A few weeks ago we reviewed Fifty Sides Of The Beach Boys, a brand new, in-depth and entertaining look at the band that celebrated its fiftieth anniversary this year. As a connoisseur of all things Beach Boys, I really enjoyed the book and I wanted to find out what went into creating it. Author Mark Dillon was kind enough to answer some questions via email about Fifty Sides Of The Beach Boys, his method of writing and researching the book and much more. So let’s go surfin’ now!
Andy Burns: Congrats on Fifty Sides Of The Beach Boys – it’s a wonderful addition to the canon of Beach Boys literature. I’d like to start by asking, what was your first introduction to the Beach Boys, if you can recall?
Mark Dillon: Thank you, Andy. I was turned onto The Beach Boys by my cousin, Tracy. I was seven and over at my cousins’ house when she put on an 8-track tape of Best of The Beach Boys Vol. 2 and put these enormous headphones over my ears. The songs that really got me were “I Get Around,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “California Girls,” and “Help Me, Rhonda.” I became a fan for life.
Andy Burns: Your approach to the band’s story and music in the book is unique (and welcome). Could you explain where the idea sprung from?
Mark Dillon: I’d wanted to do a book about the group for about 20 years, but struggled over an approach that was both unique and timely. And then, about three years ago, I was walking on, appropriately enough, a beach — on Lake Huron, not those warm beaches The Beach Boys would sing about — when it dawned on me that the group’s 50th anniversary was approaching. I figured if there was ever a time for re-evaluation, this was it.
The next thing was coming up with a format that properly would celebrate those 50 years. My original thought was to talk to 50 artists inspired by the group’s music, each one dissecting one song. As I got deeper into the process, I figured if you’re going to talk about the songs and their creation, then who better to talk about them than the people who actually wrote and recorded them – in other words, the band members themselves and their collaborators. So, in the end, it’s a mix of hearing from The Beach Boys, the songwriters, players and engineers who worked with them, fellow artists and those who’ve written books about the group. I was shooting for a balance of oral history and cultural appreciation. In other words, here’s the story of the group and its songs, and this is why we should care 50 years later.
Andy Burns: Could you go through the process you went through to make the book – perhaps starting with the pitch to final product?
Mark Dillon: This is my first book, so I had to find an agent. Through some connections I had made as the former editor of Playback—the business publication of the Canadian film and TV industries—I got an introduction to Westwood Creative Artists. They liked my book idea and took me on. Then my agent Hilary McMahon and I had to find a publisher. That was a long process because many publishers either found the book too niche or the approach — the very one you complimented — to be too unwieldy. But ECW Press was always in the mix. They previously had published the Dennis Wilson biography The Real Beach Boy by Jon Stebbins and were based in my hometown of Toronto, which was handy. So after I had written about 80% of the manuscript, they committed to the project.
Getting the interviews was tough. I had made some inroads into The Beach Boys’ circle when I wrote a newspaper feature about the 2008 rerelease of Dennis Wilson’s solo album Pacific Ocean Blue. For that piece I got to interview former Beach Boys manager Jim Guercio, Dennis’s songwriting partner Gregg Jakobson, Brian Wilson biographer David Leaf, engineer Earle Mankey and indie musician Adam Marsland. I ended up going back to all these guys when I wrote my book, and some of them led me to other interview subjects. I basically landed interviews anyway I could. I got Daniel Lanois because we have a mutual friend. I feel extremely fortunate with whom I got to interview, but for each one that I did get, there were perhaps nine behind them I didn’t.
For each song I wrote about, I did as much research as possible. Most chapters are structured so that I begin with the history and context of a song’s creation, then I bring in commentary from that chapter’s interviewee. Of course, I had a lot of help along the way. My wife Katherine, my friend and fellow Beach Boys enthusiast Mark Halperin, and my editors Jen Hale and Jennifer Knoch all provided valuable input along the way.
Mark Dillon: Tops on my list were of course The Beach Boys themselves! Both I and the publisher agreed that to give the project the credibility it needed, it was important to have their voices in the book in exclusive interviews. Guitarist David Marks was the first one I spoke to. I think it means a lot to him to have his proper legacy in the band recognized. I then approached The Beach Boys organization, meaning the touring group led by Mike Love and Bruce Johnston. Their publicist was good enough to forward my request to them. Then, one day, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from Bruce. He loved the idea, was happy to do an interview and even made some suggestions as to who else I should speak to. When that interview went well, it helped me to get Mike Love, which of course was crucial. I got to speak to Brian a couple of times for a feature I did on him for Maclean’s magazine at the time of the release of his album Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin. The hardest one to get, as it turned out, was Alan Jardine. I think he’s a bit wary of the publishing industry. But when I convinced him that my book was primarily about the music and not sordid behind-the-scenes stuff, he finally granted me an interview and was as sweet as pie.
Andy Burns: Was there anybody you wanted to talk to that you weren’t able to, or alternately weren’t interested?
Mark Dillon: There were many! Of course, it would’ve been great to speak to people such as Paul McCartney or The Who. In terms of people from The Beach Boys’ camp, the ones I really would’ve like to have included but couldn’t were Van Dyke Parks, Brian’s collaborator on the legendary Smile album, Ricky Fataar, who drummed for the band in the early 1970s, and Brian’s ex-wife Marilyn Rovell. Van Dyke and Marilyn responded very kindly that they are by and large not doing Beach Boys interviews anymore, and Fataar never responded to my many requests. But I’m not complaining. To have included any of these people would have meant taking out somebody who’s in the finished book, and I’m thrilled with whom I got to speak to. The last interview I secured was Alice Cooper. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Andy Burns: I love the insight that so many people offer into the Boys music – one of my favourite surprises is seeing Pete Bagge featured, who we interviewed at Biff Bam Pop a few months back. How did he wind up included to talk about I’m Bugged At My Ol’ Man?
Mark Dillon: I really wanted to show the cultural impact the group has made. I wanted to talk to the artists and writers who have been inspired by them in different ways. And I thought it was interesting that a renowned comic artist such as Peter would have done a whole cartoon series with Murry Wilson as its protagonist. It’s called Rock ‘n’ Roll Dad. And as I was doing research about Peter, I read in an interview where he said he had once written an essay in defense of Mike Love. I knew this guy was a hard-core fan and would add some insight that we don’t hear every day. He was open to talking about whatever song I chose, and because Brian wrote “I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man” about Murry, it seemed like an obvious choice.
Andy Burns: An interview with Brian Wilson can be a crap shoot, depending on his mood the day you catch him. When I spoke to him back in September of 2004, he was incredibly talkative and forthcoming. What have your experiences been like in talking to him?
Mark Dillon: I’ve interviewed him three times. The first time, I found him upbeat but typically not verbose. But it was enough for a one-page story for Maclean’s. When I filed it to my editor, she thought it was great and asked me if I could expand it to two pages. I said, frankly, that I couldn’t, since I had milked every usable word from the interview! I said I would have to go back and interview him again. Luckily, Brian’s publicist set that up. This time around, he talked about The Beach Boys’ rivalry with The Beatles and some old memories about recording with the guys. He was happy to talk because he was pumped about his Gershwin record.
Andy Burns: We all have our personal favourite song or “side” to the Beach Boys – what would yours be?
Mark Dillon: It’s hard for me to narrow it down to just one. But the ones that immediately come to mind are “Don’t Worry Baby,” “California Girls,” and “God Only Knows.”
Andy Burns: I’d love to get your thoughts on the Beach Boys 50th Anniversary tour and their new album That’s Why God Made The Radio – could any of those songs in your opinion been side fifty-one in your book?
Mark Dillon: I saw the group in Toronto and I thought their show was great. Some people were skeptical about the guys all getting together, but I think they put on one hell of a show. That was also a memorable night for me because I got to present a copy of the book to each of the guys backstage. This reunion won’t last much longer, but the mood backstage was very positive. This is their legacy — why shouldn’t they celebrate it?
I really like the new album. It does threaten to descend into Adult Contemporary at times, but overall I think it’s quite strong. It’s a nice mix of the upbeat, fun in the sun type songs many people would expect — if you could buy that kind of song from guys who are 70 — and the introspective Brian Wilson ballads fans would also expect. I would say it’s the strongest collection of new songs released under the Beach Boys’ name in 35 years. It’s also the first album in that time where Brian has been the controlling artistic force. That’s no coincidence. I sometimes wonder if the album had come out in time for me to include it in the book, which song would I have written about. The title track would be an obvious choice, although “Isn’t It Time?” And “From There to Back Again” have also become favorites.
Andy Burns: Finally, are you reading or listening to anything that Biff Bam Pop fans should check out?
Mark Dillon: I’m digging in to a new book about Bob Dylan called Forget About Today by New York business writer Jon Friedman. I know he has some unconventional views about Dylan, such as that he believes Self-Portrait is a great album, so it’s going to be interesting. In terms of music, I’m always downloading new stuff on iTunes. The last things I’ve downloaded that come to mind would be “One More” by Jimmy Cliff and some new stuff by Smashing Pumpkins. One of the best songs I’ve heard in a while is “Buy Nothing Day” by The Go! Team. For some reason, the drums on that one remind me of Dennis Wilson. I hear that the whole album’s great and that’s next on my list.
Thanks very much to Mark Dillon for taking the time to talk to Biff Bam Pop, and to Jenna Illies at ECW Press for helping make it happen. You can purchase Fifty Sides Of The Beach Boys in bookstores and online at Amazon, Indigo, Kobo and in the iTunes Bookstore. Follow Mark Dillon on Twitter here.