PETER DOGGETT TALKS TO BRUCE JOHNSTON ABOUT THE CALIFORNIA SURFERS' ERRATIC PAST AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE.
Open the pages of Stephen Gaines' muckraking Beach Boys' biography, “Heroes And Villains”, and you'll find scarcely a mention of Bruce Johnston. As he's been a member of the band, on more than off, since 1965, that's a tribute to his clean-living image, and the way in which he has retained his independence outside of the Beach Boys. After a decade marked more by disaster and dispute than creativity, the group are now supposedly on the edge of a new era, tentatively exploring plans for an album, a video history, and a 30th anniversary project. Meanwhile, their past simply won't die. The “Summer Dreams” compilation recently came close to topping the UK charts; to celebrate this event, and the long overdue release of the band's back catalogue on CD, Johnston recently spent a few days in London, on what he described as his last promotional jaunt for the Beach Boys.
Long before he joined the group, Bruce Johnston was a seasoned music business professional – he's been recording since 1957, and scoring hits very soon afterwards. In 1965 he was appointed the group's on stage replacement for Brian Wilson; he quickly became part of their recording process as well, contributing songs to landmark albums like “Sunflower” and “Surf's Up.”
The bands internal politics forced Johnston out of the band in 1972, though he continued to work with them sporadically. Meanwhile, he launched a flourishing solo career, writing the Grammy Award winning song “I Write The Songs”, forming the Equinox Records company with long-term partner Terry Melcher, producing artists as diverse as Sailor and Jack Jones, and acting as session co-ordinator whenever Elton john or Roger McGuinn wanted some authentic West Coast harmonies.
In 1978, he answered the plea of the Beach Boys and returned to produce their stunning “Light album”. Since then, he's been an ever present-member, overseeing their very occasional album projects, and presenting the healthy face of the band to a world made cynical by the tales of drug abuse and internal squabbles which have turned the Beach Boys into rock's longest running soap opera.
Record Collector: You said this was the last time....
Bruce Johnston: For me. I've been doing this for 24 years, and it's been really wonderful. I'm delighted to be here to help this little TV album; I've never done that before, and I'll never do it again. Now the whole Beach Boys catalogue is coming out on CD, and that allows us to move forward musically by getting rid of all this old stuff – I don't mean throwing it away, but you don't have to ask us any more when it's coming out because here it is.
In America, we already compete somewhat with ourselves on radio; they're already playing one of our oldies every hour, when we're trying to get them to add something new of ours. But we haven't really tried in England – we had our fabulous flurry for a few years in the Sixties, but America is our backyard, so we try harder over there. We do well on the Adult Contemporary stations in the States; we cross records over from that chart all the time. We don't go down in flames because we can't get airplay on one station or format.
RC: That's the problem you have here – Radio 1 equates the Beach Boys with the Sixties, and won't play your new records.
BJ: It will probably always be that way.
RC: As a fan, I'm delighted to hear you talking about moving forward and concentrating on new music. You haven't had product out consistently since 1980, and it's obviously been a difficult decade personally for individual members of the group.
BJ: It really has. But it hasn't been difficult financially. The touring just keeps getting bigger. We're always in the top 10 for concert grosses, the back catalogue keeps selling, and then for fun a few summers back we did “Wipeout” and that sold over two-and-a-half million copies. Then came “Kokomo”, which was No. 1 around the world – England was the only country it bombed in (edit; it reached No.25 and spent 9 weeks on the chart).
RC: What plans do you have for the band's 30th anniversary project, then?
BJ: We're trying to decide how to play that. We're thinking of approaching the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra, and composer John Williams, to arrange our songs. Michael Columbier, with whom I worked on “Tears In The Morning” back in 1970, has already orchestrated half of “Pet Sounds”. I have visions of that album being recorded by an orchestra, plus people like Paul McCartney, George Michael – like “Tommy” was, and then turn it into a charitable event. And we're thinking of making a really good historical documentary about the Beach Boys.
RC: You've already done that once, with the “American Band” video.
BJ: I didn't think that was very good at all. I thought the home movies of the band driving through Hawaii were pretty superfluous. There's other stuff we could have used 30 minutes of the band in Japan in 1966, atuff from “Ready Steady Go”.
RC: Have you been involved in choosing the extra tracks for the EMI CD's?
BJ: No, EMI have done a great job. If the artists get involved, then they start to airbrush stuff out, start remixing or bringing in graphic equalisers. I think it's better for bands to stay out of their history.
RC: It's tantalising when you hear the bootlegs of studio out-takes, which I'm sure you're not very keen on....
BJ: Are you kidding?
RC: You like those things?
BJ: Of course.
RC: So why don't the Beach Boys put the unissued songs out?
BJ: You don't understand. It's more flattering NOT to have them available. The little pieces of “Smile” which I put together on 24-track – people have bootlegged that right out of the studio. I think it's a tremendous compliment. The fact that “Smile” has never come out – that's the best promotion you can have! The thought of some unreleased treasure – that's great! And “Smile” is still unreleased.
RC: And is it going to stay unreleased?
BJ: I hope so. It sounds much better if you don't get to hear it.
RC: It sounds pretty wonderful anyway.
BJ: It really is, but in terms of finishing it, I don't think you can start a movie in 1966 and finish it in 1990, especially if you're the star.
RC: And if you issue it incomplete, then people will say it wasn't so good anyway.
BJ: Exactly. The music's much better. I'm nor putting the music down, but twenty-five years have flown by.
RC: It must have been frustrating to have been involved in that project and then find it was going to be left in the can.
BJ: Maybe. But to be honest with you, that was Brian's thing, not mine. I was so busy on the road, and going surfing. I wasn't sharing in his frustration. As a new member, why should I have asserted what I do? The group was based on what he did, so why not let him continue to hit some home runs?
RC: Do you find it frustrating as a songwriter and singer to be stuck performing the Sixties hits all the time?
BJ: I would be frustrated if we didn't have anything new on the radio. There are probably three or four hundred songs the Beach Boys can do, and there's only time to play thirty of them in a show. We can bring out “Caroline No” or some of the things from “Pet Sounds”; we can play those great hits; and then we can throw in some new hits, and tracks we're trying to break. I don't see it as an oldies thing.
RC: Are you planning any more solo projects as an outlet for your own material?
BJ: I'm making a solo LP for a Japanese label for all the wrong reasons. They offered me a deal, and I figured that I needed a nice digital 24-track at home, and a new desk, and that I could use the album as the lever to get the equipment. With all this new technology, you can sit at home and make great sketches, and some of it might turn into the painting. I'm not going to be thinking about radio, or having hit singles; I don't expect it to sell. It will be called “Goin' Private”, as a follow up to my 1977 LP, “Goin' Public”. It might turn out OK, as I'm not desperate about it. It's just a great way to record my songs and get this incredible equipment, which someone else can pay for!
No one is issuing vinyl LP's in the States these days, so you aren't restricted. I'm going to try to do 60 or 70 minutes of music,and score the links between the songs like you would for a movie, with some beautiful strings or something between each track. It will be fun, very self-indulgent.
RC: How did you start in the music business?
BJ: I've been recording since 1957. I was in a band with Phil Spector back then; he got sounds that hadn't been invented. I backed up Richie Valens for three months in 1958, as well. In fact, the first day I was in the business, I did a demo with Sandy Nelson; later we had a Top 5 record, “Teenbeat”. This black guy who owned the label that Jesse Belvin was on, he asked us to come down to his office, and while we were there, someone came in and shot him. First day in the business, I was 14 years old, and I was witness to a murder!
Then I met Terry Melcher; his father had this label as a tax loss, but then he ended up one day with two records in the Top10. One of them was by a friend of mine, Jan Berry, and so I brought some things down to Terry's dad's office, when Terry was working in the gas station next door. We became friends, and still are. He co-wrote “Kokomo” with us, got us together with John Phillips.
RC: Who was also in the “California Dreamin'” video you did...
BJ: And so was Michelle. The idea of that record was to mix the Byrds with the Beach Boys – and to make people think of the Breach Boys as something else apart from the summer. It's a really good record.
RC: You spent several years working as a production team with Terry Melcher.
BJ: We used the same voices under a variety of different names – Bruce & Terry, the Ripchords, the Rogues. We had chart records under all these names. That was CBS's infancy of pop. They hired us to be their rock'n'roll department. We had girls drop by, we'd skateboard round the studios, the bosses were really freaked out – except that we'd get on the charts!
RC: You were obviously doing similar music then to the Beach Boys.
BJ: We got closer to that, which is probably why Mike Love thought I might know someone who could replace Brian in the band. It never occurred to me that I could do it.
RC: You joined the Beach Boys in 1965
BJ: April 9th.
RC: It must have been a couple of years before you were allowed any creative input into their records.
BJ: Well, originally I only joined to play two gigs. Then Brian Wilson asked me to stay longer, and start recording. I suggested he should put the hit version of “Help Me Rhonda” on the “Summer Days” album, and I started becoming the band's in-house adviser. I guess I still am.
RC: I always reckoned that the height of the Beach Boys' creativity after that was the “Sunflower” album in 1970.
BJ: I think “Pet Sounds” was definitely Brian's solo album: the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” was definitely “Sunflower” – the best album we ever made.
RC: You wrote a song called “Deirdre” on that album with Brian Wilson.
BJ: I gave him 50% of the song; it should have been 5%. He came up with two lines, that was it. When the money arrived, I said, that's all I get? He was suggesting lines like, “My friend Bob/He has a job”, and I was saying “No, Brian”. I was kinda disappointed; but maybe I sang flat once, and he was disappointed with me, who knows?
I think that technology ruined Brian. Once he went beyond 4-track, he could put off all his decisions. It's like a kid is real cute when they're young, but once they know they're being cute, they're not so funny. Brian had too many choices, and maybe he got paranoid about what other people were doing. And he had the worst hangers-on around. But Brian was – sorry, is – an orchestral producer, because he gets that sound in the studio, that real sound, that Spector did. That's pretty rare.
RC: Is that talent of Brian's still there?
BJ: I think so. It's his choice.
RC: What did you think of his solo album?
BJ: I think he can do better. I think it was as good as mine, and I don't like mine. I think that it wasn't close to anything he did in the past. No solo album from anyone matters after 30 years. I don't know – we've been talking about Brian for twenty years. It's like he had this five-year career, and we've been talking about it ever since. It's like a great composer or conductor, walking off the stage for twenty years, but the orchestra can still play the parts – and make the charts.
RC: You helped Brian out when you started Equinox, didn't you?
BJ: We loaned him a production deal, where we had no royalty. He approached us and said he couldn't get anyone to believe in him. So we gave him our advance – and he gave it to his wife! Unbelievable.
RC: That was in the mid-seventies, when you were no longer in the band...
BJ: Did you know that I sang on every album that they did then? I'd get a call in the middle of the night, to go down and sing on a track they had a problem with. But I was making too much money to go back full-time. I left the band, went surfing for a year, wrote this song that sold 11 million copies, started a label with RCA, made some hits with David Cassidy, bought a beautiful house, had a new child with my wife.
RC: You started working with David Cassidy at a time when – in Britain at least – his commercial stock was very low.
BJ: He was fantastic. Those records were No.1 in Germany, and all over the place. He has absolute talent – he's a pleasure to work with.
RC: Did you compose “I Write The Songs” for him?
BJ: I didn't write it for anyone. The first people to record it were the Captain and Tennille, then David did it. I warned him: it might be a hit, and end your career. He said, what do you mean? I said, well, imagine the Rolling Stones selling eight million copies of “Tie A Yellow Ribbon”! But for Barry Manilow it was perfect.
RC: I presume the Beach Boys called you back in 1978 because they were having a lot of internal arguments?
BJ: No, they weren't having arguments. Fate pulled me away while the band made even more money, and the drugs came into play. Though in all fairness, Mike Love and Alan Jardine didn't do drugs, and I didn't either. I was literally floating around my 50-foot swimming pool at my house when I got the call from Brian. He kind of pulled me back into it.
RC: And you produced the “Light Album”.
BJ: Lovely album.
RC: It's one of my favourites, but it's not highly regarded...
BJ: Because of the disco version of “Here Comes The Night”!
RC: Was that your idea?
BJ: Absolutely. I don't have a problem with any kind of music, but there was a big backlash against homosexuals in rock. The disco thing – which is now dance music – totally flipped out all the macho radio-format guys. By the time “Here Comes The Night” came out, they wouldn't play any records like that. But it's a fabulous record. I wanted to make a Beach Boys dance record that would last longer than 2' 15''. And there was no tape copying – nothing was dropped in, we had to sing it every time.
RC: Then you produced the next album “Keeping The Summer Alive”, in 1980. That included your song “Endless Harmony”.
BJ: That was my tenth anniversary song for the band. It started out as “Ten Years Of Harmony”, but more than ten years had gone by the time we recorded it! I love that track. We recorded it outside, at Alan Jardine's house. It took fifteen minutes to get that!
RC: Since then, you've been working on a Doris Day album?
BJ: We have half of a gorgeous album finished. She's going to do some big movies with ABC-TV, and I guess some major label will want the album. I've always had a wide taste in music. There's more to me than pop – it's just the music, all music. I love it all. Critics call me “the all-round schlockmeister” because I don't care if it's Radio 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, as long as it works!
RC: And I hear you've also recorded a song called “Island Fever”?
BJ: I don't know where that's gonna go – probably to another film. You'll like that. That's the poppy side of the Beach Boys. People forget when they listen to “Pet Sounds” and “Good Vibrations” that the Beach Boys started out as a little pop band.
RC: A record that I thought got that across really well was the collaboration you did with the Four Seasons – “East Meets West”.
BJ: I hated it. Oh my God, I don't know why we ever did that. Those guys never understood harmony. It was like World Cup beer-drinking compared to ours.
RC: How would you sum up your contribution to the Beach Boys over the years?
BJ: The same as yours would be – I'm a fan, a critic, and I'm able to criticise and correct, and find out if I'm right or wrong. So the band had a kind of staff critic. I think I've helped the band deliver albums over the last 12 years, even if these days they're only partial albums. In return, the band made me quite prosperous; but the main thing was that I got to sit around Brian and watch him writing.
RC: By remaining partially an outsider, you've managed to keep yourself clear of the dark side of the group over the last two decades.
BJ: Frankly, the dark side comes from the behaviour of the Wilson brothers' father. The other dark side is the result of drugs. I can't even inhale cigarettes. Every day I talk to my kids about why drugs aren't good.
RC: You stayed out of the Stephen Gaines book pretty well. You must have been pleased about that.
BJ: Thrilled. When I talk to my 12-year-old, I said, do you want to turn out like Brian Wilson? He says, Oh dad, please! Here's an incredible talent, a fragile character, totally wiped out by all the drugs years ago. Totally fried his mind. What I'm close to is the biggest example of why you shouldn't do it. It's sad, it's terrible to have that example, and I feel terrible using Brian that way, but my boys know how much I admire his music.
RC: Finally – what was your reaction to the U.S. TV movie based on Gaines' book?
BJ: They've taken a ten-minute story and stretched it out for two hours. What a disgrace! It's cheaply made; they have Hollywood bards on these guys which look as if they come from a kids play. It's really a joke. But the interesting part, that's spot-on, is Murry Wilson, the father. The first half hour is pretty interesting – then it's out of here, it's all gone.
Note: (by Phil Halliwell)
After reading through the article on Bruce Johnston, I asked him following:
Hi Bruce, In the September 1990 edition of Record Collector magazine (yes I still have it), you did an interview with Peter Doggett. In that interview you said you were making a solo LP for a Japanese label to be called "Goin' Private" as a follow up to "Goin' Public". What happened to that project, (I can't find anything about it anywhere) and did you ever get the digital 24-track at your home, that the album was intended to fund for you?
Phil H........I think I got distracted! Raising four boys took a lot of time & energy. My youngest son just started college a few weeks ago in Australia (Skype is a beautiful thing!!). The 24 track digital direction never really happened. I leased some great exotic recording equipment for my home studio several years ago but I never used it enough and I soon downsized everything. Now in 2009, I have enough gear to pull together some music when I 'need' to. I created the underpinning for my Royal Philharmonic album in my home studio a few years back. Though I was ProTool's very first customer back in the day, I now keep it simple in my home studio and I regularly walk over to my gear and remove the cobwebs. I decided to focus on writing music instead of recording and one of these days someone might record something I wrote. I record/archive a song once in a while but I usually discard the bulk of my songs if they don't meet my writing standards. I have a very full waste basket!
A solo album? Not at the moment (I changed my mind)......I now live on my surf break here in Montecito and when I'm not on tour, I'd rather be out in the water than in my studio. One more thing: There is the occasional Pacifico beer after surfing.....Christian Love is usually a mile up my beach playing volleyball.....I saw Lily Tomlin 'in concert' here the other night......Life in Santa Barbara is good.
October 20, 2009