The Beach Boys’ Mike Love: ‘I used to call Brian Wilson the Stalin of the studio’

Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson (in truck), Brian Wilson and David Marks in LA in 1962 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson (in truck), Brian Wilson and David Marks in LA in 1962 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Beach Boys turned 60 this year. “It’s kind of miraculous,” says Mike Love, 81, calling from his home in Lake Tahoe, California. “What started as a family hobby became a profession, and a vocation. Not without challenges, changes, ups and downs. We lost a couple along the way. But we’re still on the road, keeping those songs alive. And maybe the songs keep us alive, too.”

They are certainly not boys anymore. “We didn’t name ourselves, but I always thought it was confining,” admits 80-year-old Al Jardine, calling from Big Sur, California. The band formed as the Pendletones, but in 1962 their record label changed the name for their debut single, Surfin’.

“The fantasy of the romantic California coast, the sunshine, surfing, cars, girls, somehow our voices encompassed all of that.” Their image of eternal youth in an endless summer has proved both a blessing and a curse. “They never wanted us to grow up, that’s for sure,” admits Jardine.

Formed by brothers Carl, Brian and Dennis Wilson, with cousin Love and school friend Jardine, the Beach Boys’ earliest incarnation was perhaps pop’s purest expression of the escapist joys of youth. With the brilliant Brian Wilson as musical leader, they combined the harmonies of doo wop with streamlined rock ‘n’ roll for upbeat hits including Surfin’ USA, Fun, Fun, Fun, I Get Around and California Girls. By the high watermark of 1966 album Pet Sounds, Brian’s genius made them the Beatles’ greatest rivals. But deteriorating mental health led to his retreat from the limelight, while the group struggled to break free of their surf pop image.

The 60th anniversary is commemorated by the release of Sail On Sailor – 1972, a box-set covering a strange period in their history, its famous title song sung by a young black South African, Terence “Blondie” Chaplin.

Current line-up: Brian Eichenberger, Tim Bonhomme, Keith Hubacher, Mike Love, Christian Love, John Stamos, and Scott Totten perform in 2021 - Daniel Knighton/Getty Images
Current line-up: Brian Eichenberger, Tim Bonhomme, Keith Hubacher, Mike Love, Christian Love, John Stamos, and Scott Totten perform in 2021 - Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

“I guess it seems bizarre, but it was gas being an African Beach Boy,” chuckles 71-year-old Chaplin, down the phone from Los Angeles, where he still works as a session musician. Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar were spotted playing in Annabel’s nightclub in London with South African R’n’B group, The Flames. “They knocked us off our feet,” recalls Jardine. Carl flew them to LA and produced The Flames’s eponymous 1970 album. “They became our house band. They were terrific musicians, instrumental in pushing our music in a funkier direction.”

The now classic Sail On, Sailor had been written by Brian, who failed to attend the recording session. Dennis was singing lead, but “he had his surfboard in the back of his truck and couldn’t wait to get the f--- out. He said, ‘Hey man, the surf’s pretty good’, and he was gone. Carl tried it but didn’t like the timbre of his voice. There was nobody else in the place, so I gave it a go”.

The line-up changes helped cover deep problems within the band. “Drugs created a schism,” admits Love. “Alan and myself did not engage in any of those types of things, like LSD, cocaine and worse. But the Wilson boys did. We even had two jets for touring, a smokers’ jet and a non-smoker.” The Wilsons’ abusive father Murry sold the Beach Boys publishing behind their backs, his bullying behaviour contributing to mental health issues that led to Brian abdicating leadership to Carl, while drummer Dennis was going through what Jardine describes as “personal traumas and lifestyle changes”. His marriage broke up, and he lived on his boat, indulging his passion for the sea.

“Dennis wrecked his hand going through a glass door, and couldn’t play drums, so Ricky came in to help out,” recalls Love. “Blondie Chaplin was a fantastic singer, his voice gave us a harder R’n’B edge. There had been a tremendous musical evolution, but Capitol Records were still promoting us as the number one surfing group in the US. Carl thought the guys from South Africa would really help communicate that we’d changed.”

Carl’s leadership style was more democratic than his brother’s. “I used to call Brian the Stalin of the studio,” says Love. “There wasn’t a lot of room for debate, put it that way.” The first fruit was 1972’s Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” album, which attempted a reinvention by presenting them under a new identity. Then followed one of the oddest episodes in their history, with the band shipping their recording equipment to Holland and building a studio in a barn. “It was a complete mess,” recalls Chaplin. “We were close to train tracks, so when the train came the whole studio shook, and you had to stop for a couple of minutes and then get back to work again.”

Holland was a financial disaster. “It was so expensive to make, I don’t think we ever recouped,” notes Jardine. “But here we are, 50 damn years later, still talking about it.” It went some way to restoring the Beach Boys’ critical reputation, although the new line-up did not last. “That was a really good band,” says Chaplin. “But there was a lot of friction. Ricky and I were having fun, but we weren’t the principals. We were on a long tour, and I got into an argument with one of the guy’s brothers (Stephen Love), and he took it upon himself to dish me a couple of blows. I just said, ‘Screw it, I don’t need to play with people who use muscle’. So I went my merry way, and not long after that, Ricky went as well.”

Fataar later appeared as guitarist Stig O’Hara in Eric Idle’s 1978 Beatles parody, The Rutles, and has spent 30 years with Bonnie Raitt’s band. Chaplin spent 15 years as a backing musician for the Rolling Stones. Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983, at the age of 39. Brian was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 1978 and became increasingly estranged from the band. Carl died of lung cancer in 1998, aged 51. Mike Love was granted an exclusive licence to perform under the Beach Boys name and has maintained a constant touring regime, while Jardine performs solo and as a member of Brian Wilson’s band. “I’ve been the one person who’s never quit,” says Love. Despite multiple lawsuits between Love and other surviving members, there was a harmonious reunion for a 50th anniversary in 2012, before they went their separate ways again.

“When Brian and I are together, we’re fine,” insists Love. “We’re family, we did some fantastic work together. Good Vibrations was probably the piece de resistance. Brian spent months taking bits and pieces from different studio sessions. I don’t think anyone had ever heard anything like it. Then I wrote the lyrics in a few minutes in a taxi on the way to the studio. It was a miracle it all came together. There was magic in the air.”

For Love, that magic is recreated nightly. “We have experienced the loss of loved ones, it’s tough stuff. But the beauty of music is that if you can sing that part, you can replicate that moment. Even though some are unable to be with us anymore, in a sense they still are. Carl, Dennis, Brian, everybody. We don’t forget.”

Sail On Sailor – 1972 is out now on Capitol/UME. An expanded edition of Al Jardine’s 2010 album Postcard From California featuring all the Beach Boys is released tomorrow