When I was 20 years old, The Beach Boys changed my life. A friend at university got me into the band, explaining Pet Sounds to me, and I was quickly off into a world of discovery. I learned to love both the experimental side of the band, along with the wonderful music they crafted in the early 60s which brought California to the world. One of the highlights of my personal and professional life was when I traveled to California in 2004 to interview Brian Wilson about his resurrected SMiLE album. But while Brian Wilson was the architect of the bands gorgeous music, Mike Love was the lead singer and co-writer on so many of those pre-SMiLE gems.
The history of the Beach Boys is long and storied and dramatic, all things you can read about elsewhere. For me, when the opportunity to finally talk to Mike Love came about, I was more interested in exploring his legacy – what inspired him as a kid, how he wound up writing some of pop music’s most enduring words, and what keeps him going today. Though 2012’s 50 Anniversary Tour featured the classic Beach Boys line-up of Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks, today’s band is the one that Love has performed with live for more than a decade, a smaller, compact group of musicians that play everywhere from casinos and state fairs, to theaters and Hyde Park. It was hours before a gig in Montreal that I spoke to Mike Love on the phone, in a conversation that went 45 minutes with Love doing most of the talking. The singer was friendly and engaging, delving deep into the band’s history, how he likes to perform today, his thoughts on the reunited Beach Boys album, That’s Why God Made The Radio, and their upcoming box set, Made In California.
So, without further adieu, put on some rock and roll music, and delve into part one of Biff Bam Pop’s exclusive interview with the one and only, Mike Love.
Andy Burns: I wanted to start by asking, what did you listen to growing up?
Mike Love: Well, I went to high school with a lot of African-American kids, so I was turned onto the blues and R & B and Do-Wop at an early age. The radio stations in L.A. at the time were playing a bunch of different things, but the things that were most influential or impressive to me musically were The Everly Brothers, the Do-Wop groups, Chuck Berry for darn sure. I loved the way he told those tales and how he crafted those lyrics to tell those tales in those songs. The little stories The Everly Brothers told, as well as their beautiful blend. Because, you know, one of the things the Beach Boys are noted for are their harmonies. It’s one thing to just sing the notes. It’s an entirely different thing to actually blend.
Andy Burns: Yeah, absolutely.
Mike Love: That’s what the search was always. My cousin Brian (Wilson) and I would have different people sing with us over the years before we formed the Beach Boys. When Brian and I started singing together, Carl (Wilson) was so young; he didn’t really want to have much to do it with it. Eventually he did, of course. He had the beautiful voice and blends, and Alan Jardine came along and he fit right in. He could not only sing the note, but he could harmonize and blend with us real well. So it was Brian on top, and then Al, and then Carl and myself. That was the four parts.
And then Brian and I co-wrote a bunch of songs in the early and mid-60s, up through including Good Vibrations, which was the biggest hit we had in the ‘60s, which is only equaled by Kokomo in 1988, which I co-wrote with John Phillips and Terry Melcher. And because Brian and I co-wrote those songs, you’ll find that I sing lead on so many of them. Because you’re sitting at the piano and we come up with a story or Brian might have a melody or I come up with a hook, or he’d do the chord progressions or come up with the harmonies, but because we’re working it out at the piano and with my vocal range, that’s how it evolved with me being lead singer on so many of those songs. All the surfing songs, all the car songs…California Girls, etc. Good Vibrations, I came up with the chorus, ‘I’m pickin’ up good vibrations’, and Cousin Carl, Brian’s brother, sang the verses. So it was a true collaboration with Brian.
Originally when you start out, you don’t have all your own songs. The Beatles had the same thing. They did Rock and Roll Music, and so did we. That was by Chuck Berry. When a group first starts out they do a ton of covers. Then they start writing their own material and all of a sudden it’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand or Surfin’ Safari.
Andy Burns: Or Don’t Back Down!
Mike Love: Or Don’t Back Down! Or Noble Surfer and all this kind of stuff. And that’s why we do a ton of covers to this day.
Andy Burns: I have to say, on the 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour, one of the highlights for me was Don’t Back Down.
Mike Love: Wow.
Andy Burns: I thought you guys totally nailed it and for me, it was a bit of an unexpected treat to hear that in the set. There are songs that you guys play that you can’t miss out on, but it’s those unexpected ones that hit you and make you think, “I can’t believe that they’re playing this.”
Mike Love: Lately we’ve been doing Good To My Baby which just rocks. Bruce (Johnston) does Summer Means Fun. We like to mix it up a little bit. Songs like Please Let Me Wonder, Kiss Me Baby. Really beautiful songs, great arrangements, great harmonies. You see, we’re limited to the venue and the promoter. See tonight, in Montreal, there’s a place called Maddys, and they have an opening act, so they only want us to do 90 minutes. For a lot of people, 90 minutes is an eternity, but for us it’s about half of what we like to do. If we do two hours we’re just about getting there, but not really. We have so many styles and so many beautiful ballads, like The Warmth of the Sun, which we’ve been doing lately.
Andy Burns: It’s a beautiful song. I think it has one of the best lyrics, man.
Mike Love: Well thanks, because I wrote that puppy (laughs).
Andy Burns: That’s actually something that I think is really important to highlight. The lyrics that you wrote, and the lyrics that you still write, because I thought there were some great ones on That’s Why God Made The Radio, some are very straightforward and really relatable, which I think is part of the reason that 50, 51 years later, the Beach Boys still matter to so many people. It doesn’t matter if it was 1962 or 2013, those songs, those lyrics are timeless and you delivered those.
Mike Love: Well, I was influenced by Chuck Berry. He would come up with little vignettes. I mean, Fun Fun Fun is not philosophically or in any other way that much different from a Johnny B. Goode. Or Sweet Little Sixteen has a lot of implications to Surfin USA. So the subject matter may differ, but the alliteration in the words is very similar. “When I got on a city bus/I found me a vacant seat”, run those words together with “Well she got her Daddy’s car/and cruised to the hamburger stand now” – similar thing for the alliteration and the syncopation.
Or Be True To Your School – “When some loud braggart”. Braggart is a fairly sophisticated word for a rock and roll song. You know what a braggart is, when someone’s being braggadocio. But people hear it as “bragger”, because it’s “when some loud braggart tries to put you down” – that’s what I mean by the syncopation and the alliteration of the lyrics. Because I was always into poetry.
Andy Burns: I was actually going to ask that.
Mike Love: I was always into literature and poetry. I always got A’s in English Literature and American Literature. Anything to do with literature and poetry, I loved that stuff. So I’m more influenced by that than many other people. It wasn’t hard for me to be inspired by or come up with something poetic in a song.
For instance, in Good Vibrations, I actually dictated those words to my then-wife Suzanne, who was the mother of Christian, who is playing with the band today, and his older sister, Hayley. I dictated those words to her, and at that point in time, it was the psychedelic 60s, the Summer of Love, Flower Power and all that kind of stuff going on. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and all that kind of thing. So it was the Beach Boys answer to the psychedelic era. Brian came up with this awesome track, completely unique, completely avant garde, and I thought, “wow, how’s this going to play in Omaha?” (laughs) How is this going to go over with the fans that we’ve got? So I said, one thing they’re going to relate to is boy-girl, so “I’m picking up good vibrations/she’s giving me the excitations.” So excitations may or may not be in Webster’s Dictionary, but it sure as hell rhymes with good vibrations.
Look for part 2 of our interview with Mike Love this Wednesday. Thanks to Jay Jones for helping make this happen, and to Mike for being so generous with his time. The Beach Boys perform at the CNE Bandshell in Toronto August 18th.