But I think we started getting wimpy and watered down. Then when you mix in how angry the young part of our nation was in fighting a French war that we inherited from the French, from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon. We were so angry that we let that slip into the imagery of where we were at.
Our music was so “Doris Day” and I mean that as a compliment. But it was very unhip and uncool. We kept it light. All of a sudden being this band that kept it light for so many years, we weren’t cool or relevant. Yet we did make some great music.
RCM: You ran into Elvis in the late ‘60s at an L.A. recording studio, what are your memories of that chance encounter?
Bruce Johnston: He was working on his last movie (Change of Habit). Elvis was getting ready to go back on tour. It was pleasure to meet him. He knocked on the door of our studio and he came down and we talked. He said, “I’m going to go back out on the road, what do the PA’s sound like? He asked all these questions related to touring. Then he invited us all to his opening in Las Vegas but we were recording and couldn’t come. But we went a few days later to see him and he was great. Elvis was really cool but to me he was old (laughs)…he was probably 34 and I’m sitting here now at 71 thinking a guy was old at 34. (laughs)
RCM: With archival projects like these, you’re bringing the listener into sessions and hearing things warts and all. What’s your take on an artist allowing a glimpse into the recording process by offering early versions, works in progress?
Bruce Johnston: Let me make this very simple. I look at a box set as like a textbook. The general public is not gonna sit through and listen to a box set. But the people that are truly interested in an artist will. It’s like taking a class and your textbook is there. You can look at it as much and you like and you can analyze it. I’m not fine with the bootlegs because you’ll usually get a copy of a copy of a copy and it’s gonna sound horrible. For a box set that won’t sell a jillion copies but will appeal to that special person who really loves that artist, why not? Why not use it as a self-teaching tool? It might inspire somebody younger that isn’t center stage at Carnegie Hall but maybe wants to get there. They can see some of the heroes of the past are actually just like them. They’re on their way up and they’re learning and you get to hear their mistakes and you get to hear the corrections.
RCM: You produced one of the best unreleased tracks on the box set, Going to the Beach.
Bruce Johnston: I don’t think it should have been included on a studio album at the time. We never really finished it. You always record more songs than you ever need. Mike wanted to focus on it recently and why not? We’re playing it now at our shows.
RCM: You left The Beach Boys in the early ‘70s and didn’t return to the lineup until the late ‘70s, what happened?
Bruce Johnston: Well, let’s first talk about when I left the band in the early ‘70s. Along with Carl, I really championed getting Blondie (Chaplin) and Ricky (Fataar) in the band in the early ‘70s. Dennis had injured his hand and Ricky played beautiful drums and we loved The Flame, his band with Blondie, and put out their record on our own label. I said to Carl, “If we find something for Blondie to sing, with our harmonies it’ll be like having a Stevie Wonder voice.” I always thought it was a great idea to have Blondie’s voice in the band somewhere. We had a very low point in the band during that time like Spinal Tap when they came to America and were playing (laughing) the equivalent of the Air Force Academy.
We met Jack Rieley and he was really cool. He was a stringer in Puerto Rico for NBC and had gotten a couple of awards for what he did. He was pretty passionate about music. It was really nice to have someone like our music that was hip and cool (laughs). So we got him involved with us. I didn’t always agree with him. He wanted to change our name from The Beach Boys to Beach. He was trying to overhaul our image. During that time we played Carnegie Hall and it just blew everybody’s mind.
The thing that got me during that time is some of the guys in the band were making decisions through a haze of drugs – and I ain’t talkin’ about Mike Love or Al Jardine.
I’m basically a square. I still stand up when women come to the table. Some of the decisions didn’t make sense when clouded by the haze of drugs and I just couldn’t do it so I decided to leave the band. It got worse with more success. Mike Love figured out a way. Capitol was so lame, “Hey, we’ll put out ‘Best of Beach Boys Volume Four’”. So Mike says, “No, we’ll call it Endless Summer and make it like it’s new and get all of the younger brothers and sisters of everyone that loved the Beach Boys” and it worked.
It brought so much money into the band. Leaving the group at that time is probably the greatest decision I made. I would never have met my wife, I never would have had four children. As much as Brian and Mike deserve ten Grammys, I wound up getting one for I Write the Songs. Who would have thought that would happen? I was at Terry Melcher’s house after I left the band. I had some dough so I was cool. Terry started giving me a hard time. He asked me why I wasn’t writing songs. He really pushed me to write and hat’s why we have I Write the Songs. So I basically wind up casting my own shadow privately. I look back at my life and go, “Gosh I won a Grammy for something non-Beach Boys, it was just me.” I get crazy when I read in the press people saying I wrote that song for Brian Wilson. That’s not true, that fifteen minutes of fame belongs to me.
RCM: Bruce, you produced two underrated Beach Boys albums in late ‘70s, early 80s, L.A. (Light Album) and Keepin’ the Summer Alive, what are your memories of those sessions, was the band in a good place?
Bruce Johnston: We were putting the band back in a good place. I was literally sitting in my pool playing with my son and my wife Harriett came up to me and said, “Brian Wilson is trying to reach you.” I was used to the calls because even though I was out of the band I still sang on albums. It was my idea for the Holland album to be recorded in France renting a chateau and using the Rolling Stones mobile truck.
That was the original idea but somehow it ended up being recorded in Holland. I had to secretly come down and do vocals. Al told me, “I’ve got this track California Saga and I want you to sing on it.” That’s a cool track and I sang background on that uncredited.
RCM: Good Timin’ from the L.A. Light Album, also featured on the box set, is a wonderful return to form.
Bruce Johnston: I’m not putting Al down or Mike but the real soldier who stuck with me the whole time was Carl. The two us sang the verses on Good Timin’, the two of us sang the four vocal parts. With Goin’ On from the follow-up album, Keepin’ the Summer Alive, I had to override Brian on a part where he sings Goin’ On as he wanted to change the tempo. I said, “Brian, you’ve got this great ballad with all these great harmonies, you can’t change the tempo in the middle of it.” (laughs) Thankfully I was able to keep him on track. I like those two albums a lot but Carl overrode me on what would have been the hit off Keepin’ the Summer Alive and that was the title track.
It would have been a great rebuilding track for the band. Carl wrote that song with Randy Bachman. I decided this is like Jan & Dean’s Surf City meets Bachman Turner Overdrive except we’re gonna record it. I had that thing exploding; I had drums for days. It was very powerful. But Carl came in and made it gentler, unfortunately. He made it so light that I lost all the muscle of probably the only up-tempo track from that album that could have been a radio record. That would have been a great hit, Beach Boys with a Bachman Turner Overdrive groove. Man, I’m so frustrated about that!
RCM: Tell us about Carl’s role in the band.
Bruce Johnston: First, let’s talk about Al (Jardine). Al was a stunning standout vocally on the 50th Anniversary tour. I was just thrilled to be onstage listening to him. When he sang, Then I Kissed Her and Help Me Rhonda, he just blew my mind. He nailed it every night. Carl was like Brian’s understudy and right hand man. He was so loyal. He put in countless hours trying to get “it”, whatever “it” is, right. He was such a pro and often we would say, “Who’s gonna sing this song? And we’d yell out, “Carl!” (laughs). We’d volunteer him and he’d go, “Okay, I’ll sing it, I guess.” He could do anything.
RCM: What Beach Boys LP has been the most overlooked?
Bruce Johnston: You mean an album that’s about a thousand times better than the SMiLE album? Smiley Smile. The reason I like it is that’s about as unplugged on a creative level as you can get with the Beach Boys. Our Party album is unplugged but it’s a party album. The over-indulgent sophisticated-ness of SMiLE and the lyrics are clever but it’s more like percussive cleverness than actual solid front to back.
To me, SMiLE today would be fifteen second sound bytes on NPR (National Public Radio). You’d probably pull the car over to hear them because they’re so good. But for some reason Brian just couldn’t finish the album. When we were working on that album these Hollywood guys with frizzy hair would go to the studio and bring the drugs, I hated that. I’d leave and I actually went home so many times from sessions because I don’t want to be around drugs and still don’t want to be around drugs.
The label was geared up about the album and the album art is so cool. To me the album art is better than the album. The album still isn’t finished. The album still hasn’t really been assembled. Brian’s guys did a really interesting job of assembling it for his new solo version of SMiLE and that was great but the album was never finished…so who knows how it was supposed to be. Back to Smiley Smile, listen to that album. There’s not thousands of Wrecking Crew guys, there’s not a lot of sound bytes with cool instruments, which Brian was really great at doing. All you hear is this really great Baldwin organ that Baldwin loaned Brian.
You hear very little instrumentation and you hear vocals. You hear what the Beach Boys are all about. It’s just the most underrated album in the whole catalog for me. Listen to Woody Woodpecker’s Symphony; listen to Wonderful. You want to know where Mike Love’s at? He’s Chuck Berry and Leiber and Stoller so if you listen to the end of She’s Goin’ Bald, there’s so much Leiber and Stoller in it. (Sings) “You’re too late mama, ain’t nothing upside your head” and we go (sings) “No hair, no hair…”
RCM: Pick a song by each member of Beach Boys that you feel is their best vocal showcase.
Bruce Johnston: Disney Girls for me. You can call me crazy, but one of the songs I really like of Al’s that he sings is Lookin’ at Tomorrow. Between Sunflower and Surf’s Up we were at a great place with the band and probably were the best that the band could be during that period. I have to combine Mike and Brian because they add up to the biggest number one you can be. The best vocals from those guys—I love Mike’s lyrics and I love Brian’s melodies—is The Warmth of the Sun. It’s the best Beach Boys recording to me rated on songwriting, vocal arranging and natural production, nothing overdone.
That’s my desert island single for the Beach Boys.
It’s a stunning song, stunning music and in the Beach Boys world, the Brian people just figure Mike might have walked through Brian’s house so they put his name on as a writer. They’re not very kind to Mike.
Brian’s melodies are the reason we have the Beach Boys but we don’t want to overlook Mike Love’s lyrics. If you talk about Richard Rodgers, you have to talk about Oscar Hammerstein.
I get really frustrated about this. It’s kind of like talking about Henry Mancini and you forget that Johnny Mercer write the lyrics. For Dennis I’d pick Forever and Carl’s best vocal is on Heaven, a song from his first solo album.
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