He nicknamed Brian Wilson “Dog Ears”. He co-wrote “Good Vibrations”. He chose meditation and positivity when his bandmates turned to drugs and melancholy. And still MIKE LOVE became one of the most vilified men in pop history. Now, as he prepares to bring THE BEACH BOYS back to the UK, UNCUT interrogates the truth: hero or villain?
More than 45 years have passed since three Californian brothers and their first cousin formed a rocking little combo who harmonised angelically on classic songs about surfing, girls and, hot rod cars. Two of the Wilson brothers are gone now: the third effected a remarkable comeback from the hell of mental illness. First cousin Mike Love, meanwhile, is the Beach Boy who kept the summer – and the band – alive.
Love always looked and sounded different to the Wilson brothers. The group's defacto leader/MC onstage: his droll humour and thinning pate made him less a beach “boy” than a surfin' playboy. Notoriously he is supposed to have urged Brian Wilson not to “fuck with the formula” when the group's resident genius deviated from songs about surfing, girls and hot rod cars. People tend to forget it was Love who penned the lyrics not just to “Surfin' Safari”, “Fun,Fun,Fun”, “I Get Around”, “Help Me Rhonda” et al, but to “Good Vibrations”.
Alarmed by what LSD and other drugs had done to his cousins, Love chose the alternative path of Transcendental Meditation and fought to keep the Beach Boys' career afloat as Brian, Dennis and Carl lost the plot, “[Mike is] continually being accused by Brian as being mercenary, soulless,” David Anderle, who ran the band's Brother label, said in January 1968. “[It's] very untrue – Mike's is a very soulful person.”
Van Dyke Parks, Wilson's chief collaborator on the ill-fated SMiLE, claims Love is a revisionist who downplays his hostility to Brian's genius – a man who described Surf's Up as majestic, “'Til I Die” as a fucking downer” and sneered at the good reviews garnered by Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue (1977). Yet Love co-wrote the latter album's “Pacific Ocean Blues”, while the Beach Boys included “'Til I Die” in their live set the last time they toured the UK. Maybe the truth will never now be known, and maybe it doesn't matter anway.
“I love my Carl” sang Belle And Sebastian on 2001's “I Love My Car”. “I love my Brian, my Dennis, and my Al / I could even find it in my heart / To love Mike Love...” And, after interviewing the man, I'll second that emotion.
Let's clear something up right away. Did you guys surf or not surf?
Dennis was the surfer. Alan Jardine and myself had surfboards and used to go surfing in high school and beyond. Bruce Johnston surfs to this day.
You were the group's R'n'B nut, right?
I went to Dorsey High School with a lot of black kids, and in the locker rooms they would sing R'n'B and doo wop. So when it came to turn on the radio, I really like the R'n'B stations. When you scanned the radio dial, there was the music that our parents would listen to and then there was the music that emerged as rock'n'roll.
Were Brian and Dennis Wilson flipsides of the same self-destructive coin?
Dennis was more of a rebel, in the sense that if his father said something he didn't like he would fight with his dad, sometimes physically. He had that suppressed violence, which is great when you're pounding on the drums, nut not so great in life. Brian was very sensitive and not a physically violent person. He was more passive aggressive. Carl saw Dennis reacting violently to his father and Brian getting the brunt of my uncle Murry's negativity and learned to just stand back in the corner and watch it all happen. Murry was not a nice person. He definitely set the groundwork for the issues and problems that Brian and his brothers faced in their lives.
What was it like collaborating with Brian on early hits like “Help Me Rhonda” and “I Get Around”?
The songwriting process itself was very spontaneous. It was either an idea I had, or one that Brian had. On “Help ME Rhonda” he had a great track going, and I went and wrote the lyrics, tailoring the lyrics to the melody. We'd go into the studio with a couple of musicians, and with Carl and Dennis, and we'd bang out a track, Brian on piano or bass. My forte was literature and poetry. I was very enamoured of all that, so it meant that he could focus 100 per cent on the music. Of course Brian later wrote the words to a few songs, like “'Til I Die”. Philosophically that's pretty deep.
Is it fair to say your taste inclined more to the upbeat and anthemic – eventhough you co-wrote the beautiful “Warmth Of The Sun”?
Sure . Those songs were vignettes of what was going on in Southern California. With “Fun,Fun,Fun2, I told Brian, “We've gotta do a song about a girl who borrows her dad's car,” and the lyrics came from there. It was just a fun little vignette that we documented, and it still goes on today. But “The Warmth Of The Sun” was beautiful. The melody that Brian came up with was very melancholy. I'd had an experience where this girl I liked decided she didn't want to reciprocate, so I wrote the lyrics from the perspective of, “Yes things have changed and love is no longer there, but the memory of it is like the warmth of the sun...” It was looking for a silver lining in that cumulus nimbus, accentuating the positive. I wanted our music to provide a sonic oasis, a place where literally you could go, like “In MY Room”, and tell your troubles to – or at least lose yourself in the music. I read once that Pisceans write through inspiration and Geminis through desperation. Brian is a Gemini and I'm a Pisces.
At what point did you realise Brian was struggling?
He was great on stage and in the studio, but he didn't really take to touring like the rest of us did. The rest of us came out of our little shells and developed somewhat of an act, but Brian seemed to be insecure about being away from home. It wasn't all that dramatic until that one point in time where we went to Australia and he spent several thousand dollars on the phone to his girlfriend, Marilyn, who became Mrs Wilson. He was just very uneasy about the things that our career demanded after several hit records.
What was your first sense that pop was becoming a little more sophisticated? Were there parallels in how the Beach Boys and The Beatles evolved?
When you first start out and your thoughts and experiences are moulded by your high school and teenage years, you're going to have one outlook on life - “She Loves You” or “Surfin'”, you know? And as you mature a bit and travel around the world and suddenly you may be drafted to go to the Vietnam war, your concerns change and maybe you start a family. So that was just natural progress. In the Beatles' case, I think they were much more savvy in terms of management and promotion, so the changes in their career were reflected very well. Whereas with the Beach Boys, Capitol Records were still calling us the “No.1 Surfing Group in the USA” in 1966 when Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” came out.
Do you feel you've had an unfairly bad rap as the guy who told Brian not to “fuck with the formula”?
Well, it's a outright lie. I wrote the words to “Good Vibrations” for a start. And with Pet Sounds, I named the album and I went with Brian to play it for Karl Engemann at Capitol, and he turned to us after listening and said “Gee, guys can't you do something more like 'California Girls' or 'I Get Around'?” It was Capitol resisting tha change, not me. I think that “Mike Love's the bad guy” stuff comes from writers who weren't there. And there's another component to it, which is that during that time Brian, Dennis and Carl began to experiment with drugs whereas Alan, Bruce and myself did not. So there was a bit of a 'Them and Us' situation and some of the people around Brian would be negative about us.
Were you ever hostile towards Van Dyke Parks as he's always claimed?
I asked Van Dyke what a particular set of lyrics meant and he said, “I haven't a clue , Mike.” I termed some of his lyrical contributions “acid alliteration”. Some of the stuff was phenomenal, but I looked at things from an objective commercial point of view. Whether it's a strength or a weakness, I said, “Is it going to relate to the public to the degree that they can identify with the message and the lyrics?” From the purely artistic point of view I can appreciate some of the lyrics. For instance on “Heroes and Villains”, the line “what a dude'll do...”
was very clever. Van Dykr Parks was brilliant at taking something and, in an alliterative way, putting that into the song to go with Brian's musical contribution. But see, “Good Vibrations” was No.1, but “Heroes and Villains” went to No.50 or something [Actually it went to No.12 in the USA and No.8 here in the UK.] My point of view was often misunderstood as being negative about the art of it all, whereas I like to see artistry and commerciality merge.
While you were the Beach Boys who embraced Transcendental Meditation – and the one who looked most like a hippie – you were also the one who ensured the group stayed on track as a viable commercial act...
I was very influenced by the things I learned from studying with the Maharishi – and I still meditate every day. But on the business level I was very involved with touring and promotion and albums like Endless Summer and more recently Sounds of Summer, which has sold about three million copies worldwide. I had a home in Beverly Hills from 1965 to about 1969, and I'd go to the William Morris agency nearby a couple of days a week. And between the agent and the promoter, Irving Granz, we would decide on which shows we would sell to a college or another promoter. There was a business aspect to the touring part of the music business that I got deeply into, and am still fairly in touch with today. Of course, Mick Jagger did a lot better job than I have, but we're still doing OK!
What might have been different if SMiLE had come out in the way it was intended to?
I don't know the answer to that, because it was shelved by Brian. And there again was a case of Mike love being blamed for that album not coming out at the time, which was absolutely erroneous. Brian had a breakdown and we did Smiley Smile instead, which was his own drug rehab album. It's a trippy little record. We'll never know what the influence of SMiLE migh have been, though it would obviously have been good to come out with something so unique and different. As for the SMiLE album Brian did [in 2004], I'd have preferred him to come to me and say,”Hey, let's finish the SMiLE album and pull out the original tapes.” But he didn't choose that path.
Did you feel in any way vindicated when the Endless Summer compilation got to No.1 in 1974?
I don't know about vindication, but it was a validation that our music was still regarded highly and that we were still viable commercially. It's always nice when people like your music, whether it's the more esoteric albums or compilations like Endless Summer.
Looking back, would you have done anything differently in your efforts to help Brian?
Being young guys who were first cousins and family, we weren't knowledgeable enough in the late '60's and early '70's to know how to respond to some of the issues that were affecting Brian. I've always thought that the incursion of drugs was the most unfortunate thing about what happened during those times. I had no control over it, but I would have much preferred that everyone left the drugs alone. For me it was even more of a tragedy because they were family.
Was [Brian's '80s mentor] Eugene Landy a total charlatan or did he inadvertently save Brian's life?
Dr Landy was not a total charlatan. He was very brilliant. The problem was a) he wanted to be a rock star and b) he controlled every aspect of Brian's life. There's an old Indian proverb that says, “It takes a thorn to remove a thorn”. And Dr Landy was that thorn. We didn't appreciate how he pillaged Brian's coffers, but on the other hand it was preferential to Brian being dead.
What did you think of Dennis and Carl as talents?
For both Dennis and Carl having Brian as their elder brother was like being Ira Gershwin to George Gershwin. But Carl wrote some great things, like “Feel Flows” and “The Trader and “Long Promised Road”.
What was your take on Pacific Ocean Blue?
My impressions.... of it were mixed with the knowledge of Dennis' problems. Before the drugs and alcohol, he was dynamic, handsome, charming and generous. Once the drugs and alcohol took over, his personality changed and he became very hard to deal with. He'd be drunk onstage and we'd have to tell him to go away. So my feelings about that album are tinged with sadness. Musically, he had a style of writing which was very emotional and a bit more melancholic. And of course, me being Mr Optimism, I wouldn't say I could relate to all those things. My cup of tea wouldn't necessarily be the morose, sad or disaffected point of view on life.
Was there further vindication for you in the success of “Kokomo” in 1988?
“Kokomo” is not regarded on the same level as Pet Sounds or “Good Vibrations”, but it was our biggest hit and people sing along to it as much as any song we've ever done.
Were you surprised by the eventual resurrection of Brian as a performer and writer?
We were all at Capitol about a year and a half ago, and they were celebrating the 40th anniversary of Pet Sounds and of “Good Vibrations”. I said to Brian “Can you still sing like that?” And he said,”No way.” Brian had the most beautiful voice, not only his falsetto, but the normal leads that he sang on Pet Sounds and on other things. And he doesn't sing that way anymore. So while I'm happy that he's able to go out and enjoy being Brian Wilson and getting accolades from the public and press, I wish he could have retained that capability of singing.
When you listen to the vocal-only versions on the Pet Sounds box, the blend and the intricacy of the vocal arrangements is awesome. I remember doing one little section of “Wouldn't It Be Nice” again and again and again, over 20 times. I called Brian “Dog Ears” because he could hear things that most humans couldn't. He was searching for something beyond perfect.
What's life like today as a Beach Boy?
It's fantastic to be able to go out onstage and play songs recorded 45 years ago and have people sing along to them. Listen to oldies radio in the US and the Beatles and the Beach Boys and Motown are the three most performed musical genres.
But is it sad that many people associate the Beach Boys as much with lawsuits as with music?
The Beach Boys are human beings and have their weaknesses, and so certain people focus on that and talk about this negative thing or that tragic thing or that weird thing. And yes it's all tragic and all weird and all negative. However, if you look at the music and what it has meant to hundreds of millions of people over 45 years, that's the big story.