictated the lyrics all the way from Beverly Hills to Hollywood.
Love: It was 1966 and there was that whole hippie thing going on, so I wrote the lyrics as a poem about a girl who’s all into peace, love and flower power: “I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair.” It was a poem I dictated to my then-wife Suzanne, who’s the mother of two of my children, Hayleigh and Christian. I just dictated this poem and handed it to Brian and we went over it. My cousin Carl sang the verses, I did the “I’m pickin’ up good vibrations” part on the chorus, and we all did the background harmonies, which are amazing. It was true collaboration.
Wilson: It was quite a thrill to hear the new sound that we got. Quite a thrill.
Johnston: Aug. 12, 1966: Mike and I chartered a plane after a concert — a big concert at the Springfield, Illinois fair. We went to the Astor Towers hotel, where the Playboy Club was, of course. We spent the night in Chicago and we had breakfast the next day with all four Beatles, because they started their tour Aug. 12 in Chicago. They had two or three suites and a baby grand piano, and we were able to play them a chorus [of “Good Vibrations”]. “Oh, what are you guys working on?” “Well here’s something Brian’s writing with Mike.” We hadn’t recorded it, but we were getting very aware of how special it was going to be.
“Heroes and Villains” (1967)
Jardine: That’s another great Western kind of song. It has the flavor of the cowboys and Indians thing that we grew up with as kids. It’s the story of the American frontier. I love songs that tell stories. “Heroes” was one of our favorites, and we liked to do that onstage. Just a fun, rollicking kind of story. That’s from the Smile period, which evolved a little slower and took a little longer to complete —like 40 years!
Johnston: Sadly, Smile didn’t come out until years later [in 2004], and [the scaled down] Smiley Smile came out [in 1967] instead. So it was a tough, tough creative time. And the label yelling, “Come on, make some hits! Be commercial!” Brian did something amazing but I think it gobbled him up.
Jardine: When Brian produced “Good Vibrations” — how do you follow that up? It’s kind of like you have to start all over again. You have to be prepared for reinventing yourself, and “Heroes and Villains” kind of came out of that period. We morphed into a different style, more of a homespun kind of thing because we started using our home studios around then. But it didn’t affect the songwriting.
Johnston: “Heroes and Villains” had many incarnations. I went to England and they debuted the final mix after the Bee Gees played live. This was discothèque time, right? They debuted “Heroes and Villains” in London, and people totally freaked out. They’re dancing to “Heroes and Villains” and then comes the tempo change — and they just stopped on the floor. They didn’t know what to do! And I went, “Uh oh. Maybe that’s not a good idea to change tempos.” But, to argue against myself, look at “Good Vibrations” with the tempo changes. It also slows down. That went to No. 1 all over the world, and so Brian did it again. But I don’t think it worked this time. But musically, oh my God — so interesting to hear.
“Disney Girls (1957)” (1971)
Johnston: It’s called “Disney Girls (1957)” because that’s when I was in high school, and it was kind of like Back to the Future. I was remembering when I was 15 years old sitting in the backseat holding my girlfriend’s hand while her parents drove us to dinner, listening to Patti Page singing “Old Cape Cod” in 1957.
[When I was writing it] I was thinking, “Gosh, here are 15, 16, 17-year-olds smoking marijuana and doing all this stuff — let me show you what my life was when I was that age.” So I wrote about going back to a Disney time. It was just a real way of expressing my frustration because I was watching everyone in the music business, I thought, short-circuit their careers with the drugs. “Oh, this’ll bring out the depth of your creativity…” Wrong! It didn’t work out that way.
The line “She’s really swell ‘cause she likes church bingo chances and old-time dances” — that comes from being at a dance in a church basement. The girl I was dancing with, her parents were upstairs playing bingo. It so happened that the girl I was dancing with, her father was Woody Herman, a famous bandleader.
Johnston: We had a concert in Tucson, and we stayed at this really cool hotel. Terry Melcher had booked a guest cottage that had a spinet piano and he said, “OK, I want to play a song that I think we can turn into something.” And much to the credit of everybody in the Beach Boys, we listened and we said, “This is a hit.” And what we said was a hit were the verses, because the chorus hadn’t been written. Each guy said, “Yeah, this is a fantastic direction to take.” So Mike Love and Terry turned the tenses around, so instead of “Oh, I’m so burned out, I gotta go to Kokomo,” it’s “Come on!” Like “Surfin’ USA” or “goin’ on a surfin’ safari.” The chorus was written by Mike and Terry. One day Jardine called and said, “You guys, come on, finish that song.” We basically had a cattle call at Disney for the movie Cocktail — best song wins. And we won! And that’s how the song got in there.
Love: It went to No. 1 in 1988, and it’s said to be our largest-selling single ever.