Joining the Beach Boys in 1965, Bruce Johnston’s vocals were first showcased on the band’s signature classic, California Girls.
From there, Johnston proved to be a vital cog in the Beach Boys machine, lending his skills to many of the band’s most artistically inventive and acclaimed albums including Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, 20/20, Sunflower and Surf’s Up. Splitting from the band in the early ‘70s, Johnston returned to the fold in 1978 to produce two consecutive Beach Boys studio albums, L.A. (Light Album) and Keepin’ the Summer Alive.
In 2013, he remains a member of The Beach Boys and along with founding member, Mike Love, continue to play to sell out crowds around the world.
As part of our new Beach Boys issue, we spoke with Johnston for an exclusive interview – enjoy the chat below.
Rock Cellar Magazine: It’s May 1966. Take us back to your promo trip to London. Keith Moon meets you and was your constant companion while on same trip you played a copy of Pet Sounds for the first time for John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Bruce Johnston: When I joined the band, we made and released three albums in eleven months. You had Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) with California Girls on it. There was one track missing and I told Brian to put on Help Me Rhonda and he said, “Why?” And I said, “Because it’s a new recording.”
The prior album, The Beach Boys Today, had the original version of Help Me Rhonda on it. We did the Party album and then he put together Pet Sounds. In England Pet Sounds hadn’t been released. So I went over to London on my own initiative and took the album over with me. When I was there, my crazy, wacky, wonderful friend Kim Fowley was there. He and Derek Taylor arranged some really cool things.
When I got there, there was so much interest in Pet Sounds and everybody wanted to hear it. I was going around with Keith Moon.
He loved surf music—he love Jan & Dean, he loved the Beach Boys. Before he joined The Who he was in a surf band (The Beachcombers). I found out later Pet Sounds didn’t cut it for him, he was more into the early surf sound of the band. When I was in Keith’s car—he had a 1951 Bentley with a driver—he would play music in the car, Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys and he played it on vinyl.
We’d be driving and he’d hit a bump and the needle would go across record and it would skip, “It’s the little old lady from, (makes skipping sound) Pasadena…” (laughs) It was so funny. We hung out and went to clubs. We were on the TV show Ready Steady Go.
On one of my last nights in London, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Keith Moon were in my suite and I played them Pet Sounds and John and Paul made me play it twice. It was really cool. They loved it.
We all knew that it was a really wonderful thing to be listening to. There wasn’t much to say, it was like collectively watching a great movie, and you go “Wow!” and just know it was cool. They’d come over in these really cool mod suits and were both so gracious. I was told that the feeling and the heart and soul of Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Paul and John kind of distilled into the Revolver album and the song Here, There and Everywhere.
I remember Brian, me, Terry Melcher and John Phillips were over at Doris Day’s house, who was Terry’s mom. We were there in December of ’65 and we heard Rubber Soul and that’s where Brian got the idea to do an album connected front to back. You had artists like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra do albums that were connected like that but you didn’t really do that in pop music. Rubber Soul gave Brian the idea of putting together Pet Sounds as a front to back album. If you’re a real fan of music, if you listen to Pet Sounds, Sloop John B does not belong on that album. I heard the track when we were making the first Beach Boys album that I was on, Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!). Sloop John B should have gone on that album and Good Vibrations should have been on Pet Sounds.
By the way, another person who also played the Pet Sounds album at some point for Lennon and McCartney was Lou Adler. Very early on in the recording of Pet Sounds I got what it was about musically. Carl was excitedly telling me, “You’ve got to come to some of the sessions. I’ve been there and you should hear what he’s doing!” So I did.
RCM: After SMiLE was shelved, Brian, while still involved on some level with songwriting/recording, retreated and rest of band really had to step up with albums like Wild Honey, 20/20, Friends, Sunflower and Surf’s Up.
Bruce Johnston: Brian went five, six years coming up with great stuff so rather than stepping up anyone’s game, we all had to see if we had a game and could deliver. With all those hits, Brian was their game and the voices collectively were Brian’s game. To this day people think Brian could have done it without the band, well, nobody could have done it separately. Brian needed the band and the band needed Brian. These guys would come over and bring Brian drugs and go, “Oh man you’re so cool, you just don’t need the Beach Boys.”
With this box set, if we had been 100% consulted on each move you probably wouldn’t have a box set at all because it would be tied to some emotionally downer things going on. All of a sudden, Brian, this fresh faced wonderful guy was facing some real demons.
Even before SMiLE, there were people trying to manipulate him outside of the band with drugs. After SMiLE, we kind of had a truce. We were like, “let’s reboot our recording career.” We were so overwhelmed with what we had been going through we decided collectively to do something simple.
Wild Honey is as close to our rhythm and blues album as we could ever have done. There’s nothing to it which makes it everything.
We’re doing the title track now live. The reason we couldn’t do it live back then is Carl was singing at the top of his range when he recorded it and if he sang that song live, he’d only last two or three nights and then he’d be tearing his voice apart. On that track, Brian said, “Play bass!’ I had played bass on the Party album so I played the bass line on that plus that cheesy 96 Tears sounding organ solo. For that album we all played pretty much on the tracks. That carried on through the Friends album,which probably has the second worst cover in the history of the music business. Paul McCartney would probably say that Pet Sounds is the worst album he’s ever seen (laughs), the best album with the worst cover with all those animals on the front, oh my God! (laughs)
20/20 was the 20th Beach Boys album to be delivered to Capitol and last for the last for the label at the time. Then we changed labels and moved over to Warner Brothers. That was a lovely time to be in The Beach Boys. Everybody stepped up to the plate on that Sunflower album. That is a really collective production. Not all talent is equal but that album shows off the best of everybody. I love that album.
To me, our best album is Sunflower. Everybody was beginning to get semi-mature artistically. We had all learned so much from Brian.
Pet Sounds may be the greatest Beach Boys album but the input is about 90% from Brian on that record and that’s wonderful. But quite accidentally we all had the input on Sunflower and that was really cool.
RCM You co-wrote Deirdre with Brian for that album.
Bruce Johnston: I wrote all the music for the song and started writing the lyrics with Brian although that’s not his strong point, even though we must remember that Brian wrote all the lyrics for songs like Surfer Girl and ’Til I Die. So Deidre was kind of my song and I split it 50/50 with him. It’s really about 99% my baby.
RCM: Dennis really emerged on Sunflower with some stellar tracks. Did his blossoming as an exceptional writer take you by surprise?
Bruce Johnston: No, and I’ll tell you why. Think of the Bee Gees, they’re all drawing from the same gene pool of music. The Wilsons have that same kind of creative gene pool. They voice chords a little upside down, which Elton (John) loves. I figured out Dennis’ talents early because we had so much down time in Japan in 1966. There was always a piano backstage and Dennis would say, “Show me some chords!” Dennis started to get really heavily into the piano and writing music.
Probably for me Forever from Sunflower is his great song. It’s simple, it’s wonderful and I never get tired of listening to the recording of it. Angel Come Home is another great one of Dennis’. Baby Blue was a great vignette hooked together. Dennis was cursed with being somebody that all girls wanted to be with and that was very distracting for him. He also got distracted by the stimulants and that took away focus for him.
Have you seen this new photo book by Bill Yerkes called The Beach Boys on Tour 1966: Surfboards, Stratocasters, Striped Shirts? In that book, you see pictures of Dennis -who was very young and handsome – sitting backstage at the piano. There’d be girls back there and he’d play the piano for them and start making stuff up and singing. He started a lot of songs that way for dating purposes (laughs). He’d play some pretty cool things and would revisit some of them later and finish them.
RCM: Recount your memories of the Beach Boys live shows in the late ‘60s supporting an album like Friends. Some of those tracks appear on the new box set.
Bruce Johnston: During that Friends era, we were wearing the white suits and I remember doing some of the songs from Friends, which to me was a very weak album although the track Friends is fabulous. Listen to the bass on it, it’s 6/8 jazz acoustic bass. I did not like the Friends album because I thought it was wimpy. I don’t think we were doing anything where Brian was at full strength. We had to do some of the Friends stuff on the road and it just used to make me wince because it was wimpy. But we were promoting that album and played some of that stuff but people really wanted to hear the hits.
You have to be very careful when you play unknown music to people, you have to wrap it around the hits to keep them distracted.
Some of the Friends stuff is so subtle that it was hard to make it come to life in a live setting.
RCM: On albums like Wild Honey, you did a lot of recording at Brian’s home studio in Bel Air.
Bruce Johnston: One of my not-so-great contributions was to convince Brian to come to Columbia Records where I’d been working with Terry Melcher on stuff before I joined the band. We had the first eight-track machine in L.A. and Brian got one. At first it was very cool because Brian now had more tracks to work with. It was inevitable that all of us would start working with multi-tracks beyond four-tracks.
The problem is the additional tracks allowed Brian to put off making a decision in the studio. All the music that got us to where we were, all of that was recorded on four-track. He had to decide on the spot what it was gonna sound like. There wasn’t a lot of stuff to mix. You had to decide right then and there, which was good. Unfortunately, I also presented the opportunity to decide stuff later and he’s not that kind of guy.
RCM: Was it a positive experience for Brian having that home studio?
Bruce Johnston: It was 16-track studio. I don’t think it was a great idea. You’d think a guy like that would just be thrilled he could record at home, well, it was really hard to get the Wrecking Crew to come into a residential place. It would have been better for Brian to be in the studio where he was most comfortable. I think he would have been more productive not having a home studio.
RCM: The Beach Boys were originally slated to play the Monterey Pop Festival but later dropped out. Was it a mistake for the band not to play that festival?
Bruce Johnston: To be honest with you, it went from “Here’s the money, here’s the offer, you’re headlining” to “Now this is gonna be a non-profit show” so we pulled out. All these guys who were making a lot of money in the music business got involved in the Monterey Pop Festival and turned it into a free thing.
So us playing at the Monterey Pop Festival might have extended the hip cool faction for ten minutes for the band. In all honesty, I don’t think we did anything hip or cool on a mass level after Pet Sounds.
RCM: In 1970, you spoke about the problem with how the public perceived the band as “Surfing Doris Days”. The music you were creating during this period stands among the band’s most artistic and forward thinking. How did you work to counter attack that problem?
Bruce Johnston: We didn’t have anyone adjusting our image and perception. That was just who we were. People didn’t know image-wise that we were anti-war at the time I said that. I still thought more about music than image. How can I expect Brian Wilson to win a gold record in the Olympics every year of his life? He was the leader of the band for so long in the studio and he did beautifully in those first five or six years.